So this is my first post for getting on for a month. In previous years I would have written about the Ardennes classics, the Tour of Turkey and would be previewing the Giro about now. There’s even been an extra race added to the calendar with significant interest for British fans with last weekends Tour de Yorkshire. Trouble is I have found it really difficult to find anything good to say about the last month since Roubaix and I am going to try and explain why in this post.
I find it a little hard to get too jazzed about the Ardennes races with the possible exception of Liege Bastogne Liege as they tend to be decided in the final few kilometres and even I can pass on the preceding 90 minutes of live coverage where nothing much will happen. Both Amstel Gold and Fleche Wallone will have their outcome determined by what happens on their signature climbs; the Cauberg and Mur de Huy respectively. OK the few minutes the riders feint, attack, fade or go clear on the ascents is often exciting but the results this year have been sadly predictable.
With the exception of Michael Kwiatowski timing his move to perfection on the finishing straight at Amstel the Ardennes races in 2015 have been about one rider alone; Alejandro Valverde. Valverde was second in Amstel and went one better at both La Fleche midweek and LBL the following Sunday. I have written about Valverde many times and in particular about his public lack of contrition about his ban following Operation Puerto. Interviewed in Pro Cycling this month he remains unwilling to tackle the subject of doping (past and present) and maintains a position that he was banned despite “..his arguments” that the presence of a bag of his blood didn’t indicate wrong doing. Of course it’s a bit of a leap to suggest that because Valverde was banned in 2010 he’s doping now, but it does stick in the throat that the rider who has figured so prominently in this years hilly classics is the poster boy for unrepentant dopers.
Only one other rider featured in the top ten finishers for all three Ardennes races; Etixx Quick Step’s Julian Alaphilppe who was runner up in La Fleche and LBL and 7th in Amstel. Obviously Valverde is a grand tour rider who is capable of hanging with the best of them through the Alps and Dolomites on a three week stage race but to deliver a second place and two wins says he was in the form of his life.. Or something.
So Valverde winning didn’t put me in the greatest of moods to crank out a thousand words extolling the virtues of the Ardennes classics. At least my bad luck was just confined to having to watch him take his victories. Previous LBL winners Dan Martin and Simon Gerrans didn’t even figure after a crash that took out several key contenders early on during the live feed. Neither rider is having a great season so far with early season injuries and illness getting compounded by these latest mishaps. Kwiatowski’s win in Amstel cements his versatility as a rider although I think he will need to decide if he’s going to be a GC rider or a one day specialist fairly soon as I think he will need to shed some timber if he’s going to become a genuine contender in the grand tours.
Interesting that Amstel Gold was moved to the Sunday this year. Pressure from the sponsors maybe? It can’t help any race in search of an audience to be shunted into a weekday spot and weekends have to be the way to go. And before we go any further; confession time. Your correspondent didn’t manage to see the race live. Providing a decent summary of what happened was further compounded by a very short highlights slot later in the day on Eurosport that was basically the last 15km. Hardly a problem with Amstel Gold and while we’re on this subject Fleche Wallone as the races are pretty much decided on their final ascents of their signature climbs.
The organisers have tried to make Amstel a bit more interesting by shifting the finish line a little further up the road from the crest (you can hardly call it a summit) of the Cauberg, but with no breaks allowed to remain from earlier in the race and no one able to get off the front towards the end the race was effectlively decided in the final couple of kilometres. The was still a pretty decent sized peloton that sped down into Valkenberg and onto the Cauberg for the final time. The Cauberg is pretty much owned by Phillipe Gilbert with his previous Amstel wins and 2012 world championship and although he (still) doesn’t hold the record for most Amstel victories there isn’t a single Ardennes preview that won’t give him a mention as a potential winner.
Chief rival this year was the rider everyone loves to hate Alejandro Valverde who had stated his aim to challenge for all three races. Let’s consider this for a moment; three hard one day races in the space of seven days and Valverde is unrepentant (as he is in so many ways) that he’s going to go for the win in all three! Almost a week after the races took place and the facts are that the Movistar rider was as good as his word and he was a feature at all three. Whether or not this was the result of fantastic preparation or fantastic “preparation” remains a bit of a mystery but the facts are (for now) that for the 2014 Ardennes Classics Alejandro Valverde came away with a first, a second and a fourth.
He was beaten in Amstel by Gilbert who knows better than anyone else ‘when to go’ on the Cauberg. The feint from new for 2014 BMC teammate Sammy Sanchez may have taken the sting out of an attack by any of his rivals, but in shades of his world champs win Gilbert attacked, went clear and looked comfortable by the end of the race.
