I’ll get me coat! – VCSE reviews the Ronde 

Tour of Flanders 2017

Beware the errant spectator, the misplaced guard rail or even the poorly secured advertising banner. There are many things that can derail your chances of success in the classics and it was an apparent combination of those three things that ended Peter Sagan’s hopes of doubling up on his Ronde victory from last year. Like the mysterious injuries caused by red hot disc brakes perhaps we will never know what exactly precipitated Sagan’s fall on the  Oude Kwaremont but whatever it was provided enough for Philippe Gilbert to stay away and claim one of the monumental classic races that he has always maintained he was capable of winning.

Philippe Gilbert

Riding in the Belgian champions colours Gilbert had gone on the attack with more than 50 kilometres of racing to go and still facing some of the hardest climbs. In the races I’ve seen him in this year he’s looked like a rider who wants to race for every sign even if the result was unlikely to go his way. A gambler then? Perhaps, but maybe also a rider with a point to prove. Tom Boonen, racing his final Flanders, is targeting Paris Roubaix as his swan song but he’s a perennial favourite at 36 years old. So Gilbert at two years Boonen’s junior; why not? Well saying you can win it is one thing, actually doing it is something else entirely.

Gilbert has clearly been rejuvenated by his move to Quick Step after four years at BMC. It’s always seemed to me that the last thing you want to do as a professional rider who’s winning races regularly is to move to BMC. Gilbert moved there after a stellar 2011 season that saw him take all three of the Ardennes classics as well as an early season win in Strade Blanche. He might have spent a year in the rainbow stripes but another Amstel Gold in 2014 aside it looked like Gilbert was a relatively under productive on a big salary. If this does him a disservice even the rider himself questioned whether the team really knew how to get the best from him, even going so far as suggesting that he would sacrifice his form in the Ardennes for a crack at the cobbles. BMC didn’t appreciate that suggestion at the time and we’re happy to put the house on Van Avermaet by not extending Gilbert’s contract at the end of 2016. That isn’t to say that BMC were wrong to do so; Van Avermaet has won Het Nieuswblad, E3 and Gent Wevelgem this year and Gilbert has rolled the dice in so many races that his number was always going to come up at some point.

Compare and contrast two teams and Gilbert’s start to 2017. His form in the run up to today’s race should arguably have made him the favourite. Second in E3 and Dwars door Vlaandaren, stage win and GC in the 3 days of De Panne. But no, all the talk, the pre-race hyperbole was Sagan, Van Avermaet and to a lesser extent Boonen. Going long might not have seemed like a recipe for success either, at the point of Gilbert’s attack Sagan and Van Avermaet were both  very much a factor.

It’s often a risk with the biggest sporting events that the decision to ‘go live’ and ‘bring us all the action’ results in very little ‘action’ taking place. Returning from an early season cycling holiday in Spain I restored the power to our Sky Plus box this morning and found that live coverage would start at 9.30 this morning! Unfortunately for me this didn’t make for enjoyable viewing as the British Eurosport feed persists with Carlton Kirby as their lead commentator. Now I know watching cycling is a bit niche out there in the real world so taking issue with who calls the race might be seen as navel gazing in the extreme. Trouble is Carlton is really beginning to grate on me. Days were that David Harmon was Eurosport’s go to cycling guy but he left early in 2013 and since then the big stuff has been Carlton’s gig. He still manages to have his moments and his commentary on Iljo Keisse’s win in the 2012 Tour of Turkey is well worth a search on my YouTube page but most of the time I just wish I could mute him. Funny thing is the commentator who I think does it get right seems to polarise opinion almost as much as Carlton. Rob Hatch did call the race on the world feed (whatever that is) today and I think he generally gets the tone of things right. When the race was failing to ignite early on today Hatch would have lead a discussion about the contenders that wouldn’t have felt like he was calling out names from the start list. He also seems to get the best out of Eurosport’s lead colourman, the legend that is Sean Kelly. Anticipating a barrage of banality from Kirby, Sean can be equally anodyne in his contributions although he got engaged of his own accord today after Gilbert attacked. Rob Hatch manages to ask Kelly a question that actually makes him think and draws out some interesting insights as a result. Pairing Kelly with Kirby does Sean at bit of a disservice I think. Of the other commentators out there I think Ned Boulting will emerge as a bit of a doyenne after a shaky start. David Millar alongside him is very good too as someone with with recent knowledge of life in the peloton as well as no apparent desire to become a ‘character’. Matt Stephens is good in either role and Brian Smith provides a sterling service shooting down Kirby’s flights of fancy when required. Magnus Backstedt doesn’t appear as often as he used to but when he does you have to hope he’s alongside Rob Hatch as Kirby seems to melt any intelligent thought he might have. I’ll have to give some credit to Carlton as he was prepared to call it for Gilbert sooner than anyone else might have dared to, but he does love a trier.

