Category Archives: Stage Racing

Musings on the various stage races across the calendar that aren’t considered Grand Tours.

Froome shows he’s still the man to beat with commanding Dauphiné victory

This time last week we were wondering about the form of Chris Froome in this the final preparation race ahead of the Tour de France. The Sky rider had been beaten by his rival Alberto Contador in the uphill prologue of the Criterium du Dauphiné with former team-mate Richie Porte even finishing in front of him.

Fast forward a week and it is clear that any fears as to his form were unfounded. Froome bounced back in style winning the first big mountain stage of three over the final three days of racing to seize the yellow jersey before taking more time from his nearest rivals a day later and marking them tight on the final stage that seen him wrap up the overall victory ahead of Romain Bardet and Daniel Martin with Porte and Contador back in 4th and 5th respectively.

Following that prologue win by Contador, stage victories on flat to rolling roads were taken by Nacer Bouhanni, Jesus Herrada, Fabio Aru (in a superb opportunists move to attack late and hold off a charging peloton in an attempt to take something from his race after losing a heap of time in previous stages) and Edvald Boasson Hagen, while the GC remained largely untouched as the contenders kept their powder dry for the three mountain stages.

And as he likes to do, Froome struck on the first of those three stages to Vaujany. He left Contador for dead and only Porte could remain close as Froome took the stage and a 7sec lead over Porte with Contador dropping to third at 27sec. Only Froome’s former lieutenant Porte was of a serious threat.

A day later on an epic stage to Méribel, Froome marked his rivals for the majority while the young Frenchmen of Thibaut Pinot and Romain Bardet, down far enough on GC for Froome to take his eyes off of them, went up the road to duke out the stage. Bardet looked the stronger of the two, putting in incessant attacks only for Pinot to dig deep and hold the wheel. So it was with great admiration that Pinot then took the sprint between the pair, digging deeper still to remain Bardet that he remains the greatest French hope for July. A little further behind Froome was attacking again and nobody but Dan Martin could react. The result increased Froome’s lead overall to 21sec on Porte and Bardet.

The final stage was tough but not quite as challenging and it was perfectly suited to Britains Steve Cummigns who thrives on a lumpy stage in which he can spring a late move. Bardet and Pinot will have been glad not to have seen him the day before, with stark reminders of when the French duo were mugged by Cummings at stage 14 of last years Tour de France. But Cummings took his victory and was followed in by a small group of names that included Bardet and Martin, but not Froome. He was only 5sec further back, with his eye on Porte and Contador and safely the winner of the Dauphiné for the third time.

The last two times Froome won the Dauphiné he went on to win the Tour de France so confidence will be high.

Criterium du Dauphiné final classement:

1. Chris Froome (Sky)

2. Romain Bardet (AG2R La Mondiale)

3. Daniel Martin (Etixx – Quick Step)

4. Richie Porte (BMC)

5. Alberto Contador (Tinkoff)

6. Julian Alaphilippe (Etixx – Quick Step)

in 29h59’31”

12″

@ 19″

@ 21″

@ 35″

@ 51″

Tour de Suisse underway

Elsewhere, another Tour de France prep race got underway just as the Dauphiné was coming to its climax. I’ll have more on the Tour de Suisse next week as it comes to its nine stage conclusion but with three stages now complete, it’s very much the Peter Sagan show. Fabian Cancellara rolled back the years with a win in the race opening time-trial, but Sagan won the next two stages with moves that caused time splits and put him into the overall lead by 3sec over Jurgen Roelandts.

The major climbing here doesn’t start until stage 5 at which time Sagan is expected to fall away from contention as the GC contenders take over. Look out for Sky’s Geraint Thomas who is looking to add this result to his Paris-Nice victory and prove his ability to lead Team Sky should Froome falter at any time during the Tour. Also keep an eye on defending champion Simon Spilak as well as Rui Costa who won this race three times between 2012 and 2014.

