Saturday, 29 December 2012

A Tale of Two Velodromes



A couple of months ago I did a track cycling taster day at Herne Hill Velodrome.  I haven’t blogged about it here as I've written a one-pager on the experience for Cycling Active and it seemed a little cheeky to pre-empt them by repackaging it. In essence though, the early part of the session can be summed up with the words “No gears, no brakes, no bladder control.” The middle part would be a trepidatious “That looks a bit steep,” while the conclusion would be “Wheeeeeeeeeeee!”.

Once you get over the habit of grabbing for brakes that aren’t there, learn that you can’t backpedal the fixed gear and realise that the banking only looks 20 feet tall and vertical from the bottom, the whole thing stops being quite so nerve-wracking.  After that you can revel in the smooth and effortless speed of the experience. I’d expected a big gear and a smooth surface to make a difference to the feel of the ride, but I had no idea how much difference. Without any noticeable effort I was hitting speeds that would require a head-down, sinew-clenching effort on the road.

Naturally, the next thing I wanted to do was let rip and enjoy this newfound rocket power, but Herne Hill’s taster sessions are about delayed gratification: they want to turn you into a track cyclist so you have the skills needed to really get the most out of riding the banked oval. Instead of going wild, we were taken on several laps of the track on the sprinters, stayers and ghost lines, before a turn round the very top of the banking. We practiced joining the track, leaving the track, doing through-and-off in a paceline, and maintaining our gaps. Then we got off and enjoyed startlingly inexpensive sandwiches.

Yesterday I visited Manchester Velodrome, where the food in the cafĂ© is equally good value, and can be eaten on tables next to Ed Clancy and Sarah Storey (she was wearing a spangly frock and Union Jack shoes which seemed a bit glam for a Velodrome - later the same day, the New Year honours list would be released and her Damehood unveiled). The value of the food isn’t the only thing that the National Cycling Centre has in common with Herne Hill Velodrome - while one is a gleaming, modern building and the other is showing its age a bit, both are very welcoming. They seem to say: Come in, have a poke around, make yourself at home and enjoy your stay. Some sports only want your money, but cycling always seems to enjoy your company.

Things differed on the track, where another track cycling taster session was going on, Manchester Velodrome style. I’ll confess, I was only watching from the sidelines rather than taking part, so I could be wrong about this, but it looked very much as if the newbie track cyclists were given a couple of laps worth of instruction in starting, stopping and not hitting each other, then turned loose for half an hour of free time.

They divided themselves pretty swiftly into three groups. The nervous ones stayed near the cote d’azure and pedalled so slowly that they were having to jerk their bikes up the banking, like a dandy hitching up wayward pantaloons. A braver group spent their time rocketing round on the sprinter's line in small groups of two or three, while one or two exuberant souls hoicked themselves halfway up the banking and went round cackling and whooping and occasionally waving at the spectators. Not one rider went anywhere near the top of the banking.

It was an interesting contrast. By the end of my Herne Hill taster session, I was itching to be allowed to just ride, to enjoy the effortless amplification of power provided by the bike and the calming repetition of whirring round the track. Unsurprisingly, that wasn’t an option. It was just a few weeks after the Olympics and our enormous group of beginners had displaced an enormous group of intermediate riders, and were about to be displaced by a regiment of experienced track cyclists.

Denied the chance to just ride, I was initially a little jealous of the circling novices at the Manchester Velodrome, but by the time they were making their desperate grabs at the railings to bring themselves to a halt, I was starting to change my mind. They’d had as much time in their taster as Herne Hill offers, but they’d stopped learning new skills after the first ten minutes. I bet the top of the banking still looked vertiginous to them, and I doubt any of them could have dropped off down the middle of two parallel pacelines like the beginners at Herne Hill could by the end of their session.

I suppose it all comes down to learning styles. After some consideration, I think the Manchester Velodrome approach would have suited my steady, cautious approach by allowing me the chance to feel completely at home on the track before learning anything else. On the other hand, it would have driven my Herne Hill buddies crackers. They took off up the banking at the first chance, spent their session swooping out of the curves like kids playing Spitfires in the playground, and were clamouring to be allowed to run their intro session into the intermediate session that followed it. Being told to spend an hour circling gently and getting the feel of the track would have left them wild and distinctly un-zen.

Whichever approach I'd been offered, I wouldn't have passed up the chance to try track cycling. I'm no racer and have no interest in speed or competition, so I'm not sure it's a pastime that will endure for me in the way that pootling along open roads has, but it's a combination of so many familiar sensations with so many new ones that it's far too fascinating to do just once.

Image courtesy and copyright of DB Conlon, 2012. Perhaps his best photo of a cyclist since this one of Chris Froome .

Wednesday, 17 October 2012

Thoughts On Lance Armstrong and the Reasoned Decision

I started writing this post back when USADA asked for copies of the FDA’s evidence against Lance Armstrong, but scrapped it when the writing became confused. I started it again when Armstrong announced that he wouldn’t contest the USADA decision and was stripped of his Tour results and, again, I abandoned it when I felt that the logic running through the writing had been tortured into an unrecognisable shape. I’ve pretty much resigned myself to the fact that a post about twisted logic and ambivalence is probably going to look a little twisted and ambivalent, so here we go, attempt number three. This time, I’m just going to type, non-stop, until I feel like I’ve ticked all the boxes I want to tick. If it comes out a little rambling and confused then that’s as fair a reflection of my feelings on the subject as anything else.

I’m not particularly interested in discussing what Armstrong did or didn’t do, as that’s been exhaustively covered just about everywhere else. What always interests me is my own reaction to him. I know, I know, that sounds terribly self-obsessed, but this is a blog, it exists to be a bit self-obsessed.  The thing is, I can’t pretend that my feelings about Armstrong and doping are clear-headed and rational, because they so obviously aren’t. There’s plenty of obfuscatory thinking and hypocrisy in my feelings about the case, but I actually think that’s true of most cycling fans. Not to mention cyclists. Not to mention cycling’s governing body, the race organisers, the sports media and even fans of other sports who don’t give a hoot about cycling other than to point and laugh every time the sport stumbles through another scandal.


To start with, I dislike Lance Armstrong. That’s just so you know where I’m coming from. And I don’t have any faith that his Tour victories were achieved cleanly. My distrust of his wins is slightly older than my dislike of him, but not by much. I think the fact that I decided he was a cheat a good year or so before I decided I disliked him says a lot about my attitude towards doping in cycling.


