Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Polka-Dot jersey wins in the high mountains

Stage 17: Saint-Gaudens to Saint-Lary-Soulan Pla d'Adet 124.5km. High Mountains.

A Tour de France is always that little bit better when the Polka-Dot jersey wins a stage in the high mountains. I've memories of seeing Claudio Chiappucci and Richard Virenque doing it years ago and in recent years, Thomas Voeckler, so it was nice today to see Rafal Majka get clear of what was left over from the days early break to make it happen again. And how he needed his second stage win of this years Tour because for a while it looked as though Joaquim Rodriguez might take the jersey off his shoulders having took enough points to lead the competition on the road going onto the final climb.

The days break...or should I say, second break after the one that went before the climbing started was caught on the first climb thanks to a ferocious pace being set by the bunch right from the gun on a stage that only measured 124.5km in length but which had three category one and one Hors Category climb in which to crest.

It was virtually impossible to keep track of everything going on as they continued over each climb. Different riders would attack, some would then be caught, others would attack and the large group that once contained 22 riders including Pierre Rolland, Jurgen Van Den Broeck, Frank Schleck, Jakob Fuglsang, Bauke Mollema, Nicolas Roche, Joaquim Rodriguez, Rafal Majka and Vasil Kiryienka, was soon scattered all across the Pyrenees.

It was the later, Kiryienka who made his bid for glory, like yesterday, attempting to be the man to salvage something from this nightmare Tour for Team Sky, but the attempt came to nothing when he was later picked up by a charging Rodriguez and Majka, desperate for King of the Mountains points. Attacks continued but all eyes were by now on the men behind as Bardet made an attempt to get rid of Pinot on the final descent of the day. He gained about 30 seconds on the yellow jersey group but was swept up onto the final climb to the Pla d'Adet.

It was on this climb that Rafal Majka made his move. One of the remnants of the days break, he had managed to reel in efforts by Nicolas Roche and Giovanni Visconti and was soon riding solo to the finish once again. With a second place on stage 13 and a win on stage 14 already in the bag, Majka was sealing the Polka-Dot jersey and handing Tinkoff-Saxo their third individual stage victory of the Tour and second in as many days after Michael Rogers had won yesterday. Majka was only a last minute call-up to the team to replace Roman Kreuziger, and had been reluctant to go having had a big Giro back in May. It was evident early he wasn't there to contend as he lost a lot of time on the early stages but it was that time loss that perhaps secured him the freedom to go up the road as often as he has in the high mountains.

Behind the yellow jersey group was shrinking, but the main five protagonists as it has now become...or four if you discard Nibali from them as the shoe in winner come Paris. Valverde, Pinot, Peraud and Bardet, each watching the other with half an eye on Nibali. And it was Nibali who struck first. Only Peraud could follow and the rest once again went into loss limiting mode. Their biggest worry was Peraud who in recent days has looked the strongest of the three Frenchmen to perhaps grab a podium place behind Nibali and Valverde.

And that is assuming Valverde retains his second place. The Spaniard lost contact to Bardet and Pinot at one point though did come back strong in the final kilometre to pass them both and gain five seconds. But five seconds gained to them was 49 seconds lost to Peraud who finished on the wheel of the yellow jersey.

There was no change to the positioning of the top five overall, but Peraud pulled within 8 seconds of Pinot for that final podium placing and is now just 42 seconds from Valverde.

Valverde will have to do something on tomorrow's final mountain stage to Hautacam because Peraud is a strong time-trialist and could gain serious time. The Spaniard will have to attack tomorrow and hope that those behind him in the GC have a bad day. It'll make for an intriguing race and it should set up that time-trial nicely. Baring absolute disaster however Nibali is secure in first, though all those behind him have had their troubles through the mountains and he has not, yet!

The man of the day however was Majka. He timed his moves perfectly and he didn't panic when Rodriguez seemed to be taking control of the King of the Mountains contest out on the road; he took the big points where it mattered, he crossed the line in the high mountains with the mountains jersey on his back, and he only has one more big day to survive in order to win a jersey from a race he didn't think he'd even be riding a month ago.

