Heavy climbs and picture break up – VCSE’s Racing Digest #36

Vuelta a Espana week 1 Review 

There’s no such thing as a dull finish at the Vuelta. One of the things that makes the supposed runt of the grand tour litter so exciting each season is that no matter how uneventful the proceeding kilometres may be the finish always seems to spring a surprise with an uphill drag thrown into  a stage that’s supposed to favour the sprinters or some other cycling curve ball. Take stage 6 (one of VCSE’s stages to watch) where the final was a relentless climb of nearly ten percent without so much as a curve to distract the peloton that they had only one way to go; straight up.

Alejandro Valverde – Hinault to Quintana’s Lemond?

Stage 6 was, as predicted, the first selection on the GC albeit with an unexpected outcome. Alejandro Valverde may not be everyone’s favourite rider but the roads of southern Spain are what the Movistar joint team leader calls home and he took the stage while retaking the race lead he had held for a solitary stage earlier this week. At the time of this post Valverde has one more stage to contend with another summit finish if he’s to hold on to the number one spot on GC into Mondays rest day. The question of who leads the Movistar team at this years Vuelta has been one of the main back stories to the race with many commentators (including your correspondent) suggesting that Nairo Quintana would be the man to watch. Leaving aside the other contenders for a moment Valverde took 12 seconds out of Quintana on stage 6 and might have gained some more today as the younger rider got caught out in a crosswind effected stage. Valverde himself has said that we shouldn’t write Quintana off; he’s expecting him to “..strong in the high mountains.”

Tomorrows stage (with another summit finish) to Aramon Valdelinares with its  3,2,1 countdown of categorised climbs may mix the GC up again but it’s entirely possible we’ve already seen the protagonists for this years race when we look at the stage 6 top ten. Joining the Movistar pairing were Chris Froome, Alberto Contador, Joaquim Rodriguez, Fabio Aru and Robert Gesink. At one point it look as if Purito was going to claim the stage win, but it was Valverde who set the pace pretty much the whole way, shedding riders with GC pretensions all the way including Wilco Kelderman and Rigoberto Uran. Of course another ‘story’ that’s been cooked up for this race is the supposed re-match between Contador and Froome. The Sky rider has played down his own chances this week and while he possibly ‘only’ looked at 95% on the stage 6 finishing climb his condition doesn’t look like the issue. What is becoming a bit of a problem is Froome’s bike handling and he came off the bike again on yesterday’s stage. There’s some suspicion that the accidents that have befallen him are a result of his stem fetish; Froome’s constant glances at his power meter can mean that his eyes aren’t on the road (and the rider immediately in front of him) at crucial moments. It certainly looked like the Sky team leader was being carefully shepherded by his domestiques on today’s stage.

Contador as predicted has been low key, but more importantly never far from the action so far. With one stage to go until the rest day the Tinkoff rider lies in third place 18 seconds behind Valverde and two ahead of Froome. Rodriguez, Aru and Gesink also make the top ten with the current surprise package, Orica’s Jhoan Chaves in 5th place.

The early race lead, taking over from Valverde after winning stage 3 was Chave’s teammate Michael ‘Bling’ Matthews. He add’s the race leaders jersey from the Vuelta to the one he gained earlier this year at the Giro and in some way it might make up for his last minute withdrawl before the start of this years Tour. Matthews lead was set up by a typically strong team time trial performance from Orica, but the surprise package from the opening stage was Movistar who won against more fancied opposition. Matthews held the lead until stage 6 and has placed well on the other ‘flat’ stages. VCSE’s sprint pick John Degenkolb has two stage wins so far equalling FDJ’s outgoing sprinter Nacer Bouhanni who just pipped Matthews today. The only ‘surprise’ win in the first week was from breakaway specialist Alessandro De Marchi who gave Cannondale a nice sign off in the current incarnation with victory on stage 7.

VCSE doesn’t expect the top four to change in terms of riders tomorrow, but the order might do. The good news is that Froome and Contador both look as if they’re going to play their part in this years Vuelta to the full and that could mean a trio of grand tour winners on the podium in two weeks time.

What’s up with this picture?

Maybe a follower from the US can help out with this one? Why is it that so much coverage of US races falls over due to picture break up? During last weeks USA Pro Challenge in Colorado we lost coverage for most of one stage (at least the part that was meant to be televised)  and large sections of others. This was blamed on weather conditions and the altitude, but picture break up is a feature at most of the races were coverage is picked up from a US host broadcaster. This is disappointing as much of the rest of the coverage (the on screen ‘ticker’ that shows race position etc.) is excellent. The racing too is very often exciting, save for the inevitable intermediate parts of the stage that have to use arrow straight highways.

