Kan anyone katch Kristoff?

Tour of Flanders 2015

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

Alexander Kristoff winner Tour des Fjords 2 stage
Alexander Kristoff

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nibali untouchable 

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

Vincenzo Nibali TDF 2014 winner
Vincenzo Nibali TDF 2014 winner

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

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

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

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

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

30 years of hurt.. Over? 

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

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

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

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

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’

Curses! – VCSE’s Racing Digest #18

Finally! - Philippe Gilbert lifts the curse on stage 12
Finally! – Philippe Gilbert lifts the curse on stage 12

He got away with it; despite those pesky kids! (apologies for the Scooby Do reference). After losing out by a tyre’s width to Zdenek Stybar last week Philippe Gilbert finally managed to do what has so far eluded him this season and win something in the world champion’s rainbow jersey. Gilbert had shown real class last week by not having a dig at Stybar who hadn’t exactly worked for his win, so it did feel like there was some karma chi love in the air for the Belgian in Tarragona. Staying with the whole ‘curse’ theme, the guy that Gilbert beat to the line was erstwhile Norwegian champ Edvald Boasson Hagen. Sky, who give the impression of a team that have pretty much given up on sprinters have allocated (or should that be allowed) EBH a bit of a roving brief for the flatter stages at the Vuelta. This was also the case at the Tour and if the opportunity presents itself then Boasson Hagen can freelance a bit in search of a win. Gilbert of course had other ideas, but he needed to bury himself to first catch and then overhaul the Sky rider at the line. It says a lot about the last gap nature of the BMC team principal’s win that there were no time gaps shown for the first 40 riders over the line.

Philippe Gilbert’s win is probably one of the biggest victories that BMC will take this year. The team have shown more form in recent months with only Cadel Evans podium at the Giro as the early season highlight. Since the Tour we have seen a return to form for Thor Hushovd in addition to Taylor Phinney’s maiden win and Tejay van Garderen’s second US victory of the season at the USA Pro Challenge. Gilbert won a stage at last years Vuelta, the uphill finish to Montjuic in Barcelona and of course the world champs in Valkenburg offered a similar profile. BMC have thrown their efforts in this years race behind Gilbert and it’s clear that he is great form in Spain. In addition to last weeks near miss he also featured in yesterdays stage to Andorra finishing 15th having been in second place at one point on the final climb. There’s talk now of a possible defence of his world champions jersey but VCSE suspects the course will not suit him as much as current Vuelta leader Vincenzo Nilbali or Chris Froome.

VCSE’s own curse of hyperbole struck this week as the racing has felt a little lacklustre after the excitement of the first week. A rest day followed by the individual TT probably didn’t help things. The TT saw Chris Horner lose the lead to Nibali again, although this time the Italian was happier about taking it over with the prospect of some heavy mountain stages at the weekend. Nibali rode a decent time trial as did GC rival Nico Roche who was a similar vein of confidence to Gilbert. Horner was the big loser on GC and while pre TT he might have seen the benefit of being able to see everyone else’s times on the stage itself he was the rider who was stopping everyone from being able to go home. Part of this was down to the contest for the win being decided by two riders well down on GC; Fabian Cancellara and Tony Martin. In the sparring between the rivals for the world TT champs this was a convincing victory for Cancellara. Although some are now questioning Martin’s solo break training ride as not quite the best practice for defending his world crown VCSE predicts that the German will probably hold sway in Italy.

Friday’s stage was likely to be the sprinters last chance of a win before the race entered the high mountains. Unfortunately for them the peloton did not get organised in time to chase down a quality and numerous break away that included Bauke Mollema, Benet Intxausti and Michele Scarponi. Unfortunately for the break they seemed to forget just who and how many were in their escape and as the course wound its way through a series of bends on the way to the line Argos Shimano domestique Warren Barguil slipped off the front. As he dug for victory the remainder of the break were busy looking at one another and metaphorically saying “No.. I insist.. You go first..”. End result a win for the 21 year old Barguil. By the time Mollema and co’ had realised the error the damage was done and the victory sealed.

The first of a double header of high mountain stages came on Saturday with the race due to cross the highest point of this years Vuelta over the Port de Envalira and into a summit finish in Andorra. Bad weather had closed in earlier than expected and Vincenzo Nibali was asked how he would cope. He described conditions “..like everyday in the Giro” but the stage took a heavy toll of riders with 14 abandoning including Cannondale’s Ivan Basso who was dropped and then succumbed to the cold. Such are the difficulties for the host broadcaster that much of what would have been seen as prime stage for TV was lost due to low cloud over the climbs, the Envalira being described to pictures from a fixed camera at the finish line.