Result:
1. Majka (TCS) in 3h35'23"
2. Visconti (MOV) +29"
3. Nibali (AST) +46"
4. Peraud (ALM) s.t.
5. De Marchi (CAN) +49"
6. Rolland (EUC) +52"
Others:
10. Valverde (MOV) +1'35"
11. Pinot (FDJ) +1'40"
12. Bardet (ALM) s.t.
13. Van Garderen (BMC) s.t.

Overall:
1. Nibali (AST) in 76h41'28"
2. Valverde (MOV) +5'26"
3. Pinot (FDJ) +6'
4. Peraud (ALM) +6'08"
5. Bardet (ALM) +7'34"
6. Van Garderen (BMC) +10'19"

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Rogers gets his win at last

Stage 16: Carcassonne to Bagnères-de-Luchon, 237.5km. High Mountains.

It was the 15 July, 2007, stage 8 of the Tour de France on the road from Le-Grand-Bornand to Tignes and crossing the Cormet de Roselend among others. Michael Rogers was in the break, was bidding to become the first Australian to win the Tour de France and was looking for the first, of what would surely become many, stage wins in his career. He was 27 years of age; he was in the form of his life.

As anyone who followed the sport back then or has read about its history will have known, Rogers didn't win the Tour that year...he didn't win a stage that year, and hasn't won a stage any year. Any year that is, until this year...yesterday.

On that fateful day for the Australian seven years ago he crashed on the descent of the Roseland and had to abandon the Tour. When he crashed he was the virtual leader on the road, leading by more than the 4 minutes, 3 seconds he trailed his team-mate, Linus Gerdemann by in Yellow by and certainly more than the two and one second defects he trailed Alberto Contador and Cadel Evans by respectively. All the other contenders had come into the stage behind him on time.

Michael Rasmussen went on to win that stage by almost three and a half minutes over the other contenders and it put him into yellow. Rasmussen held the jersey until four days to go when, despite looking certain to win the Tour, his team took him out of the race for "violating internal rules" and suspicions of drug use. Time would confirm all this but it essentially handed the tour to a young Alberto Contador while Rogers watched on television.

But in spite of his bad fortune and lost attempt, many felt he'd be back again in the future and nobody could have foreseen him having to wait until now to win a stage.

But by the start of 2014 had you asked most people they'd have felt his chance to win a stage had long since past. The positive test for Clenbuterol at the very tail end of last season had looked to have ruled him out for at least this year and at 33 years of age, his career was on the ropes. But Rogers overcame. He was able to prove that the Clenbuterol was the result of tainted meat he had eaten in China and the case against him was dropped and his suspension lifted. His first race back was the Giro d'Italia and he wasted no time and being thankful for what he suddenly had again: The opportunity to race. He won two stages including the Queen stage up the mighty Zoncolan.

It seemed like a fine cap to a fine career, one from which he also overcame the 2007 crash and then the long setback from Glandular Fever, to transition into becoming one of the most reliable super domestiques in the pro-peloton. He became the road captain of Team Sky during the 2012 Tour de France and helped Bradley Wiggins to becoming the first British winner of the Tour; something he had hoped to do as an Australian in that 2007 Tour only for the honour to go the way of Cadel Evans in 2010.

From there his services were acquired by what is now the Tinkoff-Saxo team, to do for Alberto Contador what he did for Wiggins. Last year they fell short to Chris Froome, but hopes were high coming into 2014 until Contador crashed out on stage 10. It was Rogers was one of the first back to help his team leader, pacing him to try regain contact with the peloton only for Contador to pat the captain on the back and tell him he could no longer go on, but thank you for the service.

Rogers was now in the hunt for a stage win. Two Giro stages and why not a Tour stage to complete the dramatic turnaround of what looked for so long like a lost 2014 season. Today's stage was ideal for him...he got in the early break and the peloton let it go. It gained well over ten minutes at one point and it soon became clear the winner was coming from it. Still, Michal Kwiatkowski was there, two Sky riders were in on the act trying to save their tour, and there was Thomas Voeckler, two times winner into Luchon in the past and the bookies favorite once the break had established.

By the time they summited the HC ranked Port de Balès and began their descent to the finish the large group had reduced to just three: Rogers, Voeckler and José Serpa. Vasili Kiryienka and Cyril Gautier joined them on the way down, but Rogers had the bit between his teeth. When Europcars' Gautier attacked on the way down, his team-mate Voeckler couldn't chase and the window opened for Rogers. He jumped across and then beyond Gautier and was suddenly alone as he entered the town and went under the 3km banner. The four behind regrouped and attempted to chase but it was too late.