Fortunately one of the stages that wasn’t overly effected by transmission difficulties had Jens Voigt in his farewell race in the kind of break that made his name and indeed his ‘Shut up legs’ catchphrase. We were denied a fairytale finish when Voigt was caught within the final kilometre but as may said at the time it was probably fitting that things didn’t quite come off. Voigt leaves the sport undiminished as a rider from the generation that has been most vilified for the doping that signified the period. Voigt, when asked, has always vehemently  denied any involvement in PED’s and it’s to be hoped that the rider remains the exception rather than the rule in retirement. As someone who has been such a great marketing tool for Trek worldwide it wouldn’t be difficult to imagine how disappointed his fans would be he turned out to have feet of clay like his erstwhile Trek ambassador Lance Armstrong.

It was interesting to hear that Voigt apparently polarises opinion, with some fans critical of the way this years USA Pro Challenge had been trailed (at least in part) as a valedictory event for the rider. The VCSE standpoint is that Voigt is a character and in an increasingly anodyne sporting world cycling (any sport in fact) needs characters. Compare and contrast Bernard Hinault or Jacques Anquetil with today’s riders and you get the idea.

Vuelta a Espana 2014 Preview

The riders to watch

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Continue reading Vuelta a Espana 2014 Preview

Movistars – VCSE’s Racing Digest #10

Giro stages 16, 17 & 18 – Valloire to Ivrea, Carrvaggio to Vicenza & Mori to Polsa 

The curse of VCSE struck Mauro Santambrogio on stage 16 as our tip for a Giro podium place lost significant time on his GC rivals. While the Vini Fantini rider admitted he had a bad day, he was philosophical about his Giro so far saying, “I can’t complain how my Giro has gone.. it’s been great so far” His Vini Fantini DS Luca Scinto felt the loss of time was more a result of a tactics glitch where riders who had gone up the road to cover breaks weren’t available to support Santambrogio on the final climb of the day.

The possibility of bunch finish also fell away as the remaining sprinters in the peloton struggled over a category 3 climb that was harder than it looked in the road book. The GC protagonists had swallowed up the break on the ascent and the went into line astern on a technical descent that allowed Vincenzo Nibali and Cadel Evans to show off their lines.

Benat Intxausti-IMG 2021
Benat Intxausti (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As the road flattened into the finish at Ivrea a game of cat and mouse ensued as riders attempted to break out, but in the main the group remained pretty much shackled. Robert Gesink, by this point well down on GC made an attack that did stick, only to suffer a heartbreaking mechanical with less than 2 km to go denying Blanco the consolation of a stage win at this years race. The eventual winner was Benat Intxausti giving him a stage to go with his day in the Maglia Rosa and Movistar their second win in 24 hours.

Stage 17 offered another crack at a win for the sprinters and decent weather again after the snow of the weekend. The weather forecast remained in the headlines ahead of the stage however. Snowfall in the Dolomites had put the mountain stages due later in the week at risk of course alteration and possibly even cancellation.

The parcours was similar to the previous day, with a ‘bump’ in the road to negotiated before the potential of sprint finish for Mark Cavendish to contest. As the GC group reeled in the break on the climb a sense of deja vu was palpable as Cavendish began to weave across the road and lost touch with the group. You have to feel for him in these situations, as with the previous day Cavendish had remained in contention with the peloton only to see his hard work unravel on supposedly gentle climb.

At one stage it looked like it would be Danilo Di Luca who would deliver the self styled ‘killer’ blow, but then a rapid acceleration out of the group came from Sunday’s stage winner Giovanni Visconti. He rode past Di Luca like he was standing still and crested the summit with a half minute advantage. How much of Visconti’s second and Movistar’s third victory in as many days was down to a lack of interest from the GC contenders might be seen as a diminution of the win. Movistar are rapidly becoming the team of this years Giro and the mood in the team must be fantastic at this point with four wins and Benat Intxausti’s day in the Maglia Rosa to celebrate.

Whether or not his rivals would rue their opportunity to put some time into Vincenzo Nibali come Sunday remains to be seen, but for the Astana team leader stage 17 was another step closer to winning this years Giro. With stage 18’s time trial to come, Nibali predicted he could be putting time into Cadel Evans and Rigoberto Uran ahead of the mountain stages on Friday and Saturday.

