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’

On what to do when you’re caught short in Dubai

There probably isn’t any other sport that offers the accessibility to the ‘action’ than professional road cycling. Mountain biking at the highest level requires a ticket to spectate, but even at the worlds greatest races like the Tour there’s no charge to see Cavendish, Contador and Froome. There are one or two downsides to watching this free event though. Choosing the right vantage point to see the peloton go by is important, but so is the type of race. With average speeds of 40kmh plus on flat stages your taste of the action could be over in seconds. It’s not surprising that the biggest crowds gravitate towards the climbs where there’s interest from the front of the race to back with the specialist climbers trailed by those who are battling to beat the time cut off. The biggest crowds away from the grand tours tend to be in countries where there’s a strong cycling culture, but that hasn’t stopped the UCI and race organisers promoting races in less obvious locations.

Taylor Phinney - Dubia Tour Winner
Taylor Phinney – Dubai Tour Winner

Hosting a stage race in Dubai isn’t so unusual with races in Qatar and Oman already well established. A race in one of the richest, albeit smallest countries in the world. would have made sense to the people behind it. That said there were mutterings when the race was announced; was there a need for another sprint orientated, desert based stage race early in the season? Getting big names like Cavendish signed on to the project early on was certainly going to help.  While the race was never going to get full world tour status in its first year the field including numerous big names including world champion Rui Costa, Fabian Cancellara, Peter Sagan and Marcel Kittel. The race would be held over four stages; an opening time trial, two out-and-out sprint stages with a lumpier stage that might favour the classics riders in between.

With world TT champion Tony Martin in the Omega Pharma line up the winner of the opening stage might have seemed like a foregone conclusion. Martin was due to leave the starters hut late on, but before that we had the unusual sight of riders using standard road bikes for the test. The decision was taken, apparently on cost grounds, to run normal bikes to help out the lower division teams like Dubai Skydive. It did seem strange that a race held in Dubai should be so cost conscious! As things turned out Martin could finish no better than fifth on the stage. The win was taken by BMC’s Taylor Phinney who would take the leaders blue jersey, designed by Versace no less, and hold it for the rest of the event. Martin blamed his late start, but it’s easy to understand why the organisers would have wanted the rainbow stripes going off last to try to establish more interest in the race. The opening TT ran around the skyscrapers of central Dubai and watching a test live, often less than scintillating, was further hampered by loss of pictures due to the size of the buildings all around. It was at least one way to learn that someones idea of architecture is to create a pastiche of Big Ben for their latest addition to the Dubai skyline.

Like the sprint stages in Qatar the format in Dubai was often a parcours that involved heading out of the central area before returning for the finish. Stage two finishing at the man-made ‘palm’ that juts into the Arabian sea was inevitably billed as a Kittel Cavendish showdown. Cav, reunited with lead out man Mark Renshaw was making all the right noises before the race began. At the finish it was Kittel from Sagan with the British champion outside the top 20 even. Kittel won the two remaining stages also, surprising everyone at the finish of stage three by managing to keep with the leaders over the climbs. Cavendish too wasn’t left behind, but unlike the Giant riding giant he wasn’t near enough to contest the sprint.

Cavendish seemed more agitated, according to Eurosport co commentator Brian Smith ahead of the final stage, but it looked like a mechanical spared any criticism of his lead out. We shouldn’t read too much into the Kittel white wash. In the immediate aftermath of the final stage Cav was all smiles as he congratulated his rival. It looks as if they’re good friends too, based on the exchanges between the two on Twitter.  It was a somewhat experimental sprint train for Cavendish too with new signing from BMC, Peter Velits and Renshaw. While all eyes were on Kittel, Renshaw was well in the mix on the sprints which suggests he still has the speed to get Cavendish where he needs to be when it counts. If anyone seemed annoyed on the final stage it was Peter Sagan who crashed towards the end and threw his broken Cannondale away either in anger at himself or the unknown assailant who took him out. Phinney was also in the mix in each sprint and confided that he had enjoyed his best ever pre season in terms of preparation. He could be one to watch in the classics this year and BMC are another team that seem to be improving under new management after an underwhelming 2013.

