Format, rider, or both?

Embed from Getty Images

This years Tour is incredibly close after 2 weeks, the top four are within 29 seconds of each other, with the next 4 within another 2 minutes from 4th place. This is unheard of at this stage in a Tour, after 60 hours in the saddle the time gaps are minuscule, without Porte’s crash involving Dan Martin & the time he lost there, he would be up in 2nd place @ 11s. This is a tight race, but why?

There’s several reasons, which have conspired together to reach this point, it’s not solely course design, other factors had to come into play in order to make the standings this close. A huge factor is who is not there, team leaders such as potentially the strongest rider in the race, Porte, but also protagonists Izagirre & Gesink. The non-mountain stages were also shaped by a missing Sagan, who’s presence would have changed tactics, even yesterday, would Sunweb & BMC have worked so hard if Sagan was there, meaning Aru may not have lost time?

Of great interest is the impact of missing ‘super-domestiques’, Thomas would have strengthened Sky, allowing them to more easily revert to their tried & tested (but fan-boring) mountain-train strategy, Fuglsang, fresh from Dauphine victory would have provided back up for Arg in the mountains. More interesting & potentially a huge impact is Valverde, he crashed due to his commitment, meaning that he thought he wasn’t just here for back-up, he meant business, and probably quite righly so after Quintana diluted his performance by racing the Giro to win. His team leader Quintana is hovering around the bottom of the top ten, Valverde was as good as ever, likely would have become team leader by performance.

Finally, we have the course. Fewer mountain top finishes to focus all GC contenders attacking on one type of effort, favouring riders like Froome. Less time trialling early on, again favouring strong time triallists like Froome who then command a seemingly unassailable lead early in the race. The short mountain stages also provide the springboard for opportunist attacks, which probably wouldn’t happen with an extra 90 to 100km in the legs.

All these features have conspired to produce a close race, which in turn produces attacks. If the gaps are small riders think they have a chance to take the jersey. If the gaps on GC are 2 or 3 minutes, the riders go into damage limitation mode, being realistic that they are unlikely to gain more than a few seconds. If the gaps are a few seconds, anybody who’s still within those margins can realistically take the jersey.

What we can see from this, is that by designing a similar course next year, we probably won’t see a similar Tour. As usual, it’s the riders that make the race, injuries, dropouts, crashes & in some cases performance reducing naturally with age (Bert). I’m looking forward to the next week, I don’t believe we’ll see as close a finish as 8 seconds in 1989, but I do suspect we’ll see do-or-die attacks from the likes of Bardet & Uran. If the Colombian can pull something off, he can time trial very well, having won a TT over 40km in the 2014 Giro, with Froome not looking quite as strong as usual, he may not have to pull back as large a buffer as most imagine in the final TT. An interesting week ahead.

 

Rest Day Predictions

Embed from Getty Images

When somebody who looks perfectly capable of attacking & doesn’t attack, it either means they’re not interested, or they have a serious plan. I’m putting my thoughts for a thrilling final week of the Tour out there. As far as predictions go, I’ve got past history of being very wrong, so don’t place any bets based on this.

WeeQ

I’m more convinced than ever that Nairo Quintana is going to win this Tour now. He’s had ample opportunity to have a go, but has refrained. We’ll not see anything happen on GC until Thursday, when the big gaps start to appear among the top 20. Even on Ventoux, I’m still convinced Quintana won’t have an all out attack, he’ll maybe try a probing attack to see how Froome is feeling. After last year, he knows that rather than wasting energy when Froome is still fresh in the first 2 weeks, he can instead take possibly minutes in the finalé of a 3 week Tour.

The day after Ventoux, we have an undulating 37.5km time trial, if things are going to Movistar’s plans, Nairo will lose no more than 30 seconds here, likely less, his time trialling has improved alongside his other abilities.

The Final Week

We get more mountains on Sunday preceding the final week, which could be animated, not by Movistar, but by Sky, if the time gap in the TT is less than expected (which I think is likely), we’ll see panic mode. This plays into the Colombians hands, wearing out his rival team & isolating his main challenger for the final climb of Lacets du Grand Colombier.

WedsStageProfile

Looking at the profiles, Wednesday looks to be the springboard for a Quintana time grab. The final 30km include the Col da la Forclaz (no, not that one, we’re in Switzerland) & a summit finish at Finhaut-Emosson (note final kilo at 12.3%, at over 1900m). The Movistar pace on the penultimate climb could reduce Froome’s domestiques to 1 or 2, then we encounter an ever steepening 10km climb to the Emosson Dam. If there ever was an uncontrollable summit finish, this is it, with two climbs in succession to split teams & leave is with a battle of the leaders. Looking at Quintana’s confidence, it looks like he’d relish the chance of a man to man battle with Froome, to me it would seem they might not be alone, Dan Martin might quite like this stage finish too. I suspect after this stage the overall time gap between 1st & 2nd overall will be very close.

Thursdays mountain TT is made for Quintana, expect the jersey to change hands here.

Friday & Saturday are more of the same, big mountain stages, with Quintana taking control of the GC. He left it until the final mountain stage last year, this year I predict he’ll choose the 3 final mountain stages & the time trial. Not the gamble everybody seems to be suggesting he’s taking by leaving it until the end, there are plenty of opportunities.

