May 25, 2014

Simple Skimishes and Who Will Win the Giro

Stages 14 and 15 of the Giro are in the books. And leader Rigoberto Uran (Omega Pharma-QuickStep) has successfully defended his pink jersey going into the rest day. At the same time, there is reason to worry with four big mountain stages remaining, starting with Tuesday's insane climbing spectacle up the Gavia, Stelvio and Val Martello. Below is a look at the GC race, in two parts. Part 1 is rankings of the two climbing stages this weekend. Part 2 is who is most likely to win the race overall (hint, Uran is the pick though the rest of the race will reshuffle). The riders in question here are the 10 best non-domestique riders on GC after Stage 15 (Uran, Evans, Majka, Aru, Quintana, Pozzovivo, Kelderman, Rolland, Kiserlovski, Hesjedal as no other non-domestiques other than the ancient and and fading Basso are both in the top 15 and on one of the World Tour teams)

Weekend Climbers Rankings (number in parenthesis is time lost to top climber)

Fabio Aru, Astana (0, top climber) - A stage win and 4th amongst the GC contenders on the other stage. Aru is now a top contender if he can keep this form up.

Pierre Rolland, Europcar (5") - One of his energy wasting attacks actually worked on Stage 14 and he then was amongst the leaders again on Stage 15. He really needs some schooling in cycling tactics and to learn how to time trial at least a little bit (it is a talent but Rolland seems like he has never worked on it at all sometimes).

Nairo Quintana, Movistar (18") - Seems to be getting over his injuries and illness. Still, while he has looked better the last two days, he doesn't seem to have form like last year's Tour de France.

Ryder Hesjedal, Garmin-Sharp (52") - The 2012 winner lost a bunch of time on both time trials (over 3 minutes in both the Team Time Trial after the Dan Martin crash and on the individual time trial), but he has looked very good climbing, especially when he worked with Rolland's long range move on Stage 14.

Rafal Majka, Tinkoff-Saxo (1'01") - Majka has done a good job of limiting his losses. It just seems he has no legs to attack at all from the GC group.

Rigoberto Uran, Omega Pharma-Quick Step (1'03") - Uran has, like Majka done well limiting his losses. Given the time trial upcoming and Uran's climbing chops, he seems to be saving himself for Stage 16 and the Mountain Individual Time Trial on Stage 19.

Dominico Pozzovivo, AG2R La Mondiale (1'13") - Pozzovivo had looked like the best climber in the race until he inexplicably popped on Stage 15. Some were saying he was looking like the favorite before that. If he finds that form for Stage 16, who knows.

Wilco Kelderman, Belkin (1'17") - Kelderman isn't going to win. He isn't going to contend. But he is only 23 and he is going to do well in the future. Leading the GC team is a good experience for him here. It would help if top lieutenant Steven Kruiswijk (one of the better climbing domestiques in this race) hadn't crashed out.

Cadel Evans, BMC (1'29") - As expected, Evans is unable to climb like he once did. He will fight for the podium (likely unsuccessfully) in the mountains ahead.

Robert Kiserlovski, Trek (2'03") - The results already confirm the pedigree that he is the weakest of the GC contenders. Only good positioning, a stronger team time trial and a decent if not great individual time trial are keeping him on this list.

GC Power Rankings going forward (in order of most likely to win the race)

Uran - He is the leader and he gave up only a minute to Aru over the weekend. If he repeats that performance and aces the time trial again, he wins the race.

Aru - After the big attack today, Aru has emerged as the biggest competition for Uran as he looks capable of taking time on the remaining mountaintop finishes. It all depends on the rest day and how he and others recover. I still think he has a bad day in him (not an explosion, but something like Pozzovivo's Stage 15 time loss).

Quintana - The most talented, but I think he is weakened by his injuries and lacks the form needed to make up big time without help (If Quintana catches Uran on GC, it is likely he drags Majka or Aru with him and finishes second anyway).

Pozzovivo - The most explosive climber with Quintana not at 100%, this gives him a chance. The problem is the time loss on Stage 15. That is a troubling sign if not for the first day after the rest day, then for the other big mountain stages at the end of the week.

Majka - Remember that this is most likely to win. Majka is probably the rider most likely to finish on the podium other than Uran at this point, but I don't think he has the attacking ability needed to actually take the time necessary to win this race.

Rolland - Might have the best form in the field. Still, he wastes energy on longer range attacks that are doomed and he will hemorrhage time on the TT, even with it being a climbing TT.

Evans - This became a very long shot the moment he was dusted by Uran in the time trial. At this point most of the GC men do everything Evans does equally or better with the exception of positioning on flat stages (in other words Evans needs another pile up on Stage 17 to get him clear).

Kelderman - The experience will be good. Not quite ready yet though there is talent there.

Hesjedal - Too far behind and too much of a grinder to make up nearly 7 minutes. Even when he won two years ago, he did so without attacking on any stage until the final climb up the Stelvio (and that was a desperate charge to keep Thomas de Gendt from stealing the race for himself and Joaquin Rodriguez).

Kiserlovski - Read what I wrote about him above. He will likely finish at the back end of the top 10 because of a total lack of other contenders (all of them are already crashed out) unless he has a total implosion (possible on the Val Martello or Zoncolan stage).

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May 22, 2014

A Tale of Two Colombians

Entering this Giro d'Italia, all of the media hype was about Nairo Quintana (Movistar). In truth, this was with good reason. Quintana has shown incredible climbing ability since moving up to the World Tour two seasons ago and he is a good time trialer as shown by his second place in the time trial to win the Tour of the Basque County (aka Vuelta al ciclista al Pais Vasco). Combine his obvious talent with his second place in the Tour de France a year ago and Quintana was a deserving favorite.

Entering under the radar for some reason, Rigoberto Uran (Omega Pharma-QuickStep) should have been mentioned with Quintana. Uran (pictured at right in his biggest moment before his stage 12 time trial victory, his silver medal performance in the Olympic Road Race in London) after all has a much better overall palmares. He was second in the Giro last year when he didn't enter as team leader (similar to Quintana who was not the leader for Movistar at the Tour de France until near the midway point of the race). He also has a better Grand Tour record, especially at the Giro where he has finished 7th and 2nd the last two years while finetuning his form for the race (Quintana has never raced the Giro and therefore has had to peak physically at a different time than he ever has this season).

