Monday, December 22, 2014

2014 season in review: The year of crashing out of Grand Tours

2014 was the year of Ebola, ISIS, Malaysian airliners, Crimea, Ukraine, Scotland staying in Britian, the Sochi Olympics, Germany winning the World Cup in Brazil, Robin Williams' death and the ALS Ice Bucket challenge. But it was also the year that the Giro came to Belfast, the Tour came to Britain, and the World Hour record became popular again.

When I think back quickly on the 2014 cycling season without allowing myself anytime to think in depth, three moments spring to mind: The first is Vincenzo Nibali bouncing across the cobbles of northern France in his mud stained yellow jersey. The second is riders crashing out of Grand Tours -- from Dan Martin at the Giro (in Belfast in front of huge crowds); Mark Cavendish (in England in front of massive crowds), Chris Froome (before the cobbles!) and Alberto Contador (before the mountains) at the Tour de France; and Nairo Quintana (in a time-trial) at the Vuelta -- and I may have missed someone. The third was Jens Voigt riding into retirement by breaking the historic world hour record.

It was a heck of a season in which a variety of riders stepped up to win at various stages of the season. In reality the cycling season can be split into four mini-seasons within one: The early-season week-long stage races, the spring classics, the Grand Tours, and the fall classics/World Championships. But even within the mini-seasons, no rider came forward to dominate and as result we had unpredictable racing that generated some great action.

Those early-season week-long stage races provided a variety of winners from specialists targeting them to others using them as form builders ahead of the Grand Tours.

The spring classics seen four different men win the four spring Monuments, though Fabian Cancellara still come close to a superb spring by finishing second at Milan-San Remo and third at Paris-Roubaix to go with his obligatory Tour of Flanders win.

In the Grand Tours we had three different winners; not unusual in itself but perhaps highlighted when various contenders crashed out of each, removing those head-to-head battles we had been hoping for...especially at the Tour when Froome and Contador abandoned. And those first two Grand Tours will especially be remembered fondly for the big crowds that watched the Giro in Belfast and the Tour in Yorkshire. It was fantastic to see; as a Northern Irishman, I never thought I'd see a Grand Tour in Belfast.

By the time of the fall classics there was a lot of tired legs. Simon Gerrans (one of few who won in early season, in the spring and then again in fall) became the first to do the Montreal-Quebec double, Dan Martin rebounded from his LBL and Giro crashes to win the years final Monument, the Giro di Lombardia, and Michal Kwiatkowski took the World Championships. It left us with a lot of riders (none at Sky though, I would imagine) that must have finished the season satisfied with how their respective years went.

One man whose 2014 season was his last, was Jens Voigt. A stalwart of the peloton for 17 years, Voigt announced his retirement before the season began and went about trying to make it a memorable one. Every race he entered he was on the attack and on the first stage of the Tour in England he got away long enough to pull on the polka-dot jersey for the first time since his first Tour in 1998. Voigt had come full circle, but he didn't leave it there. On 18 September he took a run at the World Hour record after the UCI announced regulation changes to try and modernise the record. He was the first to do it in nine years, and he set a new standard in what became his retirement ride (what a way to go out!) and ignited a new love-affair with the challenge. 42 days later, Matthias Brandle broke Voigt's record and early reports suggest as many as seven men will try for it in 2015.

Everyone will have different memories of different moments that stood out to them and different riders that impressed them the most, but below are some of mine, though I hope at the very least you'll agree with why I've gone with what I have, and who I have. So without further ado, here's The Cycle Seen's best moments and awards for the 2014 road cycling season.


1. Stage five of the Tour; on the cobbles
The image was brutal and beautiful all at once: Vincenzo Nibali on the drops, in his dirty yellow jersey, pushing it at the front of a select group of cycling s hardest men in the driving rain through the mud of a cobbled lane with grass down the middle in northern France. A ride for the ages that surely lays the foundations for his bid to win the Tour de France. READ MORE>>

2. Quintana attacks on the Stelvio Descent
Nairo Quintana, pre-Giro favorite who looked to be in a little trouble just a few days ago, pulled out what will surely go down as one of the great rides in the history of this great race to win stage 16 and turn a 2 minutes, 40 seconds deficit to fellow Colombian Rigoberto Uran into a 1 minute, 41 seconds lead in this race in one of the most difficult, yet brilliant, stages of cycling you're ever likely to see. READ MORE>>

