Classic Contenders in Early Season Action

Such a lot of cycling since I last put virtual pen to paper…and it’s still only February! There’s been action on the roads on three continents, the world cyclo-cross championships and track action from Berlin, Copenhagen and Melbourne. Contrary to (un)popular belief, they don’t race the wrong way round on the Aussie tracks, but even the late Sir Stephen Hawkings would struggle to come up with a theory that explains how time passes at such a drastically different rate in the Southern Hemisphere – how can the ‘Melbourne 6’ last only 3 days?

Dutch and Belgians Dominate Cross Worlds

There were huge crowds at the Cyclo-cross Worlds in Denmark that were dominated by the Dutch and the Belgians. Belgium’s Sanne Cant completed a hat-trick in the Elite Women’s race, but the next four places were filled by Dutch riders, with Lucinda Brand and a resurgent Marianne Vos getting silver and bronze, while there was a clean sweep of the medals for the Netherlands in the U-23 race. How can The Netherlands produce so many world class women cyclists?

mathieu van der poel
Mathieu van der Poel on his way to victory at the Cyclo-Cross World Championships 

There were victories for Brits Tom Pidcock and Ben Tulett in the Mens U-23 and Junior races but the Elite Men’s race was dominated by the big 3, with Holland’s Mathieu van der Poel pulling well clear of Belgians Wout van Aert and Toon Aerts. If ever a rider was bred for cycling it is van der Poel – his father Adri was a leading rider in the 1990’s, with Tour stages and runner-up spots in the Worlds, Fleche Wallonne and Paris-Nice, while his maternal grandfather is none other than Raymond Poulidor.

Nature v Nurture?

As the manager of a Newmarket stud farm, breeding Thoroughbred racehorses, I have often wondered whether the principles of bloodstock breeding could be applied to cycling. There are similarities – both racehorses and cyclists are subject to carefully planned diets and training regimes, though the winner of the Giro won’t be retired to stud at the end of the season, and old, past-it, broken-down cyclists are unlikely to find themselves in a Birds Eye lasagne. But there are crucial differences too. When a horse unseats his jockey at a fence, or loses ground when it tires, it usually has the sense to pull itself up, whereas a cyclist will keep going, battling through storms and up the steepest of hills, getting back on his bike despite horrific crash injuries,  just to finish the race. So, the challenge for Thoroughbred breeders is to produce a horse with the determination of a cyclist, while the coaches of British Cycling are faced with trying to find a cyclist with the intelligence of a racehorse.

The 2019 Balaclava Award

Such a find would be a likely candidate for this year’s ARMCHAIRTIFOSI.COM award. Regular readers of this column – yes, Mr.Jenkins of Wood Lane, Reigate, I mean you – will remember last year’s Intermediate Sprints competition at the Tour, won by Fabien Grellier of Direct Energie. However, the big teams clearly realised that they would be spreading their resources too thinly if they targeted both this competition and the G.C. – Team Sky failed to score a single point. It was also disappointing that, despite numerous mentions of their company (and free advertising on the world wide web) my attempts to get sponsorship from Chateau D’Ax fell upon deaf ears. I am still waiting for my complementary recliner and, reluctantly, must state that other brands of luxury armchair are available.

ARMCHAIRTIFOSI.COM is this year sponsoring the Balaclava Award – named after the battle of the Crimean War that featured the infamous Charge of the Light Brigade, a military cock-up that has become a byword for doomed futility and tragic waste. It will run all season and will be awarded to the rider who embarks upon the most futile, ill-fated solo break. The more meaningless the attack, the better. It will probably be won by an anonymous domestique who is an hour behind on G.C. on some interminable stage in  a minor tour, when all the leading contenders have called a truce. If he is battling through a torrential downpour or unseasonable blizzard or sweltering in a forty-degree heatwave so much the better.

Dillier and Ballerini the Early Contenders

So far this season there have been two contenders. On Saturday Ag2R’s Sylvan Dillier set off on a solo attack on stage 4 of the Volta a la Communitat Valenciana. He had been in the day’s break, that at one point had a 4:30 lead, but went on alone with 30km to go. Unfortunately the race finished at the top of a tough 4.2km climb with some double digit gradients. The finish was always going to be contested by the likes of Valverde, Adam Yates (who won the stage) and Jon Izaguirre (who took the G.C.). Dillier’s lead had already been cut to less than a minute at the bottom of the climb – the rest melted away  quicker than an ice cream in the Sahara. But Dillier’s effort had not been hopeless – he had started the stage only 1:50 down overall, so was the virtual leader until late in the race; on that basis his ride cannot be considered for the award. He is certain to try again. He is that sort of rider, remembered mainly for his gallant 2nd at last year’s Paris-Roubaix, when he stuck gamely to the wheel of Peter Sagan for countless kilometres, knowing that his only chance of success was for that wheel, upon which he must have concentrated all his grim determination, to puncture or for Sagan to set off the wrong way around the velodrome at Roubaix (which is not in Australia).