Even looking at this season, it is a wonder why Uran wasn't mentioned as a potential favorite. It has been well known that Uran has been targeting the Giro and normally when the runner up of a race the previous year targets the race and the defending champion doesn't come to defend (good luck to Vincenzo Nibali in the Tour de France), he enters one of the favorites. Of course Uran had very little in the way of results this year as he worked on behalf of Michael Kwiatkowski for much of the early season including at Tirreno-Adriatico, one of the few times all season where both Giro and Tour contenders get together for a race with all in similar form. As a result, Uran has been able to fly under the radar and work his way into his Giro while the heavily hyped Quintana has struggled with expectations that are near absurd.

Even now, after Uran's stunning stage 12 time trial victory, much of the talk is about how Quintana is struggling. Even now, with Uran leading the Giro and having an advantage of over 3 minutes over 6th place Quintana, the talk in the comment sections on major cycling sites like Cycling News and Podium Cafe is that Quintana is the only one who can catch Uran (like Cadel Evans, Rafal Majka, Dominico Pozzovivo and Wilco Kelderman are chopped liver). And it goes on and on and on with the cycling world eager to anoint Quintana because he is the next big thing and eager to bypass his pioneering countryman Uran who is still only 27 and entering his prime now.

No matter what happens from here out in this Giro, it should be evident that Uran is a possible Grand Tour winning talent. Whether it is this Giro or somewhere else later down the line, he is likely to win one of these. He probably shouldn't be flying under the radar given that he is the leader, but he will probably continue to do so, just as he has along the way to all of his big results where he was never tipped to do quite as well as he has actually done.

As for Quintana, his time is coming. This Giro is turning into a learning experience on how to lead a team in a Grand Tour. It is also turning into a Giro of perseverance as he struggles with injury and allergy. And if he is discouraged, he can look up to his countryman Uran who has handled everything well in this Giro and in 3 Giros running now, having gotten better each time. And if his struggles in this race are only injury and allergy thus far, he can go win the Vuelta later this year.

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May 21, 2014

The Giro Really Begins Now

Yes, there have been some skirmishes thus far, but the design of the course means the Giro d'Italia really begins with the Stage 12 time trial. That would be today (unless you, like me, live in the Pacific timezone in which case this will post when the time trial is still tomorrow).

So today we look at the stage left that will decide the Giro d'Italia. Also as a reminder, US tv coverage is on Bein Sport and there is the usual array of pirated links from various places in Europe at steephill.tv or cyclingfans.com.

Stage 12
What is it? 41.9 km time trial
Why does it matter? Time trials are a chance to gain huge time. Given that many in the top 10 are no better than average at the discipline and GC leader Cadel Evans was a very good time trialer in his younger years but has struggled recently, this stage is anybody's guess. In addition, there is a total lack of time trial specialists in the race at all at this point, meaning there could be a surprise winner.
Possible time gaps: If Evans really is in as good a form as he has shown, he could gain 1-2 minutes on most of the rest of the GC men and even more on some of the bad time trialers. Beyond Evans, 7th place Wilco Kelderman is very good against the clock, having won last year's Tour of Denmark entirely because of his time trial abilities. There is a decent chance Kelderman will be in the top 3 after this stage.

Stage 14
What is it? Mountains. 3 of them with a summit finish. While none are extraordinarily difficult, having them all back to back to back will hurt.
Why does it matter? This is the first true mountain test. The big mountain stage last weekend was nice, but it was also the easier category 1 climb in the entire race with many of the category 2 climbs being more difficult.
Possible time gaps: Don't expect large time gaps here. Everyone in the favorites group will mark each other. Still, expect someone to lose the Giro on this day, either by crash on a descent, lack of legs, hunger bonk or tactical error. There will be one man who loses 15 minutes on this day from the GC contenders.

Stage 15
What is it? A long drag before one giant climb. This stage looks a lot like the Mont Ventoux stage of last year's Tour de France that had nothing until the massive Ventoux at the end.
Why does it matter? It is a major chance to gain back time or put the race away. The climb to Montecampione is difficult. 19 kms at 7.6% will put the hurt on the peloton no doubt.
Possible time gaps: 30 seconds to a minute are easy possibilities here. Depending on the status of the race that could be huge.

Stage 16
A list of the cat 1-2 climbs according to difficulty and sorted by stage.
What is it? The queen stage (hardest stage of the race) with two mythical high mountain passes and a new climb to Val Martello at the end of it.
Why does it matter? It is the hardest stage and the climbing starts early enough that hostilities will begin very early. Additionally, the Cima Coppi for highest point in the race will be crossed on this day when the peloton goes over the Stelvio climb.
Possible time gaps: Anything is possible here. The stage is short and climbing almost from the word go. A large GC staring match would be no shock, nor would a multiple minute demolition from somebody be a surprise either. Everything is on the table here.

Stage 18
What is it? Another day with three big mountains (seemingly the limit nowadays in the Giro after the Circle of Death that was stage 15 in 2011) and another mountaintop finish.
Why does it matter? An enterprising attacker is likely going to be able to take some time on this day with a mountain time trial coming the next day and the need to save energy for that. That said, the risk of attacking here and having nothing for the time trial is also great, making this a tension filled stage.
Possible time gaps: My guess is someone will make 30-45 seconds in a bid to reach the podium while everyone else will wait until the final km while attempting to save as much energy as possible for the next day.

Stage 19
What is it? The Giro's annual mountain time trial.
Why does it matter? Time trials are a great place to gain time and mountain time trials moreso. Add that the climb is much more difficult this year than the mountain time trials of the last 3 years and big time gaps are expected. I expect the Giro to be decided here, not on Stage 20 atop the Zoncolan.
Possible time gaps: A fading rider could lose 3-4 minutes here. With the difficulty of this climb, this stage will be a battle as soon as the first GC guys set out on the course.

