VCSE’s Tour de France 2016 Review

This is my first post since Roubaix way back in the spring. Since then I have changed jobs and i’m back working full time for the first time since I started the blog in 2013. Back then I spent the entire season watching any cycling I could ‘live’. I posted after every stage of the 2013 Giro whereas this year I didn’t do a single post about it. There have been a number of reasons for this; mostly a lack of time. I do think that you miss something following a race after the event. While many stages ‘caught’ live can be a complete bore there’s often a little thing that not everyone notices that underscores how the stage and / or race is won. There have been some changes to the schedule this year, both in terms of the calendar and the TV coverage that haven’t always been for the better. The Tour or Turkey was pretty much highlights only this year and that was a race that I enjoyed watching live. Then there’s the Tour of Poland that someone has decided would gain so much more from being scheduled to take place during the Tour de France!

Watching this years Tour I often found myself thinking that I ought to write about some of the things taking place. Cav’s yellow, GC teams invading the sprints, Froome’s panache, Sky NOT getting trolled for doping to mention just a few. I’ll get around to proof reading this review of the 2016 Tour but in the meantime…

Tour de France 2016

Signing off his review of the 2016 Tour de France and Chris Froome’s historic 3rd victory in the race David Millar said we should “..enjoy” Sky’s continuing dominance of the biggest race in cycling while it lasts. This sentiment seems to be widely held by most of the people on my social media timelines, but for this armchair pundit at least I think endure is more appropriate.

Tour de France 2016 winner – Chris Froome (yeah, I used this pic last year too

Don’t get me wrong; Sky have achieved a fourth maillot jaune in five years and that in itself is a fantastic achievement. But even if the Sky MO has evolved from the one dimensional approach employed to provide Bradley Wiggins his sole grand tour victory my heart sank when Froome assumed the race lead on stage on stage 8. Of course, only the most suspicious conspiracy theorist could suggest that Sky could have known in advance that Froome’s attack over the final climb on the stage would have resulted in him heading the GC for the remainder of the race.

Sky employed the same strategy during the Grand Depart and the early stages that had worked for them so well a year ago. A team made up of entirely of domestiques (no sprinting distractions here!) ensured that Froome was kept at the business end of the race even on sprint stages. A crash within the bunch on stage 1 led to some noises off from sprint patron (and ex Sky rider) Bernie Eisel among others criticising the GC teams for getting mixed up with the lead out trains long after the 3km cut off had been negotiated. I wonder if Mark Cavendish would have been quite so diplomatic about this particular strategy that Sky have led if he hadn’t been enjoying a renaissance and his first ever yellow jersey.

Froome was pretty much the highest place GC contender on anything that didn’t end up in a gallop before the stage into Luchon and his audacious wrong footing of his rivals over the Col de Peyresourde. Froome had departed the race when the Tour last visited the town in the Pyrenees in 2014. Chief rival that year Alberto Contador had crashed out too allowing his remaining Tinkoff teammates the opportunity to go for stage wins. Mick Rogers, in the break that day, waited until he was on the descent into town before attacking and then time trialling away for the stage win. Sky’s tactic was for Froome to attack the KOM on the penultimate climb. As the TV commentary speculated about Froome’s desire to take the polka dot jersey in addition to yellow he struck out before reaching the top of the Peyresourde and gained vital yards as Nairo Quintana fumbled with his bidon and looked around in vain for Alejandro Valverde.

If Sky can be accused of riding conservatively in defence of the GC the same can be levelled at the teams of the rival GC teams when it came to attacking. The relative form of the other pre-race favourites when the came under the spotlight can be debated further but the point at which Chris Froome won his third Tour came in those first few hundred metres of the descent into Luchon. There are many ironies in Froomes victory, not least of which is that he has shown spontaneity while his team have been anything but. It shouldn’t be discounted that there wasn’t a single stage where Froome had to go head to head with his rivals without riders like Wout Poels and Sergio Henao first administering a metaphorical beating to other teams domestiques. Despite this I don’t believe that Sky’s strength in depth was the deciding factor. One of the ex pros (I can’t remember who) invited onto ITV’s coverage of the final stage commented that we might have seen a different race if Alberto Contador hadn’t abandoned after struggling through the first week after a crash on stage 1. Maybe, maybe not. Contador’s luck was particularly bad, at least Richie Porte made the finish (and 5th overall) but he was rueing the loss of time due to a puncture in the final km’s on stage 2. Quintana, fell a long way short of pre-race expectations; a ‘virus’ was conjured up at one point to try to explain his inability to challenge Froome. Movistar’s much vaunted double team of Quintana and Valverde had no answer for Froome and Sky this time and other hopefuls were even further off the pace.

There had been speculation before the race that Astana could see a 21st century version of the rivalry between Bernard Hinault and Greg Lemond in the 1986 Tour with Vincenzo Nibali in the Badger role to Fabio Aru’s Lemond. I could use a couple of hundred words explaining how that worked out but rather than waste your time I’ll summarise; it didn’t happen. Nibali looked as if he would rather be anywhere else than the Tour and Aru was no more than a bit part player.