Missing at the mid week Fleche Wallone but on the podium at Amstel was Orica’s Simon Gerrans, perhaps unnoticed at the time but a portent of the Aussie national champs ability to be in the right place at the right time in a one day race. Another rider showing form ahead of the weeks headline race and one day ‘monument’ was 2013 Liege Bastogne Liege winner Dan Martin. Martin looked like he might have snatched the win in Fleche Wallone after steeing a path through his rivals up the Mur du Huy for the last time. Omega Pharma Quick Step’s Michael Kwiatowski who joined Martin on the podium looked a reasonable bet as the riders weaved up the Mur’s 19% ramp but the disappointment was all over the Poles face as Valverde skipped by talking on his mobile and eating an ice cream (OK I lied about that bit, but you get what I mean). Valverde demonstrated he’s a man without irony when he couldn’t understand why a section of the crowd booed as he took the victory garlands.
And so to LBL. Martin who famously won the race the year before chased by an inebriated steel worked in a Panda costume (spawning a bizarre marketing tie in for Garmin) looked as if he was catching the late breaking juniors race otherwise known as Domenico Pozzovivo and Giampolo Caruso. As he turned the final corner though Martin was down. OK, there wasn’t a Panda nearby, but even that sounds more plausible than the suggestion that Martin lost his wheel due to someone leaving a pen in the road. This left fans in Birmingham and Ireland cheering for ABV (anyone but Valverde). The juniors were spent, but Gerrans popped up to save the crowd (who were probably at least as lubricated as the Amstel lot) having to boo and hiss at Valverde.
An interesting aside (can’t remember who tweeted it) was that Gerrans didn’t win a thing in two years with Sky. This is possibly mischief making at the expense of both Orica and Sky, but VCSE would interpret the comment as a dig at Sky’s inabilty to make data mining work as strategy and tactics for a one day race. Sky fielded a reduced team at Fleche Wallone and didn’t have a single rider in the top 40 at LBL. Ian Stannard’s win in Het Nieuwsblad now confirmed as another false dawn for the team as far as the classics go (not withstanding strong rides from Geraint Thomas and Bradley Wiggins in Flanders and Roubaix). Orica haven’t had the best of time in the classics this year, but of the two teams you suspect they will feel happier with their return of three monuments for Sky’s bust over the same period.
Tour of Turkey
A race that was really enjoyable last year and then marred by the revelations that GC winner Mustafa Sayer had doped his way to victory. The Torku squad had been dogged by doping issues the previous year as well and were apparently only invited to this years race by agreeing to have all of their riders tested every day (something like that anyway).
So the race is a couple of stages that feature summit finishes bookended by sprint stages. Mark Cavendish had turned up with pretty much an A team of lead out men including Petacchi, Renshaw and Steegmans. Andre Greipel was back again, albeit to act as some kind of sprinting Yoda to his Lotto teammates while he still recovers from his seperated shoulder injury. With Marcel Kittel missing as he preferred to ride in the rain in Yorkshire it looked like the sprint stages would be a Cavendish benefit.
It looked as if Cav had messed things up on stage one, but he popped up at the end to take the win, before winning straightforwardly on stage two. A further win after the queen stage to Elmali came Cav’s way before things came unstuck and he was beaten not once, but twice by Cannondale’s Elia Viviani. No disrespect to Viviani, but even he looked surprised to have beaten Cavendish who tweeted after his second loss that he had even managed to lose his Garmin. With the final stage, another sprint finish, still to come there’s the enticing possibilty of Viviani levelling the win tally at 3-3 assuming Cavendish doesn’t decide to reassert his authority. It’s not the easiest of finishes in Istanbul so Cav will need his train to keep him out of trouble if he’s to secure victory.
Perhaps of greater interest is Kittel going to Yorkshire. It’s a pretty pointed reference to Cavendish that he can’t expect any favours from Kittel if he’s going to take a yellow jersey this (or any other) year. Kittel is setting out his priorities really clearly and there’s obviously a determination to unseat Cavendish from his ‘king of the sprinters’ throne. Cavendish is by no means busted as far as winning races is concerned but its beginning to look like a new generation is taking over where the really big races are concerned. Maybe the losses this week are down to looking over his shoulder at what the man who wants his crown is doing.
The other big story out of Turkey is Adam Yates. Capping a successful start to the week with Gerrans Orica have Yates in the leaders jersey in Turkey after a second in stage 3 and a win on Fridays stage to the summit finish at Selcuk. With only a sprint stage left Yates should be safe for the overall and this would represent a massive win for the British rider in his rookie year. He reminds VCSE of a Richie Porte or Joaquim Rodriguez is style and stature and he could prove to be a massive signing for Orica as far as GC ambitions go. After the teams strong showing at last years Tour it’s possible that we could see Yates targeting at least one of the stages for a win this year.
