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

Vuelta a Espana 2014 Preview

The riders to watch

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 Withdrawn due to rules surrounding his cortisol values (he has been suffering from bronchitis), Horner’s non-start caps what has been a pretty awful year for the rider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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Continue reading Vuelta a Espana 2014 Preview

VCSE’s 2014 Tour de France preview

General Classification 

This time a year ago the talk was not so much of who would win the Tour but the margin of victory. With the exception of Tirreno Adriatico Chris Froome had been victorious in everything he had entered and he was the firm favourite ahead of the opening stages in Corsica. This year the pre-race chatter has been dominated by the will they, won’t they (non) selection of Bradley Wiggins for Sky’s Tour team.

In yellow again this year? - Alberto Contador
In yellow again this year? – Alberto Contador

In some ways this has been a welcome distraction for Froome as his season to date has been punctuated by injury, illness and being found wanting by some of his chief rivals for the GC this year, most recently Alberto Contador in the Criterium du Dauphine. As defending champion and undisputed leader of the Sky team Froome is of course among the favourites for the 101st edition of the Tour. The key here is that he is merely among the favourites, rather than being the outstanding candidate to take the general classification. Sky’s domination of the race in recent years does allow this rivals to remain somewhere below the radar however. Contador, who gave the impression of a rider clinging on by his fingernails in last years race has looked back to his best this year, showing his best form when he has wanted to demonstrate his superiority of a rival like he did to Alejandro Valverde at this years Pais Vasco.

Contador looks most likely to break the Sky hold over the GC, but there are other riders waiting in the wings who may yet cause an upset on the way. The aforementioned Valverde has looked other worldly at times, particularly in the early season. It’s hard to imagine that the Spaniard will be any more than a podium contender though. If Movistar had wanted to win this year they should have picked Nairo Quintana, last years runner up and this years Giro victor. Last years Giro winner Vicenzo Nibali should arguably have been the man cast in Contador’s role this year. Utterly dominant in the 2013 Giro and Tirreno Adriatico (where he crucially had the beating of Froome) Nibali began to fray around the edges at the Vuelta and he hasn’t looked anywhere near his 2013 best this season. Nibali was often a thorn in Sky’s side at the 2012 Tour though and he has the ability to hurt the GC riders in the mountain stages.  A podium is a possibility, but VCSE suspects that a stage win or two may prove to be the goal for the Astana leader.

In Quintana’s absence the young guns should be well represented by US pairing Tejay van Garderen and Andrew Talansky. BMC struggled last year trying to accomodate two leaders in Cadel Evans and van Garderen. Evans’ absence this year should help Tejay but he would have to be an outside bet for a podium place. A top ten is more likely. Talansky’s Garmin team have demonstrated their mastery of in race tactics, particularly when targeting a stage win as with Dan Martin in the Pyrenees last year. Talansky was in the right place at the right time in the Dauphine when he stole the race lead from Contador on the last stage to win the overall. He’s a stronger candidate for the podium than van Garderen but once again a top 10 feels more likely. This is Talansky’s opportunity to improve on his result from last years Tour and to become the rider around who future Garmin Tour efforts are built now that Martin’s year has been disrupted by injury.

Aside of the main contenders Joaquim Rodriguez was a fairly late addition for the Tour after his plans for the Giro were upset by injury in the Ardennes. Rodriguez took a stealthy podium last year but it’s harder to see him repeating that result 12 months later. Belkin, in the form of Bauke Mollema and Laurens Ten Dam were a bit of surprise package last year. The Dutch outfit have the motivation (if not pressure) of the announcement that their team sponsor are withdrawing at the end of this season and Mollema has looked in good form in recent weeks. Again it’s an unlikely podium, but with the teams sponsor difficulties a headline grabbing stage win could be the target for the either rider.

World champion Rui Costa was successful with stage wins last year but his goal this year will be a stronger showing on GC. He’s managed a win in the rainbow stripes this season which deals with any superstitious fears that may have existed for the rider about the supposed ‘curse’ but it’s unlikely he will be looking to repeat wins in 2014. France demands at least one stage win in the race it gave to the world. Last year we had a long wait for Christophe Riblon to come good for AG2R. VCSE offers the following names to look out for at this years Tour for GC contention and / or a stage win; Roman Bardet (AG2R) and  Kevin Reza (Europcar).

With the loss of Vacansoleil and the elevation of Europcar to the world tour it’s meant that we have a bit more variety in the wildcard invitations this year. Anglo-German Net App Endura have a decent shout of a top 10 with Leopold Konig after the teams ‘dry run’ at last years Vuelta. IAM cycling were in contention for the overall at the Tour de Suisse and will bring a strong squad to the Tour with previous stage winners in Chavanel and Haussler. Stage wins may well be the target for the team, but they have riders that could prove to be contenders on GC also.

