Monday, July 20, 2015

Sagan's mega descent isn't enough to catch Plaza as he settles for 16th career second

Stage 16: Bourg-de-Peage > Gap, 201km

Is there a case to be made that in certain kind of stages Peter Sagan is just too good to win? It sounds absurd, but in days like today, of which we have seen a handful this year (and last), Sagan has been too good a sprinter, too good a short-sharp climber and too good a descender to win. They attack him on the hill and then watch for him to do the chasing, refusing to tow him to the top only for him to ride away on the descent, or indeed into the final straight only for him to win the sprint.

Last year Sagan was at fault for doing all the casing until which point he had burnt himself out come the sprint. This year he has allowed some moves to go away and refused to be the one to do the chasing, willing to lose a stage here or there, in an attempt to send a message to the others that he won't always be that man.

That was the case again today.  Sagan covered move after move except the one that ended up winning when Ruben Plaza burst clear. He let him go and looked to the others to take a turn, but none were willing to do so, risking their own chance of glory at the same time. Sagan eventually led the chase with a magnificent descent off the Col de Manse into Gap as he left each of his rivals behind, but it was too late to catch Plaza and he had to settle for his fifth 2nd place finish of this years Tour.

The issue therefore is that it continues to cost him wins, he's damned if he does, damned if he doesn't. The only real answer is for him to attack first, though given he's a good climber on these short hills, he isn't necessarily the best and that long attack isn't always possible.

As a result he's watching one of the most talented young riders in the sport, perhaps the finest all round talent in this years Tour, without a stage win but with five 2nd place finishes and 11 top 5 finishes to his name. It's a staggering level of consistency and it only makes you wonder whether, with a little luck here or there or a differently timed attack by a rival, he might be looking at five or six stage wins already.

He isn't however and he has to make do with forever being the most impressive bridesmaid in the peloton.

Peter Sagan's results in each of the first 16 stages (bold for top 5):
TT: 19th
2: 2nd
3: 27th
4: 3rd
5: 2nd
6: 2nd
7: 3rd
8: 4th
9: 4th (TTT)
10: 158th
11: 100th
12: 122nd
13: 2nd
14: 5th
15: 4th
16: 2nd

Some have asked whether Sagan is indeed the Tours finest rider despite being so far down in the overall. It's debatable given that the Yellow jersey usually speaks for itself, though there is a case to be made that Sagan is the best in almost every other discipline bar time-trailing and mountain climbing and it is the later in which so much time is won and lost. If Sagan could climb the high mountains, he'd be the next Eddy Merckx!

Of course, Chris Froome might argue that even before they had reached the high mountains this year, he was still the man in Yellow, one place ahead of Sagan, and that if they were to go off the board and miss out the high mountains some year, Sagan wouldn't be allowed the freedom he has had the past three straight days to get into these breaks.

It's all speculative however, as the Tour is never going to ditch the mountains just to find out, and so Sagan will have to continue to make do with winning Green jersey after Green jersey to display his overall consistency while hoping his stage winning prowess improves. It's either that or he sacrifices some of the power that makes him so competitive in the bunch sprints and loses the weight that perhaps make him more a factor in the mountains. That is easier said than done but you wouldn't put it past someone with his kind of talent.

The only person I can compare him to is Sean Kelly the Irish all-rounder from the 1980s. Kelly was a sprinter who won four Green jersey titles, but who could also ride the classic races and handle himself on the hills. Of course, Kelly went on to win a Vuelta (in 1988) and finished as high as 4th in the 1985 Tour de France, but cycling was different in those days in that the contenders were not quite so stick thin as they are now and we're not purely specialised towards a Grand Tour per year only. Where there is a similarity is in their early career paths. Sean Kelly never won a stage in the Tour beyond his early years once his rivals figured out the level of his talent. By 25, the age of Peter Sagan now, Kelly had yet to win a monument -- something Sagan has starting to feel pressure for this year for not doing either -- though Kelly went on to win 9 between the age of 27 and 36.

Anyway, for what he is in the moment, he's spectacular to watch and nevermore so than on the that descent today. He looked more like a motorbike racers coming off the mountain at the Isle of Man TT as he breaked late, threw himself through the apex of each corner and accelerated out of it before getting back into the most aerodynamic of tuck position. It was, as Paul Sherwen said on the TV, 'poetry in motion'.

