The team from down under takes over – VCSE’s Racing Digest #11

English: Peter Sagan in green won the sprint a...
Peter Sagan – can he stay in green? (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The riders of the 2013 Tour de France, having completed seven stages already would probably disagree, but this years race starts in earnest tomorrow as the Tour enters the Pyrenees for two days of climbing. Saturday sees the first summit finish at Ax 3 Domaines and will be followed by four first category climbs on Sunday. By Monday and the first rest day we will have our initial indications of who will end up in the Maillot Jaune in two weeks on the streets of Paris. Week one has pretty much centred on the points classification battle with all of the key figures, with the exception of Cannondale’s Peter Sagan, winning a stage ahead of Friday’s rolling stage to Albi.

Like many great plans the decision to forgo a prologue and open the 100th Tour with a sprint stage on the races first visit to Corsica didn’t quite pan out as expected. Tour Director Christian Prudhomme had made it pretty obvious that he favoured Mark Cavendish to take the first stage and with it the chance to wear yellow for the first time in his career. Argos Shimano with their sprint double team of Marcel Kittel and John Degenkolb ignored the script and it was Kittel who took the win and the honour of wearing the leaders jersey for stage 2. It later emerged that Cavendish had been suffering from a virus. He seemed philosophical about missing out on yellow, but such is the stature of the new British champion it’s entirely possible that parcours could be ‘tailored’  to allow him another crack at yellow in future Tours.

With the next two stages in Corsica taking in some significant climbs Kittel was never likely to retain the yellow jersey, such is his inability to climb much more than a gentle slope. Either stage offered the chance of a bunch sprint, but almost equally there were opportunities for a breakaway and it was once such move that prevailed by a single second at the line in stage 2. Jan Bakelants of Radioshack all but guaranteed his future employment with the new Trek team that will emerge from the Radioshack ashes in 2014 with the win that also catapulted him into the overall lead. One of riders a second back on Sunday was Sagan and he was pipped again on stage 3 by a rider with form at ‘stealing’ last minute (read: last second) victories; Orica Green Edge’s Simon Gerrans. The Australian rider had controversially snatched the win at Milan San Remo in 2012 by sneaking around Fabian Cancellara’s wheel at the line. His timing was spot on again and Sagan had to console himself with his haul of green jersey points.

The Tour was back on the mainland for Tuesday’s Team Time Trial in Nice. It’s fair to say that most eyes weren’t on Orica Green Edge ahead of the stage. Garmin, who had won the TTT when it last featured had David Millar one second from yellow and were shackled with the favourite’s label by the lazier commentators. Crucially Garmin have a different make up this year and look more likely to take stage wins, rather than feature high on the GC. It’s unlikely that the team would have expected Millar to be the leader in any case and the circumstances they found themselves in for the test were probably a happy coincidence rather than a grand plan. Omega Pharma, with Tony Martin and Sylvain Chavanel in the squad held the lead for considerable time on the day, with Sky the strongest of the GC teams. Orica were late off the ramp, but rode strongly to not only win the stage, but put Gerrans into yellow following his stage win the previous day.

Mark Cavendish’s (legal) pharmaceuticals had worked their magic by stage 5, although the difference was mostly his Omega Pharma sprint train who dominated the last few kilometres into Marseilles. All of the early season niggles about the lead out have now disappeared and with a further sprint stage due on Thursday in Montpellier a consecutive win could have been on the cards. Week one of the Tour de France will rarely follow such a conventional script and a late fall left Cavendish somewhat frayed of jersey and displaying a few cuts and bruises. He got himself back to the front for the bunch sprint, but it was Lotto Belisol who were firing on all cylinders after their previous day misfire. Andre Greipel took a relatively easy win. Gerran’s surrendered the yellow jersey, but Orica were able to celebrate all the same as it was passed to his team mate; Daryl Impey.

Cannondale ended the first week with a plan; deliver a stage win for Peter Sagan. Although the team in green had their man (comfortably) in the green jersey at the start of the day, at this point last year Sagan already had three wins to his credit. The team went full gas from the start, riding on the front for more than 100 kilometres. Sagan’s points classification rivals were gapped on the first serious climb of the day and with 40 km’s to go Cavendish, Greipel and co’ gave up on the chase back to the peloton. The only fly in the ointment was surprise of the week Bakelants who stayed away with a couple of others until the stage reached the outskirts of Albi. The fact that Cannodale, a man down since Ted King’s enforced withdrawl after the TTT, could still find riders to lead Sagan out summed up just how much his teammates buried themselves today. It would have been heartbreaking if Sagan had been pipped again, but as the first week came to an end he prevailed. It leaves him with an almost 100 point advantage of Greipel in the race to the green jersey, with Cavendish in third. There was always a possibility that the green jersey could get wrapped up early in the Tour and we could see Cavendish ceding the points contest and ‘putting it all on black’ for the final stage in Paris in two weeks.