I’ve wanted him to be taken down a peg or seven for years, but why? It can’t just be because he doped, because there are doped riders I’ve liked and supported. Maybe it’s because he doped to such an extent that his performances were laughable, but then, I’ve defended some pretty ridiculous doped performances in the past: I loved Bjarne Riis’ 1996 victory, my previous benchmark for OTT performances. There have been riders who have doped and I’ve defended their victories on the grounds that, at the time, everyone was doing it, but for some reason I can’t bring myself to use the same defence for Armstrong. Perhaps because he doped at a time when at least some riders were trying to clean up their act? Perhaps because his doping seems to have involved private jets, private dope couriers and resources unavailable to other cheats? Oh, the shame: could it be that I dislike the man because he had an unfair advantage in his pursuit of an unfair advantage over other riders who had an unfair advantage?


Perhaps it’s down to his personality? It’s no surprise to anyone to hear that he was a truculent bully. Still, that’s hardly the only side to his personality: the support he gave his rival, Ivan Basso, when Basso’s mother was suffering from cancer was genuinely moving. He clearly wasn’t all bad. Very few people are. So where does the dislike come from?


I didn’t dislike him when he won his first Tour de France in 1999, and at the time I didn’t have that gut certainty that he’d cheated his way to victory either, although I did have plenty of misgivings about the win. For a lot of people, the suspicion stemmed from the fact that he’d been at death’s door a few years before and was now winning the world’s most physically demanding sporting event. For me, that was barely a distraction. What bothered me was that he was a one-day rider winning a three week tour. That has always smelt rotten to me.


The skills and physical gifts needed to be a classics man, a good one-day rider, aren’t the same as those required to win three week Tours. Occasionally the sheer physical gifts of a GT rider allow them to triumph in a one day race, but it’s not common, and it’s vanishingly rare that one-day specialists triumph in Grand Tours. Yet here was Armstrong, a rider who’d never been thought of as anything but a one-day eventer, winning the Tour.  There was the claim that chemotherapy had caused him to drop a shit-ton of weight, but that’s been contested by riders close to Lance who insist that his racing weight was much the same as ever, or had dropped by little more than a kilo or two, not the game-changing seven or eight kilo figure (almost a bike’s worth of weight) that had sometimes been bandied around. It’s not even as if he matured into a GC contender the way some riders do; he was in his late twenties when the transformation occurred.


Watching Armstrong - who’d won stages and classics and a World Championship but had never shown any skill against the clock or gravity - suddenly annihilating his rivals both in the time trials and again on the mountains rang more alarm bells than the positive test for Corticosteroids that was eventually explained away as a saddle-sore treatment. 


I know it’s daft, but in an age of EPO and HGH it was hard to be overly concerned about a drug I’ve been given for a sore knee. But watching Armstrong out-time-trial time-trial specialists was a bother, and then he went on to out-climb climbers, despite the fact that the skills for those two disciplines are usually as distant from each other as the skills of a one-day rider and the skills of a GC man. Armstrong wasn’t even climbing like a time triallist, using the dogged, measured power-plod that often sees time triallists hold their own on the slopes. He was launching explosive attacks like a pure climber, assisted by low-gear, high-cadence style that made you breathless just watching it. In 1999, it seemed that Armstrong had transcended all the boundaries between the sport’s different disciplines in a way that beggared belief. A few years later, he’d win a sprint at the Tour de Georgia as if trying to reinforce the point.


Despite all of that, I was giving him the benefit of the doubt in 1999. Jan Ullrich and Marco Pantani weren’t racing that year, and Alex Zulle & Abraham Olano had both suffered massive losses in the crash on the tide-soaked Passage Du Gois. Sure, he was winning, but he’d been gifted a race in which several riders far superior to him were absent, and several other strong rivals had been scuppered by seaweed rather than Texan grit. At the time, I kidded myself that no matter how unusual his win looked, it was a fluke. If you’d asked me at the time, I’d have said he was lucky rather than doped.


Obviously, the next few years would come as quite a shock.


You couldn’t kid yourself in 2000. Ullrich was there, and he wasn’t fat. Well, not by his standards anyway.  Pantani was there and, well, he’d had a bit of a rotten year. Still, he’d been blessed by the Pope, so that must have counted for something, right?


Except it didn’t.  Most people thought Ullrich was the strongest Time Triallist in the sport at the time, and perhaps one of the strongest in history, but it was Armstrong who won the race’s 58Km test. Worse still, he came second on the race’s first mountain stage, more than four minutes ahead of Ullrich. Then there was the Ventoux stage, where he chased Pantani (probably not the cleanest rider himself) all the way up the Giant of Provence, covered every move he made, then gifted the stage win to the greatest climber most of us have ever seen. Gifted it!


At the same time that he began to stretch credibility to breaking point, we also got the first hints that he had a shitty character as well. He’d bullied Christopher Bassons the year before, but that had gone largely unreported and unseen. You couldn’t miss the blow up with Pantani though. It’s been shamefully glossed over, but as I recall it, Armstrong spent the press conference following the Ventoux stage all but screaming “It was a gift, I gave it to him” in the graceless manner of someone who had belatedly realised that he’d given away a stage win on hallowed ground and wished he hadn’t.  When Pantani pointed out that such posturing was undignified, Lance proved just how undignified he could be, calling Pantani  “Elephantino” in reference to his prominent ears, and describing him as a “little shit starter”.





Two days of on-road debate and finger-wagging followed, before Pantani went on a suicidal all-day mountain attack, giving Lance his only scare of the race, and then quitting the Tour. Within a couple of years, he’d have had his ears pinned back. In 2004, he overdosed in a hotel room. Neither of those things had anything to do with Lance, but even now I have a hard time not choking up when I think about how much joy I got from watching Pantani, and how sad his life became.


There was precious little joy in watching Armstrong. With the exception of the tremendously exciting 2003 Tour, Lance’s victories were dull. His 2001 victory was man against boy, as he beat Ullrich by nearly seven minutes, gave him ‘the look’, and won two individual time trials and two mountain stages. In 2002 he barely bothered to race - he sat there until the first mountain stage, then allowed his superior teammate Roberto Heras to tow him into an unassailable lead on the very first mountain stage. Oh for a bit of internecine treachery! 2004 was so dull even L’Equipe was speculating about the 2005 event before the first week was over, and as for 2005 … well, catching and passing Jan Ullrich within 14Km of the first stage of the 3,592Km race made for a pretty tedious three weeks.


Armstrong continued to throw his weight around in those years as well. There was the “No French” furore, the chase, catch and saliva shower suffered by Fillipo Simeoni for having had the temerity to testify against Michele Ferrari (Armstrong called it protecting the sport; I think the rest of us would describe it as bullying at best, witness tampering at worst). There were the “It’s Lance, you won’t need your notepad” Sunday afternoon phonecalls to the homes of journalists who’d criticised him, and in later years, the snide tweets about Alberto Contador.


