Tag Archives: cycling

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.

dscf4329dscf4333-editdscf4351-editdscf4308dscf4341dscf4345-editdscf4360dscf4362dscf4371dscf4395DSCF4379.jpgdscf4358

Seven ways to ruin the Olympic road race

It’s one morning into Channel 7’s coverage of #Rio2016 and I’m already bloody furious!

The men’s road race was on last night, undoubtedly one of the races of the year, and apparently an absolute ripper. I missed it.

I saw the first part of the race, which was fine, but at 1am and with 3 hours more racing ahead, I had to give in to sleep, making sure to hit record on the PVR before I went. You see, we have a baby and she doesn’t understand Olympic sport or timezones.

This morning I jumped out of bed, ran to my TV while carefully avoiding looking at my phone (spoilers), then got stuck into it.

It was all going to plan, I was enjoying the coverage and Scott McGrory’s commentary, and looking forward to the business end of the race… those brutal climbs and twisty descents…

Disaster struck! THE SWIMMING STARTED (who could have predicted that?) and Channel 7 decided to punt the cycling from its main channel onto 7 Mate.

“The road race will continue for a short time, for the time being, over on the Olympics from Seven app, and will return on 7 Mate…”

Ai, caralho! It’s 3am and I’m asleep! My PVR doesn’t know it needs to change channels! Fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck!

The disaster struck with 73km to go, but then the race came back. Then the same message at 63km to go, for a look at the rugby 7’s. Yet again, the race came back! It seemed the producers were literally making and changing decisions on the fly.

Filho da puta!

Then with 54km to go it was off to the pool, and that was basically it. The action was elsewhere.

I saw a tiny bit (a minute or so) more cycling with 20km to go, but the race had blown up by then, and we’d missed everything important. Besides, it was immediately back to the pool. I watched all this in 30X fast-forward, desperately hoping for more bikes, and fearing the worst.

With 500m to go the telecast returned, so I saw Greg Van Avermaet win the sprint. Yay, Greg!

No. I am pissed off that I missed the race.

Yes, it’s the Olympics, there’s a lot on at once, and you can’t please everyone. But switching channels mid-event with no warning is a real dick move.

What should Channel 7 be doing instead?

Be predictable

Make a commitment that if an event starts on a particular channel, it won’t suddenly move to a different one. Publish which channel is hosting which sports in advance. The event schedule has been set for months.

Support expected user behaviour

Understand that the games are happening at the worst possible time of day for Australian audiences, which means people want and need to record things. This should be obvious, and the Seven telecast should support this basic user behaviour.

Give people information

The broadcaster needs to let people know which channel to watch/record! Seven has provided no way of knowing which of its three broadcast channels is showing a particular event. Its app shows what time an event is on, but crucially not which channel. Even if I did stay up to watch an event, Seven’s lack of forewarning means I have no idea if they’ll actually show it, or where.

Don’t make people do stupid things

If I want to be absolutely sure not to miss an event I want to see, I need to record all three broadcast channels, and then fast-forward through all three recordings until I can find the event. Ugh!

Technology is great, but only when it solves a user’s problem

Seven is live-streaming events through an app. Last night I woke up and tried to watch the road race finish using it, but it couldn’t connect to the servers, so that wasn’t an option. It’s also impossible to record a live stream, so the app doesn’t solve the ‘3am problem’. The app is slow, buggy and designed poorly. It feels like a real afterthought or exercise in box-ticking. The website is worse. Telstra seems to be responsible for this.

Have a plan B

As of Sunday morning (when they’re most needed) there are no highlights of the road race available in the app. There seems to be some video available for premium subscribers – I don’t have a problem with monetising Olympic content, which Seven paid a lot for, but frankly the app’s performance and reliability are so poor at this point that I don’t trust it enough to pay for it.

The kicker is: I knew this would happen, and I was really nervous about missing the road race, because Australian broadcasters are consistently terrible (see scheduling, punctuality, the quality of their on-demand services and apps, platform support etc). Cycling is a minority sport, and it isn’t taken seriously by commercial broadcasters, so it gets shoved around.

It was bad enough in 2012, but in 2016 it’s a joke. We’ve been living in an on-demand, user-centric world since at least Beijing 2008 – why can’t our Olympic broadcasters catch up?

On the positive side, Seven’s coverage and commentators are (so far at least) nowhere near as jingoistic and brainless as Nine’s nauseating effort in London. Small mercies.

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!

Mega Daily Bone-up: Stage 9

I slept through this one, but I’ll tell you what it all means.