Sky have three riders in the top 10 on GC as the race enters the Pyrenees tomorrow. Edvald Boasson Hagen has a slight advantage over Chris Froome and Richie Porte based on some well freelanced sprint efforts this week but he and the team will know that its Sky’s team leader who is expected to enjoy the limelight tomorrow. The way the week has panned out has been a bit of dream come true for Sky. The team, with one exception, have managed to avoid injury and have been able to quietly go about their business while teams like Radioshack and Orica have enjoyed their time in the sun. Froome’s GC rivals have been similarly unscathed and the question for the weekend is how the other teams will counter the Sky metronome on the climbs. In fairness to Sky, taking over the lead so soon last year was not part of their strategy, but this didn’t stop criticism of the tactic and claims that it led to a boring race (unless you were British). Their rivals have had twelve months to decide how to combat the Sky train and tomorrow will be the first look at what this counter insurgency entails. Froome will want to be in yellow by the time the race gets to the TT at Mont St Michel next week, where he would expect to consolidate any lead. It’s still too early to say who will launch a challenge, but lurking in the top ten is Garmin’s Dan Martin. If he’s not quite a rival for Froome over three weeks, he could upset the race with a stage win this weekend.

VCSE’s team of the week – Orica Green Edge

VCSE’s rider of the week – Jan Bakelants 

VCSE’s Tour de France 2013 Preview

2010 Tour De France
Tour De France (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

On Saturday the world’s greatest stage race begins its 100th edition in Corsica. The Tour de France visits Napoleon’s birthplace for the first time and in edition to the grand depart features two mores stages before returning to the mainland. The Pro Tour has already visited the island once this season in March for the Criterium International. While this years race starts without last years winner Bradley Wiggins there are some strong contenders returning in the shape of Alberto Contador, who was still serving a doping ban last July. VCSE will be in France for the first two weeks of the Tour and will be bringing some of the sights and sounds of the Grand Boucle from a fans perspective on four stages.

The parcours 

Following the Corsican stages (1 through 3) stage 4 is a 25km Team Time Trial in Nice, the first since 2011. It’s a flat course that will favour the teams with strong testers. Stages 5 and 6 will offer chances for a breakaway and the sprinters respectively, although there’s still a possibility for a Sagan or similar to ride strongly over stage five’s final climbs to snatch the win. Stage 6 is a genuine sprint stage with the Mistral likely to play a cameo role in further splitting the peloton once the initial bumps have been crossed.

Stage 7 will stretch the GC and climbers legs with four categorised climbs into the world heritage city of Albi before the race enters the Pyrenees. Stage 8 offers the first Hors Category climb of this years race, coming towards the end of the stage over the Col de Palihere’s before finishing with a Cat 1 ascent to Aix 3 Domaines. The following day the peloton will tackle four 1st and one 2nd category climbs including the Col de Peyresourde, finishing in Bagneres de Bigorre. With the first rest day and a long transfer to follow the stage could see whoever is in yellow trying to consolidate their lead or a rival team look to snatch the jersey away for their GC hope.

The peloton takes its rest day in Brittany and will complete stage 10 in the port of St Malo on a stage that suggests a sprint finish. In fact, the stage could see the points competition sewn up as the best opportunities for the sprinters will be behind them at this point. Stage 11 is the first of the races two Time Trials finishing at the spectacular Mont Saint Michel and one for the specialist testers within the peloton like Omega Pharma’s Tony Martin. If there is any life left in the Green Jersey points contest stage 12 guarantees a sprint finish following a route that passes many of the Loire valley’s most famous chateau’s. Stage 13 is the last of the truly flat stages before the final gallop down the Champs Elysees. As the race moves back into the hills and mountains after this it’s possible that some of the sprinters may abandon after this stage finishes.

Now the race continues its south western trajectory with a rolling stage (14) to Lyon followed by the test of a summit finish on the ‘Giant of Provence’ Mont Ventoux on Sunday’s stage 15. This stage falls on Bastille Day and promises huge crowds on the climb as well as the likely shoot out between the GC rivals.

The final rest day follows before the climbs continue into the foothills of the Alps. Stage 16 finishes in Gap with three 2nd cat climbs on the way and a downhill finish that could see a break away managing to stay away for victory. The final TT follows; 32km including two cat 2 climbs around a lake between the towns of Embrun and Chorges. Will riders opt to stay with the normal bikes equipped with tri bars or go for the full TT machine?

Probably the stage of this years race is Thursday’s stage 18 from Gap to Alpe d’Heuz. The route climbs the iconic mountain not once but twice. It’s a shorter stage and two climbs of the famous 21 hairpins aren’t as tricky as they sound (ordinarily the peloton could have climbed the Croix de Fer, Glandon or Galibier beforehand) but it should make for fantastic viewing. The Hors Category climbs continue on stage 19 with the Col du Glandon and Col de la Madeleine featuring in addition to the cat 1 Col de la Croix Fry. If the GC hasn’t been decided by that point there is Saturdays stage (20) that provides a cat 2, three 3rd category and the cat 1 Mont Revard before another summit finish at Annecy. Despite its location Annecy has little in the way of Tour history and the climb to Semnoz has none at all. Perhaps an odd choice for the last possible stage for a GC shake up.

