Van Avermaet the new Boonen?

Paris Roubaix 2017 

When you choose not to enjoy a ride on one of the most decent days of the year so far you kinda feel obliged to make something of six hours in front of the telly. In this instance it was the  follow up to last week’s live cycling extravaganza in Flanders; Paris Roubaix. Eurosport had been nagging us all week about Tom Boonen’s farewell race and I’m not ashamed to admit I wanted him to pull off the win. Maybe that was part of the problem I have with how I spent the bulk of my waking hours on Sunday; Boonen didn’t take a record breaking fifth victory and everything else seemed like a bit of an anticlimax. Someone asked me this morning if it had been a good race. Correction, they asked if it had been more than that. A classic ‘Classic’ if you will. And the answer to that was ‘No, not really’. Sure, Greg Van Avermaet has rounded off what has been an amazing sequence of results that go from the Maillot Jaune in the Tour, an Olympic road race gold to his first monument but of all of those this one was the easiest to predict. Get beyond the Boonen narrative and it was hard to see who could have been a bigger favourite than GVA.

Tom Boonen
Tom Boonen 

Seeing another race televised from the flag drop had some interest around how many digs are needed before a breakaway is finally allowed to get away. Yesterday’s race, started an hour late due to an expected tailwind, took a while to find its rhythm as the pace was indeed record breaking. In these situations you’re looking to the commentary team and the host feed to provide something to keep us amused. Rob Hatch was lead mic for the race along side previous winner Sean Kelly. As I said in my Flanders post I think that Rob gets the best from Sean and it definitely helps that he (Kelly) knows what it takes to win this race. Strangely, Eurosport added a third wheel in Declan Quigley for some reason so we ended up with a slightly odd period of the race where we had two lead commentators and no colourman. It worked a little better last year when DQ was used to to field all of the social media interactions, allowing Rob and Sean to concentrate on the live action. I think there must be a bit of a groundswell of opinion about Eurosport’s choice of lead commentator though as Hatch shared a lot of posts highlighting his style of delivery verses A N Other Eurosport commentator that isn’t Declan Quigley. Even Rob was being a bit arch yesterday as the ‘go to’ pronunciation guy, Boonen somehow becoming ‘Booner’ for example.

It’s now fifteen years since the last wet Paris Roubaix and Sunday was a particularly dry one. The challenge for the riders yesterday, beyond a fast pace, was dust. As the riders entered the cobbled sector even the leaders were having to deal with a yellow cloud that enveloped them until their heads were just showing. The dust was kicked up by the commissars and motos making their way ahead of the group and even more so than normal what is a fairly claustrophobic race it was difficult to spot an attack developing. Drop back slightly within the peloton and a selection could take place and slip away before you had chance to react. Boonen missed the crucial move and as the most marked rider in the race (aside from Sagan maybe) it soon became clear he wasn’t going to be able to claw back the gap. Peter Sagan had another day to forget and post race described his spring results as ‘disappointing’. The issue on Sunday was mechanicals but the underlying problem is a weak team where the star rider lacks a strong supporting cast.

On that subject Cannondale Drapac are probably feeling a lot better with their return from Flanders and Roubaix than they might have done when Sep Vanmarcke crashed out of the former. Dylan Van Baarle didn’t have the legs to make the podium in Flanders but under the circumstances the team were happy with 4th place. Sebastian Langeveld went one better last week and his third place is the organisations best result since Johan Van Summeren’s 2011 victory. The team needs wins but the presence of a strong DS in Andreas Klier helped scramble together a positive outcome after losing their principal rider who couldn’t even line up last weekend.

So is Van Avermaet the natural successor to Boonen. I would only say it’s a possibility at this stage. Van Avermaet at 31 has the potential for at least another three years (maybe more) at the top, so there’s every chance that he can add to his first monument victory (he’s on the same number as Sagan in this respect). Boonen in comparison won the last of his monuments (Roubaix) five years ago. By that time he had won Flanders three times and Roubaix for a fourth and final time. If you accept the premise that cycling is (at least) a cleaner sport now it’s not unreasonable to see how Van Avermaet could amass a few more wins in the major classics but I still think he’ll find it challenging to match Boonen. Tom of course might have won more and he came so close to a fifth Roubaix last year but for injury and the not insignificant ‘obstacle’ of Fabian Cancellara. While those two swapped wins in the last ten years it’s easy to see a similar rivalry emerging between Van Avermaet and Sagan. Boonen will be remembered as one of the legends of the sport it remains to be seen if Van Avermaet can overtake his record in the cobbled classics.

I’ll get me coat! – VCSE reviews the Ronde 

Tour of Flanders 2017

Beware the errant spectator, the misplaced guard rail or even the poorly secured advertising banner. There are many things that can derail your chances of success in the classics and it was an apparent combination of those three things that ended Peter Sagan’s hopes of doubling up on his Ronde victory from last year. Like the mysterious injuries caused by red hot disc brakes perhaps we will never know what exactly precipitated Sagan’s fall on the  Oude Kwaremont but whatever it was provided enough for Philippe Gilbert to stay away and claim one of the monumental classic races that he has always maintained he was capable of winning.

Philippe Gilbert

Riding in the Belgian champions colours Gilbert had gone on the attack with more than 50 kilometres of racing to go and still facing some of the hardest climbs. In the races I’ve seen him in this year he’s looked like a rider who wants to race for every sign even if the result was unlikely to go his way. A gambler then? Perhaps, but maybe also a rider with a point to prove. Tom Boonen, racing his final Flanders, is targeting Paris Roubaix as his swan song but he’s a perennial favourite at 36 years old. So Gilbert at two years Boonen’s junior; why not? Well saying you can win it is one thing, actually doing it is something else entirely.

Gilbert has clearly been rejuvenated by his move to Quick Step after four years at BMC. It’s always seemed to me that the last thing you want to do as a professional rider who’s winning races regularly is to move to BMC. Gilbert moved there after a stellar 2011 season that saw him take all three of the Ardennes classics as well as an early season win in Strade Blanche. He might have spent a year in the rainbow stripes but another Amstel Gold in 2014 aside it looked like Gilbert was a relatively under productive on a big salary. If this does him a disservice even the rider himself questioned whether the team really knew how to get the best from him, even going so far as suggesting that he would sacrifice his form in the Ardennes for a crack at the cobbles. BMC didn’t appreciate that suggestion at the time and we’re happy to put the house on Van Avermaet by not extending Gilbert’s contract at the end of 2016. That isn’t to say that BMC were wrong to do so; Van Avermaet has won Het Nieuswblad, E3 and Gent Wevelgem this year and Gilbert has rolled the dice in so many races that his number was always going to come up at some point.

