Cycling

Operation Puerto and it’s Legacy Part 1

July 12th 2003. In the scorching summer heat the Tour de France peloton prepares for a punishing day heading east from Lyon into the mountains of Morzine. The first mountain day of the centenary Tour and the chance for the top contenders to lay their mark on the race.

Within the Kelme team bus Spanish climber Jesus Manzano confidently phones his wife telling her to expect a big win today. How could he be so sure of victory? The team doctor Dr Eufemiano Fuentes had just given him an injection of an unknown substance. He would later find out that it was Oxyglobin, a blood substitute used to treat anaemia in dogs.

Manzano’s predictions rings true early in Stage Seven, as he and eventual stage winner Richard Virenque break from the peloton on the first climb to attempt to join the earlier breakaway. Three kilometers up the Col de Portes Manzano begins to feel dizzy before collapsing at the side of the road 500 meters later. The race doctor mistakenly diagnoses heat stroke as he is airlifted to a nearby hospital. It’s here that Manzano claims team manager Joan Mas asked him to refuse all blood tests.

He suffered a near-fatal dehydration that day, something he later testified was because of his Oxyglobin injection. This near death experience had a massive effect on Manzano who begins to grow disillusioned with the sport. He was forced by the team to ride to 2003 Volta a Portugal, however in the days leading up to the race he became ill again with an allergic reaction after receiving an contaminated 125ml blood bag from Fuentes assistant.

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Jesus Manzano in the green,white and blue Kelme jersey in happier times. Soon after this early break on Stage Seven he would collapse from extreme dehydration caused by doping products. Photo: AFP.

Two serious health scares thanks to doping were a lot to handle for the young Spaniard. Late in the 2003 Vuelta a Espana the team fired him for disputed reasons. The team said they fired him for breaking the rules on having a woman in his room during the race. He testified in court that the team fired him once he told them they were putting riders lives at risk with their doping programme.

Kelme moved on without Manzano, who was now facing an uncertain future within cycling. After six months of quiet the matter exploded back into life in March 2004 when he did an interview with Spanish newspaper As detailing Kelme’s doping.

The story made national news as he listed the cocktail of drugs he used between 2001-2003 including EPO, blood transfusions, cortisone, a female hormone called human chorionic gonadotropin,testosterone, Synacthen which has been used in horse racing, Actovegin derived from calf blood  and Oxyglobin. He also made damning allegations that the team pressured him to dope and that they assisted with doping. He also explained that before the 2003 Tour de France he was asked to contribute €3000 to contribute towards the teams medical expenses, something he believes every rider on the team did.

His allegations caused a stir within the sport as he explained that every rider on the Kelme team apart from Juan Miguel Cuenca were doping. This was a major controversy that engulfed star riders on the team such as 2002 Vuelta winner Aitor Gonzalez, 2nd in the 2001 Vuelta Oscar Sevilla, 3rd overall in the 2003 Vuelta Alejandro Valverde and 4th overall in the 2002 Tour Santiago Botero. These were some of the most successful and promising Spanish riders in cycling being implicated in doping.

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Aitor Gonzalez on the top step celebrating victory in the 2002 Vuelta a Espana. Gonzalez never climbed these heights again before retiring in 2006 after a two-year doping ban. His more recent exploits have included alleged bank fraud and robbery. Photo: Tim de Waele/TDWSport.com.

The response from the sport was to be expected. The team refuted all allegations and said that Manzano’s motives were revenge after the team fired him the previous September. Tour de France director Jean-Marie Leblanc also questioned the allegations, however after further revelations he rescinded the Kelme teams invite to the 2004 Tour.

Whilst the sport dismissed his claims the Spanish Sports Council opened an investigation immediately looking into these allegations. They questioned three doctors and staff associated with the team during the early 2000’s Dr Walter Viru,  Dr Eufemiano Fuentes and Alfredo Cordova. The investigation was later dropped because of a lack of evidence.

This appeared to the end of the matter, with the revelations seemingly going nowhere as the sport moved on into 2006 with nothing having changed. That however, was soon to be shattered in a massive way.  Find out in Part Two.

By Jordan Wilkins

Thank you so much for reading this article if you have any feedback at all I would massively appreciate it just let me know in the comments section below! Find me on Twitter @JWjournalism.    

 

 

 

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Cycling Still Has A Way To Go

Professional cycling is the sport most keenly associated with the abuse of performance enhancing drugs. Other sports such as athletics and baseball have similar problems which blighted their sport, however the story of Lance Armstrong was so captivating it brought the sport’s problem to the forefront of our minds.

In the last decade it has made a sizeable attempt to change the culture from one of doping to a cleaner, purer public image. Innovations such as the biological passport and greater out-of competition testing have made it much harder for cyclists to dope.