So who will actually win? Putting aside the fact the Froome is hard to like because of the Wiggins non-selection he remains the rider most likely to win this years Tour, albeit with more caveats than last year. Contador looks super strong and if Valverde and Nibali both bring their A game the Sky rider will face more assaults than he did a year ago. Also Froome’s most trusted helper Richie Porte is struggling for form and it remains to be seen if Mikel Nieve can establish a similar bond with his leader. Sky have assembled a very experienced unit with a good mix of riders who can shepherd Froome through the tricky stages like Arenberg as well as the type of stage that saw him cut adrift by cross winds last year. This is Contador’s best chance of a repeat Tour victory, but he has lost a key helper in Roman Kreuziger due to bio passport irregularities just days ahead of the grand depart. Will this upset the Tinkoff Saxo applecart? Unlikely, but anything that chips away at Contador’s confidence will be to Froome’s benefit. Every GC rider faces the difficult stages in Yorkshire and on the Roubaix cobbles and this could lead to some riders going out of contention before the peloton reaches the Vosges for the start of the climbing proper.

VCSE’s GC predictions – 1. Froome 2. Contador 3. Talansky

The sprinters battle 

Mark Cavendish will have another go at claiming the maillot jaune for the first time in his career. Cavendish could place some of the blame for missing out on yellow on last years first stage on the Orica team bus getting stuck at the finish line, but as the race went on it became clear that he’s no longer the man to beat in sprint stages. Marcel Kittel may have ‘stolen’ Cav’s jersey on that first stage in Corsica but by beating the Omega Pharma Quick Step rider in Paris it looked as if the crown and sceptre for the king of the fast men was going to the younger man. Even if Cavendish wasn’t targeting the win into his Mum’s home town of Harrogate on Saturday he can rely on a partisan UK crowd and the media to make it ‘his’ goal. In some ways there’s more pressure on Cavendish to win this stage than their will be to beat Kittel on the Champs Elysee in three weeks time. Both riders have reconnoitered the opening stages and while Kittel may respect his rival he won’t be sentimental about handing the win to Cavendish. Much as VCSE would like to see Cavendish take yellow it seems more likely that Kittel will take the lions share of the stage wins and will lead the GC into the second stage.

Can he wear yellow?  - Mark Cavendish
Can he wear yellow? – Mark Cavendish

Peter Sagan only managed a single stage victory at last years Tour but should see a third straight win in the points competition. Sagan could target a victory as early as stage 2 which has been described as a Yorkshire version of Liege Bastogne Liege. He will also be among the favourites for the stage that takes in part of the Paris Roubaix cobbled route on stage 5. Sagan could have a rival this year in Orica’s Simon Gerrans, a rider in good form who while unable to match Sagan in a sprint is as least as good if not better over the climbs.

Andre Greipel is reduced to playing second, if not third fiddle to Cavendish and Kittel these days and will need some kind of mishap to befall the leading riders to be in with a chance of stage win at this years Tour. FDJ’s Arnaud Demare has won the internal battle to become lead rider and could be another outside bet for a win, but is more likely to contest stage podiums.

KOM is harder to predict this year. It’s possible that we might see a repeat of 2012 where the rider in the break secures the points and the jersey and this seems more likely than a repeat of last year where Quintana took a sweep of the KOM and young riders jerseys on his way to second place.

Key stages of the 2014 Tour de France 

Armchair fans can watch the race live on ITV4 and British Eurosport again this year. Who you choose may depend on your choice of television provider but it’s a shame that Eurosport won’t repeat their pairing of Rob Hatch and Sean Kelly like they did at the Giro. Hatch seemed to get the best out of Kelly and their commentary is preferable to the prospect of Carlton Kirby in the lead chair. Kirby is as eccentric as Phil Liggett is predictable but ITV4 will probably win out thanks to a stronger presentation team in Gary Imlach and Chris Boardman outweighing Liggetts spoonerisms.

With a UK grand depart it’s also a lot easier to go and see the race in person although the peloton will disappear in a bit of flash on the flat stage 3 into London. The fan parks in Yorkshire and London may be better places to watch the action before heading to the finish line to see the final sprints.

Stages 1 thru’ 3 – Leeds to Harrogate, York to Sheffield, Cambridge to London Sat, Sun, Mon 5,6,7th July

The UK based stages will be worth a watch to see if Mark Cavendish can claim his first ever yellow jersey on stage 1 and to see if there are any early GC casualties on the challenging stage 2 that has 9 catergorised climbs.

