A Complete Cav?

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Earlier in the year, I wrote about Cav being the wrong person to take the GB place in the Mens Omnium at the Rio Olympics, how wrong was I?

In the meantime, we’ve had an injury in the other likely contender, and more importantly, a resurgent Mark Cavendish, who is looking to have worked harder than ever to meet his goals for the season.

Job Done

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So far (during stage 4), Cav has won two stages & held the yellow jersey in the Tour for the first time, he’s taken his tally of stage wins up to the level of Hinault. Cillian Kelly (@irishpeloton on twitter & regular on the Velocast podcast) has run the numbers, only Merckx has more stage wins (34), with Cav & Hinault level pegging on 28. But as Cillian points out, if you remove time trial stage wins, Cavendish is far ahead in the number of ‘hands in the air’ victories, 28, compared to Merckx’s 17 & Hinault’s 7. It’s an incredibly impressive achievement for the Manxman.

This set of statistics can likely relieve some pressure from Cav in the run-up to the Olympics, suffering on to Paris may not be the ideal preparation for a series of short track events in Rio, so he probably won’t finish this Tour. He can realistically pick & choose what he wants to do now, 2 stage wins & a yellow jersey is enough for most teams to be happy with at any Tour, he can decide his ideal route to Rio now, having surpassed what his employer (his pro team) realistically expected from the sprinter.

I think what we’ll see is Cavendish making it through the Pyrenees, possibly with another stage win at Montpellier on Stage 12 where he’ll retire from the event, notably, the day before Ventoux. Nobody can really fault him for that.

Track Training

From what we’ve seen so far, his stage 1 victory was in a howling tailwind, ideal circumstances for a high RPM track rider to take advantage of the situation. He’s probably been doing plenty of jumps past dernys (or more likely a motorbike) on the track, so his late surge should be no surprise, this has probably been his bread & butter the last few weeks.

Stage 3 played into his hands too, assuming he’s been doing much more high intensity training & much less endurance, if the stage of over 200km had been ridden hard, it could have blunted his sprint. The peloton decided to cruise along at a very leisurely pace, which must have had him smiling like a Manx cat. We also saw a perfectly timed lunge, with Greipel lunging a little too early, again, we can assume this is part of his track training. Lunges for the ‘Devil’ (elimination race if you’re a UCI commissaire) would surely be practiced again-and-again, probably again coming off a derny or moto on the track. You can lose a lot of points in the Omnium by getting pulled out of the ‘Devil’ early by a well-timed lunge from one of your opponents, his timing was absolutely perfect on Stage 3.

Another factor may be focus. Up to now we’ve been used to Cav taking a few stages to get himself into the zone & actually win one, this year he did it on Stage 1. Don’t discount the mindgames that may be going on here, in the Omnium a moments hesitation can lead to a large loss of points, and the loss of a medal. You need to be focussed for every event, from the very beginning, there’s no allowance for any dithering. I’m assuming that he’s brought this mindset to his road riding now, which could be just as big a factor as his current physical condition.

The Gist Of It

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It’s highly likely that Cav will have achieved well beyond his greatest expectation at the beginning of his career by the end of the 2016. With 28 (+) Tour Stage wins, winning the green jersey, becoming world champion, wearing the yellow jersey, all that’s left is that Olympic medal. Seeing the focus & ability of Cav in the first few days of this Tour, I’d now be surprised if he doesn’t win a medal in Rio, my expected podium of Gaviria & Viviani, now includes Mark Cavendish, I think gold is just as likely for him now as any other rider. Maybe Shane was right, maybe Cav was the correct choice after all, the doubters like me were perhaps all very very wrong, the boys got his sparkle back.

 

Sky Plus

Much has been made of teams like Movistar adopting or imitating Sky’s detailed approach to tackling stage racing which has proved so successful to them recently. With riders like Alex Dowsett now successfuly migrated & fully absorbed in Movistar, disclosing many of the Sky methods, can we also presume that they’ll not take the Sky format as an absolutely precise model, especially if they are missing one or two elements. Perhaps they’ve thought up their own improvements to the Sky template for success, perhaps they’ve got Sky plus?

Quintana

While I agree with the thoughts on the latest Velocast podcast regarding the sensible approach to rider development & looking after young riders, there’s also another possibility with the on/off nature of Quintana’s race programme. The addition that Movistar could introduce to the Sky model, could be an element of tactical deception.

Sky are famous for stating a race plan, then carrying out that plan with no intention of masking exactly what they’re up to. This has been a bit hit & miss, especially in the classics, where holding your cards close to your chest is much more vital than the out & out power to weight/aerodynamic calculations necessary to win grand tours in the mountains & time trials. But these entirely unhidden team driven tactics do get the results required, if not the fans approval or the spectacle of mano-mano battles we have seen in the past. Could teams like Movistar, while adopting the Sky approach to training & equipment, improve on the formula by introducing some additional psychological tactics which Sky have not yet included, both on & off the bike.

Quintana renewed his contract for an additional two years after the Tour of Britain, taking him up to the end of 2015, where he would be free to move to another team. The latest reports suggest that he will contest the Vuelta this year, most likely skipping the Giro & definitely not starting the Tour de France. This would leave him only one guaranteed attempt at the Tour with Movistar. I find it hard to believe that in these corporate times, that a team would be happy to let a genuine Tour contender not start, to allow him to develop properly in less high-profile races, potentially having more success for another team.

I wouldn’t rule out the reported information from Movistar regarding his programme for 2014, but I wouldn’t be surprised if Nairo didn’t start the Giro, but arrived as a ‘last minute decision’ in storming form for a Tour de France assault. Leaving everything for the Vuelta is also a gamble, banking everything on staying healthy & injury free until the end of the season.

I think we’ll see something else. I think we’ll see Froome training to deal with less capable Movistar potential captains, Sky selecting a team for that purpose & seeing Quintana deal a psychological blow to them in the days before the Tour starts. I’ve been very wrong before, but corporate sponsors demand a return on their investment, allowing a rider to mature & reap the rewards under another corporations sponsorship isn’t going to go down too well at the board table or sponsorship renewal meeting. We’ll probably not know until Yorkshire, Nairo liked the UK climbs, he may be back for some more.

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.

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