Lutsenko Stakes Balaclava Claim With Heroic Tirreno-Adriatico Stage Win

We all know that cycling is about pain and suffering. When we go out on a cold, wet windy Winter’s morn we may be doing it to get fit or to meet up with fellow sufferers, or perhaps it is an excuse to get out of doing DIY or visiting the in-laws, activities which will bring their own peculiar sufferings, but we are most certainly not doing it because it is fun. We have heard the old cliche about the worst day on the bike being better than the best day at work, but this is a hindsight thing – nobody who is halfway through a fifty mile ride in a blizzard, their hands so cold that it’s impossible to brake or change gear, would pass on the chance to sit in a nice warm office, or stack shelves in Aldi (other super-markets are available).

But, through our suffering, we learn to better appreciate the suffering of others – we may be watching it from the comfort of our armchairs but we will be kindred spirits. This is especially true in Spring, when we are glued to our TVs for the Classics, watching as the best riders in the world get caked in mud, slip and slide on the greasy cobbles and are reduced to grovelling up the bergs of Flanders.

The heroic nature of the Spring Classics, and the riders who contest them, would, at first glance, seem to be the ideal environment for nominations for the Armchairtifosi.com Balaclava Award, a competition seemingly designed to recognise such valiant efforts. But, one of the main criteria for recognition is that of doomed failure, and the normal rules of cycling do not apply in the Classics. The usual rule of thumb is that the peloton can wipe out a breakaway rider’s (or group’s) advantage at the rate of 1 min. for every 10km remaining to race, but, in the Classics, riders can power clear off the front and stay clear. The races are generally wars of attrition, decided from the back as riders drop out of contention, so that there is often no peloton left to give chase, just a group of survivors, who are all just as tired as the escapees they are trying to chase down. There are often unlucky losers in the Classics but never a lucky winner.

Alexey Lutsenko: 2 Falls But No Submission

Tirreno-Adriatico 2019 - edizione 54 - da Foligno a Fossombrone (221 km)
Alexey Lutsenko practices cyclo-cross in the Tirreno-Adriatico

Away from the cobbles of Belgium  a new generation of Grand Tour contenders has come  to the fore thanks to the wins of Egan Bernal, Primoz Roglic and Miguel Angel Lopez in Paris-Nice, Tirreno-Adriatico and the Volta a Catalunya.The Tirreno-Adriatico (which saw Julian Alaphilippe warm up for his Milan-San Remo win by taking 2 stages, one in a bunch sprint) was also notable for the gutsy win of Alexey Lutsenko on stage 4, in a style that merited nomination for the Balaclava Award. But, after careful consideration, the ceremonial knitwear has remained stretched over the head of Fabian Grellier(Direct Energie). It was, of course, Lutsenko’s late capture of Grellier at the top of the Green Mountain in February’s Tour of Oman which allowed the Frenchman to stake his claim, but Lutsenko’s triumph over adversity counted against him. The Kazakh champion had gone on a solo attack with 30km of the hilly stage left and was holding a minute’s lead when he crashed on a tricky downhill left-hander. He  slid into a bank which somehow righted him and stopped him from falling and the mishap only cost him a few seconds. On the run to the finish he steadily lost more time but he still had a lead of nearly 20s when he crashed again, only 2 kms from home, sliding across the tarmac on another left hand bend  [ NOTE FOR FUTURE BLOG : ARE THERE MORE CRASHES ON LEFT OR RIGHT HAND BENDS??]. Lutsenko was quickly back on his bike but was reeled in by Primoz Roglic and Adam Yates (1st and 2nd overall) and his team-mate Jakob Fuglsang. If anything, they caught him too soon as he got a quick breather, then gathered his energies for the “sprint” (in a race with no time bonuses Roglic and Yates were more concerned with time gaps over their rivals and Fuglsang was content to sit it out). Lutsenko managed a wobbly victory salute before the medics began patching him up.

Such heroics are what cycling is all about and, arguably, what the Balaclava Award is supposed to represent, but Lutsenko is probably too good a rider to merit the award; he had dominated the Tour of Oman, winning 3 stages and the overall, and had made a brief foray into Belgium to finish 4th in the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad before tackling the Italian stage race. It will be no surprise if he wins one or more of the sport’s major prizes in the near future. The ride also lacked the essential element of futility: he went into the stage holding a top 20 place on GC and was only 1m13s behind Yates, so if he had stayed clear (and upright) he would have been challenging for a podium place.

