No Fairytales in ‘Hell’

Tour of Flanders & Paris Roubaix 2016

Mixed emotions. Matthew Hayman, 37 years old, erstwhile Rabobank, Sky and now Orica Green Edge domestique / road captain. Aussie transplanted to Flanders and a seemingly perennial fixture in the breakaway in the last few editions of the ‘Hell of the North’. A pro’s pro, just had another couple of years tacked onto the contract that was supposed to be his last. This year’s Paris Roubaix his first race back after an early season crash had seen him miss most of the Flandrian classics. Of all the races to come back in; the one he loves most of all. The one he has dreamed of winning, never quite believing that he could.

Tom Boonen - Denied!
Tom Boonen – Denied!

Tom Boonen, classics superstar. Past his best? Maybe. Many predict that this year could be his last, certainly his last chance at adding to his tally of victories in the Ronde and Roubaix. Another win in Paris Roubaix would make him the all time leader with five cobble trophies on his mantelpiece.

With those back stories you could have been happy with an outcome where either rider took the win. But then no one would have predicted a Mat Hayman victory when the race got under way last Sunday; probably not even Hayman himself.

You could have got odds of 800/1 to Matthew Hayman even after he got into the breakaway. After all, no one really expects the break to survive right? There might have been an omen in another unfancied rider getting a top ten finish in Flanders the previous weekend, but we’ll return to him later. Hayman was still attracting decent odds after he managed to survive the catch and hang with a pretty stellar group of chasers that included Boonen alongside Edvald Boasson Hagen, Sep Vanmarcke and Ian Stannard.

A rider definitely on his swansong Fabian Cancellara had been in the group behind Boonen’s alongside Peter Sagan. Over the last few years Cancellara, especially when he’s fit and on form was always a threat for the win. He had suffered with injuries last year but entering his final season he had made it clear that Flanders and Roubaix where his big targets. Denied by an inspired solo attack the week before in Belguim I anticipated Cancellara getting his own back last weekend. I didn’t see Boonen as a contender, any more so than Hayman in fact. That isn’t to say that I didn’t want to see Boonen win; I have always been in team Tom rather than in team Fabs. It was just hard to see the evidence that Boonen would have the legs to ride to the win like he did in 2012.

The possibility that Boonen might be in with a shot increased when Cancellara crashed as the race went through the final cobbled sectors on the route to Roubaix. Sagan managed to avoid the crash (that’s a photo that’s worth doing a Google image search for) and Cancellara re-mounted but neither were in a position to challenge anymore.

Even when it had got down to five riders most peoples money wouldn’t have been on Hayman but he was the only rider who was able to bridge to Boonen after his late attack. Vanmarcke had attempted to solo away on a couple of occasions over the cobbles but each time he was pegged back by one of the remaining group riding him down or the whole group combining to do so.

Perhaps Boonen thought that he would be able to outsprint Hayman when the time came in the velodrome. Vanmarcke had arrived by this point and maybe Boonen was too vary of him to pay attention the the bike length that Hayman had stole from him as the race exited the final bend. Hayman threw his arms in the air as he crossed the line. It didn’t seem like such an emphatic victory as he reacted to what he had just done after he stopped. Viewed from a more sympathetic angle it became clear that this wasn’t a win by inches.

Boonen for his part seemed philosophical in defeat, suggesting that (unlike Cancellara) he might return for the classics again next year; “Why not?” he said. The trouble is, this was (probably) his best (if not final) chance of winning Paris Roubaix for a fifth time. Since his last win he has either been injured or unable to make the key breaks in the race. Four years have inevitably taken their toll. I think the Boonen of 2012 would have finished the race the same way he did then in 2016 but this version cannot reach those heights now. Tom Boonen won’t be around in 2020 anymore than Mat Hayman and perhaps Boonen’s enigmatic smile on the Roubaix podium reflected the realisation that his best chance of winning had been snatched from him by the least likely of victors.

If Roubaix didn’t produce the perfect fairytale ending you could argue the Flanders managed it nicely. Peter Sagan had won solo the previous weekend in Gent Wevelgem and did the same in the Ronde to deny Fabian Cancellara a farewell victory. Sagan accepts that other riders won’t work with him in a way that Cancellara has never seemed to manage and he seemed equally at ease about the ‘curse’ of the rainbow jersey that so many commentators love to cite anytime any world champion cyclist fails to win in the stripes. If you believe in such things (along with unicorns I suppose), Sagan put that to bed in Gent and looked the strongest he has ever been in the Ronde.

There was a nice symmetry in both world champions winning their respective editions of the race. Lizzie Armitstead is starting to look like Marianne Vos as she seems to bend each race she rides to her will. Vos who returned to racing in a rather more low key event in her native Holland the same weekend will no doubt recapture the form that made her the rider to beat in the women’s peloton but right now Armitstead is the benchmark in women’s cycling.

