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?

Just a perfect day..

Gent Wevelgem 2015 

Every now and again, often when you least expect it, you get to see a fantastic bike race. Let’s be honest sometimes watching racing can be the equivalent of a mid-table mid week nil nil football match. I stick with it, mostly because I’m a fan and this is my chosen sport. But I also try to watch every race, be it one day or stage of a tour because every now and again cycling delivers something special. I have sat through hours of live coverage on a day that’s promised fireworks only to end up feeling disappointed with the realisation that I could have been out riding my bike rather than watching someone else riding theirs. But then there are days like Sunday. There are days were I count myself lucky that I could see a race like Gent Wevelgem 2015.

And this was an unexpected gem. It was a first for the race being shown live via Eurosport rather than some moody feed off a website. The #HomeofCycling had served up a veritable buffet for the armchair fan this week with the Volta Catalunya, E3 Harelbeke and the Criterium International all showing in addition to Sunday’s offering. This was going to involve some juggling with the remote control and the DVR to make sure that I didn’t miss any of the action. It also required a bit of thought about what to watch live; the crit a like final stage up and over Montjuic in the Volta or go straight into GW. As things worked out (read as the clocks going forward) I ended up missing all but the last 10km of the Volta anyway and there was still plenty of racing left to do in Flanders.

And talk about the perfect time to tune in. As the peloton clawed its way forward up an arrow straight tree lined road I watched echelons beginning to form as riders who were unlucky enough to find themselves isolated leaned 45 degrees into the wind to try and stay on their bikes. The conditions in Gent Wevelgem are nothing like the whole story of the race but they were a vital factor in the racing that followed adding a mixture of drama, suspense and dare I say it amusement (for me at least). We have already lost some of the main protagonists for the classics due to injury this year and I don’t want to see any riders get (badly) hurt but even some of the riders who fell victim to the wind on Sunday could see the funny side of being blown into ditches from what I saw on social media today.

The difficulty that some riders had trying to stay in touch blew the peloton apart at this point. We got a glimpse of Mark Cavendish struggling to get back on after a puncture. We didn’t get so much as a mention of Bradley Wiggins who tends to think racing in these kind of conditions is a bit of mugs game. It didn’t take long until for the key elements to detach and set the scene for the next 80 or so kilometres.

Much of the talk as far as Sky’s classics campaign was concerned pre-season had centred on Wiggins targeting Paris Roubaix. As things got underway the team got off to a good start with Ian Stannard repeating in Het Neiuwsblad but things unravelled badly in Milan San Remo. Stand out performer there was Geraint Thomas who destroyed himself to try and set up Ben Swift for the win to no avail. A week later and all of that had changed though. It may have been of click-baiting on my part to suggest that Sky had cocked up their classics campaign but I think the view I advanced that they needed a big result in the forthcoming races was right on the money. It might be splitting hairs to say that Thomas winning E3 on Friday isn’t a big win but as far as Sky’s classics performance is concerned 2015 has become their best showing to date.

Luca Paolini
Luca Paolini

Thomas was in the thick of things again on Sunday, part of a select group that had got away in pursuit of Lotto Soudal’s Jurgen Roelandts. With Thomas were Sep Vanmarcke, Stijn Vandenbergh, Roelandt’s Lotto teammate Jens Debusschere, BMC’s Daniel Oss and after jumping across later Niki Terpstra and Luca Paolini.

Every now and again the host broadcaster would briefly cut back to the peloton if only to confirm that they hadn’t all decided to call it a day, but the bulk of the camera work was focused on Roelandts battling against the elements alone and the machinations of the chasing group as Debusschere enjoyed a free ride and Etixx teammates Terpstra and Vandenbergh tried to work out a winning strategy. Roelandts cushion to his pursuers evaporated as he blew up under a combination of the final climbs and a head wind and with around 20kms to go the race was back together.

Over the same climbs Oss faded and fellow Italian Paolini who had been the last rider to make it across looked as if he was losing the tow as well. Out of all of the riders in the group however Paolini is blessed with the kind of smarts that will make him a formidable DS in the future. Thomas looked as if he was just holding on, understandably after his win less than 48 hours earlier and Vanmarcke and Debusschere didn’t look as if they had much fight left in them either. Thus Etixx found themselves in a similar position to one they have found themselves in a few times this season; a numerical advantage but seemingly no idea of how to make it count. Whether or not Paolini sensed the indecision or just decided to go for it I don’t know, but he attacked and then spent the remainder of the race in the big ring while Terpstra and Vandenbergh wondered what had happened.