Compare and contrast two teams and Gilbert’s start to 2017. His form in the run up to today’s race should arguably have made him the favourite. Second in E3 and Dwars door Vlaandaren, stage win and GC in the 3 days of De Panne. But no, all the talk, the pre-race hyperbole was Sagan, Van Avermaet and to a lesser extent Boonen. Going long might not have seemed like a recipe for success either, at the point of Gilbert’s attack Sagan and Van Avermaet were both  very much a factor.

It’s often a risk with the biggest sporting events that the decision to ‘go live’ and ‘bring us all the action’ results in very little ‘action’ taking place. Returning from an early season cycling holiday in Spain I restored the power to our Sky Plus box this morning and found that live coverage would start at 9.30 this morning! Unfortunately for me this didn’t make for enjoyable viewing as the British Eurosport feed persists with Carlton Kirby as their lead commentator. Now I know watching cycling is a bit niche out there in the real world so taking issue with who calls the race might be seen as navel gazing in the extreme. Trouble is Carlton is really beginning to grate on me. Days were that David Harmon was Eurosport’s go to cycling guy but he left early in 2013 and since then the big stuff has been Carlton’s gig. He still manages to have his moments and his commentary on Iljo Keisse’s win in the 2012 Tour of Turkey is well worth a search on my YouTube page but most of the time I just wish I could mute him. Funny thing is the commentator who I think does it get right seems to polarise opinion almost as much as Carlton. Rob Hatch did call the race on the world feed (whatever that is) today and I think he generally gets the tone of things right. When the race was failing to ignite early on today Hatch would have lead a discussion about the contenders that wouldn’t have felt like he was calling out names from the start list. He also seems to get the best out of Eurosport’s lead colourman, the legend that is Sean Kelly. Anticipating a barrage of banality from Kirby, Sean can be equally anodyne in his contributions although he got engaged of his own accord today after Gilbert attacked. Rob Hatch manages to ask Kelly a question that actually makes him think and draws out some interesting insights as a result. Pairing Kelly with Kirby does Sean at bit of a disservice I think. Of the other commentators out there I think Ned Boulting will emerge as a bit of a doyenne after a shaky start. David Millar alongside him is very good too as someone with with recent knowledge of life in the peloton as well as no apparent desire to become a ‘character’. Matt Stephens is good in either role and Brian Smith provides a sterling service shooting down Kirby’s flights of fancy when required. Magnus Backstedt doesn’t appear as often as he used to but when he does you have to hope he’s alongside Rob Hatch as Kirby seems to melt any intelligent thought he might have. I’ll have to give some credit to Carlton as he was prepared to call it for Gilbert sooner than anyone else might have dared to, but he does love a trier.

Any commentator would have struggled to find much to get excited about early on though. Race organisers Flanders Classics had made a number of changes to the route this year with the start moving from Bruges to Antwerp. For this monument tradition can always be bought and the suggestion is that Antwerp paid a six figure sum to host the race. Well at least they didn’t have to buy the crowds that turned out in the sunshine. Money apparently changed hands again to get the Muur-Kapelmuur reinstated into the race route after several years absence. No complaints about that and money well spent as it was the back drop for the key selection of the race with Gilbert and Boonen going clear with teammate Matteo Trentin, Sep Vanmarcke, Alexander Kristoff and Sky’s  Luke Rowe in the group. Vanmarcke’s bad luck in the monuments continued and he even managed to bundle Rowe up in his misfortune when the Sky rider couldn’t avoid the falling Cannondale team leader. Vanmarcke got back on a bike eventually but he the crash ended his chances and it looks like a breakthrough win is as far away as ever. Rowe hadn’t look that strong either and with Ian Stannard relatively anonymous so far this year Sky have had a poor return on the cobbles in 2017.

While Sagan’s coming together with an anorak might have sealed things for Gilbert,  Van Avermaet had a good go at reeling him in. He might have done too, but was probably undone by running out of kms to track down the leader coupled with the completely supine response from the other riders in his group. As I said earlier I think there was an element of luck that played its part in Gilbert’s victory but the unpredictable factor was leavened out by the riders self belief that he could bring off a result in this race to the extent of launching a solo attack so far out that most wouldn’t have expected to survive. Gilbert’s decision, post Flanders to pull out of Paris Roubaix suggests that he would have been prepared to gamble again if he hadn’t have pulled off the win in the Ronde.

Pais Vasco 2017

A few riders that might have featured in Flanders lined up in the Basque Country on Monday. With Sky’s poor showing on the cobbles might they have benefited from the presence of the Gilbertesque Michal Kwiatowski?

I much prefer the early season week long stages races and I look forward to Itzulia primarily to see hard racing in horrible weather and on that score this year’s edition has so far disappointed. We’ve just returned from a week on the bikes in Spain and enjoyed weather that by U.K. standards was positively balmy. I’ll be tuning in to the rest of rtthe week’s action but hoping that the rain clouds start gathering otherwise the race might end up looking like an Argos Volta a Catalonia.

Discs & Doping – VCSE’s Racing Digest #44

The season is already a couple of months old and we’re several races in already but this week has felt like the start of the new term proper. The first couple of stages of Paris Nice and Tirreno Adriatico give the commentators and colour men the chance to ruminate on the riders showing early form and look ahead to the monuments in the coming weeks and slightly further away the Giro. That’s the plan anyway. The peloton and the viewer wants to get played in gently before the GC gets decided over the course of the weekend. Things went awry for some of the key players on the first stage of Paris Nice as the weather intervened and caused time gaps that re-wrote individual’s game plans, Richie Porte just one of many reduced to stage hunting from then on. In Tirreno we saw a whole team derailed, not by the conditions this time. Sky riding with dual leaders in Mikel Landa and Geraint Thomas lost time on the team time trial as their exotic tri spoke wheels wilted in the spring sunshine.

