Thursday, August 28, 2014

A serious sorting of the GC contenders; Valverde makes his stand

It only took a 3.5km climb, or in the case of those at the very sharp end of this race, the final kilometre of that 1km climb, but it was a steep one and with the pace high it took its toll on almost everyone in the bunch and it sorted out the contenders from the pretenders to win this years Vuelta.

Gone from contention are the likes of Cadel Evans, Dan Martin, Ryder Hesjedal, Andrew Talansky and Rigoberto Uran, and left are a collection of about five, headed by Alejandro Valverde who not only set the pace for his team-mate Nairo Quintana but who was able to react to a Joaquim Rodriguez attack and win the stage ahead of other expected contenders, Chris Froome and Alberto Contador who finished with the same time as the Spaniard. Rodriguez took forth, 8 seconds back, while Quintana limped in fifth, 12 seconds behind his team-mate.

Michael Matthews, as expected, lost his race leaders jersey, though perhaps unexpected by some was the man he lost it to: Valverde was expected to go well enough in this Vuelta, but given his efforts at the Tour and the fact many felt he would be riding for his team-mate Quintana, I didn't expect to see him in red today. Not even with 1.5 kilometres to go when he continued to set a pace that was shelling rider after rider off the back.

Everyone was watching Quintana to make his move, but he couldn't. The man who won the Giro and who has been targeting this Vuelta ever since, while the rest were off at the Tour, was caught out by the vicious final kilomtres, though does still sit second in the GC thanks to his teams strong showing in the team-time-trial on stage 1. He's 15 seconds behind Valverde overall and with over two weeks and all the big mountains still to come, you'd imagine he'll find a way to recover. Anyone who doubts him only need look at the gap he overcame to win this years Giro in the third week.

That said, a marker has been thrown down and if he thought Valverde might ride for him in this Vuelta, he may think again. Both Froome and Contador looked strong given they had to abandon the Tour in July with injuries and it was Contador who came into this Vuelta saying he wasn't targeting the GC, but rather stage wins. I'm not sure if many believed that...a champion of his stature doesn't do 'stage wins' only, and he confirmed his intent today.

45 seconds separate the first six overall now with Contador 18 seconds back and Froome at 22 seconds. Today merely showed us who wouldn't win the Vuelta and for those left at the top of the order it was merely about gaining a psychological edge or simply stretching the legs.

Result:

1. Valverde (MOV) in 4h35'27"

2. Froome (SKY) + s.t.

3. Contador (TIN) + s.t.

4. Rodriguez (KAT) +8"

5. Quintana (MOV) +12"

6. Aru (AST) +18"

Overall:

1. Valverde (MOV) in 22h48'08"

2. Quintana (MOV) + 15"

3. Contador (TIN) +18"

4. Froome (SKY) +22"

5. Chaves (OGE) +41"

6. Rodriguez (KAT) +45"

Monday, August 25, 2014

Early Vuelta very much like the early Giro

The Vuelta is underway. Three stages in now and already there are echo's of this years Giro. It too started with a team-time-trial and then seen Michael Matthews grab a stage win and the race leaders jersey. The only real difference between the two is a lack of Northern Irish rain and the Garmin team not crashing in that team-time-trial.

Things are still fairly packed in the GC; Dan Martin finished second to Matthews today with Chris Froome and Alberto Contador in the same group. Alejandro Valverde lost 7 seconds but maintains a strong placing out of those considering themselves favorites over this three week race. Thibaut Pinot was someone I thought might contend despite tired legs following the Tour, but he lost 4'21" on today's stage and must surely be here for stage wins alone.

One man missing from when I wrote about how packed this Vuelta field was, is Chris Horner. He withdrew in the days leading up to the start, not because he's still suffering from an illness, but because he took medicine to combat it. Horner had been suffering with bronchitis and the medication of cortisone he took to get better in time required a TUE, which was fine by the UCI, but because his Lampre team are a member of the MPCC -- the Movement for Credible Cycling -- they would not let him race so close to using those drugs.

