Polar Express – VCSE’s view on the Spring Classics #2

Following a weekend away VCSE was looking forward to catching up with the first of the seasons key classic races; Milan San Remo. After the aborted attempt to view our recording of Kuurne Brussels Kuurne only to find that it had been cancelled due to snow the first few minutes of MSR felt like deja vu.

As Eurosport began their live feed on Sunday the race was currently stopped as the teams bussed the riders around the snow bound Turchino climb. In between episodes of some kind of sporting ‘You’ve been framed’ we were treated to the sight of the conditions on the climb through the sweeps of the wipers on the producers car.

Bypassing the snow if not persistant heavy rain and low temperatures the organisers prepared to re start the race with around 130km to go, allowing the six man breakaway to restore their 7 minute advantage before releasing the peloton. For the first hour or so the coverage was definitely for die hards as the feed from the motorbike cameras degraded into an acid trip or simply ‘froze’ whenever they were risked to be shown. Race radio was equally patchy in giving accurate information; suggesting at one point that Sylvain Chavanel had abandoned which was ironic when he appeared in the group contesting the win in the final stages.

There were some notable retirements (read did not want to get off the bus at the restart) including Tom Boonen and Niki Terpstra from Omega Pharma. When Chavanel’s ‘retirement’ was announced Mark Cavendish’s prediction that he would not figure in the race seemed prescient, albeit not for the reasons he gave beforehand.

The reduction in race distance may have pointed the outcome towards the sprinters but the conditions made predicting the likely winner a lottery. As the Cipressa climb approached the breakaway was caught and the cameras seemed to have dried out enough for the ‘real’ race to start.

Gerald Ciolek

Surprise Surprise – Ciolek in OPQS days

The two big stories? Gerald Ciolek winning would be a good place to start. Ciolek riding for neo pro conti team MTN-Qhubeka would have been among the outside bets even after the restart. MTN’s presence in the early season races has been universally welcomed as the first pro team from Africa but the coverage on Sunday had initially focused on some poorly handled wheel changes. 

Ciolek timed his ride perfectly admitting that his tactics had been to ensure that he stayed in touch with the leaders over the final Poggio climb. Of the final bunch the descending the climb and heading towards the finish line Ciolek was arguably the only out and out sprinter present. However with the likes of Cancellara, Sagan in the group he still wouldn’t have been favourite.

You had to feel for Ian Stannard as the riders crossed the line in sixth place. Stannard was the man for all but the last few hundred metres. When the peloton had caught the break after another monster turn by Vasil Kiryenka Team Sky would have been looking to deliver Geraint Thomas or Edvald Boasson Hagen to the line. The Sky machines grand plan unravelled when Thomas appeared to slip on a white line taking out Tyler Farrar in the process. Boasson Hagen was dropped on the Cipressa but by now all eyes were on Stannard who had broken away with Chavanel on the Poggio.

Stannard will be a leader in some of the forthcoming Belgian classics and possibly Paris Roubaix also but he isn’t known for his sprinting prowess. He had the bit between his teeth on Sunday and deserves a Chapeau! for continually attacking, burning matches furiously and leading onto the finishing straight.

Peter Sagan may feel disappointed that he allowed Ciolek to get the drop on him at the line but he could be forgiven for having one eye on Fabian Cancellara. Cancellara himself said that he was happy with third in the conditions as ‘to arrive.. was victory in itself’.

For the Qhubeka team and Ciolek winning Milan San Remo was ‘incredible’ and announces them on the world stage in the best way possible. This was a fairytale result and it will be interesting to see whether the win spurs them on to bigger things. It’s hard to see that Ciolek would have won in ‘normal’ conditions and his victory came from his own tactical positioning rather than how the the team had worked for him.

There’s every chance that Stannard will kick on from this. His ride added up to so much more than his final placing. Sky have talked up how they intend to feature in the classics this season. Previously they have been criticised for not adapting to racing incidents, but Sunday indicated that they have learnt some new tricks.

As we head to Belgium this weekend things are shaping up nicely.

All smiles on planet Cav


Happy again – Mark Cavendish

picture from http://www.omegapharma-quickstep.com/en/

With four stage wins in last weeks Tour of Qatar Mark Cavendish looked like he was right at home with his new team Omega Pharma Quick Step. Cav a last minute team leader following the enforced through injury withdrawl of Tom Boonen didn’t let a tumble at the start of the final stage prevent him from claiming the overall victory either.