All of these testing measures and the attempts to change the culture within the sport have meant and end to the wild west era’s of the 1990’s and early 2000’s when riders were transfusing multiple blood bags, EPO, testosterone, cortisone and HGH to name just a few.  Despite all of these new preventative measures being put in place some within the peloton still give in to temptation and use doping products.

In recent months the sport has been hit with a setback from Operation Aderlass. Whilst this is not Operation Puerto where multiple top name riders were linked with doping, this German police investigation into blood doping has uncovered links with cyclists. So far the majority of named athletes have been cross country skiing, but so far two Austrian cyclists have confessed to blood doping during this investigation.

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Lance Armstrong is the most recognizable cyclist because of his comeback from cancer and subsequent downfall for doping. Here he celebrates his seventh and final Tour victory in 2005 alongside Italian Ivan Basso and German Jan Ullrich.  All three would later be implicated in doping scandal. Photo: Christophe Ena/AP.

The doctor at the centre of the scandal, Dr Mark Schmidt, has previous experience in cycling with links to the Gerolsteiner and Milram teams in the late 2000’s as team doctor. Disgraced Austrian cyclist Bernhard Kohl previous alleged that Schmidt organised doping within the Gerolsteiner team at the 2008 Tour de France. Kohl finished third in that race but was later busted for using EPO variant CERA at the 2008 Tour.

The police investigation is still ongoing, and so far Austrian cyclists Stefan Denifl and Georg Preidler have confessed to blood doping using Schmidt. The police have uncovered 40-60 blood bags from athletes from a diverse range of sports and more names are sure to be revealed as the investigation progresses.

Along with this news Trek-Segafredo climber Jarlinson Pantano was found last month to have failed an out-of competition test in late February for EPO. He was a previous winner of a stage at the Tour de France in 2016. The important thing with all of these cases is that none of these riders with respect is a superstar within the sport. These are not contenders for the major races and yet they have been busted for doping.

Whilst this is not an indictment that the top-level riders are doping, it does raise the question as to the sincerity of the results we see in recent years if riders who are not achieving massive results are doping would they not be better contenders than they have been if everybody else is not doping. This is a simplistic mindset not backed up by facts but this is how ordinary fans of cycling might think.

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Georg Preidler on the left and Stefan Denifl on the right were the two cyclists currently implicated in Operation Aderlass. Both admitted to blood doping and are currently suspended by the UCI. Photo: BBC 

It’s likely that these riders were doping merely to compete or to give themselves a better chance at success to earn a lucrative new contract in the future. Only they can explain their actions if they ever will.

The sport of cycling is making massive progress in it’s fight against doping, with all sides making proactive steps after years of burying their heads in the sand about the problem. All of these steps are helping make the future of the sport much healthier, however it is also very difficult to quickly change a doping culture that has existed in the sport dating back over 110 years to it’s origins. This will take time and a sustained effort from all involved to change this culture and ensure the public can have faith that the results they are seeing are credible.

Cycling is on the right path for the first time in a long while, and it needs to continue doing everything it can to combat doping. In all sport athletes will cheat because of the massive fame and fortune at stake if they can get away with it. Cycling is no different in this regard. The UCI and the national anti-doping bodies need to continue to punish those who do cheat to send a clear message to the peloton that doping will not be tolerated in any form. The UCI currently has 19 male and female riders under suspension for doping, showing they are taking the right steps to combat this problem.

Of course all of this talk might be a smokescreen as we do not know what exactly goes on within the world of professional cycling. Riders might have found a way around the testing measures although until we see major evidence indicating this we can’t assume this. Only time will tell if this era of results we are eagerly watching are credible or just another grand deceit.

A massive thank you for reading this article and if you have an opinion on this article feel free to leave a comment below or get in touch with me on Twitter @JWjournalism.

By Jordan Wilkins

GB cycling receives vital boost with 2019 World Championships

Great Britain and it’s cycling set up desperately needed a boost after recent negative press. Now they seem to have it. Yorkshire won the bid to host the 2019 UCI cycling world championships. This will give them the perfect chance to put behind them allegations surrounding their poster boy Bradley Wiggins.

In recent weeks many experts have questioned Team Sky’s use of TUE (Therapeutic Use Exemption) with star riders such as Wiggins and fellow Tour de France winner Chris Froome. The Sky team are closely linked with GB cycling, itself facing allegations coach Shane Sutton of sexism and bullying. Sutton subsequently resigned, emphasising the turbulent year it has been for British cycling in general, despite huge success in the Olympics and Froome’s victory in the Tour.

