Reigniting My Love For Cycling – A Steady Ride In Lincolnshire

Cycling is a sport that can get to you. For once I don’t mean in a heartfelt sort of way, when one suffering or a moment of brilliance can inspire you in a way that non-cyclists just don’t get. It can, on occasion become a grind. This week it was getting that way. Let me explain.
It is a well known fact that you can’t be at your best all the time; mental and physical fatigue will inevitably get to us all at some point. I had a hard start to the year, putting in lonely winter miles for the Tour of Flanders sportive, which I ended up not riding! Undeterred, I carried on hitting the miles for a trip of the Alps in June and once back and over the incredible bounce in form it gives you, I had run out of steam.
With my Time Trial bike still disassembled and not enough funds to get it sorted, I went through the phase of being unmotivated by cycling. In my mind it had sort of become futile. I had nothing to aim for, my body was a bit tired and mostly I was mentally ready for a change.
What had really happened was that I had forgotten what I enjoyed about cycling. It had all become about hammering it, all the time. That average 30 mile loop training loop had become stale and looking at my average speed was getting boring. I went off running, which I enjoyed. I entered the Nottingham Marathon and slowly my body fell to pieces. Injured, it was back to the bike.
I still had nothing to train for on the bike but it was back to being fun. The memories of the 30 mile loop had become distant and riding the usual routes was a bit of novelty again. This can’t last for long though, because it’s September and I have nothing to aim at. I’m no hill climber, I’m a headwind specialist from the flattest area of the country.
And it is the flattest area of the country, the Fens, where the conclusion to this story is set. I’ve come back ‘home’ for a weeks holiday. Predictably I rode home and after the classic Sunday run I have a week to fill. The landscape doesn’t really lend itself to cycling. It’s pan flat, and windy. Very windy in fact. It’s really not that fun smashing your legs to pieces in a 20 mile headwind going 11mph. With nothing to train for I wondered if I’d actually find any fun in flogging myself on these dull roads and wondered if I could be bothered to get out ride.
So yesterday I didn’t flog myself when I went out. I spun a small gear, took it easy and just enjoyed the ride. I stopped for a coffee on a 25 mile ride; something I would never usually consider! But it was great. I remembered why cycling was so great. I felt at one with my steed, not fighting it. I took in the sights across the fields like I haven’t for a long time. In the wind I just kept the gear spinning. I had all day to get home and I was enjoying it. My average speed was below 17mph, pedestrian for the area and distance. But it just felt right; a brilliant ride. This is something I should really do more – not be a slave to the bike or the speedometer and remember that primarily cycling is fun and that’s all it has be.
What will I do with this recalibration of my love of cycling. Well, predictably I’m going to go and hammer it round an old training route later. The difference now though; I’m excited about getting back on those roads. I just hope I find a similar ride next time I need to reignite my passion for the thing I love most.
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La Vuelta a Espana – The Best Grand Tour?

La Vuelta may not have the history of the two other Grand Tours, the Giro D’Italia and the Tour de France, but in recent years it has made compelling viewing and in my eyes can rival its elder rivals as the number one stage race in the world.

I’m not speaking in terms of prestige. The history of the Giro and Tour rank those races above the Vuelta comfortably. It isn’t only the age though – a new race such as Strade Bianche in Italy has relatively high prestige and is less than ten years old. The Vuelta hasn’t got the iconic jerseys of the Giro and Tour, pink and yellow respectively, instead using a variety of colours during its 70 editions. The current red design certainly seems to work – it’s unique and reflects the national colour of Spain, unlike the previous gold version, which felt a little too close to a yellow copy. In the early days of the race it was run on a small budget, on roads barely paved in a country still recovering from the civil war. In Alasdair Fotheringham’s biography of Federico Bahamontes he explains that riders weren’t too happy at the food or hotels on offer in Spain as compared to those in other parts of the world. No doubt that this hampered its rise in prestige and favourability. It’s position in the calendar has also never helped. Formerly in April, it was too close to the Giro for many to tackle it; now in August / September much of field is tired after the Tour de France or leaves early to prepare for the World Championships. It is rare to see a field involving the absolute crème de la crème of cycling, firing on all cylinders, assemble at the Vuelta; even if this has improved since the date change.

