Tag Archives: Team Sky

Froome completes historic double

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Final Vuelta podium has Froome on top at last, and completing an historic Tour-Vuelta double (Photo: Tim de Waele/TDWSport.com)

Before this past weekend only two men had ever won the Tour de France and the Vuelta a España in the same year. And nobody had ever done it with the Vuelta coming after the Tour in the current calendar.

Until now.

For Chris Froome held off the opposition to secure a historic double. Since the start of the Tour and the end of the Vuelta, 72 days had past. In that time Froome raced in Grand Tours for 42 days. And of those, he has spent 32 days in the leaders jersey. It was a remarkable level of consistency of both physical endurance and mental fortitude. It was a fine achievement.

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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

Froome wrestles back yellow and then almost loses it again

I was out on the bike on Saturday morning so missed the live coverage of the stage. Looking at the profile I had hedged my bets. It looked like a stage for exciting racing, but without too much in the way of major climbing. I felt it was unlikely that the balance of the race itself might swing. But as I swung into a small town and pulled over at a coffee shop, I pulled out my phone and seen the notification: “Froome back in yellow.”

What on earth had happened? I bought my tea and a butter tart, and sat down to catch up.

From what I could gather on the run in to Rodez, and towards the ramp up to the line, Fabio Aru had been isolated. His Astana team, broken and decimated by injury, were missing again. In stark contrast, the Sky team were all around Chris Froome. They kept him near the front while Aru slipped towards the rear. It takes a lot of effort to stay at the front and trying to do so without the protection of a team expends a lot of energy. After getting worked over the day before, but maintaining his jersey, Aru had to be tired.

Froome’s domestique and bodyguard elect, Michal Kwiatkowski noticed Aru isolated. He called on the radio for Froome to smash it and the Sky leader pushed for the line. Michael Matthews gave the Sunweb team their second victory in-a-row, and Froome came in 7th a second behind. 25 seconds later, Aru limped over the line, exposed and out of yellow.

The balance of this Tour had once again flipped in favour of Froome by 18 seconds. Romain Bardet lost 4 seconds to Froome and so now finds himself 5 seconds out of second place. Two others alert to the damage were Rigoberto Uran and Dan Martin who finished with Froome. Uran is putting together a very impressive Tour and is now within half a minute of yellow. Written off or overlooked by many, his performance in France may come as a surprise to some, but it shouldn’t.

You need a strong team to win the Tour and this proved it once more. Aru’s Astana team are struggling and it could be the difference in him not winning this race. As an individual, Aru has rode very well. He looks strong and well matched to Froome on the climbs. But it’s on days like this he remains vulnerable.

Take what happened the following day as another example of the benefits of a strong team. Froome had another mechanical at the worst possible time, and this time there was no waiting. We’re too deep into the race now for unwritten rules. A quick wheel change by his domestique turned mechanic, Kwiatkowski, got him on his way, but he was 45 seconds behind. Froome encouraged Landa to remain in the pack up front while other Sky riders worked on pacing Froome back. As they went up the category one climb of the Col de Peyra Taillade, the gap began to reduce. Bardet’s AG2R team kept the hammer down on the front, but the strength of Team Sky was evident. On the way up they blew past the fast fading Nario Quintana. His effort on Friday doomed to be that of a stage hunt rather than a realistic bid to get back into GC contention. Once Froome was alone, but not far behind, Landa dropped back to help him pull up to the rear of the pack. Job done. They crested the climb and from there it was about consolidating.

Had Froome gone over the top still off the back of the group, I doubt he would have got back on. His Tour might have been in tatters. It was a testament to his team and his own strength, and leadership, that this didn’t happen. It was a smart call to leave Landa in the group ahead. Had Froome failed to get back on, Landa, still well positioned on GC after some strong racing in the days before would still be in the mix. But with Froome getting back up and having spent through his team mates, he could still call Landa back for the final push. And when back in, Froome still had a team mate and wasn’t left isolated. It quietened the suggestions that Landa has gone rogue. He is still part of the Sky plan.

Froome looked vulnerable at times in the second week of this Tour but looks to be coming good now. He is peaking at the perfect time, or so it seems. He had been well short of his usual standards in the pre-Tour tune up races and it left people doubting his form. One explanation for this was that Froome was looking to peak later in the Tour. With a lot of sprint stages in the early going, Froome was going to try survive the early climbing stages and ride into his best form. Now with the third week looming, and facing a crisis on the  Taillade, Froome’s strength shone through. He flew up that climb to regain contact. Had he not had the mechanical and instead attacked them, who knows what shape this race would now be in?

But that is hypothetical. So is my theory on Froome’s condition. The next few days will answer to what form his is in. Another hypothetical is where Dan Martin would be had he not crashed on stage 9? The Irishman jumped off the front yet again today to steal back 9 seconds. That is 18 seconds he has taken on two stages over three days. In that crash in which he fell over Richie Porte, Martin lost 1 minute, 15 seconds. As things stand he is 1 minute, 12 seconds behind Froome. Of course, the reality is that had he not crashed his move on Sunday would have been shut down immediately. He has gotten a little more freedom thanks to how compact the standings are in front of him. But what is evident is that Martin is in superb form. His rivals have yet to drop him. His only time loss has been as a result of that crash.

