Category Archives: Features

Feature length articles on cycling, normally from a more serious point of view.

In defence of Froome and the 2017 Tour de France

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Froome on the podium in Paris with his son Keelan (Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

As Chris Froome delivered his speech in Paris on Sunday, American golfer, Jordan Spieth was doing the same 646km away at Royal Birkdale Golf Club. He had won his first Open Championship at the same moment Froome had secured his fourth Tour de France. The pair are alike in many ways. Both winners, both focused and both committed. But all too rare in athletes in this century, both are also graceful and carry themselves with class.

And yet back in the US, Spieth can look forward to high praise and a warm reception in the media. In the UK, Froome is still striving for the same. It could be a cultural thing, but it could also be a cycling thing. On the day of his victory in Paris, several articles in the British press took a more negative slant on his win. It ought to have been a moment to savour and celebrate.

Continue reading In defence of Froome and the 2017 Tour de France

Team Sky have slipped, but not fallen. A review of the ‘scandal’ as I see it

I told myself I wouldn’t bother writing about this whole Team Sky mess. Not this close to Christmas. Not with two children under four both hyper and my wife’s present still to buy. Yet here I am, rattling away on the keyboard in an attempt to squeeze in some thoughts before Christmas. After that, I’m not sure I’ll care enough. But there has been so much outrage that I wanted to give my own perspective to some degree or other.

If you’re still reading now then chances are you know the background and the details, so I’ll spare you a run down. Suffice to say, it has been an ugly year for Team Sky away from the racing. In fact, on the bike it’s been quite memorable. Another Tour victory, and their first Monument win at Liège-Bastogne-Liège. But the year draws to a close with their reputation on the line and a scandal at hand. One in which they have prolonged by failing to present an adequate response.

I must say though, I find it hard to call the whole mess a scandal in the traditional sense of the word. Knowing where the sport has been before, and all that.  An ugly situation for sure, but classified by your own personal perspective of it only. And that’s the difference with this one. In the old days it was a full-blown back and white objective doping scandal. This is more a subjective shade of grey; one of ethics and morals and where each individual sees the invisible ethical line in their own mind. With no violation of the rules taking place, where does Sky’s failure in ethics sit in proportion to your own standards? Or do you care about some fictional line if they haven’t broken the hard line that is the letter of the law? As such the outrage here is subjective to what you think is and isn’t wrong from a moral point of view.

Unfortunately though, Sky have created a mess far bigger than it ought to be by trying to wrangle their way out of it. As such it has now become a PR scandal. Not only an issue of Team Sky’s TUE use, the timing of that use and the jiffy-bag sideshow, but how they’ve handled the crisis. Not only a scandal about falling ethics but also about their failing transparency. Instead of being open an transparent as they promised they would be, they hoped it would all go away by dodging the questions. And no more so than with this jiffy bag. The silence of what was in it was deafening. And then on Monday, Dave Brailsford revealed it to be Fluimucil, an over the counter product not on WADA’s banned substance list. Why wait until they were in front of a Parliamentary hearing (the need for which at the expensive of the British tax payer, itself debatable) to finally come clean about something like that? The sudden reveal leaves people wondering why they didn’t say what it was to begin with? It also leaves others failing to believe them. Being pressured into it this far down the line has made it look worse. The optics are awful. And that is where this scandal is at.

Of course, that said, if this is were the benchmark for a scandal in cycling now lies, then the sport has come far. Cars full of EPO at the border, or a doctors fridge full of blood bags this is not. Still, it hasn’t been pretty and reputations are at stake.

As for me, there is no doubt Sky slipped up in comparison to their own high standards, but not by enough for me to hang them. From a PR perspective they made a right mess, but this is not a PR blog and I am no PR analyst. I prefer the cycling aspect of what happened in 2012 and what has happened since. In that regard, to me, Sky remained within the physical rules. They applied for and received a TUE by the protocols in place at the time. Some suggest Bradley Wiggins did not need that TUE for health reasons and that he got it for a performance enhancing benefit. But that is speculative at best and I am not in the business of speculating without facts. He may well have needed it, though in the end it was up to the UCI to reject the application. Why they didn’t, we don’t know. Still, this is something that Sky might want to explain further themselves in a bid to help clear the air.