With the access all areas nature of stage racing comes a similar low fi level of the facilities for the riders as well as spectators. Its not unusual to see teams regular support vehicles absent in some of the fly-away races, but something that’s absent for the riders at every race is toilet facilities. Another unique aspect of watching live cycling is the sight of riders peeling away from the peloton. A sudden bout of punctures and mechanicals? Oh no, this is the inevitable toilet break and is invariably followed by a swift cut away to spare the viewers blushes as the riders relieve themselves. There are of course varying techniques that are employed. Greg Lemond famously used one of his domestiques casquettes (cap) when struck down with diarrhea at the Tour. Some of the better bike handlers like Tom Boonen are inclined to pull down their bibs and do their business on the road, sometimes putting a  hand on another rider for support as they go. In the polished streets of Dubai it was something of a dilemma then with no convenient bushes to hide behind. VCSE wonders just who’s wall it was that got used on that final stage in Dubai.

Picture credit – Flickr Commons http://www.flickr.com/photos/pierredebrouillard/12384230573/

500 channels and there’s nothing on – VCSE’s Racing Digest #21

It’s the beginning of the road racing season with the traditional (at least of recent years) season openers; the Tour Down Under (TDU) and the Tour de San Luis. It really doesn’t seem that long ago that VCSE was tuning into the Tour of Lombardy the last race of note each year. ‘The race of the falling leaves’ might be more accurately nick named ‘The race of the falling rain’. If 2013 was anything to go by it didn’t seem that a race could be held in Italy without an accompaniment of torrential rain. The UCI’s choice to stage the early world tour races in far from the european winter has less to do with a search for warm weather as a money making opportunity; witness the introduction of a stage race for Dubai this year. The ‘desert’ races in Qatar and Oman are worth a watch for the chance to see which sprint train is functioning the best and an early indicator of GC form respectively.

Simon Gerrans - TDU GC winner
Simon Gerrans – TDU GC winner

Before the peloton gets sand blown however they must journey south for the world tours solitary visits to the South American and Australian continents. Both races feature a mixture of stages with options for breakaway or sprint finishes. We say all this with the proviso that we haven’t actually watched any footage from either event! If you’re a cycling fan and want to watch races, either live or highlights, then it’s pretty much essential to have Eurosport. Whether that’s via some kind of TV or cable subscription or via the channels own web app Eurosport will have more coverage of more races than any other channel. Part of Eurosport’s charm is that they don’t just cover the races you expect like Paris Roubaix of the Tour. It’s often possible to tune in randomly and find that their live coverage of an obscure cat 2 race from some French back water. These are often the best races to watch if you yearn for a dominant team performance from FDJ or AG2R, who often appear to be there just to fill gaps in the peloton in the major races.

The TDU and San Luis aren’t covered by Eurosport so getting to see either race can involve some difficulties. Correction, getting to see the TDU is easy if you shell out further for Sky Sports. Sky seem to be taking a wait and see approach to snapping up the rights for the races that are currently covered by Eurosport. This might seem surprising considering their four year old and ongoing sponsorship of a world tour team, but for now at least, they have contented themselves with one or two races lower profile stage races shown live and highlights from the Giro. It may yet happen that Sky outbid ITV for their live rights to the Tour in 2015 and that may in turn have implications for those of us that rely on Eurosport. Sky don’t appear to be concerned at the likely loss of viewers if the Tour moves from its current terrestrial berth, no doubt reassured that they will recoup any investment via advertising revenues. It would be ironic if the one professional sport that doesn’t require a ticket to watch live would require an increasing level of subscription for the armchair fan.

