Briefly, I will apologize for the FGR’s two-week hiatus. Technical difficulties kept us from sending our semi-fortnightly missive, and then a mad man on the loose on my home turf kept our minds otherwise occupied. But let’s leave behind weighty topics for a bit. All, now, seems back to normal, and so we push on with queries new and exciting.
While we were away, Classics season seems to have ended. Sadly. But as the Byrds (via Pete Seeger) sang, “…to everything, turn, turn, turn.” Grand Tour season is upon us. I call myself a Classics man, but Padraig prefers the Grand Tours. This we have hashed out in previous and ancient versions of the FGR.
And so the Giro, a race that has, arguably, been on the rise for the past decade. A confluence of great routes, closely-fought finishes and the dark star, self-destructive gravity of the Tour all coming together to the elevate the Italian affair.
As some indication of the Giro’s rise, last season’s Tour winner, Sir Bradley Wiggins, has opted to race for the Giro win rather than defend his yellow jersey. Team Sky will say that this Giro route suits Wiggins’ strengths better, while teammate Chris Froome will lead the squad in France, but it is hard not to understand the decision in the context of increased prestige for the Italian race.
Wiggins’ prime adversary is alleged to be Astana’s Vincenzo Nibali, a Vuelta winner with a better burst of uphill pace and a demonic ability to descend. Ryder Hesjedal, last year’s maglia rosa, remains a dark horse, which seems a bit cruel given the talent, guile and heart he showed in winning the 2012 race.
This week’s Group Ride opens our 2013 Grand Tour discussion, which also includes our own Charles Pelkey (Live Update Guy) doing live text updates throughout the race. Be sure to check in with Charles, a far keener analyst than I can pretend to be. So…the big question this week is: Who will win and why? Is Sir Bradley the man to beat, or will Sky’s disappointing season continue to disappoint? Who have we missed? Who else can win?
Images: Fotoreporter Sirotti, RCS Sport
This week we have learned that Brad Wiggins won’t lead Team Sky at the 2013 Tour de France, that he’ll focus his energy on a Giro course more suited to his skills. Instead, Team Sky will give Chris Froome the leash his talents scream for, empowering him to power up the Grand Boucle’s litany of climbs.
Last year, this intra-squad conflict looked a bit different. Froome was so strong he had to be made to wait for Wiggins on one occasion, lest he strip the jersey from his captain’s shoulders. There was a real feeling he might have won the race himself, instead of finishing second. That he only managed fourth place at the Vuelta was surprising, but it’s hard to say how the miles pile up closer to the end of a season, and Sky didn’t give him anything like their best grand tour team for that race.
Now we get to see what the Kenyan/South African/Brit can do with all the prettiest horses harnessed to his ambitions at the Tour. Given the return of Alberto Contador, there are no foregone conclusions, as would be the case even if Wiggins were returning to defend his title.
Team Sky got off to a slow start in the pro peloton in 2010, Juan Antonio Flecha’s win at the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad highlighting their 22 wins, but they have risen to the top in the intervening seasons, and, especially now that Mark Cavendish has moved on to a team (OPQS) more inclined to stage wins than overalls, must be seen as the pre-eminent grand tour squad in the world.
This weeks’ Group Ride asks: Can they do the double? Can Wiggins win the Giro while Froome sweeps the Tour? Is the blueprint that worked last summer, the one that saw Sky sitting on the front of the peloton day after day to grind down the pure climbers with a brazen outpouring of watts, still a winning strategy? Or is six weeks of high intensity racing too much for a team, even of Sky’s clever construction? Bonus question, now wearing Rapha, will there be any team more handsomely turned out? If so, who?
Image: Fotoreporter Sirotti
It feels strange to even speak of it after so long, but you know what? Professional road racing is about to start happening again. Rising up from the ashes of the Lancepocalypse, spindly legged racers are due to crawl out from under their off-season rocks, emerging into the blinking light of the 2013 season.
What’s gonna happen?
The Classics, perhaps the least dope-tarnished races of the calendar, will once again give us the Boonen v. Cancellara races we all want to see, assuming Fabian Cancellara has killed whatever chicken he needed to to dispel the voodoo curse that ruined his 2012. We should also see the return of Thor Hushovd to the rutted cart paths of Northern Europe and find out just how serious Peter Sagan is about mixing it up with these infernal cobblers.
The first question of this week’s Group Ride is who will be this year’s Classics star? Can Boonen thrive with Cancellara in the mix, or will someone else rise to the challenge?
Stage racing, if we’re honest, is more of a shit show. TdF champ Bradley Wiggins is talking about skipping the July race in favor of the seemingly more favorable Giro, which puts Chris Froome in the captain’s seat for Sky. Alberto Contador is back in full swing. Purito Rodriguez showed his class last season, but will his team even make the races? And what of the Schlecks? The younger is coming back from an injury-blighted 2012, and the older will probably be suspended.
The second question for this week’s Group Ride mirrors the first. Who will be this year’s Grand Tour star? Can Ryder Hesjedal repeat his Giro heroics? Can any of 2012′s bit part players, Thomas de Gendt, Alejandro Valverde or Vincenzo Nibali, take another step up the podium?
It feels odd to me to be talking about these things. It feels as though some great schism occurred at the end of 2012, and that the future can’t be quite like the past. All I know how to do, at this point, is to look at what’s happened and wonder what will be, and hopefully, in the process, it will all be as fascinating as ever, if only that little bit better.
Image: Fotoreporter Sirotti
The 2012 season has seen cycling attain some remarkable landmarks, including the first Canadian racer to win the Giro d’Italia, the first Brit to win the Tour de France, and the biggest-ever crowds to watch an Olympic road race. The year has also seen the sport dragged through its most damaging doping scandal in the ongoing USADA case against Lance Armstrong and his longtime team manager and business partner Johan Bruyneel. But with pro cycling now emerging as one of the cleanest sports in the world, there are many more feel-good stories to report than bad-news yarns. I’ve divided my A to Z review of a momentous season into two parts, starting this week from Armstrong to Magni.