Stage 21 from Versailles to Paris finishing on the Champs Elysees provides the finale to the Tour. The race has finished here since 1975 but this year the organisers have changed the route to allow the peloton to ride around the Arc de Triomphe rather than turning at this point and the stage moves to a nighttime floodlit finish.

VCSE’s “unmissable” stages

Stage 1 Porto Vecchio to Bastia – Cavendish in yellow?

Stage 9 Saint Girons to Bagneres de Bigorre – This years big Pyrenean climbs

Stage 15 Givors to Mont Ventoux – Summit finish on the Giant of Provence

Stage 18 Gap to Alpe d’Huez – Climbing the Alpe not once, but twice

Stage 20 Annecy to Annecy Semnoz – Last chance for a GC shake up

Stage 21 Versailles to Paris – Under the lights down the Champs Elysees

The contenders 

For the maillot jaune it’s been hard to see much further than Chris Froome and a second successive win for Team Sky. Like Bradley Wiggins in 2012 Froome has won pretty much everything he has entered including, crucially, emphatic victories against his main rivals. The exception? Tirreno Adriatico, where he was undone on the steepest climbs by eventual winner Vincenzo Nibali. Nibali is missing the Tour having focused on the Giro which leaves Froome facing challenges from three riders who out pointed him at last years Vuelta for starters.

Alberto Contador, winner of 2009 Tour de Franc...
Alberto Contador in the 2009 Tour (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

First and foremost is that races winner Alberto Contador. While his form this year to date hasn’t been spectacular Contador is talking a good game ahead of the Tour. Saxo Bank have chosen a strong team to support with ex Sky road captain Mick Rogers alongside top ten finisher Nico Roche and Amstel Gold winner Roman Kreuiziger.

Contador missed last years Tour as he was still serving his doping ban for Clenbuterol. Another rider missing from last years race and indeed the one before that is Jaoquim Rodriguez of Katusha. He chose to miss the Giro, after finishing second the previous year and should be in better form than his last appearance where he finished 7th.

The divisive figure of Alejandro Valverde rounds out the trio. Valverde has already suggested that he doesn’t have the firepower for the win, but Movistar have strength in depth with Tour de Suisse winner Rui Costa and another stage race winner from 2013 Nairo Quintana in support. Neither rider is in the first rank of GC contenders but assuming Valverde is struggling Movistar have leadership options and could switch to either of the younger riders. After their stage wins in the Giro another possibility is that the team approach the Tour with a similar strategy.

Another team with potential dual leadership is BMC with Cadel Evans and Tejay Van Garderen. Ahead of the Giro many commentators had written Evans off but a strong performance in Italy has seen some revisions of opinion about his form. Whether he has enough left in the tank after three weeks of snow and rain in the Dolomites remains to be seen. Waiting impatiently in the wings is Van Garderen. Still eligible for the young riders competition he looked fairly impressive taking the Tour of California. While he may end up taking the BMC leadership crown in July it’s hard to see him winning this year. It’s interesting that with Evans approaching the end of his career that BMC were rumoured to have approached Froome with a contract for 2014. Does the Swiss backed but US registered team have the confidence that Van Garderen can beat Froome or not? For the other teams it’s more likely that they will need to rely on the odd cameo performance via a breakaway win or victory in a specialism like the TT to snatch the headlines. There is a potential wild card in the peloton with Andy Schleck who has suffered a very public examination of his struggle to return to the form that saw him finish second to Contador in 2010 (elevated to 1st later). Schleck needs to ride for a contract as much as anything else as the team that was once built around him has been sold to bike supplier Trek for 2014.

Sky have selected a strong team to support Froome with Richie Porte likely to take the Froome role from last year to shepherd his team leader over the cols. The rest of the squad is made up of ‘engines’ like Vasil Kireyenka and David Lopez who will ride on the front all day following Sky’s now famous (or should that be infamous) tactic of controlling the race pace. Last year it was rumoured that Sky felt they had gone into the lead too early, but having survived in yellow for the majority of last years race this shouldn’t hold any fears for Froome and co this year. The route shouldn’t hold too many fears for Froome either, lacking many of the truly steep climbs that feature at the Giro or Vuelta. His rivals will probably be banking on more on Sky struggling to maintain their control of the peloton rather than Froome breaking down. There are plenty of contenders for attacks and break away wins and the all French wild card teams will see those as their best chance of showing the sponsors logos. Katusha, Movistar and Saxo all have riders that can cause an upset and if a Contador or Rodriguez can get away then Froome and Sky will be tested.