Stage 5 – Ypres to Arenberg Porte du Hainaut Weds 9th July 

The stage that takes in 15 kilometres of the Paris Roubaix cobbles is otherwise a flat, transitional stage. GC riders will be looking to stay out of trouble and it’s likely to be a chance for the rouleurs from each team to grab some glory with a stage win.

Stage 10 – Mulhouse to La Planche des Belles Filles Mon 14th July

The summit finish where Froome won the stage in 2012 and Wiggins took the maillot jaune revisits in 2014 after a testing stage the previous day where the Tour takes in the first cat 1 climb of the race and the highest peak in the Vosges the Grand Ballon. Stage 10 has three other cat 1 climbs besides the Belle Filles along with a pair of cat 2 and a single cat 3 climb over its 162kms.

Stage 14 – Grenoble to Risoul Sat 19th July 

The toughest day the peloton will face in the Alps this year. The stage includes the Col d’Izoard one of the most iconic climbs that the Tour uses and home to some of its most dramatic scenery. The stage has a cat 1 summit finish at Risoul

Stage 17 – St Gaudens to St Lary Pla D’Adet Weds 23rd July

Three cat 1 climbs including the Peyresourde before finishing with a HC summit finish of just over 10km at slightly more than 8%. It’s the shortest stage outside of the TT stages but should be a tough one.

Stage 18 – Pau to Hautacam Thurs 24th July

The final day of climbing in this years Tour takes in the famed climbs of the Tourmalet and finishing atop the Hautacam. Both climbs are HC and account for roughly 20% of the stages entire distance. If the GC isn’t decided by now it’s still possible that the TT  on Saturday could provide a final shake up.

Stage 19 – Bergerac to Perigueux Sat 26th July 

The penultimate stage has the potential to be a TT that’s actually worth watching live or merely be the icing on the GC cake for the holder of the maillot jaune. If there are still small time gaps between the leading contenders then riders will be looking over the shoulders as the strong testers take back time on them. If Froome is leading at this point, this stage is likely to increase the gap. If it’s Contador he will have to hope that he has built up enough of a cushion in the Pyrenees.


VCSE’s 2013 Tour de France Preview

VCSE’s guide to the Col d’Izoard


2014 Tour de France route
2014 Tour de France route


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

Criterium du Dauphine 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tour de Suisse 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wet, Wet, Wet – VCSE’s Racing Digest #30

Giro 2014  Stages 2 & 3 Belfast to Belfast & Armagh to Dublin

With crowds lining the route in what has been pretty much awful weather it’s fair to say that bringing the 2014 Giro d’Italia to Ireland has been a huge success. The residents of Belfast and Dublin and towns and villages elsewhere on the route were always going to get into the spirit of the event and it will be interesting to see if there’s quite as much yellow being worn as Pink when the Tour de France arrives in Yorkshire in a month or two. There was a real sense that for three days at least the Giro belonged to Ireland rather than Italy and the weather couldn’t dampen those feelings.

Whether the teams enjoyed the three stages quite as much is probably more open to debate. The stages didn’t throw up many stories and in many ways (as flat stages often are) were less than exciting. The spectators found much more to enjoy than the actual participants. The opening TTT had some human interest with Dan Martin’s cruel exit, the suspected broken collarbone now confirmed and Svein Tuft getting handed a leaders jersey for his birthday. Taking in some the most beautiful coastline in the UK along the Antrim coast it was unfortunate that the weather just made it appear so grim. The view might have given some respite had the weather been better as the racing itself was pretty flat. The peloton was content to put in the miles in return for a fresh (or in this case dry) jacket from the team car.

Marcel Kittel’s presence meant that the sprint, at least in stage two, was a forgone conclusion and the Giant rider manage to survive even the disintegration of his lead out train to win easily as the race returned to Belfast. Ninety five percent of today’s stage from Armagh to Dublin was the same sleep inducing procession as the previous day, interspersed with accidents as riders nodded off through boredom. There was much speculation about a tricky S bend on the run into the line in Dublin, but as the race approached the roads had begun to dry out in the strong winds and it was negotiated with little fuss.

The peloton had already been funnelled onto a narrower section of a couple of kilometres earlier and by the time they went through 1k to go were very strung out. Kittel on his own at this point was some way back from Sky’s Ben Swift and Cannondale’s Elia Viviani. Swift, who had recovered his place at the head of the race was led out by Edvalt Boasson Hagen and right up to the line you would have thought he had won it. But in a superhuman effort it was Kittel who nicked the win by no more that a wheel. The big German collapsed afterwards demonstrating just how much he had put into the effort to overhaul Swift who finished a disappointed but worthy second.

