Rider Transfers,Vuelta a Espana

The Changing Face of Cycling

24 Sep , 2014  

Imagine you’re the manager of a cycling team and you’re looking for a particular type of rider. But instead of finding one guy that fits the job description, you find several, all with very similar physical attributes and identical salary demands – how do you decide which one to sign? The answer might be, whichever one you’re able to remember the most.

Listening to Daniel Friebe’s recent interview with Dan Craven on The Cycling Podcast would certainly lend credence to this assertion. Craven, who has just completed the Vuelta a Espana, his first ever Grand Tour, is one of the most remember-able riders in the peloton due to the considerable facial hair that he’s been cultivating for the last few years. In a sport where beards and moustaches are not all that common, Craven stands out immediately, a fact not lost on the Namibian rider when he spoke to Friebe about how he ended up signing for Team Europcar:

What have been some of the highlights or is there anything that has surprised you while doing your first Grand Tour?

I think the reaction to me

It’s just the beard though isn’t it?

Well, mainly. If it wasn’t for the beard, people wouldn’t have noticed me, put it that way, definitely. If it wasn’t for the beard Jean René [Bernaudeau, DS of Team Europcar] probably wouldn’t have noticed me. Well, no, I did try and give his riders a hiding in 2011, so he would have noticed me, but he really noticed me because I had a big beard.

Now, obviously it’s got a lot of admirers, it’s got its own Twitter account I think.


What is the future of the beard?

Basically, I think I look like an idiot without a beard.

How long have you had it? You’ve had it for quite some years, perhaps not as long as it is now…

The first time I raced with a beard was 2010 in the Rás in Ireland, the good old Rás! But ever since I was at university, I think 2001 or 2002, I started playing with facial hair, doing a goatee or sideburns. But it’s only since 2010 that I’ve actually had a beard….

So the beard’s gonna stay?

There’s no doubt about that. It’s staying. Even if it’s just because I think I look stupid without it. And I mean, after getting all of the attention that I got at this race, at the end of the day, my job is to be a billboard. And I would be kind of stupid to cut it off. If I cut my beard off I’d cut my publicity by 95% which would be very stupid. So it’ll be trimmed, but the beard is staying.
The questions put to Craven about the beard seemed to be partially in jest, and they were taken as such by Craven. But he seemed completely sincere when he spoke with clarity about the idea of getting rid of it potentially affecting his livelihood. It had got him where he is today, at the pinnacle of the sport of cycling at the unusually advanced age of 31.


‘Tis a fine beard

The idea that an athlete will be offered a contract based solely on some seemingly trivial physical feature is something which is covered in Soccernomics, a book written by Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski which takes an economic, statistical and psychological view of soccer. In a section on market inefficiencies, the authors write the following:

“At least one big English club noticed that its scouts kept recommending blonde players. The likely reason: when you are scanning a field of twenty-two similar-looking players, the blondes tend to stand out (except, presumably, in Scandinavia). The colour catches the eye. So the scout notices the blonde player without understanding why. The club in question began to take this distortion into account when judging scouting reports.

Similarly, [Billy] Beane at the Oakland A’s noticed that baseball scouts had all sorts of ‘sight-based prejudices’. They were suspicious of fat guys or skinny little guys or ‘short right-handed pitchers’ and they overvalued handsome, strapping athletes of the type that Beane himself had been at age seventeen. Scouts look for players who look the part. Perhaps in soccer, blondes are thought to look more like superstars.

This taste for blondes is an example of the ‘availability heuristic': the more available a piece of information is to the memory, the more likely it is to influence your decision, even when the information is irrelevant. Blondes stick in the memory.”

Kuper and Szymanski don’t quite use the term ‘availability heuristic’ correctly here. This was an idea which was first proposed by psychologists Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman in 1973 in a paper entitled ‘Availability: A heuristic for judging frequency and probability’ where they conclude:

“Continued preoccupation with an outcome may increase its availability, and hence its perceived likelihood. People are preoccupied with highly desirable outcomes, such as winning the sweepstakes, or with highly undesirable outcomes, such as an airplane crash. Consequently, availability provides a mechanism by which occurrences of extreme utility (or disutility) may appear more likely than they actually are”

Therefore, the availability heuristic in this blonde player context would be more akin to a scout who was totally enamored with Stefan Effenberg and so the blonde player he’s looking at now, he perceives as having a high probability of also being a good player.

And in the context of the bearded cyclist, using the ‘availability heuristic’ would have been more in line with Jean-René Bernaudeau very much liking Luca Paolini as a rider. So fellow-bearded man Dan Craven, concludes Bernaudeau subconsciously, must be good.

But regardless of the use of the term ‘availability heuristic’, the point Kuper and Szymanski remains applicable to the case of Craven. On the face of it (so to speak), it seems Bernaudeau did end up offering Craven a contract based largely on the fact that he has a big beard. He’s also an excellent cyclist of course. But so are many other cyclists that Bernaudeau could have signed. Craven is an excellent cyclist with a big beard.