So what are the options for the non Sky endowed to keep up with the action from down under? Ironically, the local broadcasters do offer a very good live web stream. The problem for the UK viewer is that accessing this directly from someone like SBS is blocked; this even applies to their YouTube highlights. Just as VCSE used to sit glued to teletext in the days before rolling 24 hour sports news, the (comparatively) low tech way to follow a race live is often via social media. Ironically Sky provide one of the best live feeds via their Twitter, if restricted to the races where they are competing. More of the world tour teams are starting to pick up on this idea of keeping the fans updated and it isn’t exclusive to the big outfits with smaller teams like Madison Genesis doing the same from the Tour series last year.

A constantly updated timeline from Sky works wonderfully when you can’t get closer to the action. It comes into it’s own when you’re actually at the side of the road during a race too, helping to work out when the race will flash by. The only time Sky’s regular Twitter updates during a stage can frustrate is when you are planning to watch ‘as live’ from a recording later in the day. VCSE’s evening in front of the telly has been ruined on more than once by inadvertently seeing a Sky tweet on our timeline. Less likely to appear for every race, but always around for the key ones is NYvelocity (@nyvelocity) if you want to laugh along with a race.

In race social media commentary from the riders might provoke controversy, although it would be interesting to have some open mics around to listen in to the conversations through the window of the team car. VCSE doesn’t claim to slavishly follow the output of every member of the peloton, but pre and post race some riders are better value than others. Jens Voigt and Taylor Phinney spring to mind as two that can be relied upon to say something a little less anodyne.

When it comes to stats there’s plenty to choose from. VCSE is never too many clicks from Steephill.TV during the season (see the links page) for details of who finished where and aggregation of the best reporting and video. Innrg (go to the links page again) does a regular feature about where the race was won. Cycling News is probably the best news source within the UK, but there are often (more) interesting perspectives from elsewhere in the world. Velonews (US) and Cycling Tips (Australia) are worth a bookmark.

So, what is the VCSE take on the opening week of 2014 road race season? Orica’s Simon Gerrans won a record third TDU title to go with his second Australian road race jersey. The Aussie outfit had a bit of breakthrough year in 2013 with Gerrans wearing yellow at the Tour. That Matt White’s return as DS after his doping ban coincided with this suggests that the team could be one to watch in the classics this season. Gerrans is a previous winner at Milan San Remo and if his form continues could be worth a punt in 2014.

Five seconds off the GC and a stage winner during the week was Lampre’s Diego Ulissi. The Italians have under performed in the last few years but a management shake up in the off season might suggest that Ulissi’s podium could be the first of many. Lampre have the world champion Rui Costa on their Merida’s this season and he’s a rider capable of freelancing some wins in 2014. The fact that the new team uniform is less lairy than recent years (the fluro pink has been turned down) must help too surely! With a further stage win taken by Sacha Modelo on the final stage at San Luis Lampre start the year at the dizzy heights of 4th in the UCI team rankings.

Is Marcel Kittel’s misfiring sprint cause for concern? This early in the season; probably not and it isn’t as if Kittel hasn’t won already this year (at the TDU prequel). Andre Greipel took two stage wins but takes the VCSE award for the best team kit of this year in Lotto’s homage to Merckx and Molteni. Talking of sprinters Mark Cavendish wasn’t able to repeat a stage win in Argentina with Tom Boonen finishing the stronger in the bunch sprints. Last year Cav went from San Luis to the overall in Qatar. Last year was a disaster for Boonen. Cavendish has complained in the past that his Omega Pharma team need to make up the mind what kind of team they want to be. Could it be that everything will be focused on getting Boonen in top condition for the classics at the expense of early season wins for Cavendish?

In a nutshell then, the VCSE predictions for the early season; another tilt at Milan San Remo for Gerrans, Lampre resurgent and all for Boonen at Omega Pharma.

Should be an interesting watch..

“That’s a bit of a turn up…” – The (inevitable) VCSE 2013 season review

Team of the Year 

When the BBC shows (what for it) is a minority sport like cycling on the annual Sports Review of the Year the coverage tends towards the lowest common denominator. The assumption is that most viewers will have a vague idea of a race around France each summer although that is possibly based on the arrogant view that if the BBC don’t cover it then people won’t find an alternative way to watch the event. In this environment there’s a certain amount of inevitability that Team Sky would be discussed (and nominated) as Team of the Year.