When live pictures were restored we were greeted by the prospect of a remarkable solo win by Cannondale rider Daniele Ratto. Just 23 Ratto joins the list of first time winners from this years Vuelta, that if nothing else highlight the unpredictable nature of the race. Ratto’s face was a picture as he crossed the line and savoured the win, particularly as he made the final kilometre look incredibly hard such was his exhaustion by this stage. Alejandro Valverde who had lost key lieutenant Pablo Lastras the day before was dropped at one stage but he staged an amazing fight back on the last climb that saw him overhaul many of his GC rivals who had been shelled, including Nico Roche. At the head of the leaders group it was Chris Horner and Vincenzo Nibali going toe to toe. At one stage Horner looked as if he could put some time into Nibali but as the line approached it was the Italian who was stronger gaining a time bonus as putting a couple of seconds into the American. Horner definitely had the appearance of the one who blinked first and with similar weather forecasted for today’s race it was going to be interesting to see if he had anything left to throw at the race leader.

As it was the weather didn’t do much and the leaders played nicely with one another. With a finish across the border in France it was a French rider on a French team who took the win; FDJ’s Alexandre Geniez. After the televisual anticlimax of the previous days stage, today’s didn’t offer a lot of drama either. Nibali at this point seems to be only looking at Horner and it was interesting to hear the American interviewed confirming that he is more anxious about attacks from Joaquim Rodriguez and Valverde. Horner didn’t look troubled today, but neither did he look able to put in an attack that would unsettle Nibali. Nico Roche gained some time back on the stage and is now a few seconds of 5th after tumbling out of his podium place yesterday.

As the race enters its final week there’s another day to come in the Pyrenees before the second and final rest day. The penultimate stage on Saturday on the Angliru may yet perform the task that the race organisers always wish and decide who ultimately wins the 2013 Vuelta a Espana.

Darkness into light – VCSE’s Racing Digest #14

Tour de France 2013 wrap up

It was always unlikely that Chris Froome would make any enforced errors on the penultimate stage of this years Tour. Consciously or otherwise he attempted to soothe those sections of the media and those fans at the roadside who were feeling his performances so far had an extraterrestrial air of superiority. For their final day in the Alps the peloton faced a relatively short 120 kilometre stage that looped out and back to Annecy, finishing on the climb of Semnoz above the town with its average gradient of nearly 9% over 11km.

Chris Froome
Mr Clean – Chris Froome (Photo credit: Petit Brun)

It became clear fairly quickly that Froome wasn’t going to be challenged by Alberto Contador, the Saxo team tactics appeared that they were content for Sky to ride tempo, perhaps hoping to secure Contador’s podium by this route.  When it came to the crunch, or in this case the final climb of the day the Saxo strategy unravelled as Contador was unable to keep pace with Froome, Nairo Qunitana and late arrival to the GC party Joaquim Rodriguez.

If Froome had star billing before, during and inevitably after this years Tour, then Nairo Quintana would have appeared just below the races leading actor. As fortunes ebbed and flowed for the riders from Movistar, Quintana found himself elevated to leadership status after Alejandro Valverde’s bid for the GC was derailed between Tours and Saint Amand Montrond in week two. Always the rider most likely to get a reaction from Froome on the climbs, if not actually put him under sustained pressure, Quintana took his opportunity to Annecy to further enhance his reputation. By the end of the stage not only was Quintana wearing the young riders jersey, he had annexed the King of the Mountains and moved up to second place overall.

If you’re going to show a bit of mortality then the last climb of the last stage is possibly the best place to do it  if you’re Chris Froome. He had employed his cartoonish high cadence counter attack already but with Contador losing touch when Quintana and Rodriguez dug again, Froome almost appeared to shrug his shoulders, the metaphor “OK, you can have this one”. If this was a gift to some, it was an unwitting kick in the balls for Contador who found himself falling off the podium altogether. The sense was that Rodriguez’s ambition was a podium place after his relative anonymity in the first two weeks. There was a token amount of good natured sparring between him and Quintana before the Columbian distanced him and we were treated to an actual show of emotion as Quintana crossed the line.