Rider of the week

Only one real winner here: Chris Froome. Bounced back from the uphill prologue to take a stage win and the GC and show complete control over his rivals.

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Attention turns towards the Tour

After almost a week to allow the dust to settle on a fantastic Giro d’Italia, thoughts slowly began to turn towards the next Grand Tour of the season: The Tour de France. And with it comes some week long stage racing to fine tune those who consider themselves favourites as each looks to lay down a psychological marker on his rivals or perhaps see how much work he still has to do.

The first of these is the Critérium du Dauphiné and it’s already underway. Two stages in now and you would have to say already, it’s advantage Alberto Contador. The Spaniard won the opening up-hill prologue in spectacular fashion putting 13sec into Chris Froome over the 3.9km, 9.7% average gradient climb. Richie Porte only lost 6sec, but others lost a lot more: Mikel Landa, 44sec; Thibaut Pinot, 52sec; Fabio Aru, 1min 8sec.

I’d expect Froome to start to come good later in the week and you’d certainly expect better from Aru. Contador looks sharp though, skinnier than in many years and surely desperate for one last crowning glory in July. Froome might hope that the Tinkoff rider is peaking a month too soon, but the fact is, Contador knows what he is doing. There’s some huge climbing stages in this race towards the later part of this week however and that’s where we’ll truly see each pretender to win the Tour’s form.

Today’s stage finished not long ago and it was a rare flat one on this eight day race. It was won by Nacer Bouhanni with no time losses by the contenders.

Another pre-Tour warm-up race is the Tour de Suisse and that starts next Saturday with Sky’s Geraint Thomas looking to prove himself as the main domestique to Chris Froome, or indeed a viable plan ‘B’ should anything go wrong with the two time Tour winner. Someone not racing either is Nairo Quintana who is opting instead to do the Route du Sud, a race he won in 2012, which starts on the 16th June.

Rider of the week

Alberto Contador’s climb on the prologue of the Dauphine was impressive but how about Bryan Coquard? The Boucles de la Mayenne isn’t as prestigeous as the Dauphine but it had a solid field and the Frenchman won the prologue, the 2nd stage of three in all, and took the general classification.

Cancelled stages and dramatic results

The Paris-Nice and Tirenno-Adriatico are two races in two countries over a similar length that bring out the same kind of contender. In one aspect you have the Grand Tour favourites who use one of the two as a preparation race for their form ahead of the Giro or Tour, and on the other you have single day classics men who use it as a late conditioner ahead of Milan San-Remo. Often we look at who is racing which and then check to see which of the two the last five San-Remo winners, or Tour of Flanders winners, rode in.

In the case of Milan-San Remo, four of the last five winners came out of Paris-Nice whereas at Flanders, four of the last six winners came from Tirreno-Adriatico. To be fair the Tour of Flanders likely comes a little far out for either of these events to have any real baring on its outcome, but I bring it up because of how Tirreno-Adriatico played out this year.

In a big upset to the form guide, the winner of Tirreno-Adriatico was Greg Van Avermaet, a man that nobody would have expected to win the overall of, but who came good thanks to the cancellation of the queen state that would have seen the climbers shine. That isn’t to suggest he’s now the likely winner of either upcoming Monument, though he remains a contender and many feel that with the cancellation of that mountain stage it was the ideal preparation race for Milan-San Remo. If he does pull it off, he’ll become the first man since Fabian Cancellara in 2008 to win MSR after winning Tirreno but more dramatically should he win the Tour of Flanders he’ll be the first man since Roger De Vlaeminck in 1977 to do the Tirreno/Flanders double.

