Play it again Cav – VCSE’s Racing Digest #9

Giro stages 13, 14 & 15 – Busseto to Cherasco, Cervere to Bardonecchia (Jafferau) & Cesana Torinese to Col du Galibier

To paraphrase Casablanca; at least we will always have Cav. The deliberations on the Team Sky Death Star after stage 12 were over and the news before stage 13 was that Bradley Wiggins was going home. Cue frantic emails to the nicer hotels on the remaining route as sports editors and TV news reporters from the British media cancelled their travel plans. The conclusion that could be reached if the mainstream UK media was your only source was that the Giro was going to be a Wiggins benefit, so at least we are no spared the need for them to find ways of squirreling a Wiggins ‘angle’ into every report. The ‘failure’ of Wiggins attempt to win the Giro raises some interesting questions for the way the sport is covered in the UK however.

An increase in coverage, even at a superficial level is no bad thing and the Giro ‘story’ has held it’s own against some pretty seismic events in other sports. National radio has covered the race in a way that would normally only be seen for the Tour. The decision by Sky to show a daily highlights package, having previously shown the Tour de Romandie hinted that the satellite broadcaster could start making inroads into the TV rights for road racing assuming a similar level of success for ‘their’ team. Wiggins departure will not stop the rights discussion although a contrast will no doubt be made between the ratings that a Wiggins / Sky win would have achieved in the UK as opposed to the likely Nibali victory next Sunday.

There are some parallels in other sports. Sky purchased the rights to domestic Test Cricket around the time of the England teams resurgence in 2005. Could Sky be betting on the desire of Cycling fans (and Team Sky fans in particular) to watch racing live and therefore be prepared to pay for the privilege? ITV, who picked up the rights for the Tour from Channel 4 will continue to show the race free to air until 2015 at the earliest. Whether or not British riders build on the successes of 2012 (a Froome victory in 2013 at the Tour?) will have a massive influence on how we follow the sport in the future.

Which brings us to Mark Cavendish. While Wiggins decline and subsequent fall was being pored over Cav was busy winning his 100th stage as well as becoming the leading stage winner on the Giro 2013. At the time of writing (the second rest day) Cavendish remains in the race, having got himself up and over some fearsome climbs in the process. He has also seen off some of his key challengers for the sprint stages with John Degenkolb (Argos) and Nacer Bouhanni (FDJ) both abandoning, Bouhanni the day after finishing second to Cavendish at Treviso.

Cavendish has railed against the lack of coverage he received in the past and it would feel somewhat disrespectful if the mainstream media turned away from the Giro and what he is achieving because of Wiggins departure. He remains points leader going into the final week and assuming he can get over a ‘bump’ at the end of the stage has an opportunity to increase his win tally ahead of the pan flat final stage on Sunday. The Giro doesn’t favour sprinters for its points classification and Cavendish is up against some strong opposition among the climbers and GC contenders. With only a fleeting opportunity to wear the Maglia Rosa after his win on stage 1 Cavendish should have the motivation to go for the Maglia Rosso, particularly after just missing out last year.

Vincenzo Nibali’s grip on the GC looks pretty unshakable at the moment. He was able to put more time into his rivals on the shortened stage 14 and takes a lead of over a minute into the final week. After contending with mostly wet conditions the move into the alps coincided with snowfall to add to the riders misery. Organisers RCS had cut part of the stage 14 route, the climb to Sestriere due to the conditions but this provided minor comfort to the riders who made it to the finish. The stage was won by VCSE favourite Mauro Santambrogio from Vini Fantini who managed to out drag Nibali to the line on the Jaffrau. Nibali had turned the screw on this one though, putting time into Cadel Evans and yet more into Robert Gesink ending his hopes for the race. Consolation then for the race leader, although it’s unlikely that he would want to win the overall without taking a stage win himself. The two mountain stages in the week ahead should provide an opportunity.

Of course last years victor Ryder Hesjedal famously took the win without taking a stage. Hesjedal’s chances this year were long gone when he abandoned to rather less fanfare than Wiggins ahead of stage 13. Other notable withdrawals; stage 4 winner Enrico Battaglin following an accident and a rider who had seemed out of sorts right from the start, Garmin’s David Millar.

The weather intervened again for stage 15. A regular feature on the Tour, RCS had inserted one of the more interesting examples of cross border grand tour route planning by including the Col du Galibier on Sundays stage. Nibali seemed content to leave his powder dry for this one and the GC contenders crossed the line in a group about a minute down on Movistar’s Giovanni Visconti. Movistar are having a pretty good race so far with Benat Intxausti in the top ten and a spell in pink to go with two stage wins.

For the final week the GC looks like Nibali’s to lose. Cadel Evans remains the surprise package and finishing second would be no disgrace for a rider many (including VCSE) had written off beforehand. VCSE suspects that the limit of Rigoberto Uran’s ambitions is a podium place, although his win on the first summit finish on stage 10 suggest he can take it to Nibali. Sky would no doubt like to wrest the victory from Astana, but Uran has already had to take on a mind shift of epic proportions in becoming team leader. Can he step up? VCSE thinks not (this time). Uran will also be looking over his shoulder at VCSE podium pick Santambrogio.

Tour of California 

Great to see Tejay Van Garderen take the overall in the TOC. Van Garderen who took the lead from Janier Acevedo on stage 5 won from Saxo Banks Mick Rogers a previous winner at the tour. Van Garderen had finished in a group including the sprinters who had expected to contest stage 5, six seconds down on living legend 41 years young Jens Voight. Voight, who had been discussing the finer points of attacking the previous day (see the video below) struck as the stage entered its final kilometres. This was Voigt’s 99th win and afterwards he joked about signing on “..for another year”. He was also pretty vocal this week about the lack of an equivalent women’s TOC suggesting that any plans to extend the duration of the men’s race should include a women’s event on the undercard.

The penultimate and queen stage to Mount Diablo saw Net App Endura’s Leopold Konig take the win. It’s a great result for Net App for have secured a wild card entry to the Vuelta later this year after missing out on a place at the Tour. Acevedo came in second, but Van Garderen was close behind only five seconds down.