5. Orica-GreenEdge phoned it in

This is the team that has a fearsome reputation in TTTs, often using them as a springboard to dominate the first week of a grand tour. This is also the team that has three of its strongest riders at home nursing broken bones, and another (Michael Matthews) still riding on with broken ribs.

OGE hobbled across the course, trying to stay together, and the blank looks in their eyes as they rolled across the finish line told the story.

The postscript to the story is that they finished last, two and a half minutes behind second-last placed Cofidis and a shade under five minutes slower than BMC, who they frequently beat. This was an exercise in survival until the rest day for the OGE bus. This Tour business is pretty tough sometimes.

Here’s a bit of music to lighten the team’s spirits, anyway.

4. Nobody has ruined their Tour

I said it yesterday and I’ll stand by it: nobody important had their Tour ruined by the TTT.

Joaquim Rodriguez lost 1’53” and might disagree, but like I said, nobody important. Purito has won a stage already, and he might even be a better chance for another one if he drops a few more minutes on GC and is allowed a bit more freedom while the Big Boys mark each other.

Meanwhile, the Big Four (perhaps we should add BMC and Tejay to the ‘Big’ list)…

The Big Five were all within 35 seconds of each other.

KPI box ticked.

A few of the second-tier contenders have drifted backwards, it is true. The cream is rising to the top.

3. Movistar solid, but was it enough for Nairo?

Movistar would have had high expectations for this TTT, having brought former Hour record holder Alex Dowsett, and the big engines of TT specialists Adriano Malori and Jonathan Castroviejo along for the ride.

The aim would have been to do some damage to Chris Froome and Alberto Contador, and set Nairo Quintana up for the mountains.

It didn’t really work out, but only because Sky in particular rode a blinder. As a result, Quintana will start the second week 1’59” behind the maillot jaune. This is certainly not ideal, but Nairo is known for getting better in the final week of Grand Tours (see Tour 2013, Giro 2014).

We’ll see.

2. Sky on fire

Yes, Sky has always been strong in this discipline. Yes, they would have been highly motivated. Yes, they’ve had a couple of relatively easy days letting the sprinters’ teams control the race.

But still, getting within a second of the World Champion BMC squad was a massive effort, considering Sky arguably didn’t bring its A team of time triallists (they opted for more climbers).

It keeps Froome in yellow over the rest day, and perhaps more importantly it edged him a little further ahead of Quintana, Contador and Nibali.

So far everything is going to plan for Team Death Star, and Froome’s key mountain lieutenants have barely had to turn a crank in anger.

1. “Cos I’m BMC, I’m dynamite…”

With apologies to Acadaca, I’ll be earworming this one all day. Another big ride from the Swissmerican squad gives them two vans on the provisional podium (Tejay van Garderen and Greg van Bridesmaid) and a second stage win for this Tour.

This one will do wonders for their confidence. With a leader who looks in the form of his life and a team obviously in good nick, they’ll be starting to truly believe.

Not just in a “Yeah we’re all in for Tejay go team” sense, but in a visceral “Fuck, we can actually win this, I’m going to to turn myself inside out for this bloke for the next two weeks…” sense. That is powerful.

Big Boys’ GC

1. Froome

2. Tejay van 12″

3. Contador 1’03”

4. Uran 1’18”

5. Valverde 1’50”

6. Quintana 1’59”

7. Kreuiziger 2’18”

8. Nibali 2’22”

9. Barguil 2’43”

10. Rodriguez 3’52”

11. Talansky 4’17”

12. Bardet 4’38”

Can red-hot Richie Porte win the Giro?

Richie Porte’s form is hotter than it’s ever been, but can he maintain such a high level until the end of the Giro?

It’s been an incredible early season for Porte: he’s already won the GC at Paris-Nice, the Volta Ciclista a Catalunya and this week’s Giro del Trentino. Add in a close 2nd at the Tour Down Under (where he would have won if not for time bonuses) and 4th at the Volta ao Algarve (where he won the mountains classification and a stage).

That’s right, his worst finish on GC for the year so far, out of five stage races, is 4th.

Porte is absolutely flying. A tough 2014 season has been well and truly shaken off. He looks lean, hungry, and powerful. He’s winning time trials (including the national championship) and mountain stages.

He won the Giro del Trentino with a vicious solo attack to win stage 2 (skip to the 42 minute mark of the YouTube clip below)

His attack came after one of those Team Sky power-climbing exhibitions that spectators love so much. When Porte launched, it was scintillating stuff – out of the saddle in the big ring, with Astana’s Mikel Landa floundering in his wake.