The Rest Of Them

Unless one of them have a really bad day, I expect Froome & Quintana to have a 4 or 5 minute gap to the fight for the last place on the podium. It looks likely that the most risk averse of the other likely podium contenders will be Porte. He’s more likely to hang on, not attempt to win a stage & result in a high overall place from being dropped last by Froome & Quintana. On the other hand, Dan Martin may lose loads of time trying to win, but I suspect he can make the top 5 this year. The other top 5 in Bardet, who could make the podium if he did a ‘Porte’, but is also likely to try & win a stage himself. Adam Yates is riding superbly, but probably still a bit early in his career for him not to suffer from a bad day, he’ll have other chances for a podium in this race. I’m putting Kreuzeger in 6th, which will be some achievement, after all his team have gone home & Oleg hires a Megabus for the final stages. Funnily enough, Oleg is exactly the kind of person you expect to meet on a Megabus. Place your bets, or don’t, it’s up to you.

My top 10:

  1. Quintana
  2. Froome
  3. Porte
  4. Bardet
  5. D.Martin
  6. Kreuziger
  7. Yates
  8. Van Garderen
  9. Mollema
  10. Meintjes

The New Religion

Embed from Getty ImagesIt used to be the case that if you couldn’t explain something, you blamed God, then if anybody came up with an alternative based on evidence, they came to a horrible end. As time passed, the evidence based explanation became more popular & the lazy old ideas slowly drifted into obscurity, with only the individuals who had proclaimed their super-natural explanation as ‘fact’ continuing to shout very loudly about it in an attempt to save face. Much the same is happening in cycling right now, I suspect we’ve got a long way to go before it stabilises & we actually know what’s happening.

“Doper!”

You don’t ‘know’ that Chris Froome or anybody else is doping, it’s just your opinion. Without evidence, your opinion is just as valid as anybody elses, it doesn’t make your point of view seem any more valid by calling somebody else naive, nationalistic or stupid. But that’s what’s been going on for quite a few days now. The timing of ‘The Video’ release was used to incite this, maybe even to help Froome get a hard time from the fans on the mountains, ‘public relations doping’ if you like. It worked, everybody & their granny’s been calling Froome & his team dopers, it’s not letting up.

I find these repetitive accusations based solely on performance quite lazy, I suppose that’s human nature, the ‘Religion’ methodology, used to explain something that’s tricky. With the current furore (as 8pm 16/7/15, you never know what’ll happen tomorrow) there’s no actual evidence of drug taking, no links to one of the infamous devil-doctors or coaches, no disgruntled ex team-mates spilling the beans about the sordid goings-on. It’s simply based on beating other riders, riding over 6W/kg, or climbing hills faster than somebody who it’s perceived can’t be beaten because they were ‘on the gear’. There’s quite a few flaws in this.

The magic number of 6W/kg is often banded about as the absolute limit of human capability, mostly not by experts, but its been widely adopted by the doper religion as ‘fact’. But as revealed on a podcast by Ross Tucker (a scientist who’s been quite outspoken about Froome’s performances), the top riders don’t reveal their data. This causes a few jitters with me, scientists base their statistics on evidence, but if the top flight of riders data is missing, they’re either estimating it or it’s excluded, which could make the 6W/kg figure low if those figures are excluded. This could mean that the magical 6W/kg figure is based on 2nd tier riders & really means nothing at all to the lead group in the mountains. Ross Tucker himself said THIS in 2010 about the figure, he doesn’t think it proves doping either, “It does not mean this number separates the world into light & dark”. I’ve got a lot of respect for Tucker, he knows his stuff, but I get the feeling that he’s starting to let his emotions get in the way on this one, possibly for a very good reason. I think this may be partially down to the incredible distrust that Sky appear to be able to generate in an instant, as he states in his latest blog. They’re turning scientists against them now.

PR Geniuses

You’d think a media company would know what they’re doing, incredibly they’re probably the most useless team at PR in the pro peloton. I don’t think this is down to any of their PR staff, but a series of gaffes from the top of the organisation, that lead to nobody in their right mind trusting their judgement on many things. This, in turn, allows people to come to the easy conclusion that they can’t be trusted in general.

In today’s stage, Geraint Thomas has been slated as a doper, for being able to ride with the lead group on Plateau de Beille. With comments questioning how a Classics rider can stay with the best GC riders on the climbs. What really surprises me about this is that the rider attacking the GC group was Valverde, a Classics winner & former doper (I also have zero evidence to suspect Valverde right now, so as far as I’m concerned he’s not doping either), yet I’ve not seen a single accusation today about him! Last year two French riders on the podium, didn’t see anything calling them out either. So where does this massive distrust of Sky come from, it’s not simply performance, because others are performing & being left relatively alone? I’d suggest, being closed, cagey, ultra defensive & banging on about how you do things better than everybody else is the answer to this.

Sky have managed to manoeuvre themselves into a position where they tell you they have something to hide, implying its training, while refusing to tell anybody exactly what it is. We come back to the evidence thing again, without evidence people make their own conclusions, in this case Sky created the situation where people are looking for a piece of information, because they created a gap all by themselves. If they’d not implied they had their secret training methods & marginal gains, then nobody would be looking to fill that empty gap of information with stuff they made up themselves. This is entirely their fault.

