Tag Archives: Alejandro Valverde

The 2017 season so far: Big names come to the fore

It has been a long time since I last wrote anything on here. It has been a busy winter. And anytime I have gotten some free time I’ve spent it on my bike rather than writing about bikes. On that end I’ve cycled over 1,500km since the turn of the year, way more than in any other winter before, and I am feeling good for it. A lot of it on the turbo trainer, but a mild winter here in Southern Ontario has meant I have gotten out on the road too. I have a couple of races in April and I decided to actually get ready for them. So far so good, though I could use to cut back on some junk food!

That isn’t to say I haven’t watched my share of cycling though. Indeed I have watched as much this winter and early spring as ever before. Some of the racing has been spectacular and there has been a lot of talking points. There is little point in me going into them all in detail right now, you’ve likely seen them yourself, but I do want to address some. So where to start?

To tell the truth, the early season races in January and February feel much like pre-season training races to me. Yes they are important to those that win them, and they can be fun to watch, but you get the sense many use them to find form. They can be to cycling what spring training games are to Baseball. We don’t remember all the winners and the results don’t have a real baring on the rest of the season. On that end, here in late March already, I won’t go writing about it. In the eyes of many fans, especially those in Belgium, the real season begins at the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad. That was won this year by Van Avermaet with Sagan winning  Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne the next day. Starting as they mean to go on.

And then again, in a way you could also say that this pair of races is the pre-season for the northern classics. Once complete the riders disappear south again to race the Paris-Nice or Tirreno-Adriatico by way of Strade Bianche. The riders go to seek form before returning north later in March. So when does the ‘real’ season begin? I suppose it depends on the rider. Some might say it starts at the top of the calendar, Down Under. Some will say once they return to Belgium via the Middle East. And others will tell you the Race to the Sun, Paris-Nice is the true traditional start to the season.

That Race to the Sun this year was true to its word. Strong winds and hard rain hammered the early stages and it wasn’t until they got down near beautiful Nice that the sun come out. Sergio Henao of Team Sky won it, fending off yet another late Contador charge. Over in Italy at Tirreno Quintana won overall with a little more ease.

And so everyone then turned up in Milan for the first monument of the year: Milan-San Remo. And what a race it was. Lately this race has resulted in a large group sprint and it’s often seen as the sprinters monument, but not so this time. Not when you have Peter Sagan out to rip a race to shreds. Sagan has a decent sprint, and he could have waited, but where’s the drama in that? It was on the Poggio, that final climb in which he made his move. The Poggio is not the toughest climb in the world, but with 290km in the legs, it likely feels like Alpe d’Huez. A huge surge put him clear and only Michal Kwiatkowski and Julian Alaphilippe could react. Neither of them done a lot of work on the front in the run in to San Remo, though nor should they have. It was Sagan who forced the issue, it was his race to win or lose. And so it proved to be, like E3 Harelbeke last year, that Kwiatkowski managed to come around Sagan and take the sprint win. He added this one to his victory at Strade Bianche a two weeks before.

So much then for a Sky team in crisis with a set of riders distracted by the so-called scandal engulfing the team back in the UK. That idea was suggested by the vultures on this story in a bid to further undermime the position of Sir Dave Brailsford. It was kind of put to bed with Kwiaktowski taking two one-day wins, Thomas a stage win and Henao a GC victory in the space of 14 days.

And it was here then, in San Remo, that the peloton split in two. The climbers heading into Spain for the Volta a Catalunya and Pais Vasco, and the strong men going north again to Belgium. It would be a week of racing in which riders from the respective home nations dominated.

In Spain, Valverde was a level above in what became a Spanish sweep of the podium. He finished a minute ahead of fellow countrymen Contador and Marc Soler. On his way to victory, Valverde took three stage wins from seven and was second in another. At 36, Valverde would appear to be in the form of his life.

But if you think it was a good week for the Spaniards, take a look back up at Belgium. In the three classic races up there this past week, they attained seven of the available nine podium places. Yves Lampaert won the Dwars Door Vlaanderen in a race lit up by his team-mate Philippe Gilbert who settled for second. At E3 Harelbeke, Gilbert once again settled for second after igniting a race in which Van Avermaet went on to win. Then this weekend at Gent-Wevelgem, Van Avermaet done the double by putting one on Sagan with a late attack from a reduced group. Indeed it was a triple for the Belgian following his win at Het Nieuwsblad, becoming the second man ever to win these three races in one season.