So, he was a shitty personality whose performances defied credibility, but he isn’t the first shitty sportsman, and he won’t be the last cheat, so why do I dislike him more than any of the others? Why do Ullrich, Zulle, Pantani et al get my forgiveness for their cheating, while I’m happy to see Armstrong nailed to the wall?


Perhaps it’s because his cheating seemed so egregious. Plenty of riders have cheated their way to a Tour win, but to seven? In a row? With a career total of 25 Tour De France stage victories in all, including six in a single Tour? There’s cheating and then there’s cheating. It prompts the American quip - don’t piss in my face and tell me it’s raining. It was insulting. But then … Bjarne Riis. His 1996 victory was pretty shameless as well, yet I rhapsodised about it here.


A bit of disturbing food for thought as well … why am I bothered by the appearance of cheating more than I am by proof of it? Why will I forgive confessed dopers like David Millar while continuing to rail against riders who haven’t technically been caught doing anything but just look too good to be true? Is it that a rider who has been busted can be treated as proof that we’re cleaning up cycling, while riders who consistently put in ridiculous performances without getting caught make it clear that we’re not? Am I guilty, in essence, of wanting the sport to look clean whilst not really caring if it actually is? Or worse, am I quietly doing what I loathe in everyone else, and assuming that any winning performance is also a shady one?


Maybe it’s an anti-American thing. Sorry, I know how iffy that sounds, but I’m trying to be honest here. As a left-leaning, Chomsky-reading, pro-Palestinian liberal who opposed the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, there’s barely been a moment in the last ten years when I’ve been able to watch the international news without a grouchy, perpetually-teenaged part of me feeling like the Yanks are the bad guys. Maybe that has poisoned my view of international sports as well? Greg LeMond’s victories in ‘89 and ‘90 were brilliant (I didn’t see his ‘86 win) but for me, cycling is a quintessentially European sport. Its headquarters are in Switzerland, its official language is French, and it’s littered with terms like “tete de la course” and “lanterne rouge”.  Maybe I’m bitter because cycling lost a little of its je ne sais quoi  when its races adopted English as their second language, American voices filled the roadside crowds and a bloke with a comicbook name became the sport’s biggest star.


If that’s the case, I really am a huge hypocrite. I remember when Lennox Lewis was Heavyweight Champion and numerous Americans, including no less a figure than the late Bert Sugar, would exhort each successive American challenger to bring the belts “back where they belong”.  It used to drive me up the wall. If you want to have a global sport, you can’t treat the victories of other nations as if they're some sort of aberration to be rectified. It’s offensive, it demeans other people’s efforts and it cheapens your own victories. If I’m guilty of treating cycling the way that the Americans used to treat boxing, I’d be particularly ashamed of myself. But … but I loved LeMond’s victories. To this day I cheer for George Hincapie. I was in awe of Tyler Hamilton’s broken collarbone rides in the Giro and the Tour, and rooted for Bobby Julich in 1998. I just don’t think my dislike of Lance can be blamed on anti-Americanism.


Maybe it’s because Lance has behaved like a nasty piece of work so often and so publicly? Certainly, I loathe Floyd Landis for the way his defence team treated Greg Lemond. I tend to think that if you surround yourself with people who would stoop that low, you’re probably pretty vile yourself. If you don’t know what I mean, Google “Will Geoghegan” because I’m not going to repeat the story here. I can think of footballers, boxers and athletes I’ve disliked because of their behaviour, without any hint of shady tactics. Taking against Armstrong’s personality is as good an explanation as any I can come up with for why I dislike him so much more than other dope cheats.

The funny thing is, after all these years of wanting him to get his comeuppance, now that it has finally happened, I almost wish it hadn’t. Not for Armstrong’s sake, but because the last of his Tour wins was nearly a decade ago. In the intervening years, the sport really does seem to have taken great strides in cleaning up its act. I’ve followed cycling for too long to ever feel comfortable making a definitive statement about a rider’s cleanliness, but I’d give Carlos Sastre the benefit of the doubt, and I’m as close to certain as I can be that Cadel Evans and Bradley Wiggins are clean. Ryder Hesjedal’s Giro? Clean. Vincenzo Nibali’s Vuelta win? Clean. David Moncoutie’s four Vuelta mountains jerseys? Clean.


You can see the change in riding as well. Multi-mountain breakaways have become a suicidal dice roll rather than a normal tactic, one that riders will pay for whether they seize the race lead or not. Late Km attacks, defensive riding and bonus chasing (the purest form of marginal gain there is) are the new race-winning tactics, rather than the Hautacams and Luz Ardidens of the bad old days.


The fact that the Armstrong decision has taken over the headlines means that doping stories from the dark days of the ‘90s and early ‘00s are more prominent in people’s minds than the steps the sport has taken to clean itself up. Once again, cycling is the whipping boy of sports.


This always gets my goat. FIFA carry out roughly one-sixth as many dope tests in a year as the UCI. When Spanish Police busted Eufemiano Fuentes as part of Operacion Puerto, he made it clear that he’d worked with tennis players, athletes and footballers, yet Puerto was treated as cycling’s scandal. In football, we’ve got  a selection of racists, thugs and airgun wielding idiots shooting the work-experience kids. In boxing we’ve got steroids, the man in the hat nobbling judges, and blocks of plaster of Paris in the handwraps. Formula 1 teams sell trade secrets while taking races to repressive regimes. Yet it's always cycling that's seen as the sewer of sports. Cycling is the joke. Cycling is the whipping boy. 


I wish Armstrong had never cheated to win his races. I wish he hadn’t treated those who tried to tell the truth with such cruelty, and I wish he hadn’t shown such contempt for his rivals. But I don’t think his crimes somehow make cycling worse than any other sport. I don’t think cycling is dirty and other sports are clean, but thanks to Armstrong’s prominence, it’s cycling that has the grubby reputation.


Maybe that’s why I dislike him so much.

Tuesday, 16 October 2012

Eurozone Crisis: Older Men Face Worsening Job Prospects

Omega Pharma-Quick Step have sacked 38 year old Levi Leipheimer as a result of his doping admissions detailed in the USADA reasoned decision, leaving the ageing rider searching for a new contract while carrying a six month suspension (albeit one that will be half spent by the time the new season starts.)

The full story can be read here.

I suppose I should be thinking in terms of dope-scandal fallout, truth-and-reconciliation and the like, but can I be honest? Really, I'm thinking that Omega Pharma-Quickstep have just saved themselves a pile of cash and opened up a space in their squad. What's the betting Lefevre is on the phone to Tanzania as we speak?

Hello, Patrick? What can I do for you?

Ouch...

..I knew the name change would hurt my traffic, but I didn't think it would eliminate it entirely. Oh well, I'll get you back here one by one I'm sure. I suppose the first trick would be to post something, really, wouldn't it?

