Discs & Doping – VCSE’s Racing Digest #44

The season is already a couple of months old and we’re several races in already but this week has felt like the start of the new term proper. The first couple of stages of Paris Nice and Tirreno Adriatico give the commentators and colour men the chance to ruminate on the riders showing early form and look ahead to the monuments in the coming weeks and slightly further away the Giro. That’s the plan anyway. The peloton and the viewer wants to get played in gently before the GC gets decided over the course of the weekend. Things went awry for some of the key players on the first stage of Paris Nice as the weather intervened and caused time gaps that re-wrote individual’s game plans, Richie Porte just one of many reduced to stage hunting from then on. In Tirreno we saw a whole team derailed, not by the conditions this time. Sky riding with dual leaders in Mikel Landa and Geraint Thomas lost time on the team time trial as their exotic tri spoke wheels wilted in the spring sunshine.

Not the ideal start for riders looking to put down a form marker for Milan San Remo or the grand tours perhaps but it added an additional ingredient to a dish that I always look forward to. With the possible exception of Poland the week long stage races that follow the grand tours just don’t engage me in the way that Paris Nice, Tirreno or Itzulia can. I missed so much of last season as far as catching a stage or one day race ‘live’ was concerned, although so watching this week has felt like the end of Lent and I’m finally able to tick into the good stuff again.

Paris Nice and Tirreno serve up fairly meagre rations if you’re looking for a grand tour primer with only one or two days designed with the climbers in mind. There’s normally enough on the bone for a GC rider to claim the overall but if the queen stage does succumb to the weather then you end up with results like last year’s Tirreno where Greg Van Avermaet ended up with Neptune’s trident. The one rider who I could imagine overcoming the grand tour specialists without needing rain to stop play is Peter Sagan. With two stages remaining Sagan already has two of the proceeding ones chalked up. On Sunday he managed to stay with Thomas and race leader to Nairo Quintana to take the second. Mark Cavendish (fairly anonymous in the same race as I write) may grab more of the headlines if he matches Eddy Merckx’s Tour stage wins record but Sagan has to be the closest we have to The Cannibal in today’s peloton. With Cancellara out of the picture I can see Sagan really  dominating the next few years of classics racing even if he’ll never approach Merckx for all round ability. Thing is though I resent Sagan’s apparent superiority. If he’s made the final selection I find myself frantically scanning the other riders, carrying out a mental tick box assessment of who might be capable of beating him to the line. A couple of weeks ago, the ‘opening weekend’ of Het Nieuswblad and Kuurne Brussel Kuurne Sagan inevitably had been there at the death, winning the latter and placing second to Van Avermaet the previous day. I’m not quite at the point where I can’t find any joy in a Sagan victory, I just prefer the unpredictability, the ‘not knowing’ when the favourite is missing.

If there’s such a thing in cycling and if it’s not ironic to bestow it on him Alberto Comtador was the moral winner of Paris Nice. He’d ridden into contention during the week and was snapping at Sergio Henao’s heels after the Sky rider had assumed the yellow on Saturday. Henao wouldn’t have been my obvious choice for team principal but with Thomas and Landa in Italy he got the nod. Paris Nice isn’t a race that Chris Froome tends to do, although he has cropped up for Tirreno in the past. Froome involvement in this year’s race was limited to selfies as the peloton swept past on his local training routes. Contador was gracious in defeat (by two.. count them.. seconds!) to a rider that I can’t imagine leading Sly in a grand tour anytime soon. Fair enough, that Henao caught up enough to snatch the yellow back from him but I don’t think it would have happened if the peloton hadn’t worked as hard as it did to chase down Contador’s breakaway.

With Froome laser focused on the Tour again Sky have to ‘make do’ with someone else to lead the team and there’s something of a ‘Where’s Wally?’ element to the odd appearance he makes on social media. Make no mistake though, even when he isn’t racing Froome is the principal rider on Team Sky in the eyes of the fans and the media. As the teams own Watergate has rumbled on since last year’s initial TUE expose Froome has been conspicuous by his absence particularly in a week that saw more than half of his teammates come out publicly in support of Dave Brailsford. A combination of published and leaked reports on the TUE saga and investigations into the culture at British Cycling had led to a swathe of opinion that Brailsford needed to go. A rumour in the press that a rider within Sky had said that Brailsford should resign triggered the votes of confidence voiced on social media by Thomas and others. A follow up piece in the papers listed the riders who hadn’t spoken up for their boss. While some were pretty much invisible, such is the irregularity of their social media presence Froome was an obvious omission.* He has shared his view about the TUE saga once or twice. Never one to miss an opportunity to stick the knife into Wiggins he had been as pointed in his criticism as someone who has also ‘benefited’ from a TUE can be. In a tetchy interview recorded during a training camp earlier in the year Froome had also made clear his feelings that Brailsford should be the one with the explaining to do. Going for his fourth TDF title Froome won’t appreciate the distraction if the situation has been resolved by the summer. The inflated media prescence and the partisan nature of the crowds could prove to be an unwelcome distraction if the story refuses to go away. So was he the source of the ‘Brailsford must go’ rumour. In the absence of anything to the contrary it’s tempting to think he might have been. There doesn’t appear to be any doubt that Sky is Brailsford’s team rather than Froome’s but the rider can be characterised as someone who does what’s best for him so it might be tempting to imagine a world where doping questions disappear along with a Brailsford departure. Will Brailsford actually depart is another question entirely. Right at this moment I think not but further revelations might change that and the story shows no sign of going away. In the end it may prove to be ‘noises off’ from the sponsor (notably silent so far) that forces the issue rather than any press clamour that ends the fairytale.

While Sky could celebrate another overall victory in Paris Nice the ‘wheels coming off’ was the perfect phrase to sum up their situation in Tirreno. Pride was somewhat restored by Thomas taking a stage and he’ll finish high on GC albeit a long way off Nairo Quintana. In Abu Dhabi a couple of weeks ago another Sky rider appeared to fall victim to another bit of new technology in the peloton. The introduction of disc brakes is the irresistible force currently buffeting the immovable object of (most of) the riders. New to Sky this year Owain Doull has a gold medal from Rio and some impressive showings in bunch sprints last season under his belt as he becomes the latest prospect hoping to prosper on the Death Star. Doull had a coming together with Marcel Kittel in the final of a stage and sparked another ‘discs are dangerous’ debate when he suggested Kittel’s disc had sliced open his shoe in the ensuing crash. In the aftermath it was pretty conclusively proven that it the only way Kittel’s disc could have come anywhere near Doull’s shoe would have been if Kittel had been on Doull’s left rather than his right and travelling backwards at the time. As this truth was still getting its (ahem) boots on the anti disc faction had already dished up several versions of a potential disc rotor induced end of days.

