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Who’s in your Grand Tour Dream Team for 2014?

The Grand Tours have finished for 2014 and we’re on the downhill run to the season’s finish.

This week, as I soft-pedalled my way through the ennui that accompanied this depressing realisation, a thought struck me: ‘if you could pick a dream team of nine riders based on their performances in Grand Tours this year, who would you pick?’

Image credit: Ian Wakefield (https://www.flickr.com/photos/iandwakefield/14421245888/)
Image credit: Ian Wakefield (https://www.flickr.com/photos/iandwakefield/14421245888/)

It would have to be a balanced squad, not just a team of GC whippets. You’d need some sprinters and some blokes to do the grunt work. You’d have an unlimited budget (hey, spreadsheets are for proper jobs).

Any performances from non-Grand Tour races don’t count. Winning classics doesn’t help here, sorry Gerro.

I’ve chosen three GC riders, three sprinters and three wildcards.

Some selections were easy. Yes, predictably the three GC winners are present, but each of them won their respective titles in relatively straightforward fashion, were clearly the best riders in the races. I couldn’t convince myself that Jean-Christophe Peraud’s battling second at the Tour was better than Contador’s win at the Vuelta.

Marcel Kittel is another obvious choice. He almost can’t be beaten.

The others are less clear cut, and I’m sure there’s a few of you who’ll have other suggestions. It’s hard picking just nine guys. Anyway, here’s my Grand Tour Dream Team.

  1. Vincenzo Nibali
    It’s hard to think of a more perfect performance than Vincenzo Nibali produced at the Tour de France. For me, it was easily the best ride of the year, and one of the best individual Grand Tour performances I have seen. Right from his surprise victory in stage 2 in Sheffield, it was clear that Nibali had come to France in peak form. Go hard or go home was the theme, and by stage 5 on the cobbles he already had the Tour by the throat and his rivals faltering. Nibali won four stages, led the race for 19 out of 21 days, and won by 7’37” having barely dropped a second to any rival. He’s first picked.
  2. Nairo Quintana
    Many fans were bitterly disappointed when Movistar chose Alejandro Valverde as leader for the Tour de France, leaving their Colombian prodigy at home. It seemed crazy after Quintana’s storming 2013 performance. Quintana himself was disappointed, but management insisted that riding the Giro as leader would be better for his development. As it turned out, Quintana put in a scintillating performance in Italy, and clearly demonstrated that he isn’t fazed by the responsibility of leadership. His crash at the Vuelta was a massive shame, but his superbly aggressive performance in Italy still guarantees him a place in my dream team.
  3. Alberto Contador
    A season built around the Tour could have ended in disaster when the Spaniard lost concentration and crashed on Stage 11. His surprise return for the Vuelta provided some redemption, but his winning performance despite recovering from a broken leg really only increases speculation about what might have been if he’d been able to finish the Tour. That said, his Vuelta performance was full of grit and determination, despite coming in underdone. It’s a grudging selection for me, but I think it ranks him as one of the top 3 GC riders in this year’s Grand Tours, ahead of the podium-getters from the Tour.
  4. Marcel Kittel
    This year, Kittel has clearly been the best sprinter in Grand Tours. He looked unstoppable in the first days of the Giro, winning two stages before getting sick and withdrawing from the race before stage 4. He returned in the Tour, winning four stages including the two that all the fast men wanted, stages 1 and 21. On the flat, Kittel is virtually invincible. Between him and Nibali for the easiest selection.
  5. John Degenkolb
    Kittel’s Giant-Shimano teammate has disproved the conventional wisdom that having two gun sprinters in the same team is a recipe for ego clashes and conflict. The two are different enough that they don’t really compete for the same stage wins, and their rapport seems strong. Four stage wins and the points jersey in the Vuelta shows how good Degenkolb is when given the opportunity, and he can get over modest hills to win sprints that Kittel can’t.
  6. Michael Matthews
    The flashy Aussie sprinter came of age this year. He won two stages at the Giro (including the TTT) and wore the pink jersey for six days. He sat out of the Tour de France, but returned to the Vuelta in style, winning stage 3 and wearing the leader’s jersey for three days. Matthews is a highly versatile sprinter who can win on stages with moderate hills. I’ve picked him ahead of Nacer Bouhanni because of his all-around ability to win and then hang on to leader’s jerseys where other sprinters would struggle – that’s hugely valuable to his team.
  7. Rafal Majka
    Despite coming into the Tinkoff-Saxo Tour squad at the last minute and seemingly against his will, Majka’s role as a support for Alberto Contador changed when the Spaniard crashed out. Switching to freelance mode, Majka took his chance and won two stages of the Tour, and the KoM jersey. This followed an impressive Giro d’Italia where he finished 6th overall. I think Majka is the best super-domestique in the world at the moment.
  8. Tony Martin
    Always the unbackable favourite to win the time trial stage(s) in any Grand Tour he rides, but he also managed to take stage 9 of the Tour de France with a solo breakaway that ripped the peloton to shreds. He’s also a great team rider, regularly seen drilling it on the front to shut down breakaways for his Omega Pharma-Quickstep team, and is a huge contributor to that team’s regular high finishes in team time trials.
  9. Geraint Thomas
    I’m picking G. Thomas because he’s become one of the most valuable riders in his team, even without the wins and profile of some others. He is relentless, tough as nails, and completely selfless. He only rode the Tour de France this year, but some of the rides he put in for Chris Froome and Richie Porte were incredible. He still finished 22nd overall – not bad for a guy who was working for others and is better known as a classics man. Picked for his grunt work and attitude.