Davide Ballerini on a doomed late attack in the Cadel Evans Great Ocean Road Race – an early season marker in the ARMCHAIRTIFOSI.COM “Balaclava Award” for futile combativity

The early-season pace-setter in the Balaclava Award is Astana’s Davide Ballerini (and there is something Balaclavesque in that itself, because there are certain to be more deserving efforts as the season progresses) for his doomed late attack in the Cadel Evans Great Ocean Road Race in Victoria at the end of January. This race has only been going a few years but has always come down to a (reduced) bunch sprint, apart from when Peter Kennaugh attacked on the last hill and held on to a narrow lead.

Ballerini’s tactics were hard to fathom, which is another plus in the assessment of his ride. His team-mate Laurens De Vreese had been in the early break, mopping up enough points to win the K.o.M. competition, when Ballerini and Nic Dlamini bridged across to the remnants of the break on the 3rd ascent of the tough Challambra Crescent climb, after which it was just the two Astana riders left, with a 1-34 lead over the peloton and 25km to go. But the day’s efforts told on De Vreese who soon dropped back, leaving Ballerini with a dwindling advantage over a hungry peloton and one more climb of Challambra. It was as if he felt honour bound to keep trying, after the efforts of De Vreese, but he must have known that he was going to get caught. Chapeau, Davide! He capitulated on that final climb and, despite attacks by Dylan Van Baarle (who went on to win the Herald Sun Tour a week later), Richie Porte and Luis Leon Sanchez, the race came down to the almost inevitable sprint, with Viviani beating Ewan and Impey, all of whom had been in good form at the Tour Down Under.

Classics Contenders Flex their Muscles

The other big-name sprinters have been in action in Europe with Marcel Kittel getting back to winning ways in the Trofeo Palma in Mallorca – his first win since taking 2 stages of last year’s Tirreno-Adriatico, and the 2 sprint stages of the Valencia race going to Dylan van Groenewegen, who showed raw pace to come from an unpromising position to win the final stage, and Matteo Trentin, who poached a win on the trappy finale to stage 2, coming home head of Bouhanni, Swift, Colbrelli and Kristoff. Trentin is a sprinter who can climb – if he’s up there going over the Poggio he could collect in Milano-San Remo.

The lumpier stages in Valencia and Mallorca showed that Alejandro Valverde, Greg van Avermaet and Tim Wellens are all coming into shape ahead of the Classics while Julian Alaphilippe notched a time-trial and a solo stage win at the Vuelta a San Juan in Argentina before losing over a minute on the ‘queen stage’ into the foothills of the Andes, finishing at nearly 3000M. The stage went to Winner Anacona, Movistar’s climbing domestique who doesn’t get many chances to live up to his name (his Vuelta a Espana stage win came back in 2014). Anacona beat his 2 breakaway rivals to the line and took the leader’s jersey, keeping it on his back till the last stage and beating  Alaphilippe by 35s with veteran Oscar Sevilla 3rd after a week of solid performances.

Alaphilippe will not be down-hearted for long – he showed good form and will no doubt be a force to reckon with at Strade Bianche, Milano-San Remo and the Tirreno-Adriatico. He was well-supported by Belgian youngster Remco Evenepoel, who continues to look the real deal and is mature beyond his years, unlike Iljo Keisse who acted like a 13 year old and was sent to his room. His lewd actions were, inexplicably, defended by his father; there was no record of what his mother thought.

The sprints in Argentina were won by Fernando Gaviria (x2) and Sam Bennett, with Mark Cavendish showing glimpses of form at the start of his long road back to the front rank of the sprinters, but the name to note from the week-long race might be German Nicolas Tivani – the Argentinian outsprinted his two compatriots in the break that stayed clear of the pursuing World Tour teams on stage 6. Tivani rode as a stagiare for UAE-Team Emirates last year, winning the Tour of Serbia, and a return to Europe must come soon.


Thomas Leads, Froome Follows

It’s been all change at Le Tour. Last week it was the flatlands of the Vendée and the cobbles of Roubaix. This week it’s been the drama of 3 stages in the Alps which sees Britain’s Geraint Thomas in a clear lead, ahead of ostensible team leader Chris Froome. Will it be the same story when the race reaches Paris on 29th July? Who will be left to challenge the Team Sky duo, now that Nibali has joined Porte on the sidelines, Uran has had to quit the race and Quintana has lost too much time to be a credible challenger? Even Bardet and Dumoulin look to be playing for places.

Dutch Duo Serve Up Spectacular Appetiser in La Course

The Alpine dramas were preceded by a truly epic race for La Course, the women’s race, this year run as a 1-day event over much of the same route as the men’s race from Annecy to Le-Grand Bornand and featuring the last 2  category 1 climbs. The selection was made on the concluding Col de la Colombière and it was Olympic champion Anna van der Breggen who took a 10 second lead over the top, ahead of her compatriot and recent Giro Donna winner Annamiek van Vleuten (Mitchelton-Scott). The gap changed little on the long descent and Van der Breggen looked sure to hold on in the uphill run to the line, but she faltered in the closing metres, allowing van Vleuten one last chance to use her time-trialing skills to reel her in for a famous victory. The pair were 1-22 clear of 3rd-placed Ashleigh Moolman-Pasio.

