Friday, January 15, 2016

2015 season in review: The year of motorbikes knocking over cyclists

2015 was the year terror struck Paris, twice; a Syrian child refugee washed up dead on a Turkish beach; the VW emissions scandal hit; an Iranian nuclear deal was struck; a new Canadian Prime Minister was elected; and Marty & Doc arrived in the future. But it was also the year that John Degenkolb done a Kelly; Contador, Froome and Aru won Grand Tours; Tom Dumoulin became a GC rider; and Mr. Everything, Peter Sagan, shook up the Worlds.

It was a busy year for me, reflected by the fact I wrote so little. Virtually nothing before the Tour, a little on the Vuelta, and a report of my trip to watch the Grand Prix Cycliste de Montréal. Not a word was typed on the Giro, and even the World Championships and Peter Sagan's stunning victory came and went without note. Such is life. But that didn't mean I didn't watch as much as I could, though I didn't watch the Giro and was left resorting to live minute-by-minute text updates. Still I seen enough to know it was a fine year of cycling and while it's much too late to go back now and rehash it all race by un-documented race, what would the end of one season and the start of another be if I didn't pause briefly to look back in broad terms at the year that was so I can at least get something about it down on record...and hand out some awards.

There were some memorable moments in 2015, as there are in every cycling season, I suppose, and those deserve a mention. Consider for a moment the following magical moments in rough chronological order, just to remind yourself how much you seen, heard, took in, and enjoyed: Riders refusing to race at the Tour of Oman; the wind at Ghent-Wevelgem; Wiggins attacking at Paris-Roubaix; John Degenkolb winning Paris-Rouabix; Alex Dowsett's Hour Record pre-Wiggins; Richie Porte recieving a time penalty for taking a wheel from Simon Clarke at the Giro; Contador blitzing Aru across the Mortirolo; Romain Bardet's descent at the Dauphine; that huge crash at the Tour which all but eliminated Cancellara in Yellow, days before Tony Martin also crashed out in Yellow; Tony Martin winning the cobble stage at the Tour and taking the Yellow jersey after so many near misses; Chris Froome on the Col de Soudet; Chris Froome having piss thrown at him and then defending himself against former French professionals; Peter Sagan descending off the Col de Manse; Vincenzo Nibali holding onto his team car and getting DQ'd at the Vuelta; Tom Dumoulin fighting to retain Red at the Vuelta, but falling short; Fabio Aru redeeming his 2nd at the Giro with his first GT win at the Vuelta; Vincenzo Nibali redeeming himself by winning Il Lombardia solo in front of his adoring home fans; and motorbikes running into riders countless times.

An unbelievable year in the sport, so many talking points, and not a single doping scandal (though there was the release of the CIRC report back in early March). And yet I've left five other special moments off that long list. Those five are the ones that, for me at least, rose above the rest and jumped to my mind first when I initially cast my mind back on the cycling year that was. Here are those, followed thereafter by a number of other awards...

TOP 5 MEMORABLE MOMENTS

1. ENTIRE FIRST WEEK OF THE TOUR
I grew up watching a Tour in which a flat and simple first week belonged to the sprinters while the overall contenders stayed out of the way and out of trouble. Not so in 2015. What the race organisers laid down was, I believe, the most difficult and chaotic first week in memory. We had a record breaking time-trial, cross-winds, muurs, cobbles, crashes, men riding wounded, panic, time splits, multiple changes in Yellow, multiple Yellow abandonments, a team-time-trial, riders exhausted and some teams severely depleated. It was a week that the likes of Vincenzo Nibali was expected to shine and Chris Froome to struggle, and yet by the time it was all said and done, with the high mountains still to come, it was Froome in Yellow with his rivals lagging behind. If the Tour had finished after that first week rather than simply entering its first rest day, we couldn't have said we were sold short.

2. SAGAN WINS THE WORLD ROAD RACE CHAMPIONSHIP
It was something special, wasn't it? And it was almost inevitable, despite the many second place finishes he had throughout the season. We barely seen him the entire race, his small national team not expected to do the work expected of the big nations, and while others took their turn to go up the road and the laps ticked down, you just got this feeling that Sagan had finally learned from all the mistakes that had cost him so many additional wins before, and that this time he was going to get it right. And there he was on the last run up that sharp little climb, kicking hard, not giving the rest a chance, opening a gap of maybe ten metres by the top. Not enough by anyones ability, anyone that is beyond the unlimited talents of Sagan. There was a descent to come with some tight corners, and that was what he was banking on. He swept through them and the gap grew. And then he was gone. He began to fade near the end but by then it was too late for the rest, and he even had time to sit up and naunclantly take in the moment as he rolled across the line, celebrating the biggest win of his career in a manor that only Sagan can. And everyone in the cycling world to a man was delighted.

3. STEVE CUMMINGS OUTDUELS FRENCH DUO TO WIN STAGE 14 OF THE TOUR FOR AN AFRICAN TEAM ON MANDELA DAY
It was an amazing come from behind victory by the British rider, against two French favourites, while riding for an African team on Mandela Day. Cummings was part of a large break that reached the final short but steep climb, the Côte de la Croix Neuve, well ahead of the peloton, and while the young French hopes of Romain Bardet and Thibaut Pinot went on the attack, Cummings went into time-trial mode and switched off from the rest. By the summit he was still close, and as the Frenchmen began to play a game of cat and mouse to see who would lead out the sprint, the lion Cummings put his head down and moved in for the kill. He built up speed and, to the shock of the cautious French pair looking st one another, roared past and immediately opened a gap; a gap they wouldn't close. The French cannot have enjoyed watcing the British dominate their race in recent years, from Wiggo to Froome to Cav, and this one must have stung more than most, but who could complain, for like Jalabert winning for the French on Bastille Day 1995 at the same finish, Cummings won for his African team on Mandela Day. It was a beautiful ride full of courage, grit and determination.