Unlucky to miss out:

Peter Sagan
His Tour de France green jersey showed his consistency and versatility, but he didn’t win a stage. He also failed to win a stage at the Vuelta. If he can overcome being a marked man, and rectify some tactical naivety, Sagan clearly has enough buckets of ability to fill an Olympic swimming pool. This year, he’s been better outside Grand Tours than in them.

Michael Rogers
Has had a great year after the worst possible start, under a doping cloud. Since being cleared, he’s ridden with a freedom that has rarely been seen during his long career, and it’s netted him two Giro stage wins, and one at the Tour. That’s a great return for a guy who doesn’t get many personal opportunities. Also a great team man.

Alejandro Valverde
Probably the most versatile rider in the world. How many others can win during the spring classics (he won Roma Maxima and Fleche Wallonne, and was second at Liege-Bastogne-Liege), miss a Tour de France podium by a handful of seconds, and then back it up with a Vuelta that netted him 3rd overall, 2nd in the points jersey, 3rd in the mountains jersey, and two stages (one individual, and a team time trial)? He’s got lethal finishing speed for a guy who can climb with the elite, and he’s also amazingly consistent through the season. He might not win a Grand Tour again, but he’s usually not far off the podium and he really loves a stage win.

Fabio Aru
Astana’s ‘mini-Nibs’ emerged from obscurity this season to finish on the podium in the Giro and 5th at the Vuelta. He also won a stage at each, showing that at just 24 years old, he’s Italy’s next likely Grand Tour challenger after Nibali himself.

Nacer Bouhanni
Despite being the second-favourite sprinter on the FDJ.com team, Bouhanni cleaned up five Grand Tour stages this season: three in the Giro and two in the Vuelta. Bouhanni only misses out because Kittel dominates him head-to-head, and he’s still not versatile enough when the road gets lumpy.
He’s had a combative year with his team management preferring Arnaud Démare for the Tour, and his race programme has been cut short by criticism of FDJ management after he signed for rivals Cofidis for next year. Despite all this, he won more Grand Tour stages in 2014 than Mark Cavendish and Andre Greipel combined.

Adam Hansen
Because how can you have a Grand Tour team without Adam Hansen? He’s now finished ten in a row, and even claimed a stage win at the Vuelta this year. Hansen is the ultimate team rider, and everyone knows it. He’s also grown in confidence over the last two years and is now often making the race. Very dangerous in a break.

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Thought this one was a bit strange…

Gritty racing pleases at the Vuelta

It seems like it happens every year. The Vuelta a Espana shows up as the whole cycling world is staggering out of its post-Tour de France comedown, slightly tattered and battered and swearing that next time it won’t get so carried away.

Suddenly the Vuelta arrives like a tour bus full of university students on their summer break, promising cheap thrills and another chance to get lucky. Wearily, we all agree to climb aboard, and before we know it we’re swept away by the heat, the drama and the sheer bloody charisma of the whole thing.

It’s happening again, the last few days of this Spanish adventure have risen several notches in intensity, as the tried and tested Vuelta method for excitement has properly kicked in.

Image: Andy Schumacher (https://www.flickr.com/photos/andyschumacher/14879733437/)
Image: Andy Schumacher (https://www.flickr.com/photos/andyschumacher/14879733437/)

That method is: (relatively) short stages with several short climbs, on very steep gradients, with summit finishes. Add time bonuses. Sit back and watch the GC contenders try to knock each other out at speeds just above walking pace. Repeat.