The teams now go into a rest day as the Giro transfers down to southern Italy. Assuming Michele Scarponi is injured from his accident today, the race could have shrunk its group contenders already with Martin already out. The teams and riders will be hoping that no one has picked up a bug from three days of riding in almost continuous rain. There aren’t many conclusions to be drawn from the Irish stages. That Orica Green Edge are great TTT riders is hardly news any more than Marcel Kittel is the worlds fastest sprinter in the world right now. Of the world tour teams those with the least ambition look like Belkin and Lotto who have stuck riders in the breakaways on both days.

The peloton may not look back on the Irish stages of this years Giro with much fondness (almost entirely due to the weather) but for the fans at the roadside the memories will linger on and hopefully inspire a new generation of Kelly’s and Roche’s.

Tour of California 

The Tour of California gets underway later tonight (UK time) with a stage starting and finishing in the state capital of Sacremento. The big story from the race is Sky’s entry. It’s a mixture of marketing for team and rider with Sky now sponsored by another News Corp company 21st Century Fox and Bradley Wiggins, who is now represented by agent to the stars Simon Fuller. The logic of the teams appearance in a marketplace so important for one of their title sponsors make sense, what isn’t so clear is whether or not Wiggins is the kind of character that American fans will take to their hearts. The possibility that Wiggins will make it big in the US is a question to be answered another day. Right now we have the rider’s stated aim of winning the GC over the course of eight stages that will follow the ToC’s traditional north to south trajectory after last years ‘experiment’ with a south to north parcours.

The north to south route has often seen the early stages run in the sort of weather that the 2014 Giro Peloton has ‘enjoyed’ in Ireland and this was part of the motivation for the switch to a southern start in the ToC last year. The law of unintended consequences as far as the route change was concerned was that the early stages saw riders suffering dehydration and heat stroke with some of the rouleurs who had spent the previous weeks in the wind and rain of northern France and Flanders collapsing in the intense heat of the Californian desert. North, south or south to north is of less concern to Wiggins than stage two’s TT around Folsom a town whose previous and let’s be honest greater claim to fame is for its prison immortalised in the Johnny Cash live recording. The TT is short at 20km, but this isn’t much more than the archetypal 10 miles distance used for most club TT’s and will be a distance that Wiggin’s should be comfortable with. The bigger question in terms of his GC ambitions will be whether or not he can eke out enough of an advantage (assuming he actually wins the stage) to be defended for the remainder of the race. Sky have selected a squad that draws heavily on its US riders and it does look a little light on riders who will set the kind of pace over the climbs that feature later in the race that will be essential for a Wiggins win.

The Sky / Wiggins appearance continues a trend seen before in the ToC which see’s riders integral to the marketing of bikes in the US making an appearance. Jens Voigt, a stage winner last year. is a case in point and continues his ‘farewell tour’ in the US. home of his bike sponsor Trek. The other marquee name worth mentioning is Peter Sagan. Sagan often has the sprints in the US as a bit of a benefit, but Omega Pharma Quick Step have bought Mark Cavendish and Tom Boonen this year, so Sagan won’t have things quite his own way in 2014 VCSE suspects. Keep an eye out also for young British rider Tao Geoghegan Hart who’s racing in the US this year and is likely to feature in at least one of the breakaways.

Women’s Tour 

Winner of the Women's Tour - Marianne Vos
Winner of the Women’s Tour – Marianne Vos

 Some might say that the rise in popularity in cycling in the UK has been driven by the success of the aforementioned Sky and Wiggins. Actually the growth in popularity has been as much if not more so because the successes have crossed the gender barrier and riders like Lizzie Armitstead and Laura Trott are as popular as the mod knight of the realm. Announced last year by Tour of Britain organisers Sweetspot the maiden Women’s Tour has been run around the east of England this week and has attracted the cream of the women’s peloton including Marianne Vos and Emma Johansson.

It goes without saying that the chances of running an event for the first time, where the take up and interest from new fans will be so important to its ongoing success, needs good weather. Typically, as this is the UK it’s rained and when it hasn’t rained it’s been windy. The positive news is that this doesn’t seem to have dampened the spirits of the riders or, more importantly, the crowds who have turned out along the entire route to provide scenes that the women’s peloton aren’t always used to. Whether these same crowds will turn out again next year remains to be seen, but with a stage of the Tour coming through Cambridgeshire and Essex in July the locals are getting their fair share of professional road cycling this summer.

In trying to create a narrative to the race the organisers and media had attempted to talk up the race as face off between Vos and Armitstead. There was a grain of truth in this as Armitstead has enjoyed a successful start to the year with a win in the opening round of the women’s world cup, backed up by a series of podium places in the following rounds. With Vos only returning to the world cup at Fleche Wallone, Armitstead leads the world cup standings and from this the supposed rivalry with Vos emerged. The fantastically matter of fact Armitstead nipped this in the bud ahead of the first stage but the opening couple of stages did provide flashes of how much she has improved this year. Vos looked as if she was trying (and failing) to beat Armitstead in the intermediate sprints but the evidence of the final three stages would suggest she was just riding herself in.