Any commentator would have struggled to find much to get excited about early on though. Race organisers Flanders Classics had made a number of changes to the route this year with the start moving from Bruges to Antwerp. For this monument tradition can always be bought and the suggestion is that Antwerp paid a six figure sum to host the race. Well at least they didn’t have to buy the crowds that turned out in the sunshine. Money apparently changed hands again to get the Muur-Kapelmuur reinstated into the race route after several years absence. No complaints about that and money well spent as it was the back drop for the key selection of the race with Gilbert and Boonen going clear with teammate Matteo Trentin, Sep Vanmarcke, Alexander Kristoff and Sky’s  Luke Rowe in the group. Vanmarcke’s bad luck in the monuments continued and he even managed to bundle Rowe up in his misfortune when the Sky rider couldn’t avoid the falling Cannondale team leader. Vanmarcke got back on a bike eventually but he the crash ended his chances and it looks like a breakthrough win is as far away as ever. Rowe hadn’t look that strong either and with Ian Stannard relatively anonymous so far this year Sky have had a poor return on the cobbles in 2017.

While Sagan’s coming together with an anorak might have sealed things for Gilbert,  Van Avermaet had a good go at reeling him in. He might have done too, but was probably undone by running out of kms to track down the leader coupled with the completely supine response from the other riders in his group. As I said earlier I think there was an element of luck that played its part in Gilbert’s victory but the unpredictable factor was leavened out by the riders self belief that he could bring off a result in this race to the extent of launching a solo attack so far out that most wouldn’t have expected to survive. Gilbert’s decision, post Flanders to pull out of Paris Roubaix suggests that he would have been prepared to gamble again if he hadn’t have pulled off the win in the Ronde.

Pais Vasco 2017

A few riders that might have featured in Flanders lined up in the Basque Country on Monday. With Sky’s poor showing on the cobbles might they have benefited from the presence of the Gilbertesque Michal Kwiatowski?

I much prefer the early season week long stages races and I look forward to Itzulia primarily to see hard racing in horrible weather and on that score this year’s edition has so far disappointed. We’ve just returned from a week on the bikes in Spain and enjoyed weather that by U.K. standards was positively balmy. I’ll be tuning in to the rest of rtthe week’s action but hoping that the rain clouds start gathering otherwise the race might end up looking like an Argos Volta a Catalonia.

No Fairytales in ‘Hell’

Tour of Flanders & Paris Roubaix 2016

Mixed emotions. Matthew Hayman, 37 years old, erstwhile Rabobank, Sky and now Orica Green Edge domestique / road captain. Aussie transplanted to Flanders and a seemingly perennial fixture in the breakaway in the last few editions of the ‘Hell of the North’. A pro’s pro, just had another couple of years tacked onto the contract that was supposed to be his last. This year’s Paris Roubaix his first race back after an early season crash had seen him miss most of the Flandrian classics. Of all the races to come back in; the one he loves most of all. The one he has dreamed of winning, never quite believing that he could.

