I’ll get me coat! – VCSE reviews the Ronde 

Tour of Flanders 2017

Beware the errant spectator, the misplaced guard rail or even the poorly secured advertising banner. There are many things that can derail your chances of success in the classics and it was an apparent combination of those three things that ended Peter Sagan’s hopes of doubling up on his Ronde victory from last year. Like the mysterious injuries caused by red hot disc brakes perhaps we will never know what exactly precipitated Sagan’s fall on the  Oude Kwaremont but whatever it was provided enough for Philippe Gilbert to stay away and claim one of the monumental classic races that he has always maintained he was capable of winning.

Philippe Gilbert

Riding in the Belgian champions colours Gilbert had gone on the attack with more than 50 kilometres of racing to go and still facing some of the hardest climbs. In the races I’ve seen him in this year he’s looked like a rider who wants to race for every sign even if the result was unlikely to go his way. A gambler then? Perhaps, but maybe also a rider with a point to prove. Tom Boonen, racing his final Flanders, is targeting Paris Roubaix as his swan song but he’s a perennial favourite at 36 years old. So Gilbert at two years Boonen’s junior; why not? Well saying you can win it is one thing, actually doing it is something else entirely.

Gilbert has clearly been rejuvenated by his move to Quick Step after four years at BMC. It’s always seemed to me that the last thing you want to do as a professional rider who’s winning races regularly is to move to BMC. Gilbert moved there after a stellar 2011 season that saw him take all three of the Ardennes classics as well as an early season win in Strade Blanche. He might have spent a year in the rainbow stripes but another Amstel Gold in 2014 aside it looked like Gilbert was a relatively under productive on a big salary. If this does him a disservice even the rider himself questioned whether the team really knew how to get the best from him, even going so far as suggesting that he would sacrifice his form in the Ardennes for a crack at the cobbles. BMC didn’t appreciate that suggestion at the time and we’re happy to put the house on Van Avermaet by not extending Gilbert’s contract at the end of 2016. That isn’t to say that BMC were wrong to do so; Van Avermaet has won Het Nieuswblad, E3 and Gent Wevelgem this year and Gilbert has rolled the dice in so many races that his number was always going to come up at some point.

Compare and contrast two teams and Gilbert’s start to 2017. His form in the run up to today’s race should arguably have made him the favourite. Second in E3 and Dwars door Vlaandaren, stage win and GC in the 3 days of De Panne. But no, all the talk, the pre-race hyperbole was Sagan, Van Avermaet and to a lesser extent Boonen. Going long might not have seemed like a recipe for success either, at the point of Gilbert’s attack Sagan and Van Avermaet were both  very much a factor.

It’s often a risk with the biggest sporting events that the decision to ‘go live’ and ‘bring us all the action’ results in very little ‘action’ taking place. Returning from an early season cycling holiday in Spain I restored the power to our Sky Plus box this morning and found that live coverage would start at 9.30 this morning! Unfortunately for me this didn’t make for enjoyable viewing as the British Eurosport feed persists with Carlton Kirby as their lead commentator. Now I know watching cycling is a bit niche out there in the real world so taking issue with who calls the race might be seen as navel gazing in the extreme. Trouble is Carlton is really beginning to grate on me. Days were that David Harmon was Eurosport’s go to cycling guy but he left early in 2013 and since then the big stuff has been Carlton’s gig. He still manages to have his moments and his commentary on Iljo Keisse’s win in the 2012 Tour of Turkey is well worth a search on my YouTube page but most of the time I just wish I could mute him. Funny thing is the commentator who I think does it get right seems to polarise opinion almost as much as Carlton. Rob Hatch did call the race on the world feed (whatever that is) today and I think he generally gets the tone of things right. When the race was failing to ignite early on today Hatch would have lead a discussion about the contenders that wouldn’t have felt like he was calling out names from the start list. He also seems to get the best out of Eurosport’s lead colourman, the legend that is Sean Kelly. Anticipating a barrage of banality from Kirby, Sean can be equally anodyne in his contributions although he got engaged of his own accord today after Gilbert attacked. Rob Hatch manages to ask Kelly a question that actually makes him think and draws out some interesting insights as a result. Pairing Kelly with Kirby does Sean at bit of a disservice I think. Of the other commentators out there I think Ned Boulting will emerge as a bit of a doyenne after a shaky start. David Millar alongside him is very good too as someone with with recent knowledge of life in the peloton as well as no apparent desire to become a ‘character’. Matt Stephens is good in either role and Brian Smith provides a sterling service shooting down Kirby’s flights of fancy when required. Magnus Backstedt doesn’t appear as often as he used to but when he does you have to hope he’s alongside Rob Hatch as Kirby seems to melt any intelligent thought he might have. I’ll have to give some credit to Carlton as he was prepared to call it for Gilbert sooner than anyone else might have dared to, but he does love a trier.

