It’s that time again; here’s the lovingly tooled VCSE Tour preview

Tour de France 2015

Why bother shelling out a tenner for 228 pages of official guide when you can get the VCSE lowdown on this years Tour for nothing? 

Last year we had Yorkshire. Everyone said it was going to be good; even me (although I added a typically English caveat; weather permitting). And the sun did shine and it seemed like anyone who had ever shown the slightest interest in riding a bike decided to find a spot by the roadside. I know, I was there. The grandest of Grand Departs has spawned its own three day stage race and made Utrecht’s job of hosting this years edition twice as hard. So why then as a (proud) Brit am I feeling a greater sense of anticipation ahead of this year’s Tour than last?

There might be another British* rider in yellow besides Chris Froome

While a lot of Brit fans were waiting to see who would be backing Froome over the next three weeks here in Essex we were looking to see if ‘our’ World Tour rider was going to France (via Holland). It’s easy to forget that Alex Dowsett’s ‘day job’, when he’s not breaking hour records is riding for Movistar. In the last couple of weeks the more eagle eyed among you might have spotted him on the flatter stages at Dauphine and the Route du Sud providing close protection for Alejandro Valverde and Nairo Quintana. I still suspect Dowsett smarted from his omission from the Movistar squad for last years race that would have passed through some very familiar Essex roads on stage 3. Poor health was cited at the time but other than the obvious home ties last year it was harder to see why he would have been selected. This year is a completely different story. Besides the ‘obvious’ item on his 2015 palmares, Dowsett took overall at the Bayern Rundfahrt and he’s coming off another national TT championship win. The opening stage prologue isn’t quite the quintessential ‘ten’ of the Brit club scene but I think Movistar have picked him to have a go at taking the jersey. It won’t be easy but other than Giant’s Tom Dumoulin I can’t think of another rider that stage 1 couldn’t have been better scripted for.

A wide open green jersey / points competition

ASO have tweaked the points allocation again this year and that should suit the ‘pure’ sprinters like Mark Cavendish and Nacer Bouhanni. The big blonde German elephant in the room though is the missing Marcel Kittel. Is it illness? Lack of form? There have even been suggestions that Kittel has succumbed to the cyclist’s illness; depression. Whatever the reason, the rider that looked set to dominate the bunch gallops is absent and that means that the metaphorical sprinters ‘crown’ is up for grabs. Of course Kittel’s absence doesn’t automatically mean that Cavendish will reclaim the number one spot. There’s as much depth among the fast men as there is in this years GC field.

Let’s start with Alexander Kristoff. I posed the question of who could beat the Katusha rider after he claimed his second monument of his career by winning the Ronde earlier in the season. He’s been kept under wraps in the last few weeks (he didn’t contest his home championships) but you have to think he’s going to be tough to beat as it has felt at times as if all Kristoff has to do is turn up to a race in order to win. Not unlike a Mark Cavendish of old in fact. Cav looks like he’s in good touch too though; he rode an extremely untypical but nevertheless inspired solo effort in last weekends nationals in Lincoln. He looks as if he is peaking at the perfect time and isn’t July a good time to get your mojo back?

Another rider who could lay claim to that is Peter Sagan. A rider who has had to endure a stream of motivational messages that his team owner shares with the wider social media audience and possibly the worst national champs kit of recent years could be forgiven for crumbling under the weight of a $15M salary and expectation in the classics. Sagan took the GC along with bagging a stage win or so at this years Tour of California going head to head with Cavendish and I would expect Sagan to have to take the points where he has the advantage over Cavendish (on primes etc.) if he’s serious about another green jersey.

While it has been enjoyable to see Sagan in a place where he’s feeling like popping wheelies again I think this could be Kristoff’s year. I’m not as sure about the final showcase in Paris though; that one i’m giving to Cav.

Enough already.. what about the GC?

Dowsett in yellow. Kristoff v Cav. Mere aperitif’s to the main course that is this years GC battle. Last year we had Contador v Froome. This year we can add Nairo Quintana to the mix and that’s before we even mention last year’s winner Vincenzo Nibali. I’m sure someone has got the ‘stat’ that says when these four last raced against one another (together). Me? Haven’t a clue, but whenever that was a lot has changed not least that each rider is now a grand tour winner.

Continue reading It’s that time again; here’s the lovingly tooled VCSE Tour preview

Is that the US live feed i’m watching? – VCSE’s Racing Digest #41

Milan San Remo 2015 

If ever there’s a race to follow a script, at least as far as when something actually happens it’s got to be Milan San Remo. Every year there’s a rumour of, if not an actual route change to be implemented with the intention of making the race easier / harder for sprinters / climbers. And if the parcours is changed you can be pretty much certain that it won’t make the slightest difference and it will be fine to go to the garden centre (it’s a UK thing) or have dinner with the family and tune in when the race reaches the Cipressa.

And so it goes that the 2015 variety of MSR followed the script pretty much to the letter. Sure the key incidents were specific to this years edition but we could have easily foregone an hour or so of super slow motion rain jacket removal or watching riders going through the musettes.

OK, so if you had tuned in with 25km to go you would have missed the crash on a wet descent that took out one of the Sky team and allowed Geraint Thomas, Luke Rowe and Ben Swift to go clear of the peloton. They mopped up the last of the break but were caught by some determined chasers including Greg van Avermaet and Zdenek Stybar as they climbed the Cipressa. Sky were ostensibly working for Swift, but it’s hard to imagine that Thomas wouldn’t have had the green light to go for the win too. It was the Welshman who launched the last forlorn attack of the day on the Poggio with van Avermaet’s BMC teammate Daniel Oss for company. With those two caught on the descent it was down to a sprinters selection to contest the win on the Via Roma (the 2015 route change natch).

There were some choice names here too; last years winner and arguably race favourite Alexander Kristoff, Peter Sagan, Bling Matthews and Paris Nice stage winner Davide Cimolai. I signed off my last post with the prediction that Sagz wouldn’t do anything in MSR and so it proved; fourth place is not what Oleg Tinkoff expects (more of which later). My money was on Kristoff after he got back into the leading group with the help of the smartest guy in the peloton Luca Paolini. But who surfed the wheels from way back to deny them all? John Degenkolb, the Mr Versatile of the sprinters (this is the guy who finished on the podium at Paris Roubaix last year). OK, he was hardly long odds for MSR but I don’t remember him winning from so far back before. It’s a great win and should give Degenkolb equal billing at Giant alongside Marcel Kittel now (if he didn’t have it already).

I wonder if the result doesn’t have implications for another Giant rider. Warren Barguil has struggled since his breakthrough stage wins at the 2013 Vuelta. His situation reminds me a little of Mark Cavendish’s short stay at Sky, albeit they’re different types of rider. If Barguil is going to develop as a stage racer and certainly a grand tour rider it’s hard to see how he can do this at Giant, which is a team that is to all intents and purposes predicated as a sprint outfit. Much as I think Giant would want to keep him I can’t help wondering if Barguil would do better elsewhere. Dave Brailsford has talked about winning the Tour with a French rider, might Barguil fit the Sky mould?