4. IAN STANNARD OUTDUELS ETTIX TRIO TO WIN 2ND OMLOOP
The theory of it may sound much like the moment above; it even contained a British rider, but the difference lay in the fact that Ian Stannard couldn't take advantage of the element of surprise. In this one, he came into the final kilometres surrounded by three Ettix Quick Step riders, Tom Boonen, Stijn Vandenbergh and Niki Terpstra. The odds were stacked against him, especially given the experience of the opposition, but still, towards the run in, Stannard sat in while the Ettix boys tried to keep a chasing Stijn Vandenbergh at bay, so by the time the duel for the win began, Stannard had relitively fresh legs. When the first Ettix attack came, by their sprinter, Boonen—the first mistake—Stannard didn't panic and slowly reeled him in. When the next attack came, this time by Terpstra, it lacked power and it was an Ettix rider that bright him back—the second mistake. That moment of uncertainty among his rivals signalled an opportunity for Stannard; he kicked hard and broke the back of Boonen and Vandenbergh leaving only Terpstra as his remaining competition. The final Ettix mistake came when Terpstra opted to lead out the sprint and the big man Stannard roared around him inside the final few hundred metres to win his secont Omloop on the trot. Ettix were rightly criticised post-race, but Stannard deserved the praise for such a gutsy ride.

5. WIGGINS SETS NEW WORLD HOUR STANDARD
I watched this on my phone in a pub near my house with a friend who was over from the UK visiting. He wasn't a big cycling fan and so I explained the relavance of the World Hour record within the sport, the history, and the respect with which it is afforded, and how a tweaking to the rules in the past year had seen several riders go for, and break, the standard. Wiggins however was a different kattle of fish, and he was expected to set a distance that would put the record out of reach and end these quick succession attempts by others. While the atmospheric conditions weren't entirely favourable, Wiggins still lived up to expectations with a distance of 54.526. His track craft was obvious, his position flawless—you know, that steady position that makes you believe you could place a full glass of wine on his back and not spill a drop—and nodody has since tried to better it, and may not for some time.

AWARDS

Cyclist of the Year: PETER SAGAN
In the early season, Peter Sagan couldn't buy himself a big victory as the likes of John Degenklob became the first man since Sean Kelly to win the Milan-San Remo and Paris-Roubaix in the same year and Alexander Kristoff won 5 races in the first 9 days of April including the Tour of Flanders. Even into the Tour Sagan struggled to pick up an actual victory, but then there was the remarkable fact that he finished in the top five in 11 of 21 stages in that Tour to go with top results in a number of the spring classics. He was always on the attack in France, featuring on all kinds of terrain and cementing his forth straight Green jersey prize. And while others faded as the season went on, Sagan got stronger. There was that superb overall victory at the Tour of Califnoria with his climb up Mt. Baldy, and then finally, he put those big-race second place finishes behind him once and for all at the Road World Championships in Richmond, Virginia with a memorable solo win. Sagan proved himself beyond doubt to be the most versatile, aggressive and charasmatic rider in the sport.
Runners up: John Degenklob, Alexander Kristoff, Chris Froome and Tom Dumoulin.
Past winners: 2011 Philippe Gilbert; 2012 Sir Bradley Wiggins; 2013 Vincenzo Nibali; 2014 Vincenzo Nibali.

Sprinter: ANDRE GREIPEL
Hard to look beyond his four stage wins at the Tour de France to go with his 15 total race wins for the season. He got the better of Cavendish more than anyone thought he could and with Marcel Kittle having an off season he took full advantage. He even pressed Peter Sagan further than anyone felt possible for the Green jersey before finally relenting when the Slovak turned on the style on the hilly roads. Can he repeat in 2016 or will Kittel and Cavendish, both on new teams, bounce back?
Past winners: 2011 Mark Cavendish; 2012 Mark Cavendish; 2013 Marcel Kittel; 2014 Marcel Kittel.

Climber: CHRIS FROOME
Say what you like about the climbing style of Nairo Quintana and the punishment he laid out on a sick Chris Froome on Alpe d'Huez, the fact remains when push came to shove on that first big climb of the Tour on stage 10 it was Froome who threw down the gauntlet and left his rivals for dead. Only illness on those final few stages exposed a weakness that Quintana tried to take advantage of but when all was said and done and all mountains were passed, it was still Froome who rolled into Paris not just in Yellow, but also as the winner of the King of the Mountains competition. It's just a shame we couldn't get to see how either would do in a head-to-head at the Vuelta, as both left early, against a Fabio Aru who had his work cut out against the impressive, but unhearlded, Tom Dumoulin.
Past winners: 2011 David Moncoutie; 2012 Joaqium Rodriguez; 2013 Chris Froome; 2014 Nairo Quintana.

Time-trialist: ROHAN DENNIS
It was Vasil Kiryienka who won the World Championship time-trial and Tom Dumoulin who almost used the time-trial to his advantage to win the Vuelta, but the sit-up-and-take-note time-trial of 2015 was Rohan Dennis on stage 1 of the Tour. It was only 13.8km in length, but in it he set down the fastest time-trial in Tour history at 55.446km/h, beating the record set by Chris Boardman at the 1994 Tour, in a prologue. It was a time-trial that also came at the start of the Tour when everyone was fresh and prepared and it featured heavy hitters like Tony Martin, Fabian Cancellara and Dumoulin. Dennis beat them all.
Past winners: 2011 Cadel Evans; 2012 Sir Bradley Wiggins; 2013 Tony Martin; 2014 Sir Bradley Wiggins.