Whilst Yorkshire’s dream victory will not be realised for another four long years, the fact the road race world championships will be returning to Britain for the first time since 1982 is a huge step for cycling in this country. The governing body, the UCI, could have easily avoided awarding Britain the championships in the current climate, but they didn’t.

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This picture perfectly encapsulates why the 2014 Grand Depart for the Tour de France in Yorkshire was so popular. Imagine the scenes from the 2019  UCI World Championships. Photo copyright Liverpool Echo/James Maloney.

The Tour de France began in Yorkshire in 2014, drawing rave reviews from all involved and huge crowds engaged with the sport for the first time in the case of many. An annual Tour de Yorkshire was subsequently set up by the ASO, organisers of the Tour, again cementing itself as a hugely popular event on the cycling calendar.

For these reasons it seems entirely logical therefore to award it to Yorkshire, despite British cycling taking a battering recently after years of tremendous growth. Outside of allegations made thanks to Russian hackers, this growth is still increasing and the pledge to spend £15 million on hosting the championships is a huge step forward.

Ten years ago spending this amount of money on cycling would never have happened. A lot has changed in the past decade, and who knows how much further the sport will have grown by the time the event takes place in October 2019. I will be one of the no doubt many fans stood amongst the Yorkshire hillside cheering on the riders as the go past.

Operation Puerto still hangs over cycling ten years later

June 29th 2006. As the cycling world prepares for the centre piece Tour de France, their biggest race returned to the dark days of it’s recent past. Operation Puerto would prove to be a scandal which brought huge change to the sport, and it’s impact is still being felt today, ten years later.

The world was looking forward to the most open Tour de France since 1998, yet sadly the race would be mired in the same controversy that dogged the notorious 1998 edition of the great race. Just as the words ‘Festina affair’ became as much a part of the cycling lexicon as ‘peloton’, so too would ‘Operation Puerto’.

After years of speculation throughout professional cycling as to widespread doping, the ball would finally be set rolling several years before. Spanish rider Jesus Manzano had detailed to the media the intricate doping practices on his previous Kelme team. This kick started a Spanish police investigation into the allegations made by Manzano.

Their investigation made the headlines two years later in May 2006, when police raided the offices of former Kelme team doctor Eufemiano Fuentes, arresting him and several other key members from two of Spain’s professional teams, Liberty-Seguros and Comunidad Valenciana.  What would be found would shock the professional peloton and have wide reaching consequences.

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Eufemiano Fuentes arriving for his Operation Puerto trial. He was originally found guilty of public health laws violations but this was later overturned. Photo copyright Associated Press.

Police found 186 blood bags with code names, along with the equipment needed to freeze and ultimately transfuse the blood. They also found huge quantities of performance enhancing drugs such as EPO,HGH and steroids along with race schedules and information for payments from a large client list of professional athletes. Whilst athletes from other sports were linked to Fuentes, it was cycling that was the most damaged by the scandal.

Almost immediately Liberty Seguros withdrew their sponsorship, leaving the team struggling to find a new sponsor so they could carry on competing past 2006. Very quickly information trickled through to the media concerning the cyclists involved. The big name riders began to fall very quickly, with the Phonak team quickly suspending Santiago Botero, a former world time trial champion and Jose Enrique Gutierrez, who had finished 2nd in the 2006 Giro D’Italia.

The Spanish national road race championship was abandoned after only 500 meters when the riders boycotted the race in protest of the media information detailing the riders who were working with Fuentes. With the sport in the midst of another major doping scandal, the real hammer blow would be delivered only two days before the start of the Tour de France.

The Spanish authorities released their summary into the investigation, formally detailing all 56 professional cyclists known to be linked with Fuentes. The unofficial total was said to be much higher, as it increasingly became clear that Fuentes and his employees were working with seemingly over half of the professional peloton, once again exposing how doping in cycling was pervasive and widespread to the extreme.

The implications were both widespread and immediate. Top riders such as superstar 1997 Tour winner Jan Ullrich and promising climber Oscar Sevilla were immediately suspended by their T-Mobile team. Other riders soon followed. 2006 Giro D’Italia winner Ivan Basso was suspended by Team CSC, whilst GC contender Francisco Mancebo was also dropped by his AG2R team. A large portion of other riders were removed from the race, especially from the former Liberty Seguros team.

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Jan Ullrich riding at the 2006 Giro D’Italia. A few months later his illustrious career was effectively ended by Operation Puerto. Photo sourced from cyclingweekly.co.uk.

The timing could not have been worse for the sport, with their greatest race marred with yet another doping scandal which cast a shadow over the entirety of the 2006 edition. The race was suddenly blown open as none of the top five from the 2005 Tour de France were competing a year later, therefore it was a relatively new cast that took on the mantle of competing to win the race.

