TUE be or not TUE be.. – VCSE’s Racing Digest #32

Criterium du Dauphine 2014

Just as night follows day the winning the Dauphine has become part of the landscape for Sky on their way to winning the Tour a few weeks later. In 2012 it was Bradley Wiggins and a year later Chris Froome. For Froome victory would have been a strong indication of his form ahead of his July target, his race programme for 2014 had been extremely low key so far, although both times he had raced he had won the GC (Oman and Romandie). Backed by a team of domestiques deluxe who would make anyone’s Tour team Froome would be facing off against some of his key rivals for the yellow jersey when the Tour gets underway in Yorkshire and a few pretenders who would be troubling the top ten. Alberto Contador was looking back to his best form of 18 months ago when he captured the Vuelta and Vicenzo Nibali, who while not enjoying the same kind of results would be seen as threat to the Sky rider.

"Your name's not down, you're not coming in" Wiggins and Froome
“Your name’s not down, you’re not coming in” Wiggins and Froome

Froome has a teflon like ability to rise above the ‘noise’ that follows the Tour de France champion although he could not avoid the fact that he was a big part of the story ahead of the race. Following the serialisation of his book in the Sunday Times (ghost written by ST journalist David Walsh) which had cherry picked the chapters that focused on the Froome / Wiggins ‘relationship’ (and lack there of), Wiggins had popped up on radio and TV to announce that he wouldn’t be riding the Tour. In itself this was a juicy narrative for the rotters of the press and social media to get stuck into (VCSE pleads guilty; see the previous post). The will he, won’t he selection of Wiggins for the Sky Tour roster was merely an apertif though. First, we had Froome looking vulnerable and falling out of the GC lead he had establish in the stage 1 prologue and then we had a rather messy spat between sections of the (French) press and Sky over a TUE.

For the casual follower of the sport a TUE can be explained as a ‘sick note’ that excuses the rider for using a banned substance if it is necessary to treat a particular condition. So far, so reasonable but TUE’s have a very murky past. It was a false and post dated TUE that Lance Armstrong used to explain the prescence of cortisoids in the ’99 Tour. Ironically and certainly unfortunately for Froome it was the same variety of banned substance that got him into hot water at the Dauphine.

After crossing the line ahead of Contador on stage 2 Froome was given an inhaler. No attempt was made to conceal its use and this is an important point. Sky handled the following furore with the typical cack handedness they display when the aren’t in control of the story (or indeed a race) and this certainly didn’t help the situation. Over the course of the week it emerged that Froome had previously stated he didn’t suffer from asthma, the reason given for the use of the inhaler and some commentators took things off on a tangent suggesting that Sky and their rider were somehow being ‘protected’ by the UCI. Perhaps the most damming criticism came from Walsh who had spent the previous year embedded with the team as well as writing the Froome tome. Walsh felt that Sky were backtracking significantly from the standards they had set for themselves at the team’s inception, that they wouldn’t race a rider that needed a TUE.

Things are so toxic because of Armstrong and the TUE use cannot help but remind people of cycling’s dark recent past. Sky’s whole reason for existence stems from a desire to race and win clean and the story of Froome’s inhaler shouldn’t be seen as history repeating. Much of the reason for this is what subsequently happened at the Dauphine. Over the final two stages of the race Froome lost his place and the leaders yellow jersey to Contador on Saturday and on the final day fell out of the top ten altogether.

Contador, point proven perhaps, lost the lead himself on stage 8 to Garmin’s Andrew Talansky an emotional victor hinting that Garmin may seek to do more than just go for stage wins at the Tour. Besides the collapse of their team leader Sky have a further headache in the loss of form that Richie Porte is going through. Porte has suffered a string of bad luck and non finishes since switching from Paris Nice to Tirreno Adriatico early on in the season. He will go to the Tour but it seems more likely that Froome will be reliant on Euskatel Mikel Nieve as his last man standing. Whether or not Froome will click with Nieve the way he does with Porte remains to be seen and Sky’s jangling nerves won’t have been soothed by Contador’s results with what was pretty much a Tinkoff Saxo B team supporting him.

Another rider dusting himself off after a poor week was Nibali who didn’t look like troubling the podium from the prologue onwards. There are a lot of noises off around Astana at the moment with Nibali and the Italian contingent seemingly at odds with the Kazakh management. It maybe too early for a parting of the ways, but it will take some of the bloody mindedness that Nibali displayed at the 2012 Tour in the face of Sky dominance for him to deliver another podium place in July.

Another young rider emerging with credit was Belkin’s Wilco Kelderman. With Belkin announcing that they are leaving the sport less than a year after coming Kelderman’s fourth place could prove timely. The team may yet survive as bike supplier Bianchi are keen to remain, but this will dependent on finding a title sponsor and results so far this year have been patchy at best. Orica’s Adam Yates delivered another strong finish in sixth, but will probably find himself squeezed into the top 20 or so, assuming the Aussies select him for the Tour. It’s possible they might be teeing up Simon Gerrans for a tilt at the points jersey if he can get over the climbs better than Peter Sagan this year and the Cannondale rider is squeezed out of the sprints by the three way battle between Cavendish, Kittel and Griepel.

Tour de Suisse 2014

The question for fans of Britain’s cycling knight ahead of the Tour de Suisse was would Bradley Wiggins use the race as an opportunity to stick a metaphorical finger up at Team Sky’s management in general and Chris Froome and Dave Brailsford in particular. Having announced that as far as he was concerned that he wouldn’t be part of Froome’s back up at the Tour a win in Switzerland seemed like the perfect risposte to the apparent snub delivered to the 2012 Tour de France winner. That Wiggins chose not to get on the pace, finishing more than 30 seconds down on the opening stage prologue, before losing more time on the subsequent stage and withdrawing from the race early is typical, although not for the reasons some would think.

Wiggins is goal driven and after riding Paris Roubaix and winning the Tour of California his stated aim was ride (in support of Froome) at the Tour. Having summised that he would be surplus to requirements in July Wiggins would not have felt the motivation to demonstrate his form in Switzerland while Froome rode in the Dauphine. The difference between the driven, target in mind Wiggins and the rider whose heart just isn’t in it is palpable and Wiggins was probably grateful in some strange way that the accident he was caught up in while loitering at the back of the peloton provided a platform for him to bow out early.

Some might say that Wiggins was doing the equivlent of taking his ball and going home and there is perhaps something in this. Now it’s clear that Wiggins never wanted to race the Giro last year it does go some way to explain his poor results and showing in the run up to that race. Wiggins may have felt that he deserved inclusion in the Tour team based on (delete as applicable) being a previous Tour winner and with the race starting in Yorkshire, but this ignores the fact that he merits inclusion based on form alone if you look at how he dominated the Tour of California.