The 4th Musketeer?

Julian Alaphilippe wins at Le Grand Bornand, his 1st stage victory in Le Tour

The men’s race was won in emphatic style by Julian Alaphilippe (Quick Step Floors) who went clear with over 30kms to go, claiming his first Tour stage victory (to add to his win in this April’s Flèche Wallonne) and securing a lead in the King of the Mountains jersey which he will take to the Pyrenees. Alaphilippe looks like a Musketeer, especially if you imagine him wearing a floppy felt hat with a big white feather instead of a casquette, something which D’Artagnan would have no doubt tossed aside with a Gallic shrug of disdain. With his active, attacking style he rides like a Musketeer too, or how I imagine a Musketeer would have ridden if the bicycle had been invented 200 years earlier. He had been one of the first riders to get into a break which eventually swelled to 21 and included none other than the wearer of the maillot jaune, Greg van Avermaet. The Belgian’s determination to go down fighting before the bigger climbs even extended to him taking 1st place in the Intermediate Sprint, which was decided on the gravel road that crossed the Plateau de Gilères, at the point where events of 1944 were being re-enacted in period costume (though this presumably did not include the Nazis’ slaughter of Resistance fighters). Van Avermaet led over the imaginary line, just ahead of Tony Gallopin (Ag2R) and Jon Izagirre (Bahrain-Merida)

Fortuneo’s Fortunes Improve

Shortly after the “Sprint” Direct Energie’s Rein Taaramae came to the front in a badly- judged tactical blunder, that, if it had been better-timed, would have seen him become the 6th member of his team to score points in the competition. After dominating proceedings in the 1st week, Direct Energie have since failed to score a single point and it was fellow Pro-Continental “Wild Card” team Fortuneo-Samsic who clawed back some of their deficit to Direct Energie and Wanty Groupe-Goubert on stage 11.

This was yet another frustrating example of the prestigious competition being subject to the vagaries of live TV. I had designated the sprint point to be halfway up the Col du Pre (half-distance of the stage) but, at that moment, the cameras had switched back to the peloton where Valverde was launching an attack. When they went back to the break the 3 riders from Fortuneo were massed at the front, à la Team Sky, with Elie Gesbert leading Amael Moinard and Warren Barguil – the commentators wrongly assumed it had something to do with protecting Barguil in his bid for KoM points, but we know differently; Fortuneo moved up to 2nd in the team standings for my competition.

So to today’s dramatic stage to Alpe d’Huez which saw the likeable Geraint Thomas, who always manages to give the impression of being a bloke who just enjoys being out on his bike, extend his overall lead in gutsy style. He became the first-ever rider to win at the Alpe in yellow and he deserves the chance to become GB’s 3rd individual TdF winner, a prospect which would have been unthinkable even 10 years ago. With Wiggins’s win in  2012, and Froome’s 4-timer, it is only Vincenzo Nibali (2014) who has broken the recent  British domination of the race, so it was particularly galling to see him crash out after a collision with a police motorbike in the last 4km. How he was able to chase back to within 20s of Froome, Thomas et al, when he was later diagnosed to have suffered a cracked vertebra is, frankly, mind-boggling, especially when considered alongside the play-acting antics of the footballers at the World Cup.

Rolland Takes the Points at Les Lacets

les lacets
Les Lacets de Montvernier –  can you look at this picture and not imagine riding up it?

The Intermediate Sprint on stage 12 honoured the inclusion of the spectacular Lacets de Montvernier, the stunningly scenic 3.4km climb that threads its way up a mountain in the middle of nowhere and looks like a theme-park ride. It was Pierre Rolland (EF Drapac-Cannondale), former lieutenant to Tommy Voeckler at Europcar (now Direct Energie) and one-time next-great-hope of French cycling, who led the way. He was clear of Alaphilippe, one of the current hopes (with Bardet and the side-lined Pinot) who have been saddled with that title, and all that goes with it as France struggles to find the next winner of its own great race; Les Bleus have lifted the World Cup twice since Bernard Hinault’s 5th and final Tour win in 1985.


1st-SYLVAIN CHAVANEL(FR)(Direct Energie) 6 pts; 2nd-Yoann Offredo(FR)(WAnty Groupe-Goubert) 5pts;  eq.3rd- Jerome Cousin(FR) and Fabien Grellier(FR) (both Direct Energie) 4 pts; 7 riders equal 5th on 3 pts

TEAMS – DIRECT ENERGIE 18pts; 2nd-Fortuneo Samsic 12pts; 3rd- Wanty Groupe- Goubert 11 pts; 4th-Quick Step Floors 5 pts