Not the ideal start for riders looking to put down a form marker for Milan San Remo or the grand tours perhaps but it added an additional ingredient to a dish that I always look forward to. With the possible exception of Poland the week long stage races that follow the grand tours just don’t engage me in the way that Paris Nice, Tirreno or Itzulia can. I missed so much of last season as far as catching a stage or one day race ‘live’ was concerned, although so watching this week has felt like the end of Lent and I’m finally able to tick into the good stuff again.

Paris Nice and Tirreno serve up fairly meagre rations if you’re looking for a grand tour primer with only one or two days designed with the climbers in mind. There’s normally enough on the bone for a GC rider to claim the overall but if the queen stage does succumb to the weather then you end up with results like last year’s Tirreno where Greg Van Avermaet ended up with Neptune’s trident. The one rider who I could imagine overcoming the grand tour specialists without needing rain to stop play is Peter Sagan. With two stages remaining Sagan already has two of the proceeding ones chalked up. On Sunday he managed to stay with Thomas and race leader to Nairo Quintana to take the second. Mark Cavendish (fairly anonymous in the same race as I write) may grab more of the headlines if he matches Eddy Merckx’s Tour stage wins record but Sagan has to be the closest we have to The Cannibal in today’s peloton. With Cancellara out of the picture I can see Sagan really  dominating the next few years of classics racing even if he’ll never approach Merckx for all round ability. Thing is though I resent Sagan’s apparent superiority. If he’s made the final selection I find myself frantically scanning the other riders, carrying out a mental tick box assessment of who might be capable of beating him to the line. A couple of weeks ago, the ‘opening weekend’ of Het Nieuswblad and Kuurne Brussel Kuurne Sagan inevitably had been there at the death, winning the latter and placing second to Van Avermaet the previous day. I’m not quite at the point where I can’t find any joy in a Sagan victory, I just prefer the unpredictability, the ‘not knowing’ when the favourite is missing.

If there’s such a thing in cycling and if it’s not ironic to bestow it on him Alberto Comtador was the moral winner of Paris Nice. He’d ridden into contention during the week and was snapping at Sergio Henao’s heels after the Sky rider had assumed the yellow on Saturday. Henao wouldn’t have been my obvious choice for team principal but with Thomas and Landa in Italy he got the nod. Paris Nice isn’t a race that Chris Froome tends to do, although he has cropped up for Tirreno in the past. Froome involvement in this year’s race was limited to selfies as the peloton swept past on his local training routes. Contador was gracious in defeat (by two.. count them.. seconds!) to a rider that I can’t imagine leading Sly in a grand tour anytime soon. Fair enough, that Henao caught up enough to snatch the yellow back from him but I don’t think it would have happened if the peloton hadn’t worked as hard as it did to chase down Contador’s breakaway.

With Froome laser focused on the Tour again Sky have to ‘make do’ with someone else to lead the team and there’s something of a ‘Where’s Wally?’ element to the odd appearance he makes on social media. Make no mistake though, even when he isn’t racing Froome is the principal rider on Team Sky in the eyes of the fans and the media. As the teams own Watergate has rumbled on since last year’s initial TUE expose Froome has been conspicuous by his absence particularly in a week that saw more than half of his teammates come out publicly in support of Dave Brailsford. A combination of published and leaked reports on the TUE saga and investigations into the culture at British Cycling had led to a swathe of opinion that Brailsford needed to go. A rumour in the press that a rider within Sky had said that Brailsford should resign triggered the votes of confidence voiced on social media by Thomas and others. A follow up piece in the papers listed the riders who hadn’t spoken up for their boss. While some were pretty much invisible, such is the irregularity of their social media presence Froome was an obvious omission.* He has shared his view about the TUE saga once or twice. Never one to miss an opportunity to stick the knife into Wiggins he had been as pointed in his criticism as someone who has also ‘benefited’ from a TUE can be. In a tetchy interview recorded during a training camp earlier in the year Froome had also made clear his feelings that Brailsford should be the one with the explaining to do. Going for his fourth TDF title Froome won’t appreciate the distraction if the situation has been resolved by the summer. The inflated media prescence and the partisan nature of the crowds could prove to be an unwelcome distraction if the story refuses to go away. So was he the source of the ‘Brailsford must go’ rumour. In the absence of anything to the contrary it’s tempting to think he might have been. There doesn’t appear to be any doubt that Sky is Brailsford’s team rather than Froome’s but the rider can be characterised as someone who does what’s best for him so it might be tempting to imagine a world where doping questions disappear along with a Brailsford departure. Will Brailsford actually depart is another question entirely. Right at this moment I think not but further revelations might change that and the story shows no sign of going away. In the end it may prove to be ‘noises off’ from the sponsor (notably silent so far) that forces the issue rather than any press clamour that ends the fairytale.

While Sky could celebrate another overall victory in Paris Nice the ‘wheels coming off’ was the perfect phrase to sum up their situation in Tirreno. Pride was somewhat restored by Thomas taking a stage and he’ll finish high on GC albeit a long way off Nairo Quintana. In Abu Dhabi a couple of weeks ago another Sky rider appeared to fall victim to another bit of new technology in the peloton. The introduction of disc brakes is the irresistible force currently buffeting the immovable object of (most of) the riders. New to Sky this year Owain Doull has a gold medal from Rio and some impressive showings in bunch sprints last season under his belt as he becomes the latest prospect hoping to prosper on the Death Star. Doull had a coming together with Marcel Kittel in the final of a stage and sparked another ‘discs are dangerous’ debate when he suggested Kittel’s disc had sliced open his shoe in the ensuing crash. In the aftermath it was pretty conclusively proven that it the only way Kittel’s disc could have come anywhere near Doull’s shoe would have been if Kittel had been on Doull’s left rather than his right and travelling backwards at the time. As this truth was still getting its (ahem) boots on the anti disc faction had already dished up several versions of a potential disc rotor induced end of days.