A is for Armstrong. That’s the one whose first name is Kristin. The 39-year-old American came back from starting a family to brilliantly defend her Olympic women’s time trial gold medal at the London Games, defeating reigning world champion Judith Arndt by 15 seconds in the 29-kilometer event.
B for Boonen. Belgium’s perennial road star, Tom Boonen, returned to his very best form to ace four of the cobbled spring classics: Paris-Roubaix, Tour of Flanders, Ghent-Wevelgem and E3 Prijs Vlaanderen. Later in the year he won the Belgian national road championship, took the first edition of the two-day World Ports Classic, won the semi-classic Paris-Brussels, and helped his Omega Pharma-Quick Step team win gold in the inaugural world team time trial championship for pro squads.
C for Contador. Spanish fans (and his Saxo Bank team boss Bjarne Riis) were ecstatic when Alberto Contador returned from his much-delayed Clenbuterol-positive suspension to win the Vuelta a España for a second time. Whatever others think about his doping ban, the 29-year-old Spaniard earned the Vuelta win with an audacious solo move far from the finish of stage 17 between Santander and Fuente Dé, to dispossess national rival Joaquin Rodriguez from the leader’s red jersey.
D for Dombrowski. Only two years ago, Joe Dombrowski was a skinny teenager from Virginia who was given the chance to try out with the U.S. development team, Trek-Livestrong, by its director Axel Merckx. Today, he’s about to enter the UCI WorldTour with Team Sky after an amazing under-23 season with Bontrager-Livestrong that saw Dombrowski use his climbing skills to win two mountain stages and the overall title of Italy’s GiroBio; and take top-10 finishes at the Tour of the Gila, Tour of Utah and USA Pro Challenge. Tomorrow: the world.
E for Erythropoietin. Just when we thought we’d maybe heard the last of EPO in cycling, this blood-boosting drug again hit the headlines in 2012. And not just from former U.S. Postal Service team riders in their testimonies given in the USADA investigation (see “U for USADA”). Among those foolish enough to use and test positive for EPO were a wide range of athletes, including Tour of Turkey “winner” Ivailo Gabrovski of Bulgaria; French domestique Steve Houanard of the AG2R team; South African veteran David George, a U.S. Postal team rider 12 years ago; and two Gran Fondo New York prize winners, American David Anthony and Italian Gabriele Guarini.
F for Froome. If you’d told Chris Froome 15 months ago that by the end of 2012 he’d finish second at the Tour de France (and win a mountain stage), place second and fourth at the Vuelta a España, come fourth at the Dauphiné, and win a bronze medal in the London Olympics time trial, he’d have said, “You must be joking.” But that’s what this Team Sky rider has just accomplished. Not bad for a bookish 27-year-old born in Kenya and raised in South Africa who now races for Great Britain.
G for Gerrans. The Australian owners of the brand-new Orica-GreenEdge team could barely believe their luck when Simon Gerrans began their tenure by winning the year’s first two races: the Aussie national title and the Tour Down Under. And it only got better, with Gerrans taking his first monument, Milan-San Remo, in March; placing second at the Clasica San Sebastian in August; and winning the GP de Québec in September.
H for Hesjedal. Ever since he was winning top mountain bike races in his early-20s (he narrowly lost the 2003 world cross-country championship to Filip Meirhaeghe, who would later test positive for EPO), Ryder Hesjedal knew he had exceptional talent for cycling. After years of riding tirelessly for other team leaders, he blossomed at Team Slipstream with sixth overall at the 2010 Tour de France, and this year showed all his exceptional ability, climbing talent and grit to become the first Canadian to win the Giro d’Italia. He did it with great consistency: Garmin won the early team time trial at Verona; Hesjedal was heroic on the summit finishes at Rocca di Cambio, Cervinia, Cortina, Alpe di Pampeago and the Passo di Stelvio, and he crowned his victory over Joaquim Rodriguez in the final-stage time trial though the streets of Milan.
I for Iglinskiy. For most of his nine years as a pro racer, Maxim Iglinskiy has worked as a domestique for team leader and fellow Kazakh, Alexander Vinokourov, while still winning the occasional race. This spring, he emerged from the Astana veteran’s shadows by placing second to Fabian Cancellara at Italy’s Strade Bianche classic (a race he won in 2010), and then grinding out a late victory over Vincenzo Nibali at the last of the spring classics, Liège-Bastogne-Liège.
J for Jensy. Every bike-racing fan loves the aggressive riding of German veteran Jens “Jensy” Voigt, 40, who out-did himself in 2012 with nine months of solid racing from January to September for RadioShack-Nissan. The highlights included top-three stage finishes at Paris-Nice, the Tour of California and Tour de France—and then a magnificent stage victory on the Aspen-Beaver Creek stage of Colorado’s USA Pro Challenge, riding alone for 150 kilometers in rain and wind over Independence Pass and Battle Mountain.
K for Kulhavy. He wasn’t the favorite to win gold in the men’s cross-country at the London Olympics, but Czech mountain biker Jaroslav Kulhavy, 27, took one of the most exciting wins off-road racing has seen in a sprint finish with Swiss rival Nino Schurter. Kulhavy, the 2011 world champion, hadn’t won a major race all year before the Olympics. He went on to win the biggest French mountain-bike race, the marathon Roc d’Azur, ahead of Specialized teammate Christoph Sauser—and there’s talk that Kulhavy may convert to road racing in future seasons.
L for Lance. Some 18 months after his final bike race, Lance Armstrong was no longer a seven-time Tour de France winner, but merely a former world and U.S. road champion, the first American to win European classics (Flèche Wallonne and Clasica San Sebastian), along with a host of North American victories, after USADA (see “U is for USADA”) stripped him of all his post-cancer results because of doping.