Any commentator would have struggled to find much to get excited about early on though. Race organisers Flanders Classics had made a number of changes to the route this year with the start moving from Bruges to Antwerp. For this monument tradition can always be bought and the suggestion is that Antwerp paid a six figure sum to host the race. Well at least they didn’t have to buy the crowds that turned out in the sunshine. Money apparently changed hands again to get the Muur-Kapelmuur reinstated into the race route after several years absence. No complaints about that and money well spent as it was the back drop for the key selection of the race with Gilbert and Boonen going clear with teammate Matteo Trentin, Sep Vanmarcke, Alexander Kristoff and Sky’s  Luke Rowe in the group. Vanmarcke’s bad luck in the monuments continued and he even managed to bundle Rowe up in his misfortune when the Sky rider couldn’t avoid the falling Cannondale team leader. Vanmarcke got back on a bike eventually but he the crash ended his chances and it looks like a breakthrough win is as far away as ever. Rowe hadn’t look that strong either and with Ian Stannard relatively anonymous so far this year Sky have had a poor return on the cobbles in 2017.

While Sagan’s coming together with an anorak might have sealed things for Gilbert,  Van Avermaet had a good go at reeling him in. He might have done too, but was probably undone by running out of kms to track down the leader coupled with the completely supine response from the other riders in his group. As I said earlier I think there was an element of luck that played its part in Gilbert’s victory but the unpredictable factor was leavened out by the riders self belief that he could bring off a result in this race to the extent of launching a solo attack so far out that most wouldn’t have expected to survive. Gilbert’s decision, post Flanders to pull out of Paris Roubaix suggests that he would have been prepared to gamble again if he hadn’t have pulled off the win in the Ronde.

Pais Vasco 2017

A few riders that might have featured in Flanders lined up in the Basque Country on Monday. With Sky’s poor showing on the cobbles might they have benefited from the presence of the Gilbertesque Michal Kwiatowski?

I much prefer the early season week long stages races and I look forward to Itzulia primarily to see hard racing in horrible weather and on that score this year’s edition has so far disappointed. We’ve just returned from a week on the bikes in Spain and enjoyed weather that by U.K. standards was positively balmy. I’ll be tuning in to the rest of rtthe week’s action but hoping that the rain clouds start gathering otherwise the race might end up looking like an Argos Volta a Catalonia.

VCSE’s 2016 Season Preview

Welcome to 2016 

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose*. Ahead of last season I wrote about pro cycling’s latest wheeze to evolve with the advent of Velon. I was vary of a potential shift of power towards teams at the time, making the comparison between the changes seen in Football in the UK since the inception of the Premier League. It seems like I needn’t have worried. All we have seen from Velon is some occasionally interesting Go Pro (other bike cams are available) footage and the financial footing of teams seems as precarious as it ever was.