Hardly surprising that two of the biggest races on the calendar could produce so many headline grabbing stories in the space of seven days. I’ll admit the one for me hasn’t gone completely unmissed but just in case I’m going to share it. Now the Ronde and Roubaix have something else in common besides cobbles. They’re both world tour races and as such if you’re a world tour team then you have to turn up. In previous seasons it has been reasonable to wonder if teams like Movistar would bother with the cobbled classics given half a chance to sack off races that don’t really translate that well to Spain. But this year something changed. Movistar got a rider in the break in Flanders. Not only that, when the break got caught the Movistar rider, Imanol Erviti stayed with the leading group and crossed the line 7th.

Fast forward a week to Roubaix and who’s in the break again? That man Erviti. Now in all the excitement about Mat Hayman Erviti’s 9th place finish is inevitably a bit less of a headline grabber. But here’s the thing. In these two monuments only one rider (Sep Vanmarcke) has delivered two top ten results. This isn’t to suggest that Movistar are suddenly going to be a force in the classics but Erviti’s rides deserve a bit more coverage than they are likely to get after a pair of particularly classic editions of the Ronde and Roubaix.

A couple of other mentions.. 

The new job kept me from watching Pais Vasco live but even a highlights show is enjoyable when Steve Cummings steals another win. Alberto Contador took the overall, but I just haven’t seen enough stage racing to make the call on the grand tours yet.

The “World’s Toughest Sport” no longer?

Tirreno Adriatico & Paris Nice 2016 

The early season stage races are generally seen as a tune up for the classics season that starts in earnest this weekend with Saturday’s (that’s right; Saturday) Milan San Remo. An early marker had already been put down ahead of Tirreno by Fabian Cancellara. Overhauling previous winner Zdenek Stybar and Peter Sagan (have you noticed that people are already talking about the ‘curse of the rainbow jersey’) Cancellara has followed up a fine result in Sienna with victory in the final TT stage of Tirreno today. Cue speculation about a Cancellaraesque (read solo breakaway) win for the man himself in MSR but even if that seems a bit fanciful he looks in great form in his final season of racing.

2016 MSR win for Fabian Cancellara?
2016 MSR win for Fabian Cancellara?

If we’re looking purely at results you would have to put Cancellara well ahead of his fellow valedictorian Tom Boonen who could only manage a 6th place finish on the second stage of Paris Nice in an otherwise low key week on the ‘Race to the Sun’. The only silver lining for the Etixx team leader was that (at least) he didn’t crash out of the race like he did a year ago, effectively ending his season. Boonen may yet come good, he’s looked fast in a few of the bunch sprints I have seen him contest so far this year and I would rather see him add to his tally of monuments purely because I’m in team Tom rather than team Fab. The dream outcome would be a the two veterans going wheel to wheel at the Ronde and Roubaix in April but I suspect I might be disappointed.

While Cancellara has provided some easy headlines ahead of Milan San Remo the rider that we might be ignoring is Orica’s Michael Matthews. Before disappearing from view on Sunday’s final stage Matthews held the overall lead for almost the entire week after winning the opening prologue and the second stage. He might not be the fastest sprinter in the pack; in fact he might not be the fastest in his team but he’s hitting form at just the right time for Saturday’s ‘sprinters classic’.

So far in this post I have stuck to the script as far as the dotted line between Paris Nice, Tirreno and the classics goes but that’s only part of the story of these two stage races. Well, that’s normally the case anyway. The GC in both races is usually disputed between and won by a grand tour rider. In recent years Paris Nice has been a bit of a Sky benefit with Bradley Wiggins and Richie Porte (twice) taking the win. The queen stage of both races decides the outcome that’s cemented by a final TT stage. Paris Nice ended with a road stage this year and it’s true that the final GC was studded with grand tour riders but Tirreno delivered a different outcome after Sunday’s queen stage was cancelled due to bad weather. As the only mountain stage of the week this left the GC open for a classic specialist and Greg van Avermaet duly took the overall after victory in the penultimate stage put him into the lead.

Rapidly becoming the Katie Hopkins of the pro peloton Vincenzo Nibali drew a lot of criticism for suggesting that the stage should have gone ahead. In the immediate aftermath of Nibali venturing his opinion on social media it seemed like he was a lonely voice but Michael Rogers took a more reasoned view today when he said he thought he understood part of the Nibali motivation. Rogers suggested that it was Nibali’s desire to race that laid behind his intervention. While Rogers didn’t agree with Nibali that the stage should have gone ahead he could see why Nibali would have wanted it to. Viewed in this way Nibali’s comments make more sense as he needs to deliver a stronger set of results than last year. While another victory in Tirreno would not have gone amiss the strategy Nibali seems to have embarked upon has so far only alienated his fellow riders and fans alike. There have already been incidents of riders getting injured unnecessarily this year on top of the bike / car v rider accidents from last season and the direction of travel is firmly in the direction of improving safety.