Since Ben Swift claimed the final podium spot in last years MSR he’s been touted as a classics rider. When the Sky threesome went clear I thought he had a great opportunity to win the race solo if he could have used Rowe and then Thomas to leap frog over the final two climbs. This would have relied on the rest of the peloton to wave the metaphorical white flag perhaps, but it looked like Swift didn’t really have the legs in the sprint either. Classics wise Sky are now in worse position than they were a year ago. Ian Stannard may have repeated his Het Nieuwsblad win from 12 months ago but the teams MSR result is disappointing in comparison. Sky really need a result in the Ronde or Roubaix to show that they have taken a step forward in one day racing.

Volta Catalunya 2015 

I could have been forgiven for thinking I had tuned in to one of the US races so bad was the television feed from the Volta Catalunya (they seem to have dropped the ‘a’ in 2015) this week. The weather hasn’t been all that but we lost an entire ‘live’ broadcast yesterday (stage 2). There was a silver lining in that I didn’t have to see an Alejandro Valverde stage win though.

Alberto Contador
Alberto Contador

It’s been quite a fun race so far. The peloton completely messed up the time gaps to the three man break on stage 1 allowing CCC rider Maciej Paterski to take the win and the best part of a 3 min lead on GC. It was as you were GC wise after stage 2 and then the big hitters started to emerge today on stage 3.

Chris Froome has returned to racing after missing Tirreno Adriatico through illness and based on today’s performance he’s still not quite there. Froome had only Richie Porte left for support on the final climb as Tinkoff took advantage of several crashes on the descent of the penultimate climb to do some damage to the peloton. Bjaarne Riis has been suspended from Tinkoff for reasons that aren’t entirely clear (there’s a good article about that here) although Sagan’s result in MSR has been suggested as the catalyst. Alberto Contador looked in good shape today, almost back to his stage win earlier this season in the  Ruta del Sol as far I was concerned.

The Contador group that led into Girona included Porte, Rigoberto Uran, Fabio Aru and Garmin Cannondale pair Dan Martin and Andrew Talansky. While Contador seemed most concerned with Porte taking his turn on the front (Aru and Uran knew their place and rode when they were told to), no one seemed to be taking much notice of AG2R’s Domenico Pozzovivo. He attacked as the group reached the outskirts of town and by the time anyone had decided to respond it was already to late and Pozzovivo had a relatively easy win after a preceding hard 155 kms.

Paterski relinquished his race lead to Pierre Rolland who may well lose the leaders jersey in turn tomorrow on the queen stage to La Molina tomorrow. The big names are around 2.20 back on Rolland and Froome isn’t so far away another 20 seconds or so behind. If he can come back the way he did after Contador took his (Ruta del Sol) stage win earlier this year with one of his own at the same event, the GC could be Froome’s for the taking. There are plenty of other names in the mix though and tomorrow’s stage is likely to be a good one. Let’s hope they sort out the TV pictures.

Going around in CIRC’les – VCSE’s Racing Digest #40

Paris Nice 2015

I normally enjoy both of the week long early season stage races but a number of distractions over the last couple of weeks kept me from seeing much in the way of live racing. Fortunately, Eurosport gives me plenty of opportunities to catch up via their highlights programme. Out of the two races I think the one that provided the most interest was Paris Nice, particularly after Chris Froome’s late pull out from Tirreno denied us the next instalment of his match up with Alberto Contador. Paris Nice 2015 returned to its traditional format with an opening prologue and finishing with the Col d’Eze TT. And in a repeat of the last time the race followed this format in 2013 Richie Porte took his second overall win and stage victories on the only summit finish and the Col d’Eze.

Other than going down briefly, descending in poor conditions on the penultimate stage Porte looked like the real deal when it mattered without actually holding the race lead until he finished on Sunday. The holder of the yellow jersey for much of the race was world champion Michael Kwiatowski, the winner of the prologue and well looked after by his Etixx teammates through much of the early stages. Kwiatowski, who is the Polish TT champion was only a second down on Porte going into the last stage but he couldn’t match Porte’s pace in the TT.

If we base things purely on this outcome Porte looks ready to challenge for the GC in this year’s Giro and barring accidents he shouldn’t have his ambitions to lead a team in grand tour overturned by Sky’s need to protect Chris Froome in the Tour (as happened in 2013). If early season form is anything to go by Sky look in fantastic shape grand tour wise with real strength in depth and enough talent to potentially challenge in the Giro and Tour. For Kwiatowski, things don’t look quite so clear GC wise. Tony Martin showed that the massive pulls he put in during last years Tour were not a one off, but he’s really not the kind of climbing domestique that Kwiatowski will need to protect him in a three week grand tour. Of course, none of this could be part of the plan for Etixx although I suspect that the team will look for a decent showing if they’re unable to land one of the monuments in the next few weeks.

Elsewhere it was honours even in the battle to be the best French sprinter with Nacer Bouhanni and Arnaud Demare finishing ahead of each other twice in the bunch finishes. Neither managed a win (a second place apiece) with Bouhanni edging Demare with his placings. Bouhanni needs to win to add weight to his claims that he should have been the supported rider at FDJ last year. Demare as the rider who stayed has to justify his team’s decision to back him ahead of the other rider. Of course it’s still early days, but I don’t expect either rider to kick on in 2015 in the same way as Elia Viviani say.

The winner of Saturday’s stage into Nice was Lotto rider Tony Gallopin. While the French rider probably didn’t have the time trialling chops to protect a lead of less than a minute from Porte up the Col d’Eze he did show that last years performance during the Tour in the Vosges wasn’t a one off. For a team that’s likely to feed off scraps in 2015 it’s likely that Gallopin will be one of the big hopes to deliver a breakaway win.

Tirreno Adriatico 2015

Tirreno was the lesser of the two races for me this year. I enjoyed Wout Poels breakaway win on stage 5. I think he’s a great signing for Sky and the teams line up for the Volta Catalunya this week suggests that Poels will be one of Chris Froome’s key supporters at the Tour. As Poels took the race lead as well as the stage win on Saturday I found myself wondering if he could actually go for the win. All of this daydreaming was proved to be just that within 24 hours as Nairo Quintana delivered the kind of emphatic win that characterised his Giro win last year. The weather was pretty Giro like as well with the last few km’s ridden in blizzard conditions. Quintana obviously didn’t feel the cold and he looked about as happy and animated as I have ever seen him winning by 41 seconds and taking the race lead. Vincenzo Nibali, in comparison, looked like he was having a horrible time and would rather be anywhere else than the race he won as recently as 2013. Another rider who enjoyed a less than stellar Tirreno was Alberto Contador. Lack of form or lack of Froome. Who knows? For the other two grand tour winners of 2014 it was a week to forget.