Stage 20
What is it? A final mountain day ending in the most feared climb the Giro can offer: the Zoncolan.
Why does it matter? The Zoncolan is one of the hardest climbs in the entire sport and many expect it to decide the Giro (despite its difficulty, it has only played that role once with Ivan Basso dropping Cadel Evans to seal his victory in 2010).
Possible time gaps: Enormous. Especially with no time on flat ground once the Passo del Pura begins at the midway point of the stage. Still, expect the leader to be mostly determined and for whoever that is to be playing defense all day here.

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May 19, 2014

Giro d'Italia Week 1 Review

So on what would normally be the first rest day (it is the second because of that rainy Irish detour in the beginning), we take stock of the Giro d'Italia so far.

Best Individual Performance: Diego Ulissi (Lampre-Merida)
Diego Ulissi celebrates his victory atop the Montecopiolo.
Thanks to Giro organizers La Gazzeta dello Sport for photo.
Ulissi is not known for his climbing. He is more of an uphill sprinter with the Ardennes races his likely big career targets. So his stage 5 win on a category 4 hill was no surprise. Much more surprising was his victory in stage 8, on a category 1 mountain. If nothing else, the win there forces a bit of a re-evaluation of what Ulissi might be capable of. He currently sits in 7th place, 1'43" behind leader Cadel Evans (BMC) and has established himself as his team's leader over Damiano Cunego and Prezmyslaw Niemiec.

Beat Team Performance: Orica GreenEdge
By a wide, wide margin, Orica GreenEdge has been the best team in the race so far. The team came into the Giro with two goals: win the team time trial to get the pink jersey and get Michael Mathews a stage win. Mission accomplished on both accounts. Orica won the TTT with ease, putting Canadian Svein Tuft into the pink jersey on his birthday, then passed it to Mathews who won a stage on a category 2 mountain finish from a reduced group while wearing the pink jersey. The third stage win poached by Peter Weening on Stage 9 just confirms what has been an excellent performance so far from a team with no GC threat in the race.

Best Stage: Stage 8
After the carnage of Stage 6 (more on that below) and a by the books sprint stage, stage 8 brought the first real mountains of the race. Yes, Stage 6 had finished on a category 2 climb, but stage 8 brought the first category 1 climbs and the first summit finish of the race. Early on, it looked like the GC group was going to do nothing but stare at each other until the final kilometer (something we have seen with increasing regularity over the past few years). Then Pierre Roland (Europcar) jumped out out of the group with 25 km to go. While Rolland is no favorite to win, he has a top 10 Tour de France and Tour de France King of the Mountains win to his credit along with two Alpine stage wins (including atop Alpe d'Huez during current Giro GC leader Cadel Evans 2011 Tour de France GC win). The bunch let him go. Riding into the final kms, Rolland finally caught Julian Arredondo (Trek), the last surviving man from the breakaway and then made a crucial mistake: he tried to work with him. Arredondo was spent and Rolland wasted time with that manuever, allowing the bunch to catch him and come around him in the final km and Ulissi to take the mountain sprint for the win.

Worst Luck: Dan Martin (Garmin-Sharp)
There are a bunch of guys already out of this race because of the huge stage 6 crash. Still, they had a better Giro than Irishman Dan Martin who never got out of Northern Ireland before breaking his collarbone in the Stage 1 TTT. Considering that Martin was only riding the Giro because of the visit to Ireland, this is a bitter pill to swallow, especially if he missed the Tour de France as well because of his injuries.

Worst Stage: Stage 4
This stage had bore written all over as soon as the course was announced. It was short and had no categorized climbs and a circuit race at the end. When it then rained and turned the circuit into an ice skating rink, it got worse as the stage was neutralized. For the daredevil sprinters there was a final lap race to the line, where Giant-Shimano botched their tactics and there were multiple crashes. Just a bad day all around all around for everybody, except stage winner Nacer Bouhanni (FDJ)

Worst Team Performance: Team Sky
To start, Garmin-Sharp and Katusha are exempt as those teams were destroyed by crashes, Garmin in the team time trial and Katusha in the stage 6 megacrash. Team Sky though... That team has done nothing whatsoever thus far. Only Ben Swift sprinting in Ireland has been even decent. They haven't been in the breakaways and they haven't been active in the mountains. Just an all-around bad performance thus far. Of course with the Tour team all resting/training or winning the Tour of California right now, the Giro is an understandable afterthought.