Where Sagan did win on the day was in the Green jersey contest. He picked up the intermediate sprint points by getting into the break for the third consecutive day and of course the points for finishing second in Gap. It increases his lead over his only true rival, André Greipel to 89 points. With a rest day tomorrow and four days in the high Alps, it leaves only Paris for Greipel to make a likely inroad and the gap is now too much. Baring him not finishing the Tour, Sagan will win his fourth consecutive points contest in four attempts.

Another winner on the day was Colombian Jarlison Pantano who finished third on the stage but some 18 minutes up on the peloton containing the Yellow jersey group. It moved Pantano up into the top 15 overall. That shrunken Yellow jersey group on the Col de Manse once again took turns attacking one another, but only Vincenzo Nibali got away and he came home 28 seconds ahead of the other contenders led by Alberto Contador.

One man who can consider himself a very lucky rider was Geraint Thomas who was bumped by Romain Bardet on a hairpin of the descent and was sent crashing over the barrier, head first into a lamppost and down a ditch. Miraculously he remounted and finished without shouting distance of the rest, maintaining his sixth place overall. And lucky too for Froome as earlier in the day he lost Peter Kennaugh to abandonment, and the idea of losing Thomas ahead of four hard days in the Alps may not have been worth thinking about. As it stands, Sky head into what is sure to be a challenging rest day for all the wrong reasons with eight men still intact and their leader still in command of the race.

Result: Classement:
1. Plaza (LAM) in 4h 30' 10"

2. Sagan (TSC) +30"

3. Pantano (IAM) +36"

4. Reschke (TGA) +40"

5. Jungels (TFR) +40"

6. Riblon (ALM) +40"
1. Froome (SKY) in 64h 47' 16"

2. Quintana (MOV) +3' 10"

3. Van Garderen (BMC) +3' 32"

4. Valverde (MOV) +4' 02"

5. Contador (TSC) +4' 23"

6. Thomas (SKY) +5' 32"

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Greipel wins his third stage...Sagan gets another top 5

Stage 15: Mende > Valence, 183km

It was a somewhat uneventful day in the grand scheme of stages on this years Tour. A massive break of 27 riders eventually emerged after the côte de Badaroux -- on which Mark Cavendish lost contact with the leading peloton for good, later put down as due to stomach issues -- and while it contained several big names, including yet again Peter Sagan, and was later whittled down to just 9 men, it was reeled in a long way before the finish setting up a rare day for the sprinters.

A rare day for the sprinters is more and more becoming a day for André Greipel and so it proved to be. Despite a late effort with 3.5km to go by Zdenek Stybar that seen him caught under the flame rouge, the German was too fast for the rest and won his third stage of this years Tour, reducing the deficit in the Green jersey contest from 61 points to 44. In getting into the days break Sagan had actually won yet another intermediate sprint, but that work was cancelled out when Greipel took maximum points on the line despite Sagan finishing fourth. A mighty effort by Sagan given he was in that break.

Sagan has been in staggering form in this Tour finishing in the top five on 10 of 15 stages including the team-time-trial. If you take away the individual time-trial and three Pyrenean stages, he's finished in the top five in all but one stage - the climb up the Mur de Huy. That's why he's in the Green jersey of course, though Greipel won't give it up without a fight. Given the kind of terrain coming up tomorrow and in the closing week, it's going to be extremely hard however for Greipel to overhaul Sagan and the Slovak will be looking to seal it all up before they reach the streets of Paris this time next week.

Result: Classement:
1. Greipel (TLS) in 3h 56' 35"

2. Degenklob (TGA)

3. Kristoff (KAT)

4. Sagan (TCS)

5. Boasson Hagen (MTN)

6. Navardauskas (TCG) all s.t.
1. Froome (SKY) in 59h 58' 54"

2. Quintana (MOV) +3' 10"

3. Van Garderen (BMC) +3' 32"

4. Valverde (MOV) +4' 02"

5. Contador (TSC) +4' 23"

6. Thomas (SKY) +4' 54"

Saturday, July 18, 2015

British spoil French chance at victory as Cummings wins for MTN on Mandela Day

Stage 14: Rodez > Mende, 178.5km

On a day when a French fan decided the best way to take the moral high ground at what he suspected was doping by Chris Froome, by throwing a cup of urine in his face, good karma bit back when a fellow British competitor, Steve Cummings burst past the young French duo of Thibaut Pinot and Romain Bardet to spoil the French fun and steal a glorious stage win for his African team, MTN Qhubeka on what was Mandela Day. It was a beautiful script and it played out brilliantly.