The TT with an uphill course was never going to favour specialist testers, instead promising the chance of the GC contenders to move up (and down) the leader board. Winners and losers on the day? The rider to emerge with the most ‘credit’ was Nibali, clear winner on the stage and increasing his overall lead to more than 4 mins. That advantage was held over Cadel Evans who lost so much time on the stage Nibali must have entertained thoughts of overtaking him. The difference in both riders body language as they crossed the line was clear to see, but Evans was classy in conceding the stage, if not the race later “Nibali in a class of his own.. Evans, if I may say so myself – abysmal”. He went on to say it was “good training”, a not so subtle note to Tejay Van Garderen about BMC leadership at the upcoming Tour perhaps?

One more bit of news as the day closed was the announcement that poor weather had forced the route for stage 19 to be altered. The prospect of the peloton taking on the Gavia and Stelvio will have to wait for another year.

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.

Watch out for falling Tifosi – The Giro’s first summit finish

Giro stage 10 – Cordenons to Altopiano del Montasio 

Sky had their prayers answered and a dry stage awaited the peloton for the first mountain top finish of Giro d’Italia 2013. Today was going to be about tactics for the teams wanting to challenge Astana and Vincenzo Nibali. For Garmin the challenge was how to get Ryder Hesjedal back on terms after he had slipped from the top 10 following a difficult time in the last two stages. They put two riders into the breakaway that was approaching the lower slopes of the 1st category Passo Cason di Lanza.

Astana recognise that they haven’t got the firepower to set a really high tempo pace at the front of the peloton but this didn’t seem to bother the peloton as the they approached the climb about six minutes behind the break. Now Sky took things up at the front and their plan became clear. It was the Sky ‘B’ team of superdomestiques; Siutsou, Xandio and Cataldo forcing the pace with Wiggins in their slipstream. If the plan was to split the stage and create a selection it worked as riders began to fall out the back of the leading group. Biggest casualty? Ryder Hesjedal, who looked as if he was having a terrible time.

Crossing the summit Sky were happy to relinquish the lead to Astana and the peloton made comparatively leisurely progress on the descent in contrast to breakaway rider Jackson Rodriguez (Androni) who rode ‘like he stole it’ to the valley floor at Chiusaforte on to suffer a mechanical. There was a break in hostilities as team cars were able to come forward and resupply the riders with bottles and gels ahead of the final climb to Montasio and its 20% ramps. Bradley Wiggins spent a long time back at the Sky Jaguar perhaps discussing tactics for the final kilometres.

Sky certainly looked in better shape than the rest in terms of actual numbers. Xandio had got back onto the group, giving Wiggins five supporters to Nibali’s three. The remainder of the GC contenders were all present though; Gesink, Scarponi, Santambrogio, Pozzovivo, even Intxausti after his TT tribulations was figuring again.

On the lower slopes it was Sky to the fore again. Uran was on fourth wheel and the TV director indulged in a Wiggins hunt as Sky’s team leader was nowhere to be seen. The Sky game plan was becoming clearer though, Wiggins was sat back in the group with Sergio Henao keeping him company. It looked like Wiggins would stay in the shadows and emerge if and when the pace his teammates were setting at the front broke his rivals. Sky then threw something else into the mix as Uran attacked and quickly put time into the group. The steepest ramps came with around 5km to go and this was where the Sky plan began to unravel. VCSE has talked before about the difficulties Sky’s team leaders have on gradients of 15% plus and while Wiggins didn’t look uncomfortable he wasn’t able to keep pace with the true climbers as the steepness increased. The other problem for Wiggins was that Henao had blown also and he was left to ride the last kilometres alone. The stages moment of humor was delivered by the spectator losing his footing as Nibali and co  rode past.

Uran kept his advantage to take a great win and bonus seconds that would move him up the GC. The stage flattened towards the finish and this came just in time for Nibali who looked like he was on the verge of breaking. A sprint of sorts emerged as Nibali worked to keep ahead of his nearest rival Cadel Evans who had kept pace up the climb. Wiggins had ridden within himself on the climb and was getting back in touch at the finish, but the grade had done the damage and he lost more time to Nibali. Wiggins wasn’t the only one to find the climb hard. Robert Gesink had lost time and it looked like these two would swap places on the GC. Instead it was Uran who moved into 3rd thanks to time bonuses and for the second time Wiggins found himself out of a podium place by a second.

