Tag Archives: giro d’italia

Tone-deaf UCI fails its fans; Porte and Clarke should hold their heads high

The UCI’s decision to penalise Richie Porte and Simon Clarke two minutes, punishment for Clarke’s sporting decision to give Porte his front wheel after the Sky leader had punctured, is a disgrace.

The penalty has effectively ended Porte’s chances of winning the Giro.

It has probably wrecked this Giro: for the second year in a row the winner will be decided by incompetent officialdom amidst confusion and controversy.

Yet it is no exaggeration to say that acts like Clarke’s are the embodiment of how Australians are raised to understand sportsmanship. It is part of our national sporting folklore that helping a rival who has suffered bad luck is one of the most noble things you can do on a sporting arena.

Events like John Landy’s 1956 decision to stop to help a fallen Ron Clarke in the Australian mile championships are iconic in our sporting culture. It is literally cast in bronze near the site of Melbourne’s former Olympic Park athletics track, a couple of drop punts from the MCG.

Australian sportsmanship can be problematic: witness the reaction to our cricketers and sledging. Yet acts like Landy’s represent us as we would like to be, more than perhaps we truly are. We are taught from a young age to aspire to respect our rivals and mates.

Many Australians will see Simon Clarke’s act of kindness to his friend as fitting squarely within the best of sportsmanship, as we understand it, having been raised to view these kinds of selfless acts as defining marks of character and sporting goodwill.

Many cycling fans will agree. The Giro d’Italia’s official Twitter account posted photos of the event with the admiring caption, in English, “This is cycling. This is the best sport in the world.”

First, the admiration...
First, the admiration…




Hours later the same account was announcing the penalties with a terse press release.

Then, the slap in the face.
Then, the slap in the face.

It is yet another baffling decision from professional cycling’s idiot bureaucracy.

Let’s be clear: low-level cheating is endemic in professional cycling. Watch a race for five minutes and you will see riders hanging onto team cars, being dragged along by a ‘sticky bottle’. You’ll see riders drafting off team cars to get back to the peloton; riders drafting camera motorbikes as they attack; teams routinely offer bottles and food to riders from other teams.

The UCI ignores all of this unless riders blatantly (and you have to be more blatant than Rafal Majka winking at the camera as he drafted a moto in last year’s Tour de France) abuse the rules.

At Paris-Roubaix recently, a big group of riders charged under a closing railway barrier, desperate to save a few seconds but putting their lives at risk. The UCI refused to act on its own rules, bleating about not being able to identify all the riders and mumbling that it wouldn’t be fair to punish only the ones it could identify.

It’s quite clear that the UCI frequently excuses and endorses low-level cheating, bending its own rules.

That’s long before we get to the more ‘serious’ cheating: doping, rumours of motorised bikes, race-fixing, which the UCI has a long and shameful history, perhaps now ending, of ignoring and shovelling under the carpet.

And yet it chooses to throw the rule book at two riders who have done something that the entire sporting world, including the race’s own PR team, agrees demonstrates great sportsmanship and admirable character.

A fine, perhaps, if it is determined to actually start enforcing its own rules right now, but a two-minute penalty?

The penalties show that the UCI remains determined in its officious, tone-deaf administration, completely isolated from the values it should be encouraging, from the wishes of its fans, and from the deeper sporting tradition it inhabits.

The decision is a disgrace to the UCI. Long live cycling.

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.

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.

A Giro for a new era

Nairo Quintana was a deserving winner of the Giro d’Italia, but this Giro also told a broader story of the new generation of cycling’s elite pushing through and surpassing the old.

Quintana himself, at 24 also the winner of the best young rider classification, is arguably the most precocious GC rider of his generation.

A victory in the Giro seems like such a natural progression after his 2nd place in the 2013 Tour de France that it’s easy to take it for granted, but he had to shrug off a poor first half of the race, illness, and controversy over the way he took the maglia rosa from his compatriot Rigoberto Uran on Stage 16.

Fortunately the strength of Quintana’s rides in the Stage 19 time trial and the Stage 20 climb of Monte Zoncolan silenced any grumbles over the legitimacy of his victory. For perhaps the first time in his life, he was head and shoulders above his rivals.

On the really steep gradients Quintana is a virtuoso, all smoothness and light. Whatever emotion his stony face hides instead flows through his pedals. The contrast to Chris Froome, a man whose style is effective but has all the grace of a man fighting an octopus, is stark. It is a great shame that we’ll have to wait another year to see them resume their Tour de France rivalry.

But this Giro was about more than Quintana.

Cycling’s older generation is slipping inexorably out of the top echelon.

The Giro's jersey winners are all under 25 years old.
The Giro’s jersey winners are all under 25 years old.

Of all the men who won stages at this Giro, only two are over 30: Michael Rogers (34) and Pieter Weening (33).

The average age of the stage winners was just under 26.

Of the top 10 on general classification, seven were aged under 30.

Rafal Majka (24), Fabio Aru (23) and Wilco Kelderman (23) are all young enough to compete for the best young rider’s jersey.

Rigoberto Uran, Pierre Rolland and Robert Kiserlovski are all 27. Still young, but no longer considered emerging riders, they are beginning to deliver on promise shown over a number of seasons as professionals.

Of course we can’t forget the performances of Michael Matthews (23), Marcel Kittel (26) and Nacer Bouhanni (23). Double stage winner Diego Ulissi is 24.

King of the Mountains winner Julian Arredondo is 25.

That’s a huge amount of success for a lot of young riders.

Of the others in the top ten overall, Cadel Evans is the oldest at 37. Ryder Hesjedal is 33, and Domenico Pozzovivo is 31.