The problem for the disc brake lobby, i.e the bike companies is that the majority of the riders just don’t want to ride them. I’m not convinced by the safety argument but as no one seems to want to call the pros out on stories like Doull’s or the other disc / not disc crash in last year’s Paris Roubaix the ‘alternative fact’ that disc brakes are too dangerous to be raced is allowed to gain currency. Maybe Doull and whoever that Movistar domestique was that crashed in the Arenberg last year genuinely feel their injuries were caused by discs but the evidence would suggest that disc brakes are some way down the list of potential dangers. Maybe there’s a ‘Rules’ / Velominati element to all of this. Perhaps it’s an old school thing like not wearing white bibs or the correct sock length. There’s little point in trying to enforce discs on the peloton but it will be annoying the hell out of Specialized that their master plan to have us all shelling out an extra few hundred large for discs might be derailed by the rider lobby. So far it’s only Quick Step and Cannondale who have really pushed the disc thing this season. Tom Boonen has done a puff piece about how it would be ‘stupid’ to ignore the benefits (smart guy Tom) and Cannondale had the whole team on discs in Andulucia and had disc equipped TT bikes at Tirreno. At least Sky couldn’t blame the disintegrating wheels on discs.

* Rather like my last post this one came together over a couple of days. On Monday Froome released a statement ‘backing’ Brailsford. I only read one report rather than his full statement but based on the quotes lifted for the article it didn’t sound as if Froome was offering unequivocal support. 

VCSE’s Tour de France 2016 Review

This is my first post since Roubaix way back in the spring. Since then I have changed jobs and i’m back working full time for the first time since I started the blog in 2013. Back then I spent the entire season watching any cycling I could ‘live’. I posted after every stage of the 2013 Giro whereas this year I didn’t do a single post about it. There have been a number of reasons for this; mostly a lack of time. I do think that you miss something following a race after the event. While many stages ‘caught’ live can be a complete bore there’s often a little thing that not everyone notices that underscores how the stage and / or race is won. There have been some changes to the schedule this year, both in terms of the calendar and the TV coverage that haven’t always been for the better. The Tour or Turkey was pretty much highlights only this year and that was a race that I enjoyed watching live. Then there’s the Tour of Poland that someone has decided would gain so much more from being scheduled to take place during the Tour de France!

Watching this years Tour I often found myself thinking that I ought to write about some of the things taking place. Cav’s yellow, GC teams invading the sprints, Froome’s panache, Sky NOT getting trolled for doping to mention just a few. I’ll get around to proof reading this review of the 2016 Tour but in the meantime…

Tour de France 2016

Signing off his review of the 2016 Tour de France and Chris Froome’s historic 3rd victory in the race David Millar said we should “..enjoy” Sky’s continuing dominance of the biggest race in cycling while it lasts. This sentiment seems to be widely held by most of the people on my social media timelines, but for this armchair pundit at least I think endure is more appropriate.

Tour de France 2016 winner – Chris Froome (yeah, I used this pic last year too

Don’t get me wrong; Sky have achieved a fourth maillot jaune in five years and that in itself is a fantastic achievement. But even if the Sky MO has evolved from the one dimensional approach employed to provide Bradley Wiggins his sole grand tour victory my heart sank when Froome assumed the race lead on stage on stage 8. Of course, only the most suspicious conspiracy theorist could suggest that Sky could have known in advance that Froome’s attack over the final climb on the stage would have resulted in him heading the GC for the remainder of the race.

Sky employed the same strategy during the Grand Depart and the early stages that had worked for them so well a year ago. A team made up of entirely of domestiques (no sprinting distractions here!) ensured that Froome was kept at the business end of the race even on sprint stages. A crash within the bunch on stage 1 led to some noises off from sprint patron (and ex Sky rider) Bernie Eisel among others criticising the GC teams for getting mixed up with the lead out trains long after the 3km cut off had been negotiated. I wonder if Mark Cavendish would have been quite so diplomatic about this particular strategy that Sky have led if he hadn’t been enjoying a renaissance and his first ever yellow jersey.

Froome was pretty much the highest place GC contender on anything that didn’t end up in a gallop before the stage into Luchon and his audacious wrong footing of his rivals over the Col de Peyresourde. Froome had departed the race when the Tour last visited the town in the Pyrenees in 2014. Chief rival that year Alberto Contador had crashed out too allowing his remaining Tinkoff teammates the opportunity to go for stage wins. Mick Rogers, in the break that day, waited until he was on the descent into town before attacking and then time trialling away for the stage win. Sky’s tactic was for Froome to attack the KOM on the penultimate climb. As the TV commentary speculated about Froome’s desire to take the polka dot jersey in addition to yellow he struck out before reaching the top of the Peyresourde and gained vital yards as Nairo Quintana fumbled with his bidon and looked around in vain for Alejandro Valverde.

If Sky can be accused of riding conservatively in defence of the GC the same can be levelled at the teams of the rival GC teams when it came to attacking. The relative form of the other pre-race favourites when the came under the spotlight can be debated further but the point at which Chris Froome won his third Tour came in those first few hundred metres of the descent into Luchon. There are many ironies in Froomes victory, not least of which is that he has shown spontaneity while his team have been anything but. It shouldn’t be discounted that there wasn’t a single stage where Froome had to go head to head with his rivals without riders like Wout Poels and Sergio Henao first administering a metaphorical beating to other teams domestiques. Despite this I don’t believe that Sky’s strength in depth was the deciding factor. One of the ex pros (I can’t remember who) invited onto ITV’s coverage of the final stage commented that we might have seen a different race if Alberto Contador hadn’t abandoned after struggling through the first week after a crash on stage 1. Maybe, maybe not. Contador’s luck was particularly bad, at least Richie Porte made the finish (and 5th overall) but he was rueing the loss of time due to a puncture in the final km’s on stage 2. Quintana, fell a long way short of pre-race expectations; a ‘virus’ was conjured up at one point to try to explain his inability to challenge Froome. Movistar’s much vaunted double team of Quintana and Valverde had no answer for Froome and Sky this time and other hopefuls were even further off the pace.

There had been speculation before the race that Astana could see a 21st century version of the rivalry between Bernard Hinault and Greg Lemond in the 1986 Tour with Vincenzo Nibali in the Badger role to Fabio Aru’s Lemond. I could use a couple of hundred words explaining how that worked out but rather than waste your time I’ll summarise; it didn’t happen. Nibali looked as if he would rather be anywhere else than the Tour and Aru was no more than a bit part player.

Yet another team supposedly offering a spicy inter team rivalry ahead of the race was BMC. Richie Porte was riding in support of Tejay Van Gardaren or joint leader depending on who you listened to or if it was a Friday or something. Porte was resigned to working for Tejay even though he was the much stronger rider until his ‘leader’ fell off the radar by which time the most the Porte could hope for was a podium place. If BMC have learnt anything from this years Tour it should be that Tejay Van Gardaren will never be a grand tour winner. Stage 2 puncture notwithstanding it would have been interesting to see if Porte could have challenged Froome if Tejay had been riding for him. One for 2017 perhaps.

Quintana ultimately did enough to get onto the podium, knocking Orica’s Adam Yates off the third step. Yates is not altogether a surprise package but his achievement suggests that there is a potential heir to Chris Froome outside of the Sky machine. Yate’s demotion may have robbed him of a podium place but he was still the winner of the young rider classification and can take some comfort that his time loss was a result of a mechanical rather than a loss of form in the final week.

If not many would have predicted two ‘home’ riders in the top 5 on GC, few people would have said that AG2R would have two riders on the Tour de France podium in three years. Romain Bardet delivered a French stage win and rode into second place on stage 19. Dave Brailsford has talked about the possibility of Sky delivering a French rider to victory in the Tour but as long as Froome is motivated to race the Tour Sky won’t be hiring a French GC rider and it’s hard to see a homegrown rider doing any better than what Bardet has achieved this year.