The Gist Of It

I didn’t previously think this was the case, but I think it’s maybe time for Sky to finally start releasing some power data. The last few days have seen all sorts of nonsense, like 160 bpm at functional threshold power being caused by drugs, not seeing huge heart rate spikes on ‘The Video’, etc (See this for an indication of how sprints up to 1500W effect heart rate in a track points race). Folks will find all sorts of reasons if there’s already an inbuilt distrust.

As far as the future goes, it’s likely we’ve never seen the most naturally talented general classification cyclist on a bike yet. The big danger with the ‘The New Religion’ is that when this individual does comes along, we won’t be able to enjoy it, it’ll be seen as some kind of super doping that can’t be explained by what we’ve seen before. So as far as I’m concerned, I’m going to attempt to enjoy this sport, I’m not going to let the new doping religion ruin it for me. I also still think Quintana has a chance of winning this thing, it’s not over yet, Froome may pay for his early efforts later, if that happens what will we blame that on?

 

 

Dauphine 2014 Observations#2

Embed from Getty Images

Talansky! A fantastic result for Garmin, who took the race by the scruff of the neck  & showed what can be done against riders who currently have superiority in the mountains. With a damaged Froome & an isolated Contador, we’ve seen during the past few days just how easily things can fall apart. It’s also obvious now just how close the top riders really are to each other this year. The Critérium du Dauphiné has blurred my Tour podium viewfinder, I’m now standing much further away from the photo & somebody’s removed the crosshairs, any number of riders could be up there in 3 weeks!

Contador, Froome, Talansky, Van Den Broeck, Nibali, Valverde, Quintana, they should all be there at the Tour, in similar condition, along with the anomaly of Horner, who has a habit of popping up from nowhere in form. But what a win from Talansky, he took a risk & it worked, we generally see that result in a confidence boost. I’d not rule the American out of a good podium place in the Tour. The big question for me, what’s Quintana got left in the tank after the Giro? There will be fireworks on the opening mountain stages as everybody thinks they’ve got a chance now, so if Valverde falls, we then get to see what the Colombian can do against all the big guns, something I’d hoped we’d see him focus on this year, but sadly not.

Froomedog Limps Home

What was I saying in ‘The Madness of Sir Dave‘ about making sure everybody gets an opportunity? Today Nieve took a well deserved win having been cut free from the shackles of leader-leading. Lopez was left to stick Froome in his basket & get him home in as best a state as he could. These gestures will make a difference in July, Froome now knows his rivals are much closer to him this year, having a super loyal Nieve with a Dauphine stage win under his belt is going to solidify support from the rider who looks likes his strongest mountain ally.

Did Froome’s crash really make all the difference here, or was he going to get beaten anyway, that we will never know, but will be able to surmise come the Tour. It seems to me that the display of incessant attacking on the initial mountain stage was maybe too much. Froome will need to ride much more conservatively in future if he hopes to beat more equal rivals. It looks like everybody else has caught up, making attacks count when your opponents are at their weakest is going to the best option, not attacking like crazy on the first mountain stage when everybody is fresh.

The Gist Of It

As usual, the Dauphine sets the scene for the Tour, but this time it’s not given us one hot favourite, it’s opened up the race as a potential joy from a fans perspective. If time gaps are expected to be small, the race may be decided on opportunism. The cols will be important, but so will cross winds & descents, if you think the initial week is often nervous, you’ve probably seen nothing yet, with no single hot favourite to win & riders trying to grab seconds wherever they can. It’s going to be a feast.

 

Dauphine 2014 Observations#1

Embed from Getty Images

The Dauphiné has always seemed quite a special race to me, I’m not entirely sure why, perhaps it’s Robert Millar’s fault. It encompasses many of the parts I enjoy most about the Tour de France, notably some familiar mountains, but also it allows the drama to ignite between the Tour contenders. It’s a huge race to win regardless of what happens at the Tour, some riders honing form, some taking psychological blows on rivals, others fighting for team places, the shadow of the Tour de France is all over this race. The Critérium du Dauphiné is where things really start kicking off between the major stars in cycling, but also between the domestiques, this & the Tour de Suisse are battle grounds between GC contenders & the final places on Tour de France rosters, the stakes are high.

The Story So Far

We’re up to stage six & looking forward to the finale of the weekend mountain stages, with Saturday likely to be the most brutal. What have we learned about the form of the Tour contenders present at this race?

The opening 10km prologue was won by Froome, which isn’t really a surprise. Interestingly we saw Contador finish in 2nd place, his time trialling hasn’t really been up to its former incredible level for a while now, but it looks like he’s back to near his best, but hopefully not up to the Cancellara beating performances of 2009*. Contador’s interviews have shown that he’s been doing much more aerobic training than ever before during the winter, so using different methods for base training looks to be paying off for him, showing he was always a talented rider. Bert is a joy to watch on the bike, while Froome is as ungainly as ever, his upper body always seeming unable to deal with the power passing through his legs, but it seems to work for him. The contrasting styles make their battles even more compelling, the third week in July is going to see many casualties if these two remain or improve on the form they currently have.