All Belgium will hope this form continues next weekend with the big one: The Tour of Flanders. Greg Van Avermaet must go in as a favourite, though Phillipe Gilbert should be right on him. Still, despite his short comings in actual wins of late, it would still take a fool to write off Peter Sagan. It’s a real shame that Michal Kwiatkowski, a man who looks made for any of the five monuments, will be missing from this one. Still, it should be one of the races of the year.

The season is very much underway now!

*****

Last year I ran some awards for the rider of the week and month. I will do that again this year, though only monthly. As such, and being a bit behind, here’s my picks for the first three months:

January: Richie Porte
February: Rui Costa
March: Greg Van Avermaet

Also last year I ran the King of Spring classification. I took 14 major spring classic races from Omloop to  Liège and used the Formula One points format of 25 for a win down to 1 for 10th place with each race counting equal. With seven races now in the books, the standings sit as follows:

1. Greg Van Avermaet – 99 pts
2. Peter Sagan – 76 pts
3. Michal Kwiatkowski – 50 pts
4. Philippe Gilbert – 36 pts
5. Oliver Naesen – 33 pts

Kruijswijk gets stronger…Nibali cracks…Valverde marks an anniversary

It was a long weekend here in Canada and as such I spent a lot of time out on my bike than near a computer writing about the Giro. I did however get to watch most of the two stages either side of the rest day, both of which served to change the pattern of the race a lot since I last wrote on Saturday.

Even then we were looking at a three horse race between the leader Steven Kruijswijk, his nearest rival Vincenzo Nibali and the Colombian Esteban Chaves. The likes of Movistar’s Alejandro Valverde and Andrey Amador, as well as Rafal Majka of Tinkoff were more than three minutes adrift with their hopes fading fast. The big question was whether Kruijswijk could hold his superb form over a couple of difficult days, with Niblai surely set to step up his game, and how the rest might go about trying to wear him down?

Today, with Sunday’s mountain time-trial and a leg busting short-mountain stage to shake the riders awake after a day off, completed, Kruijswijk appears a man in complete control, leading Chaves by 3min. Nibali on the other hand has capitulated and now sits a distant 4th at 4min 43sec behind the Dutchman.

So what changed?

Well, in many ways nothing. Kruijswijk has not faded, in fact he has only gotten stronger. He blew away his rivals on the mountain time-trial, albeit finishing second to the relatively unknown Alexander Foliforov but putting 23sec into Valverde in 3rd with Nibali having a nightmare climb that seen him having to change bikes after a mechanical incident before getting upset with fans encroaching on his suffering on the later part of the climb. The Ironic that it would be the Italian hopeful that would have issues with the fans; long gone then are the day when Laurent Fignon or Stephen Roche would find the fans trying to hamper their progress towards beating the respective Italian hero of the time. Nibali came in 25th, 2min 10sec behind Kruijswijk. A staggering loss over a 10.8km time-trial, of which the first two kilometres were flat.

The belief then was that Nibali, down to third overall but still within three minutes (with Chaves at 2min 12sec) would go on a serious offensive after the rest day. The five men behind Kruijswijk and all within two and a half minutes of him, would take turns attacking and try to loosen the Dutchmans thus far firm grip on the pink jersey before worrying about racing one another. And yesterday’s short 132km stage 16 from Bressanone to Brixen-Andalo looked the ideal setting to start.

These short mountain stages have proven brilliant to watch in recent years. The racing goes from the gun, the attacks come early and, when it happens off the back of a rest day, there’s so much scope for unpredictability.

And everything started off going to plan. The attacks came early on the first big climb of the Passo Della Mendola: Kruijswijk was quickly isolated from his LottoNL-Jumbo team, Chaves missed the split over the top and the GC group was soon down to a dozen men with more than 60km still to race. Nibali and Valverde were in discussion with one another, plotting their next move, and licking their chops at blowing this race wide open.

But no sooner had we begun to anticipate what damage might be done on the penultimate climb, when Nibali himself began to look fragile. Kruisjwijk was the man reacting best to attacks and on one such move, Nibali lost the wheel and the gap began to open. Soon, he was gone; the Shark’s Giro was hanging by a hook.