He certainly seems like a happier rider in a team that will be geared to riding for him and him alone in the races he enters this year. It would be unfair to suggest that Cavendish was anything less than a team player at Sky last year. The image of last years rainbow jersey stuffed with bidon’s for Wiggins and co demonstrated that he knew the role he had to play in Team Sky’s famous victory. With the exception of the final stage win on the Champs Elysee Cavendish underlined his superiority over the rest of sprinters by fashioning winning positions in the absence of any real train gang.

Taking to Twitter over the last week he was unstinting in his praise of the work his OPQS colleagues had done on his behalf and the teams dominance over two thirds of the race has placed an early but significant marker on the team being a major contender for the forthcoming classics and later grand tour sprint stages.

For Cavendish it seems fair to say that he is happiest, purely based on his social media content, when he had a team focused on delivering him at the right place and time to do what he does best. There was a noticable difference between his remarks after his unexpected stage 2 win and the later stage 18 victory where his Sky teammates had chased down a breakaway.

OPQS looked like the most obvious choice for Cav as soon as he began to drop heavy hints that he didn’t see a future for him in Sky’s GC focused team. It will be interesting to see if is able to replicate or even exceed the highs of his 2009 season at HTC where he dominated the sprints at the Tour de France winning six stages. There remains a slight question mark over how OPQS will be able to accomodate two proven winners and arguably joint team leaders in Boonen and Cavendish. Boonen will obviously favour the classics but in an event where both are selected team tactics should be interesting to study.

It ain’t half hot mum

The Tour of Qatar may have started as a thinly veiled vanity project to market the sovereign state as something other than a major oil producer.

Eddy Merckx’s involvement and its timing as a season opener drop heavier hints as to how the pro peleton use the stage race. The facts are that the tour has produced 75% of the Paris Roubaix winners since its inception 12 years ago. Putting the tour winners name on your betting slip prediction for Paris Roubaix might not be seen as speculative.

It’s the high winds on the Arabian peninsula that mimic the conditions of north eastern France that make the Tour Qatar ideal preparation for Tom Boonen, Fabian Cancellara and perennial contenders like Juan Antonio Flecha.

It’s no surprise that superman of the supermen elect Boonen has won the tour 4 times, most recently in 2011. Boonen though will be absent this year, recovering from surgery following a bizarre training accident. Mark Cavendish replaces him as team leader. Cavendish may well harbour ambitions for Milan San Remo, but he is unlikely to appear with anything other than long odds as a bet for Paris Roubaix.

I’ve linked to an article by Gregor Brown on Velonews.com about how classic’s riders use the Tours of Qatar and Oman to prepare for the season.

Preview: Classics masters head to Qatar this weekend to lay a foundation for the cobbles. http://t.co/jqLHeyGI From @gregorbrown in Doha.

Paris Roubaix – “The Hell of the North”

There are one or two clips of the early 70’s documentary about Paris Roubaix “A Sunday in Hell” that can be found on You Tube. The pantheon of cycling films is not vast and most seem to remain marketable. The full version remains available and the snippits available online work well as a part trailer, part advert for the main event.

In many ways it’s ageless; the landscape, the cobbles that haven’t changed in years, if at all. Shot on film, the english voiceover very precise in a way it can only be when not done by an Englishman or perhaps someone who entered the recording studio just concerned with reading the script and collecting their fee.

Nevertheless it’s a classic (in every sense). I’m always struck at how little the bikes seemed to change from the 60’s through to the 90’s even when watching older footage. I love the narrow Reynolds tubing aesthetic but do not possess the engineering or design smarts to see how the curved and kicked out forks can work like the straight blades used today. Paris Roubaix is a race for those skilled in bike handling as much as strength and speed.

The pleasing visual aspects continue with the sight of Peugeot 505’s with sponsors boards fastened to the radiator grill and bendy aluminium roof racks. The musical air horns are a sound that can transport me to a narrow road in northern France in my imagination.

This clip opens with Roger De Vlaeminck. For many years it was reasonable to assume that Paris Roubaix would (perhaps could ) only be won by someone like De Vlaeminck or Merckx. A ‘Flemish Superman’.

De Vlaeminck can perhaps claim to be the most super of the supermen with his four wins but he could be surpassed by fellow Belgian, four time winner and superman Tom Boonen (last years winner) in 2013.

George Hincapie describes riding on the pave like ‘..riding on railway tracks’. The literal translation from the Flemish for cobbles is babies heads!

The finish line, appropriately enough, is at the Roubaix Velodrome. Anyone familiar with the lower divisions of the Football League or Speedway and Greyhound tracks would feel right at home here. The winner of the race is immortalised with a small brass plaque fixed to one of the communal shower cubicles which have an air of a farmyard milking parlour.

For me it’s the determination to maintain as many of the original elements of the race as possible that makes Paris Roubaix a must see.