Vincenzo Nibali had hoped to ensure that no such outcome would come to fruition. The Italian won’t be anywhere near Flanders (though we know he can ride the cobbles and I’d love to see him give it a crack, but alas) but had been one of the favourites to win at Tirreno before his targeted stage was removed. The whole episode resulted in a sideshow of complaints and criticism that completely took the shine of the stages that remained and left many debating cycling’s extreme weather protocol rather than Van Avermaets big win. Nibali felt it should have been raced, and his coach Paolo Slongo went as far as to drive the mountain to prove the snow that seen the stage cancelled was no longer there. He then opined that Nibali might skip the Giro if such quick cancellation of stages due to snow became the norm, focusing his training for a run at the Tour instead. Irishman Matt Brammeier then read too much into it and associated Slongo’s remarks as Nibali’s and went off on a rant at the three Grand Tours winner on Twitter. It was all a bit silly.

It’s a fine balancing act when it comes to cancelling stages. Nobody wants the riders to risk their own safety, but then again so much of the sport is about racing through the extremes. Nibali himself won an epic stage in the Giro just a few years ago coming through a blizzard in the pink jersey. Clearly he felt up for more of the same. Cancelling the stage too early is a risk because conditions could easily improve, but likewise you cannot simply move the finish of stage of a race this big so easily. In a way I feel for the organiser: Had they went ahead and it turned into a blizzard, they’d have been criticised by some. As it was, Slongo showed the finish to be OK, and they were criticised by some. I think in general though the riders were happy enough to stay in bed, and who can blame them?

They cancelled a stage of the Paris-Nice too, though in a different manor. They at least started the days racing before deciding that the amount of snow on the road was too much, but by then it had already gotten dangerous for those on the road, hence the each-way-you-lose scenario facing organiser’s. That stage however was much less dramatic to the overall outcome by comparison to Tirreno, though perhaps Alberto Contador might disagree. He finished second to Geraint Thomas by just four seconds in what had been a thrilling duel between himself and the Welshman over the final couple of days. Thomas once again proving his metal in these week long races (to go with his overall win at the Volta ao Algarve). Unlike the Tirreno-Adriatico winner, Thomas is in transition away from the single-day classics, and in doing so has really begun to prove himself to be the ideal week-long stage race winner come GC Super Domestique replacement for Richie Porte at Team Sky, and we saw what he could do at last years Tour without this depth of climbing preparation. That said it won’t be all stage races and this coming week he will attempt to become the first man to do the Paris-Nice – Milan-San Remo double since Laurent Jalabert in 1995. Without getting into the murky waters of how, Jalabert went on to finish 4th in that same years Tour de France, just a few minutes behind his own team-leader of the time, Alex Zülle.

Rider of the week:

And so to rider of the week of 7-13 March and I’m going to go with Thomas over Van Avermaet, if only because the cancelled stage wasn’t as crucial to the overall outcome at Paris-Nice and Thomas, who didn’ win a stage unlike Van Avermaet, fought a brilliant fight on the hills to keep Alberto Contador at bay.

Meanwhile in California … Sir Wiggo comes alive

Despite not yet being two years removed from winning the Tour de France and an Olympic time-trial title, a lot of people have been quick to write off Sir Bradley Wiggins. His disappointing 2013 season — highlighted by his withdrawal from the Giro and failure to make the Sky team (injured) for the Tour — have been used as reasons for thinking his best has come and gone and that he’s on the descent down into retirement. And there was also the thinking that he had enjoyed 2012 too much and was simply paying for it in 2013, that a year removed from that success might yet spark a fire within him to try and find that old form. Suddenly this week a few signs have emerged to suggest that it may well be returning.

Wiggins and reigning Team Sky Tour de France winner, Chris Froome have had a rocky relationship and last year we were getting set for an inter-team head-to-head across France only for Wiggins not to ride. After Froome’s victory, Sky looked correct to have put their eggs in the Froome basket, and when word came out of camp that the two had reconciled it seemed Wiggins had accepted his new role on the team: Time-trial specialist who would become a super-domestique to Froome.