Would Friebe have bothered to take the time to seek out Craven for an interview at the Vuelta if he was, like the rest of the peloton, clean shaven?

There are three things about Craven that have piqued a lot of journalists’ interest” said Friebe when quizzed on the matter. “The beard, his nationality (and ethnicity – the only Namibian most people know is Frankie Fredericks, who’s black) and the fact that he’s moved up to the elite level so late in his career. When you speak to him, you realise he’s interesting for all sorts of other reasons, but I think these three are mainly what made him stand out to me and others at the Vuelta.”

Craven’s nationality is definitely a big draw, he is the first Namibian to have taken part in a Grand Tour. Perhaps there’s also a knock on affect from the Tour de France success of Chris Froome – another white African. However, the third interesting aspect that Friebe mentions, as is being argued here, could be construed as a direct consequence of the first interesting aspect, the beard.

Craven’s venture into the WorldTour, largely off the back of a memorable but ultimately, when it comes to cycling, useless physical feature, is perhaps the first venture of its kind. Given that it has already been rather successful, it may not be the last time we see a rider with an unusual and distinctive peculiarity wriggle their way into the top tier of the sport.

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Vuelta a Espana

Morbid Curiosity and the Redemption of Chris Froome

11 Sep , 2014  

The This Week in Cycling History podcast began as exactly that. I attempted to find three stories for each show, from any year in cycling’s past, but the stories needed to have taken place in the week of the year in which we were currently in. Simple enough. But one winter of research was enough to turn me away from this idea. It was just too bloody hard to find stuff that happened in cycling over the winter months! There’s only so much track cycling a guy can wade through.

These days, thankfully, the stories are plucked from any time throughout the year although they tend to maintain some kind of relevance to whatever race is currently going on. But that one winter of desperate searches for something, anything, that happened, due to the complete lack of racing, inadvertently led me to writing about rather a lot of rider deaths.

Fausto Coppi, Jacques Anquetil, Gerrie Knetemann, Charly Gaul, Lucien Petit-Breton… all died during the winter months when the racing calendar was as sparse as it gets. So they provided plenty of opportunity for telling tales for the show, unfortunately, tales of tragedy,

But since then, after the show moved to a more loose rule on the timetable of historical stories, I find myself constantly drawn to the tales of tragedy even though I have carte blanche now and can steer clear if I really wanted to. This week’s grievous character is due to be a French rider named Gerard Saint who died in 1960 in a car crash and at just 25 years of age, was all set to become the next Jacques Anquetil.

The tragic figure of Gerard Saint

I’m reminded of many occasions when my co-host John would move us from one segment to another alluding to how grim the show has been so far, and how it’s about to get that bit grimmer with the next segment.

Just looking through my show notes now and I have written under the Gerard Saint story “It is human nature to lean toward the tragic stories (or is it just my nature? What does this say about me?)”.

For technical reasons (AKA Skype acting the bollocks), myself and John had to postpone recording the show which left me with a morning free to catch up on some reading. First up was an article I had saved and was looking forward to which was one that appeared on Cycling News during the week, written by Daniel Friebe about the late Frank Vandenbroucke and his performance in the 1999 Vuelta a Espana.

Unsurprisingly, it was an excellent read, a standard we’ve come to expect from Friebe. But it struck me that the articles of his that I have most enjoyed have been about truly tragic characters of cycling, Vandenbroucke himself, his once team-mate Phillipe Gaumont and an utterly outstanding bit of writing on Iljo Keisse, who is of course still living but has been seemingly followed around his entire life by woe and hardship.

I mentioned to Friebe that this was the case, that his best articles are all on the morbid side. He replied with exactly the phrase that I had set aside in my notes as a talking point: “what does that say about me?” he said.

Well it’s clear I’m not alone in my propensity for seeking out such stories, but why?

Let’s move a step back from stories of death and move to the less moribund topic of sporting downfall. Again, this is a topic I tend to focus on heavily in the This Week in Cycling History shows. Take the career of Eddy Merckx as an example. At a rough guess I would say that Merckx makes an appearance as the main character in a segment in one out of every five shows. That’s at least 15 Eddy Merckx stories over the years of the show. I can’t think of one occasion where I wrote about a story of triumph for Eddy Merckx.

There was always a tragic angle – when he was punched in the kidneys in 1975, when he was thrown off the Giro at Savona in 1969, when he was stripped of victory at the 1973 Tour of Lombardy or any number of stories of one of his rivals whose careers he ruined as a by-product of being so dominant.

I was going to ask John, if this bent toward the woeful rather than the cheerful is just human nature. But I already know the answer to my loaded question. It IS human nature to take an interest in these things.