VCSE’s GC Top 5 prediction – Froome, Contador, Porte, Rodriguez, Evans

With the focus on Chris Froome it’s easy to forget the other British rider in search of a milestone win at this years Tour. Mark Cavendish comes into the race after an impressive points victory at the Giro, where the competition favours sprinters significantly less than the Tour. Cavendish was expected to thrive at Omega Pharma after leaving Sky last year and while the focus has been on the initially spluttering lead out train that came good in Italy, a notable improvement has taken place in his climbing. Unlike most of his rivals at the Giro, Cavendish didn’t abandon the race and rode over some of the most challenging climbs of the world tour in the worst kinds of weather. Clearly he has finished 3 week tours before, but as his win in last weekends British national championships showed, his all round racing has moved on. Cavendish will start the Tour in his national champs jersey and with the first stage likely to finish in a bunch sprint he could end the day in yellow. If he pulls this off, along with a fifth consecutive win on the Champs Elysees and the Green Jersey then Britain could have another cycling knighthood to look forward to.

Cavendish will face a strong set of sprint rivals however. Lotto Belisol’s Andre Greipel heads the list that includes a two pronged assault from Argos Shimano with Marcel Kittel and John Degenkolb. There’s also pure sprint capability at FDJ with Nacer Bouhanni, Lampre’s Roberto Ferrari, Orica Green Edge have Matty Goss and Sojasun Julien Simon. However the most likely battle for green will be had with Cannondale’s Peter Sagan. Sagan took green last year as Cavendish laboured in a Sky team focused on GC. Sagan is confident he has the edge over Cavendish on the intermediate stages if not in out right pace for a bunch sprint. Nevertheless with a team dedicated to him Cavendish should be adding another points jersey to his collection this year. 

King of the Mountains in recent years has been won by the rider who can race tactically, sweeping up the points on the smaller climbs to take a firm grip on the competition before the race reaches the highest peaks. Last years winner Thomas Voeckler has delivered some solid GC performances to go with breakaway stage wins and like Richard Virenque before him would be a popular native winner. This year might see a repeat of a wild card taking the Polkadot Jersey, but VCSE thinks the winner could come from one of the second rank of GC riders also, with Nairo Quintana a possibility of he isn’t in contention for the podium.

VCSE’s Points & KOM picks – Green Jersey Mark Cavendish, KOM Nairo Quintana 

VCSE at the Tour

In addition to our regular race coverage via our Racing Digest VCSE will be in France for the first two weeks of the Tour. We will be taking stages 6 and 7 around Montpellier before shifting our base to Tours for stages 12 and 13. Hopefully we will be able to provide a flavour of the world’s greatest stage race and a fans eye view. Follow our Twitter feed (@randompan) or Facebook pages for more details.

That’s the thoughts of VCSE. What do you think? Can anyone beat Froome? Will it be Contador’s year? Can Cav beat Sagan to the points jersey? Let us know what you think in the comment section below.

See what everyone else is saying. You can check out the Global Cycling Network TdF preview below or follow the links to these related articles at the foot of the page.

Related articles

Froome the new king at Sky?

 

Chris Froome
Chris Froome (Photo credit: Petit Brun)

Chris Froome’s win in last weeks Criterium du Dauphine capped what has been a (so far) successful 2013 season, coming on top of victories in Oman, the Criterium International and the Tour de Romandie. He was backed up in France again by Richie Porte who finished second to Froome for the second time this year. Porte is a shoe in for Team Sky’s Tour squad while the most notable omission will be erstwhile team leader Bradley Wiggins.

 

Wiggins had raised the stakes in the ‘who will lead at the Tour’ discussion that has been doing the rounds of traditional and social media since the start of the year with his Sunday Times interview prior to the Giro. At that point in time the suggestion that Wiggins was capable of riding both grand tours didn’t seem impossible and it took an official Sky press release to sooth the feelings within the Froome camp that he was still plan A for the Tour. Here at VCSE we had speculated that it would be Wiggins performances in the Giro that would determine whether or not he would lead or even appear at the Tour in July. His difficulties in Italy and eventual withdrawal increased the likelihood that he would ride in France, but once again the noises emanating from the Sky Death Star appeared to pour cold water on any chance of him leading the team ahead of Froome.

All of which led to the announcement from Sky last week that Wiggins would not race the Tour due to a previously unreported knee injury. Taken at face value, any injury that prevents a rider training is reason enough for Wiggins withdrawal, but it seems highly coincidental that the ‘Wiggo Knee’ was revealed just as the Sky leadership question was peaking again. Might a possible other explanation be that the aforementioned knee be a convenient smoke screen to allow Wiggins to save face at not being able to lead Sky at the Tour? Wiggins has kept a low profile since leaving the Giro (although he has popped up in fan’s photos taken around his Lancashire home). Froome meanwhile has the air of someone who is following a long standing plan; he’s reconnoitering Tour stages this week. 

VCSE suspects that the discussion about Wiggins riding the Tour was a short one. While he isn’t as strong a climber as Froome he is capable of providing the kind of support that a Kiryenka or Suitsou provides on a stage, riding a lengthy stint at the head of the peloton at high speed. The problem for Sky is that Wiggins clearly has no intention of surrendering his team leader role and therefore they have had to finesse an outcome that allows Froome to lead while Wiggins saves face. In the longer term the story probably has not gone away. There have already been stories linking Froome to BMC where he could be a perfect replacement for Cadel Evans. Whether Sky will let Froome go, particularly if he has won the Tour is something else entirely. Can Froome and Wiggins peacefully co-exist in the same team? Possibly, although that would probably involve Wiggins receiving 100% support for another tilt at the Tour in 2014. Another possibility would be for Sky to develop Wiggins into a classics rider. He ‘gets’ how races like Paris Roubaix fit into cycling culture and could benefit from being able to add some weight to attack one day races. Could Wiggins leave Sky? Anything is possible and VCSE suspects that they would rather retain Froome. In which case might Wiggins end up back in the arms of Garmin?