Not that I personally have anything again the French, quite the opposite. I would love to see one of Pinot, Bardet or Warren Barguil win the Tour and I think it could well happen in time, but when you you considered Mandela day for the MTN team, you couldn't help but leap out of your seat as he blitzed past the duo to go clear for his first Tour stage victory. That delight was only cemented when we later heard what happened to Froome out on the road.

Naturally that one idiot does not represent the feelings of a country and we know that 99.9% of fans at the side of the road, French or otherwise, are well behaved fans of the sport, but there's a growing sinister element to the treatment and scrutiny of Team Sky and Froome in particular and you cannot help but think that a handful of mindless idiots are only going to be influenced by it.

As things stand Froome has done nothing wrong except win, and that's only wrong if you're not a fan of his. But he's failed no test, he's don't nothing of suspicion -- that is factual, rather than opinions as fact -- and yet he's coming in for the worst kind of treatment on the road to go with innuendos on the media that have lead to outright condemnation on social media by those who don't have to answer to anyone.

Given what had happened you'd have been understanding had Froome gone off on a wild tirade after he crossed the line, but the man handled it with class and took the moral high road, no doubt to the disappointment of those sadly hoping he falls. It's this handling of the pressure in the face of such adversity that is going to make it very tough for Froome's rivals to crack him out on the road, not that they condone the treatment he's starting to face. Mind you, each one of them would love to be in his position wearing the Yellow jersey.

As for the stage itself, it was much as expected for the majority of it. A large break of men with no serious threat to the Yellow jersey got clear and stayed clear and it was the final climb up to the plateau at the aerodrome at Mende that settled the score.

Peter Sagan was in on the break, as much to get the maximum points at the intermediate sprint, though once that goal was achieved he set about trying to get as much as he could on the line. The pace was relentless when they hit the climb and the attacks began immediately. But the climb was a good 1.5km long and at 10% average gradient so anyone attacking early had better been sure they could hold it.

They couldn't.

Cummings on the other hand put his head down, ignored the rest and set about doing his own time-trial to the top to see where he came out once the dust settled. As it turned out he came out quite near the front, though still ways behind Pinot and Bardet who by this stage looked as though it would be they who would do battle to see who would win the stage for France. There was flashbacks to the 1995 Tour when Laurent Jalabert won on this very runway, in the green jersey for France on what was Bastille Day then. Not quite so glorious now, but certainly the chance for someone to become a national icon.

So over to the Brit to spoil the show.

For anyone watching, it was hard to remember that Cummings was even in the break never mind in the mix on the climb, the cameras simply never cut to him and they certainly weren't looking for him when it was two French heroes on the front. Suddenly though he appeared and, like a bat out of hell, he blew by Pinot and Bardet who were already beginning their game of cat and mouse some 1.5km out from the finish. Neither could react and immediately he had a 10 metre gap on them. He took the final couple of corners like a man possessed, and with Pinot leading the charge and far from the greatest at going through the corners, Cummings lead only opened. He powered his way up the gradual rise towards the line and neither spent Frenchman could close the gap.

Further back the big contenders were going their stuff with Chris Froome markings moves, so much so that eventually it was just himself and Quintana left on the front. The duo came to the line together, but perhaps sending a message that there would be no gifts over the final week of the Tour, Froome nipped past the Colombian to take a second out of him on the line though Quintana had done enough to leapfrog Tejay Van Garderen (who lost 40 seconds to Froome) into second overall. Valverde was next in at 4 seconds to Froome while Contador lost 19 seconds.

But what a win for Cummings and MTN-Quhebka, the first African team on the Tour, as a wild-card entry, winning their first stage. And they have been turning heads throughout the first two weeks. They had Daniel Teklehaimanot lead the King of the Mountains contest during the first week of the race, and have had men in many of the breaks throughout. This time they got their reward and what a day to do it on: Mandela. Day.

