Tuesday, 28 February 2012

Sky Squad Speculation

Team Sky have announced their teams for Paris-Nice and Tirreno-Adriatico, and very interesting they are in light of expectations of the team for the rest of the season.

Tirreno-Adriatico’s status as preparatory leg stretcher for Milan-San Remo explains the decision to send Edvald Boasson Hagen, Mark Cavendish, Bernhard Eisel, Juan Antonio Flecha, Mathew Hayman, Thomas Lofkvist, Ian Stannard and Chris Sutton. With the exception of Lofkvist, it’s a team of guys who specialise in flat or arduous terrain, and in Eisel and Stannard you get two tireless workhorses who excel at setting Cav up for a sprint.

Perhaps more interesting is the Paris-Nice squad. The race’s three most pivotal stages will be the opening time trial, the stage from Onet-Le-Chateau to the summit of Mende  that features a 3rd, a 2nd and three 1st category climbs, and the traditional closing time trial that climbs the short, sharp Col d’Eze.

 It’s a route that begs for a strong time triallist supported by riders who can climb a bit. So Sky are sending  Chris Froome, Christian Knees, Danny Pate, Richie Porte, Kanstantsin Siutsou, Geraint Thomas, Rigoberto UrĂ¡n and Bradley Wiggins.

It’s hard to envision a a squad better suited to shepherding Wiggin’s to a victory.  Take it a step further: if you were picking a nine-man Sky squad for the Tour de France and Cavendish weren’t an issue, than you’d pretty much just send that Paris-Nice squad plus one more climber for mountain protection-most would suggest Lofkvist, but I haven’t forgiven his anonymity at the Vuelta, so I’d opt for Sergio Henao.

Of course, Cav is an issue, and I’d expect him to want to take Eisel and Stannard to the Tour. There’s a long time to go until July, but when Sky eventually announce their Tour squad I wouldn’t be very upset to see it composed of those three plus the strongest six from the Paris-Nice squad. Obviously past TDF stage winners Edvald Boasson Hagen and Juan Antonio Flecha would feel somewhat differently, but in all honesty, I'd be happy to see no stage  hunters taken at all. I feel awful for saying it, but I'd even drop Cav and Eisel given the choice, and build the Tour squad entirely around Wiggo's pursuit of Yellow.

In any case, next week's racing should provide the first hints of what we'll see come July.

Friday, 24 February 2012

Omloop Het Nieuwsblad Preview

The season starts tomorrow. Ok, that’s not fair, the Tour Down Under was its usual uninspiring self, but I’ve enjoyed watching Boonen and Cavendish in Qatar and Oman, and Nibali’s ride up Green Mountain has me itching to see what he’ll be up to in the bigger stage races. 

Still and all, cycling doesn’t feel like cycling without crowds, competitive stars and Europop, and all the early season races have missed at least one of those elements.

Tomorrow we get Omloop Het Niuewsblad, or Het Volk to anyone with a long memory or a clumsy tongue. It’s the first classic of the season, or semi-classic if you want to be picky. It happens in Flanders, therefore it will have insane piss-addled crowds and a creaking truckload of Europop. Best of all, it will have competition between big name racers. The last five editions have been won by Sebastien Langeveld, Juan Antonio Flecha, Thor Hushovd, Philippe Gilbert and Filippo Pozzato, and strong teams and riders abound this year.

Omega-Pharma Quickstep will be sending Tom Boonen, Sylvain Chavanel and Gerald Ciolek.  In addition to past winners Hushovd and Gilbert, BMC will be giving Taylor Phinney his first taste of a Belgian classic. Poor old Edvald Boasson Hagen has got a dicky tummy, so Sky have benched him, but their team does include Flecha with strong support from Chris Sutton, Ian Stannard, Bernard Eisel, and Alex Dowsett, among others. Green Edge will be led by Sebastien Langeveld and Baden Cooke.

Unlike his previous wins after short-notice participation, Philippe Gilbert has specifically targeted the race this year, and wants to become a three time winner. Normally, if Gilbert wants to win something there’s little point in anyone else turning up, but Boonen and Ciolek have both shown good form already this year, and Sky’s team is packed with strong riders to help Flecha back to the top of the podium after last year’s second place. It’s a competitive list of riders.