Best Positioned GC Men
  • Cadel Evans (BMC) - A surprising race leader after a strong team time trial and an opportunistic gaining of time on the crash marred stage 6. Some say he should have waited after the crash, but crashes are part of racing and Evans himself once famously lost the Vuelta a Espana by a mechanical issue when his Spanish rivals hit the gas the moment his issue came about. Add the upcoming time trial that should favor him and Evans might lead by 2 minutes before we hit the really massive mountains. Currently leads GC by 57"
  • Rigoberto Uran (Omega Pharma-Quick Step) - Surprisingly, given the past of this team hiring GC riders and giving them no support, Uran actually has some help in the race. They rode a good team time trial and Uran himself has had no missteps other than being caught behind the stage 6 crash. He is in excellent position to replicate his podium finish of a year ago. Currently 2nd, 57" behind Evans
  • Rafal Majka (Tinkoff-Saxo) - Last year's top young rider is now in that position again, something unexpected with prerace favorite Nairo Quintana also eligible for that prize. Currently 3rd, 1'10" behind Evans. 
  • Dominico Pozzovivo (AG2R La Mondiale) - An opportunistic move on stage 9 netted Pozzovivo 30 seconds on the other GC contenders and moved him into the top 5 overall. After finishing in the top 10 the last two years, he is well positioned to better those results. Currently 4th, 1'20" behind Evans
  • Fabio Aru (Astana) - In 6th place, the top lieutenant of Vincenzo Nibali's Giro winning team last season had done two things necessary for GC contention: he has positioned himself well on GC, and he has dispatched co-leader Michele Scarponi, who coulldn't keep up with the leader group on stage 8 after being involved in the stage 6 crash. Currently 6th, 1'39" behind Evans
OK Positioned GC Men
  • Wilco Kelderman (Belkin) - Just 23 years old, Kelderman is an excellent time trialer meaning he is likely to vault forward on the stage 12 time trial on Thursday. Still, life in the mountains will likely be difficult without top support man Steven Kruijwijk who left the race injured during stage 9. Currently 8th, 1'44" behind Evans
  • Nairo Quintana (Movistar) - The prerace favorite has shown some cracks thus far. He was caught in the stage 6 crash and may have injured his leg. Also, he may not have form having not raced since late March after his big Giro tuneup race was canceled in Spain due to a lack of funding. Currently 9th, 1'45" behind Evans
  • Diego Ulissi (Lampre-Merida) - Covered a bit earlier, Ulissi is not known as a GC man, but he sits in 7th overall and won a category 1 summit finish. We will see after the time trial and the really high mountains. I suspect he will fall off the pace fairly early on the Gavia-Stelvio-Val Martello stage. Currently 7th, 1'43" behind Evans
Doomed GC Men
  • Ryder Hesjedal (Garmin-Sharp) - He just has too many people to jump in the standings. Still, that he has a legitimate shot at finishing in the top 10 after losing well over 3 minutes in the team time trial is a great accomplishment. Currently 17th, 4'30" behind Evans.
  • Ivan Basso (Cannondale) - He is ancient and has no explosiveness. Had stayed in contact with the leaders through guile and experience. That won't help for too much longer, especially when he drops minutes in the time trial on Thursday. Currently 11th, 2'01" behind Evans.
  • Daniel Moreno (Katusha) - Came to the Giro as the top mountain helper for Joaquin Rodriguez. Therefore it didn't matter when he lost some time in Ireland. Now Rodriguez is gone and Moreno, a former top five finisher in the Vuelta is way back. Currently 30th, 9'48" behind Evans.
  • Michele Scarponi (Astana) - After crashing in stage 6 and losing a bunch of time on stage 8, Scarponi is now a lieutenant for Aru for as long as he remains in the race. Currently 42nd, 18'37" behind Evans
  • Nicolas Roche (Tinkoff-Saxo) - The Irishman was caught in the stage 6 crash and then had to wait 15 minutes for a new bike to replace his broken one. From there he became one part stage hunter and one part lieutenant for Rafal Majka. Currently 49th, 24'17" behind Evans.
  • Julian Arrendondo (Trek) - Had the smae thing happen to him that happened to Roche. Arrendondo then set new goals of win a stage and win the King of the Mountains. He was caught with under 3 km to go on stage 8 and now wears the blue jersey as King of the Mountains leader after gaining a ton of points that day. Currently 75th, 43'52" behind Evans.
Abandoned GC Men
  • Dan Martin (Garmin-Sharp) - Crashed out in the Team Time Trial with a broken collarbone.
  • Joaquin Rodriguez (Katusha) - Started with broken ribs suffered in a crash during the Amstel Gold Race, then re-injured himself in the stage 6 carnage. To his credit he finished the stage before not taking the start the next day for stage 7.
Points Competition Thus Far - With points doubled for flat days, this competition is sure to go to a sprinter, if any make it over the mountains the final week (the time cut is a very real possibility, especially on stage 16). At this point it is a four-man race: Nacer Bouhanni (FDJ), 166 pts; Giacomo Nizzolo (Trek), 150 pts; Elia Viviani (Cannondale), 139 pts; Roberto Ferrari (Lampre-Merida), 121 pts. Beyond these men, the only hope is that all four of these men abandon the race as everyone else is still behind the number of points Marcel Kittel (Giant-Shimano) had when he left the race after stage 3 with two stage wins.

King of the Mountains - The stage 6 crash shaped this competition. Crash victim Julian Arrendondo (Trek) shifted his focus from GC to this after losing 15 minutes that day. Beyond him, second place Diego Ulissi is too high on GC to go into the breakaways to target the earlier climbs if he even wants to contest this while third place Stefano Pirazzi (Bardiani-CSF) will make his annual futile attempt to win a stage from somewhere and absorb enough mountain points along the way to be relevant in this competition. Early holder of the jersey Maarten Tjallingii (Belkin) isn't actually much of a climber, he just happened to be the man in the breakaways who wanted the jersey on the first two road stages in Ireland.

Young Rider Competition - This has already shaped up as a five man field. Majka owns the lead and the white jersey right now, Aru, Ulissi, Kelderman and Quintana are all eligible and all within 35 seconds of Majka. After Quintana, nobody else is within 10 minutes so these are the five who will contest this going forward.

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May 17, 2014

Giro Stage 7 Review - Bouhanni Doubles Up

The Stage: Another transitional stage, this one with two weak climbs and a  long flat run-in to the finish. Everyone knows that spells sprint, especially in a Grand Tour and even moreso with all the injured riders after the crash from the day before meaning nobody with any real strength was going to be in the daily breakaway.

Who won today's stage? Nacer Bouhanni (FDJ) took his second stage of the race, showing he is the fastest sprinter in the race, especially with Marcel Kittel (Giant-Shimano) having abandoned before stage 4.

When was the stage won? Bouhanni had used his entire lead out train before the finale, so he found a new one. Latching onto the back of the Giant-Shimano train, Bouhanni came around Luca Mezgec through a thin space along the barrier to take the stage win.

When was the stage lost? In the final kilometer, Elia Viviani (Cannondale) lost the wheel of one of the riders in front of him. This cause him to drop back to a poor 10th place and Ben Swift (team Sky), who was attempting to follow Bouhanni ended up 15th.

What matters in the GC race? Nothing that occurred today matters, though the peloton is still reeling after the stage 6 crash. Additionally, 8th place Fabio Aru (Astana) punctured late, but just inside the 3km mark meaning he was given the same time as the group. Michael Mathews (Orica-GreenEdge) still leads and will wear the pink jersey one more day before likely ceding it on the first bigger mountain pass of the race tomorrow.