3. Voigt breaks the world hour record
It's been so long since this last happened that a whole generation of cycling fans have come into the sport and grew to love it but without ever having seen one of cycling's greatest records get broken and so how good it was to see the likable and ever hard suffering Jens Voigt bring down the curtain on a long and illustrious career by setting a new benchmark for the World Hour for a new era of cycling. READ MORE>>

4. Dan Martin crashes out of the Giro in Belfast
You know that theory that you cannot win a Grand Tour on the opening days time-trial but you can lose it? Well, never before has that been so evident as it was today in Belfast for the team-time-trial to start this years Giro d'Italia. A dramatic day of edge-of-your-seat action surrounded by an amazing turn out of fans generating a 21.7 kilometre wall of noise despite the changeable conditions that seen the race play into the hands of some, already begin to slip away from others, and totally vanish for Dan Martin. READ MORE>>

5. Contador returns from a fractured leg to win the Vuelta
On 14 July, Alberto Contador crashed out of the Tour de France with a broken Tibia. On 23 August, he took to the start line of the Vuelta a Espana. Few thought he would make it that far; fewer thought he’d have the form to compete. But he did both. He won two stages, overcame rival Chris Froome and came away with the overall win – his sixth Grand Tour victory (eight if you count the two he was stripped of) – by 1'10" over Froome.


Cyclist of the Year: VINCENZO NIBALI
This wasn't easy. Not because Nibali isn't a worthy winner having had a fine season, but because nobody jumped out right away and dominated the season; that at various points in the season different riders came to the fore in their own brilliant ways. In the spring the results were spread, at the Giro it was the brilliant Quintana, at the Vuelta it was the Contador show, and in the fall there was Michal Kwiatkowski's superb ride at the Worlds. And so, I've looked at how different riders dominated certain points of the season and tried to pick who done it best. With that in mind, I couldn't only go for Nibali for the way in which he won the Tour de France. He took four road stage wins in all (the most since Eddy Merckx in 1974): On the rolling roads of England, in the Vouges mountains, in the high Alps, and the Pyrenees. He won on all those terrains, and then there was the cobbles of Northern France. He didn't win there, but he smashed his rivals and laid the foundations for his Tour win. It was a command performance and when the dust had settled on it, Nibali had won his first Tour (becoming just the sixth man to complete the Grand Tour career triple crown) by a staggering 7 minutes, 37 seconds; the largest since Jan Ullrich in 1997.
Runners up: Alberto Contador, Michal Kwiatkowski, Nairo Quintana and Simon Gerrans.
Past winners: 2011 - Philippe Gilbert; 2012 - Sir Bradley Wiggins; 2013 - Vincenzo Nibali.

He won the first two road stages of the Giro, in Belfast and Dublin, before retiring with an illness from a race he looked set to dominate and then turned up at the Tour de France and won four stages including the first stage in England which, like last year, netted him the yellow jersey for a day. His biggest rival, Mark Cavendish, didn't ride the Giro and only lasted one day at the Tour so we never truly got to see them go head-to-head, but even with that, there is little doubt now that Kittel is the fastest man in the world today. Beyond the Grand Tours, Kittel won two stages at the Tour of Britain and three at the Dubai tour.
Past winners: 2011 - Mark Cavendish; 2012 - Mark Cavendish; 2013 - Marcel Kittel.

He skipped the Tour, but his display at the Giro was more than enough to win this award. Every time the road pointed upwards he looked a threat and only got stronger as the race went on. Yes he attacked on the descent of the Stelvio on stage 16, but when it came to the final assent to Val Martello he only extended the time gap he had at the foot of the climb right up to the top. Then on stage 19's mountain time-trial, he destroyed the opposition to confirm his Giro win. He only took 17 seconds out of the impressive Fabio Aru (see breakthrough rider award), but beat Rigoberto Uran by 1'26" and Pierre Rolland by 1'57". It was such a shame that we never got to see the best of him at the Vuelta before he crashed out.
Past winners: 2011 - David Moncoutie; 2012 - Joaqium Rodriguez; 2013 - Chris Froome.

