Astana

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.

What are your thoughts on this article? Please feel free to comment below and give your opinions. Hope you enjoyed it!

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Giro Perfect Appetiser For Le Tour

If this year’s Tour de France is anything like the recent Giro D’Italia, the cycling community is in for one hell of a Tour this July. The constant unpredictability and excitement kept cycling fans hooked throughout the three weeks of racing as a top line peloton raced around the picturesque scenery of Italy. What did we actually learn from the Giro going into the Tour however?

Firstly we were reaffirmed that Spaniard Alberto Contador will go down as one of the greatest ever grand tour cyclists when his career is all said and done. He cooly showed his own strength with incredible rides, particularly in the last week with his Stage 16 performance riding up the Mortirolo climb. He also had to rely on his own strength a lot in the mountains to hold off the hugely formidable Astana team. It wasn’t all plain sailing however, as he showed with a dislocated collarbone in a late crash on Stage 6 in the first week. He also showed some weakness when he was dropped on the penultimate day on the Colle Delle Finestre mountain, which was granted the Cima Coppi status this year, awarded  to the highest mountain of the Giro in honour of Italian cycling legend Fausto Coppi.

Alberto Contador has achieved the first portion of his much heralded attempt at a Giro-Tour double, aiming to be the first since 1998 to achieve it. Him and his Tinkoff-Saxo team already began talking of preparing for the Tour de France from the moment Contador crossed the line on the penultimate Stage 20. They will now begin an intense month of preparation before the Tour, as the team looks for the famous double.

Contador celebrates winning the Giro. Photo credit goes to Graham Watson.

Astana showed themselves to be a very formidable team going into the Tour, despite team leader and reigning Tour de France winner Vincenzo Nibali absent at an altitude training camp, the team showing it’s strength by frequent attempts to dominate the race by force with the sheer number of riders they could use at the front of the peloton throughout the race.

Whilst team leader Fabio Aru will not be racing at the Tour, the Giro’s breakout rider Mikel Landa looks certain to be a key domestique for Nibali if he’s selected for the Tour. For Astana they will have to make re-signing Landa a priority this year, although with Nibali at the Tour and Aru at the Giro and Vuelta it’s difficult to see where Landa lies in their puzzle. If he carries over his form in the next few years, Landa will become a great grand tour contender for sure.

Team Sky suffered with a disappointing Giro, as team leader Richie Porte suffering first from a hugely controversial two minute time penalty for accepting from fellow Australian Simon Clarke, who rode for the Australian Orica-GreenEDGE team. With further accidents and poor showings, one of Chris Froome’s likely key domestique’s now has some question marks over his form going into the Tour, despite and impressive year before the Giro.

There were some positives for Team Sky however, with the Czech Leopold Konig taking up the GC reigns admirably, as he finished sixth overall and will also likely be a key domestique for Froome next month. The team can also take heart from it’s Italian sprinter Elia Viviani. He won stage two early on and was in contention for the red points jersey throughout the race. He looks to be a potential top line sprinter, as he will look to pit himself up against the current benchmarks Mark Cavendish and Marcel Kittel.

Simon Clarke helps Richie Porte after the infamous wheel change. Photo credit goes to Tim de Waele and Corbis.

2012 winner Ryder Hesjedal overcome a difficult first week, as he recovered in the mountains. He was a regular presence at the front in the mountains, and was unlucky not to get several stage wins. His fifth place will provide some form of consolation, although at this moment it’s not known whether Hesjedal will also compete in the Tour for Cannondale-Garmin. If he does, expect the Canadian to show well in the iconic French mountains.

Another rider who surprised the cycling world in the Giro was the Dutchman Steven Kruijswijk. The LottoNL-Jumbo rider also overcome a rough first week to share the plaudits with Hesjedal as the race got tough in the mountains during the second and third weeks. He steadily rose up the general classification, eventually finishing a very creditable seventh overall. He also wore the mountain leaders jersey for three days in the third week. Kruijswijk finished 15th in the Tour last year, and if he’s selected it seems likely he will improve on that placing this year. He is definitely a rider to watch during the Tour.

 Kruijswijk in action during the difficult mountain stage 20. Photo credit goes to Graham Watson.

For the Spanish Movistar team, the Giro provided plenty of hope going into the Tour next month. Despite team leader and last year’s winner Nairo Quintana absent this year, he can take hope from the showing of several likely key domestiques during the Giro. Firstly the Costa Rican Andrey Amador showed his strength with a very impressive fourth place finish overall. It not clear if he will indeed ride his first Tour de France since 2013, although he will prove a strong team mate to Quintana if he’s selected.

