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.


King Rigo?

Remember the London Olympics, one of the most generous in-race riders, Vinokourov, finished his career in the finest way possible. He had attacked with Rigoberto Uran & just after an exchange of words within the final 500m, Rigo decided to take his eyes off his only rival for the gold medal & Vino took the win. Uran can be an excellent single day rider, along with having the rare ability to take a podium position in a grand tour. His future looks especially bright now that he’s presumably learnt some of the technicalities of modern training & also escaped the shackles of a Team Sky, with their pre-formed leaders, who only allow others to shine after their chosen team leader falters.

Omega Pharma Quick Step love national champions jerseys, but they especially love World Championship jerseys. With intelligent businessman Rigo moving to that team in 2014, I assume that Partick Lefevere has a significant performance bonus written into the contract of all his riders if manage to take the Worlds bands with them to his team, it’s worth a lot in publicity. On the other hand, the Olympic road race isn’t particularly marketable compared to a rainbow jersey, so there’s probably a tiny bonus in comparison for an Olympic gold medal. A retiring rider such as Vino, who is still incredibly popular in Kazakstan, would benefit greatly form an Olympic medal, similar to the British public in their understanding of the Olympics, but not necessarily the Worlds.

So I’m putting my favourite out there for the 2013 Worlds road race, Rigoberto Uran. He looks to me like he’s not fully committed to a Vuelta podium, going through the motions, but will be using it to gain condition for the World Championships shortly afterwards.  Worth a bet, if only I could find some odds, anybody know?

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Pure Colombian?

Cycling’s hierarchy is rapidly changing, the names of the winners are changing, powerful teams are now also-ran’s, what’s changed in pro cycling, and why? I brushed on the topic of the Colombians returning to cycling in blog in January HERE, it seems to be coming true.

Pais Vasco

Nairo Quintana, the diminutive Colombian climbing specialist has just taken overall victory in the Vuelta Ciclista al Pais Vasco for his Movistar team, he took victory in a time trial won by Tony Martin, so we’re not talking a pure climbers test here, this guy won this race in a fine fashion. In yesterday’s GC, he was trailing one of Sky’s Colombians, Sergio Henao by 6 seconds, with Sky’s early season sensation Richie Porte at 10 seconds. Everybody expected Porte to overhaul them both and take the overall, but it didn’t pan out that way today.

During this race, we’ve seen some stunning performances from the South American’s, they’ve been making a huge impact on the race, possibly Sky’s better Colombian, Rigoberto Uran wasn’t even here, so this Sky pairing could prove to be incredibly strong as they mature. But don’t forget stage 3 where Hanao just outsprinted Ag2r’s Colombian Carlos Betancur, then Quintana’s stage 4 victory, these guys are really going to liven up racing this year, nobody really knows what they’re capable of yet. If Pais Vasco is anything to go by, we can assume the high altitude dwellers are going to make things trickier for the Europeans in 2013.

Where have they been?

It’s been a few years since we’ve seen this volume of talented Colombians performing in the European peloton. We can’t discount the effect that EPO has had on pro riders over the last 20 years, anybody watching racing pre 1990 will remember there were Colombians romping up the climbs, gangling over their bikes, falling on descents, but their natural talent in haematocrit resulted in some epic climbing memories on the Tour de France col’s. From 1990 onwards, we no longer saw riders like Lucho Herrera & Fabio Parra attacked the climbs Grand Tours in the mountains, winning stages, taking mountains jerseys placing in the top 10 on GC. Something had changed.

With no test for EPO at that time, the UCI implemented a cap on blood haematocrit of 50% (red blood cell percentage) “for health reasons”, this was to avoid riders becoming dangerous to themselves more than anything else. If a riders blood got too thick then it put excessive strain on their heart, there were reports of riders dying in their sleep & having to take a large quantity of aspirin every night in order to thin their blood to avoid dying (extreme stuff, but almost common place in the pro peloton). For the Colombians, and other riders whose family came from a high altitude & already possessed a high haematocrit (often a few points over 50%), they had to get special dispensation from the UCI as otherwise they would trigger the 2 week ‘health’ break from racing. Whether or not the Colombians intended doping with EPO, they were never going to be capable of it due to the 50% rule, but even if they did, we now know that EPO benefits the less well endowed in the red blood cell department. So lowland riders of European descent with around 38% natural hct (like Armstrong), could boost their levels by a huge amount, while those with a natural high level (some of the riders who would previously have been considered the Grand Tour talents) couldn’t use EPO or gained little or no benefit from it. It’s highly likely that we lost some of the best riders during that period, they may not have even made the pro ranks.

So with hindsight, it’s no wonder that the Colombians disappeared (Santiago Botero was a different case). We keep hearing pro’s saying that things are different now, we don’t know how different things are, but we do know that there is a test for EPO & the introduction of the bio-passport has allowed the Colombians to compete on a more level playing field. They’re now back with a vengeance as Pais Vasco has shown, I’m not saying they’re all squeaky clean, but the nature of the massive gains from blood vector doping means that those who didn’t benefit are now back performing, which tells you something about the overall state of pro cycling, it is ‘cleaner’.

Who are the Colombians now?

We have several talented Colombians already on World Tour teams. As a nation they are 6th overall in the current UCI World-Tour rankings, one place behind Great Britain.

  • Sergio Henao : Sky
  • Rigoberto Uran : Sky
  • Carlos Betancur : Ag2r
  • Jose Serpa : Lampre-Merida
  • Winner Anacona : Lampre-Merida
  • Nairo Quintana : Movistar
  • Argiro Ospina : Movistar
  • Cayetano Sarmiento : Cannondale

There is also a Colombia Pro-Continental team operating in Europe, they are one step down from the World-Tour but have been getting wild cards for some of the major races, like Milan-SanRemo & the Giro d’Italia. You can see more info HERE.

Keep an eye on the names above, you’re going to see a lot more of them over the next few years.