With Team Sky’s dominance of the Tour de France through the first 12 stages, the question seems not to be can Bradley Wiggins win the general classification, but rather, what other honors can this team cram into its collective palmares. Chris Froome currently sits second overall, and Mark Cavendish, relatively quiet in the points competition, no doubt with an eye on the Olympics, remains in reserve to hunt stage wins later in the race when the road flattens out again. If you think of Wiggins’ TT win, Froome’s stage 7 win, Cavendish’s Stage 3 win, plus holding the top two GC positions, any further demonstration of power would just be cruel to the other racers.
But you know, it’s a cruel sport.
Wiggins must be the favorite to win the remaining ITT and, in fact, the overall, though if someone has a clear picture of how either Cadel Evans or Vincenzo Nibali can claw back time against the side-burned Briton, I’d love to hear the scenario. The truth is, as strong as the current maillot jaune has been when necessary, it is the class of Froome, Michael Rogers and even Richie Porte that have proven the difference.
Anytime a rival dares attack, Sky has responded calmly, almost casually, with superior talent. Even when Tejay van Garderen escaped up the road to slingshot Evans, who himself made a brilliant move to get away from Wiggins’ group, Sky snuffed the move easily.
So the question, our question, remains: What else can Sky take? Can Froome stand on the second step of the podium in Paris? How will he play the loyal lieutenant and vanquish Sky’s GC rivals at the same time?
Can Cavendish win another stage? Two more? Will Richie Porte or Michael Rogers be given opportunities to nab wins for themselves? If Sky are vulnerable in any way, what is it? If they are not, what is the limit of their potential success here?
Image: Fotoreporter Sirotti
Following Team Sky’s collective domination of the climbing stages at the Critérium du Dauphiné this past weekend, comparisons are being made with great teams of the past: the Molteni armada of Eddy Merckx, the La Vie Claire crew of Bernard Hinault and Greg LeMond, and the infamous Train Bleu of Lance Armstrong. It’s said that comparisons are odious, but few would deny that the performance of Brad Wiggins and his Sky teammates last Saturday on the mighty Col de Joux-Plane, this Dauphiné’s one truly challenging climb, was nothing less than extraordinary.
The result was that the eight-day Dauphiné ended in a repeat overall victory for Wiggins, with his teammates Mick Rogers (second), Chris Froome (fourth) and Richie Porte (ninth) also finishing top 10. It appears to be a similar result to the 1986 Tour de France, when LeMond was first, Hinault second and their La Vie Claire teammates Andy Hampsten (fourth) and Niki Rüttimann (seventh) also placed top 10. But that result was achieved in a very different manner: Hampsten, Rüttimann and Steve Bauer were LeMond’s only true helpers at that Tour, while Hinault raced an almost separate race, riding against LeMond and supported by the team’s other four (mostly French) domestiques.
As for Merckx and Armstrong, they controlled their teams to act in concert, using their strongest teammates to prepare the ground before making their own moves. In Merckx’s case, those moves sometimes included extraordinary, long solo breakaways, while Armstrong rarely changed his winning formula of making late bursts on mountaintop finishes. The one thing that Armstrong, Merckx, LeMond and Hinault all have in common with Wiggins today is their superiority in time trials. And time trials will play a big role in the upcoming Tour.
However, what Wiggo and his Merry Men did in last week’s Dauphiné was somewhat unusual. They achieved their overall dominance with what amounted to daily team time trials—even up the Joux-Plane! Their having four mean leading an eventual nine-man group to the French mountain’s 5,577-foot summit may have looked like the 2004 Tour hegemony of Armstrong U.S. Postal squad, which had seven men pulling a 22-man peloton up the Col d’Agnes in the Pyrenees; but those Postal riders separately made their strong pulls before dropping back to leave Armstrong alone to battle for victory with Ivan Basso on that stage’s final climb to Plateau de Beille.