But let’s be clear…the idea that Sky have abused the TUE system is false. From what we currently know, their TUE use has been minimal by comparison to some. TUE use has fallen at Sky in the five years since this affair. The TUE system in general has also tightened at UCI and WADA level, though the case could be mad for tightening it further. But take Chris Froome for example, he has only applied for two TUE’s over the years and never during his three Tour de France victories. They say that mud sticks and that might be the shame in all this. But if you can look above the mud, you begin to see a difference. If there is an underlying issue within Sky, that continues to this day, then it has yet to reveal itself. And I see no evidence of it.  If the Wiggins’ TUE application sat wrong with you, you can at least admit there has not been a repeat pattern. That isn’t to say Sky are in the clear though, far from it. Questions will continue and if they want to remain on a higher ethical standard, they need to start giving more direct answers.

Applying for TUE’s at all, is enough to suggest an ethical slip to some, and on that basis even Chris Froome has taken heat. The belief being that TUE use in any regard is not good enough for a team like Sky. But the TUE system is there for a good reason; it’s the abuse of it we have to be wary of.  And if our ethics make us strict on that, then we must be wary of abuse from any team. Then to other fans, being ethical is not cheating by the letter of the rules of the sport. But as I have said, ethics are subjective.

For me, Team Sky are a clean team at their core. In applying for TUE use, even for a legitimate reason, they have proven themselves not to be beyond absolute reproach, but I have seen no evidence that Sky have gone beyond the line as I see it. If anything in 2016 they have happened to fall closer to the level of the rest.

Hemingway and cycling in France

The cycling calendar has gone quite quiet. There was only four major races in Europe this past week. A few of them, I’d never even heard of. I had heard of the four different winners however. John Degenklob won the Sparkassen Münsterland Giro in Germany, Adnaud Demare won the Binche-Chimay-Binche in Belgium, Sam Bennett won the Paris-Bourges in France, and Fernando Gaviria won the Paris-Tours.

I didn’t see any of them and haven’t got a lot to say about them. My enthusiasm draining a little; in tune with the falling temperatures outside. I’m cycling less too and so are they. The worlds are ahead and there will be plenty to write about in the days ahead. My enthusiasm isn’t helped by the ongoing drama encircling Team Sky and Bradley Wiggins. I’ve more to say about it, but I have no desire to do so just now.

In place of cycling I’ve been reading more again and just this past month I’ve taken to Ernest Hemingway. I can’t quite believe it took so many years. The first story I went to was actually an audio book. A memoir called A Moveable Feast, published after his death about his early years in Paris. It’s no secret that Hemingway was a big fan of cycling and wrote about it in several of his books. That said, I wasn’t aware the subject would come up in A Moveable Feast, but I wasn’t surprised either. It’s only a couple of paragraphs but in it he describes his memories of watching the sport in Paris, on the track. It’s a fascinating yet all too brief look at cycling in those times. His descriptions are wonderful. In no time he makes you feel as though you are there and gives you a longing to go immediately to a big track event yourself.

In the book Hemingway was spending time at horse racing tracks when a friend tells him to try track cycling. That you don’t have to bet on it for, “anything you have to bet on to get a kick isn’t worth seeing.”

Here’s what Hemingway then has to say:

I have started many stories about bicycle racing but have never written one that is as good as the races are both on the indoor and outdoor tracks and on the roads. But I will get the Velodrome d’Hiver with the smoky light of the afternoon and the high-banked wooden track and the whirring sound the tires made on the wood as the riders passed, the effort and the tactics as the riders climbed and plunged, each one a part of his machine; I will get the magic of the demi-fond, the noise of the motors with their rollers set out behind them that the entraineurs rode, wearing their heavy crash helments and leaning backward in their ponderous leather suits, to shelter the riders who followed them from the air resistance, the riders in their lighter crash helments bent low over their handlebars their legs turning the huge gear sprockets and the small front wheels touching the roller behind the machine that gave them shelter to ride in, and the duels that were more exciting than anything, the put-puting of the motorcycles and the riders elbow to elbow and wheel to wheel up and down and around at deadly speed until one man could not hold the pace and broke away and the solid wall of air that he had been sheltered against hit him.