I know Tony Martin won time-trials at the Giro and the Tour, but Brad Wiggins wasn't present for either and so to judge the best we could only go on when they went head-to-head and where better than at the World Championships were Wiggins ended Martain's run of four straight titles by beat him by 26 seconds over the 47.1km course for an average speed of 50km/h. Beyond that Wiggins won his national time-trial title and the time-trials at the Tour of California (where he also won the overall) and at the Tour of Britain. Next year he'll go for the World Hour record and it's hard to believe he won't smash it.
Past winners: 2011 - Cadel Evans; 2012 - Brad Wiggins; 2013 - Tony Martin.

Classics rider: SIMON GERRANS
He didn't dominate the classics by any means, but then again nobody did really, though as mentioned above,  Mr. Classics himself Fabian Cancellara, sure came close, but that win at Flanders was his only classic victory and we didn't see much of him the rest of the year. Gerrans on the other hand was good from the start to the end of the season. Before the classics began he won a stage and the overall at the Tour Down Under, and then in Belgium, won the Monument classic Liège–Bastogne–Liège after Dan Martin (yes him again) crashed at the final corner. But he showed up again in the fall, and won back-to-back races in three days at the Cycliste de Quebec and Cycliste de Montreal, in Canada. Neither are a Monument, but both are World Tour races and extremely challenging to say the least, and many use them as World Championship preparation. Speaking of which, Gerrans finished second.
Past winners: 2011 - Philippe Gilbert; 2012 - Tom Boonen; 2013 - Fabian Cancellara.

Most complete rider: ALEJANDRO VALVERDE
Say what you like about his past, but he's served his time and this is about the 2014 season. A season in which Valverde showed just what a complete talent he is. He could easily have been my choice for cyclist of the year (Nibali beat him well at the Tour) and he could easily have won the best classics rider also (Gerrans got a Monument to his name) but came up a little short despite being supremely consistent at the front end of so many races. Valverde won the UCI World Tour, which you might think would automatically make him the most complete riders, but that's not always the case. This time though, it is. He won eleven races on the season including the Roma Maxima, GP Miguel Indurain, La Flèche Wallonne, Clásica de San Sebastián, and two stages of the Vuelta; finished second at Liège–Bastogne–Liège and the Giro di Lombardia; third at the World Championship and Strade Bianche; fourth at Amstel Gold; and was third overall at the Vuelta and fourth overall at the Tour de France. He's one of the few who can be in the mix for the Grand Tours in the summer, but also compete to win the spring and fall classics.
Past winners: N/A

From top to bottom this is one powerful line-up, especially when it comes to the Grand Tours were they won multiple stages in all three this year including the overall at the Vuelta via Alberto Contador. At the Giro it was Michael Rogers who carried the can, taking two stage wins in a season that really was becoming a throwback year for the 34 year old Australian. And then at the Tour, when Contador crashed out and all seemed lost, it was Rogers doing his big to rescue things with a stage win to go with two stage wins by Rafal Majka, who also won the King of the Mountains crown. It was facinating to see the differences in how both Tinkoff-Saxo and Team Sky reacted upon losing their team-leaders. When Froome crashed out, Sky went into their shell and were barely seen again whereas Tinkoff-Saxo picked up the pieces and got the best out of others. At the Vuelta it was the Contador show, with two stage wins and the overall, to cap a season in which the team won stages throughout. Next year Peter Sagan arrives so they'll also be strong in the classics and don't rule out the rare possibility of them winning all three major jersey's at next years Tour with Contador going for yellow, Sagan for green and Majka for the King of the Mountains.
Past winners: 2012 - British Olympic track team; 2013 - Orica GreenEdge.

Breakthrough young rider: FABIO ARU
Cycling is drenched with young talent breaking through right now. Rafal Majka, Wilko Kelderman, Romain Bardet, Michal Kwiatkowski, Thibaut Pinot and Warren Barguil, to name but a few. Sure there is also Quintana but despite his youth, he’s already knocked down that door to stardom, highlighted by his Giro victory. As such, and for all those names, it was Fabio Aru that leapt out at me this year. Third in the Giro with a stage win and fifth in the Vuelta with two stage wins marked him out as Italy’s great hope for the future and one who will surely push to win a Grand Tour in the coming years. Indeed, next year he will lead his teams bid to win the Giro.
Past winners: 2011 - Pierre Rolland; 2012 - Peter Sagan; 2013 - Nairo Quintana.