It’s working a treat. Even Nairo Quintana’s absence (spectacular crash in the time trial, wasn’t it?) hasn’t damaged the race too badly. The Tour de France crashes that removed Alberto Contador and Chris Froome from July’s reckoning have brought the pair back to the field, and less than 90 seconds separates the top 4.

Alejandro Valverde and Joaquim Rodriguez, still two of the punchiest riders in the pro peloton, have gone at it with gusto, and Astana’s Fabio Aru, revelation of the Giro d’Italia, is showing that his effort in Italy was no fluke.

Stages 14 and 15 were magnificent: Froome pinching seconds from Contador and Rodriguez on stage 14, while Valverde suffered and dropped 30 seconds. The favour was returned on stage 15, as Valverde pounced to grab second on the stage, a fistful of seconds, and some bonus time.

Whenever you put Contador, Valverde and Rodriguez in a Vuelta together, you can expect a ripper of a contest, and this year is living up.

Valverde has bounced back from a disappointing Tour, and Rodriguez’ recovery from an injury-marred start to this season is finally picking up pace.

Beyond the top four, the supporting cast has animated the race wonderfully: Aru, Dan Martin, Rigoberto Uran, Warren Barguil are all there and firing.

The nature of the climbs in the Vuelta means they are raced differently than in the Tour. The climbs are shorter, the gradients are much steeper, and the much-derided tactic of sending a train of domestiques to the front to ride at threshold power until everyone pops is nowhere near as powerful.

Put simply, these are climbs that suit proper climbers, not diesel engines with a month of altitude training under their belts.

The upshot is that most days finish with a select group of elite climbers who proceed to attack each other one after the other until the finish. It’s great racing. You can almost see the lactic acid burning holes in everyone’s quads, it’s that intense.

Stage 15 was one of the best days of racing you will see this season. Australian Cameron Meyer (Orica-GreenEdge) was in a two-man break with eventual stage winner Przemyslaw Niemiec (Lampre), with several minutes’ lead being chewed up at a rapid rate by the chasing group of GC favourites.

With a couple of kilometres to the summit, and a last-minute catch looking likely, Niemiec (a wily veteran at 34) attacked, dropped Meyer and floored it.

Behind him Contador, Valverde, Barguil and Rodriguez traded attacks, shelling Froome out the back.

Niemiec’ eventual victory – by just 5 seconds – was a real thriller, as was the painful battle behind him.

It was an encouraging ride from Meyer, who will be hoping it earns him a place in the Australian team for the World Championships. I would take him – he’s a valuable support rider for the more fancied leaders. He got just as close to succeeding as his compatriot Adam Hansen did the previous day.

Froome has been forced to show huge amounts of grit in this Vuelta. He is clearly lacking some top-end fitness, shown by his inability to match the acceleration of his Spanish rivals, but seems to be improving as the Vuelta progresses.

Where the Spaniards stand out of the saddle and attack in bursts, Froome prefers to sit and spin a high cadence and constant power output, staring intently at his stem (OK, at his power meter), gradually dragging himself back to the leaders.

So far it has worked at keeping him in the race, but when he’s at his peak Froome uses the technique to go off the front, not to cling on at the back.

On stage 14 it worked beautifully, and he was able to sprint past to claim a moral victory on the line. On stage 15, he was unable to reel the three amigos back in time.

For his part, Contador has looked just as almost-there. He leads the race after stage 16, which he won handsomely, but has by no means dominated. His attacks are short, and he looks like a man who is giving everything. It’s been a flinty performance, more than anything else.

Stage 16, a monster stage with four Cat.1 climbs and Cat.2, has probably decided the outcome of the race. Contador’s victory shows he is the strongest man in the race, even if he is slightly off his best.

With only one mountainous day remaining, stage 20, it’s hard to see Contador dropping the 1:36 he holds over Valverde.

Still, only 3 seconds separates Valverde from Froome – close enough for the Sky leader to feel confident in the final ‘epilogue’ time trial on Sunday.

Valverde needs to find more time, whether he does it in the mountains on Saturday, or by trying to crack Froome in the winds beforehand.

Whatever the result, we’ve already been treated to another good Vuelta. It’s not as slick as its French cousin, but the racing is gritty and tough, in close and tight. Keep watching.

 A version of this article appeared on The Roar.