The accelerations we saw on the Col du Béal from Froome were impressive. Seated accelerations under high load to reach a high cadence are not unfamiliar to anybody from a track background. Although some marvel at them, it looks to me like an attack on a fixed gear in a velodrome, something of which the coaches from the BC system who now work with Sky will have had many years of experience in developing. When people ask what exactly can we transfer from track to mountains, I’d suggest that the seated acceleration Froome is displaying is potentially one of the un-noticed ones. I can’t really remember anybody else making this so effective in the past, even in the ‘bad old’ years. It’s an incredibly efficient way to attack if you can do it, he stays aero & crouched, especially important for him as he has the upper body mass of Gollum, if he got out of the saddle too much he’d snap.

As for the performance being extraordinary, there were no huge time gaps over other contenders, such as Nibali, who although being touted as being out of form, still managed to finish within 30 seconds. Froome’s accelerations were mightily impressive, but his ability to sustain that effort didn’t seem possible, had it been he may have been able to break Bert, but that never happened & they slowed to allow the others to re-group. I found Talansky & Kelderman to be showing signs they can also be challenging for high positions in July. The Garmin rider is looking much more like a top 5 Tour rider now, the teams 2014 protected rider it seems, Kelderman for the white jersey? Van Den Broeck was also riding well, all these riders took their chances & had a go at attacking, we’ll see what happens on Saturday.

Otherwise so far the only significant point for the GC was when Contador attacked on a descent, which I’ll cover later.

* (Before anybody else tells me Lac d’Annecy was a very hilly TT, it wasn’t, there was one wee bump, I’ve ridden the course, he rode 40.5km in 48 & a half minutes, not exactly a mountain TT speed). 

Porte in a Storm

When Sky decided to make a point on stage 2, the Col du Béal being the battle ground. Thomas did a huge turn, but we saw Richie Porte ‘attack out the back’ of the group, when we expect him to one of the last riders at head of the Sky train. Nieve is looking like the last guy who’s going to lead Froome in the latter stages of the Tour mountains, unless Porte can pull something together & sort out his consistency.

I suspect Richie doesn’t recover as well as Froome, but if given a rest for a day or two can be right up there with the best again. Perhaps not indicating he’s a Grand Tour winner (yet), but certainly a super-domestique & week-long stage race winner when the big boys are not in town. This was evident yesterday, Contador attacked on a descent (which I hope he keeps doing) & the gap went out to over a minute, Porte was working on the front, with only himself & Nieve left to help Froome. As the gap went out I thought Porte was unable to close it, but he quickly increased the pace & took 40 seconds from Contador, on a climb over a short distance. This shows he’s still got the ability after all his problems this year, but he needs to be used wisely, insisting on him going for a high overall placing isn’t going to help anybody, he needs used, rested, then used on another stage, he can’t double up. A vanity attempt to get a good result on GC is going to end in tears I suspect, plus a rider falling apart & seeming to fail isn’t going to help Sky’s PR after leaving the bearded one behind.

The Gist Of It

You can’t bluff on Saturday, 161 km through two 2nd cat climbs, a 1st cat & two beyond category, anybody suffering will be found out. I’ve ridden the Forclaz, but not familiar with the Finhaut Emosson, which rides to nearly 2000m for a mountain top finish. I’ll be finding some excuse to be sitting in front of the telly to see what happens there tomorrow, hopefully Froome’s crash today won’t blur anything & we’ll see a true Froome/Contador battle on the final mountain.

 

The Madness of Sir Dave

Embed from Getty Images

The fans are unhappy, well lets say ‘irate’ over Wiggins dropping the bombshell to the British public, that one of their fondest sporting icons will not be chosen for the Sky Team for the Tour de France. This is the culmination of a series of problems running right back to the 2011 Vuelta Espania, where the physical abilities of Froome & Wiggins were first seen in direct comparison. This led to power struggle within the team which was never dealt with satisfactorily, the Sky management & initial premise the team was set up on are to blame. The riders are only doing what they can to protect their own positions, after all other avenues have failed, I blame the team, not either rider. Dave Brailsford lost the changing room a long time ago, fluffy management & a failure to imagine the consequences of that are now hugely evident, it looks like madness to not have dealt with conflicts a long time ago.

Blurred Definition

When Team Sky was launched, the public were led to believe that it was very close to Team GB, which was further accentuated by the sharing of resources, specifically the staff & management. Dave Brailsford was taking on a dual role, having had incredible success with the track team & produced multiple gold medals, he was put in charge of both Sky & GB, although only recently he’s assumed only Sky leadership. In hindsight, we can consider that a grave error. Sky was portrayed to the public as an accentuation of Team GB, a very British team, continuing the Olympic success into the trickier, but much more lucrative & competitive world of professional cycling. One week we’d see Brailsford in his Sky kit, the next he’d be doing an interview in the GB kit, the general sports fans would have assumed that Sky & GB were one & the same, it’s unthinkable for a top football team to have the same manager as the national team, surely they’re the same?

Again, in hindsight, we can look back & see that this was never going to be a suitable arrangement in the long-term. A professional team funded by one of the most ruthless media empires on the planet, running alongside a team based on winning medals at the Olympics. One hugely commercial & value determined by media exposure & increasing sales, the other based on a four-year cycle & the value based on the ‘feel good’ factor of a nation. These two contrasting motivations are mostly incompatible, but only occasionally cross over, was it correct to have the same people running them?