The route itself shows that traditional Flandrian disregard for riders with panache in favour of bulky hardcases. Climbs include the Tenbosse, Eikenmolen, Leberg and Molenberg, not to mention Boonen favourite the Taaineberg.On top of that, there are numerous stretches of power-disrupting cobbles.

While the hills will be familiar to anyone who watches the more illustrious Ronde van Vlandeeren, Omloop Het Niuewsblad isn’t necessarily won by making an attack stick on those jaw-droppingly cruel gradients. With most of the climbing concentrated in the middle third of the race the hills tend to be selective rather than decisive, and those who find themselves still in contention after the climbing will find that there are still 20 kilometres and two sections of leg-sapping cobbles to go.

For fans, Omloop Het Nieuwsblad can be a murky eyeful. It takes place in a muddy part of the country, in a rainy part of the world, and at a time of year when the sun can often be setting by the time the riders come in to the finish. If your image of cycling is of the Tour de France’s bright fields of sunflowers then Het Niuewsblad can look like a post-apocalyptic vision, as riders emerge from gloom, down greying streets, soaked in rain and liberally plastered with a cocktail of chalk, mud and cowshit known among riders as ‘Belgian Toothpaste’, moodily backlit by the headlights of their team cars. Personally, I’ve got  a lot of room in my life for races that can paint such an evocative picture at a single glance.

As for the winner, I’m going with Tom Boonen. I know, it’s foolish to bet against Gilbert, and I’m aware that Boonen usually slumps after the season openers, but I’ve got a good feeling about him this year. I’ve already seen him splinter the peloton, chase down Cancellara, and win a couple of sprints. I reckon he might finally be back on his old form, and he's capable of marking attacks, making an escape, or winning from a bunch.

Finally, last year's highlights, albeit slightly lacking in Flecha's grinding pursuit across the cobbles:

Wednesday, 15 February 2012

Marco Pantani 1970-2004

At some point I'll write something long and maudlin about il Pirata and what an exciting rider he was, but for today I'll let his attacks do the talking. It's been eight years since he died, and I wonder whether the sport will ever take anyone else to its heart in the way it did little Marco.


Tuesday, 14 February 2012

Thoughts on the Contador Verdict

In light of Eurosport's delayed coverage of the Tour of Oman I have a little time on my hands today. So, time to ponder the big story of the moment: Contador is guilty and banned for two years.  The ban is backdated to the positive test, which means he’ll be back in competition by August but will lose his victories since that 2010 TDF rest day - most notably, the 2010 Tour De France and the 2011 Giro d’Italia. Andy Schleck and Michele Scarponi will be elevated to the top podium steps of those events, a’la Oscar Perreiro.

I have to admit, I have a hard time sorting out my feelings about this one.

On the one hand, I’m glad that the UCI and WADA pushed and pushed until they successfully got a conviction, a move which has protected the doctrine of strict liability. It’s a harsh rule, but it makes athletes responsible for what’s in their system rather than how it got there. This is vital if dopers are to be successfully drummed out of the sport, rather than simply tied up in court cases discussing the possibility of doped meat, contaminated steroids or those funny diet pills they were given.

On the other, I’ve always been a little unsure as to whether I thought Contador had actually doped. Of course, it’s easier to be suspicious of someone as dominant as he is, especially when he’s ridden for Directeur Sportifs such as Manolo Saiz and Johan Bruyneel, whose teams have been riddled with dopers. But still, we’re talking about a tiny amount of a fat-burning asthma medicine detected during the 2010 Tour de France. Remember that Tour? At one point Andy Schleck was so far from his best that he actually climbed Mende hollow eyed and drooling, yet Contador could still only win the race by the 32 second margin he gained when Schleck slipped his chain on the Port de Bales. If that’s a doped performance, you’re inclined to think Contador has been doing the equivalent of buying oregano outside Camden Town tube station.

Al Capone's Tax Return

For a long time I clung to the unspoken implication of the appearance of plasticisers in the test sample. This was a logical but unprovable train of thought that says that Clenbuterol’s biological halflife (around 36 hours) makes it highly unlikely that it could be in the blood on the rest day but not have been there when Contador was tested the day before … unless of course the blood itself hadn’t been there the day before.  An illegal transfusion of stored blood from several weeks or  months earlier might explain the presence of Clenbuterol and would also show traces of plasticisers. 