One man who was enjoying this kind of stage was Valverde. Kruijswijk wasn’t cracking, but Chaves was 30sec off the back and Nibali was going further back and the Spaniard was sensing a move into a podium position. Ilnur Zakarin had gone with them and the three forged ahead up the final ramp to the finish, working either one another to put time into the rest and then fight out the bonus seconds on the line.

The big loser was Nibali. He limped home 1min 47sec down with fellow Italian Domenico Pozzovivo. Chaves limited his losses well coming in at 42sec. After the stage the Orica-GreenEdge rider confirmed that it wasn’t his legs that cost him, but rather his bad positioning as he missed that early move. This was born out by the times taken up the hard Fal Della Paganella climb when Chaves was chasing; he was quickest by some margin.

As for the winner…that was Valverde. He always would on that kind of stage, though did so with Kruijswijk glued to his wheel.

For years Valverde avoided racing on Italian soil after Italian investigators got hold of blood bags they believed belonged to him from the Operation Puerto scandal in 2006. That was until the 2008 Tour de France crossed into Italy. Despite rumours that he might climb off his bike at the border, the Spaniard went with the race and at last the Italians had a sample from their man with which to make case. In time they did and he was issued a ban from which he has since served and returned to winning ways; better than ever some might say.

So here he was yesterday, ten years to the very day since the story of the Operation Puerto investigation in Spain broke to the cycling world for the first time, leading Valverde to stay away from the Giro for so long before the Italians, of all people, brought him down, with his arms in the air winning his first ever stage of the Giro.

Cycling is a funny old sport sometimes.

General classification after stage 16:

1. Steven Kruijswijk (LottoNL-Jumbo)

2. Esteban Chaves (Orica GreenEdge)

3. Alejandro Valverde (Movistar)

4. Vincenzo Nibali (Astana)

5. Ilnur Zakarin (Katusha)

6. Rafal Majka (Tinkoff)

7. Bob Jungels (Etixx – Quick Step)

8. Andrey Amador (Movistar)

9. Domenico Pozzovivo (AG2R La Mondiale)

10. Kanstantsin Siutsou (Dimension Data)

in 63h 40′ 10″

@ 3′ 00″

@ 3′ 23″

@ 4′ 43″

@ 4′ 50″

@ 5′ 34″

@ 7′ 57″

@ 8′ 53″

@ 10′ 05″

@ 11′ 03″

 

Rider of the week:
Bob Jungels was on to win this about halfway through the week but I couldn’t overlook the performance of Steven Kruijswijk in the hills, especially that mountain time-trial as he destroyed his rivals and moved comfortably into the overall lead with a week to go.

Wout Poels first Monument for Sky in the snow at Liège

Who would have thought that the first man to bring Sky their long awaited Monument victory would be Wout Poels at Liège-Bastogne-Liège? That isn’t meant to be a slight on Poels, a fine rider who really shone bright for Chris Froome on Alpe d’Huez last year and who has had a solid start to this season, including a 4th place finish at Flèche Wallonne just a few days ago. So perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised, but the money being thrown about on who might do it first must surely have been going on someone like Michal Kwiatkowski. In many ways he was brought in to break the duck.

Still, Kwiatkowski ended up shining brighter on the cobbled classics than the hillier ones in which many felt suited him best and it was Poels who emerged from the sleet and snow and rain on a friged cold day in the Ardennes to out manoeuver his three late breakaway companions to win it on the line.

It was far from an epic race, but held in epic conditions. Not quite Hinault in ’80 but snowing nonetheless. The kind we always long for in the spring Monuments and which the riders dread. The challenge for them increases imeasurably as they fight to keep warm, to stay upright and to stop their legs from freezing up when they look to them to respond. The challenge for those of us watching on television increase a little as we fight to see which rider is which as rain capes cover numbers.

It soon became clear, rain cape or otherwise, that it wasn’t Chris Froome surging clear of the ever reducing pack to bridge across to Michael Albasini on the new final climb of Rue Naniot, a straight up 600m cobbled climb with an average gradient of 11%, but rather it was Poels. Joining Albasini, Rui Costa and Samuel Sanchez the race finally had a move that could stick, albeit cresting the climb only a handful of seconds to the good, but close enough to the finish to drive on. Costa seemed the most savvy to pull off the win, with his World Championship victory still in our minds, and yet it was Poels who came out of that infamous final corner and began his sprint immediately, catching the other three out and creating the gap that Albasini couldn’t close before the line and denying Orica GreenEdge a Paris-Roubaix / Liège-Bastogne-Liège double.