Adam Yates –  A Close 2nd in Catalunya; Even Closer in Tirreno-Adriatico

Adam Yates had something of a Balaclava moment in the short time trial that concluded the “Race of the Two Seas” – the 25s lead that he held over Primoz Roglic never looked like being enough of a buffer over one of the best TT riders among the GC contenders, and he shipped time throughout the 10km course, but it was agonisingly close… the clock on the TV screen went from green to red when he was only 1s. from the line. So, this week he had another go – aided by brother Simon he went on the attack on the last lap of the tough finishing circuit around Montjuic in Barcelona on the final stage of the Volta a Catalunya. Stage winner Davide Formolo (incredibly gaining his first victory since a 2015 Giro stage win) was away and gone but Yates was gunning for overall success, and at one point held enough of a lead to win, but it was always going to be a big ask to hold off Bernal, Lopez, Valverde et al on the final headlong gallop to the line. [FURTHER NOTE FOR FUTURE BLOGS – ARE THE YATES THE BEST CYCLING BROTHERS SINCE THE DE VLAEMINCKS? DISCUSS]

Epic Solo Win Gives De Gendt 3 Days in the Leader’s Jersey

Volta Ciclista a Catalunya 2019 - Stage 1
A Familiar Sight….Thomas De Gendt 1st, the Rest Nowhere

The Tour of Catalunya had seen a succession of solo wins and is one of those races that always delivers excitement right up till the final stage. The week had begun with one of the long-range solo attacks that has become the hallmark of Thomas De Gendt’s career. Winning the stage by over 2m 40s, he had shown he was in good form with a 2nd place in a Paris-Nice stage and is one of those riders (like an in-form Steve Cummings or the much-missed Tommy Voeckler) who, once at the front of a race, can usually be expected to hold on for the win. Such riders disqualify themselves from consideration for the Balaclava Award!

“If I have the legs, I will try and just go!”

Volta Ciclista a Catalunya 2019
Another solo victory at the Volta a Catalunya – this time for Maximilian Schachmann

De Gendt was chased home, at an albeit respectful distance, by Maximilian Schachmann of Bora-Hansgrohe. He went into stage 5 in 23rd place overall @3m52s and his stage win, holding off a fast-closing bunch by 14 seconds, moved him up to 18th, so that gives him consideration on the grounds of futility, but as the German said in a post-race interview, “If I have the legs, I will try and just go.” Bravo. He had been in the day’s 4 man break but went on alone with 10km to go, keeping just far enough clear to seal the win, though his cause had been helped after Wilco Kelderman’s crash (on a left-hand corner) at the front of the pursuing bunch caused disruption of the chase. A former Worlds U23 TT medallist, Schachmann stepped up last year to win a stage of the Giro (wearing the white jersey for 5 stages) as well as one in Catalunya and was 3rd in the Tour of Germany. He is a more than capable rider in his own right when not on lead-out and domestique duties… probably too good for the Balaclava.

All to Play For as the Pyrenees Beckon

So, no cycling today – just the ITV highlights programme as Ned and crew savour the rest-day delights of Carcassonne and the survivors get ready for the final week. Since the race left the Alps the GC men haven’t had much to do. Roglic clawed back a few seconds on the finishing ramp to Mende, and yesterday Dan Martin attempted to undo the damage done to his chances after a late puncture on Saturday, only to be recaptured by the Sky train. The rest of the week will be somewhat more animated. The next three days in the Pyrenees are crucial for Geraint Thomas to hold on to, or even extend, his not insubstantial lead, ahead of the time trial on Saturday where Tom Dumoulin can be expected to blast back into contention, if he hasn’t already. Not that Thomas is a bad time trialist. Then there’s Froome. Everything is still to play for.

The same could be said of the Armchairtifosi.com Intermediate Sprints Competition – or, at least the individual rankings, as Direct Energie seem to have “done a Sagan” and settled the Teams competition with a week to go.