After Johansson took the opening stage, we were treated to a breakaway win from Rossella Ratto in stage two, the peloton getting a bit huffy with one another over who should be putting in an effort to catch Ratto. From then on Vos took over taking the next three stages and the overall comfortably. No doubt the supposed Armitstead / Vos rivalry was swept under the carpet at the end of the race; Armitstead didn’t even start the final stage. There was good news for British riders with two of the next generation of women Hannah Barnes and Lucy Garner finishing in the top 10, less than a minute down on Vos in the final standings.

Whether or not the Women’s Tour is judged to be a success depends less on the crowds who turned out to what was a free event than the commercial success of the race. The title sponsor Friends Life was a late signatory and the some of the sponsors, familiar from the Tour or Britain, suggested that the organisers had been going around with the begging bowl to an extent. Getting a global brand like Strava involved was a bit a coup though. Is it the right thing to hold the Women’s Tour as a race in its own right as opposed to piggy backing the women’s event on to the Tour of Britain. This seems to work successfully at the Tour of Flanders and Fleche Wallone and there are some women in the peloton who want to race on a level playing field with the men. That the race exists is a good thing, but like the Tour of Britain itself has grown from its latest incarnation of ten years ago, The Women’s Tour needs to evolve.

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.

What do you do with a rider like Valverde?* – VCSE’s Racing Digest #22

Ruta del Sol 2014

The Ruta del Sol or Tour of Andalucia or Vuelta a Andalucia (depending on your preference) finished last weekend. The only ‘live’ cycling on offer to the armchair fan last week was shown perhaps less because of the race’s sixtieth anniversary than the fact that coverage was available for Eurosport. Most of the ‘smaller’ races shown on the digital channel are commentated on from a studio in London, probably not in homage to the days of Murray Walker and James Hunt sharing a microphone during the BBC’s grand prix coverage in the 70’s and 80’s, but for obvious cost reasons. Eurosport had people on the ground in on the Costa del Sol in the shape of the delightful and multilingual Laura Meseguer and it may not have been entirely unconnected that we enjoyed rather a lot of pre-stage interviews mixed in as the race unfolded.

Not everyone's favourite - Alejandro Valverde
Not everyone’s favourite – Alejandro Valverde

Any confusion over what to call the race arises in VCSE’s view from the fact that the Ruta del Sol is less a tour of Andulicia than one of those coach bound day trips marketed to pensioners in the back of local newspapers. The Ruta lasted four days with an opening prologue followed by three stages. This years Vuelta a Espana kicks off in the south so there was some interest in seeing what passes for a cat 1 climb in southern Spain. Sum up; they seem a bit easier than the ones in Galicia.

In the opening prologue it looked for a long time that Sky super domestique and automaton Vasil Kiryenka would take the win and leaders jersey. Sky had Richie Porte and Bradley Wiggins at the race and whatever their respective roles were likely to be for the rest of the week Wiggins would normally start out favourite against the clock. So it goes, and Wiggins did indeed beat Porte but he finished down on Kiryenka and Geraint Thomas. A top ten finish suggested that Wiggins was trying at least at this point. By the closing km’s of stage one it appeared that some of the demons of 2013 hadn’t been completely exorcised as he was one of the first of Sky’s train to pull out of the line on the final climb. This could (of course) be unfair; the plan for Britain’s first winner of the Tour de France has already been heavily trailed with Wiggins headed for Paris Roubaix and, perhaps, team leadership at the Vuelta. Nevertheless, knowing what we do now about how Wiggins had been reluctant to ride the Giro last year is it possible that Sky are pushing him towards races simply to earn something (anything) from their investment? In fairness to Wiggins he repaid his employers and more in winning the Tour ahead of Dave Brailsford’s five-year target and a small stage race early in the season is the wrong place to make sweeping conclusions. Wiggins remains a more compelling and complex character than the man who has usurped him as leader Chris Froome and the racing scene seems more enjoyable when Wiggins is enjoying his racing as with last years Tour of Britain.

But enough for now of the trials of one fallen hero and on to another. Alejandro Valverde was victorious in the prologue and in the next two stages. A three-time winner of the Ruta del Sol, there was still some surprise that he won the prologue. Valverde is a pretty divisive rider for reasons that can be counted off on each finger should you have enough hands and the inclination to do so. His unrepentant approach to doping historically and to quote a more recent example his apparent surrender during the worlds last year denying countryman Joaquim Rodriguez the win. With the lovely Laura on hand to interview and Rob Hatch providing a fluent translation we were treated to Valverde thanking his team and family if not his doctor at the end of each stage.

