How I fell out of love with cycling (OK.. only a bit)

It’s the start of a new season; time to rekindle the romance? 

I’m writing my first post of 2017 (and my first since last year’s Tour) on the first day of the Dubai Tour. Dubai marks the return of live television coverage and despite its relatively short history it’s the probably the strongest after the demise of Qatar and the indifference that is shown towards the (more varied) Tour of Oman. Dubai benefits from slick presentation by organisers RCS with coverage that lasts long enough for the commentators to sift through the off-season stories before the inevitable sprint finish.

The fact that Dubai has survived is likely to have been helped by each stage being shown live on Eurosport. Qatar and Oman had both been around longer but the former wasn’t shown outside of ‘local’ host channels and Oman’s highlights only package has steadily eroded to the point that it’s buried one or even two days later around midnight. As an armchair fan (who rides a bit too) having Eurosport is pretty much essential if you want to watch road racing on television. With the possible exception of the GP Samyn I can’t think of many races that don’t benefit from getting shown in high definition (OK maybe I don’t need to see the delights of the petrol station at the finish of Liege Bastogne Liege either). ITV continue the C4 legacy with much the same team and cover the Tour live (and in recent years the Dauphine) but other than the Tour of Britain and a highlights package of the Vuelta that’s it. Eurosport gives you the spring classics, the Giro, Tour, Vuelta and pretty much everything in between.

The reason I’m banging on about this is that it slipped out via my social media feed last week that Sky (that’s Sky as in Team Sky, home of 3 x Tour winner Chris Froome fame) are threatening to drop Eurosport from their channels as of 1st Feb*. So potentially I’m looking at my 200+ days of live cycling becoming.. er.. well 1 day actually. Now it’s possible that everything has been resolved today and I’ll tune in tomorrow and find stage 2 of the Dubai Tour there in all of its glory. In all of the hoo hah about Donald Trump, Brexit and transfer deadline day a resolution that will see Sky continuing to show live cycling might have got lost in the ether. I have often wondered if Sky would see the success of their eponymous cycling team as a vehicle for taking over coverage of at least some of the marquee races. It seems a bit odd that they seem prepared to lose all of the free marketing that having Eurosport on their platform provides. Of course Sky have announced that their sponsorship of.. er Team Sky will not continue in perpetuity and their role as principal sponsor of British Cycling ended last year. Maybe, despite the success the team have achieved, Sky are falling out of love with cycling?

Pure speculation of course (isn’t that the preserve of the armchair fan?), but wouldn’t Sky be forgiven for feeling a little bit disenchanted with cycling after last year? Almost a seven year itch perhaps. There was quite a lot of things not to love about the sport last year and pretty much all of it originated from Sky and British Cycling. I’ve lost count of the times I thought ‘Wow, what a story. I ought to post something about that’ only for the next bit of news to emerge and the original story seems minor in comparison.

2016 Annus Horribilus 

The wheels started to come off just before the start of the Rio Olympics. Lizzie Armitstead had swept all before her in 2015, culminating in a rainbow jersey by winning the Worlds in Richmond. Her form had continued into 2016 and she was widely tipped as potential Gold Medal winner in the Olympic road race. Just before the team were due to depart for Brazil it emerged that Armitstead had missed three whereabouts tests. Ordinarily this would have resulted in an automatic suspension from competition, leaving aside the inevitable questions about why any athlete would miss three tests. However British Cycling accepted Armitstead’s justification for missing three tests in less than 12 months and she would be allowed to compete in Rio.

Naturally this provoked a pretty negative reaction from press, public and many of her fellow professionals. Women’s cycling has been painted as somehow immune from the potential use of PEDs, principally because it is even less secure than the men’s tour financially. What would be the point of doping it was suggested when so many teams struggle just to make the start line. No doubt aware of the need to protect the sports reputation against comparisons with the worst excesses of the men some of Armitstead’s rivals, notably her predecessor as world champion Pauline Ferrand Perrot, were incredulous that she had even missed one test. The UK media wasted no time in seeking the views of the senior British male Olympic cyclist Sir Bradley Wiggins. He couldn’t understand how Armitstead had made such a foolish error either. No guilt was implied but Wiggins stressed how important it was to be ‘squeaky clean’ in all matters doping related. He might have cause to regret this himself later.

