La Vuelta 2014 – The Rest Day Round-up. #1

The 2014 Vuelta could have got off to a real ‘flying start’ if the organisers had had the sense to switch the Prologue Team Time Trial with the showpiece Stage 3 beginning – which took place on the deck of the Spanish aircraft carrier LHD ‘Juan Carlos I’. Despite this obviously missed opportunity the Grand Tour’s take-off salvo was reasonably impressive none-the-less as local lads Movistar jetted across the 12.6km course in the best time and Cannondale upset the expected order by coming in second ahead of more favoured teams such as Orica-Greenedge and Team Sky, who suffered yet another ignominous day in the saddle to only manage 11th.

-Stage 3’s village départ was fairly spectacular.

 
The Movistar team looked united throughout with Alejandro Valverde and Nairo Quintana both coming across the line in the time-setting group. It fell to Jonathan Castroviejo to claim the first leaders’ jersey though as he led the seven intact riders home. Judging by what we have seen since, this might have been the first and last show of unity within the team. Valverde got on the wrong side of a seven second split on the aforementioned Stage 3 and since then he has appeared to be looking to initially regain parity with his younger team mate and then push on beyond him.. It’s unlikely to be the spectacular enmity of the 1986 Tour all over again but it will be interesting to see if he commits to supporting Quintana or just doing his own thing. On Stage 4 he attacked on the final downhill and, though only ever gaining a maximum 14 second gap, forced teams to chase him. Tellingly, Quintana brought the rest of the team to help the chase. It was becoming apparent that nothing in this Vuelta was going to be straightforward.
 
Before those fireworks in the GC battle got started, the sprinters in the race had a couple of days in the sun. And what sun! Temperatures soared as high as the bearded vultures of the Iberian peninsula and also looked to pick off any under-hydrated riders. Teams fought the conditions just as much as each other in the opening stages. Trek Factory Racing’s Fabian Cancellara shed 4kg on one stage alone and whose bronzed thighs must have been like well-roasted crackling by the days end with the combined effects of heat and salt from all the sweat. Nacer Bouhanni (FDJ) showed he thrives in the heat as he took the first sprint win with a strong finish but it was Valverde who ended the first open-racing day in red by dint of coming in ahead of Castroviejo. His podium appearance in the leader’s jersey may have set something off in his mind about ‘letting the road decide’ who was the Movistar team leader.
 
vale quin with smiles
I can’t see this Vuelta ending in smiles for both Valverde and Quintana
 
Alejandro is another who is said to thrive in hot conditions but he couldn’t repeat the trick the following day when, on a finish that looked well suited to his old Liege-Bastogne-Liege winning skills, he got caught in that split which cost him seven seconds. Michael Matthews (OGE) showed great strength and even greater timing to overhaul another favourite for the day Dan Martin (GRS) to sneak the win and, thanks to those time bonuses, the leader’s jersey as well. Matthews is becoming something of a first week leaders jersey specialist having worn pink for six days in May during the Giro and now holding onto red for three days in Spain. Giant-Shimano took the stage win reins next as they looked to remind the cycling world that they don’t necessarily need Marcel Kittel to win Grand Tour sprints. Kittel’s fellow German John Degenkolb took two wins on the bounce to first challenge and then overtake Matthews in the green jersey competition.
 
The usual hustle of the GC contenders to get to the front of the pack in order to avoid the chances of being held up in a crash at the end of each days racing provided some early indication about how much credence we should be giving to Alberto Contador’s words about only challenging in the final week. ‘Not much’ would seem be the answer as the Spaniard was well to the fore in every stage and marshalled his troops to ensure that he was always in contention. He looked far more competitive from the off than Quintana whose usual first week impression of an invisible man was particularly impressive this time around. So good in fact that when he had transponder issues on Stage 7 and didn’t show up in the final standings, the general consensus was that he had been dropped and lost a whole bunch of time. In fact he had finished 12th but no-one had noticed. Neat trick.
 