However, this isn’t an issue which is unique to the Vuelta, especially in the modern era. Although riders competing in and winning the Giro and the Tour was not unusual, if not common in years gone by, to win both races in the same season is seemingly now impossible. The last time it was done was in 1998 – the year the Festina Scandal rocked the Tour and Pantani produced something incredible on the slopes of the Galibier. Proof of just how difficult it is came this year – Alberto Contador claimed the maglia rosa but faded in the mountains of the Tour de France into 5th place. Thus, most GC riders choose to focus on the top prize of the Tour, leaving the Giro sometimes a little empty at the very top. Indeed, it has been some years since a real battle of the top GC talent in the world in Italy. Andy Schleck rode the Giro as his first grand tour in 2007, never to return as the Tour took over. Only a tainted Ivan Basso in 2006 looked to be capable of the double, but he was pulled out of the Tour for his involvement in Operacion Puerto.

In fact, getting a top field out in recent years hasn’t been an issue for The Vuelta – 2014 saw an embarrassment of riches in Froome, Contador, Quintana, Valverde, Rodriguez and Aru – either coming off the back of a disappointing Tour de France or having raced the Giro.

It seems that the move to August has helped the Vuelta get better fields off the back of the Tour and Giro, even if it will never rival the Tour. La Vuelta is something of a last chance saloon for the GC riders, or a chance to add something to your palmares after winning the Tour, a la Froome, Sastre and Schleck (although he didn’t wear yellow in Paris).

One thing this does in make it a very open race. This year for example we see young talent Fabio Aru, 2nd in the Giro and rested take Froome, Quintana et al, who may be better riders (at least in terms of results) who will be jaded from July. It’s no surprise that The Vuelta can throw up some interesting winners – see Chris Horner in 2013, beating Giro champion Nibali and Tour rider Valverde. The riders may not be at their peak, but the date change at least enables them to race.

Although the riders make the race, the parcours give them the opportunity and this is an area where the Vuelta has improved massively in recent years. The race used to be full of highways in baron landscapes, a far cry from the beauty of Italy and France. Now though the organisers are not only taking the race through better scenery, but using stages which would otherwise be a fairly dull, straightforward sprint, to create exciting finishes where the GC riders can gain time on their rivals. There are 9 summit finishes in this years’ race – not all high mountains but some little climbs to test the legs at the end of a stage. Steep ramps are added in the closing kilometres to encourage attacking racing. This is something you really only see in the Vuelta and it gives the race its character. If the Tour has the most traditional ‘all round’ route, the Giro the toughest, then the Vuelta has the most original and quirky.

If the Tour has the Alpe D’Huez and Ventoux, the Giro the Mortirolo, the Zoncolan, then the Vuelta has the Angiluru. Its own mythical climb. Introduced in 1999 to rival the Alpe D’Huez, it has become a legendary climb and much harder than the Alpe. The incredibly steep sections make the climb among the toughest in the world and the atmosphere on the slopes in incredible. The organisers are still including new climbs, such is the vast geography of Spain, so although it may not visit a host of famous climbs every year like the Tour and the Giro, it does have its own legendary climb; one to rival, possibly beat its counterparts.

I always look forward to the Vuelta now; especially in the last five years or so, when the parcours have improved. The best thing Hein Verbruggen did as UCI president – move the Vuelta to a late season race? Almost certainly.

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Climbing the Colle Delle Finestre

It didn’t take long for this climb to become a mythical ascent of the Giro after it’s inclusion in the 2005 edition of the race. Accounts differ but with a distance of 18km, average gradient north of 9% and maximum of around 14% the climb certainly has the profile to match its reputation. Did I mention the final 6km are off road?

The climb effectively starts from Susa, where you turn right off the main road towards a small village. After around a km the road kicks up sharply and the real climbing begins at an alarming rate. Gradients touch 13-14% in places for this first section of gentle turns through the populated area.

At the bottom of the climb (on the right)

At the bottom of the climb (on the right)

As you climb the road becomes lined with trees and soon the famous switchbacks begin. 30 in 3km is the number, although the suffering is plentiful by this point so it is difficult to count. The hairpins give you something to aim at, and you with the gradients ranging from 8-12% I found it easier to ride right around some of the bends, increasing the distance but not taking the steepest gradients directly in my path. The rate that you climb now is incredible – a glance down towards to Susa reveals a town which seems literally miles below you.

