I’m not sure what the expectation was for Peter Sagan when he entered the Olympic mountain bike race down in Rio, but a medal was always going to be a big ask. Mountain biking is a niche sport that requires a certain type of rider and for the average road rider, road riding isn’t overly beneficial towards it except on the stamina side. Of course, Sagan is no ordinary rider and comes from a mountain bike background and it appears has often gone back to it in his off-seasons, but while the Slovak turned to the mountain bike after finishing the Tour de France, it was still a short time to try and master the event like those doing it year round…those that eventually took the medals.
That said, in the end Sagan didn’t lose out on a medal because he wasn’t capable, but because of a string of mechanical issues including two punctures. And before he had the first of those flats, Sagan had been in the lead group of four and riding well. He had moved up from last place at the start (gridded according points acquired in the World Cup over the course of the season) to a top three position within thirty seconds. A blistering start and suddenly the possibilities were there.
But even then you could see how smooth the likes of Nino Schurter was through the technical sections by comparison and how Sagan would lose half a wheel on the steepest little ramps. He himself admitted afterwards that he didn’t think he could hold on to win a medal, but the fact he was racing in that company before his punctures only highlighted the talent he has. And it would have been nice to have seen him go through the race mechanical issues free to see just how he finished up. I’d like to hope that this isn’t the last we’ll see of Sagan at top level mountain biking…that perhaps he’ll do the World Championships sometime or even a few world cup races if his schedule allows. His team, his sponsors and money might have other ideas of course, but no doubt with a little additional effort towards the sport he could well challenge the best.
It’s no coincidence however that punctures and other mechanical issues come less frequently to the best riders and while others went backwards, Schurter only pushed on from the front. Jaroslav Kulhavy (Czech Republic) was the last man to crack under his relentless pressure, though he clung on for the silver behind the fine Swiss rider who certainly now assumes the mantle of the worlds best. In bronze was Carlos Coloma Nicolas (Spain) and down in 8th, Julian Absalon. The Frenchman had been expected to challenge Schurter here in one last hurrah before retirement, but it wasn’t to be. Still it’s his mantle that Schurter assumes and Absalon will go out of mountain biking with a palmares of achievements that make him its finest ever rider.
It was a decent race and yet another good advertisement of the sport of cycling as a whole down in Rio.
Vuelta gets underway
Just when you were looking around for something to do now that the Olympics had come to an end, up pops the Vuelta to offer you more viewing pleasure. Just how many people who latched onto cycling over the course of the Olympics will now turn to the Vuelta remains to be seen, and depends on how much television coverage it gets outside the big markets, but for me it’s come at the perfect time.
The race began on Saturday with a team-time-trail in which Team Sky perhaps a little surprisingly took the win and put Peter Kennaugh into the red race leaders jersey. Finishing on the same time and separated only by fractions of a second was Movistar meaning that the likes of Nairo Quintana and Alejandro Valverde remain on a par with Chris Froome. A big(ish) loser was Alberto Contador whose Tinkoff team (perhaps to be his weakest point in this race) came in 52 seconds down.
Stage two was much of nothing. A steady pace and an early break reeled in on time for the bunch gallop. Noticable by their absence was the lack of pure sprinters at the race. No Cavendish, Kittel, Griepel, Sagan or a handful of others either (thanks I would imagine to an extremely mountainous route and few opportunities to spint) and the upshot was someone else getting the chance. Gianni Meersman took it and down in 4th was Michal Kwiatkowski who took enough time bonus to leap into the red jersey as Sky set out to give everyone a turn!
And so earlier today and the first of about a dozen summit finishes. A short one at 1.8km, but a savage one at 13% average gradient with a section touching 30%. Brutal in every sense and shown by how slowly the riders grinded their way to the top. Alexandre Geniez of FDJ and France was the only one from the days early move to hold off the main contenders and take the win, while Ruben Fernandez of Movistar sprung away from his team-mates late to take second and enough time to grab the overall lead. His team had set a searing early pace on the short climb and had distanced everyone, so much so that only Froome and Esteban Chaves could bridge back across. Eventually Froome finished with Valverde with Quintana 6sec in arrears. Again losing out was Contador who limped home 28sec behind Valverde.
This was the first sorting out of men from boys and giving us an idea of how this Vuelta might go in the coming days. That said there is so much climbing to come that it is also hard to get a real handle on what might yet happen as everyone’s from is sure to rise and dip with each passing summit finish. Yes some have lost big time already, but yes others will lose time themselves and many opportunities lie ahead to recover time and get back in to the race. Contador losing 1min 20sec to Froome after three stages means we’re more likely to see the brilliant Spaniard try the unusual stuff he is famous for to try and overhaul his losses so far.
Beyond all that the first major casualty was the young Frenchman Warren Barguil who abandoned through illness while Tejay Van Garderen is already 7min 47sec off the lead.
Standings after stage 3:
1. Ruben Fernandez (Movistar) in 9h16’07”
2. Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) @ 7″
3. Chris Froome (Sky) @ 11″
4. Esteban Chaves (Orica-BikeExchange) @ 17″
5. Nairo Quintana (Movistar) s.t.
6. Samuel Sanchez (BMC) @ 46″
12. Alberto Contador (Tinkoff) @ 1’31”
Elsewhere, in one of the other major World Tour races of the week, Caleb Ewan won the Cyclassics Hamburg ahead of John Degenklob and Giacomo Nizzolo. The win came about when Frenchman Nacer Bouhanni was relegated after a dangerous sprint in which he appeared to swipe across the Australian in the final burst for the line.
Rider of the week:
Too many to single one out thus far at the Vuelta and so I’ll go back to the Olympics one last time. The mountain biking was excellent, but how can I avoid the track achievements by Jason Kenny. The British rider won two of his three gold medals the week before, but it was the addition of his third this past week with victory in the Keirin that gave him his career sixth gold, to tie the most golds for his country with Sir Chris Hoy, that was the most remarkable of the lot.