Continue reading How I fell out of love with cycling (OK.. only a bit)

Who needs sunshine anyway? Enter the cobbled classics

The opening weekend of the spring classics is less than 24 hours away so it’s time to inflict my take on the opening few weeks of the 2016 season on you. Omloop Het Nieuwsblad takes place tomorrow (the race that almost makes me want to find some dodge Sporza feed* on the ‘dark web’) followed my the arguably less interesting but certainly more accessible Kuurne Brussel Kuurne on Sunday. OHN seems (I say ‘seems’ as the proof is surely in actually being able to watch the race) to have the monopoly on drama and excitement whereas KBK has played out like an race staged as a benefit for Etixx (the erstwhile Omega Pharma Quick Step). OHN on the other hand has had two head to head finishes (in 2013 and 2014) and last year’s race where Etixx had a three to one advantage over Sky’s Ian Stannard and still couldn’t win. I haven’t studied the odds for a Stannard three-peat (he won in 2014 too) and I am so semi-detached at the moment that I can’t say for certain he’s even riding (he must be surely?) but if he does line up tomorrow Stannard is going to be marked like a Boonen or Cancellara. Forget winning the Ronde or Roubaix three wins on the bounce would be amazing under the circumstances. This could all play into Sky’s hands of course; Stannard is one of the least selfish riders in the peloton and I could imagine him playing with the race to allow a teammate a clear run.

Poels the new Porte?

I had been wondering about this question after Wout Poels took the GC at the revived Volta a Valenciana at the beginning of the month. I had been taken a little by surprise as the early season pro-cycling fix is normally only provided by an post breakfast date with the Tour of Dubai on Eurosport. But there it was on the schedule and (confession time) I was less interested in who was racing but where they were. You see the Comunitat of Valencia is where Mrs VCSE and I have our main training ‘holiday’ and sure enough wasn’t one of the stages passing through with a few k’s of where we stay.

Richie Porte - new team, same story?
Richie Porte – new team, same story?

Anyway, my thoughts turned to Wout after he took the race lead early on with the first stage TT. Now Richie Porte was still around at Sky a year ago when Poels came on board but now Porte has switched to BMC there’s a potential vacancy as Sky’s forlorn hope for GC on the grand tours that Froomey doesn’t fancy. OK, so new signing Mikel Landa is supposed to be the shoe in to lead Sky at the Giro but might Poels turn out to be the more willing disciple of the Brailsford way? Poels wasn’t quite up to the job last week at the Ruta del Sol against a tougher field so he may yet remain cast as loyal water carrier for Froome but that Porte shaped hole remains and it’s not obvious to me yet that Landa is better equipped to fill it.

Talking of Richie, his season is starting the way last years finished. There was a stage win in the Tour Down Under but that race is hardly an indicator of form for the year ahead. I might be doing him a huge disservice but for all that he is talking a good game I’m less convinced of Porte as a grand tour winner than I was a year ago. His teammate Tejay van Garderen might have been feeling a sense of deja vu also after losing the GC on the final day at the Ruta del Sol to Alejandro Valverde. BMC have the look of one of those expensively assembled football teams; full of talented individuals but not that good as a whole.

Porte missed out in Oman to Vincenzo Nibali. The insight those of us attending the Cycling Podcast special at Foyles last week got was that Nibali had (something of a novelty apparently) trained ahead of Oman and as a result he’s in good form. If the rumours are true (and based on my evening at Foyles they may well be) Nibali will leave Astana at the end of this season so some early season victories may help adding the zeros to a new contract at a new team.