Tour de Romandie
Obviously we can’t watch this one so look for insight elsewhere! Chris Froome is a second down on Katusha’s Simon Spilak. It’s entirely possible that Froome will overhaul Spilak on tomorrrows final stage, but then again he might not. Sky’s preparation for domination at this years Tour is looking somewhat wonky so far and without an out and out leader for the Giro and the disdain with which they normally treat the Vuelta this could be a year where they actually don’t have to field US Postal style doping questions. OK, we’re ignoring Tiernan-Locke and Henao here, but you know what I mean!
The VCSE view is that anything that means we have a more animated Tour in 2014 is a good thing, whether that’s teams working out how to counter the Sky high tempo approach or stages over the Paris Roubaix route.
In what is hopefully not the shape of things to come for race coverage the weeks world tour race, the Tour de Romandie was shown in an ‘exclusively live’ stylee by Sky. As we don’t move in those kinda circles at VCSE Towers, more of that later as we talk about the racing we could watch; the cat 2.1 Tour of Turkey.
This was an interesting race for all kinds of reasons. The field was predominantly pro continental with a sprinkling of world tour teams plus the Turkish continental Torku squad. For the world tour it was a sprinters outing with Marcel Kittel and Andre Greipel the stand out names in a quality field with six sprint stages out of eight. Geographically it was probably a reasonably safe bet that the race would be held in good weather and other than contending with cross and / or head winds on some days the peloton enjoyed its first race of 2013 that hasn’t involved arm warmers, rain jerseys and overshoes.
The race has been held for nearly 50 years but has only reached 2.1HC status in the last couple of years. As such it’s what is known as a ‘flyaway’ race and the teams leave their buses, trailers and team cars behind with all transportation provided by the organisers. Any regular viewers will know that the default team car of the world tour is the Skoda Superb estate. There are a couple of exceptions with moneybags outfits like BMC and Sky opting for Mercedes and Jaguar but whatever difference these cars have in price they share the common feature of taking up lots of road. Skoda like to make a virtue of this by recreating a series of crashes, scrapes and near misses shot from ‘inside a team car’ for their advertising. No ‘fly on the wall’ was available when the respective DS’s of Argos Shimano and Omega Pharma et al picked up their team cars but there were probably some jaws dropping when they realised that they were going to have to use a Renault Clio. Conspiracy theorists may speculate this is why BMC and Sky didn’t show.
The stages went sprint, sprint, summit, sprint, sprint, summit, sprint, sprint. First blood went to Kittel before stage two served up the kind of finish that ensures the memories of the Tour of Turkey will live on via YouTube long after people have forgotten minor details like who took the overall. With another sprint finish in the offing Blanco were leading with Mark Renshaw looking to deliver Theo Bos for the win. Finishing in Antalya the surrounding hotels and apartment blocks required a helicopter tracking shot for the final few k’s. Dissection of what happened next suggested that Renshaw touched a wheel, but whatever the cause the outcome was possibly the biggest pile up ever. Riders that weren’t involved in the crash (the minority) came to a halt as there was no way past a tangle of bikes and riders that spanned the road. Orica’s Aidis Kruopis celebrated as if he had actually beaten Greipel and Kittel by inches and saying in his post race interview that ‘..I felt I could pull off a result today’ suggested he should starting gambling or astrology as he could be equally gifted at both.
Stage 3 saw the first summit finish of the week and another notable first as Europcar’s NatnaelBerhane became the first African to win an HC category event. Berhane took over the GC from Griepel, with his classy win showing great tactical awareness, attacking at the last when his rivals ran out of legs. Berhane showed more flashes of brilliance later in the week when he was able to bridge back to the leading group to safeguard his leaders jersey. He seemed like a pretty safe bet for the overall but there was another twist in the tale on stage 6.
If you’re a Turkish team it’s a pretty safe bet that you will get an invite to your ‘home’ race. Torku had been in the mix all week holding the Mountains jersey and getting riders in the breaks. One of the riders in the group that Berhane emerged from on the climb to Elmali was Torku’s Mustafa Sayar. He drew attention on the climbs thanks to his ability to churn out a gear that looked at least two cogs smaller than anyone else. Susceptible to attack and changes of pace, despite all this Sayar kept grinding the big ring crossing the line 6 seconds down on Berhane. Sayar, distinctive in the peloton if not for his pedalling style than his hairstyle with what can only be described as a mullet was pushing another massive gear on stage 6. The difference here was that as Sayar ground up the climb the remaining GC contenders, Berhane included couldn’t stay with him. Sayar had 18 seconds on the next best rider on the stage and took 43 seconds out of Berhane to take over the lead. There was some talk afterwards and the day after in a ‘come from nowhere’ context as some people questioned the validity of Sayar’s win. Another one for the conspiracy theorists perhaps, but a look at Sayar’s results so far this year suggest he is in the form of his life even if not at this kind of level before.