The Future

Sky was seen as a place for young British riders to develop their talent, it’s the place to avoid now, as shown by the Yates brothers going to Orica Green Edge instead. They were fully aware that they would be used as lower slope cannon-fodder for Froome or Wiggins, which wasn’t the best option for their career progression. Take Peter Kennaugh as a prime example, huge talent, but not given the chances he deserves & put in positions where he can’t show his talent or learn to become a leader. Other teams would revel in having a rider like him, but Sky’s formulaic approach to stage racing ignores the majority of riders they have in their ranks & their ability to win races, or stages of major events.

In many people’s eyes, Sky WAS Bradley Wiggins, he epitomised it’s Britishness, with his RAF logo & the Olympic throne image, further accentuating the blurring between Sky & GB. With Wiggins now likely leaving, perhaps Brailsford can look on this as a new dawn, he can put to one side his previous pressures from the British public to put national icons, or British riders first. They’ve been hugely successful up to now, with multiple stage race wins & two Tour de France victories. But as things are, things have to change to manage the expectations of all their riders, not just a handful of ‘favourites’. Sky need to keep riders happy, which is where an effective managements team & strategy is required. Sky doesn’t have that, their clinical approach to stage racing is being copied by others, but their man-management certainly is not.

In order for Sky to progress & keep their sponsors happy, they now need to change tack. Taking the incredible hard-line on removing anybody who had any links to doping is now looking like a bad move, while those staff members had their faults, they removed access to the people who would be able to manage the current situation very well. Those who understand the sport, have ridden in teams where there have been huge ego wars & know how to sort problems. Maybe it’s time to rethink that strategy, to soften it a little & stop the same thing happening over again, rather than removing an entire generation of experience from having an input.

Managing Expectations

Embed from Getty Images

When riders have to resort to releasing books to determine harmonious Tour squads, or appearing on rival news programmes to your team sponsor to put their side of the story across, the management have failed. In fact, its complete madness to have allowed things to get into the situation they are currently in. Two huge talents, whose personalities have been dramatically mismanaged since 2011. Both have released books in which they report the strains between each other, hopefully what we are seeing now is the bottom of the pit & things can improve.

There’s a danger that if the expectations of riders are not seen to be managed correctly, then Sky will only attract a certain type of talent. The ambitious young riders may stay clear & seek other teams to learn their craft, left with the mid to late career riders seeking a payout rather than glory, remember that team the Texan was on, with him & a bunch of old guys on good salaries. Nobody wants to see that happen to Sky, but the kind of public ‘bust-ups’ that we’re seeing now are only going to turn the team in one direction.

Sky need to offer opportunities, realistic ones to all their riders. Riders need to share leadership roles during the season, could their classics seasons be an example of how this is something seriously lacking, maybe their riders simply don’t know how to lead a team due to having never had to? Various riders have commented on that, including Ian Stannard in Rouleur last year, they need opportunities & team support, not just in maintaining wattages to burn off the competition, but to win when others are individually stronger than yourselves. We generally call this ‘tactics’, something which are generally absent from the best performing events for GB at the Olympics. Brailsford tends to call this ‘not able to control’, what he means is he doesn’t know how to control it if it’s not based on simply having more watts than the next guy.

The Gist Of It

There’s a danger that Froome is going to hated by the UK public when the Tour arrives in the UK if this continues in the press. This isn’t correct, I think the venom is aimed at the wrong target, the target isn’t necessarily Dave Brailsford, but a team’s ethos, projected image, lack of experience & poor management. They’ve made a series of blunders which have led to the extreme measures both riders have taken to try & protect their positions. I do have faith that Brailsford can pull this back if he’s given the opportunity, I think he’s a man who can learn from mistakes, losing Wiggins may be his saviour, it may also be Wiggins, allowing him to fulfill his potential, which is still huge. Sky are left with a potential multiple grand tour winner & a wealth of talent, if used wisely & nurtured correctly, then it can flourish across events outside just the major stage races. They also need to reconfigure their staff recruitment policies & get some (maybe just the one) big-ego hard liners in to sort out any future conflicts, I wonder how much Bernard Hinault is charging these days for conflict negotiation duties.

FrUnderdog

Much has been said about the meteoric rise of Sky’s stage racing surprise, Chris Froome. We find ourselves asking how can somebody so suddenly rise from pack fodder to taking 2nd place in two grand tours in such a short space of time? Forums & Twitter are full of people ‘who know’ Froome is doping, but they don’t actually know, they’re just putting forward viewpoints, so it’s rarely you see any explanations for him performing as he does, I’m trying to offer the alternative in this blog. If the Forum/Twitter hordes are incorrect, they are slating the thing they want to happen, a clean winner, it may be true it may not, but none of us have hard evidence either way, so opinion is currently our only tool. I half-expect to get proven wrong in an apocalyptic Rasmussen style expose in July, but here’s why I’m going to give a cautious smile if Froome wins in Paris in July.