From a (slightly) more informed position it’s hard to imagine why Sky could be considered the team of this year, although last year’s was perhaps a reasonable choice. They retained their ability to set a tempo at the head of the peloton in stage races, up until the Giro seemingly able to impose this tactic on the supplicant opposition. Increasingly though those teams and riders who wanted to bring the fight to Sky began to find ways of overcoming the British team’s game plan. There were early hints that the Sky train could be derailed at Tirreno Adriatico when Astana and Vincenzo Nibali ganged up on Chris Froome to deny him victory for the only time in a major stage race this year. Sky didn’t have things their own way at the Tour either when it seemed like the entire peloton had decided it was payback time on Sunday’s stage in the Pyrenees. Forced to defend attacks from the outset, Sky had burnt their matches long before the days live TV coverage began.

In shorter stage races Sky had already demonstrated that if they didn’t have the strongest team they could easily fall prey to other teams (often) superior racecraft. They were even more exposed in the classics where their ‘protected’ riders couldn’t even deliver the squads best result. The criticism that followed the lack of results in one day races was fuelled by the fact that Sky had invested so much in a training program based at altitude in Tenerife rather than the ‘traditional’ preparation of early season stage races.

So if not Sky, then who? Certainly not fellow moneybags team BMC. Other than the quiet resurgence of Cadel Evans at the Giro BMC achieved little before the mid point of the season and their lacklustre performance was characterised by their attempt to back two riders at the same time in the Tour and have neither achieve. Perhaps the most significant event of BMC’s season was the shake up of their back up team with Allan Peiper taking over as race director after the Tour. The start of Peiper’s reign coincided with the team beginning to win again. A team to watch in 2014 maybe?

Vincenzo Nibali’s decision to move to Astana gave the Kazakh team the kind of marquee rider to deliver grand tours it had been lacking since Alberto Contador left. Dominant at the Giro, they were less involved at the Tour in Nibali’s absence. Reunited with ‘The Shark’ at the Vuelta the teams tactics on the penultimate stage were supposed to deliver Nibali victory on the day and the overall. Astana had riders in the break and in poor weather they had managed to stay away on the final climb to the top of the Angrilu. The strategy seemed telegraphed; as the peloton caught the break Nibali’s domestiques would be in the perfect position to support their leader as he went for the win. The script didn’t quite go as planned and the third grand tour went instead to Chris Horner riding for VCSE’s pick for the team of 2013, Radioshack.

RadioShack-Nissan - Eneco Tour 2012
Team of the Year – Radioshack (Photo credit: Wouter de Bruijn)

Horner’s squad began the year arguably as a lame duck team. The team’s association with Johan Bruyneel and Lance Armstrong hung over the 2013 outfit like a bad odour and then there was the announcement that title sponsor Radioshack would be pulling out at the end of the season. Would Fabian Cancellara have been as dominant in the classics if he had been up against a fit Tom Boonen? Academic now, but at the start of the year no one would have known that Boonen would have been struggling for form following his off season injury or that his year would have ended just as it was starting thanks to a crash in the early miles of the Ronde. The manner of Cancellara’s wins in E3 Harelbeke, the Ronde and Paris Roubaix might not have been quite so emphatic with an in form Boonen against him, but just as 2012 was the Belgian’s year so 2013 belonged to the Swiss.

Cancellara faced competition, in particular with the emergence of Peter Sagan as a real threat in the classics. At an individual level there were times when Sagan was maybe the stronger rider, but Cancellara was able to make an impact in races when it counted thanks to the tireless work of the Radioshack domestiques like Hayden Roulston who covered every attack and were never far from the front if in fact they weren’t heading the peloton.

