Format, rider, or both?

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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

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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

Aero-Aware

LeMond1990

Bike racers have been aware of the advantages aerodynamics gave them for decades, perhaps from the very beginning of competitive cycling itself. Up until the 1989 Tour de France, nothing had made the differences more stark, than a colourful mix of imagery, marketing & race winning choices, to propel Greg LeMond to an 8 second advantage, turning around a 50 second deficit & winning the Tour de France on the final Paris time trial stage. Things have never been the same since, it set the scene for the public’s awareness of the importance of aerodynamics in cycling, which is still influencing professional racers, club riders, sportive riders & marketing departments to this day.

80’s to 90’s

Up until the 80’s, it was perhaps the UK time trialing scene that you could have looked to for some extreme examples of bicycle aerodynamics, Rouleur recently ran a story on Alf Engers & his realisation that drilling holes in everything actually made him slower (Rouleur issue 62: Drillium). Aerodynamics had been progressing right through the 1980’s, silk jerseys for time trials were replaced with full lycra skinsuits, we had carbon disc wheels, and we had Francesco Moser, pushing the limits with radical bike designs & wind tunnel testing (amongst some other stuff). Moser2These changes could all be considered ‘marginal’, the position was still relatively the same, just finer tuned with the help of technology. Once we got to the end of the 80’s, LeMond started working with Boone Lennon from Scott USA in developing a position using an innovation from triathlon (there’s also an argument it was first used in 1984 in the RAAM). The advantage this new arm, shoulder & body position, allowed by the use of tri-bars provided a ‘step-change’ in aerodynamics, almost overnight in cycling terms, this wasn’t a ‘marginal gain’, it was a Tour winning gain. The advantage of containing the arms within the frontal area of the body was so large that within a few months almost everybody was using the new position in the pro peloton, even Sean Kelly, still riding toe straps until the bitter end, took it up relatively quickly.

Wind Tunnels

The factor which multiplied the gains from the 80’s onwards was wind tunnel testing. Although the emerging aeronautical industry had been using these since the late 1800’s, their commercial availability & cost were out of reach for sports people, especially cycling, which had traditionally been poorly funded & relied on internal sponsors (i.e. bike manufacturers) to fund most of the top teams until a few decades ago.

As we now know, small changes can make all the difference, with the advent of wind tunnels cars completely changed shape & pro riders could now quantify every single change in equipment, components, position & clothing material, if they had sufficient funding. This introduced a new aspect to pro cycling, but wind tunnel time was expensive, so teams with bigger budgets could now use their cash to outperform their rivals, with very significant gains being made in this early period, compared to the current marginal gains we hear about in todays peloton. This was a game changer, 1989 shook the teams who hadn’t embraced the change, or hadn’t realised what could be achieved. We still saw riders with their jerseys flapping in the wind, you won’t see that now in your local race such is the level of knowledge available now.

Greg LeMond V Past & Present

1986-tdf-19-Lemond

A rider at the top of his game (for the 2nd time) during this transition period of aerodynamics was Greg LeMond, he was also the most prominent rider embracing it in the pro peloton, but he wasn’t the only one. If we look at how his position & the technology he used developed we can see the innovations that appeared in greater detail. The photo above is from 1986, differing from todays TT setup, note the shallow front rim profile, drop handlebars on standard road frame, no shoe covers, non protective aero shell helmet & more importantly, the lack of tri-bars. On the other hand, the skin suit looks as fitted as todays, but lacking the longer legs & sleeves we see in todays peloton.

Fignon-FrontLemond-Front

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The contrast displayed in the 1989 photos above, of LeMond’s tucked position, his arms in line with his legs & an aero helmet (which we now know is much faster than a bare head), to Laurent Fignon’s more classic time trial style marks a turning point in position, a stark contrast between the old & the new. It also marks the beginning of pro riders not just looking for small advantages in equipment & clothing, it marks the realisation that technology could provide huge gains over your rivals, not just refinements. Also note that LeMond’s skin suit has grown longer sleeves ahead of its time, which is standard now, as we know lycra is more resistant to drag than skin. Fignon’s position looks very similar to Lemond in 1986, but he’s perhaps gone for a front disc in desperation rather than common sense, while it may work in a windless velodrome, it may have cost him energy outdoors fighting any crosswinds, as we saw him “bouncing of the barriers” in the final 200m.

For comparison, just look at the image below of Tom Dumoulin in his aero position on a modern time trial bike. His position is further refined, rotating his body around the bottom bracket while maintianing hip-torso angle & therefore power development. Dumoulin’s helmet seems profiled to be in line with his back, LeMond’s was a last-minute UCI approved shortened (hacksaw presumably) version of a Giro triathlon helmet. Unlike LeMond in ’89, Dumoulin has a deep section front wheel with carbon spokes & an aerodynamic frame (and forks) with every tube profiled to the limit of the UCI rules (LeMond’s was more or less round tubing, apart from some added fillets). We also have minimal brake levers & various other details that all shave off watts, the big similarity remains the use of tri-bars.

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The Gist Of It

Stage 21 of the 1989 Tour was by no means the first time aerodynamics was considered of prime importance, but it was the event that caught the imagination & made ‘aero’ position & equipment just as important as training.

Just consider if the 1989 final stage had been a sprint into Paris rather than a time trial, if this event had not taken place in the spotlight of the world, how different would pro cycling look today? Would the UCI have rapidly banned ‘tri-bars’ without the drama & revenue generated from a thrilling end to the Tour to preserve the look of the machine to the Merckx era, as with their Hour Record rule changes. In UK cycling, would ‘that Lotus bike’ have existed, would Obree & Boardman have been able to use their innovations & skills on the world stage? Would the various people & technology that combined to create the advances that allowed British Cycling to rapidly ride to international track winners, and the subsequent influx of riders being provided a living while rising to the higher echelons or world road cycling, like Wiggins & Armitstead?