The problem for the disc brake lobby, i.e the bike companies is that the majority of the riders just don’t want to ride them. I’m not convinced by the safety argument but as no one seems to want to call the pros out on stories like Doull’s or the other disc / not disc crash in last year’s Paris Roubaix the ‘alternative fact’ that disc brakes are too dangerous to be raced is allowed to gain currency. Maybe Doull and whoever that Movistar domestique was that crashed in the Arenberg last year genuinely feel their injuries were caused by discs but the evidence would suggest that disc brakes are some way down the list of potential dangers. Maybe there’s a ‘Rules’ / Velominati element to all of this. Perhaps it’s an old school thing like not wearing white bibs or the correct sock length. There’s little point in trying to enforce discs on the peloton but it will be annoying the hell out of Specialized that their master plan to have us all shelling out an extra few hundred large for discs might be derailed by the rider lobby. So far it’s only Quick Step and Cannondale who have really pushed the disc thing this season. Tom Boonen has done a puff piece about how it would be ‘stupid’ to ignore the benefits (smart guy Tom) and Cannondale had the whole team on discs in Andulucia and had disc equipped TT bikes at Tirreno. At least Sky couldn’t blame the disintegrating wheels on discs.

* Rather like my last post this one came together over a couple of days. On Monday Froome released a statement ‘backing’ Brailsford. I only read one report rather than his full statement but based on the quotes lifted for the article it didn’t sound as if Froome was offering unequivocal support. 

VCSE’s Tour de France 2016 Review

This is my first post since Roubaix way back in the spring. Since then I have changed jobs and i’m back working full time for the first time since I started the blog in 2013. Back then I spent the entire season watching any cycling I could ‘live’. I posted after every stage of the 2013 Giro whereas this year I didn’t do a single post about it. There have been a number of reasons for this; mostly a lack of time. I do think that you miss something following a race after the event. While many stages ‘caught’ live can be a complete bore there’s often a little thing that not everyone notices that underscores how the stage and / or race is won. There have been some changes to the schedule this year, both in terms of the calendar and the TV coverage that haven’t always been for the better. The Tour or Turkey was pretty much highlights only this year and that was a race that I enjoyed watching live. Then there’s the Tour of Poland that someone has decided would gain so much more from being scheduled to take place during the Tour de France!

Watching this years Tour I often found myself thinking that I ought to write about some of the things taking place. Cav’s yellow, GC teams invading the sprints, Froome’s panache, Sky NOT getting trolled for doping to mention just a few. I’ll get around to proof reading this review of the 2016 Tour but in the meantime…

Tour de France 2016

Signing off his review of the 2016 Tour de France and Chris Froome’s historic 3rd victory in the race David Millar said we should “..enjoy” Sky’s continuing dominance of the biggest race in cycling while it lasts. This sentiment seems to be widely held by most of the people on my social media timelines, but for this armchair pundit at least I think endure is more appropriate.

Tour de France 2016 winner – Chris Froome (yeah, I used this pic last year too

Don’t get me wrong; Sky have achieved a fourth maillot jaune in five years and that in itself is a fantastic achievement. But even if the Sky MO has evolved from the one dimensional approach employed to provide Bradley Wiggins his sole grand tour victory my heart sank when Froome assumed the race lead on stage on stage 8. Of course, only the most suspicious conspiracy theorist could suggest that Sky could have known in advance that Froome’s attack over the final climb on the stage would have resulted in him heading the GC for the remainder of the race.

Sky employed the same strategy during the Grand Depart and the early stages that had worked for them so well a year ago. A team made up of entirely of domestiques (no sprinting distractions here!) ensured that Froome was kept at the business end of the race even on sprint stages. A crash within the bunch on stage 1 led to some noises off from sprint patron (and ex Sky rider) Bernie Eisel among others criticising the GC teams for getting mixed up with the lead out trains long after the 3km cut off had been negotiated. I wonder if Mark Cavendish would have been quite so diplomatic about this particular strategy that Sky have led if he hadn’t been enjoying a renaissance and his first ever yellow jersey.

Froome was pretty much the highest place GC contender on anything that didn’t end up in a gallop before the stage into Luchon and his audacious wrong footing of his rivals over the Col de Peyresourde. Froome had departed the race when the Tour last visited the town in the Pyrenees in 2014. Chief rival that year Alberto Contador had crashed out too allowing his remaining Tinkoff teammates the opportunity to go for stage wins. Mick Rogers, in the break that day, waited until he was on the descent into town before attacking and then time trialling away for the stage win. Sky’s tactic was for Froome to attack the KOM on the penultimate climb. As the TV commentary speculated about Froome’s desire to take the polka dot jersey in addition to yellow he struck out before reaching the top of the Peyresourde and gained vital yards as Nairo Quintana fumbled with his bidon and looked around in vain for Alejandro Valverde.

If Sky can be accused of riding conservatively in defence of the GC the same can be levelled at the teams of the rival GC teams when it came to attacking. The relative form of the other pre-race favourites when the came under the spotlight can be debated further but the point at which Chris Froome won his third Tour came in those first few hundred metres of the descent into Luchon. There are many ironies in Froomes victory, not least of which is that he has shown spontaneity while his team have been anything but. It shouldn’t be discounted that there wasn’t a single stage where Froome had to go head to head with his rivals without riders like Wout Poels and Sergio Henao first administering a metaphorical beating to other teams domestiques. Despite this I don’t believe that Sky’s strength in depth was the deciding factor. One of the ex pros (I can’t remember who) invited onto ITV’s coverage of the final stage commented that we might have seen a different race if Alberto Contador hadn’t abandoned after struggling through the first week after a crash on stage 1. Maybe, maybe not. Contador’s luck was particularly bad, at least Richie Porte made the finish (and 5th overall) but he was rueing the loss of time due to a puncture in the final km’s on stage 2. Quintana, fell a long way short of pre-race expectations; a ‘virus’ was conjured up at one point to try to explain his inability to challenge Froome. Movistar’s much vaunted double team of Quintana and Valverde had no answer for Froome and Sky this time and other hopefuls were even further off the pace.

There had been speculation before the race that Astana could see a 21st century version of the rivalry between Bernard Hinault and Greg Lemond in the 1986 Tour with Vincenzo Nibali in the Badger role to Fabio Aru’s Lemond. I could use a couple of hundred words explaining how that worked out but rather than waste your time I’ll summarise; it didn’t happen. Nibali looked as if he would rather be anywhere else than the Tour and Aru was no more than a bit part player.