The 2006 edition would prove a compelling race with an intense battle for the maillot jaune(yellow jersey) right up until the final stages. Whilst the fans and organisers would have wanted the attention switched to the exciting fight for the lead, yet again the 2006 race would find itself a victim of a doping scandal. American Floyd Landis emerged from the shadow of Lance Armstrong to win the 2006 race, only to be stripped of victory in disgrace a few days later after testing positive for testosterone after his remarkable victory in Stage 17.

The reputation of the sport was once again taking a battering, as Landis became embroiled in a court battle to claim back his victory. After the dust had settled Landis admitted to micro-dosing EPO and taking blood transfusions during the race, but always denied taking testosterone. After the initial denials the riders soon changed their tune. Over the next year the likes of Basso, Jorg Jaksche and Michele Scarponi all admitted to working with with Fuentes, whilst Ullrich was also strongly linked to him.

Fast forward to 2016 and this case is still hanging over professional cycling. Riders linked with Fuentes such as Alberto Contador(cleared),Basso and Scarponi they are still involved with sport as they reach the final stages of their careers. Fuentes himself was originally found guilty, although he has since has his conviction and suspended one year prison sentence overruled.

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Floyd Landis celebrating on the podium after winning the 2006 Tour de France. A few days later and he would be stripped of his victory in shame after testing positive for testosterone. Photo sourced from velonews.com .

In June of this year Spanish authorities ruled they would hand over the blood bags found in Fuentes possession to anti-doping authorities for evaluation. It’s unclear at this present moment whether these authorities will make public their findings, but with roughly 200 bags to sort through, it’s clear the sport of cycling may well be rocked again if the full influence of Fuentes and his doping practices on the sport are revealed to the public.

In the last ten years the sport of cycling has appeared to have worked very hard to eliminate doping from it’s realm. There have been widespread changes to improve anti-doping testing, and since then there have not been any further major doping scandals within the sport. How much of this can be attributed to Operation Puerto and it’s impact cannot be quantified, but for sure it will have had an effect on enforcing change in the sport.

Cycling is still in the process of recovering from it’s past demons, and for some people they will never again be able to trust the athletes and the sport after years of lies and denials. It’s debateable whether Operation Puerto was the metaphorical straw which broke the camel’s back, but the fact this was the last major scandal before significant change was implemented would seem to support this argument. It was ten years ago, but the sport and the characters involved are still struggling to recover from it’s impact. For American Floyd Landis, it took until this year’s race to return to Paris to watch it in person. It ended the careers of high profiles names in the sport both in terms of riders and team principals. Who knows whether the true impact will only become known in the coming years, if the anti-doping authorities decide to publish their findings. For the sport of cycling, it will undoubtedly open some very old and raw wounds should that happen.

By Jordan Wilkins

Feel free to comment on this article with your thoughts and a huge thank you for reading. If you want to find me I’m on Twitter @brfcjordan95.

 

 

2016 Tour de France preview: Team Sky

The 2016 edition of the legendary Tour de France is less than a week away, and all of the 2016 contenders and riders are busy finalising their preparations for the big race. The three week stage race is arguably the most gruelling sporting event on the planet, and will test the resolve of even the most talented and dedicated rider.

This year there are plenty of contenders looking to topple Team Sky and their leader, defending race winner Chris Froome. But will they be able to stop him from claiming a third tour title come Sunday 24th July, and standing on the podium under the Champs-Elysees in Paris. Let’s take a look at the nine man Team Sky line up tasked with helping Froome win his second successive Tour.

Chris Froome – Great Britain – Age 31

For Froome, anything less than a third Tour victory will be a disappointment. The talented British rider has proved himself as the benchmark in professional cycling over the past three years, and is coming off a strong Criterium du Dauphine victory, one of the key warm up races before the Tour.

With a very strong team supporting him he will enter the race as the favourite, although the magic with the tour is that anything can happen. If Froome can avoid a crash or illness expect him to be showing his immense time trialling and climbing ability, the two key skills which make him such a formidable grand tour contender.

Sergio Henao – Colombia – Age 28

Colombian Henao makes his TDF debut this year, after a difficult beginning to the season marred by questionable biological passport readings. Now cleared and back to competing, Henao will be key ally of Froome in the mountains.

He is a very good climber who will be capable of stage wins for himself, but will likely be fully focused on supporting Froome. Along with Mikel Landa and Mikel Nieve he will be the key if Froome is to neutralise any potential advantage from rival Nairo Quintana, who has shown in the past he can take time out of Froome in the key mountain stages.