Paolini celebrated ‘his greatest win’ by humbly admitting that he would be back working for Alexander Kristoff in the Ronde next weekend. Terpstra shook his head as he crossed the line, partly in disbelief at how he and his teammate had thrown away a potential victory and (also) no doubt anticipating an almighty bollocking from Patrick Lefevere later that night. Under the circumstances there was no disgrace in finishing third for Thomas. Roelandts, arguably the ‘man of the match’ managed a rueful smile as he beat the peloton home in 7th.

I was completely gripped by Gent Wevelgem to the extent that next Sunday’s Ronde is going to have to been something special for me to rank it above yesterday’s race. Even Mrs VCSE was sucked in by the drama and it takes a lot to drag her away from her smartphone. Unpredictable conditions, a plucky underdog, an engrossing tactical battle and a worthy and likeable winner. This race had it all. If you didn’t manage to see it Eurosport will probably show a highlights package of sorts up to the start of the 3 days of De Panne on Tuesday afternoon. After that seek it out on YouTube. You will be glad that you did.

* feature image is the  key Kemmelberg  climb in Gent Wevelgem  from a previous year’s race 

A game of two halves, chicken & egg and sundry other cliches…

Spring classics opening weekend

After the aperitif that was the desert races the season got under way with moules and frites at the weekend with Het Nieuswblad on Saturday followed by Kuurne Brussel Kuurne 24 hours later. For all the hyperbole that’s generated ahead of a cobbled classics campaign by the other teams in the peloton about ‘this’ being ‘their’ year to shine, if there’s such thing as a ‘supergroup’ (to use a musical analogy) for these races it has to be (Etixx) Quick Step. From now until the end of April, this year won’t be any different to the last few with the expectation that Tom Boonen and co’ will deliver the results that the team demands and expects.

Tom Boonen
Tom Boonen

For Boonen there’s a sense of time running out on what has been an illustrious career even if he doesn’t add another Tour of Flanders or Paris Roubaix to his palmares. OHN remains an omission from his list of titles after he missed out to repeat winner from 2014 Ian Stannard on Saturday last. The widely held view in the immediate aftermath was one of disbelief that Etixx had allowed the Team Sky rider to snatch victory after they (Etixx) had gone into the final km’s in a group that had the kind of numerical advantage that should have nullified any threat posed by Stannard. Boonen backed by Stijn Vandenbergh and Niki Terpstra seemed nailed on for the win but he was unable to respond when needed, seemingly ‘cooked’ and leaving Terpstra to contest a sprint with Stannard who had shown that he has a clean pair of heels when needed last year to beat Greg Van Avermaet.

The Etixx OHN debacle was exaggerated further by the bizarre spectacle of Patrick Lefevere singling out Stannard for winning ‘dirty’ by not taking his turns on the front. It’s interesting watching Boonen in the classics now for as much as I want to see him take another monument it just doesn’t seem that likely. Certainly he’s had his share of misfortune with injuries and a number of issues off the bike but even when on form there seems to be that final few percent missing in his performance. I didn’t see much of OHN but on Sunday during Kuurne Brussel Kuurne Boonen seemed to expel a lot of energy on challenging other riders to work rather than focusing on his own race. With Mark Cavendish already pre-destined as the rider Lefevere needed to win KBK, Boonen would have been numero uno for OHN, as mentioned previously a race he’s yet to win. It seemed that the Etixx game plan for Boonen would play out similarly to the dominant team performance that saw Boonen and four teammates go clear when he won last years KBK. As with 2014 though, Stannard played the joker and it was the Sky man’s presence at the sharp end of the race at the crucial moment that upset a maiden OHN victory for Boonen. Etixx undone by an individual ‘pesky kid’ in the form of Stannard.