With no more significant climbing involved Torku defended the GC over the next two days onto the finish. Attention shifted back to the sprinters. Andre Greipel had taken stages 4 and 5 convincingly thanks to his ability to get over the climbs on the hilly stages better than Kittel. With the topography favouring Kittel on the penultimate stage 7 the riders would enter the last day on two stage wins apiece.
Many of the stages followed the same route as previous years and just as stage 2 had served up 2013’s YouTube sensation the finish in Izmir provided the fun in 2012 as you can see in the clip below. This years stage was not without its talking points. The dozen or so riders who took the wrong line as the race entered the final few kilometres, including most of the Orica lead out train, found that they couldn’t rejoin the race after heading up a virtual cul-de-sac.
Stage 8 was raced across two continents as an event held in Istanbul only can be. A minor spill involving one of Greipel’s Lotto team mates on the run in may have hampered his lead out as he was a few bike lengths behind Kittel as the race got within 500M of the flag. Kittel, blocked slightly himself extricated and won easily. The last kilometres of the stage had been run around a 12k circuit which led to the odd backdrop of an avenue of white vans provided by the organisers in lieu of the teams normal buses parked on either side after the finish.
The Tour of Turkey proved to be a worthy alternative for Eurosport this week. Magnus Backstedt co commentated with David Harmon and rode a number of the stages in full or part which provided another level of insight. Big Maggi is often the one who gives the game away about how many races Eurosport cover from the UK as he invariably pops up on social media miles away from the race he is commentating on. The racing this week has definitely benefited from having Eurosport ‘boots on the ground’ as Maggi and David Harmon were able to share conversations had with the riders and support staff first hand and post on bike footage of each stage. Rather like the Tour of the Basque Country earlier the Tour of Turkey served up an unexpected and entertaining week of pro cycling.
Tour de Romandie
Can’t tell you much about this one as VCSE couldn’t watch it. It’s interesting to see that Sky have picked up a couple of the races that ‘their’ team won in 2013 with the Tour de Suisse to be shown later in the year. The fact that both races are held in Switzerland may be of more significance but without the premium digital TV subscription VCSE has been reliant on social media to catch up on the Sky blitzkrieg in the Alps.
With Sky announcing the Giro squad this week the riders supporting Chris Froome at Romandie are more than likely some if not all of the Tour team including Richie Porte, Vasil Kireyenka and David Lopez. Froome is a pretty decent time trialler so the stages book ended by a prologue and time trial looked made for him to retain the title that Bradley Wiggins took in 2012 for Sky.
The opposite weather to Turkey prevailed with the penultimate stage curtailed due to the conditions. It sounds like Sky employed the usual tactics of controlling the pace although this must have been touch and go until the penultimate stage with Froome enjoying only a 6 second advantage over Garmin’s Andrew Talansky. Talansky slipped off the radar at this point finishing well down the GC.
Conclusions from a race we didn’t watch? After winning the race last year its hard to imagine Sky would have lined up with any other plan than to retain the title. The psychological impact of leading and winning a race that involves a yellow jersey seems hard to resist and when there has been one up for grabs in 2013 it has generally been a Sky rider who’s wearing it. Another parallel is that Froome like Wiggins before him is winning most if not all of the races he enters. Other than Tirreno Adriatico where the steeper punchier climbs don’t favour him or Sky’s tactical approach Froome has looked good (we’re assuming he looked good at Romandie, this was certainly the case in Oman and the Criterium International).
Does this mean Froome and Sky will with the Tour? Let’s assume that Bradley Wiggins won’t win the Giro. If this is looking likely before the start of the final week in Italy Sky could hold back one or two of the Giro squad, Henao, Siutsou, Uran or even Wiggins himself with a view to bringing the strongest possible team to the Tour. If Wiggins is still in the mix for the Maglia Rosa at the end of the Giro VCSE thinks it’s possible that Sky might be spread to thin to have a tilt at both grand tours. The Giro squad looks light, although the make up is partly driven by the teams part Italian ownership. So far all of the talk emanating from the Death Star has been that Wiggins is in better shape than at this point last year. Race results suggest otherwise however and Sky said similar things about their classics squad this year. As things stand the VCSE tenner would be going on Froome for the Tour at this stage.