Stage ten at the Tour de France and on the descent of the Col du Platzerwasel, Alberto Contador crashed at high speeds. When the cameras picked him up, it was clear he was in pain, limping well behind a charging peloton and his Tour was slipping away. Vincenzo Nibali couldn't wait on him as a rival in Michal Kwiatkowski was further up the road on the attack (see Domestique award), though at the time many felt Contador may be able to limit his losses, he was still riding after all. But it was only later, after he had eventually climbed off and retired from the Tour, that we found out just how badly injured he was. A broken Tibia, and he had ploughed on for some 20 kilometres trying in vein, but with great courage, to regain contact with the peloton. It was mightily impressive, and not least the fact he returned to the Vuelta just 40 days later to win two stages and the overall.
Past winners: 2011 - Johnny Hoogerland; 2012 - Johan Van Summeren; 2013 - Geraint Thomas.

Domistique: TONY MARTIN
Most people think of Tony Martin as a time-trialist specialist, which he is of course, but it would be wrong to say that he's a one trick pony and that this is all he offers his team and that was never highlighted better than on stages nine and ten at this years Tour. On stage nine from Gérardmer to Mulhouse, Martin got into a break, went into time-trial mode and won the first road race stage of his Tour career by almost three minutes. It was a superb solo ride and no doubt he was exhausted. Nobody could have blamed him for hiding up in the peloton until the only individual time-trial of the Tour on stage 20. But that's not the Martin's way...the very next day he got into the break with his team-mate Michal Kwiatkowski who was trying to recover time he had lost on previous stages and get himself back into contention for a podium position. Martin went to the front and went into time-trial mode once more, pushing himself to the limit on climbs as Kwiatkowski's time built so much that at one stage, he was provisional yellow on the road. When. with 20km to go and a 2'17" lead over Nibali, Martin couldn't go any further, he swung to the side and almost came to a standstill. Kwiatkowski couldn't reward him with the stage win, Nibali overhauled him on the final climb, and Martin limped home 16 minutes after Nibali. But it was a heroic effort nonetheless.
Past winners: 2013 - Adam Hansen.

Etape was a fantastic read for anyone into their cycling history looking across some of the great stages in the Tour de France. It doesn’t shy away from stages now known to be tainted, and while putting everything into perspective it focuses particularly on the racing aspect and what happened on the road on that given day, and I found that refreshing.
Other books I read (and would recommend): Inside Team Sky by David Walsh, RIIS by Bjarne Riis, A Clean Break by Christophe Bassons and Shadows on the Road by Michael Barry.
Past winners: 2012 - The Secret Race by Tyler Hamilton; 2013 - Domestique by Charlie Wegelius.


So there we have it. Have a very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year. The 2015 season promises to be epic and known as the year of the hour record!

Friday, October 31, 2014

Voigt’s World Hour falls already…to Matthias Brandle

Maybe it was the time of year and the fact that with most cycling done for the season I wasn’t following the news quite as closely over the past couple of weeks as I might otherwise have done, and so forgot all about Matthias Brandle’s World Hour attempt until he was some fifty minutes into it.  Maybe it was just me but the entire build up certainly seemed to fly well under the cycling radar, at least in comparison to Jens Voigt’s effort just a month or so ago.

It certainly didn’t have the fanfare and perhaps that was because Jens got out ahead of the field and was the first man to tackle the record in many years coupled with the fact it was the final ride of what had been a celebrated career by the German rider. But perhaps Brandle preferred the comparative lack of attention until he was sure he had it beat, and even that wasn’t for sure until the final minutes when nothing shy of a crash could stop him.

By then I was right into it. Feeling bad that I hadn’t paid more attention to the build-up but glad that I was seeing a part of it. A fine effort by the Austrian who at just 24 years of age surely has his best cycling years ahead of him, in stark contrast to Voigt. 51.852km was the distance covered in the hour – 742 metres better than Voigt – and while the numbers are staggering, I’d be a fool to say that this is a record that will stand any great length of time.

When Jens Voigt kick-started this World Hour fever for the first time since the early to mid-90s when it was tackled six times over a sixteen month period, it became obvious that others would line up to take a shot at it, especially now that the UCI have relaxed the kind of bike you can use. It was this rule change that inspired Voigt and no doubt Brandle and I believe it will do the same for Sir Bradley Wiggins next year and no doubt the likes of Tony Martin and Fabian Cancellara.