Rouleur admissions

It’s well worth getting yourself a copy of the latest Rouleur, it carries a very good interview with Froome, Ned Boulting portraying him as an overly polite octopus killer & for the first time I recall, he’s said that he DID attack on La Toussuire in last years Tour. Seemingly he thought his team leader was fine in the group, dropped back to look at everybody, then had a go for himself, unaware he was about to get chastised over the radio. He was trying to make a race of it, after an almost processional Tour, this is what the fans were looking for, the top two riders vying for supremacy, but only one looked supreme that day, he ended up being the loyal domestique & sacrificing his own personal ambitions for ‘The Team’ and allowing the Sky media machine to process their very British champion (although Belgian born & Australian fathered) over the questionable Britishness of a Kenyan expat. Maybe they didn’t quite believe it either. During the interview I also liked the fact that his girlfriend, Michelle Cound liked to slag him over his ungainly bike riding style, Froome seems to just let her get on with her own style of PR, he seems slightly amused by it, he’s not trying to create a media personality, he seems like somebody who’s just likes getting on with it. You’ll probably get some interesting insights by following her on Twitter, you can see them HERE.

Sacrifices

We’ve seen Froome sacrifice himself for the same team leader on two occasions while in a great position to win a Grand Tour. In the 2011 Vuelta, Sky changed the leadership at a very late stage once it was obvious that Wiggins was faltering, even though Froome had actually been wearing the race leaders jersey after the Stage 10 Time Trial. It ended up with Cobo winning, with Team Sky taking 2nd & 3rd on the podium. Most believe that had Froome been team leader earlier in the race, he would have been victorious, he would not have had to work, would have been able to follow the moves & more importantly, he would have been allowed to attack.

We all know the story at the 2012 Tour, where Froome was obviously the strongest rider in the race & team tactics dictated the winner. It’s no surprise that keeping Froome chained any longer is not going to help Team Sky in any way, he needs to be unleashed as he has been during early 2013.

The Doping Issue

Nobody can say that Froome’s performances don’t seem out of this world, they are incredible. I don’t have any hero’s in cycling, to put it bluntly I can’t trust anybody anymore. On that basis, I’ve given up trying to sum up who’s doping & who’s not just by performances, I don’t base it on court evidence either (if there is some, I’d obviously take that as proof), I base it on history, who they associate themselves with & inconsistency relative to others & themselves (currently or previously). Sometimes I even consider them less likely to dope because I like their personality, but nice guys dope too, I’m sure we all do that, I’m sure most of the online rants start because somebody simply doesn’t like a certain rider, it’s easy to get caught up in it.

Let’s take two convicted dopers, Contador & Valverde, since their return to the peloton I am almost at the point of thinking that these guys are now clean, their performances are way down on where they were previously, each rider still attempts to attack as before but cannot sustain it, they also cannot repeatedly attack like they used to & their time trial performances are much worse than before. We’ve seen Contador beat Cancellara on a relatively flat time trial around Lake Annecy (for those who say it’s got a hill in it, I’ve ridden the course, the hill is nothing to bother these guys), he now finishes time trials around the positions of other climbers, in around 50th place, this looks real to me. I’m not saying that these guys are not supremely talented riders, Contador in particular now looks like an incredibly talented climber, but he has suddenly lost the other talents he used to have while maintaining his climbing ability, which is also diminished but still good enough to perform well against a ‘cleaner’ & less corrupt sport, i.e. you probably can’t buy a test result anymore under closer scrutiny, whether that’s governing bodies, labs, or other forces that allowed that to happen, we don’t know yet.

My point is, that it’s easy to compare Froome to Contador and assume the worst, but we’re comparing him to something that has changed dramatically, the Contador of today has no turbo fitted, he’s normally aspirated these days. Likewise with most riders from the previous era, they’ve suddenly lost a lot more than just the dope, they’ve lost years of information & progress while under the tutelage of tarnished individuals. The old-school teams are (and were) run by people of that era, they have no idea how to gain a Tour winning performance clean, they never had to & their riders never had to, they presumably just injected it & one large time-consuming area of training was overlooked for potentially two decades. These teams & riders may have a hugely diminished idea about how to bring their riders to that kind of aerobic level naturally, than teams who have invested heavily in sports science & not just employing one of the blood manipulation centres or doctors.

Meanwhile, during that period, other teams had been developing coaching & training methods, we can assume not the top flight teams (they wouldn’t have been competitive), but perhaps amateur teams, this is where working within the rules has potentially became a bit of an art form (Chris Boardman said himself that the position rules were something to ‘bump up to’, a guide to show how far you can go). So we know that formerly amateur outfits, like the GB track team, were working just inside the guidelines on dimensional rules to gain advantage, can we also assume they were using sports science to replicate what made the EPO era riders go so fast, that’s where the smart money is? Attempting to discover what physiological characteristics the EPO enhanced in riders & how could similar enhancements be replicated without the use of drugs & without compromising rider safety or health?

The New Peloton

My assumption is that the massive changes stated above are happening right now within the peloton, that we’re currently in a very important transition period, that the new methods which evade the positive tests but get similar physiological results are state-of-the-art training, coaching & facilities. In a bizarre manner, these advances may not have been possible without the EPO era, after all where would sports science have gathered their data for turning increasing blood volume & haematocrit translating into exceptional performance, with EPO charged riders they could now measure this & set a target to aim at. This current transition period makes the old-school riders look relatively poor & the new-school riders look superhuman. It won’t last, the old-school teams didn’t have untalented riders, they used different methods, it will take a couple of years to catch up as new-age riders filter out of the coach led teams & into the old-school teams, spreading the knowledge. The managers of these teams must be having a very hard time right now, time-consuming & expensive coaching & facilities require a much larger budget than black market pharmaceuticals, they have to justify their budget increases & they have some hard questions to answer to their sponsors.