Yet another team supposedly offering a spicy inter team rivalry ahead of the race was BMC. Richie Porte was riding in support of Tejay Van Gardaren or joint leader depending on who you listened to or if it was a Friday or something. Porte was resigned to working for Tejay even though he was the much stronger rider until his ‘leader’ fell off the radar by which time the most the Porte could hope for was a podium place. If BMC have learnt anything from this years Tour it should be that Tejay Van Gardaren will never be a grand tour winner. Stage 2 puncture notwithstanding it would have been interesting to see if Porte could have challenged Froome if Tejay had been riding for him. One for 2017 perhaps.

Quintana ultimately did enough to get onto the podium, knocking Orica’s Adam Yates off the third step. Yates is not altogether a surprise package but his achievement suggests that there is a potential heir to Chris Froome outside of the Sky machine. Yate’s demotion may have robbed him of a podium place but he was still the winner of the young rider classification and can take some comfort that his time loss was a result of a mechanical rather than a loss of form in the final week.

If not many would have predicted two ‘home’ riders in the top 5 on GC, few people would have said that AG2R would have two riders on the Tour de France podium in three years. Romain Bardet delivered a French stage win and rode into second place on stage 19. Dave Brailsford has talked about the possibility of Sky delivering a French rider to victory in the Tour but as long as Froome is motivated to race the Tour Sky won’t be hiring a French GC rider and it’s hard to see a homegrown rider doing any better than what Bardet has achieved this year.

ASO recognise that the potential for a Sky dynasty along the lines of (whisper it) US Postal could prove detrimental for the Tour ‘brand’. The idea of 8 man teams was mooted today as a possible handicap to the Sky train (the team have finished this years race with the nine riders who started in Normandy three weeks ago). Others have talked about salary caps and a ‘draft’ for up and coming riding talent but it’s hard to see how such tinkering will upset the Sky juggernaut, at least where the Tour is concerned.

There’s another irony that this is the first year where Sky’s dominance of the GC at the Tour hasn’t been accompanied with accusations about doping. This, of itself, is a good thing although I am a little surprised given that Sky have made their opponents look so ordinary. The insights of the peloton have been notable in this respect; Mark Renshaw guesting on ITV today saying he studies Sky’s methods with great interest. Obviously, no one within the sport is going to speculate openly but the fans have shown much more respect to Froome’s result this year.

So the 2016 Tour wasn’t a classic as far as I am concerned; a British win isn’t enough of a justification. I have got this far without mentioning what for many was their defining moment of this years race. The incident involving Froome, Porte and Trek’s Bauke Mollema on the Ventoux stage could have played out very differently but actually mattered little to the overall outcome. I’m on board with Froome getting his finish time adjusted (and Richie too, although that was far less significant) as a result of his bike getting smashed by an oncoming moto. I thought that Mollema asked the key question however when he asked if he would have been given the same time as Froome if he had been the only one of the three impeded. When Dave Brailsford suggested that Sky waited patiently for a decision from the race jury I imagine the reverse was true. I can’t help thinking that it would have made for a more interesting race if the original post stage GC positions had been allowed to stand. The likelihood is that Froome would have re-taken yellow on the following day’s TT anyway but it would have shaken things up a bit, something the race needed in my view.

So much for the GC. Peter Sagan continues to entertain in the rainbow stripes and collected another points classification win. He vies with Froome as the rider you have to watch. If only some of the Sagz charisma could rub off onto Froome too. The KOM was dull viewing; it’s a classement that I normally enjoy following but Rafal Majka was more enigmatic as 2016 KOM than the entertaining rider who took the same jersey in 2014.

The sprints certainly didn’t turn out as expected. The key Mark Cavendish stat is that he wins far more Tour stages when he is in the same team as Bernie Eisel. It was the perfect start to the race that he finally got his maillot jaune after several attempts by the organisers to engineer the perfect opportunity. I think i’m right the expectations of a Cav resurgence were actually not that high and it’s been compelling to see the influence this has had on Marcel Kittel even after Cavendish had abandoned the race. It remains to be seen if he can cap everything with a gold medal in Rio in the next few weeks but Cavendish can be satisfied with his work so far in July, if not this year.

Cavendish has been reunited with Eisel and Renshaw at Dimension Data (nee MTN Qhubeka). He wasn’t the only one from the team to have an impact on this years race as Steve Cummings delivered another win to add to his victory in last year’s Tour. Cummings has developed a reputation as the breakaway rider of the peloton and this win added to the others gained in each of the stage races he’s entered this year.