It’s great to see though I just hope that the lack of attention on Brandles effort by comparison to Voigt’s isn’t a signal of coverage to come now that the idea of someone tacking the record isn’t quite as unique as it was when Voigt came out of nowhere to take it on for the first time since Ondřej Sosenka in July 2005.

I don’t think so though. There may not have been the same build-up to Brandle’s go, but that is also in part due to the time of year (nobody since Ferdi Bracke on the same day in 1967 has done it so late in the cycling season, though Boardman did it on 27 October 2000) and the fact he is still a rider making a name for himself in the sport. In breaking the hour record he has certainly now made that name…early reports suggest his following on Twitter has doubled in the twenty-four hours it has been since he set the new milestone.

When the likes of Wiggins, Taylor Phinney, Martin or Cancellara (here’s hoping they all do) step up, the hype will be at levels of fever pitch; or is it fever track?

Brandle’s record should see out 2014 and last longer than Voigt’s did, but with all due respect to him, it’s hard to see how someone like Wiggin’s won’t smash the current mark by quite a stretch when he takes his turn in 2015. The good thing for Brandle however, unlike Voigt, is that in due course, as his career progresses and he becomes a better rider, he may well, feel the urge to go again.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Halloween is coming, and the cyclist is getting fat

Winter training: While the pro's head south to the sunshine, I head south to the basement.

My mountain bike remains in the garage…engineering work on it still but half done, trying to find a moment when I am not running after the kiddies or too lazy to move off the sofa to get up and finish it. I want to soon…I want to get it out for a ride before the snow starts to fall. And how I need it, for these past several weeks I have been the definition of bone idle.

Running after the kiddies is always worth missing out on cycling for, but I know all too well that there are other opportunities and of late I’ve not seized them. The road bike also sits in the garage. It’s raring to go but following my 145km ride three or four weeks back I haven’t bothered to get back on. That ride seems destined to have become a closing to the season ride.

And there has been no real excuse not to still ride outside, sure the temperatures have dropped but they have been far from unbearable. Alas, those temperatures no longer being shorts and shirt weather has left me not bothering. Perhaps too the knowledge that the winter is ahead and soon enough the bike will be in the basement and on the turbo once again, hasn’t helped.

And yet I know that in a month or so from now I will be desperate for a ride, longing for a spin in the country while I look out my window at yet another snow fall, my days exercise beginning and ending with the shovel in my hand ready to sweep more snow off the driveway.

And then come mid-March or early April as soon as temperatures go above freezing with any kind of consistency, yet still colder than it is right now, I’ll be out there riding, searching for any kind of fitness.

This weekend, or early next week, I will put the turbo downstairs and begin that nasty habit of having to push myself down there most evenings after work if even to do a 30 or 45 minute session. I’ve put it off all through October, though not because I’ve considered this my ‘off-season break’. My ‘on-season’ was filled with gaps in time spent not riding enough as it was that I hardly earned an off season break. Or better still, the season never really had a start or finish this time around.

Such is life.

Still, while professional cyclists think about heading south to warmer climates and some serious winter training, I too will head south…into my basement and onto the turbo. Perhaps I’ll get out for the odd jog and even start to care a little bit more about what I am eating. All these things are key if I am to actually enjoy my cycling once the weather turns good again next spring. It’s always more fun cycling if you feel like you are getting something out of climbing hills and even doing well, by relative standards, in the races I do.

I didn’t do a lot of racing this year but hope to do a few more again in 2015. I think that yet again I’ll do the 24 hour summer solstice race and while I was OK this past year, I wasn’t as fit as I could have been.

The promises of late autumn, I like to think of it. Everyone’s a superstar in planning. But we’ll see how it goes.

Friday, October 24, 2014

USADA consider banning Armstrong from uploading rides to Strava

Following on the heels of news yesterday that Lance Armstrong's life-time ban from cycling included participation in his old lieutenant, George Hincapie's Gran Fondo charity fun-run in South Carolina this weekend, having previously registered, The Cycle Seen has learned from a source that the USADA, in conjunction with the UCI, are now aiming to have Armstrong banned from uploading future rides to Strava.