The GC was sorted. Froome winning was no surprise to anyone really. The only debate, the methods employed or not employed by rider and team. With the benefit of two weeks hindsight the consensus now seems that the amount of column inches dedicated to the margin and method of Froome’s victory was inevitable given the fact that this was the first Tour since Lance confessed. Froome has coped with the attention pretty well it seems. It certainly didn’t affect his performance. Whatever your view about Chris Froome riding clean (or not) the facts are that his win in this years Tour was a much harder fought victory than Bradley Wiggins in 2012. The level of GC competition, say Nibabli in 2012 verses Contador in 2013 is less significant than the fact that Sky were simply unable to dominate the pace as the had before. The race was won by Froome not on the second TT or Mont Ventoux, but when he rode alone and unsupported through the Pyrenees on stage 9.

Quintana is already being touted as a future grand tour winner. He will develop tactically over the next few years but in a regular time trial stage he will lose heaps of time to a rider like Froome. His testing needs to improve dramatically for him to rival the Sky rider, at least in the short term. Where Quintana can be most effective is probably somewhere like the Vuelta where the climbs are steeper and there is less emphasis on riding purely against the clock. Alberto Contador’s reaction in the immediate aftermath of stage 20 was to announce that he wouldn’t defend his Vuelta title from last year. Coming up against Vincenzo Nibali refreshed from the Giro and probably the only rider who can rival Froome at present doesn’t appear to be particularly enticing but by the following day Saxo Bank were already rowing backwards from the statements of the day before. No doubt we will find out more next month. Rodriguez now has a podium in each of the grand tours in the last two years, which seems like achievement enough for him.

Garmin’s Andrew Talansky rode well in the final week to become the young rider surrogate for Quintana and sneak into the top 10 on GC. Garmin managed to get someone into the mix in each week with Dan Martin’s win in the Pyrenees the obvious highlight. In what is rumoured be his last Tour David Millar was a second out of the race lead in week one and his forlorn attempt to win stage 21 with a breakaway on the Champs Elysee was incredible and desperate in equal measure.

Astana’s Jakob Fuglsang’s 7th place was a bit of a poke in the eye for his critics that doubted he would figure in the race, all the more since he lost four teammates over three weeks. Alejandro Valverde clawed back time in the Alps for a top 10 place that VCSE suspects he will be happy with, if not achieved as he expected to. With new sponsor joining them for the Tour Blanco became Belkin and until the race entered the last week had two riders in contention. Bauke Mollema wasn’t unheralded as team leader as he brought some good form into the race and the despite slipping from 2nd at one point, 6th is a decent outcome for the Dutch team. The Richie Porte to Alberto Contador’s Chris Froome was Roman Kreuziger. Saxo had assembled a strong team for the Tour and the Czech rider cemented his Amstel Gold win with 5th place.

And so to Paris..

While the GC reckoning had taken place the previous day the peloton still had to cross the line in Paris to finish the race. The night stage on the Champs Elysee was held in twilight rather than full darkness but it provided a hint that maybe there was a new era emerging. Mark Cavendish was denied a fifth win in what Eurosport’s Carlton Kirby referred to as “The unofficial sprinters world championship” by Marcel Kittel. From the vantage point of the VCSE sofa it looked as if the Omega Pharma sprint train had decoupled somewhere between the Rue de Rivoli and the finish straight. We suspected that Cavendish would be overheard tearing his team and his bike a new one afterwards. Instead, he seemed almost philosophical about the defeat where he was even denied the runners up spot by Andre Greipel. His lead out had “… done exactly what I asked” and there was a suggestion of not having enough power. Did the late puncture have an effect? The cobblestone that kicked his rear wheel skywards metres from the line probably denied him second place. Kittel was just the much stronger rider on the day. There’s talk of the Tour visiting Germany as well as Yorkshire next year. If it does then the resurgence of German cycling embodied by riders like Kittel and Greipel will have played a huge part.

The green points jersey competition was already long decided by this time. Peter Sagan was disappointed with a solitary stage win, but it was his consistency that won the prize this year. If anything his performance mirrored that of his classics season where he was always there or thereabouts and his only win came in the semi classic Ghent Wevelghem. The suggestion that the points system now favours riders like Sagan over pure sprinters like Cavendish and should be changed is wrong. Sagan is a winner in the style of a Thor Hushovd or a Sean Kelly. Surely it makes sense to continue to favour the best all-rounder and leave the sprinters their moment in the sun (or twilight) in Paris.

