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

Tour de France 2014 Rest Day Review

Another high profile withdrawl

The Tour de France’s organisers expected a lot from their visit to the Vosges region for this years race and that’s exactly what they got. What the peaks of the Vosges lack in outright height they made up for in drama as the peloton were taken over multiple climbs over the French holiday weekend. The weather that might have been expected in Yorkshire during the opening weekend was firmly entrenched and compounded the riders suffering. Racing for ten days straight including a stage over the Paris Roubaix cobbles had robbed this years edition of the Grand Boucle of two of it’s leading protagonists by the peloton’s first ‘day off’ and left Vicenzo Nibali in pole position.

No yellow in 2014 - Alberto Contador
No yellow in 2014 – Alberto Contador

The crash that led to Alberto Contador’s withdrawl during the Bastille Day’s stage 10 took place off camera, such was the fast moving nature of the day that saw the peloton ride into heavy rain as they began the days climbs. In the confusion it was initially suggested that Contador had suffered a catastrophic failure of his Tinkoff Saxo Specialized. The absence of pictures left viewers in the dark as to what had happened to the race favourite until the end of the stage where interviews provided some insight. In the information vacum that proceeded that everyone watching indulged in a little bout of conspiracy theory and speculation wondering if talk of not one, but two crashes was an attempt to paint the riders bike supplier in the best light. The facts, with the benefit of hindsight, are rather more prosaic but have the same tragic outcome for the rider. Contador slipped from the bars while riding downhill one handed with the result that he has suffered a likely season ending knee injury. It’s a testament to the rider and confirmation that road cycling is the worlds toughest sport that Contador actually road 20 kilometres with a fractured tibia before abandoning.

We’ll never know if different circumstances would have seen Contador take the fight to his GC rivals on stage 10. He had finished second on Saturday’s stage but was yet take much time back from Nibali. Nibali had relenquished the lead to Lotto’s Tony Gallopin on Sunday, seemingly relaxed enough that he would be able to take it back at will if the status quo was retained time wise with his key competitors. While the final climb (and first summit finish of the race) on Saturday wasn’t a long one, it was steep. Last years winner of Strade Bianche Blel Kadri took the stage and the essential French victory, the only member of the break to stay away. Contador looked the strongest of the GC taking second, but Nibali was with him wheel for wheel. Much as people are now touting Richie Porte as Nibali’s biggest competition in the aftermath of Contador’s exit, he still looks like he doesn’t have the legs. Ultimately if it is a battle between Porte and Nibali it may be decided by the relative strengths of their respective Sky and Astana teammates.

French riders resurgent

In addition to Kadri’s stage win France has strong representation in the top ten with Kadri’s AG2R teammates Roman Bardet & Jean Christophe Peraud, Gallopin and FDJ’s Thibaut Pinot. While Gallopin and Peraud aren’t exactly veterans it’s more heartening to see the strong showing from Bardet and Pinot. Whether Pinot has got over all of his descending fears should become clear when the race enters the Alpes, but Bardet is looking like a strong contender for the young riders prize if not a podium place at this point.

The presence of French riders doing well also points to the likelihood that the sport is getting cleaner. While there remain some noises off about riders seeming to come into form unexpectedly the undercurrent is the emergence of some very talented young riders in the peloton across all disciplines. There was speculation from some quarters that Tony Martin, who won stage 9 from a breakaway on Sunday, would have been a possible GC rider during the last decade when doping was rife in the professional ranks. This was less a remark about Martin himself, than his physiology. In some ways Martin was the rider of the weekend as he was responsible for much of the animation on stage 10 too. The way that the Omega Pharma Quick Step rider hit the wall towards the end of the stage demonstrated what should happen when a 85 kilo rider hits a double digit ramp. It feels a lot better to celebrate the way his stage ended than having to watch in disbelief as a muscle bound rider climbed without appearing to breathe with any difficulty.

The Tour now enters its second half. The first has served up enoough drama for a three week race already, but such has been the ebb and flow of riders fortunes so far in this race can it be possible that the next 11 stages won’t be just as exciting.

 

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

Criterium du Dauphine 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tour de Suisse 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

The all encompassing end of season round up – World Championships and UCI Election

2013 World Championships – Tuscany 

It’s been a while since our last post where Wiggo and Cav were leaving home shores to support Chris Froome in his tilt at the world championships in Tuscany. Ahead of that Sir Brad was heading for his seasons goal (if we all forget about the Giro) of the individual time trial. Would he assist Froome in the road race a few days later and what exactly would Cavendish be doing, other than proudly representing his country.

