Play it again Cav – VCSE’s Racing Digest #9

Giro stages 13, 14 & 15 – Busseto to Cherasco, Cervere to Bardonecchia (Jafferau) & Cesana Torinese to Col du Galibier

To paraphrase Casablanca; at least we will always have Cav. The deliberations on the Team Sky Death Star after stage 12 were over and the news before stage 13 was that Bradley Wiggins was going home. Cue frantic emails to the nicer hotels on the remaining route as sports editors and TV news reporters from the British media cancelled their travel plans. The conclusion that could be reached if the mainstream UK media was your only source was that the Giro was going to be a Wiggins benefit, so at least we are no spared the need for them to find ways of squirreling a Wiggins ‘angle’ into every report. The ‘failure’ of Wiggins attempt to win the Giro raises some interesting questions for the way the sport is covered in the UK however.

An increase in coverage, even at a superficial level is no bad thing and the Giro ‘story’ has held it’s own against some pretty seismic events in other sports. National radio has covered the race in a way that would normally only be seen for the Tour. The decision by Sky to show a daily highlights package, having previously shown the Tour de Romandie hinted that the satellite broadcaster could start making inroads into the TV rights for road racing assuming a similar level of success for ‘their’ team. Wiggins departure will not stop the rights discussion although a contrast will no doubt be made between the ratings that a Wiggins / Sky win would have achieved in the UK as opposed to the likely Nibali victory next Sunday.

There are some parallels in other sports. Sky purchased the rights to domestic Test Cricket around the time of the England teams resurgence in 2005. Could Sky be betting on the desire of Cycling fans (and Team Sky fans in particular) to watch racing live and therefore be prepared to pay for the privilege? ITV, who picked up the rights for the Tour from Channel 4 will continue to show the race free to air until 2015 at the earliest. Whether or not British riders build on the successes of 2012 (a Froome victory in 2013 at the Tour?) will have a massive influence on how we follow the sport in the future.

Which brings us to Mark Cavendish. While Wiggins decline and subsequent fall was being pored over Cav was busy winning his 100th stage as well as becoming the leading stage winner on the Giro 2013. At the time of writing (the second rest day) Cavendish remains in the race, having got himself up and over some fearsome climbs in the process. He has also seen off some of his key challengers for the sprint stages with John Degenkolb (Argos) and Nacer Bouhanni (FDJ) both abandoning, Bouhanni the day after finishing second to Cavendish at Treviso.

Cavendish has railed against the lack of coverage he received in the past and it would feel somewhat disrespectful if the mainstream media turned away from the Giro and what he is achieving because of Wiggins departure. He remains points leader going into the final week and assuming he can get over a ‘bump’ at the end of the stage has an opportunity to increase his win tally ahead of the pan flat final stage on Sunday. The Giro doesn’t favour sprinters for its points classification and Cavendish is up against some strong opposition among the climbers and GC contenders. With only a fleeting opportunity to wear the Maglia Rosa after his win on stage 1 Cavendish should have the motivation to go for the Maglia Rosso, particularly after just missing out last year.

Vincenzo Nibali’s grip on the GC looks pretty unshakable at the moment. He was able to put more time into his rivals on the shortened stage 14 and takes a lead of over a minute into the final week. After contending with mostly wet conditions the move into the alps coincided with snowfall to add to the riders misery. Organisers RCS had cut part of the stage 14 route, the climb to Sestriere due to the conditions but this provided minor comfort to the riders who made it to the finish. The stage was won by VCSE favourite Mauro Santambrogio from Vini Fantini who managed to out drag Nibali to the line on the Jaffrau. Nibali had turned the screw on this one though, putting time into Cadel Evans and yet more into Robert Gesink ending his hopes for the race. Consolation then for the race leader, although it’s unlikely that he would want to win the overall without taking a stage win himself. The two mountain stages in the week ahead should provide an opportunity.

Of course last years victor Ryder Hesjedal famously took the win without taking a stage. Hesjedal’s chances this year were long gone when he abandoned to rather less fanfare than Wiggins ahead of stage 13. Other notable withdrawals; stage 4 winner Enrico Battaglin following an accident and a rider who had seemed out of sorts right from the start, Garmin’s David Millar.