Continue reading VCSE’s Tour de France 2016 Review

Race in Peace – VCSE’s Racing Digest #43

So we’re already a quarter way through the 2016 season and I’m feeling pretty conscious that I haven’t written a great deal about everything that’s taken place since Tirreno and Paris Nice a few weeks back. We’ve had the rivals for this years grand tours line up in the Volta a Catalunya, a couple of semi-classics in Belgium and the first of the monuments; Milan San Remo.  While there are stories to be told about all of these races everything has been overshadowed in the last few days by the death of two riders in separate events last weekend.

On Saturday Belgian rider Daan Myngheer suffered a heart attack after collapsing during that day’s stage of the Criterium International on Corsica. His death was announced on Monday evening just 24 hours after another Belgian Antoine Demoitie died in hospital after being run over (following a crash) by one of the race motos during Gent Wevelgem. Losing both riders is a tragedy but it’s the circumstances surrounding Demoitie’s fatal accident that has caused a wider discussion. Rider safety is a topic that’s been simmering along since last year when there was the first of many incidents where riders came off worse due to altercations with either a race support car or moto. Irony probably isn’t appropriate here but I haven’t read anything that suggests that Demoitie’s accident was avoidable; his team have even released a statement to that effect. Nevertheless it’s all too clear that in a contest between a rider and a car or moto, it’s the guy (or girl) on the bike who’s going to come off worst.

That said I’m not sure what can be done to make things significantly safer. Right now with things feeling pretty raw it’s easy to forget that the potential risks for riders from cars, motos and everything else from dogs without leads to street furniture have existed for years. While crashes like the one that took out several riders at last years Pais Vasco could easily have been prevented (poorly signed road furniture caused that one), it’s hard to see how every potential risk can be eliminated. I won’t disagree that some potential risks could be mitigated but in the week before Demoitie’s accident the same commentators who mourned his loss were bemoaning the lack of moto camera feeds in another race. I’m not diminishing what’s happened; I just don’t think there are quick or easy solutions.

Racing a bike has enough risk and potential injurious outcomes without riders wondering if they’re likely to be hit by an errant vehicle from the race caravan. The really enlightened solutions probably won’t emerge in the immediate aftermath of these two tragic deaths.

Continue reading Race in Peace – VCSE’s Racing Digest #43

The “World’s Toughest Sport” no longer?

Tirreno Adriatico & Paris Nice 2016 

The early season stage races are generally seen as a tune up for the classics season that starts in earnest this weekend with Saturday’s (that’s right; Saturday) Milan San Remo. An early marker had already been put down ahead of Tirreno by Fabian Cancellara. Overhauling previous winner Zdenek Stybar and Peter Sagan (have you noticed that people are already talking about the ‘curse of the rainbow jersey’) Cancellara has followed up a fine result in Sienna with victory in the final TT stage of Tirreno today. Cue speculation about a Cancellaraesque (read solo breakaway) win for the man himself in MSR but even if that seems a bit fanciful he looks in great form in his final season of racing.

2016 MSR win for Fabian Cancellara?
2016 MSR win for Fabian Cancellara?

If we’re looking purely at results you would have to put Cancellara well ahead of his fellow valedictorian Tom Boonen who could only manage a 6th place finish on the second stage of Paris Nice in an otherwise low key week on the ‘Race to the Sun’. The only silver lining for the Etixx team leader was that (at least) he didn’t crash out of the race like he did a year ago, effectively ending his season. Boonen may yet come good, he’s looked fast in a few of the bunch sprints I have seen him contest so far this year and I would rather see him add to his tally of monuments purely because I’m in team Tom rather than team Fab. The dream outcome would be a the two veterans going wheel to wheel at the Ronde and Roubaix in April but I suspect I might be disappointed.

While Cancellara has provided some easy headlines ahead of Milan San Remo the rider that we might be ignoring is Orica’s Michael Matthews. Before disappearing from view on Sunday’s final stage Matthews held the overall lead for almost the entire week after winning the opening prologue and the second stage. He might not be the fastest sprinter in the pack; in fact he might not be the fastest in his team but he’s hitting form at just the right time for Saturday’s ‘sprinters classic’.

So far in this post I have stuck to the script as far as the dotted line between Paris Nice, Tirreno and the classics goes but that’s only part of the story of these two stage races. Well, that’s normally the case anyway. The GC in both races is usually disputed between and won by a grand tour rider. In recent years Paris Nice has been a bit of a Sky benefit with Bradley Wiggins and Richie Porte (twice) taking the win. The queen stage of both races decides the outcome that’s cemented by a final TT stage. Paris Nice ended with a road stage this year and it’s true that the final GC was studded with grand tour riders but Tirreno delivered a different outcome after Sunday’s queen stage was cancelled due to bad weather. As the only mountain stage of the week this left the GC open for a classic specialist and Greg van Avermaet duly took the overall after victory in the penultimate stage put him into the lead.