This defining event in 1989 opened all sorts of opportunities in cycling, ‘aero’ had been done many times before, but not displayed previously in such an establishment shocking manner. Development in cycling aerodynamics had been a slow boil most likely due to tradition, significant gains had been made, this blatant new position could not be ignored, it was the catalyst for others to look further & see what could be achieved. The results are now evident in your local bike shop.

(Note: All non-Getty images were identified as having a ‘Creative Commons’ licence on Google image search & Flickr.)

Sagan – The Combine Harvester

SaganCombine

The 1989 Tour was memorable for the incredible victory of Greg LeMond over Laurent Fignon in the final metres of tarmac in Paris. But something died that year, something that had a special charm to it, a jersey that the Tour de France could really benefit from re-introducing, sitting quietly on the shoulders of Steven Rooks, it would never reappear. It’s been won by giants of the peloton like Merckx, Zoetemelk, Hinault & LeMond. It was distinctive, yet a patchwork of the other jerseys, some didn’t like it, but there was something very special about it. There’s one man in the current group of riders who would really embrace the flamboyance & daring of taking this jersey from the hands of the Tour leader, I bring you the perfect partnership, Peter Sagan & ‘The Combine Jersey’.

The combine jersey been introduced & reintroduced several times since 1968. In its initial guise the combine jersey was pure white, it finally emerged as the patchwork styled jersey in 1985, but built quite a following in the small number of Tours it was present in. It represents the rider who’s doing best in all three classifications, with points awarded for general classification, mountains & points competitions. So to win this, you’d have to be reasonably well placed in all classifications, you’d have to be a strongman. There’s currently no rider who could be described better than a ‘strongman’ as Tinkoff-Saxo’s one man army Peter Sagan, he has more impact on the race than some entire teams, and he does it relatively all by himself while also helping out his team leader.

I’ve been hugely impressed by him during this Tour, it’s almost a blessing for the cycle fan that he’s not won a stage so far, his exploits off the front may be blunted if he stops hunting that win. If a jersey like this was up for grabs, we could have riders like Sagan sprinting for cat 3 & 4 mountain points, desperate to get into breakaways & then hanging on for as long as they can to the GC men as the altitude gets higher.

This is our 26th Tour without a Combine Jersey, maybe it’s about time that ASO thought about bringing it back. I’m sure Sagan’s a bit bored with the Green Jersey now, he needs a new goal. It may also allow them to focus the Green Jersey even more on sprint stages. I can see plenty of other riders with very different skills who could really challenge for this, among them Kwiatkowski, Teklehaimanot, Rolland, Gallopin etc. It’s an opportunity for the Tour to re-invigorate itself, to give the good all rounders something to fight for, or a consolation prize for former GC hopefuls.

The young rider jersey is won by a rider who can stay with the front group in the mountains, the same for the mountains jersey, so all we have left is the green jersey. The combine can be a goal for teams who’s best rider is a classics star, other than occasional stage wins, this gives focus on a day-to-day basis for these teams, adding another dynamic to the race. Lets get this one back, it looks great on Sagan’s shoulders.

(Thank you very much to my excellent photoshopper, I’m in no way talented enough to make Sagan look any good in the jersey, great work)

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?

 

 

2015 Tour, stages 1&2

Embed from Getty ImagesI’m only going to comment on any stages I get a chance to watch, so it may be few & far between, here’s my initial observations.

Stage 1

The time trial didn’t really tell us much, just that none of the favourites has bad form. There’s been much made of Pinot’s placing (41seconds down on Dennis) ahead of the other favourites, but ahead of him we have some riders who could be potentially high on GC, given a bit of luck. Robert Gesink has some decent form, he’s fresh from a 9th place in the Tour de Suisse, plus a 5th on GC in the Tour of California, both hinting that he’s still got something left in the tank. Neither of these imply a top finish in the Tour, but they do suggest that he could still be up there until the final week, when things get ‘a bit stickier’. On the same time as Pinot was Rigoberto Uran, we know he can perform in a grand tour & he’s now the top placed GC rider. If Rigo’s time trialling well, he’s probably got some decent form, so if anybody gives him some space to get some time, they’d be making a big mistake.

Stage 2

A crosswind devastated stage that could end up reasonably decisive if the favourites are as closely matched as it looks. The winners were Contador, Froome, Van Garderen & Uran (and my young rider tip Barguil) who were in the front group of 24 riders. Froome gained an additional 4second advantage over the others from a small split on the finish line. Big losers were everybody else, including Quintana, Pinot & last years champ Nibali who suffered additional “unluck” (©Sagan) with a late puncture, which required some team car surfing to get back to the group which lost 1min 28s on the leaders. Even further back at 5min 4s were riders like Rolland, Kruijswijk (7th at Giro), Ten Dam (9th in Tour last year), Hesjedal & the Yates bros, effectively writing off any team support for a high overall place, although they may creep up later. Notable time loser was Voeckler, who allowed himself to lose over 11 minutes, we all know what that means in the next few days. It was obvious that BMC, Sky & Tinkoff-Saxo had domestiques with their leader, which could make a huge difference in the next few days, Movistar were riding hard but losing time to the front group, so may not be as strong as we imagine.

Looking Forward

As I’ve said, none of the top riders look to have a huge advantage over the others.These stages show us who’s serious about winning the Tour, they can also create ‘mountain-like’ time gaps, which create big problems for some riders in a couple of weeks, it means they’ll have to drop their rivals to have any chance of getting the time back.

If the riders are on a similar level this year, each stage, or specific mountains may play into the hands of a different protagonist each day, with their different skill-sets, as a fan, you’d certainly hope so. In the past we’ve seen the final winner make mincemeat of their rivals on the opening time trial or prologue, this didn’t happen in 2015, there doesn’t look to be anyone head & shoulders above the others. If this is the case, we get to see more changes in the yellow jersey, pure climbers who can change pace excelling on climbs like Alpe d’Huez (especially from the lower slopes), while the diesels struggle to hang on, the same goes for the steady climbs where the diesels excel. It looks like a great Tour ahead.