Up ahead on Sunday’s stage, a large 28 man pack that had escaped earlier in the day would decide the stage winner. Bauke Mollema made the timely move with 29km to go, attacking on the descent of that final big climb to forge ahead. The chase came too late and the Dutchman stayed clear to take his first Tour stage victory. This time last year Mollema was sitting second on GC and the biggest threat to Froome. That all came tumbling down in the final week. This year Mollema has come looking for stage wins. Now he has one and they can never take that away from him.

And so to a rest day today and how they need it. Tomorrow is a stage that should favour a breakaway though could end up in a bunch sprint and thus win number six for Marcel Kittel. Then it’s into the high Alps and come Thursday evening I’d be shocked if the standings are still as tight as they are now. This is the tightest a Tour has ever been for the yellow jersey this far into the race. It’s been a terrific show so far and I get the sense that the best is yet to come.

General classification after stage 15:

1. Chris Froome (Sky) in 64h40’21”

2. Fabio Aru (Astana) +18″

3. Romain Bardet (AG2R) +23″

4. Rigoberto Uran (Cannondale) +29″

5. Dan Martin (Quick-Step) +1’12”

6. Mikel Landa (Sky) +1’17”

Sky taken out while it’s advantage Quintana…or is it?

It took eight stages for this Giro to come to life, but once it did, it did so in the most dramatic of ways. Drama, controversy, action, time gaps, lead change and so many talking points it is hard to know where to begin. Do I start with the stage winner and new race leader, Nairo Quintana? Or the fact his win wasn’t as convincing as expected? Or with the motorbike induced accident at the foot of the Blockhaus climb that left several contenders on the deck, decimating Team Sky’s Giro ambitions?

The later is the logical starting point. It was after all the most dramatic moment, the one that raised the most debate, and the one that came first. Why the police motorbike felt the need to stop at the side of the road I’m not sure, but why he didn’t pull off the road I’ll never know. The result was Wilko Kelderman of the Sunweb team clipped the motorbike rider and went down taking many riders with him.

When the dust cleared, Geraint Thomas and Mikel Landa were both a part of the rubble as the race moved up the road and with it their Giro aspirations. Debate began to rage almost immediately about the rights and wrongs of the incident as well as the reaction of Movistar. Nairo Quintana’s team continued to push on the front while many felt they should have waited. I am not one of those many. If this happened 100km from the finish it might be one thing, but it was at the foot of the final climb. If they had been hiding in the pack all day but reacted to this crash by pushing to the front, that would be another thing. The reality was that Movistar had been pushing on the front for quite a while before the crash. Their strategy was well underway and their reward for being at the front was staying clear of any potential crash, regardless of who was to blame. How many rivals were beginning to hurt at the pressure they had been putting on? By easing off, those riders would have gotten a chance to recover. Indeed, had they waited and had the Thomas, Landa, Kelderman and Adam Yates got back on, would they have been able to compete given the hard falls they took? Landa looked hurt and lost a load of time. There was no guarantee the others could go with the move Quintana later forced. The race was on as Movistar suggested after the race and even Thomas admitted to this himself.

So yes, Quintana did force a move but to which only Thibaut Pinot and Vincenzo Nibali could react. A short way behind the Dutch duo of Tom Dumoulin and Bauke Mollema stuck to their own rhythm. Nibali soon cracked and when Quintana surged again he got rid of Pinot.

It seemed here that Quintana would go on to win the Giro. Seconds would turn into minutes and he would build the kind of gap that no time-trial could threaten. I feared for the rest. But behind Dumoulin kept ticking over. Soon he caught and dropped Nibali and then he rode up to Pinot. The Dutchman didn’t panic when he seen the attacks…he knew he couldn’t go with them. Instead he played the Chris Froome tactic and rode to his own power numbers. Say what you like about these devices being in races, they all have one. And while they’re allowed it’s the smart rider who knows how to interpret the data in real time. It’s the patient rider who doesn’t see the wheel in front distance him and panic by trying to go with it. Instead Dumoulin got into time-trial mode, his best mode, and set about limiting the damage.

And limit it he did. Yes, Quintana won the stage and took a 10 second time bonus with it, but Pinot and Dumoulin came home next only 24 seconds behind. Mollema was at 41 seconds; Nibali at a minute. All will feel they limited their losses well. Quintana will feel a level of confidence in getting the win, but the lack of time put into those behind him will also inspire those rivals.

Tomorrow is a rest day but Tuesday’s time trial should see Quintana cough up his advantage from today and then some. Still, Quintana is playing the longer gain. His hope will be to limit his loses as Dumoulin did today, though his target loss will likely be more than 24 seconds, and then bite back in the high mountains. There is a lot of climbing to come and Quintana will once again need to go the attack as there is yet another time-trial on the final day in Milan. Quintana will tell you that he’s riding into form in this race and that his best is very much to come. That could be true and might be explained in those 24 seconds, but the likes of Nibali might claim the same. The Shark will very much be hoping his best is ahead on what looks to be a brutal final week of climbing.

So while on paper you might say advantage Quintana, I actually think it’s advantage Dumoulin and it’s still wide open for half-a-dozen in this race.

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.

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.

Le Tour review: Overall standings…alternative standings…predictions review…team of the Tour

Here is a look across all the various final standings of the 2016 Tour de France with a little word on each. From the overall classification to the best French riders and from a review of my questionable pre-Tour predictions to my overall team of the Tour of which there can be no debate! First up though, the yellow jersey…

Continue reading Le Tour review: Overall standings…alternative standings…predictions review…team of the Tour