Once again there was mild hysteria surrounding Wiggins getting dropped on the climb, but steep ramps and Sky team leaders do not mix. Whether or not Wiggins and Sky are able to come up with a plan that can break and more importantly put time in Nibali (and Evans) remains to be seen. The signs are that Astana will struggle to put up the same amount of support for Nibali that Sky can manage, but he looks capable of taking care of himself. VCSE does wonder however what might have happened if the climb had gone on a bit longer as Nibali was beginning to ride diagonals towards the end. Wiggins is still in the race, For Ryder Hesjedal, miracles are needed.

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.

British winner at the Giro (not Wiggins)

English: Alex Dowsett after winning the 2009 R...
Alex Dowsett (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It’s not clear how many mirrors Bradley Wiggins smashed last week but he arrived in the starting hut for stage 8, the individual time trial, at the Giro d’Italia in 23rd place and a minute and a half down on general classification. Ahead of the race the prediction had been that Wiggins and Sky would target the TT to put time  into his rivals for the GC and potentially take over the Maglia Rosa. Wiggins lost time after getting caught behind a crash earlier in the week but suffered a bigger setback when he slid of in treacherous conditions on stage 7. Rather than putting time into Vicenzo Nibali and Ryder Hesjedal, Wiggins faced the challenge of making time back up on them and hopefully riding back into contention.

There was much speculation overnight; was Wiggins suffering from the same fever afflicting teammate Dario Cataldo? Had he injured himself in the crash? There was also discussion about which TT bike Wiggins would be riding for the stage. Wiggins had at his disposal the new Pinerello Bolide, rumoured to deliver a performance advantage over the existing Graal model. Wiggins had stuck with the Graal for the TTT in stage 2 but with so much more at stake it perhaps wasn’t surprising to see the Sky seek a ‘marginal gain’ from the prototype.

With his fall down the GC on stage 7 Wiggins would be on the road much earlier than the other GC contenders but the time to beat had been set long before that. Riding his first ever grand tour Essex rider Alex Dowsett had taken his own Pinerello to the best time of the day so far at 1 hour 16 minutes. Dowsett, the reigning British TT champion was a Sky rider last year, moving to Movistar this year to increase his chances of riding in the biggest races. Dowsett had shared with followers on social media and via his rider diary on GCN that he had found his first week in his first grand tour hard going. This was reflected in his placing on GC ahead of the stage and the resulting early start time in the TT. Ahead of the stage Dowsett had shared his thoughts with GCN in the clip below.

The Eurosport coverage lingered on Wiggins for much of his run thanks to his lowly starting position. All eyes were going to be on the first time check, early on the course in Pesaro. The first few kilometres of the stage were technical with more up and down and tight turns made harder by showers creating damp patches in places. Perhaps, lacking some confidence after the previous day Wiggins took a safety first approach early on and then bad luck struck again. On a gentle ascent Wiggins began pointing to his rear wheel before hopping off and tossing his mega bucks Bolide into the bushes alongside the road. Reaching the time check Wiggins was 7th fastest; potentially disasterous. The question now was could he make up time before the second check just before the final uphill drag.

Of his rivals on GC fortunes were mixed. Nibali, who is no slouch on a TT bike was ahead of Dowsett on his split. Cadel Evans while not looking pretty was  pretty effective. Hesjedal and overnight leader Intxausti in comparison were well down at the first check and it was hard to see them improving over the following longer stage.

For Dowsett in the hot seat the emotions must have been conflicting. The realisation as more and more riders came in was that the possibility that he was on the verge of his first grand tour win in conflict with the race Wiggins was in with his teammate Intxausti. Wiggins crossed the final split in 4th place. It became clear later that Wiggins was the fastest rider over the second part of the stage. He had already overhauled a number of other riders on the course and dispatched a few more on the final climb. At the line Wiggins, his Rapha skinsuit covered in sweat from the effort, was 10 seconds down. Dowsett puffed his cheeks out and exhaled as perhaps the only man in the field who could beat his time failed to do so.

As the top ten approached it became clear that the early efforts had had an impact, their times at the second check down on Wiggins and Dowsett. Hesjedal had a tough day at the office and crawled up the final climb all in from the effort. Inxtausti, admittedly not in a discipline that favours him, was even further down. Evans and Nibali faired better keeping their losses within a minute that would be reflected in the one-two on GC. For Wiggins, the stage was lost with the bike change, but he rode back into contention a second down on the podium place occupied by Robert Gesink.

A great win for Dowsett although the wait for him must have been a nervous one. An unexpected win also perhaps, but one that puts another GB rider into the limelight alongside Wiggins and Cavendish on the Giro.