After the hairpins comes potentially the toughest part of the climb. The gradient rises slightly (my Garmin recorded 17% for a short period of time) and the straight roads with only occasional bends to break the relentless ascent. The roads are still lined by trees which is a blessing – by now the sweat was dripping like a personal shower from my helmet and if the sun was directly on my back the heat would have been nearing unbearable.

It comes as something as a relief when the gravel section begins – you are two thirds through the climb and on paper the worst of the gradients are over. As you cross some green barriers marking the change of surface you almost think that the climb is manageable, bordering comfortable at a push. It is also this time that sign posts to the summit begin to appear, although the numbers on them are somewhat confusing – 2.2 and 0.5 being way, way off and offering a false sense of security which was not at all welcome.

Catching up with my Dad at the start of the off road sector.

Catching up with my Dad at the start of the off road sector.

We took on the climb the day after the Giro D’Italia had passed, so the surface was fairly well packed down in the most part, with the corners posing slight issues and the odd part of the road churned up by the many motorcyclists passing through. Although the average gradient of the climb drops below 9% at this point the rough surface with less traction makes the road feel about 2% steeper. Dig deep because soon after the start of the sector I entered a very dark place.

The relentless gradient really takes it’s toll on you and over such a long distance it grinds you down. You can keep a rhythm earlier on although soon everything starts hurting – my arms were becoming tired and legs were really suffering. Remember to eat regularly because by now your body will be crying out for fuel. It is like a turbo session from hell – you can expect to be churning the pedals for two hours constantly on the ascent.

A strange farm appears to the left of the road, which acts as something of a distraction from the suffering as you question who an earth would build a farm towards the top of such a steep and technical climb? You swing right after the building and continue upwards, taking in the occasional hairpin as the forest now comes to you in sections, breaking up the rock face. A gravestone like sign tells you that it is two kilometres from the summit and the countdown literally begins. If anything the surface deteriorates towards the top; not aided by your rapidly disappearing legs. Looking for the summit is difficult because of the winding road – there are at least two turns in the final few hundred metres and many straights of varying length before.

After the turn the final corner the summit is in sight and naturally your legs decide to try and end the horrific punishment you’ve just dished out to them in a plus two hour game of pain and suffering. This for me meant raising my speed to just over 5 mph! I was incredibly relieved to reach the top, commenting that “I’ve been to some dark places on a bike, but never as dark as that!”

Coming through the mist and out of the wilderness to the top.

Coming through the mist and out of the wilderness to the top.

To reach the top is a moment filled with elation, not least at finishing but also looking at the great height and gradient you’ve conquered. At 2176 metres the Finestre is not small and very few mythical climbs can boast the gradients of this giant. The descent the other side is fantastic – a narrow road followed by technical hairpins. We followed the road into Sestriere to replicate the 2015 Giro stage, which was very tough after the Finestre, although perfectly manageable. With the descent back to Cesana our ride came in at 60 miles, which with 8,000 feet of climbing is plenty for a day in the Alps.

To sum this climb is in a few words is difficult. But the all round brilliant climb it may just be. The hardest I’ve ever climbed; certainly. It will reduce you to your knees but you’ll feel ten feet tall by the time you’ve reached the summit.

The summit.

The summit.

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Porte’s Giro D’Italia Time Penalty Totally Justified

It was meant to be a transition day. 200km of flat roads favouring the sprinters with the highlights of the stage packed into the final 500m. Instead the breakaway held on for a most unlikely victory and Nicola Boem crossed the line with the arms aloft. But the biggest story of the day was a two minute time penalty handed to Richie Porte after a late puncture already cost him 47 seconds to his rivals Aru and Contador for the GC.

Porte punctured with 10km of the stage remaining and took a replacement wheel from Orica-GreenEdge rider and compatriot Simon Clarke before taking a tow from Clarke’s team mate Michael Matthews. Porte was docked two minutes for basically receiving help from a rider from a opposition team. The cycling world exploded. Richie Porte’s campervan probably exploded. Just be thankful that Marc Madiot wasn’t involved.

The time penalty is absolutely justified. Yes, it was an act of sportsmanship, but it could effect the result of the race. Yes, Porte was unlucky to receive a timely puncture but that’s cycling. Here’s a few observations I’ve made from the raucous.