Tour Predictions

I was going to do a top 15 prediction, to incite a bit of ridicule & debate, but more importantly to point out the riders slightly further the classification who often get ignored. These riders are often a strange mix, riders of the future, ‘surprise’ performers, past top 5’s, quality riders who had a lucky break, smaller teams top 10 GC hopes & super domestiques for ‘the big four’. But even I’m sick & tired of predictions now, so it’s not going to be funny anymore, instead I’m going to point out some young riders who may creep into a top 20 GC slot, you may see them hanging on the back of the lead group, making audacious attacks, or they may be almost invisible & only seen in the second page of the GC results after the stages. I find this set of lesser known riders quite interesting, it’s where the future champions lurk, learning their trade, suffering for three weeks & watching the current masters at very close quarters, but learning all the time.

The very brief prediction bit

I think Quintana will win, followed by Froome & Pinot. Van Garderen will be seen clinging on for all he’s got & finish 4th, with last years champ Nibali taking the final top 5 slot after some bad luck, which escaped him last year. I’m suggesting that Contador will have one very bad day due to a fierce Giro, resulting in him going for the mountains jersey as a consolation, but he is Bert, so he could just as easily win the thing!

Green jersey, a close run thing with an on form Cav winning against an unsupported Sagan in the first week, due to Contador’s GC hopes. Mountains, Contador, reasons as above, obviously white jersey to the yellow jersey.

(p.s. I’ve put my money where my mouth is, and placed some bets on the above predictions, so I’ll let you know how I get on.)

Look Out For……

Warren Barguil (Team Giant-Alpecin)

Embed from Getty ImagesWith Kittell absent, this team are probably going to be built around stage wins & opportunities. The 23-year-old Frenchman has been tipped as a future star & may be given some space to aim for a high position on GC. He’s already finished in the top ten of grand tour, with 8th place overall in last years Vuelta, so don’t be surprised to see him up his game at the Tour.

The Yates Bros (Orica GreenEDGE)

Embed from Getty ImagesSimon Yates looks to be the one in best form, but Adam is also just as capable of pulling off a big result at the Tour. I’m seriously suggesting that a top 10 is possible for one of these 22-year-old twins, if it’s not GC they’re going for, expect fantastic attacks, they’re really not scared of anyone. How glad is everybody they didn’t go to Sky & become mountain domestiques, these boys are proper racers.

Daniel Teklehaimanot (MTN Qhubeka)

Embed from Getty ImagesI get the feeling this team are going to make an impact in the Tour. Eritrean Teklehaimanot is fresh from winning the climbers jersey in the Dauphine, after getting into what seemed like every break! So he’s a man who’s not going to be content sitting in the bunch, and likely unable to contend with the best climbers just yet, we can see him trying to get the polka dot jersey at some point in the race, possibly even a stage win. But breaks, lots of breaks.

Merhawi Kudus (MTN Qhubeka)

Embed from Getty ImagesProbably less well-known than his team-mate & countryman Teklehaimanot, 21-year-old Kudus has some impressive results & potentially a huge grand tour future. His 2014 performances include 2nd in GC in the Tour of Langkawi (2nd on that Genting Highlands stage) & 5th on GC in the Route du Sud (in the select Valverde group on the Val Louron stage). He’s still to perform at that level in 2015, but if you’re going to perform, the Tour is the place to do it. I think he’s going to be the revelation of the Tour this year.

Julian David Arredondo (Trek Factory Racing)

Embed from Getty ImagesKing of the mountains in the 2014 Giro, the Colombian is a punchy climber, often seen riding in the support of others. The absence of the Schleck’s this year may propel him into a great position within the Trek team, he may be allowed some real freedom. Mollema is his team leader, but since Tirreno, his GC performances have been poor (e.g. 60th in Dauphine), so this team will either get behind somebody else for GC, or it’ll be all for the polka dots & stages, I anticipate the latter.

Sam Bennett (Bora-Argon 18)

Embed from Getty ImagesYou’re not going to see the 24-year-old Irishman near the front on any climbs, but expect him to be taking any opportunity presented to him. He’ll likely be feeding off the bigger sprint trains in the finalé’s of the flatter stages, but he’s better on some of the harder sprint finishes, so don’t be surprised if he takes a stage, he took the scalps of Bouhanni & Sagan earlier in the year.

 

 

It’s Not Over Yet

Nibali looks very much the superior rider on all terrains in this years Tour, what other absent riders may have done is interesting, but ultimately inconsequential. Nibali has arguably avoided similar downfalls by being consistently well placed & skilled, which is what sets racing apart from riders who attain great watts per kg in a lab, you need to have the full package to be a Grand Tour winner. But can he be caught in the final week, where have his major gains been accrued & could a minor mishap turn this Tour on its head?

Stats

We’ll look at the top 5 riders currently in the General Classification, during stage 15 to Nîmes & where they lost time on Nibali.