What matters in the other competitions?
Points (Red Jersey): Bouhanni's stage win regained him the lead in this race with Giacomo Nizzolo (Trek), Viviani and Roberto Ferrari (Lampre-ISD). Expect this category to remain mostly quiet for the next few days with the road turning uphill and mountainous.
King of the Mountains (Blue Jersey): Somehow, Michael Mathews has claimed this jersey as well with his win yesterday on a category 2 hill. Don't expect this to last too long either. Wearing the jersey tomorrow will be Maarten Tjallingii (Belkin), who has worn the race every time it has been awarded in the race thus far.
White Jersey: Mathews leads here as well, but he is no GC climber meaning he gives this up tomorrow as well.

Biggest surprise: It was so easy to get to the sprint. Unlike the stages at the Tour of California (where only one stage thus far has been decided by a sprint), the presences of Race Radios means the sprinters teams have it easy when reeling the breakaway in.

Biggest disappointment: Viviani and Swift were so badly positioned that they lost a piece of the draft and chase back on themselves.

What's on the docket tomorrow? Mountains. The first real ones of the race with a summit finish on tap to boot.

Stage 7 Pick: Nairo Quintana (Movistar)

May 16, 2014

Giro Stage 6 Carnage Report/Stage Review

The Stage: Appeared to be a simple jaunt with not much on a long course until a category 2 climb to finish the stage. Of course this ended up not being so simple with a big crash causing our first major GC shakeup.

Who won today's stage? GC leader Michael Mathews (Orica GreenEdge) took the stage in a sprint from a four man group that included Cadel Evans (BMC).

When was the stage won? As the big crash that remade everything was occurring behind with 11 km to go, BMC pushed forward and got a gap. With Evans looking for time for his GC chances, he also lead Mathews out for an easy sprint win.

When was the stage lost? When the other GC men/puncheurs in the peloton didn't get to the front, leaving them exposed and in danger of being caught in or behind a crash, it gave Evans an easy ride and caused nearly everyone to half to sit and wait.

What matters in the GC race? Mathews retained the race lead, but given his outsider status, the far more pressing news is the abandonment of Joaquin Rodriguez after his crash along with the gigantic chunks of time hemorrhaged by the likes of Nicholas Roche (Tinkoff-Saxo). Other than Evans, all of the contenders dropped time here as Evans and his friends in the final breakaway pushed forward.

What matters in the other competitions?
Nothing at all. Nothing that is going to do any real damage. Even though there were points and a break available to riders, there was no chance of survival.

What's up for tomorrow? Last chance saloon for the sprinters. The stage is pretty flat though with just enough hills that a breakaway could survive, especially if there is any attrition from the climbers along the route.

Stage 7 Pick: Ben Swift (Team Sky)

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May 15, 2014

Giro Stage 5 Review - A Different Kind of Sprint

The Stage: A pretty basic stage with the first category 3 climb of the race and then an uphill finish atop a category 4 climb. Nothing that would trouble any GC men and still a sprint, just a different kind of sprint with a different group of names to contest it.

Who won today's stage? Diego Ulissi (Lampre-Merida) timed his attack on the climb perfectly, sprinting away to win the stage over Cadel Evans (BMC).

When was the stage won? Ulissi smartly followed behind overall leader Michael Mathews (Orica GreenEdge) and then took advantage of him needing to go to keep his jersey. When Ulissi jumped out from Mathews slipstream, only Evans had a chance and Ulissi is a much better sprinter.

When was the stage lost? Joaquin Rodriguez (Katusha) often owns these kinds of finishes. He was off the pace today and it was lost twice for him. First, it was lost a few weeks ago with his crashes in the Ardennes classics, leaving him a bit off form as he recovered from injury. Second, it was lost on the rest day when Rodriguez and his team talked about needing to gain bonus seconds after a poor team time trial. This left Rodriguez to go from further out with his team having more responsibility than it should have. If Rodriguez were in his normal form, this might not be an issue, but post crashes he couldn't hold his move from as far away as he had to go.

What matters in the GC race? Michael Mathews retained the pink jersey once again. He will lose that jersey either on the category 2 finish tomorrow or on the first mountain finish on Saturday. Among the main contenders, Cadel Evans gained six bonus seconds. He, Rigoberto Uran (Omega Pharma-Quick Step) and Rafal Majka (Tinkoff-Saxo) are the best positioned. Further down, Trek leader Robert Kiserlovski lost 23 seconds when he punctured at the end of the stage and finished on a flat tire (there is no 3 km rule on uphill/summit finishes such as this one).

What matters in the other competitions?
Points (Red Jersey): With Marcel Kittel out of the race and the finish on an uphill, sprinters Ben Swift (Team Sky), Elia Viviani (Cannondale) and Tyler Farrar (Garmin-Sharp) went in the breakaway of the day hunting for points knowing there would be none waiting for them at the end. As a result of the points picked up at the intermediate sprint by them, Viviani took the lead in the points competition from Nacer Bouhanni (FDJ). Swift moved up to 5th place and has decided to target the red jersey, at least if you believe his interviews given to the press in Italy.
King of the Mountains (Blue Jersey): Though he was not in the break nor a threat on the finish, Maarten Tjallingii (Belkin) retained his jersey, at least for one more day as there were not enough points for him to be caught.
Young Rider (White Jersey): Mathews remains the leader here, but his teammate Luke Durbridge who was wearing the white jersey in his stead lost a big chunk of time today. Wearing the jersey tomorrow will be Rafal Majka, second in this competition last year.

Biggest surprise: Ulissi has the form to do well here. He was a favorite for the Ardennes Classics and did nothing at all. So him having the form to win this kind of finish is a surprise, even though the finish suits him perfectly.

Biggest disappointment: Fabio Duarte (Colombia) lost 48 seconds. Even with him being caught behind a crash, there is no excuse for this. The Colombia leader just soft pedaled in the group and lost some time. Meanwhile, Dominico Pozzovivo (Ag2r-La Mondiale) was caught behind the same crash and fought back to finish 9th on the stage, losing no time.

What on the docket tomorrow? A long, long stage with not much happening until the road turns up for a category 2 finish that should suit a similar type of rider to today though the longer distance of the climb (5 km) might catch a few more out.