1. Porte should have taken a wheel from a team mate. This will be expanded on in further points but cycling is a team sport and one of the roles of a domestique is to lend wheels or even bikes to a team mate in need. If no Sky rider was positioned near Porte to do this then it is Sky’s own fault.
2. This isn’t the 1960’s or 1980’s for that matter. Cycling is a sport with a fascinating history and the old days were littered with stories of riders buying the help of others – Tommy Simpson’s World Championship victory a perfect case. In the 1980’s Robert Millar lost the Vuelta because of a ‘Spanish Armada’ – a group of teams intent on a Spanish winner and not a Scottish bloke called Robert. There is too much at stake now financially for this to happen – places in the world tour are gold dust and the life of a professional cyclist is sought after. It’s a results driven business and you can only look after number one; be it yourself or your team. Remember when Vino bought Liege-Bastogne-Liege? Nobody liked it then.
3. If you let this go it sets an agenda between Sky and Orica. It was a nice piece of sportsmanship that saved Porte valuable time – 47 seconds is enough to keep his GC hopes alive. Quite a big favour from Orica. So, imagine this: With 20km to go the breakaway of six men has 2:40 on the bunch with an uphill finish perfect for Michael Matthews. Struggling for allies in the chase Orica request that Sky put the 3 strongest domestiques on the front for the chase; the peloton closes the gap and Matthews wins. It simply isn’t right – that then sets a precedent for an almost alliance for an 18 man super team. Porte for the GC with Matthews for the sprints / points jersey. They’d be almost unstoppable. What’s to stop other teams from making an alliance. It doesn’t have to be so grand but it has to start somewhere.
I’m not saying that teams can’t make temporary alliances – that is part of racing. For example, if Orica ask Sky to chase a break, but Sky are working for thier own interests in the form of Viviani then that is racing – each team is still working for themselves at the end of the day, just forming a temporary alliance on the road for a common goal – a bunch sprint.
4. Imagine a different ending. It’s the 30km of a monument and the final selection has been just about made. A rider with little chance of winning lends his bike to one of the favourites who has had a problem. Said rider goes on to take the victory. Is that fair or right?
5. Two Minutes is the correct penalty. The punishment has to fit the crime but it also has to be a punishment. If that was a Elia Viviani then two minutes would mean utterly northing to him because he spends a lot of time just trying to scrape by within the time limit. But for Porte this is huge. When riders miss the time limit but stay in because of size of group then a fine is fair, with point deductions to deter the sprinters. Porte and the other GC contenders will think twice before flouting the rules knowing that two minute penalties are being handed out.
6. It’s different to riders lending bidons and food in the autobus. It could be said that riders who lend water and food to one another are guilty of the same crime; and it’s true they are. But, there is a difference between lending a wheel to a GC contender, giving food to a GC contender and giving food to rider in the autobus when you are both fighting for survival. It all comes down to the end result. For example, Chris Froome was guilty of taking a gel on a mountain finish in the 2013 Tour de France and was fined. It was probably unfair that he didn’t get any seconds taken away because that mountain was the Tour’s battleground with shots being fired constantly. Minutes later the autobus would have passed and gels handed round. Fines would have been adequate for this group because firstly, time means nothing in the autobus and secondly, the fact they take a gel has little result on the overall race. If a sprinter takes food, then docking points would be the equivalent of time for a climber. It may be a case of one rule for one and one rule for another but seeing a friend struggle up a mountain and lending him some water is far removed from lending a wheel to a rider for no tactical advantage.

I may not be a fan of Porte or Sky but just answer this:
What would you have thought if it were Fabio Aru this happened to?

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Dowsett v Wiggins – Don’t Get Too Excited About An Hour Record Battle

Obree v Boardman. Two names synonymous with the Hour Record and one of the greatest rivalries in cycling. Fans may long for another battle over sixty minutes between Alex Dowsett and Sir Bradley Wiggins, but I just can’t see it happening.

Hour record guru Michael Hutchinson suggested that Alex Dowsett could have gone a lot further last Saturday when he clocked a record 52.9km. It was clear to see that Dowsett was in the form of his life and was constantly being held back on his pacing until an incredible burst of speed in the final ten minutes. The plan was to break the record, but with a free reign he might have smashed it.

Hutchinson also suggested that Dowsett could challenge the Bradley Wiggins, should he break the record next month.

A step too far? For me, yes. Dowsett is obviously a class act, but if there was one thing that the record taught me, it was how far Bradley Wiggins could go.