Some changes were proposed. Under Brian Cookson the UCI has pursued a low key reforming agenda that was inevitable after the fall out from the the scandals of recent years. Whether or not the sport needs 3 year licences for teams is debatable. The stability argument, that teams could reassure existing and potential sponsors that they would be racing at Tirreno Adriatico in 2018 is reasonable enough but it exposed where the power in the sport lies. ASO promotes many other races besides the Tour but if you’re an incoming title sponsor of a world tour team the one race you’re going to want to be seen at is La Grand Boucle. For a non world tour team securing an invite to a grand tour is often the difference between financial survival or ruin. There’s also been the unwritten rule that certain teams could expect an invite at the expense of potentially more worthy entrants pace Cofidis at the Tour or Androni at the Giro.

Securing the patronage of ASO (or RCS) has always been important for the outfits below the world tour level. With world tour teams guaranteed a slot on each of the world tours thus far falling out with the organiser hasn’t been a consideration up and until now. Crucially though ASO are unhappy with the UCI proposals, so much so that they want to take their races out of UCI categorisation. This puts a huge hole in the UCI’s 3 year licencing plan as suddenly the stability it suggested is overtaken by the need to stay onside with ASO to be at the grand depart of the world’s biggest cycle race.

Whether or not 3 year licences are the answer to how pro cycling can move forward is moot now that ASO have decided that as far they’re concerned; it’s a no. The impasse has somewhat faded as the new season is upon us (I’m writing this after the Tour Down Under and the day before the Dubai Tour). My guess at this stage is that a compromise or fudge will be found and I’ll be writing a similar article about the sport’s potential new dawn sometime next February.

Moves and Grooves

In the off season it has been evolution rather than revolution for most teams that echoes the uncertainty of the direction of travel discussed earlier. There are a few exceptions of course.

E3_Harelbeke_2012,_boonen_cancellara_op_de_kwaremont_(20265330611) (1)
Boonen v Cancellara for the last time?

Dimension Data (ex MTN Qhubeka) are the latest addition to the world tour teams having secured the services of Mark Cavendish (along with a couple of his consigliere for 2016. Moving up from Pro Conti removes the lottery of securing grand tour invitations (for now) but while the team will benefit from the stability there’s pressure too for the squad and the rider. Cav had a less than stellar 2015 and as the undisputed leader of his new team will be under the spotlight this year. Sprinting has come a long way since Cav, Eisel and Renshaw were casting all before them at HTC in 2009 and with the possibility that he will want to go to the Rio Olympics too I’m not sure Cav will be able to target the unofficial sprinters world championships on the Champs Elysee too.

The make up of Sky’s squad continues to evolve although the number of Brit’s in the team remains the same with Bradley Wiggins replaced by neo pro Alex Peters. Their big signings are former world champ Michael Kwiatkowski from Etixx and Mikel Landa from Astana. Kwiatkowski had a quiet year as befits the holder of the rainbow stripes but he’s got pedigree and versatility. Whether or not the team needs another rider in the Geraint Thomas mould I’m less sure of but it should allow the team to fight for more wins this year. Signing Landa i’m less sure of. The suggestion is that he will target the Giro after going close last year but I can’t help feeling this could go the way of Sky’s previous attempts to win the race. It’s a bold step to take a rider from a team that’s as controversial as Astana, even more so if you’re Sky. It’s uncertain that Landa will ride at the Tour but I would imagine that the tin foil hat brigade will be out in force if he does.

Etixx have lost Cavendish but gained Marcel Kittel alongside a few more ‘big’ signings. Seeing Kittel fall from grace in 2015 was painful at times and not ever entirely explained by the rider either. Will he go well in 2016 is as much of a question as; is Etixx the right team for him to prosper with? Other than having deep pockets are Etixx likely to be significantly better at leading out Kittel as they were Cavendish?

Richie Porte has moved to BMC, although this was announced so early in the ‘transfer window’ it’s ceased to be news. Everything went well for him right up to being Sky’s latest contender for the Giro and after that he was forced to dine out on what might have been. Here’s another move where I’m not sure if the ‘fit’ is anything other than financial and perhaps this further illustrates the fragile nature of a professional riders career. Sacrifice opportunity for cash? I might be doing Richie a huge disservice here but don’t BMC already have a GC rider?