Nibali wasn’t the only grand tour rider having a difficult week. Defending Paris Nice champion Richie Porte turning out for his new BMC team made the podium but lost out to the rider who has arguably replaced him as Sky’s second string grand tour leader Geraint Thomas. Porte played down his expectations, but BMC made the kind of noises that pointed towards their expecting more from the latest expensive addition to the roster. Thomas and Porte were split by Alberto Contador who huffed and puffed but couldn’t really find anything steep enough to deliver a killer blow to Thomas.

Perhaps the most interesting grand tour story of the week is Thomas’ victory. After delivering his and Sky’s best ever result in a classic with a win in the E3 last year Thomas went on to ride superbly in the Tour and was instrumental in Chris Froome winning his second maillot jaune. Thomas has talked about leading the team in grand tours and this win may be another step on the journey but at what cost to Sky in the classics?

A couple of other mentions..

Steve Cummings ‘stealing’ another stage win is always great to watch. Marcel Kittel absent from the sprint proceedings in Paris Nice and I could also say the same for Alexander Kristoff (but welcome back Arnaud Demare). Too early to say if Kittel is reverting to the shadow of 2015 yet though.

Dumoulin’s glorious failure gifts Aru Vuelta victory

Vuelta a Espana 2015 postscript 

The dust has well and truly settled on this year’s Vuelta and we are already into the world championships (posting this the day after the TTT). I’m a bit late to the game so I won’t do a blow by blow account of the race post the second rest day; rather here are one or two reflections on this edition.

Tom Dumoulin - breakthrough result?
Tom Dumoulin – breakthrough result?

Just as heart ruling head wanted an Alberto Contador Giro Tour double earlier in the year I was pretty much rooting for Tom Dumoulin to take the overall victory; the prospect of which had been off most peoples radar three weeks ago. Even so when Fabio Aru limited his losses to Dumoulin in the TT I still wasn’t sure that the latter would have enough in his legs (leave alone any kind of meaningful time gap) to hold onto the leaders jersey he now held. If Dumoulin had been the surprise package of the 2015 Vuelta Aru delivered the surprise performance of the TT. No one expected Joaquim Rodriguez to do any more than babysit the race lead into stage 17 and he served up the expected ‘difficult’ result on his time trial bike. Just as Purito was likely to be horrible against the clock Dumoulin was expected to destroy his opposition and up to a point he did; finishing more than a minute ahead of the next rider on the stage. However Aru, who had looked pretty average through the first two time checks must have ridden the final sector like a man possessed (or at least in pursuit of his first grand tour win) and was within two minutes of Dumoulin at the finish. Purito lost the lead and fell to third while Dumoulin leapfrogged everyone and had a three second advantage over Aru.

So at this point I wanted to see Dumoulin hang on; however improbable the chances seemed. The race was already going to be won by one of the undercard as we had lost Froome over a week previously and Nairo Quintana had never really looked like the rider who many (myself included) had tipped as the favourite. Aru had been handed a clear run thanks to the disqualification of Vincenzo Nibali and the lack of the pre-race big names left in the running was giving Rodriguez an outside chance of victory too. The biggest issue facing Dumoulin was that he was riding in a team that had been built around the sprinting ambitions of John Degenkolb (Dumoulin wasn’t even the team leader). On each day in the mountains Dumoulin had been left to find his own wheels to follow once Lawson Craddock (the only other recognised climber on the Giant Alpecin squad) pulled off. Dumoulin had shown he was capable of limiting his losses and the last of the summit finishes had been on stage 16 but could he really maintain a three second lead over Aru with difficult days still to come?

Ultimately the answer was no but on stage 19 Dumoulin was able to increase his slender lead over Aru and the Astana leader was alleged to have needed a shove from a teammate as they approached the finish in Avila. I suppose this was the point where I started to think a Dumoulin overall win might be possible. Away for the weekend I was following the race via social media and race reports as I wasn’t even catching the ITV highlights package. It seemed like Aru might be the one who was cracking and I was working on the basis that any time Dumoulin lost on the climbs he could make up on the descents with non-uphill finishes on the final stages.

Continue reading Dumoulin’s glorious failure gifts Aru Vuelta victory

The little guy and the Dutch ‘Big Mig’

Vuelta a Espana 2015 week 1 review

Who knows who it was who coined the phrase; “The Tour is the Tour”. This is the catch all that is used to explain the goings on that characterise the world’s greatest stage race from the guy who dances around the finishing kilometre dressed as a giant ham sandwich; the drunken Dutch that spend a week on Alpe d’Huez; the fact that this is the only professional bike race that transcends professional bike racing.

Esteban Chavez
Esteban Chavez

But isn’t the Vuelta also The Vuelta? Doesn’t it have its own idiosyncrasies; those things that make it unique? Those features that are just so, well; Vueltaesque. Previewing a grand tour, I’m always looking for half a dozen or so stages that I think will be interesting for the armchair fan. These aren’t always the stages that should be pivotal on paper, although inevitably they’re likely to be included. But the Vuelta can serve up something that inevitably makes me think “Why didn’t I pick this one?” as what appeared to be an innocuous climb turns out to be a sting in the tail. Take stage 6 from last year with the freshly laid strip of tarmac that led straight upwards to La Zubia. The Cumbres Verdes climb might only have been 4.6km but its 13% ramps delivered some of the most exciting racing of the opening week. I didn’t expect much from Sunday’s stage that climbed Alto de Puig Lloren twice but it was one of the most exciting days racing I have seen this year on a climb that was a little over 4km in length (albeit with 19% sections!)