Dowsett was very close to 53km – a mark that some that said that Wiggins would achieve. It is obviously very difficult to predict how far Dowsett could have gone – he might have blown spectacularly, but another lap is very realistic, giving a conservative 53.2km. To my knowledge Dowsett has only got the better of Wiggins once against the clock, in the 2013 Giro. However, it was quite obvious Wiggins wasn’t feeling well looking back, and that result in a anomaly. Long time trials between the two are few and far between because of different schedules, but in the 2014 National Championships, where both men preformed well, Wiggins put 1:21 into Dowsett, clocking just under 54 minutes. It is worth noting that Dowsett has the ability to ride an incredible race when he is really focused on it – the 2013 Giro or last year’s Commonwealth Games are good examples, but Wiggins is a class act – the current World Champion is Mr Consistent against the clock.

No one really saw such a fantastic ride coming from Dowsett, but it does raise questions about just how far Wiggins can go – 54km certainly seems possible. Should Wiggins break the record it’d be great to see Dowsett take it on again. Just don’t expect a battle the same calibre as Obree and Boardman provided us with over 20 years ago.

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Tour of Flanders 2015: The Most Open Race In Years?

This Sunday’s Tour of Flanders will be the first edition in a decade lacking either Tom Boonen or Fabian Cancellara as an outright favourite, with both absent due to injury.

With thirteen cobbled monuments between them, duty has often been thrust upon them to make the moves, chase the breaks and deliver the race winning punch. With no such rider in this year’s race it could be run in a different way.

2008 and 2009: Marking Out Boonen
Stijn Devolder is the only former champion on the start list on Sunday and although this may be a tad unfair he owes a huge part of his victories to Tom Boonen. Devolder was the super domestique for Boonen when he was at Quickstep and in 2008 Devolder attacked with 26km remaining, leaving Boonen to sit in the wheels and make a counter attack. A year later he attacked near the top of the Muur but gained exactly a minute on a huge group of riders who sat and watched, frightened of dragging riders such as Boonen to the line.

This may be a very simplistic analysis of a race but it does demonstrate the power of a rider such as Tom Boonen, able to influence the result of a race so much without being directly involved in the action. Another similar example would be the 2011 Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix. Cancellara entered the races as such a huge favourite he was expected to do all the work – beaten by Nick Nuyens in a sprint on ten in Flanders he let Johan Van Summeren take a famous win in the velodrome a week later after deciding he would not do virtually all the work on behalf of other favourites.

Without such dominant riders there will be a host of new favourites on Sunday, but it is unclear who will take the responsibility to do the work or who has the power to attack a la Cancellara on the Muur in 2010.

The Favourites

Geraint Thomas (Sky): Sky seem to have finally got it together in the classics this year and go in with a rider who is potentially the number one favourite and certainly capable of winning. Thomas looks arguably the strongest rider on the start list judging by his victory in E3 Harelbeke and third place in Gent-Wevelgem; particularly the way he rejoined the leading group with seeming ease after crashing. He also has a strong team which will work purely for him, with Ian Stannard and Bradley Wiggins having the potential to last well into the race.

Sep Vanmarcke (LottoNL-Jumbo): If there was a rider last year who looked most likely to challenge the dominance of Boonen and Cancellara then Vanmarcke would have been the pick for most cycling fans. He hasn’t won a classic since the 2012 Het Volk however and seems to be the new eternal bridesmaid. Vanmarcke trains on the cobbles year round, riding the final of the race on Christmas Day and looks at home on the helligen – he could have launched a winning move with a huge attack on a climb in E3 but was thwarted by a damaged cleat. He has shown glimpses of brilliant form – his 4th place in Strade Bianche was inspired, although he knows that this weekend only a victory will do; which could play against him if he is forced to do the majority of the chasing.

Zdenek Stybar, Niki Terpstra and Stijn Vandenbergh (Etixx-Quickstep):
Too many Chiefs and not enough Indians? The strongest team on paper need to work together for one of them to win the race although all three riders will have ambitions of taking the victory in Oudenaarde. Stybar has shown the best form of the three this season and has a perfect foil in the shape of Terpstra, who escaped late on to win Paris-Roubaix last year. However, signs of the team not all singing from the same hymn sheet have been present already when Vandenbergh attacked in Gent-Wevelgem last weekend, dragging a group of favourites not including his leader Terpstra with him. Without Boonen they are not the super team or united force they could be, but if they get the tactics right the race could still be theirs to lose.