Rogers had time to sit up and milk the moment and to no doubt think about 2007, about the hopes he had then, about how long it had been since, and about finally winning a stage of the Tour, something he later confirmed he had dreamed about all his life. He took a bow as he crossed the line and punched the air once more. Michael Rogers had won a stage of Le Tour and looks as good now as he ever has since that crash on the Roseland seven years before.

---

One other point of note: Tour de France cyclists tend to be pretty hard: Yes there is what they go through every day just to finish a stage, but beyond that there is the injuries that some try to ride with just to get through. Take Alberto Contador, riding on for 25km after breaking his tibia, or Geraint Thomas last year, riding the majority of the 3 weeks on a broken pelvis. Now Reto Hollestein has thrown his 'hard hat' in the ring: He crashed yesterday and punctured a lung but with the medical car nowhere to be seen he remounted and finished the stage through the mountains...with a PUNCTURED LUNG!

Chapeau to that man.

Result:
1. Rogers (TIN) in 6h 07'10"
2. Voeckler (EUC) +9"
3. Kiryienka (SKY) s.t.
4. Serpa (LAM) s.t.
5. Gautier (EUC) s.t.
6. Van Avarmaet (BMC) +13"
Others:
7. Kwiatkowski (OPQ) +36"
17. Pinot (FDJ) +8'32"
18. Valverde (MOV) s.t.
19. Peraud (ALM) s.t.
20. Nibali (AST) s.t.
30. Bardet (ALM) +10'22"
37. Van Garderen (BMC) +12'08"

Overall:
1. Nibali (AST) in 73h 05'19"
2. Valverde (MOV) +4'37"
3. Pinot (FDJ) +5'06"
4. Peraud (ALM) +6'08"
5. Bardet (FDJ) +6'40"
6. Van Garderen (BMC) +9'25"

Monday, July 21, 2014

Three Frenchmen in the top six...all targeting the podium; it's a great sign for cycling

With a week left in this Tour de France there are three Frenchmen in the top six; it is something we haven't seen for years and it raises serious prospects of at least one of them, if not more, making the final podium in Paris. Unfortunately for them there is also Vincenzo Nibali, who at this moment is in complete control of the yellow jersey and baring a disaster of Froome, Contador, or on the road, of Porte proportions, it looks as though only two of the three spots are up for grabs.

It's three Frenchmen against one American against one Spaniard and ignoring Nibali, here is the top five on GC fighting for second and third.

2. Valverde (Spain)
3. Bardet (France) +13"
---
4. Pinot (France) +29"
5. Van Garderen (USA) +1'12"
6. Péraud (France) +1'31"

And for what it is worth, another Frenchman, Pierre Rolland is in tenth, 6'11" behind Valverde. It was Rolland whom a few years ago might have been seen as the future hope of French cycling to break what has become a long podium drought, but who has since been overtaken by these three Frenchman in the pecking order...at this tour, at least.

The last time a Frenchman finished in the top three of the Tour de France was Richard Virenque in 1997. Before that was Virenque again in 1996, Laurent Fignon in 1989, Jean-François Bernard in 1987, Bernard Hinault in 1986 and Hinault once more in 1985 when he won it for a fifth time.

Seventeen years. And all of them in the pre-Festina affair era.

It's widely accepted that post that 1998 scandal, French cycling clamped down on rampant doping within its teams' structures. The law tightened and the idea became a big no-no among young riders. Of course, there could always have been some taking the risk, but the French moved to the forefront of anti-doping in a way the Spaniards, Italians, Americans and others did not and in doing so they moved to the rear of cycling's big hitters on the result sheets.

French cycling fans changed from hoping to see a French winner of their Grand Tour to hoping to simply see a stage winner. The hero's of the likes of Hinault and Fignon were gone and it was plucky stage riders who showed enormous heart and fighting spirit that became the new hero's of their nation. The likes of Thomas Voeckler.