The leader for much of the week was Omega Pharma’s Tony Martin who managed to hold on to the leaders jersey right up until the closing kilometres of the final stage. Martin had clung on through two mountain stages without much in the way of riders to support him; OPQS using the race to drill the Cavendish lead out train further ahead of the Tour. Martin took the lead after winning the prologue and cemented things further later in the week with victory in the TT also. He was eventually undone by world champion Rui Costa who is enjoying a better year than his predecessor in the rainbow stripes Philippe Gilbert.

Martin, lacking support, was powerless to stop a large break going away on the final stage that included Costa and he was able to distance his remaining companions in the break to claim victory over Belkin’s Bauke Mollema and IAM’s Mathias Frank who made out the overall podium as well.

With the Tour starting a week on Monday there’s a bit of a hiatus as the teams announce their shortlists and in some cases actual Tour line ups. We’re still waiting for the final Sky group but it seems likely that Wiggins won’t be a part of it with the rider announced as part of the England team for the Commenwealth Games. The party line remains that Wiggins will only be confirmed in terms of actual events if and when he isn’t selected for the Tour by Sky, but with the resurfacing of the fissure between him and Froome and the TUE controversy it seems more likely that Dave Brailsford will not wish to unsettle Froome further by including Wiggins in the squad.

Now that the dust has settled – VCSE’s Racing Digest #28

Paris Roubaix 2014

That Omega Pharma Quick Step have been the team of this years cobbled classics would not have been disputed ahead of last Sunday’s Paris Roubaix. Sure the Belgian outfit had celebrated a couple of individual wins for Tom Boonen and Niki Terpstra respectively in Kuurne Brussels Kuurne and Dwars door Vlaanderen but the most noticeable aspect of the team’s performance had been their ability to get numbers into the final selections in each of the races. Besides Boonen and Terpstra, riders like Stijn Vandenbergh, Zdenek Stybar, Three days of De Panne winner Guillaume Van Kiersbulck and Matteo Trentin had all been part of the action as races entered the final kilometres. The problem was that strength in numbers hadn’t delivered a result in the races that mattered and often it looked like having more than one rider capable of winning was creating confusion among riders and in the team car about who to back for the win.

Niki Terpstra - 2014 Paris Roubaix winner
Niki Terpstra – 2014 Paris Roubaix winner

Through no fault of his own Tom Boonen hasn’t been able to turn his form from February when he took KBK into further wins. It seems unfair to speculate how much of an impact his girlfriends miscarriage had on his racing, after all Boonen would be forgiven if he chosen to withdraw from more than one event under the circumstances. In Flanders and at E3, he didn’t look like he had the legs to challenge his greatest rival Fabian Cancellara leaving the team wondering which horse to back from Boonen’s many lieutenants. VCSE covered in previous posts, but the facts are that the QPQS strategy of backing Boonen, meant that the team appeared unable to think tactically when he faded and other riders should have been given the chance to go for the win. One trick pony Vandenbergh was always going to be an outside bet for the win in Flanders, but given the nod to go at E3, it’s entirely possible Terpstra could have nicked the win.

Of course, Terpstra would take missing out on the semi-classic as he’s now the proud owner of one of the weirdest trophy’s in any sport; the Paris Roubaix cobble (the weirdness continues as the PR winner also gets his name recorded for posterity on a shower cubicle in the velodrome). Boonen had talked about giving a teammate the opportunity to go for the win, even of setting someone else up if he wasn’t well placed on Sunday. The likelihood is that by the time Terpstra attacked with less than 10k to go, Boonen’s legs had gone.

He had attacked early, further out than even his 50k plus solo break in 2012. Watching Boonen was seeing a rider who seemed to know where every cobble lay, every gully that could be followed to avoid the bone shaking pave or to eke out some more speed. He was able to get across to a starry group that included Sky’s Geraint Thomas and later BMC’s Thor Hushovd, but what he couldn’t do was get them to work with him. With the gap to the peloton hovering around the 30 second mark Boonen spent his time between the cobbled sectors either caning it on the front of the break or shouting and gesticulating at his companions to take a turn. It’s hard to imagine a scenario in which riders on any of the other teams would work for a four-time winner of this monument, but Boonen’s vain attempts for some collective effort from the breakaway were not helped by the presence of riders from BMC (Hushovd) and Belkin who were riding for Taylor Phinney and Sep Vanmarcke.

While all of this was going on Fabian Cancellara had survived a near miss with a falling teammate and was lurking within the chasing group. He was happy to let first BMC and then Belkin make the running to try to catch group Boonen and didn’t appear to engage anything like top gear until Vanmarcke decided to bridge. Boonen who had stretched the gap to 50 seconds at one point, now saw it plummet until eventually the break was caught. If Boonen and co had still been ahead when they reached Carrefour de l’arbe it’s possible we could have been looking at the first rider to win five Paris Roubaix and possibly the greatest ever.

With such a stellar selection to contest the final stages it was still an outside possibility that Boonen might win at this stage, but with Cancellara now in the lead group there was also a sense that he would find a change of pace and go. When Boonen’s act had played out we had also seen a little cameo from Peter Sagan. Great rider that he undoubtedly is Sagan doesn’t seem at home in Paris Roubaix and his attack never seemed that determined. The rider that left you feeling “could he?” was Bradley Wiggins. Much had been made of Wiggins riding Paris Roubaix and he hadn’t exactly disgraced himself at Flanders the week before. At one stage he even led the race. Yes, you read it here (assuming you didn’t watch it!) Bradley Wiggins led Paris Roubaix. Let’s be clear the Wiggins that showed up on Sunday isn’t the grand tour winner of 2012, but he’s the first grand tour winner of any stripe to have ridden the cobbles for over twenty years. Outside of Terpstra’s win, Wiggins was the ride of the day.

Terpstra’s winning break had something of the Cancellara’s about it; a sudden injection of pace, the extra gear that no one can quite match. While everyone else was going “No, after you” Terpstra was gone. Wiggins and Thomas (yeh, he was still there) had a bit of a chat and based on Wiggins post race comments about “..having the legs” maybe it was Thomas who felt he couldn’t do much more. Rather like what might have happened with Boonen, VCSE can’t help thinking about what might have been if Wiggins and Thomas had gone into pursuit mode and chased Terpstra down. As it was the gap was soon too big and Terpstra was able to enjoy his lap of the velodrome before falling into the arms of his doris once he crossed the line.

The win will put some gloss on OMQS classics season and in Terpstra there’s the potential for a successor to Boonen as their go to man in the classics. Can Boonen win a fifth Paris Roubaix (or even a fourth Flanders?)? VCSE thinks probably not, even though we would love it if he did. He will be 35 next year and while Cancellara has been there or thereabouts himself this year, a second successive Flanders win masks a significantly less successful year than last. This is likely to mean a stronger Cancellara challenge in 2015 and with riders like Vanmarcke improving all the time it’s likely that Boonen’s days as the unofficial King of Flanders are numbered.