ASO recognise that the potential for a Sky dynasty along the lines of (whisper it) US Postal could prove detrimental for the Tour ‘brand’. The idea of 8 man teams was mooted today as a possible handicap to the Sky train (the team have finished this years race with the nine riders who started in Normandy three weeks ago). Others have talked about salary caps and a ‘draft’ for up and coming riding talent but it’s hard to see how such tinkering will upset the Sky juggernaut, at least where the Tour is concerned.

There’s another irony that this is the first year where Sky’s dominance of the GC at the Tour hasn’t been accompanied with accusations about doping. This, of itself, is a good thing although I am a little surprised given that Sky have made their opponents look so ordinary. The insights of the peloton have been notable in this respect; Mark Renshaw guesting on ITV today saying he studies Sky’s methods with great interest. Obviously, no one within the sport is going to speculate openly but the fans have shown much more respect to Froome’s result this year.

So the 2016 Tour wasn’t a classic as far as I am concerned; a British win isn’t enough of a justification. I have got this far without mentioning what for many was their defining moment of this years race. The incident involving Froome, Porte and Trek’s Bauke Mollema on the Ventoux stage could have played out very differently but actually mattered little to the overall outcome. I’m on board with Froome getting his finish time adjusted (and Richie too, although that was far less significant) as a result of his bike getting smashed by an oncoming moto. I thought that Mollema asked the key question however when he asked if he would have been given the same time as Froome if he had been the only one of the three impeded. When Dave Brailsford suggested that Sky waited patiently for a decision from the race jury I imagine the reverse was true. I can’t help thinking that it would have made for a more interesting race if the original post stage GC positions had been allowed to stand. The likelihood is that Froome would have re-taken yellow on the following day’s TT anyway but it would have shaken things up a bit, something the race needed in my view.

So much for the GC. Peter Sagan continues to entertain in the rainbow stripes and collected another points classification win. He vies with Froome as the rider you have to watch. If only some of the Sagz charisma could rub off onto Froome too. The KOM was dull viewing; it’s a classement that I normally enjoy following but Rafal Majka was more enigmatic as 2016 KOM than the entertaining rider who took the same jersey in 2014.

The sprints certainly didn’t turn out as expected. The key Mark Cavendish stat is that he wins far more Tour stages when he is in the same team as Bernie Eisel. It was the perfect start to the race that he finally got his maillot jaune after several attempts by the organisers to engineer the perfect opportunity. I think i’m right the expectations of a Cav resurgence were actually not that high and it’s been compelling to see the influence this has had on Marcel Kittel even after Cavendish had abandoned the race. It remains to be seen if he can cap everything with a gold medal in Rio in the next few weeks but Cavendish can be satisfied with his work so far in July, if not this year.

Cavendish has been reunited with Eisel and Renshaw at Dimension Data (nee MTN Qhubeka). He wasn’t the only one from the team to have an impact on this years race as Steve Cummings delivered another win to add to his victory in last year’s Tour. Cummings has developed a reputation as the breakaway rider of the peloton and this win added to the others gained in each of the stage races he’s entered this year.

Continue reading VCSE’s Tour de France 2016 Review

Caleb Ewan’s impenetrable wall of bikes – VCSE’s Racing Digest #42

Tour of Poland 2015

So Marcel Kittel got the monkey off his back (or should that be Gorilla?) in his first race since the Tour finished; the 2015 Tour of Poland. No doubt the win was hugely cathartic for the Giant Alpecin rider although if it was meant to herald a return to the heady days of 2014 where he won for fun it didn’t quite go according to plan.

Kittel took the opening stage victory from Orica’s Caleb Ewan and he was in the mix again the following day until a touch of wheels with Lampre Merida’s Sacha Modolo caused an accident that left practically the entire peloton stuck behind the tangled two wheeled wreckage where most of those involved in the bunch sprint were piled on top of one another. Missing from the crash scene was Kittel but he had already lost position before Ewan’s downfall. As he crossed the line behind stage winner Matteo Pelucchi, Kittel showed more emotion than he had at point of victory the day before; erroneously thinking the IAM sprinter had blocked him previously.

Pelucchi took another win the following day with Kittel trailing in a distant 7th as the stage delivered a kick before the line. He lost the overall race lead a day later and that was the end of the beginning of Marcel Kittel’s return to front line racing. His stage one win and the bizarre end to stage two at least delivered some drama to the uninspiring parcours that the race organisers chose for the opening few days. When you have become used to cycling being used as a sometimes not so subtle advertisement for the local tourist board it did seem a bit strange that this years race seemed to have decided to celebrate Poland’s urban rail infrastructure. One stage looping up and down a dual carriage way bisected by a tram line would have been enough; three was probably over doing it.

The second half of the race demonstrated how the Tour of Poland can often throw up an unusual result. Stage 4 provided an unlikely breakaway win and this was followed by the GC changing hands daily as first Bart De Clercq, then Sergio Henao and finally Jon Izaguirre pulled on the leaders jersey. Henao had been in the situation of holding the race lead into the final day’s TT stage at the Vuelta a Pais Vasco earlier this year. If there’s a safe place for your money it’s definitely not betting on Henao winning a stage race when a TT is the deciding factor. It’s still hugely enjoyable just to see the rider racing again after a career threatening injury but Henao is unlikely to be offered the chance of leading Sky in a race that really matters to them anytime soon.

And just as the spores of wild funghi spread across the undergrowth the sponsorship mushrooms of the Tour of Poland continue to multiply. If there’s a symbol of the race for me it’s these inflatable bulbs that line the race route as I have noted previously (here and here). Maybe this was the motive for the finishing circuits on this years race as the mushroom count for this years race surpassed both of the previous years combined. It’s part of the race’s charm that a sponsor can get maximum bang for their buck and yet random members of the crowd can get to the stage winner to claim an autograph of bidon before even the soigneur has handed them a coke and a towel.

Continue reading Caleb Ewan’s impenetrable wall of bikes – VCSE’s Racing Digest #42

Wiggo – exit with a bang or a whimper?

Paris Roubaix 2015

So that’s that then. Bradley Wiggins final race in Team Sky colours ends in 18th place in Paris Roubaix, nine places lower than his finishing position last year. Should this be seen as a failure? Many will answer “yes” but I’m not sure I agree with that. When the mainstream media show any interest in a cycling story the hyperbole is cranked up to maximum level and and Wiggins found himself cast in the role of favourite as anything less wouldn’t have sold the story. Of course Wiggins himself had talked up his chances for the race and it has often proved to be the case that he will get a result in an event that he ‘targets’. With Paris Roubaix falling at the end of the cobbled classics a review of what has transpired over the last few weeks left me thinking that whatever Wiggins thought of his own chances; no matter how well he and the Sky classics squad had prepared and considering the results so far this year, he would need to ‘go long’ to win.

In my last post I talked about how the order of things in this year’s cobbled races had been upset by injuries to riders like Tom Boonen and Fabian Cancellara and the improvement in the fortunes of Sky and Katusha. Boonen and Cancellara between them have dominated the recent history of Paris Roubaix (and last week’s Tour of Flanders) and Cancellara’s absence in particular has had a huge impact on how each race has evolved tactically this year. I don’t think that Alexander Kristoff would have been able to win in Flanders if Cancellara had been fit and I think that rival teams have struggled to adapt their race plans to the emergence of the Norwegian as a factor. With Kristoff in the form of his life I felt that the best way for Wiggins to counter his threat would be to attack at any point between 50 and 20 kilometres to go off the end of one of the cobbled sectors and time trial everyone off his wheel.