After I semi wrote him off in my last post Peter Sagan took the final bunch sprint in pouring rain on Monday. Actually, I was reflecting on the increased pressure Sagan is under to deliver a big win to justify is multi-million Euro contract at Tinkoff Saxo but the win will restore some confidence to the rider. Other commentators who can draw on better connections with the team are suggesting that Sagan is bullish about his chances of landing a monument in 2015, but I’m still not convinced that it will happen this Spring. I’ll predict here that Sagan’s best showing in the monuments in 2015 (other than placing in Milan San Remo) will be later in the year in the Giro d’Lombardia.

It was good to see MTN Quhbeka get a result with Steve Cummings finishing just behind Contador with 6th place on GC. MTN have retained the services of Brian Smith in 2015 and he’s signed some big(ish) names for the African team. I’m not entirely sure how all of these riders are going to gel and even less clear on how they intend to win. Gerard Ciolek’s breakout win for the team in the 2013 edition of MSR put them firmly on the world stage and if nothing else the profile has been further raised by Smith’s signings for 2015. Invites to the grand tours have followed, but unlike 2009 where Smith also had a hand in the launch of the Cervelo Test Team these riders don’t look like they will deliver a repeat of Ciolek’s monument. I think there are too many sprinters and these aren’t riders who have been winning regularly either. I would really like to see MTN go well as I like a lot of the personalities involved in the team but I think they will be living off scraps in 2015 too. They do have the best looking bikes in the peleton though!

CIRC report

Paris Nice in particular started with the release of the CIRC report looming in the background. The headline pulled from the 200 plus page document was the “..90% of the peloton are doping” and this made most newspapers, radio and TV reports. If this claim is to be believed it’s not great news for the sport. As I have commented previously the challenge for the sport is to provide stories that will attract sponsors into the sport. We have seen new team sponsors this year and there’s a real resurgence in interest in countries like Germany who pretty much abandoned coverage after the doping scandals of the late 2000’s. The situation remains fragile though and how riders, teams and the UCI deal with the fallout from CIRC will be incredibly important for the sport to grow.

Taking women’s cycling as an example. The UCI have delivered some improvements to the race schedule and there seems to be an appetite to show more of the women’s races in 2015. Achieving parity with the men is not helped by negative stories coming from the men’s peloton. Like it or not, women’s cycling will continue to rely on the trickle down of investment and interest in the men’s for the next year or two. It goes without saying that potential investment lost to world tour and pro conti teams will impact on the women’s peloton too. Not least the suggestion that (at least) each world tour team should run a ladies team with a full race programme as well.

The 90% comment was polarizing as so much of the quotes in the report were unattributed. While riders (past and present) subsequently revealed that they had spoken to the CIRC committee, Chris Froome was the only current rider that allowed his name to go into the published document. Thankfully, Froome wasn’t made the lightning rod as a result of his preparedness to put his name to the report. I have been critical of Sky’s use of TUE’s (one of the major examples given in the report of where there is huge potential for abuse) and I though it was interesting that Froome withdrew from Tirreno this year citing a chest infection. Would this have happened 12 months ago? As I say, whatever people might think of Froome and / or Sky I thought he deserved some credit for putting his name to the report.

Of course, there were many conflicting views as to whether or not the report had gone far enough in both revealing and / or confirming some of the doping stories surrounding the sport and what should be done to improve the situation. My own take is that the report didn’t reveal much that was new and perhaps that was why the recommendations had a lightweight feel. Credit to Brian Cookson for commissioning the report as I couldn’t imagine this happening previously at the UCI. That in itself is progress.

There are some commentators who believe that anyone connected to doping in the past should be unable to take part in the sport. While I understand the view I take a more pragmatic approach that recognises that it would be pretty much impossible to unpick cycling apart in such away. I think there remains an opportunity to provide riders and staff past and present with the platform to ‘fess up, even if this would be a somewhat flawed process. Say, rider A a current member of the peloton comes forward and admits doping previously. Where is the statute of limitations that says that the rider should be banned now for something they did previously, one year ago? Two? Of course this is where the ‘ban them all’ approach seems appealing, but my gut feel is that it’s likely that in the not too recent past 90% of the peloton were doping. I don’t think that the sport would survive the loss of so many riders. That doesn’t excuse the offence or mean that I think that everyone who doped previously should be given a hall pass. i just think that the approach and solution as far as doping catharsis is concerned is a lot more nuanced.

A final CIRC related thought. Brian Cookson (and others) have come out strongly against Lance Armstrong taking part in Geoff Thomas’ cancer charity ride that will take place ahead of this years Tour. Thomas, an ex professional footballer is another cancer survivor and I was pleased to see him taking a stand in favour of Armstrong’s continued involvement. I have no issue with the sanctions that Armstrong faces as a cyclist, even extending to his wish to participate in Ironman’s. However, I cannot see how anyone can deny Armstrong’s cancer. Thomas discusses Armstrong’s presence as a part of his rehabilitation in the cancer community. While the vehicle in this case is a bike I think the decision to involve Armstrong or not belongs with Thomas and the charity he is raising money for. Some people may see this as yet another example of Armstrong’s cynicism but i’m prepared to take his professed motivation at face value on this one.

The weight of expectations.. or just a dodgy haircut

Strade Bianche

Once upon a time. A time when for English footballs top division the prospect of being paid £5.8 billion to play televised football would have seemed like science fiction. As the 1970’s turned into the 1980’s and punk rock became the new wave, the big news in football was the £1 million pound transfer fee.

The best manager never to manage England’s national team Brian Clough had ushered in the development with his signing of Birmingham striker Trevor Francis for his Nottingham Forest side. Francis earned his fee and Forest recouped their investment when they won the European Cup (now the Champions League) in 1979 with the player scoring the winning goal in the final against Swedish side Malmo.

The precedent set, more clubs began targeting the players they believed would justify a £1M fee. Francis winning the European Cup at Nottingham had removed doubts about the wisdom of such indulgence. However, as the players that followed Francis into the million pound ‘club’ made their debuts it became clear to the sides involved that paying the entry fee was no guarantee of quality. Clough found this out for himself when he set another million pound benchmark with the first £1M black player Justin Fashanu.

Fashanu earned his fame and his move to Forest pretty much on the strength of one goal. Playing against Liverpool, Fashanu received the ball with his back to and 25 yards from goal. He flicked the ball as he turned and struck it with his left while it was still in the air. The strike; “magnificent” in the words of the commentator was the goal of the season, literally and figuratively and at the end of 1980 Fashanu was on his way to Clough’s Nottingham Ironically replacing Francis who was on the move again. Unfortunately for Clough and Forest, Francis’ replacement never found his form weighed down by an inability to reproduce that goal as well as (unreported at the time) off the field issues.