At last the dam has broken; the floodgates are open for Sky…or at least that’s what they will now hope. We’ll have to wait until October to find out if they can build on this Monument glory. For now though they’ll feel a sense of satisfaction, a boost of confidence for the whole team as the spring classics season comes to an end and racing turns to the summer and the Grand Tours with the Giro only a handful of days away.

Liège-Bastogne-Liège result:

1. Wout Poels (Sky)

2. Michael Albasini (Orica GreenEdge)

3. Rui Costa (Lampre)

4. Samuel Sanchez (BMC)

5. Ilnur Zakarin (Katusha)

6. Warren Barguil (Giant-Alpecin)


16. Alejandro Valverde (Movistar)

in 6h 24′ 29″

@ 4″

@ 9″

@ 11″

@ 12″

Yes, there is Alejandro Valverde, down in the lowly depths of 16th. A position of pride for most entrants, but way below his usual standards in the Ardennes. Indeed the veteran Spaniard won the La Flèche Wallonne for the 4th time (a record, and they should consider naming the race after him now!) earlier in the week and seemed odds on favourite to win his 4th Liège-Bastogne-Liège but will have to settle the one victory this time. Still a look at Valverde’s results in the Ardennes classics (including Amstel Gold followed by Flèche then Liège) since 2013 shows you why he’ll feel he came up a little short with 16th on Sunday:

2nd, 7th, 3rd; 4th, 1st, 2nd; 2nd, 1st, 1st; DNS, 1st, 16th.

La Flèche Wallonne result:

1. Alejandro Valverde (Movistar)

2. Julian Alaphilippe (Etixx – Quick Step)

3. Dan Martin (Etixx – Quick Step)

4. Wout Poels (Sky)

in 4h 43′ 57″

both s.t.

@ 4″

In other racing news the six stage Tour of Croatia and the four stage Giro del Trentino were taking place this past week. At the former it was Matija Kvasina who won overall but bigger story was Mark Cavendish winning a stage. At the later it was Mikel Landa who looked in very impressive form ahead of the Giro with the overall win to go with a stage win and a 3rd and 6th in the two other road stages.

Rider of the week:

It seems of late I’ve been getting this easy by just going with the guy who won the weeks biggest named race, but come on…this was a Monument and Wout Poels won Sky’s first ever. That has to be worthy of the weekly prize.

12 years on Valverde still winning at the Vuelta

The ever popular and age-less Alejandro Valverde timed his ride up the 1.5km finishing climb to Vejer de la Frontera to perfection as he held off a surging Peter Sagan to win today’s fourth stage of the Vuelta and pick up a 10 second time bonus on his major rivals.

It was the seemingly ageless Spaniards 11th career win at the Vuelta, the first of which came twelve years ago on stage 9 of the 2003 edition, a race in which he won two stages and finished third overall behind Roberto Heras and Isidro Nozal. Also winning stages that year was the still-active Joaquim Rodriguez (who finished 6th today) as well as the long since retired Erik Zabel. Abandoning the day of Valverde’s big first win was 35 year old Alex Zulle, the same age that Valverde is now.

The win today wasn’t enough to wrestle the Red race leaders jersey off the shoulders of Esteban Chaves (who finished 10th) as the top 25 were all given the same time, strangely, despite seemingly obvious gaps between riders on the line. Still, thanks to a 10 second time-bonus Valverde did jump up to 4th overall and in winning showed he’s recovered from that grueling three week Tour in July pretty well as Chris Froome and Nairo Quintana both finished several lengths behind him.

Sagan had clearly been targeting this one and after winning yesterday must have liked his chances of making it two wins on the trot, but the finish appeared to come quicker than he expected and as he fought to get past other riders who were slowing, he failed to keep tight on the wheel of Valverde and ran out of room to get past him before the line arrived.

In fourth place was Team Sky’s Nicolas Roche who having also finished third on Sunday’s summit finish, has shown he’s carrying good form, coming close to winning both stages while keeping a high placing overall. Whether Roche is being given a bit of freedom to bid for GC contention or simply try get a big result in this tough opening first week remains to be seen, but the efforts he has been putting in clearly aren’t simply in service of Froome.