Lefevere’s OHN sized hangover only lasted a day as Etixx the team grabbed a repeat result in KBK, this time won by Cavendish. In practice this was as much of a close run thing as the previous days race as Boonen, leading out Cavendish, needed to display superb bike handling skills as Alexander Kristoff moved in front of him in the sprint. Etixx had come pretty close to cocking things up again when they allowed the peloton to catch a break that featured all of their key players with km’s to spare. As I mentioned here Cavendish needed to win this race and while Kristoff is no Kittel, he’s very much a rider in form and possibly the third fastest man in the world tour at present. Cavendish was up against Elia Viviani too, Sky’s new sprinter taking the final podium place. This was a good result for the Italian, his new team doing well to keep him in contention for the win.

Etixx ought to go away from the weekend not allowing victory in KBK to take the edge off what has been a pretty rotten weekend tactically for them. It’s possible that only a rider like Ian Stannard could have overturned the odds against him on Saturday, but the fact is that Etixx had winning positions earlier in both races that they failed to realise. They may be grateful for the salvation that Sunday’s victory provided in the shorter term, but they will need to do better if they want Boonen to deliver against Cancellara and Sagan next month.

Stannard was lost to injury soon after his breakthrough win last year so it’s going to be interesting to see how Sky play him for the rest of the spring races. As with 2014, it’s too early to say whether or not this win will provide a breakthrough for rider or team. As much as I enjoyed Stannard’s double I think it’s still difficult to see the team landing one of the monuments this spring.*

Continue reading A game of two halves, chicken & egg and sundry other cliches…

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.

Swiss roll over – VCSE’s Racing Digest #27

Tour of Flanders 2014

“I’ve got this.. I’ve got this..” or words to that effect was Sep Vanmarcke’s message to his team car as he approached the finish line after 250 kilometres of racing at the Ronde. “No I haven’t” is what he should have said after he crossed the line in third place to Fabian Cancellara (OK, let’s be honest it was probably some Franco / Belge expletives).

Can I win Roubaix too? - Fabian Cancellara
Can I win Roubaix too? – Fabian Cancellara

Vanmarcke wasn’t the only one kicking himself. BMC’s Greg van Avermaet had gone away late on and it felt like he could go one better than his Het Nieuwsblad 2nd place from earlier in the year. This years Ronde came down to a sprint of the track variety (missing only track stands) and it was 2013 winner Cancellara who out foxed his rivals. A week away from Paris Roubaix his rivals must be wondering what they can do to deny Cancellara another win in next weeks race. Whether or not you think Spartacus possesses a sprint, the fact is Vanmarcke and van Avermaet (in particular) are decent quick men. Stijn Vandenbergh, an analogue rider against digital rivals recognised that in a four way sprint he would be favourite for fourth place and attacked first. Indicative of his place as Tom Boonen’s bag carrier, Vandenbergh gave up almost as soon as he started, sacrificing a lead that looked as if it could stick, as a lack confidence manifested itself immediately. Vandenbergh’s bid to escape might have lacked conviction but it looked most likely to succeed. Instead as the final few hundred metres disappeared beneath their wheels it was Cancellara who got the drop on the other three. Unlike last year, this wasn’t a victory to savour in the final kilometre’s Cancellara had to work for this one and the emotions weren’t released until he crossed the line and began punching the air.

Vanmarcke and van Avermaet rolled over in second and third and in disbelief; “what just happened”. The result is potential hex on both riders, experiencing another loss snatched from the jaws of victory. The positives are that both riders (and in fairness Vandenbergh too) have been consistent performers in the classics so far this year, but the fact is that this was a race both men could have won. It cannot be disputed either that Cancellara is the srongest rider in the classics right now and in the monuments when it really counts. It’s hard to see who’s going to beat him this year and Trek must feel vindicated in pulling out all of the stops to deny Sky taking him on last year when Radioshack finished as headline sponsor.

Having the numbers when the selection had taken place was no advantage for Omega Pharma Quick Step. The problem for QPQS was tactical. By the time it was clear that Tom Boonen was coming up short again, they lacked a rider who could take up the challenge of beating Cancellara. Boonen’s heavyweight shadow Vandenbergh had been sent up the road to cover van Avermaet’s late break, but as is so often the case he lacks the speed and guile to carve out a win for himself. Boonen, chasing a fourth Ronde victory may have believed until the last and that might be why the in form Niki Terpstra was released too late to catch the leading four.