I was reminded of the mixed fortunes of these two (and other) million pound players in the early 80’s as Peter Sagan disappeared from view during Saturday’s Strada Bianche. Sagan has moved to Tinkoff Saxo for a rumoured 5M Euro a year and as I have written already this year his team owner expects results. Specifically, Sagan needs to win his first monument in 2015. Racing for the erstwhile Cannondale team in previous years Sagan, a seemingly perpetual winner of his national championship wore a subtly altered version of the team sponsors jersey. With his move to Tinkoff, the Slovakian red, white and blue is firmly in evidence and this allowed race commentator Rob Hatch to reveal a worrying factoid for the rider. The last race that Sagan had won was his national championship 10 months previously.

The use of italics is important. Also in the leading group on Saturday was Etixx rider and former world cyclocross champ Zdenek Stybar. Stybar, injured for much of last year is the current Czech national champion. The Czech and Slovak national champs, perhaps not so surprising for two countries that used to be just one are held jointly and Stybar won the race from Sagan in 2014. Sagan was able to claim his national champs jersey by virtue of being the first Slovakian rider to cross the line.

In addition to his striking new ensemble Sagan appears to have spent the off season cultivating a hairstyle that looks suspiciously like a mullet. Perhaps Oleg Tinkoff wants to appeal to the resurgent interest in cycling in Germany, although one look at Marcel Kittel should tell him that the quiff is where it’s at these days.

Back to the racing and at pretty much the same point in the race where Sagan and last years winner Michael Kwiatowski had made the decisive break, this years selection occurred. With Stybar were Sep Vanmarcke, Greg van Avermaet and 2014 podium finisher Alejandro Valverde. Sagan came adrift, appeared to be getting back on and then as the camera concentrated on the front of the race was lost from view altogether. Whether or not the director made much of an effort to find a shot of him, Sagan wasn’t seen on screen again.

I could easily look foolish here if Sagan wins the Ronde in few weeks and this was just one race, but is it possible that he’s feeling the pressure to deliver? Sagan’s form in Strade Bianche in the last two years was certainly stronger; he wasn’t out gunned by Kwiatowski (the superior climber) until the last kilometre in 2014. I think the key to unlocking Sagan’s undoubted potential will be how well Tinkoff Saxo can build a team of riders around him this Spring. Although the team have tasted success in the classics in the past (with Cancellara) the focus has been on the grand tours in the last year or two. The team don’t have that long to find the right grouping to put with their big winter signing if he’s going to get a monument in 2015.

With Sagan’s disappearance my biggest worry was that Valverde might go two better than 2014 and win. Vanmarcke had come unstuck from the leaders as the race went over a couple of steep climbs in the final few km’s. After the terrible clash of their bike sponsor’s (Bianchi) celeste blue with team sponsor’s Belkin’s lime green last year you would have hoped that another sponsor change for 2015 could improve things. Unfortunately, the yellow and black of Lotto Jumbo isn’t doing anything for the pairing with celeste either. I can see myself needing to return to the subject of team kits at some point this season as the pro conti teams have suddenly become the cool kids while the world tour serve up variations on a black theme.

In 2014 we had two riders going for the win up the hill and through the city walls of Sienna. This year there were three and with steep finish it was hard to see past Valverde. Greg van Avermaet realising this attacked and stole a few bike lengths on Stybar as Valverde couldn’t respond (huzzah). It was too soon for van Avermaet though as Stybar overhauled him over the as the road levelled out. With nothing left in the tank van Avermaet sank resignedly into his saddle as Stybar found a bit of a sprint for the win.

Continue reading The weight of expectations.. or just a dodgy haircut

Maxima minimised – VCSE’s Racing Digest #39

Etixx have (another) day to forget

Het Niewsblad and Kuurne Brussel Kuurne represent the start of the season proper for me. Races take place in conditions that I can recognise from my own rides and it the Flandrian landscape doesn’t feel too dissimilar to the windswept Essex roads that I do the majority of my miles on. I’m not sure of the exact reason(s) why OHN isn’t easier to catch on something other than a streaming site, but I guess money must have something to do with it. Having said that if Eurosport can manage to show the GP Samyn why can’t they get the Sporza feed for OHN? Particularly as they use the same channels pictures for the following day for KBK.

Le Samyn took place today and Etixx Quick Step had another ‘mare. With the kind of representation in the leading group that other teams would dream of and Gianni Meersman last wheel in the sprint train you’re thinking ‘win’ right? Um.. well.. apparently not. Lotto Soudal (nee Belisol) rider Kris Boeckmans went early and Meersman ended up second.  Lotto didn’t exactly set things on fire at the weekend, so the win was probably as significant for them as the (ahem) misfiring Etixx boys losing out. Ok, so this isn’t a race that will make or break their season, but Eitixx have to be wondering how they can turn numerical advantage in the last three races into only one victory.

Just the one (1 day) race in Italy this weekend then..

I’m looking forward to Strade Bianche on Saturday. Wouldn’t it be great if it rains? Of course the weather isn’t something that RCS can arrange and if the race is run in the same conditions as last year it shouldn’t spoil the fun. Last years edition featured Peter Sagan having one of those days that Etixx seem to be having currently. Ironically it was an Etixx rider that beat him twelve months ago; Michael Kwiatowski. While last years winner will be absent from this years edition (he’s at Paris Nice), the runner up is riding. Sagan will race on Saturday before turning his attention to Tirreno Adriatico the following week. This will be my first sight of Sagan since his move to Tinkoff. I wonder how Sagan will go this year. The massive contract must be nice but how long will it take Oleg to take to Twitter if he feels that he isn’t getting the return he thinks his investment justifies?

There’s plenty of other interest in the list of provisional starters. Simon Gerrans is fit again and this is the kind of race that should suit him. Cannondale Garmin are bringing 2013 winner Moreno Moser who hasn’t done anything since to be honest, so I guess I mention it as an example of talent that’s (currently) unfulfilled. One rider who I think could go really well on Saturday if he’s allowed to is Sky’s Peter Kennaugh. Sky have a pretty mixed up squad of classics and grand tour riders so it’s not clear to me what the Sky game plan could be.

What’s disappointing about this weekend is that Strade Bianche won’t be bookending things with Roma Maxima. The previous two editions of what was a revival race meeting had produced something really decent to watch and it’s a shame that the race has been pulled. It’s another example of the precarious nature of the sport that an event that looked to have been well supported locally and enjoyable to follow on TV has disappeared from this years calendar.

Every cloud though; at least Alejandro Valverde won’t be able to defend his title!

Continue reading Maxima minimised – VCSE’s Racing Digest #39

A game of two halves, chicken & egg and sundry other cliches…

Spring classics opening weekend

After the aperitif that was the desert races the season got under way with moules and frites at the weekend with Het Nieuswblad on Saturday followed by Kuurne Brussel Kuurne 24 hours later. For all the hyperbole that’s generated ahead of a cobbled classics campaign by the other teams in the peloton about ‘this’ being ‘their’ year to shine, if there’s such thing as a ‘supergroup’ (to use a musical analogy) for these races it has to be (Etixx) Quick Step. From now until the end of April, this year won’t be any different to the last few with the expectation that Tom Boonen and co’ will deliver the results that the team demands and expects.