 


At left full stage profile, at right the final climb to Montecassino.





Stage 6 Pick: Edvald Boasson Hagen (Team Sky). Boasson Hagen has a good sprint on him and the flattening at the top should help him if he's still around. This is a bit of a risky pick and he may not make the final selection at the top of the climb, but if he does he packs the best sprint of those who could make it. Additionally, the nature of this climb with it being a rather constant gradinet will help a rider like Boasson Hagen remain with the leaders.

May 13, 2014

Giro Stage 4 Review - Sprint Chaos

The Stage: The shortest road stage of the race at only 118 km and destined to end in a sprint with no categorized climbs after 9 circuits around the city of Bari. As had been the case the previous two stages, Marcel Kittel (Giant-Shimano) was the stage favorite.

Who won today's stage? Nacer Bouhanni (FDJ) recovered after a late puncture to win a neutralized stage (more on that below), taking advantage of Kittel's surprise abandonment because of a fever and a slower pace because of awful road conditions on the circuit around Bari that allowed him to regain touch with the peloton before it was too late.

When was the stage won? In the final meters Bouhanni reached the front of the race for the first time after navigating a minefield of crashes and soft pedaling riders that had no worries about time.

When was the stage lost? Despite the abandonment of Kittel, Giant-Shimano are still blessed with some strong sprinters at this race (to say nothing of John Degenkolb who was second in the first stage at the Tour of California) with Luca Mezgec and Tom Veelers. At the very end after crashes, the Giant-Shimano train had both Veelers and Mezgec along with one other rider against two other sprinters. With the rain and the crash, the train slowed down, cautiously attacking the last 2 km, allowing Elia Viviani (Cannondale) and Bouhanni to reach their front group again. From there, another mistake was made as Veelers went too early, wasting his team help that was there and allowing Bouhanni to come around for the win. Needless to say, a healthy Kittel wins this easily.

What matters in the GC race? Nothing at all. With the rain, there was the possibility of crashes determining much in the GC race, but the riders and Giro organizers made the sensible decision to count the times at the end of the second to last circuit around Bari. This allowed GC men and their top level domestiques to cruise along with the peloton and then leave the sprinters to contest the finale. Additionally, time bonuses on the finish line were nullified, meaning there was no chance of a lead change had Alessandro Petacchi (Omega Pharma-Quick Step) decided to have a go in the sprint (under normal circumstances Petacchi could have assumed the lead by winning the stage as he was within 10 seconds, the time bonus for winning the stage).

What matters in other competitions?
Points (Red Jersey): With Kittel out of the race, Bouhanni assumed the lead in this competition with the stage win. He leads Viviani by two points and Giacomo Nizzolo (Trek) by nine. With Kittel's points gone, a climber is a real threat here as well, even though none of them have any points yet.
King of the Mountains (Blue Jersey): Maarten Tjallingii (Belkin) retained control as there were no categorized climbs on the course today (nor was there a breakaway at any point either).
Young Rider (White Jersey): GC leader Michael Mathews (Orica-GreenEdge) continues to own it and his teammate Luke Durbridge continues to wear it as Mathews owns the pink jersey.

Biggest surprise: Race organizers went along with the riders and gave the stamp of approval to the neutralized stage. Considering the often antagonistic relationship these two group have over safety, this is a big shock.

Biggest disappointment: There was still a big crash in the bunch, even with the neutralization. After the times had been taken, the sprint trains came forward to contest the stage win and we ended up with a carnage on the road and a highly reduced sprint involving the Giant-Shimano train, Bouhanni, Viviani, Nizzolo and Roberto Ferrari (Lampre-Merida). Everyone else either crashed or chose not to risk contesting this sprint.

What's on the docket tomorrow? A first chance for a different kind of rider. The race finishes with two circuits up a category four climb in Viggiano that included a brief 8% area in the final 500 meters. The stage isn't hard enough to cause GC issues, but it is hard enough that we will get a different kind of sprinter, that of the uphill variety contesting the finish. Expect Joaquin Rodriguez (Katusha) to try and regain some time lost in the Team Time Trial with the time bonus that comes with a stage win. Additionally, GC leader Michael Mathews is built for these kinds of stages and he likely had this one circled long before he inherited the pink jersey.


Stage 5 Pick: Rodriguez. We don't know his form, but if Rodriguez is in decent form, he is the type of rider that has dominated these type of stages in the Giro and Vuelta the last five years.

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May 11, 2014

Tour of California Preview

The Tour of California occupies a bizarre place on the calendar. It is opposite the Giro d'Italia (just as the other big US stage race the US Pro Cycling Challenge in Colorado is opposite a Grand Tour). It is positioned as a Tour de France prep race, but since the calendar move to May, the winners tend to not do well in the Tour de France. As a result, we have seen declining quality in the GC fields in recent years and this year is no exception. Still, it is a big race, especially if fine tuning for sprints, given Mark Cavendish has had some success in this race in the past and Peter Sagan seemingly owns this race each year before his annual grand tour rampage (3 stage wins in 2011 Vuelta before winning the Green Jersey in the last two editions of the Tour de France).

GC Favorites
Bradley Wiggins (Sky) - The 2012 Tour de France champ enters as the favorite, though it is a tenuous hold as Wiggins has focused away from stage racing since his withdrawal from the 2013 Giro, targeting the Time Trial World Championship and Paris-Roubaix.

Tom Danielson (Garmin) - Likely the best American hope, that is if he's even the team leader. You never really know with Garmin.

Laurens Ten Dam (Belkin) - Well accomplished with a couple of Grand Tour top 10s, he was slated to be a domestique here to team leader Robert Gesink before Gesink's withdrawal from all competition because of a heart arrhythmia.

Peter Stetina (BMC) - First time for Stetina to be a team leader. Expect good legs and some mistakes in leading his team along the way.

Lawson Craddock (Giant-Shimano) - Top 10 while riding for a Continental team a year ago, Craddock needs to prove he belongs at the World Tour level. Another top result here would help the young American greatly.