How interesting is it, really, to talk to a guy who has just won a race? How does it feel to have crossed the line first? How did you go about preparing for this victory? How much of this victory do you owe to your team-mates? We can guess the answers before we hear them. The interview of a winner is rarely interesting because we’ve heard it all before. This is because, by and large, there is only one way to win. Prepare well, stay focused, be one of the strongest in the race and don’t do anything stupid. OK, there are many ways to win, but they are all variations on the same theme, a theme with which we must all be slightly bored, if only as an inevitable consequence of watching so much cycling.

But while there is only one way to stay focused (you just do it), there are endless ways to lose focus. For every winner who didn’t do anything stupid throughout the day, there are dozens of guys who probably did something wrong which contributed to their downfall. Winning is a difficult task, but a simple compound of ingredients. Losing is a less tangible, whispish affair which can take its ingredients from anyone, any place or anything. Something which is absolutely useless to the recipe of success, can be the main, indigestible ingredient in a tale of loss and sorrow.

This is why the post-stage interrogations of the guys who were beaten on the day are invariably more interesting and provide the interviewers with greater ammunition for any subsequent stories. I recall Mark Cavendish once bemoaning the fact that it was only when he lost that he made headlines. Winning had become expected and bland, people only became intrigued when he failed. Why did you fail Mark? What went wrong? We already know how he wins, we want to know of his possible weakness and any flaw which might be slowly becoming apparent in his abilities. The vulturistic cycling fan, ready to feed on another tragic carcass.

Chris Froome winning

This idea, to bring us into more contemporary matters, is why the 2014 Vuelta has been good for Chris Froome. Well, perhaps not physically good for Froome himself, not yet anyway, but good for the way in which fans will view him in the remainder of this race and in races to come.

Having watched the 2013 Tour de France ( and indeed the 2012 edition, in which it seemed Froome could have won had he not been held back by his team), seeing Froome ascend Mont Ventoux the way he did and also smoke his rivals in the time trial, it would have been easy to think that the Tour winner’s identity for the next four or five years was a done deal. Nobody was gonna beat this guy. Team Sky are unpopular enough as a team and Froome, seemingly devoid of an engaging personality was not finding it easy to endear himself to a wider audience. Especially considering how dominant his performance had been.

Another winner, another monotonous tale of glory.

This is rather flippant of course. Every winner has some smidge of a story worth telling, but again, the details of how a win is achieved just isn’t going to blow our skirts up.

Froome crashed out of this year’s Tour de France before the race even reached the cobbles over which he was expected to struggle. Thus we were robbed of seeing how he would have fared against Alberto Contador and Vincenzo Nibali. But this was not enough to change the general view of Froome as the unbeatable machine we had seen at the 2013 Tour de France. He needed to be defeated on the road. Beaten by racing.

And this is what we have seen in this edition of the Vuelta. Froome has struggled, he’s shown that he is not indefatigable. Contador, Valverde and Rodriguez have been duking it out up front while Froome has ridden to his limits, alone, behind. Now we have seen him suffer, we’ve seen him have hurt done on to him as he has done on to others. We’re now ready to cheer him on. He might still win this Vuelta, and if he does it will be a victory that more people can get on board with. Now he has a story riddled with suffering, a story which might end in victory, but it is now also a story of loss and a story of pain. People want to hear these stories because ‘people’ in general don’t win the Tour de France, but us people DO suffer loss and pain, so we empathise.

But it’s not just about empathy. For to return to where we began, with a fascination in the fatal stories that permeate cycling, I obviously can have no empathy with this. But there is a link between the two themes of death and sporting loss and it is simply a darker tone to a story, a shadow cast across the sunshine features which never seem to have any depth.

I don’t think it’s unusual to be drawn to these stories of demise in life and in sport. They’re fascinating and arresting in a way that tales of glory can rarely be. It’s why there are more books on Tom Simpson than on Robert Millar, why there are always headlines when a doping story breaks, why there have been such a glut of books and films on the fall of Lance Armstrong and it’s why, despite the fact we could end up with a similar outcome, the 2014 Vuelta a Espana is a far superior race to the 2013 Tour de France.

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Vuelta a Espana

Juan José Cobo – A shadow of a man

26 Sep , 2012  

Whenever a rider wins the Tour de France, after the initial fanfare has abated, the celebrations have fizzled out and the winter starts to bite, the successful cyclist will begin to plan out his training regime and start working towards next year’s goal – winning the Tour de France again.

The same is not true of cycling’s other two Grand Tours, the Giro d’Italia and the Vuelta a Espana. In recent years, the cream of the crop of G.C. riders tend to steer clear of the Giro as received wisdom suggests it does not provide the preparation required to tackle the Tour de France a month later. Consequently, the Giro is contested largely by riders who are not their team’s best G.C. rider along with the usual smattering of Italian favourites seeking glory on home soil.

