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Race reports and previews

Sun Tour 2017 – Stage 4

The 2017 Sun Tour (formally the Jayco Herald-Sun Tour but that’s a mouthful) concluded last Sunday with Stage 4, with a circuit race around Kinglake.

Kinglake being one of Melbourne’s best training grounds for local cyclists (the climb from St Andrews is a popular benchmark) and only around an hour’s drive from Melbourne, the stage was well attended.

It was an exciting stage, with Sky’s Ian Stannard just hanging on for the win, after a trademark attack from the breakaway with just over a kilometre to go. He very nearly cocked it up, overestimating his lead and taking his sweet time to amble across the line with a two-arm salute, while Aaron Gate (AquaBlue) charged at the line behind him.

Damien Howson took the overall win comfortably, with his strong Orica-Scott team controlling the race and protecting the lead he’d built on Stage 2 at Falls Creek. Howson really developed into a valuable climbing domestique in 2016 (remember him turning himself inside out for Esteban Chaves on stage 20 of the Vuelta, to help the Colombian grab 3rd place overall?) and it’s easy to forget that he’s still only 24. He’s lightly built, and an excellent time triallist. I think he’ll have a big 2017.

I was a little less mobile on the course than usual, due to bringing my 1-year old daughter and her grandmother along to see the likes of Chris Froome, Chaves, Simon Gerrans and Cameron Meyer in action. Mum doesn’t get to many bike races (although she pointed out that in his youth her father once followed the Sun Tour around and used to ride his bike from Ouyen to Mildura to race, and then – possibly apocryphal – back) but she does follow the French Tour, so it was a thrill for her to see the stars up close. Her anecdote is also a reminder that the Sun Tour is a race with a great history in Victoria, and the list of winners is full of great riders.

And that is really the thing about the Sun Tour – in its current incarnation it’s a perfect mix of the world’s elite, domestic aspirants, and the club cyclists and enthusiasts who rode out to spectate. And all of it is within touching distance.

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Nibali slides to opportunity

Tour de France, Stage 5.

Apart from stage winner Greg Van Avermaet’s epic stage win (maybe crashing out of the Tour of Flanders and missing Paris-Roubaix has an upside), people are talking about Giro d’Italia champion Vincenzo Nibali and his terrible day.

Cycling Central has it here.

I’ve got a CRAAAAAZY theory about Nibali’s slide down the overall rankings, shipping more than EIGHT MINUTES to the GC big boys, on a stage that he really should have had no trouble with. Cue mutterings about his form, his bad legs, and his overall ambitions being dashed. I suppose that’s the official line.

Bullshit, the lot of it. It’s all part of his cunning plan. Consider:

  • Nibali has already won a Grand Tour this season (and he knows what happens if you try to do the Giro/Tour double).
  • Nibali cannot stand his team leader, Fabio Aru. They hate each other’s guts. Nibali is ostensibly riding in support of Aru, but clearly doesn’t want to.
  • Nibali does not give a shit about the general classification.
  • Nibali wants to win the Olympic road race in Rio de Janeiro in a few weeks. This whole Tour is a training ride for him.
  • Nibali knows he is more than good enough to win a stage or two in the mountains, especially if he’s not a GC threat.
  • Nibali is almost certainly out the door at Astana at the end of the season. He probably feels like he owes them absolutely nothing.

That’s why Vincenzo looked like he wasn’t even trying on stage 5, when he plopped off the back as soon as Movistar turned on the power. He wasn’t trying.

He wasn’t breathing hard, his shoulders weren’t rocking, he wasn’t all twisted and hunched like the injured Alberto Contador, and he wasn’t pedalling squares like Peter Sagan. He was cruising along like it was a coffee ride, giving zero fucks. In fact, you could almost see him calculating how much time he needed to lose before he’d be allowed up the road in the Pyrenees this weekend.

Now consider what’s coming up:

  • Stage 7 – a Cat.1 climb to the Col d’Aspin followed by a descent to the finish in Lac de Payolle – looks almost tailor-made for the Shark.
  • Stage 8 – the Col du Tourmalet (HC) followed  by three categorised climbs culminating in the Col de Peyresoude followed by a descent to the finish in Bagneres-de-Luchon – also looks almost tailor-made for the Shark.
  • Stage 9 – five categorised climbs with a HC summit finish in Andorra, looks like a great place for the shark to do what he did on stage 19 of the Giro.