Tom Boonen - Denied!
Tom Boonen – Denied!

Tom Boonen, classics superstar. Past his best? Maybe. Many predict that this year could be his last, certainly his last chance at adding to his tally of victories in the Ronde and Roubaix. Another win in Paris Roubaix would make him the all time leader with five cobble trophies on his mantelpiece.

With those back stories you could have been happy with an outcome where either rider took the win. But then no one would have predicted a Mat Hayman victory when the race got under way last Sunday; probably not even Hayman himself.

You could have got odds of 800/1 to Matthew Hayman even after he got into the breakaway. After all, no one really expects the break to survive right? There might have been an omen in another unfancied rider getting a top ten finish in Flanders the previous weekend, but we’ll return to him later. Hayman was still attracting decent odds after he managed to survive the catch and hang with a pretty stellar group of chasers that included Boonen alongside Edvald Boasson Hagen, Sep Vanmarcke and Ian Stannard.

A rider definitely on his swansong Fabian Cancellara had been in the group behind Boonen’s alongside Peter Sagan. Over the last few years Cancellara, especially when he’s fit and on form was always a threat for the win. He had suffered with injuries last year but entering his final season he had made it clear that Flanders and Roubaix where his big targets. Denied by an inspired solo attack the week before in Belguim I anticipated Cancellara getting his own back last weekend. I didn’t see Boonen as a contender, any more so than Hayman in fact. That isn’t to say that I didn’t want to see Boonen win; I have always been in team Tom rather than in team Fabs. It was just hard to see the evidence that Boonen would have the legs to ride to the win like he did in 2012.

The possibility that Boonen might be in with a shot increased when Cancellara crashed as the race went through the final cobbled sectors on the route to Roubaix. Sagan managed to avoid the crash (that’s a photo that’s worth doing a Google image search for) and Cancellara re-mounted but neither were in a position to challenge anymore.

Even when it had got down to five riders most peoples money wouldn’t have been on Hayman but he was the only rider who was able to bridge to Boonen after his late attack. Vanmarcke had attempted to solo away on a couple of occasions over the cobbles but each time he was pegged back by one of the remaining group riding him down or the whole group combining to do so.

Perhaps Boonen thought that he would be able to outsprint Hayman when the time came in the velodrome. Vanmarcke had arrived by this point and maybe Boonen was too vary of him to pay attention the the bike length that Hayman had stole from him as the race exited the final bend. Hayman threw his arms in the air as he crossed the line. It didn’t seem like such an emphatic victory as he reacted to what he had just done after he stopped. Viewed from a more sympathetic angle it became clear that this wasn’t a win by inches.

Boonen for his part seemed philosophical in defeat, suggesting that (unlike Cancellara) he might return for the classics again next year; “Why not?” he said. The trouble is, this was (probably) his best (if not final) chance of winning Paris Roubaix for a fifth time. Since his last win he has either been injured or unable to make the key breaks in the race. Four years have inevitably taken their toll. I think the Boonen of 2012 would have finished the race the same way he did then in 2016 but this version cannot reach those heights now. Tom Boonen won’t be around in 2020 anymore than Mat Hayman and perhaps Boonen’s enigmatic smile on the Roubaix podium reflected the realisation that his best chance of winning had been snatched from him by the least likely of victors.

If Roubaix didn’t produce the perfect fairytale ending you could argue the Flanders managed it nicely. Peter Sagan had won solo the previous weekend in Gent Wevelgem and did the same in the Ronde to deny Fabian Cancellara a farewell victory. Sagan accepts that other riders won’t work with him in a way that Cancellara has never seemed to manage and he seemed equally at ease about the ‘curse’ of the rainbow jersey that so many commentators love to cite anytime any world champion cyclist fails to win in the stripes. If you believe in such things (along with unicorns I suppose), Sagan put that to bed in Gent and looked the strongest he has ever been in the Ronde.