 

Is Contador playing possum at the Vuelta?

Alberto Contador is back for the Vuelta, and this changes everything.

Hang on a second, does it? Can the Spanish superstar really be expected to be competitive only a few weeks after fracturing his tibia?

Let’s wind back a bit. You may recall Contador crashed out of Stage 10 of the Tour de France in spectacular fashion, hitting the deck at 77km/h while trying to eat on a descent. He fractured his leg, and rode another 10km on adrenaline and emotion (Australian rider Zak Dempster describes it in his Roar interview with Felix Lowe) before the pain became too much.

Initially he planned to return for the Vuelta, causing journalists and fans to begin salivating over the Spanish race like a hungry rider might over a fat, juicy chuleta.

But on July 23 Contador tweeted that his wound was healing too slowly and that his Vuelta hopes were gone:

“Bad day,the wound healing gets complicated,I’ve no date to take the bike.Goodbye to the Vuelta.”

https://twitter.com/albertocontador/status/491854508004474880

But by the 8th of August, Cycling Tips was reporting sightings of Contador out training near his home in Lugano in late July (http://cyclingtips.com.au/2014/08/contador-recovery-moving-quicker-than-rider-and-team-have-claimed/).

The training must have been going well, because this week he announced that his tilt at the Vuelta is back on, albeit in a different capacity than usual:

“I know it’s a Tour of Spain that I’ll have to take in a very different way than I had thought earlier in the season, or as I planned the Tour [de France], but I think it can be very good for me thinking on the end of the season and either to start next year with guarantees, and perhaps in the last week I could be fighting for a stage win. Now I’ll try to do my best in this last week until the start, see you all in Jerez!”

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LJNc8CEmqo4

So, Alberto Contador, el Pistolero, a man who can win Grand Tours when he’s not even in top shape, is going to the Vuelta for pre-season training.

Can you believe it?

I must admit I am struggling to see it. Whatever you think about him (and mentioning that he “divides opinions” is an understatement on par with “Gee, these American cops are enthusiastic about crowd control”) he always – always –  races to win.

Most years you could reasonably expect Contador to turn up to the Vuelta slightly off his best levels, but still carrying all the training he put in to peak for the Tour, and still be a real podium threat.

Remember when he won the 2012 Vuelta, defeating Alejandro Valverde and Joaquim Rodriguez in one of the most gripping GC battles in recent years? He’d hardly raced all year after coming back from his clenbuterol ban. Still took the win.

But this Vuelta is absolutely stacked. Can a recovering Contador match a determined Chris Froome, a Nairo Quintana brimming with confidence and rested after a commanding Giro d’Italia, or a fresh Rigoberto Uran?

These three are all going to come in red hot, although Froome has had his own injury concerns, he’s been training in the US and is reportedly moving pretty well.

Judging from Contador’s public statements, even he doesn’t think he can match the favourites for this race.

What do his words “a very different” way imply? That he’ll be content to roll around with the grupetto logging miles for the first two weeks, dropping enough time that he’s given freedom to attack in the hectic final week?

That he’ll be drilling it on the front as a super-domestique for a different leader? Tinkoff-Saxo’s preliminary Vuelta squad doesn’t have any obvious GC leader apart from Contador himself.

Or will he hang on to the leaders for as long as he can, and hope he comes good at the right time?

It just doesn’t sit square with me that Contador, as proud and aggressive as he is, will be happy to creep around Spain mid-pack, riding his legs into shape in between pressing the flesh for his sponsors before and after every stage.

The first week is pretty flat, and he’ll have some time to find his racing legs. By the time the serious mountains arrive, he’ll have nearly two weeks of racing covered and all the training he did before the Tour should be kicking back in. If he’s still in the race by then, I feel that things could be more interesting than Alberto is willing to let on.

What do we think? Are his public statements a true representation of his goals, or is Alberto playing possum?

Talansky, Contador and the Crack of Froome

What an explosion of colour and movement the Dauphine turned out to be! Andrew Talansky’s smash and grab mission to steal the overall victory sent expectations flying like a watermelon truck in a car chase scene.

Embed from Getty Images
High drama indeed, and one of the best stages of any race in recent memory. But does it signify much for the Tour de France?

I don’t think there are any Earth-shattering revelations to be found: the list of main Tour favourites stays the same (with some shuffling).

However, there are serious tactical implications that emerge from this race. Some chinks emerged in the armour of Team Sky and Tinkoff-Saxo, and that’s great news for a Tour that should be less predictable than the two previous editions.