Don’t be surprised if Nibali pulls out the earpiece on any of these stages, launches himself up the road and takes a bit of glory for himself. It’d be a perfect slap in the [rubber] face to Aru, adds to his market value in a new contract year, and reminds everyone why he’s nicknamed after an apex predator.

For that plan to work, it’s a big advantage if he’s not a threat to Team Sky, Movistar, Tinkoff or BMC.

Besides, can you really see Nibali playing loyal domestique to his understudy and arch-rival Aru? With his ego? Haaaahahaha!

When Froome comes to Melbourne…

Chris Froome is coming to Melbourne to race at the Jayco Herald-Sun Tour.

This is massive news for the race, and for the profile of cycling in the Australian media. It’s a promoter’s dream, the reigning Tour de France champion, in a humble Victorian stage race!

The Jayco Herald-Sun Tour is the oldest, but least prestigious (according to the UCI) of the three big races in Australian cycling’s summer.

It starts on February 3rd, just a couple of days after the Cadel Evans Great Ocean Road Race (January 31) which itself follows the Tour Down Under (January 19-24).

Froome’s Team Sky will be racing both the Tour Down Under and the Cadel race but the the Tour champ will sit them out, saving himself until the last.

But why would the Tour de France champion travel halfway across the world to roll around with a bunch of Continental teams, in a (relatively) lowly race?

Don’t get me wrong, the Jayco Herald-Sun Tour (or just the Sun Tour, if you’ve been around a while) is an important race on the Australian cycling calendar, and it has a great history going all the way back to 1952.

2015 winner Cameron Meyer (OGE) in the Prologue
2015 winner Cameron Meyer (OGE) in the Prologue

History aside, in the present day it’s a UCI 2.1 race plonked at the very beginning of the UCI road season. A useful shop window for up-and-coming local riders like Nathan Haas or Calvin Watson, whose victories in 2011 and 2013 provided a springboard into the World Tour. An ideal chance for local riders to test themselves against a smattering of internationals.

But the Tour de France champion? Surely he’s above all this? Wouldn’t the Tour Down Under be a better race?

Not necessarily. Froome generally likes to show good early-season form at the Tour of Oman, which he has won twice, and which comes just two weeks after the Sun Tour, but four weeks after the Tour Down Under. Four weeks’ gap is too big to provide a proper tune-up for Oman.

The Tour Down Under also brings an undeniably higher intensity than the Sun Tour, and more international scrutiny. Far better to ease back into racing, away from the attention of the global cycling press (most of whom will be in the Middle East covering the Dubai Tour in the first week of February).

The prologue, which starts in Federation Square and finishes at Southbank, returns in 2016.
The prologue, which starts in Federation Square and finishes at Southbank, returns in 2016.

The race route for the Sun Tour will present enough challenges, particularly Stages 1 and 2 which both roll through the beautiful hills around Warburton (the area will be very familiar to any Melburnian rider worth their salt); and Stage 4 with its three climbs of Arthur’s Seat. And yet the stages are short, by World Tour standards.

The warm weather will be a much better preparation than training in Europe, the scenery and food will be a highlight, and with Team Sky likely to spend half the year at altitude in the bored seclusion of Tenerife, I’m sure he’s in no rush to go there.

Team Sky will have no Australian riders on its squad for the first time in its history, but a visit from Froome will more than satisfy the local branches of the team’s sponsors. Jaguar dealers around the country will already be shaving down in preparation.

Chuck in a couple of weeks seeing the sights, training in the hills around Adelaide, perhaps a trip to the Victorian Alps for a look at our best climbs, and it’s easy to see how a visit to the Jayco Herald-Sun Tour strikes a perfect balance between training camp, easing into early-season racing, and pleasing the team’s backers and fans.

The bigger picture is that cycling, our humble little sport, now has a fighting chance of holding its own in the nation’s sports bulletins and newspapers for a solid three-week block at the height of summer.

This is great news for sponsors, TV broadcasters, team owners, racers and even your average recreational rider who just wishes more people understood.

It means casual fans who watch the Tour but not much else will come down after work in Melbourne’s CBD to watch the prologue, see one of their heroes up close, and see some great bike racing in person. They might even make the trip down to Arthur’s Seat for the finale, to see him climbing and soak up the atmosphere with the local cognoscenti.