Thanks to Cancellara then Radioshack were the team of the classics. Figuring at the grand tours was probably not part of the plan and this might have remained the case but for the intervention of the Orica Green Edge team bus on stage one of the Tour. Confusion surrounding where the stage would finish extinguished Mark Cavendish’s chances of taking the yellow jersey but left Radioshack’s Jan Bakelants in a position where he would inherit the jersey the following day in Corsica. Bakelants put Radioshack on the map at the Tour but it took the final grand tour to provide a triumphant end to the team’s season. Absent since Tirreno Adriatico where he had delivered a top five finish Chris Horner arrived at the Vuelta with a stage win on home soil as an indicator that he was coming back into form following injury.

A stage win early in week one was news enough for a rider about to celebrate his 42nd birthday but as the race progressed and Horner began to take more time out of the race leaders people began to realise he might actually win the whole thing. Once again the team leader was ably backed by his domestiques, including for part of the race Cancellara and Croatian champion Robert Kiserlovski. For many onlookers a Horner victory was not something to be celebrated and it’s fair to say doubt remains that a rider of 42 can win a three week grand tour ‘clean’. In the absence of a revelation that Horner’s victory actually was unbelievable, writing now it cements Radioshack as VCSE Team of the Year based on team and individual performances in the classics and grand tours.

Honourable mentions go to Movistar for delivering some memorable stage wins in the Giro and Tour and Orica for the irreverent custody of the maillot jaune during the first week of the Tour. Argos Shimano threaten to become the number one sprint team with Marcel Kittel and John Degenkolb. They have some of the leading young talent on their roster with double Vuelta stage winner Warren Barguil.

Rider of the Year

After dismissing Team Sky as a contender for Team of the Year it might seem contrary to pick Chris Froome as VCSE Rider of the Year. Froome deserves his place as the year’s top rider for the way he was able to surpass anything his team were able to do collectively, even when riding in support of him.

Christopher Froome at the prologue of the Tour...
Christ Froome (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This couldn’t have been made any clearer than on stage nine of this year’s Tour. The previous day it seemed as if Sky’s rival teams and Froome’s GC opposition had run up metaphorical white flags as the British team delivered a crushing one two as the race entered the Pyrenees. With his closest rival over a minute behind Froome had taken over the Maillot Jaune and the discussion was not would he win the Tour, but how big would his winning margin be. The following day as the peloton continued to traverse the cols of the Pyrenees the script was ripped up as first Garmin and then Movistar attacked Sky from the outset. By the time live TV coverage began Froome was alone at the head of the race. In truth, the sting had probably gone out of the stage by this point. Nevertheless Froome had no option other than to cover any attempt made by Movistar to attack the race lead.

Sky recovered the composure after the rest day and Froome survived another collapse in his teams inability to deal with the unexpected in the winds on stage thirteen. It was no coincidence that he came under greater scrutiny on the stages that he won in the Alps and the Pyrenees but the trajectory Froome followed in 2013 was in many ways similar to that of Bradley Wiggins in 2012 with victories in the Tour de Romandie and Criterium du Dauphine. Froome was in dominant form from the outset and VCSE speculated as early as the Tour of Oman (his first ever overall stage race victory) that the pattern for the season could be emerging. The only rider who looked able to unsettle Froome on the road in 2013 was Vincenzo Nibabli but other than their early season encounter in Tirreno Adriatico they did not meet head to head until the world championships at the end of the racing year. It could be argued that Wiggins unsettled Froome also, particularly with his interview ahead of the Giro where he speculated that he wanted to defend his Tour title. With hindsight it’s clear that Wiggins was never going to be allowed to do this and the axis of power has definitely shifted within Sky now with Wiggins unlikely to renew his contract after 2014.