Writing the blog has taken a back seat to writing about cycling for Cycling Active and The Ride, not to mention writing a dissertation sized article on comics for Back Issue magazine, all of which has pushed blogging off the radar for a few weeks. Sadly, I'm back to being comparatively underemployed as off today, so I'm going to start bashing something together about Lance Armstrong and the hypocritical glee I feel at his downfall.

Toodle pip.

Tuesday, 11 September 2012

What's in a name?

When I started this blog I was looking for a name that combined cycling and a sort of good natured haplessness. I tried Laughing Group, L'Autobus, Gruppetto, Glass Cranking and heaven know what else. Having had no luck with any of them I opted for Euro-Cycling.blogspot as it was the name on the cover of the cycling magazine I had to knock up in Quark Xpress classes when I was a student in 1996, back in that spell pre-Lance, post-Greg when cycling felt thoroughly European.

For all that the name Euro-Cycling reminded me of the days when the sprinters were named Abdoujaparov and Blijlevens rather than Cavendish and Farrar, and the days when my bike was commonly used to transport milk and Kahlua for White Russians, it's never really felt like it says anything about the blog, hence the name change from Euro-Cycling to Pedalling-Squares. Look, the atmosphere around here has lightened up already, hasn't it?

Monday, 20 August 2012

Vuelta a Espana 2012: Opening Salvos

So, by day three the Vuelta has seen almost as much action as the Tour managed in three weeks. Marvellous. So far, everything is going according to expectations: JJ Cobo and Jurgen Van den Broek have pretty much dropped out of contention already, while Contador, Froome, Rodriguez and Valverde look to be the strongest men in the race.

Slightly less expected was the drop down the GC of Thomas De Gendt and Nairo Quintana, two riders thought to be likely top ten finishers who are now 2:54 and 3:09 down respectively. The other riders to watch (Gesink, Mollema, Anton) are still at the happy end of the GC.

What was really interesting about today was just how lively it was. Contador launched six attacks, Rodriguez  had a go as well, and Valverde fought to the last to secure his stage win and Red Jersey. As for Froome, I'm really not sure what to think. It's all very well being the most explosive climber at a Tour de France full of diesel climbers, but I always thought that the high-octane climbing explosions of Rodriguez and Contador would leave him slobbering in their wake.

As it turns out, I was wrong about that. But not in a way that I find completely reassuring. There aren't many people who can get back onto Contador's wheel after he's attacked once, let alone six times. The fact that Froome managed to labour his way back to Berty repeatedly and then pip him for third place (and a 4 second bonification) suggest that he's both faster and less fatigued than I expected him to be. Contador never got more than about fifteen bike lengths on him, and the gap never stayed open for more than about 25 seconds.

Sadly, Froome's heroic gap closing looks a little less impressive when you consider that Valverde and Rodriguez were doing a much better job of holding Contador's wheel. More importantly, Froome can afford to dig into the red and hunt Contador down on a 6Km climb, but chasing like that on the long climbs could be ruinous-in those circumstances he'll need the sort of sub-zero nerve that lets him carry on at a pace he can maintain, trusting that it will be enough to reel Contador in over the course of a half hour climb.

Froome's Time Trialling ability will be enough to nullify anything short of a legendary mountains performance from Valverde or Rodriguez, but it won't give him as much of a buffer over Contador, who's more competent against the clock than Purito or Piti. If Froome's to succeed he needs to walk a very thin line between not letting Contador get too far away from him on the climbs, but trusting in himself enough that he won't burn himself out chasing.

What is reassuring is that while Contador still has the ability to attack over and over again, he seems to be just a fraction off his top acceleration. Every time he attacked today you could see him pull the gap open, whereas prime Contador could leap up the road in a way that had you wondering if the Eurosport highlights editor were experimenting with axial cuts.

Essentially, we're still pretty much where we were three days ago-watching the two favourites, expecting neither to be at their peak, and wondering whether it's easier to recover from fatigue or inactivity. The fear that the extremely mountainous route might provoke a canny waiting game seems to have been unfounded-the big names have thrown bombs at each other on a 6Km lump on day three, so it's a safe bet that they're planning to make a fight of it. Can't wait.

Tuesday, 14 August 2012

Vuelta A Espana Preview



I love la Vuelta a Espana. I know I’m supposed to make snide comments about it being ugly, disorganised and poorly attended,  but I can’t. I’ve got a real soft spot for it. So much so that I couldn't even keep my original blog title: "look at my f*cking red jersey".

Recent editions have been thoroughly enjoyable. 2010 saw a brilliant four way fight between Nibali, Anton, Rodriguez and Mosquera, with each rider taking it turns to look like the strongest in the race before being trumped by his rivals in an escalating series of mountain battles.  Eventually Rodriguez blazed up Pena Cabarga as a last hurrah before haemorrhaging minutes in the ITT. Anton hit a bit of discarded 2 x 4 and crashed out wearing the leader’s jersey, and eventually we were left with a cracking defensive ride on the misty, steepening ramp of Bola del Mundo, with Nibali bravely grinding after Mosquera, closing a threatening gap to defend his lead.

Then in 2011 we had an even better edition - one in which Wiggins marked his rivals with intelligence and strength, rode side-by-side with Nibali, and even managed to drop Rodriguez in the mountains. Having outperformed most of his expected rivals, he finally succumbed to the vicious 24% gradients of the Alto del Angliru. The final ten days saw an unexpected dust-up between domestiques, as Chris Froome took on Geox’s JJ Cobo in a fight that was finally settled on Pena Cabarga, where Froome took the stage but not enough time to claim an overall victory.

Character counts
Putting aside recent great races, a lot of the stuff that people complain about is the stuff that gives the Vuelta its character. When ASO and RAI plan the Tour and Giro, their intention is to showcase the most beautiful parts of their country. When Unipublic plan the Vuelta, they want everyone to know that they have some of the most advanced cement factories and smoothest motorways in the world. The race lurches from awesome red deserts of Granada to the scrublands and peaks of the Asturias, before unexpectedly detouring through an industrial estate somewhere near Alicante.  It’s hilarious, and whatever else you may say about the Spanish, they know how to build a flyover.

Then there’s the lack of attendance. No, not the absence of crowds (the blistering late-August heat keeps many fans indoors watching on TV), but the abesence of riders. As it's the final Grand Tour of the year, most of the big-name riders have met their objectives for the season and are off on a beach somewhere. Others turn up with the intention of spending a fortnight tuning their form before faking an illness in the third week to taper, ready for October’s World Championships. The Vuelta objects to being used as a training race for the Worlds, but it’s not as though ever had a glorious past: until 1995 it took place in April, and was frequently ignored in favour of May’s Giro.