M for Magni. Italian legend Fiorenzo Magni died in October at age 91. Known as the Lion of Flanders for his three consecutive victories at the Tour of Flanders (1949, ’50 and ’51), he also won three editions of the Giro d’Italia (1948, ’51 and ’55) and three Italian road titles. They were amazing accomplishments in an era when Gino Bartali and Fausto Coppi were also at their zenith. An accomplished businessman until his death, Magni is also remembered for bringing the first non-cycling sponsor to the sport: Nivea began as his team’s title sponsor in 1954.
You can follow John at twitter.com/johnwilcockson
Boonen image: Photoreporter Sirotti
Contador image: John Pierce, Photosport International
Since I moved to the States, American friends have often asked me what I miss most about “England’s green and pleasant land.” I tell them I miss the expected things: meeting old friends for a chat at the village pub, hiking with my brother in the Surrey hills, or watching a good game of English football. But what I really miss—and only a British club cyclist would fully understand—is hill-climb season.
English hill climbs aren’t long, but they’re very, very steep! These short, intense time trials organized by cycling clubs all over the country are among the most popular events in British cycling. Maybe we should import the idea to America….
Hill-climb season happens right now, peaking around Halloween, when there’s a nip in the air, a thick mist hanging over waterlogged fields, and slick, wet leaves covering the back roads where the races take place. These hill climbs are usually two- or three-minute efforts up near-vertical, ancient roads that over the centuries have cut a trench into chalk or sandstone ridges. And the climbs have evocative names such as Horseblock Hollow, Pea Royd Lane, or The Rake.
This past Sunday, a 22-year-old club cyclist from Lancashire named Jack Pullar won the British national hill climb championship on that very hill: The Rake. It starts outside the library in the village of Ramsbottom, passes the Rose & Crown pub a short way up the climb’s easier opening half, and finishes just before another pub, the Shoulder of Mutton. Thousands of fans, most of whom arrived by bike, lined the 874-meter-long climb that averages 11 percent, and has long stretches of between 20 and 25 percent.
Competitors on Sunday had to cope with head winds and a fine drizzle, making it tough to avoid wheel spin on the steepest parts, so Pullar didn’t get closer than five seconds to the course record of 2:16.9. That time was set, remarkably, 19 years ago by Jeff Wright, who used a fixed gear of 42×19 on a good day! Fixed-gear bikes are preferred on these short, sharp ascents because of the more-direct transfer of power to the single rear cog.
Such is the intensity of “sprinting” up these rugged climbs that some riders end up zigzagging across the road or even having to stop and run. Most are in agony when they finish. After his championship-winning effort, Pullar told Cycling Weekly: “My body shut down when I finished, and even when my friends told me I’d won, I said I couldn’t have cared less.”
There are few efforts in cycling that are as demanding as a British hill climb. You quickly go into the red zone, just as you would in a kilometer time trial or individual pursuit on the track. But there’s no elevation gain riding around a velodrome! I can still remember a hill climb I did up that aforementioned Horseblock Hollow, which averages 11.4 percent for a kilometer with some of those nasty 20-percent pitches that characterize English climbs. The anaerobic effort was so excruciating that, on stopping, I lurched to the side of the road like a drunkard and threw up.
It’s because every rider has to race at his or her maximum intensity that hill climbs are so popular with spectators. The starting order in English time trials is different from those in Europe, where the fastest riders nearly always start at the end of the field. In the UK, in a field of 120 riders, the best riders are seeded from the back, but at 10-minute intervals, with bib numbers 10, 20…through to 100, 110 and 120. That keeps the crowd’s interest high throughout the event, usually with a resounding climax at the end.
Virtually all of the UK’s hill climbs take place in September and October, with the top national contenders probably riding a dozen separate races, sometimes twice on the same weekend. One of the most popular, and easily the oldest, is the Catford Classic Hill Climb, which was first held in 1886 and has been staged for the past 127 years, except for breaks during the two world wars. It’s held on a course an hour south of London. Yorks Hill, which starts at a dead-end farm lane, climbs for 646 meters (707 yards) at a 12.5-percent average gradient, with two pitches of 25 percent. Amazingly, despite advances in bike technology and training, the course record of 1:47.6 by South London rider Phil Mason has stood for 29 years!
Just a handful of Britain’s hill climbs are longer than 10 minutes, with the short, sharp ones giving fans the most excitement. And just as cyclo-cross has successfully crossed the Atlantic, perhaps UK-style hill climbs could be the next big thing for bike racing in North America, especially if they are compressed into a similar, short season in the fall.
Most of the current U.S. hill climbs, up mountain peaks such as Mount Washington in New Hampshire, Mount Evans in Colorado, and Mount Tamalpais in California, are held in the summer and are mass-start road races, not time trials. The few uphill TTs include those at Pinnacle Hill, near Albany, New York; Lookout Mountain, near Denver; and San Bruno Mountain, near San Francisco. These are all 15-minute climbs, which is at the top end of the classic UK hill-climb format.
The nearest we’ve come to a British-style event was the one raced up the Manayunk Wall in Philadelphia, which was an amateur time trial held on the Friday night prior to the Philadelphia International Championship. In 2000, that race was also contested by a number of pros, with the victory going to former U.S. pro champ Eddy Gragus, who recorded a 1:50.18 for the one-kilometer course—which had a flat opening section before reaching the 400-meter Wall and its maximum grade of 17 percent.
Many American cities have steep streets that could host hill climbs—including places such as Pittsburgh, Richmond, San Francisco or Seattle—while most experienced riders know about steep hills in their local areas. Imagine a race up Sycamore Street in Pittsburgh, which was a highlight of the Thrift Drug Classic in the 1990s; or up San Francisco’s Telegraph Hill, which has seen prologues for the Coors Classic in the 1980s and the more-recent Tour of California.
Short, snappy hill climbs in the autumn are made for riders who race criteriums all summer. In fact, in the month before he started an unbeaten run in this year’s hill-climb season, new British climbing champ Pullar was doing a crit series—and now he’s talking of following in the footsteps of his countrymen Chris Froome, John Tiernan-Locke and Brad Wiggins, and heading to the Continent.
