Tag Archives: Weekly Wheeler 2016

Living like a pro is easy in October

The professional road racing season is all over now. Riders have either gone home, gone cross-racing, or moved indoor to the track. The next time we will see them will be down under in Australia. Those who have gone home, I like to think, have made the right choice. They get to be normal for a month, eat what they want, enjoy a drink, and be a little lazy. In other words the gap between me and them narrows.

Of course, those who have stayed on their bikes deserve credit to. They continue to entertain. In London last week there was the six day race featuring Mark Cavendish and Bradley Wiggins. They didn’t win it, but the crowd went wild anyway. So much for the TUE scandal having an affect on Wiggins’ popularity. The media are not amused.

And the cross-season is upon us too. It always makes for great television. I always watch at least a few races and say, one day I must go to Belgium to watch this in person. I say that about a lot of things though and can only add it to my lengthy bucket list.

Beyond the actions of the actual cyclist’s themselves, this is route unveiling season. We had the tour a few weeks ago and last week it was the turn of the Giro. It’s the 100th edition of the race so they’ve gone with a good one.

Heavy on culture and steeped in history, the route will pay tribute to Italian cycling heroes. It also covers many famous Italian cycling roads and some epic climbs. The climbing is long, but not brutal and there’s a good mixture of stage lengths.

Given it’s the centennial edition, both Vincenzo Nibali and Fabio Aru should show up. Which would be fitting. The race starts on the island of Sardinia, home to Aru, before moving to Sicily, home of Nibali. Once on the mainland the route works north towards the high mountains, the best of which arrive in the final week. On stage 10 there is a 39km time trial and on the final day into Milan, another 28km race of truth. It looks made for someone like Chris Froome, though it’s unlikely he will attempt it. If ever there was a year in which the Giro and Tour look like they could suit a rider to achieve the double, 2017 might be it. Still, the task of achieving it seems mighty. Froome’s ultimate goal is winning another Tour and so the Giro might be too much of a risk. I hope he changes his mind.

Either way we’re in for a treat. The next route release will be the Vuelta. Sometime after that the riders will begin the early stages of winter training. Team camps will meet in early December and again in early January. Then, before you know it…before January is out, a new season will begin. It will be as though they were never away. From the hot climates of Australia or the middle east the peloton will reach Europe by spring for the classics season. Until all that though, it’s only Halloween and we can live knowing the pros aren’t to unlike us right now. For a few weeks.

A unique looking Tour route for 2017

I’ve said it before, but I’ll say it again the annual unveiling of the Tour de France route. It is like being a kid on Christmas morning who gets to see all his presents but can’t open them for nine months. Yet it is always worth a good look and we analyse it and make predictions about how it might go. It’s a nonsense, but it’s fun anyway. For a few moments it feels like it is a little closer to starting than it is.

So what do I make of it? Well here is in a nutshell what I seen when I first took a look. A route that appears closer to a figure of eight than a circuit around France. A course that hits all five major mountain ranges in France. Which incorporates just three summit finishes and only 36km of individual time-trialing, including a 13km opening day race against the clock.

My initial thoughts when I type that out again is that the door has opened to several pretenders to become contenders, though some of pure time-trialists that have recently felt a belief in winning a Grand Tour, like Tom Dumoulin, may stay clear. I think the lack of summit finishes might suit someone like Alejandro Valverde. An opportunist like Alberto Contador, as he has become in recent years, might also get in on the act. Vincenzo Nibali could well suit the unpredictable racing this type of route could bring. Romain Bardet  will feel he has a shot on a course where descending might be as important as climbing. Esteban Chaves too might suit such a hilly course but without a large number of summit finishes. In November, the list is long.

Do not look too far beyond Chris Froome and Nairo Quintana though. The Colombian will be glad of the fewer time-trialing kilometres, while Froome will also point to the way in which he raced last years Tour as to why he can survive on just three summit finishes with which to gain time going upward. The three mountain top finishes are brutal in their difficulty and serious time could be won and lost on those three days but opportunities will exist elsewhere.