This year will be the last match up between Fabian Cancellara and Tom Boonen. Well I say that, but actually the last time that truly happened was as long ago as 2012. Boonen has had less luck with injuries, but both riders were out of contention long before the big two of Flanders and Paris Roubaix last year. Everyone wants to see these two go head to head one more time but the emergence of riders like Kristoff and Degenkolb (last years winners of the Ronde and Roubaix respectively) will mean that the last of the old breed will need to be in top form and fitness to add to their wins.

What to watch

Well, all of them of course! OK that’s not strictly true and I admit to feeling a little jaded watching some of the cycling last year. The desert races will be an amuse bouche after not seeing anything since September but the season doesn’t really start for me until Paris Nice and Tirreno. Strade Bianche is emerging as a genuine classic and I’ll have high hopes that one of the semi-classics delivers a race as good as last years Gent Wevelgem.

The Ronde is the first of the must see races for me and still edges it over Roubaix. If Cancellara and Boonen are near the front at either it will be a good year.

The grand tours have a way of feeling like the greatest race you have ever seen when you’re in the thick of the actual race. I’ll be left wondering how the Tour is going to be able to top the Giro, although often finding (as in last year) that the Vuelta delivered more drama. The Giro / Vuelta ‘arms race’ of metres climbed and summits finished on continue while the Tour seems an altogether classier affair. Expect my opinion on which one has been the greatest to change after each edition.

So what should you expect from the 2016 cycling season? Should you tune in? The short answer is ‘Yes’. The beauty of the sport lies in it’s unpredictable nature and if 2016 can offer riders recovering from shaky starts to capture the rainbow jersey at the end of the year (Sagan) to new faces emerging as grand tour contenders (Chavez, Dumoulin) then there’s a great race out there waiting to happen.

*The more it changes, the more it’s the same thing

Kan anyone katch Kristoff?

Tour of Flanders 2015

This year’s classics season is being turned on its head by a couple of unlikely teams; Sky and Katusha. Alexander Kristoff added another win for Katusha and his second monument victory today by winning the Ronde. Kristoff’s relatively straightforward success adds to Luca Paolini’s win in Gent Wevelgem last week and his own second place in Milan San Remo to place Katusha top of the teams in this year’s spring classics.

Alexander Kristoff winner Tour des Fjords 2 stage
Alexander Kristoff

After winning Milan San Remo the previous year Kristoff was naturally going to be one of the favourites for that race again this year but he hasn’t been seen as a rider who would figure as highly in the cobbled classics. He had been near the sharp end of the peloton in E3 and Gent Wevelgem but his three stage wins and taking the GC in this weeks 3 Days of De Panne made him a red hot tip for the Ronde. Kristoff was beginning to show his sprinting chops last year and he ran Marcel Kittel really close for the unofficial sprinters world championships on the Champs Elysee for the final stage of the Tour. He has is mining a rich vein of form at the moment that just makes the likelihood of him winning a bunch sprint seem like a foregone conclusion. Three stage wins on the relatively benign De Panne parcours didn’t necessarily mean that victory in the Ronde would be easy to come by. Kristoff appeared to realise this; attacking ahead of the final ascents of Oude Kwaremont and the Paterberg and building a small but ultimately decisive gap to the chasing group.

It could and indeed has been argued that this years spring races are wide open as they lack two principal characters; Fabian Cancellara and Tom Boonen. Boonen is rapidly running out of time to add to his Flanders and Roubaix totals and like 2013 he’s out of this years races through injury. Unlike 2013 Boonen didn’t even get as far as the early races after his tumble at the back of the pack early on in Paris Nice. Cancellara joined his great rival on the sick list after crashing out of E3 and the rest of the classics season when it was revealed he had fractured vertebrae. Boonen had shown the briefest indicators of form winning Kuurne Brussel Kuurne and animating sections of Roubaix last year but Cancellara has been the rider during the same period winning Flanders twice, Roubaix and E3 along with strong finishes in MSR. A master of hiding his form until it matters the only indication we had of Cancellara’s 2015 form was a high finish behind Kristoff in this years MSR. I can’t help feeling that a fit Fabs would have been a factor today if only because so many of the peloton look to him to decide how they’re going to run their own race.