Individual Time Trial

VCSE isn’t aware if there was a representative from every nation on the globe at this years world championships, but in the category for ‘country with quite a lot going on at the moment..’ Syria managed to enter a rider in the men’s Elite TT on the fourth day of the week long cycling festival in the Tuscan hills. Nazir Jaser propped up the field in 77th place, which isn’t the point really. While you ask, “How does he manage to train?”, if not where it’s worth noting that last place was only a shade over 15 minutes behind the winning time of Tony Martin and his average speed over the 57.86km course was nearly 43kph. We will never know if would have beaten the two Ugandan entrants as unfortunately they did not start.

English: 2011 UCI Road World Championships – M...
World Champion – Tony Martin (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The much trailed match up between the (relative) elder statesmen of the test, Wiggins and Cancellara, was won by the Englishman. This was the undercard though; Tony Martin was the man to beat from the earliest of time checks and Wiggins second place suggested both riders were peaking at just the right time. Cancellara had opted not to take time information (neither had Wiggins), but the battle for second and third places seemed to come down to his fast out of the starters hut approach verses Wiggins slow(er) build to a peak in the final quarter.

Wiggins has been less bullish as the sands of this years racing have ebbed away and seems more comfortable with the fact that he has been beaten by the better man, at least in terms of performance on the bike by Martin and perhaps psychologically earlier this year by Froome as he lost his number one status at Sky.

Cancellara had bested Martin in the Vuelta as Wiggins in turn had beaten the Radioshack rider in Poland shortly after the Tour. The edge that each protagonist sought over his rivals ebbed and flowed as the main event approached. There is a sense of drama, even in what is to some people the dullest of cycling disciplines when watching Wiggins or Cancellara. Martin however is a metronome, even if below the skinsuit and aero helmet the physical and mental toll is playing just as viscerally for him.

As Martin took more than 15 minutes out of our Syrian friend Jaser so he took the best part of a minute out of Cancellara and Wiggins. The Sky rider who had gone to Tuscany to win announced that he was “..happy with second”. Watching Tony Martin that day who could have doubted he meant it.

Women’s Road Race 

As it must have been when Eddy Merckx was at his peak Marianne Vos’ name on the start sheet casts a long shadow over the rest of the field. That she began the Elite Women’s Road Race as favourite was unsurprising. Of more interest as the race started was the race strategy of some teams to deploy almost their entire teams to try and beat the dominant rider in the field.

First the Americans and as the race reached the final stages the Italian team attempted to set a pace to try and split the field and tire out, if not Vos then her Dutch teammates. The climbs that suggested the possibility of a GC contender taking the men’s race the following day played their part in the womens’s race also as the sole remaining US rider Evelyn Stevens attacked on the penultimate climb. This wasn’t the final ascent of the Mur de Huy in the 2012 Fleche Wallone and the small advantage gained was soon gathered in by the remaining group.

Arguably it was the Italians who held the most cards, with three riders the largest group by nationality in the selection. But it was Vos who attacked on the final Salviati climb a short, straight and steep ribbon of freshly laid tarmac covered in so many fan’s messages they had become almost indecipherable. The ease with which Vos reached, overtook and then rode away from her rivals left you wondering if you had just seen every other rider drop the heads and concede the race there and then. There had been no shortage of effort thus far and the selection contained some of the greatest female riders currently racing. Did the fact that she made it look so easy, so effortless sow an immediate seed of self doubt that Vos could not be beaten.

You cannot dislike Marianne Vos, despite her dominance. Her joy as she crossed the line was not because of the margin or nature of her victory. In her mind this was another milestone, a back to back world title. Her search for the next milestone may take her into other disciplines next year (mountain biking is rumoured), but surely the next challenge for the road would be a hat-trick of rainbow jerseys on the road.

Men’s Road Race

Helicopter and wide angle tracking shots were not in evidence or in fact possible for Sunday’s Elite Men’s Road Race. The heavy rain that had characterised much of the Giro created conditions that meant that the selections and abandonments from the peloton came on each of the ten laps of the Florentine circuit the women had raced the day before.

Mark Cavendish’s role was of hare to the hounds of the peloton the strategy of the British team and those countries protecting a GC type rider to try and exhaust the classics specialists like last years champion Philippe Gilbert and Fabian Cancellara. The pace, perhaps more so the weather, led to the early abandonment of many of the field as riders got dropped and decided it was infinitely preferable to be inside and wearing something other than sodden cycling gear. Chris Froome’s tilt at the title was possibly not as serious as he suggested, although he hadn’t shown much form on his return to racing in the continental US. Ultimately, the entire GB squad got off their bikes and the suggestion afterwards that the race had been used as preparation for the Olympics two years hence was as welcome as the Italian weather. A Froome in better form might have been able to freelance to a better place, even if a win was unlikely.