Greg Van Avermaet (BMC):
Suffering a nasty fall last weekend it is hard to know if the Belgian will be in tip top condition to contest the victory. He often struggles to convert opportunities into wins and this could be his year. Daniel Oss appears in super form and will be a great domestique .

Peter Sagan (Tinkoff-Saxo):
Once touted as the rider of a generation it seems crazy that five years on Peter Sagan still hasn’t won a monument. He seems to be half the rider he was a few years ago, which doesn’t bode well. He was second in 2013, dropped on the final climb by Cancellara and couldn’t make the final selection last year. He managed to make the final selection in E3-Harelbeke although looked a beaten man well before the finish line and faded to get picked up by the peloton. He will have the support of his team but a Sagan victory is distinctly more unlikely than in previous years. He may have been looked upon as a natural successor to Cancellara and Boonen, but it simply hasn’t turned out that way, yet.

Alexander Kristoff and Luca Paolini (Katusha): The manner of his victory in the Three Days of De Panne makes Kristoff a huge dangerman this weekend. Not only did he win all three stages but he was an aggressor on the most difficult, winning from a break and his third place in the final time trial is a demonstration of his condition. He is a follower rather than an aggressor in general although that could suit him this year with such an open race and no dominant rider sure to take off and get a major gap. In Paolini he has a brilliant and committed domestique who will be there till almost the very end and can chase down moves for the Norweigan; but he can also work well as a leader given the opportunity, as he proved with a victory in Gent-Wevelgem last weekend.

John Degenkolb (Giant-Alpecin):
To win the race you have to feel that Degenkolb needs to be in contact with the leaders over the final ascent of the Paterberg. Take him to the line and he should clear up and the other riders will be desperate not to let that happenen. He’ll play a defensive game like Kristoff although I can’t see him managing the climbs quite as well as the Norweigan.

Jurgen Roelandts (Lotto-Soudal) and Stijn Devolder (Trek):
Lotto-Soudal will be desperate to do well as a Belgian team and Roelandts’ has finished on the podium here before. He showed in Gent-Wevelgem he has good legs with a long solo break and could do something similar here. His hope will be that there is no co-operation between the favourites and that the Etixx team stuggle to work together to chase him down. Devolder has been thrust into leadership following the withdrawal of Cancellara and looks to have reasonable form from the Three Days of De Panne. He isn’t the rider who won in 2008 and 2009 but will have support of the team and will look for a result. He can’t be ruled out but I wouldn’t rush to back him either.

How might it play out?
Etixx-Quickstep have the strongest team at the race even without Boonen and it will be down to them to make the pace for much of the race. Sky will also play that role as they so often do. After the final selections have been made or are in the making it will be fascinating racing. Quickstep have a bonus card in Vandenbergh but will be desperate to get either Stybar or Terpstra up the road with him because he is vunerable on his own with other riders such as Vanmarcke and Thomas. I expect to see attacks to distance the likes of Kristoff and Degenkolb because of their sprint although with 13km to go after the final climb there is time to bring it back together. It could be brilliant tactical affair as to who will bring back riders who have gone on the attack, with a lone winner looking very possible given make up of the favourites, all of them being good, if not great sprinters.

I think it will be absolute carnage on the final lap but with all of it to no avail and a group making it to the line. No rider seems to be able to distance another in such a way as Cancellara and Boonen have done previously on a climb, although Sunday is a special race and after 250km things are often very different. Look out for a solo break also making it as the favourites simply look at one another.

The truth is that no one knows what will happen on Sunday and this year looks even more unpredictable than usual.

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Malori Doesn’t Believe In Testing At Night. But Is The CIRC Report Right?

Turkeys won’t vote for Christmas and it seems that cyclists aren’t going to vote for increased drug testing. Already the most tested athletes on the planet, testing between the hours of 11pm and 6am is step to far according to Movistar’s Andriano Malori.

Malori, victorious in the prologue of the Tirreno-Adriatico yesterday, was the only rider to attend the press conference and the CIRC report was brought up. Currently athletes cannot be tested between 11pm and 6am, although the report recommended that the rules change. The Italian Time Trial Champion said he was against the idea because of the possibility of being woken up between hard stages of six hours in duration, where every second of recovery is crucial.