Never mind a years training washed out because he needed medicine when sick, we're now deprived of seeing how this aging defending champion would get on against the likes of Froome and Contador. I don't think Horner would have been able to beat that pair, but now we'll never know for sure. Horner will not lose his Vuelta crown on the road.

I admire what the MPCC teams are trying to do, but sometimes the logic makes you wonder. Sure there is a drive to return credibility to the sport, but at what cost? Can you imagine flying to Spain to watch Barcelona play only to find out that Messi wasn't in the lineup -- not because he wasn't fit -- but because he had been ill last week and had to take some medicine?

Granted Horner is no Messi and perhaps nobody has flown to Spain specifically to see him ride, but he's the defending champion nonetheless. The MPCC has good intentions, but this is the drawback to it.

The Vuelta continues however and we've still the potential for a brilliant race. I'll continue to hope that neither Froome or Contador find a way to crash before we hit the big mountains where this race will, as ever, be decided. And it'll be intriguing to see if anyone else can put themselves in the mix and beat this pair who so far seem more interested in their ALS Ice Bucket Challenges with Froome recently nominating Contador.

Standings after stage 3:

1. Matthews (OGE) in 9h27'53"

2. Quintana (MOV) +4"

3. Valverde (MOV) +11"

4. Uran (OPQ) +15"

5. Caruso (CAN) +17"

6. Caves (OGE) s.t.

---

12. Contador (TIN) +23"

23. Froome (SKY) +31"

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Stop the presses!!

Too late, you say? Yesterday's article is already online praising the potential of this upcoming Vuelta but disappointed that it will be going without an injured Alberto Contador? Well, then, it's out of date already: The Spaniard has announced he WILL be riding the years final Grand Tour as he looks to make up for his lost Tour de France.

Speaking in a video message he released today, the two time winner of the Vuelta said that he has "been riding my bike for last ten days, and yesterday was the first day I could climb a mountain pass without knee pain, and that excites me, motivates me and led me to take the decision that I will ride the Tour of Spain."

What his condition is given the time he has had off and the fact he is coming back from an injury will remain to be seen, but having Contador there is a big boost for the race. He mentioned his target for now is merely stage wins but known the talent that Contador is, if he can remain somewhat in the mix over the first half of the race there is little reason to doubt he cannot find good form in the later half of the race to take it to his rivals.

Nairo Quintana will remain the favorite given he is healthy, fresh and has been targeting this race for some months, but right now only perhaps Vincenzo Nibali is missing from making this the ultimate showdown of the sports top names with a potential eight former Grand Tour winners taking to the start line: Alberto Contador, Chris Froome, Cadel Evans, Nairo Quintana, Damiano Cunego, Ryder Hesjedal, Alejandro Valverde, and defending champion, Chris Horner.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Vuelta a Espana: The potential for an epic

One look at the provisional start list for this years Vuelta, starting in just a week and a half's time and you cannot help but get excited for the potential for the three week race. Aside from perhaps Vincenzo Nibali, an injured Alberto Contador and a self-retired from Grand Tours Bradley Wiggins, we've everyone we could want lining up determined to win the thing.

Chris Froome and Andrew Talansky, both of whom had their Tour dreams derailed by crashes, will line up. Also, Nairo Quintana who having won the Giro and sat out the Tour will be targeting his second Grand Tour of the season. Defending champion Chris Horner is back, Alejandro Valverde is there (presumably to help Quintana), Thibaut Pinot, fresh off his Tour podium, will race, along with Cadel Evans who skipped the Tour presumably to target the Vuelta.

And the list goes on: Ryder Hesjedal, Dan Martin (Giro redemption?), Fabio Aru (young Giro star), Waren Barguil (another French prodigy and winner of a Vuleta stage in 2013), Carlos Bentancur, Laurens Ten Dam, Bauke Mollema and the Yates brothers, Simon and Adam.