I think one of the reasons the organisation picked this kind of route with so little in the way of summit finishes, and such opportunities elsewhere, was to try shake up the racing. Too many complained at the recent Tour of a searing pace being set day after day, limiting the action to the final few kilometres of those mountain top finishes to try and win the Tour. This kind of route may force riders to think outside the box. That one stage of just 100km in length could be the joker in the pack.

Beyond contention to win it, the sprinters will be delighted. There are as many as eight potential sprint finish days. Mark Cavendish will be licking his chops at the possibility of breaking Eddy Merckx’s all-time Tour stage wins record. Cavendish is just four shy of it.

For now though, we’ll have to wait and see. The current season has just finished. A whole winter awaits and a new calendar of racing is yet to come. Then we’ll see who targets which events, who has form, who is healthy and how this race might be approached. What the route has done, as always, is get us talking about the Tour de France and get us excited in November. For now though we must put this fine toy back in its box, put it back under the tree and leave it there for nine more months. What a shame, but we’ll be glad come July 2017.

Rider of the week / month

I have to say when the world championships ended and the riders scattered like the desert wind back to whence they came, I thought that was the last we had seen of the cycling season. I admit it, I’ve been poor in keeping up with the season schedule so I had completely forgotten that some riders would stay in the desert to contest the Abu Dhabi over the past week. Only the four stages mind you. Three for sprinters (Giacomo Nizzolo and Mark Cavendish x2), and one summit finish for climbers (Tanel Kangert). It was that non-stprint stage that ensured the Estonian Kangert took the overall victory and thus win my rider of the week prize.

I have to think that will be the last such prize of 2016. I’ve just looked at the calendar and there are no major races left for the season. As such I can also award the rider of the month for October. There’s been a handful of big races and several smaller races and a diverse list of winners. Mark Cavendish won two races in Abu Dhabi, he was 2nd in the Worlds and 6th at Paris-Tour. Peter Sagan of course retained his world title. But I’m going with Esteban Chaves for becoming the first Colombian to win a monument, at Il Lombardia.

So only Chris Froome won a monthly prize more than once when he shone at the Dauphine in June and the Tour in July. Seven riders won the rider of the week more than once but nobody more than twice.

Sagan retains title as the desert winds blow

Never underestimate the ability of great cyclists to put on a great race on any circuit in any conditions in any country in the world. Sunday’s elite-men’s World Championship road-race proved that. A deserted circuit in the desert, the conditions were baking hot and the country was Qatar. And yet, the race was brilliant.

I was still in bed when the Qatari winds blew and the big-name opportunists split the race to bits. Echelons were the name of the game. The UCI must have been praying for those winds such was the negativity around these championships. Too hot, too remote, nobody watching. Barriers erected to keep stray camels off the course rather than for fans to lean against, or so it felt. A pan flat circuit that seemed made for a bunch sprint.

By the time I tuned in, there was a group of about 30 ahead with a chasing pack behind. The race was on and there was so far still to go. Some big names had made the split while other big names were reeling. This would be one thing in normal racing conditions, but across the desert? For over 250km? It would prove to be relentless. It would leave some broken. Only 53 of the 197 who took the start, finished.

Of the names you would expect to be alert to this kind of blitz, there was Peter Sagan and Mark Cavendish, as well as the vast majority of the Belgian team. It was the Germans who suffered worst with sprinters Andre Greipel and Marcel Kittel both left behind. The heat built, the strain took hold and perhaps while gazing off into the deserted wilderness around him, John Degenkolb went a little crazy. The German rider lost his cool with Belgian rider Jens Debusschere for not helping the chase. The fact that half the Belgian team were up the road mattered little to Degenkolb. He felt that with Debusschere being on Andre Greipel’s trade team, that he should pull his weight. Degenkolb’s afternoon of lunacy was complete when he then sprayed water on the Belgian rider with his bottle. That Debusschere didn’t chin him was testament to the Belgians ability to keep cool under such conditions. Degenkolb should have been pulled from the circuit right there and then, though the race referees need not have worried. The German, along with most of his team, withdrew shortly after. Stunned by the heat and the ambush that had caught them napping.