Yet another team supposedly offering a spicy inter team rivalry ahead of the race was BMC. Richie Porte was riding in support of Tejay Van Gardaren or joint leader depending on who you listened to or if it was a Friday or something. Porte was resigned to working for Tejay even though he was the much stronger rider until his ‘leader’ fell off the radar by which time the most the Porte could hope for was a podium place. If BMC have learnt anything from this years Tour it should be that Tejay Van Gardaren will never be a grand tour winner. Stage 2 puncture notwithstanding it would have been interesting to see if Porte could have challenged Froome if Tejay had been riding for him. One for 2017 perhaps.

Quintana ultimately did enough to get onto the podium, knocking Orica’s Adam Yates off the third step. Yates is not altogether a surprise package but his achievement suggests that there is a potential heir to Chris Froome outside of the Sky machine. Yate’s demotion may have robbed him of a podium place but he was still the winner of the young rider classification and can take some comfort that his time loss was a result of a mechanical rather than a loss of form in the final week.

If not many would have predicted two ‘home’ riders in the top 5 on GC, few people would have said that AG2R would have two riders on the Tour de France podium in three years. Romain Bardet delivered a French stage win and rode into second place on stage 19. Dave Brailsford has talked about the possibility of Sky delivering a French rider to victory in the Tour but as long as Froome is motivated to race the Tour Sky won’t be hiring a French GC rider and it’s hard to see a homegrown rider doing any better than what Bardet has achieved this year.

ASO recognise that the potential for a Sky dynasty along the lines of (whisper it) US Postal could prove detrimental for the Tour ‘brand’. The idea of 8 man teams was mooted today as a possible handicap to the Sky train (the team have finished this years race with the nine riders who started in Normandy three weeks ago). Others have talked about salary caps and a ‘draft’ for up and coming riding talent but it’s hard to see how such tinkering will upset the Sky juggernaut, at least where the Tour is concerned.

There’s another irony that this is the first year where Sky’s dominance of the GC at the Tour hasn’t been accompanied with accusations about doping. This, of itself, is a good thing although I am a little surprised given that Sky have made their opponents look so ordinary. The insights of the peloton have been notable in this respect; Mark Renshaw guesting on ITV today saying he studies Sky’s methods with great interest. Obviously, no one within the sport is going to speculate openly but the fans have shown much more respect to Froome’s result this year.

So the 2016 Tour wasn’t a classic as far as I am concerned; a British win isn’t enough of a justification. I have got this far without mentioning what for many was their defining moment of this years race. The incident involving Froome, Porte and Trek’s Bauke Mollema on the Ventoux stage could have played out very differently but actually mattered little to the overall outcome. I’m on board with Froome getting his finish time adjusted (and Richie too, although that was far less significant) as a result of his bike getting smashed by an oncoming moto. I thought that Mollema asked the key question however when he asked if he would have been given the same time as Froome if he had been the only one of the three impeded. When Dave Brailsford suggested that Sky waited patiently for a decision from the race jury I imagine the reverse was true. I can’t help thinking that it would have made for a more interesting race if the original post stage GC positions had been allowed to stand. The likelihood is that Froome would have re-taken yellow on the following day’s TT anyway but it would have shaken things up a bit, something the race needed in my view.

So much for the GC. Peter Sagan continues to entertain in the rainbow stripes and collected another points classification win. He vies with Froome as the rider you have to watch. If only some of the Sagz charisma could rub off onto Froome too. The KOM was dull viewing; it’s a classement that I normally enjoy following but Rafal Majka was more enigmatic as 2016 KOM than the entertaining rider who took the same jersey in 2014.

The sprints certainly didn’t turn out as expected. The key Mark Cavendish stat is that he wins far more Tour stages when he is in the same team as Bernie Eisel. It was the perfect start to the race that he finally got his maillot jaune after several attempts by the organisers to engineer the perfect opportunity. I think i’m right the expectations of a Cav resurgence were actually not that high and it’s been compelling to see the influence this has had on Marcel Kittel even after Cavendish had abandoned the race. It remains to be seen if he can cap everything with a gold medal in Rio in the next few weeks but Cavendish can be satisfied with his work so far in July, if not this year.

Cavendish has been reunited with Eisel and Renshaw at Dimension Data (nee MTN Qhubeka). He wasn’t the only one from the team to have an impact on this years race as Steve Cummings delivered another win to add to his victory in last year’s Tour. Cummings has developed a reputation as the breakaway rider of the peloton and this win added to the others gained in each of the stage races he’s entered this year.

Continue reading VCSE’s Tour de France 2016 Review

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.

Race in Peace – VCSE’s Racing Digest #43

So we’re already a quarter way through the 2016 season and I’m feeling pretty conscious that I haven’t written a great deal about everything that’s taken place since Tirreno and Paris Nice a few weeks back. We’ve had the rivals for this years grand tours line up in the Volta a Catalunya, a couple of semi-classics in Belgium and the first of the monuments; Milan San Remo.  While there are stories to be told about all of these races everything has been overshadowed in the last few days by the death of two riders in separate events last weekend.

On Saturday Belgian rider Daan Myngheer suffered a heart attack after collapsing during that day’s stage of the Criterium International on Corsica. His death was announced on Monday evening just 24 hours after another Belgian Antoine Demoitie died in hospital after being run over (following a crash) by one of the race motos during Gent Wevelgem. Losing both riders is a tragedy but it’s the circumstances surrounding Demoitie’s fatal accident that has caused a wider discussion. Rider safety is a topic that’s been simmering along since last year when there was the first of many incidents where riders came off worse due to altercations with either a race support car or moto. Irony probably isn’t appropriate here but I haven’t read anything that suggests that Demoitie’s accident was avoidable; his team have even released a statement to that effect. Nevertheless it’s all too clear that in a contest between a rider and a car or moto, it’s the guy (or girl) on the bike who’s going to come off worst.

That said I’m not sure what can be done to make things significantly safer. Right now with things feeling pretty raw it’s easy to forget that the potential risks for riders from cars, motos and everything else from dogs without leads to street furniture have existed for years. While crashes like the one that took out several riders at last years Pais Vasco could easily have been prevented (poorly signed road furniture caused that one), it’s hard to see how every potential risk can be eliminated. I won’t disagree that some potential risks could be mitigated but in the week before Demoitie’s accident the same commentators who mourned his loss were bemoaning the lack of moto camera feeds in another race. I’m not diminishing what’s happened; I just don’t think there are quick or easy solutions.