There was the briefest of flashes that Wiggins might do this with 32km to go when he broke free from the peloton and overhauled Stijn Vandenbergh who was ahead at the time. Although the remains of the breakaway were still further up the road I think if Wiggins had pushed on this point he could have won. Of course this is just one of several ‘what ifs?’ but Wiggins had enough left in the tank to attack again (by the time the race was effectively lost) at the roundabout outside Roubaix where Niki Terpstra went away last year. So if Wiggins had the legs; what else let him down?

Continue reading Wiggo – exit with a bang or a whimper?

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

Tour de France 2014 week 3 and in review – VCSE’s Racing Digest #34

Nibali untouchable 

As the 2014 Tour de France entered its final week and the second of three days in the Pyrenees the GC looked increasingly nailed on for Vincenzo Nibali. By the time the next two stages had been completed his victory was all but assured and most people’s attention shifted to the competition for the podium places being contested by three French riders for the first time in 30 years. But first to the Shark of Messina, Nibali who dealt with the man who was arguably his last remaining rival by appearing to not focus on him at all. Movistar tried any number of combinations to provide Alejandro Valverde with the platform to take time back from Nibali, if not take an unlikely lead. Nibali, supposedly hamstrung by a weaker team in many pre-race assessments actually rode similarly to Chris Froome last year, able to look after himself when the stage entered the final act.

Vincenzo Nibali TDF 2014 winner
Vincenzo Nibali TDF 2014 winner

There is a clear stylistic difference between the two riders, but the way Nibali disposes of his rivals by putting on short, powerful bursts of acceleration is no different to Froome. The Sky riders exaggerated pedal stroke is more obvious than Nibali’s digs but the end result is the same. On stage 17, won by KOM winner Rafal Majka Nibali did what was necessary to maintain his advantage but on the following day he destroyed any lingering chances of the yellow jersey going elsewhere this year.

Nibali won the stage to the top of the Hautacam by more than a minute from Thibaut Pinot. Inextricably linked with doping the margin of victory on the climb led to a louder chorus of questions for the Maillot Jaune. Whatever anyone thinks of Nibali’s performance it’s worth noting that his time up the Hautacam was only good enough to make the top 30 of all time climbs of the peak. Some have argued that his time may well have been slower as the stage also had to cross the Tourmalet, but from the VCSE viewpoint the significance of the time gap owed more to the absence of the aforementioned Froome and (of course) Alberto Contador.

Nibali’s winning margin when the race entered Paris was nearly 8 minutes, but he gained much of his lead on the cobbles of stage 5 where one of the pre-race favourites crashed out and the other lost time. It was also lost on many that Nibali gained yet more time on the penultimate stage time trial when most cameras were focusing on the battle for second and third between Pinot and Jean Christophe Peraud. The attack, if it can be described as such (surely just better race craft) on stage 5 is the most obvious example, but throughout the race Nibali took maximum advantage from the chances that were presented to him. When these chances happened towards the end of a stage, as with the end of stage 2 in Sheffield, Nibali grabbed the win while others seemed to wedded to their own game plan to capitalise.

The doping questions have been less strident this year, although the presence of Alexander Vinokourov managing Nibali’s Astana squad meant that some saw no smoke without fire. Nibali seemed to deal with the questions in a dignified way, although it’s also true that doping questions in general tend to emerge from English speaking journalists so it’s always possible some things got lost in translation. If the assumption is that Froome’s 2013 win was clean, then there’s no reason why Nibali’s victory should be viewed any differently. Of the riders starting this years Tour Nibali, Contador and Froome are a class above and in the absence of the latter two surely it’s not that surprising that Nibali emerged as the winner?

Nibali’s victory, for all of the peaks of his stage wins was understated and classy and that’s typical of the rider. The fact that Nibali is already talking about returning to the Giro next year demonstrates his appreciation for the history of the sport. Of course, a cynic might say that in doing the Giro in 2015 Nibali will avoid a match up with 2014 Giro winner Nairo Quintana, not forgetting the likely return of Froome and / or Contador. The likelihood of Quintana and Nibali meeting for a GC contest next season is unlikely if the Scilian doesn’t defend his Tour title. The question of who is currently the greatest grand tour rider will have to wait a while longer.

30 years of hurt.. Over? 

You wait 30 years for one French rider to get a Tour de France podium and then two come along. In our last post we had speculated whether AG2R could get a rider on the podium after Roman Bardet had lost his young riders jersey and third place to Thibaut Pinot on stage 16. With a time trial to follow the final mountain stages it seemed likely that Bardet would be the rider to lose out with the AG2R team, but as Alejandro Valverde’s hopes of a podium went a stage too far in the Pyrenees the French teams found themselves scrapping for second and third with two podium places on offer.

Peraud was often Nibali’s shadow in the mountains and that alone should dispel some of the speculation about whether or not Nibali is clean. Peraud the ex mountain biker is 37 and it’s hard to see his second place as anything other than a career high watermark. This isn’t to diminish his performance; Peraud finished ahead of stage race winners like BMC’s Tejay Van Gardaren as well as Valverde, Pinot and Bardet. Peraud leapfrogged Pinot as expected during the TT, but the FDJ rider was consoled by his own place on the podium as well as the young riders jersey.

The absence of Froome and Contador looms over this French renaissance however. It’s hard to see how the dual podium for Pinot and Peraud could have been acheived if Froome and Contador had been present. It’s more likely that a top ten result would have been possible, indeed this is where Pinot saw himself within the 2014 Tour contenders: “..no better than 5th to 8th”. The payoff for French cycling is a likely increase in interest and participation with the sport itself able to reflect that this is what a clean(er) race looks like.

Continue reading Tour de France 2014 week 3 and in review – VCSE’s Racing Digest #34

“That’s a bit of a turn up…” – The (inevitable) VCSE 2013 season review

Team of the Year 

When the BBC shows (what for it) is a minority sport like cycling on the annual Sports Review of the Year the coverage tends towards the lowest common denominator. The assumption is that most viewers will have a vague idea of a race around France each summer although that is possibly based on the arrogant view that if the BBC don’t cover it then people won’t find an alternative way to watch the event. In this environment there’s a certain amount of inevitability that Team Sky would be discussed (and nominated) as Team of the Year.

From a (slightly) more informed position it’s hard to imagine why Sky could be considered the team of this year, although last year’s was perhaps a reasonable choice. They retained their ability to set a tempo at the head of the peloton in stage races, up until the Giro seemingly able to impose this tactic on the supplicant opposition. Increasingly though those teams and riders who wanted to bring the fight to Sky began to find ways of overcoming the British team’s game plan. There were early hints that the Sky train could be derailed at Tirreno Adriatico when Astana and Vincenzo Nibali ganged up on Chris Froome to deny him victory for the only time in a major stage race this year. Sky didn’t have things their own way at the Tour either when it seemed like the entire peloton had decided it was payback time on Sunday’s stage in the Pyrenees. Forced to defend attacks from the outset, Sky had burnt their matches long before the days live TV coverage began.