While VCSE suspects an on form Nibali would edge Froome (we will have to wait for next years Tour to find out) the Sicilian was the nearly man this year as his tilt at a second grand tour victory and the world championships ended in anticlimax. Fabian Cancellara dominated the northern classics, but maintained a lower profile after that. The most successful rider in terms of outright wins was Peter Sagan. Judged purely on his ability to put bums on seats Sagan had a successful year. He won the points competition at the Tour with weeks to spare, reminding everyone that the green jersey is awarded not to the best sprinter but the most consistent finisher. Sagan is probably the closest rider in the current pro peloton to an all rounder. He is a factor against all but the quickest sprinters, yet is able to mix it in the classics.

If someone had to finish runner up to Froome this year VCSE would go for Tony Martin. His heroic failure to win stage six of the Vuelta after a monster solo break was VCSE’s moment of the year. Martin was possibly forgotten about at the world TT championships as Cancellara and Wiggins seemed like the form riders, but it was the Omega Pharma rider who dominated.

Race of the Year 

The early season stage races Paris Nice and Tirreno Adriatico got things off to a great start. Richie Porte emerged as possible third GC contender for Sky at Paris Nice and it will be interesting to see how he goes at the Giro this year. Sky backed Sergio Henao at the Vuelta but his performance as a team leader was in inverse proportion to his effectiveness as a domestique. If Sky hadn’t been so abject in the classics, their GC performance in Spain could have been the teams low point, soothed only by a Kiryenka stage win. Of the two, it was the Italian race that captured the imagination with a taste of the Giro to follow with punishing climbs and equally punishing weather. As the team’s Giro build up continued the Tour of the Basque country highlighted the decline of Euskatel as riders like Amets Txurrucka offloaded for mercenary ‘talent’ showed what we will miss about the riders in orange next year. The race also heralded the arrival of the latest crop of Columbian riders with Movistar’s Nairo Qunitana (the eventual winner) and AG2R’s Carlos Betancur featuring alongside Sergio Henao. As the season wound down it was hard not to enjoy a return to form (and happiness?) for Bradley Wiggins in the Tour of Britain.

Biblical weather disrupted Milan San Remo forcing the neutralisation of part of the race and the withdrawal of many of the peloton. Sky’s Ian Stannard demonstrated why he is one of the teams best hopes for a classic win as the race entered the final few kilometres, but it was Gerald Ciolek’s win that had the greatest impact, catapulting MTN Quebeka onto the world stage with a massive win for the African squad. Paris Roubaix had it all with spectacular crashes (search FDJ’s Offredo on YouTube) and Sepp Vanmarcke’s tears as he was beaten by the wilier Fabian Cancellara. In the Ardennes classics Garmin showed their tactical ability again (how Sky must want some of this magic to rub off on them) with Ryder Hesjedal providing the platform for a Dan Martin win.

Each of the grand tours had a claim for the race of the year crown. Marcel Kittel ursurped Mark Cavendish in the Tour, but perhaps more impressive was Cav’s win in the points competition at the Giro meaning he had one this contest in all three grand tours. Seeing Bradley Wiggins undone by bad weather and sketchy descents at the Giro and Nibali looking head and shoulders above all comers provided the character stories a three week race needs, although some of the drama was lost as stages were truncated if not cancelled altogether due to snow. Add in another British rider to cheer in Alex Dowsett (winner of the TT) and the Giro probably edged the Vuelta as the VCSE grand tour of 2013.

VCSE’s races of 2013

One day classic – Paris Roubaix                                                                                                                                                                                                                                  

Stage Race – Tirreno Adriatico                                                                                                                                                                                                                                      

Grand Tour – Giro d’Italia                                                                                                                             

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… 

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.

Man beats Panda – Liege Bastogne Liege 2013

After a comparatively dull start (and ‘middle’) to the Ardennes classics the series served up an outstanding finish with Dan Martin’s victory at Liege Bastogne Liege on Sunday. While none of the locations can be described as particularly scenic LBL takes the prize for the final kilometres of a race most like a criterium held around the back streets of Hackney.