Valverde (@4:37): 2:26 lost in mountains (53% of time)

  • Stage 2 (hilly) : 2s loss
  • Stage 5 (cobbles) : 2:09 loss
  • Stage 8: (mountains) : 16s
  • Stage 10 (mountains) : 20s
  • Stage 13 (mountains) :50s
  • Stage 14 (mountains) : 60s loss

Bardet (@4:50): 2:39 lost in mountains (55% of time)

  • Stage 2 (hilly) : 2s loss
  • Stage 5 (cobbles) : 2:09 loss
  • Stage 8 (mountains) : 28s loss
  • Stage 10 (mountains) : 22s loss
  • Stage 13 (mountains) :1:23 loss
  • Stage 14 (mountains) : 26s loss

Pinot (@5:06): 1:42 lost in mountains (33% of time)

  • Stage 2 (hilly) : 16s loss
  • Stage 5 (cobbles) : 2:09 loss
  • Stage 6 (flat) : 59s loss
  • Stage 8 (mountains) : 8s loss
  • Stage 10 (mountains) : 15s loss
  • Stage 13 (mountains) : 53s loss
  • Stage 14 (mountains) : 26s loss

Van Garderen (@5:49): 2:35 lost in mountains (42% of time)

  • Stage 2 (hilly) : 2s loss
  • Stage 5 (cobbles) : 2:09 loss
  • Stage 7  (flat) : 1:03 loss
  • Stage 8 (mountains) : 20s loss
  • Stage 10 (mountains) : 22s loss
  • Stage 13 (mountains) : 1:23 loss
  • Stage 14 (mountains) : 30s loss

As you can see, Pinot is the next best performer in the mountains behind Nibali, had he not lost that 53 seconds on stage 6 he would be in 2nd position overall. That small gap of 16s between himself & Bardet, based on mountain form as shown above is likely to get wiped away in the Pyrenees.

The Gist Of It

We have three mountain stages left in the Pyrenees, followed by a flat stage then a 54km individual time trial, before the procession on the Champs-Élysées. It may look like Nibali is incredibly dominant, but the time gaps in the mountains have been very small for the top five, compared to recent Tours. The bulk of the time was taken on the cobbled stage, where Nibali demonstrated his superior bike handling skills & team support. Into the 3rd week of this Tour & having held the yellow jersey for so long, Astana will now be suffering. Any one of those top five riders could launch an assault, or another team could cause mayhem chasing a stage win, as Garmin showed us last year, putting all sorts of riders & domestiques into difficulty.

There really is still everything to play for, the advantage Nibali has in the mountains isn’t all that large based on the time he’s been able to take from the other, illness, a crash or a bad day could turn everything around. This Tour isn’t nearlyover, we’re used to seeing the yellow jersey crush everybody & take huge time in the mountains, that’s not happened this year. If things turn around we could see a very interesting & exciting final time trial in Périgueux on Saturday.

 

 

 

More Than Marginal

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Nobody can deny that Team Sky has had a substantial effect on the pro peloton since it appeared in 2010. After a shaky start, it had a major influence in making the attention to tiny details acceptable in the culture of pro cycling, which may not produce a flamboyant spectacle, but has proved very successful in getting results. Although not many of their innovations are particularly groundbreaking in themselves, the culture of the ‘Accumulation of Marginal Gains’, (multiple small gains leading to one large gain) has now been widely accepted in a sport which did many things along the line of established tradition.

No More Margins?

There were obviously plenty of riders & teams implementing small improvements long before Sky, but having the freedom to develop those innovations was likely met with the “we’ve always done it this way ” mentality. It now seems that any further technical improvements are extremely marginal with current technology & budgets, alongside the fact that everybody else is doing it now, suddenly Sky don’t look so special anymore. So where do the teams go from here to gain a further legal advantage over their rivals? (a Team Sky motorbike is not acceptable)

With four years of marginal gains in the peloton, it looks like we’ve eventually come to a point where those gains are so small, that vast sums could be spent on virtually unmeasurable improvements. This isn’t a smart use of a team budget, when they’ve successfully ‘fixed’ most of the big things & have left themselves with the worthless scraps to attempt to improve upon. The philosophy appears to have been quite simple, produce more watts in the critical situations, or reduce the wattage required in that critical situation in order to win races. Which is why Sky’s 2012 & 2013 Tour victories have appeared more clinical & effective, than overflowing with panache.

It may appear like I’m having a go here, I’m certainly not, Sky’s management noticed a gap in the market, they saw an opportunity to exploit that gap until it closed. The gap in 2014 looks to be on shaky ground, in 2015 they’ll almost certainly not win a grand tour with this philosophy alone. The other teams & riders have taken their opportunities & replicated Sky’s ‘Marginal Gains’ philosophy, it looks like we’re back to pretty close to a level playing field & it’s now up to Sky to decide how to get back on top.

Tactics

Ensuring that your team leader produces more watts/kg than the next guy on mountains  & more watts/drag in the time trials works when you have a significant advantage on the competition. When things are more level, it either takes a bigger margin in watts, weight, or drag to maintain your advantage. I’ve covered the weight issue in Skinnyfixation & Weight a Minute, we know that the bike weight cannot go below 6.8kg (the UCI know about the ice-cube trick, fill the seat tube with ice cubes for weigh-in & let the melted water drain out the bottom bracket hole before the hills).

It looks like it’s perhaps time for a team like Sky to attempt to deal with more with the uncontrollable, up to this point their tactics have been relatively simple, making their riders & equipment better than the others at the critical points in a race. The groundwork had been planned & implemented in the years & months prior to that point in time, but as a result, with riders & staff moving to other teams, those advances are now common knowledge amongst the peloton. Intricate tactics were not really required when your rider could out-climb & out-timetrial the opposition in a stage race. If you could control the race until your main focus, where you knew your team leader had an advantage, then you would win. As we’ve seen a few times recently, when things go slightly wrong, they go dramatically wrong, on two occasions Sky have lost their leader in the Tour de France due to a crash, in 2011 & 2014. It’s still to be seen if their backup rider Richie Porte can fill that gap with Chris Froome missing from the 2014 Tour. As I’ve said before, he may struggle to ride consecutive days with the best, drop Nibali on a climb, or take any deficit back in a time trial, we see that Sky’s effective but simple plan no longer functions if you don’t have the best rider.