So Froome reigns supreme at Sky and at this point its hard to see past him as the winner of this years Tour. Of his rivals at the Dauphine, Alberto Contador ended up riding in support of Mick Rogers after a crash and poor showing in the time trial. Joaquin Rodriguez is focused on the Tour this year, but wasn’t able to bring much to the Dauphine. Cadel Evans is a contender assuming he hasn’t left his legs at the Giro. The match up fans really would have wanted won’t happen unfortunately and we’re not talking about Froome v Wiggins (again). No the showdown that isn’t at the Tour would have been Froome verses Nibali. He is possibly the one rider who could make the 2013 Tour de France something other that a Sky show this year. That match up, like Wiggins hopeful return to form, is something we will just have to wait for.

 

Papa and Nicole are in the team car – VCSE’s Racing Digest #4

In what is hopefully not the shape of things to come for race coverage the weeks world tour race, the Tour de Romandie was shown in an ‘exclusively live’ stylee by Sky. As we don’t move in those kinda circles at VCSE Towers, more of that later as we talk about the racing we could watch; the cat 2.1 Tour of Turkey.

This was an interesting race for all kinds of reasons. The field was predominantly pro continental with a sprinkling of world tour teams plus the Turkish continental Torku squad. For the world tour it was a sprinters outing with Marcel Kittel and Andre Greipel the stand out names in a quality field with six sprint stages out of eight. Geographically it was probably a reasonably safe bet that the race would be held in good weather and other than contending with cross and / or head winds on some days the peloton enjoyed its first race of 2013 that hasn’t involved arm warmers, rain jerseys and overshoes.

Marcel Kittel
Marcel Kittel (Photo credit: Petit Brun)

The race has been held for nearly 50 years but has only reached 2.1HC status in the last couple of years. As such it’s what is known as a ‘flyaway’ race and the teams leave their buses, trailers and team cars behind with all transportation provided by the organisers. Any regular viewers will know that the default team car of the world tour is the Skoda Superb estate. There are a couple of exceptions with moneybags outfits like BMC and Sky opting for Mercedes and Jaguar but whatever difference these cars have in price they share the common feature of taking up lots of road. Skoda like to make a virtue of this by recreating a series of crashes, scrapes and near misses shot from ‘inside a team car’ for their advertising. No ‘fly on the wall’ was available when the respective DS’s of Argos Shimano and Omega Pharma et al picked up their team cars but there were probably some jaws dropping when they realised that they were going to have to use a Renault Clio. Conspiracy theorists may speculate this is why BMC and Sky didn’t show.

The stages went sprint, sprint, summit, sprint, sprint, summit, sprint, sprint. First blood went to Kittel before stage two served up the kind of finish that ensures the memories of the Tour of Turkey will live on via YouTube long after people have forgotten minor details like who took the overall. With another sprint finish in the offing Blanco were leading with Mark Renshaw looking to deliver Theo Bos for the win.  Finishing in Antalya the surrounding hotels and apartment blocks required a helicopter tracking shot for the final few k’s. Dissection of what happened next suggested that Renshaw touched a wheel, but whatever the cause the outcome was possibly the biggest pile up ever. Riders that weren’t involved in the crash (the minority) came to a halt as there was no way past a tangle of bikes and riders that spanned the road. Orica’s Aidis Kruopis celebrated as if he had actually beaten Greipel and Kittel by inches and saying in his post race interview that ‘..I felt I could pull off a result today’ suggested he should starting gambling or astrology as he could be equally gifted at both.

Stage 3 saw the first summit finish of the week and another notable first as Europcar’s NatnaelBerhane became the first African to win an HC category event. Berhane took over the GC from Griepel, with his classy win showing great tactical awareness, attacking at the last when his rivals ran out of legs. Berhane showed more flashes of brilliance later in the week when he was able to bridge back to the leading group to safeguard his leaders jersey. He seemed like a pretty safe bet for the overall but there was another twist in the tale on stage 6. 

If you’re a Turkish team it’s a pretty safe bet that you will get an invite to your ‘home’ race. Torku had been in the mix all week holding the Mountains jersey and getting riders in the breaks. One of the riders in the group that Berhane emerged from on the climb to Elmali was Torku’s Mustafa Sayar. He drew attention on the climbs thanks to his ability to churn out a gear that looked at least two cogs smaller than anyone else. Susceptible to attack and changes of pace, despite all this Sayar kept grinding the big ring crossing the line 6 seconds down on Berhane. Sayar, distinctive in the peloton if not for his pedalling style than his hairstyle with what can only be described as a mullet was pushing another massive gear on stage 6. The difference here was that as Sayar ground up the climb the remaining GC contenders, Berhane included couldn’t stay with him. Sayar had 18 seconds on the next best rider on the stage and took 43 seconds out of Berhane to take over the lead. There was some talk afterwards and the day after in a ‘come from nowhere’ context as some people questioned the validity of Sayar’s win. Another one for the conspiracy theorists perhaps, but a look at Sayar’s results so far this year suggest he is in the form of his life even if not at this kind of level before.