In shorter stage races Sky had already demonstrated that if they didn’t have the strongest team they could easily fall prey to other teams (often) superior racecraft. They were even more exposed in the classics where their ‘protected’ riders couldn’t even deliver the squads best result. The criticism that followed the lack of results in one day races was fuelled by the fact that Sky had invested so much in a training program based at altitude in Tenerife rather than the ‘traditional’ preparation of early season stage races.

So if not Sky, then who? Certainly not fellow moneybags team BMC. Other than the quiet resurgence of Cadel Evans at the Giro BMC achieved little before the mid point of the season and their lacklustre performance was characterised by their attempt to back two riders at the same time in the Tour and have neither achieve. Perhaps the most significant event of BMC’s season was the shake up of their back up team with Allan Peiper taking over as race director after the Tour. The start of Peiper’s reign coincided with the team beginning to win again. A team to watch in 2014 maybe?

Vincenzo Nibali’s decision to move to Astana gave the Kazakh team the kind of marquee rider to deliver grand tours it had been lacking since Alberto Contador left. Dominant at the Giro, they were less involved at the Tour in Nibali’s absence. Reunited with ‘The Shark’ at the Vuelta the teams tactics on the penultimate stage were supposed to deliver Nibali victory on the day and the overall. Astana had riders in the break and in poor weather they had managed to stay away on the final climb to the top of the Angrilu. The strategy seemed telegraphed; as the peloton caught the break Nibali’s domestiques would be in the perfect position to support their leader as he went for the win. The script didn’t quite go as planned and the third grand tour went instead to Chris Horner riding for VCSE’s pick for the team of 2013, Radioshack.

RadioShack-Nissan - Eneco Tour 2012
Team of the Year – Radioshack (Photo credit: Wouter de Bruijn)

Horner’s squad began the year arguably as a lame duck team. The team’s association with Johan Bruyneel and Lance Armstrong hung over the 2013 outfit like a bad odour and then there was the announcement that title sponsor Radioshack would be pulling out at the end of the season. Would Fabian Cancellara have been as dominant in the classics if he had been up against a fit Tom Boonen? Academic now, but at the start of the year no one would have known that Boonen would have been struggling for form following his off season injury or that his year would have ended just as it was starting thanks to a crash in the early miles of the Ronde. The manner of Cancellara’s wins in E3 Harelbeke, the Ronde and Paris Roubaix might not have been quite so emphatic with an in form Boonen against him, but just as 2012 was the Belgian’s year so 2013 belonged to the Swiss.

Cancellara faced competition, in particular with the emergence of Peter Sagan as a real threat in the classics. At an individual level there were times when Sagan was maybe the stronger rider, but Cancellara was able to make an impact in races when it counted thanks to the tireless work of the Radioshack domestiques like Hayden Roulston who covered every attack and were never far from the front if in fact they weren’t heading the peloton.

Thanks to Cancellara then Radioshack were the team of the classics. Figuring at the grand tours was probably not part of the plan and this might have remained the case but for the intervention of the Orica Green Edge team bus on stage one of the Tour. Confusion surrounding where the stage would finish extinguished Mark Cavendish’s chances of taking the yellow jersey but left Radioshack’s Jan Bakelants in a position where he would inherit the jersey the following day in Corsica. Bakelants put Radioshack on the map at the Tour but it took the final grand tour to provide a triumphant end to the team’s season. Absent since Tirreno Adriatico where he had delivered a top five finish Chris Horner arrived at the Vuelta with a stage win on home soil as an indicator that he was coming back into form following injury.

A stage win early in week one was news enough for a rider about to celebrate his 42nd birthday but as the race progressed and Horner began to take more time out of the race leaders people began to realise he might actually win the whole thing. Once again the team leader was ably backed by his domestiques, including for part of the race Cancellara and Croatian champion Robert Kiserlovski. For many onlookers a Horner victory was not something to be celebrated and it’s fair to say doubt remains that a rider of 42 can win a three week grand tour ‘clean’. In the absence of a revelation that Horner’s victory actually was unbelievable, writing now it cements Radioshack as VCSE Team of the Year based on team and individual performances in the classics and grand tours.

Honourable mentions go to Movistar for delivering some memorable stage wins in the Giro and Tour and Orica for the irreverent custody of the maillot jaune during the first week of the Tour. Argos Shimano threaten to become the number one sprint team with Marcel Kittel and John Degenkolb. They have some of the leading young talent on their roster with double Vuelta stage winner Warren Barguil.

Rider of the Year

After dismissing Team Sky as a contender for Team of the Year it might seem contrary to pick Chris Froome as VCSE Rider of the Year. Froome deserves his place as the year’s top rider for the way he was able to surpass anything his team were able to do collectively, even when riding in support of him.

Christopher Froome at the prologue of the Tour...
Christ Froome (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This couldn’t have been made any clearer than on stage nine of this year’s Tour. The previous day it seemed as if Sky’s rival teams and Froome’s GC opposition had run up metaphorical white flags as the British team delivered a crushing one two as the race entered the Pyrenees. With his closest rival over a minute behind Froome had taken over the Maillot Jaune and the discussion was not would he win the Tour, but how big would his winning margin be. The following day as the peloton continued to traverse the cols of the Pyrenees the script was ripped up as first Garmin and then Movistar attacked Sky from the outset. By the time live TV coverage began Froome was alone at the head of the race. In truth, the sting had probably gone out of the stage by this point. Nevertheless Froome had no option other than to cover any attempt made by Movistar to attack the race lead.

Sky recovered the composure after the rest day and Froome survived another collapse in his teams inability to deal with the unexpected in the winds on stage thirteen. It was no coincidence that he came under greater scrutiny on the stages that he won in the Alps and the Pyrenees but the trajectory Froome followed in 2013 was in many ways similar to that of Bradley Wiggins in 2012 with victories in the Tour de Romandie and Criterium du Dauphine. Froome was in dominant form from the outset and VCSE speculated as early as the Tour of Oman (his first ever overall stage race victory) that the pattern for the season could be emerging. The only rider who looked able to unsettle Froome on the road in 2013 was Vincenzo Nibabli but other than their early season encounter in Tirreno Adriatico they did not meet head to head until the world championships at the end of the racing year. It could be argued that Wiggins unsettled Froome also, particularly with his interview ahead of the Giro where he speculated that he wanted to defend his Tour title. With hindsight it’s clear that Wiggins was never going to be allowed to do this and the axis of power has definitely shifted within Sky now with Wiggins unlikely to renew his contract after 2014.

While VCSE suspects an on form Nibali would edge Froome (we will have to wait for next years Tour to find out) the Sicilian was the nearly man this year as his tilt at a second grand tour victory and the world championships ended in anticlimax. Fabian Cancellara dominated the northern classics, but maintained a lower profile after that. The most successful rider in terms of outright wins was Peter Sagan. Judged purely on his ability to put bums on seats Sagan had a successful year. He won the points competition at the Tour with weeks to spare, reminding everyone that the green jersey is awarded not to the best sprinter but the most consistent finisher. Sagan is probably the closest rider in the current pro peloton to an all rounder. He is a factor against all but the quickest sprinters, yet is able to mix it in the classics.

