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Those Damned Fans

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The one thing that separates cycling from all other sports is the fact that it is free to watch at the highest level.  Imagine turning up at the World Cup Final and watching the match with your camper van and BBQ at the side of the pitch.  Or standing on a hill overlooking the Superbowl with a few beers and your mates watching the game unfold.  Or walking into the Augusta National with a pair of shorts and a vest on the final round of the Masters.

You can’t.

But that’s exactly what you can do at every single cycling World Tour event.  And that is why cycling is by far and above, the most inclusive and remarkable global sport. More

It’s the Tour de France – everything will be OK

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Tour_de_France_logo_2016Today is the day folks.

The 2016 Tour De France is upon us, cycling’s biggest event, with the biggest teams and the best riders taking part.

In terms of predictions for the overall win, it’s going to be Froome (Sky) at 5/4, Quintana (Movistar) at 7/4, Contador (Tinkoff) at 5/1 or maybe, just maybe Aru (Astana) at 16/1.  Strong riders, clever riders, strong teams but there’s not much value there for a three week stage race.

I might have more fun looking at individual stages, today for example will be for the sprinters.  It’s not your ordinary sprinter stage.  The winner of today’s stage gets to wear the Maillot Jaune (the Yellow Jersey), cycling’s most coveted prize. More

I’ll Make You Rich Part IV – LBL

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Thanks to Mark at www.zeitgeistimages.co.uk for allowing me to use the above image.  His cycling/art-deco inspired work is tremendous – click here to buy his Liege-Bastogne-Liege piece.  Follow Mark on Twitter @MrMarkFairhurst

When my 2 picks for Paris-Roubaix arrived in the velodrome in the leading group of 5, you could have forgiven me for whooping and a hollering.  I was imagining spending my winnings on not one but three new Castelli Gabba jackets.

So imagine the deafening silence in my head when they finished 3rd and 5th (Stannard and Bousson Hagen respectively).  I still made a profit but it’ll probably only cover a couple of brake blocks and it takes a lot to stop a big unit like me, so they won’t last long.

Onwards. More

I’ll Make You Rich Part III – Roubaix Roubaix Roubaix

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So having struck gold in last week’s Ronde Van Vlaanderen / Tour of Flanders with a win from Peter Sagan (Tinkoff) and Alexander Kristoff (Katusha) placing 4th, I thought I would give you another opportunity to share the spoils this weekend.

Paris-Roubaix is possibly the most iconic Monument Classic, it’s certainly the most ridiculous.  Starting in Compiegne north-east of Paris, the route covers a flat 257km route, across the open countryside of northern France, finishing in the Roubaix velodrome.  But what makes this race ridiculous and yet so intriguing is the fact that the route also covers 27 individual cobbled (pave) sections totalling 53km.  These aren’t you’re modern day bumps on the road, these cobbles are verging on medieval, the only traffic these roads see is farm machinery.  A society exists (Les Amis de Paris–Roubaix or the friends of the race) to maintain some of the sections and by maintenance I mean, they manually scrape the compacted dirt OUT of the gaps in the cobbles to make sure that they are in the worst possible condition for road bikes.  Throw in some rain and you have a lottery of biblical proportions so picking a winner could be challenging. More