Vuelta a Pais Vasco 

A couple of lines from our favourite stage race of last year. This year’s Tour of the Basque country was held in relatively fine weather and perhaps this made for a less exciting race. The GC contest was pretty much settled on day one as Alberto Contador sailed up the least likely cat 2 climb on this years world tour to take a 14 second lead over Alejandro Valverde. The line up for the race had suggested that the GC would be more widely contested but with Carlos Betancur withdrawing after stage one the attrition rate took place each morning rather than on any of the climbs as one by one the GC boys packed their bags. Contador looked as good as he did in Tirreno Adriatico in that he delivered one spectacular ride and was then unspectacular in holding onto his lead. Valverde was marked tightly by Contador’s Tinkoff teammates and you felt that he was never going to beat his compatriot in the contest that mattered.

Omega Pharma had a great week with two stage wins for Tony Martin and one for Wout Poels. The first of Martin’s wins was a watered down version of his all day solo breakaway at last years Vuelta except here he went one better and actually one the stage. Martin’s winning margin in his specialist event wasn’t anything like as convincing but unlike Rui Costa, Martin has broken the curse on his rainbow jersey.

Unlikeliest win of the week came from Sky’s Ben Swift who showed a hitherto unknown capacity for climbs to win the penultimate stage. Take a look at the top 10 for the day and the complete absence of sprinters demonstrates the parcours that Swift needed to negotiate to take the win. The irony that Swift could win the stage ahead of so many GC riders is that in all likelihood if the stage had come down to a bunch sprint among sprinters he would probably finished top 10 at best (Swift was fourth in stage 3’s bunch sprint). After a fine showing in Milan San Remo, Swift might be an outside contender for one of the Ardennes classics, although it’s hard to imagine him sprinting up the Mur de Huy somehow. Perhaps the emergence of Swift as a classics option might see Sky finally pull the plug on poor old Edvald Boasson Hagen who continues to serve up poor performances in the races where he is a supposed ‘protected’ rider.

Froome’s ‘Lance’ moment

And so we inevitably turn to Sky. Chris Froome chose to ignore Ron Burgandy’s advice to “Stay classy” on Sunday by posting a picture from his training ride on Tenerife. OK, so it’s possible that Froome ‘dog’ still lets his missus post on his behalf but nothing says I don’t give a toss about what my teammates are doing right now in northern France than a picture of a snowcapped mountain and the admission that you have spent your day on a long training ride. This is the kind of self awareness that Lance Armstrong showed when he posted his Tour jersey photo after USADA and suggests that its Froome who had the problem with Wiggins before Wiggins had a problem with Froome. If there are teams within this team, VCSE is in team Wiggins.

In other news, Sir Dave Brailsford has stepped down from British Cycling to concentrate full time on Sky. Whether or not this is good news for Team GB and the track cycling unit remains to be seen (say in 2016) but it’s likely to mean good news for Sky. There isn’t any sign of the wheels coming off the Sky juggernaut yet, but this year hasn’t been particularly overwhelming either with Froome’s repeat win in Oman they only major success. For one reason or another Sky haven’t been the team riding on the front in stage races and while the classics outfit has enjoyed more success than last year, they’re still to land a major one day success. Brailsford bringing his laser focus full time to Sky is likely to bring fresh successes, but don’t be surprised to see the team winning races differently to the methods employed in 2012 and 2013.

No Sky.. No comment – VCSE’s Racing Digest #24

Paris Nice wrap up

If you’re one of the occasional readers of this blog you might be forgiven for thinking VCSE is a bit of a Team Sky fanboy. Certainly the team behind the Death Star crop up pretty often in these pages but that’s as much to do with the teams poor showing in one day races rather than the way they impose (or attempt to) themselves on stage races. Since the teams ‘difficult’ birth in 2010 where results didn’t match the hype and expectations Sky have proved to be a flagship example of the thoroughness that has made British Cycling and British cycling so successful. Winners of the last two Tour de France the team have also treated some of ASO’s other headline races as a Sky benefit in the last three years. Sky have delivered the last three winners of Paris Nice, previously seen as a warm up for the classics, but from Sky’s point of view an opportunity to drill their high tempo superdomestiques for the grand tours.

Big win for Colombia  & French cycling - Carlos Betancur
Big win for Colombia & French cycling – Carlos Betancur

The last week has seen a reversal of fortune for Sky. Not yet of terminal proportions, but a reminder of the unpredictable nature of road racing and the teams inability to go to a ‘plan B’ when their strategy unravels. Richie Porte, last years Paris Nice winner, was moved into Sky’s Tirreno Adriatico line up at short notice after Chris Froome was injured. This went down like a lead balloon with the ASO and things weren’t helped by Sky’s tacit disapproval of the parcours for this years edition that did away with the final day’s TT up the Col d’Eze and featured no summit finishes. ASO shouldn’t be criticised for changing the format; most people who have seen the race this week have said they have found it more exciting. The normally monosyllabic Sean Kelly, a seven time winner of the race and known as ‘Monsieur Paris Nice’ was probably at his most animated during commentary alongside Rob Hatch. We were treated to a weeks racing where the final outcome for GC could have been decided in the last few kilometres of the race. So, ultimately the race was won by a climber, but this was a racer’s race with the contenders at the sharp end at the death each day.

Sky elevated Geraint Thomas to team leader in Porte’s absence and the Welshman did take the overall at one point during the race, only to fall out of contention after a nasty crash on the penultimate stage. By then AG2R’s Carlos Betancur had taken the yellow jersey following back to back stage wins during the week. Betancur was well looked after by a team that aren’t that familiar with trying to control a race, but it was good to see a race being controlled using old school methods like covering attacks, rather than relentless drilling on the front that seems to have become the norm with Sky. A bit of an aside here; Movistar have taken to riding on the front this year too and AG2R should be grateful for that as the Spanish team kept the breakaway riders very honest today for the final stage.

Just as it’s too early to write Sky off, it’s far too soon to talk about the curse of the rainbow jersey. World champion Rui Costa had a couple of close finishes at Paris Nice, but the disappointment of missing out on those wins was probably less painful than the crash he got caught up in on today’s final stage. He looks like a great signing for Lampre and bike sponsor Merida are making the most of him too in their new TV advert.

Assuming Thomas is still being viewed as a classics specialist then his performance in Paris Nice, at least until his crash, was pretty decent. He still doesn’t look like someone who’s about to win a big one day race, let alone a stage race but taking the lead in Paris Nice is another step forward from holding the lead for a few days in the 2013 Tour Down Under.