Anti doping has caught up, if not exactly caught on in Spain in recent years, although there is a sense that the relative decline of the countries sporting greats (not only in cycling) have paralleled these developments. It doesn’t feel right to be too cynical this early in the season, but it will be interesting to see if Valverde can repeat this kind of form outside Spain as the season progresses. VCSE suspects not.

Marcel Kittel was absent from the race, so Giant Shimano had to look elsewhere for a result. Tom Dumoulin came close in the prologue and in a break on the final stage. While the dutchman received no help from his compatriots on the rival (dutch) Belkin squad, he might have been better selecting one of Giant’s Propel aero frames for his breakaway. Last year Giant were bike sponsors for Belkin, although this team ran under the nom de plume Blanco until the Tour in a very similar team uniform to this years Giant Shimano outfit. Looking at Dumoulin pedalling squares as he attempted to stay clear of the peloton on stage four VCSE wondered if it was possible that Giant had saved themselves some money by recycling some of the old Blanco bikes into the Giant Shimano service course this year.

Tour of Oman 2014

It’s felt a bit like a television column as much as road racing comment so far this year. Not that this years racing has been short rationed. So far, VCSE has enjoyed the Dubai Tour as well as the Ruta del Sol live on Eurosport where last year it was highlights only from races like the Tour of Oman.

In many ways Oman is the poor relation to the other races held in the Arabian peninsula during February, although it often serves up the most interesting stages. Last year saw Chris Froome taking, what seemed inexplicable at the time, his first ever stage race victory. His performance was made more emphatic by the riders he saw off on the climb to the top of the Green Mountain; Joaquim Rodriguez and Alberto Contador. Froome was back this year to defend his title, although the field was a little less than stellar to challenge him. The viewing was a bit underdone too. Unable to get the funding to deliver live racing a half hour highlights package was served up the day after each stage accompanied by the sort of martial music that would top the charts in North Korea.

It’s disappointing that a race that offers far more than its counterparts in Dubai and Qatar cannot pull in the revenue to justify a live feed. No doubt it’s out there somewhere (Al Jazeera Sport anyone?) but this years version felt, like the Ruta del Sol above, something less than it promised.

Rain stops play

Tom Boonen
Tom Boonen

Rain might not, but snow certainly will. Last year VCSE returned from a weeks riding on the Isle of Wight ready to enjoy the first of the Belgian spring races, Kuurne Brussels Kuurne. You know how it is, avoid social media for the day and then hit the Sky Plus box with an appropriate beverage to enjoy the action. At the time the self induced social media blackout meant that the cancellation of the race due to the weather had passed us by. All that was left to do was to blame the Sky box.

Twelve months on and it’s 99.99% certain that the race will go ahead, the day after Het Nieuwsblad (which managed to run last year). The spotlight will be on Tom Boonen in his comeback year from injury in 2013 and he will turn out in both races this weekend. Last years winner Luca Paolini goes for Katusha although it’s hard to see last years cat and mouse style finish being repeated. BMC have Thor Hushovd and Greg van Avermaet and could provide tough opposition for Boonen. Also lining up in his first race since leaving Boonen’s Omega Pharma team is IAM cycling’s Sylvain Chavanel. Chavanel has a point to prove this year and another rider to look out for is Garmin’s Nick Nuyens.

Many of the same riders will turn out on Sunday with riders like Belkin’s Sep Vanmarcke elevated to team leader status. With last years hiatus the previous winner of the semi-classic was (at the time) a Sky rider, but Mark Cavendish is absent this year. Sky will be led by Edvald Boasson Hagen this year, but the Norwegian will be an outside bet if this race comes down to a sprint. The rider who showed last year that he could adapt to the shorter climbs of the cobbled classics was Andre Griepel and if it it’s in a bunch at the close on Sunday he is the VCSE favourite.

* with apologies to ‘The Sound of Music’

Vuelta Apathy – VCSE’s Racing Digest #16

Eneco Tour

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Which leads us neatly on to..

VCSE’s 2013 Vuelta a Espana Preview 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

VCSE’s Vuelta stages to watch

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

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

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

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

And here’s the GCN view

Sky find their limits – VCSE’s Racing Digest #12

The Pyrenean stages 

In the last Racing Digest we talked about the 2013 Tour de France starting for real as the peloton entered the Pyrenees last weekend. After its offshore sojourn on Corsica and the practical annexation of the Maillot Jaune by Orica Green Edge in week one, the general classification dice were due to get their first roll.