The Vuelta however tends to attract a slightly different crowd. This is due to its position on the calendar, coming as it does after the Tour de France and relatively late in the season. The Vuelta can be a race of redemption for riders who have under-performed throughout the year. It can also be a race of rehabilitation as riders who missed the Tour due to injury use the Spanish Grand Tour as a platform for their comeback. While, like the Giro, it also holds host to the local boys eager to please their home fans.

Robert Gesink crashed out of the Tour and used the Vuelta to try and salvage his season

For example, the 2012 Vuelta saw an appearance from Chris Froome, who was aiming to prove he had what it took to be team leader after shepherding Bradley Wiggins to Tour glory. Robert Gesink was present having crashed and abandoned the Tour de France in July. While we also witnessed the successful Grand Tour comeback of Alberto Contador as he returned from his ‘two year’ suspension.

The ad hoc nature of riders appearing at the Vuelta means that regularly the reigning champion does not turn up to defend his crown. This in turn means that there are very few riders who have won back to back Vueltas a Espana, five to be exact – Gustaaf Deloor, Julian Berrendero, Tony Rominger, Alex Zulle and Roberto Heras. Compare this to the Tour where 12 riders have managed to successfully defend their winner’s jersey.

Whenever a rider does decide to return to Spain the year after they’ve won the Vuelta, although only five have triumphed, the efforts have been far from terrible. Of all the riders who rode the Vuelta the year after they won it, and finished the race (that’s 22 riders), none of them finished outside the top 20 overall…until this year.

Juan José Cobo won the 2011 Vuelta a Espana after a dominant stage winning display on the mountain top finish of the Angliru where he finished 48 seconds ahead of Chris Froome who he would beat into Madrid by a mere 13 seconds. A couple of weeks later, Cobo finished ninth at the Memorial Marco Pantani, but since then he has failed to finish in the top 10 of any race, or indeed any stage of any race (apart from a 10th place at the national time trial championships). Cobo took to the startline of this year’s Vuelta but could only muster a lowly 67th position overall, the worst defence in the history of the race. So what went wrong?

By all accounts Cobo is a mentally fragile character who at times can suffer from an acute lack of confidence. Upon winning the 2011 Vuelta he admitted to suffering from depression. In a recent article in Pro Cycling Magazine, Cobo himself highlighted this problem:

I remember when I won the Tour of the Basque Country in 2007, the year after, I messed up completely. I was just too blocked to be able to do anything. I was too scared of failing. [At the time, the team announced that Cobo had been pulled from the race because of flu.] But I don’t want to be scared of failing. The physiological aspect of racing, in my case, is more important than the physical side.

This time in the Vuelta, I should be okay, as long as I do things day by day. Maybe there will be a team-mate who’s going better than me. In any case, just because you win one year shouldn’t mean people automatically think you’ll win the next. Should it?

Alejandro Valverde - Cobo's dominant team leader

In the same article it is revealed that Cobo considered quitting cycling halfway through 2011 to become an electrician. What may also have added to Cobo’s poor performance at the recent Vuelta was the presence of team figurehead Alejandro Valverde who returned from a doping suspension earlier this year and like Cobo, is also a former Vuelta winner. Movistar team boss Eusebio Unzue declared the following before this year’s edition:


We will start with Juanjo Cobo as team leader. Last year, he proved he can fight for a Grand Tour as he beat a strong rider like Froome, who could have been the Tour winner this season. After that, there’s a question mark over Alejandro, who already has a huge season schedule on his legs, but his willingness and the brilliance he always brings to the squad makes us sure he will be making another effort to fight for a stage victory, to say the least.

The fact that Unzue was only willing to ‘start’ with Cobo as leader may have diminished his confidence somewhat – a confidence which was apparently already lacking. But perhaps being considered a leader at all may have also adversely affected Cobo’s mental state. In 2011 his team-mates included former Tour winner Carlos Sastre and double Vuelta winner Denis Menchov. Thus, the man they call the Bison was expected to be a domestqiue and nothing more, thereby avoiding any pressure in the build-up to the race.

However, the possibility that Cobo was lacking more than just confidence this year has also been mooted. Jean-Francois Bernard spoke out in l’Équipe about his lack of belief in Cobo’s Vuelta winning performance in 2011:

This demonstration makes me neither hot nor cold. It even leaves me completely perplexed. I do not believe at all in his sincerity. We do not know where [this performance] comes from, and especially from where he has returned. Apart from the Tour of Burgos (in early August) where he finished third overall, he did not exist until then! In Angliru nobody could follow him… [well] Pantani could have. Or a Contador in top shape. No, really, it’s a little too much.

If there’s a whiff of incredibility about Cobo’s Grand Tour win, it is only worsened by the fact that he was a prominent member of the Saunier Duval team managed by Mauro Gianetti which withdrew from the Tour de France in 2008 after Riccardo Ricco tested positive for CERA. Another of his team-mates, Leonardo Piepoli later also tested positive.