In E3 the beneficiary of Cancellara’s absence was Sky’s Geraint Thomas. His win in the semi classic has made this Sky’s best classics showing to date and the Welshman was rightly considered a favourite today. It’s a measure of how results have increased the teams confidence that Sky tried to control a lot of the race today. Perhaps unfairly a lot of the mainstream reporting in the UK has centred on Bradley Wiggins who will attempt to win Paris Roubaix next weekend. Wiggins had been in good form on the road and off it in the run up to today with an emphatic victory in the TT stage at De Panne and in interviews where he cited his desire to help Thomas to victory in the Ronde. I’m absolutely certain that this was the Sky strategy with Wiggins planned as the rider to break up the bunch to set up a Thomas win. Unfortunately for Wiggins he slid off early in proceedings and spent the rest of the race at the wrong end of the pack. It will be interesting to see how the events of today impact next weekend. At one point it looked like Wiggins was going to be escorted back to the front by Bernie Eisel who had shepherded him at De Panne but this didn’t come to much. Was Wiggins physically unable to contribute or had he mentally checked out of the race at that point? He was still appearing in shot at the back of the peloton late into the race and it’s true that he needed a race at this distance to prepare for Roubaix. If Wiggins did decide that he wasn’t going to contribute today (for whatever reason) it could have implications for how much support he can expect next week. Sky went from having riders in support of Thomas at the front to suddenly having just Luke Rowe (who has been a super domestique in the classics this year). If Wiggins had stayed on the bike it’s possible that Thomas could have had something in reserve for the final k’s, maybe Wiggins would have been part of a three man break with Kristoff and Niki Terpstra. Let’s just take things at face value for a moment and say that Wiggins just came off and that was his day done. If there’s nothing more to it than that it does show how so much of one day racing is down to luck. Wiggins will need more of that commodity if he’s going to go out on a high in Roubaix’s velodrome next weekend.

Niki Terpstra has been Etixx Quick Step’s mister consistency with a podium place today to go with last weeks in Gent Wevelgem. For Etixx though this has been a pretty forgettable classics campaign. Zdenek Stybar’s win in Strade Bianche and Cavendish taking KBK are the only bright spots where the majority of discussion has been around how the team have failed to capitalise on having numbers in the final selection. Terpstra will defend his Paris Roubaix title next weekend and it will be a last throw of the dice for Etixx before the team turns its attention to the grand tours.

Terpstra probably should have gone long today if he wanted to beat Kristoff but my sense is that he went with him to attempt to cover for Stybar. Kristoff’s victory, like that of John Degenkolb in MSR, marks him as more than just a sprinter. With Thor Hushovd’s retirement last year (a party that Kristoff spoilt by snatching the win in Thor’s final race) he was always going to be the heir apparent for Hushovd’s ‘hammer’. In winning today Kristoff has demonstrated that he can emulate Hushovd further by being a factor in one day races and on the right course possibly another Scandinavian wearer of the rainbow stripes.

The weight of expectations.. or just a dodgy haircut

Strade Bianche

Once upon a time. A time when for English footballs top division the prospect of being paid £5.8 billion to play televised football would have seemed like science fiction. As the 1970’s turned into the 1980’s and punk rock became the new wave, the big news in football was the £1 million pound transfer fee.

The best manager never to manage England’s national team Brian Clough had ushered in the development with his signing of Birmingham striker Trevor Francis for his Nottingham Forest side. Francis earned his fee and Forest recouped their investment when they won the European Cup (now the Champions League) in 1979 with the player scoring the winning goal in the final against Swedish side Malmo.