Nairo Quintana
Nairo Quintana (Photo credit:

From the outset Sky’s Chris Froome has been VCSE’s and most people’s favourite. Froome demonstrated his superiority on the Tour climbs in 2012 and when riding a similar profile this year from Oman to the Alpes he has been in dominant form. Froome weakness and indeed that of 2012 Tour winner and erstwhile Sky team leader Bradley Wiggins is on the steeper ramps that don’t feature in the ASO’s idea of what a parcours should look like. Although key rivals like Alberto Contador and Joaquim Rodriguez missed the Tour last year, their form so far this year positioned Froome as the man whose race this was to lose. The question was; who would show their hand first in the mountains?

Stage 8 with a summit finish also featured this years highest col at Pailheres, just over 2000 metres at its crest. There’s a special award named for Tour founder Henri Desgrange for the rider who reaches the years highest climb first and it was Nairo Quintana who managed this convincingly. VCSE’s tip for the King of the Mountains classification made the climb look easy, although as Paul Sherwen pointed out (several times!) a climb over a pass at 2000 metres should hold no fears for a rider who was born at 3000 metres. Whatever advantages his birthplace gave Quintana on the way up, they didn’t extend to his ability to descend. Whether there was a rider in the field that could have skipped up the Col de Pailheres as lightly as Quintana we’ll never know, but the drop into the valley called for the sadly absent Vincenzo Nibali. Quintana is no Nibali and as he made a mess of his lines into the valley before the final ascent to Ax 3 Domaines the leaders began to peg him back.

Froome was enjoying the typical assiduous Sky close support. Peter Kennaugh, a Tour debutant but long since identified as a GC ‘prospect’ buried himself to get Froome and Richie Porte to the final climb in the perfect place. For Phil Liggett and Paul Sherwen this was almost too much after the Quintana show, both commentators seemingly about to suggest that Kennaugh had “..come from nowhere”. Froome isn’t the surprise package anymore and his demonstration on the climb to Ax 3 Domaines showed his superiority. Quintana, now within touching distance of the chasing group was dispatched by a burst of speed from Froome that he continued and suddenly it was him alone ready to ride into yellow. There were shades of the Criterium International from earlier in the year as Froome rode away and Porte, realising that no one was getting up from the canvas, kicked on himself to deliver a Sky 1-2 and the race lead for Froome. Other than Quintana’s cameo, it was an almost depressingly dominant performance from Sky with Froome and Porte going first and second on GC and the emergence (for Liggett and Sherwen at least) of Kennaugh. The following morning’s L’Equipe headline ‘A First Round Knockout’ summed up the consensus view that the Tour was as good as over. The second and final day in the Pyrenees made all of the conclusions jumped to seem extremely foolish and certainly premature.

A case is sometimes made for televising the early part of a stage ‘live’. Dependent on your choice of feed, the opportunity to see the chess match that is played out as the teams agree just who will be allowed to form a break is something that might never be seen. The armchair fan is reliant on the presenter and / or commentator to fill in the gaps and describe just how you come to be watching the race that has developed. Thanks to the joys of social media it was pretty clear on Sunday that scripts written less than 24 hours ago were being torn up across the press, TV and peloton. Whether by deals made in smoke filled rooms or just pure synchronicity between the teams the plan for the day seemed to be let’s all attack Sky. And up to a point it worked. Viewers watching the ITV feed joined the action to find Chris Froome alone. The previous days revelation Peter Kennaugh had taken a tumble off the road and was struggling to get back to the lead group, but the regular ‘engines’ of the Sky train Suitsou, Kiryenka and Porte had apparently blown in the face of a mass team effort from Movistar. With three first category climbs left and his GC rivals circling you waited for Froome to be delivered a final fatal blow, but none came. As commentary shifted between discussing what had happened and what might / should happen next Froome dug deep and hung on. He showed the biggest balls of all when responding to digs from Quintana on the final climb over La Hourquette d’Ancizan. VCSE had tipped Garmin’s Dan Martin as someone who could pull off a win over the weekend and already well down on GC, his attack with Astana’s Jakob Fulsang was allowed to go late on the stage. Froome maintained the 1.25 advantage he had enjoyed over Alejandro Valverde going into the stage, the difference being that he was now in second place, Porte had fallen out of contention completely. Worse still for Sky was the news that Kiryenka had missed the time cut depriving Froome of one of his most powerful domestiques. For the Tour, Sunday was the best result possible. Although the favourite was still in yellow, it looked like there was still a race on. Froome deserved as much credit for his solo effort as his win the previous day. For his competitors questions remained as to why no one had delivered the killer blow to Sky’s isolated team leader. Certainly for all of the effort they put in Movistar had not appeared to get much from the stage. If nothing else as the peloton looked forward to the first rest day, they had established something: Sky were human after all.