Mikel Landa – Spain – Age 26

Spaniard Landa is the new signing at Team Sky, and will be a key domestique for Froome throughout the three week race. Landa proved his credentials in the Giro D’Italia last year, but his season so far has been hampered by illness.

Now back to full health he will be crucial for Froome to claim victory. Left to his own devices and Landa could likely contend to the top ten in general classification, but supporting Froome he will take on the super domestique role that got him noticed at his previous Astana team.

Mikel Nieve – Spain – Age 32

Another key member of Team Sky in the mountains will be fellow Spaniard Mikel Nieve, who has already shown his talents with a brilliant solo stage win to somewhat save a difficult Giro for Team Sky.

With top ten’s in previous grand tours, Nieve will help shepherd Froome up the difficult mountains, whilst also helping claw back any rivals should they make an escape. In a three week tour, the help of his team mates will be crucial for Froome to win, and in the mountains is where the likes of Nieve will shine for his team leader.

Geraint Thomas – Great Britain – Age 30

Welshman Thomas is a rider who seems to improve with every passing season. He has already won the Paris-Nice stage race earlier this year. If he can recapture the form that very nearly propelled him to the overall top ten last year, Thomas will provide a key supporter for Froome.

If he’s given free reign on a stage he could very well claim his first TDF stage win, or if he’s in a high placing he could prove to be a very important strategic help to Team Sky. He could prove a key ally as he could be used by the team to burn out their rivals, as they would have to mark him if he’s in the top five or ten.

Ian Stannard – Great Britain- Age 29

Ian Stannard will be used to help keep Froome safe during the first week of flat stages, where it’s very easy to be caught up in an accident and your tour could be over after a few days. He is also an underrated climber who could help protect his team leader once the medium level mountains hit. Whilst the climbers usually get the headlines, Stannard is a very important member of Froome’s support team.

Luke Rowe  – Great Britain – Age 26

Along with Stannard Luke Rowe will be key help to Froome on the flat stages that are prevalent in the first week. A noted classics rider with considerable skill, he can help keep Froome safe and ensure he doesn’t lose any time to his rivals early on. Rowe will prove himself to be an integral part of any potential Team Sky and Chris Froome victory, as he did last year.

Wout Poels – Holland – Age 28

Poels achieved a first for Team Sky this year, securing their first ever classics monument victory after winning the prestigious Liege-Bastogne-Liege race. Along with his ability on the flat road stages he could also help Froome in the mountains, something he did to crucial effect in the latter stages of last year’s tour.Poels can provide assistance to Froome in almost every type of stage in the tour, and this is what makes him so important to Team Sky.

Vasil Kiryienka – Belarus – Age 34

Experienced rider Vasil Kiryenka will be another key road marshal for Froome in the early stages of this year’s race, ensuring he goes into the key stages at the very least level with his rivals. Aside from his support role, expect the reigning world time trial champion to seriously challenge for victory in the two time trial stages. Expect to see Kiryienka throughout the race, at the front protecting his team leader.

That concludes my preview of Team Sky and their line up for this year’s Tour de France. They will be squad every other team is targeting this year, but will this be enough to stop this very strong outfit from claiming consecutive Tour victories?

Any comments would be greatly appreciated and thank you for reading. Find me on Twitter @JWjournalism.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

End Of An Era For Marcel Kittel And Giant-Alpecin

Last Friday the end of one of the most successful recent partnerships was formally announced, as Team Giant-Alpecin and Marcel Kittel announced they would split at the end of this season. For four years both supported and helped each other grow from unknown’s to contenders in all three grand tours. Now this morning it was announced Kittel will instead join the Belgian team Etixx-Quickstep, but what is the legacy being left behind from this split?

Who could have predicted when the young German U23 time trial champion Marcel Kittel joined the small Skil-Shimano in 2011, that within three years they will have won 11 stages in grand tours, including eight in the Tour de France. During his junior career Kittel excelled in the time trial, yet once he moved up to the professional ranks he blossomed into the fastest sprinter in the peloton.

Wins in smaller development races such as the Four Days of Dunkirk showed his talent, however his ultimate potential was not known. That was until Stage 7 of the 2011 Vuelta a Espana. One of cycling’s three major grand tours, it’s a race known for it’s extreme difficulty. Yet Kittel was able to out sprint notable rivals Peter Sagan and Oscar Freire to claim the stage win in his very first grand tour.Now it was clear to the cycling world that Kittel was a man to watch in the coming years.

The upward trend continued into 2012, with a flurry of victories which led up to his and the team’s debut at the 2012 Tour de France. Kittel would spearhead the team as he looked for stage wins and the green points jersey. Sadly, this dream would turn into a nightmare as he failed to win a stage before being forced to abandon the race early in stage five thanks to a viral infection.