He’s leading the UCI points rankings, making him arguably the best rider in the world at the moment. While the focus of the cycling world has been on the bombastic spring classics, Porte has been playing assassin with ruthless efficiency across the roads of Portugal, Spain, France and now Italy.

It’s reminiscent of Wiggins in 2012, scorching his way through the season taking all before him.

Porte is clearly in better form than any other Giro contender.

His old leader Alberto Contador (Tinkoff-Saxo Bank) has been steady, gaining a handful of top-five results, but with his sights set on a Giro-Tour double, he needs to keep his form rising until late in the Giro d’Italia, lest he blow his Tour campaign.

His former teammate Rigoberto Uran (Etixx-Quickstep) is at home in Colombia training at altitude. Uran finished 5th in Catalunya and 3rd at Tirreno-Adriatico, so he is also looking steady rather than spectacular.

Uran has finished 2nd in the last two editions of the Giro d’Italia, and will be motivated after losing the maglia rosa last year in controversial fashion when his compatriot Nairo Quintana attacked descending the Stelvio in the snow, in confusion about whether the race was neutralised.

Last year’s podium revelation Fabio Aru (Astana) is suffering from a stomach ailment and extraordinary speculation after Lotto-Soudal’s Greg Henderson accused him (on Twitter) of using the illness as a cover for a bio passport violation. No doubt there’ll be intense scrutiny on Aru, but his preparation has been so badly interrupted there’s even been talk of switching Vincenzo Nibali in to lead the embattled Astana squad at the Giro (http://www.theroar.com.au/2015/04/24/richie-porte-could-face-vincenzo-nibali-in-giro-ditalia/) before defending his Tour de France crown.

My view is that Astana would be far better served by having Nibali in blazing form at the Tour, than having him half-cooked at the Giro and over-cooked in France.

Aru was 6th in Catalunya at the end of March, but hasn’t raced in April, and I would be stunned if he can improve on his 2014 result with such an interrupted preparation.

Other quality GC contenders are scarce in this Giro. Domenico Pozzovivo (AG2R), Ryder Hesjedal (Cannondale-Garmin) and Diego Ulissi (Lampre-Merida) the best of them.

I feel the Giro field is one of the weakest in recent years. It’s a golden chance for Porte to step onto his first grand tour podium, perhaps even (whisper it) a win.

I’ve just listed quite a lot of reasons to think that Porte is a shoe-in for the Giro podium, if not the victory.

So why should we have any doubts? He’s in the best shape of his career, he’s been routinely belting the snot out of his rivals at every important stage race so far this season, and his rivals (Uran excused) are either focused elsewhere, ill, or simply not in Porte’s class.

Why? Because form is bloody difficult to maintain for longer than a few weeks at a time, and Porte’s legs have been blazing hot since January.

Because despite his obvious talents, since his surprise 7th overall at the 2010 Giro (as a neo-pro) Porte has never been able to sustain a high level of performance for the full three weeks of a grand tour.

Because his best grand tour result since that Giro was 19th, at the 2013 Tour de France.

Because riders who can win week-long stage races aren’t necessarily the ones who can win grand tours, and vice versa.

Because the weight of grand tour leadership at a team with Sky’s exposure and ambition is immense, and he hasn’t coped well when asked to carry it previously.

And finally, this year’s Giro features four high mountain finishes in its final week, when Porte will be at his most vulnerable.

I would dearly love to see Richie Porte converting his potential into a big result. Becoming only the second Australian grand tour winner would be immense. Every interview and story about him mentions that he’s found a new focus, discipline, maturity. His year so far has been nearly perfect.

Perhaps it is Richie Porte’s time. We’ll see at the end of May.

Is there a better approach to anti-doping?

Cycling’s perennial bugbear – doping – has reared its head again recently, with highly visible EPO positives to the Iglinskiy brothers, the rather limp response from their Astana team, and the evident toothlessness of the MPCC group which claims to safeguard clean cycling.

I know, doping never really went away, for all the talk about ‘different’ racing styles, biological passports and a new generation. I do think progress has been made on reducing dopage, but of course the trickle of positives reminds us that there is still plenty of work to be done.

The trouble, of course, is that catching cheats is extremely difficult, even with the biological passport and targeted testing regimes. It’s not always black and white, either. Often, prosecuting a doping case comes down to interpreting the probability of an athlete’s biological profile being influenced by natural versus artificial factors.

Proving guilt can be bloody difficult. The truth is that much of the fight against doping in cycling is based on automated algorithms and statistical modelling techniques that are designed to reveal physiological outliers. The software makes probabilistic bets, and if abnormalities of the right type are found, the data is examined by human experts who then make assessments of the probability that the data shows doping.