If someone had to finish runner up to Froome this year VCSE would go for Tony Martin. His heroic failure to win stage six of the Vuelta after a monster solo break was VCSE’s moment of the year. Martin was possibly forgotten about at the world TT championships as Cancellara and Wiggins seemed like the form riders, but it was the Omega Pharma rider who dominated.

Race of the Year 

The early season stage races Paris Nice and Tirreno Adriatico got things off to a great start. Richie Porte emerged as possible third GC contender for Sky at Paris Nice and it will be interesting to see how he goes at the Giro this year. Sky backed Sergio Henao at the Vuelta but his performance as a team leader was in inverse proportion to his effectiveness as a domestique. If Sky hadn’t been so abject in the classics, their GC performance in Spain could have been the teams low point, soothed only by a Kiryenka stage win. Of the two, it was the Italian race that captured the imagination with a taste of the Giro to follow with punishing climbs and equally punishing weather. As the team’s Giro build up continued the Tour of the Basque country highlighted the decline of Euskatel as riders like Amets Txurrucka offloaded for mercenary ‘talent’ showed what we will miss about the riders in orange next year. The race also heralded the arrival of the latest crop of Columbian riders with Movistar’s Nairo Qunitana (the eventual winner) and AG2R’s Carlos Betancur featuring alongside Sergio Henao. As the season wound down it was hard not to enjoy a return to form (and happiness?) for Bradley Wiggins in the Tour of Britain.

Biblical weather disrupted Milan San Remo forcing the neutralisation of part of the race and the withdrawal of many of the peloton. Sky’s Ian Stannard demonstrated why he is one of the teams best hopes for a classic win as the race entered the final few kilometres, but it was Gerald Ciolek’s win that had the greatest impact, catapulting MTN Quebeka onto the world stage with a massive win for the African squad. Paris Roubaix had it all with spectacular crashes (search FDJ’s Offredo on YouTube) and Sepp Vanmarcke’s tears as he was beaten by the wilier Fabian Cancellara. In the Ardennes classics Garmin showed their tactical ability again (how Sky must want some of this magic to rub off on them) with Ryder Hesjedal providing the platform for a Dan Martin win.

Each of the grand tours had a claim for the race of the year crown. Marcel Kittel ursurped Mark Cavendish in the Tour, but perhaps more impressive was Cav’s win in the points competition at the Giro meaning he had one this contest in all three grand tours. Seeing Bradley Wiggins undone by bad weather and sketchy descents at the Giro and Nibali looking head and shoulders above all comers provided the character stories a three week race needs, although some of the drama was lost as stages were truncated if not cancelled altogether due to snow. Add in another British rider to cheer in Alex Dowsett (winner of the TT) and the Giro probably edged the Vuelta as the VCSE grand tour of 2013.

VCSE’s races of 2013

One day classic – Paris Roubaix                                                                                                                                                                                                                                  

Stage Race – Tirreno Adriatico                                                                                                                                                                                                                                      

Grand Tour – Giro d’Italia                                                                                                                             

A victory for old men and baldies – VCSE’s Racing Digest #19

Vuelta a Espana final week

What a difference a week makes. In our last post we wondered whether or not Chris Horner would have be able to continue to bring the fight to (at that time) race leader Vincenzo Niblai in the final week of Spain’s grand tour. Horner was lying in second place, 50 seconds behind as the race entered its final week and its final day in the Pyrenees. 

Français : Christopher Horner au Tour de Calif...
Christopher Horner (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The weekend stages from week 2 suffered the misfortune of poor weather in proportion to how much they had been built up by the organisers and in previews. Inclement weather had a similar impact on the high mountain stages in the Giro earlier this year also and there was a slight feeling of anticlimax as the Vuelta entered its final week. The second week of the race had lacked some of the drama of the first week too. With one stage to go before the second rest day Nibali looked comfortable and unlike the earlier stages when the leaders jersey had seemed like a burden he was unwilling to shoulder by the end of the second week the Sicilian and his Astana teammates were geared to defend the lead.

If the wheels didn’t completely fall off for Nibali on stage 16 they were severely loosened. Horner far from fading was showing signs of being the stronger of the two GC rivals as Nibali cracked for the first time.

But first we had more signs of potential renaissance for French Cycling as Warren Barguil won a second stage. In the break again as with his earlier stage victory Barguil was caught as the ramps of the final climb steepened. It’s perhaps crediting Barguil with the experience of, say, a Chris Horner to suggest that his second win was planned that way. Maybe Sky’s Rigoberto Uran burnt to many matches catching the Frenchman. Whatever the tactics, or sheer good fortune on display it was Barguil that outsprinted everyone to the line, if you can sprint up a 10% ramp.

As Barguil crossed the line to yet more ‘the new Hinault’ comparisons there was drama unfolding in the GC further down the climb. Joaquim Rodriguez attacked and only Horner could respond. Nibali found himself on the back of the small group of remaining GC riders. As Horner extended the gap the Astana rider was being overhauled by the lower reaches of the top 10 like Net App’s Leopold Konig. In what would become a bit of a theme for the race Alejandro Valverde, unable to match the sharp bursts of acceleration of a Rodriguez or Nibali, often got back on as normal speeds resumed. He and Thibaut Pinot, having something of a grand tour rehabilitation on the Vuelta, were with Horner as he crossed the line. As Nibali finished the stage Horner was 22 seconds closer to the man that, for now at least, retained the race lead.

The final ‘flat’ stage came on Wednesday and the last chance for the sprinters before the finale in Madrid on Sunday. However, another theme of this years race has been the unexpected happening and stage 17 was no different. With so many of the first line sprinters missing from the race a winner emerging from an unheralded source or a win for someone less recognised for their fast leg was a distinct possibility. As the teams tried to get themselves organised with all of the coordination of herding cats a Belkin rider sprang clear from the bunch with some way still to go. There seems to be a collective blink from the peloton when this happens along the lines of “He didn’t? Did he?”. That the man going clear was Tour top 10 finisher and sometime GC contender Bauke Mollema explains the collective surprise of the bunch. By the time the peloton had pinched themselves and got into gear the damage had been done and Belkin had their prize to take home from Spain.

The GC would be decided on the next three stages that all featured summit finishes. Sky were another team who had quickly shed their GC ambitions with Sergio Henao looking exposed pretty much as soon as the race started going uphill on stage 2. With his compatriot (and probably the better hope for GC) Rigoberto Uran bound for Omega Pharma Sky refocused their ambitions towards stage wins. Sky’s domestiques have looked a bit more human since the Tour and it was surprise Tour withdrawl Vasil Kiryenka that delivered a consolation for Sky at the Vuelta. Kiryenka at least looked as if he found the going harder than he seemed to while riding like a metronome on the the front of the peloton in the early season races. Teams don’t hire riders like Kiryenka for stage wins and he actually smiled as he crossed the line. Nibali’s race was beginning to fall apart in a repeat of stage 16 as the GC approached the finish. As Horner rode away from him again the cushion that had lost a significant amount of stuffing on Monday was left almost empty by the end of stage 18.