The weather intervened again for stage 15. A regular feature on the Tour, RCS had inserted one of the more interesting examples of cross border grand tour route planning by including the Col du Galibier on Sundays stage. Nibali seemed content to leave his powder dry for this one and the GC contenders crossed the line in a group about a minute down on Movistar’s Giovanni Visconti. Movistar are having a pretty good race so far with Benat Intxausti in the top ten and a spell in pink to go with two stage wins.

For the final week the GC looks like Nibali’s to lose. Cadel Evans remains the surprise package and finishing second would be no disgrace for a rider many (including VCSE) had written off beforehand. VCSE suspects that the limit of Rigoberto Uran’s ambitions is a podium place, although his win on the first summit finish on stage 10 suggest he can take it to Nibali. Sky would no doubt like to wrest the victory from Astana, but Uran has already had to take on a mind shift of epic proportions in becoming team leader. Can he step up? VCSE thinks not (this time). Uran will also be looking over his shoulder at VCSE podium pick Santambrogio.

Tour of California 

Great to see Tejay Van Garderen take the overall in the TOC. Van Garderen who took the lead from Janier Acevedo on stage 5 won from Saxo Banks Mick Rogers a previous winner at the tour. Van Garderen had finished in a group including the sprinters who had expected to contest stage 5, six seconds down on living legend 41 years young Jens Voight. Voight, who had been discussing the finer points of attacking the previous day (see the video below) struck as the stage entered its final kilometres. This was Voigt’s 99th win and afterwards he joked about signing on “..for another year”. He was also pretty vocal this week about the lack of an equivalent women’s TOC suggesting that any plans to extend the duration of the men’s race should include a women’s event on the undercard.

The penultimate and queen stage to Mount Diablo saw Net App Endura’s Leopold Konig take the win. It’s a great result for Net App for have secured a wild card entry to the Vuelta later this year after missing out on a place at the Tour. Acevedo came in second, but Van Garderen was close behind only five seconds down.

The final stage ended in another sprint and almost another win for Net App with Daniel Schorn just beaten by Peter Sagan. Sagan extended his lead for stage wins at the race, but might reflect on some opportunities missed during the week. He will continue to improve as a rider but has looked a bit jaded at times here which makes for a potentially intriguing match up between him and Mark Cavendish at this years Tour. Cavendish has been able to deliver on the sprint stages the day after finishing a debilitating climbing stage, whereas Sagan perhaps trying to race everything has not left enough in the tank for the stages where he is a genuine contender. In terms of outright speed Cavendish still has the legs, while Sagan is perhaps more of a sprinter in the mould of Thor Hushovd.

Tejay Van Garderen will also have much to think about ahead of the Tour. Prior to the Giro a Van Garderen win in California would have given him leverage to be chosen as BMC’s leader for the Tour ahead of Cadel Evans. Evans’ return to form at the Giro created a headache for the Swiss backed US team before Van Garderen’s victory on the west coast. Now all eyes will be on Evans to see if he can maintain the form shown in the first two weeks and cement his claim for the leadership at the Tour.

The heat is on – VCSE’s Racing Digest #7

Tour of California

Stages 1 & 2 of the Tour of California have been run in soaring temperatures in the golden state. The week long stage race historically run earlier in the season is now used by some riders as Tour preparation, but the clash with the Giro means that the high profile names of previous years tend to be missing. Unsurprisingly there’s a strong US presence and a win in the TOC has proved to be a springboard into the world tour in previous years, Joe Dombrowski a good example after a strong performance in 2012 with the Bontrager squad.

In a change to previous years the race takes on more of a south to north route this time with the final stage run in the heartland of west coast cycling (if you’re an old school mountain biker!) with locations like Mt Tamalpais and Muir Woods featuring on the course. All time TOC stage winner Peter Sagan is present for Cannondale alongside world champion Philippe Gilbert.

In a land where the automobile is king the parcours featured climbs with fantastic road surfaces that snaked leisurely up the hills with fairly gentle ramps. The enemy for the riders was not the incline or distance but the searing heat that reached a peak on stage 2. Racing to the home of reclusive billionaires and golf fanatics the peloton negotiated climbs through the surrounding desert in temperatures of 115 degrees. On both days the team cars were kept busy supplying a steady stream of water filled bidons for the riders to promptly empty over their boiling heads.