Classics rider: JOHN DEGENKOLB
This was a tough one to pick. Alejandro Valverde won both the La Flèche Wallonne and Liège-Bastogne-Liège in the space of four days, but there was something magical about seeing John Degenkolb become the first man since Sean Kelly in 1986 and Eddy Merckx before him, to win the Milan-San Remo and Paris-Roubaix in the same year. It's set a new standard by which we will now judge Degenkolb but he's a class act both on and off the bike and there's no reason he cannot be at the forefront to win one, or both, of those races again.
Past winners: 2011 Philippe Gilbert; 2012 Tom Boonen; 2013 Fabian Cancellara; 2014 Simon Gerrans.

Most complete rider: PETER SAGAN
Hard to argue this. He can sprint (evident by his forth Green jersey title), he can climb (see the Tour of California and efforts on various degrees of hills at the Tour), he can time-trial (see again the Tour of California), he can descend (see him drop off the Col de Manse at the Tour) and his ability to handle a bike is beyond anyone else in the peloton. And now he is World Champion. All that remains is for him to start adding monument glories to his palmares and you get the feeling that the World Championship win might just see him move to another level still in terms of results, fulfilling a talent that seems almost boundless.
Past winners: 2014 Alejandro Valverde.

Team: SKY
Sky were consistant throughout 2015. Geraint Thomas won the Volta ao Algarve, Richie Porte won Paris-Nice, Lars Petter Nordhaug won the Tour of Yorkshire and Chris Froome the Critérium du Dauphiné, all before the Tour. In the classics Ian Stannard won the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and Thomas the E3 Harelbeke. And there were other stage wins too, including multiple wins by Elia Viviani, a Nicolas Roche stage win at the Vuelta, and Bradley Wiggins' final victory for the team in a stage at the Three Days of De Panne. Then at the Tour, Froome took a stage win on his way to winning the Yellow jersey and the King of the Mountains, while as a collective they took home the team prize. And yet, for me, the standout performance of them as a team was their ability to control the race through that brutal first week of the Tour and then to continue protecting Froome in the mountains. The balance was superb and managed with perfection.
Past winners: 2012 British Olympic track team; 2013 Orica GreenEdge; 2014 Tinkoff-Saxo.

Breakthrough young rider: JULIAN ALAPHILIPPE
A fine spring for the young Frenchman who was 2nd at Liège-Bastogne-Liège, 2nd at La Flèche Wallonne and 7th at the Amstel Gold. In short Tours he had three top 5 stage finishes at the Tour de Romandie while at the Tour of California he had a stage win and was 2nd overall to Peter Sagan while taking the young rider classification. His season was quieter over the summer but we can't be surprised given he's only 23. Big things will be expected of him in spring 2016.
Past winners: 2011 Pierre Rolland; 2012 Peter Sagan; 2013 Nairo Quintana; 2014 Fabio Aru.

Hard man: ADAM HANSEN
Michael Matthews could stake a claim for this award meaning that the Aussies were without doubt the toughest nation on the professional tour, but I've gone with Hansen for his wounded ride through the Tour de France. Not only was the Tour Hansens 12th Grand Tour in a row (the streak since extended to 13 when he completed the Vuelta, a new all-time record), but he did so in abject agony. A big crash on just the second stage left Hansen with a badly dislocated shoulder and that night he took to Twitter to say the following: "AC dislocation. Same shoulder as three weeks ago. Was told its going to be the most painful three weeks four me. I eat pain for breakfast. Bring it on!" It would have been easier to walk away and accept his consecutive Grand Tour completion streak was over but, with that surely in the back of his mind, as well as the desire to help his team, Hansen soldiered on in pain. There is no doubt that Adam Hansen is a hard man and, like all those who factor in this category, he is one of the sports most likeable characters.
Past winners: 2011 Johnny Hoogerland; 2012 Johan Van Summeren; 2013 Geraint Thomas; 2014 Alberto Contador.

Domestique: GERAINT THOMAS
Super domestique Geraint Thomas came into his own in 2015, especially in aid of his team-leader, Chris Froome, at the Tour de France. He won the E3 Harelbeke and was competitive in numerous other races throughout the spring and then showed up at the Tour as one of the key men guiding Froome across the cobbles and keeping him near the front in the cross winds only to keep him form high in the high mountains as he maintained a top five place overall until the final few days. But for so much work in that first week, who knows how high he could have soared, and no doubt he now has that question in the back of his mind. What that changes in his approach to the 2016 Tour remains to be seen, but in 2015 there's little doubt this was the best man for any team leader to have by their side on almost any terrain.
Past winners: 2013 Adam Hansen; 2014 Tony Martin.

Retiring: GOODBYE TO
Ivan Basso, Thomas Dekker, Cadel Evans, Gert Steegmans, John Gadret, Ted King, Alexander Kolobnev, Brett Lancaster and Alessandro Petacci, among others.