Further down the GC Saxo’s Nicolas Roche was enjoying the sort of positive press the English speaking media often transfer to the Irish in the absence of a homegrown rider to cheer. Roche did a lot to generate this goodwill by being a willing and very open interviewee even when he had lost time during the second week. He was engaged in his own battle with Domenico Pozzovivo, riding for Roche’s old team AG2R, for 5th place. Vying with Roche for most cooperative with the media was Horner, always ready with something quotable, homespun or both. Inevitably for Horner, his age, the fact that he’s an ex teammate of Lance Armstrong and most importantly his performance led to questions about whether or not his race was something we should believe in. Unfortunately for the American this is where he has been less at ease in front of the microphone. Jens Voight commentating on ITV’s coverage suggested that Horner was perhaps “..less tired” than his rivals but the questions and doubts will probably continue to run parallel to the plaudits that have come Horner’s way.

Horner overhauled Nibali’s 3 second advantage on stage 19 and took the same margin into the penultimate day on the Alto de L’Angliru. Rodriguez had taken a few seconds back on Valverde by winning the previous day and the race to decide the podium positions would be the under card for the battle for the red jersey between Horner and Nibali. In the current issue of Pro Cycling magazine Nibali and his teammates talked about how they had upset the science of Sky’s attempt to win Tirreno Adriatico for Chris Froome by old fashioned tactics. This resonated during the stage as Astana put so many riders in the break an observer could have been forgiven for thinking that Nibali had already thrown in the towel. The Angliru represented less than 10% of the total distance of the stage but all the action took place on its unforgiving gradients. As riders from the break began to come back to the leaders Nibali attacked. Initially Horner and the others appeared to have nothing in response but slowly they were able to get back on to Nibali’s wheel. Nibali put in a number of accelerations as the climb went on but he never had the same distance he took in his first attack. At this point his teammates who had gone in the break should have come into play. Sean Kelly commented that he expected the Astana domestiques to “..stop and wait” for their team leader. No doubt part of the Astana post race inquiry will be to ask why they didn’t play their cards in hand better but the moment and advantage was lost.

The Angliru shrouded in fog represented something of war zone, sheer numbers of fans and the gradient preventing the camera bikes from keeping up with the action. As another French rider, FDJ’s Kenny Elissonde claimed the win and France’s best grand tour performance at least in terms of stages wins since 1990 we waited to see who would emerge from the clouds for the GC. Horner wasn’t able to maintain his out of the saddle for the entire climb but he was able to put 30 seconds plus into Nibali and all but confirm his victory in the Vuelta 2013.

Horner entered the race without a contract for next year; given his age this was not surprising. He has apparently been offered a year by Trek now and it’s not hard to imagine that they will want to milk the marketing opportunities that a ‘farewell’ race program for Horner and Voight could bring. This assumes that there won’t be any skeletons in the cupboard. Horner wants is to savour something that “…you may never see again”. Some commentators already see this as hubris. It says so much about the a current levels of trust in the sport that a ‘surprise’ win cannot be enjoyed as just that. Horner has won one of the premier events in the cycling calendar and the questions that come with that are inevitable. It’s also probably incumbent on anyone winning a major race these days to set out their position on doping. This may yet come, but VCSE suspects that questions will remain, sadly, about the provenance of the victory of the oldest ever grand tour winner.

Tour of Britain begins 

The week long Tour of Britain has begun and VCSE will be at the race again this year. There’s a really strong line up this year, surpassing even last year’s when the country was basking in Bradley Wiggins Tour victory and gold medals at the Olympics. Wiggins features again and is supposedly “motivated” for this years race. Sadly, Wiggins has been quoted similarly for his other ‘comeback’ races this year and he treated last years event with  a certain amount of disdain, riding back down the route at one point in search of a teammate before climbing off and abandoning.

The teammate that Wiggins was seeking to round up on that stage last year was Mark Cavendish and he is present again this year with Omega Pharma. Cav’s attempts to win opening stages of races hasn’t been going well of late and today’s finish in Scotland was no different. Omega Pharma’s latest incarnation of the Cavendish sprint train was present with Alessandro Petacchi. The misfires that have effected the squad all year were present too unfortunately and Cavendish had given up the chase long before the line. Petacchi was second and may expect to be reminded of what he’s been hired to do if Cav isn’t in the philosophical mood he was in after losing the last stage of the Tour.

Last years winner Jonathan Tiernan Locke is absent, Sky have selected him for the races currently taking place in Canada and JTL is in a team including Froome and Porte. They will no doubt argue that putting him in that squad is an indication of the importance of that series to them but for VCSE it’s perhaps another example of Sky’s PR mismanagement. Surely they can’t suggest that given the choice Tiernan Locke wouldn’t rather be in the UK. It wouldn’t be a surprise if the rider leaves the team at the end of his contract, if not sooner.

An interesting match up for the GC and certainly the time trial at the TOB will be Wiggins verses Movistar’s Alex Dowsett. Much is being made of the TT stage being run over the same 10 mile distance that is used by cycling clubs across the land. Dowsett attacked towards the end of today’s stage and VCSE suspects that he’s up for the challenge of beating the illustrious Sky team leader in their home race.

We will be at the race for the start of the penultimate stage on Saturday and will look to bring you pictures, video and comment from the day in our next post.

Vuelta Apathy – VCSE’s Racing Digest #16

Eneco Tour

You remember Zdenek Stybar don’t you? No? He’s the eight year professional with Omega Pharma Quick Step last seen being nerfed out of the race at Paris Roubiax. After an injury blighted season the cyclo-crosser come road racer resurfaced at last weeks Eneco Tour and not only won two stages but the overall as well. It could well have been three stage wins out of the seven on offer, but the Czech rider just missed out to Team Sky’s David Lopez who won stage 6 on the legendary La Redoute climb. Describing his win as “..dream come true” after knee surgery that forced him to miss this years Tour de France Stybar triumphed across a parcours that featured many of the ascents that feature in the Belgian spring classics.

Ian Stannard
Ian Stannard (Photo credit: Brendan A Ryan)

Winning the final stage was the icing on the cake but the party was almost spoiled by another member of the Sky squad bidding for a stage win. Ian Stannard may be developing a bit of a reputation as a bridesmaid after hard graft results in someone else taking the glory, but ‘Yogi’ has enhanced his reputation again here following his dogged pursuit of the win at this years Milan San Remo and a strong support role at the Tour. Stannard is without doubt an ‘engine’ which may not be to his advantage in the cat and mouse game that is the final kilometre of a stage. However, he does look like a rider that can do a job for Sky on this type of terrain. He’s likely to have protected status for the classics next season, but Sky’s team leader may yet have to show his face. INRNG suggests that Sylvain Chavanel will be riding for a Pinarello shod team next season. It’s hard to imagine Movistar prioritising the classics and Sky need a ‘face’ who’s a proven winner in the Juan Antonia Flecha mould (ah.. hold on a sec.. should say potential winner). With Sky rumoured to have courted Fabian Cancellara before he re-signed with Trek, the need for a marquee classics signing increased and Chavanel fits the bill.

Unfortunately for Sky, the UK is more likely to inspire stage race and grand tour wannabes as the country continues to ride on the wave of interest sparked by multiple Tour de France wins. In the short term they may have to rely on brought in talent from overseas to realise their goal of a classics win.