The light show projected on the Arc de Triomphe was pretty spectacular stuff, although the twinkling lights of the Eiffell Tower was just something they always do apparently. Perhaps the podium show lacked some of the shock and awe we had expected for the 100th Tour, but in comparison to the normal prize giving on the flatbed of an articulated lorry presided over by Bernard Hinault it had something. Chris Froome was as we had come to recognise over the previous weeks, blinking in the spotlights and perhaps even still slightly disbelieving in what he had done. He wants us to believe though, in him and in the jersey. VCSE suspects that some of our heroes will break our hearts in the future, but Chris Froome is unlikely to be among them.

In other news.. racing continues

A pleasing report from Belgium where Tom Boonen, looking rather anonymous now that he has lost his national title claimed a stage win in the Tour de Wallonie. Some much needed good news for BMC too after Greg Van Avermaet snatched the GC along with a couple of stage wins. The team had a frankly awful Tour with Cadel Evans fading and Tejay Van Garderen summing up his race by losing on Alpe d’Huez.

We can look forward to Spain’s one day classic the.. er Clasica San Sebastian today and the start of the Tour of Poland. The notable entrant in the stage race, which actually begins in Italy is Bradley Wiggins. Described by Dave Brailsford this week as “motivated” it will be interesting to see if we see more of the Bradley Wiggins of 2013 so far or flashes of the Wiggo of 2012. A week or so should tell us what we need to know..

Rather like Alejandro Valverde we got a good percentage of our Tour predictions right. No praise for picking Froome as a winner, but Contador and Rodriguez in the top 5 and Quintana as KOM we will take. Let’s just keep Cavendish in green and Cadel in the top 5 between ourselves… 

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.

‘Beyond the Peloton’

It’s entirely possible that newer fans imagined that documentaries about pro cycling began with ‘Road to Glory’ the Team Sky / British Cycling series shown last year. When you watch ‘Beyond the Peloton’ you realise it has actually all been done before, long before Bradley Wiggins became famous for being (well) Bradley Wiggins and Mark Cavendish was the new sensation at HTC Columbia.

‘Beyond..’ features the Cervelo Test Team born out of the manufacturer losing its position as supplier to CSC after the 2008 season and deciding to go it alone. The team was built around Carlos Sastre, winner of the 2008 Tour de France and Thor Hushovd, but following his scene stealing podium places in the spring classics Heinrich Haussler is the rider that the filmmakers gravitate towards.

The doc is introduced by robotic sounding Cervelo employee Joseph who is apparently entrusted with telling the story of the teams first season. Despite promising to bring the perspective of the mechanics and soigneurs Joseph pretty soon defaults to the view from the saddle or the team car. The footage is generally hand held shaky but this does help to convey the sometimes chaotic nature of racing none more so than during the Giro d’Italia when Serge Pauwels goes off message and leaves Sastre flailing on a climb.

Something missing from ‘Road to..’ was technical detail on the teams bikes. ‘Beyond..’ as much a marketing exercise as for the fans has some interesting segments featuring Gerard Vroomen and Phil White during wind tunnel development and later on modifications to the bike for Paris Roubaix. It’s hard to imagine ‘Road to..’ featuring the raw egg and dessert wine concoction whipped up for Sastre either!

Sadly missing from ‘Beyond..’ was much reference to the women’s Cervelo team that pre-dated the men’s team. Other than a few frames in episode 1 and a brief appearance by Kristen Armstrong in episode 2 (ironically where she is more aerodynamically efficient than Hushovd in the wind tunnel) the ladies do not feature at all.

As the season progresses its fair to say that although the supposed goals for the season are unrealised, the results that are achieved more than compensate. Spoiler alert! Haussler cements his classics results (at one point during 2009 he was the #1 ranked rider in the world) with a stage win at the Tour. Sastre goes well at the Giro winning two stages and (following a disqualification of a rival for doping) finishes 3rd overall. At the Tour Sastre struggles but Hushovd while unable to compete with Cavendish on out and out speed does enough to claim the green points jersey.

These days Hushovd is with BMC but has been off the radar following illness in 2012. Sastre failed to reach the heights of his 2008 results and retired at the end of 2011. Haussler joined the neo pro-continental IAM team this year.

‘Beyond the Peloton’ in 2009, ‘Road to Glory’ in 2012. Plus ca change!

Few problems embedding this. click on the link below for season 1 with seasons 2 and 3 on the VCSE YouTube channel.