Boonen wasn’t the only pre-race favourite who popped. Peter Sagan looked like he wished that the race distance had been about 50km less and was unable to go with Cancellara when the Trek team leader attacked. Given the choice Sagan would swap his E3 victory and the win that almost wasn’t in stage 1 of the Three Days of De Panne for a win in the Ronde. At 24 he can potentially be a classics contender for another ten years, but it seems that Sagan is subdued by the pressure to deliver a monument win. At least he will have a week to recover ahead of Paris Roubaix; the De Panne stage win looks extremely poor value if it was this that left Sagan without legs today.

This years edition was a bit of a crashfest with accidents ranging from the typical for a cobbled classic to the bizarre, such as Trek’s Yaroslav Popovych getting unseated by a female spectator’s handbag. His teammate Stijn Devolder who had proved so valuable to Cancellara at E3 seemed to only feature on camera immediately after another mishap in an accident prone afternoon for the Belgian champion.

And so to your VCSE predictions. We tipped Cancellara and Vanmarcke in the our last post (http://tinyurl.com/pvkebup) and predicted that OPQS would be the strongest team. Geraint Thomas was an unlikely podium for Sky, but he was their best finisher in 8th place. Can we keep it up for Paris Roubaix next week? If you want to find out, follow the blog! Here’s a thought though; late entry to the Ronde Bradley Wiggins finished in 32nd place. Can he go better in the ‘hell of the north’ next Sunday?

Your world cup leader is..

Great to see Lizzie Armitstead leading the points table in the women’s World Cup. She finished second to Bols Dolmans teammate Ellen van Djik in the women’s Tour or Flanders today after winning the opening round at the Ronde van Drenthe. It’s been a great week for Lizzie as she signed a contract extension to 2016 with her Boels Dolmans team.

Tour of the Basque Country

Starts tomorrow! Last year’s edition was one of the highlights of the 2013 season with biblical rain and some outstanding rides from eventual winner Nairo Quintana and KOM Caja Rural’s Amets Txurruka. Quintana is missing this year; Movistar will be led by Alejandro Valverde. Ag2R have a potential double team in Jean-Christophe Peraud and Carlos Betancur to match up against previous grand tour winners Cadel Evans, Ryder Hesjedal and Alberto Contador. There’s a strong Basque presence including (interestingly) Sky led by in form Mikel Nieve in the absence of Froome or Porte in what’s often seen as an important tune up for the Giro. With Quintana absent too, we shouldn’t read too much into this, but the race could be an opportunity for one of Sky’s new GC orientated signings (Phil Deignan is racing too) to raise themselves up the pecking order on the death star.

Who’s going to run the Ronde? – VCSE’s Racing Digest #26

E3 Harelbeke / Gent Wevelgem 

Fabian Cancellara looked pretty unhappy with second place at Milan San Remo and he was probably just as miffed at the two fingers held up to him by the peloton while defending his E3 title last Friday. Cancellara had ridden pretty much side by side with Tom Boonen for much of the race before an incident saw him get gapped by the leading group of riders.

Can he beat Spartacus? - Peter Sagan
Can he beat Spartacus? – Peter Sagan

OK, so not winning MSR counts as a failure if you’re in the first rank of classics specialists, but for anyone else second place in the longest one day classic would be something to celebrate (ask Ben Swift how he feels about finishing third!). Cancellara rolled in at E3 inside the top 10, over a minute down on winner Peter Sagan, but the way that he tore up the field trying to get back in touch with the leaders was incredible even for a rider like Spartacus. After passing through the middle of some groups as if they were going backwards, Cancellara eventually came across a teammate Stijn Devolder who put in his own monster turn to try and get his team leader back in the game.

Up the road were two Omega Pharma riders; the in form Niki Terpstra and Stiyn Vandenbergh, Sky’s Geraint Thomas and Sagan. Terpstra was on and off his radio like an anxious mum waiting for her teenage son to come home. Boonen, no doubt out of sorts owing to the terrible news of his girlfriend miscarrying had lost touch and was slipping out of contention. Or was he? At one point Cancellara and Devolder had cajoled the chasers into life and got within 40 seconds of the leading four, but Boonen seemed to be a spent force.