Curiously, British television has yet to embrace hill climbs, but their sudden-death format and enthusiastic crowds are compelling ingredients for great viewing. And in this country, where reality TV is king, a sports event with instant impact could even make it big. I’d love it to happen because, then, I wouldn’t get homesick in hill-climb season.
Follow me on Twitter: @johnwilcockson
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
Next year’s 100th edition of the Tour de France is still more than eight months away, but we already have a good idea of what sort of race it’s going to be—even before race organizer Christian Prudhomme reveals full details of the official route on Wednesday in Paris. Some wild rumors have been circulating through the cycling world, including a nighttime stage finish on the Champs-Élysées, which indicate that it’s going to be a Tour worthy of celebration. And following Monday’s decision by the UCI razing Lance Armstrong’s seven Tour victories from the history books, the hope is that there will be total focus on the race itself and not on yet more doping rumors.
Besides the course, which promises at least 10 significant stages, what looks like being a major feature of the 2013 Tour is one of the most competitive fields in the event’s history. At least eight of the 22 likely starting teams have a strong chance of producing the eventual champion, while the course appears to be both balanced and demanding. First then, let’s take a look at the likely route of the June 29 to July 21 Tour.
TOUGH START, RUGGED FINISH
We’ve known since last year that the Tour will visit the French island of Corsica for the first time in the race’s 110-year history (the race wasn’t contested a total of 10 times through the two world wars). Corsica’s terrain is extremely mountainous, except for a coastal plain along the east coast—which will host the Tour’s first and only flat stage in Corsica, finishing in Bastia with a likely mass sprint. The second and third stages are both short (around the 150-kilometer mark) and feature significant climbs in their run-ins to Ajaccio and Calvi respectively, which will give us an initial look at the overall contenders.
All the race personnel (except the riders) will take overnight ferries across the Mediterranean to gather the next afternoon in Nice for what will be a strategically decisive stage: a 20-kilometer team time trial along the waterfront. The last time an early TTT was included at the Tour, in 2011, Garmin won the stage by four seconds, while the two teams that produced the final podium (BMC Racing and RadioShack) were separated by just six seconds. But those six seconds gave eventual winner Cadel Evans a psychologically advantage over Andy and Fränk Schleck through the following 10 stages before the Tour reached the mountains.
This year, when the TTT result is added to the two difficult stages in Corsica, a firm hierarchy will exist prior to the first mountaintop stage finish—which looks like being on stage 8 at Ax-3 Domaines in the Pyrénées. Whatever the GC looks like there, it will probably be quite similar a week later when the race reaches the next summit finish, said to be Mont Ventoux, on July 14.
In the week between the two mountain ranges, the Tour will see a second (probably easier) climbing stage through the Pyrénées, a 600-kilometer transfer to northwest France for the first rest day, four sprinters’ stages and an individual time trial. This stage against the clock looks like being a specialists’ TT on a flat, probably 45-kilometer course in Normandy, finishing at the iconic island of Mont St. Michel. Whichever of the GC candidates does well there will get a nice boost in morale before the crucial stage finish atop the Ventoux, which some believe is the hardest climb longer than 20 kilometers in France.
After a second rest day, the Tour heads to Gap, the gateway to the Alps—where four tough, but different types of stages will decide the eventual outcome. This stretch opens with a very hilly individual TT, again around the 40-kilometer mark, in the foothills north of the turquoise-blue Serre-Ponçon lake. Then comes the keynote stage, one that almost happened two years ago, which climbs L’Alpe d’Huez twice—thanks to a final 50-kilometer loop over the Col de Sarenne, a narrow, rough-surfaced mountain road that is being given a new coat of tarmac, before returning to the base of the Tour’s most popular climb.
The next day sees the peloton head north, probably over the Glandon, Madeleine and Croix-Fry passes with an uphill finish in Le Grand Bornand—where Fränk Schleck and Linus Gerdemann were the last two winners. The final alpine stage appears to be an unusual one for the Tour, taking in one big, mountainous loop from the beautiful lakeside city of Annecy. Another 600-kilometer transfer takes the race to its final stage, finishing as usual on the Champs-Élysées in Paris, but according to a report in this Monday’s edition of La Dépêche the final sprint could well take place at nightfall—followed by a massive firework display to commemorate the end of this 100th edition.
THE PROSPECTIVE CHAMPS
Despite the early rumors that the 2012 Tour would be a climbers’ Tour, the likelihood of a team time trial and two individual tests puts the emphasis back on those riders who are strong in the time trials and the climbs. That would mean that Team Sky’s defending champion Brad Wiggins should shoot for a second Tour title rather than, as has been mentioned, go for victories at the Giro d’Italia and Vuelta a España next year and let teammate Chris Froome lead Sky at the Tour. Obviously, that situation will need to be decided by team management in the next couple of months.
Froome, second at this year’s Tour, is obviously strong against the clock and in mountaintop finishes—like several other probable contenders, including Saxo-Tinkoff’s Alberto Contador, BMC’s Evans and Tejay Van Garderen, and Garmin-Sharp’s Ryder Hesjedal and Christian Vande Velde. All of these men, along with the two Sky riders, will get a boost from the early team time trial.
Besides these half-dozen yellow-jersey contenders, several others will also be planning on strong challenges. These include the more specialist climbers, Joaquim Rodriguez of Katusha Team, Vincenzo Nibali of a much-strengthened Astana squad, the 2010 default winner Andy Schleck of RadioShack-Nissan, and Jurgen Van den Broeck of Lotto-Belisol.
Then there is the world TT champion Tony Martin, who’ll be the GC leader of the Omega-Quick Step team now that Levi Leipheimer has been sacked over his involvement in the Postal team doping scandal. Martin is somewhat of an enigma, but should he get his weight down a few kilos while keeping his unquestioned power, there’s no reason why he should lose too much time on the summit finishes—remember, he did finish second on the Ventoux stage in 2009. But the German’s challenge will be hampered by his Belgian team focusing first on racking up sprint stage wins for the newly arrived Mark Cavendish and team captain Tom Boonen.