There was so many kinds of racing. The straight sprints raced in heats or in match races where the two riders would balance for long seconds on their machines for the advantage of making the other rider take the lead and then the slow circling and the final plunge into the driving purity of speed. There were the programs of the team races of two hours, with a series of pure sprints in their heats to fill the afternoon, the lonely absolute speed events of one man racing an hour against the clock, the terribly dangerous and beautiful races of one hundred kilometres on the big banked wooden five-hundred-meter bowl of the Stade Buffalo, the outdoor stadium of Montrouge where they raced behind big motorcycles, Linart, the great Belgian champion that they called “the Sioux” for his profile, dropping his head to suck up cherry brandy from a rubber tube that connected with a hot water bottle under his racing shirt when he needed it toward the end as he increased his savage speed, and the championships of France behind the big motors of the six-hundred-and-sixty-meter cement track of the Parc du Prince near Auteuil, the wickedest track of all where we saw that great rider Ganay fall and heard his skull crumple under the crash helmet as you crack an hard-boiled egg against a stone to peel it on a picnic. I must write the strange world of the six-day races and the marvels of the road-racing in the mountains. French is the only language it has ever been written in properly and the terms are all French and that is what makes it hard to write. Mike was right about it, there is no need to bet. But that comes at another time in Paris.

A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway

How interesting that he mentions that French is the only language it has ever been written in properly. That the terms are all French. You can see what he means even though there has been excellent writing on the sport in English in recent times. The terms, in many regards, are still French. I plod along here in English, but still use words like peloton, bidon and chapeau.

After listening to this book I went on two read two more of his novels. It’s a shame Hemingway didn’t feel he could take on a story based around cycling. It would have been good. That said, one of the two books I read, The Sun Also Rises, has another short section about cycling. I’ll get that one soon.

Rider of the week

Four race and four different winners. I’ve gone with Arnaud Démare. The Frenchman was first at Binche-Chimay-Binche and second in Paris-Tours finishing his season well after starting the year strong with that Milan-San Remo victory.

A word on the Wiggins/Sky TUE ‘scandal’

I wanted to ignore it, but I’ve felt obliged to put something on record. It’s not that it isn’t important, that it doesn’t matter. It does. It’s just mind numbing. It’s the racing I’d prefer to talk about. Yet I must say something. I will of course skip the who, what, when, where and why’s. If you’re still reading this come the end of the second paragraph, you’ll already know that.

Yes, I am referring to the ‘Fancy Bears’ hack of athletes private medical data. And in this case the cyclists caught up in it. Bradley Wiggins and Chris Froome, and their Therapeutic Use Exceptions (TUEs).

Wiggins was the biggest one. If anything Froome came out looking good…two uses of a TUE, both of which we knew about anyway. He’s had none since 2013 and has done the best of his winning since then. At the 2015 Tour, Froome fell ill and should have had a TUE, but refused. He even put out a statement condemning the abuse of the medical exceptions.

Wiggins though…he’s in the hot water.

Wiggins received TUEs for corticosteroid shots because severe pollen allergies exacerbated his asthma. He received three triamcinolone acetonide jabs shortly before key grand tour races. The Tour in 2011 and 2012 (which he won) and the Giro d’Italia in 2013.

Now it isn’t the use of the TUE by Wiggins that is the problem per say. And I’d love to see the records of other top riders for I bet he’s far from the worst offender here. This drug has performance enhancing qualities, but the TUE program is there or a reason. If you’re ill, you can get help. If Wiggins needed it, then so be it. It’s the timing of the injections that raises concern. It’s that Team Sky were operating under a stricter set of self imposed rules regarding this stuff, or so we thought.

Sir Dave Brailsford, Team Sky’s boss, has said they would win by going as close to the line as possible, but not over. The line being the line of cheating. But when the line becomes blurred, how do you know exactly where it is? You could say the line is where the rules say it is. But Sky never gave off the impression of pushing such boundaries. Is there such as thing as very clean, kind of clean and sort of clean without being dirty?

Of course, we must be clear that Sky’s use of TUE’s has been minimal. They have far from abused the system and must get credit for that. And this is something that happened back in their earlier days. Call them naieve but a lot of their ‘mistakes’ appear to have come about from those days. Still, it raises an alarm…or at least the need for questions to be answered.

And there in lies one of the reasons this has dragged on so long. So many questions remain unanswered. Not least about the timing of Wiggins’s treatment. Did he only need these injections before his biggest races?