The one similar tactic for Sky on the Joux-Plane came from the British team’s Norwegian phenom, Eddy Boasson Hagen, who softened the opposition by setting a fierce tempo in the opening half of the renowned alpine climb, which at almost 12 kilometers long and an average grade approaching 9 percent, is even tougher than L’Alpe d’Huez. The relay was taken up by Sky’s rising Australian star, Porte, who, incredibly, pulled the diminished group for the rest of the 35-minute ascent. All Wiggins had to do was follow with Froome and Rogers.
Other than the non-threatening Colombian climber Nairo Quintana of Movistar, who was “allowed” to sneak ahead (and win the stage), the only riders still with the Sky foursome at the Joux-Plane summit were two team leaders, Cadel Evans of BMC Racing and Jurgen Van Den Broeck of Lotto-Belisol, and three lieutenants, Vasil Kiryienka of Movistar, Pieter Weening of Orica-GreenEdge and Haimar Zubeldia of RadioShack-Nissan-Trek.
Evans, who is still building his form for the Tour, admitted that the climbing pace set by Boasson Hagen and Porte on the Joux-Plane was too constantly strong for him to contemplate making an uphill attack, especially in gusting winds. Evans did use his renowned bike-handling skills to make a downhill attack … but the Aussie seemed to forget that the true descent of the Joux-Plane doesn’t start until a second summit (actually called the Col de Ranfolly), and he wasted energy in a fruitless attack on the two, mainly flat kilometers between the two peaks. So he didn’t finally break through Sky’s impregnable wall until halfway down the 9km descent to the finish in Morzine. If he hadn’t made that initial move Evans, who had placed second four times in four starts at the Dauphiné, would likely have netted enough time to move above Rogers into second overall. Instead, he ended up in third.
But the Dauphiné is not the Tour, and Evans and his BMC team will be at a much higher level in July. As for Wiggins, who’s mimicking Merckx (and Elvis!) with his quirky sideburns, the Brit and his Merry Men know that some of them will also be working hard for teammate Mark Cavendish at the Tour. But with the world champ, on a sugarless diet, on course for losing 10 pounds of body fat before the 2012 Tour de France starts in Liège on June 30, maybe the sprinter will be light enough to work for Wiggo in the climbing stages after he picks up a batch of stage wins in the first half of the Tour!
Another difference between the Dauphiné and the Tour is that most of the likely Tour contenders were either not at their best in the Dauphiné or racing this week’s Tour of Switzerland. Of course, Saturday’s climb of the Joux-Plane was a disaster for potential contenders Vincenzo Nibali of Liquigas-Cannondale (nine minutes lost), Denis Menchov of Katusha and Samuel Sanchez of Euskaltel-Euskadi (both 13 minutes back) … and RadioShack’s Andy Schleck, who didn’t even get that far, abandoning the Dauphiné on the stage’s first climb because of the injuries sustained in his time-trial crash last Thursday.
There have so far been mixed results in Switzerland for RadioShack’s other Tour contender, Fränk Schleck, Movistar’ leader Alejandro Valverde and two other likely Tour contenders, Levi Leipheimer of Omega-Quick Step and Robert Gesink of Rabobank. But by the end of the Swiss race—finishing with a full mountain stage next Sunday — all of those riders look likely to be on the same upward path as Evans.
If the Tour de France were starting right now instead of June 30, everyone would be predicting a race dominated by Team Sky and an overall victory for Wiggins. But as the Tour has seen countless times, crashes and sickness often ruin the hopes of favorites, as happened last year with Wiggins, Leipheimer and Gesink. And the true contenders rarely come to the top until the third and final week, as could be the case this year, with Evans, the Schlecks, and perhaps Giro d’Italia winner Ryder Hesjedal of Garmin-Barracuda, challenging Wiggo and his Merry Men.
Follow John on Twitter: @johnwilcockson
Image: Fotoreporter Sirotti
At Pavé, I used to begin each season with a team-by-team rundown of what I considered to be the top-20 teams in the sport, highlighting their goals, expectations, and offering my insights as to their prospects for the new season. But since I’m not sure Padraig has the time or the editorial patience for such an effort, I think I’ll take a bit more of a global approach to looking at the teams and riders you can expect to see building the major storylines of the 2012 season.