Whilst 2012 was a relative disappointment for Kittel and Skil-Shimano, 2013 would be the coming out party for both. With a change of name to Argos-Shimano and a step up to the premier WorldTour of cycling, the pressure was on to prove their worth. Winning stages of warm up races such as Paris-Nice and the Tour of Oman showed that he and the team would be firing on all cylinder’s come July and the Tour de France.

With an expert sprint train comprising team mates John Degenkolb, a very quick sprinter himself, Tom Veelers and Tom Dumoulin to name a few, Kittel was put in the perfect position to win the first stage going into Corsica. A bizarre incident with the Orica-GreenEdge team bus and the finish line banner created confusion, however in the end Kittel out sprinted rival Alexander Kristoff to claim a momentous maiden Tour de France stage win for both Kittel and the Dutch Argos-Shimano team.

The team’s joy is captured brilliantly in the riveting documentary on the team, Clean Spirit, which is well worth a watch. The win also signaled Kittel’s first leaders yellow jersey. This prestigious honor is usually the domain of general classification riders, yet Kittel was able to steal it early on.

Kittel celebrates his yellow jersey at the 2013 Tour de France. Photo credit thanks to Getty Images.

Kittel would go on to completely dominate the sprinting stages of the Tour, effortlessly showing up noted sprint supremo Mark Cavendish to record stage victories on stages 10,12 and 21. His last stage win on the Champs-Elysees was the realizing of a dream come true for the young German, who broke Mark Cavendish’s four year streak of stage wins on the Champs-Elysees.

Victory in the world’s most famous sprint stage completed a fairy tale Tour de France for Marcel Kittel and his Argos-Shimano team. The success in their first year at the world tour level and second Tour de France was staggering, with the joy of their incredible Tour being captured in the film Clean Spirit. The film is well worth a watch for anyone interested in cycling.

With the majority of the team being retained for 2014, and a healthy new sponsor in bike manufacturer Giant, the only question was if Kittel and the team could repeat their feats of a year before? This question would be answered only a few months into the season.

Victories in several early season races were cemented with two stage wins early on in the 2014 Giro D’Italia. The season’s first grand tour saw Kittel dominate the early sprints, before abandoning the race at the end of stage three to fully concentrate on the Tour de France. With a similar team of talented domestiques supporting him, much pre-race attention was focused on the impending battle between the likes of Mark Cavendish, Alexander Kristoff, Peter Sagan and Kittel for the sprint honors.

Mark Cavendish suffered the worst possible start and was forced out of the Tour before stage one even finished, a crash in the bunch sprint leaving him with a seperated right shoulder and broken dreams of Tour de France success. Kittel went on to win the opening stage and claim the first yellow jersey for the second consecutive year.

Whilst he lost the leaders jersey on the next stage, Kittel could console himself with wins on stages three and four. A long struggle ensured over the next two weeks as Kittel used all the support of his team to haul himself up the iconic French mountains, steeling himself for the final stage and the sprint on the famous Champs-Elysees. Unofficially known as the world championship for sprinter’s, Kittel was intent on repeating his landmark victory from a year before.

Both of Kittel’s victories on the Champs-Elysees were almost identical, both times narrowly defeating Alexander Kristoff at the line. Finishing off the year with two stage victories in the Tour of Britain cemented Kittel’s most successful year yet in cycling. His star was rising, the question what heights could he reach in his career?

Kittel celebrating his Champs-Elysees victory in 2014. Photo sourced from cyclingweekly.co.uk .

Whilst the past two years were a dream for Marcel Kittel, 2015 was a reminder that real life isn’t a fantasy but sometimes a nightmare. A race win in January indicated this year would be another successful one, however a virus destroyed the rest of his season.

Initially he was set to make several comeback’s in the months leading up to the Tour de France, but when these were postponed his Giant-Alpecin team were forced to admit defeat on the matter. Kittel was not selected for the Tour de France team, instead forced to watch his team mates at home as he still recovered from his virus.

The rest of the year proved difficult for Kittel, although he did manage to win the opening stage of the Tour of Poland. Whilst Kittel slowly returned to the peloton in the later months of the season, a shift amongst his Giant-Alpecin team was brewing.

His team mate, close friend and fellow sprinter John Degenkolb demonstrated his talents early in the year, taking on some of Kittel’s success as he won both Milan-San Remo and Paris-Roubaix. Both make up a group of cycling’s classics, and are highly prestigious races to win.

Following on from this the team also achieved some success at the Tour de France, despite missing Kittel, as German mountain domestique Simon Geschke won stage 17, and Degenkolb challenged for several sprint finishes. The real shift for the team occurred during the Vuelta a Espana. The young Dutchman Tom Dumoulin emerged from the shadows of his domestique support duty to win two stages and seriously challenge for the overall win.