But the nation has still longed for the day someone would come along and compete again to win the Tour. Note the reaction in France when Voeckler stole all those minutes from a breakaway on stage 9 of the 2011 Tour de France and almost clung on for the victory, losing his yellow jersey to Andy Schleck and then Cadel Evans with just three stages to go. His fighting spirit as he rode in the mountains like he ought not to have, won over the hearts of many, but many knew that it was a fleeting attempt, that Voeckler would never get such a chance again.

Rolland finished 11th that year (later upgraded to 10th when Contador had his result stripped) and won on Alpe d'Huez -- the same day Voeckler lost the jersey -- and with it came the weight of a nation to push on. He was 24 years of age at the time but since then has only bettered his final overall placing once in 2012 when he finished 8th.

A year later while all eyes were on Rolland, a young 22 year old Thibaut Pinot won a mountain stage to Porrentruy and finished 10th in the GC; second to Tejay Van Garderen in the white jersey competition. Pinot v Van Garderen looked like a prelude to a new rivalry one day for yellow...a flashback to LeMond v Fignon, and which today makes up two of the five going for second and third.

Seeing French cycling on the up again with names like Pinot coming through followed by Bardet, expected to be followed by Warren Barguil -- who some think is the most talented of the lot and who won a stage in last years Vuelta aged 21 -- is a good sign for cycling. That staunch anti-doping approach by French law and French cycling seen a nation left behind as other nationalities continued to win in a post-Festina affair cycling world.

Now however with the tide in attitudes in the pro-peloton changing, with those cycling clean overtaking the numbers of those cycling dirty and a young wave of talent coming in, French cycling is once again able to compete where maybe it always should have had things been fair. The likes of Bardet and Pinot born a generation later than someone like Christophe Bassons should count themselves fortunate.

And there's one other in that trio going for the podium that highlights this culture change that has allowed French cycling to thrive again, best: Jean-Christophe Péraud. Unlike Pinot and Bardet, Péraud is an old man of the peloton...37 years of age. A mountain biker who only turned to the road full-time in the 2010 season aged 33, the Frenchman should be slowing down with age but is only getting better.

He was 9th in his first Tour in 2011, fell back to 44th in 2012, but was again sitting 9th in 2013 when a crash on the final time-trial forced him to abandon. He was 3rd in Paris-Nice last year and this year placed 4th in Tirreno-Adriatico, 3rd in the Tour of the Basque Country, 2nd in the Tour Méditerranéen, and 1st in the Critérium International.

Péraud would never have arrived into road cycling in any previous era at that age and been competitive at the front end of races. He certainly would not have landed into a tour ten year ago, even aged 27 and found himself competing for a podium place -- as he is in this years Tour -- against the likes of Lance Armstrong, Ivan Basso and Jan Ullrich as we now know how they where. The question though isn't therefore whether he's getting better, but rather whether everyone else is that little bit more normal? Has a race that would have been impossible for him to win in his prime riding clean -- which as a staunch anti-doper, he is -- suddenly within reach into his mid-30s?

It may be the best sign of the lot that cycling is improving itself for the good. Some will always cheat but in tackling the issue properly, cycling has opened the door to the French once again and Péraud exemplifies that opportunity, and we're all the better for it. There are some who believe he could have won the Tour in his pomp had he been racing against a clean field but perhaps for that reason he never made the switch until much later.

That said, it isn't the swing towards a cleaner sport that has exclusively opened the door to the French again; talent plays a large roll too. French cycling appears to have hit a golden generation and lets hope it works out for them. Péraud may be showing what is possible now, even at his age, but the likes of Pinot, Bardet, Barguil, even Rolland, have the best opportunity to seize it.

This Sunday, all being well, one of Pinot, Bardet or Péraud, or perhaps two of them, will stand on the podium in Paris and the shadow of Virenque will be wiped away at last. A line drawn and a real opportunity for the French and all of us to look forward with serious optimism.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

The agony of defeat and the extacy of victory is a fine line at Le Tour

Stage 15: Tallard to Nîmes, 222km. Flat.

The best way I could describe the Tour de France if given just two words would be Beautiful Brutality; or maybe Glorious Suffering, though I think it was the former that best summed up yesterday's stage. Beautiful countryside (albeit terrible weather), a beautiful ride by the breakaway duo of Jack Bauer and Martin Elmiger, and the brutal manor of their catch, less then 50 metres from the line.