This should be a good Tour for North Americans. Besides overall contenders Hesjedal, Vande Velde and Van Garderen, next year should see the Tour debuts of Garmin’s Andrew Talansky, a future GC player, and BMC’s Taylor Phinney, who should have a vital role for Evans and Van Garderen in the TTT and add his power to defending his team leaders’ positions in the flatter stages.
As always, there’s a fear of seeing a repeat of the devastating high-speed pileups that marked the opening weeks of the past two Tours and wrecked the chances, among others, of Wiggins, Van den Broeck and Contador in 2011, and Hesjedal and Vande Velde in 2012. But with a muscular opening to the 2013 Tour in Corsica, followed by the TTT, the hierarchy will be established before the race reaches the three flatter stages in opening week, and this will calm down the usual first-week tension when every team vies for stage wins.
Some critics have compared this first post-Armstrong-doping-decision Tour with the so-called Tour of Renewal in 1999, a year after the infamous Festina doping debacle. The big difference this time is that there’s no undetectable drug like EPO in existence, while the majority of riders in today’s peloton is already competing clean. Given those facts and the increased scrutiny of every rider’s blood parameters by the anti-doping authorities, the chances of seeing a worthy winner of a hard-fought and clean Tour are as strong as they’ve ever been.
Let’s hope that’s the case, and that everyone, especially the fans, can enjoy Tour No. 100’s hopefully spectacular firework display over the Arc de Triomphe next July 21.
Follow me on Twitter: @johnwilcockson
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
Last week, in different cities hundreds of miles apart, I saw, quite by chance, two cyclists who personify the quandary posed to cycling by celebrity racers who some see as heroes, others as cheats. Each of those cyclists sported a natty pirate’s goatee and bandana above a uniform that resembled the Mercatone Uno team kit of the late Marco Pantani. One of my sightings was in Philadelphia, the other in Boulder, and because I was driving a car in traffic I couldn’t stop to ask those riders what they thought about Pantani.
This past weekend, a famous pro cyclist who was thrown out of the 2007 Tour de France for blood doping, retired from cycling in glorious style. The principality of Monaco honored one of its residents, 2012 Olympic gold medalist Alexander Vinokourov, with the final race of his career on a circuit along Monte Carlo’s waterfront, next to the luxury yachts of billionaires. Among those who came to the party was the sport’s greatest racer, Eddy Merckx, along with men who admitted doping, including Jan Ullrich and Richard Virenque.
Regarding the two Pantani look-alikes, the chances are they regard the 1998 Tour de France and Giro d’Italia champ as one of the greatest climbers the sport has ever produced, and not as the rider who lost a Giro he was winning because his blood tested above the 50-percent-hematocrit level, or the sad drug addict who died at age 34 from a cocaine overdose.
At the farewell race in Monaco on Sunday were several current pros regarded as leaders in the anti-doping movement: world champion Philippe Gilbert of BMC Racing, Chris Froome of Team Sky and Vincenzo Nibali of Liquigas-Cannondale. On Monday, Gilbert tweeted a photo of himself standing next to the man of the day and one of his sons, with the caption, “The last race of Vino yesterday! Great champion!”
In Italy, Pantani is revered as one of his country’s greatest riders, despite the suspicions that he used EPO to notch his grand tour victories and break course records on climbs such as L’Alpe d’Huez. His name is still etched in stone as the winner of the Giro and Tour; a major Italian pro race is named after him; Pantani memorials dot the countryside; and the Giro organizers regularly honor him with special awards on famous climbs such as the Mortirolo. But on this side of the Atlantic, Pantani is mostly regarded as a cheat.
In Kazakhstan, despite that 2007 blood-doping positive, Vinokourov is revered as a national hero, the country’s only Olympic gold medalist in a mainstream sport. On multi-story buildings in the capital city, Astana, giant murals of Vino adorn the walls, and he’ll remain popular as he converts from rider to manager of Team Astana. Clearly, no one in Kazakhstan, and, it seems, quite a few pro racers, consider Vino’s racing legacy a tainted one.
Even though it seems the Europeans have their heads in the sand when it comes to doping, that’s not the case in the U.S. Neither Vino nor Pantani is considered a hero here (except perhaps by those Il Pirata fanatics!), but we have to wait and see how the public eventually views the generation of American riders who raced alongside Pantani and Vinokourov in the 1990s and 2000s.
Some of them have already said they used banned drugs or blood-doped (including Frankie Andreu, Tyler Hamilton, Floyd Landis and Jonathan Vaughters), others have been outed by a former teammate (including Tom Danielson, Christian Vande Velde and Dave Zabriskie), USADA has suspended Lance Armstrong for life and nullified all his Tour victories (though the Texan continues to deny ever using performance-enhancing drugs), while others are likely to be prominent as involved witnesses (including George Hincapie, Levi Leipheimer and Kevin Livingston) in USADA’s upcoming report into the alleged doping conspiracy at the former U.S. Postal Service team.
USADA says the revelations in its report will be devastating, and will knock American cycling sideways. But in essence it’s very little different, or even similar, to what has happened in other countries. Over the past 20 years, most cycling nations have had to cope with doping scandals that involved their leading teams or star riders.
Chronologically, the Dutch had to cope with their all-star PDM team getting sick (with later evidence of EPO being used) and dropping out of a Tour de France it was hoping to win; the French were demoralized by the organized doping uncovered in two of their top teams, first Festina and then Cofidis; the Spanish were hit by blood-doping revelations at their favorite squads, Kelme and Liberty Seguros (formerly ONCE), at the time of the Operación Puerto police bust; the Danes were shocked by the Puerto shockwaves that hit their Team CSC; the Germans were even more scandalized by the admissions of doping from most of their Deutsche Telekom stars; and the Swiss had to witness the dissolution of their all-conquering Team Phonak because of repeated doping positives.