I don’t doubt Sky knew their advantage was going to diminish sooner or later , it was inevitably going to happen at some point. The success of Sky meant that the other teams had to adopt Sky’s practices & match or excel them, so things will be very interesting if Sky now deviate to a goal of tactical superiority. I’m hoping that we’re going to see Sky trying a few things, regardless of the consequences, in order to test new tactics while gathering their much valuable data. A combination of continued marginal gain philosophy & advanced tactics are the only way it’s possible for Sky to consider winning the Tour in the future. They’ve never hired what would be considered the best stage racers in the world, but they have created them producing an incredible amount of success. The margins are now smaller, controlling the uncontrollable is now where things have to go.

The Gist Of It

The next couple of years will either be very interesting & experimental, failing that we’ll simply see all the teams catching up. For a team like Sky, allowing this to happen is unlikely, they seem to always be pushing, but it’s possible that the current direction of that push is severely limited. The marginal gains philosophy will continue, but possibly coupled with more tactical ways of beating superior riders from other teams.

Perhaps this is more of a wish than reality, I’d love to see Sky’s support riders go out & race, rather than support their team leaders on most occasions. Riders like Geraint Thomas, who have reputedly signed another deal need to given some scope to leave their leaders side & go for the win. This blog was written at the first rest day of the 2014 Tour, where the next few days are crunch time for Porte in the GC race, so we may still see Thomas, Kiryienka, Nieve, Porte & the others going for stages. Wouldn’t that be nice, to see some panache, maybe make some mistakes, but seeing riders of this quality actually racing rather than supporting is what I look forward to. Lets race.

 

Tour 2014: Yorkshire

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An incredible & eventful couple of days in Yorkshire, with both stages featuring plenty of action & literally millions of roadside fans. The Tour’s main contenders have emerged at this early stage, with one of the top sprinters lost & one of the GC favourites losing nearly 15 minutes.

Stage 1: ‘The Jensy’ went on the attack, bluffing his breakaway companions that he was just going for a sprint, he took that & just carried on. The others were never to see him until he was eventually reeled in by a charging peloton led by the sprinters teams. The final incline nearly put a spanner in the works with Cancellara attacking & only getting caught in the last 300m, making the rookie error of sprinting on the hoods, tut tut Fabs. But the main drama was still to come, local hero Cav (by means of his mum) was boxed in while trying to stay on Sagan’s wheel. Rather than backing off, he tried to shift Gerrans, by making contact using his head, Gerrans had nowhere to go & in turn leaned on Coquard, taking both Cav & Gerrans down. It looked like a broken collarbone for Cav, but turned out to be a dislocated shoulder, potentially a longer healing process due to possible ligament damage. We later found out that alongside being unable to continue in the race, Cav may be struggling to race much more this season & has already indicated he wont be in Glasgow for the Commonwealth Games. Kittel won the stage, with surprise ‘sprinter’ Froome in 6th, keeping out of trouble we assume.

  • Big Loser: Mark Cavendish
  • Big Winner: Marcel Kittel

Stage 2: A very tough parcour awaited the riders, touted as being similar to Liege Bastogne Liege. The obligatory break of seven formed quickly, as the race progressed & the peloton’s speed increased, the sprinters started exiting the back of the bunch, including yellow jersey Kittel. We saw a tongue lashing attack from Voeckler, then later on Rolland (obviously targetting the polka dot jersey later on), but the main GC favourites then ripped the race apart in the finale, with Chris Froome having a go. Sagan was there too, but didn’t race as well as he’s capable, allowing Nibali to get away & take the stage by two seconds. Unfortunately for Nibali, he’s now got the responsibility of defending the jersey for the next few days, which will take some effort from his team, the Sky & Tinkov-Saxo riders will benefit from this, less fatigue & less pressure. The big loser today is Joaquim Rodriguez, a pre-Tour podium contender, but having lost over 14 minutes, he’ll now be hunting stages.

  • Big Winners: Froome & Contador (with their rival defending the jersey)
  • Big Loser: Joaquim Rodriguez

Spokey Dokey League

This is the important bit, we have 29 teams entered, with some incredibly bizaree names, so should be good for bragging rights. Anybody who’s picked Cav or Rodriguez will be very dissapointed, a big loss to any teams. HERE

After the first two stages BMFW’s ‘I’d Turn For Tom’ team has 673 points, quite far ahead of 2nd place Mike Hewison’s ‘It’s a Piti About Velverde’ team with 512 points. Everybody else is pretty close for now, we’ll have another look in a few days.

2014 Tour: Beware The Sideshow

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The Tour de France should be about racing, that’s why I’m concentrating on the sporting side of things this year, I’m going to try my best to ignore any chat about whether or not Chris Froome got a note from his doctor to dress as a Sumo wrestler, or the usual never-ending doping questions at every press conference. It’s very easy to getting dragged into seeing the incredible performances of riders in the mountains or in time trials & get dragged into the doping debate. This is fuelled by so-called ‘experts’ who ‘calculate’ what power output the think the rider is producing & decide whether or not it’s doped or clean, based on a line in the sand they’ve decided on. I’m having nothing to do with it this year, I’m going to enjoy the racing, here’s why.

Clean Until Proven

That line in the sand (usually described in watts per kg) is set by each ‘expert’, the handy 6W/kg is often used as a handy barometer of human capability. I don’t buy this. I really can’t base the guilt or innocence of a rider based on somebody’s estimated power on a climb. The figures we see are theoretical, based on a pure & constant power output over a 25 to 55 minute climbs over some of the HC & 1 category climbs. Anybody who has used a power meter will know that average power is impossible to maintain, even the training manuals state normalised power as a guide, which is a theoretical average power if you had maintained a constant wattage for the duration of the effort. Any power graph will show spikes & troughs.