The precedent set, more clubs began targeting the players they believed would justify a £1M fee. Francis winning the European Cup at Nottingham had removed doubts about the wisdom of such indulgence. However, as the players that followed Francis into the million pound ‘club’ made their debuts it became clear to the sides involved that paying the entry fee was no guarantee of quality. Clough found this out for himself when he set another million pound benchmark with the first £1M black player Justin Fashanu.

Fashanu earned his fame and his move to Forest pretty much on the strength of one goal. Playing against Liverpool, Fashanu received the ball with his back to and 25 yards from goal. He flicked the ball as he turned and struck it with his left while it was still in the air. The strike; “magnificent” in the words of the commentator was the goal of the season, literally and figuratively and at the end of 1980 Fashanu was on his way to Clough’s Nottingham Ironically replacing Francis who was on the move again. Unfortunately for Clough and Forest, Francis’ replacement never found his form weighed down by an inability to reproduce that goal as well as (unreported at the time) off the field issues.

I was reminded of the mixed fortunes of these two (and other) million pound players in the early 80’s as Peter Sagan disappeared from view during Saturday’s Strada Bianche. Sagan has moved to Tinkoff Saxo for a rumoured 5M Euro a year and as I have written already this year his team owner expects results. Specifically, Sagan needs to win his first monument in 2015. Racing for the erstwhile Cannondale team in previous years Sagan, a seemingly perpetual winner of his national championship wore a subtly altered version of the team sponsors jersey. With his move to Tinkoff, the Slovakian red, white and blue is firmly in evidence and this allowed race commentator Rob Hatch to reveal a worrying factoid for the rider. The last race that Sagan had won was his national championship 10 months previously.

The use of italics is important. Also in the leading group on Saturday was Etixx rider and former world cyclocross champ Zdenek Stybar. Stybar, injured for much of last year is the current Czech national champion. The Czech and Slovak national champs, perhaps not so surprising for two countries that used to be just one are held jointly and Stybar won the race from Sagan in 2014. Sagan was able to claim his national champs jersey by virtue of being the first Slovakian rider to cross the line.

In addition to his striking new ensemble Sagan appears to have spent the off season cultivating a hairstyle that looks suspiciously like a mullet. Perhaps Oleg Tinkoff wants to appeal to the resurgent interest in cycling in Germany, although one look at Marcel Kittel should tell him that the quiff is where it’s at these days.

Back to the racing and at pretty much the same point in the race where Sagan and last years winner Michael Kwiatowski had made the decisive break, this years selection occurred. With Stybar were Sep Vanmarcke, Greg van Avermaet and 2014 podium finisher Alejandro Valverde. Sagan came adrift, appeared to be getting back on and then as the camera concentrated on the front of the race was lost from view altogether. Whether or not the director made much of an effort to find a shot of him, Sagan wasn’t seen on screen again.

I could easily look foolish here if Sagan wins the Ronde in few weeks and this was just one race, but is it possible that he’s feeling the pressure to deliver? Sagan’s form in Strade Bianche in the last two years was certainly stronger; he wasn’t out gunned by Kwiatowski (the superior climber) until the last kilometre in 2014. I think the key to unlocking Sagan’s undoubted potential will be how well Tinkoff Saxo can build a team of riders around him this Spring. Although the team have tasted success in the classics in the past (with Cancellara) the focus has been on the grand tours in the last year or two. The team don’t have that long to find the right grouping to put with their big winter signing if he’s going to get a monument in 2015.

With Sagan’s disappearance my biggest worry was that Valverde might go two better than 2014 and win. Vanmarcke had come unstuck from the leaders as the race went over a couple of steep climbs in the final few km’s. After the terrible clash of their bike sponsor’s (Bianchi) celeste blue with team sponsor’s Belkin’s lime green last year you would have hoped that another sponsor change for 2015 could improve things. Unfortunately, the yellow and black of Lotto Jumbo isn’t doing anything for the pairing with celeste either. I can see myself needing to return to the subject of team kits at some point this season as the pro conti teams have suddenly become the cool kids while the world tour serve up variations on a black theme.

