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.


Thursday, 3 May 2012

Fantasy Giro d'Italia 2012 Predictions’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....

Tuesday, 1 May 2012

Giro d’Italia 2012 Preview

Three steps on the podium. Three is the magic number. The holy trinity. The best things in life are three...wait, that’s wrong. Ok, look, I could spend hours justifying this structure with bad puns, but the fact it, I like the idea of breaking this Giro preview into threes: it allows me to cover what I think are the pivotal factors, whilst leaving no room to hedge my bets. Three reasons why the Giro is great, three favourites for the Maglia Rosa, three riders who’ll make a strong showing, three stages that will shake out the GC and finally, my predicted podium. Simple.

Three Reasons To Love The Giro

Purists have a never-ending argument about which is the better Grand Tour, the Giro d’Italia or the Tour de France (if it continues its resurgence of recent years, who knows, maybe the Vuelta will get to play soon as well.) For my money, the Tour is the best of the big three, but I’ll concede that that’s simply down to a suitably French je ne sais quoi rather than an actual analysis of the race. While the Tour may have the indefineables to raise it to the top spot, a more dispassionate analysis reveals three vital areas in which the Giro wins hands down:
Pink and fierce, just like Miss Piggy.

1. The Dolomites
The best thing about the Giro d’Italia is the Dolomites, a subsection of the Alps that contains some of the best mountain riding in the world. The battered, pinkish slopes combine the height and severity of the Alps, with the density of the Pyrenees. The riders climb long and high as you’d expect in the Alps, but unlike the rest of the range, there are no long runs between climbs in which to recover. You come off one Dolomite and start climbing the next.

2. The Unpredictable Parcours

In recent years the Tour de France has made great strides toward erasing its reputation for predictability, thanks to late mountain stages and mini-classics over the Stockeu and pave. Nevertheless, it’s got a long way to go before we forget about the 17 year span of total predictability between the bonkersness of 1992’s all-EU route and 2009’s penultimate day sally up Ventoux.

The Giro, on the other hand, has no such problem. In recent years we’ve had floodlit prologues, strade bianche, volcanic ascents, glaciers, and final stage Time Trials. By its own standards, this year's Giro has a positively restrained parcours, but it’s still found enough wackiness to feature white roads, climbs made famous by the Tour of Lombardy, and a 32KM ITT on the last day. Oh, and did we mention a preposterously lengthy blat along some very windy coastline. In Denmark. On day two.

3. The Racing Panache

No one goes to a Grand Tour without a gameplan, a few clearly identified key stages and a set of tactics for each day. But while the fear of blowing the Tour de France can cause that race to be ridden in a tediously cagey fashion, the Giro d’Italia often sees the gameplans chucked out the window as ebullient Italians make unexpected sorties that split the race, where the unpredictable parcours means that favourites are less capable of managing what they’ll have in their legs on a given day, and in which huge breaks containing numerous favourites can escape the Peloton. 2010’s stage to Aquila is a good case in point, but there have been plenty of other days in Giro history where we’ve seen breakaways containing riders that would never be allowed off the front in the more staid TDF.

Three Favourites 

With last year’s winner Alberto Contador absent, this year’s favourite has to be last year’s winner, Michele Scarponi.  Ah, the joys of modern cycling. Despite his age, Scarponi is in reasonable form, climbs strongly and has the requisite heroic disposition of a GC rider: when all the other GC favourites cowered in the face of Contador’s first attack last year, Scarponi knuckled down and chased Pistolero and outsider Rujano. Didn’t get him anywhere, mind you. He just got stuck in no man’s land before wobbling back into the pack . Still, at least he had the nuts to try, if not the legs.

You are lobsters, I am boiling water.
Get comfy, this my take some time
Then there’s Ivan Basso, aging and prone to unpredictable form these days, but with more Grand Tour winning experience than anyone else thanks to his unearthly victory in 2006 and his redemptive win in 2010. Let’s not dwell on his race-losing diarrhoea in 2005. Lacking in acceleration though he is, Basso’s ability to climb hard and steady for hours at a time, day after day, could see him in good stead in the final week, not to mention on the long steady drag up to Cervinia.

Finally, there’s Frank Schleck, the lesser rated but in my opinion more robust of the Schleck brothers. He’s shown very little form this season, and is coming in as a last minute substitute. But he’s a proven GC rider in a strong team and he won’t  have to spend his time watching out for Andy Pandy, so it might just be time for the less fey brother of the Frandy pairing to shine. Either that or he’ll get his teeth kicked in during the prologue and ITT and disappear into the depths of rankings where even I lose interest.