And so the race for world glory was reduced to a small pack. Given the pace and conditions few had the legs to try split it up further and few tried. The result was the sprint we thought we might get, albeit with some familiar faces missing. It seemed made for Mark Cavendish but when he failed to follow the wheel of Adam Blythe it was just the mistake that someone like Peter Sagan needed. Cavendish found himself boxed in. Sagan’s kick was enough to take him to the line and to retain his title. Cavendish in having to check his sprint to avoid the back wheel of Michael Matthews and allow himself a gap to come through, could only get up to second. Cavendish was furious, but unlikely Degenkolb earlier, it was only with himself. He was the fastest man there, but that moment of hesitancy was the difference over 5 hours 40 minutes of racing. Such is bike racing. Such are the fine margins by which world championships are won and lost.

Peter Sagan goes down into a select group of six who have won the world championships back to back. The last was Paolo Bettini in 2006/2007. It always seems fitting when the best cyclist in the world wins the rainbow jersey. It was a joy watching him wear it throughout the season, not least for myself in Montreal, and so it should be great again in 2017.

After that heat and that intensity of racing in Qatar, the peloton have earned a good break as the season comes to a close. The UCI might regret the decision to take the worlds to Qatar. At least I hope they made some good money that they can invest in something good. But Yorkshire in 2019 will stand in stark contrast to it. Still, Qatar, Yorkshire or wherever, thank goodness for these fine athletes to still have it within them to put on a superb show.

Result:

1. Peter Sagan (SVK) in 5h40’43”

2. Mark Cavendish (GBR)

3. Tom Boonen (BEL)

4. Michael Matthews (AUS)

5. Giacomo Nizzolo (ITA)

6. Edvald Boasson Hagen (NOR) all same time

Rider of the week

For all of Sagan’s fine spriting on Sunday, the prize must go to Tony Martin. The German led his team to the team-time-trial prize and then won himself the individual time-trial title by 45sec over his nearest competitor, Vasil Kiryienka. A fine week though unfortunately he missed the major splits in Sunday’s road race.

A Colombian monument win

I didn’t get to see a lot of Il Lombardia as it is now known, or the Tour of Lombardy as I know it. To tell the truth I forgot it was even on. I was watching the Liverpool match on my television that morning and when it ended I was thinking what to do with the day when I remembered.

The race, I thought. How long is left? Have they crossed the crucial climbs? I couldn’t find it on TV and so I was scrambling for a feed on the iPad. The kids were nearby and any use of the iPad was liable to have them circling for a turn themselves. ‘Can I watch some princess songs?’ I was bracing for that, so I stayed subtle and got the race up, always ready to switch to the phone if required.

There was still 40km left. I was okay. The first main selection had been made but the best action was still ahead. Over the next half hour or so I dipped in and out. I refreshed the feed a couple of times. I made a cup of tea. I even fed the children some breakfast. By the time it was nitty-gritty time, I had settled back in and was ready for the climax.

That came when my pre-race prediction, Romain Bardet made his move. The young Frenchman has a big monument win in him and after his second place at the Tour, is having a superb season. Following him was Esteban Chaves, anotherpre-race favourite, with and two Grand Tour podiums in 2016. Rigoberto Uran, an excellent one-day rider on this kind of terrain, also went. Their move looked decisive. Everyone looked to one another. Diego Rosa had team-mate in Fabio Aru with him, but whether Aru sensed a foil or just didn’t have the legs I wasn’t quite sure. Either way Rosa was the one to try to bridge and Aru stood pat.

Rosa put in a huge effort and he did make it across. You had to wonder for his legs though; what else could he muster? Bardet looked strong, Chaves confident, Uran experienced. None though had won a monument before. The gap was going on so one of them soon would. Into the final stretch and the short climb near the finish and against my prediction it was Bardet who cracked. Rosa made a move to try and unsettle the others but it came to nothing. It seemed like a first Colombian monument win was upon us.