Talansky has long been tipped by the US cycling press as a future star, and at 25 he has already had some good results in Europe: overall podiums at the Tours of Romandie and Paris-Nice, and top ten’s on GC at the Vuelta a Espana and Tour de France.

But it’s too easy to remember the tactical blunder in stage 5 of the 2013 Paris-Nice, when Talansky, riding in yellow, defended his jersey aggressively, only to crack and hand Richie Porte the stage and overall victory.

Still a promising result, it nevertheless fueled the perception that the Miami native has a vice: over-confidence.

Talansky’s natural aggression paid off at the Dauphine though, producing a final-stage ride that could scarcely have been more audacious if he’d performed it in the nude while whistling the theme to the Great Escape.

Not only did he pinch the overall victory from the two men widely assumed to have the race stitched up, he also knocked off most of the next tier of contenders.

But how the hell was a breakaway that included Talansky, Tejay van Garderen, Jurgen van den Broeck, Vincenzo Nibali, Ryder Hesjedal, J-C Peraud, Thomas Voeckler, Romain Bardet, Adam Yates, Mikel Nieve, Richie Porte and Wilco Kelderman ever allowed to go away in the first place?

That’s not a breakaway, it’s a list of guys most likely to finish top ten in any contemporary Grand Tour. You don’t simply sit back and let them blow up the race, because with that much firepower it was always going to be nearly impossible to bring them back on the day’s final climbs.

Race leader Alberto Contador’s Tinkoff-Saxo Bank team had the responsibility to control the race, and they failed dismally.

This left Contador completely isolated and forced to chase down the most powerful breakaway since the Kit Kat was invented.

Perhaps this was a cunning plan to force Contador into the most extreme pre-Tour training possible – a 15km solo effort up two Cat 1 climbs trying desperately to defend a slipping yellow jersey.

If that was the plan, it could be euphemistically described as ‘brave’.

More likely, the team just had a shocker, dropped its bundle and left its leader cursing a missed opportunity to pump up his palmares and his confidence before the Big One in a few weeks’ time.

That said, even while the Dauphine slipped away Contador’s ride was super impressive. If he had started the climb to Courchevel level with his rivals, he would’ve won handsomely. His form is ominous. He will have better team support at the Tour.

Embed from Getty Images

Meanwhile at Team Sky, what were we witnessing with The Crack of Froome?

I wrote a couple of weeks ago that Froome rides like a man fighting an octopus. This week, the octopus won.

After a perfect start to the Dauphine, the rest of the week has been a shocker for poor old Froome-dog. An inflated controversy about an asthma inhaler; a crash; cracking on stage 7; cracking even harder on stage 8; and allegations of irregularities with his therapeutic use exemption (TUE) for the corticosteroid prednisolone (bizarrely reported as ‘penisolone’ through some outlets – stop sniggering, up the back) which the UCI is desperately trying to quash.

I don’t think any of that matters. Froome only cracked because he crashed. That’s not a lack of form, it’s just dumb luck.

The rest is a sideshow if he’s got medical clearance from the UCI.

There’s been some comments that Team Sky wasn’t up to the job when it mattered in the Dauphine. I disagree.

In stage 8 the team was still supporting Froome in numbers: eventual stage-winner Mikel Nieve and Richie Porte were both in the important break (Porte ultimately dropped back to support Froome), and David Lopez, Vasil Kiryienka and Geraint Thomas were with him until it was clear that all was lost.

The team was unable to respond to Contador’s counter-attack because Froome himself was suffering and a harder tempo would have cracked him even faster.

It’s true that Team Sky is not invincible: they are vulnerable to coordinated attacks from multiple teams.

It’s especially true when everyone else wants to take Sky down, and that’s the price of two years of domination.

The Dauphine showed that Tinkoff-Saxo, Movistar, Garmin-Sharp, AG2R and Astana are all more than happy to put aside their differences and bury the hatchet, if it means putting it in Team Sky’s back.

So what does this all mean for the boys in black and blue?

I think Team Sky needs to adapt. They don’t have the strength to boss the race on their own terms anymore. A more canny approach is needed. Let other teams control the race. Save energy until it matters. Don’t give them an excuse to gang up on you.

I don’t think it’s all doom and gloom. Froome looked in great nick until his crash, and has plenty of time to recover before the Tour. Porte improved through the week, Kiryienka was typically indefatigable, David Lopez and Geraint Thomas also proved themselves more than useful controlling the race for long periods.