Result: Classement:
1. Cummings (MTN) 4h 23' 43"

2. Pinot (FDJ) +2"

3. Bardet (ALM) +3"

4. Uran (EQS) +20"

5. Sagan (TCS) +29"

20. Froome (SKY) +4' 15"
21. Quintana (MOV) +4' 16"
22. Valverde (MOV) +4' 19"
23. Contador (TCS) +4' 34"
24. Nibali (AST) +4' 45"
25. Van Garderen (BMC) +4' 55"
1. Froome (SKY) in 56h 2' 19"

2. Quintana (MOV) +3' 10"

3. Van Garderen (BMC) +3' 32"

4. Valverde (MOV) +4' 02"

5. Contador (TSC) +4' 23"

6. Thomas (SKY) +4' 54"

8. Nibali (AST) +8' 17"

Friday, July 17, 2015

The eternal seconds battle for the win

Stage 13: Muret > Rodez, 198.5km

Greg Van Avermaet and Peter Sagan have become known lately in cycling circles as men who often finish second, so when both moved clear of the pack on the final hill of the avenue de Saint-Pierre in Rodez this afternoon, to contest the victory, it was the creation of a paradox. Two perennial second place men going for the win. I suppose you could say that with Van Avermaet crossing the line first, it was Sagan who pipped him for the second place win! Of course, Sagan won't see the humour in that.

The second place finish for Sagan did allow him to retain his Green jersey lead having lost it unofficially on the road when André Greipel pipped him in the intermediate sprint. The only other real moment of note in the stage was the heavy crash of last years runner up, Jean-Christophe Péraud, who managed to get back up again with his skin ripped to pieces and chase his way back into the peloton.

The hill at the finish was noteworthy enough that the top contenders all got near the front with Chris Froome leading home the top nine overall in positions 6 through 14, though not all in GC order.

Result: Classement:
1. Van Avermaet (BMC) in 4h 43' 42"

2. Sagan (TSC) s.t.

3. Bakelants (ALM) +3"

4. Degenklob (TGA) +7"

5. Martens (TLJ)

6. Froome (SKY) all s.t.
1. Froome (SKY) in 51h 34' 21"

2. Van Garderen (BMC) +2' 52"

3. Quintana (MOV) +3' 09"

4. Valverde (MOV) +3' 58"

5. Thomas (SKY) +4' 03"

6. Contador (TSC) +4' 04"

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Rodriguez wins his first mountain stage...Froome contains rivals...Geraint Thomas continues to impress

Stage 12: Lannemezan > Plateau de Beille, 195km

I cannot imagine going to bed last night with the knowledge of the profile that was facing me the next day. It resembled the lower jaw of a Sharks mouth but in reality was the vicious mountains of the Pyrenees: The Col de Portet d'Aspet (2nd cat.), the Col de la Core (1st cat.), the Port de Lers (1st cat.) and the Plateau de Beille (HC). So a series of climbs over 195km, steadily getting worse...just like the weather.

It started out blazing hot but by the top of the final climb which seen rain, hail, a thunder storm and temperatures plumet, it was anything but a hot summers day in the South of France. It was the ideal stage for the risk takers to try and put pressure on Chris Froome and some of his rivals needed to do just that; to attack him several climbs from the finish and on the descents, to weaken the Sky team around him and perhaps force him into a mistake or into the red zone a panic.

As things turned out he couldn't have had it much smoother. Not a move in anger was made against Froome until the slopes of the vicious Plateau de Beille, though by then Froome still had team-mates Richie Porte and the extremely impressive Geraint Thomas alongside him.

Long before that however the stage winning moves had been made. A large group had gone clear and began to fracture and with 76km to go in the valley just after the col de la Core, Michal Kwiatkowski along with Sep Vanmarcke and Preidler went clear. On the Port de Lers, Preidler was dropped while behind a chasing group of Romain Bardet, Joaquim Rodriguez, Jakob Fuglsang along with a handful of others formed. The peloton itself was a long way behind and no longer a factor in the stage.

The weather conditions continued to get worse while Kwiatkowski and Vanmarcke pushed on. They crossed Port de Lers with a mere five second lead but carried a 1'50" led onto the final climb. With 13.5km to go the tenacious and gritty but heavier built Vanmarcke lost contact and Kwiatkowski was off along and after the stage win. It looked as though he might hang on but gradually he began to slow, his effort to get clear starting to take its toll and as the men behind began to close in, it began to look clear as to why they had let them go before.