The final stage ended in another sprint and almost another win for Net App with Daniel Schorn just beaten by Peter Sagan. Sagan extended his lead for stage wins at the race, but might reflect on some opportunities missed during the week. He will continue to improve as a rider but has looked a bit jaded at times here which makes for a potentially intriguing match up between him and Mark Cavendish at this years Tour. Cavendish has been able to deliver on the sprint stages the day after finishing a debilitating climbing stage, whereas Sagan perhaps trying to race everything has not left enough in the tank for the stages where he is a genuine contender. In terms of outright speed Cavendish still has the legs, while Sagan is perhaps more of a sprinter in the mould of Thor Hushovd.

Tejay Van Garderen will also have much to think about ahead of the Tour. Prior to the Giro a Van Garderen win in California would have given him leverage to be chosen as BMC’s leader for the Tour ahead of Cadel Evans. Evans’ return to form at the Giro created a headache for the Swiss backed US team before Van Garderen’s victory on the west coast. Now all eyes will be on Evans to see if he can maintain the form shown in the first two weeks and cement his claim for the leadership at the Tour.

Uran’s time? – VCSE’s Racing Digest #8

Giro stages 11 & 12 – Tarvisio to Vajont & Longarone to Treviso

Bradley Wiggins
Bradley Wiggins (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Stage 11 was run in dry weather, which no doubt won approval from Bradley Wiggins who revealed that he was suffering with a ‘bog standard’ head cold. The virus seems to have made it’s way around various members of the Sky team with Dario Cataldo suffering in previous days.

There was a poignancy to the stage, with the finish taking place above the Vajont dam, which burst in a tragic accident fifty years ago with huge loss of life. The parcours ran mostly downhill for the first 60 kilometres and the peloton didn’t allow any breaks until the race began to hit some climbs.

Garmin, who in team principle Jonathan Vaughters words had moved to “..plan B” had a rider in the breakaway. Plan B was to go for stage wins with Ryder Hesjedal’s title defence given the last rites the day before on the first mountain top finish. Ramunas Navardauskas was the rider given the nod by the team and he was able to dispatch his last rival on the the final ascent to the finish. For Garmin the stage win provided a morale boost, but they seem at ease with the situation the have found themselves in. Hesjedal looks to be dealing with the disappointment really well and played his part in the victory yesterday by going back to the team car for bottles. It’s an indication of his class that Hesjedal was happy to adopt a new role. Will others having a tough time in the race be happy to do the same.

Third behind BMC’s Daniel Oss on the stage was Bardiani’s King of the Mountains leader Stefano Pirazzi. The GC took advantage of an easier day and rode in as a group.

Wiggins who admitted to feeling “pretty rough” the day before, probably wished he could have stayed on the team bus if not his hotel room ahead of the sprint stage to Treviso. Torrential rain of the variety that had led to his crash on stage 7 meant that the Sky team leader could be at risk of getting dropped. The inevitable happened on a descent where the combination of a (lack of) confidence and fitness left Wiggins off the back, with his team seemingly unaware of what happened.

Organisers RCS had taken the unusual step of announcing that finish times would be taken from the 3km banner, presumably to protect the GC riders on what was a tricky run in. This had the effect of piling the pressure onto Wiggins who looked barely able to spin a gear until, at last, he was joined by his most faithful wingman Christian Knees. Eventually more Sky riders came back but the damage was done and like Hesjedal before him Wiggins fell out of the top 10.

The sprint was a bit more pedestrian than normal and Mark Cavendish made it look pretty easy taking his third win of the race so far. Vincenzo Nibali maintained his lead over chief rivals Cadel Evans and Rigoberto Uran. The next day or so will be interesting. Wiggins fitness will not have been helped by the conditions but it remains to be seen whether he can pull back more than five minutes on Nibali now. Sky have been in this position  before, when Chris Froome was the stronger rider at the Vuelta in 2011 although Sky took their time to decide to let the other rider take over the team leadership. Uran has already said that he doesn’t have the leadership aspirations so it’s not clear if he is psychologically prepared to do this. In this moveable feast, the question of Wiggins and the Tour comes around again. VCSE doesn’t think that Wiggins will abandon the Giro, but a change in strategy to use the remainder of the race as preparation for the Tour could be possible.

At time of posting there’s no ‘official’ word from Sky. The next few days should reveal if Sky will have a new team leader for the Giro in the shape of Rigoberto Uran.

Tour of California

If only they had this weather in Italy. Stages 3 & 4 favoured sprinters and pre race favourite and TOC stage win record holder Peter Sagan took the honours in stage 3. Any thoughts that the race would become a Sagan benefit were misplaced as he looked out of sorts in the race to line in Santa Barbara the following day. The honours here went to Garmin’s Tyler Farrar the teams second stage win of the day after Navardauskas success in the Giro.

Tour of Norway

Things just can’t go right for Sky. Edvald Boasson Hagen was beaten in the sprint finish by fellow Norweigan; Katusha’s Alexander Kristoff. Sky have a decent line up here and with Bernie Eisel in the lead out they could be forgiven for expecting more. However, Boasson Hagen has flattered to deceive all year and VCSE thinks he will be another rider struggling to defend a title. Part of the much vaunted ‘classics’ squad, he was often a protected rider in races like Paris Roubaix this year but was unable to do much more than get into the second grouping.

Out of contract this year? VCSE doesn’t know but if the results don’t improve Boasson Hagen could be looking for a new ride in 2014.

The heat is on – VCSE’s Racing Digest #7

Tour of California

Stages 1 & 2 of the Tour of California have been run in soaring temperatures in the golden state. The week long stage race historically run earlier in the season is now used by some riders as Tour preparation, but the clash with the Giro means that the high profile names of previous years tend to be missing. Unsurprisingly there’s a strong US presence and a win in the TOC has proved to be a springboard into the world tour in previous years, Joe Dombrowski a good example after a strong performance in 2012 with the Bontrager squad.

In a change to previous years the race takes on more of a south to north route this time with the final stage run in the heartland of west coast cycling (if you’re an old school mountain biker!) with locations like Mt Tamalpais and Muir Woods featuring on the course. All time TOC stage winner Peter Sagan is present for Cannondale alongside world champion Philippe Gilbert.

In a land where the automobile is king the parcours featured climbs with fantastic road surfaces that snaked leisurely up the hills with fairly gentle ramps. The enemy for the riders was not the incline or distance but the searing heat that reached a peak on stage 2. Racing to the home of reclusive billionaires and golf fanatics the peloton negotiated climbs through the surrounding desert in temperatures of 115 degrees. On both days the team cars were kept busy supplying a steady stream of water filled bidons for the riders to promptly empty over their boiling heads.