While the OPQS boys were told to hurry up and wait, Sagan was doing his own Cancellara impression judging by the gesticulations he was making to his fellow escapee’s. As Cancellara often wonders, Sagan couldn’t see why Thomas, Terpstra and Vandenbergh weren’t riding with, if not for him. Obviously there was an advantage for Thomas (and the two Omega Pharma teammates depending on the message they were currently getting from their team car) to stay away, but if it came to a bunch sprint there was only ever going to be one winner. Terpstra and Vandenbergh were undone by the conflicting messages and perhaps the Dutchman by his win earlier in the week. Thomas didn’t have that excuse to use and if he had anything in the tank as the race entered the final kilometres surely he should have attempted a break of his own, rather than covering the ones tried by Terpstra and Vandenbergh. Surely he didn’t think he could take Sagan in a sprint to the line? Whatever he did think, the outcome was always going to be a Sagan win.

You might think that winning on Friday would have given the Cannondale rider a hall pass for Sunday’s Gent Wevelgem, the race he won in convincing fashion last year with the famous wheelie over the line followed by the infamous bottom pinching incident a week later at the Ronde. OK, so Sagan didn’t win, but third place isn’t to shabby (ask Ben Swift how he feels about third place again). The race was won by Giant Shimano’s John Degenkolb who had been much fancied for MSR. Its tempting to wonder if Degenkolb was feeling the possibility of getting usurped by yet another product of the Giant sprint programme who was winning for fun in Catalunya. Second went to VCSE MSR tip Arnaud Demare; the race being something of a sprinters classic after all.

So ahead of this weekends Tour of Flanders who’s likely to figure and who’s likely to win? Let’s deal with the contenders first. The best team will be Omega Pharma. Boonen doesn’t look his best, but Terpstra and the rest of the supporting cast look super strong. They will have riders at the front with or without Boonen, but if Boonen does falter they will need to think a lot faster to get the win. A good each way would be Sep Vanmarcke who’s been in touch in a lot of the races and has a couple of top 10’s in E3 and Gent going into the race. Sky won’t be anywhere, unless Thomas can deliver an unlikely podium. It’s not really a race for Ian Stannard who’s also injured after a crash at Gent.

Which leaves us Sagan and Cancellara. If Cancellara hadn’t been held up at E3 VCSE suspects he would have rode away from the field in a repeat of last years race. It’s hard to imaging Cancellara would have waited for Sagan if he had been in the group of four last Friday. This isn’t to say Sagan’s not strong. A win and third place in three days is a great performance by any standard, but for all of his ability to read a race and to ride unsupported he needs a sprint to win. Cancellara won’t give him that opportunity on Sunday.

Volta a Catalunya / Criterium International

So Giant have yet another sprint talent in their ranks to go with Marcel Kittel and John Degenkolb. Luka Mezgec took three out of the seven stages available, albeit against a second / third rank of sprinters in Catalunya. The race had promised much with top BC talent lining up including Froome, Contador and Rodriguez.

Froome had missed Tirreno Adriatico with back problems so this was his first race since defending his Tour of Oman title back in February. Stage 3 was the first mountain stage and the winner was Rodriguez with a trademark late dig to outdistance his rivals and take the race lead overall. Froome had attempted to ride away himself but was soon caught and then overhauled by Purito, Contador, Nairo Quintana and perhaps the biggest surprise Tejay Van Garderen.

Van Garderen was the winner the following day in the weather effected (at least if you were trying to watch it on TV) stage to Vallter 2000 (why do they give ski resorts names like this?). Froome slipped further down the GC to 7th and by the time the race had ended  with a final rain swept stage in Barcelona was off the GC table altogether.

Contador looked like his mission was to strike a psychological blow to Froome. He let Rodriguez go once he had overhauled Froome on stage 3 and didn’t really try that hard to snatch the GC despite only having a few seconds gap between him and the leader for the remainder of the race. Does this tell us much about the likely fortunes of the contenders for the grand tours? Possibly not, although Sky have tended to want to exert a vice like grip on the races they enter their Tour de France team leaders in over the last few years. Despite this mishap, it should be remembered that Froome looked the class of the field in Oman and lost his key lieutenant Richie Porte early on to illness here. If Froome is vulnerable, if Contador is back on form, if Van Garderen is clear team leader at the Tour then 2014 won’t go entirely Sky’s way. At this point, however, Froome probably remains the man to beat.