The Tour heads north and then south again (with a time trial in between!)

After the excitement of the Pyrenees Sky were perhaps glad of a week of stages where the yellow jersey wouldn’t be under much threat with an interlude for an individual time trial where Chris Froome would be very much the dominant rider. In week one sprint honours had been split relatively evenly with Mark Cavendish, Marcel Kittel, Andre Greipel and Peter Sagan all taking wins. Sagan was proving dominant in the points classification having been there or thereabouts at the last even if he only had one victory to his name. Marcel Kittel who had upset the Cav in yellow storyline in stage one was first to strike again in week two taking the win on stage 10 to St Malo. There was no controversy for Kittel in victory, but the waters that ebb and flow around Mark Cavendish became stormy after he appeared to nudge Kittel’s Argos Shimano teammate Tom Veelers off during the sprint. The opinion that counts in these situations (the race officials) said “no foul”, but not before some heat of the moment interviews had taken place that resulted in Cavendish stealing a reporters tape recorder and Veelers saying Cavendish was at fault. Peace was restored pretty quickly and Cavendish presented a cooler head later on via social media that redeemed him at least as far as VCSE is concerned.

The stage 48 hours later told perhaps a bigger story when Cavendish seemingly poised for victory was denied at the line by Kittel for his second win in three days and the third win by a German rider in as many days. Whether Kittel’s win signified a change at the top of the sprinters tree remains to be seen although that could be answered to an extent next Sunday on the Champs Elysee. With Peter Sagan holding onto a strong, if not unassailable lead in the green jersey competition a win in Paris could already have been inked in as Cavendish’s priority for this year. Kittel shows no fear where Cavendish is concerned and his Argos team have been every bit as determined as Omega Pharma to get their rider into the right place at the right time. With the Alp’s fast approaching it’s going to be interesting to see who comes out the least damaged of the sprinters group a week tomorrow.

Sandwiched in between the sprints; the TT. Omega Pharma’s TT world champion Tony Martin had a long wait in the hot seat thanks to his lowly position on GC. As befits the Maillot Jaune Chris Froome was last to leave the starters hut. Part one of the test was to put time into his GC rivals. Mission accomplished as Valverde, Contador, Evans and others lost chunks of time reinforced by a ride from Froome that as late as the second time check suggested a second stage win. Denied by a change in wind direction, Froome could still feel happy with an additional two minutes lead over his closest rival Valverde.

Sky still weren’t having things their own way. With the focus naturally on the GC, on sprint stages Edvald Boasson Hagen had been given the licence to go for the win and had delivered some decent results in week one. On stage 12 into Tours an accident in the final stages costed Sky another rider as Boasson Hagen crashed heavily and broke his scapula. Despite the Norwegians exit the following days stage looked easy enough, with little climbing and a likely sprint finish. What no one anticipated was the cross wind that first detached a group of riders including Marcel Kittel. Next to fall victim was Valverde, puncturing and forced to take a wheel from a teammate. At the other end of the race, Saxo  Bank marshalled by ex Sky road captain Mick Rogers saw Froome well back in the peloton and forced another split. Missing helpers Froome eventually had to admit defeat and lost over a minute at the end. Valverde’s challenge was over, but now Contador was back in the hunt. Cavendish, who had been the last rider to make the break, took the stage win. Froome still had the lead, but his advantage had dropped to less than 2.30 from in form Bauke Mollema who had been installed as Belkin team leader just before the Tour started.

The stage could have been described as a breakaway win, but in its purest sense today’s stage to Lyon was a breakaway proper. On the anniversary of Tom Simpsons death, David Millar was part of the large group that got away. Millar didn’t have the legs in the end, but the heartbreak was felt most by Sojasun’s Julien Simon who came so close to delivering the first French win in this years Tour. Omega Pharma got their third win this week instead with Tour debutant Matteo Trentin.

And so week two closes and the final week of Tdf 2013 begins with a massive stage and summit finish at Mont Ventoux. In all likelihood the action before the ‘Giant’ will be between the French teams desperate to get someone strong into the break on Bastille Day. It could be a day for Pierre Rolland or even Thomas Voeckler who has been pretty anonymous so far. As there is no descent involved it might also be time for Thibaut Pinot to show himself. The VCSE view on the stage is that the profile will probably suit Froome as it has some similarities with the stage to Ax 3 Domaines. Even if he is alone for the climb, Froome has shown he has the legs to ride away on a single HC climb. Don’t anticipate to many changes to the GC tomorrow, but as for next week; when the race gets to the Alps Sky will have a real battle on their hands.