Let’s get started with the 2012 Men of the Hour:
Team BMC – After adding Philippe Gilbert and Thor Hushovd to a roster already boasting Cadel Evans, it’s hard not to identify Team BMC as the team to beat in 2012. In the Classics, Gilbert and Hushovd will lead the way supported by “domestiques” such as George Hincapie, Alessandro Ballan, Greg Van Avermaet, Marcus Burghardt, and—in hillier events—Cuddles himself. In July, the team will be reinforced by the addition of Marco Pinotti, a rider whose personality will fit in well with the “American” team following several years with the with HTC-HighRoad. And as if men such as these were not enough, BMC now boasts two of the most talented and sought-after young Americans of the past few seasons in Taylor Phinney and Tejay Van Garderen; both will be looking to make big waves in domestic events such as the Amgen Tour of California and USA Pro Cycling Challenge.
Fabian Cancellara – It says a lot about Radio Shack-Nissan’s Fabian Cancellara that 2011 was considered a “down year” for the Swiss star. After all, it’s gotta be tough for anyone to follow-up a season in which he won the Tour of Flanders, Paris-Roubaix, several grand tour stages, and a World Time Trial Championship. But despite only winning six races (the biggest of which was the E3 Prijs Vlaanderen semi-classic), Cancellara was an overwhelming force in just about every race he entered—even if he didn’t always win. Look for Cancellara’s “mortal” 2011 to be followed by an “immortal” 2012, as less pressure, an improved team, and—perhaps most importantly—better team management will enable the Swiss Champion to dominate once more.
Belgium – Belgian cyclists enjoyed a succesful 2011; look for more of the same in 2012. But while we can expect men like Gilbert, Boonen, Van Avermaet, and Van den Broeck to dominate the headlines, watch for less-heralded (but no less talented) men such Maxime Monfort, Jan Bakelants, Thomas DeGendt, Jens Keukelaire, and Sep Van Maercke to earn their fair share of praise—and victories. Throw-in talented wild cards like 2011 Monument-winners Nick Nuyens and Johan Van Summeren, and there’s little reason to believe we won’t be hearing more of the Brabançonne (the Belgian National Anthem) at podium ceremonies all over the world.
American Stage Races – With the Amgen Tour of California, the Tour of Utah, and the USA Pro Cycling Challenge, the United States now boasts three world-class stage races, events that look certain to attract the world’s best teams and riders for years to come. An even better trend: American athletes are rising to the challenge and not allowing themselves be bullied by their international colleagues. And while 2011 saw two of America’s oldest professionals—Chris Horner and Levi Leipheimer—dividing the palmares among themselves, there’s good reason to believe that 2012 will see the next generation of American stars—riders like Van Garderen and Garmin-Barracuda’s Andrew Talansky—mount their own challenges as well. After all, if the sport is to thrive in the Post-Armstrong era, America needs great events and great riders to make it happen.
Peter Sagan – After a breakout season in 2010, Peter Sagan of Team Liquigas continued his development in 2011, winning more races than the previous year and taking his first grand tour stage (three of them, in fact) to boot. To make matters worse—for the competition, that is—Sagan is still only a few days shy of his 22nd birthday. In 2012, I expect we’ll see further signs of the youngster’s progression as he proves that he can be competitive in longer classics and Monuments. For example, he went into Worlds last October as one of the favorites to win the Rainbow Jersey. But Sagan faded in the end to finish a rather uninspiring 12th—after more than 260 kilometers of racing, he just didn’t seem to be as fresh as his rivals. Look for Sagan to have solved this problem as early as Milan-San Remo—a Monument perfectly suited to his skills. After all, last year’s Vuelta a Espana was the first 3-week stage race of his career. While it might have left him fatigued for Worlds, it served as the perfect base for a strong start to 2012. Riders develop form not only over the course of season but over the course of a career. In Sagan’s case, it’s still very early. Each race makes him stronger—and more prepared—for the next.