There’s talk that Wiggins took the shots because he didn’t want his allergies hampering his performance. But should TUE’s be awarded for preventative measures rather than only once you are sick? Did Sky weigh this up and go ahead with it anyway?

With these questions still up in the air, the saga rumbles on. This should have been put to bed and the attention should now be on how to improve the TUE process. Indeed, that’s another discussion that needs to be had. Things have improved, of course, since the Wiggins days. It’s a three man panel now who accesses whether a rider deserves one rather than one-man before. Still, there is no doubt more can be done, the regulations can be tightened further perhaps.

That all said. There are positives to take from this whole thing. By historic cycling standards of scandal, this is a storm in a tea cup. It isn’t pretty, but nor is it on the EPO or blood doping Richter scale of yesteryear. In that sense, this little hullabaloo shows how far cycling has come. If this is the best the hackers could come up with, then we’re not in the worst shape. And believe me, the hackers would have loved to have had greater dirt. Their modus operandi was to seek revenge for Russian athletes banned from Rio. The reaction of the Russians was to say this proved everyone else was at it too. As though TUE use was on a scale of systematic doping,  threats, intimidation, and switching samples through a hole in the wall of the lab in Sochi.

If this is it…if this constitutes a cycling scandal in 2016 then we’re not too bad off.

Elsewhere

It’s been a busy couple of weeks of cycling news from an actual racing angle. A number of one day races in Italy and Belgium as well as the Eneco Tour in the later nation. Peter Sagan stood out, winning two races at Eneco, finishing 3rd overall and winning the European road title. It’s been a heck of a month for the Slovak in his return to road racing from the mountain bike.

This coming weekend is another big one. The final monument of the season: Il Lombardia. Vincenzo Nibali won’t be fit enough in time to defend his title and the list of contenders is long. As wide open a field as we’ve seen in a while. My pick is Romain Bardet. The young Frencham is in good form and is due a big one-day victory. An outside tip might be Greg Van Avermaet. The Belgian showed his new found pedigree on hilly circuits at Rio and in Montreal and could find a way to shine. It will be a good watch.

Rider of the week (last week):

I missed last week. There was various 1.1 ranked races with various winners. Italians done well on home soil. Sagan won the European road championships. Jonathan Castroveijo won the European time-trial title. But I went with Rendon Gaviria who took a 2nd and a 1st over two days in one-day races in Belgium.

Rider of the week (this week):

The Enco Tour dominated the schedule this week; won by Niki Terpstra. But he didn’t win any stages on the way. Peter Sagan did though. He won two and was 3rd, 6th and 8th in three of the four others. He finished third in GC, losing out on the final day. He gets the prize.

Rest day 2 musings: Chris Froome and ugly bias he fights against

It’s a day of rest at the Tour, but as we know all too well, there’s no such thing really. The riders won’t even get a day away from the saddle…a couple of hours spin is required to keep the legs turning over, to ensure they’re ready to go once the racing begins again in earnest tomorrow. And begin again in earnest it will surely do as they head into the high Alps.

They need only look back to the day after the last rest day when on the first climb of the Tour, into the Pyrenees, Chris Froome came out swinging and many were caught stiff. As a result many contenders seen their Tour hopes die that day and it’s left Froome in complete control. Indeed, many believe his victory in this years Tour is now a formality.

Still, while Froome’s fight on the road may be under control with just five days to go, off the bike, against accusations in the media, condemnation on corners of Twitter, and abuse at the sides of the road, the fight has never been more intense.

Just two days ago things sunk to a new low on stage 15 when it was alleged by Chris Froome himself that a spectator (let’s not call him fan) threw a cup of urine in his face. That Froome didn’t put his race on hold to climb off and beat this imbecile senseless is all the credit to his restraint, composure and focus on the race itself. Whoever it was, I hope they find him, arrest him and block his anonymous Twitter account! It was nothing short of disgusting.

Froome himself has laid some of the blame at the feet of the media, in particular the French press. Not that they were directly responsible, but that indirectly their accusations and innuendos about his performances have led to a discontent amongst a small collection of people at the roadside.

Of course, it’s important to remember that this is just a small collection of idiots on Twitter and a smaller collection on the road sides of France amongst the hundreds of thousands that line the route and the millions that follow from home. Still, its the noise of the few and the actions of the several that appear to make the headlines and direct the narative.