The figures we see being banded about appear to compare W/kg on one climb to another on a climb which took a longer to complete. Again, anybody who uses a power meter & has made an attempt to complete a critical power profile will acknowledge that power varies quite a bit over relatively close time ranges. If you took an average critical power over a 30 minute effort, compared to a 50 minute effort, would you expect to be able to record a higher average power for the shorter effort. For example, if you’re a time trialist, can you maintain a higher power output for a ’10’ than you can for a ’25’, of course you can. There is some validity in some of the estimates, but there’s really so much junk out there that I’ve completely switched off to it. Without actual power files you’ll be able to tell nothing, but teams will not give away their best data, even I could analyse it for strengths & weaknesses & I’m just an amateur power enthusiast with some interest & experience in coaching.

In this way, all climbs are incomparable on purely a W/kg basis, as all climbs are a different length & therefore the W/kg number is relative only to that climb. You can’t consider looking at pure number comparison something like the Col du Tourmalet (53mins in 2010) to the Col de Marie-Blanque (28 mins in 2010). This example is just for a time comparison, as they were both in the same stage & the Tourmalet was at the end, so had the Marie-Blanque been ridden at the same intensity, it would have a much shorter time. The data for some riders on this stage is HERE, Contador & Schleck were the riders who climbed the Tourmalet in 53 minutes. As you can see, power fluctuates massively, we are even told that a close encounter with a donkey skewed the figures!

I’m also going to ignore previous misdemeanors for those 3 weeks, I hold riders responsible for what they’ve done in the past, but I’ve no reason to believe they’re still doing it, although I do reserve the right to dislike some individuals, I’ve not totally forgiven everybody. I’m going to be a fan in this Tour, with what some would call a naive approach. I’m going to consider all riders currently clean until I have any information otherwise, this does not include power estimates, this includes hard evidence, like failing a test, getting caught in possession of banned substances (I’ll include a riders wife or parents crossing a border with a car full of EPO or HGH “for their dog” as being evidence to incriminate). I’m not going to get overly bothered if riders are using non-banned products like an inhaler for medical purposes. I want to cleanse my Tour experience & see how it goes, the stories have become far too big already, I really can’t be bothered anymore. So it’s back to basics, enjoy the Tour for sporting values & no speculating about who’s doing what.

I don’t expect anybody else to join me in this, it’s a purely personal thing, I know others love the question marks, but you’ll not see any of this from me during the Tour. It’s an experiment to see if I can get back to the point I started out when watching the Tour, it was magical. I’ll re-evaluate things after the last stage & see if I enjoyed it. If we get a clear winner from early on, I may miss the post stage dramas, it may turn out to be very dull Tour for me, but I really don’t think that’s going to be the case.

So Much More To See

We have an incredible Tour in store, I really can’t see a runaway victory from Sky this year, if Froome does win it looks like it will be with a much reduced winning margin. This opens the door to do-or-die attempts to regain time from other riders, hopefully if the top 5 are close, we should see some fireworks. Contador is back to being a contender, Nibali will hopefully gather some form after what was hopefully a heavy training load he was suffering from in the Dauphine. Just look at the preliminary start list HERE on the procyclingstats website. There’s a pile of opportunists who think they may have an opportunity for a high overall placing in what may be a wide open 2014 Tour.

Adding to the mix on the non-mountain stages, we have two potential teams in a bit of trouble, Belkin & Giant-Shimano. They are both looking for sponsors, which means that their riders are jittery, perhaps not like a cohesive group of riders we expect to see normally, they’ll all be considering their own futures & opportunities to make themselves more attractive in the cutthroat world of pro cycling contract negotiations. Some of the domestiques will be worried about their lack of UCI points & the likelihood that they’ll not even be pro riders in 2015. Situations like this can make the transition stages much more interesting, managers will be encouraging their riders to attack & gain publicity more than ever, while some other riders may go against team orders, trying to avoid the danger of going from the Tour de France one year, to unemployed the next, a real possibility for some dedicated team workers without personal results.

The Gist Of It

I’m looking forward to an experimental Tour viewing experience, going back to an era before we knew what was going on. It’s not a denial of the realities of professional sport, we know people cheat in all sports. Other sports seem to be able to deal with it, in the UK more participants in Rugby get caught than in any other sport, yet there’s little or no discussion of it by the fans. I’m purifying my experience this year, I’ve absolutely no idea what I’m going to take from it, I suspect it won’t be a permanent position, I’m also not denying that doping exists, I just need a break from it. The Tour is about sport, it’s not about the side show which has taken over in the last few years, well, not this year for me anyway.

 

 

The Madness of Sir Dave

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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

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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.

Double d’Huez

Twice up Alpe d’Huez, it always seemed like a pipe dream without any pass-able descent available, but with a little patching up to the Col de Sarenne, it looks like it worked!

Atmosphere

I’ve spent a bit of time on l’Alpe when the Tour’s been about, it a magical place, it’s got something special, everybody that goes there to watch a bike race becomes part of a huge street party that goes on for days (& nights). As with all mountains the race goes past, if you’re looking through your camera, it’s gone forever, shouting & screaming is usually the best bet (not too close now Borat). But wouldn’t it be nice to take a photo & have time to scream & shout, it happened this year, with two passes of the bunch within a short space of time. The closest we’ve got to multiple passes would be the TT on 2004, we got to see plenty of riders, but it lacks the feeling of infectious madness, with riders fighting mano-a-mano millimetres from your PMU hand.

The Descent

I’ve also descended the Col de Sarenne, it was bumpy, covered in gravel, had some speed bumps, it didn’t help that I was on a borrowed bike, I remember thinking that there was no way they could do anything but a mountain top finish at Alpe d’Huez, this crazy road was nothing like the standard required. I drove it in a car too, even that was a little scary, with steep drop offs & little space to pass is another vehicle was coming the other way. With the traffic jam of bikes riding up Alpe d’Huez before & after the road is shut, the Col de Sarenne was virtually void of bikes.

I was waiting with eagerness to see what kind of state it was in, what they had done with it to bring it up to standard?