If anything, the move to September has added to the race’s personality. It’s now a last chance saloon for Grand Tour riders who haven’t performed as well as expected earlier in the season, and a baptism of fire for young riders looking to earn their shot at more prestigious grand tours. You can tell which cycling fans watch the Vuelta: when everyone started raving about Tejay Van Garderen in this year’s Tour de France, Vuelta watchers sniffily pointed out that they’d been saying he was one to watch since his spell in the young rider's jersey of the 2010 Vuelta.

Parcours
This year’s route has the potential to be absolutely gripping. It’s confined to the northern half of Spain and seems determined to hit just about every hill and mountain you can think of, with one notable exception: there’s no Alto del Angliru this year. Not that it matters - there are 39 different hills and mountains in this year’s Vuelta, with 8 stages classed as mountainous and no fewer than 10 summit finishes. Ten! On top of that, there are only 55km against the clock, and 16 of those are the Team Time Trial. If you’re not a climber, there’s hardly any point in showing up at all.

We won’t miss the Angliru because of the quality of the other climbs and, more importantly, their variety. Take these four as an example:

Mirador de Ezaro is a new climb for La Vuelta and comes at the end of an otherwise flat stage 12. At 2km long, you’d normally write this off as a pimple, but it has the potential to make a big difference to the shape of the GC. The first kilometre averages around a 14% gradient, while the second is around 16% average. That’s pretty steep, right? But those are only the averages. The max gradient on Ezaro is 29%. Yep, 29%.  Mt Ventoux at its steepest hits about 12-14%. The Angliru and Zoncolan max out at about 24-26%. Even the short but eye-wateringly vicious climbs of the Tour of Flanders rarely break the 25% mark. Seriously, professional riders have suffered the indignity of weaving to a halt and falling over sideways on lesser grades than this.

As if that weren’t enough, the 29% section is preceded by an leg-breaking 18%, followed by a 17% section, then has a few hundred yards of comparatively gentle climbing before rearing up again to break the 20% mark a second time. It may only be short, but most riders can only tackle gradients like that in survival mode: whole swathes of the peloton will be forced to do nothing more than watch any attacks that go away.

The Ezaro has the potential to break the field into several distinct groups: Alberto Contador and Joaquim Rodriguez could explode up the steep bits, distancing the field. Chris Froome and possibly Alejandro Valverde won’t have the same acceleration, but will be able to ride it faster than the rest. Then the diesel climbers will chug up it in a steady, enduring fashion that would be tremendously effective on a long climb but something of a hindrance on this ‘pimple’, and finally everyone else will wobble up it. It’s far too short for insurmountable gaps to be opened up, but I can see some of the favourites buying themselves 20-30 (inc bonuses) seconds over each other here.
Forward to 2:50 for the start of the climb.

Then there’s Lagos de Covadonga. Spanish cycling’s answer to Alpe d’Huez is a long, misty climb through atmospheric scrubland past a pair of mountain lakes. At its hardest point it climbs through La Huesera (the bone woman), a battlefield from the Reconquista that has only recently stopped disgorging the bones of dead Moors after every rainfall. Seriously, this is a moody climb. The 12km ascent has a wavering gradient that averages 7% and tops out at 12%.


The very next day, the riders will tackle three first cat climbs on their way to Cuitu Negru, a wavering, wobbling 23km climb that has spells at 14% punctuated by long stretches of deceptively shallow, leg-grinding false flat.

Finally, there’s Bola del Mundo, site of Nibali’s race-winning defence in 2010. A 22km ramp that gets progressively steeper as it goes on, Bola del Mundo is a psychological test as well as a physical one. The narrow concrete tracks leading up the climb can’t always accommodate team cars, so the riders spend long periods away from their Director Sportifs, and the ramp-like profile is dispiriting for a lonely rider: if you’re suffering in the first five kms, tough - it gets steeper. If you’re suffering in the next ten km - tough, it gets steeper.

That’s just four of the 10 summit finishes, and even the Time Trial has a third cat in the middle of it. Still, if the 2011 Giro d’Italia taught us anything, it’s that too many mountains can kill a race, as the entire peloton switches into survival mode and the first man brave enough to attack attains an irretrievable lead.

I don’t think that’s going to happen here though. Too many riders have something to prove: Contador wants to put his doping ban behind him, Froome wants to show that he can win a Grand Tour, Rodriguez must be looking at the likes of Ezaro and Mirador and feeling like they’ve been included for his benefit, and rumour still has it that Andy Schleck might be fit in time to participate. So that’s second place sorted.

The Contenders
I’m going to rule out Andy Schleck and JJ Cobo straight away. I never believed Cobo had even one GT win in him, so I absolutely refuse to consider the possibility that he has two. The minimal time trialling and total absence of downhill finishes would appear on paper to favour Schleck, but his participation is still doubtful and even if he is there, all that time off with injury means it’s unlikely that he’ll have any fitness.

While on the subject of time off, Alberto Contador is an interesting proposition. He’s the most naturally talented and rounded stage race rider in the bunch. He’ll have spent his ban training hard and will almost certainly be physically strong enough to do the business. His racing wits might be another matter: about the only weakness Contador has is the occasional lapse of concentration - he sat in the middle of the pack and got stuck behind an echelon in the 2009 TDF, forgot to eat in the first mountain stage of the 2010 TDF, and sat in the middle of the pack and got stuck behind a crash in the 2011 TDF. Of course, in all but the third example he managed to pull back the time he lost, but still, his infrequent ill-positioning is one of the few straws his rivals can clutch at, and it’s possible that the Eneco Tour won’t have been enough to make his mind as sharp as his legs.

Then there’s Chris Froome, who also has head and legs questions to answer. He was the strongest climber at the Tour, and while he can’t go up with the likes of Contador and Rodriguez, he’ll outclimb everyone else and lose minimal time to the two superior ascenders. His time trialling ability is strong enough to ruin Rodriguez, and he should take some time out of Contador against the clock as well. However, all this depends on two things: has he got anything left in his legs after the Tour and the Olympics? And more importantly, can he make the right tactical decisions for himself? His best results have come when assisting Bradley Wiggins. Before taking the role of super-domestique, Froome was best known for entertaining but fruitless do-or-die attacks, and it’s easy to suspect that his placings in the Vuelta and Tour were the result of allying his legs with Wiggo’s brain. He’ll have to prove that he’s as smart as he is strong. If he can do that, then he should have a fantastic ride, as he has the strongest team of the three main contenders.