The win was taken by this years medium mountain specialist, the winner of the Tour de Suisse and two stages at the Tour Rui Costa. He had been in a the select group of riders left contesting the race on the final lap that also included his Movistar teammate Alejandro Valverde (Spain), Italy’s Vincenzo Nibali and Valverde’s compatriot Joaquim Rodriguez. There was almost an even split of GC to classics riders with Gilbert and Cancellara joined by Peter Sagan and Simon Clarke.

As with the women’s race the day previously the Italian’s had some strength in numbers as the finish approached and Nibali seemed well placed if not in a position to dominate the selection. If anything there was an echo of his performances in the Vuelta where he seemed to lack that final 5% that had made him so strong in the Giro. Would this have told at the line? No, Nibali slipped off in the wet and was left to contest a placing. Ahead Rodriguez had attacked and was doing his approximation of time trialing to the finish with Costa in pursuit. Purito might have expected fellow countryman Valverde to cover Costa. Although they were trade teammates at Movistar, Costa had already announced a one year deal with Lampre. Surely, Valverde wouldn’t be complicit in letting Costa catch Rodriguez? Costa had shown his strength in the final kilometres of a race in France in July and he reached Rodriguez’s wheel with time to spare. The little Spaniard and the Portuguese engaged in conversation. It’s not unknown for one rider to offer an inducement (read bribe) at this point to throw the race. Purito may just have enquired if Valverde had put up any fight at all to prevent Costa from getting away.

Based on the relative ease with which Costa had caught him it wasn’t much of a surprise that the seemingly perennial runner up Rodriguez continued his run of podiums while Costa took the win. Purito, who can seem happier with a second or third than many race winners was more subdued this time, a mixture of bafflement and frustration with third place man Valverde. Nibali was an anticlimatic fourth with a “disappointed” Cancellara rounding out the top ten, one place behind last years winner Gilbert.

Brian Cookson wins UCI presidency

The world championships coincided with the UCI presidential elections, also held in Tuscany so delegates could be reminded of what it’s all meant to be about. VCSE hasn’t covered much of the political side of the sport and won’t subject you, the dear reader, to much more than a summary here.

Incumbent Pat McQuaid had been on shaky ground ever since the USADA ‘reasoned decision’ that led to Lance Armstrong’s lifetime ban and stripping of his Tour titles. Even if McQuaid’s handling of the Armstrong affair in particular and the wider question of doping in the sport had been blemish free he couldn’t escape his associations with the Armstrong era. His position was further undermined by the impressive grassroots campaign to overturn his presidential nomination in Ireland and the subsequent messy attempts to get an endorsement from other nations.

Brian Cookson had emerged as his rival after initally endorsing McQuaid. Cookson’s campaign looked well managed in comparison to McQuaid’s, but concerns surfaced about Cookson’s tactics as the contest drew closer. Ultimately, cycling decided on at least the appearance of a break from the past. The rise in prominence of the sport in the UK during Cookson’s time at the helm of British Cycling would be good news for potential sponsors if he is able to raise the profile of cycling in an equally positive way in the next few years.

Like McQuaid, he will be judged first and foremost by how he deals with the legacy, if not the current issues of doping within the sport. Early signs are good with the promise of a closer relationship with WADA and suggestions of some kind of ‘truth and reconciliation’ process. Cookson has shown himself to be a pragmatist by offering to reduce Armstrong’s lifetime ban in return for him lifting the lid on his doping (Armstrong, at least publically, has so far refused to name names). While Armstrong is the tip of the iceberg, it’s the lack of a coherent approach to previous and existing dopers like Danilo Di Luca that cause concern.

Should anyone caught doping get a lifetime ban? Precedent in other sports suggests not, although multiple offences equaling a life ban seem to be accepted as an appropriate response. The standards applied to ‘irregularities’ also seem inconsistent and many riders can be misplaced into the category of dopers where there can be other reasons for this. It’s interesting to compare the current situation of Sky’s Jonathan Tiernan Locke with that of Charly Wegelius for example.

If Cookson is unable to make progress on lifting the Omerta that still exists around doping during his presidency he may end up being viewed as much of poor steward of the sport as McQuaid. He will require the cooperation of the riders and the teams along with the former players, but earning that is what being a politician and administrator is all about surely?

He has at least shown signs of increased support for women’s cycling with the appointment of Tracey Gaudry to Vice President. The introduction of a 2.1 category women’s Tour of Britain from 2014 offers the prospect of a more equal footing for the women’s professional peloton, but more needs to be done to deliver marquee events alongside the men, with a high profile stage race in France being the obvious example.

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.