Into the three-up sprint it was well poised. Chaves sat quiet; Uran looked strong. Rosa opened the sprint. It made sense. The Italian had done a lot of work, he was the tired one. Throwing it all at the line early to hope one of the two missed his wheel was worth a try. They didn’t though. Uran was onto him, but he couldn’t come round him. Was Rosa about to win this? Two Italian winners of this Italian of races, back-to-back after Vincenzo Nibali in 2015?

Don’t forget Chaves. The little Colombian on the Australian team used Uran’s wheel to come back to the early kicking Rosa. He then had enough left to put himself in the wind and come past both a fading Uran and a diminishing Rosa. The Italian held on very well for second but there was one Colombian too many. Chaves had his monument glory.

That will end the season for many riders of the Chaves/Uran ilk. Anyone who prefers climbs to sprints likely won’t show up and Qatar for the Worlds. It’s a flat course and as much suited to the climbers as this race would be to a sprinter.

And so the five monument winners of 2016 and an eclectic group indeed:

Milan-San Remo: Arnaud Démare
Tour of Flanders: Peter Sagan
Paris-Roubaix: Matthew Hayman
Liège–Bastogne–Liège: Wout Poels
Il Lombardia: Esteban Chaves

Rider of the month: September

Peter Sagan. Coming back from the Olympics and his transition to mountain biking, the Slovak picked up right where he left off. He won the GP Cycliste de Quebec, was second in Montreal, won the European road title, and took two stage wins at the Eneco Tour along with a third place in GC.

Rider of the week

Given the major race of the week was Lombardy and that Esteban Chaves became the first Colombian to win a Monument, it seems only fair he wins.

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.

Van Avermaet’s revenge in Montreal

It was a 986km round trip to watch 205km of bike racing, but it was worth every metre, as always. This was my fourth year going to the GP Cycliste de Montreal. It has become a bit of a annual tradition (one that I hope to soon include the Quebec race into!) and call me biased, but this race must be one of the finest one-day races on the calendar outside of the five monuments.

It’s just a shame in many ways that it clashes with the final day of the Vuelta, as well as the Tour of Britain. It should be a stand alone event to further boost its prestige and give it more viability to those who maybe haven’t see it, as the great race it is. Not that the field has suffered as a result of the other races, such is the depth of the talent in world cycling. We had the World champion in Peter Sagan and the Olympic champion in Greg Van Avermaet present. And it was that pair who illuminated the racing in Quebec and here.

If Friday was all about Sagan out sprinting Van Avermaet, then Sunday was the Belgians revenge. Both leave Canada deadlocked with a win and second place each and the fans leave entertained.

It was an absolute privilege to watch the finest athletes in the world do their stuff. The crowds were as big as any previous year I had been up there, and why not? A day of action and for free. It was a wonder the entire city hadn’t come up to take a look. In few other sports can you get that close to the athletes. Action that lasted five hours over 17 laps of a 12.1km circuit that included two tough climbs. The total climbing of the 205.7km race was a brutal 3893m.

And it’s the climb of Camillien-Houde at 1.8km and 8% average gradient was were most spend their day. It comes right at the beginning of the lap and tops out 10km from the finish of the lap. so It can prove decisive in late selections but not the race winning move. That is often saved for the shorter 780m, 6% climb of the Cote de Polytechnique that summits 5.6km out. Or for the final kick out of the hairpin up to the finish line on a drag that lasts for 560m but at a tough 4% grade. It’s those climbs repeated, especially the Camillien-Houde, that provide the gradual weeding out process. The slow exhausting of the legs as they climb it 17 times.

You get a good idea of the kind of race it is when you look at the list of past winners. Since I started going in 2013, Sagan, Simon Gerrans, Tim Wellens and today, Van Avermaet. Yes, it’s a proper one-day classic.