Weight of expectation also seems to be taking its toll on Quintana who hasn’t looked good in his last two outings. He won the Pais Vasco last year and it will be interesting to see how he fares in the remainder of his preparation races for the Giro. Porte is Sky’s nominated team leader in Italy and he’s lacking in form and fitness. With the favourites running out of time to get in shape it could play into the hands of someone like Rigoberto Uran or Michele Scarponi for the honours this time around in the fight for pink.

Sky were absent from the Criterium International this year with Froome electing to ride in Catalunya instead. The race had a resultant French feel and French winner in the unluckiest rider from last years Tour Jean-Christophe Peraud. Peraud along with Pierre Rolland, Thibaut Pinot and Warren Barguil in Catalunya look in good form this year and this bodes well for an improvement in French fortunes at their grand tour in July.


It’s on… racing to the sun via the two seas – VCSE’s Racing Digest #23

Sky find form in the classics.. or do they?

Ian Stannard’s victory in the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad was Sky’s first victory in a one day race for more than 12 months but does his win mean that Sky can begin to dominate in the classics? Not necessarily. For starters Sky have ‘form’ where OHN is concerned, Juan Antonio Flecha winning the race in 2010 and standing on the podium in the next two editions.

Classics breakthrough for Sky? - Ian Stannard
Classics breakthrough for Sky? – Ian Stannard

Het Nieuwsblad is one of the one day races euphemistically described as a ‘semi-classic’ and along with Kuurne Brussel Kuurne run the following day it’s the curtain raiser for the cobbled classic season in Belguim. Last year’s race was held in freezing conditions that saw the following days race (KBK) cancelled due to snow. Katusha’s Luca Paolini was the opportunistic winner who after breaking from the peloton sheltered behind the only rider who you could fit two of Paolini into: Omega Pharma’s Stijn Vandenbergh. Vandenbergh would probably accept that he’s something of a diesel as a rider and it might have been the cold that fogged his mind last February as he dragged Paolini almost to the line. The Italian who held the Maglia Rosa early on in last years Giro is a sprinter of the old school (in other words, he’s not that fast) but he wouldn’t have needed much pace to overhaul Vandenburgh.

While this years edition didn’t suffer the same climatic conditions as 2013 a similar race was developing with two riders breaking away towards the finish with marked similarities to last years protagonists. Stannard definitely falls into the diesel category. He’s the kind of rider that the average recreational rider can identify with physically and is blessed with the kind of ‘never say die’ attitude that makes you want him to hang on for the win. He was up against BMC’s Greg Van Avermaet, a five time winner in 2013 and a second line sprinter in the Paolini mode. With British fans willing Stannard on, elsewhere and in the commentary boxes the discussion centered on the likely strengths of each rider if the race was decided in a last kilometre sprint.

Whether or not Stannard remembered the fate of Vandenbergh or just recognised that he would be at a disadvantage against van Avermaet in a sprint, he didn’t wait to find out. Winding up his speed over the final kilometre Stannard just managed to hold off Van Avermaet at the line and immediately sparked a debate about whether or not Stannard’s win represented a turnaround in Sky’s fortunes in the classics.

So does it? The VCSE view remains in the ‘no’ camp (we didn’t tip a Sky win ahead of the weekend) although perhaps we’re a bit more optimistic. Sky’s infamous choice of preparing for races in the wind, rain and snow of northern Europe in the sunshine of Gran Canaria was seen by many as the prime reason for Sky’s poor showing in the classics last year but it’s more accurate that they just don’t have a marquee one day rider (or riders) in the mould of a Cancellera or a Boonen. If Stannard winning OHN proves to be the high water mark for Sky in the classics this year then he will have been the teams best one day rider for the second year after his strong showing at Milan San Remo last year. He could yet trump what is being seen by many as his breakthrough win if and when he competes in Paris Roubaix later next month. Stannard seems to rise to the occasion when the weather is at its most biblical but Paris Roubaix has the kind of parcours that he could thrive on rain or shine. It’s still hard to be convinced that Edvald Boasson Hagen that can win any kind of race anymore and Stannard and maybe Geraint Thomas apart VCSE thinks that Sky have some way to go before they can be considered in the first rank of one day teams.