Boasson Hagen redux

One transfer that has paid off handsomely is Eddy Bos’s move from Sky to (the now) Dimension Data (ex MTN).Two stage wins in Oman and a top 10 GC finish goes nicely with last years win at the Tour of Britain. EBH was never my favourite rider at Sky as he just seemed to lack the final few percent but maybe he is another rider who didn’t quite fit the Sky mould. It must have been a helluva contract to for him to want to stick it out though when you look at the transformation a new team has made to him.

Kristoff - too kwick for Kav?
Kristoff – too kwick for Kav?

His new teammate Mark Cavendish shared a brace of wins with him in Qatar and the GC thanks to time bonuses. Where it counts however (for us armchair fans) is head to head with his (Cavendish) sprint rivals. We don’t have sight of whatever strategy Cavendish has for 2016; is it all about a gold medal in Rio? Against Kittel and Kristoff the statistic is currently one win only and the other two look like they are flying.

So what do the early season outings tell us about how the rest of the year is going to shape up? Answer so far seems to be not (that) much. Chris Froome and Nairo Quintana have had pretty low key starts so we’ll have to wait until Paris Nice and Tirreno Adriatico (most likely the latter) to get a feel for what the grand tours might look like. It’s too early for the classics form to be settled either, with the notable exception that defending Ronde champion Kristoff looks strong already. The sprinter’s battle looks like it will be properly epic though with Kittel looking back to his best, the aforementioned Kristoff and a strong supporting cast with the likes of Ewan and Viviani to name but two. Cavendish might find the two K’s too much on the road this year but Viviani could end up putting a dent in his track hopes too.

* See the screenshot at the top of this page

How do you televise cycling during a sandstorm? – VCSE’s Racing Digest #38

2015 Desert races – Dubai & Oman

Mark Cavendish doesn’t have a lot of time for armchair cycling commentators and even assuming that the Etixx Quick Step sprinter had stumbled upon this I don’t think it was just me that Cav was trying to prove a point to in Dubai at the start of this month. Cavendish took two stage wins and the overall GC in what was always likely to be another sprint fest on the Arabian Peninsula. Of course the win here won’t (read hasn’t) silenced the speculation over whether or not he can reclaim the throne from Marcel Kittel or, perhaps more importantly, earn another lucrative contract with his team. Even Patrick Lefevere is suggesting that Cavendish needs results if he wants to be re-signed by the erstwhile OPQS squad. Of course Kittel was absent from Dubai this year, so all bets are currently off over who has come into the season in better form, the key showdown likely to come at the Tour. However Lefevere indicated that Cavendish needed to perform in the early season races like this weekend’s Kuurne Brussel Kuurne and the first monument of 2015; Milan San Remo. The Belgian squad can’t change its spots as far as wins in the classics being the priority despite the investment in GC riders like Uran and emergence of Kwiatowski (admittedly no slouch in the one day races either). The impression I get is that a repeat of Cavendish’s 2009 MSR victory will be enough to ensure his continued employment with the potential size of his contract dictated by continuing that form into the summer.

A winner in 2015 - Mark Cavendish
A winner in 2015 – Mark Cavendish

One of the riders that Cavendish will need to beat in MSR is Kittel’s teammate John Degenkolb. The Giant sprinter was the main threat to Cavendish on GC in Dubai and while the Manxman impressed with his 17th place on the one stage that offered an opportunity for the climbers, Degenkolb showed his versatility by scaling the steep sides of the Hatta Dam faster than Alejandro Valverde to take victory and briefly hold the overall lead. Giant have an abundance of sprinters, but it’s to their advantage that each of them bring something different to the party. Degenkolb can do the out and out bunch sprinter thing, even if he isn’t quite at the level of Kittel or Cavendish for outright speed. He’s emerging as a rider who is potentially more valuable in terms of world tour points however as he will be in the mix on (more than just) a pan flat sprinters stage and he can figure in one day races too. Even last year with his podium in Paris Roubaix and remaining at the sharp end on the Ronde until the last few km’s showed that Degenkolb could prove to be the more intriguing Giant sprinter to watch in 2015.