"Simply prohibiting Mr. Armstrong from participating in any capacity in an event or activity authorised, recognised or organised by the Union Cycliste Internationale doesn't feel like enough, "whispered the source. "It seems only right that Mr. Armstrong be banned from uploading rides to Strava where he is currently eligible for segment records.

Indeed, Armstrong currently holds twenty-two segment records and if the source is correct, the UCI would like to have Armstrong stripped of those records along with those seven Tours de France that no longer happened.

One Strava cyclist commented on how he had a segment records recently taken from him by Armstrong. "I was disappointed in the same was Jan Ullrich must have been disappointed to be beaten by a man I know could have been cheating." The Strava cyclist denied rumours that he himself had taken the segment record by riding a moped and said the idea that his bike was in fact strapped to the roof of his car at the time, was preposterous.

All eyes will be on the Hincapie fun-run this weekend to see whether Armstrong turns up. He may be banned from riding it in an official capacity but there is little to stop him riding on the same roads as the event at the same time. "If that happens," said a mole within USADA, "Lance Armstrong would be handed a second life ban from cycling."

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Cobbles return plus a trip up L'Alpe d’Huez on penultimate stage

The 2015 Tour de France route was unveiled this week leaving me feeling like a kid who gets to see his Christmas present in March before it’s wrapped up and put away again for nine months. Still, I couldn’t help but take a good hard look before sadly watching it get put away despite my pleading that they start racing it right away.

But some good news: The cobbles return and they’ll climb Alpe d’Huez on the penultimate stage of the Tour. This year the race starts outside France once more; this time in Utrecht, in the Netherlands, with short 15km time-trial…the only individual time trial of the entire race – barely long enough to avoid being classified as a prologue -- making this very much a tour for the climbers.

No coincidence then that the year after a couple of French climbers crack the podium that they should limit time-trialing to the bare minimum and go full bore in the mountains? And Vincenzo Nibali should be delighted. Chris Froome isn’t so happy saying he might skip it, which is strange because despite the time-trial being to his advantage, he’s also a decent climber when he puts his mind to it.

Of course, before they even get to the mountains they’ll have Belgium and northern-France to deal with. Returning this year is time-bonuses: ten, six and four seconds to the first three over the line meaning that a sprinter who puts in a good shift in the time-trial can still, in true Cipollini like style in the 90’s, conceivably snatch the yellow jersey for a few days before the mountains.

That said, the sprinters won’t have it that easy and may only have a single day to get close to yellow, but stage two has the chance for echelons, stage three finishes on the infamous Mur de Huy in the Belgian Ardennes, and on stage four the pave returns once more. This opening week is tailor made for someone like Fabian Cancellara, or even Peter Sagan, to take and hold the yellow jersey for the entire week.

Last year’s stage five across the cobbles was a huge hit with the fans, if not all the riders, and so the race organisors have come to accept that if they do the mountains in the south of France every year, why not do the cobbles in the north. Both are roads in France; both should be considered a challenge to overcome. Once again, Nibali will be delighted, for it was on those cobbles in 2014 that he set up his overall victory.

Beyond that on the northern-half of this Tour, the sprinters will get a few days in the sunshine, before another uphill finish on the Mur de Bretagne on stage eight. Cadel Evans won here in 2011 just ahead of Alberto Contador, on his way to winning his one and only Tour de France. Can we expect to see the 2015 winner taking a stage victory once again here?

The northern half finishes with a 28km team-time-trial. A chance for the strong teams to give their leaders one last time boost ahead of the mountains which will begin following a rest day down in the southern half of the country, and race.

That trip into the Pyrenees will begin on Bastille Day; a day for the French to show their hand…a day for Pinot, Bardet or Peraud to stake their claim? Three days they’ll toil in the Pyrenees before transitioning their way across to the Alps, and if the Tour isn't already won by here, and I suspect it won’t be, then this will be where everyone lays their cards on the table.

Stage 17 to Pra Loup will bring back memories, for the older generation, of the slowing Eddy Merckx’s reign coming to an end at the hands of Bernard Thevenet in 1975. What will it do to the current crop dreaming of GC glory? Will another Frenchman use it as a staging post to glory? Or will Nibali once more put down the hammer?