---

It's on this line I should be saying have a wonderful Christmas and a Happy New Year, but that has all come and gone now, so with the old season in the history books and the new one just days away, let's turn to 2016 and enjoy what will surely be another brilliant cycling season full of stories, talking points and memorable moments.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Wellens rises to the top though downpour at yet another supeb race in Montréal

The rain came early and it came often but for those who braved it--and there was more than you'd imagine--they were treated to one of the best races of the year on one of the toughest courses of the year in what some riders described afterwards as the hardest race they had ever been in.

In the end, Tim Wellens won but not before half the field, or so it seemed, had a crack at getting into the break and it wasn't until about 80km left of the 205.7km race that one finally established and lasted beyond a couple of laps of the 12.1km circuit in Montréal. The move contained Thomas Voeckler, Louis Vervaeke (who was in the day-long break last year) and Manuel Quinziato and was launched moments after Michal Kwiatkowski had been pulled back by a large group that contained the likes of Romain Bardet, Warren Barguil and Jakob Fuglsang among several others and that had survived for a handful of laps building a lead of more than one minute at one stage. That group however, like the half a dozen moves before it, was eventually swallowed up by a peloton in panic at the kind of names trying to get away and the brief lull allowed the Voeckler group to establish itself.

The rain eased after the first five or six laps, even allowing the sun to crack through briefly, but the racing rarely abated and the quick start and constant attacks over those early laps soon seen the field splitting up with a large group distanced from the main bunch on that testing 1.8km climb at an average gradient of 8%. It may not seem like much, but when you tackle it 17 times as they did in this race, it quickly becomes a true weeding out process as tiring legs begin to struggle to stay with the pace each time up.

The weather no doubt played its part in the number of abandonment's and by the time the skies opened and the thunder rolled with three laps to go for the heaviest downpour of the lot, the field was down to just 64 of the 167 starters (minus Sky's Bernard Eisel who broke his arm at the Quebec race two days before). And with just a lap to go the break that now also continued Andriy Grivko, having bridged across when he left behind Chris Juul Jensen--himself active in a handful of moves in the early going--was finally reeled in as counter attacks on the last run up the climb gave us our final selection for victory.

The race was wide open to a dozen high profile names but from the move emerged Wellens and Adam Yates and they maintained it to the finish. Not that those of us waiting at the finish knew. The storm that was passing over had cut the local feed to the big screens and word of mouth via those with access to Twitter kept those around them informed of what moves were being made. By the time they splashed under the 1km kite, revealing themselves to those waiting directly opposite at the start/finish line, on their way down to the hair-pin bend for the final time, it was Yates on the wheel of Wellens with a select group of about 12 a handful of seconds behind and what was left of the main field a few seconds behind that. Out of the turn and up through the feed zone Yates ended the game of cat and mouse that threatened their catch when he made the first move, but Wellens countered and took the sprint with relative ease. Rui Costa, previous winner here and perennial podium man who came second last year, came home third this time as the rain tailed off.

Wilco Kelderman, Bardet, Robert Gesink, Philippe Gilbert and Kwiatkowski, who had all tried to force the issue on the final run up the Mount Royale, finished within a handful of seconds of Wellens and in doing so highlighted their intentions and form for the upcoming World Championships. The elite men's road-race championship takes place two weeks after this race and it remains one of the ideal preparation races for it.

The team of the day was no doubt Lotto Soudal and not just because of Wellens's victory. They were also the only team in which all eight men finished the race, especially impressive given the course and the conditions, and their young star, Louis Vervaeke, aged just 21, was rewarded for his long stint in the break by winning the climbing prize.

This Grand Prix Cycliste de Montréal never fails to deliver and on the three occasions I have went up to it over the last three years, I've only ever seen good racing. What makes it so brilliant is the fact it is on a circuit. To those watching on TV, that isn't always the greatest way to watch a race when you prefer to see them cover great lateral distances through towns and countrysides, but for the fans that turn out to watch, it's probably the best form of racing.

17 laps of a 12.1km course taking the winner over 5 hours means that you see action all day. You don't stand around waiting for the race to flash past and then head home again, but rather wait less than 20 minutes for it to come through each time while moving around various points on the course to experience different aspects of the race. And it's not too short either to have that feel of a crit, but long enough for plenty to take place within a lap with plenty to challenge a rider on a single lap. Frequently on Sunday we seen breaks go more than half a minute clear, but be caught and a new move launched all within the space of a single lap.

While you don't see what all goes on around the back of the course, it passes you by enough for you to get an idea of what is going on and get the sense that you are watching the entire race develop before you, long before the TV pictures would go live around the world. And this year highlighted that better than ever with attacking all day long in a race that had dozens of pontential contenders.

Post race, Julian Alaphilippe described it on Twitter as "one of the most difficult races of the season", while Lotto Soudal's Greg Henderson celebrated his teams fine performance but called it the "hardest bike race ever", on his Twitter feed.

And yet despite its difficulty, along with the Friday race up in Quebec City, the riders who come across to be a part of it, find it one of the best of the year. The hotel accommodation is as good as they get during the season, and the circuits are unique and challenging. As a one-day race with a World Tour rating, it attracts a strong field of classic type riders and remains arguably the best preparation race for the World Championships. It's just a shame it overlaps with the final weekend of the Vuelta.

I know I'll be back next year, though I hope the rain isn't, and I still retain ambitions of one day taking in the Quebec City race as well on a long-weekend road trip.