The other take out for me in Dubai was Elia Viviani taking stage 2 and his first win in Sky colours. I think Viviani will be a great signing for Sky as they haven’t had a pure speed guy since Cavendish left. Of course it’s possible that Viviani will end up feeling just as frustrated as Cavendish if he’s selected for the Tour as Sky will be entirely focused on getting Chris Froome back into the yellow jersey, but if instead the Italian is picked for the Giro I expect he will claim wins. Sky also had Ben Swift in Dubai, but he’s morphed into a Degenkolb style rider and will be hoping to improve upon his third place at last years MSR. Most of the column inches will be given over to Bradley Wiggins tilt at Paris Roubaix this season and as much I would like to see Wiggins feature there I’m hoping that Swift is able to build on his return to form last year and get a big win in 2015.

It was a shame that we didn’t get to see any of the action from the Tour of Oman this year. Since I started the blog I have enjoyed getting an early look at the grand tour contenders in what is the only one of the desert races that isn’t all flat stick racing. It’s often a good guide to form for the summer too, although Froome’s repeat win in 2014 ultimately didn’t guarantee a repeat in the Tour. Whether or not it was to do with the TV coverage this year (or lack of) the big names were absent from this years edition with Valverde and Tejay Van Garderen the pre-race favourites. Vincenzo Nibali was in Oman (and Dubai) but his presence has been decidedly low key and at this point his form is as much of a closed book as it was ahead of last years Tour.

The eventual winner was Lampre’s Rafael Valls (no, me neither). Valls won the key stage with the summit finish on the Green Mountain from Van Garderen and this was enough to ensure the overall. From the VCSE sofa Valls looks like one of those riders who could be (infamously) described as ‘coming from nowhere’. He’s been with Lampre since Vacansoleil folded at the end of 2013 and this win is by far his biggest to date. Lampre, who didn’t exactly see much of a return on investment from Chris Horner last season and have finally parted company with perennial under achiever Damiano Cunego no doubt will wish Valls’ victory heralds the dawn of something big. If he does build on the result this could mean big things for Spanish cycling too as Alberto Contador is discussing retirement and Valverde isn’t getting any younger.

It’s hard to say why there wasn’t at least a daily highlights package from Oman this year. Of the three desert races Dubai, the upstart, has by far and way the best coverage in so much as you can watch it live. The Tour of Oman is an ASO supported race and no less than Eddy Merckx is on hand to glad hand the press and yet it has been possible only to follow ‘live’ on social media in 2015. Oman doesn’t have the riches of Dubai (or Qatar) but surely it’s the quality of the racing that should take precedent as far as coverage is concerned? Oman’s demotion in the TV stakes is a bit of an uncomfortable example of what happens in a sport where there is (comparatively) little money around. If the future of the early season racing (at least as far as TV is concerned) is that armchair fans can only see the ‘action’ in Dubai because that’s where the money flows it will be a change for the worse.

Continue reading How do you televise cycling during a sandstorm? – VCSE’s Racing Digest #38

Vuelta a Espana 2014 Preview

The riders to watch

Brilliant timing from your correspondent means that this Vuelta preview is nothing if not topical. Today it was announced by his Lampre Merida team that 2013 Vuelta champion Chris Horner would not be starting this years edition. Withdrawn due to rules surrounding his cortisol values (he has been suffering from bronchitis), Horner’s non-start caps what has been a pretty awful year for the rider following a serious accident while on a training ride earlier this year. Of course this begs the question; could Horner have defended his title in 2014. The answer is probably no, but it’s terrible news for rider and team as neither have made much of mark this season.

Vuelta a Espana 2013 – who’s going to win this year?