In contrast to the climbs the stages also featured fairly long drags through Escondido and Palm Springs the six lane roads dwarfing the peloton. The inclusion of these elements certainly helped the breakaways to be brought back before the finish, although stage 2 had a sting in the tail with an 8% uphill to the finish.

Stage 1 bought a much needed win for Vacansoliel and Leiuwe Westra. The world tour team who have just lost co lead sponsor DCM were racing in new jerseys featuring much more Bianchi celeste than previously. With the possibility of Vacansoliel leaving at the end of the season also might we be seeing another team entered by a manufacturer (Cannondale the other example).

The continental level US teams were always likely to get in the breaks to maximise airtime for their sponsors. It was a little unusual to see one of the European big names in one on stage 2, but there was Sylvian Chavanel, a late replacement for Tom Boonen. Whether or not Chavanel appreciated the contrast between the conditions at, say this years Milan San Remo with the TOC heat wasn’t clear. The 6km drag up to the finish line in Palm Springs probably wouldn’t have been that taxing climbed in the sort of temperatures enjoyed in Northern Europe in May. In 115 degree desert heat the climb was something to be endured. The ramp continued after the finish line but it was clear from the amount of riders who came to a dead stop after passing it that the TOC helpers who held them upright were an absolute requirement.

Pre race favourite Tejay van Garderen (BMC) was in a small group chasing ex Cervelo Test Team rider Philip Deignan on the stage reached its conclusion. As Deignan was overhauled it was Janier Acevedo of Jamis who was able to put in another dig to reach the line first. The sound of the finish line announcer ramping up the hyperbole in contrast to riders being hooked up to drips for rehydration made it feel like VCSE was watching one thing and listening to another. The weather may have been different, but just like a spring classic stage 2 demonstrated that road racing is a game for hard men.

Giro d’Italia – VCSE reflects ahead of the first summit finish on stage 10

English: Tour of California, stage 1. Podium F...
Vincenzo Nibali (in Liquigas days)(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Ok, so we’re writing this after stage 10 has finished but VCSE hasn’t watched it yet (bear with). Monday was the first rest day in the Giro and today (Tuesday) was one of our stages to watch as it’s the first summit finish proper on this years race.

Since the individual time trial on Saturday and the rest day there’s been one more stage (9) through the Abruzzo region to Florence racing over some of the same roads used in Tirreno Adriatico. This was quite a rolling stage with almost a full set of category climbs, including a one, two, three and four on the route.

After a dryish day for the TT, stage 9 saw the kind of weather that had made stage 7 such a nightmare for Bradley Wiggins with pretty much constant rain during the live TV coverage. Wiggins admitted he had descended “..like a girl” on the previous stage and didn’t look confident on any of the descents for this one either. Meanwhile, race leader Vincenzo Nibali was capitalising with his Astana team assisted at various stages by other teams with GC contenders, notably David Millar of Garmin. Coming down from the cat 1 Vallombrosa Wiggins was gapped and was left to try and make up (at one point) a deficit of more than two minutes. As his two Columbian teammates, climbers Rigoberto Uran and Sergio Henao had stayed ahead some of the wilder punditry VCSE has heard so far predicted that Wiggins was now relinquishing his position as Sky team leader.

These (now silent) commentators were brought gently back to earth when Wiggins rejoined the lead group and began to make his way back to the front as the race neared its conclusion. While the Sky crisis that wasn’t was sucking up the airtime up ahead there was another magnificent solo effort to rival Adam Hansen’s. Katusha’s Maxim Belkov had attacked off the front of the breakaway a group he was part of and managed to build up enough of a time gap ahead of the remaining break stay clear when most of them were caught on the final climb of the stage. Perhaps Belkov’s win, his first as a pro on a road stage wasn’t that much of a surprise as he admitted afterwards “I live next to here (Florence) in Prato, so I know these roads”.