Of course the route just provides the stage (in the theatrical sense) and the riders are the players in the same context. Chris Horner could hardly have been described as an emerging talent in 2013 but whatever you choose to think about the merits of his unheralded victory two years ago it was so surprising it made for compelling viewing and the only grand tour that was genuinely decided on the final stage in 2013. The dramatis personae listed ahead of this years race, the Froome’s, Quitana’s and Valverde’s have only had cameos to play so far. The stars of the show in the first week have been comparative understudies; Esteban Chavez the almost childlike Orica Green Edge climber and Giant Alpecin’s Tom Dumoulin.

There was a fair amount of chatter about Orica beginning to move their sights towards the grand tours although much of this had focused on the Yates twins. The announcement that the team had signed Amets Turruka from Caja Rural as a climbing domestique ahead of the Vuelta backed this narrative but it’s hard to believe that the team expected Chavez to have a week like this one. Not one but two stage wins and the leaders jersey for six out of ten days of racing must have been beyond the teams wildest dreams surely. They didn’t just have Chavez to celebrate either with Caleb Ewan taking his maiden grand tour stage win. Chavez played pass the parcel on GC with Tom Dumoulin who had already come to the fore this year as a rival to Tony Martin but certainly not as a grand tour overall contender. Chavez has been a joy to watch on and off the bike and you have to go with the instinct that says he was praising his rival when he described Dumoulin’s reclaiming of the race lead as “unbelievable” almost every other word. Dumoulin’s explanation is that he feels good and that he has lost some weight ahead of the race but more cynical eyebrows might be raised if he is still in pole position after four cat 1 and one HC climb on Wednesday.

The home fans (and the wider audience) find Chavez easy to fall for. He has been charmingly humble about his prospects and it is hard to see how he could prevail against Sky and Movistar at the very least over two more weeks of racing and arguably the toughest week to come this week. The locals ought to be able to take Dumoulin to their hearts as well; a time trailing grand tour winner? I’m pretty certain Spain has had one of those in the not too distant past!

So what of the pre-race favourites. So far not much. They have seemed content to only briefly test their firepower; a stage win for Valverde and Froome going close on Sunday only to  be overhauled by Dumoulin at the death. Vincenzo Nibali has capped his miserable season by getting himself disqualified for riding on a team car on stage 2. What Nibali did may or may not be the worst excess of cheating, even in this race, but he was caught (on camera) and was gone without much in the way of genuine protest. He was remarkably prescient on the inconsistency of fines for transgressions within the race when Nacer Bouhanni escaped a similar sanction for an even more blatant car surf the following day by which time Nibali was already licking his wounds at home.

Bouhanni has gone now too. The race has been attritional for sprinters in particular whether that be through injury or simply practical longevity concerns. Ewen has withdrawn in much the same way as the Yates boys were protected at the Tour last year. In what was already a shallow field John Degenkolb might have been expected to fill his boots in much the same way as he has in previous years but he has been relatively quiet so far.

The first week of the 2015 Vuelta has delivered. The organisers might have preferred a Quintana or Valverde in the leaders jersey but in all other respects this years race has provided something for everyone from surprisingly challenging climbs to exciting emerging talents on GC. Tomorrow ought to be fireworks from start to finish as it’s difficult to imagine one team being able to control the race over that many climbs. After such an entertaining first half of the race it’s to be hoped that the rider who emerges from stage 11 at the head of the GC doesn’t grip the race lead too tightly. But the Vuelta is the Vuelta and no doubt there will be more surprises to come in the next ten days.

Caleb Ewan’s impenetrable wall of bikes – VCSE’s Racing Digest #42

Tour of Poland 2015

So Marcel Kittel got the monkey off his back (or should that be Gorilla?) in his first race since the Tour finished; the 2015 Tour of Poland. No doubt the win was hugely cathartic for the Giant Alpecin rider although if it was meant to herald a return to the heady days of 2014 where he won for fun it didn’t quite go according to plan.

Kittel took the opening stage victory from Orica’s Caleb Ewan and he was in the mix again the following day until a touch of wheels with Lampre Merida’s Sacha Modolo caused an accident that left practically the entire peloton stuck behind the tangled two wheeled wreckage where most of those involved in the bunch sprint were piled on top of one another. Missing from the crash scene was Kittel but he had already lost position before Ewan’s downfall. As he crossed the line behind stage winner Matteo Pelucchi, Kittel showed more emotion than he had at point of victory the day before; erroneously thinking the IAM sprinter had blocked him previously.