VCSE’s Giro d’Italia Preview

The Giro d’Italia starts next weekend with the an opening stage that loops around Naples and should see a sprinter donning the Maglia Rosa leaders jersey. Unusually for a grand tour although perhaps aping the 100th Tour de France this years Giro is an (almost) all Italian affair starting in Italy and taking in eight uphill finishes before reaching its climax in Brescia on 26th May.

There are the normal jerseys on offer in addition the GC but the Red points jersey differs to the green from the Tour in that it tends to favour the climbers over the sprinters. Nevertheless Mark Cavendish was unlucky to lose out last year to GC runner-up Jaoquim Rodriguez by a single digit points difference. Cavendish as a transplanted Manxman now living in Tuscany is targeting stages this year but the combination of the Giro scoring and his desire to win the green jersey again at this years Tour will probably see him climb off before the end of the race.

Français : Bradley Wiggins, vainqueur du Crité...
Bradley Wiggins(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As it’s a grand tour the main event will be the GC battle. Bradley Wiggins stated goal this year is the Giro but his form in the races he has entered so far this season haven’t done much to indicate that he should be considered as a contender for any reason other than his 2012 Tour victory. In his last appearance at the Giro d’Trentino last week Wiggins looked in touch rather than imperious, although a mechanical robbed us of the chance to see if he could overcome chief rival Vincenzo Nibali. Nibabli in comparison looks in super shape and so far at least has been tactically on the money last week and perhaps more importantly at Tirreno Adriatico. Leaving aside the positioning of that race in the calendar, Tirreno arguably saw Nibali and Astana come up against a stronger line up from Sky and at the critical moment Nibali was able to kick on and win. It’s an aside, but in the one day races Nibali has entered this season he has looked strong also. In the likely marquee match up between Wiggins and Nibali it’s hard to see past Nibali at this point.

The $64,000 dollar question is whether or not Sky’s celebrated marginal gains methodology, much celebrated last year, has a surprise in store when the Giro enters the mountains in the second and third weeks. A lot was made of Sky’s approach to use races as part of the preparation for last years Tour but the results Wiggins gained made it abundantly clear that he was a strong favourite. If Sky have taken the same approach this year, the results suggest that Wiggins is an outside bet at best.

On the GC under card there’s defending champ Ryder Hesjedal, the man on top of Dan Martin’s Christmas card list after he buried himself to help the Irishman win Liege Bastogne Liege on Sunday. Hejesdal has had a fairly low profile build up to his defence, mainly riding in support of other riders but insiders suggest that he looks in good shape and he has looked strong in the Ardennes. Whether he can sustain this over a three week stage race remains to be seen but having won the GC as an outsider last year Hesjedal could surprise us again.

Rodriguez should be in the mix as well, as he showed during Ardennes week, but who are the other GC contenders. It’s interesting to see Cadel Evans riding the Giro and Tour. Evans revealed some time ago that he was unwell during his Tour defence last year and he didn’t look strong at Trentino last week. A top 10 finish seems most likely. Another rider seeking a last hurrah is Ivan Basso. Basso hasn’t shown his hand much this year and it remains to be seen if he is holding much more than a low pair. With Nibali gone to Astana, Basso is Cannodale’s main GC contender although it’s questionable if his 36 year old legs will justify the support.

One dimension of the Giro, if not all of the forthcoming grand tours, is the need for some of the teams on the pro tour to get a good result. Euskatel with Sammy Sanchez and Blanco with Robert Gesink are cash strapped and without a sponsor respectively so we can expect them to go for glory on the marquee stages.

And out of those stages VCSE recommends the tuning in or Sky+’ing to these beauties:

Stage 8 (Sat 11th May)

55km Individual Time Trial. Can be a bit dull to watch live, but this will be Wiggin’s opportunity to make time on the GC

Stage 10 (Tues 14th May)

The first summit finish

Stage 15 (Sun 19th May)

The race heads into the French Alps taking in the Telegraph and finishing on the Galibier

Stage 19 (Fri 24th May)

Over the Stelvio and the Gavia passes

VCSE will be sharing our views on how the Giro is shaping up via our Racing Digest feature. We will also look to feature the best video content with race highlights and insight on our YouTube channel with a dedicated playlist for all things Giro related.

Recommended links for all things Giro related are below (the video clip) including the normal comprehensive insight from The Inrng and Steephill TV. There’s also a great clip from GCN with their thoughts ahead of the race.