Evans’ stellar career is clearly winding down (albeit I think he has a couple of good seasons and some more wins left in him); Hesjedal seems to be rediscovering his form from a couple of years ago (his effort to hold Quintana’s wheel on the stage to Val Martello was outstanding); and Pozzovivo showed flashes of brilliance but suffered from a lack of consistency.

Meanwhile, the old guard of Italian cycling, Ivan Basso and Michele Scarponi, had forgettable races. Basso finished 15th, but was rarely in contention when it mattered, and eventually finished 32 minutes behind Quintana.

Scarponi had a horror Giro after starting the race as designated leader, withdrawing after stage 16. He was never a factor in the race, but his Astana team was saved disappointment by his understudy Aru.

Of the other older riders who would have been considered amongst the favourites not many years ago, Michael Rogers was 18th (although two stage wins was an incredible achievement); Damiano Cunego was 19th; Samuel Sanchez 24th.

Yes, this was definitely a Giro for the new era. The riders who lit up the race are (with some obvious exceptions) almost all of the post-Puerto era, untainted by controversy.

These are the names we’ll be following for the next few years at the top level of professional cycling. Note them down.

Stage Winner Age
1 Orica-GreenEdge
2 Kittel 26
3 Kittel 26
4 Bouhanni 23
5 Ulissi 24
6 Matthews 23
7 Bouhanni 23
8 Ulissi 24
9 Weening 33
10 Bouhanni 23
11 Rogers 34
12 Uran 27
13 Canola 25
14 Battaglin 24
15 Aru 23
16 Quintana 24
17 Pirazzi 27
18 Arredondo 25
19 Quintana 24
20 Rogers 34
21 Mezgec 25
Average 25.85

Cav’s back, but is he riding scared?

Cav’s back. After a month without a race, Mark Cavendish has returned with two stage wins from two in the Tour of Turkey.

I’d sort of forgotten about him, to be honest. I mean, not literally, but he’d drifted off my radar as the cycling world focused on the cobbles and then the Ardennes classics.

Sitting out from racing for a month after illness helped to push him under the radar, but even the talk of sprinters has recently revolved around Marcel Kittel, Andre Greipel and John Degenkolb.

The emergence of Kittel in particular has shaken up the sprint hierarchy: there’s now a legitimate debate to be had over whether Cavendish is still the top man.

Cavendish’s numbers are slightly down on his 2013 season to this point on the calendar, but last year he blitzed the Tour of Qatar to the tune of four stages and the overall victory. This season Cav rode the Tour of Dubai instead, where Kittel returned the favour, winning every road stage while Cav didn’t trouble the top ten in any of them.

But if Cavendish is no longer the unbackable favourite in every flat stage, he’s still reliably winning races: this was his third individual stage win this season (he won a sprint stage each at the Volta ao Algarve and at Tirreno-Adriatico). Not a bad return despite missing almost all of April.

Cavendish also finished a creditable 5th at Milan-Sanremo.

After missing a month, most riders would take a few races to find their legs, but the Manxman seemed to slot straight back into form, easily accounting for Elia Viviani (Cannondale) and Theo Bos (Belkin) in stage 1 in Turkey.

That he did it with an inexperienced lead-out train that dropped him off a stop too early, forcing him to freelance his way to the line, is extra impressive.

Now, the Tour of Turkey is certainly no big deal in the grand scheme of things. It’s a UCI 2.HC categorised race with a dubious reputation for producing dodgy results (the last two overall winners were later disqualified for doping).

No, the main game is the Giro d’Italia, which starts in just over a week’s time, in Ireland. The first Grand Tour of the year and the chance to see all the top sprinters going head to head…

Cavendish isn’t riding the Giro.

Instead, he’s going to finish the Tour of Turkey, head over to the US for the EPO Tour of California, then the Tour de Suisse, on the way to his major objective for the season: stage 1 of the Tour de France.

No, really? But he won five Giro stages last year and still rode at the Tour!

The reason Cav is so focused on the first day of the Tour is that it finished in Harrogate, Yorkshire, where his mother was born. It’s sentimental for him, and that’s endearing. He wants to win in his mother’s home town.

But, no Giro?

Really, he’s not riding the Giro. I know, it’s difficult to accept. I’m really disappointed, too.

This leaves the sprint stages wide open for Kittel, with Nacer Bouhanni (FDJ) and Michael Matthews (Orica-GreenEdge) also contesting. Cav’s absence is good news for Australian fans, as it gives Matthews a great’y improved chance to increase his tally of Grand Tour stage victories.

Cavendish’s OPQS team will send veteran sprinter Alessandro Petacchi along, but the team is really built to support Rigoberto Uran’s GC bid.

I’ve got a theory about why Cavendish is skipping the Italian race.

I think he’s worried about Kittel. The big German with the best hair in world sport took Cav to the cleaners in the Tour last year, officially putting him on notice.

Cavendish can no longer be assured of winning the big sprints if he’s even a touch below his best form. In years past, Cav was clearly the fastest guy in the peloton, and even on a mediocre day he was able to win bunch sprints virtually at will.

That is no longer true.

Now, if he wants to win in Harrogate (and he really, really does) he can’t afford to be even slightly fatigued from a gruelling Giro campaign.

Given that he’s just spent a month on the sidelines and is missing race days, that’s an especially serious risk.

No, if he wants to beat Kittel in Yorkshire on July 5th, Cav needs to be able to hone his preparation perfectly and arrive in England razor sharp. Picking a series of shorter stage races is the way to do it.

Winning stages in the Tour of Turkey is just the first step.