Good Idea – Wrong Person

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So Sir Dave Brailsford has called on the UCI to require World Tour teams to publish their rider performance numbers in the interests of transparency, similar to what Chris Froome did last month.
It certainly appears positive that the head of the world’s best team (well, best resourced team) is making such a statement.
Team Sky has a well stated zero tolerance policy for doping which even includes zero tolerance for any of their non-riding staff who may have been implicated in past misdemeanours. We saw the moonlight flits of Bobby Julich, Steven de Jong and Sean Yates.
Furthermore, David Walsh, that bastion of integrity when it comes to outing the dopers concluded after spending a good while inside Team Sky that they’re doing it clean.
And Chris Froome’s numbers published in December kind of stack up too.
So what else can Sir Dave and the men in Rapha gear do?
Well to be honest Sir Dave shouldn’t be calling any shots at all. He and all his World Tour counterparts should be towing the line. It is the UCI which is responsible for anti-doping policy and they should be imposing whatever action they feel necessary to further enhance the credibility of top tier cycling.
Remember what happened with Lance Armstrong? He dictated the UCI anti-doping agenda which well suited him and his EPO infested comrades.
We’re supposed to jump for joy when no positive tests showed up in this year’s Tour De France (I exclude Luca Paulini as he was taking cocaine to dance better rather than ride faster) or the Vuelta but the dark clouds and mistrust of the Armstrong era still hang over the sport. It’s almost like the till balancing to the penny at the end of trading, desirable, but highly unlikely and an indicator of fraud.
I’m not a naysayer, I believe in this sport and I believe in the efforts being made throughout the peloton to deliver tremendous racing and therefore great entertainment. I believe in Sir Dave Brailsford, Jonathan Vaughters and Brian Smith.
I believe in Chris Froome, Nairo Quintana, Tom Dumoulin and Peter Sagan.
I can even just about believe in Alberto Contador and Alejandro Valverde.
But I don’t believe in Alexander Vinikourov, Bjarne Riis or Matt White and I don’t believe in the governing body’s anti-doping protocols being driven by the very people it may one day have to sanction for breaches of such protocols.
It’s because of these characters and Sir Dave’s so-called advice that the UCI needs to impose its authority by either getting them out of the sport or being creative in how it deals with the issues. European Law more or less discounts the former as an option so it’s the latter route that has to be pursued.
And to be fair, the UCI is trying to reform but it’s a slow process with many barriers including the owners of the Tour De France and the Vuelta (ASO), sponsors who may get scared off at the thought of longer term commitments and the general constipation usually experienced in Civil Service departments where inertia is the easy way out.
So what about a stage plan as follows:
1. Hand over responsibility for the anti-doping programme entirely to an independent body;
2. Have clear policies and legal standing so that the Astana debacle of late 2014/early 2015 doesn’t happen again; and
3. Change the structure of racing to enable more stability for riders, particularly those young riders who are trying to make a career in the sport without either forcing them out or forcing them down a road to ruin.
Anyway, who am I?
Viva pan y agua.

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The Giant

Top 10 Cycling Moments of 2015

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It’s the time of the year when I both look forward to the coming season and look back on the season that was.  2015 was another massive year for cycling and so I bring you my personal top 10 moments:

10 Northern Ireland’s Giro Legacy

In 2014 Northern Ireland hosted the Grande Partenza (Big Start) of the Giro D’Italia and this year saw the first major legacy event, the Giro Gran Fondo which was a closed road sportive.  Almost 3,000 riders took part in the two routes which were joined by Stephen Roche (1987 Giro winner), Richie Porte (Team Sky) and myself (Ayr Roads Cycling Club).  Once again, the folks of Northern Ireland took to the streets, pinked up and provided endless support and encouragement for the riders, embracing the cycling festival once again.

9 Froome Does It Again

In July, Chris Froome (Sky) won his second Tour De France and Team Sky’s third in five years.  We should always remember that this so-called dominance is a new phenomenon, as prior to 2012 the UK had no winners in over 100 years of trying.  Furthermore, it will undoubtedly be short-lived with Sky leaving cycling in the near future making it harder for a UK-centric team to deliver at the top level.  So enjoy it while it lasts.

8 Nibali Has No Shame

Now we all know about Dave Brailsford’s concept of marginal gains but Vincenzo Nibali took it to the extremes in Stage 2 of this year’s Vuelta a Espana.  Having been caught up in a crash with about 30km to go, Nibali and his Astana team fought like dogs to catch up with the favourites.  They got to the front of a chasing group and as the Astana team car came alongside Nibali, helicopter footage clearly showed the Italian hold on to the vehicle and being catapulted away not for a few metres but for a few hundred metres.  He caught up with the peloton although ended up about 90 seconds down on the winner (the same deficit as he had before he took the free ride).  Result?  Disqualification.  Some have said that this punishment was harsh as all riders have taken a pull or a sticky bottle to get back up to the peloton after a crash. But using the car to get away from your peers is just a no no.

7 John Degenkolb Monument Double

In 2015, John Degenkolb (Giant Alpecin) achieved something which is very rare, a Monument double.  For the uninitiated, think winning two of the four golf majors, or two of the four tennis grand slam events.

First of all, he claimed the Milan-San Remo in typical fashion by sprinting to victory.  But as any rider will tell you, sprinting at the Milan-San Remo is like no other sprint as you cannot really gauge what you have left in the tank due to the fact that you have already raced almost 300km.  Secondly and probably more impressive was his victory at Paris-Roubaix where he chased down Zdenek Stybar (Etixx-Quickstep) and Greg Van Avermaet (BMC) in the last few kilometres before winning the sprint in the Roubaix velodrome.  He became the first German to win Paris-Roubaix since Josef Fischer won the inaugural event in 1896 and the first winner of both events since Ireland’s Sean Kelly in 1986.