In 2014 we had two riders going for the win up the hill and through the city walls of Sienna. This year there were three and with steep finish it was hard to see past Valverde. Greg van Avermaet realising this attacked and stole a few bike lengths on Stybar as Valverde couldn’t respond (huzzah). It was too soon for van Avermaet though as Stybar overhauled him over the as the road levelled out. With nothing left in the tank van Avermaet sank resignedly into his saddle as Stybar found a bit of a sprint for the win.

Continue reading The weight of expectations.. or just a dodgy haircut

Maxima minimised – VCSE’s Racing Digest #39

Etixx have (another) day to forget

Het Niewsblad and Kuurne Brussel Kuurne represent the start of the season proper for me. Races take place in conditions that I can recognise from my own rides and it the Flandrian landscape doesn’t feel too dissimilar to the windswept Essex roads that I do the majority of my miles on. I’m not sure of the exact reason(s) why OHN isn’t easier to catch on something other than a streaming site, but I guess money must have something to do with it. Having said that if Eurosport can manage to show the GP Samyn why can’t they get the Sporza feed for OHN? Particularly as they use the same channels pictures for the following day for KBK.

Le Samyn took place today and Etixx Quick Step had another ‘mare. With the kind of representation in the leading group that other teams would dream of and Gianni Meersman last wheel in the sprint train you’re thinking ‘win’ right? Um.. well.. apparently not. Lotto Soudal (nee Belisol) rider Kris Boeckmans went early and Meersman ended up second.  Lotto didn’t exactly set things on fire at the weekend, so the win was probably as significant for them as the (ahem) misfiring Etixx boys losing out. Ok, so this isn’t a race that will make or break their season, but Eitixx have to be wondering how they can turn numerical advantage in the last three races into only one victory.

Just the one (1 day) race in Italy this weekend then..

I’m looking forward to Strade Bianche on Saturday. Wouldn’t it be great if it rains? Of course the weather isn’t something that RCS can arrange and if the race is run in the same conditions as last year it shouldn’t spoil the fun. Last years edition featured Peter Sagan having one of those days that Etixx seem to be having currently. Ironically it was an Etixx rider that beat him twelve months ago; Michael Kwiatowski. While last years winner will be absent from this years edition (he’s at Paris Nice), the runner up is riding. Sagan will race on Saturday before turning his attention to Tirreno Adriatico the following week. This will be my first sight of Sagan since his move to Tinkoff. I wonder how Sagan will go this year. The massive contract must be nice but how long will it take Oleg to take to Twitter if he feels that he isn’t getting the return he thinks his investment justifies?

There’s plenty of other interest in the list of provisional starters. Simon Gerrans is fit again and this is the kind of race that should suit him. Cannondale Garmin are bringing 2013 winner Moreno Moser who hasn’t done anything since to be honest, so I guess I mention it as an example of talent that’s (currently) unfulfilled. One rider who I think could go really well on Saturday if he’s allowed to is Sky’s Peter Kennaugh. Sky have a pretty mixed up squad of classics and grand tour riders so it’s not clear to me what the Sky game plan could be.

What’s disappointing about this weekend is that Strade Bianche won’t be bookending things with Roma Maxima. The previous two editions of what was a revival race meeting had produced something really decent to watch and it’s a shame that the race has been pulled. It’s another example of the precarious nature of the sport that an event that looked to have been well supported locally and enjoyable to follow on TV has disappeared from this years calendar.

Every cloud though; at least Alejandro Valverde won’t be able to defend his title!