With Team Sky racing, it won't be a toss-up between Aussie cycling's two biggest teams, Orica-GreenEdge and Drapac.
With Team Sky racing, it won’t be a toss-up between Aussie cycling’s two biggest teams, Orica-GreenEdge and Drapac.

It means that every NRS rider with ambitions of making the leap to the pro peloton will be licking his lips at the prospect. If Froome sometimes rides like a man fighting an octopus, wouldn’t you love a chance to be the octopus?

It’s fantastic news all round. The race director, John Trevorrow, must be pinching himself.

Should we expect Froome to arrive in top form and blow everyone away? I wouldn’t count on it, he’s obviously got much bigger octopuses to fight, but just having such a global superstar on the start list is one of the best things ever to happen to the Jayco Herald-Sun Tour.

Don’t miss it.

Mega Daily Bone-up: Stage 21 I can’t believe it’s over edition

Looking forward to some sleep, actually.

5. Van der Breggen wins the best race of the day

Yes, the women’s race La Course by TDF was on as a curtain-raiser for the remains of the men’s peloton, but it was a better race. The weather was ordinary and the cobbles were clearly a death-trap, forcing riders to corner in a manner familiar to Melbourne commuters who have to cross tram lines in the wet.

And yet there were plenty of spirited breakaways, not least from Aussies Gracie Elvin, Lizzie Williams and Amanda Spratt trying to soften the race up for Orica-AIS teammate Emma Johansson.

Apart from all the cheering, there was much waggery on Twitter about this:

Of course the Rabo-Liv hegemony would not be denied, and Anna van der Breggen went off solo with a lap to go, and held on to win in an absolute thriller as the bunch sprint unfolded a few metres behind her.

4. Another top ten for P. Saggy

I am genuinely disappointed that Sagan couldn’t add to his tally of 11 top-five finishes this Tour, but 7th is still pretty handy.

You just know that Sagan will be hungover for days, and I’ll just assume he’s never heard of Bon Scott.

That’s his fourth consecutive green jersey, at the age of just 25, and you could make a fair argument that Sagan was the most involved rider in this Tour, despite not winning a stage.

3. Look, not much happened, can we skip #3?

OK, OK, I’ll mumble something about champagne and Team Sky in special kit with yellow accents that made them look like a team of European wasps.

2. Froome didn’t stack

When I saw the weather and general mayhem of La Course. I thought to myself, “Gee wizz, this men’s race is going to be full of crashes if the conditions don’t improve. That’s not ideal if the yellow jersey has an accident and breaks his collarbone and can’t finish the race” and stroked my beard.

The organisers must’ve thought similar things, in a more Gallic fashion (perhaps stroking their baguettes) and so the GC was neutralised virtually as soon as the race was onto the Champs Elysees (i.e. the racing was just for the stage win, with no risk of late scratchings from the Big List).

That meant there was no panic when Froome ended up out the back behind the cars in the final laps, and it meant he could enjoy the last few corners with his teammates, safe in the knowledge he couldn’t lose even if he stayed out there all night.

1. Greipel

Hey, I like Greipel. He seems like a quality dude. And he’s had a flaming amazing Tour, winning four out of the five stages available to the pure sprinters (and coming 2nd on the one that Cavendish won). He was easily better than Cavendish, Degenkolb, Kristoff, Sagan, Coquard, Matthews, Demare, Bouhanni…

He beat everyone handsomely all Tour. It’s his first win on the Champs Elysees and his 10th Tour stage in total.

Chapeau.

Mega Daily Bone-up: Stage 20 Alpe d’Huez edition

What happened? What didn’t happen, more like.

5. Chris Froome didn’t lose the Tour de France

It was never the most likely outcome, but as I said yesterday Froome hasn’t been looking all that fresh over the last few days so there was an element of risk.

When everything went a bit psychedelic on the Croix de Fer (Stage 20 remix) and attacks were going up the road like firecrackers, anything seemed possible. When it all came back together in the valley to Bourg d’Oisans, it was clear that Sky had things well in hand.