I haven’t yet mentioned the Belgians and Italians in this brief overview because countless riders and teams from those countries have either been the subject of police drug investigations or connected with alleged doping doctors. It’s well know that the Italians were the first to experiment with EPO, as early as the late-1980s, but cycling fans (including the stalwart Pantani supporters) are as enthusiastic about cycling as they have ever been, while doping offenders such as Ivan Basso remain as popular now as they were before being suspended. And the crowds in Belgium at the spring classics are just as thick now as they were before their (still) icons Johan Museeuw and Frank Vandenbroucke were busted for doping.
Common features in revealing the organized doping in those eight European countries were initial police involvement (Festina Affair, Operación Puerto, Italy and Belgium investigations), and tell-all books by team personnel (Willy Voet of Festina, Jef d’Hondt of Telekom). Only after those developments did the media pick up on the stories and get athletes to talk—as with the series of articles in Germany’s Der Spiegel that resulted in Telekom team members Rolf Aldag, Bert Dietz, Christian Henn, Brian Holm, Bjarne Riis and Erik Zabel all admitting to EPO use.
Other common features of those European doping affairs were the lack of in-depth investigations into those teams by anti-doping agencies, no retroactive suspensions (most of the above names are still working in cycling), and virtually no stigma attached to their doping offenses. That’s in contrast to what has happened, or appears to be happening, in the U.S.
Yes, there are similarities with Europe, with frequent media allegations of doping against Armstrong and his Postal squad (many of the pieces based on the extensive investigative reporting work of Irish journalists David Walsh and Paul Kimmage), admissions of doping by certain riders, and more extensive confessions from Hamilton and Landis (but only after they’d spent fortunes on failed appeals against their doping suspensions in 2004 and 2006 respectively). But what’s different has been the repeated legal cases that have revolved around the alleged doping by Armstrong and Team Postal.
In 2004, there was the arbitration hearing demanded by Armstrong’s lawyers after SCA Promotions failed to pay a $5 million bonus predicated on his winning a sixth consecutive Tour. That case was eventually settled out of court, with SCA paying the bonus plus $2.5 million in interest, costs and attorney fees. Then came the two-year federal fraud investigation into the Postal team, led by the FDA lawyer Jeff Novitzky, that was suddenly abandoned this past February. The USADA investigation, which took up the threads of the FDA work, is different because, as far as I can recall, a national anti-doping agency has never done anything on a similar scale—perhaps because most such agencies don’t have the funding or resources to contemplate such work.
The details of the USADA report are likely to start being known after it’s sent to the World Anti-Doping Agency and the UCI by next week, but for now most of the subjects in that investigation continue their cycling careers (as riders, coaches, team officials or race organizers), while Armstrong continues to deny doping despite the verdict handed down by USADA.
One question remaining is whether American fans will react to the eventual “devastating” details in the USADA report in the same way the Europeans have reacted to the doping sins of their (remaining) heroes. If the British are as close as we can expect to get as an example, then the negative reactions to any more doping revelations could be limited. I was watching the recent Tour of Britain on line when the highly respected British commentator David Harmon of Eurosport said: “Good to see Ivan Basso here—one of the really big superstars.”
If he were still alive and racing, Pantani would likely have elicited the same designation.
Follow me on Twitter: @johnwilcockson
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
Where I live it will be 95°F today, but looking to the weekend and next week the days and evenings, will be getting cooler. Already some of the leaves are starting to lose their chlorophyll, beginning to go yellow or red at the edges. The company I work for is preparing for 2013. There is brochure copy to write. The season is winding down. This might all be a beat or two early, but…
On the roads of Northern Spain, especially the steep ones, the Vuelta is at full tilt, the battle lines drawn, the GC shaking out slowly. It wasn’t long ago that many of us argued over whether Alberto Contador (Saxo Bank-Tinkoff Bank) or Chris Froome (Team Sky) would win this race. Purito Rodriguez (Katusha) apparently isn’t a regular RKP reader. Otherwise, he might have clued us in to his intention to win his home Grand Tour.
If you have been following closely, you will know what surprises this race has offered up. You would have seen the likes of Froome clinging to wheels. You would have seen Contador attacking with his signature explosiveness but not able to close the deal. You would have seen Rodriguez ride the time trial of his life to keep the jersey on his shoulders.
Perhaps it is still early to cast judgement. The top 5, which includes Robert Gesink (Rabobank) and Alejandro Valverde (Movistar), are all within 3 minutes of one another. How many lead changes and plot twists we have in front of us is almost impossible to tell.
But, the excitement of the Vuelta, and some recent comments about the Tour, got me thinking about just which of the Grand Tours I’ve enjoyed most this season. Ryder Hesjedal’s big Giro win was fun to watch and featured plenty of back and forth with Rodriguez as well as Thomas de Gendt (Vacansoleil-DCM) and Michele Scarponi (Lampre-ISD). The Tour, by some estimations, disappointed, with Team Sky managing every last detail to perfection. Still, the Tour is the Tour, a tautology that means something to most race fans.
So, though it might be early, this week’s Group Ride asks the simple question: Which was the best Grand Tour this year? And why?
Observers at the 67th Vuelta a España may be premature in writing off the chances of Great Britain’s Chris Froome. They say that in the 11 stages that remain he won’t be able to withstand the attacks of his three Spanish rivals, former Vuelta winners Alberto Contador and Alejandro Valverde, and this year’s Giro d’Italia runner-up Joaquim Rodriguez. Froome faces a stiff task, and history does show that it’s very difficult for a foreigner to beat the Spanish on their own turf, but if anyone can succeed it’s the talented 27-year-old Englishman raised in Kenya and South Africa.
At the 2011 Vuelta, Froome just lost to the upstart Spaniard Juanjo Cobo, who held a tiny lead over Froome, never more than 20 seconds, over the final week—partly thanks to the tacit help of the other home teams. That “assistance” was far more pronounced a quarter-century ago when the last Brit to get close to victory at the Vuelta, Scottish climber Robert Millar, was runner-up to Spanish riders in both 1985 and 1986.