Betancur ends the week as the leading rider on the world tour. The ‘big’ names; Froome, Nibali etc. are nowhere to be seen at the moment, but Froome rides in the Volta a Catalunya in a weeks time and it’s hard to imagine that the table will look like this by the end of July. Despite this, Betancur’s result is a big one for him and Colombian cycling, perhaps elevating him in front of Rigoberto Uran if not Nairo Quintana for now.

It’s also a massive result for French cycling; today’s win for AG2R was the first for a French team in Paris Nice since the 1980’s. If it’s also a sign that cycling is becoming ‘cleaner’ if a French team can win Paris Nice it’s no bad thing, but for now the real winners are ASO for showing how interest can be maintained in a race if you dispense with endless summit finishes.

Tirreno Adriatico – the story so far

If the parcours for Tirreno Adriatico suited Richie Porte more than that on offer at Paris Nice we will never know as he pulled out of the event after Saturday’s stage. Porte never really looked like he was in contention this week and if he really was suffering from a virus it might explain his feeble digs on the climbs this week.

The early part of the race belonged to Omega Pharma. With Tony Martin and Mark Cavendish in the line up, the world TTT champions took the leaders jersey after stage one with Cavendish eventually surrendering it to teammate Michael Kwiatowski. The Pole is in great form after a win at Strade Bianche and considering the mix in the OPQS squad between GC specialists like Kwiatowski and Uran and Cavendish’s lead out train the team did well to keep the lead for so long. Uran seems out of sorts at the moment, perhaps unsettled by the more established Kwiatowski’s performances so far this year.

Kwiatowski finally faltered on Sunday’s stage losing the lead to Tinkoff Saxo’s Alberto Contador who has looked stronger as the week has gone on. Contador looked like he was back to his best, teeing up his stage win and stealing the lead from Kwiatowski with an economical ride in Saturday’s stage. Ably supported by Roman Kreuziger, who also looked super strong yesterday the two teammates saw off rivals and got within a minute of Kwiatowski ahead of today’s (Sunday) stage. It’s hard to see Contador giving up the GC now with a flat stage tomorrow ahead of the final TT.

An in form Contador is good news for those of us that don’t want the grand tours to be just about when Chris Froome will take the lead this year. Let’s just say this once more; it is far too soon to write Sky off, but for those that want some drama at the head of a stage race a resurgent Alberto Contador and the continued emergence of good Colombian riders is a very good thing indeed.

Revolution series round 5 – London Velodrome

VCSE was lucky enough to attend one of the sessions at the Revolution series final round this weekend. This was the first competition to be held in the Velodrome since the Olympics and there’s was a pretty much a full house, even at the afternoon session we joined.


First, a bit of a confession. Track cycling doesn’t really do it for your correspondent. That’s not to say all of it, but some of the events and not necessarily the obvious ones, are a bit of a yawn. For example, where’s the excitement in watching a three lap track stand contest? That said, even up in the gods it was as interesting to watch the riders prepare and then wind down between events. Seeing Laura Trott calmly walk over and pick up a flip top bin before vomiting into it after her pursuit round is a visceral insight into what it takes to win. A semi-serious debate between track commentator Hugh Porter and the crowd (via Twitter) about why velodrome tracks always turn left mentioned the connection with the Roman chariot races. There is something gladiatorial about the track and some riders know how to involve the crowd and then exploit that to their advantage. World champion Francois Pervis was able to get the kind of reaction that belied the fact that here was a Frenchman beating a British Olympic champion in his own backyard.

Pervis was putting the hurt on Trott’s other half, Jason Kenny. You imagine that Trott is properly supportive of her boyfriend no matter how he performs, but it maybe another psychological hurdle to overcome if you’re partner is winning for fun and you’re struggling to make the final. Trott it seems is not fazed by anything, even being physically sick in front of thousands of fans and the going to sign autographs for an hour. Before the incident with the bin, Trott was able to remove her aero helmet and do a victory lap that gave no indication of what was to come.

The Olympic legacy seems alive and well with the turnout for the Revolution. The biggest cheers were always going to go for the riders that the crowd had heard of; there was surprise and a little dismay when Dani King was beaten by Katie Archibald in the pursuit. Hugh Porter whipped things up as much as a man in his seventies could do when the crowd went a little flat and eventually the men’s points race had the crowd hooked when each sprint came around.

Trott ended the event with a fantastic score of six points in the omnium, the lowest possible score being six points for six victories. There’s obviously strength in depth in British track cycling but Trott looks like someone who can become truly dominant. We’re left with a hankering to stand in the centre of the track at the Ghent six day; as exciting as the racing was from the stands with a diet coke, watching amongst the crowd with a beer sounds like the way to go!

Revolution @ London Velodrome
Revolution @ London Velodrome

On what to do when you’re caught short in Dubai

There probably isn’t any other sport that offers the accessibility to the ‘action’ than professional road cycling. Mountain biking at the highest level requires a ticket to spectate, but even at the worlds greatest races like the Tour there’s no charge to see Cavendish, Contador and Froome. There are one or two downsides to watching this free event though. Choosing the right vantage point to see the peloton go by is important, but so is the type of race. With average speeds of 40kmh plus on flat stages your taste of the action could be over in seconds. It’s not surprising that the biggest crowds gravitate towards the climbs where there’s interest from the front of the race to back with the specialist climbers trailed by those who are battling to beat the time cut off. The biggest crowds away from the grand tours tend to be in countries where there’s a strong cycling culture, but that hasn’t stopped the UCI and race organisers promoting races in less obvious locations.

Taylor Phinney - Dubia Tour Winner
Taylor Phinney – Dubai Tour Winner

Hosting a stage race in Dubai isn’t so unusual with races in Qatar and Oman already well established. A race in one of the richest, albeit smallest countries in the world. would have made sense to the people behind it. That said there were mutterings when the race was announced; was there a need for another sprint orientated, desert based stage race early in the season? Getting big names like Cavendish signed on to the project early on was certainly going to help.  While the race was never going to get full world tour status in its first year the field including numerous big names including world champion Rui Costa, Fabian Cancellara, Peter Sagan and Marcel Kittel. The race would be held over four stages; an opening time trial, two out-and-out sprint stages with a lumpier stage that might favour the classics riders in between.

With world TT champion Tony Martin in the Omega Pharma line up the winner of the opening stage might have seemed like a foregone conclusion. Martin was due to leave the starters hut late on, but before that we had the unusual sight of riders using standard road bikes for the test. The decision was taken, apparently on cost grounds, to run normal bikes to help out the lower division teams like Dubai Skydive. It did seem strange that a race held in Dubai should be so cost conscious! As things turned out Martin could finish no better than fifth on the stage. The win was taken by BMC’s Taylor Phinney who would take the leaders blue jersey, designed by Versace no less, and hold it for the rest of the event. Martin blamed his late start, but it’s easy to understand why the organisers would have wanted the rainbow stripes going off last to try to establish more interest in the race. The opening TT ran around the skyscrapers of central Dubai and watching a test live, often less than scintillating, was further hampered by loss of pictures due to the size of the buildings all around. It was at least one way to learn that someones idea of architecture is to create a pastiche of Big Ben for their latest addition to the Dubai skyline.