In contrast to the climbs the stages also featured fairly long drags through Escondido and Palm Springs the six lane roads dwarfing the peloton. The inclusion of these elements certainly helped the breakaways to be brought back before the finish, although stage 2 had a sting in the tail with an 8% uphill to the finish.

Stage 1 bought a much needed win for Vacansoliel and Leiuwe Westra. The world tour team who have just lost co lead sponsor DCM were racing in new jerseys featuring much more Bianchi celeste than previously. With the possibility of Vacansoliel leaving at the end of the season also might we be seeing another team entered by a manufacturer (Cannondale the other example).

The continental level US teams were always likely to get in the breaks to maximise airtime for their sponsors. It was a little unusual to see one of the European big names in one on stage 2, but there was Sylvian Chavanel, a late replacement for Tom Boonen. Whether or not Chavanel appreciated the contrast between the conditions at, say this years Milan San Remo with the TOC heat wasn’t clear. The 6km drag up to the finish line in Palm Springs probably wouldn’t have been that taxing climbed in the sort of temperatures enjoyed in Northern Europe in May. In 115 degree desert heat the climb was something to be endured. The ramp continued after the finish line but it was clear from the amount of riders who came to a dead stop after passing it that the TOC helpers who held them upright were an absolute requirement.

Pre race favourite Tejay van Garderen (BMC) was in a small group chasing ex Cervelo Test Team rider Philip Deignan on the stage reached its conclusion. As Deignan was overhauled it was Janier Acevedo of Jamis who was able to put in another dig to reach the line first. The sound of the finish line announcer ramping up the hyperbole in contrast to riders being hooked up to drips for rehydration made it feel like VCSE was watching one thing and listening to another. The weather may have been different, but just like a spring classic stage 2 demonstrated that road racing is a game for hard men.

Giro d’Italia – VCSE reflects ahead of the first summit finish on stage 10

English: Tour of California, stage 1. Podium F...
Vincenzo Nibali (in Liquigas days)(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Ok, so we’re writing this after stage 10 has finished but VCSE hasn’t watched it yet (bear with). Monday was the first rest day in the Giro and today (Tuesday) was one of our stages to watch as it’s the first summit finish proper on this years race.

Since the individual time trial on Saturday and the rest day there’s been one more stage (9) through the Abruzzo region to Florence racing over some of the same roads used in Tirreno Adriatico. This was quite a rolling stage with almost a full set of category climbs, including a one, two, three and four on the route.

After a dryish day for the TT, stage 9 saw the kind of weather that had made stage 7 such a nightmare for Bradley Wiggins with pretty much constant rain during the live TV coverage. Wiggins admitted he had descended “..like a girl” on the previous stage and didn’t look confident on any of the descents for this one either. Meanwhile, race leader Vincenzo Nibali was capitalising with his Astana team assisted at various stages by other teams with GC contenders, notably David Millar of Garmin. Coming down from the cat 1 Vallombrosa Wiggins was gapped and was left to try and make up (at one point) a deficit of more than two minutes. As his two Columbian teammates, climbers Rigoberto Uran and Sergio Henao had stayed ahead some of the wilder punditry VCSE has heard so far predicted that Wiggins was now relinquishing his position as Sky team leader.

These (now silent) commentators were brought gently back to earth when Wiggins rejoined the lead group and began to make his way back to the front as the race neared its conclusion. While the Sky crisis that wasn’t was sucking up the airtime up ahead there was another magnificent solo effort to rival Adam Hansen’s. Katusha’s Maxim Belkov had attacked off the front of the breakaway a group he was part of and managed to build up enough of a time gap ahead of the remaining break stay clear when most of them were caught on the final climb of the stage. Perhaps Belkov’s win, his first as a pro on a road stage wasn’t that much of a surprise as he admitted afterwards “I live next to here (Florence) in Prato, so I know these roads”.

Astana looked after Nibali to keep him on the top of GC with Cadel Evans again finishing strongly to keep the gap to 29 seconds. Robert Gesink, who has been anonymous for most of the Giro in comparison to the other GC riders remained in third. The hubris of Millar’s attempt to make the Sky chase back on  harder was exposed when Ryder Hesjedal cracked on the last climb and the resulting time loss dropped him outside of the top 10. After all of the doom laden pronouncements by people who should perhaps know better Wiggins managed to come home on the same time as Nibali, thus maintaining his 4th place, one second down on Gesink.

During the rest day interviews Nibali still saw Hesjedal and Wiggins as rivals even as some were prepared to write off their challenges with two more weeks to go. “The Giro is long and anyone can have a bad day” said Nibali who also mentioned Cadel and Michele Scarponi as riders he would be looking out for. Scarponi is a great example of a rider to look at when suggesting Wiggins (or Hesjedal) have blown it. The Lampre rider who had lost time earlier in the week when he damaged his bike in a crash had suggested himself that he was out of contention, but strong rides in the remaining stages had pulled him back up the GC. Nibali also indicated that we hadn’t seen Sky riding their normal stage race tactic and set a hard pace on the front of the peloton. In setting the pace at the front themselves on stage 9, Astana had burnt most of their matches leaving Nibali with only one supporter at the finish. While Nibali is strong enough to fend for himself on the climbs, it won’t have gone unnoticed that Sky have additional cards to play with Uran and Henao both strongly placed on the GC.

Cadel Evans has been the revelation of the Giro so far. He has looked better in the last week than at any other time this season and apart from Nibali and Wiggins was probably the best of the GC in the TT. In comparison, Ryder Hesjedal looks as if he peaked too soon. After looking strong in the Ardennes and surprising his rivals by attacking hard in week one, he looked blown on the TT and on stage 9. It’s possible to pull back three minutes, but Hesjedal will be relying on Nibali and co’ to falter if he is seriously still considering defending his title.