Dan & Tony Martin – No, they’re not related, but these two men took their careers to the next level in 2011. Dan confirmed the promise he showed in 2009 and 2010 by winning his first grand tour stage and finishing 13th overall at the Vuelta before taking second at the Tour of Lombardy. After such an impressive late season run, look for the 25-year-old Irishman to be a protected rider at Garmin-Barracuda for the Ardennes Classics and to earn a ride in what will be his (long overdue) first Tour de France.
As for Tony, he was arguably one of the best two or three non-Gilbert riders of 2011, winning three stage races (including Paris-Nice and the new Tour of Beijing), stages in the Tour de France and the Vuelta Espana, and perhaps most importantly, a World Time Trial Championship (at the expense of Fabian Cancellara). Only 26-years old, the German now rides for Omega Pharma-Quick Step and is certainly licking his lips at a Tour de France that emphasizes time trialing. While a yellow jersey in Paris might be a bit out of his reach (he has yet to prove himself able to hang with the best of the best in the mountains), a place on the final podium is certainly within his grasp—especially with a relatively flat, 52-kilometer time trial on the penultimate day.
Johan Bruyneel – Other than BMC’s incredible shopping spree, the biggest news this past off-season was the merger of Team Radio Shack and Leopard-Trek, a move that marked a distinct consolidation of power at the top of the sport’s highest tier.
Team general manager Johan Bruyneel’s first task will be developing an early season program that gets Cancellara to peak fitness, while still leaving everyone else guessing as to his form. Last year, Spartacus showed his cards too soon in winning the E3 Prijs Vlaanderen a week before the Tour of Flanders. An expert in the cloak and dagger game of form-building, Bruyneel needs to make sure the same mistake doesn’t happen this spring. Next up: the Tour and the daunting task of picking the nine riders to represent the team. Assuming both Schlecks are automatic invites, that leaves about ten qualified men fighting for the remaining seven spots. Bruyneel will need to delicately balance the condition and the egos of his riders, choosing the right mix for the difficult job of delivering Andy Schleck to Paris in the yellow jersey (which is Bruyneel’s real task). Reclaiming the cobbled classics for Cancellara is one thing; winning a Tour with Andy Schleck is an entirely different proposition. If Bruyneel proves he’s up to it, he’ll forever be known as one of the sport’s greatest director’s.
Team Sky – Were I still putting together a team-by-team ranking of the best squads in the sport, the top-3 would likely be BMC, Radio Shack-Nissan, and Team Sky. After a rather lackluster debut season, Sky started to put it all together last year, winning 32 races, including two stages at the Tour de France, one at the Vuelta Espana, and the overall title at the Criterium du Dauphine. Perhaps more impressively, Sky placed two riders—Chris Froome and Bradley Wiggins—on the final podium at the Vuelta an impressive performance given the difficulty of the route. Even better, Sky boasts talented youngsters like Rigoberto Uran, Gerraint Thomas, Ben Swift, and Edvald Boassen Hagen, giving management the makings of the super-team that will be a force in every race it enters for years to come.
But as if last year’s deeply talented roster wasn’t enough, Sky added Mark Cavendish (along with his former HTC mates Bernhard Eisel and Danny Pate) and Richie Porte to the fold. Look for Cavendish to add to Sky’s stage tally at the Tour while preparing himself for a chance at a gold medal in London. As for Porte, his addition will make Team Sky one of the top favorites for the new, trade team-only, World Team Time Trial Championship to be held this coming September.
Alberto Contador – If he races in 2012 (and that’s a big “if”), there is little reason to believe Alberto Contador won’t dominate the 2012 Tour de France. Yes, Cadel Evans is confident after winning in 2011 and motivated by a 2012 parcours that suits his talents. And yes, “Frandy” Schleck will benefit from the wisdom and tactical nous of Johan Bruyneel. And of course, we can’t expect that so many contenders will crash-out during the Tour’s first week. But like it or not, Contador is still—without a doubt—the best grand tour rider on the planet. The fact that he still managed to finish in the Tour’s top-10 so soon after winning what was quite possibly the toughest grand tour ever speaks to the level of his talent. Only the pending CAS decision stands in his way. Then again, we said that last year, didn’t we?