Other Movistar stand out’s were the Spaniard Benat Intxausti, winner of stage 8. Both he and Italian team mate Giovanni Visconti were serious contenders for the blue mountains classification jersey, with Visconti eventually coming out on top after a brilliant solo break away ride on stage 19. If all three are selected to support Nairo Quintana next month, Movistar will have a team that will be very strong throughout the three week Tour.

Lampre-Merida were another team to surprise in the Giro, with the team building a young and talented roster as they will look to make their impact known during the three week Tour. The young Czech Jan Polanc announced himself with a breakaway win on the first mountain stage in week one, with the team’s sprinters Diego Ulissi and Sacha Modolo combining to take three stage wins. If all three are selected, the team will be confident of it’s chances in the Tour, especially when it comes to the sprinters stages.

 Modolo celebrating his second stage win on stage 17. Photo sourced from Cyclingweekly.co.uk .

The final man to impress in this year’s Giro was Ilnur Zakarin. The young Russian has already been through a lot in his career, which now appears to be getting back on track with the Russian team Katusha. He won stage 11 in Imola, and proved he could ride with the best of them in the break away during the fierce mountain stages. He could prove to be a key young rider for the team if he’s selected for his first Tour de France, as he looks to continue his good form. His name is definitely one to watch our for in cycling over the next few years.

Whilst some may argue that it’s difficult to take much from the Giro D’Italia going into the Tour de France, mostly because of the lack of heavyweight GC favourites aside from Alberto Contador. Plenty however can be taken from the showings from the likes of Richie Porte, Leopold Konig, Mikel Landa, Giovanni Visconti, Ivan Basso and Mick Rogers. These men are important because their form as domestiques could be the difference between victory and defeat for the favourites such as Chris Froome, Vincenzo Nibali,Nairo Quintana and Contador.

If anything, the biggest thing cycling fans can take from this year’s Giro is hope for the Tour. This hope is that the Tour de France provides the excitement and drama which the Giro provided every day, whether from unlikely breakaway’s holding off the peloton or the drama from the GC contenders. If the upcoming Tour de France can provide half the excitement of the Giro during it’s three week running, then we as cycling fans are in for one hell of a Tour de France this year.

If you have any thoughts on this article please feel free to comment any feedback is appreciated. Also thank you for reading my article and making it to the bottom of the page. Thanks.

Cycling’s Dark Era Part 3 2006-2010

After several years whereby a number of riders had been suspended after testing positive for performance enhancing drugs, including high profile riders such as Grand Tour contenders David Millar, Tyler Hamilton and Roberto Heras, the cycling world was engulfed in another major doping scandal during the 2006 season.

The Operacion Puerto scandal had began innocently enough when vengeful ex-rider Jesus Manzano voiced to the public the doping practices of his Kelme team, of which the Spanish Dr Eufemiano Fuentes was the team doctor. This prompted an investigation into the allegation by the Spanish Guardia Civil, which led to the arrests in early 2006 of several key players in the organised doping ring including Fuentes.

From here the investigation rocked cycling to it’s core on the eve of the 2006 Tour de France, with numerous contenders for victory being suspended after being implicated in the Puerto investigation. It became clear Fuentes had been working with a large majority of professional riders as it was revealed he was officially linked with 56 cyclists, with numerous others likely to have been associated with Fuentes but not implicated in the investigation. Fuentes also appeared to work with tennis players and footballers, remarking at his trial “If I would talk, the Spanish football team would be stripped of the 2010 World Cup.”

Those sent home included Team CSC team leader and 2006 Giro D’Italia winner Ivan Basso, who was later sacked by the team later on in the year. Three time Tour de France podium finisher Joseba Beloki was also sent home after being implicated, although he was soon cleared by Spanish officials in 2006. Team Telekom leader and 1997 Tour de France winner Jan Ullrich was sent home and this investigation effectively ended his illustrious career. Other top line riders implicated included the already suspended Tyler Hamilton, Jorg Jaksche and Alejandro Valverde.

Jan Ullrich was a constant thorn in the side of Lance Armstrong between 2000 and 2005, although Ullrich’s career would end in shame as he was implicated in the Operacion Puerto doping investigation on the eve of the 2006 Tour de France. Photo credit goes to REUTERS and was sourced from http://www.telegraph.co.uk/sport/othersports/cycling/lancearmstrong/9604956/Lance-Armstrongs-seven-Tour-de-France-victories-wont-be-re-attributed-to-other-riders-says-Christian-Prudhomme.html

From here the UCI and organisers of the Tour de France were hoping for a scandal free Tour de France as Operacion Puerto dominated the headlines in the build up and first few days of the 2006 Tour. Of the contenders left American Floyd Landis shocked everyone with a phenominal Stage 17 effort to recover almost all of eight minutes he had lost the previous day to Oscar Pereiro.