VCSE is sticking with the prediction that Nibali will win the Giro. Unlike Evans and Wiggins, he isn’t planning to race the Tour so this is his year’s target. Evan’s has looked good so far, but can he maintain his form as the climbs get higher? Wiggins will get over his descending jitters, although he has never been great at this discipline. Sky will be praying for dry weather just as Astana will do a rain dance. No doubt Dave Brailsford has team head doctor Steve Peters on speed dial to get his team leader in the right frame of mind for the week ahead. It’s not over yet, but VCSE predicts podium at best for Wiggins. The outside bets? Gesink who says “..everything is going to plan so far”. He’s another rider targeting the Giro only this year. Scarponi is back in the frame and VCSE thinks that Vini Fantini’s Mauro Santambrogio is good for a podium place.

Remember our caveat; this post will go out after stage 10 has run, so all could have changed! What’s your view on the last week and the week ahead in the Giro? Let us know via the comments section below.

Heading for the hills in the low countries – VCSE’s Racing Digest #3

Amstel Gold

First up Amstel Gold. The race has traditionally finished at the top of the Cauberg, but aping last years World Championships the line has moved to a kilometre or so along a nondescript straight section of Dutch A road including that staple of the town planner a mini roundabout. Whether or not the race benefits or even needs the change is questionable. However it does alter the dynamic of the race and potentially opens up the field of potential winners.

Roman Kreuziger
Roman Kreuziger (Photo credit: hadche)

Philippe Gilbert’s breakaway on the Cauberg at the World’s gave him the winning advantage and he was heavily trailed as a potential winner of the race, perhaps even to repeat his 2011 record of wins in all three Ardennes classics. Gilbert had been absent from the Ronde after succumbing to a virus after this years snow affected Milan San Remo and used the Tour of the Basque country to prepare for this week.

The breakaway at Amstel which included Garmin’s Johann Van Summeren and Mikel Astarloza of Euskatel. Euskatel had been abject at their home tour. It hardly looks good when you are one of the weakest links in the pro tour and a rider you have dropped animates most of the stages and wins the KOM jersey. Astarloza looked like he was making a point on behalf of the team and at takes some credit for being the last of the original group to get caught.

With the distance to go in the race at this point it should have been time for the peloton to start getting into position for the final climbs. BMC for Gilbert, Movistar for Alejandro Valverde (or even Nairo Quintana) and Astana last years winners with Enrico Gasparotto couldn’t or wouldn’t get organised but even as the race entered the final lap the eventual winner and how the race would be won wasn’t obvious.

A number of riders were now pinging off the front but these looked more like tactical efforts rather than genuine attempts to go for victory. Riders bitched about who would or wouldn’t take their turn on the front of the little groups that formed.

Watching the final moments unfold it wasn’t clear whether Roman Kreuziger’s solo away from the breakaway group was an opportunistic dig or the realisation that he could get away and perhaps even stay away from his rivals. Whatever, Kreuziger looked in great shape. Ryder Hesjedal who did a huge pull to get up to the break presciently summed up the chances of catching Kreuziger with the way he shook his head when he realised that since he had gapped the main group that Kreuziger had ridden off into the distance.

Gilbert was probably always going to attack on the Cauberg. Closest rival was Valverde who looked content to follow Gilbert’s wheel up the climb, he in turn stalked by Simon Gerrans the Omega rider adept at snatching a result this way. By the time these three reached the summit Kreuziger was already on his way to victory and able to ease up as he approached the line. For Gilbert it was clearly win or nothing as he sat up on the line to allow Valverde and Gerrans take the podium places.

Reaction to Kreuzigers win was a mixture of surprise and a feeling that maybe, finally, his talent had shown itself. Ironically Kreuziger had ridden for last years winners Astana before joining Saxo Bank this year.

Fleche Wallone 

And so to Belgium for the Fleche Wallone. Phillipe Gilbert was being touted for this one too. Last years victor Joaquin Rodriguez had fallen at Amstel but a rapidly improving prognosis saw him take the start.

Rather like Milan San Remo where the joke goes that the neutral zone lasts for 280 kilometres until the Poggio, Fleche Wallone didn’t come to life until the final climb of the Mur de Huy. BMC had done a better job of controlling the race but as the Mur approached Gilbert was pretty much unsupported.

Carlos Betancur from AG2R who had been nerfed out of a stage win in the Basque country a couple of weeks ago attacked early and put a big gap between himself and the group that stayed as the hardest section was passed. Gilbert realising it was now or never, responded although whether this was because he realised Betancur was a genuine threat or the presence of Peter Sagan alongside him wasn’t clear. Sagan blew up pretty much immediately and Gilbert soon followed him, seeming to acknowledge today wasn’t his day (again).

Betancur approaching the line was running out of legs as Dani Moreno (Katusha) began to ride clear of the field and overhaul second place man Sergio Henao of Sky. Maybe Moreno was feeling super strong up the Mur or maybe Rodrigeuz, aware that he didn’t have the legs gave him the nod. Moreno’s surge to the line was irresistible , too much for Betancur who expired at the last to hand second place to Henao. Getting pipped by Henao, the rider who beat him up in Spain probably didn’t improve Betancur’s mood as he reflected on the merits of attacking early against pro tour riders.

Nevertheless Betancur is a prospect and a potentially astute signing for AG2R as a rider who could potentially breakaway on the mountain stages at this years grand tours. For Moreno, like Kreuziger earlier in the week it’s the biggest win of his career.. so far.

Giro de Trentino 

What would probably normally be a ‘B’ team outing for the peloton through what seems like the cream of Italy’s hydro-electric infrastructure was supposedly going to be enlivened by the presence of Bradley Wiggins using the race as warm up for next weekends start in the Giro proper. Wiggins was joined by such other notables as Cadel Evans and Tirreno Adriatico winner Vincenzo Nibali. The scene was set for a contest in bragging rights, or was it?

Unlike their somewhat lacklustre performances in the classics Sky can be relied upon to set the pace at the front in stage races. Day one at Trentino saw a split stage with a team time trial making up the latter of the days racing. Whether by accident or design Sky didn’t ride and the rest of the peloton didn’t get orgainised. Result? The breakaway was allowed to stay away and with only four days racing to follow the possibility of a (relative) unknown winning was becoming the nightmare scenario for organisers and media alike.

If not Sky’s then certainly Wiggins frustration was revealed on the podium after Sky took the team time trial at a gallop pulling back a minute on the GC going into day 2. Maxime Bouet of AG2R rode into the leaders jersey on the second day and was defending just under a 4 minute advantage over Nibali as the race entered its final day with the queen stage to Sega di Ala.

