Engerland, Engerland

Namaste to you all on this fine day. It’s just days now until the start of the Giro d’Ireland and whilst we’re counting down to the ‘Big Start’, which sounds a lot like a government scheme to end obesity or something don’t you think, I thought we should have a look back at the Spring classics and the races of the last month or so to see just how much Great Britain has won over that time. Being in Australia, there’s not a lot of bragging rights re- sports, so I’m taking anything I can get my hands on. And obviously because Simon Gerrans won Liege-Bastogne-Liege, some imaginative thinking is required in order for us to get the ‘one-up’. So to that end, I have devised a foolproof plan which I have called the ‘Politician’s Gambit’, whereby any evidence which undermines my cause will be summarily ignored, and we will work under the assumption that the race in question never happened. It goes as follows:

“Hey, did you see what happened in the Liege-Bastogne-Liege at the weekend? I was away…”

“Yeah, the race was cancelled. They all just sat and watched some daytime TV instead. In fact, I think it was a replay of last year’s TDF, you know the one where Chris Froome absolutely dominated everybody and won the GC.”

“Oh yeah, I know it, you mean the race where Simon Gerrans won the yellow jersey for a bit.”

“Nah, I mean the race where Chris Froome representing Great Britain ended up beating Simon Gerrans representing Australia very comfortably in the end. I don’t recall anybody representing Australia finishing in the top ten.”

Absolute deniability. And it’s this process we’ll be using after the tradition that is the World Cup quarter final exit next month. You know the line, so tow the line.

With very little success to speak of in the Spring Classics, although Ben Swift did incredibly well finishing third at the Milan-San Remo, let’s head to Turkey, where the Brit Adam Yates took out the GC, finishing five seconds ahead of the not so insignificant Estonian Rein Taaramae. It’s not like he ‘lucked out’ on a one day race like Gerrans in Italy, this was a whole week of racing, and he beat Taaramae who has often competed at the Tour. His twin brother Simon unfortunately broke his collarbone in the same race, but it looks like we have a couple of guys who will be able to compete and that is a good thing. Your move Australia.

And staying in Turkey, Cav also had a monster Tour, winning half of the 8 stages available, and helping to cement his place as Britain’s best ever sprinter. Just a word of caution to all those who say that this means he’ll win 9 stages at the Tour, let’s bear in mind his closest competitor was Elia Viviani, who is no doubt a great cyclist, but isn’t up there with Kittel, Greipel and Kristoff, who also now looks a good bet after winning the Milan-San Remo.

And just briefly on Marcel Kittel, who instead of following the British option of the “Politician’s Gambit” and denying all knowledge of the event retrospectively, has instead gone for the European excuse option. This is more traditional, and is called the “Sportsman’s Dilemma”. It’s very simple, and all you need to do is to take preemptive action, and complain about the conditions of the race beforehand, so you have a nice excuse to fall back on at a later date. Chris Froome employed it perfectly when discussing the cobbles in this year’s Tour, and the Schlecks have been known to give it a run out every now and then, particularly concerning “perilous descents”. Textbook preparation from the German, who has said the Yorkshire roads are too “dangerous” for the riders, being too narrow. Just be thankful you don’t have tractors coming the other way, as us mortals have to cope with, and get on with it.

So there you have it. And I didn’t even have time to mention Chris Froome’s success at the Tour de Romandie, and how that will almost inevitably mean he will win the Tour de France this year. I mean he did the elusive Romandie-France double last year… And with that, you’ll be pleased to learn, I’m done. I’m gonna do my best to try and cover the Giro from the other side of planet, but I wouldn’t hold out any hope. Adios peeps.

Baseball + Drugs = Cycling?