Pelucchi took another win the following day with Kittel trailing in a distant 7th as the stage delivered a kick before the line. He lost the overall race lead a day later and that was the end of the beginning of Marcel Kittel’s return to front line racing. His stage one win and the bizarre end to stage two at least delivered some drama to the uninspiring parcours that the race organisers chose for the opening few days. When you have become used to cycling being used as a sometimes not so subtle advertisement for the local tourist board it did seem a bit strange that this years race seemed to have decided to celebrate Poland’s urban rail infrastructure. One stage looping up and down a dual carriage way bisected by a tram line would have been enough; three was probably over doing it.

The second half of the race demonstrated how the Tour of Poland can often throw up an unusual result. Stage 4 provided an unlikely breakaway win and this was followed by the GC changing hands daily as first Bart De Clercq, then Sergio Henao and finally Jon Izaguirre pulled on the leaders jersey. Henao had been in the situation of holding the race lead into the final day’s TT stage at the Vuelta a Pais Vasco earlier this year. If there’s a safe place for your money it’s definitely not betting on Henao winning a stage race when a TT is the deciding factor. It’s still hugely enjoyable just to see the rider racing again after a career threatening injury but Henao is unlikely to be offered the chance of leading Sky in a race that really matters to them anytime soon.

And just as the spores of wild funghi spread across the undergrowth the sponsorship mushrooms of the Tour of Poland continue to multiply. If there’s a symbol of the race for me it’s these inflatable bulbs that line the race route as I have noted previously (here and here). Maybe this was the motive for the finishing circuits on this years race as the mushroom count for this years race surpassed both of the previous years combined. It’s part of the race’s charm that a sponsor can get maximum bang for their buck and yet random members of the crowd can get to the stage winner to claim an autograph of bidon before even the soigneur has handed them a coke and a towel.

Continue reading Caleb Ewan’s impenetrable wall of bikes – VCSE’s Racing Digest #42

Unhealthy connections

Tour de France 2015 – First Rest Day 

I had planned to write a short(ish) post ahead of the second full week of this year’s Tour on the speculation (confirmed by the rider himself yesterday) that Richie Porte would leave Team Sky at the end of the season. Ivan Basso opening the Tinkoff press conference with the news that he had been diagnosed with testicular cancer pushed possible Porte moves off the metaphorical VCSE ‘front page’.

Ivan Basso
Ivan Basso

Getting the Basso announcement more or less hot off the press on my timeline I was disconcerted by my own (initial) reluctance to ‘say’ something on my own feeds. My immediate reaction, born out of my closest family having suffered was empathetic. No one deserves to suffer with this disease. Then I started to wonder. Basso is a rider with a ‘past’, part of the generation of pro cyclists that ‘competed’ when the doping arms race was at it’s height. How long would it be before people started to join the dots between today’s news; Basso; cancer and Lance. Having seen the very dignified way that he handled the press conference I’m glad that I didn’t think for too long about putting out my own (very small) message of support for Ivan Basso.

The dots have been joined however. It’s perhaps only been 5% of the commentary, but it’s out there. If Lance’s cancer was caused by doping then could the same be true for Basso? The aptly named ‘Tin Foil Hat’ brigade thought that this was the story today. There has been a LOT written about Lance, his cancer and his doping. There has been a lot written about whether or not the former was brought about by the latter. I don’t think I have actually read anything conclusive in the many iterations of the Lance Armstrong morality tales that litter my bookshelf.

I am something of a contrarian about doping. As much as I support a ban for anyone caught using PED’s I would equally advocate that it’s possible for a rider to return to the sport following said ban. I am more exercised by the misuse of TUE’s (an ongoing issue in the peloton) that I am about a confessed (and one hopes ex) doper riding and racing. Ivan Basso might represent the worst of pro cycling as someone who doped but there is (for me at least) much to be said for his subsequent repentance. Some might argue that he shouldn’t have been given the chance of a couple more years ‘in the sun’ with Tinkoff. Today’s news may bring about retirement sooner than expected but I hope that this isn’t the last we have seen of Ivan Basso on his bike.

Forza Ivan! 

Continue reading Unhealthy connections

So far, so unpredictable – TdF 2015 stage 1-3

Tour de France 2015

Inevitably predictions have a horrible habit of returning to bite the lightly informed pundit on his chamois; and so it proved to be the case on the opening stages of the 2015 Tour de France.