Stage 19 and 20, the final two days in the Alps will be the most dramatic and are the two shortest road-race stages. 138km one day, but crossing three mountains, and 110km the next finishing a-top L’Alpe d’Huez will make for fascinating viewing. We’ll be able to watch from the very start with no transitional section before the real racing begins. On these two stages it should be all out from the proverbial gun as everyone sniffs a chance to win and the contenders sense their last chance to make their move.

By the time they wind their way to the top of the Alpe and through the throngs of fans awaiting them…expected to be huge given the lack of a stage length with which to spread them over, we’ll know who has won this race. We can only hope the GC battle is still in the balance coming into stage 20, but even if it isn’t, the stage itself should be fantastic to watch.

Then it’s the usual jaunt into Paris, a procession where riders chit-chat up and down the peloton and the winner is captured clinking glasses of champagne with his team-mates before that famous high-speed crit up and down the Champs Elysees.

And so, 3,350km after they took turns rolling down the starting ramp in Utrecht, the tour will be won and lost for another year and all that will remain is for the winner to make his victory speech and spend the following weeks fighting off all sorts of doping allegations.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Cycling's nearly man retires at the sage of 29

It was Andy's brother Frank Schleck, winding his way up that hairpin stacked colossus of Alpe d'Huez at the 2006 Tour de France when I first heard about Andy. 'If you think this guy is good, you should see his brother', said the commentator, or something to that affect. Initially dismissed as something you often hear, it was proven true when he made his Grand Tour debut at the next years Giro and finished second. A rare talent had been unearthed and big things were projected, and yet here we are, just seven years on, and the now 29 year old, injured and washed up younger Schleck, has retired.

Andy Schleck made the announcement yesterday saying that cartilage damage in his right knee, suffered from a crash in England during a stage of this years Tour de France, was irreparable.

"The ligaments were fine, they healed," said Schleck, "but I have almost no cartilage left under my kneecap." His contract with Trek Factory Racing was expiring at the end of the year, unlikely to be renewed, and with this latest injury now hanging over him, his chances of finding a new team growing slimmer by the day.

Back in 2008 though, when he made his Tour de France debut and finished 12th followed by a second place to Alberto Contador the following year, still aged just 23, he was one of the hottest properties in the sport. Like Jan Ullrich before him who burst into the sport with such promise, he soon became the nearly man.

At the 2009 Tour he was beaten into second place by Alberto Contador and again in 2010, or so it seemed. In an incredible three week duel he lost the Tour by a mere 39 seconds, the exact number of seconds he lost to Contador on stage 15 when his chain dropped on the way up the Port de Bales and the Spaniard attacked, but this time, in the long run, fate was with him. Contador, tested positive at the Tours second rest day in what became the beefgate scandal and following a lengthy trial was stripped of his title with Schleck inheriting the win.

“It’s nice to accept this jersey, but for me it doesn't change anything – it’s not like a win," he said at the time. "It’s not the same sensation as climbing on the podium.”

And yet many still felt his chance to do so would come. In 2011 with Contador off form and still waiting to hear the vircit of his trial, Schleck seemed nailed on to win, but once again he would play second fiddle. Leading into the final time-trial of the Tour by 53 seconds over his brother Frank and 57 seconds to Cadel Evans he coughed up 2 minutes 31 seconds to the Australian who pulled on Yellow and wore it into Paris the following day. It was like a slightly less dramatic (but only slightly) version of LeMond and Fignon all over again. Ironic too in that Cyrille Guimard, the man who first signed Schleck as a junior, had compared him to Fignon.

But that 2011 Tour also brought with it the finest ride of Schleck's career and the one for which he will be most remembered. Often criticised for not being aggressive enough; for not attacking at the risk of dropping his brother when he so badly wanted them both on the top two steps of that podium, he finally fired back on stage 18 going on one of the finest solo exploits in recent tour memory to win at the top of the famous Col du Galibier. He attacked early on the Col d'Izoard and rode alone for 60 kilometres leading on the Galibier with, at one stage, a four minute lead. Evans went on pursuit to save his Tour and while the Yellow jersey of Thomas Voeckler, who had been battling viciously though the mountains to retain his lead, kept it by a handful of seconds, the writing was on the wall. Schleck would eventually pull on yellow only to lose it a few days later.