The had been talk of that student of road racing history and folklore Sir Bradley Wiggins bulking back up for a tilt at Paris Roubaix. Wiggins followed up his low key return to racing in the Tour of Poland with a similarly disinterested appearance at Eneco. In Poland intentions were clear with Wiggins surrendering his leaders position to Sergio Henao. A week or so later in the low countries and with a strong team around him, the sight of Wiggins going out the back on stage one was a pretty strong indicator that he wasn’t focused on the GC. The often mis-firing Sky PR machine was wheeled out with the big reveal that he would be going for victory in the TT, further preparation for the world championships in September.

The TT stage over a not quite prologue like 13 or so kilometres was technical, not the length or route that Wiggins would chosen, but expectations would have been high for a win. A sense that the wheels were coming off at least figuratively became apparent when Radioshack’s Jesse Sergent crossed the line 15 seconds faster. Ironic if Chavanel is Sky bound as it was the French TT winner who ended up taking the stage.

Taking everything into account about the distance and technical nature of the course this is more of a bump in the road as opposed to the kind of setback that Wiggins endured in the Giro. There’s a sense that he is still something of a fragile character after Italy, so the focus on his strongest discipline is understandable. While Chris Froome was arguably the stronger on the climbs during Wiggin’s Tour win in 2012, Froome is yet to beat him against the clock. If anything Wiggins seems to become more reconciled to his position in the team with interviews over the last few weeks describing how he wouldn’t expect to lead a GC assault if Froome was in the same squad and now indicating a return to track cycling for the 2016 Olympics.

The weeks racing was interesting also for the ability of individual riders to upset the bunch sprint. This was played out to greatest effect in stage 1 with a sprinter actually causing the break. Whether by accident of design Omega Pharma destined Belkin rider Mark Renshaw pulled off an enjoyable (for this viewer anyway) upset that seemed to surprise most of the peloton and maybe even some of his teammates. There’s a link to Renshaw’s power data for the stage on our Facebook site.

Wiggins isn’t the only rider having a year to forget. Current world road race champion Philippe Gilbert had another week to forget at Eneco and is without a win this year. If there is a ‘curse of the rainbow jersey’ there aren’t many better ways to illustrate it. Gilbert won a stage at last years Vuelta with a similar uphill finish to his favourite Fleche Wallone. How he (and BMC) will be hoping for a similar result for this years race.

Which leads us neatly on to..

VCSE’s 2013 Vuelta a Espana Preview 

After the hype ahead of this years Giro and the 100th Tour the 2013 edition of the Vuelta a Espana is facing an uphill struggle for attention every bit as steep as the Alto de L’Angliru. Last years edition benefited from Alberto Contador’s return to grand tour racing. Not surprisingly, Spanish riders are always up for the home races and last year was no exception with Alejandro Valverde and Joaquim Rodriguez joining Contador in the GC battle. Hard as it is to imagine after his dominant form this year that the 2012 Vuelta was the first race for Chris Froome as an official team leader.

Froome, fatigued from his efforts supporting Bradley Wiggins in the Tour, faded as the Vuelta’s climbs became steeper and eventually finished far from disgraced in 4th. The early leader was Rodriguez, but he was to experience disappointment again as with his runner up spot in the Giro earlier the same year. Rodriguez was expected to lose his lead to Froome or Contatdor during the TT, but he survived until Contador attacked on a relatively innocuous looking stage 17 and rode away for the stage win. Rodriguez left exposed on the stage took another kick as a resurgent Valverde overhauled his 2nd place. Contador, whatever anyone might think of his provenance looked imperious and anyone watching would have predicted that 2013’s strongest rider was likely to be the recently returned Spaniard.

The race was notable for the emergence of John Degenkolb, who dominated the sprint stages for Argos Shimano, taking five altogether.  VCSE’s stage of the race was the solo win by local pro-conti Caja Rural rider Antonio Piedra at the iconic Lagos de Covadonga.

So, what of this years version? Just as the Tour, last years winner is missing. Contador pulled out from the race before the Tour had even finished and Saxo Bank will be led by Contador’s ‘shadow’ at the Tour Roman Kreuzinger. Froome has massively transcended his situation from last year, where team leadership at the Vuelta was his reward for helping Wiggins at the Tour. Based on that train of thought might we have expected Richie Porte to lead Sky in Spain? No, Froome and Porte are in the US for the Pro Challenge. Sky as they are minded to do will probably select their Spanish riders like Lopez and Xandio in support and lead with the Columbian’s Rigoberto Uran and Sergio Henao. Team leader will probably be Henao. Uran’s departure to Omega Pharma will be a mark against the rider who if not physically stronger, seems to have the psychological edge over his compatriot.

Although they have had a month to recover it remains to be seen if Rodriguez or Valverde can summon up the reserves to take them two or one place further respectively this time around. Valverde’s Tour fell apart after the wind effected stage from Tours in week two. Shorn of team leaders responsibilities he was able to animate the race in the final week, peaking similarly to the Vuelta last year. For all of the success Valverde’s Movistar team have achieved with several stage wins in this years Giro and Tour, it’s the Vuelta that is the biggest prize for a Spanish sponsored and based team. The Columbian connection continues with AG2R bringing Carlos Betancur. Betancur’s performances in the Giro have been overshadowed by Quintana’s Tour successes, but the AG2R man should come into the race with fresher legs. Rodriguez looked ecstatic with third place in the Tour but surely has ambitions beyond a podium place at every grand tour.

Dan Martin will lead Garmin and has said that he is going for GC, but may be better placed for stage wins, the aim of Orica Green Edge. With extinction looming riders from Euskatel will be looking to put in some strong performances in their home race to reinforce their pitch for a new berth next season. It’s disappointing that so many riders have publicly declared that they are using the Vuelta for training but this should at least allow for allow for some open racing. There’s some interest in the wild cards too with Net App Endura securing an invitation to this years race to provide some Anglo German interest.

So, we have mentioned riders returning to major action since the Giro like Betancur and Uran, but what of the Giro winner. Vincenzo Nibali, the only rider to have beaten Chris Froome in head to head competition this year has performed in almost as low a key as Wiggins since his Giro win. Knowing the Italian was missing the Tour this year to focus on the Giro it was reasonable to think that he would tilt at a Giro Veulta double. Since then Nibali has announced his late season focus is on the world championships being held in Florence in September. A Nibali in form, the same form as he showed in the Giro and earlier in the season, would be an easy prediction for the overall. Nibali is a pretty straight shooter so if he says he isn’t going for GC it will be pretty clear if it’s a smoke screen when the race starts going uphill.

VCSE’s GC Prediction – 1. Valverde 2. Rodriguez 3. Betancur (unless Nibali decides to ride and then all bets are off!)

For the second year ITV4 will be showing an hour long highlights show. Live coverage will be on Eurosport (this obviously applies for UK viewers).

VCSE’s Vuelta stages to watch

Stage 8 (Saturday 31st August) Jerez de la Frontera to Estapona – Actually a cat 1 summit finish with the race visiting the far south of the country.

Stage 14 (Saturday 7th September) Baga to Andorra – Features the highest climb of the race, the 2380m Port de Envalira

Stage 15 (Sunday 8th September) Andorra to Peyragudes – The longest stage of the race crossing into France and over the Col de Peyresourde and 3 more 1st Cat climbs.

Stage 20 (Saturday 15th September) Aviles to Alto de L’Angliru – The traditional penultimate stage with the Hors Category summit finish.

And here’s the GCN view

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.