Perhaps Agony and Ecstasy would be two words to sum the Tour up also. For while it was Bauer suffering the Agony of such a defeat -- snatched away from him in the final metres by the surging sprinters after hundreds of kilometres up the road, leading the stage, biding for his first ever Tour de France stage win -- it was ecstasy for Alexander Kristoff who led the race for a mere dozen or two metres and won his second stage of this Tour.

It is a beautiful race but so brutal at the same time. It's why we watch; it is why we regard them as the finest athletes on the planet and it is why this race holds so much appeal. It takes place in the greatest stadium in all of sport -- the backdrop of an entire nation, from flatland's to rolling hills to high mountains -- and yet the suffering required in order to just finish it, is beyond the majority of our comprehensions.

And the action itself is edge of the seat, especially the final kilometres on stages like this. Watching the time gap between the bunch and the break and trying to figure whether they will make it. Such a scenario is becoming a rare sight at the Tour thanks to race radios able to allow the bunch to time its catch safely so as to set up the sprint trains for the big gallop, but today, with the bad weather, tired legs and difficult winds, they almost left it too late. With the gap at 30 seconds with 2 kilometres to go, it looked good for Bauer and Elmiger. Even with 500m to go they appeared to have enough. And then Bauer jumped and Elmiger had nothing left.
Just when you thought surely the road had run out and his arms could go up, he was swept away, collapsing over the line in exhaustion and tears while Kristoff celebrated.

That's cycling sometimes. We all felt bad for Bauer...we all hope he'll get his win one day...but we were all entertained at the same time...it's why we love this sport.

Result:
1. Kristoff (KAT) in 4h 56'43"
2. Haussler (IAM)
3. Sagan (CAN)
4. Greipel (LTB)
5. Renshaw (OPQ)
6. Coquard (EUC) all s.t.

Overall:
1. Nibali (AST) in 66h 49'37"
2. Valverde (MOV) +4'37"
3. Bardet (ALM) +4'50"
4. Pinot (FDJ) +5'06"
5. Van Garderen (BMC) +5'49"
6. Péraud (ALM) +6'08"

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Majka makes it stick this time; Nibali takes more time

Stage 14: Grenoble to Risoul, 177km. High Mountains.

I first really noticed Rafal Majka at this years Giro when the young 24 year old Polish rider burst onto the scene and finished in sixth overall with some big displays in the mountains, though in hindsight, his seventh place the year before should have been better remembered. And when I seen that, unlike any of those that finished around him in this years Giro with the exception of Pierre Rolland, that he would be lining up for the Tour de France, I sensed he was selected exclusively to help Contador where he could in the mountains. That was proven to be the case when he lost a heap of time over the first week of the race, saving what energy he could, but when his team leader crashed out on stage 10 and Saxo-Tinkoff went into Tour salvage mode, his objectives changed to winning them a stage.

Yesterday he made that bid for glory only for Vincenzo Nibali to swallow himself and fellow escapee, Leopold Konig, up in the closing kilometres to the summit at Chamrousse. Today he tried again. It could have been easy to wait until the Pyaranees, but he must have felt good. He got in the days early break and made his move on the final summit finish.

When news crackled over his radio that Nibali had once again dropped his rivals -- all except Péraud, that is -- and was on the chase, Majka must have feared the worst. But Nibali's sudden surge aside, the time didn't fall quickly enough and Majka was able to hold on to win solo -- his first Tour de France stage win -- in superb style at Risoul.

Not only has Majka shown himself to be a star of the future, one who if sent to target the Tour could well finish in the top five one day, or better, but he has gotten a little pride back for his team after the loss of Contador.

Further down the road a similar scene to the day before was playing out: Nibali up the road and the two young Frenchmen, Bardet and Pinot chasing, desperate to become the first Frenchman since Richard Virenque in 1997 to finish on the podium of their home race. Unlike yesterday however, they were together coming up to the line and the sprint to finish a mere fourth on the stage showed all the signs of trying to gain the psycological edge. Pinot took it but remains 16 seconds behind Bardet for third place overall.