Chris Froome - in yellow after stage 3
Chris Froome – in yellow after stage 3

My pick of Alex Dowsett for the opening stage, a short TT around the centre of Utrecht, was some way off but Alex’s reaction afterwards suggested that he had left the starters hut thinking he was in with a chance. I was reminded of the head to head with Bradley Wiggins at Knowsley Safari Park in the 2013 Tour of Britain over a ‘classic’ 10 mile TT stage. The battle promised much but the outcome was rather more one sided as Wiggins delivered a masterclass in the conditions. I was further reminded of Dowsett’s breakthrough ride (prior to this year’s hour record success) in the 2013 Giro. In the hot seat for much of the stage Dowsett had the beating of Wiggins (in what was probably his best day of an otherwise nightmare week and a half in Italy) and Vincenzo Nibali on that Saturday. Dowsett described feeling in awe of the sheer scale of the Tour last weekend but I also feel that there was a certain weight of expectation on him to get a result that wouldn’t have been there two years ago at the Giro. Movistar will want their rider to deliver in TT’s if they select him for grand tours; he will (no doubt) get better at coping with the unique pressures of races like the Tour just as he dealt with the mental challenge of the hour. It’s a measure of his character that he got on with his ‘other’ day job shepherding Nairo Quintana over the windswept polders and dykes on stage 2.

The Peloton left Utrecht on Sunday in fine weather with the locals doing the best to out do the crowds that lined the Buttertubs and Jenkin Road last year in Yorkshire. I suspect that everywhere that hosts a grand tour start look to Yorkshire’s 2014 grand depart as the template now. While they basked in sunshine the TV cameras kept cutting to the finish line where the recently assembled promotional furniture was being dismantled all over again in case a sudden gust took it into the North Sea. In some ways it was good that the wind  did blow on stage 2 as the it looked as if the finishing straight had been situated atop of a vast sewage sluice gate. It looked brutal and somewhat dramatic but if there hadn’t been an ever changing wind to contend with the stage might have ended up fast but dull to watch. As it was things did blow up and in another throw back to 2013 Movistar found themselves caught out by poor positioning and an opportunistic attack by Etixx Quick Step. Quintana and Valverde lost time on the day and further compounded the time lost on the previous days TT. Vincenzo Nibali wasn’t immune to the dangers either; he was gapped after getting caught behind a crash.

Continue reading So far, so unpredictable – TdF 2015 stage 1-3

A Giro minute – Giro week 1 and 2 round up

Giro d’Italia 2015 

Apre le deluge: suddenly Richie Porte’s two minute time penalty for taking a wheel from Simon Clarke doesn’t seem so important. The (now erstwhile) Sky team leaders result on yesterday’s stage to Madonna di Campiglio had echoes of the collapse in form that he suffered when he assumed Chris Froome’s role in last years Tour. On the day after the long TT stage, where it had been widely assumed (beforehand) that he would at least prove to be a contender if not the dominant rider (in the event losing time) Porte was shelled from the peloton on the penultimate climb and lost the best part of half an hour to Alberto Contador and Fabio Aru.

This years winner? - Alberto  Contador
This years winner? – Alberto Contador

Porte had started the stage after some speculation that he could have withdrawn from the Giro after a lacklustre performance in the TT and another morale sapping time loss the previous day when he had been caught up in an accident just outside 3km to go and was forced to ride in on a teammates bike that was at least two sizes too big. There was talk of a knee injury and the suggestion that pulling out of the race now would give him time to prepare for this years Tour where he would be back on super-domestique duties for Froome. Whatever the motive behind the decision for Porte to line up at the start yesterday it’s hard to come up with a valid reason for him to stay in the race now. Sky had already promoted Leopold Konig into their GC leadership role ahead of the stage after the Czech had leapfrogged Porte into the top 10 and it is difficult to see that he can offer much support with the collapse in form appearing to be as much mental as physical (if indeed there is any physical issue).

Porte’s fall from grace has been as surprising as it has been swift. Less than a week ago he had looked well placed; in a podium spot and only 22 seconds down on Contador. Losing time due to a puncture towards the end of stage 10 to the leaders need not have been that injurious but the two minute penalty conferred for taking a wheel from fellow Australian (but crucially not a teammate) Clarke must have been the first crack in the Porte edifice that was crumbling by the weekend. With race wins in Paris Nice and Trentino and plenty of race miles under his belt Porte was many people’s favourite going into the Giro (mine included) and his demise has raised rather more questions than; “Can he win a grand tour?”. He wasn’t the only pre-race favourite to lose time on stage 13 but the reaction of the other rider involved is in sharp contrast to Porte’s misery.

Alberto Contador hadn’t given too many hints as to what we could expect of him in the Giro. His programme ahead of the race had provided one or two cameos of the dominant rider of previous years but in some ways it was only the fact that he is Alberto Contador that made you think he would be a factor in the first part of his double grand tour target in 2015. Contador has had his own share of misfortune too. The risks of an outstretched arm, snapping photos of the onrushing peloton are well known to the riders in 2015 and Contador was the last in a line of dominos brought down by an amateur photographer as he approached the line on stage 6. A dislocated shoulder might have spelt the end of his race and arguably his year but Contador continued and it’s almost as if the injury never occured now.