Javier Acevedo (Garmin) - Podium finisher for his Continental team a year ago, Acevedo now rides for Garmin. I mention him though nobody knows who the Garmin team leader actually is here.

Tiago Machado (Netapp-Endura) - A few years of uneven results and unfulfilled expectations have given way to a very good start to the season in the lower Pro Continental ranks. Unlikely to win, but a top 10 seems likely.

Sprinters
Mark Cavendish (Omega Pharma-Quick Step) - One of the big 3 sprinters in the world, Cavendish has been dominant in recent years until last season when he hit some missteps. Re-enter former lead out man Mark Renshaw and everything this season has appeared back to normal. We'll see with California conqueror Sagan in this field and later in the Tour de France where Cavendish will face off against Giro d'Italia dominator Marcel Kittel.

Peter Sagan (Cannondale) - The points winner in this race the last four years, Sagan has made a habit of turning California sprint stages into processions ending in his victory. That said, there has been no sprinter near the quality of Cavendish to challenge Sagan here during his run.

John Degenkolb (Giant-Shimano) - Degenkolb is a good sprinter and a good all-rounder. Actually, his skill set is very similar to Sagan's, though Degenkolb won't get a shot at the Tour de France green jersey with Kittel on his team taking to prime sprinting stages for himself.

Matt Goss (Orica-GreenEdge) - Former Milan-San Remo winner who has fallen on hard times though his sprinting talent has always been a cut below the best. Note that Cavendish has always treated him with respect even as a former teammate turned rival. while Cavendish treats others (notable Andre Greipel) in the same situation with scorn. Cavendish just doesn't view Goss as a rival.

Moreno Hofland (Belkin) - A young sprinter for the Belkin team, this will be one of his first attempts going up against the likes of Cavendish and Sagan.

Whoever BMC is working for on a given day - Thor Hushovd, Taylor Phinney and Greg Van Avermaet are all in this race and all can sprint. On a given day, any one of them could be the designated man though none have the topend speed to beat Cavendish or Sagan on a normal day.

Key Stages
Stage 2 - Individual Time Trials in week long stage races are always important and this one at 20.1km matters a ton to create a pecking order before the two mountain stages and possibly help decide the eventual race winner.

Stage 3 - The Mount Diablo summit finish from last year returns for another round with the difficult Mt. Hamilton climb early in the stage to soften the legs. Expect some big time gaps here, especially the day after an all out effort in the time trial.

Stage 6 - The other summit finish, this one hits altitudes never before seen in the Tour of California. Whoever leads after this stage is the likely winner, though it will be painful climbing above 2000 meters on the final climb to Mountain High.

Picks
GC - Bradley Wiggins. The weaker field than usual will help Wiggins. After he wins the time trial he will be able to defend the jersey on the two mountain passes.
Points - Mark Cavendish. He is a better sprinter than Sagan and while Sagan has more ways to score points, those other ways aren't on the route this year.

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Giro Stage 3 Review - Birthday boy Kittel doubles up

The Stage: A procession into Dublin for an inevitable sprint finish. Marcel Kittel (Giant-Shimano) was the overwhelming favorite again, just as in stage 2.

Who won today's stage? Kittel. Though not like yesterday. His lead out train messed up the last 3 km badly, leaving him in 15th place with no teammates coming out of the final chicane (why does the Giro have to do these things every sprint stage?). It didn't matter as Kittel came from way back and stole the stage by a wheel from Ben Swift (Team Sky).

When was the stage won? At the very end when Kittel caught Swift on the line. This was in doubt all the way because of Kittel's bad position when he opened the sprint.

When was the stage lost? If anywhere, it might have been when Edvald Boasson Hagen (Team Sky) worked for Ben Swift. Boasson Hagen is a good sprinter and time trialer and when he hit the front it seemed nobody wanted to go. The delay allowed Swift to catch up but it very well might have been the half second Kittel needed to catch up.

What matters in the GC Race? Once again, nothing whatsoever. Michael Mathews (Orica GreenEdge) had a relatively calm day on his way to keeping the jersey for another day.

What matters in other competitions?
Points (Red Jersey): Kittel picked up 50 additional points with his stage win. He now has 100 points and a 31 point lead over Swift. Still, the real competition has yet to begin as the big mountains in the second half of the race hold an entirely different set of contenders that are not scoring any points right now.
King of the Mountains (Blue Jersey): Maaten Tjallingii (Belkin) got himself in the break again and got himself the maximum KoM points for the second day in a row.
Young Rider (White Jersey): Nothing of note as of yet. Like the GC race, this will take some mountains to start really creating a pecking order and those aren't on the docket until Saturday.

Biggest surprise: None. Even Giant-Shimano not getting the lead out train right is no shock given the odd set of turns and chicanes in he final kilometers.

Biggest disappointment: There is no challenger to Kittel At least yesterday everyone could point to his dominating lead out from his team that gave him an easy ride to the finish. Today, everyone was just outclassed.

What's on the docket tomorrow? Nothing. It is a rest day. Stage 4 looks like another Kittel special. There isn't even a categorized climb to worry about as the stage profiles below show.


Stage 4 Pick: Marcel Kittel. Once again, if the stage finishes like this, there is only one pick until someone proves otherwise.

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May 10, 2014

Giro d'Italia Stage 2 Review - Kittel the Conqueror

The Stage: A jaunt around the countryside in Northern Ireland destined to end in a bunch sprint without any question whatsoever. Marcel Kittel (Giant-Shimano) entered the overwhelming favorite, especially with fellow elite sprinters Mark Cavendish (at the Tour of California) and Andre Greipel (still recovering from his broken collarbone suffered in late March).

Who won today's stage? Kittel. Easily. He had time to sit up and celebrate before the line even.

When was the stage won? When Giant-Shimano's incredible sprint train got to the front just as the final member of the day's break was absorbed into the peloton with 5km to go. At that point it was all academic with nobody having the speed to freelance past Kittel after a lead out.