Chris Froome was having a more visible first week than the man who was being touted as his main rival for the overall. He too was often at the head of affairs and, after the disappointment of the TTT, Team Sky performed much more like we would expect them to. Having crashed (yet again) earlier in the day and had to chase back for 15km, Froome powered away in the final metres of that same Stage 7 finale to grab a couple of seconds back over the others but he and Valverde had done more damage the day before when they broke free from a stellar five strong group also containing Quintana, Contador and Joaquin Rodriguez (KAT) on the final metres of the 1st Cat Alto Cumbres Verdes to contest the victory. Valverde edged out the Briton, reclaimed the red jersey and leapfrogged Quintana on GC with same blow. It was a riveting finish to an intriguing stage but one which, in the end, asked more questions than it answered. What are Valverde’s intentions exactly? How bad was Contador’s Tour injury really? Will Froome fade and Quintana bloom towards the end of the race?
 
Valverde win
Froome, Valverde, Contador and Rodriguez made time on the Alto Cumbres Verdes
 
The answers were supposed to be put on ice for Stage 8 with a flat day that had ‘bunch sprint’ written all over it in store. But as we have seen before those pesky crosswinds put paid to the idea of a relatively calm approach to the line for the sprinters to frenetically contest. Echelons exploded across the peloton with around 15km to run and, although the first group initially contained all the favourites, Sky and Tinkoff-Saxo put the hammer down again and split the still large group again. This time Quintana was found wanting and it required the worried Giant-Shimano team, desperate to deliver Degenkolb back up to the front, to bring him back into contention. This time it was he, rather than Valverde, who was isolated and without the support of his team. Nacer Bouhanni won the ensuing sprint – albeit with an almighty wobble at the very end that seemed to put Matthews off his own effort and which divided the race jury 2-2 as to whether he should be punished for a irregularity. It was pretty ironic given that Bouhanni had made a great noise of complaining about Degenkolb’s line a couple of days earlier.
 
Someone making a conspicuous lack of noise has been Peter Sagan (CAN). Inevitably touted as a strong contender for the green jersey and with some early stage profiles suiting his all-round explosive style, finding him languishing down in 25th with only 17 points by Saturday (Degenkolb led with 87 at that stage) would prove a mystery to most onlookers. ‘Slightly overweight and ‘totally uninterested’ has been the professional pundits’ verdict; the cause of which has been assumed to be mainly his now-confirmed switch to Tinkoff for next season. Perhaps he is acting ‘honourably’ by not wanting to earn any more World Tour points this season as they will only benefit his new team. Or perhaps he just can’t be arsed.
 
The Stage 9 showdown – ahead of the rest day and the first individual time trial – proved to be as thrilling a finish as Stage 6. With a large break ahead for most of the rain-sodden day, the selection process on the approach to and up the final climb of Aramòn Valdelinares played out in two places almost simultaneously. As the magnificently monikered Lampre-Merida rider Winner Anacona struck out from the disintegrated break in an attempt to snatch the stage win from Bob Jungels (TFR) and then Javier Moreno (MOV) and the overall race lead with a bold solo ascent, Dan Martin was lighting the peloton’s touchpaper after more solid work from TeamSky to half the break’s advantage from over six minutes to hover around the point where Anacona – lying 2′ 50″ back at the start of the day – would take the red jersey. Martin could not make his attack stick but his initial foray goaded the others into action and when a visibly bouyant Contador shot past the Katusha riders who had ferried Rodriguez et al back up to Martin, few could follow. Valverde and Froome certainly could not bridge the gap and immediately went into damage limitation mode. Sky’s dominance of just a few minutes earlier when Kennaugh, Deignan, Nieve and Cataldo were all making good on the usual mammoth stint from Kiriyenka was washed away with the standing water coursing across the mountain road. As Quintana and Rodriguez battled their way back towards the dancing Contador the race for the GC lead was inexorably clawed away from Anacona, who had already crossed the line as stage winner, to whether Contador could hold off Quintana for the three seconds he would need to leapfrog him. As remnants of the break still staggered over the finish, the Colombian Giro d’Italia winner, aided by Rodriguez, caught Contador on the line to secure the same time and deny El Pistelero the leader’s jersey. Sadly in doing so he also denied a fair few cycling sub-editors the chance to dust off their ABBA puns and declare that “The Winner Takes It All”.
 