Now I don’t know about you, but even after Wiggins came out admitting that Froome was the top-dog on the team and that he would indeed ride for him, I couldn’t help but wonder whether someone with the ego of Wiggins would have it in him to put aside his past success in the Tour and simply ride for Froome, even in spite of Froome’s 2013 season. Sometimes I cynically questioned whether Wiggins had merely buried the hatchet in order to win back a place on their Tour de France roster.

I’ve nothing of course to suggest that all is the case, and maybe it all is genuine, but the way Wiggins has been racing of late, I’m starting to really think that he has designs of his own come July’s big race.

He came into the season looking a new man. A good winters training and a race program different from the past that would see him tackle — and target — the Paris-Roubaix first before thinking about Grand Tour racing. Had the man that had dominated the track before coming across to win the Tour de France before winning an Olympic time-trial title, now decided to add a Monument classic feather to his cap?

It looked that way and while he was probably a little disappointed inwardly to have finished 9th in Roubaix, there was no doubt that those who doubted his ability to adapt to one of the toughest and most rugged of spring classics were left amazed at his ability to hang in and mix it with the best in the classics business just as he had done when he integrated himself from a track rider to a full-time Grand Tour rider, winning the Tour in 2012.

But what next? Wiggins said he would be back for more in Roubaix in 2015 and no reason not to believe him anymore, but was his goal in the short term of this season now to shed a few pounds and make himself a respectable deputy for Froome by July? Well, the first test of how that was going is coming this weekend at the Tour of California. And it sure as heck looks to me as though he’s gone further than any of us might have thought he would.

The old fire in him appears to be burning again.

On Monday’s individual time-trial across 20.1 kilometres, Wiggins didn’t just win, but shattered the opposition. He beat a very good time-trialist in Rohan Dennis by 44 seconds over that 20.1 km, and took 52 seconds out of American Taylor Phinney in third.

But can he climb again?

Well, speculation is that Wiggins has shed 5 kilograms since the Paris-Roubaix and to look at him he looks like a Grand Tour rider again as opposed to a more bulky classics man. The test of his climbing came yesterday, a day after the time-trial victory.

On the days final seven kilometre assent to the finish at Mount Diablo, that included gradients touching 17 percent, Wiggins led from the front. He went all Miguel Indurain and simply let the others ride on his wheel as he pounded his way towards the top shedding men as he went. An exercise in hard training within a race as much as a tactic to simply win the race, or so it seemed, Wiggins obliged those that could sit on his wheel by setting the tempo. Few could sit with him, though one who did was Dennis who finished second to him the day before, and in the final kilomtre he jumped clear to win the stage. Wiggins hit a wall, somewhat, and lost 20 seconds thus reducing his lead over Dennis in the GC to 24 seconds, but had laid down another marker as to his new found form.

You have to think Wiggins is only going to get stronger as the days tick down towards the Tour. No longer can his selection for Team Sky be in doubt. And what is Froome thinking? What is Wiggins now thinking? Will he take this form and suddenly think, what if? What if he can keep close to Froome in the mountains, maybe even steal some time. What if he’s in contention come the Tours loan 54 kilometre time-trial? Could Wiggins shock his rivals — if indeed a former Tour winner just two years removed from that win would be considered a shock?

I’d say the odds are still against him and a lot of this might be me hoping that he can get himself into the mix to really spice up what is looking like a very competitive Tour. Maybe this is simply all part of Wiggins effort to get ready to help Froome, maybe this is all part of Sky’s big plan. After all, Froome was immense last July and is singularly targeting the Tour once more, Alberto Contador looks better than he’s been for years and last years Giro winner, Vincenzo Nibali is coming back to France for another bite at the cherry. But the odds against Wiggins must be reducing by the week, like his weight, and in direct contrast to his form and confidence. And beware someone like Wiggins when he gains some confidence.

Contador rolls back the years and shows his new found form

It was vintage Contador and I couldn’t help but watch and wonder just what Chris Froome was thinking from wherever it was he was rehabbing from his injury. This was the Contador of old, albeit it is still only March and it is only the Tirreno-Adriatico, but perhaps it’s a sign of what’s to come this season now that he’s had a full winters training, with no distractions, to put into his legs.