Finally, there’s Joaquim Rodriguez, the only man more explosive than Contador on the steep stuff. His weakness against the clock is unlikely to be a major factor in this Vuelta, and he’ll have had plenty of time to recover from his Giro d’Italia second place. As I type this, he’s having an exploratory dig at the front of the Classica San Sebastian, and he looks good. Unlike Contador, he can’t repeat his attacks over and over, but the memory of his breathtaking ride up through Asissi in May or his 2010 win on Pena Cabarga leaves you in little doubt that he’ll pick up time and bonuses on short ascents like the Mirador de Ezaro, as well as making some decisive late kilometre attacks on the long mountains.

Ordinarily, I’m absolutely certain what the podium will look like. I’m not always right, mind you, but I always know what I think. This time though, I’m really struggling.

I don’t think Froomedog can cope with Purito and Pistolero in the mountains, but I can’t see either of them matching him against the clock.

I think Rodriguez can beat the other two over any short, uphill distance, but by small enough margins that he’ll need to do it on multiple stages to compensate for what he’ll lose elsewhere.

I think Contador will take big time from everyone on several mountain stages, but only if he’s in form.

I’m going to assume he will be. And so:

1. Alberto Contador
2. Chris Froome
3. Joaquim Rodriguez

Monday, 13 August 2012

Pausing for Breath


Well, it’s been an incredible few weeks. I’ve seen two stages of the Tour de France, ridden forty miles of the Route des Grand Crus, been at Look Mum No Hands to see the first British Tour winner, been roadside for the Olympic Road race and Olympic Time Trial, and written half-a-dozen guides to track cycling for RadioTimes.com. Oh, and seen the first two episodes of ITV4’s The Cycle Show, but the less said about that the better.

Still, throw in a few non-cycling related items, such as Bruce Springsteen and Paul Simon concerts and trips to see Olympic boxing and triathlon, and it feels worryingly as if I’ve ticked off a good 50-60% of my bucket list in the last month.

Now that the euphoria of London 2012 has subsided, I suppose I should get back to normal service: falling off my bike, discovering that long slow rides are no preparation for short, fast ones, and grumpily pointing out to all and sundry that Chris Froome will always be subordinate to Bradley Wiggins. Unless Wiggins isn’t there. Like next week’s Vuelta.  Wiggo won’t be there, but Froome will. Hmmm…I feel a Vuelta preview coming on.

Friday, 27 July 2012

I'm still waffling about cycling...

....but not always on here. For a sensible guide to the Olympic Road Race and (soon) the Time Trial, check this out:

http://www.radiotimes.com/news/2012-07-24/how-to-watch-the-olympic-cycling-road-race---a-beginners-guide

But if you want swearing, injury pictures and google-baiting mentions of Peta Todd, stay right here.

Wednesday, 18 July 2012

Shameless Plug

Check out the August 2012 issue of Cycling Active. I hunt Martians on a bicycle on pages 124-127. I may or may not have pitched the story that way.

Tour de France 2012 Photos

The last time I came to France for the Tour was 1997, and a bunch of Danish fans told me, in a friendly but forthright fashion, exactly which part of the female anatomy they thought Chris Boardman was.

Fifteen years on and the British hopeful is Bradley Wiggins, and after a week in France not one person made a disparaging remark about him. One Frenchman at the roadside took a look at our "Allez Wiggo" banner and said with a smile: "Meilleur".


Arts and crafts hour.

Double-sided multi-purpose wonder-banner.

The 1st timecheck was at the top of this hill, we were at the foot of the descent.

Luis Leon Sanchez catches teammate Bram Tankink.

Look at my f*ck*ng red T-shirt! Not to mention my sweet hat.

Two Argos Skil Shimano riders.

Your guess is as good as mine.

Nick Nuyens

I wonder if he's still free?

Steven Kruijswijk

Still Steven

Chris Froome. The man who does for loyalty and discretion what John Terry does for race relations.

Poor Cadel, the defending champ is not having a good time.

Then, a few days later, we went to Macon for the start.
The publicity caravan vehicles weren't quite as weird as they used to be.

If only the car made of baguettes had been followed by a car made of sausages and a motorbike made of brown sauce.

"You have the man for Paris" said one Frenchman, as he took a photo of his daughter in front of our banner. I did my best not to shriek "Stop jinxing it!" Mainly because I don't know the French for "jinxing".

Here they come.

My father-in-law got this awesome shot of the KOM, World Champion, Maillot Jaune and Maillot Blanc leading the pack.

I went in for the detail shot. I like to think Cav is saying: "Just publicly refer to all his wins as 'shit small races' and then he'll shut up."

Spartacus and Edouard Vorganov, among others.

Sunday, 1 July 2012

It's oh so quiet....


Yeah, I've been a bit quiet lately, trying to get jobs, packing and work sorted before my holidays. Where am I going, you ask? Well check out the beginnings of my banner and take a wild guess. I haven't seen the Tour since 2007, and haven't been to France for the Tour since 1997, so you can imagine how excited I am.

Keep you eyes open for a blue and red banner being held aloft by a bunch of people wearing INBFC badges from stage 8 onwards, maybe sooner if we make our journey in good time.

Wednesday, 13 June 2012

Well, you can't dodge bullets forever...

USADA have sent a 15 page letter to Lance Armstrong that formally charges him, three Doctors (including Michele Ferrari), team manager Johan Bruyneel and one other unnamed associate with doping. The letter cites the testimony of ten different cyclists and claims that Armstrong and others engaged in a "massive doping conspiracy" between 1998 and 2011.

I'll put proper thoughts down later this evening, but for now, here's the whole story:

http://www.cyclingnews.com/news/armstrong-charged-with-doping-by-usada

Wednesday, 6 June 2012

Vulpine Summer Fete: Linkstasy

Back in 2003, I turned on ITV's Tour de France coverage and asked myself the same question as everyone else - who's this bloke who looks a little like Chris Boardman but is doing Gary's job?

Ok, there were probably some people asking themselves whether it would be the year when Armstrong peed in the wrong bottle, but most long-time viewers were wondering about the new boy. As it turned out, it was Ned Boulting, a reporter rather more affable and far less cutting than Gary Imlach. He took a little getting used to, but his drollery and enthusiasm provided a perfect contrast to the avuncular tone of Phil Ligget and Paul Sherwen, and cycling fans took him to heart. Some more than others, as in the case of @INBFC, the International Ned Boulting Fan Club, whom we met at the Vulpine Summer fete at Balham Bowls Club on Monday.

In addition to amusing twitterings and the maintenance of a Ned-centric tumblr with commendable forays into Dr Hutch worship, @INBFC also makes official membership cards and badges which have even been worn by Team UK Youth during races. That's right, Paris-Roubaix winner Magnus Backstedt wears one of these...

...so how could we not buy one? Or, more to the point, one for every member of the family?