With no more significant climbing involved Torku defended the GC over the next two days onto the finish. Attention shifted back to the sprinters. Andre Greipel had taken stages 4 and 5 convincingly thanks to his ability to get over the climbs on the hilly stages better than Kittel. With the topography favouring Kittel on the penultimate stage 7 the riders would enter the last day on two stage wins apiece.

Many of the stages followed the same route as previous years and just as stage 2 had served up 2013’s YouTube sensation the finish in Izmir provided the fun in 2012 as you can see in the clip below. This years stage was not without its talking points. The dozen or so riders who took the wrong line as the race entered the final few kilometres, including most of the Orica lead out train, found that they couldn’t rejoin the race after heading up a virtual cul-de-sac.

Stage 8 was raced across two continents as an event held in Istanbul only can be. A minor spill involving one of Greipel’s Lotto team mates on the run in may have hampered his lead out as he was a few bike lengths behind Kittel as the race got within 500M of the flag. Kittel, blocked slightly himself extricated and won easily. The last kilometres of the stage had been run around a 12k circuit which led to the odd backdrop of an avenue of white vans provided by the organisers in lieu of the teams normal buses parked on either side after the finish.

The Tour of Turkey proved to be a worthy alternative for Eurosport this week. Magnus Backstedt co commentated with David Harmon and rode a number of the stages in full or part which provided another level of insight. Big Maggi is often the one who gives the game away about how many races Eurosport cover from the UK as he invariably pops up on social media miles away from the race he is commentating on. The racing this week has definitely benefited from having Eurosport ‘boots on the ground’ as Maggi and David Harmon were able to share conversations had with the riders and support staff first hand and post on bike footage of each stage. Rather like the Tour of the Basque Country earlier the Tour of Turkey served up an unexpected and entertaining week of pro cycling.

Tour de Romandie

Can’t tell you much about this one as VCSE couldn’t watch it. It’s interesting to see that Sky have picked up a couple of the races that ‘their’ team won in 2013 with the Tour de Suisse to be shown later in the year. The fact that both races are held in Switzerland may be of more significance but without the premium digital TV subscription VCSE has been reliant on social media to catch up on the Sky blitzkrieg in the Alps.

With Sky announcing the Giro squad this week the riders supporting Chris Froome at Romandie are more than likely some if not all of the Tour team including Richie Porte, Vasil Kireyenka and David Lopez. Froome is a pretty decent time trialler so the stages book ended by a prologue and time trial looked made for him to retain the title that Bradley Wiggins took in 2012 for Sky.

The opposite weather to Turkey prevailed with the penultimate stage curtailed due to the conditions. It sounds like Sky employed the usual tactics of controlling the pace although this must have been touch and go until the penultimate stage with Froome enjoying only a 6 second advantage over Garmin’s Andrew Talansky. Talansky slipped off the radar at this point finishing well down the GC.

Conclusions from a race we didn’t watch? After winning the race last year its hard to imagine Sky would have lined up with any other plan than to retain the title. The psychological impact of leading and winning a race that involves a yellow jersey seems hard to resist and when there has been one up for grabs in 2013 it has generally been a Sky rider who’s wearing it. Another parallel is that Froome like Wiggins before him is winning most if not all of the races he enters. Other than Tirreno Adriatico where the steeper punchier climbs don’t favour him or Sky’s tactical approach Froome has looked good (we’re assuming he looked good at Romandie, this was certainly the case in Oman and the Criterium International).

Does this mean Froome and Sky will with the Tour? Let’s assume that Bradley Wiggins won’t win the Giro. If this is looking likely before the start of the final week in Italy Sky could hold back one or two of the Giro squad, Henao, Siutsou, Uran or even Wiggins himself with a view to bringing the strongest possible team to the Tour. If Wiggins is still in the mix for the Maglia Rosa at the end of the Giro VCSE thinks it’s possible that Sky might be spread to thin to have a tilt at both grand tours. The Giro squad looks light, although the make up is partly driven by the teams part Italian ownership. So far all of the talk emanating from the Death Star has been that Wiggins is in better shape than at this point last year. Race results suggest otherwise however and Sky said similar things about their classics squad this year. As things stand the VCSE tenner would be going on Froome for the Tour at this stage.

 

 

Man beats Panda – Liege Bastogne Liege 2013

After a comparatively dull start (and ‘middle’) to the Ardennes classics the series served up an outstanding finish with Dan Martin’s victory at Liege Bastogne Liege on Sunday. While none of the locations can be described as particularly scenic LBL takes the prize for the final kilometres of a race most like a criterium held around the back streets of Hackney.