So things are changing rapidly, there’s plenty of riders getting popped right now, plenty of biological passport transgressions getting aired & hopefully this is reducing the attraction of taking shortcuts. As I’ve said in previous blogs, we’re moving back into an era of specialists, climbers who can’t time trial, time trialists who can’t climb, Colombians, if you remember 80’s pro racing, it looks a bit like that.

So Why Froome

I’ve stated the scene pro cycling is currently operating within above (as I see it). So how has a mid bunch level climber become a Grand Tour winner, bearing in mind he’s not actually won any yet, but you get the idea.

For all you watts-per-kg nerds out there, lets first of all take a look at that, Froome looks like skin & bone now, but google-image some photos back to 2010 & you’ll see quite a difference, he’s lost a lot of weight. His own website says he currently weighs 69kg, so some websites have reported that he can average 6W/kg for some 30 minute climbs. That would give us an estimate of 414W for his 30 minute critical power (CP30), you’d normally take about 5% off this to give a rough estimate of functional threshold power, so we then get the figure of about 393W for critical threshold power, that equates to about 5.7W/kg.

So if we don’t even consider any training advances since 2010 & assume he’s only lost a conservative 3kg, we’d calculate his old W/kg at threshold as 5.45W/kg. He wouldn’t make the front group on the Tour mountains with that power to weight value. The difference between being an also ran & making one of the front groups in the mountains is marginal. He was previously an also ran, he couldn’t go with the big ‘turbo’ attacks, he was heavier, he didn’t have access to modern coaching & he was from a far away land. The last point is possibly the most crucial, an African racing in the Euro peloton is going to be treated with suspicion, not what they’re used to, perhaps Froome avoided getting involved in EPO due to being an outcast, could he be trusted? This could be why his current performance seems so unnatural, it could be that he performed against a doped peloton in the past, then when the doping gets less he looks better & better. I’m not saying he didn’t want to dope, but he may not have been in the gang, like an English student appearing in 2nd year of a Scottish inner city secondary school, he’s not going to have lots of friends, he’s not in ‘the club’.

I’ve also got this niggle about his improvement after he was awarded the full support of Team Sky, there hasn’t been much, it happened at the very beginning of his step up to the top squads, once he had access to the coaching system. If there was some mystical team wide doping programme going on, I’d assume that they wouldn’t allow their riders of lower stature, or riders they may not have been keeping, to know what was going on. Froome only rose to the top during the 2011 Vuelta, up to that point he was still looking for a team for 2012, surely only the most idiotic DS would introduce him to the top-level doping programme at that point. It just doesn’t add up, if there was a top-level programme for their top riders, surely Froome would have improved dramatically since then, he’s not, he’s just remained extraordinary. So if they have a ‘super programme’, it doesn’t work. I don’t think they do.

Public Opinion

The reason I wrote this piece is because I like Froome, he comes across as a very polite man in TV interviews, there’s no bravado & he seems to value the position he’s in without mocking anybody. The French love him, he does his French interviews first, where some of his English-speaking predecessors were asked questions in French, they responded in English, there is no such thing here. In one l’Equipe headline he has now been given the tag ‘Froome le Patron‘. On the other hand, the impression I get with Wiggins is that he’s uncomfortable in public, the way he deals with it isn’t meant in the manner it comes across, but it comes across badly to the public worldwide. It seems like Wiggins public personality isn’t managed in a positive manner. He won BBC Sports Personality, but outside the UK he’s misunderstood in the extreme, he doesn’t deserve the kind of ridicule he gets, but the French take offence to speeches that liken the podium ceremony of the Tour to a chipper bike race or village fete raffle, perhaps more than Armstrong’s ‘miracle’ speech.

My view is that there are various reasons why we can believe his extraordinary performances are real, but I can also see why there are serious doubts, we’ll just have to wait & see. I just hope the sport has cleaned up as much as the riders are telling us, but in the past it’s been proven you can trust a rider as much as you can an MP, an Apprentice contestant or a TV presenter, I’ll not hold my breath.

Follow me on Twitter.

Knee Deep in Motivation

Bradley Wiggins, after an outstanding 2012 is struggling to come to terms with an ordinary 2013, lets take a look at how that might have come about.

2012

Lets not forget just how stellar a year it was for Wiggo in 2012, here’s a list of his main achievements during the year.

  • Winner : Paris Nice
  • Winner : Tour de Romandie
  • Winner : Criterium du Dauphine
  • Winner : Tour de France
  • Gold Medal : Olympic Time Trial

He won Paris Nice & almost everybody wondered why he was peaking so early, then at Romandie we were astounded, he’d kept that peak going. Moving on to the Dauphine & we were sure he had peaked to early on the run up to the Tour, then the Tour came along & he took that too (although we don’t really know how strong Froome was, or if he was stronger would he have been mentally ready to lead the team). Finally the Olympic Gold medal was taken in London in front of huge crowds. An incredibly hard season to follow, most riders would be legends winning these events over an entire career, let along one season.