quintana red
But it was Quintana who finished the first week in the leader’s red jersey
 
Froome and Valverde toiled in a further 23 seconds back with both trying to sound positive afterwards. Froome looked towards Tuesday’s 36.5km trial trial as a place to recover his 28 second deficit time whilst Valverde – though acknowledging it was good that the lead had stayed within the team – still only trailed by eight seconds and made statements about the road deciding who will lead “Team” Movistar. With the top six within 30 seconds of each other and five summit finishes included in the next block of racing after the time trial we really do seem set for the ding-dong battle that we have all been wishing for.. This ‘Spanish Feast’ does keep on delivering.
 
GC Standings:
  • 1 QUINTANA, Nairo (MOVISTAR) 35:58:05
  • 2 CONTADOR, Alberto (TINKOFF-SAXO) + 3
  • 3 VALVERDE, Alejandro (MOVISTAR) + 8
  • 4 ANACONA, Winner (LAMPRE – MERIDA) + 9
  • 5 FROOME, Chris (SKY) + 28
  • 6 RODRIGUEZ, Joaquin (KATUSHA) + 30
  • 7 ARU, Fabio (ASTANA) + 1:06
  • 8 GESINK, Robert (BELKIN) + 1:19
  • 9 URAN, Rigoberto (OMEGA PHARMA – QUICK-STEP) + 1:26
  • 10 BARGUIL, Warren (GIANT-SHIMANO)
 

 

The Mavericks – Jens Voigt – Never Say Die

There aren’t many pro-riders out there with a catchphrase. There are nicknames aplenty and a select few coureurs have a trademark winning celebration. There are also those whose on-the-record words have come back to haunt them in later years but if you are looking for a rider who can be totally summed up by something he once said, look no further than the man who has just retired after 16 years of no-holds-barred, never say die racing, whose inward rallying call became outward shorthand for his whole outlook on life. For most cycling fans you don’t need to say Jens Voigt. Like him you just say, “Shut Up Legs”.

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Bonne Anniversaire – Roger de Vlaeminck

Happy Birthday ‘Mr Paris-Roubaix’  – born 24.08.1947

Paris Roubaix winner – 1972, ’74, ’75, ’77
Milan-San Remo winner – 1973, ’78, ’79
Giro di Lombardia winner – 1974, ’76

Ronde van Vlaanderen winner – 1977
Liege-Bastogne-Liege winner – 1970
Tirreno-Adriatico winner – 1972, ’73, ’74, ’75, ’76, ’77

de vlaeminck

Resplendent in his eye-catching Brooklyn team jersey, with trademark sideburns and position, de Vlaeminck was always a magnet of attention in the peloton. The younger of of two de Vlaemincks who would dominate the Belgian cyclocross scene throughout the Seventies, Roger was also the best Classics rider of his generation. Despite being pitted against the might of Merckx for much of his career, ‘The Gypsy’ carved out a remarkable palmares, becoming one of only three riders to have won all five ‘Monuments” (de Vlaeminck’s countrymen Merckx and  Rik Van Looy are the others). His unique riding style,  with hands curved inwards over the low brake hoods, and elbows almost below his knees, was highly unusual for the day and his bike handling skills – honed over many winter cyclocross seasons – were exemplary. The cobbled classics of the Spring were his forte and his four wins at Paris-Roubaix will be his eternal legacy, even if Tom Boonen goes on to win one more to take the record outright. His third place in the 1976 edition, captured in Jorgen Leth’s “A Sunday in Hell” shows him in fine attacking form but (like Cancellara and Sagan in years to come) perhaps overconfident of his own powers in the final attacks. 