So close – VCSE’s Racing Digest #17

Vuelta a Espana week 1 

For a rider who suggested he might use the final grand tour of the year as preparation for the world championship Vicenzo Nibali spent the first week of the Vuelta as a somewhat reluctant race leader. The Shark had indicated that he felt he had a strong Astana team supporting him and that he was feeling good ahead of the race, but he was still adopting a ‘wait and see’ approach. Astana’s victory in the team time trial was still something of a surprise though. Radioshack and Omega Pharma were being marshalled by Fabian Cancellara and Tony Martin respectively. If the rumours are to be believed Cancellara is targeting both the road and TT world’s and he has been showing more of an interest in TT’s since returning to racing after the spring classics. With Astana winning the question was who would be donning the red leaders jersey. Anyone but Nibali was the answer, although a rider of his skill wouldn’t be seen obviously hitting the brakes to avoid crossing the line first.

English: Nicolas Roche (IRE) at stage 17 of th...
Vuelta stage winner and wk 1 leader Nico Roche in AG2R days(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The first week has thrown up some stage wins that the neutral fan can enjoy. Leopold Konig leading wild card invitee’s Net App Endura almost snatched victory on stage two only to be overhauled in the closing metres by Katusha’s Dani Moreno. Moreno in turn was caught at the moment the final climb leveled out by Saxo Bank rider Nicolas Roche. Moving to Saxo from AG2R caused many people to question the motivation in this son of a grand tour winner. Roche has seemed happy riding in support of Alberto Contador at this years Tour and he appears to have come out of that race in better shape than Saxo’s nominal team leader for the Vuelta Roman Kreuziger. While Kreuziger hasn’t really started this week Roche has collected jersey’s as well as stage wins wearing the combined and KOM jerseys before taking the ultimate prize of the leaders red jersey ahead of today’s stage from Nibali.

Nibali wished the leader was anyone but him earlier in the week. Chris Horner who took over the GC after winning stage 3 was upset to find himself handing the jersey back to Nibali after stage 4. Nibali’s response was that the Radioshack rider was “..welcome to it”. Horner’s win proved that he wasn’t the only ‘old man’ in Radioshack colours that could win a stage.* The sprint stages over the next three days were quiet for the GC but anything but for the viewers. Actually, that’s not entirely true; the stage 7 finish was good, stage 6 will live long in the memory. The curse of the rainbow jersey seems well settled on Philippe Gilbert’s shoulders and with this years championship imminent he remains without a win. He probably would have had one after staging a late break in the last few kilometres on Friday but for Zdenek Stybar his co-escapee. Stybar opportunistically set off in pursuit of Gilbert and after doing a few turns to ensure their break ‘stuck’ left the hard work to the world champion. As things stood the gap on the line was a tyre’s width and you were left with the sense that if Stybar had taken his turn Gilbert might have won. He was gracious in defeat, philosophical even and that elevates him in VCSE’s opinion.

As exciting as Gilbert’s near miss was Tony Martin’s result the day before is probably the greatest 7th place pro cycling will ever see. Martin had set out to achieve a solo break on stage 6 as a very public training ride for the world TT championship. As the end of the stage approached his lead had fallen to a matter of seconds as the sprinters teams lined up to lead out their fast men. Then the lead was going back up; Martin riding between 65-70 KPH was average 5-10 KPH faster than the peloton. It was out of the seat stuff as Martin summoned his last reserves of energy to go for the line. It’s a bit of a cliche to say that riders should never look back and it’s more likely that Martin was already so far into the red that he didn’t have anything left to counter the onrushing sprinters. Of course, they were never going to pull up before the line and let Martin have the glory of what would have been one of the most incredible stage wins ever seen. Respect came later, for the riders like actual stage winner Michael Morkov there was their moment in the sun to enjoy first. Martin later revealed he received more messages of support, condolence.. whatever following this result than any of his world championships. Check it out for yourself at the bottom of this post.

Konig, remember him? The Net App team leader had his revenge on Saturday. With a near 1000 metre ascent to the finish even Nibali struggled on the final climb of the stage. Net App had ‘done a Sky’ on the front of the bunch all day but it was a question of timing for Konig after his stage 2 attempt had been squashed by Moreno. The Katusha rider had a dig here too, but Konig had the legs to take a major win for his division two outfit to go with his last stage victory at this years Tour of California. Nibali’s difficulties handed the race lead to Roche and capped a week that even he would not have dared to dream about at the start of the race. With Kreuziger picked as leader following his strong showing at the Tour it’s clear it wasn’t part of Saxo’s plan either.

Moreno keeps popping up though. Today’s stage with a uphill finish through town of the kind that Joaquim Rodriguez specialises in. With a gradient of 27% in places it was Moreno who powered ahead of his Katusha team leader and into the race lead as the race enters it’s second week. Added to his stage win earlier in the week Saxo might not be the only team switching priorities.

 

 

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

The Pyrenean stages 

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

Nairo Quintana
Nairo Quintana (Photo credit: nuestrociclismo.com)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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