It was therefore no surprise that in the initial testing after that stage Landis tested positive for abnormally high levels of testosterone, eventually leading to him being fired by his Phonak team  and being stripped of his Tour de France victory a year later. Oscar Pereiro inherited the victory as cycling licked it’s wounds after a disastrous 2006 season.

Landis celebrating his 2006 Tour de France triumph, although a positive drug test would soon be revealed and Landis would be both fired from his Phonak team and stripped of his Tour victory a year later. Photo credit goes to unknown.

2007 was similar to the year before with several doping cases in the build up to the 2007 Tour de France. The 2007 Giro D’Italia winner Danilo Di Luca was under investigation for doping and would later join 2006 Giro winner Ivan Basso in being suspended from cycling.

From here T-Mobile rider Patrik Sinkewitz was found to have tested positive for EPO in the build up to the Tour and was soon fired by the T-Mobile team before admitting to using EPO and blood transfusions in the past. From here the next scandal broke when pre-race favourite Alexandre Vinokourov and his Astana team were forced to withdraw from the Tour after it was revealed Vinokourov had tested positive for receiving a blood transfusion before stage 13 individual time trial, a stage he won. Team mate and top 10 contender Andrey Kashechkin later also tested positive for the same offence, leading some to speculate a mix up amongst the team led to each rider being transfused with each other’s blood.

The final and most dramatic scandal of the Tour occurred late on race leader Michael Rasmussen was withdrawn by his Rabobank team after it was revealed the Dane had lied to the team and doping officials by claiming he was in Mexico in June when he was spotted by an Italian cycling journalist training in Italy. This was to avoid being tested before the Tour and therefore led to his dismissal from the race and the team.This left Alberto Contador to claim victory in a hugely tumultous 2007 Tour de France, whereby several high profile doping cases once again battered the credibility of cycling’s greatest race.

Dane Michael Rasmussen celebrates after claiming a stage victory in the 2007 Tour de France, although he would later be removed from the race by his Rabobank team after lying to avoid doping tests before the Tour when only days away from winning the race. Photo credit goes to Peter Dejong and AP.

Thankfully for the UCI and cycling fans 2008 was a quiet year for doping within the pro peloton, although there was still a motley crew who were found to have tested positive during the year. The majority were found to have tested positive during the Tour de France, with many testing positive for MIRCERA, a third generation form of EPO. Of those to have tested the most high profile was stage 10 winner Leonardo Piepoli, although the Liquigas team were also forced to leave the race after one of their riders tested positive for EPO.

It appears that the new anti-doping regulations implement by the UCI have began to make a difference within the peloton, as the new, far more invasive measures leave riders little room to use performance enhancing drugs. Riders now have to give base values for things such as their hematocrit and blood levels, therefore it’s now a lot easier to detect when a rider has enhanced these levels unnaturally through performance enhancing drugs.

Alongside this riders now have to provide quarterly information to the UCI detailing their whereabouts every day and inform the UCI if there whereabouts changes during this period. It has become impossible for riders to successfully dope for a long period of time without being caught, and the public are now finally renewing their faith in cycling.

The last two years of the decade passed relatively free from scandal, although some riders were falling foul of the biological passport initive, leading to mandatory two year suspensions from the sport. Whilst the highly controversial Lance Armstrong returned to cycling in 2009, even his presence wasn’t enough to start a doping scandal, although a later USADA (United States Anti-Doping Association) report made it clear based on their evidence that Armstrong had completed a blood transfusion during the 2009 Tour de France.

From here the only major scandal to hit pro cycling during this period concerned the 2010 Tour de France winner Alberto Contador. It later became known after the Tour that Contador had tested positive for a small amount of Clenbuterol, which provides breathing assistance, with Contador claiming to have ingested the drug through contaminated meat he ate during the Tour.

Whilst he protested his innocence and raced on whilst a verdict on whether to suspend him was made, Contador was eventually suspended in 2012 and his results between 2010 and 2012 would be annulled, which meant he would be stripped of his 2010 Tour de France and 2011 Giro D’Italia victories.

Alberto Contador celebrates his victory on the 2010 Tour de France podium, although he would later be stripped of this victory. Photo credit goes to Graham Watson and GrahamWatson.com.

In this later period of the first decade of the new millenium, it appears cycling has finally turned a corner with riders no longer being found to have tested positive en masse. Whilst the opening year of this period began with the Operacion Puerto investigation, by 2010 it appeared the cycling community can finally hoist the winners of it’s great races as true winners, instead of seeing them through the eyes of suspicion as to how they won. Despite Contador being found to have tested positive for Clenbuterol in 2010 it appears this was an honest mistake. From here every Tour de France winner since has been free of doping scandal during their victories, something which is both refreshing and much needed within the cycling community, as it looks to recover from a very dark era for cycling and it’s credibility.