Behind it was Rodriguez who looked the strongest and one by one he got rid of his chasing companions and set out in search of the World Champion. With 7.5km to go the catch was made and the balance of the stage swung in the direction of the Spaniard. Fuglsang and Bardet continued to chase but Rordiguez never looked like giving up his lead and took what was, surprisingly, his first ever mountain stage win at the Tour.

Further down the road on the same climb, the attacks of Froome were beginning. First Contador went, and Froome stuck to his steady rhythm and brought him back, then Nibali kicked only for Valverde to follow. Each were reeled in and finally Quintana made a move. Once more Froome measured the chase to within his limits, and soon they were altogether again. Even Froome himself kicked with 4.5km to go but once he realised the others were matching him, he eased off and accepted them all finishing on the same time at the top.

So no major shakeup to the general classification, at least not those hoping to still beat Froome in this Tour, though with each passing stage it's hard to see that happening.

Result: Classement:
1. Rodriguez (KAT) in 5h 40' 14"

2. Fuglsang (AST) +1' 12"

3. Bardet (ALM) +1' 49"

9. Valverde (MOV) +6' 46"
10. Froome (SKY) +6' 47"
11. Quintana (MOV)
13. Van Garderen (BMC)
14. Contador (TSC)
16. Nibali (AST) all s.t.
1. Froome (SKY) in 46h 50' 32"

2. Van Garderen (BMC) +2' 52"

3. Quintana (MOV) +3' 09"

4. Valverde (MOV) +3' 58"

5. Thomas (SKY) +4' 03"

6. Contador (TSC) +4' 04"

9. Nibali (AST) +7' 47"

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Majka to the Tinkoff-Saxo rescue once again

Stage 11: Pau > Cauterets, 188km

I wonder what was going through the head of Dan Martin as he realised that the most recent move to go off the front of the peloton was looking like the winning one. He had clearly targed this stage when he coasted in 11'34" behind the Yellow jersey of Chris Froome the day before, but now it looked like he'd missed the move.

Many a rider would have accepted such defeat and waited for another day, but not Martin. He ju,ped out of the peloton and charged up the Col d'Aspin after them. He had more than two minutes to make up but 3 kilometres from the summit, he had caught them. A fantastic chase and he was back in with a shout for the stage he wanted along with six other protagonists.

They stayed together on the descent but it was always the out of category rated Col du Tourmalet that would break the group apart and leaving a smaller selection to decide the race the final climb to Cauterets, a third category climb.

Martin was celarly tired from his chase however, and hadn't fully recovered on the descent of the Aspin and the most noted climber in the group, Rafal Majka - two time stage winner in 2014 and winner of the King of the Mountains competition - senced his opportunity to help with his second annual rescue bid of the Tinkoff-Saxo Tour now that it seemed Contador's bid to win it was fading. With 7km to go to the top he forced the issue and nobody could react. They could only hope he had gone too soon.

It was Majka then who crossed the highest peak of the Pyrenees to win the Jacques Goddet prize and €5000 thank you very much. And it was clearly starting to look like the winning move for he had put 1'45" into the chasing Serge Pauwels with Dan Martin struggling at 2'05".

Behind things were gradually heating up in the peloton with Astana forcing the issue and the bunch quickly reduced to just 15 men. It was clear however that anyone willing to put Froome into any kind of trouble would need to go on the Tourmalet rather than the Cote de Cauterets, but none seemed willing or able and they went over together 5'40" behind Majka and led by the Yellow jersey of Froome.

With the peloton looking like a non-factor on the stage, Majka charged down the Tourmalet and though he lost some time to the men behind he still carried a minutes lead over Pauwels onto the final run up to the finish.

By now though, Martin was starting to come around. Recoving from his earlier effort to get across to the now fractured group, he looked the freshest of the lot. He caught and passed Pauwels with 5km to go and went after Majka, but the Pole was far from slowing and distance to the line was running out. Majka stayed away and took his third career Tour de France win. This time last year he lost a lot of time in the early part of the Tour allowing him to make such moves and was given the freedom to do so once Contador crashed out. Contador is still in the race, but clearly his team realise that stage wins are now more likely than GC glory and so Majka is once again off the leash. Once more he's lost enough time in the early stages to allow him such freedom from the contenders and once more the rest don't seem able to beat him.