Just the day before, race leader Michal Kwiatkowski had battled to the point of exhaustion to keep his race lead over Contador as the Spaniard attacked on the final climb to the finish at Cittareale and left everyone else struggling to keep pace. Good old El Pistolero won that day after his team-mate Roman Kreuziger had blown the race open with a ferocious attack, riding the majority of the climb in the big-ring before finally burning out. Contador took over and grinding up behind him, 10 seconds later was Kwiatkowski, doing just enough to retain his overall lead over the two time Tour de France winner by 16 seconds.

It was all to play for on the final climbing stage before a flat stage and a short time-trial to finish the race. This was a stage that finished up a wall of a climb to Muro di Guardiagrele. Short, but so steep that it hit 30 percent at times and which one climber described as now knowing what it’s like to ride up the banking of a velodrome.

Knowing the potential power output of Kwiatkowski up a short, sharp climb as well as his ability against the clock on the final day, Contador must have known he couldn’t leave it to the Muro di Guardiagrele. He may not lose Kwiatkowski and if he did it may not be enough to give him the buffer he required going into the time trial. So the Spaniard did what we all love to see, he went early, took the race to his Polish rival and blew it wide open.

Contador attacked on the second to last climb, bridged across to the early break on the descent and into the valley below, and then, on that last stining climb, left those still with him behind and rode solo for the victory. He beat Simon Geschke into second place by only six seconds, but he beat a potential Tour de France rival in Niaro Quintana — second last year in France — by a whopping nine seconds shy of two full minutes. And the man that mattered in this race — Kwiatkowski? Contador put 6 minutes, 3 seconds into him.

The time trial was thus a formality. Won by Adriano Malori; Contador finishing 29th, 19 seconds behind Kwiatkowski who finished 7th, but winning his first Tirreno-Adriatico by 2 minutes, 5 seconds over Quintana. The young Pole, a star in the making who still had a fine race to go with other big wins already this season, had to settle for a 18th place overall.

The gauntlet has been thrown down. Froome will remain the favorite come July, but for the sake of wide open competition through the whole three weeks, I hope this is the kind of racing we can expect from El Pistolero.

Tirreno-Adriatico final overall

1. Contador in 2h28’45”
2. Quintana +2’05”
3. Kreuziger +2’14”
4. Peraud +2’39”
5. Moreno +2’54”

---

18. Kwiatkowski +5’38”
29. Sagan +11’11”
53. Wiggins +28’49”

Cycling’s elite converges on Italy

When it comes to week long stage races in the spring time, the Paris-Nice may hold the most historical prestige, but it’s the Tirreno-Adriatico in 2014 were all the big names have shown up proving that this race may be beginning to overshadow the grand old ‘Race to the Sun’. Such is the entry list this year, that you’d be forgiven for looking upon it as an early season battle of cycling’s best, out to lay down the physiological marker over the others.

Of names that you would consider favorites to win or at least finish high up the order and be competitive come the Grand Tours, you have, in alphabetical order: Ivan Basso (Cannondale), Alberto Contador (Tinkoff-Saxo), Cadel Evans (BMC), Robert Gesink (Belkin), Chris Horner (Lampre), Roman Kreuziger (Tinkoff-Saxo), Michal Kwiatkowski (Omega Pharma-Quick Step), Dan Martin (Garmin-Sharp), Bauke Mollema (Belkin), Thibaut Pinot (FDJ.fr), Richie Porte (Team Sky), Nairo Quintana (Movistar), Michele Scarponi (Astana), Andrew Talansky (Garmin-Sharp), Rigoberto Uran (Omega Pharma-Quick Step), and Sir Bradley Wiggins (Team Sky).