So what next for Juan José Cobo? Well having recently finished on the podium of both the Vuelta and world road race championships, Movistar team leader Alejandro Valverde is still a force to be reckoned with and will be leader once again next year. This might suit Cobo just fine, to settle back into the super-domestique role which he has occupied for most of his career.

Riders who win the Tour de France tend to focus on the Tour de France, whereas riders who have won a Vuelta a Espana but have never managed to win a Tour de France tend to have a more complete and interesting palmarés than most Tour winners – Valverde, Alexander Vinokourov, Laurent Jalabert, Tony Rominger, Sean Kelly.

Cobo does not fall into this category, as his palmarés is one of the more modest of any Grand Tour winner with ‘only’ a Tour de France stage win and a Tour of the Basque Country title to keep his Vuelta winner’s trophy company. No, instead Cobo will likely fall into the cracks of the sports history which are currently occupied by the likes of Angel Casero and Aitor Gonzalez.

Like so many of cycling’s champions, due to his choice of teams and team managers, there will always be innuendo and question marks about Juan José Cobo. But he is a Grand Tour winner and will be content with what he has managed to achieve, especially given he has dealt with depression throughout the most testing time in his career.

I’ve passed through some bad moments the past few months, but now I see things differently. You realise that hard work and sacrifice are worth it – this win makes up for the suffering that I’ve gone through on the bike….I came to the Vuelta to help Carlos Sastre and Denis Menchov and three weeks later, I’m here to talk about winning the Tour of Spain, it’s unbelievable!

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Tour de France,Uncategorized,Vuelta a Espana

Nicolas Roche’s learning curve

7 Sep , 2012  

A leader of a cycling team must have a strong personality, a will to win and the ability to get results. Some leaders are the quiet type that like to lead by example, think Carlos Sastre, while others are more vocal but still have no problem getting the job done, Mark Cavendish springs to mind. The leader who is vocal and yet can’t back up his words with performances will inevitably lose the trust of his team-mates and will shortly thereafter no longer deserve the status of leader at all.

‘Leadership and learning are indispensable to one another’ said a great U.S. leader of Irish descent. A current leader of more established Irish descent could have done with listening to these words of John F. Kennedy for he has now come to the end of the road as leader of his cycling team.

Nicolas Roche is a good cyclist who has the potential to win many races. But in the four years he has now spent with the French AG2R-La Mondiale team he has won only two of them, the Irish national road race championships in 2009 and a stage of the inaugural Tour of Beijing last year. As a rider who has unabating aspirations to reach the top 10 in the general classification of Grand Tours, you would also expect Roche to be a challenger in minor stage races but he is yet to win a stage race of any description since he turned professional.

Roche winning his first race for over two years at the 2011 Tour of Beijing

His blinkered focus on attaining a top 10 of the Tour de France has blighted his career so far. He spends all year gaining fitness and honing his form for the Tour and when he gets there he seems to constantly hover around the G.C. places which make him too much of a risk for the other leaders to let into a breakaway and yet there are always 10 or more better riders than him preventing him from clinging on to a top 10 place overall.

But Roche’s decision to tie himself up in this situation is not due to naivety or a basic lack of knowledge of how stage races work. Roche knows these things and acknowledges them and yet he chooses to willingly enter stage race oblivion anyway. Writing in his daily Vuelta diary in the Irish Independent, he said the following:

Although my ultimate goal for the team is to win a stage, I don’t want to give up my high G.C. position to do so, even if it would make the task a bit easier. Some riders who ride big three-week Tours with the sole aim of winning a stage lose time on purpose on certain days, sparing their energy for an all-out assault on whatever stage they feel they have a chance to win. But I can’t do that.

I prefer to continue to ride hard for the overall classification and try to go for a stage at the same time. I realise the fact that I’m not too far down on the race leader means I won’t be given much rope, but that’s the way I won a stage in Beijing last year and I will try to do the same here.

Roche talks about leadership, he wants to maintain his high position and win a stage. Admirable sure, but over-ambitious? Almost certainly.

The very next day, Roche writes the following in his Vuelta diary:

I tried to get across to the move a few times on the climb but every time I moved I was nailed by one of the Rabobank duo of Laurens ten Dam (eighth) or Robert Gesink (sixth), who were afraid I would gain enough time to overtake them in the overall standings.

When I saw that we had left a couple of guys, like fifth-placed Daniel Moreno, behind I tried to attack but, once again, the Rabobank guys chased me down so I resigned myself to just riding with them for the rest of the climb. That’s the difference between me and Contador. When I attack, Gesink is able to follow me. When Contador attacks nobody is able to follow him.