Like the sprint stages in Qatar the format in Dubai was often a parcours that involved heading out of the central area before returning for the finish. Stage two finishing at the man-made ‘palm’ that juts into the Arabian sea was inevitably billed as a Kittel Cavendish showdown. Cav, reunited with lead out man Mark Renshaw was making all the right noises before the race began. At the finish it was Kittel from Sagan with the British champion outside the top 20 even. Kittel won the two remaining stages also, surprising everyone at the finish of stage three by managing to keep with the leaders over the climbs. Cavendish too wasn’t left behind, but unlike the Giant riding giant he wasn’t near enough to contest the sprint.

Cavendish seemed more agitated, according to Eurosport co commentator Brian Smith ahead of the final stage, but it looked like a mechanical spared any criticism of his lead out. We shouldn’t read too much into the Kittel white wash. In the immediate aftermath of the final stage Cav was all smiles as he congratulated his rival. It looks as if they’re good friends too, based on the exchanges between the two on Twitter.  It was a somewhat experimental sprint train for Cavendish too with new signing from BMC, Peter Velits and Renshaw. While all eyes were on Kittel, Renshaw was well in the mix on the sprints which suggests he still has the speed to get Cavendish where he needs to be when it counts. If anyone seemed annoyed on the final stage it was Peter Sagan who crashed towards the end and threw his broken Cannondale away either in anger at himself or the unknown assailant who took him out. Phinney was also in the mix in each sprint and confided that he had enjoyed his best ever pre season in terms of preparation. He could be one to watch in the classics this year and BMC are another team that seem to be improving under new management after an underwhelming 2013.

With the access all areas nature of stage racing comes a similar low fi level of the facilities for the riders as well as spectators. Its not unusual to see teams regular support vehicles absent in some of the fly-away races, but something that’s absent for the riders at every race is toilet facilities. Another unique aspect of watching live cycling is the sight of riders peeling away from the peloton. A sudden bout of punctures and mechanicals? Oh no, this is the inevitable toilet break and is invariably followed by a swift cut away to spare the viewers blushes as the riders relieve themselves. There are of course varying techniques that are employed. Greg Lemond famously used one of his domestiques casquettes (cap) when struck down with diarrhea at the Tour. Some of the better bike handlers like Tom Boonen are inclined to pull down their bibs and do their business on the road, sometimes putting a  hand on another rider for support as they go. In the polished streets of Dubai it was something of a dilemma then with no convenient bushes to hide behind. VCSE wonders just who’s wall it was that got used on that final stage in Dubai.

Picture credit – Flickr Commons http://www.flickr.com/photos/pierredebrouillard/12384230573/

500 channels and there’s nothing on – VCSE’s Racing Digest #21

It’s the beginning of the road racing season with the traditional (at least of recent years) season openers; the Tour Down Under (TDU) and the Tour de San Luis. It really doesn’t seem that long ago that VCSE was tuning into the Tour of Lombardy the last race of note each year. ‘The race of the falling leaves’ might be more accurately nick named ‘The race of the falling rain’. If 2013 was anything to go by it didn’t seem that a race could be held in Italy without an accompaniment of torrential rain. The UCI’s choice to stage the early world tour races in far from the european winter has less to do with a search for warm weather as a money making opportunity; witness the introduction of a stage race for Dubai this year. The ‘desert’ races in Qatar and Oman are worth a watch for the chance to see which sprint train is functioning the best and an early indicator of GC form respectively.

Simon Gerrans - TDU GC winner
Simon Gerrans – TDU GC winner

Before the peloton gets sand blown however they must journey south for the world tours solitary visits to the South American and Australian continents. Both races feature a mixture of stages with options for breakaway or sprint finishes. We say all this with the proviso that we haven’t actually watched any footage from either event! If you’re a cycling fan and want to watch races, either live or highlights, then it’s pretty much essential to have Eurosport. Whether that’s via some kind of TV or cable subscription or via the channels own web app Eurosport will have more coverage of more races than any other channel. Part of Eurosport’s charm is that they don’t just cover the races you expect like Paris Roubaix of the Tour. It’s often possible to tune in randomly and find that their live coverage of an obscure cat 2 race from some French back water. These are often the best races to watch if you yearn for a dominant team performance from FDJ or AG2R, who often appear to be there just to fill gaps in the peloton in the major races.

The TDU and San Luis aren’t covered by Eurosport so getting to see either race can involve some difficulties. Correction, getting to see the TDU is easy if you shell out further for Sky Sports. Sky seem to be taking a wait and see approach to snapping up the rights for the races that are currently covered by Eurosport. This might seem surprising considering their four year old and ongoing sponsorship of a world tour team, but for now at least, they have contented themselves with one or two races lower profile stage races shown live and highlights from the Giro. It may yet happen that Sky outbid ITV for their live rights to the Tour in 2015 and that may in turn have implications for those of us that rely on Eurosport. Sky don’t appear to be concerned at the likely loss of viewers if the Tour moves from its current terrestrial berth, no doubt reassured that they will recoup any investment via advertising revenues. It would be ironic if the one professional sport that doesn’t require a ticket to watch live would require an increasing level of subscription for the armchair fan.

So what are the options for the non Sky endowed to keep up with the action from down under? Ironically, the local broadcasters do offer a very good live web stream. The problem for the UK viewer is that accessing this directly from someone like SBS is blocked; this even applies to their YouTube highlights. Just as VCSE used to sit glued to teletext in the days before rolling 24 hour sports news, the (comparatively) low tech way to follow a race live is often via social media. Ironically Sky provide one of the best live feeds via their Twitter, if restricted to the races where they are competing. More of the world tour teams are starting to pick up on this idea of keeping the fans updated and it isn’t exclusive to the big outfits with smaller teams like Madison Genesis doing the same from the Tour series last year.

A constantly updated timeline from Sky works wonderfully when you can’t get closer to the action. It comes into it’s own when you’re actually at the side of the road during a race too, helping to work out when the race will flash by. The only time Sky’s regular Twitter updates during a stage can frustrate is when you are planning to watch ‘as live’ from a recording later in the day. VCSE’s evening in front of the telly has been ruined on more than once by inadvertently seeing a Sky tweet on our timeline. Less likely to appear for every race, but always around for the key ones is NYvelocity (@nyvelocity) if you want to laugh along with a race.