And there’s no better way to watch a bike race than this kind of circuit. It’s long enough for the course to have plenty to it but with laps taking about 20 minutes or so, there’s plenty to see. I’m not sure I’d drive that far to watch it if it were a point-to-point race and I would only see them come past the once. With this kind of a course you can see the race develop as it ebbs and flows and takes shape. I like to pick out a rider or two, especially one who might feature come the end, and follow their progress each lap. It’s interesting to see how they read the race, how they position themselves and build towards the crucial moments.

It’s not easy to do when there are so many riders in a pack in team jerseys. I often think that for these kind of races the team leaders should wear different jerseys. The winner of a grand tour should wear that race winning jersey throughout the season, much like the world champion does. Speaking of whom, the one jersey you can pick out with ease is the rainbow stripes and this year it was on the back of the brilliant Peter Sagan.

He had won on Friday and was an obvious favourite for Montreal, so it was fascinating to watch him each lap to see how he went about it. Sagan spent a lot of time in the final third of the pack. I remember a few years ago when he won he would enter the main climb near the front and drift to the back thus saving energy on others. I seen no evidence of this time, though granted I spent a lot of my day up near the top of the hill. At one stage on the descent Sagan came past behind one of the team-cars near the back of the cavalcade. I’m not sure if he had a mechanical issue, but it was still a long way out and by the next race he was back in the field.

When Geraint Thomas forced the pace on the climb with about four laps to go, his move that split the field. The surge also reeled in the final four men of what had been six-man day-long break that included two Canadian riders. Sagan missed the move, but he didn’t panic and remained further back in the bunch while his team worked on the chase. There’s a coolness about the way Sagan races. Almost an understanding that the race will come to him. Had the Thomas move gotten away, you feel the laid-back Sagan might have shrugged his shoulders and said, well there’s always the next race. The was no panic and a lap later he was back in the mix.

Only with the crucial moves made in the final two laps did Sagan turn up. I’d like to have picked out Van Avermaet too, but wearing the BMC jersey like his team-mates it wasn’t always easy. Before I’d have through it too hilly for Van Avermaet, but his climbing has improved, highlighted by his Olympic win on a hilly circuit in Rio.

Late on Rui Costa attacked hard, on the final run up Camillien-Houde. He held a lead going into the final kilometre but it was a small group that got clear on the Cote de Polytechnique that brought him back. The group contained Sagan and Van Avermaet.

By then I was sitting up in a grandstand just 30m from the finish line. As I watched the chase blitz past on the opposite side of the road and under the red kite, I turned to the big screen to see what would come back up the road. Costa got swept up as they swung out of the final hairpin and made the drive for the line. It seemed made for Sagan. Having watched him all day I was desperate to see him pull it off, but it also had become clear that he had led the chase a little too much. He once again tried to close down a late move in the final straight and this allowed Van Avermaet to get onto his wheel. Into a heavy wind Sagan was in trouble and the Olympic champion cane around the world champion late to take the win.

So both took a turn beating the other and I was just glad to have been there for the Montreal race to see it come together. Safe to assume I’ll be back again next year, and I hope those two are also.

Result:

1. Greg Van Avermaet (BMC) in 5h27’04”

2. Peter Sagan (Tinkoff)

3. Diego Ulissi (Lampre-Merida)

4. Michael Matthews (Orica-BikeExchange)

5. Nathan Haas (Dimension Data)

6. Gianni Moscon (Sky) all s.t.

Top Canadian finisher: Ryder Hesjedal, 19th (Trek-Segafredo)

King of the Mountains: Ben Perry (Canada)

Quintana wraps up the Vuelta

Saturday’s stage was a giant with potential for mayhem. It contained several hills leading into a final 22km climb with a summit finish. As it turns out Quintana responded to everything Froome threw at him and rode into Madrid yesterday as the worthy winner of this race. The only major shakeup was the bad day for Alberto Contador and a great ride by Esteban Chaves that allowed the Colombian to join his national compatriot Quintana on the podium.

Could Froome have won this Vuelta had he not been part of the Olympics after his Tour win? I think so. People will say Quintana won this Vuelta last week when himself and Contador forced the split that caught Froome out. Which regards to the race itself is true. But I also think it was when Froome attended the Olympics. That isn’t to say this was a mistake – he did win a silver medal after all – but there’s no doubt he showed up in less than top form. Froome was not himself in the early going. It also perhaps limited his ability to shake Quintana from his wheel in the later stages.