Those are my picks for 2012’s “Men of the Hour”. Share your own picks and comments below.
Coming Soon: 2012’s Up-and-Comers.
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
Okay, so we couldn’t leave a whole week without a post. It’s been a year of stories often as fascinating as they are frustrating. Robot and I have picked our five most significant (if not favorite) story lines.
1) Fabian Cancellara’s Roubaix/ Flanders Double—Few riders are able to completely dominate their competition quite the way Fabian Cancellara can when he’s in top form. His astonishing attack on the Muur in the Ronde, while seated mind you, is a move I will never forget. Then his turn of speed at Roubaix, with main rival Tom Boonen momentarily asleep at the switch, was thrilling. To ride off the front of a group containing Boonen, Thor Hushovd, Juan Antonio Flecha and a select crew of Classics specialists, demonstrates a power and quality we seldom see. Those two wins made Cancellara’s April my top highlight of the 2010 season.
2) The Rise and Fall of Contador—The American press tried to make the 2010 Tour about the duel between Alberto Contador and Lance Armstrong, but Armstrong never had a chance, crashing out of contention early and then fumbling along to the finish. The real match was between Contador and Andy Schleck and that story served up all the drama and controversy of the very best Tours, with Contador standing on the top step in Paris to confirm his inheritance of the Armstrong/Indurain/Hinault/Merckx/Anquetil/Coppi legacy.
Oh, but then soaring so close to the sun, waxen wings melting in the bright light, Contador tests positive for Clenbuterol. And with this positive test, confirmed with a B sample reading, and hurled into judicial purgatory for the rest of the year, we see an abrupt end to the building legend, an end that tarnishes the futures of both the rider and the race.
3) Thor Hushovd’s World Championship—Coming off a World Championship year that saw 2009 winner Cadel Evans represent the rainbow jersey with grit, bravery and aplomb, the talismanic championship seemed open to sprinters and roleurs alike. In the end, the sprintingest roleur won the race, riding a smart tactical race with a short-handed team, only flexing his considerable muscle when it mattered most. Hushovd’s win was big for a hard-working rider, but also big for the jersey itself, as we are now almost guaranteed a second consecutive year of class from the world champ.
4) The First Biological Passport Suspensions—The UCI might have taken a more expeditious path to this stage of the fight against doping, but despite their missteps and the blundering press comments of president Pat McQuaid, the biological passport program finally produced some results in 2010. It remains to be seen how its parameters and administration will evolve as tools against cheaters, but with the first suspensions, we are finally seeing an adjunct program to in-race testing that seeks to catch the dopers who slip through the first net. Love it or hate it, the Passport must have dishonest riders worried that they’re running out of options, and that is, unquestionably, a good thing.
5) The SaxoBank Exodus/Luxembourg Project—It is hard for me to fathom how so many riders (and managers) whose careers were built and fostered by Bjarne Riis would be so willing to jump off the SaxoBank ship to join a fledgling team, regardless of the pedigree of its component parts. That Riis can be prickly, stubborn and aloof is beyond argument, but the mutiny of nearly his entire team is an outcome I never foresaw. Heap on top that insult, the injury of Contador’s doping problems, and it becomes very hard to argue that the Dane will land on his race-winning feet in 2011.
1) Cancellara’s Flanders/Roubaix Double—I have to echo Robot here. Not only were Cancellara’s back-to-back victories the wins of the year for me, I have to say that Cancellara’s attack on the Muur de Grammont—seated and spinning the 25 while Boonen looked to be standing on a 21—was absolutely the attack of the year for me. Both rides had me standing up and cheering.
That anyone would accuse the four-time time trial World Champion of using an electric motor is like asking about Kobe Bryant’s rocket boots he uses to get his jump shot. We should ignore the birthers. They’ll go away faster this way. We have real problems to contend with, as evidenced by number two.