Continue reading Maxima minimised – VCSE’s Racing Digest #39

Tour de France 2014 Rest Day Review

Another high profile withdrawl

The Tour de France’s organisers expected a lot from their visit to the Vosges region for this years race and that’s exactly what they got. What the peaks of the Vosges lack in outright height they made up for in drama as the peloton were taken over multiple climbs over the French holiday weekend. The weather that might have been expected in Yorkshire during the opening weekend was firmly entrenched and compounded the riders suffering. Racing for ten days straight including a stage over the Paris Roubaix cobbles had robbed this years edition of the Grand Boucle of two of it’s leading protagonists by the peloton’s first ‘day off’ and left Vicenzo Nibali in pole position.

No yellow in 2014 - Alberto Contador
No yellow in 2014 – Alberto Contador

The crash that led to Alberto Contador’s withdrawl during the Bastille Day’s stage 10 took place off camera, such was the fast moving nature of the day that saw the peloton ride into heavy rain as they began the days climbs. In the confusion it was initially suggested that Contador had suffered a catastrophic failure of his Tinkoff Saxo Specialized. The absence of pictures left viewers in the dark as to what had happened to the race favourite until the end of the stage where interviews provided some insight. In the information vacum that proceeded that everyone watching indulged in a little bout of conspiracy theory and speculation wondering if talk of not one, but two crashes was an attempt to paint the riders bike supplier in the best light. The facts, with the benefit of hindsight, are rather more prosaic but have the same tragic outcome for the rider. Contador slipped from the bars while riding downhill one handed with the result that he has suffered a likely season ending knee injury. It’s a testament to the rider and confirmation that road cycling is the worlds toughest sport that Contador actually road 20 kilometres with a fractured tibia before abandoning.

We’ll never know if different circumstances would have seen Contador take the fight to his GC rivals on stage 10. He had finished second on Saturday’s stage but was yet take much time back from Nibali. Nibali had relenquished the lead to Lotto’s Tony Gallopin on Sunday, seemingly relaxed enough that he would be able to take it back at will if the status quo was retained time wise with his key competitors. While the final climb (and first summit finish of the race) on Saturday wasn’t a long one, it was steep. Last years winner of Strade Bianche Blel Kadri took the stage and the essential French victory, the only member of the break to stay away. Contador looked the strongest of the GC taking second, but Nibali was with him wheel for wheel. Much as people are now touting Richie Porte as Nibali’s biggest competition in the aftermath of Contador’s exit, he still looks like he doesn’t have the legs. Ultimately if it is a battle between Porte and Nibali it may be decided by the relative strengths of their respective Sky and Astana teammates.

French riders resurgent

In addition to Kadri’s stage win France has strong representation in the top ten with Kadri’s AG2R teammates Roman Bardet & Jean Christophe Peraud, Gallopin and FDJ’s Thibaut Pinot. While Gallopin and Peraud aren’t exactly veterans it’s more heartening to see the strong showing from Bardet and Pinot. Whether Pinot has got over all of his descending fears should become clear when the race enters the Alpes, but Bardet is looking like a strong contender for the young riders prize if not a podium place at this point.

The presence of French riders doing well also points to the likelihood that the sport is getting cleaner. While there remain some noises off about riders seeming to come into form unexpectedly the undercurrent is the emergence of some very talented young riders in the peloton across all disciplines. There was speculation from some quarters that Tony Martin, who won stage 9 from a breakaway on Sunday, would have been a possible GC rider during the last decade when doping was rife in the professional ranks. This was less a remark about Martin himself, than his physiology. In some ways Martin was the rider of the weekend as he was responsible for much of the animation on stage 10 too. The way that the Omega Pharma Quick Step rider hit the wall towards the end of the stage demonstrated what should happen when a 85 kilo rider hits a double digit ramp. It feels a lot better to celebrate the way his stage ended than having to watch in disbelief as a muscle bound rider climbed without appearing to breathe with any difficulty.

The Tour now enters its second half. The first has served up enoough drama for a three week race already, but such has been the ebb and flow of riders fortunes so far in this race can it be possible that the next 11 stages won’t be just as exciting.


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.

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.