It wasn't just Ned appreciation, of course. We picked up the latest issues of The Ride and Boneshaker, bought some Look Mum No Hands t-shirts and caps, got this rather tasty piece of wall art from Dominic Trevett, and, of course, leched over lots of bikes.
Old fashioned looks and unusual paint jobs from Foffa.

There were some absolutely gorgeous frames and full bikes on display from Foffa and Racer Rosa, but what unexpectedly stole my heart were the Pearsons. I mean no disrespect to Foffa and Rosa, as their particular flavour of old-fashioned frame always looks good to me, but the Pearsons were modern frames: curves where there should be straight lines, flat bits where there should be curves. Exactly the sort of thing I usually hate. It was an unexpected pleasure to be blown away by their imnotanumber.





Thursday, 31 May 2012

Bjarne Riis at Sigma Sport

I was a little starstruck last night. Bjarne Riis might not be the biggest name to have ever won the Tour de France. In fact there are some grumpy sods who reckon he shouldn't even be counted as a winner. These people are wrong, as I've explained at tedious length and with awesome video evidence here. He's one of my cycling heroes, and it genuinely felt a little unreal to be sitting three feet away from him.

He did a lengthy Q&A with Ellis Bacon (who unsurprisingly failed to recognise me from our days at Future Towers) followed by an audience Q&A in which he talked, often very frankly, about everything from bikes he's liked to climbs he's hated (notably, Mt Ventoux), his thoughts on Bradley Wiggins' Tour chances, and how he won the Tour by losing weight, changing his training and finally, getting a little 'help'.

I shot two videos of his Q&A, one short, one quite lengthy. You'll have to forgive any problems with the quality, I was using a phone rather than a proper camera, and was doing my best to concentrate on the man, not the shooting.




Monday, 21 May 2012

The Quieter Curse Of The Rainbow Jersey.


Looks really unlucky, doesn't he?

I’m wondering if the infamous curse of the rainbow jersey might be working in a more subtle fashion than it used to. In the past World Champions have been hit by hunting accidents, bankrupt teams and faces inadvertently zipped into jerseys. Although nothing quite so dramatic has happened to Mark Cavendish yet, I have to say I reckon he’s going to have a disappointing year(in a sporting sense, obviously-domestically I’ve no doubt he’s never been happier.)

He had three main objectives for this year-his oft stated goal of winning Milan-San Remo in the rainbow jersey, defending his green jersey at the Tour, and winning gold in the Olympic Road Race.

Milan-San Remo turned its toes up in what appeared to be a very pointed fashion. You know how Milan-San Remo goes: lots of non-threatening breakaways, the favourites conserving their strength over the bulk of the mammoth 300K course, and no genuine combat between the favourites until the Cipressa at least, and often not until the Poggio. It was quite a surprise to see Liquigas hammering it up La Manie at the halfway mark while the gap lengthened on a suffering Mark Cavendish.

Cav would have suffered there regardless, but the pace and the resulting gap might not have been insurmountable if it weren’t for the unexpected sight of Liquigas hooning it up the front. Nothing wrong with that, of course. Finding ways to beat your opponents is what racing is all about, but it did feel like a moment designed not to win the race but simply scupper one of the favourites. Much like the negative tactics deployed against Cancellara in last year’s classics, you get the feeling that no one really wants to race Cavendish anymore.

That could have rotten effect on Cav’s Olympic hopes. As nation in the UCI’s top ten rankings, Team GB will have five riders in the race. That’s Cav and four helpers. Four guys to peg non-threatening breaks to just a couple of minutes. Four guys to chase down threatening breaks. Four guys to bring everything together in the last 15-20K and then maintain a pace so fast that no one can get off the front. Four guys to form a train that needs to crank Cav up to full speed and release him 250 metres from the finish. And that’s without taking into account the potential for bottle carrying/escorting him through multiple climbs of box hill. It’s too big an ask for four guys.

Ordinarily that wouldn’t matter. Ordinarily there’s just enough parity  between leading sprinters that alliances can be formed between several teams who all feel that their best bet is to get their guys into a sprint. But the Italians aren’t looking at Petacchi, Guardini and Chicchi and thinking “What these guys really need is a chance to go head to head with Mark Cavendish.”  The Spanish aren’t thinking that about Oscar Freire, the Americans aren’t thinking that about Tyler Farrar. About the only nation other than the UK who might want it to come down to a sprint are the Germans, and that’s only because they’ve got so many sprinters and semi-sprinters it’s hard to see who else they can choose for the team, not because you’d seriously put your money on Greipel, Kittel or Degenkolb beating Cav in a sprint.

Cav may have won the test event with a full sized team and only two ascents of Box Hill, but he’ll need much greater manpower to repeat the feat in July, and it’s hard to see who will think it's in their interest to help. Last year we saw Cancellara pay the price for his dominance in the classics as teams resorted to negative tactics to freeze him out of contention. Come the Olympics, Cav’s dominance in the sprints may well bring about his own “Your boy is too strong” moment.

 Finally, there’s the Green Jersey competition at the Tour. When Cav finally signed for Sky there was plenty of ebullient talk of a two pronged attack on yellow and green. During the close season Dave Brailsford was all over Radio 5 and most specialist cycling publications talking about the strategy for chasing both jerseys (basically, taking lots of strong domestiques. This crafty strategy must have shocked Cadel Evans, whose title defence team was going to be composed of a couple of stagiares, two work experience kids and Skippy the Kangaroo).

By March, however, Brailsford was saying that chasing too many objectives was a “recipe for failure.” Since then, we’ve seen that Sky’s lead out, while perhaps a smidgen faster than the old HTC train, isn’t quite as unflappable or as good at positioning. To be fair, Cav has the most competetive road sense of anyone in the bunch, so he hasn’t been too badly hampered, but by his own admission he’s dished out some criticism to his team mates.

At the same time, Wiggins is looking superb, having already won two stage races by way of Time Trial and even Sprint victories. The only thing that really seems to trouble Wiggo these days are the real monster climbs with spells of over 20%, and this year’s Tour doesn’t have any of those.

As has been pointed out by absolutely everybody, there’s never been a Tour de France route as well suited to Wiggins as this one. He hadn’t started his professional career last time there was a route so well suited to him. The idea of splitting the team in the face of an opportunity that demands unity seems unthinkable. I wouldn’t pretend to know what Brailsford is thinking, but I bet it’s not “We probably don’t need 100% dedication to win the Maillot Jaune.”

Now all of this just me thinking aloud, obviously. But ever since Cav signed for Sky, I’ve been thinking that for one year only, he should put the Tour to one side. He’s 26, and he’s already the best in the world at what he does. We’re going to spend the five or six years watching him win stages, classics and jerseys. He’s in contention for the points jersey at the Giro right now (although the near vertical final week might shake that). Wiggins will never have a better chance than this, and Sky need to fully devote themselves to it. If that turns out to be the case, then that’s Cav’s other objective for the year shot down.