6 Cometh the Hour

I remember travelling down to the Leicester velodrome with my dad in 1984 to watch Francesco Moser ride around the track on his aerodynamic bike which he had used the previous month to capture Eddy Merckx’s 1972 World Hour Record.  Over 10 years on I remember Graeme Obree and Chris Boardman duelling with Boardman achieving the furthest distance ever in 60 minutes (56.375km).  Then the UCI outlawed the superman position and aero bikes so the Hour record seemed destined for obscurity as it was recognised that no-one could beat 56km on a standard bike.

Roll forward to the end of the 2014 season and the UCI updated their rules and created the “unified record”.  I won’t bore you with details but in essence the World Hour record is very firmly back, with 6 attempts being made on it in 2015 alone, 3 of which succeeded.

The UK did well, Alex Dowsett (Movistar) 52.937km broke the record in May and Bradley Wiggins in June with 54.526km which is the current benchmark.

5 Stannard’s Omloop Fun

Whilst Team Sky have excelled at the Grand Tours, particularly the Tour De France, their achievements in one day races and the Classics are somewhat shoddy with a couple of exceptions.  Geraint Thomas won the 2015 E3 Harelbeke and in my opinion more impressively, Ian Stannard retained the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad title.

Stannard spent the last 40km in a break with three Etixx Quickstep riders, Tom Boonen, Niki Terpstra and Stijn Vandenbergh.  Now, anyone could tell you that Stannard simply should not be able to have won the race.  But win he did, much to the confusion, embarrassment and downright incredulity of Etixx.  To be fair, there were many factors at play, a fast approaching group only 20 seconds behind, no race radios etc. although the  Etixx riders did make a few questionable decisions in the last 5km.

Anyway, Stannard, was there for the sprint finish and cruised his way past Terpsrta to take the win for Team Sky and hand defeat from the jaws of victory to Etixx.

4 Tom Comes of Age in Spain

The Vuelta a Espana has had a bit of a renaissance over recent years, capitalising on the popularity of the sport but also from what has happened or not in the other two grand tours.

2015 did not disappoint and a strong field including Froome, Valverde, Nibali and Quintana took to the start but with Froome and Nibali exiting the event opened up slightly.  Esteban Chaves (Orica Greenedge) and Tom Dumoulin (Giant Alpecin) battled for the leader’s red jersey over the early stages but surprisingly Dumoulin, kept his form throughout the three week race.  He had no support from his Giant Alpecin team at all and only succumbed to Fabio Aru (Astana) on the penultimate stage.

Whilst Aru deserves many plaudits for his maiden grand tour victory, it is a huge chapeau to Dumoulin who surely has to go on to bigger things over the coming years.

And so to my top 3. Each of these moments had me screaming at the TV, jumping up and down for joy like a big kid and smiling for hours afterwards.

3 Mandela Day Magic

On stage 14 of this year’s Tour De France, as the French duo of Thibaut Pinot (FDJ) and Romain Bardet (AG2R) crested the final climb of the day, contemplating how to beat each other, Britain’s Steve Cummings whizzed by them unexpectedly and time trialled the final kilometre to a sensational win.  It was Cummings’ first Tour De France win, his South African MTN-Quebeka team’s first Tour stage and it all took place fittingly on Mandela Day.  Watch the reaction in his team bus here http://youtu.be/KO0d6GTvUs4

2 King Peter

Peter Sagan is undoubtedly one of the most consistent riders at the top level of professional cycling.  He boasts an enviable palmares but many, including himself, know that it could be even more impressive as he is also known for his ability to accumulate a ridiculous number of 2nd and 3rd place finishes.  But at the World Road Race Championships in Richmond, Virginia this year, Sagan attacked the peloton on the final cobbled climb of the day and managed to stay away to claim the coveted rainbow jersey.  Having crossed the finish line, he left his bike and proceeded to walk back up the finishing straight high fiving his fellow competitors who to a man seemed as happy for his victory as he was for himself.  Those images are captured here http://youtu.be/ScuAqTMhEKk

1 Queen Lizzie

My best moment of 2015 was watching Yorkshire’s Lizzie Armitstead becoming the Women’s World Road Race Champion.  Her effort in the final 20km to catch a dangerous break at the foot of the final incline meant that she had to lead out the sprint and it all worked beautifully.  It capped a great season for Armitstead who has also won the World Cup and the British National titles.  Her reaction was so different from Peter Sagan’s but no less enthralling.  Another worthy rainbow jersey wearer for 2016.

So that was 2015 in 10 short bursts.  2016 promises so much with two exciting world champions, a possible changing of the guard with Dumoulin and Aru coming of age, maybe a final chance to see Fabian Cancellara and Tom Boonen duel at the Ronde and we have the Rio Olympics where good old Wiggo may sign off in style.

Happy New Year

The Giant