If anything Contador has seemed at most risk from his isolation in the leading group when the road has gone skywards. Half of the summit finishes in this year’s race have been dealt with now, albeit with the hardest climbs still to come but the ageing Tinkoff domestiques have been found wanting while Aru has often had four or five supporters around him (think: the cast of ‘Last of the Summer Wine’ v ‘The Inbetweeners’).But Contador’s strength is Aru’s weakness and the Astana rider hasn’t yet been able to turn his advantage in teammates into time taken from his chief rival. If anything we could be seeing the cracks appearing for Aru too. He took a fortuitous race lead after Contador had been caught up in the same crash that effected Porte on stage 9. Aru wasn’t expected to keep the Maglia Rosa for long in the following day’s TT but he looked shaky on yesterday’s stage with teammate Mikel Landa taking the win and looking the stronger rider of the two. It was probably a bit of mischief making on Contador’s part to suggest this to the media post stage and with Landa a further two minutes behind a change of leadership is perhaps premature. Astana might be able to use an Aru, Landa ‘one-two’ to their advantage in the final week, particularly if Contador is unsupported but at this point it’s difficult to see past El Pistolero for the GC.

Another rider to have fallen by the wayside in this years race is Rigoberto Uran. After podiums in the last two years I expected at least the same from the Etixx rider but he’s another rider that’s looked out of sorts over the last couple of weeks. Uran has suffered with a lack of support on the climbs but he lost a lot of time in the TT (he won the ‘flat’ TT stage in last years race). Might Etixx question whether or not Uran has what it takes to deliver a grand tour result after this Giro? Perhaps, although I think it’s more likely that the team will retrench from their ambitions, focussing more on week long races with the new sensation Julian Alaphilippe.

Outside of the GC battle this year’s Giro has thrown up some interesting stages. I confess that the first week passed me by as I holidayed with the bike in Spain. I missed Orica sharing the Maglia Rosa among three riders during the opening stages and I would have enjoyed seeing Davide Formolo taking his maiden grand tour stage victory. As RCS continue to dredge up ever more spurious reasons to ‘celebrate’ Marco Pantani it’s good to see an Italian rider emerging in a team (Garmin Cannondale) where at least his performances can be believed in.

Back to ’09.. just don’t mention doping!

Tour Down Under launches the 2015 road racing season

It doesn’t seem like a year ago that I was bemoaning the lack of television coverage (at least in the UK) of the Tour Down Under. Some of that discussion neatly ties in with a recent post I wrote about the launch of Velon and the possible implications that will have for armchair fans in the future (you can read about that here If i’m honest I haven’t paid that much attention to the goings on in Australia and even less to the race about to start in Argentina (until today that is). I guess it’s because the TDU takes place during the (Australian) summer and we’re still ‘enjoying’ the coldest part of the year in Europe. I’ll watch the races in Qatar and Dubai, but for me anyway the season doesn’t properly start until the weekend of Het Nieuwsblad and Kuurne Brussels Kuurne where the riders will at least be similarly dressed to me.

Cav v Heino - in the news for different reasons
Cav v Heino – in the news for different reasons

Anyway, back down under for a moment and firstly I will point you to an article by Lee Rodgers AKA Crankpunk (read that here The interesting point CP makes is that the timing of the TDU and the Aussie National Road Race Champs’ can give a bit of a distorted picture of riders form going into the season proper. It’s an interesting theory and the article looks at Richie Porte’s prospects for 2015 as he’s currently saying how good he’s feeling at the moment. The only way for Richie ought to be up as last season can’t have gone any worse for him really. He’s already got the Aussie TT jersey but I don’t think it’s either important or significant if Porte wins the TDU. What will be interesting is how Sky intend to use him this year. Before everything went pear shaped for Porte in 2014 he was lined up to defend his Paris Nice title until Sky withdrew him at the eleventh hour to ride for Chris Froome at Tirreno Adriatico. With the benefit of hindsight Sky’s desire to protect their star rider made sense but at the time it seemed like a strange decision and for all of the physical problems that dogged Froome’s BFF last year I wonder if having his programme messed with had a negative impact psychologically on Porte.

There was a lot of speculation last year, some of it stoked by the rider himself, that Richie would need to consider life away from Sky if he was to really fulfil his potential as a GC rider in the grand tours. I think the way Sky handle Porte this year will have a huge influence on whether or not he decides to stay with the team. I wonder if the stars are poised to align at some point in the next year or so that will see Porte move to Australia’s team Orica Green Edge, with one or both of the Yates brothers moving in the opposite direction to Sky.

Talking of Aussie riders I was super happy to see Heinrich Haussler take the Aussie road race title last week. I have been a massive fan of Heino since his Cervelo days and while it has been a while coming it’s great to see him getting a result like this for IAM cycling in their first year at the highest level. Haussler has been out of the limelight for a long time and he wasn’t wrong when he described his win as the biggest of his career. I hope that Heino can kick on from this result; he’s due a better showing in the spring classics too. I remember meeting him during his first year with IAM and he seemed genuinely surprised that anyone would have sought him out when the big crowds were surrounding the Sky Death Star. Hopefully in 2015 Haussler can remind a few more people of just how exciting he was to watch back in 2009.

Continue reading Back to ’09.. just don’t mention doping!