Leadership and learning may be indispensable to one another, but Roche the leader just isn’t learning. He knows why he’s not being afforded chances to win stages, he has explained why in a national newspaper. These are his own words but he is choosing not to learn from them.

Alberto Contador - Roche's new leader

Despite the fact that next year he will be part of a team which is led by multiple Grand Tour winner Alberto Contador, Roche announced on Irish radio recently that he still harbours hopes of a stage win in next year’s Tour de France while riding in tandem with the Spaniard to a high G.C. place.

Perhaps Roche is unaware of just how difficult that task actually is. Has he ever sat down and wondered how many other riders have been capable of winning a stage of the Tour de France while they occupy a spot in the top 10 overall? Does he realise what a monumental challenge this actually is?

Let’s rule out the opening week of the Tour, where the race hasn’t hit the mountains yet and the G.C hasn’t yet taken shape. Before the 2008 Tour, there were also time bonuses available which meant that sprinters like Mario Cipollini and Robbie McEwen often won stages while in the top 10 on G.C.

Tyler Hamilton winning Stage 16 of the 2003 Tour while in 7th place overall.

But ignoring these opening exchanges between the sprinters and getting to the hard grind of getting over mountains in the second and third week of the Tour – in the past ten years there are eight riders who have achieved this feat. All bar one of these eight riders have finished on the podium of a Grand Tour. The eight are – Andy Schleck, Joaquin Rodriguez, Alberto Contador, Frank Schleck, Carlos Sastre, Michael Rasmussen, Alexander Vinokourov, Lance Armstrong and Tyler Hamilton.

All of these riders, for one reason or another, were operating on another level to the one which Roche is on right now. The identities of these riders also show that stage winning opportunities for top 10 riders are not dished out easily and it takes exceptional climbing talent to pull it off. Nicolas Roche is not an exceptionally talented climber.

A major reason for Roche’s fixation on achieving a Tour de France top 10, and is also the main reason why he is also fixated on it at the Vuelta, is UCI World Tour points. These precious points go a long way towards guaranteeing your team the top Pro Team status for the following year.

The accumulation of points has been a constant battle for Roche’s AG2R-La Mondiale team for the past number of years. So much so that last year they signed a bunch of misfits from various countries who happened to have points which helped with their application for Pro Team status. It is a flaw in the system that points belong to the rider rather than the team. Thus, the team management bought points rather than earned them which, ironically enough, has perhaps contributed to a disjointed sqaud of riders which has made it even harder to earn points this year.

It seems unnecessary for Roche to be chasing points at the Vuelta given that he is moving to Saxo Bank-Tinkoff next year where Contador will likely be riding around as the new Vuelta champion along with all the points the team need. But not if the UCI have their way for they are attempting to apply a rule which stops riders returning from a ban from earning any points for two years thereafter. It remains to be seen whether this will be enforceable or not. In the meantime, Roche is desperatley hanging on to his 26 points which his 12th place at the Vuelta currently gives him.

He said this in his most recent Vuelta diary:

I’m 12th overall now and pretty p****d off. The only chance I have of breaking back into the top 10 is on the second last stage on Saturday, which finishes up the savagely steep climb to Bola de Mundo. Anything can happen but I’m two minutes and 11 seconds behind 10th-placed Intxausti now and that’s a lot.

It is a quirk of evolution that Roche is pissed off about being in 12th and not in 10th. Humans find pleasure and comfort in multiples of ten because we have ten fingers and ten toes. If Roche was a robot, he’d feel more at home sitting in 16th place overall.

The 10th place he is so focused on would earn him and his new team 38 UCI points. But why not focus on winning races like the Tour de Romandie or the Volta a Catalunya which would give him 100 points? Or, as the UCI have placed so much pressure on riders to gain points, why not focus on finishing fourth in the Tour of Poland instead? This would give him 40 points and would be equally as memorable as a 10th place at the Vuelta.

Either way, for the first time in three years, Roche will soon no longer be a leader. Maybe this is a good thing. He was dispensing with any learning to be gained from being a leader of his team. Perhaps now he will learn more and win more without the heavy burden which leadership bestows.

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Giro d'Italia,Tour de France,Tour of Romandie,Vuelta a Espana

A home Tour de France stage win – but not in France

30 Aug , 2012  

A stage win in the Tour de France can make a rider’s career. It will boost their salary, increase their marketability and make them a more wanted man. A stage win in the Tour de France achieved by a Frenchman is on another level again. When Thomas Voeckler or Pierre Rolland win a stage of the Tour, almost the entire edition of L’Équipe the following day is written in homage to their victory. A win in France, in the Tour de France, by a man from France is something very special indeed.

But the Tour de France hasn’t always been confined France itself. Just this year the great race got underway in Liége and as recently as 2010 it visited Belgium and Holland. If we include the principalities of Andorra and Monaco, the Tour de France has visited 11 different foreign lands in its history. This means that it is not just French riders who have the opportunity to ride, and possibly win, a stage of the Tour de France on home soil.