Astana looked after Nibali to keep him on the top of GC with Cadel Evans again finishing strongly to keep the gap to 29 seconds. Robert Gesink, who has been anonymous for most of the Giro in comparison to the other GC riders remained in third. The hubris of Millar’s attempt to make the Sky chase back on  harder was exposed when Ryder Hesjedal cracked on the last climb and the resulting time loss dropped him outside of the top 10. After all of the doom laden pronouncements by people who should perhaps know better Wiggins managed to come home on the same time as Nibali, thus maintaining his 4th place, one second down on Gesink.

During the rest day interviews Nibali still saw Hesjedal and Wiggins as rivals even as some were prepared to write off their challenges with two more weeks to go. “The Giro is long and anyone can have a bad day” said Nibali who also mentioned Cadel and Michele Scarponi as riders he would be looking out for. Scarponi is a great example of a rider to look at when suggesting Wiggins (or Hesjedal) have blown it. The Lampre rider who had lost time earlier in the week when he damaged his bike in a crash had suggested himself that he was out of contention, but strong rides in the remaining stages had pulled him back up the GC. Nibali also indicated that we hadn’t seen Sky riding their normal stage race tactic and set a hard pace on the front of the peloton. In setting the pace at the front themselves on stage 9, Astana had burnt most of their matches leaving Nibali with only one supporter at the finish. While Nibali is strong enough to fend for himself on the climbs, it won’t have gone unnoticed that Sky have additional cards to play with Uran and Henao both strongly placed on the GC.

Cadel Evans has been the revelation of the Giro so far. He has looked better in the last week than at any other time this season and apart from Nibali and Wiggins was probably the best of the GC in the TT. In comparison, Ryder Hesjedal looks as if he peaked too soon. After looking strong in the Ardennes and surprising his rivals by attacking hard in week one, he looked blown on the TT and on stage 9. It’s possible to pull back three minutes, but Hesjedal will be relying on Nibali and co’ to falter if he is seriously still considering defending his title.

VCSE is sticking with the prediction that Nibali will win the Giro. Unlike Evans and Wiggins, he isn’t planning to race the Tour so this is his year’s target. Evan’s has looked good so far, but can he maintain his form as the climbs get higher? Wiggins will get over his descending jitters, although he has never been great at this discipline. Sky will be praying for dry weather just as Astana will do a rain dance. No doubt Dave Brailsford has team head doctor Steve Peters on speed dial to get his team leader in the right frame of mind for the week ahead. It’s not over yet, but VCSE predicts podium at best for Wiggins. The outside bets? Gesink who says “..everything is going to plan so far”. He’s another rider targeting the Giro only this year. Scarponi is back in the frame and VCSE thinks that Vini Fantini’s Mauro Santambrogio is good for a podium place.

Remember our caveat; this post will go out after stage 10 has run, so all could have changed! What’s your view on the last week and the week ahead in the Giro? Let us know via the comments section below.

Do Sky have a new game plan? – VCSE’s Racing Digest

The weather across Europe has showed solidarity with even Corsica resembling the UK this weekend. The stage race in 48 hours that is the Criterium International had opened with Saturday’s short (sprint) stage followed by a time trial.

Richie Porte
Richie Porte (Photo credit: Petit Brun)

Richie Porte echoed some of the form that had seen him win the Col d’Eze time trial at Paris Nice a few weeks ago taking a one second advantage into today’s final stage to the top of the Col de l’Ospedale. But where was Chris Froome? Richie admitted that he had come to ‘work for Froome’  so it was perhaps a result that even Sky hadn’t planned for.

Sky’s preferred tactic of riding off the front in stage races hasn’t won them universal praise but as we have mentioned in previous posts the Sky system isn’t infallible. Bradley Wiggins’ preparations for the Giro haven’t exactly gone according to plan as he lost his support riders as the highest summits and steepest ramps approached. Wiggins coped manfully with this in Catalunya attacking at pace and blowing the peloton apart on more than one stage. However  both of Sky’s leaders look vulnerable when they have burnt all of their (supporting) matches.

Until today that is, as the peloton approached the finish with Porte in yellow. Sky had been doing their normal job with Kiryenka leading, Froome mostly out of camera shot sheltering Richie. With seconds between the GC including Tejay Van Garderen (BMC) and Andrew Talansky (Garmin) the race was finely poised. An attack from Johann Tschopp (IAM) did for Kiryenka and with BMC and AG2R holding a numerical advantage Sky looked susceptible to attacks.