Racing a bike has enough risk and potential injurious outcomes without riders wondering if they’re likely to be hit by an errant vehicle from the race caravan. The really enlightened solutions probably won’t emerge in the immediate aftermath of these two tragic deaths.

Continue reading Race in Peace – VCSE’s Racing Digest #43

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.

VCSE’s 2016 Season Preview

Welcome to 2016 

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose*. Ahead of last season I wrote about pro cycling’s latest wheeze to evolve with the advent of Velon. I was vary of a potential shift of power towards teams at the time, making the comparison between the changes seen in Football in the UK since the inception of the Premier League. It seems like I needn’t have worried. All we have seen from Velon is some occasionally interesting Go Pro (other bike cams are available) footage and the financial footing of teams seems as precarious as it ever was.

Some changes were proposed. Under Brian Cookson the UCI has pursued a low key reforming agenda that was inevitable after the fall out from the the scandals of recent years. Whether or not the sport needs 3 year licences for teams is debatable. The stability argument, that teams could reassure existing and potential sponsors that they would be racing at Tirreno Adriatico in 2018 is reasonable enough but it exposed where the power in the sport lies. ASO promotes many other races besides the Tour but if you’re an incoming title sponsor of a world tour team the one race you’re going to want to be seen at is La Grand Boucle. For a non world tour team securing an invite to a grand tour is often the difference between financial survival or ruin. There’s also been the unwritten rule that certain teams could expect an invite at the expense of potentially more worthy entrants pace Cofidis at the Tour or Androni at the Giro.

Securing the patronage of ASO (or RCS) has always been important for the outfits below the world tour level. With world tour teams guaranteed a slot on each of the world tours thus far falling out with the organiser hasn’t been a consideration up and until now. Crucially though ASO are unhappy with the UCI proposals, so much so that they want to take their races out of UCI categorisation. This puts a huge hole in the UCI’s 3 year licencing plan as suddenly the stability it suggested is overtaken by the need to stay onside with ASO to be at the grand depart of the world’s biggest cycle race.

Whether or not 3 year licences are the answer to how pro cycling can move forward is moot now that ASO have decided that as far they’re concerned; it’s a no. The impasse has somewhat faded as the new season is upon us (I’m writing this after the Tour Down Under and the day before the Dubai Tour). My guess at this stage is that a compromise or fudge will be found and I’ll be writing a similar article about the sport’s potential new dawn sometime next February.

Moves and Grooves

In the off season it has been evolution rather than revolution for most teams that echoes the uncertainty of the direction of travel discussed earlier. There are a few exceptions of course.

E3_Harelbeke_2012,_boonen_cancellara_op_de_kwaremont_(20265330611) (1)
Boonen v Cancellara for the last time?

Dimension Data (ex MTN Qhubeka) are the latest addition to the world tour teams having secured the services of Mark Cavendish (along with a couple of his consigliere for 2016. Moving up from Pro Conti removes the lottery of securing grand tour invitations (for now) but while the team will benefit from the stability there’s pressure too for the squad and the rider. Cav had a less than stellar 2015 and as the undisputed leader of his new team will be under the spotlight this year. Sprinting has come a long way since Cav, Eisel and Renshaw were casting all before them at HTC in 2009 and with the possibility that he will want to go to the Rio Olympics too I’m not sure Cav will be able to target the unofficial sprinters world championships on the Champs Elysee too.

The make up of Sky’s squad continues to evolve although the number of Brit’s in the team remains the same with Bradley Wiggins replaced by neo pro Alex Peters. Their big signings are former world champ Michael Kwiatkowski from Etixx and Mikel Landa from Astana. Kwiatkowski had a quiet year as befits the holder of the rainbow stripes but he’s got pedigree and versatility. Whether or not the team needs another rider in the Geraint Thomas mould I’m less sure of but it should allow the team to fight for more wins this year. Signing Landa i’m less sure of. The suggestion is that he will target the Giro after going close last year but I can’t help feeling this could go the way of Sky’s previous attempts to win the race. It’s a bold step to take a rider from a team that’s as controversial as Astana, even more so if you’re Sky. It’s uncertain that Landa will ride at the Tour but I would imagine that the tin foil hat brigade will be out in force if he does.

Etixx have lost Cavendish but gained Marcel Kittel alongside a few more ‘big’ signings. Seeing Kittel fall from grace in 2015 was painful at times and not ever entirely explained by the rider either. Will he go well in 2016 is as much of a question as; is Etixx the right team for him to prosper with? Other than having deep pockets are Etixx likely to be significantly better at leading out Kittel as they were Cavendish?

Richie Porte has moved to BMC, although this was announced so early in the ‘transfer window’ it’s ceased to be news. Everything went well for him right up to being Sky’s latest contender for the Giro and after that he was forced to dine out on what might have been. Here’s another move where I’m not sure if the ‘fit’ is anything other than financial and perhaps this further illustrates the fragile nature of a professional riders career. Sacrifice opportunity for cash? I might be doing Richie a huge disservice here but don’t BMC already have a GC rider?

This year will be the last match up between Fabian Cancellara and Tom Boonen. Well I say that, but actually the last time that truly happened was as long ago as 2012. Boonen has had less luck with injuries, but both riders were out of contention long before the big two of Flanders and Paris Roubaix last year. Everyone wants to see these two go head to head one more time but the emergence of riders like Kristoff and Degenkolb (last years winners of the Ronde and Roubaix respectively) will mean that the last of the old breed will need to be in top form and fitness to add to their wins.

What to watch

Well, all of them of course! OK that’s not strictly true and I admit to feeling a little jaded watching some of the cycling last year. The desert races will be an amuse bouche after not seeing anything since September but the season doesn’t really start for me until Paris Nice and Tirreno. Strade Bianche is emerging as a genuine classic and I’ll have high hopes that one of the semi-classics delivers a race as good as last years Gent Wevelgem.

The Ronde is the first of the must see races for me and still edges it over Roubaix. If Cancellara and Boonen are near the front at either it will be a good year.