Typical of many an Italian (if not Spanish) mountain stage the switchbacks up the climb increased to 20% in places but those settling back to enjoy a battle between Wiggins watching the power meter and Nibali putting in little digs to try to force an advantage were disappointed when Wiggins Di2 failed and the recalcitrant Pinerello was thrown against the cliff. While his mechanics were thanking their deity that the bike had something solid to hit rather than being pitched over the side of the mountain Wiggins set off sans SRM on a replacement bike.

While it’s known that even the pro teams account for every single item and will only discard a piece of kit if it is genuinely a write off it was surprising to see that Sky did not equip the replacement mounts with a power meter. This isn’t actually unusual within the peloton, but for team like Sky who seem pretty much a slave to how many watts they can churn out it seems like a bit of an oversight.

With Wiggins out of the picture it was left to Nibali and one time doper Mauro Santambrogio of Vini Fantini to fight it out for the stage win and potentially the overall GC. Santambrogio had been in the mix at Tirreno too and is certainly one of the strongest climbers in the pro-conti field. Nibali prevailed over the worst of the ramps and was able to time trial to the line.

For Bouet it was a question of whether he could make it to the line within 4 minutes of Nibali’s time. Neutrals couldn’t help but cheer him on to what would be by far the biggest result of his career to date. There was a sense that Bouet realised before the line that he hadn’t done enough but against the quality of field that turned up in the Trentino his podium place is certainly no disgrace.

Would Wiggins have beaten Nibali without his mechanical? VCSE suspects not. While Wiggins looks stronger than he did against the sudden accelerations that Nibali employ’s like teammate Chris Froome he looks less at ease on the steepest ramps. When Sky can control the race they look imperious but if the other teams can keep riders in hand to animate things it’s hard to see Wiggins coming up with a different result to this one against Nibali.

What a carry on – VCSE reflects on the Ronde

FC 1

Yesterday confirmed that whatever hex Fabian Cancellara was under in 2012 has left him and is making Tom Boonen’s year one to forget. Last year, Cancellara fell while going through a feed zone (Geraint Thomas suffered a similar crash yesterday) while Boonen won the first running of the Ronde on it’s new parcours.

Cancellara had demonstrated his form at Milan San Remo and had proved imperious at E3 Harelbeke, riding away from the field with kilometres to spare. Much of the speculation ahead of this years classics was whether the tactic of attempting to ride rivals off his wheel would work with Peter Sagan in particular and riders like of Sylvain Chavanel looking in good touch. The relative strengths of Cancellara’s team Radioshack verses OPQS, Cannondale and even Sky in the classics was also questioned, with Cancellara often having no teammates to work with as races reached their closing stages.

His performance at E3 probably made him joint favourite with Sagan ahead of the Ronde. Boonen, who was bidding to win for a record third time has shown flashes of form this year but nothing resembling his results in 2012.

Eurosport were putting the editorial direction if not their money on a Boonen Cancellara face off. When the snooker from Bejing had finished overrunning the plan was to show extended interviews with both riders before cutting to the live feed. Like many great plans it unravelled in the face of a tweet from Boonen’s girlfriend announcing that he was already out of the race with less than 20 k’s completed. There was ample footage of the aftermath but with no other riders apparently involved, during the race at least it was unclear how it had occured.

As hasty re-edits were implemented we at least enjoyed Cancellara rhapsodising about the race. While he appeared quietly confident, you could sense Boonen’s realism about his chances even in a shortened interview.

Using this parcours for the second time the peloton would climb the Oude Kwaremont and the Paterberg three times and as the leaders approached for the final time the critical moves were poised to take place. The intervening kilometres had been characterised by a surprisingly strong showing from Radioshack with Hayden Roulston doing some monster turns at the head of the peloton. There was a breakaway for much of the race but this was never more that a few minutes away.

Up the final climb of the Paterberg it was now head to head between Cancellara and Sagan as their rivals in leading group ran out of legs. As the outside bets prepared to argue over the scraps Cancellara and Sagan began their final ascent of the Kwaremont. Those hoping for a Sagan win hoped that the signs that fatigue was setting in over the crest of the Paterberg was illusory. As both riders hit the final third of the climb those hopes were dashed as Sagan faltered as Cancellara picked up the pace.

What had been 30 seconds at the summit was over a minute at the end as Cancellara the time trialler delivered an emphatic victory, slowing to a comparative crawl as he crossed the line. Sagan had a job on his hands to retain his podium position, working hard with eventual third place finisher Jurgen Roelandts of Lotto.

Lotto could feel pleased with their race. A rider in the break all day, joined by Andre Greipel and as those two faded late on the faintest chance of a solo win for Roelandts. Sky’s fabled classics squad failed to fire again and it’s hard to see things improving at Paris Roubaix on Sunday.

The post race analysis was dominated not by Cancellara’s victory but Sagan’s unfortunate arse grab of one of the podium girls. Cue a lot of hand wringing about sexism in the sport. There’s clearly lots to discuss at the inequalities between men’s and women’s professional cycling but Sagan’s actions don’t merit becoming the metaphor for this.

As for Boonen, he would be forgiven for writing off his season now. Reports suggest that he didn’t sustain any broken bones but with it looking unlikely that he will be able to put in many miles ahead of the weekend it’s hard to see him beating his ‘other’ record at Paris Roubaix on Sunday.

Do Sky have a new game plan? – VCSE’s Racing Digest

The weather across Europe has showed solidarity with even Corsica resembling the UK this weekend. The stage race in 48 hours that is the Criterium International had opened with Saturday’s short (sprint) stage followed by a time trial.

Richie Porte
Richie Porte (Photo credit: Petit Brun)

Richie Porte echoed some of the form that had seen him win the Col d’Eze time trial at Paris Nice a few weeks ago taking a one second advantage into today’s final stage to the top of the Col de l’Ospedale. But where was Chris Froome? Richie admitted that he had come to ‘work for Froome’  so it was perhaps a result that even Sky hadn’t planned for.

Sky’s preferred tactic of riding off the front in stage races hasn’t won them universal praise but as we have mentioned in previous posts the Sky system isn’t infallible. Bradley Wiggins’ preparations for the Giro haven’t exactly gone according to plan as he lost his support riders as the highest summits and steepest ramps approached. Wiggins coped manfully with this in Catalunya attacking at pace and blowing the peloton apart on more than one stage. However  both of Sky’s leaders look vulnerable when they have burnt all of their (supporting) matches.