What happened instead was that Froome attacked! Rain and cloud prevented seeing it, but the confusion of Van Garderen and the others was palpable. Was Froome chasing down Tschopp? Had he realised he had lost Porte? While minds were blown Froome raced away and by the time Van Garderen and Talansky responded the damage had been done. Porte showed he still had the legs by riding away himself and claiming second although he would be relinquishing the overall to Froome.

From VCSE’s perspective the result could open up a new way of winning for Sky. In Porte Sky have a rider who looks like a potential GC contender. If Sky were to take two potential GC winners into the grand tours this year they could make themselves much harder to mark if they were prepared to flip the leaders jersey the way they did today in the Criterium.

It’s a tactic that could really pay off as a number of Sky’s rivals for GC honours do not possess a strong second leader, Katusha an obvious example. The question is; was today’s result for Sky by accident or design?

The return of Spartacus – wheelie’s optional

A win to please everyone (well most people!) saw Fabian Cancellara win Friday’s E3 Harelbeke. The race named after a motorway, while not one of the top classic races, had a strong field including Tom Boonen and Peter Sagan.

There’s been a lot of discussion about Cancellara’s continued ability to ride people off his wheel and Spartacus himself had shown his frustration at doing the hard work in races like Milan San Remo last year only to lose out in the final sprint to the line.

Boonen and Cancellara had been in an elite breakaway over the famous climbs of Flanders but it was Boonen that cracked first as Cancellara’s pace proved too much for everyone. Cancellara showed signs of hitting form at the right time last week at Milan San Remo but for Boonen following his abandonment at the same race there are signs that he could be having the kind of luck in the classics this year that Cancellara had last year.

Fabian Cancellara at the start of the 2011 Tou...
Fabian Cancellara  (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Another rider hitting form at the right time is Peter Sagan, although with Sagan it seems he is always capable of doing something. Podium spots at E3 and Milan San Remo have been eclipsed today with victory in Gent Wevelgem.

If the first few races of the classics season have been a battle of attrition against the weather then Sagan has proved to be the most hardy member of the peloton following another abandonment by Tom Boonen (following a crash) and Cancellara.

Everything is nicely poised for next weeks Tour of Flanders. Can Tom Boonen rediscover the form that made him so dominant last year? Unless it was the ultimate hubristic gesture, Boonen’s wearing of a jersey listing the number of his wins at E3 suggests he believes he is capable of winning this year.

if the weather doesn’t improve in the next seven days Flanders could throw up another surprise winner like a Ciolek or require the consistency of a Sagan or Cancellara. VCSE suggests a good each way bet could be someone prepared to animate the race like Heinrich Haussler.

Super Sub 

Bradley Wiggins wasn’t the only rider at the Volta a Catalunya this week preparing for the Giro. Ryder Hesdejal had chosen the race as his first of the season where he will be hoping to defend his title in Italy against another face from this weeks action Jaoquim Rodriguez.

Unfortunately for Hesdejal things didn’t go quite as planned and he looked out of sorts in the mountains during the mid week stages. The good news for Garmin was that Dan Martin was in great touch and his solo on the queen stage on Thursday was VCSE’s ride of the week.

Dan has talked in recent weeks about his chances and while his overall win went down to the wire around the Olympic park in Barcelona today his closest rival Rodriguez failed to offer much resistance. Whether the result will see the emergence of Martin as a grand tour contender this year remains to be seen but as with Richie Porte it provides his team with options.

Unstoppable? Maybe..

The next round of the women’s world cup took place in Italy today with the Trofeo Alfredo Binda. The inevitable question of who could challenge Marianne Vos for the win was answered by a native. Elisa Longo Borghini (Hitec). Part of two rider break with Amanda Spratt (Orica), Borghini broke away to the delight of the understandably partisan crowd.

VCSE’s own favourite’s Wiggle Honda didn’t figure today but have got off to a great start in their inaugural season with wins for Georgia Bronzini and Emily Collins in recent weeks.