Rapidly becoming the Katie Hopkins of the pro peloton Vincenzo Nibali drew a lot of criticism for suggesting that the stage should have gone ahead. In the immediate aftermath of Nibali venturing his opinion on social media it seemed like he was a lonely voice but Michael Rogers took a more reasoned view today when he said he thought he understood part of the Nibali motivation. Rogers suggested that it was Nibali’s desire to race that laid behind his intervention. While Rogers didn’t agree with Nibali that the stage should have gone ahead he could see why Nibali would have wanted it to. Viewed in this way Nibali’s comments make more sense as he needs to deliver a stronger set of results than last year. While another victory in Tirreno would not have gone amiss the strategy Nibali seems to have embarked upon has so far only alienated his fellow riders and fans alike. There have already been incidents of riders getting injured unnecessarily this year on top of the bike / car v rider accidents from last season and the direction of travel is firmly in the direction of improving safety.

Nibali wasn’t the only grand tour rider having a difficult week. Defending Paris Nice champion Richie Porte turning out for his new BMC team made the podium but lost out to the rider who has arguably replaced him as Sky’s second string grand tour leader Geraint Thomas. Porte played down his expectations, but BMC made the kind of noises that pointed towards their expecting more from the latest expensive addition to the roster. Thomas and Porte were split by Alberto Contador who huffed and puffed but couldn’t really find anything steep enough to deliver a killer blow to Thomas.

Perhaps the most interesting grand tour story of the week is Thomas’ victory. After delivering his and Sky’s best ever result in a classic with a win in the E3 last year Thomas went on to ride superbly in the Tour and was instrumental in Chris Froome winning his second maillot jaune. Thomas has talked about leading the team in grand tours and this win may be another step on the journey but at what cost to Sky in the classics?

A couple of other mentions..

Steve Cummings ‘stealing’ another stage win is always great to watch. Marcel Kittel absent from the sprint proceedings in Paris Nice and I could also say the same for Alexander Kristoff (but welcome back Arnaud Demare). Too early to say if Kittel is reverting to the shadow of 2015 yet though.

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

Dumoulin’s glorious failure gifts Aru Vuelta victory

Vuelta a Espana 2015 postscript 

The dust has well and truly settled on this year’s Vuelta and we are already into the world championships (posting this the day after the TTT). I’m a bit late to the game so I won’t do a blow by blow account of the race post the second rest day; rather here are one or two reflections on this edition.

Tom Dumoulin - breakthrough result?
Tom Dumoulin – breakthrough result?

Just as heart ruling head wanted an Alberto Contador Giro Tour double earlier in the year I was pretty much rooting for Tom Dumoulin to take the overall victory; the prospect of which had been off most peoples radar three weeks ago. Even so when Fabio Aru limited his losses to Dumoulin in the TT I still wasn’t sure that the latter would have enough in his legs (leave alone any kind of meaningful time gap) to hold onto the leaders jersey he now held. If Dumoulin had been the surprise package of the 2015 Vuelta Aru delivered the surprise performance of the TT. No one expected Joaquim Rodriguez to do any more than babysit the race lead into stage 17 and he served up the expected ‘difficult’ result on his time trial bike. Just as Purito was likely to be horrible against the clock Dumoulin was expected to destroy his opposition and up to a point he did; finishing more than a minute ahead of the next rider on the stage. However Aru, who had looked pretty average through the first two time checks must have ridden the final sector like a man possessed (or at least in pursuit of his first grand tour win) and was within two minutes of Dumoulin at the finish. Purito lost the lead and fell to third while Dumoulin leapfrogged everyone and had a three second advantage over Aru.

So at this point I wanted to see Dumoulin hang on; however improbable the chances seemed. The race was already going to be won by one of the undercard as we had lost Froome over a week previously and Nairo Quintana had never really looked like the rider who many (myself included) had tipped as the favourite. Aru had been handed a clear run thanks to the disqualification of Vincenzo Nibali and the lack of the pre-race big names left in the running was giving Rodriguez an outside chance of victory too. The biggest issue facing Dumoulin was that he was riding in a team that had been built around the sprinting ambitions of John Degenkolb (Dumoulin wasn’t even the team leader). On each day in the mountains Dumoulin had been left to find his own wheels to follow once Lawson Craddock (the only other recognised climber on the Giant Alpecin squad) pulled off. Dumoulin had shown he was capable of limiting his losses and the last of the summit finishes had been on stage 16 but could he really maintain a three second lead over Aru with difficult days still to come?

Ultimately the answer was no but on stage 19 Dumoulin was able to increase his slender lead over Aru and the Astana leader was alleged to have needed a shove from a teammate as they approached the finish in Avila. I suppose this was the point where I started to think a Dumoulin overall win might be possible. Away for the weekend I was following the race via social media and race reports as I wasn’t even catching the ITV highlights package. It seemed like Aru might be the one who was cracking and I was working on the basis that any time Dumoulin lost on the climbs he could make up on the descents with non-uphill finishes on the final stages.