They are influenced from somewhere, and so Froome is likely correct when he points the finger at elements within the media. When the likes of Laurent Jalabert is making the accusations you cannot help but feel the hypocrisy. This is a man who has doped himself, who is no more so or less so a cheat than Lance Armstrong, and yet it is only the American, and not Jalabert who sits in the commentary box, who has been told he is not welcome at the Tour when he showed up a few days ago to ride a charity event one day ahead of the race.

When ITV challenged Jalabert on his past and his remarks about Froome, the French hero scrambled for the sanctuary of the French studio, refusing to answer the questions. Which in itself only highlights the man he is when you see Froome at the press conferences answering any questions asked of him. Jalabert, when he broaches this subject and is then called out on it, reminds us that he is merely relic that belongs to a past generation and not a bastion for questioning the ethics of the Yellow jersey in 2015.

Indeed, Jalaberts reaction to ITV compared to that of Froome to the media hoards reminds us how much cycling has changed in recent years and in a funny way actually stands Froome in good light.

That said, I can’t help but ask the question of whether Chris Froome is the most persecuted man in sport? A man of which there is zero evidence against. In what other sport is someone condemned daily while going about his winning? Can you imagine the likes of Roger Federer, Rory McIlroy, Lionel Messi, LeBron James or Lewis Hamilton being criticised so heavily, having people continually condemn them on social media and have spectators throw urine or spit at them in passing? It doesn’t happen. And remember that while cycling has a dark history it has done a lot more in the fight to clean itself up than any of these other fine athletes respective sports.

Now that isn’t to say Froome deserves a free ride. I use the words ‘condemn’ and ‘insinuate’ a lot here for a reason. It’s important to draw the distinction between condemnation and questioning. Media asking Froome questions about doping or his performances are a by-product of cycling’s history, something Froome accepts is his cross to bare thanks to the likes of Armstrong, but rather than listen to his answers and look at the lack of a positive test, a covered up test, a backdated TUE, or a disgruntled former employee or rider (of which Sky has plenty) to perhaps give him the benefit of the doubt, some people simply ignore what he has to say because their minds are made up. Or, are being made up by the way the likes of Jalabert and other so-called ‘experts’ on Twitter project Froome.

You don’t have to go far on social media to find those who are desperate for Froome to be cheating; their entire existence is based on the need for it to be so. They don’t want to question him, they’re beyond skepticism, even past cynicism and into that realm of downright condemnation. It’s as though the downfall of Lance was the worst thing that could have happened as it ended their reason for being and as such they’re looking for someone else to fill the void. Froome is that someone else despite the back story not being remotely the same.

While Froome is dodging spit and urine and taking a beating on social media, the likes of Contador and Valverde are getting a free ride. That isn’t to say people should be spitting at them, of course not, but they get cheered and there’s little in the way of pseudo-science-analysis of their power data, speculation of their heart-rates and body weights, each and every day. Should Quintana go out and beat Froome on an Alpine stage, will we see the same level of speculation into his data? I can almost bet you that we will not. And don’t tell me this is just because Froome is in Yellow, because it’s not. At the Giro this year, which Contador won, he was nowhere near under the same scrutiny as Froome. Indeed, even though he came second to Contador in last years Vuelta, the heavy questions were still reserved for the Brit. You can say, well ‘the Tour is the Tour’, but even Nibali got a free pass in comparison to Froome in 2015.

Sadly, it leaves me asking the question I wish I didn’t have to contemplate: If Froome wasn’t British riding for a (wealthy) British team, would he still be treated this way? Evidence suggests not.

The simple fact is, Froome has had to deal with more than he deserves. I’m not ashamed to say I like Froome. He comes across as a classy individual off the bike and a fine athlete on it, and in recent years I’ve have become somewhat of a fan (though I found myself in a conflict of interests when last week himself and Nibali had a spat as I too am a fan of the Italian and wish he could have pushed Froome closer this year!)

I was hoping for a competitive third week of this Tour in which his rivals put him under pressure and made a race of it all the way up to the top of Alpe d’Huez but now, after what’s been going on, I would quite like to see Froome rip the rest of this race apart and annoy those that are, unashamedly, biased against him just that little bit more. Or indeed, to sit on the wheels and mark the moves and end any drama left.