However, doping has come a long way since the 1990’s when EPO was a free for all and the 50% limit wasn’t even in place. If riders started to cheat within the rules when the 50% hematocrit limit was introduced and did everything possible to avoid detection when the urine test was introduced, then now using PEDs is even more underground; micro dosing is the new way to cheat. The method involves taking incredibly small levels of banned products to not trigger the blood passport or fail a test, and reap performance gains of around 3-5% instead of 10-15% (as reported in the CIRC report).

Mauro Santambrogio is the rider which springs to for being caught micro dosing, using EPO to win a stage and finish in the top ten of the 2013 Giro. He wasn’t initially caught and it was only on retesting traces of EPO were found. If it took such a test to find such small traces then how many riders are cheating undetected or are taking EPO at night so it is out the system by the morning?

Of course you feel for a rider who is clean, gets tested at 3am and then misses the time limit on the next stage because they were woken up and didn’t recover. It wouldn’t be long before that was used as an excuse by a major GC player either. Is it really fair to give the riders no private time either, with a knock on the door a possibility 24/7?

For me, it has to be done. I struggle to trust a lot of riders at the minute. Lloyd Mondory of AG2R failed a test for EPO this week – who would have suspected him and how long has he been on the sauce for?! It may mean that clean riders pay a price for the deceit of others but that’s the price cycling has to pay for years of betrayal. There will be a way to work round the lack of recovery and sleep as well – later stage starts or a reduced distance. I don’t think we’ll see protests like in the 1998 Tour de France over this, although it would be nice to see a rider support such a recommendation.

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Thomas Dekker Falls Short In Hour Record Attempt But The Real Loser Was Cycling

How many seconds are in a minute? How many laps complete laps did Thomas Dekker do in the hour record attempt in Mexico tonight? The answer is quite simple – 60 and 208. But ask anyone that question a couple of hour ago and nobody would have had a clue.

The sad fact of the whole attempt is not that Dekker missed out on the record by a mere lap or so, it is that the watching world had no idea what was happening. They could only guess how fast he was driving a huge 58×14 gear round the Mexican track at altitude.

The clock in the corner appeared to be running a minute as 50 seconds. In other words it was running very slowly. Then there was the issue that there were no splits on the current record. Tracking his progress was a pure stab in the dark. When graphics appeared they were obviously wrong. His 50km split put his average speed at 51.4km/h – where did he suddenly drag out another three laps or so? It appeared all over at that point, that is until the very modern flip chart lap counter showed 210 at the end, indicating 52.5km at least and a new record. Minutes later and it was confirmed he rode only 208 completed laps to reach 52.221km. Where did the extra laps come from? Of course a working clock and digital distance counter would have helped greatly…

Dekker, unemployed (in that he doesn’t have a team or permanent sponsor), organised the whole attempt himself. Where the blame lies I’m not sure. It could have been his team who didn’t sort out the split timing and graphics issue, but the UCI need to hold there heads in shame. Any attempt at such a prestigious record needs a proper time keeping system and a distance calculation more complex than traditional pen and paper. It was a typical UCI farce – up there with the elimination race from a couple of years ago when no one knew who was actually eliminated.

I didn’t really want Thomas Dekker to succeed after his questionable past. However, if everyone knew how close he was to the record it might have been more exciting for the fans, which the sport relies on. Koga, a cycle manufacturer, backed the attempt but surely didn’t get full exposure – how many turned off when a graphic came up showing he was well off the pace or when they saw the joke of a clock?

What’s more, what does the casual watcher now think of cycling? A big joke? Clocks that don’t work properly, pen and paper timing and no clue how many laps are completed. It’s poor and the UCI need to sort it out. If someone’s paying them to adjudicate the record then at least get it right… the public only have so much patience.

The last man to fail the hour record? Thomas Dekker.
The only organisation – The UCI.

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The Spring Classics: Who Has The Early Season Form?

It’s middle of February and the first cobbled semi-classics of the year are still a week away, yet the main contenders for the Spring Classics are already showing signs of good form.

Such is the raised prestige of some of the early season races because of the field and money involved, it is becoming harder to ignore results from races such as the Tour of Qatar, Dubai or Oman. The Tour Down Under seems an age ago, but as a World Tour event is now more than simply a training race.

With the peloton now bucking the trend of the ‘epo era’ and looking to win races on the way to the major goal rather than just turn up for the main event in tip top condition, cycling fans now have a plethora of opportunities to asses the form of riders.