A huge factor effecting a possible Horner title defence in this years race stems from the appearance of a number of riders who under different circumstances would not even have considered riding in Spain. First we have the ‘re-match’ between two protagonists who were meant to duke it out in this years Tour de France. Chris Froome and Alberto Contador both crashed out of the Tour (Froome on the ‘Roubaix’ stage, Contador in the Vosges) fairly early on and while it was clear early on that Froome would attempt to salvage his season at the Vuelta, Contador has had to battle back to fitness from his own accident that occurred later in the same race. It will be interesting to see how Froome goes at the Vuelta. He has good form at the race, finishing second in 2011 where many people thought he could have won if given his head earlier in the race where he had to ride for Bradley Wiggins (the source of some of the enmity between the two riders). After riding for Wiggins at the Tour in 2012, Froome was given outright team leadership duties for the first time in that year’s Vuelta, but struggled with fatigue and against a resurgent Contador who was returning from his clenbuturol ban. Can Froome go one better than 2011? It’s certainly possible. Sky need something from the final grand tour of the year after abject performances at the Giro and Tour and Froome hasn’t added much to his palmares in 2014 other than early season wins in Oman and the Tour de Romandie. If 2014 isn’t going to turn into Sky’s ‘worst ever’ season then Froome will have to do nothing short of winning this years Vuelta. Under different circumstances it’s hard to imagine the team placing that much importance on the race (Sergio Henao as team leader in 2013 ring a bell?). Certainly since their maiden Tour victory with Wiggins it’s been clear that Sky’s focus is Tour centered and even if Froome goes well in Spain this year it’s unlikely that his team will put as much into next years race. There’s potentially more pressure on Froome to deliver as a result and his form and fitness will surely be a deciding factor as much as the route and the competition from other riders in the peloton. Nevertheless, VCSE still picks Froome as one of the favourites for the GC in 2014.

For the other rider crashing out of this years Tour Alberto Contador the pressure is lower. The fact that he will manage to make the start line is an achievement in itself and expectations will be lower for the Tinkoff Saxo team leader. Contador’s team had an outstanding Tour considering the loss of their principal rider with stage wins and the emergence of Rafal Majka as a big star (and KOM). This doesn’t mean that Contador will line up just to make up the numbers at the Vuelta, but if he isn’t in contention for the GC, there is a lot less riding on the race for Tinkoff than for Sky. As with Froome, the key thing will be Contador’s fitness; has the rider recovered sufficiently from the knee injury he sustained in July? If he has and can rediscover the form he showed earlier this year Contador will be locked on for at least a podium, if not the outright win.

There’s another factor in this years GC line up that may reduce Froome and Contador to be fighting over the left overs. 2014 Giro d’Italia champion Nairo Quintana will race this years Vuelta and could be the rider best placed to take victory. Last years Giro winner Vincenzo Nibali was unable to do the ‘double’ fading on the penultimate stage and it will be interesting to see how Quintana manages this year (form and fitness again a question mark?). The Colombian has been almost invisible since his maiden grand tour success so it’s not easy to assess his condition for the Vuelta but a Quintana in the same form as the one who rode the Giro ought to be a favourite for victory here, but for one fly in the ointment in the shape of Alejandro Valverde. Valverde never really threatened the lead at the Tour and faded badly in the final week. It’s hard to imagine Movistar denying him a place in their Vuelta team, but of the riders mentioned so far Valverde would have to be the least likely GC winner and it seems perverse to include Quintana and Valverde in the same squad as this inevitably divides finite resources. This leads to speculation around who leads the team. VCSE’s view is that Valverde is the wrong horse to back for the GC, the teams future is Quintana and the older rider can do more damage to Movistar’s GC rivals by attacking on key stages to tire out the likes of Froome and Contador. Whether or not this comes to pass remains to be seen but Quintana (with the caveats already mentioned) would be the VCSE tip for the win this year.