Beyond that there's Mark Cavendish, Peter Sagan and Nacer Bouhanni for the sprints along with Fabian Cancellara and Philippe Gilbert for various other stages.

The prospect is mouth watering.

How everyone's form is will be fascinating to see, either those coming off the back of the Tour, or those having crashed out of the Tour, or indeed those who skipped the Tour. The Tours loss when Froome, Talansky and Cavendish crashed out was the Vuelta's gain.

Nairo Quintana must go in as the favorite given his ride in the Giro and the time he's had to exclusively prepare for this race, but someone like Chris Froome will be determined to make up for his lost Tour de France.

The whole thing starts on Saturday 23 August with a team-time-trial and all eyes on the Garmin team as they look to avoid the disaster that befell them at the team-time-trial that started this years Giro. If they can get Dan Martin around this time the Irishman has got to be contender for a top ten finish...though so too are Hesjedal and Talansky.

So just when you thought post-tour withdrawal was reaching fever pitch, this race is about to come along and excite us all. It ought to be spectacular...let's hope no crashes get in the way.

Thursday, July 31, 2014

The Benefit of the Doubt: Another tour, and winner, worth believing in

My last article that looked back on the tour had the following paragraph inserted into it:
And it was again a Tour that looked normal...something we're forced to analyse in this post-EPO-crazy era. The champion was simply better than the remaining contenders but far from unworldly, and the return of the French to the podium for the first time post-Festina affair '98 was a welcome sight. If you still cannot give the benefit of the doubt to the bulk of what you seen in this Tour, especially after what has been a handful of promising years now, then I'm not sure what it will take, outside of your own participation.
Well, against my own urges, I thought I'd expand a little and do the very thing that I said we're now forced to do and analyse this tour from the perspective of the dark (yet receding, I like to think) shadow that lurks near the bright lights of the Tour. 'The Darkness on the Edge of Town' as Bruce Springsteen might call the subject of drugs in cycling...always out there and occasionally in need of addressing.

Thankfully, in recent years, it looks as though analysing a Tour from the perspective of drug use is giving us a healthy outcome if done objectively and the hope is that if it continues this way then we'll eventually reach a point where it won't require much scrutiny at all. We all know that some people will always try to cheat, regardless of the environment around them, but seeing the pendulum swing from the majority in a broken culture to a minority in a working system culture suggests that at last the sports appears to be getting on top of the battle against drugs and the riders are not feeling that it is a requirement to success.

These men will continue to defy our own limited potential...to rise up to a level of endurance that is hard to comprehend suffering; it's why we watch...because we know we could never do it ourselves, and yet there's something beautiful in the suffering; the countryside of France rolling by our screens as a back drop and the glory in what these men go through in order to finish Paris, let alone win the thing.

There was a time when the Tour appeared all too alien, but while it will always remain on an elevated pedestal of natural human performance...that pedestal is at least back on earth and among many examples, the final climb to Hautacam highlighted this perfectly.

Vincenzo Nibali won there. He attacked early, near the foot of the climb and rode solo to glory, hammering home the final nail into the coffin that was everyone elses dreams of winning this Tour. It was as much an act of defiance against anyone who still thought he wouldn't have won had Contador and Froome finished as it was an attempt to secure further time over any rival.

You could almost hear the calculators clicking when Nibali sprang his attack...the ghost of, and the time of, Bjarne Riis's ride up this mountain in 1996 looming large. And yet, 18 years down the road from that infamous day, an uber talented climbing specialist, on modern equipment, under modern training and nutritional techniques, lost 2 minutes and 45 seconds to the time put down by a 32 year old Riis who had gone from career domestique to superstar in the matter of a couple of years.