Sunday’s race was Philippe Gilbert’s and indeed Belgium’s last chance to provide a winner in a 2013 spring classic. Gilbert had not been able to get into the right position as the week’s previous races had reached their climax and these disappointments coupled with Tom Boonen’s injury afflicted season to date inevitably piled on the expectation and pressure for the world champ. The field was pretty stellar. Liege offers as much climbing over its entire length as a typical grand tour mountain stage and GC riders were well represented with Chris Froome, Joaquim Rodriguez, Alejandro Valverde and Alberto Contador taking the start.

The shake up for the final stages inevitably arrived as the peloton hit La Redoute. For the first time in this years classics Sky actually looked well placed as the climb approached with Froome looking well supported by Richie Porte, David Lopez and Vasil Kireyenka at the front. The local TV feed wasn’t suffering the same technical issues that had spoilt Amstel and Fleche previously. However,  the combination of an impromptu car park formed by spectators on the nearby motorway and other ‘interesting’ scenes alongside the race itself meant that the events that led to Lopez breaking away were missed. Never likely to be a winner from this distance Lopez was left seeking directions from the team car when it became apparent that Sky had pretty much blown up as team before the summit.

As Sky’s chances of an impact in this years classics evaporated we were treated to the impressive sight of an attack by Ryder Hesjedal. He had shown his form ahead of defending his Giro title at last Sunday’s Amstel but this time there Hesjedal wasn’t trying to chase down a breakaway, he was going for the win. Hesjedal’s break came on a section of the race introduced only because of road works that prevented the use of one of the regular climbs. He time trialed away from the field building up a 20+ second advantage at one point.

As Hesjedal attempted to hold the gap up the final key climb we were treated to the second most bizarre piece of crowd participation of the day as a post punk kilt wearing Belgian paced him up the hill. In the background the chasers including Gilbert approached. Fleche Wallone nearly man Carlos Betancur was the first to bridge the gap but he couldn’t press home the attack. Hesjedal caught, was holding his place and leading the group including team mate Dan Martin into the final few k’s.

Dan Martin
Dan Martin (Photo credit: Petit Brun)

Tactically, Valverde looked like he would suck anyone’s wheel who let him but with the prospect of a bunch sprint and the second group of Gilbert fast approaching it was Rodriguez who attacked. If the climb had been steeper it was possible to imagine a Rodriguez win at this point but there was a perceptible slow down from Purito followed seconds later by the sight of a rider in blue heading across the gap. As the camera angle shifted behind and above it was clear that the rider in blue, Dan Martin was catching up. As he came alongside there was the briefest interlude while Martin matched Rodriguez pedal stroke and then he went for it. During these shots the kilt wearing punk was outdone by a spectator dressed as a Panda managing to keep pace with the riders sprinting uphill.

Martin better placed than a television viewer to know that he faced no threat from Rodriguez celebrated long before the line. First to congratulate was Hesjedal and as team efforts go it was powerful stuff. Martin’s victory and the comparison that can be made between at least one of the weeks winners, if not team set ups, made this a result that can be believed in. Martin probably wasn’t in many people’s top 10 of likely winners of Liege Bastogne Liege but he is only the second Irishman (although his brummie accent is stronger) to win a monument and adds to his already impressive tally from the Vuelta a Catalunya this year.

As the classics draw to a close and we look forward to the start of the grand tours the losers of the week at least look like Philippe Gilbert and BMC. Gilbert’s finish at Liege was the same as his finishes in Amstel and Fleche. He has been consistent across all three races but while a repeat of 2011 was probably beyond him Gilbert and his team will no doubt feel that they should have delivered more. Movistar were well represented this week as well and questions could be asked of Valverde tactically after the team had got him into a good position. Sky’s classics performance has been abject, probably made worse by their much publicised ‘focus’ on the monuments this year. It will be interesting to see if they push to sign Fabian Cancellara in the off season and work for someone who knows how to win rather than someone who has the potential to do so. 

Garmin now have their second monument victory to add 2010’s win at Paris Roubaix. It will be interesting to see how Dan Martin evolves within the team now. Already confirmed as not part of the teams plans for the Giro title defence he is surely worth a punt for this years Tour as a rider to make a breakaway across the mountain stages. Only time will tell. At 26 he has plenty of racing in him.