Nibali may be wrapping up the victory in this Tour but the scramble for the podium is going to be fascinating in the coming week. Alejandro Valverde showed his first signs of serious weakness on the stage when he cracked and lost 34 seconds to the two young Frenchmen and one minute to Nibali, though he did just enough to keep his second place over Bardet by 13 seconds. Still, he'll need to recover quickly or the two Frenchmen won't have to worry about one of them being the first Frenchman onto the podium for 17 years.

So 29 seconds separates second, third and fourth with Tejay Van Garderen a further 43 seconds back in fifth and looking stronger by the day. Don't count the American out. He's been steady throughout these stages and he has kept himself in the mix. Given the bad day we seen from Richie Porte and then, less dramatically so, Valverde today, it's clear that anyone could have a bad one in the high mountains and it could well be about who limits their losses rather than who gains what on the rest that truly dictates who follows Nibali onto the podium in Paris.

And all that is, of course, assuming Nibali himself doesn't have a bad day. Stranger things have happened in this sport and it is why the rest must not ignore him while they look at one another entirely. It is also why Nibali is making his hay now while the proverbial sun of good form shines upon him.

Result:
1. Majka (TIN) in 5h 8'27"
2. Nibali (AST) +24"
3. Péraud (ALM) +26"
4. Pinot (FDJ) +50"
5. Bardet (ALM) s.t.
6. Van Garderen (BMC) +54"
Others:
10. Valverde (MOV) +1'24"
27. Porte (SKY) +5'16"

Overall:
1. Nibali (AST) in 61h 52'54"
2. Valverde (MOV) +4'37"
3. Bardet (ALM) +4'50"
4. Pinot (FDJ) +5'06"
5. Van Garderen (BMC) +5'49"
6. Péraud (ALM) +6'08"

Friday, July 18, 2014

SHARK ATTACK IN THE ALPS

Stage 13: Saint-Étienne to Chamrousse, 197.5km. High Mountains

Today was, pure and simply, a demonstration. Vincenzo Nibali came into today's stage with a 2 minutes, 23 seconds lead in this Tour de France and he'd have been forgiven for playing the defensive game on this the first high mountains stage of the 2014 race; for simply marking his rivals and not losing any time. It was the way Miguel Indurain won five titles after all. But not Nibali. This Italian, destined it would seem to become just the 6th man to win all three Grand Tours, went on the attack. The Shark as he is known, tore his rivals to shreds on the slope to Chamrousse and came out with a 3 minutes, 37 seconds lead over his nearest rival, Alejandro Valverde, in the overall standings.

It was an emphatic third stage win for Nibali in this years race and despite the knowledge that there are so many hard, high mountain stages still to come and that this was just the first trip into the high mountains, it's hard to see him losing the Tour now.

It has become a one man race and while that might ordinarily be cause for concern for the entertainment value of what is left, with Nibali it is anything but. You just know the man is going to continue to put on a show while he feels good and that he has no intentions of stopping on three stage wins.

The suggestion that he could win this Tour by double figures in minutes is not inconceivable, and I hope he does. Yes it's great when the showdown for Yellow comes down to the second to last day, as it is in the Tour, but sometimes you have to admire greatness also. This is a man who won on the rolling hills of Yorkshire, who laid the foundations for a Tour victory on the cobbles of northern Frace, who won on the low mountains of the Vogues and who today he's going to stop now.

Of course one look at the disastrous day that befell Riche Porte and you're quickly reminded how eaily it can all unravel. The new Team Sky leader had hoped today might be the point from which he took a strangle hold on the podium and perhaps put Nibali into trouble, but he cracked early on the final climb and came in almost 9 minutes down on the Astana rider; his GC aspirations in tatters.

Could the same happen to Nibali on one of these tough mountain stages? It could, but then again, unlike Porte, Nibali has won Grand Tours before; he knows what it takes. Nibali could have a bad day, but so could all his rivals and the way this Tour is going, one or two of them almost certainly will. Those behind him on the GC should in theory keep attacking in the hopes it forces him into a bad day and opens the door for one of them again, but the reality is likely different.

The fear now is that the French trio of Bardet, Pinot and Péraud, along with the Spaniard, Valverde and American, Van Garderen will now ignore Nibali and mark one another in a battle to get onto the final two spots of the podium. The idea of that battle in itself is intriguing, but the net result could be Nibali sailing off into the distance on several stages while they look at one another to take up the chase. Only 1 minute, 3 seconds separates Valverde in 2nd, Bardet in 3rd and Pinot in 4th with Van Garderen and Péraud within 2 minutes of Valverde.