Until today that is, as the peloton approached the finish with Porte in yellow. Sky had been doing their normal job with Kiryenka leading, Froome mostly out of camera shot sheltering Richie. With seconds between the GC including Tejay Van Garderen (BMC) and Andrew Talansky (Garmin) the race was finely poised. An attack from Johann Tschopp (IAM) did for Kiryenka and with BMC and AG2R holding a numerical advantage Sky looked susceptible to attacks.

What happened instead was that Froome attacked! Rain and cloud prevented seeing it, but the confusion of Van Garderen and the others was palpable. Was Froome chasing down Tschopp? Had he realised he had lost Porte? While minds were blown Froome raced away and by the time Van Garderen and Talansky responded the damage had been done. Porte showed he still had the legs by riding away himself and claiming second although he would be relinquishing the overall to Froome.

From VCSE’s perspective the result could open up a new way of winning for Sky. In Porte Sky have a rider who looks like a potential GC contender. If Sky were to take two potential GC winners into the grand tours this year they could make themselves much harder to mark if they were prepared to flip the leaders jersey the way they did today in the Criterium.

It’s a tactic that could really pay off as a number of Sky’s rivals for GC honours do not possess a strong second leader, Katusha an obvious example. The question is; was today’s result for Sky by accident or design?

The return of Spartacus – wheelie’s optional

A win to please everyone (well most people!) saw Fabian Cancellara win Friday’s E3 Harelbeke. The race named after a motorway, while not one of the top classic races, had a strong field including Tom Boonen and Peter Sagan.

There’s been a lot of discussion about Cancellara’s continued ability to ride people off his wheel and Spartacus himself had shown his frustration at doing the hard work in races like Milan San Remo last year only to lose out in the final sprint to the line.

Boonen and Cancellara had been in an elite breakaway over the famous climbs of Flanders but it was Boonen that cracked first as Cancellara’s pace proved too much for everyone. Cancellara showed signs of hitting form at the right time last week at Milan San Remo but for Boonen following his abandonment at the same race there are signs that he could be having the kind of luck in the classics this year that Cancellara had last year.

Fabian Cancellara at the start of the 2011 Tou...
Fabian Cancellara  (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Another rider hitting form at the right time is Peter Sagan, although with Sagan it seems he is always capable of doing something. Podium spots at E3 and Milan San Remo have been eclipsed today with victory in Gent Wevelgem.

If the first few races of the classics season have been a battle of attrition against the weather then Sagan has proved to be the most hardy member of the peloton following another abandonment by Tom Boonen (following a crash) and Cancellara.

Everything is nicely poised for next weeks Tour of Flanders. Can Tom Boonen rediscover the form that made him so dominant last year? Unless it was the ultimate hubristic gesture, Boonen’s wearing of a jersey listing the number of his wins at E3 suggests he believes he is capable of winning this year.

if the weather doesn’t improve in the next seven days Flanders could throw up another surprise winner like a Ciolek or require the consistency of a Sagan or Cancellara. VCSE suggests a good each way bet could be someone prepared to animate the race like Heinrich Haussler.

Super Sub 

Bradley Wiggins wasn’t the only rider at the Volta a Catalunya this week preparing for the Giro. Ryder Hesdejal had chosen the race as his first of the season where he will be hoping to defend his title in Italy against another face from this weeks action Jaoquim Rodriguez.

Unfortunately for Hesdejal things didn’t go quite as planned and he looked out of sorts in the mountains during the mid week stages. The good news for Garmin was that Dan Martin was in great touch and his solo on the queen stage on Thursday was VCSE’s ride of the week.

Dan has talked in recent weeks about his chances and while his overall win went down to the wire around the Olympic park in Barcelona today his closest rival Rodriguez failed to offer much resistance. Whether the result will see the emergence of Martin as a grand tour contender this year remains to be seen but as with Richie Porte it provides his team with options.

Unstoppable? Maybe..

The next round of the women’s world cup took place in Italy today with the Trofeo Alfredo Binda. The inevitable question of who could challenge Marianne Vos for the win was answered by a native. Elisa Longo Borghini (Hitec). Part of two rider break with Amanda Spratt (Orica), Borghini broke away to the delight of the understandably partisan crowd.

VCSE’s own favourite’s Wiggle Honda didn’t figure today but have got off to a great start in their inaugural season with wins for Georgia Bronzini and Emily Collins in recent weeks.

Polar Express – VCSE’s view on the Spring Classics #2

Following a weekend away VCSE was looking forward to catching up with the first of the seasons key classic races; Milan San Remo. After the aborted attempt to view our recording of Kuurne Brussels Kuurne only to find that it had been cancelled due to snow the first few minutes of MSR felt like deja vu.

As Eurosport began their live feed on Sunday the race was currently stopped as the teams bussed the riders around the snow bound Turchino climb. In between episodes of some kind of sporting ‘You’ve been framed’ we were treated to the sight of the conditions on the climb through the sweeps of the wipers on the producers car.

Bypassing the snow if not persistant heavy rain and low temperatures the organisers prepared to re start the race with around 130km to go, allowing the six man breakaway to restore their 7 minute advantage before releasing the peloton. For the first hour or so the coverage was definitely for die hards as the feed from the motorbike cameras degraded into an acid trip or simply ‘froze’ whenever they were risked to be shown. Race radio was equally patchy in giving accurate information; suggesting at one point that Sylvain Chavanel had abandoned which was ironic when he appeared in the group contesting the win in the final stages.

There were some notable retirements (read did not want to get off the bus at the restart) including Tom Boonen and Niki Terpstra from Omega Pharma. When Chavanel’s ‘retirement’ was announced Mark Cavendish’s prediction that he would not figure in the race seemed prescient, albeit not for the reasons he gave beforehand.

The reduction in race distance may have pointed the outcome towards the sprinters but the conditions made predicting the likely winner a lottery. As the Cipressa climb approached the breakaway was caught and the cameras seemed to have dried out enough for the ‘real’ race to start.