Froome has said next year he will target both the Tour and the Vuelta with his Team Sky boss Dave Brailsford saying he believes the double is possible. From what I’ve seen I tend to agree, but Quintana will also believe it possible himself with the confidence gained from this victory.

Final classification:

1. Nairo Quintana (Movistar) in 83h31’28”

2. Chris Froome (Sky) @ 1’23”

3. Esteban Chaves (Orica-BikeExchange) @ 4’08”

4. Alberto Contador (Tinkoff) @ 4’21”

5. Andrew Talansky (Cannondale-Drapac) @ 7’43”

6. Simon Yates (Orica-BikeExchange) @ 8’33”

Tour of Britain musings

What with the Vuelta being on and then me being up in Montreal, I seen none of the Tour of Britain. That said, everything I’ve read and heard, it sounds like some brilliant racing. Steve Cummings of Dimension Data took the GC win by 26sec over Rohan Dennis and 38sec ahead of Tom Dumoulin. Both are time-trial specialists, but who could not overhaul the defecit to the Englishman after his time gains on a brilliant stage two ride. It wasn’t until stage six when Cummings finally took the race lead and from there he held it into London.

Rider of the week

I couldn’t split Sagan and Van Avermaet given both took a win and a second place in Canada. I couldn’t quite go for Froome despite his time-trial win and gritty effort to pull back his loses on Quintana. And I didn’t go for Quintana because he won the week before in what was his best week of the Vuelta. As a result it’s Steve Cummings and his brilliant Tour of Britain win.

Quintana finds a way to shake Froome in the most dramatic of stages

What an incredible week at the Vuelta, accumulating in an extraordinary weekend in which the balance of the race ebbed and flowed before dropping right into the lap of Nairo Quintana, as Chris Froome was finally isolated when Alberto Contador threw all his cards onto the table as he is always apt to do when struggling to make up time by conventional methods.

For several days it seemed though Froome was going to survive what Quintana had been throwing at him and would limit the Colombians lead to around a minute before the stage 19 time-trial in which the Sky rider would then surely overhaul that deficit and set up the first Tour-Vuelta double of the decade.

On Saturday Froome had stayed on the wheel of Quintana in the kind of way the Movistar rider had done to the Sky man the entire Tour de France last month, but managed to lose no time on a grueling finish, one that seen Alejandro Valverde crack and make this Vuelta a two-horse race.


But then came the kind of stage yesterday that should have seen red flags go up before the starters flag had even come down. At just 118km in length but with three hard climbs including a summit finish, all eyes should have been on Contador and what he might try. He was far enough back overall not to panic about too much but when he launched his move and Quintana followed, Froome needed to react.

He was left with a split second decision to either put his team on the front and slowly bring the move back, or to go with it. He chose the former, but the only problem was that his team were nowhere to be seen, or at least no longer had the legs required to do their jobs. So Froome suddenly found himself with only a couple of team-mates and a group of others unwilling to do much work. Quintana and Contador in a group of 14 disappeared up the road and Froome’s GC ambitions began to shatter.

For the final 50km it was a giant pursuit…or a race of damage limitation. Astana chipped in for reasons not quite clear, and Froome may thank them for it, as the damage could have been much worse. Froome limped home 2min 53sec behind Quintana, who finished second on the stage behind Gianluca Brambilla after earlier cracking Contador himself, and while he remains second overall the Sky rider is now 3min 37sec behind. The onus is now on him to try do something similar to Quintana in order to bring down the deficit before the time-trial.

The odds of that seem unlikely given it is clear Froome is not the man he was at the Tour, though those odds may be increased slightly by the fact that he still has a team around him at all. You see, the gruppetto ambled home a massive 54 minutes behind the stage winner and all outside the time-limit. Indeed, Froome was the only Sky man to make the cut and in theory everyone should have been eliminated, reducing the field of this Vuelta to little more than about 70 men. Traditionally however race organizers will overrule the time cut if it means the field would be dramatically reduced and did so in this case though it has created a stir of controversy given the kind of men involved.