There’s no way of proving that plasticisers in the body came from a blood bag as opposed to from general environmental contamination, but the past prevalence of blood doping in cycling made the whole thing sound plausible. The Clenbuterol was essentially Al Capone’s tax return - something that could be proven so as to achieve a result you couldn't reach when pursuing the real problem. That still wouldn't explain why Contador was so uncharacteristically underpowered for a doped rider, but it did at least make slightly more sense of the miniscule reading.

Of course, CAS have now dismissed the plasticisers as a red herring, and seem to think blood doping is an unlikely a source of the Clenbuterol, and are floating the idea of contaminated supplements.

This has been on the back burner for a while now. Pharmaceutical production companies are making Maximuscle one day and Viagra the next, and there’s no guarantee of cleanliness on the lines. Plenty of team doctors have suggested that it’s only a matter of time until someone takes a multivitamin and tests positive for Elephant Sex Hormones.

Which brings us back to strict liability. If it’s in your system, you’re guilty. We’re all willing to accept that strict liability is harsh but fair in the case of Contador, who has ridden in some rotten teams and can’t help but carry a whiff of suspicion about him, but imagine if it happened to one of those riders universally believed to be above suspicion? Would strict liability seem harsh but fair if it had been Cadel Evans or David Moncoutie?

As far as his punishment goes, the backdating thing makes sense to me. Instinctively, I don't like it; it feels wrong that Contador will be riding by the end of the year, but I do like the small amount of clarity it introduces: you cheated in this race, so it's taken away from you, as are all the races you couldn't have ridden during your ban period. At the same time, the window is open - you can repent, serve your time and have a second chance to come back and do it properly.

It does make a joke of other things, mind you. With all due respect to Andy Schleck and, of course, Oscar Perreiro, I just can’t bring myself to think of them as Tour winners, even if I’m willing to acknowledge them us such. But there's a lot of hypocrisy in me. If the FDA Armstrong investigation had gone the other way, I'd have been screaming for confessed dopers Alex Zulle and Jan Ullrich to be awarded the Tours they should have had, as well as Beloki, Kloden and Basso.

That hypocrisy isn't uncommon among cycling fans - it often seems that we're less concerned about the crime than we are about how it was committed and defended. In my case, I find arrogant, credibility-stretching sporting displays or lengthy, petulant denials a'la Ricco or Virenque are unacceptable. Show a bit of contrition like Millar or Basso, however, and I've got a lot of forgiveness on offer. In Contador's case, I can't help but like him. He's an exciting throwback of a racer, and I'm already looking forward to seeing his destructive climbing on display in this year's preposterously mountainous Vuelta.

Wednesday, 8 February 2012

The Life Cycle of Tom Boonen

So, that's Tom Boonen's third win of the season, equalling his record from last year. If things follow their traditional pattern we should soon see numerous interviews with Tornado Tommeke in which he claims to be back on the form that made him famous back in 2005, after which he'll win nothing else for the rest of the year, and the whole cycle will begin again next season.


He's beaten Andrea Guardini, Tyler Farrar and Adam Blythe into second place for his wins this season, and been put into second place only by Mark Cavendish and Francesco Chicchi. That's some rarefied company he's keeping. More importantly, it was Boonen's efforts that smashed the main field to pieces today, and he was part of the group that did that rarest of deeds and hauled back an attack from Fabian Cancellara. Call me crackers, but maybe he really is back on his old form?

You watch - now I've said that, he'll be caught in a  Qatari nightclub with a hooter full of gak by the end of the week.

Thursday, 2 February 2012

Save Our Cyclists

Like the Contador verdict, my next post may be indefinitely delayed. I don't know if CAS will use a broken laptop as their next excuse, but it's what I'm using. An iPad is fun, but no good for lengthy writing. In the meantime, check out the Save Our Cyclists front page on The Times. With all due respect to The Independent, who did a similar front page in August, The Times doesn't wilfully plough as lonely a furrow as the Indie, so hopefully their campaign will get a bit more traction. http://www.thetimes.co.uk/tto/public/cyclesafety/article3306502.ece#