Following that epic stage, and even in spite of eventually losing the Tour to Evans, it was believed that Schleck had truly discovered his full potential and in knowing it's high limits from the start in 2012 he would ensure that the time-trial would not become a factor. Instead however, that memorable win would prove to be his last at the Tour, and he was never the same rider again. He started to get injured more and soon found himself off the pace and rapidly losing confidence, dropping early on the kind of climbs he used to dominate.

The moment was captured at its worst with Schleck crashing out of this years Tour early. Another crash, another injury, another Tour lost. Would he ever recover to come back to the rider he was and we knew he could be? At 29 you felt time was still on his side, though in his old rival Contador and new contenders in Vincenzo Nibali, Nairo Quintana and Chris Froome, he appeared to have been left behind. One could hope he'd find his way back, but yesterday Schleck confirmed that time was not on his side, that he was done.

A three time winner of the young rider white jersey competition at the Tour de France, it's sad to see him now retiring young, but perhaps in doing so we'll always remember him as being young, wearing that white jersey, soaring high on mountains like the Tourmalet in 2010 and Galibier in 2011; a young man of potential.

Monday, September 29, 2014

Kwiatkowski, cycling's brightest young star, wins World Championship

These kind of courses with so much on the line seem to cater towards the same tactic: Hold off until that short, sharp, final climb near the finish and do the damage there. The early break attempts go clear but get washed up just in time for the decisive move to be made. It reminded me so much of the race in Montreal just a few weeks ago, a race that Simon Gerrans won, and who this time had to settle for second behind Michal Kwiatkowski who made the kind of move Peter Sagan made in Montreal the year before.

What a talent Kwiatkowski is. It's amazing he isn't marked in the same kind of way Sagan is. Nobody helping him when he attacks, everyone covering him and forcing him to chase everything down. Younger than Sagan by several months, the Polish phenom has proven himself capable in single day races as well as Grand Tours and must surely be seen as the finest young talent in the sport right now.

The first 245 kilometres of this 254.8 kilometre race was all about wearing down legs and building fatigue. It didn't make for a great spectacle on television but it ensured the final part of the race was the most dramatic. And with so many feeling they could win it, they hit the final climb with everything up for grabs.

Sprinters seen the climb as short enough that if they battled over they could yet win the dash for the line; classics men in the mould of Fabian Cancellara, Philippe Gilbert or Greg Van Averamet seen it as ideal to put in an almighty dig to distance the rest by enough to stay clear on the descent; and climbers seen it as the kind of climb that they could match those classic men and then distance them before the top. It was a World Championships made for everyone but the upshot was it was a World Championships in which we had to wait six hours for it all to kick off.

My tip to win had been Gerrans, and he came so close. His form in Canada at Quebec City and Montreal, were he won both, suggested he would be in contention and he didn't disappoint. He missed Kwiatkowski getting away and then in the run down to the finish, he won the small group sprint. So near, yet so far for a rider in the form of his life. No wonder he said he felt like crying when he crossed the line.

Third was Alejandro Valverde, a man with superb consistency in the World Championships, but who has yet to win it. Six times he has finished on the podium and you can't help but think of his palmarès had things gone just that little bit differently and he won them! For the Canadian contingent, all three (Ryan Anderson, Christian Meier and Michael Woods) all failed to finish, while of the nine British riders only two finished, with Ben Swift in 12th and Peter Kennaugh in 82nd.

Kwiatkowski may have gotten away at the foot of the climb in part because others, like Gerrans, were waiting for the likes of pre-race favorites, Sagan or Cancellara, to make their moves further up the climb. Nobody expected someone to go so soon or for their effort to be sustained, but given how he stayed clear over the top, down the other side and into the finish to win his first (and I'll say not his last!) World Championship, you can bet Kwiatkowski will be marked tighter in the future...especially now that he'll stand out in rainbow stripes.

That said, he'll line up next week at Il Lombardia for his first race in the rainbow jersey and while many have indeed seen it as a jersey that stifles them given how recognisable you are in the bunch and everyone understanding your capiabilities, you get the sense Kwiatkowski will thrive in it.

1. Kwiatkowski (Pol) in
2. Gerrans (Aus) +1"
3. Valverde (Esp) s.t.
4. Breschel (Den) s.t.
5. Van Avermaet (Bel) s.t.
6. Gallopin (Fra) s.t.