Sunday’s race was Philippe Gilbert’s and indeed Belgium’s last chance to provide a winner in a 2013 spring classic. Gilbert had not been able to get into the right position as the week’s previous races had reached their climax and these disappointments coupled with Tom Boonen’s injury afflicted season to date inevitably piled on the expectation and pressure for the world champ. The field was pretty stellar. Liege offers as much climbing over its entire length as a typical grand tour mountain stage and GC riders were well represented with Chris Froome, Joaquim Rodriguez, Alejandro Valverde and Alberto Contador taking the start.

The shake up for the final stages inevitably arrived as the peloton hit La Redoute. For the first time in this years classics Sky actually looked well placed as the climb approached with Froome looking well supported by Richie Porte, David Lopez and Vasil Kireyenka at the front. The local TV feed wasn’t suffering the same technical issues that had spoilt Amstel and Fleche previously. However,  the combination of an impromptu car park formed by spectators on the nearby motorway and other ‘interesting’ scenes alongside the race itself meant that the events that led to Lopez breaking away were missed. Never likely to be a winner from this distance Lopez was left seeking directions from the team car when it became apparent that Sky had pretty much blown up as team before the summit.

As Sky’s chances of an impact in this years classics evaporated we were treated to the impressive sight of an attack by Ryder Hesjedal. He had shown his form ahead of defending his Giro title at last Sunday’s Amstel but this time there Hesjedal wasn’t trying to chase down a breakaway, he was going for the win. Hesjedal’s break came on a section of the race introduced only because of road works that prevented the use of one of the regular climbs. He time trialed away from the field building up a 20+ second advantage at one point.

As Hesjedal attempted to hold the gap up the final key climb we were treated to the second most bizarre piece of crowd participation of the day as a post punk kilt wearing Belgian paced him up the hill. In the background the chasers including Gilbert approached. Fleche Wallone nearly man Carlos Betancur was the first to bridge the gap but he couldn’t press home the attack. Hesjedal caught, was holding his place and leading the group including team mate Dan Martin into the final few k’s.

Dan Martin
Dan Martin (Photo credit: Petit Brun)

Tactically, Valverde looked like he would suck anyone’s wheel who let him but with the prospect of a bunch sprint and the second group of Gilbert fast approaching it was Rodriguez who attacked. If the climb had been steeper it was possible to imagine a Rodriguez win at this point but there was a perceptible slow down from Purito followed seconds later by the sight of a rider in blue heading across the gap. As the camera angle shifted behind and above it was clear that the rider in blue, Dan Martin was catching up. As he came alongside there was the briefest interlude while Martin matched Rodriguez pedal stroke and then he went for it. During these shots the kilt wearing punk was outdone by a spectator dressed as a Panda managing to keep pace with the riders sprinting uphill.

Martin better placed than a television viewer to know that he faced no threat from Rodriguez celebrated long before the line. First to congratulate was Hesjedal and as team efforts go it was powerful stuff. Martin’s victory and the comparison that can be made between at least one of the weeks winners, if not team set ups, made this a result that can be believed in. Martin probably wasn’t in many people’s top 10 of likely winners of Liege Bastogne Liege but he is only the second Irishman (although his brummie accent is stronger) to win a monument and adds to his already impressive tally from the Vuelta a Catalunya this year.

As the classics draw to a close and we look forward to the start of the grand tours the losers of the week at least look like Philippe Gilbert and BMC. Gilbert’s finish at Liege was the same as his finishes in Amstel and Fleche. He has been consistent across all three races but while a repeat of 2011 was probably beyond him Gilbert and his team will no doubt feel that they should have delivered more. Movistar were well represented this week as well and questions could be asked of Valverde tactically after the team had got him into a good position. Sky’s classics performance has been abject, probably made worse by their much publicised ‘focus’ on the monuments this year. It will be interesting to see if they push to sign Fabian Cancellara in the off season and work for someone who knows how to win rather than someone who has the potential to do so. 

Garmin now have their second monument victory to add 2010’s win at Paris Roubaix. It will be interesting to see how Dan Martin evolves within the team now. Already confirmed as not part of the teams plans for the Giro title defence he is surely worth a punt for this years Tour as a rider to make a breakaway across the mountain stages. Only time will tell. At 26 he has plenty of racing in him.

Dan Martin was overwhelmed with his victory at Liege Bastogne Liege. The kilt wearing punk and panda were unavailable for comment.

Enjoy the key action from Liege Bastogne Liege below 

Vanmarcke’s Haussler moment – VCSE’s Racing Digest #2

In 2009 Mark Cavendish was embarking on what would be his best year yet but ahead of that edition of Milan San Remo he would have been seen as an outside bet for victory on a parcours which doesn’t tend to favour sprinters.

2009 was also the debut season for the Cervelo Test Team with Thor Hushovd leading the team at a point in his career where he was seen a genuine sprint contender and a rival for Cavendish’s green jersey aspirations at the Tour de France. Part of Hushovd’s lead out at MSR was Heinrich Haussler and as the race entered its final moments he got the jump on the bunch expecting to pull Hushovd in to position to launch for the win. Instead, 300 metres out, Haussler was alone and realising that Hushovd had lost his wheel he began to sprint for the line.