Tom Boonen
Tom Boonen

For Boonen there’s a sense of time running out on what has been an illustrious career even if he doesn’t add another Tour of Flanders or Paris Roubaix to his palmares. OHN remains an omission from his list of titles after he missed out to repeat winner from 2014 Ian Stannard on Saturday last. The widely held view in the immediate aftermath was one of disbelief that Etixx had allowed the Team Sky rider to snatch victory after they (Etixx) had gone into the final km’s in a group that had the kind of numerical advantage that should have nullified any threat posed by Stannard. Boonen backed by Stijn Vandenbergh and Niki Terpstra seemed nailed on for the win but he was unable to respond when needed, seemingly ‘cooked’ and leaving Terpstra to contest a sprint with Stannard who had shown that he has a clean pair of heels when needed last year to beat Greg Van Avermaet.

The Etixx OHN debacle was exaggerated further by the bizarre spectacle of Patrick Lefevere singling out Stannard for winning ‘dirty’ by not taking his turns on the front. It’s interesting watching Boonen in the classics now for as much as I want to see him take another monument it just doesn’t seem that likely. Certainly he’s had his share of misfortune with injuries and a number of issues off the bike but even when on form there seems to be that final few percent missing in his performance. I didn’t see much of OHN but on Sunday during Kuurne Brussel Kuurne Boonen seemed to expel a lot of energy on challenging other riders to work rather than focusing on his own race. With Mark Cavendish already pre-destined as the rider Lefevere needed to win KBK, Boonen would have been numero uno for OHN, as mentioned previously a race he’s yet to win. It seemed that the Etixx game plan for Boonen would play out similarly to the dominant team performance that saw Boonen and four teammates go clear when he won last years KBK. As with 2014 though, Stannard played the joker and it was the Sky man’s presence at the sharp end of the race at the crucial moment that upset a maiden OHN victory for Boonen. Etixx undone by an individual ‘pesky kid’ in the form of Stannard.

Lefevere’s OHN sized hangover only lasted a day as Etixx the team grabbed a repeat result in KBK, this time won by Cavendish. In practice this was as much of a close run thing as the previous days race as Boonen, leading out Cavendish, needed to display superb bike handling skills as Alexander Kristoff moved in front of him in the sprint. Etixx had come pretty close to cocking things up again when they allowed the peloton to catch a break that featured all of their key players with km’s to spare. As I mentioned here Cavendish needed to win this race and while Kristoff is no Kittel, he’s very much a rider in form and possibly the third fastest man in the world tour at present. Cavendish was up against Elia Viviani too, Sky’s new sprinter taking the final podium place. This was a good result for the Italian, his new team doing well to keep him in contention for the win.

Etixx ought to go away from the weekend not allowing victory in KBK to take the edge off what has been a pretty rotten weekend tactically for them. It’s possible that only a rider like Ian Stannard could have overturned the odds against him on Saturday, but the fact is that Etixx had winning positions earlier in both races that they failed to realise. They may be grateful for the salvation that Sunday’s victory provided in the shorter term, but they will need to do better if they want Boonen to deliver against Cancellara and Sagan next month.

Stannard was lost to injury soon after his breakthrough win last year so it’s going to be interesting to see how Sky play him for the rest of the spring races. As with 2014, it’s too early to say whether or not this win will provide a breakthrough for rider or team. As much as I enjoyed Stannard’s double I think it’s still difficult to see the team landing one of the monuments this spring.*

Continue reading A game of two halves, chicken & egg and sundry other cliches…

VCSE’s voting form for Cyclingnews 2014 awards

Have you had your say in the Cyclingnews 2014 awards yet? OK so we’re likely to see the usual suspects winning but it’s at least a truly democratic selection and representation of armchair fans’ views. For what it’s worth the VCSE voting form went something like this..

Moment of the year? - Grand Depart 2014
Moment of the year? – Grand Depart 2014

Best rider – Vincenzo Nibali

This was a bit of a toss up between Contador and the Shark. We held our nose about picking Chris Froome as pre-race Tour favourite this year even though Bert looked like the stronger of the two. What most people didn’t expect was that Vicenzo Nibali would take advantage of those two marking each other on stage 2 and attack for the stage victory and race lead before the race had even reached France. Following their respective injury led departures from the Tour it was Contador that claimed the ‘I probably would have beaten you at the Tour’ prize by knocking Froome over at the Vuelta. But the crucial point for Nibali in getting the VCSE nod over the Spaniard was his assured ride over the cobbles on stage 5 of the Tour. Surely the award of best rider has to go the one who demonstrated the greatest versatility and on a day where Contador appeared to be going backwards at times it was Nibali who emerged as the consummate bike handler.

Best female rider – Lizzie Armitstead

Legend that she is 2014 was not the greatest year for Marianne Vos. True there were victories in the races she outright targeted; the inaugural Women’s Tour and Le Course but she was more of a peripheral figure this year. Lizzie Armitstead may not have expected to win the World Cup after her stunning early season consistency but win she did, further raising he profile outside of the UK. Then there was her Commonwealth Games gold against a field where (unlike the men’s race) Lizzie was up against a genuinely classy peloton. She may still rue the tactics that threw away an opportunity to win the worlds in September but looking back this has been a great year, no question.

Best track rider – Francois Pervis

Based purely on seeing him perform at the final round of the Revolution series earlier this year (he had already won the worlds by this time). With the British teams focus on the four year ‘cycle’ towards Rio 2016 it’s perhaps not surprising that Pervis made Jason Kenny look (if not) ordinary, then certainly not the reigning Olympic champion.

Rider of the year – Alberto Contador

A vote here for Contador might look a bit strange after picking Nibali earlier but Contador gets the nod for his results over the entire season. For starters Contador beat Nibali (winner of the previous two editions) easily in Tirreno Adriatico as the season was getting underway and long before his return from injury to claim his second Vuelta in three years. Throughout the year, Contador had the edge over his main rivals and he looked like the rider to beat ahead of this years Tour. We really only saw the briefest of flashes that Alberto was stronger than Nibali with his dig in final metres of stage 9, but by the next day he was gone. Of course, Nibali was not really seen as much of a threat before the race got underway, chief rival Froome never looked as if he had the confidence to seriously challenge Contador at the Tour. The gap between the two (in 2014 at least) was emphasised at the Vuelta. Winning his home grand tour may have provided some satisfaction after the disappointment of injury at the Tour but that’s the race you have to suspect Contador will want more than anything in 2015.

Stage race – Vuelta a Espana

Considering that it has provided more drama than the Tour (if not the Giro too) in the last few years the Vuelta remains the poor relation of the grand tours; threatened with a reduction in length or used as a training block for the world championships that follow. So the final stage was a bit of anti climax, what preceded it had it all with a GC contest going to the wire again. OK, it’s true that we probably wouldn’t have seen Contador or Froome at the race without their respective Tour exits but the fact is they were. The resulting battle the Sky power meter and Tinkoff street fighting provided the kind of stage racing the Tour often lacks. The Vuelta has to be the antidote to the Tour if it’s to survive in this format. The parcours and the field can throw up an unusual result (as with Chris Horner in 2013) and while it won’t ever enjoy the sheer scale of the Tour, at the moment at least, it’s the better race to watch.