And likewise Valverde over his team-leader Nairo Quintana. Can Roche and Valverde keep this form up or will Froome and Quintana answer back and re-assert their dominance? The hill-top finishes thus far have been too short to get any real definitive idea as to who the strongest riders are, highlighted by how tight the GC still is with 13 men within a minute of the lead, but both stages will have served to soften the legs a little and we won’t have long to wait long to get a better idea of everyone’s form.

Tomorrow is a flat stage but on Thursday they hit hills again with yet another steep finish; this time a 2km drag up to the line after plenty of climbing beforehand.

Result: Overall:
1. Valverde (MOV)

2. Sagan (TCS)

3. Moreno (KAT)

4. Roche (SKY)

5. Goncalves (CJR)

6. Rodriguez (KAT)

in 5h 7′ 30″

all ST

1. Chaves (OGE)

2. Dumoulin (TGA)

3. Roche (SKY)

4. Martin (TCG)

5. Valverde (MOV)

6. Rodriguez (KAT)

in 13h 11′ 31″

@ 5″

@ 15″

@ 24″

@ 28″

@ 35″

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

MEMORABLE MOMENTS

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

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

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

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

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

AWARDS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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 (TCS) + 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 (TCS) +18″

4. Froome (SKY) +22″

5. Chaves (OGE) +41″

6. Rodriguez (KAT) +45″

Pinot v Péraud v Valverde in the time-trial

Forget Vinenzo Nibali. He’s won the Tour now. Nothing shy of serious mechanical trouble or a crash is going to stop him and so with the points, king of the mountains, and team competitions all settled, attention turns to the rest of the podium; the battle for 2nd and 3rd, separated between three men by just 15 seconds and with a 54km time-trial set to decide it.

Here is the current General Classification between the three protagonists of Valverde looking for his first Tour de France podium in six attempts, and Péraud and Pinot looking to become the first Frenchmen since Richard Virenque in 1997 to finish in the top 3:

Pinot
Péraud +13″
Valverde +15″

So who is going to make the most of this time-trial and grab second, or at least third? It’s extremely hard to say. None of the three are time-trial specialists, but all of them have shown an ability to do well against the clock when required. In particular Valverde and Péraud who have won their national time-trial champions, with Valverde doing just that this year.

It’s difficult to say who will be feeling the best on the day, who the course will suit the best and who has come out of the mountains with the most in their legs. The Pyrenees would suggest Pinot is going the best and Valverde the worst but that rarely stacks up in an individual time-trial.

The only evidence we can really look at is their past head-to-head action, and even that is circumstantial at best. It turns out they’ve done three time-trials in the Tour de France against one another before; two in 2012, one in 2013. There was a second time-trial in 2013 but Pinot had abandoned by then and Péraud crashed out during the warm-up for it.

Here’s how the three time-trials stacked up:

2012 TOUR, STAGE 9, 41.5KM
29. Péraud in 55’03”
34. Valverde +22″
59. Pinot +1’33”

2012 TOUR, STAGE 19, 53.5KM
41. Pinot in 1h09’44”
76. Péraud +1’07”
113. Valverde +3’05”

2013 TOUR, STAGE 11, 33KM
13. Valverde in 38’41”
19. Péraud +10″
55. Pinot +1’16”

Each one of them going the fastest in one of the three. But you have to factor in what was happening at that moment in the Tour. Was one of them a GC contender, was any of them saving energy for a potential stage win instead, were they all feeling at their best? It’s unlikely they done any of those three time-trials with the same mentality that they’ll do this one tomorrow.

Yet it does give an interesting look and it is clear that they’re all pretty close…exactly what we want given how close they also are on GC in this Tour.

There is one other benchmark with which to draw it again. A race far from the prestige of the Tour and a time-trial in which none of them stood to win a podium place but which all three competed as recently as this season: The Tour of the Basque country. It sorted itself as follows:

2014 TOUR OF BASQUE COUNTRY, 25.9KM
5. Péraud in 39’08”
8. Valverde +27″
10. Pinot +50″

Once again, there wasn’t much between them.

It really is up for grabs, though if I had to come down off the fence for just a moment I’d stick my neck out and say Péraud will do enough to grab second and Valverde might do enough to take the third overall place. Or maybe they’ll all finish on the exact same time and we’ll wonder what a scenario that might have been had Nibali not been there!