Among the other contenders is another rider looking to salvage their season. Purito Rodriguez like Chris Horner is suffering from an early season crash and hasn’t really got back into shape since the spring. It’s unlikely that his fortunes will change here. He looked out of sorts at the Tour and it’s really too soon afterwards to imagine him having much more than an outside chance of a podium. There’s further Colombian interest in Rigoberto Uran and Carlos Betancur for Omega Pharma Quick Step and AG2R respectively. Uran will top ten for sure, but there’s the normal composite feel to the OPQS squad and the relative lack of support will most likely deny him a podium. Betancur is altogether harder to predict. After his breakthrough win in this years Paris Nice he’s proved to be something of an enigma, missing the Tour and even ‘disappearing’ at one point. Betancur was poor in last years Vuelta after a decent showing at the Giro. It’s difficult to say how he will run this year, but suspicion has to be that he won’t trouble the top five. Belkin bring a strong team to the Vuelta and should be looking for at least a top ten finish from Wilco Kelderman. With Robert Gesink and Laurens Ten Dam in the squad it’s possible that the team prize will head Belkin’s way with all three riders capable of finishing high on the GC. Astana bring another Giro surprise package in the form of Fabio Aru. Aru has plenty of potential, but it would take a special performance to break into the top five here. Trek could be looking to pinch the leaders jersey on the opening stage team time trial with a strong outfit that includes Fabian Cancellara. MTN Qhubeka have finally secured a grand tour wild card and it will be good to see the African outfit at this year’s Vuelta. Recently announcing a tie up with Cervelo for next year it’s more likely that we’ll see their jersey in the break, but Gerald Ciolek could feature if he can get away towards the end of some of the rolling stages.

Outside the GC the sprinters and points battle should be interesting. Peter Sagan, finally confirmed as a Tinkoff Saxo rider next year, will have his swansong with Cannondale. Sagan faces off against 2014 Giro points winner Nacer Bouhanni, another rider switching teams next year (from FDJ to Cofidis). Giant can pick from any number of strong sprinters in their roster and John Degenkolb should be their go to guy for the flat stages. However, Giant have also selected a bit of a composite team with double stage winner from last years race Warren Barguil in the team also. Barguil has a bit more support this year, but now he’s something of a known quantity it will be interesting to see how he goes. The likelihood is that this years target is a high GC placing rather than outright stage wins, which responsibility will probably fall to Degenkolb who went three better than Barguil in 2012.

Continue reading Vuelta a Espana 2014 Preview

What do you do with a rider like Valverde?* – VCSE’s Racing Digest #22

Ruta del Sol 2014

The Ruta del Sol or Tour of Andalucia or Vuelta a Andalucia (depending on your preference) finished last weekend. The only ‘live’ cycling on offer to the armchair fan last week was shown perhaps less because of the race’s sixtieth anniversary than the fact that coverage was available for Eurosport. Most of the ‘smaller’ races shown on the digital channel are commentated on from a studio in London, probably not in homage to the days of Murray Walker and James Hunt sharing a microphone during the BBC’s grand prix coverage in the 70’s and 80’s, but for obvious cost reasons. Eurosport had people on the ground in on the Costa del Sol in the shape of the delightful and multilingual Laura Meseguer and it may not have been entirely unconnected that we enjoyed rather a lot of pre-stage interviews mixed in as the race unfolded.

Not everyone's favourite - Alejandro Valverde
Not everyone’s favourite – Alejandro Valverde

Any confusion over what to call the race arises in VCSE’s view from the fact that the Ruta del Sol is less a tour of Andulicia than one of those coach bound day trips marketed to pensioners in the back of local newspapers. The Ruta lasted four days with an opening prologue followed by three stages. This years Vuelta a Espana kicks off in the south so there was some interest in seeing what passes for a cat 1 climb in southern Spain. Sum up; they seem a bit easier than the ones in Galicia.

In the opening prologue it looked for a long time that Sky super domestique and automaton Vasil Kiryenka would take the win and leaders jersey. Sky had Richie Porte and Bradley Wiggins at the race and whatever their respective roles were likely to be for the rest of the week Wiggins would normally start out favourite against the clock. So it goes, and Wiggins did indeed beat Porte but he finished down on Kiryenka and Geraint Thomas. A top ten finish suggested that Wiggins was trying at least at this point. By the closing km’s of stage one it appeared that some of the demons of 2013 hadn’t been completely exorcised as he was one of the first of Sky’s train to pull out of the line on the final climb. This could (of course) be unfair; the plan for Britain’s first winner of the Tour de France has already been heavily trailed with Wiggins headed for Paris Roubaix and, perhaps, team leadership at the Vuelta. Nevertheless, knowing what we do now about how Wiggins had been reluctant to ride the Giro last year is it possible that Sky are pushing him towards races simply to earn something (anything) from their investment? In fairness to Wiggins he repaid his employers and more in winning the Tour ahead of Dave Brailsford’s five-year target and a small stage race early in the season is the wrong place to make sweeping conclusions. Wiggins remains a more compelling and complex character than the man who has usurped him as leader Chris Froome and the racing scene seems more enjoyable when Wiggins is enjoying his racing as with last years Tour of Britain.