One day race – Tour of Flanders

A close run thing with Paris Roubaix but on the basis of the Ronde literally going down to the final kilometre it has to be Flanders. With at least one more year of the Cancellara and Boonen rivalry to enjoy it’s going to take a Wiggins win in Roubaix to knock Flanders off the top step in 2015.

Team – Tinkoff 

Grand tour winner? Check. Colourful team owner? Definitely. Up and coming new rider? Another tick. Strength in depth? In spades. Tinkoff Saxo showed that they could do most things better than their rivals in 2014. Losing team leader Alberto Contador on the Tour didn’t see the implosion that overcame Sky who lost Chris Froome almost a week earlier. Instead Tinkoff took stage wins and claimed the KOM with Rafal Majka. Bjaarne Riis selling up to Oleg Tinkoff pre season was just one of the ingredients that made Tinkoff the team of 2014. Astana might have had a look in but that outfit looks increasingly schizophrenic with Nibali and Aru struggling to balance out a slew of failed drug tests. Tinkoff can look forward to the arrival of Peter Sagan next year to rev up their one day prospects too.

Tour bike – Cervelo 

Silly question. Have you seen my Instagram?

Innovation – in race technology 

Could have said Di2 XTR here, but on reflection the introduction of in race technology (most pertinently on bike cameras) might presage better ways of presenting the sport. Watching a stage race live and actually getting excited before the final 10km is completely dependent on what’s at stake. It’s hard to get too jazzed about a flat transitional stage or any part of the Tour of Alberta (for example), which seems entirely based on arrow straight roads across featureless plains. Showing on bike footage, either live or previous days highlights could prove really useful in providing some colour to the bits in between. Same goes for the live timing used during the TT at the worlds’; actually made watching a time trial live interesting.

Memorable moment – Yorkshire Grand Depart 

This was so nearly a “don’t know”. There were plenty of memorable moments to choose from; an exciting year in the classics, Quintana winning the Giro, Contador coming back to win the Vuelta, Jens taking the hour record. The unfortunately named ‘Big Start’ of the Giro was successful but perhaps lost something as a spectacle due to almost constant rain and sprint finishes. The Grand Depart on the other hand enjoyed blissful climatic conditions and the kind of public enthusiasm that we do in the UK since the Olympics. No one could have predicted just how many would turn out for a glimpse of the Tour. And this wasn’t just in the places you expected. Crowds four and five deep on a straight section of Essex A road as experienced by your correspondent on the stage into London showed just how popular the sport has become. It lights the touch paper for further friendly incursions by the Tour and potentially the chance of finally over coming the difficulties in staging closed road races here.

Vuelta a Espana 2014 Preview

The riders to watch

Brilliant timing from your correspondent means that this Vuelta preview is nothing if not topical. Today it was announced by his Lampre Merida team that 2013 Vuelta champion Chris Horner would not be starting this years edition. Withdrawn due to rules surrounding his cortisol values (he has been suffering from bronchitis), Horner’s non-start caps what has been a pretty awful year for the rider following a serious accident while on a training ride earlier this year. Of course this begs the question; could Horner have defended his title in 2014. The answer is probably no, but it’s terrible news for rider and team as neither have made much of mark this season.

Vuelta a Espana 2013 – who’s going to win this year?

A huge factor effecting a possible Horner title defence in this years race stems from the appearance of a number of riders who under different circumstances would not even have considered riding in Spain. First we have the ‘re-match’ between two protagonists who were meant to duke it out in this years Tour de France. Chris Froome and Alberto Contador both crashed out of the Tour (Froome on the ‘Roubaix’ stage, Contador in the Vosges) fairly early on and while it was clear early on that Froome would attempt to salvage his season at the Vuelta, Contador has had to battle back to fitness from his own accident that occurred later in the same race. It will be interesting to see how Froome goes at the Vuelta. He has good form at the race, finishing second in 2011 where many people thought he could have won if given his head earlier in the race where he had to ride for Bradley Wiggins (the source of some of the enmity between the two riders). After riding for Wiggins at the Tour in 2012, Froome was given outright team leadership duties for the first time in that year’s Vuelta, but struggled with fatigue and against a resurgent Contador who was returning from his clenbuturol ban. Can Froome go one better than 2011? It’s certainly possible. Sky need something from the final grand tour of the year after abject performances at the Giro and Tour and Froome hasn’t added much to his palmares in 2014 other than early season wins in Oman and the Tour de Romandie. If 2014 isn’t going to turn into Sky’s ‘worst ever’ season then Froome will have to do nothing short of winning this years Vuelta. Under different circumstances it’s hard to imagine the team placing that much importance on the race (Sergio Henao as team leader in 2013 ring a bell?). Certainly since their maiden Tour victory with Wiggins it’s been clear that Sky’s focus is Tour centered and even if Froome goes well in Spain this year it’s unlikely that his team will put as much into next years race. There’s potentially more pressure on Froome to deliver as a result and his form and fitness will surely be a deciding factor as much as the route and the competition from other riders in the peloton. Nevertheless, VCSE still picks Froome as one of the favourites for the GC in 2014.

For the other rider crashing out of this years Tour Alberto Contador the pressure is lower. The fact that he will manage to make the start line is an achievement in itself and expectations will be lower for the Tinkoff Saxo team leader. Contador’s team had an outstanding Tour considering the loss of their principal rider with stage wins and the emergence of Rafal Majka as a big star (and KOM). This doesn’t mean that Contador will line up just to make up the numbers at the Vuelta, but if he isn’t in contention for the GC, there is a lot less riding on the race for Tinkoff than for Sky. As with Froome, the key thing will be Contador’s fitness; has the rider recovered sufficiently from the knee injury he sustained in July? If he has and can rediscover the form he showed earlier this year Contador will be locked on for at least a podium, if not the outright win.

There’s another factor in this years GC line up that may reduce Froome and Contador to be fighting over the left overs. 2014 Giro d’Italia champion Nairo Quintana will race this years Vuelta and could be the rider best placed to take victory. Last years Giro winner Vincenzo Nibali was unable to do the ‘double’ fading on the penultimate stage and it will be interesting to see how Quintana manages this year (form and fitness again a question mark?). The Colombian has been almost invisible since his maiden grand tour success so it’s not easy to assess his condition for the Vuelta but a Quintana in the same form as the one who rode the Giro ought to be a favourite for victory here, but for one fly in the ointment in the shape of Alejandro Valverde. Valverde never really threatened the lead at the Tour and faded badly in the final week. It’s hard to imagine Movistar denying him a place in their Vuelta team, but of the riders mentioned so far Valverde would have to be the least likely GC winner and it seems perverse to include Quintana and Valverde in the same squad as this inevitably divides finite resources. This leads to speculation around who leads the team. VCSE’s view is that Valverde is the wrong horse to back for the GC, the teams future is Quintana and the older rider can do more damage to Movistar’s GC rivals by attacking on key stages to tire out the likes of Froome and Contador. Whether or not this comes to pass remains to be seen but Quintana (with the caveats already mentioned) would be the VCSE tip for the win this year.