It is a traditional spectacle in cycling that when any race skirts the home region or passes through the home town of a rider in the peloton, that we see that rider attempt to make it in to the day’s breakaway. The rider wants to show himself in front of his own kin and provide his home support with a display of strength and showmanship.

David Millar earned the polka-dot jersey having broken clear of the peloton when the Tour visited London in 2007

When the Tour de France visits another country, the effect is the same, but it is an entire nationality of riders who yearn to be noticed and strive for success in their homeland.

The Tour de France began in Dublin in 1998 but it came too late for Ireland’s greatest cyclists to experience the world’s biggest race visiting their home country. Stephen Roche and Sean Kelly had both retired several years earlier and sadly there were to be no Irish riders at all in the race. Upon hearing the confirmation that Dublin had been awarded the Grand Départ, Kelly had this to say:

The Tour coming here is a marvellous boost for the sport and the industry. If anyone mentioned it a few years ago I would have laughed at the idea. However, my one regret is that there are no Irish riders competing at the top level now, so we will not have anyone taking part…It would have been great for it to come here when Stephen and I were competing, but that just didn’t happen.

Kelly’s sentiments were echoed by Roche:

It is wonderful news. But it is a little disappointing there will be no Irish competitors at the highest level. It’s a pity the Federation of Irish Cyclists did not build on the success Sean and I achieved but now you could say they have a second chance.

Chris Boardman won the prologue in Dublin 1998

With no Irish riders in the Tour there was obviously no Irish stage winners in 1998. However, of the entire peloton, the rider born within the closest distance to Dublin won the prologue around the city centre – Chris Boardman.

The time trial specialist from the Wirral also won the prologue on his Tour debut in 1994, a year in which the Tour did visit Great Britain. Although Boardman won the stage and took the yellow jersey, and Sean Yates also wore yellow that year, neither rider won a stage on home soil. But over the years, there have been plenty of riders that have.

The most recent rider to achieve this distinction is Gert Steegmans who won Stage Two of the 2007 edition when he usurped Tom Boonen, who he was tasked with leading out, to take the bunch sprint in Ghent.

Gert Steegmans is the most recent winner of a stage of the Tour on home soil outside of France

In total, there have been 27 riders who have won a stage of the Tour de France on home soil outside of France. Of those 27, there are 14 Belgians, five Italians, three Swiss, three Spanish and two Dutchmen. There are some big names on the list – Fausto Coppi, Eddy Merckx, Rik van Looy, Joop Zoetemelk. And there are some lesser known names too – Jose Nazabel Mimendia, Bernard van de Kerckhoeve and Walter Diggelmann.

There are also four riders who have achieved this feat twice – Coppi (Aoste 1949, Sestriéres 1952), Van Looy (Jambes 1963, Liége 1965), Jan Raas (Leiden 1978, St. Willibrord 1978) and Freddy Maertens (Hasselt 1981, Brussels 1981).

It is also something which has been achieved by two brothers with Walter (Brussels 1978) and Eddy (Zolder 1981) making Mrs. Planckaert a very proud woman.

But perhaps the most interesting rider on the list is the one who got there first. Leo Amberg from Switzerland won Stage 5C of the 1937 Tour de France ahead of his compatriot Robert Zimmermann (no, not Bob Dylan) in a solo breakaway into Geneva.

Leo Amberg- One of only three riders to have won a home stage of the Giro and the Tour outside of Italy and France respectively.

As if winning a stage of the Tour de France in his home country of Switzerland wasn’t enough, Amberg repeated the trick in the Giro d’Italia the following year. Stage 18a of the 1938 Giro was exactly 100km raced from Varese to Locarno where Amberg again crossed the line solo, this time almost 10 minutes clear of everyone else.

And as if that wasn’t enough, Amberg won both of these Grand Tour stages on home Swiss soil while wearing the national champion’s jersey, having won the title in both 1937 and 1938.

Amberg can be forgiven for not completing an unprecedented hat-trick as the Vuelta a Espana, after two false starts interrupted by war, only really got going in 1945 at which point his career was winding down (although Amberg did find time to win a team time trial at the 1947 Tour of Romandie with team-mates Hugo Koblet and Walter Diggelmann – the only three Swiss riders who have won stages of the Tour de France in Switzerland).

In the proceeding years, the Vuelta, by far the most conservative of the three Grand Tours when it comes to crossing borders, has never entered into Switzerland anyway. However, Amberg did ride the Vuelta once in 1935, the first ever edition of the race, where he finished 13th overall and came third in the mountains competition. Amberg is also notable for being the first Swiss rider (and third rider ever) to complete all three of cycling’s Grand Tours.