2013

I only got to see the ITV4 highlights, but they put a reporter on the descent, it kind of looked the same, but the rutted & gravelled corners had been resurfaced, bumps removed & a little resurfacing on the worst bits. It was ride-able, but the pro’s looked less than adventurous, it didn’t turn into the chaos that it was built up to provide, it still needs some work.

The Future

The double climb provided huge drama, a crack in the yellow jersey, the sunken eyes of a past champion & a changing of the guard. It was a historic day, the rain held off & it resulted in a French winner, it really couldn’t have gone any better for the organisers.

Without doubt we are going to see a similar stage again, there’s going to be significant investment in that dodgy road, it’s a trick not to miss for the resort. They pay to host the tour, but with the fee comes some additional benefits, cementing the ski resort as a year round economy, winter for skiing, summer for biking. An additional good quality access road, is another huge benefit, this year was a tester & we can expect some investment & a decent road surface next time we visit.For ASO, they give the public what they want, they get the crowds out to sample their publicity caravan. Who wouldn’t want to show off their products to a guaranteed live audience of hundreds of thousands, who will then wear anything you give them to a worldwide audience of billions.

The Tour really is a one-off, there’s nothing quite like it, and there’s nothing quite like the Tour on Alpe d’Huez.

Maillot à pois rouges – the prologue

Le Tour starts in Corsica on Saturday, I’m a bit scunnered with the whole yellow jersey competition already, so I’m hoping to move away from the huge General Classification shenanigans a little during le Tour. I’m going to focus my attentions on the polka dot jersey, or maillot à pois rouges.

I’ve mentioned the Colombians in previous blogs, I’m really hoping that they will re-ignite this competition in France, with Quintana making a race of it. I’m also fully expecting some Spaniards to drift away from the GC competition in week two & refocus on the spotty jersey. Rodriguez is particularly suited to this, capable of sprinting from the lead group at the top of the major & small climbs, it’s a bit of a speciality for J-Rod. Expect have the traditional French holder of the jersey in the first week, with any points on offer being fiercely contested until we hit the first big mountains, if any of the smaller French wild card teams hold that for a few days, then relinquish it in painfull circumstances it could secure them all jobs for the next year, good luck to them with that.

The ‘Mountains’ on each stage

I’ve included in brackets, the climb distance, the average gradient, the peak altitude & the point the climb is tackled in each stage.

Stage 1: Whoever wins this  one cat 4  climb gets to wear a jersey for a day, fast non climber perhaps?

  • Cat 4 : Côte de Sotta (1.1km@5.9%, 147m, 45.5 of 213km)

Stage 2: Lots of 3rd category points & a short & steep sting in the tail for the stage winning attack.

  • Cat 3: Col de Bellagranajo (6.6km@4.6%, 723m, 70 of 156km)
  • Cat3: Col de la Serra (5.2km@6.9%, 807m, 85 of 156km)
  • Cat 2: Col de Vizzavona (4.6km@5.6%, 1163m, 95.5 of 156km)
  • Cat 3: Côte du Salario (1km@8.9%, 98m, 144 of 156km)

Stage 3: Up & down all day, then a hill of similar gradient & length to what we find all over Scotland.

  • Cat 4: Col deSan Bastiano (3.4km@4.6%, 415m, 12 of 145.5km)
  • Cat 3: Col de San Martino (7.5km@5.4%, 429m, 58 of 145.5km)
  • Cat 3: Côte de Porto (2km@6.4%, 161m, 75 of 145.5km)
  • Cat 2: Col de Marsolino (3.3km@8.1%, 443m, 132 of 145.5km)

Stage 4:

  • Team Time Trial, no mountain points.

Stage 5: The breakaway riders will still be trying to scoop up a jersey.

  • Cat 3: Côte de Châteauneuf-Grasse (1.4km@8.4%, 388m, 22 of 228.5km)
  • Cat 4: Col del’Ange (1.6km@4.1%, 241m, 92 of 228.5km)
  • Cat 4: Col de la Roquebrussanne (3.5km@4.2%, 418m, 154 of 228.5km)
  • Cat 4: Côte de Bastides (5.7km@3.1%, 354m, 198 of 228.5km)

Stage 6: Only one point on offer today.

  • Cat 4: Col de la Vayède (0.7km@7%, 179m, 68 of 176.5km)

Stage 7: Another Cat2 climb, points starting to grow.

  • Cat 3: Col des 13 Vents (6.9km@5.6%, 600m, 80 of 205.5km)
  • Cat 2: Col de la Croix de Mounis (6.7km@6.5%, 809m, 94.5 of 205.5km)
  • Cat 3: Côte de la Quintaine (6.5km@4%, 739m, 149 of 205.5km)
  • Cat 4: Côte de Teillet (2.6km@5%, 491m, 171 of 205.5km)

Stage 8: The real climbing starts & the first weeks Côte-bagger stands aside for the rest of the Tour.

  • Cat 4: Côte de Saint-Ferréol (2.2km@5.4%, 374m, 26.5 of 195km)
  • HC: Col de Pailhères (15.3km@8%, 2001m, 166 of 195km)
  • Cat 1: Ax 3 Domaines (7.8km@8.2%, 1350m, 193.5 of 195km)

Stage 9: Huge amount of points up for grabs, expect climbers in the break.

  • Cat 2: Col de Portet-d’Aspet (5.4km@6.9%, 1069m, 28.5 of 168.5km)
  • Cat 1: Col de Menté (7km@7.7%, 1349m, 44 of 168.5km)
  • Cat 1: Col de Peyresourde (13.2km@7%, 1569m, 90 of 168.5km)
  • Cat 1: Col de Val Louron-Azet (7.4km@8.3%, 1580m, 110.5 of 168.5km)
  • Cat 1: La Hourquette d’Ancizan (9.9km@7.5%, 1564m, 138 of 168.5km)

Stage 10:

  • Cat 4: Côte de Dinan (1km@4.2%, 74m, 142 of 197km)

Stage 11:

  • Individual Time Trial, no mountain points.