In theory, Sky’s domestiques have been given a day off and an entry back into the race, and with fresher legs could yet help Froome to hurt Quintana on a later day. Should that happen you get the sense there might be uproar.

It’s hard to know where to come down on this? Lose more than half the peloton on one stroke and you do make a mockery of the race, but should Sky put the hammer down in the days to come it could equally make a mockery given all but Froome technically shouldn’t be there. There is president for eliminating large groups outside the time limit, but not to this extent. It would seem that race organizers made the common sense decision but it has to have been awkward and it must surely lead to some kind of shakeup on how the time limit is set up and interpreted.

Then again, wouldn’t it have been fascinating to see how it might play out with just 70 or so men line up for the start today with Chris Froome by himself? I get the impression sponsors, TV and others with financial interest might not have been so impressed however. Not to mention fans who are planning to go watch their heroes on a stage this week if they suddenly find out half the field is now missing.

The only way around it, that I can see, is to change the time-limit margins on certain stages so that it isn’t quite as tight as it was today (albeit even relaxing this, the 54min coughed up today still may not have gotten this group inside a more relaxed limit) and then make it a hard and fast limit with no exceptions so that everyone knows were they stand. It seems clear that when the hammer went down on yet another brutal day of hilly racing in this most brutal of Vuelta’s (a level of extreme difficulty that must also surely be factored in when setting time limits), that a large group gathered at the back and decided to take it easy in the knowledge that the race officials wouldn’t have it in them to kick them all out. You can’t blame the riders given how hard this race has been…the organisors in many ways asked for a day like this when they unveiled such a route…one that we all love, mind you, and one that they themselves might even have been delighted with given the spectacle regardless.

But we’ll see how this impacts the race in the days ahead.

And what of Quintana’s form in general? What do we make of his sudden upturn in form from the Tour to the Vuelta? He’s clearly improved dramatically whereas Froome has fallen away. Yes Froome won the Tour, but he only beat Quintana by 4min 21sec, or by just 0.08% of the total time. Of course, Froome then went to a couple of post-Tour criteriums, he completed the Ride London classic, and then flew to Brazil to compete hard in both the road race and individual time-trial, whereas Quintana took a break and turned his focus entirely on the Vuelta. That in itself is possibly the difference.

Or, the Colombian was never targeting the Tour all along despite what he said. Perhaps deep down he knew that he wouldn’t be able to beat Froome when Froome was on top form and instead decided winning the Vuelta held the greater opportunity for a return on his efforts over the season?

We’ll never know what has made the difference for sure, but one thing is certain: Froome is having to dig very deep and hope desperately that his form arrives late just to keep a new and fresher Quintana within sight.

It’s going be a fascinating final week.

As it is, the general classification after 15 stage is as follows:

1. Nairo Quintana (Movistar) in 61h36’07”

2. Chris Froome (Sky) @ 3’37”

3. Esteban Chaves (Orica-BikeExhange) @ 3’57”

4. Alberto Contador (Tinkoff) @ 4’02”

5. Simon Yates (Orica-BikeExchange) @5’07”

6. Samuel Sanchez (BMC) @ 6’12”

Rider of the week

He’s been in fine form throughout this Vuelta and yesterday he put several nails into the coffin of his final rival and baring disaster will surely go on to win this Vuelta. So who else but Nairo Quintana.

Rider of the month

This was hard. Nobody has dominated the month. The Vuelta is still very much on going and still to be determined what direction it might take whereas different people have stepped up to win single day races. As a result I’ve looked at the most prestigious of the lot in August, the Olympics and gone with Greg Van Avermaet for his superb win on a course that nobody expected to suit his style of riding…so much so that Peter Sagan skipped it altogether. Yes the British athletes were superb on the track this month, but Van Avermaets road gold was the standout individual performance.