Result:
1. Tim Wellens

2. Adam Yates

3. Rui Costa

4. Jan Bakelants

5. Tiesj Benoot

6. Wilco Kelderman

7. Romain Bardet

8. Robert Gesink

9. Philippe Gilbert

10. Tom Jelte Slagter

Others:
12. Michal Kwiatkowski
23. Michael Woods
35. Chris Juul Jensen
47. Thomas Voeckler
52. Louis Vervaeke

(TLS)

(OGE)

(LAM)

(ALM)

(TLS)

(TLJ)

(ALM)

(TLJ)

(BMC)

(TCG)


(EQS)
(CAN)
(TSC)
(EUC)
(TLS)
in 5h 20' 9"

s.t.

@ 2"

@ 4"

s.t.

@ 5"

s.t.

@ 9"



all s.t.


@ 9"
@ 15"
@ 1' 18"
@ 4' 59"
@ 6' 41"

Monday, September 14, 2015

A ridge too far for Dumoulin as Aru snatches victory with team assault on the loan Dutchman

Tom Dumoulin had fought them off for 16 hard stages until he reached the only individual-time-trial of this years Vuelta, at which time he finally turned the tables in his specialised event and seized the Red jersey with four stages to spare. He even doubled his lead from a mere 3 seconds to 6 seconds a few days later and it looked like maybe he had just done enough with just one day and four mountains left to survive. But then the wheels came off. The climb up the Puerto de la Morcuera proved to be a ridge too far for the Dutchman as his legs finally gave in to the relentless pressure and Aru was free to ride off and win the Vuelta.

Dumoulin had cracked, born a generation too late from a time when two long time-trial might have been the norm and would have seen him win here with ease. Indeed, he picked one of the hardest Vuelta's with regards to climbing in recent memory to stake his claim to win it and the way he went about it was admirable. If only they'd finished the hilly stuff a day before, or indeed on the climb before. If only indeed. By the time all was said and done on the stage won by Ruben Plaza after a brilliant 112km solo ride, Dumoulin had lost 3min 52sec to Aru and slumped right down into 6th overall.

I had felt that having survived the short climb up to the finish of stage 19, and even gained time on Aru, that he had done enough. That with the final of the four climbs on stage 20 coming 20km from the finish, Dumoulin would be able to time-trial back on again even if he were dropped. That we had seen throughout this Vuelta a man able to measure his efforts perfectly, to ignore the gaps the climbers got on him and instead pace himself to the finish without going into the red zone and without losing major time as a result. As it turns out, there is no way to survive it when you're one man against a team and your legs finally call it quits.

Dumoulin came into this Vuelta on a Giant-Alpecin team that never held general classification success as its aim and as a result never sent riders that could aid in going for the Vuelta victory. The upshot of that was Dumoulin, who suddenly found himself in the form of his life and very much in contention throughout, being left isolated by teams loaded with climbers. He had fought them off superbly but on this day, Aru's Astana team played it perfectly.

They put men in the early break, men that then sat up to wait for Aru and help pace him once he had cracked Dumoulin. This gave Aru strength in numbers to survive in the valley between the third climb in which he had cracked Dumoulin and the final climb from which he could then put further time into him. Dumoulin got close to getting across to Aru's group in that valley leading to the Puerto de Cotos, but those extra Astana legs ensured he never got close enough and ensured Aru hit the final climb clear of Dumoulin and could ride on to take the Red jersey on what was his final chance.

Cycling is an individual sport inside a team setting, and vise-versa. Only one man stands on the top of the podium wearing the race leaders jersey come the finish and you must have the legs, the lungs, the talent and the skill to begin with otherwise no team will make a difference, but without that team to set you up, to look after you, to play the tactical game, its virtually impossible to succeed over a three week race. It's why Aru will, as tradition dictates, split his prize money amongst his team-mates. And never has the importance of those men around you been better highlighted than in this stage.

Dumoulin may have been beaten here, but he won't go away anytime soon. He has proven his new found ability to compete over three weeks and you can be sure his team, if they wish to retain him long term, will need to provide him with more suitable support for mountain type stages in the future. He too will know his new capabilities and will surely tailor his training even more specifically towards achieving Grand Tour success. Had he, and his team, known three weeks ago that he could go this far in Spain he'd likely be going home the champion.

I hear that next years Giro might well have two individual-time-trials and if that is the case, Mr. Dumoulin will surely have a new target. Of course, his rivals will now be aware of him from the start. They will no longer ride the first week assuming he will crack in the second and not become a risk to their hopes of success. A new contender has certainly emerged.

But lets save the last word for Aru, the man who won. In what looked like being the closest Grand Tour of all time just two days from Madrid, the Italian ended up winning by a convincing 57sec from Joaqium Rodriguez and 1min 9sec from Rafal Majka. Nairo Quintana eventually came home 4th but a man clealy not fully recovered from his efforts at the Tour.

Aru though had targeted this Vuelta and was justly rewarded for his efforts. I don't know a lot about him personally but Aru comes across as a humble and quiet man. What I do know of him on the bike it's clear he has talent and at the age of 25 surely has more similar success ahead of him. Hailing from the Italian island of Sardinia, his career path is reminiscent to that of a man from the other big Italian island of Sicily: Vincenzo Nibli, his Astana team-mate. His first Grand Tour win also came at age of 25 and it also came at the Vuelta following a podium at that years Giro.

Next year both Aru and Nibali will battle for Astana team-leadership with the younger Italian having now proved himself a winner and surely setting his sights upon Giro success of a first crack at Le Tour, while Dumoulin will go off in search of team-mates that can support him in the high mountains. Until then, the Italian will celebrate a fine win while the Dutchman will lick his wounds and think about coming back stronger.