2013

We really have no idea about what effect maintaining his 2012 form over a long period of time has had on Wiggin’s body, let along his mind, the discipline he ruled on himself must have been incredible. We also have to factor is the stardom effect, after a year like that he’s moved from somebody most people had heard of to a household name in the UK, the media demands are huge for somebody thrown into that kind of fame over a relatively short period of time.

In order for an ‘engine’ like Wiggo to perform against the climbers, he has to run at an incredibly low body weight, which we presume a Sky doctor is constantly monitoring in order to keep him healthy. So we can also presume that a body fat percentage like that is a fine line between staying healthy & performing incredibly well. Perhaps this is one of the reasons that he’s been unable to maintain the kind of form he enjoyed in 2012, maybe it’s impossible for the Sky backup team to factor in all the appearances he had to make in winter 2012/2013 in relation to his relative public demand in the winter of 2011/2012, where he’d really only won the Dauphine & it has very little public perception in the UK.

So far in 2013, he’s finished 5th in both the Giro del Trentino & the Vuelta a Catalunya, with some mechanical problems adding to the disappointment. In the Giro we were having to come to various conclusions as to what was going wrong, be it form, illness, motivation, or a mixture of them all, which resulted in having to withdraw with a chest infection.

What is going on?

There’s no reason to believe that Wiggins didn’t have a chest infection at the Giro, but I’d ponder that a chain of events have led to this being the case. Possibly started by a lack of motivation, after all, what exactly did he have to prove by re-running the 2012 season, which as he stated himself, would have been a failure if he didn’t surpass what he achieved last year. So the Giro was targeted, but can we be sure that the Giro is as motivationally tempting to him as the Tour, regardless of what’s said in press conferences, we’d imagine not. So this leads to my motivation pondering, can a lower level of motivation lead to an athlete becoming ill?

Take the winter of 2011/2012, Wiggins knows he has the ability to win the Tour, the following year is made for him, he decides to give his all to turning up at the Tour is the best shape possible. He knuckles down & lives a life none of us can imagine, carefully controlling absolutely everything in his life, he does this for a full year with one thing in mind.

Now we move on to the winter of 2012/2013, he’s won the Tour, the next year’s is going to be a harder course for him & he also knows that his team-mate will be less inclined to hold back this time, a team-mate who it niggles him in the back of his mind may have had the ability to beat him without team orders. Wiggins has to be better than 2012 in order to win the Tour again, he has to be better to even have team leadership, in all likelihood he’ll be a super-domestique for Froome if he concentrates on the Tour. He doesn’t take quite as much care of himself (still living a life of discipline none of us can really imagine), he has huge demands on his time, his recovery time is affected massively, with travelling, functions, late nights etc.

If you take a step back & look at what Wiggins has had to endure during the winter, demands far above what he’s ever been used to in the past, 2013 was always going to be a disappointment. He knew he also had to improve to do the same again, so he focussed on the Giro instead and reshaped his calendar around that. Essentially he lowered his targets to some extent in order to focus on different goals, it was a plan that may have worked, but a weather stricken Giro, form not at 100% & a stunning Nibali put and end to those hopes rapidly. Brad had to go deep into his reserves, presumably with an incredibly low body fat percentage, slightly lower form & unseasonably bad weather in the Giro, all added to something Sky couldn’t control & the wheels came off the wagon. We don’t know what would have happened had any factors been different, but Wiggin’s team-mate eventually finishing 2nd (at over 4 mins) shows that had things gone to Sky’s plan, Brad would surely have been expected to finish above Uran, i.e much closer or ahead of Nibali. But looking at it, it seems unlikely that the Maglia Rosa would have been on anybody elses shoulders, Nibali looked like he still had an extra gear he had no need to use against the competition that surfaced in the final week, I think he would have won anyway.

Where are we now?

Wiggins is suffering from a bad knee, as reported today, but when things go wrong, the little things seem a lot worse. Take the mechanical issues in Wiggins early 2013 season, you could feel the frustration bubbling over what he would have taken little issue with in the past. The report suggests he’s still able to train, but could this be another poor PR gesture from Sky, who are really between a rock & a hard place on this, when you’ve got twitter participants like Froome’s girlfriend suggesting that there’s no way Wiggins will be riding in the same team, in the same race as Froome (remember ‘Wagwars’ from last year). My guess is that he won’t be on the start line in this years Tour, or any others for that matter.

Conclusion

This isn’t a blog about slagging Bradley Wiggins, it’s more about understanding what he’s been through in order to perform as spectacularly well as he did in 2012, then the fall out from that effort in body & mind. He’s proven what he can do & anything less in any further years would be a let down. I expect him to retire from professional cycling at the end of the year, he should be applauded for what he’s done to the profile of the sport in the UK, he’s taken the brunt of many Team Sky PR blunders & if motivation isn’t going to rise above knee level, it’s maybe time to step away from bike racing while he’s still at the top. Wiggins suffered many years of living on the fringes of nearly making it big time, he doesn’t need to do that anymore, he’s set himself up for life.

Brad, you’ve done us proud, you’ve also earned millions, don’t screw it up now, enjoy the rest of your life without having to worry about pedalling a bike fast, you earned a pittance doing that for too long, it’s time to enjoy the spoils of war, don’t get any more scars, life isn’t bike racing, it’s just one small (but necessary) part of it.

Follow me on Twitter @spokedoke