Froome should buy Wout Poels a very nice Jag as a thank you gift, as without his perfectly executed tempo riding in stages 19 and 20, Froome might’ve been in deep trouble. Today, Froome also had Richie Porte doing a big job of work (#sherliggettisms #drink etc) making sure Quintana didn’t get off the leash until it was too late to change the final outcome.

When Quintana did attack, the team didn’t panic. Instead they reverted to their training and rode at threshold to the finish, knowing that it would be enough to secure victory.

Exciting for the fans? No. Effective? Extremely. Yes, Froome dropped more time and another day in the Alps might have been enough to cause real palpitations. But there isn’t another day in the Alps, so.

4. Nearly Nairo just adds to the expectation

Nairo Quintana is a freak. Not just because of the way he climbs (a lot of guys can climb like him on their day) but more because he always looks far better in the third week of a Grand Tour than in the first.

He’s done it in two Tours and a Giro now. Probably he’s just better at maintaining his levels as everyone else is slowly collapsing, but that’s the trick with Grand Tours.

After what felt like an eternity of waiting for him to attack, it finally came, but too late to change the overall result. The assault on Alpe d’Huez was one to remember though, even if he fell just short of catching Thibaut Pinot for the stage win, and a bit further short of stealing the Tour from Froome.

Fairly or not, this will still be remembered as a Tour of ‘coulda, shoulda, woulda’ for Quintana.

Woulda won if he hadn’t dropped 1’24” on stage 2. If he hadn’t lost 1’04 on stage 10 to La Pierre-Saint-Martin. If he’d attacked earlier on stage 19.

Whatever. That’s racing. Froome was better over the duration. But the sensation of Nairo’s unstoppable rise shows no sign of abating. He was 4’20 behind Froome in 2013, and only 1’12” in 2015.

The anticipation for next year has already started.

3. Nibali’s puncture hands Valverde his first Tour podium

You may think that a puncture at the base of Alpe d’Huez is karma’s punishment for riding off on Chris Froome yesterday, but Vincenzo Nibali is likely to argue it just goes to show that when the race is on, there are no favours.

Whatever your point of view, there’s no doubt that the flat tyre came at the worst possible moment for the Astana man. It crushed any chance of attacking Alejandro Valverde’s third position on GC.

This meant Valverde will earn his first Tour de France podium – which seems odd after more than a decade of the Spaniard lighting up the race. It was a consistent performance from Movistar’s number two man, demonstrating that dual leadership is not necessarily a problem for the team, if managed well.

Movistar director Eusebio Unzue has been in the game for over 30 years, and has managed seven overall wins at the Tour (including the difficult transition from Pedro Delgado to Miguel Indurain in 1991). He knows what he is doing.

So does Valverde, and he shadowed Froome up Alpe d’Huez like a perfect team player, guarding his own place on GC without doing anything to the detriment of his young leader up the road.

2. Vintage Pinot

Redemption for Thibaut Pinot, whose Tour has been one of misfortune and missed opportunities. After a shocking first two weeks, he recovered some form to claim top-five finishes on stages 14, 17 and 19.

His effort on on Alpe d’Huez, the most prestigious of all summit finishes, was something special. Ducking through rabid crowds wielding costumes, flares, beers and flags like weapons, attacking Ryder Hesjedal repeatedly until he was finally alone, riding on adrenaline and fumes in the knowledge that Nairo Quintana was coming up fast from behind.

It was a victory to savour, and for the third consecutive time a French winner on the famous Alpe.

Start the debate: was Pinot or Romain Bardet the better French rider of the 2015 Tour de France?

1. The Alps

The Alps smashed the Pyrenees for excitement this year. Perhaps it was due to their placement so late in the schedule, with riders exhausted and many climbers knowing their GC chances were finished.

In any case, the winners on stages 17-20 (Geschke, Bardet, Nibali and Pinot) all won with rides of huge daring and strength, while the GC battle finally sparked into life behind them.

In the end, the GC battle was much closer than it looked for the entire Tour. Perhaps one more day in the Alps would have changed the result. We will never know, but for my money the four days in the Alps elevated the Tour above this year’s Giro, the first time I’ve said that since 2011.

BeardysCaravan.com is now live for stage 19 featuring 3 big climbs from yesterday’s stage. #BeardysCaravan #Tdf #tdf2015

A photo posted by Beardy McBeard (@beardmcbeardy) on Jul 25, 2015 at 4:04am PDT