Of course -- and in the interests of balance -- analysing times on a climb on separate days, never mind separate years, when wind direction and strength, temperature, humidity, relevance of the stage, difficulty of preceding stages, length of the stage before the climb, speed of the racing on the lower slopes, and many other factors can vary dramatically reduce it to an inexact science, especially when there is no certainty that the times themselves are accurate.

But when you look back at Riis's ride and then at Nibali's on video, the differences are striking. Riis rode that climb steady on the lower slopes dropping back through the group to analyse his rivals before launching a short attack. He then dropped back to the group and once more went to the back, looking at each of his opponents before a second attack. They were well into the climb before he settled into a punishing rhythm that took him to the stage victory. Nibali on the other hand attacked early and rode the climb as though it were a time-trial. No start-stop attacking; no playing with his rivals.

The Tour came up this climb two years before Riis's big win and that time it was Indurain eating up his rivals; only Luc Leblanc could hang onto his wheel and out sprinted him to the line. Their time was still more than 2 minutes faster than Nibali. Four years after Riis in 2000 the Tour again came back to Hautacam, and this time it was Lance Armstrong who won with a time more than 1 minute faster than the Italian. On each occasion, times aside, the performances were spectacularly different from that of Nibali's in 2014.

Naturally, as in any walk of life in which fame and fortune lie as a reward for glory, there will be those that will try take shortcuts to the top, but once upon a time the shortcut was a requirement...the other road simply didn't go to the summit. Times have changed however, they test for more now...they simply test more now. They have the biological passport starting to reap its rewards and it's hard to find any champion from the days of yore who remains untainted by a positive test, a link to a scandal, or an admission (forced or otherwise) of guilt. And every rider now understands that their urine and blood samples will be stored away, good to be re-tested should any new breakthrough in testing for any as-of-yet unknown substance become available.

Which brings me to another point: There's no sign that any unknown substance has hit the peloton. Back in the early 90's when EPO first made its appearance, the speeds soared. Greg LeMond and Laurent Fignon both spoke about the sudden rise in speeds. LeMond and Fignon were all but 31 and 32 years of age respectively by the 1992 Tour and yet both looked like old beaten up men, no longer able to hack it with the young lads as Fignon finished 23rd and LeMond abandoned. Challenging one another to win the Tour just three years before, they were suddenly left behind. To put it in perspective, Alberto Contdor is 31 now, Bradley Wiggins won the Tour aged 32, Cadel Evans won it at 34, and Jean-Christophe Péraud has just finished second this year aged 37. The idea that LeMond or Fignon should have been finished in their early 30s to these sudden accelerations seemed bizarre, but it is now obvious why in hindsight.

The speeds of races today however have not suddenly shot up skewing who should and shouldn't be fast. The average speed of this tour as a whole was 40.69 km/h, the 4th fastest on record, though it must be remembered that a large majority of the ride down the east side of France that incorporated about nine stages was with a tail-wind.

That aside however, the three Tours faster than this one came 8, 9 and 11 years before and it was barely quicker this year than it was twenty some years before, which bodes the question, not whether that is a bad sign that they're still as fast as dirty Tours, but if drugs were still rampant today then, coupled with improved technology, nutrition and training, why aren't they going even faster still? History would suggest that if drugs were still rampant 14 years into the 21st century, and especially if some new product had hit the peloton, then speeds would be 1 or 2 km/h faster than ever before.

But they're not.

You may still be unsure, forever scarred by the past, or you may have had questions, but this Tour has answered them about as well as it could be expected and while we'll never know for sure, or at least not for many years, certainly not enough to put our mortgages on it, at the very least this Tour and its champion have earned the right to the benefit of the doubt and such a step in recent years is a big positive for the direction in which cycling is heading.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

A different Tour but the same old magic

There's no such thing as a bad Tour. Every Tour is a good Tour, maybe even a great Tour...at least that's what I think. So this years was no different despite the winner coming home almost eight minutes ahead of the next man. There's way too much goes on over the three week Tour de France...so many stages, too much drama, all kids of terrain, and plenty of competitions beyond the yellow jersey for the whole thing to ever be written off as not good.