Continue reading Dumoulin’s glorious failure gifts Aru Vuelta victory

The only thing that’s predictable about the Vuelta is its unpredictability

Vuelta a Espana week 2 review

I left off the 2015 Vuelta a Espana on the first rest day and ahead of the stage that many of us thought would point towards the rider most likely to take the overall this year. Last week we had long since lost Vincenzo Nibali from the race. Entered as ‘detention’ from his Astana team after failing to offer the expected heroic defence of his Tour de France title, insult was added to injury after he was disqualified for taking a wing mirror tow from his team car. Nibali’s early exit was forgotten as the first ten days racing witnessed the emergence of two riders to challenge the status quo among the GC contenders. Astana hadn’t made too much fuss about Nibali; they were geared towards Fabio Aru taking a first grand tour victory. Lining up against them, albeit not so ‘fresh’ from the Tour were Chris Froome and Nairo Quintana. The Vuelta’s knack of throwing up a surprise or two was evident in the relegation of the star names of the peloton to supporting roles as first Esteban Chavez and the Tom Dumoulin were the story of the first half of the race.

Fabio Aru - chance gone?
Fabio Aru – chance gone?

Chavez and Dumoulin had shared the race lead between them and taken three stage wins. Chavez was the ‘winner’ as far as quantity but Dumoulin was arguably the most impressive overhauling Froome to win stage 9 on a short but steep hill top finish near Calpe. It was Dumoulin who wore the leaders jersey after the race had transferred from the southern Spain to Andorra but with the sharks tooth profile of stage 11 ahead you would have been forgiven for thinking that if anyone’s luck was about to run out it would be Dumoulin’s.

Instead the first casualty and second big name to exit the race was Froome. There have been enough incidents on this years edition of the Vuelta to satisfy the lawyers for years but the exact circumstances of what caused Sky’s team leader to break a bone in his foot aren’t crystal clear. The official version is that another rider collided with Froome causing him to hit an obstacle at the side of the road. That this rider hasn’t (yet) been identified suggests that it might have  been what insurance companies call a 50:50 accident but that shouldn’t detract from an extremely gutsy performance from Froome to ride to the finish when it was clear afterwards that just walking a few steps to the car was difficult. We won’t know if he was able to challenge for the GC but it does look like the riders who went well at the Tour are struggling here, albeit for different reasons. Geraint Thomas gave Froome a wheel to follow and pretty much ended his chances of being a factor in the race but Mikel Nieve has emerged from their shadow and looks likely of delivering his best ever result in any grand tour.

Nieve wasn’t the best Sky rider on stage 11, that went to Ian Boswell who looks a far better rider than when he was hanging off the back of the peloton in Paris Nice in 2013. Otherwise the top ten was compiled with the names you would have expected to see at the sharp end of a very difficult 158km stage. Dumoulin did lose the race lead to Aru but by less time than many would have predicted. In fact Dumoulin came in just over a minute and half back on Aru in company with Chavez who had pretty much wheel sucked the Dutchman up the final climb. While Aru took the jersey he didn’t win the stage. Sky bound Mikel Landa stuck a metaphorical finger up at his current employer by turning a deaf ear to requests that he should wait for his team leader and soloed to victory. The result saw Dumoulin drop to third behind Aru and Purito Rodriguez the ‘designer’ of the stage if you were to believe Carlton Kirby on Eurosport.

Aru kept the lead until yesterday (stage 16) but the narrative of the race has been less about him and his successor on GC Rodriguez than about Dumoulin. Only 30 seconds down on Aru following stage 11 Dumoulin has become the story to the extent that the other teams seemed to change their respective strategies to one focused solely on putting time into him ahead of the TT (stage 17). Under ‘normal’ circumstances the stage might have been in two parts with Dumoulin and (say) Fabian Cancellara putting down a marker for the world championships and the GC guys attempting to gap their rivals. Instead we have the prospect of Dumoulin assuming the race lead once more and potentially holding it to win the Vuelta overall.

This has as much to do with Dumoulin being the surprise package on GC as for the fact that Aru seems to missing the last few ingredients that would have allowed him to get a grip on the race. With only a one second lead over Rodriguez ahead of yesterdays stage Aru had his ‘worst’ day out of the last three as Dumoulin was having his best. Rodriguez had done the damage on stage 15 with a 15 second advantage over Aru plus a 10 second bonification on the line to allow him to touch the hem of Aru’s leaders jersey. A day later it was on Purito’s shoulders as Aru had to come from behind to try and limit his losses.

And so we have the prospect of a watchable TT stage. Of course now that Dumoulin is no longer a surprise the talk is of not will he win the stage but by how much. With Nibali and Froome long gone there isn’t a decent tester in the top 10 with the possible exception of Quintana (remember him?). The Vuelta may yet have more surprises in store. There are a few more cat 1 climbs for the peloton to get over before the race reaches Madrid but we’re done as far as summit finishes are concerned. The Vuelta in its current incarnation has developed a habit of delivering a curve ball for us. Might this year’s curve ball be a Tom Dumoulin victory?