But enough for now of the trials of one fallen hero and on to another. Alejandro Valverde was victorious in the prologue and in the next two stages. A three-time winner of the Ruta del Sol, there was still some surprise that he won the prologue. Valverde is a pretty divisive rider for reasons that can be counted off on each finger should you have enough hands and the inclination to do so. His unrepentant approach to doping historically and to quote a more recent example his apparent surrender during the worlds last year denying countryman Joaquim Rodriguez the win. With the lovely Laura on hand to interview and Rob Hatch providing a fluent translation we were treated to Valverde thanking his team and family if not his doctor at the end of each stage.

Anti doping has caught up, if not exactly caught on in Spain in recent years, although there is a sense that the relative decline of the countries sporting greats (not only in cycling) have paralleled these developments. It doesn’t feel right to be too cynical this early in the season, but it will be interesting to see if Valverde can repeat this kind of form outside Spain as the season progresses. VCSE suspects not.

Marcel Kittel was absent from the race, so Giant Shimano had to look elsewhere for a result. Tom Dumoulin came close in the prologue and in a break on the final stage. While the dutchman received no help from his compatriots on the rival (dutch) Belkin squad, he might have been better selecting one of Giant’s Propel aero frames for his breakaway. Last year Giant were bike sponsors for Belkin, although this team ran under the nom de plume Blanco until the Tour in a very similar team uniform to this years Giant Shimano outfit. Looking at Dumoulin pedalling squares as he attempted to stay clear of the peloton on stage four VCSE wondered if it was possible that Giant had saved themselves some money by recycling some of the old Blanco bikes into the Giant Shimano service course this year.

Tour of Oman 2014

It’s felt a bit like a television column as much as road racing comment so far this year. Not that this years racing has been short rationed. So far, VCSE has enjoyed the Dubai Tour as well as the Ruta del Sol live on Eurosport where last year it was highlights only from races like the Tour of Oman.

In many ways Oman is the poor relation to the other races held in the Arabian peninsula during February, although it often serves up the most interesting stages. Last year saw Chris Froome taking, what seemed inexplicable at the time, his first ever stage race victory. His performance was made more emphatic by the riders he saw off on the climb to the top of the Green Mountain; Joaquim Rodriguez and Alberto Contador. Froome was back this year to defend his title, although the field was a little less than stellar to challenge him. The viewing was a bit underdone too. Unable to get the funding to deliver live racing a half hour highlights package was served up the day after each stage accompanied by the sort of martial music that would top the charts in North Korea.

It’s disappointing that a race that offers far more than its counterparts in Dubai and Qatar cannot pull in the revenue to justify a live feed. No doubt it’s out there somewhere (Al Jazeera Sport anyone?) but this years version felt, like the Ruta del Sol above, something less than it promised.

Rain stops play

Tom Boonen
Tom Boonen

Rain might not, but snow certainly will. Last year VCSE returned from a weeks riding on the Isle of Wight ready to enjoy the first of the Belgian spring races, Kuurne Brussels Kuurne. You know how it is, avoid social media for the day and then hit the Sky Plus box with an appropriate beverage to enjoy the action. At the time the self induced social media blackout meant that the cancellation of the race due to the weather had passed us by. All that was left to do was to blame the Sky box.