I was fortunate (if that’s the right word) to witness Millar’s unbelievable (that is the right word) loss to Spaniard Pedro Delgado at the ’85 Vuelta. Millar had ridden a great Vuelta and strong final time trial and was the solid race leader starting the final stage. My story of that sensational stage is too long to reproduce here, but it suffices to say that Delgado began that May day in the climbs north of Madrid in fifth place overall more than six minutes behind the Brit, and that a combination of bad weather in the mountains (cold rain, hail and wet snow), poor team direction, fatigued teammates, lack of time checks and a blatant coalition of Spanish teams handed the stage win to local rider José Recio and the final victory to Delgado after a long, two-man breakaway.
Race organizing, team structures and information technology have changed enormously since those days, but partisanship and collusion among friends can be just as pronounced as they were when Millar twice lost the Vuelta to intrinsically lesser riders. As Froome said on Monday’s rest day this week: “Since the start, my competitors haven’t given me any gifts and I don’t expect to get any.”
Besides the strong opposition he’s facing, Froome could be suffering from race overload after the Tour de France (where he was second to Sky teammate Brad Wiggins), and the London Olympics (where he raced to a standstill in the road race and medaled in the time trial). As evidence of his fatigue, critics point to moments of weakness that Froome experienced on each of the two summit finishes over the weekend. But a closer look at his and his three Spanish rivals’ performances through the Vuelta’s first week reveals a potentially different story.
Last week’s uphill finishes seemed sure to give an early verdict on who would be the strongest contenders, but there were other factors at play: a 100-degree heat wave blanketing northern Spain, fierce crosswinds on the plains preceding the climbs, the varying strengths of the teams at this ultra-mountainous Vuelta, and the psychological states of the top candidates for victory—notably Alberto Contador.
All of Spain is hoping that Contador can put his controversial two-year drugs ban behind him and win this first Grand Tour since his suspension ended earlier this month. With the expectation of a nation and the need to prove himself, Contador was clearly anxious on the initial summit finish last Monday. His frenetic, out-of the-saddle accelerations up the ruggedly steep 5.5-kilometer Alto de Arrate resembled his pre-suspension climbing style, but the Saxo Bank-Tinkoff Bank team leader couldn’t shake the opposition even with a half-dozen attacks.
The anxious Contador tried again the next day on the steepest (early) section of the 13-kilometer Valdezcaray climb. This time, just Froome and an ambitious Nicolas Roche were able to go with him; but it was an injudicious tactic given the unfavorable winds blowing on the upper, less-steep slopes. In the past, Contador wouldn’t have been so impetuous. He would have planned his attacks more meticulously and, on each of those stages, he would have needed just one sharp acceleration to leave the rest in his wake.
Anxiety to please the public was one part of the Spanish superstar’s failure to win on the early summit finishes, but poor team tactics and the debilitating temperatures were just as important in his significant loss to Rodriguez and Froome to the stage 6 finish at Jaca. Contador made four of his Saxo teammates race flat out on the downhill approach to Jaca, but as soon as the climb began he started cramping and realized he’d played into his rivals’ hands.
Showing immense determination, Team Sky’s two Colombian climbing prodigies, Sergio Henao and Rigoberto Uran, raced so fast on the short, switchback climb to Jaca’s ancient fortress that Valverde later described it as more like the finish of a sprint stage! When the two Colombians peeled away to launch Froome on a final-kilometer charge, neither Valverde nor Contador could follow the pace. Only Rodriguez stayed on the Brit’s wheel, and then out-sprinted him for the stage win, earning him the 12-second time bonus and the leader’s red jersey.
Froome and his Sky cohort attempted to replicate their Thursday tactics on Saturday’s much tougher stage finish on the 5,085-foot (1,550-meter) Collada de la Gallina in the Pyrenees of Andorra. At 7 kilometers, it was twice as long as the one at Jaca, but Sky’s team director for the Vuelta, Marcus Ljungqvist, gave Henao and Uran the same orders to raise the pace from the start of the climb. So when the Colombian pair had done their damage and gave way to an attack by Froome, he still had the hardest part of the climb to complete: 3 kilometers tilting up gradients as steep as 15 percent.
Froome had never seen the climb before and that lack of knowledge worked against him more than his alleged fatigue. When he accelerated, only Contador followed him, while their two rivals held back. The Katusha team’s Rodriguez is a resident of the Catalan region and spends much of his year in Andorra and knew the Gallina climb intimately; and he told his friend and Movistar team leader Valverde that the pace was too high to maintain all the way to the line.
That was confirmed when Froome couldn’t get Contador to help him and the Brit virtually sat up before the multi-time Tour winner counterattacked in his former style. Contador’s Saxo team boss Bjarne Riis believed that Contador was going to win the stage, but even the Spanish phenom struggled at the end, shifted down and tried to spin his way to the finish, only to be overtaken just before the line by the more patient and stage-savvy Valverde and Rodriguez.
Froome was the victim that day of his poor team tactics (would they have been better if Sky’s top sports director Sean Yates was present?), the work he’d done unnecessarily to help Sky sprinter Ben Swift on the flat stages, and his rivals’ connivance. “The climb was really hard,” Froome later said, “and this battle against three such strong rivals was incredible.” But does he think he’s riding against a coalition of the Spanish trio and their teams? “I don’t think about a fight against the three,” he said, “but a fight against three weeks. To do two grand tours [back to back] is a new experience for me.”
Perhaps it was not knowing his physical limits of racing constantly at such a light level, or simply not knowing the course layout, that saw Froome have a hard time staying with the front group on Sunday’s tricky stage finish above the Mediterranean port of Barcelona. Barcelona is the hometown of race leader Rodriguez, so after Contador made the mistake of jumping too early on the little Alto de Montjuic hill 4 kilometers from the line, Rodriguez waited until a steeper, narrow section to counterattack, which only BMC Racing’s Philippe Gilbert could answer. Those two combined forces on the fast descent and then sprinted up the final uphill kilometer (with Gilbert taking his first win of the season), nine seconds ahead of a Valverde chase group and 12 seconds ahead of the Contador-Froome peloton.