The little guy and the Dutch ‘Big Mig’

Vuelta a Espana 2015 week 1 review

Who knows who it was who coined the phrase; “The Tour is the Tour”. This is the catch all that is used to explain the goings on that characterise the world’s greatest stage race from the guy who dances around the finishing kilometre dressed as a giant ham sandwich; the drunken Dutch that spend a week on Alpe d’Huez; the fact that this is the only professional bike race that transcends professional bike racing.

Esteban Chavez
Esteban Chavez

But isn’t the Vuelta also The Vuelta? Doesn’t it have its own idiosyncrasies; those things that make it unique? Those features that are just so, well; Vueltaesque. Previewing a grand tour, I’m always looking for half a dozen or so stages that I think will be interesting for the armchair fan. These aren’t always the stages that should be pivotal on paper, although inevitably they’re likely to be included. But the Vuelta can serve up something that inevitably makes me think “Why didn’t I pick this one?” as what appeared to be an innocuous climb turns out to be a sting in the tail. Take stage 6 from last year with the freshly laid strip of tarmac that led straight upwards to La Zubia. The Cumbres Verdes climb might only have been 4.6km but its 13% ramps delivered some of the most exciting racing of the opening week. I didn’t expect much from Sunday’s stage that climbed Alto de Puig Lloren twice but it was one of the most exciting days racing I have seen this year on a climb that was a little over 4km in length (albeit with 19% sections!)

Of course the route just provides the stage (in the theatrical sense) and the riders are the players in the same context. Chris Horner could hardly have been described as an emerging talent in 2013 but whatever you choose to think about the merits of his unheralded victory two years ago it was so surprising it made for compelling viewing and the only grand tour that was genuinely decided on the final stage in 2013. The dramatis personae listed ahead of this years race, the Froome’s, Quitana’s and Valverde’s have only had cameos to play so far. The stars of the show in the first week have been comparative understudies; Esteban Chavez the almost childlike Orica Green Edge climber and Giant Alpecin’s Tom Dumoulin.

There was a fair amount of chatter about Orica beginning to move their sights towards the grand tours although much of this had focused on the Yates twins. The announcement that the team had signed Amets Turruka from Caja Rural as a climbing domestique ahead of the Vuelta backed this narrative but it’s hard to believe that the team expected Chavez to have a week like this one. Not one but two stage wins and the leaders jersey for six out of ten days of racing must have been beyond the teams wildest dreams surely. They didn’t just have Chavez to celebrate either with Caleb Ewan taking his maiden grand tour stage win. Chavez played pass the parcel on GC with Tom Dumoulin who had already come to the fore this year as a rival to Tony Martin but certainly not as a grand tour overall contender. Chavez has been a joy to watch on and off the bike and you have to go with the instinct that says he was praising his rival when he described Dumoulin’s reclaiming of the race lead as “unbelievable” almost every other word. Dumoulin’s explanation is that he feels good and that he has lost some weight ahead of the race but more cynical eyebrows might be raised if he is still in pole position after four cat 1 and one HC climb on Wednesday.

The home fans (and the wider audience) find Chavez easy to fall for. He has been charmingly humble about his prospects and it is hard to see how he could prevail against Sky and Movistar at the very least over two more weeks of racing and arguably the toughest week to come this week. The locals ought to be able to take Dumoulin to their hearts as well; a time trailing grand tour winner? I’m pretty certain Spain has had one of those in the not too distant past!

So what of the pre-race favourites. So far not much. They have seemed content to only briefly test their firepower; a stage win for Valverde and Froome going close on Sunday only to  be overhauled by Dumoulin at the death. Vincenzo Nibali has capped his miserable season by getting himself disqualified for riding on a team car on stage 2. What Nibali did may or may not be the worst excess of cheating, even in this race, but he was caught (on camera) and was gone without much in the way of genuine protest. He was remarkably prescient on the inconsistency of fines for transgressions within the race when Nacer Bouhanni escaped a similar sanction for an even more blatant car surf the following day by which time Nibali was already licking his wounds at home.

Bouhanni has gone now too. The race has been attritional for sprinters in particular whether that be through injury or simply practical longevity concerns. Ewen has withdrawn in much the same way as the Yates boys were protected at the Tour last year. In what was already a shallow field John Degenkolb might have been expected to fill his boots in much the same way as he has in previous years but he has been relatively quiet so far.

The first week of the 2015 Vuelta has delivered. The organisers might have preferred a Quintana or Valverde in the leaders jersey but in all other respects this years race has provided something for everyone from surprisingly challenging climbs to exciting emerging talents on GC. Tomorrow ought to be fireworks from start to finish as it’s difficult to imagine one team being able to control the race over that many climbs. After such an entertaining first half of the race it’s to be hoped that the rider who emerges from stage 11 at the head of the GC doesn’t grip the race lead too tightly. But the Vuelta is the Vuelta and no doubt there will be more surprises to come in the next ten days.