Twelve months on and it’s 99.99% certain that the race will go ahead, the day after Het Nieuwsblad (which managed to run last year). The spotlight will be on Tom Boonen in his comeback year from injury in 2013 and he will turn out in both races this weekend. Last years winner Luca Paolini goes for Katusha although it’s hard to see last years cat and mouse style finish being repeated. BMC have Thor Hushovd and Greg van Avermaet and could provide tough opposition for Boonen. Also lining up in his first race since leaving Boonen’s Omega Pharma team is IAM cycling’s Sylvain Chavanel. Chavanel has a point to prove this year and another rider to look out for is Garmin’s Nick Nuyens.

Many of the same riders will turn out on Sunday with riders like Belkin’s Sep Vanmarcke elevated to team leader status. With last years hiatus the previous winner of the semi-classic was (at the time) a Sky rider, but Mark Cavendish is absent this year. Sky will be led by Edvald Boasson Hagen this year, but the Norwegian will be an outside bet if this race comes down to a sprint. The rider who showed last year that he could adapt to the shorter climbs of the cobbled classics was Andre Griepel and if it it’s in a bunch at the close on Sunday he is the VCSE favourite.

* with apologies to ‘The Sound of Music’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Picture credit – Flickr Commons

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Should be an interesting watch..

The shape of things to come?


TDF Top 3? – Froome leads Contador and Rodriguez 

Picture from Cycling Weekly

The 27 second margin that Chris Froome maintained over Alberto Contatdor to win the Tour of Oman seems somewhat insignificant in isolation. Froome’s performances as the race entered the final 3 days showed some real swagger in contrast to his typically understated post race interviews.

Peter Sagan had dominated the first half of the race claiming the leaders jersey after a stage 2 win and stage 3 was deja vu with some commentators wondering if Sagan could hold on as the peleton headed into the mountains on day 4.

The climb to the Green Mountain with its summit finish on Thursday felt like the first time this season when grand tour riders featured with Froome, Contador, Joaquim Rodriguez and Vincenzo Nibali in contention as the stage neared the finish.

At times it looked like Froome had blown. Froome’s preferred seated climbing style can often make it appear that he is struggling in comparison to the way Contador dances on the pedals. It was a true game of cat and mouse towards the end with the big guns zig zagging towards the summit almost at right angles to the climb.

It was significant that Froome had the legs to ride away from Contador at the end of the stage to finish 2nd to Rodriguez and claim the red leaders jersey from Sagan. Sagan looked more laboured on the ascent than expected and abandoned overnight.

Stage 5 was equally dramatic with Froome, Contador and Rodriguez fighting it out over the climbs followed by a chasing group led by Cadel Evans. As an appetiser for the season ahead the body language of Froome and Contador in particular was striking with a definite suggestion of some ‘afters’. As Carlton Kirby said on the Eurosport feed; it was a shame the effects mike couldn’t pick up what was said.

Froome went for the line 2k out. Too soon! Contador and Rodriguez caught him with 1k to go and it was as you were. At the line it was Froome by inches, centimetres even.

Saxo Bank have been gracious in defeat praising Froome’s victory. Sky looked like the better team over the race. It could be significant that Michael Rogers wasn’t racing for Saxo as Contador seemed to lack support over the entire length of a stage. Richie Porte was tireless supporting Froome up the climbs on stages 4 and 5.

It probably is too early to see the result as an indicator for how the Tour de France will go in July but it does look like there’s some real friction between Froome and Contador which should make for a more interesting race than last year.

Contador’s victory in the Vuelta owed as much to Froome’s fatigue and psychologically winning his first stage race is the perfect start to 2013.

As for Sagan he’s clearly a strong rider over classics style stages and possibly a contender for this seasons stage races. I predict some interesting head to heads with Mark Cavendish for the points jersey at the Tour this year.

A final observation on Oman. The landscape. It was just like seeing the roads on something like Gran Turismo. Years ago when processors were about a quarter as powerful as the one that currently sits in your phone driving games on a PC or console were typical in sharing roads that cut through between cliffs, city blocks and / or lines of trees. They could never render detail quick enough for anything else.

The strands of perfect blacktop that climb through and around the mountains in Oman had me back in front of my Playstation trying to beat my record for Ridge Racer. Anyone else remember that?