Stage 12:

  • Flat stage, no mountain points.

Stage 13:

  • Cat 4: Côte de Crotz (1.2km@4%, 165m, 77.5 of 173km)

Stage 14:

  • Cat 4: Côte de Marcigny (1.9km@4.9%, 371m, 66.5 of 191km)
  • Cat 4: Côte de la Croix Couverte (2.6km@5.3%, 614m, 98.5 of 191km)
  • Cat 3: Côte de Thizy-las-Bourgs (1.7km@8.2%, 536m, 113 of 191km)
  • Cat 3: Col du Pilon (6.3km@4.4%, 727m, 126.5 of 191km)
  • Cat 4: Côte de Lozanne (2.5km@4%, 322m, 161 of 191km)
  • Cat 4: Côte de la Duchère (1.6km@4.1%, 263m, 176 of 191m)
  • Cat 4: Côte de la Croix-Rousse (1.8km@4.5%, 254m, 181.5 of 191km)

Stage 15: A monster stage with an absolute monster climb to the finish.

  • Cat 4: Côte d’Eyzin-Pinet (3.1km@4.9%, 436m, 20.5 of 242.5km)
  • Cat 4: Côte de Primarette (2.6km@4.1%, 459m, 26.5 of 242.5km)
  • Cat 4: Côte de Lens-Lestang (2.1km@3.8%, 424m, 44.5 of 242.5km)
  • Cat 3: Côte de Bourdeaux (4.2km@5.7%, 651m, 143 of 242.5km)
  • HC: Mont Ventoux (20.8km@7.5%, 1912m, At finish)

Stage 16:

  • Cat 3: Côte de la Montagne de Bluye (5.7km@5.6%, 590m, 17.5 of 168km)
  • Cat 2: Col de Macuègne (7.6km@5.2%, 1068m, 48 of 168km)
  • Cat 2: Col de Manse (9.5km@5.2 %, 1268m, 156.5 of 168km)

Stage 17: 32km Individual Time Trial, with two categorized climbs!

  • Cat 2: Côte de Puy-Sanières (6.4km@6%, 1173m, 6.5 of 32km)
  • Cat 2: Côte de Réallon (6.9km@6.3%, 1227m, 20 of 32km)

Stage 18:

  • Cat 2: Col de Manse (6.6km@6.2%, 1268m, 13 of 172.5km)
  • Cat 3: Rampe du Motty (2.4km@8%, 982m, 45 of 172.5km)
  • Cat 2: Col d’Ornon (5.1km@6.7%, 1371m, 95 of 172.5km)
  • HC: Alpe d’Huez (12.3km@8.4%, 1765m, 122.5 of 172.5km)
  • Cat 2: Col de Sarenne (3km@7.8%, 1999m, 131.5 of 172.5km)
  • HC: Alpe d’Huez (13.8km@8.1%, 1850m, At finish)

Stage 19:

  • HC: Col du Glandon (21.6km@5.1%, 1924m, 33.5 of 204.5km)
  • HC: Col de la Medeleine (19.2km@7.9%, 2000m, 83.5 of 204.5km)
  • Cat 2: Col de Tamié (8.6km@6.2%, 907m, 143 of 204.5km)
  • Cat 1: Col de l’Épine (6.1km@7.3%, 947m, 165 of 204.5km)
  • Cat 1: Col de la Croix Fry (11.3km@7%, 1477m, 191.5 of 204.5km)

Stage 20: Very tough short stage with tough climbs from the beginning, somebody could easily crack.

  • Cat 2: Côte du Puget (5.4km@5.9%, 796m, 12.5 of 125km)
  • Cat 3: Col de Leschaux (3.6km@6.1%, 944m, 17.5 of 125km)
  • Cat 3: Côte d’Aillon-le-Vieux (6km@4%, 929m, 43 of 125km)
  • Cat 3: Col de Prés (3.4km@6.9%, 1142m, 51 of 125km)
  • Cat 1: Mont Revard (15.9km@5.6%, 1463m, 78.5 of 125km)
  • HC: Annecy-Seminoz (10.7km@8.5%, 1655m, At finish)

Stage 21: Finally, with 100km left of the 2013 Tour, the last mountain points are up for grabs.

  • Cat 4: Côte de Saint Rémy-lès-Chevreuse (1km@6.9%, 154m, 29.5 of 133.5km)
  • Cat 4: Côte de Châteaufort (0.9km@4.7%, 155m, 33.5 of 133.5km)

Points On Offer

As you can see, equivalent hills on paper don’r carry the same mountain category, there is no strict formula on this, it depends on many factors other than length & gradient. The position in the stage & the changes in gradient also play a big factor. The ‘big climbs’ you encounter during your own training in the UK are probably all in the Cat 3 & Cat 4 range.

The easiest climbs are Cat 4, rising to the highest categorized as Cat1, we then move onto the HC climbs, which are beyond category & carry even higher mountain points tallies.

The points are awarded as follows:

  • HC: Points for 1st to 10th, 1st takes 25 points, 10th takes 2 points.
  • Cat 1: Points for 1st to 6th, 1st takes 10 points, 6th takes 1 point.
  • Cat 2: Points for 1st to 4th. 1st takes 5 points, 4th takes 1 point.
  • Cat 3: 1st takes 2 points, 2nd takes 1 point.
  • Cat 4: 1st takes 1 point.

Once the big mountains start, any points gained in the first week will look very insignificant, I expect there to plenty of competition for this jersey, as riders with shattered dreams of GC glory try to mop up some glory by taking a jersey, the maillot à pois rouges is their best bet outside stage wins to redeem their race.

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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.

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