Of course, that won’t happen. Froome has an ability to forget about it once he leaves the media scrums; his focus so single minded on the task at hand which is to win the Tour. This steely determination and focus was nevermore so highlighted than by his ability to ride on without missing a beat after that cup of urine was thrown in his face.

While I bring attention to the issue in this blog post it is once again worth highlighting that those taking the agenda against Froome to the extreme on the road sides and to obsession on social media are in the minority, thankfully. Hundreds of Thousands on the road and millions at home watch and enjoy and question with common sense and as such I likely won’t put a lot more energy into the ‘agenda against Froome’ subject between now and Paris.

It is meant to be a day of rest, after all.

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.

Eight things to look forward to in 2014 as well as a few predictions

There is so much to look forward to in the upcoming 2014 professional cycling road season, as there is every year and if I asked a dozen people for things that they’re looking out for the most I’d no doubt get a dozen different answers, so take of this what you will. These are eight things that jump out at me as things worth watching for as the Grand Tours make their starts in the UK, as British cycling tries to continue its dominance, and as the World Hour record comes back to prominence. I’ll also lay down a few predictions; though don’t be running to your bookie with them. Predicting cycling results on the day of a race is hard enough never mind months in advance. One thing I can guarantee however is that the season will be full of good action, beautiful scenery, and a few records here or there.

Giro in Belfast; Tour in Yorkshire

It’s a rare treat for any Grand Tour to start in the UK, indeed only the Tour de France has done that before, but for two to do it in the one year is almost as rare as the idea that back-to-back British winners of the Tour de France might have seemed a few years ago. The last time a Grand Tour visited the island of Ireland was in 1998 when that years ill fated Tour de France arrived in Dublin. Remembered for the ‘Festina Affair’ that year the Giro organisors will be hoping for none of the same when their big event arrives on that island with the start in Belfast. It’s a huge occasion for a city like Belfast and it should look fantastic. Likewise with the Tour starting in Yorkshire. Mark Cavendish seen last year’s mass start on Corsica as a big chance to pull on the Yellow jersey by winning that first stage sprint, but it didn’t go to plan. And maybe for the best because what better way to pull on his first Yellow jersey than on home turf?

Back to Back for Froome?

Chris Froome will be the favorite for the 2014 Tour. He won it in style last year and so long as his preparation matches what he did twelve months before and he can avoid any injuries there’s nobody I can see beating him. It could be tougher this time however with Vincenzo Nibali returning to the race and the most likely opponent to cause the Kenyan born, South African educated, British license holding Froome some trouble. There’s no such thing as a foregone conclusion in the Tour, but Froome retaining his title is about as close as it comes to one.

Boonen back

In 2012 Tom Boonen was the King of the classics. He won Paris-Roubaix, Tour of Flanders and Gent-Wevelgem, but injuries derailed his defense of those in 2013 and he watched from the sidelines as Fabian Cancellara and Peter Sagan took up the dominance of the spring races. Fighting fit again Boonen will be out to recapture his crown and that only serves us well. Seeing him, Cancellara and Sagan, among others, go head to head this spring will make for fantastic viewing. My money is on each of them winning at least one of the spring classics.

The continued rise of Rui Costa

At 27 years of age, Rui Costa is coming into his prime years as a cyclist and there’s enough there to suggest that it could be prime years full of big race wins. Back in 2011 he showed his ability as a big time racer by winning a stage of that year’s Tour de France and in 2012 he took the overall at the Tour of Switzerland. He repeated there last year and added to that result with two stage wins in Le Tour on the difficult stages of 16 and 19 before winning the World Road Race Championships in conditions even worse than those that faced him in one of his two Tour stages. Some think he even has Grand Tour potential in him and after moving to Lampre this winter to become a team-leader in his own right we’ll truly see how far his talents can go. At the very least this will remain a man who should feature highly in the spring classics and again for stages in the Tour de France as he looks to retain that rainbow jersey at the end of the 2014 season.