Gerald Ciolek

Surprise Surprise – Ciolek in OPQS days

The two big stories? Gerald Ciolek winning would be a good place to start. Ciolek riding for neo pro conti team MTN-Qhubeka would have been among the outside bets even after the restart. MTN’s presence in the early season races has been universally welcomed as the first pro team from Africa but the coverage on Sunday had initially focused on some poorly handled wheel changes. 

Ciolek timed his ride perfectly admitting that his tactics had been to ensure that he stayed in touch with the leaders over the final Poggio climb. Of the final bunch the descending the climb and heading towards the finish line Ciolek was arguably the only out and out sprinter present. However with the likes of Cancellara, Sagan in the group he still wouldn’t have been favourite.

You had to feel for Ian Stannard as the riders crossed the line in sixth place. Stannard was the man for all but the last few hundred metres. When the peloton had caught the break after another monster turn by Vasil Kiryenka Team Sky would have been looking to deliver Geraint Thomas or Edvald Boasson Hagen to the line. The Sky machines grand plan unravelled when Thomas appeared to slip on a white line taking out Tyler Farrar in the process. Boasson Hagen was dropped on the Cipressa but by now all eyes were on Stannard who had broken away with Chavanel on the Poggio.

Stannard will be a leader in some of the forthcoming Belgian classics and possibly Paris Roubaix also but he isn’t known for his sprinting prowess. He had the bit between his teeth on Sunday and deserves a Chapeau! for continually attacking, burning matches furiously and leading onto the finishing straight.

Peter Sagan may feel disappointed that he allowed Ciolek to get the drop on him at the line but he could be forgiven for having one eye on Fabian Cancellara. Cancellara himself said that he was happy with third in the conditions as ‘to arrive.. was victory in itself’.

For the Qhubeka team and Ciolek winning Milan San Remo was ‘incredible’ and announces them on the world stage in the best way possible. This was a fairytale result and it will be interesting to see whether the win spurs them on to bigger things. It’s hard to see that Ciolek would have won in ‘normal’ conditions and his victory came from his own tactical positioning rather than how the the team had worked for him.

There’s every chance that Stannard will kick on from this. His ride added up to so much more than his final placing. Sky have talked up how they intend to feature in the classics this season. Previously they have been criticised for not adapting to racing incidents, but Sunday indicated that they have learnt some new tricks.

As we head to Belgium this weekend things are shaping up nicely.

The super supporters – VCSE’s thoughts on Paris Nice and Tirreno Adriatico

Chris Froome
Settling for 2nd – Froomey (Photo credit: Petit Brun)

Tirreno Adriatico finished with Tuesday’s Time Trail. For Team Sky and Chris Froome there was perhaps disappointment that he was unable to emulate Richie Porte in Paris Nice and win the general classification. 

With talk of a breakaway world series ahead of the start of last weeks races it could be seen that some of the world tour teams were sending coded messages to the UCI by running their A squads in the Tirreno. Sky were led by Froome with most of his helpers from last years Vuelta supplemented by new signings Dario Cataldo and Joe Dombrowski. Froome faced a stellar cast of GC contenders in Alberto Contador (Saxo), Vincenzo Nibali (Astana)and Cadel Evans (BMC).

There was plenty of room within the field for other stories to be played out a week ahead of Milan San Remo with the sprinting hierarchy represented by Mark Cavendish (OPQS), Andre Greipel (Lotto) and Peter Sagan (Cannondale).

There were metaphorical raised eyebrows in France that the world tour teams appeared to be placing Tirreno ahead of Paris Nice  with their selections but at the end of both races the teams looked justified as Tirreno led the way for incident and excitement.

Porte had seemed uncomfortable with the leaders mantle to begin with, sometimes looking like he needed to be reminded that he could call the shots. Certainly he had a strong pairing to work for him at the front with the ex Movistar riders David Lopez and Vasil Kiryenka impressing on the climbs also. Sky’s other new signings at Paris Nice Jonathan Tiernan-Locke and Ian Boswell had a tougher time. Brian Smith, JTL’s ex manager suggests that he would be better suited for the classics. but Sky have him earmarked as a GC rider. Other than flashes when the race entered the climbs he cast a rather forlorn figure before abandoning due to illness on stage 5. Boswell was conspicuously out the back on most days and will no doubt be expected to improve.

Porte’s moment of clarity about being team leader probably came at the end of stage came at the end of stage 4 when Andrew Talansky (Garmin) took the yellow jersey and stage win. Porte and Sky were super strong the following day with a summit finish that allowed Porte to demonstrate his superiority on the climbs.

The possibility of Talansky wresting back the yellow on the final day’s TT was demolished when Porte’s time split came on screen. It’s not surprising that speculation about Porte as a potential GC winner at the Giro next year has begun. VCSE wonders if Dave Brailsford can imagine a world where his two GC contenders are Froome and Porte rather than Froome and Wiggins.

As Paris Nice was reaching its climax Tirreno Adriatico was just beginning to warm up. Omega Pharma had Cavendish in the leaders jersey until Saturday after the opening team TT and his consistent sprint placings on stages 2 and 3. Beaten in both, Cav, his lead out, or a combination of the two didn’t appear to be firing on all cylinders. Peter Sagan’s strong start to the season continued with stage wins book ending the summit finish action at the weekend.

Froome had appeared beaten on the climb to Prati di Tivo on Saturday but produced a stunning victory that left his rivals shell-shocked riding up to their wheels, then around, before soloing up to the line.

Sunday’s stage to Chieti with its final kilometres formed of narrow streets and double digit ramps were Froome and indeed Sky’s undoing. As with the Vuelta last year he looks vulnerable to attack on short, steep climbs. As the finish approached Froome burnt all of his supporting ‘matches’ and was spent going too early for the final intermediate sprint. losing out to Contador. Purito Rodriguez rode away from everyone on the final climb which left VCSE wondering about Katusha and ‘ethical reasons’.

Chieti’s climbs were familiar ground. On Monday the penultimate stage visited the 300 odd metres of the Muro di Sant’Elpidio and its 27% ramps not once but twice. The height of the climb was the deceiver in what appeared to be a fairly innocuous stage. The sight of the worlds best riders resorting to walking in some cases and more than fifty abandonments is an indication of just how tough the climb was. RCS, the Tirreno organisers, admitted the following day that yes perhaps it had been too much. Spare a thought for BMC’s Taylor Phinney who at least completed the stage, but at 35 minutes down missed the time exemption.