There was a nice symmetry in both world champions winning their respective editions of the race. Lizzie Armitstead is starting to look like Marianne Vos as she seems to bend each race she rides to her will. Vos who returned to racing in a rather more low key event in her native Holland the same weekend will no doubt recapture the form that made her the rider to beat in the women’s peloton but right now Armitstead is the benchmark in women’s cycling.

Hardly surprising that two of the biggest races on the calendar could produce so many headline grabbing stories in the space of seven days. I’ll admit the one for me hasn’t gone completely unmissed but just in case I’m going to share it. Now the Ronde and Roubaix have something else in common besides cobbles. They’re both world tour races and as such if you’re a world tour team then you have to turn up. In previous seasons it has been reasonable to wonder if teams like Movistar would bother with the cobbled classics given half a chance to sack off races that don’t really translate that well to Spain. But this year something changed. Movistar got a rider in the break in Flanders. Not only that, when the break got caught the Movistar rider, Imanol Erviti stayed with the leading group and crossed the line 7th.

Fast forward a week to Roubaix and who’s in the break again? That man Erviti. Now in all the excitement about Mat Hayman Erviti’s 9th place finish is inevitably a bit less of a headline grabber. But here’s the thing. In these two monuments only one rider (Sep Vanmarcke) has delivered two top ten results. This isn’t to suggest that Movistar are suddenly going to be a force in the classics but Erviti’s rides deserve a bit more coverage than they are likely to get after a pair of particularly classic editions of the Ronde and Roubaix.

A couple of other mentions.. 

The new job kept me from watching Pais Vasco live but even a highlights show is enjoyable when Steve Cummings steals another win. Alberto Contador took the overall, but I just haven’t seen enough stage racing to make the call on the grand tours yet.

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

Wiggo – exit with a bang or a whimper?

Paris Roubaix 2015

So that’s that then. Bradley Wiggins final race in Team Sky colours ends in 18th place in Paris Roubaix, nine places lower than his finishing position last year. Should this be seen as a failure? Many will answer “yes” but I’m not sure I agree with that. When the mainstream media show any interest in a cycling story the hyperbole is cranked up to maximum level and and Wiggins found himself cast in the role of favourite as anything less wouldn’t have sold the story. Of course Wiggins himself had talked up his chances for the race and it has often proved to be the case that he will get a result in an event that he ‘targets’. With Paris Roubaix falling at the end of the cobbled classics a review of what has transpired over the last few weeks left me thinking that whatever Wiggins thought of his own chances; no matter how well he and the Sky classics squad had prepared and considering the results so far this year, he would need to ‘go long’ to win.

In my last post I talked about how the order of things in this year’s cobbled races had been upset by injuries to riders like Tom Boonen and Fabian Cancellara and the improvement in the fortunes of Sky and Katusha. Boonen and Cancellara between them have dominated the recent history of Paris Roubaix (and last week’s Tour of Flanders) and Cancellara’s absence in particular has had a huge impact on how each race has evolved tactically this year. I don’t think that Alexander Kristoff would have been able to win in Flanders if Cancellara had been fit and I think that rival teams have struggled to adapt their race plans to the emergence of the Norwegian as a factor. With Kristoff in the form of his life I felt that the best way for Wiggins to counter his threat would be to attack at any point between 50 and 20 kilometres to go off the end of one of the cobbled sectors and time trial everyone off his wheel.

There was the briefest of flashes that Wiggins might do this with 32km to go when he broke free from the peloton and overhauled Stijn Vandenbergh who was ahead at the time. Although the remains of the breakaway were still further up the road I think if Wiggins had pushed on this point he could have won. Of course this is just one of several ‘what ifs?’ but Wiggins had enough left in the tank to attack again (by the time the race was effectively lost) at the roundabout outside Roubaix where Niki Terpstra went away last year. So if Wiggins had the legs; what else let him down?

Continue reading Wiggo – exit with a bang or a whimper?