We had everything once again: Rolling stages in front of mammoth crowds in England, sprint stages in sunshine and rain, tribute stages going through old battle fields 100 years on from the start of that horrific war, a mini-Paris-Roubaix stage on the cobbles, four mountain ranges of stages in the Jura, Vogues, Alps and Pyrenees all with their own unique style and all bringing a different context to the outcome of the race, a crucial time-trial stage for French cycling, and the traditional crit in Paris stage.

We had crashes that eliminated contenders, crashes that made hero's out of those that continued, good weather, bad weather, sprint victories, individual stage glory, individual stage heart-break, long exploits and suffering in the mountains.

We had a points competition dominated by a consistently brilliant yet stage starved Peter Sagan; a mountains prize that went back and forth and came down to the final big climb; a young riders prize fought out between two young men who became the toast of their nation; a yellow jersey contest that may have been all but won halfway through, but by a champion that continued to attack and prove himself as worthy a champion as you'll ever seen; and a podium consisting of a Frenchman for the first time since '97 and Frenchmen for the first time since '84.

And it was again a Tour that looked normal...something we're forced to analyse in this post-EPO-crazy era. The champion was simply better than the remaining contenders but far from unworldly while the return of the French to the podium for the first time post-Festina affair '98 was a welcome sight. If you still cannot give the benefit of the doubt to the bulk of what you seen in this Tour, especially after what has been a handful of promising years now, then I'm not sure what it will take, outside of your own participation.

It's OK for some people to defy our own limited potential with their own superb performances and cycling brings this out in athletes like no other sport. The Tour de France, on a global stage, simply magnifies it.

But this was no normal tour from the perspective of the script. The typical script of the tour would suggest that the first week belonged to the sprinters and that the favorites would keep their powder dry until the high mountains and time trials. The first of the high mountains, either the Alps or Pyrenees would sort the men from the boys and the second of the two ranges would find us our winner.

This year was very different.

We'd the rolling dales of Yorkshire for a start and had one of the big contenders, Vincenzo Nibali, with a stage win and yellow on his back by the second day, but it was stage five on the cobbles of the Paris-Roubaix that truly changed the normal order, and it was Nibali who shone brightest.

An epic ride on an epic day of mud, blood and big time-gaps put Nibali further into yellow and all his rivals (with the exception of Chris Froome who crashed out) minutes in arrears. It was a stage in which many felt you couldn't win the tour but you could lose it. Nibali however may have proved that wrong. He never looked back.

On stage 10, Contador crashed out and Nibali attacked the rest to win his second stage and cement his lead. It was another crucial stage -- one that seen the top six overall come Paris all finish in the top six on this day (albeit with Péraud behind Pinot and Valverde) -- and we still hadn't reached the Alps or the Pyrenees. By the time we did hit the high mountains it was less about Nibali trying to defend or indeed those around him trying to pull back time and more about Nibali attacking. A victory in each of those high mountain stages weren't the decisive ones that won him the tour as the script dictated they ought to have been, but merely further acts of dominance.

The Tour was won on the cobbles and sealed in the Vogues. The rest was a race for the final spots on the podium and the minor jersey prizes. And yet it was still fantastic to watch.

This Tour probably won't go down in the top five of all time (though I have to think that fifth stage across the Pave of Northern France will go down as one of the great stages in Tour history), but as I said at the top...there's no such thing as bad tours, only good, and this one was very good with a superb champion.

Monday, July 28, 2014

A look back at how wrong my Tour de France predictions were

Before the Tour started I climbed off the fence once again to give my predictions on how I felt the race would unfold and once again I proved that you shouldn't put your money were my mouth is! Below is a look at how things panned out...