Given that we haven't had a Frenchman on the podium of the Tour de France since Richard Virenque in 1997 there is going to be a lot of pressure for one of the three that have suddenly arrived in contention now to deliver the goods.

Then again, there hasn't been an Italian winner since Marco Pantani in 1998 either and Nibali has dealt with that pressure in supreme fashion.

Result:
1. Nibali (AST) in 5h 12'29"
2. Majka (TIN) +10"
3. Konig (NET) +11"
4. Valverde (MOV) +50"
5. Pinot (FDJ) +53"
6. Van Garderen (BMC) +1'23"
7. Bardet (ALM) s.t.
Others:
9. Péraud (ALM) +2'09"
27. Porte (SKY) +8'48"

Overall:
1. Nibali (AST) in 56h 44'03"
2. Valverde (MOV) +3'37"
3. Bardet (ALM) +4'24"
4. Pinot (FDJ) +4'40"
5. Van Garderen (BMC) +5'19"
6. Péraud (ALM) +6'06"

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Sagan second again

Stage 12: Bourg-en-Bresse to Saint-Étienne, 185.5km. Rolling.

Alexander Kristoff, winner of what was supposed to be Peter Sagan's Milan-San Remo earlier in the year, picked up his first ever Tour de France stage victory today in a reduced-bunch sprint that was without Marcel Kittel (dropped on the final climb) and Andre Greipel (crashed with 3km to go) and which, we thought, was supposed to be Peter Sagan's first stage victory of this Tour. Yes it was that man he beat into second that grabbed the headlines away from Kristoff's big day.

Peter Sagan.

The Slovak has now finished 2nd on four different occasions in this Tour behind Marcel Kittel (twice), Matteo Trentin and now Kristoff; he's finished 4th on three occasions on stages won by Vincenzo Nibali, Kittel and Lars Boom; and he's finished 5th once when Andre Greipel won. He's watched as each one of these men have hit their stride to beat him and then gone away again while he maintains an unparalleled level of consistency in stage finishes, without being able to go up that one position.

Potentially speaking had Sagan been able to put it together as it looked like he might coming into the final kilometres over this first week and a half, we could be looking at a man with six or seven or more stage wins in this Tour. Yet he has none and it's hard to put a finger on why?

At first glance it would seem that Sagan is a jack of all trades, but a master of none. He is not a pure sprinter in the Kittel/Cavendish mold but just a step below; able to win when it is a slightly reduced field but often beat into second or third when it is a full bunch sprint. He can climb well on the short sharp hills but cannot stay with the pure climbers in the high mountains. He's decent against the clock but never one to win a time-trial and he's an excellent classics rider, always in the mix and regarded as one of the worlds best, but he's never won a Monument. Even going downhill there is nobody who can match him, but then again the Tour has yet, unfortunately, to implement a downhill time-trial into its repertoire.

He is supremely consistent -- hence two green jersey titles to his name in his first two Tours de France, and baring disaster a third is on its way -- but he's quickly becoming the stage race version of what Raymond Poulidor was to the GC: The eternal second. But he is only 24 years of age. His best years should still be in front of him, his sprint should get quicker, his tactical nous sharper and his all-round race craft more honed. When this happens then these results that seem to be just a place or two in front of him will come thick and fast.

Take Sean Kelly as an example. A prolific winner throughout his career who had all the attributes that Sagan is striving for, but it is worth remembering that at the same age as Sagan is now Kelly had not yet won a Monument classic either, nor had he won a green jersey in the Tour. (He did finish 4th in the Vuelta aged 24). Kelly won four Tour stages in his first four Tours before taking his first of four green jersey competitions in his fifth at the age of 26. Kelly then never won another Tour de France stage, likening the Green jersey to having a target on your back. He became a marked man and the man others would look for to close a gap, especially in a stage not fully designed for the purest of sprinters.

And then Sagan: He won three stages in his first Tour in 2012 aged 22 and another last year, and on both occasions he won the green jersey competition. He is winless in this years tour but the big question is whether this is just a freak year when little things have conspired against him or whether he has become a victim of his young success? Whether he now has the target on his back that Kelly once carried?