Final general classification:
1. Fabio Aru

2. Joaqium Rodriguez

3. Rafal Majka

4. Nairo Quintana

5. Esteban Chaves

6. Tom Dumoulin

7. Alejandro Valverde

8. Mikel Nieve

9. Daniel Moreno

10. Louis Meintjes
(AST)

(KAT)

(TSC)

(MOV)

(OGE)

(TGA)

(MOV)

(SKY)

(KAT)

(MTN)
in 85h 36' 13"

@ 57"

@ 1' 9"

@ 1' 42"

@ 3' 10"

@ 3' 46"

@ 6' 47"

@ 7' 6"

@ 7' 12"

@ 10' 26"

Friday, September 11, 2015

GPCQM preview: 10 to watch plus predictions!

Today the first of the two World Tour races in Quebec, Canada get under way in Québec City with the second race on Sunday in Montreal. This will be the 6th running of the Grand Prix Cycliste de Québec et Montreal (GPCQM) and it's become a big hit with the locals as well as the riders themselves.

A number of riders have spent the past two days posting pictures on their respective social media accounts showing the castle like hotel they have been staying at in Québec City, clearly a level up from what they are used to at many events. I've never been to the Québec City race, though the city looks beautiful with the race going right through the middle of the old part of the city, with a lot of fans at the sides of the road. I really must make the trip to do the double header sometime rather than just the Montréal race. The idea of sitting on one of the patios of those street side pubs watching the race go by all afternoon is very appealing indeed!

This weekend though I will head up to Montréal for the third straight year to watch the race. It's as tough a one-day non-Monument World Tour race that there is: 17 laps of a 12.1km course in which they go up and over the 1.8km Côte Camilien-Houde with an average gradient of 8%, and the 780m, 6% Côte de la Polytechnique each time for a total distance of 205.7km and elevation of 3,893m. And the Québec race isn't a lot easier with 16 laps of a 12.6km circuit for 201.6km of racing and 2,976m of climbing.

Both races are also superb tune-up events ahead of the World Championships with the Montréal race coming exactly two weeks before the road-race this year in Richmond and there are a number of riders who will hope to win the championships who will also take part this weekend. Below are ten names to look out for that should make an impact in one way or another.

#1 Michal Kwiatkowski (Etixx-Quick Step)
The reigning World Champion will have the rainbow colours on full display in Quebec and both courses are ideally suited to him. He could win on either day or indeed do what Simon Gerrans did last year and win on both. Gerrans for the record is not riding in Quebec this year.

#2 Julian Alaphilippe (Etixx-Quick Step)
The Quick Step team have an extremely strong line-up and while Kwiatkowski will lead, they will have other cards to play should things not work out for the Pole. One of those is Alaphilippe who has had a breakout year this season. 2nd in both La Flèche Wallonne and Liège–Bastogne–Liège as well as 2nd overall at the Tour of California, the circuits here, especially Montréal, look made for the Frenchman.

#61 Philippe Gilbert (BMC)
Always a threat on these kind of courses, especially when he's lining up a bid for the World Championships. We all know about his haul of victories in 2011 but Gilbert has had a solid 2015 winning two stages of the Giro and taking 2nd a the Clásica de San Sebastián. And he has history in Québec, a course ideally suited to his style, having won it in 2011.

#77 Adam Yates (Orica GreenEDGE)
I always get Adam and his twin brother Simon mixed up. Both are fine riders though I think the climbing in Montréal might suit the likes of Adam more and he's coming in with good form by coming 2nd in the Tour of Alberta and winning the climbing classification.

#81 Romain Bardet (AG2R La Mondiale)
6th at Liège–Bastogne–Liège, not to mention his stage win and 9th overall at Le Tour and contention for the King of the Mountains, Bardet is a superb young talent who seems to enjoy the one-day events as well as the big Tours. A superb descender, Bardet might like the run-in at Montréal.

#88 Alexis Vuillermoz (AG2R La Mondiale)
Team-mate of Bardet, Vuillermoz may be even more suited to either race in Québec or Montréal. The former mountain biker has had a breakout season on the road this year when he won the 8th stage of the Tour de France up the Mûr-de-Bretagne and was 3rd on the stage up the Mur de Huy. Neither race in Canada will finish on such a climb but there are the kind of climbs he will enjoy.

#101 Rui Costa (Lampre-Merida)
Costa likes these races. He won the Montréal event in 2011 and has finished in the top ten of both on six occasions including a 2nd in Montréal in 2014. He won the World Championship in 2013 after finishing 5th and 6th in Québec and Montréal respectively and will be hoping for a similar such performance ahead of Richmond 2015 this time around.

#121 Bauke Mollema (Trek Factory Racing)
After finishing 9th overall at the Tour de France, Mollema came to Canada and won the Tour of Alberta so he's in superb form and has mentioned that he is targeting a win in Quebec before heading to Richmond to play a helping roll for the Dutch team. His form has rarely been better so expect him to feature prominently this weekend.

#141 Ryder Hesjedal (Cannondale-Garmin)
The home-country hero, Hesjedal has said he is coming to Québec and Montréal to try and win. It's likely his last big race of the season and given he is leaving his Connondale-Garmin team at the end of the season he will be looking to go out on a high. He used the Tour of Alberta as a good tune-up and will look to give the Canadian fans something to shout about like in Montréal 2013 when he made a late bid to win only for Sagan to come out on top.

#151 Robert Gesink (Lotto NL-Jumbo)
The Dutchman is taking these two races very seriously indeed, and why not, other than Simon Gerrans he's the only man to have won both races before (2010 in Montréal, 2013 in Québec City - his last World Tour victory). He has also finished 2nd (2011) and 3rd (2012) in Québec and this year he's been in the Québec City area longer than any other rider, training and getting ready for what he hopes will be further success.