The grand tours have a way of feeling like the greatest race you have ever seen when you’re in the thick of the actual race. I’ll be left wondering how the Tour is going to be able to top the Giro, although often finding (as in last year) that the Vuelta delivered more drama. The Giro / Vuelta ‘arms race’ of metres climbed and summits finished on continue while the Tour seems an altogether classier affair. Expect my opinion on which one has been the greatest to change after each edition.

So what should you expect from the 2016 cycling season? Should you tune in? The short answer is ‘Yes’. The beauty of the sport lies in it’s unpredictable nature and if 2016 can offer riders recovering from shaky starts to capture the rainbow jersey at the end of the year (Sagan) to new faces emerging as grand tour contenders (Chavez, Dumoulin) then there’s a great race out there waiting to happen.

*The more it changes, the more it’s the same thing

VCSE’s 2015 Cycling News Reader Poll

I posted my thoughts on the Cycling News Reader Poll last year so here’s this years submission. I haven’t posted anything since the end of the Vuelta for all sorts of different reasons so there might be an end of season review feel to this post as well (maybe!).

I haven’t written about every nominee as it does feel a bit like the Cycling News team went with ten nominees for the Best Male category and then wondered if there would be a bit of a Twitterstorm if they didn’t have the same number of nominees in the other categories. While some of the nominations feel like they have been added for the sake of it, there are other categories where I don’t know enough about the subject matter to comment on whether or not a riders inclusion is warranted. Either way, there won’t be pages and pages on the Mountain Bike or Cyclocross categories.

So without fanfare or drum roll here’s my picks for the 2015.

Best Male Road Rider

So the normal suspects you would expect to see in an end of year poll are hear, alongside a couple of surprises. Lets deal with those first.

Peter Sagan
Peter Sagan

Richie Porte started the year in fantastic form winning Paris Nice for the second time amongst other things and generally looking like a better rider than Chris Froome during the early part of the year. Things began to unravel at the Giro and he began to resemble the rider who hadn’t exactly thrived when he was asked to pick up the team leadership from Froome in the 2014 Tour. Porte’s results post his return to racing after the Giro were less than spectacular and he even found himself slipping in his support role to best pal Froome at the Tour. If I was filling out Porte’s report card in April he would have got a A star but ahead of what is now (probably) a make or break move to BMC in 2016 he’s probably a C minus.

Another ‘What were they thinking?’ addition to the Best Male nomination is Mark Cavendish. Cav started the year under pressure to deliver results at Etixx and ended the year with a new team. While he isn’t the only sprinter to have had a less than stellar year (Marcel Kittel anyone?) it wasn’t perhaps the return to winning ways that everyone (the rider, his team, his fans) wanted. Sure Cav notched up another Tour stage win but he was completely outshone by a resurgent Andre Griepel in terms of number of wins and by the German’s victory on the most important stage of all in Paris. Cav of course remains a massive personality in the peloton and among UK fans but even the most diehard Cav supporter would find it hard to justify his selection as the best rider.

Another early starter was Alexander Kristoff. After Flanders I asked if anyone could stop him from winning any race he chose. Well as with so many predictions there was an element of hubris and Kristoff didn’t go on to win stages at the Tour for fun. In fact other than a low key win towards the end of the year it felt as if the Katusha rider had slipped from the radar screen completely.

Perhaps the sprinter who did the best job of retaining form over the whole season was John Degenkolb. With Marcel Kittel’s catastrophic loss of form Degenkolb became the key focus for his Giant Alpecin team in 2015. That Degenkolb took his first monument in Milan San Remo was perhaps less of a surprise than him taking his second a matter of weeks later in Paris Roubaix. Unlike his rivals Degenkolb was adaptable enough to still win grand tour bunch sprints including the final day around Madrid in the Vuelta. Degenkolb, once a target for Etixx as an eventual replacement for Tom Boonen the irony is that while the team retain the shampoo brand title sponsor it is Kittel who is leaving for the Belgian outfit.

Of course it wouldn’t be a Best Male poll without the Tour winner and sure enough Chris Froome is included. I’ll credit Froomey for not quite sticking to the script this year and looking pretty ordinary on the bike until the latter stages of the Dauphine. The way that he and his Sky teammates bossed the Tour from stage 2 onwards without too much there to unsettle them deserved better than the piss that was literally poured on them in France. There was a tilt a Vuelta Tour double but that was undone by another accident that may or may not have been bought on by bike handling skills. A second Tour win for the honorary Brit is no mean achievement but no better or worse than the other grand tour winners from this year.

And what of those two? Alberto Contador won the Giro pretty much singlehanded as his Tinkoff teammates struggled to keep pace with Astana. It was pretty clear how much this had taken out of him when he was the first of the big names to really suffer in the Tour. The Giro win didn’t taste quite as sweet while struggling to keep up with Froome and co in July and it’s no surprise that Contador wants to go out with a band in France next year. Fabio Aru was up and down like a yoyo on the Giro and then later during the Vuelta but showed enough to hold on to second place in Italy and then go one better in Spain. Perhaps not the most popular winner of the Vuelta thanks to his team and the manner of the win he looks increasingly like the favoured rider at Astana.

When the BBC crown their Sports Personality each year the debate afterwards often centres less on the winners sporting success as much as are they in fact a personality. When Bradley Wiggins won in 2012 both boxes could be firmly ticked as he rocked up in a wickedly tailored suit and was pissed before the broadcast had even finished. All of that plus Britain’s first ever Tour winner and an Olympic Gold medallist to (Chelsea) boot! Froome the following year wasn’t really in the running, despite Sky’s best efforts to add colour to him. Politeness doesn’t really ‘sell’. Peter Sagan started the year unable to win. I wondered if the pressure of his multi million dollar contract at Tinkoff was having an effect. A trip to the US for the Tour of California where they LOVE him provided the rejuvination and while there wasn’t a win at the Tour the green jersey was duly claimed. It was the end of season single handed win at the world championships that delivered the result that Oleg Tinkoff’s millions demanded but it was the return of Sagan’s sense of fun in post stage interviews at the Tour that cements him as my pick for Best Male rider of 2015.

Best Male Team

Fortunately Cycling News allow us a choice. Don’t fancy any of their nominee’s? Pick one of your own. And that’s what I have done with my Best Male Team selection.