Velon – Can cycling do a Premier League? (and do we want it to..)

Waking up to press reports about the launch of Velon this morning. With a good percentage of the world tour (including Sky) signed up already it’s looking like an attempt by the teams to exert greater control over the way the sport is currently organised.

In itself, a greater say for the teams, isn’t an obviously ‘bad’ thing. Some team principals have bemoaned the lack of a transfer system for example that could introduce a vital revenue stream for teams at all levels. Then there’s the race calendar that prevents the world’s best riders competing against each other due to events clashing. A powerful bloc in the sport negotiating to ensure future financial viability could (in theory) transform cycling for the better.

Velon - big changes for the peloton?
Velon – big changes for the peloton?

While a transfer system isn’t explicitly mentioned in today’s news story, one of the Velon co-signatories Dave Brailsford is a proponent of team’s receiving a benefit from the movement of riders they have developed elsewhere. VCSE agrees that a reorganisation of how riders move between teams is long overdue. Looking at the UK for example where even successful teams disappear almost overnight for lack of a sponsor, revenue from a transfer (Adam Blyth from NFTO to Orica say) could ensure a smaller teams survival. This has been part of the operating model in football for years. However, there’s a risk that a transfer system within cycling could also lead to some of the same outcomes ‘enjoyed’ within football, with the teams with the biggest budgets snapping up the best riders to the detriment of competition. Sure it’s unlikely that a transfer system would produce a different grand tour winner to the default Contador, Froome or Nibali, but it could result in a dominance among certain teams that (potentially) damages the spectacle. On the whole though if one of the aims of Velon is to instigate a framework that provides teams with another revenue stream besides sponsorship this can only be a good thing.

The challenge for Velon is to ensure that the stated aim at the heart of the project; to have ‘fans’ at the ‘centre’ is actually delivered. While there are some obvious beneficial parallels to the introduction of the Premier League (EPL) there are other aspects that cycling shouldn’t be seeking to replicate. For the moment cycling is a relatively accessible sport for someone who wants to start a team, with even some world tour teams able to operate on a budget of just a few million euros. In football, the EPL in particular but also the top leagues in Spain and to a lesser extent Italy require annual investment of hundreds if not billions of dollars. In the case of the EPL much of this money has come from an ever increasing amount of cash from Sky as the main broadcaster of live matches. Over the years as Sky have bid ever more for the TV rights the clubs who have managed to stay in the top flight have become in turns bloated and (yet) increasingly reliant on the moneytrain. While it can be argued that Sky’s involvement has been good for the fans in that it has forced every broadcaster to raise their ‘game’ as far as showing football is concerned, there remains a small but vocal minority who feel that it hasn’t always been for the best. The loss of the ‘traditional’ 3 o’clock kick off and the price of a ticket to a game are just two of the complaints often levelled at the EPL host station and clubs.

What does any of this have to do with Velon? The EPL started as a group of football club chairman (who in those days were as likely to be the owner of the club too) getting together to discuss a breakaway league. This was in response to their perceived viewpoint that the terrestial (and free to air) networks weren’t giving them (the clubs) full value for money in what was at the time a nascent live football environment. The launch of the EPL on Sky was certainly sold to fans and viewers as football with the fans at the centre, although it would be harder to make that claim now.

On the very day that Velon is announced it might seem cynical to question its aims, particularly as it has the opportunity to make the sport more sustainable for its participants and that can only be a good thing. It will be interesting to see how Velon can operate in the (now) three way space between the UCI and the race organisers. There would appear to be no obvious benefit in holding key early season races like Paris Nice and Tirreno Adriatico at the same time for example, although whether a move to non clashing dates would see riders take part in both races is harder to imagine. Then there’s the question of TV money. Within the UK, cycling is not so mainstream that many races are shown free to air. For the committed cycling fan some kind of subscription to a satellite or cable provider is essential to be able to see the spring classics or each grand tour ‘live’. Long before donning their Velon hats team principals have volunteered that they don’t feel that get enough of the benefits derived from the biggest races by the organisers. It’s difficult to see a ‘turkeys voting for Xmas’ scenario whereby ASO surrenders a share of their earnings from the Tour. Might some of the teams push towards a television model that requires the armchair fan to reach further in their pockets to watch ‘their’ chosen sport? One of the reasons why races like the Vuelta have seen such an increase in support by fans at the roadside in recent years is the fact that cycling is one of the few (if not the only) professional sports that’s free for spectators. It would be good to see Velon enshrine a commitment to having ‘fans at the centre’ that would guarantee that this state continues. Cycling does not need to introduce ticketing into the final kilometre.

If Velon can deliver a sustainable model where there’s an incentive for all teams to develop young riders (and while we’re at it a women’s team for every world tour outfit), a racing calendar that avoids date clashes for the biggest races while (at least) retaining the current level of accessibility for fans we should all be celebrating in a few years time. However, it’s so instructive to look at the examples from other sports and perhaps, at least a little, to be careful what we wish for..