Joan Jose Loboato To Win Milan – San Remo?

The Movistar sprinter is currently enjoying his best season to date, taking a stage victory in the Tour Down Under and recently taking two stages of the Vuelta Andalucia. 4th in the monument last year in horrendous conditions, Lobato has proved that poor conditions shouldn’t effect his race and his climbing ability is better than a pure finisher making the ascent of the Cipressa and Pogio easier to stomach. He may be overlooked when assessing the main favourites but who has the better sprint on current form: Sagan or Lobato?

Mark Cavendish: Another Milan – San Remo Victory?

At the first time of asking Mark Cavendish won the 2009 Milan – San Remo by an inch ahead of Heinrich Haussler. 2015 could be the season for Cavendish to notch up his second monument. The course looks similar to the parcours of 2009 and Cavendish has had his best start to a season for a number of years. His overall victory at the Dubai Tour was brilliant not only because of his two stage wins but because he was able to limit his losses on the queen stage which featured an 18% incline to the finish line. It showed Cavendish has the team and the legs to win big this year.

John Degenkolb – Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix Double?

Who won the queen stage of the Dubai Tour? John Degenkolb. In doing so the German proved that he is no longer the fast finishing sprinter who has won stages of the Giro and Vuelta. He is a now a fully fledged Classics contender. The power he showed up the dam left the peloton chasing air, not his rapidly disappearing rear wheel. It was a display of pure strength that wouldn’t look out of place up the Koppenberg. Last year he was 2nd at Paris-Roubaix and from a small group would be very difficult to beat in any classic. The double is certainly on for the German.

Fabian Cancellara – Mr Reliable

To say that Trek Factory Racing are a one man team would be unfair, but the success of the team virtually relies on Spartacus alone. His victory in the Tour of Flanders last year was the standalone high point for Trek and they need him to deliver this year. Cancellara is on a crazy run of finishing on the podium of consecutive monuments; crashing out of the 2012 Tour of Flanders was the last time he failed to do so. This season he is showing encouraging signs of form – second to Niki Terpstra and beating Bradley Wiggins in the Tour of Qatar time trial, as well as stage victory sprinting from a small group in the Tour of Oman. Cancellara is having a typical build up, which bodes well.

Niki Terpstra and Tom Boonen – The Best Combination In the Business

Etixx-Quick Step have two of the best classics riders in the peloton, both of them capable of victory at the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix and both proved their credentials at the Tour of Qatar. Terpstra took the overall victory although Boonen was right there with him every step of the way. The crosswinds made for tough racing which was dictated by the Etixx-Quick Step squad. Not once did either of them miss a split which is testament to the race craft of the Belgian outfit. Terpstra’s demolition of Cancellara and Wiggins is the time trial only adds kudos to his impressive overall victory. If Qatar proves anything then it is that Boonen, Terpstra and the domestiques they rely on will be a force to the reckoned with again this Spring.

Obviously not all the favourites for the monuments have shown their best form yet, it is only February after all. The semi-Classics are fast approaching it is no doubt that here we will see the likes of Sep Vanmarcke and Peter Sagan start to make serious statements about their ambitions this season. Based on what I’ve seen so far though, this could be the most competitive season in years. For Flanders and Roubaix Etixx-Quick Step hold the aces having two genuine contenders although Cancellara has overcome that before, whilst no one can afford to drag Degenkolb to the line. It’s less than six weeks to the Tour of Flanders…

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The Most Beautiful Thing About Cycling Is…

From my other blog on why cycling is the most beautiful sport in the world

Two Legs, Two Wheels, One Heart

Cycling is the most beautiful sport in the world. The scenery, the passion, the suffering. Whether you are watching professional riders tackle the toughest climbs in the world or panting like a dog climbing your local hill the feeling is mutual; it is special.

What makes cycling the most beautiful sport in the world?

The Scenery
Mountain passes are spectacular, but for the average cyclist from a flatter region you can still see some incredible views from the saddle. Coming from the fens, there were seldom hill tops to savour views from, but the baron landscape was unspoiled and put into perspective. With moving to Nottingham came a relatively short ride out to the Peak District with its brilliant views following steep climbs. Even the flatter Vale of Belvoir and Charwood Forest regions have brilliant views and after putting in the work climbing small minor roads it is certainly rewarding…

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