Utrecht, Dublin, Poland and La Vuelta

Two things I learned in the past week:

  1. In Utrecht, cycling is an absolute pleasure.
  2. In Dublin, cycling is an absolute battle.

Prior to this week, Dublin has been the only city in which I have had the experience of cycling and having now had the pleasure of cycling in Utrecht, it is clear that Dublin is a complete disaster in comparison. While Utrecht has an infrastructure of proper two-way, unbroken cycle lanes with their own traffic light system, Dublin city council deem it sufficient to paint a red stripe on the side of roads, the refurbishment of which, apparently cost the government €800,000 last year. This is embarrassing. The cycle lanes in Dublin are just plain dangerous in plenty of places and are a result of irresponsible and uninformed planning. There is a Flickr account dedicated to documenting the appalling Irish cycle lanes, some of the photos up there are really quite disturbing.

Cycling around Utrecht, here was a photo op in front of the Dutchest scene I could find.

So having been off the radar in Utrecht for the past while (where I delivered a paper concerning Irish Traditional Music at the ISMIR conference, here’s a link to the paper if anybody is interested), I haven’t really had the chance to comment on Daniel Martin’s fine win in the Tour of Poland. It’s the biggest win of his career so far by some distance, his best result previously had been a win in the Route du Sud, a 2.1 category French stage race. But the Tour of Poland is a Pro Tour race, and is now, although hasn’t always been, far more prestigious than the Route du Sud. Former winners of the Tour of Poland include Jens Voigt, Kim Kirchen and former World Road Race Champions Alessandro Ballan, Laurent Brochard and Maurizio Fondriest.

Martin came close to winning a Pro Tour stage race last year in the Volta a Catalunya where he finished in 2nd place overall. On that occasion he was only beaten by the now suspended Alejandro Valverde. When the Spaniard’s suspension was finalised recently for his involvement in Operacion Puerto, it was decided that he would be allowed to keep all his results which were obtained before 1st January 2010, which meant sadly, that Martin remains in 2nd place in the 2009 Volta a Catalunya. His victory in the 2010 Tour of Poland is the first victory for an Irishman in a top level stage race since his uncle Stephen Roche won the 1991 Criterium International. It is also the first Irish victory in a national Tour since Seán Kelly won the 1990 Tour de Suisse.

Martin will not be racing the Vuelta a Espana which starts at the end of this month, instead his program will be focused on the remaining classic races of the season. He will be targetting the GP Ouest-France (where he finished 5th last year), and the Tour of Lombardy (where he finished 8th last year).

But fear not, for there will be an Irish presence at the third Grand Tour of the year. Nicolas Roche will be aiming to carry his great form in the Tour de France through to September. Roche last rode the Vuelta in 2008 where he narrowly missed out on a stage win, coming off second best in a two man sprint against Imanol Erviti. Roche went on to take 13th place overall in what was then only his second Grand Tour. Since then, Roche has ridden and finished two Tours de France. He is getting stronger and stronger, and if he has managed his training and form well, he could well be in contention for a stage win and another solid G.C. performance.

Roche may be joined in Spain by Philip Deignan who has made it on to Cervelo’s eleven man shortlist, from which nine riders will be picked for the race. Last year Deignan famously won Stage 18 of the Vuelta powering away from Roman Kreuziger in Avila. The 10 minutes that Deignan was allowed to gain on that stage moved him up from 18th up to 9th on the G.C., a position he would defend all the way to Madrid. This year, Deignan will be riding the Vuelta for the third time having also ridden and finished the race in 2007 when he took 71st overall. In fact, the Irish trio of Deignan, Roche and Martin have now ridden ten Grand Tours between them, and an each of those occasions they have all finished the race. Roche and Deignan, both a couple of years older than Martin, have both ridden four Grand Tours, but unusually this year’s Vuelta will be the first one that they have both ridden together.

The lineup for the Vuelta in general seems very strong. A large reason for this is the presence of the Schleck brothers who have announced they will be riding with the goal of overall victory for Frank. Their presence here is due to the fact that Frank crashed out of the Tour, otherwise the pair probably would not have signed up. In addition to the two Luxembourg riders, also expected on the startline on August 28th are former Grand Tour winners Carlos Sastre, who will be riding his third Grand Tour of the year, and Denis Menchov. With a former Tour winner in Sastre and the Giro and Vuelta previously won by Menchov, there will be previous winners of all three Grand Tours present in this year’s Vuelta. This has only occurred twice in the last 10 years. In 2007, Damiano Cunego (Giro 2004), Oscar Periero (Tour 2006) and Denis Menchov (Vuelta 2005) were all present, and in 2001, Marco Pantani (Tour & Giro 1998) and Roberto Heras (Vuelta 2000) were both there for the Vuelta.

There are plenty of other riders who are set to participate in this year’s race who have performed well  in the Vuelta before and will add plenty of intrigue to the fight for the overall. Egoi Martinez finished 9th in 2008 and won the King of the Mountains crown in 2006. Recent Tour stage winner Joaquim Rodriguez finished 6th in 2008 and 7th last year. Ezequiel Mosquera has finished in the top five in each of the past three years. Andrey Kashechkin will be something of unknown quantity as he returns from suspension and will ride for Lampre. He hasn’t raced since 2007 but he’s still only 30 and the last time he rode the Vuelta he won a stage on the way to finishing 3rd while helping his team mate and compatriot Alexander Vinokourov to the overall victory. There will also be the Liquigas pair of Roman Kreuziger, who has finished in the top 10 of the Tour in the past two years, and Vincenzo Nibai, podium finisher at this year’s Giro.

But it’s not all about the G.C. men. The fact that the World Road Race Circuit is considered sprinter-friendly this year means there are many speed merchants looking to hone their form at the Vuelta in the hopes of landing a rainbow jersey later on. The sprinting heavyweights Thor Hushovd, Tyler Farrar, Alessandro Petacchi, Daniele Bennati, Oscar Freire and Mark Cavendish should all be battling it out for stage wins although it remains to be seen how many will go on to complete the three weeks. Sadly, rider’s who are targetting the Worlds usually call it a day at the Vuelta before the third week. But, the fact that it is a relatively flat Worlds course, means the G.C. men should see the race out till the end. In addition, this could see the race with a distinct lack of sprinters in the final week which may leave the door open for stage hunters and some more unlikely stage winners. It’s set to be an exciting race, and fortunately for the Irish it is now the 7th Grand Tour in succession in which we’ll have a rider or two to be rooting for.

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