Fight! – VCSE’s Vuelta 2015 Preview

Vuelta a Espana 2015 

Christopher doesn’t like Vincenzo; he thinks that Vincenzo shouldn’t have ridden off when Christopher had a stone caught in his bike’s wheel. Vincenzo had a falling out with Christopher as he thought he was to blame for Vincenzo falling off with a lot of other riders. Then there’s Nairo. Nairo likes Christopher but thinks that he should have beaten him in a race that they had in France last month.

In recent years the Vuelta a Espana seems to have become the grand tour for riders with scores to settle. In 2012 it was Alberto Contador’s first race back after his ban and last year the same rider went head to head with Chris Froome after their Tour de France appearances were curtailed by injury. Vincenzo Nibali is returning to the the land of his first grand tour win in 2010 but (also) where he was denied a ‘doble’ in 2013 when Chris Horner took an unheralded victory. Last year the Vuelta might not have truly been worthy of the title of ‘unofficial’ GC rider world championships but it was an awesome prelude to the real thing that took place in France in last month.

This years Tour line up pitted all of the grand tour winners of recent years (bar Horner) and should have provided a definitive answer on who is (currently) the ‘greatest’. And yet the 2015 edition of the Vuelta will see the metaphorical “Did you spill my pint?” shenanigans continuing as Nibali attempts to prove that his 2014 Tour win was achieved on merit and Quintana seeks to demonstrate that he can outclimb Froome to  win his second grand tour. Whoever triumphs in this contest, the question to see who is the ‘best’ will rumble on into another year. With Contador absent could Froome et al really claim to be the world’s #1 GC rider?

Claiming that rider X is the ‘best’ rider is something of a red herring in reality. It would be more accurate to say rider X is the best rider now. Contador was arguably the strongest rider going into last years Tour and was superior to Froome when they met again in the Vuelta. He was able to continue that form into the Giro this year; almost winning the race single handedly. But by July he appeared fatigued and was certainly unable to respond when Froome attacked as early as stage 3. Froome, despite his second Tour win, may not be the favourite for the 2015 Vuelta. As I wrote here his victory was delivered on the back on early time gains on his opponents that were defended as the race went on. The appeal of a Tour / Vuelta double will be in the minds of Froome and the Sky team but I suspect that a win here would still take second place over a successful defence of the 2016 Tour. If you go purely on how he finished the Tour you would put your money on Quintana to win the Vuelta. If Alejandro Valverde reprises his super domestique role from the Tour I would shorten those odds further still.

So what of Nibali. The lustre of his 2014 Tour victory had become very faded by the third week of this years race and was only partly salved by his stage win where he took advantage of Froome’s stone in wheel mishap. Astana bring Fabio Aru and Mikel Landa to the Vuelta and if the plan is to replicate the strategy that came so close to derailling Contatdor at the Giro Nibali could be a factor. The issue for the team in the Giro however was that the team leader (Aru) was off peak for much of the race. It doesn’t matter how well you can decimate the other GC teams if your leader can’t deliver the killer blow and that question mark will hang over Nibali as the race gets under way. Astana rider’s performance in the Vuelta may well be of more interest longer term as I think Nibali’s results will determine where he races in 2017 and with which team.

Tejay van Garderen leads the second tier of GC riders to watch; returning after his DNF at the Tour. I don’t think we’ll see the BMC rider on the podium here but he could go well in the Andorra based stage 11 as he’s an experienced rider at altitude (he was winning the USA Pro Challenge this time last year and in 2013). Joaquim Rodriguez can claim that stage as his ‘local’ and quite a few people have tipped him to go well in the race. I’m less convinced; leaving aside the motivation factor that this is his home tour I just don’t think that Purito has the legs for victory in a three week stage race.

VCSE’s Vuelta 2015 Top 3

1 Quintana

2 Froome

3 Valverde

Wildcard Aru

Continue reading Fight! – VCSE’s Vuelta 2015 Preview

Caleb Ewan’s impenetrable wall of bikes – VCSE’s Racing Digest #42

Tour of Poland 2015

So Marcel Kittel got the monkey off his back (or should that be Gorilla?) in his first race since the Tour finished; the 2015 Tour of Poland. No doubt the win was hugely cathartic for the Giant Alpecin rider although if it was meant to herald a return to the heady days of 2014 where he won for fun it didn’t quite go according to plan.

Kittel took the opening stage victory from Orica’s Caleb Ewan and he was in the mix again the following day until a touch of wheels with Lampre Merida’s Sacha Modolo caused an accident that left practically the entire peloton stuck behind the tangled two wheeled wreckage where most of those involved in the bunch sprint were piled on top of one another. Missing from the crash scene was Kittel but he had already lost position before Ewan’s downfall. As he crossed the line behind stage winner Matteo Pelucchi, Kittel showed more emotion than he had at point of victory the day before; erroneously thinking the IAM sprinter had blocked him previously.