Dan Martin was overwhelmed with his victory at Liege Bastogne Liege. The kilt wearing punk and panda were unavailable for comment.

Enjoy the key action from Liege Bastogne Liege below 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For great racing choose the Basque country

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

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

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

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

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

Chapeau!

What a carry on – VCSE reflects on the Ronde

FC 1

Yesterday confirmed that whatever hex Fabian Cancellara was under in 2012 has left him and is making Tom Boonen’s year one to forget. Last year, Cancellara fell while going through a feed zone (Geraint Thomas suffered a similar crash yesterday) while Boonen won the first running of the Ronde on it’s new parcours.

Cancellara had demonstrated his form at Milan San Remo and had proved imperious at E3 Harelbeke, riding away from the field with kilometres to spare. Much of the speculation ahead of this years classics was whether the tactic of attempting to ride rivals off his wheel would work with Peter Sagan in particular and riders like of Sylvain Chavanel looking in good touch. The relative strengths of Cancellara’s team Radioshack verses OPQS, Cannondale and even Sky in the classics was also questioned, with Cancellara often having no teammates to work with as races reached their closing stages.

His performance at E3 probably made him joint favourite with Sagan ahead of the Ronde. Boonen, who was bidding to win for a record third time has shown flashes of form this year but nothing resembling his results in 2012.

Eurosport were putting the editorial direction if not their money on a Boonen Cancellara face off. When the snooker from Bejing had finished overrunning the plan was to show extended interviews with both riders before cutting to the live feed. Like many great plans it unravelled in the face of a tweet from Boonen’s girlfriend announcing that he was already out of the race with less than 20 k’s completed. There was ample footage of the aftermath but with no other riders apparently involved, during the race at least it was unclear how it had occured.

As hasty re-edits were implemented we at least enjoyed Cancellara rhapsodising about the race. While he appeared quietly confident, you could sense Boonen’s realism about his chances even in a shortened interview.

Using this parcours for the second time the peloton would climb the Oude Kwaremont and the Paterberg three times and as the leaders approached for the final time the critical moves were poised to take place. The intervening kilometres had been characterised by a surprisingly strong showing from Radioshack with Hayden Roulston doing some monster turns at the head of the peloton. There was a breakaway for much of the race but this was never more that a few minutes away.

Up the final climb of the Paterberg it was now head to head between Cancellara and Sagan as their rivals in leading group ran out of legs. As the outside bets prepared to argue over the scraps Cancellara and Sagan began their final ascent of the Kwaremont. Those hoping for a Sagan win hoped that the signs that fatigue was setting in over the crest of the Paterberg was illusory. As both riders hit the final third of the climb those hopes were dashed as Sagan faltered as Cancellara picked up the pace.

What had been 30 seconds at the summit was over a minute at the end as Cancellara the time trialler delivered an emphatic victory, slowing to a comparative crawl as he crossed the line. Sagan had a job on his hands to retain his podium position, working hard with eventual third place finisher Jurgen Roelandts of Lotto.

Lotto could feel pleased with their race. A rider in the break all day, joined by Andre Greipel and as those two faded late on the faintest chance of a solo win for Roelandts. Sky’s fabled classics squad failed to fire again and it’s hard to see things improving at Paris Roubaix on Sunday.

The post race analysis was dominated not by Cancellara’s victory but Sagan’s unfortunate arse grab of one of the podium girls. Cue a lot of hand wringing about sexism in the sport. There’s clearly lots to discuss at the inequalities between men’s and women’s professional cycling but Sagan’s actions don’t merit becoming the metaphor for this.

As for Boonen, he would be forgiven for writing off his season now. Reports suggest that he didn’t sustain any broken bones but with it looking unlikely that he will be able to put in many miles ahead of the weekend it’s hard to see him beating his ‘other’ record at Paris Roubaix on Sunday.

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.