Overall Classification prediction (In brackets their actual finishing place)
1. Alberto Contador (DNF)
2. Chris Froome (DNF)
3. Vincenzo Nibali (1st)
4. Andrew Talansky (DNF)
5. Rui Costa (DNF)
6. Alejandro Valverde (4th)
7. Thibaut Pinot (2nd)
8. Jurgen Van den Broeck (13th)
9. Bauke Mollema (10th)
10. Romain Bardet (6th)

So not a single one correct. I was closest with Mollema in 10th instead of 9th while the French duo of Pinot and Bardet, along with Valverde, did better than I expected though that is in part due to the number of DNF's in my top five: Four of them!

Points: Peter Sagan (1st), Mark Cavendish (DNF), Marcel Kittel (4th).

Correct on first but then again the odds on him retaining his green jersey title were good...it's hardly a coup to have predicted that! And who knew Cav wouldn't make it to the finish of the first stage?

Mountains: Pierre Rolland (20th), Jurgen Van den Broeck (Did not place), Joaqium Rodriguez (3rd).

Only Rodriguez out of the three put his hat in the ring for this competition. Rolland was too tired after the Giro and Van den Broeck was virtually invisible for the three weeks and didn't score a single mountain point. Rodriguez coming back from a serious injury suffered at the Giro had a go for it but was no match for young Rafal Majka.

White: Andrew Talansky (DNF), Thibaut Pinot (1st), Romain Bardet (2nd).

Close enough, and had he not crashed out, Talansky would very much have been in the mix. Got to think however that Pinot and Bardet will stake a claim to win it again next year.

Team: Tinkoff-Saxo (11th)

Tinkoff lost Contador and as a result their targets for the tour changed to stage wins. It meant some of their better riders losing big time one day in order to get in on breaks the next. Ag2R La Mondiale came as a bit of a surprise winning it, but should they have? With Jean-Christophe Péraud, Romain Bardet and Ben Gastauer (21st overall) all on the team it's little wonder they ended up at the top.

Most stage wins: Mark Cavendish (0)

Cav didn't even finish the first stage and so the duel between himself and Kittel was taken away with us leaving Kittel to sweep up 4 stage victories. Nibali also came through with four wins, a dominance I doubt anyone forseen even if they felt he could have still pipped Froome and Contador to the yellow jersey.

Stages: (In brackets is the actual winner)
1 - Mark Cavendish (Marcel Kittel)
2 - Alejandro Valverde (Vincenzo Nibali)
3 - Marcel Kittel (Marcel Kittel)
4 - Marcel Kittel (Marcel Kittel)
5 - Peter Sagan (Lars Boom)
6 - Sylvian Chavanel (André Greipel)
7 - Peter Sagan (Matteo Trentin)
8 - Rui Costa (Blel Kadri)
9 - Joaquim Rodriguez (Tony Martin)
10 - Alberto Contador (Vincenzo Nibali)
11 - Peter Sagan (Tony Gallopin)
12 - Jérémy Roy (Alexander Kristoff)
13 - Pierre Rolland (Vincenzo Nibali)
14 - Joaqium Rodriguez (Rafal Majka)
15 - Marcel Kittel (Alexander Kristoff)
16 - Nicolas Roche (Michael Rogers)
17 - Vincenzo Nibali (Rafal Majka)
18 - Vincenzo Nibali (Vincenzo Nibali)
19 - Peter Sagan (Ramunas Navardauskas)
20 - Tony Martin (Tony Martin)
21 - Marcel Kittel (Marcel Kittel)

5 correct out of 21, or 24%! It should be noted that I made these predictions on the morning of each stage hence why I didn't have Cavendish winning a stage beyond the first one despite prior to the tour picking him to win the most stages. But let's be honest, taking Kittel to win stages 3, 4 and the final one into Paris with Cavendish gone and his dominance apparent, was hardly a coup, and likewise taking Tony Martin to win the time-trial. In the mountains, the way he was riding, taking Nibali to win the queen stage on Hautacam was far from pushing the boat out either!

So keep this in mind when I return with picks for next years Tour.