With the crucial 39.4-kilometer time trial coming up on Wednesday in Galicia, Rodriguez has a 53-second lead on Froome, a minute on Contador and 1:07 on Valverde. Those four are a minute clear of their only potential challenger, Dutchman Robert Gesink, who has his Rabobank teammates Laurens Ten Dam and Bauke Mollema for company in the top 10.
But after the Vuelta’s one time trial, which Froome has to ace to stand a chance of winning overall, the outcome will likely rest with the relative strengths of the four leaders’ teams. Unlike that bygone era when Millar (racing for a French team) came up against an armada of Spanish riders leading Spanish teams, Froome and his British squad face Rodriguez on a Russian-sponsored team and Contador on a Danish-based outfit. Only Valverde is on a Spanish team, but with Rodriguez as a friend and Contador the most influential rider in Spain, the home forces may stop the Brit from winning the Vuelta for a second year running.
Follow me on Twitter: @johnwilcockson
Image: Fotogreporter Sirotti
When the route for the current Vuelta a España was announced last fall, much was made of its record number of 10 mountaintop stage finishes, the most ever in a grand tour. Fans were excited that they’d be seeing so many spectacular days of racing. But they may not end up being so thrilled if all those uphill finishes turn the race into a too-predictable procession.
That’s what happened the last time a grand tour had an extreme number of summit finishes: the 2011 Giro d’Italia. After just two of that event’s seven uphill arrivals, Alberto Contador was solidly installed as the race leader, leaving the Italians Michele Scarponi and Vincenzo Nibali far behind in a duel for second place. Although Contador’s win was later voided because of his much-delayed suspension from a 2010 Tour de France drugs offense, that ultra-mountainous Giro was distinctly un-spectacular.
It can be argued that the Vuelta is a very different race from the Giro, that the climbs in northern Spain are often much shorter (but no less steep) than those in northern Italy. But judging by the action this week on the first two of the 10 summit finishes at the 67th edition of the Vuelta, the race looks as if it will quickly devolve into a four- or even three-man race—at least until the one individual time trial on August 29. After that, with nine stages and six summit finishes still to come, the Vuelta could be effectively over.
As he was at last year’s Giro, Contador is the central figure in what is his first grand tour since his doping suspension ended. The Spaniard’s half-dozen sharp, uphill accelerations on the steepest (13-percent) sections of the short Alto de Arrate climb on Monday were spectacular in their frequency, and only three riders were able to respond. His countrymen Alejandro Valverde and Joaquim Rodriguez were quick to match Contador’s thrusts, while British co-favorite Chris Froome was content to bridge up at a steadier, but still rapid, climbing pace. “There are a lot more climbs to come,” Froome reasoned.
Contador was able to launch his series of attacks after being helped immensely by Dani Navarro, the one Saxo Bank-Tinkoff Bank teammate able to stay with the 30-strong front group at the foot of the final climb. At the same time, stage winner Valverde had two Movistar teammates working for him in that group, Benat Intxausti and defending Vuelta champion Juanjo Cobo; Rodriguez had the support of Katusha teammate Dani Moreno; and Froome counted on his impressive Team Sky colleagues Rigoberto Uran and Sergio Henao.
With so many climbing stages ahead, and probably some flat stages in between, where wind and heat will be factors, the leaders will have to rely on strong teammates to keep them stay in contention and set them up for the summit finishes. The “team” factor could well work against Contador, especially on the stages with longer climbs where Froome, in particular, looks like enjoying greater strength in depth, with his two Colombian climbers Uran and Henao, Aussie all-rounder Richie Porte, Spanish worker Xabier Zandio and British national champion Ian Stannard.
All these Sky men were prominent on Tuesday, when they split the peloton in crosswinds shortly after race leader Valverde was involved in a crash. As a result, they helped Froome move into second place overall on the 13.4km, 5.2-percent climb to the finish at the Valdezcaray ski station, only a second down on new red jersey Rodriguez, with Contador in third overall.
There are two more summit finishes before next Monday’s rest day (which follows a 1,000km air transfer from Barcelona!). This Thursday, the Fuerte del Rapitán climb at Jaca is 3.8km long, with pitches of 12, 13 and 14 percent in its average 5.4-percent grade. And on Saturday, the only Pyrenean stage ends in Andorra with the toughest and highest ascent of the week, the Collada de la Gallina, which averages 8 percent for 7.2km.
Next Wednesday’s stage 11 is probably the most challenging long time trial at a grand tour since the extremely hilly TT along the Cinque Terre at the 2009 Giro. On a 39.4km course between Cambados and Pontevedra, this Vuelta stage starts and finishes at sea level on the Atlantic coast, and is dominated by the Alto Monte Castrove, which climbs through 1,466 feet in 10km and mostly descends the remaining 16km to the finish. It’s the sort of time trial on which Contador and Froome could gain two or three minutes on lesser time trialists such as Rodriguez and Valverde.
The race’s fifth summit finish comes the very next day at Dumbria. It’s just under 2km long but averages a nasty 13.1 percent! That’s just an appetizer for the horrendously hard Labor Day weekend that has three consecutive mountain stages, all with summit finishes. Stage 14 ends on the 9.5km, 8.1-percent Puerto de Ancares, stage 15 has the classic 13.5km, 7-percent Lagos de Covadonga finish, and stage 16 features the Puerto de Pajares ascent that’s been extended to a distance of 19.4km with the new-to-the-Vuelta Cuitu Negru summit with passages of more than 20 percent over the final 3km.
The mountaintop overload will be completed in the final week with stage 17’s finish up the 17.3km-long Fuente Dé (with only a 4-percent grade), and stage’s 20’s pièce de résistance: the mighty Bola del Mundo, a 11.4km climb that ends on a concrete-paved goat track with 23-percent back-breakers!
Whether the Vuelta’s final six mountaintop finishes will have any major effect on the race’s outcome remains to be seen. We hope they will, but they could end up being consolation stage wins for those who’ve already lost their chances for the final classification.
Follow me on Twitter: @johnwilcockson
Image: Fotoreporter Sirotti