The gap from the bunch grew and Haussler, perhaps in disbelief in finding himself in the lead, snatched looks over his shoulder to see who would be challenging him. The sight of Cavendish, low on the bike, winding on more and more speed is a familiar one now and looking at footage now the likelihood of a Cav victory just looks inevitable. Five years ago Haussler looked the favourite, Cavendish catching but surely not winning?

Anyone who has watched ‘Beyond the Peloton’ on VCSE’s YouTube channel will know that Haussler agonised about what happened next and probably will continue to do so. If only the line had been closer. Maybe less looks over the shoulder at the oncoming Cavendish. Haussler’s anguish at being caught on the line and missing victory by a bike length was apparent for the moment he realised he had been passed.

Gutted – Sep Vanmarcke – picture http://www.vandaag.be

VCSE was reminded of this watching today’s Paris Roubaix. In what were probably the best conditions enjoyed so far in this year’s monument classics Sep Vanmarcke was beaten on the line by Fabian Cancellara sealing a annus mirabilis for Spartacus and abject disappointment for Vanmarcke.

Cancellara played his hand beautifully as the race entered the final third. With Tom Boonen missing following his accident at the Tour of Flanders Cancellara was the favourite coming into the race but such is the lottery of the ‘Hell of the North’ he was unable to call on his Radioshack teammates to help to control the pace this week.

Vanmarcke had gone away from the leading group with Het Nieuwsblad runner-up Stijn Vandenbergh as Cancellara began to come through realising perhaps that attack was the best form of defence. Over the final few sections of pave there was speculation that Cancellara was struggling following crashes suffered in the previous week.

Cancellara had demonstrated his ability to break from a group and then time trial to victory already including last Sunday’s Tour of Flanders. As he dug in today and blew the group apart one rider failed to stick to the script; Zdenek Stybar. Stybar stuck to Cancellara’s wheel like glue as they reeled in Vandenbergh and Vanmarcke. This represented a potential reversal of fortune for Omega Pharma Quick Step, the chance of at least one rider on the podium at worst following Tom Boonen’s withdrawl, perhaps even a one two.

Fate intervened and heart-break for OPQS in the closing stages perhaps overshadowed only by what followed inside the Roubaix velodrome. First Vandenbergh last in line of the four crashed after hitting a spectator on the pave. Worse still Stybar, pinged pinball style from one side to the other of the next section of pave. He remained upright but lost time, momentum and arguably motivation to continue.

Cancellara’s often used complaint that rivals stay in his wheel could not be aimed at Vanmarcke who took his turn in the lead when many armchair fans, VCSE included, were pleading for him not to, favouring the underdog in the situation. The Cancellara Vanmarcke game of cat and mouse continued into the velodrome advantage swapped back and forth and speed reduced to the extent that the pursuers were able to catch up to within a lap by the end.

Vanmarcke, arguably the stronger in the sprint finish, wanted Cancellara to blink first but by the final corner decided he would have to go for it. Whether or not Cancellara gained some ‘draft’ from riders on the track a lap behind isn’t clear and  head on the victor wasn’t even clear until Cancellara threw his arms aloft. Replays showed things more clearly and Vanmarcke’s reaction on the line made his disappointment apparent.

Vanmarcke attempts to put a brave face on things on the podium were in vain as he blinked back the tears that showed the emotion he felt at missing out on career making victory. Cancellara becoming a three-time winner of Paris Roubaix and adding to the results that have made him the leader of the world tour should be celebrated but for VCSE Paris Roubaix 2013 will always be about Sep Vanmarcke.

For great racing choose the Basque country

Some of the best racing of the season so far took place in the Tour of the Basque Country this week. The weather deterioated as the climbs got steeper during the week. Spanish races tend to favour the steepness over height and these stages were no exception with three days of climbing and summit finishes following the early sprints won consecutively by Orica Green Edge.

Alberto Contador is looking fairly mortal this year and Saxo Bank will need to carry out a detailed post mortem after a relatively poor showing from a tour strength squad that included Nicolas Roche and Mick Rogers.

Sky should feel pleased with their return after only being able to field six riders. Joe Dombrowski looked the strongest he has done so all season although VCSE feels he is probably unlikely to be selected for the grand tours this year. Vasil Kiryenka looked super strong again all week as he led Richie Porte and Sergio Henao and generally bossed the peloton.

Team of the week however was Caja Rural. Amets Turruka’s breakaways to win the King of the Mountains and points jersey delivered the metaphorical finger to his erstwhile employers at Euskaltel Euskadi who had a week to forget.

Getting so very close to a win in stage five for Caja Rural was neo pro Omar Fraile. In every kind of the worst weather Fraile stayed away from the peloton until the final climb but unlike so many riders who get swallowed up in these situations he fought on and kept his place in the leading group to finish 15th.

Chapeau!

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.

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.

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?