Mikel Nieve provides a huge boost to Sky in the mountains. The former Euskaltel climber has finished in the top ten overall in the Vuelta and the Giro, and has won stages of each. He will take an enormous amount of pressure off Porte.

The ‘Schrödinger’s Wiggins’ theorising will continue, but Dave Brailsford must now be giving some serious thought to bringing his former star back into the fold.

Hell, if there’s trouble on the team bus, I’m sure someone can drive Sir Wiggo around in one of their sponsor’s cars.

Froome and Contador: a class above at the Dauphine?

Chris Froome’s authoritative stamp on the first two stages of the Criterium du Dauphine shows the defending champion’s form is excellent, but Alberto Contador is right there with him.

It makes for an intriguing race in its own right, but with the Tour de France looming the stakes are considerably higher.

Last week I woke up one morning and realised with horror that it’s already June and the year is half over and “Oh my god, the Dauphine is starting!”

The tête-à-tête-à-tête between Chris Froome, Alberto Contador and Vincenzo Nibali, the three big favourites for July’s main event, is the first time this season they have all raced together, providing a popular core narrative for the race.

All three big favourites have been training on the same roads in Tenerife, and no doubt there’s been a bit of cloak and dagger funny business as the rivals try to observe each other’s times on the slopes of Mt Teide.

The secondary cast of Tour de France aspirants racing this week includes Tejay van Garderen, Andrew Talansky, Jurgen Van Den Broeck and Michal Kwiatkowski. Wilco Keldermann and Ryder Hesjedal are both racing in the aftermath of a tough Giro, where each seemed to be getting stronger in the third week.

Most are within reach of the leaders after two stages, but there will be some stern faces at BMC after their designated Tour leader Tejay van Garderen dropped 2:38 on Monday.

Nevertheless, it was always difficult to go past the trio of Froome, Contador and Nibali for favouritism this week.

Nibali has been the least impressive of the three; still yet to win a race in 2014 and with a string of mediocre results, he has the most to prove at the Dauphine. Has the birth of his first child earlier this year been too much of a distraction?

Nibali doesn’t need to win the Dauphine to settle the nerves, but he needs to show his team that his best form is within reach for July. Unfortunately losing 27 seconds to Froome on the Col du Béal doesn’t spell out the most ideal scenario for the popular Italian.

The resurgence of Contador has had tongues wagging: he’s already won Tirreno-Adriatico and the Tour of the Basque Country (Vuelta Ciclista a Pais Vasco); and taken second overall at the Tour of Catalunya and Volta ao Algarve.

In other words, Contador has raced in four stage races this season and never finished worse than second overall, including defeating Froome in Catalunya. His time trialling seems back to its best, and his confidence and strength on long climbs seem much improved over the 2013 version of ‘el Pistolero’.

Contador was the only rider able to withstand Froome’s pace on the Col du Béal.

As for Froome, his form has been very good this season, despite a back injury that kept him out of Tirreno-Adriatico and a chest infection that forced him to withdraw from Liege-Bastogne-Liege.

He won the Tour of Romandie a month ago, defeating Nibali in the process. The last three winners of Romandie (Cadel Evans, Sir Bradley Wiggins and Froome) have gone on to win the Tour de France.

Unfortunately, instead of letting his legs do the talking, it’s been disappointing to see Froome getting involved in the unedifying public stoush with Wiggins over Tour de France selection, which continues to build pressure within Team Sky.

Froome has seemed more than happy to kick the feud along with some choice words about Wiggins in his recently released ghost-written autobiography, sections of which were published in major British newspapers to generate maximum attention. That’s a fair tactic to generate sales, but it doesn’t create an ideal team atmosphere.

Wiggins responded with a self-defeating round of “pity me” interviews with that most influential of cycling newspapers, L’Equipe, suggesting that he would love to ride the Tour but Froome doesn’t want him.

Relations have become so fraught that Team Sky manager Dave Brailsford was forced to publicly remind everyone that he’s in charge of picking the Tour team. It’s a huge distraction.

It’s now difficult to see how the surly Sir could possibly stay at Sky beyond this season: the team bus is clearly not big enough for both egos.

It’s a huge personal shame for Wiggins that he won’t be riding the Tour, particularly as he’s done as much as anybody else to bring the race to England this year.

But this very public slanging match is doing damage to the team and its brand. Neutral fans are turned off by the petty squabbling. I find it hard to warm to Froome at the best of times, but having a crack at a teammate, in print, is poor form no matter who started it.