When was the stage lost? Elia Viviani (Cannondale) has emerged with great form recently. He beat Cavendish twice at the Presdiential Tour of Turkey a couple of weeks ago and has a decent lead out team. Of course that lead out team was deployed quite badly today. Fearful of the break staying away (it lead by over a minute with 12km to go and the general rule is that 10km is needed to peg back a minute), Cannondale moved to the front and chased the break, giving the Giant-Shimano sprint train an easy ride. at the end Cannondale, having used all its men had nobody left to support Viviani, who finished 4th in a freelanced solo sprint. Lesson of the day: You must be willing to lose the stage to win it, especially as an underdog.

What matters in the GC Race? Michael Mathews (OGE) inherited the pink jersey from his teammate Svein Tuft. As neither are threats for the final overall, this has no greater meaning beyond getting another man in the pink jersey. Beyond that nothing mattered. Nothing at all. Days like these are ones GC fans hate because nothing happens at all unless there is a crash or mechanical, something people don't like seeing men eliminated because of.

What matters in the other competitions?
Points: Kittel now leads though if he wants to win the final jersey he likely needs a lot of wins and some luck to survive the mountains (he is a possible time cut victim on stage 16 if he is still in the race at that point).
King of the Mountains: Maarten Tjallingii (Belkin) was in the days breakaway and won both King of the Mountain climbs (two cat 4 lumps just to get things started).
Young Rider: There is no real pecking order yet. Luke Durbridge (OGE) will be wearing the jersey as the holder of it is Mathews, the pink jersey holder.

Biggest Surprise: There were no crashes in the finale. Given the preponderance of road furniture leading to the end of the stage and the usual crazy Giro turn in the last km (seriously the Giro almost always has one of these stupid turns in the finale of flat sprint stages that is both dangerous and unnecessary), no crashes in the finale of the first bunch sprint stage is a welcome surprise. Maybe having had the TTT to eliminate a mad dash for the pink jersey helped as did some riders showing caution in the inclement weather.

Biggest disappointment: Nobody really challenged Kittel. Viviani's travails are detailed above and Nacer Bouhanni (FDJ) just doesn't have the same top gear yet as the top sprinters (a repeat of last year when he was repeatedly near the front on sprint stages and got dusted each time by Cavendish). The rest need to go back to the drawing board as there is little chance of any of them beating an on form Kittel.

What's on the docket for tomorrow?
Another day for the sprinters, as the stage profiles below show. Kittel is the overwhelming favorite once again against this field.
Full Stage Profile - Nothing to trouble anyone
Final 5 km - Near pancake flat

Stage 3 Pick: Marcel Kittel. There is no reason not to pick him on a sprint stage until somebody in this group proves they can beat him or he's no longer in the race.

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Giro d'Italia Stage 1 Review - Garmin disaster

The Stage: A short Team Time Trial around Belfast, Northern Ireland to get the Giro started. The expectation: a bit of a pecking order established and an Orica GreenEdge win.

Who won the Stage? Orica GreenEdge (OGE), overwhelming favorites as one of the top two Team Time Trial Teams in the world (the other, Omega Pharma-Quick Step left many of their best time trialists at home) came through in the favorites role, going off early and setting a time that nobody else could beat.

When was the stage won? When OGE announced its team. With no GC riders of note on the entire roster, OGE brought the Austrailian team pursuit team from the track and added a few stage hunters and Canadian time trial ace Svein Tuft (the GC leader by the way though that won't last).

When was the stage lost? It wasn't lost on this day. For the simple reason that OGE won the stage and nobody else had the firepower to match.

What matters in the GC Race? The Garmin guys are done. Also, pre-race co-favorite Joaquin Rodriguez (Katusha) lost over a minute as did outside GC threat Pierre Rolland (Europcar). At the top, both returning podium finishers from a year ago (Rigoberto Uran, now riding for Omega Pharma-Quick Step and Cadel Evans of BMC) are both within 10 seconds of the lead (that GreenEdge has no chance of keeping once the mountains begin) putting them in the best position going forward.

What matters in the other competitions? Absolutely nothing. With the first stage being a TTT, there are no points either the Points Competition or the King of the Mountains. And the best young rider competition is inhabited by GreenEdge guys that aren't any sort of threat to do anything as soon as this race hits real mountains.

Biggest surprise: Ag2r-La Mondiale put in a credible TTT, finishing 10th. As this team is often allergic to the very concept of the TTT, this is a great result. Team leader Dominico Pozzovivo finds himself less than a minute off the lead instead of his customary 1'45" and that 45 seconds can make a huge difference in a race like this (ask Joaquin Rodriguez, loser by 16 seconds in 2012).

Biggest disappointment: The Garmin crash. With the winner of this race from two years ago and a potential top 10 threat beyond him leading the team there were big things expected from Garmin-Sharp. Instead, Ryder Hesjedal is over 3 minutes down and Dan Martin is out of the race entirely (as is domestique Koldo Fernandez) and Garmin is now reduced to stage hunting with a mostly unhealthy team, just as they were after the Metz massacre in the 2012 Tour de France.

Normally, this is where I would write about the next day's stage, but it has already taken place. Find my review of Marcel Kittel's win here.

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Giro GC Post Mortem - Dan Martin and Ryder Hesjedal

Yes, the Garmin pair are done in the GC race. As a result of this nasty thing in the stage 1 Team Time Trial:



While 2012 Giro champ Hesjedal remains in the race, he is no longer a threat to win this thing. He lacks to skills to make the kind of attack needed to make up 3 minutes without help from someone else that would benefit in a greater way. He might win a stage, maybe even one in the mountains, but he isn't winning the Giro.

As for Martin, the crash is the cap on a disastrous early season where he started his build up later than usual aiming at defending his win at Liege-Bastogne-Liege and then taking a shot at GC in the Giro. Now, he has no real results (a podium at Fleche Wallonne is nice but underwhelming if the only item on the palmares) and has crashed out of Liege-Bastogne-Liege (on the final corner when about to take the lead in the race) and the Giro. With his broken collarbone, he is unlikely for the Tour, making him a rider now targeting the Vuelta in a last chance saloon type of scenario for his season. Just awful for him and his team where he is the captain.

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