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Dauphine,Doping,Giro d'Italia,Tour de France,Vuelta a Espana

Beware the wounded Schleck

17 Aug , 2012  

Which rider won the Tour de France in a year in which he did not even take part in the race?

The answer, unsurprisingly, involves a disqualification and a subsequent default winner. The answer is also going through the worst year in his career thus far as a cyclist. The answer is Andy Schleck.

Earlier this year, Alberto Contador was banned and stripped of several victories including the 2010 Tour de France in which Schleck finished second. As such, in May of this year, Schleck was officially awarded the yellow jersey as winner of the 2010 Tour. So far this has been his only victory this year.

Schleck hasn’t finished in the top 20 of any race (or on any stage of any race) in 2012. A crash in the time trial of the Criterium du Dauphine in June has meant he hasn’t raced since. Initially, the injury was not thought to be too serious as the Luxembourger continued in the week long race. But eventually the pain became too much and he abandoned two days later.

Andy Schleck after his crash in the Criterium du Dauphine

It soon became apparent that he had a fracture in his sacrum which was causing major spinal problems. Schleck was forced to withdraw from participating in this year’s Tour de France and instead turned his focus to regaining full fitness for the Vuelta.

But race after race has gone by where Schleck has not been sufficiently recovered from his injuries to take to the startline. He was named as part of the Luxembourg Olympic team but officially withdrew before the games began. He was on the provisional startlist for the upcoming Vuelta a Espana but will now not be present this weekend. And his latest disappointment will be chalking the US Pro Cycling Challenge off his racing calendar as he is still suffering from back pain due to the injuries suffered in that Dauphiné time trial.

Andy's brother Frank tested positive at this year's Tour de France

Dealing with an injury which has been so devastating to his racing plans would be mentally draining at any stage in Schleck’s career, but his problems have been compounded by his brother Frank testing positive for a banned diuretic during the Tour which meant a bad year immediately got unimaginably worse. The upheavel and general mismanagement of his Radioshack-Nissan team has also been a source of strife and negativity for Schleck this season.

Jan Ullrich was forced to sit out the Grand Tours in 2002

The fact that Andy Schleck will not ride the Vuelta means that he won’t have ridden any Grand Tour this year. In the past 50 years, this has only happened to a former Tour winner on four occasions.

The most recent Tour winner to miss out on riding a Grand Tour all year was Jan Ullrich in 2002. He tested positive for an amphetamine before the Tour, was fired by his team and was banned for six months. Before Ullrich, in 1988 Stephen Roche had one of the worst years ever experienced by the reigning world champion as he missed most of the season due to a knee injury. Prior to that, in the wake of his maiden Tour victory in 1986, Greg LeMond was shot in a hunting accident and almost died. And finally, double Tour winner Laurent Fignon failed to start a Grand Tour in 1985 as, similarly to Roche, he suffered from a bad knee injury.

In a recent interview, Alberto Contador suggested having to deal with his ‘two year ban’, being stripped of his victories and coping with the protracted legal process has made him stronger:

The whole last two years has been hard because they say everything about me without any limit. Luckily, I have my family and my friends. Thanks to them I did not need to seek help from any professional. They are the ones who have given me encouragement.

It is true that in some ways the illusion that I had eight years ago is gone. It has made me grow up and see cycling as a part of my life, but not my whole life. I have faced difficult situations which will help deal with stressful situations in the future.

Those six months have been difficult and I’ll remember them forever.

While dealing with a ban for doping is rather different than dealing with a debilitating injury, both situations provide mental and physical challenges and to overcome them require a steady support structure and a steely determination. The Schlecks, who clearly rely on each other emotionally and tactically, are now faced with both nightmare scenarios.

Greg LeMond proved that returning to the top after serious injury is possible

LeMond returned from his near death experience and won two more Tours de France and another rainbow jersey. Fignon returned and won Milan San Remo twice and the Giro d’Italia. Jan Ullrich reappeared at the Tour in 2003 and came closer than anyone ever did to beating Lance Armstrong.

On the other end of the scale however, Roche was never the same after his horrific year in 1988. He won races upon his return, including a Tour stage in 1992, but would never again challenge for the overall victory in the major races.

It remains to be seen how well Andy Schleck will cope upon returning from his own annus horriblis. He has been criticised constantly over the years for his meek racing style and a lack of conviction that riders like Contador have no shortage of.

The double setback of his spinal injury and his brother’s positive test will stretch Schleck’s resolve further than any Grand Tour ever could. Depending on how he deals with this stress and all of the forthcoming challenges will shape the rider we will see return in the coming months and years

One thing should not be forgotten, Andy Schleck is a bloody good bike rider. He’s finished on the podium of the biggest race in the world three times and he has won Liége-Bastogne-Liége in imperious fashion. If Schleck can recover from these setbacks, next year he will have a point to prove and he will most certainly not want to be remembered simply as the guy who won the Tour in the year he didn’t even ride it.


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