On the bike, for all its stars and individual performances, cycling remains a sport where teamwork is essential, and disunity often means defeat.

For all the team strife, Froome’s still stomping the pedals. Apparently he recently destroyed his personal best on the Col de la Madone, famously a key benchmark for Lance Armstrong.

Crushing everyone in the prologue was a jutted chin more than anything else, but Monday’s HC-rated Col du Béal was the real thing.

The Dauphine has two more summit finishes, and won’t be decided until Sunday’s 8km climb to Courchevel, but already it seems like Froome and Contador are a class above.

 A version of this article first appeared on The Roar.

Image credit: Presse Sports/B.Papon via www.letour.com/

Was Mick Rogers really stupid enough to take clenbuterol?

In late December, I wrote a piece for The Roar examining the circumstances around Mick Rogers’ positive test for clenbuterol in Japan, shortly after the Tour of Beijing.

Today, the Secret Pro, writing anonymously for CyclingTips, weighs in on the Rogers case with some comments from inside the pro peloton.

Go and read the original, but this quote stuck out for me:

“In the scheme of things, Japan Cup is equivalent to winning a regular Sunday club race. Why would anyone risk ‘preparing’ for that? People I’ve spoken to that have been around for a while says they haven’t heard of anyone taking clenbuterol in the past 20 years. You’d be ‘glowing’ for too long.

Every rider agrees that Mick’s case is a muck-up, but at the same time nobody is publicly jumping to his defense.

It makes no sense that anyone would take clenbuterol with the testing that’s done these days.”

Well, that’s what I reckon, too. The most effective drug in the world is practically useless to pro athletes if it’s easily detectable.

The Rogers case hasn’t publicly progressed since December, but murmurs about the possible next step are picking up.

Anyway, here’s what I wrote back in December.

Was Mick Rogers really stupid enough to take clenbuterol?

The news of Michael Rogers’ positive test for clenbuterol is a perplexing one for cycling fans.

A second positive test in China a few weeks later, by Belgium’s Jonathan Breyne (who subsequently attempted suicide) (http://www.theroar.com.au/2013/12/22/belgian-cyclist-attempts-suicide-after-positive-drugs-test/) has reignited discussion about this substance.

On the one hand, weariness and cynicism about doping continue to pervade the sport; but digging a little deeper into clenbuterol reveals the sporting world needs to have a serious discussion about this substance’s handling by authorities.

In cycling, the most famous case of clenbuterol doping is of course Alberto Contador, who was stripped of his 2010 Tour de France victory after testing positive and claiming that it was caused by eating a contaminated steak.

What’s often forgotten is the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) found that Contador had most likely ingested the clenbuterol accidentally in a contaminated supplement, and because of WADA’s strict liability rules he received a two-year backdated ban.

The CAS panel found that both Contador’s claim about contaminated steak, and the UCI’s contention that it was the result of a blood transfusion, were possible, but equally unlikely. Cases of clenbuterol contamination in meat seem to be vanishingly rare in Spain, and CAS ultimately found Contador’s excuse to be unsatisfactory.

You can read the CAS judgement here.

It’s worth pointing out that even the UCI and WADA didn’t allege that Contador had deliberately doped with clenbuterol, probably because there was so little of it (apparently 50 picograms) found in his urine.

The proud dopers over at Steroid.com suggest a daily dose of 40-140 micrograms per day, for men. This puts the amount of clenbuterol found in Contador’s body at approximately 1/1000,000th of an active daily dose.

The recent cases involving Rogers and Breyne will be very interesting, because clenbuterol contaminated meat in China is a different matter to in Spain.

Clenbuterol contamination is a well known problem with Chinese beef, due to its widespread use during beef production, and WADA and sports governing bodies have been warning athletes about the risks associated with eating meat in China for several years.

Indeed, Chinese Olympic athletes were apparently banned from eating meat in the lead-up to the London Olympics, such was the risk of positive tests.

Professional cyclists have no excuse for not being aware of this, and exercising extreme caution.

I haven’t seen reported anywhere the amounts of clenbuterol found in either of Rogers’ or Breyne’s samples, so we don’t know whether their respective positives are similarly low doses to Contador’s.

Both riders vehemently protest their innocence, but of course we’ve been there before.