Among the other contenders is another rider looking to salvage their season. Purito Rodriguez like Chris Horner is suffering from an early season crash and hasn’t really got back into shape since the spring. It’s unlikely that his fortunes will change here. He looked out of sorts at the Tour and it’s really too soon afterwards to imagine him having much more than an outside chance of a podium. There’s further Colombian interest in Rigoberto Uran and Carlos Betancur for Omega Pharma Quick Step and AG2R respectively. Uran will top ten for sure, but there’s the normal composite feel to the OPQS squad and the relative lack of support will most likely deny him a podium. Betancur is altogether harder to predict. After his breakthrough win in this years Paris Nice he’s proved to be something of an enigma, missing the Tour and even ‘disappearing’ at one point. Betancur was poor in last years Vuelta after a decent showing at the Giro. It’s difficult to say how he will run this year, but suspicion has to be that he won’t trouble the top five. Belkin bring a strong team to the Vuelta and should be looking for at least a top ten finish from Wilco Kelderman. With Robert Gesink and Laurens Ten Dam in the squad it’s possible that the team prize will head Belkin’s way with all three riders capable of finishing high on the GC. Astana bring another Giro surprise package in the form of Fabio Aru. Aru has plenty of potential, but it would take a special performance to break into the top five here. Trek could be looking to pinch the leaders jersey on the opening stage team time trial with a strong outfit that includes Fabian Cancellara. MTN Qhubeka have finally secured a grand tour wild card and it will be good to see the African outfit at this year’s Vuelta. Recently announcing a tie up with Cervelo for next year it’s more likely that we’ll see their jersey in the break, but Gerald Ciolek could feature if he can get away towards the end of some of the rolling stages.

Outside the GC the sprinters and points battle should be interesting. Peter Sagan, finally confirmed as a Tinkoff Saxo rider next year, will have his swansong with Cannondale. Sagan faces off against 2014 Giro points winner Nacer Bouhanni, another rider switching teams next year (from FDJ to Cofidis). Giant can pick from any number of strong sprinters in their roster and John Degenkolb should be their go to guy for the flat stages. However, Giant have also selected a bit of a composite team with double stage winner from last years race Warren Barguil in the team also. Barguil has a bit more support this year, but now he’s something of a known quantity it will be interesting to see how he goes. The likelihood is that this years target is a high GC placing rather than outright stage wins, which responsibility will probably fall to Degenkolb who went three better than Barguil in 2012.

Continue reading Vuelta a Espana 2014 Preview

Return of the inflatable mushroom.. or is it a lightbulb? – VCSE’s Racing Digest #35

Commonwealth Games cycling

The 20th Commonwealth Games was bookended by its track and road cycling events. With a different mix of events included in comparison to the Olympics there wasn’t quite the same slew of medals seen at London 2012, but that also had a lot to do with the current state of GB track cycling. London was the last hurrah for the riders who had carried the success of the track programme on the shoulders since the beginning of the last decade. Sir Chris Hoy who would see the track events take place in his eponymously named velodrome had originally planned to retire at the games. Victoria Pendleton retired immediately after the London games and was a media presence at the games this time while her sometime nemesis Anna Meares continues to dominate the women’s sprint.

Venue for 2014 Commonwealth Games - The Sir Chris Hoy Velodrome
Venue for 2014 Commonwealth Games – The Sir Chris Hoy Velodrome

Part of the decline in British track cycling’s fortunes since London are put down to the four year Olympic cycle that sees the principal riders of the track team peak in line with that event. In other words; forget about the results now and look forward to Rio. So far the fall off in results doesn’t appear to be having an impact on the popularity of the event. Track meets featuring the medal winners from London like Jason Kenny, Laura Trott and Joanna Rowsell are assured to be a sell out, even if the crowd don’t always get the result they want. The cheers for the household names are always the loudest, irrespective of the outcome in their particular event.

The decline has been most keenly felt in the men’s sprint. Hoy had been replaced by the younger Kenny in London, but since he took the Olympic gold his results have been patchy. Physically smaller than Hoy, Kenny wins his races with bike handling and guile more so than outright power, but he’s often struggled to make the final in meets in the last year. He took Silver in Glasgow, losing here to the New Zealand rider Sam Webster. One half of track cycling’s ‘golden couple’ Kenny’s girlfriend Laura Trott took her own Commonwealth gold in the points race, narrowly beating Elinor Barker. In contrast to the emotions shown by some of the home nations medal winners across the Glasgow games Trott had been embroiled in a bit of a social media spat ahead of the games by appearing to downplay the status of the event in comparison to the Olympics. Trott failed to say she had been outright misquoted in the Daily Mail interview, but she didn’t have quite the same profile at these games and seemed happy enough when she thought she had missed out on the winners medal in the immediate aftermath of the points race.

The women’s team pursuit where Trott had won the first of her Olympic golds with teammates Roswell and Dani King was missing in Glasgow. The dominant rider of the trio, Rowsell took the individual gold in a display that cements why she’s the current world champion in the event also.

One of the successful elements of the track programme (the whole games in fact) was the integration of the paralympic events within the schedule. Scotland’s Craig MacLean took two golds with Neil Fachie in the tandem events after returning to the track. MacLean had been one the very early successes of the GB track programme and his return makes you wonder of Hoy could do something similar in Rio. The likelihood is not, but there’s surely some merit in the MacLean model allowing further integration of paralympic sport as well as the prospect of raisin para sports profile yet further. It’s hard to mention MacLean as a rider returning in search of former glories without mentioning Bradley Wiggins having another tilt on the track. Wiggins returned to anchor the men’s team pursuit squad. Working with the team for barely a week before the games Wiggins seemed happy with a silver medal. As with the sprint the benchmark for success is gold in Rio in two years time. Wiggins is also extremely realistic about what can be achieved, he was similarly sanguine about his silver medal in last years world championship time trial defeat to Tony Martin.

Wiggins missed the individual time trial and road race in Glasgow and offered some thinly veiled thoughts on his road racing future in a wide ranging interview the day after the team pursuit. Describing the road scene as “..very political” he confirmed that he no longer expected to lead a team in a grand tour. Out of contract with Sky at the end of this season this admission would appear to limit where Wiggins could go next year, if indeed he does continue to race on the road. He’s been announced as a late call up to Sunday’s Ride London event, an indicator of the fact the Wiggins is box office as far as race organisers (if not Sky) are concerned. With Mark Cavendish choosing to pull out of the race as he continues to recover from his injury sustained at this years Tour it’s possible that Cavendish’s appearance money has been redirected in Wiggins direction.