One local rider to look out for...
#208 Mike Woods (Team Canada)
Woods is from Ottawa, just 90 minutes up the road from Montréal and will be hoping to build on his superb form of late after having signed a contract for next season with Cannondale-Garmin. Woods is a late arrival to cycling; a promising middle-distance runner he had his career cut short by injury before turning to the bike and only becoming a professional at the age of 25 in 2013. Since then he has gone from strength to strength, and this year he finished 2nd at the Tour of Utah (with a stage win) and 10th at the Tour of Alberta (best Canadian). He won't win this weekend, but he could feature in a break or indeed on the climbs in the final laps when the action really kicks off.

Past winners:
Year Québec City Montréal
2010
2011
2012
2013
2014
Thomas Voeckler
Philippe Gilbert
Simon Gerrans
Robert Gesink
Simon Gerrans
Robert Gesink
Rui Costa
Lars Petter Nordhaug
Peter Sagan
Simon Gerrans

Predictions:
Québec: 1. Julian Alaphilippe, 2. Philippe Gilbert, 3. Alexis Vuillermoz.
Montréal: 1. Robert Gesink, 2. Ryder Hesjedal, 3. Rui Costa.

Roche no longer in the shadow of his father...Dumoulin fends off Aru's attacks

Nicolas Roche, often mentioned as the son of Stephen Roche though with comparisons rarely drawn anymore, done something his father never did yesterday...win a stage of the Vuelta, for the second time. Stephen only rode the Vuelta once in 1992 and never won a stage whereas Nicolas is taking part for the sixth time and yesterday escaped from the large break with Haimar Zubeldia and then out sprinted the veteran Trek Factory rider to win Sky's first stage of this years race.

Roche has carved out a fine career of his own after those early days when comparisons would be drawn with his dad and expectations to repeat his fathers achievements were rife. While Nicolas is never likely to win Grand Tours like his dad, he has become a very good team player and the road captain for Team Sky. And it's easy to forget he's now a 31 year old veteran himself -- four years older now than his dad was when he completed that Giro, Tour, Worlds triple crown -- and riding better than ever. Indeed he has now started the same number of Grand Tours as his dad ever did and, assuming he makes Madrid this Sunday, will have completed all 15 of them to Stephens 12.

There was no change in the GC battle as the final climb came too far out from the finish to make a massive impact. That didn't stop Aru trying however as he launched a number of searing attacks but found Tom Dumoulin in the red jersey stuck to his rear wheel.

Whether these attacks were meant to test the legs of Dumoulin in the hops of cracking him or just to soften him up for the days ahead, I'm not sure, but even had Aru opened a gap it's unlikely he would have sustained it to the line given 12km remained when the crossed the summit. Tomorrow's 2nd cat. climb tops out even further from the finish so dropping Dumoulin there would only see the Dutchman time-trial back onto Aru assuming he retained his composure upon being dropped as he has each time the little climbers have attacked thus far at this Vuelta.

There is however a punchy little cobbled climb up into the walled city of Ávila at the finish and that could allow for a handful of seconds to be gained. Dumoulin will have to be at his absolute strongest and keep his wits about him also not to allow any gaps to appear. In an ideal world for him he'll remain glued to the rear of Aru and a large break of riders up the road will contest the stage and the time bonuses.

That said, I still expect Aru to try something on the Alto de la Paramera given the desperation we seen creep in yesterday, and why not? He's got nothing to lose now. It's it funny though that it has taken this desperation for Aru to gain three seconds or others to gain time for a podium placing to finally see them launch early and daring attacks. In the stages before the time-trial the majority of summit finishes were being fought out in the final couple of kilometres as each man tried to gain seconds without taking the risk of collapse by going for it too far out. They were aware they had to take time on Dumoulin, but they were too worried about being counter attacked by other climbers and the result only favoured Dumoulin and has left the rest now desperate to attack.

It's made this Vuelta a fascinating tactical battle and one in which Dumoulin has played perfectly. Can his legs continue to allow him to do so? We'll have to see today and tomorrow but he can no longer afford to limit his loses, he must react to every move Aru makes and keep it tight.

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Dumoulin smashes TT while Aru finishes strong to remain intact

Slowly the weeding out process of this years Vuelta has seen us left with three likely winners coming into today. Joaqium Rodriguez, Fabio Aru and Tom Dumoulin, all three of whom have had their turn in Red over the past two and a half weeks. Today's time-trial would shake things up further and reduce the likely competition to win overall to just two and in doing so it turned into a micro-version of the race itself with each man taking a turn as provisional race leader on the road until at which times the overall standings were turned on their head with Tom Dumoulin back in Red with just 3sec to spare on the impressive Aru.

No two ways about it, Dumoulin smashed the 38.7km time-trial in impressive fashion, averaging a speed of over 50 km/h to win the stage by more than a minute to the next man and overturn a 1min 52sec deficit to take back the race leaders jersey. Credit too must go to Aru who himself done exactly what Dumoulin has done best in the mountains by limiting his losses enough to remain in touch with the Dutchman overall, while Rodriguez had a disaster and coughed up over 3mins to the stage winner leave him 1min 15sec out of the race lead.

The overall standings were as follows coming into the stage, meaning that Dumoulin had it all to do in his specialty event while Rodriguez and Aru were looking for the time-trial of their lives to remain in contact.