In race social media commentary from the riders might provoke controversy, although it would be interesting to have some open mics around to listen in to the conversations through the window of the team car. VCSE doesn’t claim to slavishly follow the output of every member of the peloton, but pre and post race some riders are better value than others. Jens Voigt and Taylor Phinney spring to mind as two that can be relied upon to say something a little less anodyne.

When it comes to stats there’s plenty to choose from. VCSE is never too many clicks from Steephill.TV during the season (see the links page) for details of who finished where and aggregation of the best reporting and video. Innrg (go to the links page again) does a regular feature about where the race was won. Cycling News is probably the best news source within the UK, but there are often (more) interesting perspectives from elsewhere in the world. Velonews (US) and Cycling Tips (Australia) are worth a bookmark.

So, what is the VCSE take on the opening week of 2014 road race season? Orica’s Simon Gerrans won a record third TDU title to go with his second Australian road race jersey. The Aussie outfit had a bit of breakthrough year in 2013 with Gerrans wearing yellow at the Tour. That Matt White’s return as DS after his doping ban coincided with this suggests that the team could be one to watch in the classics this season. Gerrans is a previous winner at Milan San Remo and if his form continues could be worth a punt in 2014.

Five seconds off the GC and a stage winner during the week was Lampre’s Diego Ulissi. The Italians have under performed in the last few years but a management shake up in the off season might suggest that Ulissi’s podium could be the first of many. Lampre have the world champion Rui Costa on their Merida’s this season and he’s a rider capable of freelancing some wins in 2014. The fact that the new team uniform is less lairy than recent years (the fluro pink has been turned down) must help too surely! With a further stage win taken by Sacha Modelo on the final stage at San Luis Lampre start the year at the dizzy heights of 4th in the UCI team rankings.

Is Marcel Kittel’s misfiring sprint cause for concern? This early in the season; probably not and it isn’t as if Kittel hasn’t won already this year (at the TDU prequel). Andre Greipel took two stage wins but takes the VCSE award for the best team kit of this year in Lotto’s homage to Merckx and Molteni. Talking of sprinters Mark Cavendish wasn’t able to repeat a stage win in Argentina with Tom Boonen finishing the stronger in the bunch sprints. Last year Cav went from San Luis to the overall in Qatar. Last year was a disaster for Boonen. Cavendish has complained in the past that his Omega Pharma team need to make up the mind what kind of team they want to be. Could it be that everything will be focused on getting Boonen in top condition for the classics at the expense of early season wins for Cavendish?

In a nutshell then, the VCSE predictions for the early season; another tilt at Milan San Remo for Gerrans, Lampre resurgent and all for Boonen at Omega Pharma.

Should be an interesting watch..

The all encompassing end of season round up – World Championships and UCI Election

2013 World Championships – Tuscany 

It’s been a while since our last post where Wiggo and Cav were leaving home shores to support Chris Froome in his tilt at the world championships in Tuscany. Ahead of that Sir Brad was heading for his seasons goal (if we all forget about the Giro) of the individual time trial. Would he assist Froome in the road race a few days later and what exactly would Cavendish be doing, other than proudly representing his country.

Individual Time Trial

VCSE isn’t aware if there was a representative from every nation on the globe at this years world championships, but in the category for ‘country with quite a lot going on at the moment..’ Syria managed to enter a rider in the men’s Elite TT on the fourth day of the week long cycling festival in the Tuscan hills. Nazir Jaser propped up the field in 77th place, which isn’t the point really. While you ask, “How does he manage to train?”, if not where it’s worth noting that last place was only a shade over 15 minutes behind the winning time of Tony Martin and his average speed over the 57.86km course was nearly 43kph. We will never know if would have beaten the two Ugandan entrants as unfortunately they did not start.

English: 2011 UCI Road World Championships – M...
World Champion – Tony Martin (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The much trailed match up between the (relative) elder statesmen of the test, Wiggins and Cancellara, was won by the Englishman. This was the undercard though; Tony Martin was the man to beat from the earliest of time checks and Wiggins second place suggested both riders were peaking at just the right time. Cancellara had opted not to take time information (neither had Wiggins), but the battle for second and third places seemed to come down to his fast out of the starters hut approach verses Wiggins slow(er) build to a peak in the final quarter.

Wiggins has been less bullish as the sands of this years racing have ebbed away and seems more comfortable with the fact that he has been beaten by the better man, at least in terms of performance on the bike by Martin and perhaps psychologically earlier this year by Froome as he lost his number one status at Sky.

Cancellara had bested Martin in the Vuelta as Wiggins in turn had beaten the Radioshack rider in Poland shortly after the Tour. The edge that each protagonist sought over his rivals ebbed and flowed as the main event approached. There is a sense of drama, even in what is to some people the dullest of cycling disciplines when watching Wiggins or Cancellara. Martin however is a metronome, even if below the skinsuit and aero helmet the physical and mental toll is playing just as viscerally for him.

As Martin took more than 15 minutes out of our Syrian friend Jaser so he took the best part of a minute out of Cancellara and Wiggins. The Sky rider who had gone to Tuscany to win announced that he was “..happy with second”. Watching Tony Martin that day who could have doubted he meant it.

Women’s Road Race 

As it must have been when Eddy Merckx was at his peak Marianne Vos’ name on the start sheet casts a long shadow over the rest of the field. That she began the Elite Women’s Road Race as favourite was unsurprising. Of more interest as the race started was the race strategy of some teams to deploy almost their entire teams to try and beat the dominant rider in the field.

First the Americans and as the race reached the final stages the Italian team attempted to set a pace to try and split the field and tire out, if not Vos then her Dutch teammates. The climbs that suggested the possibility of a GC contender taking the men’s race the following day played their part in the womens’s race also as the sole remaining US rider Evelyn Stevens attacked on the penultimate climb. This wasn’t the final ascent of the Mur de Huy in the 2012 Fleche Wallone and the small advantage gained was soon gathered in by the remaining group.

Arguably it was the Italians who held the most cards, with three riders the largest group by nationality in the selection. But it was Vos who attacked on the final Salviati climb a short, straight and steep ribbon of freshly laid tarmac covered in so many fan’s messages they had become almost indecipherable. The ease with which Vos reached, overtook and then rode away from her rivals left you wondering if you had just seen every other rider drop the heads and concede the race there and then. There had been no shortage of effort thus far and the selection contained some of the greatest female riders currently racing. Did the fact that she made it look so easy, so effortless sow an immediate seed of self doubt that Vos could not be beaten.

You cannot dislike Marianne Vos, despite her dominance. Her joy as she crossed the line was not because of the margin or nature of her victory. In her mind this was another milestone, a back to back world title. Her search for the next milestone may take her into other disciplines next year (mountain biking is rumoured), but surely the next challenge for the road would be a hat-trick of rainbow jerseys on the road.