Pelucchi took another win the following day with Kittel trailing in a distant 7th as the stage delivered a kick before the line. He lost the overall race lead a day later and that was the end of the beginning of Marcel Kittel’s return to front line racing. His stage one win and the bizarre end to stage two at least delivered some drama to the uninspiring parcours that the race organisers chose for the opening few days. When you have become used to cycling being used as a sometimes not so subtle advertisement for the local tourist board it did seem a bit strange that this years race seemed to have decided to celebrate Poland’s urban rail infrastructure. One stage looping up and down a dual carriage way bisected by a tram line would have been enough; three was probably over doing it.

The second half of the race demonstrated how the Tour of Poland can often throw up an unusual result. Stage 4 provided an unlikely breakaway win and this was followed by the GC changing hands daily as first Bart De Clercq, then Sergio Henao and finally Jon Izaguirre pulled on the leaders jersey. Henao had been in the situation of holding the race lead into the final day’s TT stage at the Vuelta a Pais Vasco earlier this year. If there’s a safe place for your money it’s definitely not betting on Henao winning a stage race when a TT is the deciding factor. It’s still hugely enjoyable just to see the rider racing again after a career threatening injury but Henao is unlikely to be offered the chance of leading Sky in a race that really matters to them anytime soon.

And just as the spores of wild funghi spread across the undergrowth the sponsorship mushrooms of the Tour of Poland continue to multiply. If there’s a symbol of the race for me it’s these inflatable bulbs that line the race route as I have noted previously (here and here). Maybe this was the motive for the finishing circuits on this years race as the mushroom count for this years race surpassed both of the previous years combined. It’s part of the race’s charm that a sponsor can get maximum bang for their buck and yet random members of the crowd can get to the stage winner to claim an autograph of bidon before even the soigneur has handed them a coke and a towel.

Continue reading Caleb Ewan’s impenetrable wall of bikes – VCSE’s Racing Digest #42

Sky perfect the art of the marginal win

Tour de France 2015 

Chris Froome wrapped up his second and Sky’s third Tour de France victory in four years on Sunday. While he was at pains to thank the contribution of his teammates and the wider backroom staff supporting the team Froome might also privately thank Nairo Quintana for his contribution that changed the narrative in the closing stages of the race. Even during the short period where he had worn the maillot jaune after his second place on the Mur de Huy, Froome had been assaulted by doping questions. Whether these were of the conventional nature asked during the post stage pressers or of a more accusatory nature hurled literally and figuratively from the ‘fans’ at the road side it felt at times as if any other discussion of the race had been drowned out by the arguments pro and anti Froome’s apparent dominance.

Tour de France 2015 winner - Chris Froome
Tour de France 2015 winner – Chris Froome

Because his apparent superiority was just that. Quintana may have left it until the final two stages in the Alps to take time out of Froome but the final analysis showed that over the stages run in the mountains; Quintana had the fastest aggregate time. The reality of Chris Froome’s 2015 Tour de France win is that he won it in the first week and on the first day in the Pyrenees. The stage win at La Pierre Saint-Martin was almost a carbon copy of the first day in the mountains in 2013 at Ax Trois Domaines. Froome had nearly two minutes on Quintana going into the stage and took another minute out of him on stage 10. The damage to Quintana’s and the other GC contenders chances of victory had been done on a week earlier and hundreds of miles away on the windswept roads of the Dutch coast.

I’ve admitted it already that I didn’t call things correctly as far as stage two was concerned and with hindsight it’s clear that the foundations of Froome and Sky’s victory were laid here. It was the start of a Tour nightmare for Vincenzo Nibali that plumbed the depths of lost time and suggestions that he should find a new team in 2016 until he woke up when Froome got a stone caught between brake pad and wheel rim on stage 19. Crucially, Zeeland was where Quintana lost two thirds of the time he was trying to make up on the yellow jersey for the final half of the race.

So how did Chris Froome really win the 2015 Tour. The facts have little to do with allegations of doping and everything to do with a finely tuned team performance where everything was geared towards a Froome win. Lets start with team selection. Unlike the squad that won Sky’s first Tour win in 2012 there was no suggestion of dual aims. There was no sprinter selected in 2015. The team did appear to be neatly split between the best of Sky’s classics squad (Geraint Thomas, Luke Rowe and Ian Stannard) and a strong outfit of climbing domestiques including Froome’s close friends Richie Porte and Wout Poels. Of course no one really knew that Thomas was going to be quite so versatile that he would be mentioned as a possible podium late into the final week. Cast in the road captain role by Dave Brailsford as early as 2013 he was the ideal person to shepherd Froome through the first week that appeared to be designed to trip him up; wind, cobbles and narrow roads. In praising Thomas for a job incredibly well done as Froome’s shadow for much of the race it’s quite easy to lose sight of the fact that in all of the areas where Froome was supposed to struggle he actually thrived much of the time. While he remains vulnerable to self inflicted errors Froome had clearly decided that the best form of defence in week one was attack. With the ever present Thomas alongside Froome was already poised to take control of the race by the time of the first rest day with the first of the mountain stages to come.

Continue reading Sky perfect the art of the marginal win