A second day of this type of climb did for Froome as leader as he again lost his support and even lost out to the likes of Sagan on the Muro. Sagan re bonded with last years team mate Nibali to share the spoils of stage win and leaders jersey ahead of the final days TT.

The Tirreno also saw a renaissance of sorts for Damiano Cunego who starred in a solo breakaway on Sunday and was part of the group break on Monday. His efforts rewarded by the King of the Mountains jersey.

Froome’s challenge at the Tour will be to use his domestiques wisely. While the Tour is unlikely to feature the type of ramps seen in Italy or Spain a double ascent of Alpe d’Huez will not take prisoners. Sky look to have all of the cards with their domestiques this year. Kiryenka and Lopez in Paris Nice and Cataldo in the Tirreno all impressed, looking like the can ride at the front all day and with Porte returning to normal duties in the grand tours Sky’s first six names on the team sheet have probably already been written.

Spring has Sprung – VCSE’s view on the Spring Classics #1

An enforced absence and lack of wifi prevented us giving you our thoughts ahead of the first of the Spring Classics – Het Nieuwsblad and Kuurne Brussel Kuurne. On Saturday attempts to watch the live feed from Sporza defeated the VCSE mobile and having set Sky+ to record KBK on Sunday the rest of the week was spent avoiding Flipboard and Twitter so the race could be enjoyed ‘as live’ on our return to Essex.

Initally crestfallen that the race hadn’t been recorded a quick search soon established that KBK had been cancelled due to snow! Reviewing the highlights of Het Nieuwsblad it certainly looked chilly although Heinrich Haussler managed without gloves when every other rider had the full winter ensemble on.

The race developed into a two rider battle with 26K’s to go with the little and large duo of Luca Paolini of Katusha and Stijn Vandenbergh of Omega Pharma getting away from the leading group. Vandenbergh, described by Cycling Weekly as a ‘bunch driving labourer’ had OPQS teammate Sylvain Chavanel in the group with him but when Vandenbergh broke Chavenel, perhaps tiring after an earlier breakaway, was unable to go in support.

Etiquette was followed between Vandenbergh and Paolini until they reached the last few metres and the crowd were denied a home victory as Paolini managed a passing imitation of a sprint clear to win.

Tuning up for the next races in the calendar (Ghent Wevelgem & Ronde an Vlaanderen) continues this week with Paris Nice and Tirreno Adriatico. Ahead of the two Belgian races is the first of the Monuments Milan San Remo on 17th March.

Mark Cavendish is taking part in Tirreno Adriatico although he is playing down his chances of a repeat of his 2009 (Milan San Remo) win. As far as the one day races go, with shorter (albeit) ‘punchier’ climbs and with a team that is more likely to work hard for him VCSE wouldn’t rule out another win for Cav in the first monument of 2013.

After a strong team performance from Cannondale in the Strade Bianche at the weekend the current favourite for Milan San Remo is Peter Sagan. Sagan was the ‘bogeyman’ in the Strade with the other teams so busy covering him that teammade Moreno Moser was able to get away for the victory.

VCSE’s outsiders for Milan San Remo are AG2R la Mondiale after Rafael Nocentini’s 3rd place in the Strade and victory for Blel Kadri in last Sundays Roma Maxima.

The shape of things to come?

Froome__bert

TDF Top 3? – Froome leads Contador and Rodriguez 

Picture from Cycling Weekly http://www.cyclingweekly.co.uk/

The 27 second margin that Chris Froome maintained over Alberto Contatdor to win the Tour of Oman seems somewhat insignificant in isolation. Froome’s performances as the race entered the final 3 days showed some real swagger in contrast to his typically understated post race interviews.

Peter Sagan had dominated the first half of the race claiming the leaders jersey after a stage 2 win and stage 3 was deja vu with some commentators wondering if Sagan could hold on as the peleton headed into the mountains on day 4.

The climb to the Green Mountain with its summit finish on Thursday felt like the first time this season when grand tour riders featured with Froome, Contador, Joaquim Rodriguez and Vincenzo Nibali in contention as the stage neared the finish.

At times it looked like Froome had blown. Froome’s preferred seated climbing style can often make it appear that he is struggling in comparison to the way Contador dances on the pedals. It was a true game of cat and mouse towards the end with the big guns zig zagging towards the summit almost at right angles to the climb.

It was significant that Froome had the legs to ride away from Contador at the end of the stage to finish 2nd to Rodriguez and claim the red leaders jersey from Sagan. Sagan looked more laboured on the ascent than expected and abandoned overnight.

Stage 5 was equally dramatic with Froome, Contador and Rodriguez fighting it out over the climbs followed by a chasing group led by Cadel Evans. As an appetiser for the season ahead the body language of Froome and Contador in particular was striking with a definite suggestion of some ‘afters’. As Carlton Kirby said on the Eurosport feed; it was a shame the effects mike couldn’t pick up what was said.

Froome went for the line 2k out. Too soon! Contador and Rodriguez caught him with 1k to go and it was as you were. At the line it was Froome by inches, centimetres even.

Saxo Bank have been gracious in defeat praising Froome’s victory. Sky looked like the better team over the race. It could be significant that Michael Rogers wasn’t racing for Saxo as Contador seemed to lack support over the entire length of a stage. Richie Porte was tireless supporting Froome up the climbs on stages 4 and 5.

It probably is too early to see the result as an indicator for how the Tour de France will go in July but it does look like there’s some real friction between Froome and Contador which should make for a more interesting race than last year.

Contador’s victory in the Vuelta owed as much to Froome’s fatigue and psychologically winning his first stage race is the perfect start to 2013.

As for Sagan he’s clearly a strong rider over classics style stages and possibly a contender for this seasons stage races. I predict some interesting head to heads with Mark Cavendish for the points jersey at the Tour this year.

A final observation on Oman. The landscape. It was just like seeing the roads on something like Gran Turismo. Years ago when processors were about a quarter as powerful as the one that currently sits in your phone driving games on a PC or console were typical in sharing roads that cut through between cliffs, city blocks and / or lines of trees. They could never render detail quick enough for anything else.

The strands of perfect blacktop that climb through and around the mountains in Oman had me back in front of my Playstation trying to beat my record for Ridge Racer. Anyone else remember that?