Men’s Road Race

Helicopter and wide angle tracking shots were not in evidence or in fact possible for Sunday’s Elite Men’s Road Race. The heavy rain that had characterised much of the Giro created conditions that meant that the selections and abandonments from the peloton came on each of the ten laps of the Florentine circuit the women had raced the day before.

Mark Cavendish’s role was of hare to the hounds of the peloton the strategy of the British team and those countries protecting a GC type rider to try and exhaust the classics specialists like last years champion Philippe Gilbert and Fabian Cancellara. The pace, perhaps more so the weather, led to the early abandonment of many of the field as riders got dropped and decided it was infinitely preferable to be inside and wearing something other than sodden cycling gear. Chris Froome’s tilt at the title was possibly not as serious as he suggested, although he hadn’t shown much form on his return to racing in the continental US. Ultimately, the entire GB squad got off their bikes and the suggestion afterwards that the race had been used as preparation for the Olympics two years hence was as welcome as the Italian weather. A Froome in better form might have been able to freelance to a better place, even if a win was unlikely.

The win was taken by this years medium mountain specialist, the winner of the Tour de Suisse and two stages at the Tour Rui Costa. He had been in a the select group of riders left contesting the race on the final lap that also included his Movistar teammate Alejandro Valverde (Spain), Italy’s Vincenzo Nibali and Valverde’s compatriot Joaquim Rodriguez. There was almost an even split of GC to classics riders with Gilbert and Cancellara joined by Peter Sagan and Simon Clarke.

As with the women’s race the day previously the Italian’s had some strength in numbers as the finish approached and Nibali seemed well placed if not in a position to dominate the selection. If anything there was an echo of his performances in the Vuelta where he seemed to lack that final 5% that had made him so strong in the Giro. Would this have told at the line? No, Nibali slipped off in the wet and was left to contest a placing. Ahead Rodriguez had attacked and was doing his approximation of time trialing to the finish with Costa in pursuit. Purito might have expected fellow countryman Valverde to cover Costa. Although they were trade teammates at Movistar, Costa had already announced a one year deal with Lampre. Surely, Valverde wouldn’t be complicit in letting Costa catch Rodriguez? Costa had shown his strength in the final kilometres of a race in France in July and he reached Rodriguez’s wheel with time to spare. The little Spaniard and the Portuguese engaged in conversation. It’s not unknown for one rider to offer an inducement (read bribe) at this point to throw the race. Purito may just have enquired if Valverde had put up any fight at all to prevent Costa from getting away.

Based on the relative ease with which Costa had caught him it wasn’t much of a surprise that the seemingly perennial runner up Rodriguez continued his run of podiums while Costa took the win. Purito, who can seem happier with a second or third than many race winners was more subdued this time, a mixture of bafflement and frustration with third place man Valverde. Nibali was an anticlimatic fourth with a “disappointed” Cancellara rounding out the top ten, one place behind last years winner Gilbert.

Brian Cookson wins UCI presidency

The world championships coincided with the UCI presidential elections, also held in Tuscany so delegates could be reminded of what it’s all meant to be about. VCSE hasn’t covered much of the political side of the sport and won’t subject you, the dear reader, to much more than a summary here.

Incumbent Pat McQuaid had been on shaky ground ever since the USADA ‘reasoned decision’ that led to Lance Armstrong’s lifetime ban and stripping of his Tour titles. Even if McQuaid’s handling of the Armstrong affair in particular and the wider question of doping in the sport had been blemish free he couldn’t escape his associations with the Armstrong era. His position was further undermined by the impressive grassroots campaign to overturn his presidential nomination in Ireland and the subsequent messy attempts to get an endorsement from other nations.

Brian Cookson had emerged as his rival after initally endorsing McQuaid. Cookson’s campaign looked well managed in comparison to McQuaid’s, but concerns surfaced about Cookson’s tactics as the contest drew closer. Ultimately, cycling decided on at least the appearance of a break from the past. The rise in prominence of the sport in the UK during Cookson’s time at the helm of British Cycling would be good news for potential sponsors if he is able to raise the profile of cycling in an equally positive way in the next few years.

Like McQuaid, he will be judged first and foremost by how he deals with the legacy, if not the current issues of doping within the sport. Early signs are good with the promise of a closer relationship with WADA and suggestions of some kind of ‘truth and reconciliation’ process. Cookson has shown himself to be a pragmatist by offering to reduce Armstrong’s lifetime ban in return for him lifting the lid on his doping (Armstrong, at least publically, has so far refused to name names). While Armstrong is the tip of the iceberg, it’s the lack of a coherent approach to previous and existing dopers like Danilo Di Luca that cause concern.

Should anyone caught doping get a lifetime ban? Precedent in other sports suggests not, although multiple offences equaling a life ban seem to be accepted as an appropriate response. The standards applied to ‘irregularities’ also seem inconsistent and many riders can be misplaced into the category of dopers where there can be other reasons for this. It’s interesting to compare the current situation of Sky’s Jonathan Tiernan Locke with that of Charly Wegelius for example.

If Cookson is unable to make progress on lifting the Omerta that still exists around doping during his presidency he may end up being viewed as much of poor steward of the sport as McQuaid. He will require the cooperation of the riders and the teams along with the former players, but earning that is what being a politician and administrator is all about surely?

He has at least shown signs of increased support for women’s cycling with the appointment of Tracey Gaudry to Vice President. The introduction of a 2.1 category women’s Tour of Britain from 2014 offers the prospect of a more equal footing for the women’s professional peloton, but more needs to be done to deliver marquee events alongside the men, with a high profile stage race in France being the obvious example.

Froome set to win his first Tour – VCSE’s Racing Digest #13

As the late, great Kenneth Wolstenhome said “They think it’s all over..” and with one stage left to shuffle the GC classification it’s hard to see Team Sky’s Chris Froome losing his lead and the Maillot Jaune. VCSE’s prediction for the 2013 Tour de France looks safe, but as we went for most peoples favourite it was a pretty safe bet. Froome has ridden a dominant race. He has won two stages in the final week including Sunday’s summit finish at Mont Ventoux and the rather more closely fought second Time Trial stage in the Alps on Wednesday.

Tour de France 2013 Chris Froome (Tassin la de...
Tour de France 2013 Chris Froome & Team Sky (Photo credit: Stwayne Keubrick)

After winning the first stage in the Pyrenees on a very similar profile the likelihood was that Froome could achieve the same outcome on Ventoux as he had done at Ax 3 Domaines. The resemblance between the stage profile was mirrored by the result as Movistars Nairo Quintana attacked only to be reeled in and eventually defeated by the Sky mans pace. And rather like his first win this year it was Froome’s pace that gathered the most headlines afterwards.