However, I haven’t seen any serious commentators arguing that these riders were deliberately doping with such an easily-detectable substance, whose main benefit seems to be weight loss (not often a problem for cyclists at the end of a long season), for a relatively meaningless late-season race.

Rogers at the 2012 Olympics

Why would a cyclist use this substance?

According to Wikipedia: “It causes an increase in aerobic capacity, central nervous system stimulation, blood pressure, and oxygen transportation. It increases the rate at which body fat is metabolized while increasing the body’s BMR. It is commonly used for smooth muscle-relaxant properties as a bronchodilator and tocolytic.”

All of which seems useful for an elite athlete, and cyclists in particular, but some reading around some of the less ethical parts of the internet – bodybuilding sites – indicates that clenbuterol is used mainly for weight loss, particularly after an anabolic steroid cycle so that food intake can remain high without worrying about getting fat. (http://www.musclechemistry.com/upload/articles-new/65546-clenbuterol-faq-how-cycle-clen-clen-side-effects-doses.html)

Keeping lean just after you’ve stopped taking steroids is not the kind of use case you would expect from an elite cyclist during competition.

Especially when it’s possible to detect 1/1,000,000th of an active dose in urine.

You would have to be a complete moron to take clenbuterol as a professional cyclist.

Sure, we’ve seen some pretty stupid acts by dopers in the past, but the risk:reward payoff for this substance is absurdly stacked in favour of getting caught. I just don’t believe that Contador or Rogers are that stupid.

What we do know is that stories of clenbuterol contamination in Chinese food seem highly plausible. Lee Rodgers pointed this out in his piece earlier this week: a WADA-accredited laboratory found that 22 out of 28 recent travellers to China tested positive to clenbuterol.

If 78% of the (admittedly small) sample tested positive, it seems clear that the chances of ingesting some clenbuterol from Chinese meat are well beyond “possible” and verge on “very likely”.

It’s fair to ask why these riders were eating meat at all. It’s also worth asking how teams with their own chefs, dieticians, and staff (at least in Rogers’ case) could allow something like this to happen.

There is nothing in Michael Rogers’ statement to indicate whether or not he followed guidelines on avoiding meat. It’s possible he went ‘off-piste’ and ate a meal outside of the team environment. Perhaps he only ate in team hotels. We don’t yet know.

But there needs to be a serious discussion about whether eating a meal should be enough to ruin someone’s career and reputation.

At the moment, we have a situation where the rules about substances like clenbuterol (there is no allowable amount and testing for it is phenomenally effective) are extremely strict, but the known risk of accidental positives is high.

Riders are understandably not happy about this.

Garmin-Sharp’s young Australian rider Lachlan Morton put it succinctly on Twitter [He seems to have recently deleted his account – Ed]: “How do you know how your meat was prepared on the road?” (https://twitter.com/lachlanmorton/status/413478594845741056)

“I’m worried” (https://twitter.com/lachlanmorton/status/413478628047872000)

Robbie McEwen was similarly blunt:

McEwen also pointed out that there’ll be a long queue of riders trying to avoid racing in China next season:

The problem is that World Tour teams are compelled to race in the Tour of Beijing, so somebody is going to have to race there. The UCI has too much invested in China to simply stop racing there.

So what can be done?

In the short term, teams might have to go temporarily vegetarian while in China.

Failing that, they may have to bring their own meat supply in from Europe (or indeed Australia).

But these are just band-aid solutions to a deeper problem regarding banned substances which are known to be used in food production.

WADA needs to urgently investigate whether it’s appropriate to introduce a minimum threshold for returning a positive test for clenbuterol and other similar substances.

It could be far below the level of an active dose, while still remaining high enough to avoid positives from trace amounts found in food.

There is precedent in establishing accepted ranges for particular substances, particularly naturally-occurring substances like testosterone, or several blood cell values.

Clenbuterol does not occur naturally in the body, so this would be setting a precedent for synthetic substances.

For both Contador and Rogers, there is a sense in some cynical circles that this is an ‘Al Capone’ bust: they may have got away with plenty in the past, so getting them on a technicality is some kind of rough justice.

I understand the frustration with doping that engenders this attitude, but I don’t think it’s right to leave doping booby traps around for random riders to fall into.

We need to avoid a repeat of the situation this week, where a young rider (Breyne) attempted suicide because of a positive test that looks reasonably likely to have been caused by food contamination. Riders who are genuinely trying to behave ethically deserve some protection.

Bogus positives also serve to undermine the trust of riders and fans in the anti-doping movement, and this should be avoided wherever possible.