MTN Qhubeka might not have been the winningest team of 2015. In fact they didn’t pick up masses of victories full stop, but it was the significance of what they achieved this year that makes them my pick for Best Male Team.

Bringing Brian Smith on board as General Manager saw the team step up a gear with a number of high profile signings and key changes in equipment to become one of the most distinctive outfits in the peloton. A stage win in the Tour and the Vuelta and Edvald Boasson Hagen winning the overall at the Tour of Britain were the arguably bigger wins than the KOM jersey at the Dauphine but more importantly that was won by a black African rider: Daniel Teklehaimanot. Smith has the challenge of continuing to get the best out of an ageing team of ‘big’ names like new addition Cavendish and promoting the best of the African riders. If he can do this it could be one of the most important components of cycling becoming a more diverse and genuinely global sport.

Best Female Road Rider

Lizzie Armitstead. No contest really. It might be a little bit churlish to say that Marianne Vos being injured for most of the season gave Lizzie a clear run but that would be pretty disrespectful to a talented core of riders within the women’s pro peloton just as much as it would be disrespectful to Lizzie.

Winning the world cup for the second year in a row demonstrated her form over the course of the season and the world championships was the icing on the cake. More importantly the way that she rode the race in 2015 showed that she had learnt the lessons of 2014 and didn’t let a winning position slip. The pressure will be on now (not least from a tendency to big up GB medal hopes by lazy journo’s) for a gold medal in the Olympic road race in Rio next year. The course doesn’t suit her but if anyone has the mental ability to overcome that it’s Lizzie Armitsead.

Best Women’s Team

Boels Dolmans might seem like the obvious choice. They’re Lizzie Armitstead’s team as well as the berth for riders like Evelyn Stevens. But my pick for Best Women’s team would be Velocio SRAM. The team emerged from the remains of the Specialized Lululemon squad that announced it was folding at the end of the 2014 season. Initally crowd funded the team were ultimately received backing from Cervelo and SRAM for the 2015 season. For various reasons the team in this incarnation is no more and the riders had to deal with the fact that they didn’t have a team for next year while there was still part of this year’s races to complete. It says a lot about this group of riders that they were still one of the winningest teams in the women’s peloton in 2015 and rounded off the season with the TTT world championship.

Keep reading for the rest of the VCSE winners here

Continue reading VCSE’s 2015 Cycling News Reader Poll

Fight! – VCSE’s Vuelta 2015 Preview

Vuelta a Espana 2015 

Christopher doesn’t like Vincenzo; he thinks that Vincenzo shouldn’t have ridden off when Christopher had a stone caught in his bike’s wheel. Vincenzo had a falling out with Christopher as he thought he was to blame for Vincenzo falling off with a lot of other riders. Then there’s Nairo. Nairo likes Christopher but thinks that he should have beaten him in a race that they had in France last month.

In recent years the Vuelta a Espana seems to have become the grand tour for riders with scores to settle. In 2012 it was Alberto Contador’s first race back after his ban and last year the same rider went head to head with Chris Froome after their Tour de France appearances were curtailed by injury. Vincenzo Nibali is returning to the the land of his first grand tour win in 2010 but (also) where he was denied a ‘doble’ in 2013 when Chris Horner took an unheralded victory. Last year the Vuelta might not have truly been worthy of the title of ‘unofficial’ GC rider world championships but it was an awesome prelude to the real thing that took place in France in last month.

This years Tour line up pitted all of the grand tour winners of recent years (bar Horner) and should have provided a definitive answer on who is (currently) the ‘greatest’. And yet the 2015 edition of the Vuelta will see the metaphorical “Did you spill my pint?” shenanigans continuing as Nibali attempts to prove that his 2014 Tour win was achieved on merit and Quintana seeks to demonstrate that he can outclimb Froome to  win his second grand tour. Whoever triumphs in this contest, the question to see who is the ‘best’ will rumble on into another year. With Contador absent could Froome et al really claim to be the world’s #1 GC rider?

Claiming that rider X is the ‘best’ rider is something of a red herring in reality. It would be more accurate to say rider X is the best rider now. Contador was arguably the strongest rider going into last years Tour and was superior to Froome when they met again in the Vuelta. He was able to continue that form into the Giro this year; almost winning the race single handedly. But by July he appeared fatigued and was certainly unable to respond when Froome attacked as early as stage 3. Froome, despite his second Tour win, may not be the favourite for the 2015 Vuelta. As I wrote here his victory was delivered on the back on early time gains on his opponents that were defended as the race went on. The appeal of a Tour / Vuelta double will be in the minds of Froome and the Sky team but I suspect that a win here would still take second place over a successful defence of the 2016 Tour. If you go purely on how he finished the Tour you would put your money on Quintana to win the Vuelta. If Alejandro Valverde reprises his super domestique role from the Tour I would shorten those odds further still.

So what of Nibali. The lustre of his 2014 Tour victory had become very faded by the third week of this years race and was only partly salved by his stage win where he took advantage of Froome’s stone in wheel mishap. Astana bring Fabio Aru and Mikel Landa to the Vuelta and if the plan is to replicate the strategy that came so close to derailling Contatdor at the Giro Nibali could be a factor. The issue for the team in the Giro however was that the team leader (Aru) was off peak for much of the race. It doesn’t matter how well you can decimate the other GC teams if your leader can’t deliver the killer blow and that question mark will hang over Nibali as the race gets under way. Astana rider’s performance in the Vuelta may well be of more interest longer term as I think Nibali’s results will determine where he races in 2017 and with which team.

Tejay van Garderen leads the second tier of GC riders to watch; returning after his DNF at the Tour. I don’t think we’ll see the BMC rider on the podium here but he could go well in the Andorra based stage 11 as he’s an experienced rider at altitude (he was winning the USA Pro Challenge this time last year and in 2013). Joaquim Rodriguez can claim that stage as his ‘local’ and quite a few people have tipped him to go well in the race. I’m less convinced; leaving aside the motivation factor that this is his home tour I just don’t think that Purito has the legs for victory in a three week stage race.

VCSE’s Vuelta 2015 Top 3

1 Quintana

2 Froome

3 Valverde

Wildcard Aru

Continue reading Fight! – VCSE’s Vuelta 2015 Preview