Tom Dumoulin celebrating with the leaders red jersey in this year’s Vuelta a Espana. Photo sourced from cyclingweekly.co.uk .

This general classification ride from Dumoulin showed his incredible talent and shocked the cycling community, as he stated his claim for the future. The effect of this on the Giant-Alpecin team has been significant, as it now appears the team have switched their mentality from that of a sprinters team to a general classification team.

Tom Dumoulin will likely now lead the team in the GC, whilst John Degenkolb will assume the sprinters duties vacated by Kittel. After some talks with the team, the breakdown of their relationship was established as Kittel was granted a release from his contract a year early.

This has left him free to sign for the Etixx-QuickStep team, where he will hope to return to his top form next year. The Belgian team are primarily a sprinters team, therefore Kittel will receive the maximum support from established riders such as great friend Tony Martin.

Unfortunately, it simply seems that whilst both Marcel Kittel and the Giant-Alpecin team achieved a lot of success, once both were established on the world tour, they were destined to move apart in their future goals. For their fans they will now have the memories of the two year period where both Marcel Kittel and the Giant-Alpecin team rocked the cycling establishment.

Dominant Chris Froome Win Sign Of Things To Come?

On Sunday evening Britain’s Chris Froome came across the finishing line on the Champs-Elysee’s to confirm his dominant Tour de France victory, his second overall. He held the leaders yellow jersey for the majority of the three week tour, and with the best team supporting him could this victory be repeated in the next few years?

Whilst of course Froome and his fellow Team Sky colleagues will insist that winning the biggest bike race in the world was anything but easy. Of course it was anything but easy, with a team that looked to be in control of the race throughout the majority of it’s three week running. Whilst the Spanish Movistar team and it’s two pronged attack of the peloton’s best climber Nairo Quintana and the experienced Spaniard Alejandro Valverde troubled Froome in the final few days, he always had just enough to retain his race lead.

Chris Froome celebrates his second overall victory in the Tour de France on the podium last Sunday. Picture credit goes to Sirotti.

The penultimate stage’s heroics from Quintana as he surged up the famous Alpe D’Huez mountain climb and took 1 minute 26 seconds out of Chris Froome’s lead, he was able to ride into Paris with a winning margin of 1 minute 12 seconds in hand. Plenty of experts and fans have spent this week stating where Froome won this year’s Tour. The popular consensus is that he won the race on Stage 2 into Zeeland, where Froome used crosswinds to his advantage to take 1 minute 28 seconds out of Quintana. The other popular answer for where he claimed his victory is his dominant stage victory on Stage 10 going into La Pierre-Saint-Martin, the first climbing stage of the tour. He attacked late on and claimed a further 1 minute 4 seconds over Quintana in just over 6km of climbing.

Froome’s Team Sky have constantly spoke since the team’s inception in 2010 about the importance of marginal gains, which has meant the team is now widely known in professional cycling for being the major innovators of the WorldTour peloton. This intense focus on every detail of professional bike racing, no matter how small, has helped the team now win three Tour de France titles in four years.

Famous examples of their innovation this year alone are new suspension designed to help firstly Bradley Wiggins in the Spring classic Paris-Roubaix, and Froome with the infamous cobbled stages that were the danger point in the first week of this years tour. Another example is the teams decision to bring a large motorhome for team leader Richie Porte in this years Giro D’Italia. It gained a lot of press attention, although the UCI have now insisted riders stick to the tradition of staying with their team in designated hotels throughout long stage races.

Of his current rivals it appears the young Colombian Nairo Quintana is his strongest rival in the coming years. Quintana is only 25 years old and has already amassed an impressive palmares in Grand Tour races, with two 2nd places in his two Tour de France races, and an overall victory in the Giro D’Italia last year. His climbing ability in unmatched in the current peloton, therefore this years Tour de France presented a perfect opportunity for him. The layout favoured specialist climbers, with a lack of time trials or flat stages that he struggles with in comparison with his rivals.

Quintana after the race remarked that he felt he possibly lost the Tour de France in the opening week of flat stages, and the strategic errors his Movistar team made in the opening week will need to be rectified if Quintana is to seriously challenge for the Tour de France in the future. On the other hand, his innate climbing ability and the strength of his team mean he will never be discounted in future Tours.

The talk before the race was of four major victory contenders battling it out for overall victory this year, although in reality it came down to a straight fight between Froome and Quintana. The other two contenders, Alberto Contador and Vincenzo Nibali, looked out of sorts during the race. For Alberto Contador this will have been because of the supreme effort he had already put himself through earlier this year as he attempted to complete a double victory in the Giro D’Italia and Tour de France in the same year.