Whether this now triggers his bid for the King of the Mountains competition remains to be seen, but you have to think that like last year, he now fancies his chances and you also wouldn't put it past him to win another stage.

Dan Martin had to settle for second in the end coming in a minute behind Majka. The Yellow jersey sprinted in 9th with his main rivals behind him bar Alejandro Valverde who had snatched two seconds on the line.

Result: Classement:
1. Majka (TCS) in 5h 2' 01"

2. D. Martin (TCG) +1' 00"

3. Buchmann (BOA) + 1'23"

8. Valverde (MOV) +5' 19"
9. Froome (SKY) +5' 21"
10. Contador (TCS)
11. Quintana (MOV)
13, Van Garderen (BMC) all s.t.
23. Nibali (AST) +6' 11"
1. Froome (SKY) in 41h 3' 31"

2. Van Garderen (BMC) +2' 52"

3. Quintana (MOV) +3' 09"

4. Valverde (MOV) +3'59"

5. Thomas (SKY) +4' 03"

6. Contador (TSC) +4' 04"

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Accessing my questionable pre-Tour predictions

So with nine tumultuous days across Holland, Beligum and Northern France that included an individual time trial, team time trial, two steep hill finishes, cross-winds and cobbles now behind us, as well as our first mountain stage, here's a look at my now suspect predictions for the top 10 and other jersey competitions made pre-Tour and where they now sit on GC:

1. Chris Froome, currently 1st
This one looks good to stand to Paris so while some others below are well off, the one that counts appears on!

2. Vincenzo Nibali, 10th @ 6' 57"
Absolutely not the man we seen 12 months ago. He lost time where we thought he'd gain it in the first week and was badly exposed on today's first mountain stage.

3. Thibaut Pinot, 27th @ 18' 18"
An awful first week that began to unravel right after a solid stage 1 time-trial only got worse today when he was dropped early. Stage wins is the goal now but top 10 never mind 3rd is unlikely.

4. Nairo Quintana, 3rd @ 3' 09"
Looking at the shape of the opposition, even this early in the mountains, it's hard to see him failing to hit the podium as I felt he might before this Tour began. What was I thinking?

5. Tejay Van Garderen, 2nd @ 2' 52"
He had a flawless first week and while he had a hard go today he still beat out many of his biggest rivals. He should settle in and finishing higher than 5th is a very real possibility.

6. Alberto Contador, 6th @ 4' 04"
I appears accurate in my belief that doing the Giro-Tour double would be a ridge too far for Aberto.

7. Romain Bardet, 22nd @ 13' 38"
Tough first week for yet another young French star and a rough first day in the mountains. He should improve and even win a stage but a top 10 will even be a big ask now.

8. Ryder Hesjedal, 80th @ 45' 28"
In his own words, Ryder has spent the first week 'chilling at the back of the bunch'. The Giro was his big effort and this Tour has been about recover/energy preservation ahead of a stage win in the Alps. He will soar up the standings now they're in the mountains, but not likely higher than 20th.

9. Pierre Rolland, 23rd @ 13' 57"
The best of the French on the first mountain day he spent the first week shedding time. Perhaps to line up his bid for the polka-dot and a stage win, but climbing to 9th is definitely doable.

10. Rui Costa, 33rd @ 22' 10"
Rui struggled today losing over 16 minutes to Froome and dropping him well down the standings and out of top 10 contention. A stage win in the Massif Central should be his aim now.


Green: Peter Sagan, 2nd @ -3pts
Heading into terrain were Sagan can pick up points in places Andre Greipel cannot all but ensures he'll move into Green and move clear. Greipel won't give up without a fight but it's hard to see Sagan losing out.

KOM: Pierre Rolland, 8th @ -39pts
Today's loan mountain in which the first serious points in this competition were dished out means it's far too early to form an opinion on how this competition is going but I still fancy Rolland to have a crack at it, perhaps with Rafal Majka (defending champ) and some fellow Frenchmen for competition.

White: Nairo Quintana, 1st
Seems absurd that he's still eligible for this contest. The UCI/ASO need to consider reducing the age from 25 to 23 for this, but as it is it's hard to see anyone else beating him.