Reasonably, because the cost of false positives is so high (in terms of rider reputation and career damage, legal costs and even the kind of mass sponsor and broadcaster exodus we saw in the post-Armstrong period) the probability of a genuine positive needs to be very high before action is taken.

This leaves an uncomfortably large and murky grey area where unscrupulous riders are able to use the modern sophisticated doper’s bag of tricks (microdosing, masking agents, small transfusions, and other techniques) to dope, while flying under the statistical radar, so to speak.

Think of a recent case like Team Sky’s erstwhile rider Jonathan Tiernan-Locke, recently banned for two years after UK Anti-Doping (UKAD) ruled that his irregular blood values could not be explained by binge drinking and dehydration. The ruling effectively made a decision that on the balance of probabilities, it was almost certain that Tiernan-Locke was not just ‘on the piss’, but taking it as well. He stuffed up badly and his blood values set off all the alarms. Two-year ban.

Contrast his case with Roman Kreuziger’s ongoing argument with the UCI and WADA over whether his biological passport was criminally abnormal in 2011 and 2012, or just a bit idiosyncratic. It took more than two years (and probably a new algorithm) to reveal the alleged problems with his biological passport. The red flags weren’t raised.

It’s ten years since my last read of an exercise physiology textbook so I’ll reserve my judgment, but Kreuziger (and his experts) have argued that the probability of doping is not conclusive enough to ban him. The Czech federation agreed on September 22, so for now he is free to race. I don’t know for certain if Kreuziger was doping or not, but I do know that his argument rests on exploiting doubt about the probability of a genuine positive. He is well and truly in the grey area.

So, why am I writing about statistics?

Well, there’s an interesting new approach to anti-doping, and it’s being led in Australia. It’s intended to complement existing anti-doping by rewarding athletes who are statistically very likely to be clean, by certifying them as being so.

If WADA and bans are the anti-doping stick, then the Clean Protocol is the carrot.

It shifts the emphasis away from proving doping, where certainty has to be near-absolute, to endorsing a rider for being clean. Because riders who don’t meet the protocol face no punishment, the threshold for repercussions can shift – the protocol doesn’t say that any rider is doping, it just says “we guarantee this rider is clean”.

The bar for proving someone is clean can be placed in a very different area, statistically, than the bar for proving someone is dirty. It can be much tougher.

For the majority of clean riders, the current status quo is frustrating because there is no way of separating them from riders who are in the grey area of ‘doping but getting away with it’.

By signing up for the Clean Protocol (or similar, as long as the methodology is trustworthy) riders would have a way of proving (to a very high degree of certainty) to fans and sponsors that they are not doping.

It creates an incentive to be fastidiously clean, because the commercial implications for sponsors, and teams hiring only certified riders, would potentially be huge.

So, who’s behind this idea? Three people: Australian Teague Czislowki, Briton Andrew Johns (a lawyer and an ex-elite triathlete respectively) and American Dr Mike Puchowicz, a sports medicine doctor from Arizona, perhaps better known to cycling fans as the writer of the Veloclinic blog, where he analyses power data from climbs.

Puchowicz has a great explanation of the reasoning behind the Clean Protocol on his blog.

The basic protocol is that athletes must disclose who they work with; undergo psychometric testing; provide all the biological data gained in the course of normal WADA and other testing; provide information on injuries, supplements and therapeutic use exemptions; undergo a series of psychological deception tests of varying complexity; and encourage the people they work with to sign up for the protocol and undergo the same testing.

It’s undeniably stringent. But it needs to be, if the aim is to certify to such a high degree of confidence that a person is clean.

I think the idea has a lot of merit, provided the modelling techniques used are peer-reviewed and transparent. The scientific rigour must be unimpeachable.

Athletes might argue that the demands of anti-doping are already unreasonably tough – principally the whereabouts requirements and early-morning knocks on the door from testers – but as we’ve seen, the punitive approach has been hitting the limits of its ability to weed out dopers for many years. The Clean Protocol doesn’t replace any of the current testing, it’s additional and complements it.

Groups like the MPCC have failed to increase trust because their commitments have been shown up as hollow, there’s no rigour underpinning their statements about clean sport. A voluntary certification supported by robust science would be a very different proposition.

The Clean Protocol is an idea to keep an eye on.

 

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.

Meanwhile, not at the Vuelta…

I love the Vuelta as much as any self-respecting cycling fan with a penchant for hot weather and steep hills, but as we’ve reached the first rest day in the big Spanish race, it’s a perfect time to go ‘around the grounds’, as football commentators used to say.