Whether it’s the first post Lance ‘confession’ Tour or a dig at the rider / team or a combination of all three Team Sky in general and Chris Froome in particular have suffered a huge amount of scrutiny during this race. It had reached enough of a crescendo on the second rest day that Sky decided to counter punch with the release of Froome’s power data to L’Equipe and his biological information to WADA. It’s possibly a little unfair on the rider that he has had to deal with the volume and intensity of “Is he doping?” questions that come his way, directly or indirectly via social media. In previous generations (read pre Lance) the way Froome has gone about his attempt to win this Tour would have been celebrated. Three stage wins, including two summit finishes and the way he rode unsupported for an entire day in the Pyrenees is the stuff of legend. Yet he has been dogged by the doping question throughout the race in a way that only in the last couple of days (and perhaps not until the race finishes) has the tone of the reporting calmed down. In contrast to Sky’s erstwhile team leader Wiggins, Froome seems not to want to cause offence and perhaps an expletive laden rebuttal a la Wiggo might have silenced some of the doubters. The media have been quick to jump on any unfortunate quote or quip from the race leader to try and illustrate a tenuous guilt by association to the Tour’s fallen idols, but at least the sideshow appears to be abating now that Sky have wrested back control of the agenda with their information release.

It has felt a bit like the only thing that could derail the Sky train this year was themselves. In 2012 Sky established complete control over the peloton and while breakaways happened the rivals that mattered were kept firmly in the place by metronomic, power metered pace. This suited a team leader like Bradley Wiggins who essentially has one gear, but in 2013 Sky have Froome who is able to deliver multiple changes of pace even if he could be an illustration to define the phrase ‘win ugly’ with his all arms and legs riding style. And how they have needed Froome this year as the Sky train has been largely non existent. Other than his summit wins, the supporting cast (with the notable exception of Richie Porte) have been bit part players often falling away when Sky’s rivals have had domestiques in hand. Pete Kennaugh had another good ride on the Ventoux stage, but the other riders have suffered in comparison to say Movistar and Saxo Bank’s supporting cast. Of course, Sky lost Vasil Kireyenka early in the race, but they lost a similar engine last year without the same effect. Froome will n0 doubt show a great deal of humility and thank his team if he wins, but for VCSE at least the seeds for the victory were laid when he was alone in the Pyrenees on stage 9.

When Chris Froome is casting around for people to thank he should also spare a thought or two for the respective managers and strategists at Movistar and Saxo Bank. As brave as Froome was across the cols of the Pyrenees his opponents were indecisive or unwilling to deliver a fatal blow allowing the Sky rider to retain the lead and be in a position to consolidate it during the first time trial. Other than an opportunistic break on the wind effected stage 13 by Saxo Bank the opportunities to put some hurt onto Froome and Sky have largely been missed. For Saxo Bank Alberto Contador has been ably supported by Roman Kreuziger to the extent that the Amstel Gold winner has a solid top 10 result to look forward to. Contador had said he had his “..strongest ever team” going into this Tour but even if his teams tactics have been misplayed even Alberto admits that he cannot match Froome one on one. Whether climbing the Ventoux or on the second ascent of Alpe d’Huez Contador just hasn’t had the legs to see off the Maillot Jaune.

It was Movistar who had put Sky under pressure on stage 9 and Nairo Quintana who looked like their rider most likely to profit from a Sky slip, but the Spanish team suffered from not knowing which horse to back. Alejandro Valverde’s untimely wheel change on stage 13 settled that but while Quintana was able to move up the GC and take over the young rider classification it was hard to see him challenging to overhaul the top two. Where Movistar have profited this week is from stage wins from breaks and it’s all thanks to just one rider. Rui Costa book ended the second TT and the Alpe d’Huez stages with two fine solo victories. VCSE predicts a swansong for Valverde in this years Vuelta, but expect to see Costa and Quintana as the GC hopes for Movistar next year.

With neither Movistar or Saxo able to put Sky under much pressure in the Alps this week the excitement has needed to come from elsewhere and Thursday’s queen stage to Alp d’Huez had all of this and more. Encroaching fans on climbs are probably considerably more frustrating to negotiate for a rider than they are borderline tedious to the armchair viewer. The fans lining the hairpins on the Alp take things to a whole different level however. For the leading group any hope of attacking on the climb was ruled out in favour of just surviving the no doubt well-intentioned gauntlet of fans. The second and final ascent fell into two distinct halves; those riders that still had something to race for and those who would be just happy to finish and ‘would have that beer thank you’  as they passed Dutch corner. In the 100th Tour no French rider had one a stage before the Alp and for a large portion of the race that looked as if it would remain. BMC’s Tejay van Garderen had imploded in the Pyrenees and this was going to be his salvation. A mechanical on the descent of the Col de Sarenne held him up for a while but he was the first rider onto the Alp for the final ascent. His lead began to plummet as he climbed and the remnants of the peloton raced along the valley floor, but of closer and more urgent concern was the pace of AG2R’s Christophe Riblon. Riblon had finished second to Costa earlier in the week and must have felt the weight of that near miss along with the need to win something for the team after his teammate and highest placed French GC rider Jean-Christophe Peraud had abandoned after a double crash and fracture on the previous days TT. As both riders emerged from the crowds into the barriered section of the course it was clear that the Frenchman was catching Van Garderen. You had to feel for the American and as Riblon closed in thoughts of the two riding together Hinault and Lemond style to the line flickered. But no, Riblon showed no mercy, riding past without a moments hesitation and any suggestion of ruthlessness towards Van Garderen was quickly forgotten as the prospect of a French stage win on this stage in this race dawned over the fans, the commentators and the viewers at home. Alongside Chris Froome’s solo battle on stage 9 in the Pyrenees and with two stages still to go a contender for the stage of the Tour.

Today’s stage promised much but didn’t really deliver. The second win for Costa was well taken, but Sky seemed to be given a fairly easy day on a potential banana skin parcours. Of course there is one more GC stage to come, a short and sharp 120 kilometres to Mont Semnoz outside Annecy. Will there be a last roll of the dice? Taking more than 4 minutes out of Froome at this point would probably involve an attack of epic proportions from Saxo and or Movistar from the flag. VCSE’s view is that the opportunity has passed and if anything changes tomorrow it will be the podium places. Katusha’s Jaoquim Rodriguez has climbed up the GC this week and he could be the rider to shake up the places in search of a podium spot. Otherwise it’s down to the teams and riders that need to make an impression with time running out for them; an Andy Schleck or Jakob Fuglsang perhaps?

And so we will leave the mountains and head for the nocturne in Paris. Can Mark Cavendish get five in a row on the Champs Elysee. It will no doubt come down to which sprinter has left enough in his legs following a week in the Alps, but the VCSE Top 3 prediction would be from these; Cavendish, Greipel, Kittel.


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.

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