The obvious names of Chris Froome (who was meant to ride but pulled out injured) and Vincenzo Nibali (at Paris-nice) aside, it’s a who’s who of stage race cycling in 2014. Not every one of them will be going for the win here of course … some will be looking for form, but there will be others out to prove a point and looking for an early stage race victory to give them the confidence to carry into the season.

But don’t think the name names of cycling stops there. Aside from who will win the GC, there will be others vying for stage wins and none more so than in the bunch sprints as the ‘big four’ of Mark Cavendish (Omega Pharma-Quickstep), Andre Greipel (Lotto Belisol), Marcel Kittel (Giant-Shimano), and Peter Sagan (Cannondale) are all present. And after the four way battle we seen between them at last years Tour de France, this is the first time we’ll see them lock horns again with all four looking to gain the upper hand.

And then there’s others who will be out to win a stage. Perhaps upset the sprinters or even the climbing sort who will be desperate to win the overall. To that end I think of Fabian Cancellara (Trek Factory Racing), Philippe Gilbert (BMC), and Tony Martin (Omega Pharma-Quickstep). With a team-time-trial to start the race on Wednesday (12 March) and an individual time-trial to bring it to a close the following Tuesday both Cancellara and Martin could — and will be looking to — grab a result.

But for all the big names at this race by comparison to Paris-Nice, it’s still a shame that they both take place on the same week. I understand the cycling calendar is packed from early March right though until the seasons end, but couldn’t there have been some way to fit these two in on back to back weeks. Not so some ambitious racer could do both, but so we could watch both without having to jump from one to the other.

Or perhaps as far as this is an early season race to further push the big names into the kind of shape they want to be in for the Grand Tours, so this is an early season challenge for us fans. Follow the live coverage and online updates of both races taking place at the same time for one week to get us in the shape we need to be in to following each of the Grand Tours for three full weeks!

New season set to begin in searing heat Down Under

It’s hard to believe that here we are on the verge of another season on the road for cycling’s finest. While I’m down in my basement punching out 30 to 45 minute sessions on my turbo in the hopes of generating some kind of base fitness, the best in the World are ready and set to go racing, starting with the Tour Down Under this weekend.

It hardly seems like anytime since the last season ended and yet here we are, about to go again. That’s the way of it in the modern day of sport however. With money to be made there is no time to sit around wasting months of an off season when you can run out the old season on late and drag them back for a new season early. Look at Football, it barely stops — certainly not in a World Cup year. Likewise the Formula One season now finishes in late November and starts up again with winter testing in February.

Australia are in the thick of their summer right now and so it’s understandable that they’d have this race now. Currently the country is enjoying one of its hottest summers on record, highlighted by the conditions at the Australian Open tennis tournament taking place at the moment. Temperatures have soared so high that water bottles have melted, some players have collapsed, and the rest left to complain about it.

I don’t expect the same from the cyclists. They had equally daunting temperatures at last years Tour of California. All they will do is tame the pace a little. Coupled with it being a very early season race and those temperatures, I wouldn’t expect record setting average speeds. Still, the racing will be competitive when it matters and while plenty are there to use it as a race to ride themselves into shape, others are there to win it. This is a World Tour race after all; the prize money is good and the points valuable. 100 points for the winner … no different than the Paris-Nice or Tour de Suisse, for example, or the Monument Classics for that matter.

Besides Australia recently had their National Championships and so a number of the local riders — Simon Gerrans, Richie Porte, Rohan Dennis and Cadel Evans — will be in decent shape and looking to make their mark on home turf. It was Tom-Jelte Slagter who won it last year and Gerrans the year before, so don’t let the time and conditions deter your viewing, you can be sure of some competitive racing starting Saturday.

As for who will win? Well, pick a name. Predicting winners is hard enough when you have an idea of the form riders are in, never mind when it’s the first race of the year and you have no clue as to who is feeling good and who is targeting the event for competition or intense training. But for the sake of fun, I should pick someone, so why not Simon Gerrans to win back the title he lost last year?