A Spanish Feast? Tapas Time at La Vuelta. Race Preview

The Vuelta a España starts this weekend. Normally relegated to a fairly distant gruppetto in terms of importance compared to the peloton of the Tour de France and the breakaway of the early season Giro d’Italia, events have conspired this year to elevate the last Grand Tour of the year to give it a much higher profile than normal.

It’s often said that one man’s loss is another man’s gain. That’s certainly been true for the Vuelta organisers and sponsors this year whose collective hands must have been worn smooth with all the gleeful rubbing that has been going on since late Spring. Nairo Quintana’s decision to target the Giro and Vuelta had already brought some joy to the race but a series of crashes and withdrawals across May and July has raised the stock enormously of the peloton who will set off on Saturday evening’s pan-flat Team Time Trial in Jerez.

Unexpected additions to the startlist include Chris Froome, Alberto Contador and Dan Martin; all of whom crashed out of Grand Tours earlier in the season. Expectation that Contador would not be able to recover from his Tour de France injury in time was high but the recent news is that he will take part, making a new Quintana-Froome-Contador face-off a reality. Add in Rigoberto Uran, Cadel Evans, Joaquin Rodriguez, Peter Sagan, Thibault Pinot and Quintana’s teammate Alejandro Valverde and the field is the strongest for many, many years.

tapas

Each new adjustment to the affected riders’ racing programme has added another unexpected element to the Vuelta roster, and raised the stock of the race over the past few weeks and months. It has been like enjoying a tapas-style meal where new delights are continually introduced as the meal goes on. Unlike the staid statement of á la carte dining, this quintessentially Spanish style of dining is continually surprising and exciting – just as we hope the racing will be.

Traversing Spain from South to North in a roughly counter-clockwise arc, the Vuelta routing looks remarkably similar to the Tour’s downward curve by omitting the entirety of the western part of the country. It’s an ‘easier’ Vuelta than the mountain-fests of recent years and the main Pyrenean stages come at the end of the second week with 3 stages over Saturday 6th, Sunday 7th and Monday 8th September. The 8th is a public holiday in the local Asturius region so the second rest day will be held on the Tuesday leaving just two further mountainous stages in the final week.

The biggest change though is that the final day is an Individual Time Trial. This is a major change for Grand Tour planning and harks back to the infamous finish in Paris in 1989 when Greg Lemond took over a minute out of of leader Laurent Fignon to win the Tour by just eight seconds, but also (less favourably) to the last Vuelta final day TT 10 years ago when Tyler Hamilton’s Phonak teammate Santiago Perez won two final week mountain stages and then the final Time Trial to get within 30seconds of overall winner Roberto Heras. Perez was later banned for testing positive for EPO in the race. The location for the final day has also been moved and the race will not finish in Madrid for the first time in many years, ending instead in Santiago de Compostela.Vuelta-route-14

This is the first Vuelta run since ASO – the owners of the Tour de France – took over completely earlier year and one senses that they will use the Vuelta in future as a test bed for ideas as well as looking at ways of just re-invigorating the race. Time bonuses for the top three finishes in each stage (except time trials) are again a feature which adds extra spice to the denouement of each day’s riding. Chris Froome lost to Juan Cobo on time bonuses in 2011. He will not want to finish second in this way again and despite his time trialling proficiency will, I think, wish to stamp an authority on the race in order to regain some wavering respect.

Team Sky will be desperate to save a desperately poor season and have a very strong line-up in support of Froome. The Spanish contenders always go well in their home race and Dan Martin will be looking to rebuild the form he was showing earlier in the year. He will just be hoping that, unlike Dublin where he came a cropper in the Giro, it’s dry for this opening day Team Time Trial. Meanwhile Contador is currently playing down his chances, saying he will just be looking for a stage win in the last week if possible but we know that Tinkoff-Saxo can think on the fly and he will exploit any tactical weakness from the other main players.