Classic expectations for Sagan

No doubt about it, Peter Sagan had a superb season in 2013. Victories at the Gent-Wevelgem and the Cycliste de Montréal to go with multiple stage wins at the USA Pro Cycling Challenge, Tour of Alberta, Tour of California, Tour of Oman, Tour de Suisse and Tirreno-Adriatico, not to mention his Green jersey victory at the Tour de France, highlighted that. But to some there was too many second places at the classics and therefore too many missed opportunities. He was second at Milan-San Remo when those around him out foxed him and then he was beaten into second by his new spring-rival, Cancellara at the Tour of Flanders. It’s hard to imagine pressure being on Sagan to do even better than in 2013 and remember he’s still only 23 (24 later this month), but then, that age is a reason why we could well see better from him in 2014 and if he’s to truely prove to the world that he is going to be one of the greats then he might well need a win or two in one of the Monument classics this year.

The breakout of Michal Kwiatkowski

Michal Kwiatkowski broke through into the big time last season and he’ll be looking to show the world that Sagan isn’t the only young talent capable of big wins and 2014 will be a year for him to prove it. And unlike Sagan, Kwiatkoswki appears to have the ability to climb in the higher mountains and compete at the sharp end of Grand Tours as well as time-trial and sprint. He didn’t have any big victories to his name last year but he was in the mix at a number of races and finished 11th overall at the Tour de France holding the White jersey for best young rider between stages 2-7 and 11-14 before falling short of phenom climbing sensation Nairo Quintana. And it was in the Tour that his talents truly began to shine. He was right near the front on several early race sprint stages, he was 5th and 7th in the respective individual time trials and never far off the pace in the high mountains fading only towards the final days of the Tour. He’ll be one to watch in 2014.

What will Wiggins do?

Sir Bradley Wiggins had the world at his feet as the 2012 season came to an end. He had won the Tour becoming the first British cyclist to do so and then he won a Gold Medal in the individual time-trial at the London Olympics. It was a supreme season and many wondered how he could top it. Well … he couldn’t. An off season rift with Chris Froome over the leadership of the team boiled over into the early season with both of them racing apart. Wiggins went to the Giro d’Italia for his Tour prep, but as we all know in this day and age if you try to win the Giro you probably aren’t going to then win the Tour and Wiggins was out to try and win the Giro. But he couldn’t do that either. A sudden fear of descending struck him followed soon after by an illness and before the racing had even got serious, he was gone. An injury followed and Wiggins was ruled out of even competing in the Tour leaving his season in tatters. He won the Tour of Britain but aside from that and the Worlds, in which he also failed to finish, little has been seen of him. Has he finally succumbed to working for Froome at the 2014 Tour as some have suggested, or is he out for one last throw of the dice? A penultimate stage time-trial at the Tour might allow for it, but chances are Wiggins will help where he can in the Tour before turning his attention back towards the track. I’d love to see him take a run at a spring classic, but who knows. And therein lays one of the great mysteries of the upcoming season: What will Wiggins do?

Cancellara world hour

This one has me the most excited of all. The World Hour is a special record in cycling history, though the way so few have tried to break it of late you would be forgiven for thinking the cyclists themselves didn’t think so. Then again, that is a tribute to its difficulty that so few have felt able to go for it. But that looks set to change this year as big Fabian Cancellara gets set to take a run at the record. Currently held by the relatively unknown, Ondrej Sosenka (49.7 km), if anyone can beat it, it’s probably Fabian. Prior to Sosenka taking it in 2005 it was held by Chris Boardman who had taken it under conventional methods (standard bike as used by Eddy Merckx when he set a record in 1972 (49.431 km) that stood for 28 years) in 2000. Before that Boardman had got into a head-to-head with Graeme Obree on superman like bikes that seen the top names of the era — Miguel Indurain and Tony Rominger — all come out to have a crack at it. Cancellara taking on the record might well perk up the interests of another time-trial specialist, Tony Martin and don’t forever rule out someone like Wiggins having a try. And with that the World Hour rivalry might yet be born again.

Predictions

Milan-San Remo (23 March): Peter Sagan
Tour of Flanders (6 April): Tom Boonen
Paris-Roubaix (13 April): Peter Sagan
Liège–Bastogne–Liège (27 April): Rui Costa
Giro d’Italia (9 May – 1 June): Nairo Quintana
Tour de France (5-27 July): Chris Froome
Vuelta a Espana (23 August – 14 September): Alberto Contador
Giro di Lombardia (5 October): Philippe Gilbert
World Road Championships, Ponferrada, Spain (28 September): Peter Sagan