Three Good Outsiders

In every grand tour there are the outsiders, the men who are pretty much guaranteed a top ten placing but who can’t be spoken of (or, really, thought of) in the same terms as the favourites. Every now and again one of them takes that final step up in class, and in a race where old age could easily catch up with two of the favourites, it’s a potentially great year for the seven or eight outsiders. But I'm not doing that vague, woolly arse-covering that some bloggers do, I'm not picking seven or eight, I'm picking three:

Roman Kreuziger had the form to try on the Giro del Trentino’s climb of Punta Veleno, but not to succeed. A week of reasonable prominence at the Tour of Romandie may have put the finishing polish on that form.

He's inconsistent, but Rujano enlivened
the 2005 and 2011 editions.
Jose Rujano also almost had it on Punta Veleno, and he’s got form when it comes to the Giro, having enlivened the 2005 edition and been the most reliable Contador-chaser last year.

Finally, there’s Joaquim Rodriguez, the only man more destructive than Contador on the steep stuff. Sadly, he doesn’t recover fast enough to land repeated hammerblows, and his time trialling is painful to watch. Nonetheless, he looked very strong while winning Fleche Wallone, and a couple of carefully chosen attacks could put him in pink.

Three Key Stages

Having raced up the Zoncolan in the past two editions, not to mention last year’s early going trips up Mt Etna and Grossglockner, it’s easy to look at this year’s Giro and dismiss it as less mountainous than usual. A less cursory appraisal reveals a steadily increasing difficulty; the race spends three weeks progressing from flat to lumpy to hilly to mountainous to “Bloody hell, I thought they were being sensible this year?”

Barring some destructive winds on stage two, the Verona TTT on Stage 3 is the first stage that will see a shakeout of the GC contenders. The old logic says that strong time triallists will be held back by their teams, while weaker ones will have their failings mitigated by the eight other guys in the line. That’s true as far as it goes-no one’s expecting Joaquim Rodriguez to lose as much over this 32K as he lost individually over similar distances in the last two Vueltas, for example.

On the other hand, in a race that counts Frank Schleck and Rodriguez among its favourites, the first sizeable distance against the clock is going to have an impact, teams or not. I’ll give you good money that at least one major contender will come out of this with nearly a minute to make up.

In a race that spends the majority of its third week going uphill, there are numerous mountain stages that you could pick out as decisive, but Cherasco-Cervinia on Stage 14 is the first serious mountain stage of the race, and the first summit finish. On top of that, the final climb is only moderately steep (max 12% but an average of 5%) but incredibly long - the riders will be climbing for 27KM. If a solid chugger like Ivan Basso wanted to put paid to an explosive climber like Rodriguez, this would be the place to do it.

The highest ever summit finish in a Grand Tour.

Then there’s the penultimate stage from Caldes to Passo dello Stelvio. This is the one that made David Millar grumpy and kicked off a #Girofolly hashtag when it was announced back in September. The 1883 metre Passo de Tonale, 1173 metres over the Aprica, the short but sheer 851 metres over the Teglia...wait, we’re not done yet....we’ve still got the Mortirolo, considered by some (including Lance Armstrong) to be the hardest climb in Europe, a bucking ascent that continually changes gradient and spends looooong spells at over 10%.

Got all that? Great, you’re not done yet, but you’re all warmed up for the next climb, the Passo dello Stelvio. The highest summit finish in Grand Tour history. And they’re doing it up the long side from Bormio, meaning its 22KM of climbing, most of it between 7 and 9%, with later ramps hitting 12%.

Christ, I needed EPO just to type that. You could get infected saddle sores from reading it.

A day like that could overshadow the entire race, resulting in a 2,800 kilometre neutral start followed by a single day of racing. This being Italy, however, I reckon it’s just as likely that they’ll spend three enjoyable weeks throwing rockets at each other in an attempt to settle things before they get there, then ride the whole thing nice and gently before launching an attack in the final 500 yards. In fact, if Andy Schleck were there, I’d have called that a certainty. The optimist in me looks at this stage and thinks that some riders will see the chance to do something legendary.

Podium Prediction:
Oh come on, wouldn't it be great?

1. Ivan Basso.
Sorry, I can’t help it. At least you can’t call me ageist.
2. Michele Scarponi.
I reckon he’ll stealth his way into a solid finish without doing anything spectacular. Much like last year.
3. Jose Rujano.
Season by season he’s inconsistent, but race by race he’s steady. He’ll have at least one heroic day in the mountains and no disastrous ones.