There’s been a lot happening in cycling outside the Iberian peninsula, here are my picks.

 

  1. Tour de l’Avenir

We say this a lot, but Australia continues to develop some really outstanding young riders. This year’s Tour de l’Avenir produced some outstanding results for the Australian team (it’s an U23 race and riders represent national teams), particularly Robert Power who finished second overall.

Some recent riders who have made the podium in the race include Tejay van Garderen (2009), Bauke Mollema and Tony Martin (2007), Jan Bakelants and Rui Costa (2008), Tejay van Garderen (2009), Nairo Quintana (2010), Esteban Chavez (2011), Warren Barguil (2012) and Adam Yates (2013).

Generally, to win or podium at this race is a good sign of impending World Tour contracts and big time success. You’ll also notice a lot of Colombians win it, and this year was no different, with Miguel Angel Lopez taking the title. Watch out for him.

Power, who rides for the Jayco-AIS World Tour Academy team, has perhaps been less widely heralded than some of his contemporaries. That will change, now that he’s become the first Australian to reach the podium. It’s a big deal. Especially when you consider he’s only 19.

His teammates also had a big week: Campbell Flakemore won the opening prologue and wore the leader’s jersey; Caleb Ewan won a stage; and Jack Haig finished 12th overall. The production line of Aussie road talent continues.

 

  1. Goss to leave Orica-GreenEdge

Matt White has confirmed to Cycling News that Matt Goss is leaving the team at the end of this season. It’s sad to see the departure of the team’s original marquee rider, but the last two seasons have been disappointing for Goss.

He simply hasn’t won enough races, and the team has moved on as Michael Matthews has proven to be a more than able replacement in the sprints.

What’s next for Goss? He turns 28 at the end of this year, so he’s still got plenty to offer if he can recapture his spark. The rumours are that MTN-Qhubeka is interested, and that would be an interesting parallel with another former Columbia/HTC-Highroad alumnus Gerald Ciolek, who has successfully rebooted his career with the African Pro Continental team.

Goss could also be a hugely valuable contributor in the World Tour as a lead-out man. He made his name leading out Mark Cavendish, and a return to that role might be a viable way to keep himself in a big team at the big races.

Whatever happens next for Goss, I don’t think anyone could say they were surprised to see him moving on. For whatever reason, things just haven’t been working for him. This might be the kick in the arse he needs to get his career back on course.

 

  1. Tiffany Cromwell rides into top ten at GP Plouay; stakes claim for World Championships spot

Tiffany Cromwell should be the first Aussie rider picked for the women’s road race team at the World Championships, if recent form is any guide.

After missing a bronze medal by a tyre’s width at the Glasgow Commonwealth Games, Cromwell bounced back to claim 5th overall at the Tour of Norway, and then an aggressive 10th at the GP Plouay this week (read her race report for Cycling Tips here).

The good results against the best in the world are becoming more and more consistent, and Cromwell has shown she can perform well on tough courses. First picked, I tell you.

 

  1. Daryl Impey is back

Orica-GreenEdge’s South African sprinter Daryl Impey has beaten his doping rap, and will return to racing this week at the Tour of Alberta. His defense team successfully demonstrated that his positive test for the banned diuretic Probenecid was due to contaminated gel caps sold by his pharmacist, who’d been dispensing the banned substance to a previous customer.

Plenty of people will be sceptical – we’ve hashed this one out again and again, and people’s views don’t tend to shift much – but I feel for Impey. As he said on his website, he’s been put through hell because his pharmacist got sloppy:

“It has been definitely the hardest two months of my life, it has been a huge financial loss and has been tough on my whole family. But I was determined to show that I am clean and that I would never cheat to try get an advantage over my competitors.  I am so relieved that this has now been proven.”

The stress on athletes that occurs because of the extreme rigour of anti-doping protocols is enormous. It’s not just the early-morning door knocks and post-race urine samples, it’s keeping your whereabouts updated every day, reading the labels of everything you ingest. But the most difficult and frustrating thing is that athletes are quite literally trusting their careers to strangers, and feel like they have no control over their fates.

Plenty of people simply won’t believe Impey, or will argue that he got off on a technicality (as with Michael Rogers). I’m starting to wonder if the combination of strict liability, a huge ever-changing list of banned substances, and incredibly sensitive testing methods is actually damaging the athletes it’s supposed to protect.

If your career can be ended by having the bad luck to have a sloppy pharmacist, then the whole anti-doping system starts to look like a big dumb lottery.

Have we reached a point where we’re jailing people for jaywalking because of a recent spate of murders?

This piece first appeared on The Roar.