Back to Wiggins plans for next year, the choice seems to be remaining with Sky on the basis that they will be more likely to accommodate his track plans or to do a (likely) very lucrative one year programme with another team who will bank on his marketability. This could open up any number of teams. With Jens Voigt retiring Trek might see the benefit of providing Wiggins with a birth to defend his Tour of California title and he could be a useful counterpoint to Fabian Cancellara in the classics. VCSE has mentioned BMC in the past, but that seems as unlikely as a move to Orica Greenedge who definitely wouldn’t be supportive of Wiggins building up to the track in Rio where Australia will also be targeting medals. Garmin, or whoever Garmin become next season when they hook up with Cannondale as a bike supplier might still be an option but as things stand it’s entirely possible that Wiggins will stay with Sky or even walk away from road cycling altogether. Wiggins retains the capacity to surprise us and whatever he ends up doing it may well be something that no one predicted!

Continue reading Return of the inflatable mushroom.. or is it a lightbulb? – VCSE’s Racing Digest #35

Tour de France 2014 week 1 review – VCSE’s Racing Digest #32

Froome out, Nibali in yellow

The biggest story of the week had to be Chris Froome’s abandon on the ‘Paris Roubaix’ stage on Wednesday. Froome had crashed heavily the previous day as the Tour returned to home shores. Running at the front on what should have been a comparatively easy day for the GC contenders,  Froome touched a wheel and was down. The crash seemed fairly innocuous at the time; hardly anyone else was effected and Froome sprang up pretty quickly to get back on his bike. He spent a lot of time with the on course doctor however and there was speculation that he might have fractured his wrist. Although this was dispelled by the team following x-rays it was subsequently revealed on Friday long after his exit that he had in fact sustained two fractures (revealed by an MRI scan).

Can I win the Tour? - Vincenzo Nibali
Can I win the Tour? – Vincenzo Nibali

The chances are that Froome would have wanted to start the next day whether he was in acute pain or not. As much as he (and to be fair Sky) has lost support in some sections as a result of Bradley Wiggins non selection for this years race, Froome was undoubtably extremely motivated to defend his title. He had already shown his appetite by his performances during the opening two stages and the look on his face when he shook his head in response to the mechanic who asked if he could continue after his second crash on stage 5 spoke volumes. Sky pretty much admitted that they had their concerns about Froome when they committed some of the squad to protect Richie Porte, their ‘Plan B’, during the stage and the teams efforts looked divided from the moment that the erstwhile leader had his first crash of the day.

While a number of riders, both in and out of this years race, team managers and other interested observers opined that cobbles had no place on the Tour, the facts are that only one rider abandoned on stage 5; Froome. Sections of the Paris Roubaix course have been included in previous Tours but this stage had the misfortune to be run in pretty awful weather, unlike the last few years of the actual race that has enjoyed dry and sunny conditions in April. With the unexpectedly huge crowds that lined the route in the UK causing a few spills combined with the slippery nature of the weather effected stages since the race has returned to France this years Tour has had its fair share of abandons and retains quite a few walking (or should that be riding?) wounded.

While Chris Froome faltered Vincenzo Nibali has prospered. The Astana rider enjoyed almost the polar opposite of fortunes on stage 5 finishing 3rd on the stage and pulling out over a minutes lead on his nearest GC rival. The easy assumption when the route of this years Tour was announced was that the GC contenders would view stage 5 as one to be endured and hopefully completed without too many mishaps. There wasn’t a slew of articles trumpeting Nibali (or anyone else) as the GC rider most likely to do something on the stage. The cliche that Nibali is a ‘great descender’ is almost a bit of a joke these days, but like a number of riders in the peloton, he is an ex mountain biker and on that basis is less fazed by sketchy conditions. After springing a surprise to take stage 2 in Sheffield (what were the odds for that one?) it almost feels as if Nibali has taken advantage of the fact that no one really tapped him as a serious contender for this years race. His first win this year had been just a week before the Tour at the Italian nationals, but in seven stages of the Tour he has taken the Maillot Jaune, a stage win and a podium.

Contador’s confusion

The question of whether of not Nibali can hold onto the lead is not quite as clear writing this ahead of the first stage (8) that involves some serious climbing. Wrapping up the opening stages we suggested that Nibali could hold on to the jersey if he didn’t suffer any mishaps on stage 5 (done!). However, we further speculated whether Nibali’s stage 2 win was just a bit of opportunism, scraps from the table of the forthcoming Froome / Contador match up. The next three days in the Vosges should provide some if not all of the answers as to if this is a serious tilt at the GC by Nibali. He has looked good so far, but to win the race from stage 2, to hold the lead for that length of time, is something that hasn’t been done since 1961 with Jacques Anquetil.

Alberto Contador appears to be a man in confusion at the moment. He started the Tour with the strategy he had employed during the Dauphine; marking Froome. Now that Froome is absent, Contador seems bereft of ideas, thrown by the prospect of combating a rider with a completely different riding style. Contador had a torrid time of the cobbles too, losing nearly 3 minutes to Nibali. Although Contador has lost a key domestique (to concussion on stage 6) riders like Nico Roche and Mick Rogers are in great form and it’s going to be really interesting to see how the two teams Astana and Tinkoff Saxo and their respective team leaders trade punches over the next few days. When you examine the facts, Contador has enjoyed a fantastic year so far and Tinkoff look like a very well drilled outfit. Nibali and Astana in comparison have had a tough time and the team have been rife with bitching between the Italian and Kazakh components. The sense is that Contador needs to get his head right as Nibali may just have rediscovered his will to win.

Sagan consistent but winless

Quote of the day was from the rider missing from this years race who speculated if Peter Sagan was “..receiving instructions over his team radio or just Metallica at full blast”. Sagan has been there or there abouts on every stage so far and it’s pretty hard to see anyone else claiming the points jersey from him. A third win in this competition in as many years is obviously some achievement, but the stage win tally is falling. Missing out on the victory by inches yesterday hurt much more than the placings gained while sprinting against Marcel Kittel.  Sagan will continue to have a go, but he’s another rider who looks a little short on confidence at the moment despite the jersey he’s wearing.

Marcel Kittel enters every sprint stage knowing that they are his to lose. Mark Cavendish’s accident and subsequent abandonment of this years Tour has denied the Giant Shimano rider of his most potent competitor. VCSE’s view is the in the bare knuckle environment of the last kilometre of a bunch sprint Kittel currently is just about impossible to beat and for all the work Cavendish has done this year to counter the Kittel threat, he has been undone himself by riders that a year or two ago would have been in his wheel tracks.

Kittel can be beaten.  Andre Greipel won his obligatory stage win the day before yesterday after Kittel and his teammates had been exhausted by the cross winds that effected stage 6. Similarly Kittel wasn’t always a feature in last years race for the same reasons. For him though, he has already achieved the first part of the important Tour double; yellow after stage one. It’s pretty difficult to imagine that he will fail in his quest for the second; a consecutive victory on the Champs Elysee.