Boonen’s back

Tom Boonen had a disappointing OHN but he and his Omega Pharma team were in dominant form the following day at Kuurne Brussel Kuurne. While the race features some of the fabled Flandrian bergs it’s one of the sprinters classics with Mark Cavendish winning the last race in 2012 as last years edition was lost to the weather.

We’ve become used to seeing teams dominate stages during the grand tours but the unpredictable nature of one day races tends to preclude this from happening. Yet, KBK saw Omega Pharma managing to get five riders into the break, including Boonen and this allowed them to control the race to an extent that a Boonen victory was all but assured with over 50 kilometres to go.

Boonen is running out of time to become the outright ‘greatest of all time’ if he wins at Paris Roubaix or the Tour of Flanders this year, but he achieved a less heralded milestone by winning KBK. If becoming the rider with the most victories in KBK is an omen then Boonen may yet to go on to be the star of this years classics the way that Fabian Cancellara was last season. Neither Boonen nor Cancellara is getting any younger, but the sense is that Boonen is the man running out of time. Another year on may see riders like Peter Sagan and Sep Vanmarcke take over the crown, but in 2014 the momentum seems to be with Omega Pharma and Tom Boonen.

His teams early season dominance was reinforced with a win in Strade Bianche for Michael Kwiatowski the Polish road race champion. Kwiatowski is seen as a potential grand tour winner, although this isn’t always the best thing to be in a team that already struggles to balance the competing priorities of Mark Cavendish and the classics outfit. Kwiatowski beat no less a rider than Sagan who had ridden away from the leading bunch, including Cancellara, with ease. When it came to final climb, Kwiatowski rode past Sagan like he was going backwards. It remains to be seen if his team wonder why the invested heavily in Rigoberto Uran if there was already a climber like Kwiatowski under their noses.

Sky upset the ASO applecart

With the two one day races in Italy last weekend and the start of Paris Nice and Tirreno Adriatico this week it really feels that the road race season has started. For the armchair fan there’s some juggling to be done to try and see both of the week long stage races as the events overlap from the middle of the week. Both events had compelling stories last year with Richie Porte achieving his biggest victory to date in Paris Nice and Sky’s third win in a row while Vincenzo Nibali beat Chris Froome in their only match up of the year in Italy.

The story this year at least so far is Sky’s decision to move Porte from the Paris Nice squad where he would have defended his title to replace the injured Froome at Tirreno. Froome has injured his back and while his withdrawl is being justified for greater things to come later this year it’s tempting to wonder what might happen if Sky’s main rider becomes sidelined by a persistent injury this season. Porte is earmarked for the Giro but would Sky shift him to the Tour in Froome’s absence?

In the short term Sky have upset Paris Nice (and Tour de France) organisers ASO by appearing to prioritise Tirreno over their race. Both races feature markedly different parcours to last years and Sky’s view is that Tirreno is better suited to Porte’s talents. If that is the reason, then why didn’t Sky race him there from the outset? Traditionally seen as preparation for Milan San Remo, there’s no reason why the race should be seen as essential to Froome’s Tour presentation. If anything Froome might have scored some useful psychological points over Nibali if he had raced Paris Nice like the Sicilian.

With Froome’s injury all of this is academic but it will be interesting to see just how personally ASO have taken Sky’s decision to withdraw Porte as the year goes on. Might they take a different view if there’s a repeat of Froome’s gel incident from last years Tour this year?

Valverde – pas normale?

After his dominant performance at the Ruta del Sol Alejandro Valverde continued to raise eyebrows with his performances at Strade Bianche and Roma Maxima last weekend. The Movistar rider featured in both races. Commentators referred to Valverde’s form many times over the weekend, but whether it’s credible is something else again. The fact that he was the only rider to feature as strongly in both races is undeniable. Lance Armstrong used to refer to the performances of riders he believed were using PED’s as “not normal”. Should the absence of any repentance from Valverde over previous drug bans mean that his performances will be subject to scrutiny? Well, yes and comparing and contrasting Valverde’s performance over two consecutive days and races with Boonen provides more food for thought in the ongoing debate about cycling’s credibility.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For great racing choose the Basque country

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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