2) The Contador Doping Case—From a standpoint of rules, I don’t see how Contador will escape a suspension due to his positive test for Clenbuterol. American rider Scott Moninger went to incredible lengths to demonstrate that what he tested positive for was as a result of supplements tainted by sloppy manufacturing. He purchased stock made in the same lot as the supplements he took and submitted sealed containers for testing. His defense was rigorously scientific … and he still got a one-year suspension due to strict liability. Contador’s defense has been far less methodical, which makes me far less sympathetic. His claims have, for me, smacked of the ‘dog ate my homework’ variety.
However, the bigger question on my mind has to do with testing for plasticizers. The detection of plasticizers in Contador’s sample suggests that officials may soon be able to prosecute riders more effectively for autologous blood transfusions. This seems to have been the preferred doping method for GC hopefuls for more than five years, but catching these riders has been less than successful. I don’t care who the rider is, if they’re transfusing, I want them caught and suspended as a result of a rigorously scientific prosecution.
3) The UCI’s Technical Criteria for Bike Approval—Bike companies have been screwed like an Ikea entertainment center by the UCI’s technical commission. Cinelli was nearly bankrupted due to the Spinacci fiasco. Their implementation of rules ahead of schedule sparked a seething rant from me that I ultimately deemed too angry to publish. I’m glad that a procedure to approve bicycles is in place. Unfortunately, the fee schedule to get a bike approved is expensive enough that some companies might think twice before submitting a design. Viewed within the larger expense of sponsoring a ProTeam team, it’s not so bad, but for companies that stretch to sponsor a Continental team, this could be a deal killer; after all, $12k is the cost of some riders. Leave it to the UCI to create a system that would scare bike companies from sponsoring a racing team. While this story will make more waves in 2011 than it did in 2010, that the criteria were decided and announced is huge. It’s an important step in the right direction.
4) The SaxoBank Exodus—Once Fabian Cancellara announced that he, too, would depart SaxoBank, I had a Sixth Sense moment. If you recall the Bruce Willis thriller, when you reach the end of the film and realize that he is the dead guy, you must reanalyze the entire picture—better yet, just watch it again. I began to wonder if all the praise riders had heaped upon Bjarne Riis was all Hollywood kiss-kiss, “Love ya, babe.” Presented with a viable option every rider worth anything jumped like passengers from the Titanic. It’s little surprise Richie Porte stayed behind; there’s nothing like watching the heirs apparent abdicate. ‘You say I’m king?! Cool!’
I can’t help but wonder what skeletons rattle in Riis’ closet.
5) The Fall of Lance Armstrong—Long before investigator Jeff Novitzky became interested in Tailwind Sports and Lance Armstrong, many cycling fans rebuked him like a banana republic reformer-cum-dictator. Allegations of doping swirled around him, proven sufficiently to some, while others simply saw the allegations as typical efforts to besmirch a hard-working athlete. Armstrong’s return to the Tour de France seems to have been more than disenfranchised Floyd Landis could bear. My read is that Landis believes he played by the same set of rules Armstrong did, won, and got a very different result. Forgetting for a moment how Landis has conducted himself (the most conclusive thing I can say is that some of his choices seem to have been based on fuzzy logic), it doesn’t seem hard to see how a man who has lost everything he worked for—wife, home, stepchild, a father-in-law, savings—decides he’ll burn the rest down. History is replete with examples of figures who refuse to go down alone, people who want others in the boat with them when the gunwales swamp.
Armstrong’s story has a lot of unfolding left to do. We knew the comeback would be a fresh chapter in the athlete’s career, but no one expected this turn. Novitzky’s reputation indicates that if he tires of his work as an investigator he could teach graduate seminars in tenacity. Armstrong is anything but convicted, but the allegations all point to a conclusion that will change the world’s opinion of him, and probably his foundation. The tragedy is that if he is convicted of charges associated with doping, most casual followers of cycling will think of Armstrong as a dirty athlete in a dirty sport and simply write off cycling as a force for good. Lost will be the story of an athlete who returned from the grave, played by the standard of the day and won the Tour de France … again and again and again and again and again and again.
And so we put the question to you: What were the biggest stories of the year in your eyes?
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International