Whilst Contador dominated the Giro in May, the effort that he put into that hard fought victory meant he looked weakened throughout the tour, although put in remarkable efforts to remain in contention, he eventually finished 5th overall and 9 minutes 48 seconds down on victor Chris Froome. Contador finished his season with the Tour de France, and will now likely fully focus on preparation for the Tour de France next year, as he looks for one last tour victory in the last years of the remarkable Spaniard’s career at his current age of 32.

Alberto Contador celebrating his Giro D’Italia victory in May. Photo sourced from CNN.com

For Vincenzo Nibali, his lackluster tour form was more puzzling, as the defending champion competed in very few races prior to the tour, with his only success being in the Italian national road race championships in late June. Therefore he should have been fresh and raring to go over the tour, although from early on he looked out of sorts. His form raised the ire of his Astana team boss Alexandre Vinokourov. At one point in the opening week the team looked to have switched it’s focus to team mate Jakob Fulsang, before Nibali raised his game in the second and third weeks of the race.

He even showed a glimpse of the form that led him to dominate last years tour, with a brilliant solo breakaway towards the end of the stage 19 in the mountains, taking the stage victory and 1 minute 14 seconds out of Froome. His strong third week meant he eventually recovered to finish 4th overall, 8 minutes 36 seconds behind Froome. Nibali announced this week he will ride the Vuelta de Espana later month, as he looks for victory in the final Grand Tour of the year.

Next years Tour de France will now be crucial for Nibali, as it will be the litmus test that determines whether he deserves to be seen as one of the great Tour de France riders, or whether his dominant victory in 2014 was a perfect result for him thanks to the eliminations of Alberto Contador and Chris Froome and the no-show of Nairo Quintana. He has little left to prove in cycling having won all three Grand Tours, although his legacy may be slightly tainted if he fails to reach the heights of his tour win last year.

Some Chris Froome detractors may point to the fact that with the effective cycling transfer window opening today, that some of Froome’s loyal lieutenants may seek pastures new as they looks to establish their own Grand Tour credentials. Key domestique this year and good friend Richie Porte has today had his long awaited move to Team BMC confirmed. Whilst losing the talented Australian is a big blow for Froome and Team Sky, another key domestique for him this year in Dutchman Wout Poels looks to be a more than adequate replacement for Porte within Team Sky.

Another key domestique for Chris Froome this year was the Welshman Geraint Thomas, who for a long time was within the top five of the overall standings, before losing 10 minutes on the leaders on stage 19. His eventual 15th overall however is still a best for him at the Tour de France, and in an interview afterwards stated he has thought about becoming a Grand Tour contender in the future. Whether this will be with Team Sky for the Giro of Vuelta or whether he will be forced to leave the team to achieve this should he want to is currently unknown.

Although Team Sky will lose some riders this year, the transfer window also means they can re-stock or even improve their roster for next year. Two high profile names consistently linked with Team Sky are current world road race champion Michael Kwiatkowski and the Spaniard Mikel Landa. Both are out of contract with their current teams, Etixx-QuickStep and Astana respectively, and both are strongly rumored to have already signed deals with Team Sky. Both are hugely talented riders, with Kwiatkowski a key man for Etixx this year and Landa showing his class with a strong third overall in this years Giro D’Italia.

Both Landa and Kwiatkowski would be huge signings for Team Sky, and would mean the team would go into the 2016 season with an even stronger Grand Tour roster than this year, which is a formidable thought for their rivals. Other riders have been linked with Sky, including the likes of strong Movistar climbers Benat Intxausti and the Izagirre brothers Gorka and Ion will join the team next year. Intxausti would be a likely key mountain domestique for Froome should he join the team, whilst the Izagirre brother would be key domestiques on the flat stages for Team Sky.

In overall terms, Team Sky showed this year they had the strongest overall team in the race, as they looked the dominant team throughout all stages of the Tour de France, backed up by Froome’s dominance in the yellow jersey from stage 7 until the final 21 in Paris last Sunday. The teams potential was realised this year, and if any of the rumors of riders joining the team prove to be true, the team would be even stronger at next years Tour de France.

For Froome’s rivals Quintana, Contador and Nibali and their Movistar, Tinkoff-Saxo and Astana teams respectively, this should have them very worried about the strength of Froome and Team Sky. With the off bike distractions around doping allegations and a small minority of fans shameful actions towards Froome not likely to be repeated next year, his rivals will have to come to the tour in peak condition, or for a strategic error or other ailment to halt what will likely be a very tough to beat Chris Froome and Team Sky.

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