Points for De Gendt

On Friday stage 13 tumbled down from Bourg D’Oisans and rolled past the chateaux and vineyards of the Massif Central to finish at Valence in the Ardeche. With most of the top-drawer sprinters eliminated or abandoning in the Alps, Peter Sagan didn’t look unduly troubled as he swept past Demare and held off Kristoff and Degenkolb in a drag race to the line.  A bunch sprint had looked inevitable long before the peloton had reeled in the last survivor of the day’s 4 man break. Surprisingly that last survivor was Michael Schar (BMC) and not the man who had instigated the break hours before, Lotto Soudal’s Thomas De Gendt. It was equally surprising that it had taken 13 stages for De Gendt to get in a break as he has already collected stage wins in this year’s Tours of Romandie and Catalunya, spending more time alone than Greta Garbo. De Gendt won a Tour stage in 2016 but he will always be remembered for his epic solo win at the Passo dello Stelvio in the 2012 Giro d’Italia, when he took 3rd overall. Back then he looked like being that rare beast – a genuine Belgian Grand Tour contender – but he has since settled into the role of a freewheeling (forgive the pun) knight errant; even his name makes him sound like he belongs in the pages of Medieval history not the modern professional peloton (one day I’ll write a blog post, or a Ph.D. thesis, on the similarities between the Age of Chivalry and the code of the peloton. You have been warned). On the road to Valence the Belgian took his share  of KoM points, plus the official intermediate sprint, and he rolled across the Armchairtifosi line in the little town of Beauvoir-en-Royans ahead of Schar and E.F. Drapac’s Kiwi Tom Scully.

Direct Energie Save Energy?

On Saturday’s stage to Mende a group of 31 riders (the best placed of whom was 39 minutes behind Thomas) was allowed a huge lead – Direct Energie got 5 of their team into the escape but somehow managed to avoid scoring any points as Spanish National Champion Gorka Izaguirre (Bahrain Merida) led Jesper Stuyven (Trek Segafredo) and Tom Jelte Slagter (Dimension Data) over the imaginary line, halfway up the delightfully named 4th cat climb of the Col du Pont Sans Eau. Izaguirre added 3 more points to the solitary one picked up by his team-mate and brother Jon before the Alps – brought to the race with the aim of helping Vincenzo Nibali in the Mountains, their leader’s untimely departure has left them free to try for stage wins, and Jon came close on Sunday, when 2nd in the 3 up sprint to Magnus Cort Neilsen.

Grellier Deposes Chavanel at the Top of the Rankings

fabien grellier
New Armchairtifosi.com Intermediate Sprints Leader Fabien Grellier (Direct Energie)

Sunday’s stage from Millau to Carcassonne was a fantastic advert for cycling – as far as the overall picture goes it was a complete irrelevance, as another big break of riders with no GC hopes  went clear, but it produced a brilliant race like a one-day classic, with lone breaks and counter-attacks  before Neilsen predictably outsprinted Izagirre and Bauke Mollema. The Armchairtifosi.com points were awarded with 50km to go, as the break began the ascent of the 1st Cat Pic de Nore, a climb which, incredibly, had never before featured in a TdF stage. The riders had just passed through the feed zone in the town of Mazamet, birthplace of 90s French legend Laurent Jalabert (after whom the climb to Mende on Saturday is named). It was all change on the leader board as Direct Energie’s Fabien Grellier got the 3 points to move ahead of team-mate Sylvain Chavanel. Grellier had gone clear with Trek’s Julien Bernard, son of another 90s French hero Jean-Francois Bernard, while another of Bahrain’s newly-underemployed climbers Domenico Pozzovivo led the rest of the break in 3rd place.  23 year old Grellier has spent the whole of his pro career at Direct Energie – his best placing so far was 2nd in the Fleche du Sud in 2015; like Geraint Thomas, he will have a nervous 3 days in his quest to hold on to a jersey and, also like Thomas, the most likely rider to wrest it from his back will be a team-mate.

ARMCHAIRTIFOSI.COM INTERMEDIATE SPRINTS COMPETITION – Standings after 15 stages

1st- FABIEN GRELLIER (FR)(Direct Energie) 7pts; 2nd-Sylvain Chavanel (FR)(Direct Energie) 6 pts; 3rd- Yoann Offredo(FR)(Wanty Groupe- Goubert) 5pts; 4th-Jerome Cousin(FR)(direct Energie) 4 pts

TEAMS  – DIRECT ENERGIE 21pts; 2nd-Fortuneo Samsic 12pts; 3rd-Wanty Groupe- Goubert 11pts