Note stages 2, 5, 7, 11 and 12 of this Tour. None contained the likes of Kittel and yet Sagan finished 5th, 4th, 2nd, 9th and 2nd in each respectively. He was the favorite to win them once the selection of contenders had been made and yet he was worked over by the rest (with the exception of stage 5 on the pave perhaps when Astana went to the front and he failed to go with them). His team would ride hard throughout a lot of those stages looking to bring back a break and they got little help from the other teams who knew it was Sagan who was best suited to win. That left him isolated late on and when late attacks came the rest looked to Sagan to bring them back. They knew he would feel obliged to chase, and when he did, someone else would go.

Stage 7 in particular stands out. Greg Van Avermaet made his move over the top of the final climb, the Côte de Boufflers, and Sagan knew the rest would look to him to bring him back...all willing to gamble on losing the stage than to bring it back only for the Slovak to win the sprint. And so Sagan felt the only thing he could do was go with Van Avermaet than risk seeing him stay away to win. The dilemma then reared up when the rest began the chase and when it became clear that they wouldn't stay away, Sagan had to sit up and recover quickly for a sprint he would probably have preferred to begin with. The net result was that his legs didn't recover enough...by the distance of about half an inch which is what Trentin beat him by in the photo finish.

The opposite script played itself out on stage 11 when he again went clear on the descent, this time with Michal Kwiatkowski and Michael Rogers. Sagan did the big pulls on the front to try and bring back loan escapee, Tony Gallopin but when they did and there was a lull in a group with only a few seconds lead over the peloton, Gallopin jumped again and again the rest looked to Sagan. Had he chased him he risked burning another match while the rest saved themselves on his wheel, but this time he looked to the others and the bunch swept them up and this time the loan move stayed clear and Gallopin won the stage. It seemed that Kwiatkowski preferred to risk losing than to risk allowing Sagan the chance to win. Only had Sagan done the leg work did Kwiatkowski feel it was worth going for glory. Or so it seemed.

A victim of his own success indeed.

It would appear the only way out of his for Sagan is to gamble right back at his rivals a little bit more, just like he did on that 11th stage. The next time someone goes clear late he needs to let them go again. Let someone else chase and if they don't then accept the defeat. The moment he loses a few more times like that the rest will quickly realise that they cannot always look to him, and his team, to do the chasing.

The only problem here is that this should have been the strategy in the first week because if it had, then by now he might be finding a win or two coming his way. Now however the number of stages that suit him for a victory are decreasing and the desperation to get a single win is probably going to override the desire to start playing a cat and mouse game with the rest.

Still, who doesn't love watching Sagan race? To curb that aggressive style as a tactical move to initiate more stage wins may look better on the palmares, but it would also take something away from his character...you don't imagine it would bring him the same satisfaction. Sagan is clearly an aggressive rider by nature, unwilling to sit in on the bunch if the chance to attack, even on a descent, presents itself, even willing to go up the road on a mountain stage just to collect the intermediate sprint points in a competition he has already won. Even if he'd known the outcome of stage 7 or 12, the simple desire to drop the pack on a descent may have proven to be too good a challenge for Sagan to refuse. Sagan is a larger than life character; see the no-handed wheelie up the final ramp to La Planche des Belles Filles on stage 10.

It's all of this -- his aggression, his character, his constant presence in the thick of the action -- as much as his actual race victories that are going to make him one of the most highly paid cyclists on the planet next year.

I just hope he figures it out, ideally without changing much about his style, and the wins come. And age suggests he will, often, and his palmares will only expand as time goes by. I think we'd all love to see the results measure up to the abundantly obvious young talent we've been given the pleasure to enjoy, but not at expense of the entertainment.

Result:
1. Kristoff (KAT) in 4h 32'11"
2. Sagan (CAN)
3. Demare (FDJ)
4. Albasini (ORI)
5. Navardauskas (GAR)
6. Trentin (OPQ) all s.t.

Overall:
1. Nibali (AST) in 51h 31'34"
2. Porte (SKY) +2'23"
3. Valverde (MOV) +2'47"
4. Bardet (ALM) +3'01"
5. Pinot (FDJ) +3'47"
6. Van Garderen (BMC) +3'56"