We’ve already talked about one man’s loss being another man’s gain and the extra unexpected riders taking part in the race.. So who are the loser’s to our gain? Oddly enough Nairo Quintana heads this list by dint of being a red hot favourite who had suddenly had a host of fired-up, high-quality rivals suddenly parachuted down on top of him. One gets the feeling that this will not unduly bother the Colombian too much but until Froome and Contador started getting acquainted with the tarmac of Northern France he must have felt exceptionally confident about doing the Giro-Tour double. Whether he can achieve a double spike in form is yet to be seen (Nibali came up short on a similar race programme last year) but it’s certain that he will have to find that great form to win now whereas the feeling might have been that he could beat the opposition as less than full strength before. In his favour are two things – he has no need to prove anything else this season and he can shadow the leaders ‘in service of Valverde’ if he wishes to for the first couple of weeks.

Cycle style watcher alert! Dave Millar has been confirmed by the Garmin-Sharp team and will be riding his last Grand Tour. This will be only a small consolation to the Scot, who really wanted to take his curtain call on his beloved Champs Elysees. Fizik – his shoe sponsors  – have had enough time since his TdF ommission to knock up something new for the Vuelta for his ongoing charity auction that has been running all year. These ones will benefit the World Wildlife Fund (a close affiliate of Garmin-Sharp ever since Dan Martin was chased by a panda costume wearing fan back in Liege-Bastogne-Liege in 2013) rather than his usual Small Steps Project, which aims to rescue children who have to survive by trawling rubbish dumps but Fizik suggest that David will be wearing a range of shoes throughout the Vuelta. Keep your eyes peeled.

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Another notable shoe-wearer will also be lining up but his involvement was as about as sure a bet as one could hope for in sport. Adam Hansen of Lotto-Bellisol will be hoping to complete his own 3,181.5km pilgrimage to the sacred city of Santiago del Compostela to complete his 10th consecutive Grand Tour. Chapeau as always to the Aussie.

Chris Horner also deserves a mention. He is the reigning champion and was to wear the number 1 dossard but his last minute omission from the squad due to an illness causing his cortisol levels to fall below those required by a the Movement for Credible Cycling (MPCC), of which his Lampre-Merida team are a member, as yet another blow for the ill-fated veteran who missed the Giro due a training accident with a car.

Despite showing live coverage for the past couple of years ITV4 are only showing an evening highlights package this year, which, given the turn of events with the startlist, is a real shame. Perhaps it’s time to invest in the Eurosport Player app if you haven’t done so already to get the full experience. If you are not able to watch live, Blazin’ Saddles will be doing live daily updates on the Eurosport website and blogging about the race throughout. Always worth a few minutes of your day.

Prediction: Froome, Quintana, Uran.

One to watch: Fabio Aru shot into the limelight with his stage win and podium finish at the Giro. He comes to the Vuelta as Astana team leader and will want to grasp the chance with both hands.

Don’t miss: The final day time trial. History has shown us that anything could happen.

Hair of the Cog..

Hair got me into cycling. I know it sounds ridiculous – the leap from barnet(1) to bicycle is not an easy one to imagine – but it’s true. The ponytails of firstly Robert Millar and then, and more importantly, Laurent Fignon bewitched me more than any lofty mountain pass or low-profile time trial machine. Who were these sportsmen who exhibited such flair with their hair? It is said that the aero disadvantage of Fignon’s follicle affectation cost him the 1989 Tour, which he lost to the tousled golden locks of the American Greg Lemond by just eight seconds, but (and I realise that it would have been scant consolation to the distraught Frenchman) it won my undying admiration.

fignon-ptail

Fignon and on and on.

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Poster Boys – Cycling Jersey Prints by Rouleur and David Sparshott

A new appearance in the Rouleur online shop this week attracted my attention and also reminded me of something similar – and equally beautiful – that has been around around for a little while..

Two different takes of a poster of various cycling jerseys. The limited edition Rouleur version (£45.00, A2 sized), by illustrator Beach, chronologically details the jersey’s of the 101 Tour de France winners in an attractive flat graphic style whilst David Sparshott’s (£55, A2 size) pencil crayon sketches capture a wide range of vintage jerseys in his signature style. Both prints are very simple and just let the beauty of the jerseys – and the magic of a bit of repetition – do the hardwork.

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