Perhaps if he hadn’t been so clear about what he wanted from this year it wouldn’t seem so much like the curse was striking again, but to me it looks a little like the rainbow bands still retain a little of their dark power.

Friday, 18 May 2012

The Giro: It's all kicking off...

So, tomorrow it really kicks off. Not that it hasn't been lively already. The sprints have been frantic and crash strewn, the 'medium mountain' stages have been built around the loosest possible use of the word 'medium', and the TTT performances of the three favourite's teams, Liquigas, Lampre and Katusha, bucked the trends of the last three Grand Tours by seeing Katusha not only beating their main rivals, but finishing second only to TTT specialists Garmin.

So much for my prediction that Joaquim Rodriguez would be the first of the favourites to fall out of contention. That dubious honour appears to have gone to Frank Schleck, who was so busy looking forlornly for his absent brother that he ran into the back of Alex Rasmussen and blew an extra 46 seconds at a time when he was already a minute and a half off the lead.

If Schleck is the race's goat, Ferrari is its villain, and Cav is it's best sprinter, crasher, supermodel impregnator and photographer shover. Its hero is Miguel Rubiano, who rode a 50k solo over some of the least 'medium' medium mountains anyone has ever seen whilst the whole of Twitter saw an Androni Giocatelli jersey and a phonetically similar surname and insisted he was Jose Rujano despite all evidence to the contrary. He's lucky they didn't give the prize to his Venezualan team mate.

Still, that's all preliminaries. Tomorrow we get the first honest-to-goodness mountain summit finish. This is where we'll really see who's got the legs and the lungs. The final climb to Cervinia is an interesting one as well. It doesn't have the monstrous pitches that will show up later in the race: a momentary high of 12% isn't enough to bring the average above 5.9% - enough to bother us mortals, but not what a pro would call steep.

The climb's modest gradient stands in contrast to it's length: 28K. That's a looooong time to spend climbing, even with the mild compensation of a 2K stretch of flat shortly before the final kilometre of ascending. That sort of length will suit Ivan Basso's diesel powered tenacity, and might suit Schleck if he's looking to haul back some of his deficit. The absence of truly vicious ramps combined with long, steady spells of minimal variation might even suit that particular breed of Time Triallist who likes to show what carefully managed power output can do on a climb. Not that there are many Alex Zulles or Jan Ullrichs around these days.

It seems less likely to suit Rodriguez, who has the explosive climber's penchant for launching himself on the steepest of slopes just when his rivals are hurting the most.

My pick for the overall remains Basso. I've seen Rodriguez blow six minutes in a forty K time trial before now, so the 30K at the end of the Giro could still be enough to scupper him unless he can absolutely smash it on the proper mountains. Schleck has over two minutes to make up already, and he's another one who can blow comical quantities of time against the clock on the last day. Dark horses Kreuziger and Pozzovivo are both looking good, but Kreuziger rarely stays strong for a full three weeks and while Pozzovivo is one of the most exciting riders of the moment, he's got no Grand Tour pedigree yet.

That pretty much leaves Basso and Scarponi, two men who's teams have maintained a strong and well drilled presence on the front, two men with superb lieutenants in the form of Sylvester Szmyd and Damiano Cunego, two men who are past their prime and have shown no real form all season. Oh, er...well, I've seen Basso ride himself into form after rubbish preparation before (lets face it, he had a rubbish 2011 and still managed a top ten placing at the Tour), and hell, Gilberto Simoni can tell Scarponi that it doesn't do to count on Cunego to be there when you need him, so I'd say things fall in Basso's favour.


Wednesday, 9 May 2012

A Tale of Two Ventoux

I loved my little adventure on Mt Ventoux, but I'd never dream of calling it a total success. This guy, on the other hand, succeeded. Then he succeeded twice more. Then he succeeded a fourth time, off road. In one day. And none of that is what's really impressive. What's really impressive is that he did it on a fixie.

Nails.

Thursday, 3 May 2012

Fantasy Giro d'Italia 2012 Predictions

Road.cc’s Fantasy Cycling competition has been keeping me amused this season, despite a somewhat rocky start. I didn’t initially realise that there was a purists league for those who want to pick a nine person team for each race and see how it fairs. Consequently, I did what I assumed everyone else was doing, and made changes every day, ruling myself out of the purists league.
I then discovered that purist racing existed and, seeing as how it appeals to me more, I stopped making changes stage by stage, essentially hobbling myself in the non-purists leagues. (And that’s before you even get to my failure to realise that the Spring Classics were treated as one stage race rather than several separate one-day races.)
This string of kerfuffles has taught me two things. One, that I should read the rules before getting started and two, it doesn’t matter. Seriously, even though I’ve blundered my way out of contention in the purists overall, non-purists overall, and the non-purists stage by stage competitions, simple race-by-race play is enough to keep me entertained.
Having said that, I fear their rider valuations may be a little low for the upcoming Giro d’Italia. Normally you have to work quite hard to create a balanced team built around a strong contender. Not this time. Seriously, look at my Giro team:
Ivan Basso
Jose Rujano
Michele Scarponi
Marzio Bruseghin
Taylor Phinney
Francesco Chicchi
Domenico Pozzovivo
Andrea Guardini
Gabriel Rasch.
Phinney’s aiming at the Prologue, Guardini and Chicci should be worth at least one stage win, Pozzovivo and Bruseghin could both end up in the Top Ten, Rujano may compete for the overall, and will almost certainly score points in the mountains, and Basso and Scarponi are the two most likely picks to win the overall. Granted, 36 year old Gabriel Rasch is approaching his last hurrah, but even he can be often be counted on to get a bit of TV time, which will earn Fantasy League points.
Of course, lots of players will have built their team around Cav’s pursuit of stage wins, or will have Rodriguez instead of either Basso or Scarponi, but those people will be looking at their teams the same way I’m looking at mine-an astonishing collection of points scoring talent. It’ll be interesting to see how this shakes out.
I’ve a sneaking feeling that the first selection amongst the fantasy teams won’t be down to a rider doing well, it’ll be down to one of the favourites having a bad spell and sinking all the fantasy teams he’s in. I’m sorry to say it, as I love watching Joaquim Rodriguez rocket off the front on the short, nasty climbs, but Liquigas have beaten both Lampre and Katusha in the last three grand tour team time trials, while Lampre have beaten Katusha in two out of three. It’s hard not to assume that Rodriguez will have a real deficit to make up on Basso and Scarponi before the first week is over. Let’s see....