Pre-stage GC:
1. Rodriguez
2. Aru
3. Majka
4. Dumoulin
5. Nieve
6. Chaves

@ 1"
@ 1' 35"
@ 1' 51"
@ 2' 32"
@ 2' 38"

By the 13.5km mark, or one-third of the course in, Dumoulin was already stamping his authority on the stage. Riding like a man possessed, or with a Red jersey in front of his nostrils, he posted a time of 17min 44sec (45.7km/h) which was 44sec better than that of Aru and 1min 11sec up on Rodriguez who was clearly struggling and already out of the race lead. It shifted the provisional overall to the following:

Provisional GC:
1. Aru
2. Rodriguez
3. Dumoulin
4. Majka
5. Chaves
6. Moreno

@ 26"
@ 1' 6"
@ 1' 50"
@ 2' 48"
@ 3' 3"

By the time they reached the 27.5km check point, Dumoulin (in a time of 31min 41sec, 52.1km/h) had his foot on the throat of both Aru and Rodriguez. Aru had coughed up 1min 44sec and only retained the provisional lead over Dumoulin by 6sec while Rodriguez had lost a massive 2min 38sec.

Provisional GC:
1. Aru
2. Dumoulin
3. Rodriguez
4. Majka
5. Quintana
6. Chaves

@ 6"
@ 53"
@ 1' 55"
@ 2' 54"
@ 3' 1"

With 11.2km still remaining, if the time losses kept going at the rate they were with Aru losing 3.75sec/km and Rodriguez losing 5.75sec/km to Dumoulin, Aru would find himself losing 2min 26sec to Dumoulin on the day with Rodriguez worse still at 3min 43sec.

As it turned out, Dumoulin had put in his best effort and was starting to struggle whereas Aru had kept something in the tank. A short sharp little hill in the final sector may well have played its part but rather than lose a potential 42sec over the final 11.2km, Aru only lost 9sec and it meant he finished 1min 53sec behind Dumoulin leaving him just 3sec back overall. Rodriguez also improved in the final 11.2km as he kept what might have been a 1min 4sec loss over that stretch down to just 28sec. It meant he finished 3min 6sec behind Dumoulin, a disaster to his GC hopes you could say, but it could have been much worse.

The result however has seen the top ten turned on its head. Dumoulin is up from 4th place into the race lead, Rodriguez is down from 1st to 3rd, Majka down to 4th, Quintana (6th on the stage) and Valverde (3rd on the stage) both up three spots to 5th and 6th respectively, with Chaves and Moreno each losing a spot and Mikel Nieve losing four places and down to 9th.

With just a 3sec gap, Aru will fancy his chances to still win this race, especially with three hilly stages still to come, but with no summit finishes Dumoulin will also believe he can hang in and maintain his slender lead. For the likes of Rodriguez, Mijka, Quintana and Valverde, something audacious will be required; the kind of move that comes early on a hilly stage and splits the race to pieces. We can only hope for such drama, but given the race lead is only split by three seconds, I'd say we've been spoiled quite a lot already.

Classement:
1. Dumoulin (TGA)
2. Aru (AST)
3. Rodriguez (KAT)
4. Majka (TCS)
5. Quintana (MOV)
6. Valverde (MOV)
in 68h 40' 36"
@ 3"
@ 1' 15"
@ 2' 22"
@ 2' 53"
@ 3' 15"

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

The amazing multi-World Champion Ferrand-Prévot...Brief thoughts on the beautiful Tour of Alberta

Away from the men's road scene for a moment and a word on French woman, Pauline Ferrand-Prévot who last week in winning the Mountain Bike World Championship at Valnord-Andorra became the first cyclist in history to simultaneously hold the World road title, World cyclo-cross title and World mountain bike title.

Her road title came in last September's UCI World road championships and on 26 September this year she will get the chance to defend it and go one step further by winning all three championships in the same calendar year.

A extraordinary achievement for the 23 year old highlighting what is a huge talent. One quick look at her palmares and it would seem that up to now she's a woman for the big occasion as all her major victories this year on the road, cross and mountain bike (a first place in stage 5 of the woman's Giro aside) came in her major championships either nationally or internationally. When titles are on the line, this girl delivers.

Simultaneously holding all three titles is a record that is hard to see being beaten, certainly not in the men's side of the sport given the complete lack of cross-over between the three sports. Only Zdenek Štybar is remotely close to doing a double. While still competing on the road in 2014, Štybar won the World cross title, though he didn't defend it this year.

---

Back with the men's road scene, a mention about the six stage Tour of Alberta that wrapped up on Sunday, won by Trek Factory rider, Bauke Mollema. Some of the racing was great to watch though the numbers of fans at the side of the road was a touch disappointing. Still, the scenery was spectacular when the race hit the Rockies for two summit finishes--both won by Tom-Jelte Slagter--but through which Mollema maintained his lead.

The weather was tough throughout with many of the stages raced in winter weather gear as temperatures plummeted to close to freezing at times. It was a tough all-round test, highlighted the day after the mountains when the race had sectors of dirt road thrown in, that mixed in with the rain, looked like North America's very own Hell of the (Great White) North mud-bath. That race was won by Lasse-Norman Hansen of Cannondale-Garmin but only after the finish was neutralised when the chasing peloton took a wrong turn.

Still, a fine event of which the organisers can be proud, and it ties in nicely with the Grand Prix Cyclistes de Quebec and Montréal this coming Friday and Sunday respectively. I'll be at the race in Montréal so will tweet some pictures and put together some form of report upon my return. Bauke Mollema will surely fancy his chances.