Welcome back to Geared Up, and I must apologise if you were looking for some commentary on the Tour Down Under, but today I am not writing about cycling, but rather about baseball. No, I agree, it is pretty blasphemous, but I am justifying it’s inclusion on this page because it relates to drugs, a topic which is fairly synonymous with cycling, and a topic which has once again risen to the surface again following the Contador scandal, and the Armstrong debacle. Saxo-Tinkoff’s Michael Rogers is the latest star to be banned, following the appearance of clenbuterol in his drugs test. The former Sky man insisted it was because of contaminated meat in China, (sound familiar Alberto?) but untill he can prove his innocence, has been suspended. This just days after the revelations about fellow Sky rider Jonathan Tiernan-Locke (JTL). To those who thought that drugs were no longer a part of the sport, the end of the 2013 has apparently proved otherwise.

Parallels can definitely be drawn between cycling and other sports where drugs play a role, and one of those sports is baseball. If you’re American, or if you show even a passing interest in the MLB from elsewhere in the world, then I’m sure you’ll be familiar with the whole Alex Rodriguez affair. Third baseman Rodriguez was one of the best players in baseball, and is the quickest player ever to reach 600 home runs, beating Babe Ruth into second place by over a year. He has also hit the most home runs by any Hispanic player ever. In short, he was a powerhouse, who dominated the game and commanded some of the biggest contracts in baseball history. He has hit the headlines again recently though because of the drugs scandal which has seen him banned for the 2014 season. The whole thing has blown up and a total of 13 players have been banned for between 50 games and the entire season for their alleged involvement with PEDs. Some of those players include 2013 all-stars, Nelson Cruz, Everth Cabrera and Jhonny Peralta (50 games each), as well as other notables Melky Cabrera and Bartolo Colon who have already served their bans.

And the point I wish to make is there appears to be something fundamentally wrong with the sport, much as there was with cycling in the late ’90s and early noughties. It seems drugs has well and truly infiltrated the make up of the game, to the point where players consider it worth the risk to take drugs. Like everything, it comes back to economics, a science of incentives, and it doesn’t take a genius to work out that the disincentive for using drugs is nowhere near strong enough. One particular case I am particularly well clued up on is that of Melky Cabrera, former San Francisco Giant (my team), who was absolutely unbelievable for most of the 2012 season. He was hitting well above .320 and was winning games almost single-handedly. He was found guilty of substance abuse and suspended just before the playoffs, but as a result of his huge success, scored himself a healthy contract with the Toronto Blue Jays – the Giants to their credit wanted nothing to do with him afterwards.

As a result of his huge season in 2012, he made himself a lot of money, not only through his contract with the Blue Jays, but also through sponsorship and all that is involved with sports nowadays. Now if you divorce yourselves from the morals entirely, it would seem like taking drugs would be worth it. National and international recognition, followed by a big money deal, for the small price of missing 50 games (which is about two months in baseball), and that’s only if you get caught. If you’re a mediocre player on the fringe of the big leagues, that would definitely appear to be a wise investment – hell, I’d probably do it!

So my question is why are the punishments so light relative the crime committed? Chances are, if you’re reading this you know a thing or two about cycling, and are well aware of how serious an issue this is for baseball. Much like with match fixing in cricket and snooker, you don’t want it to get to the point where you are questioning the validity of success right off the bat. So surely the MLB have to impose harsher sanctions. A 50 game suspension is not long enough; a season ban is not long enough. It’s about making a point, setting an example, and removing drugs from the sport once and for all. 6, 7, and 8 year bans are what are needed, and even life bans if that’s what it takes. Look to snooker, where Stephen Lee has been handed a 12 year ban (virtually career ending) for match fixing.

If everybody agrees how reprehensible doping is, then why does it take so much to get a heavy sentence? Sort out the problem before it becomes endemic, or you’ll end up like cycling, where people stop watching because they don’t believe (rightly or wrongly) that what they are watching is legitimate.That’s the choice that has to be made. Doesn’t seem too difficult to me…

Tour Down Under Stage One

G’day cyclistas. A fittingly Australian welcome to the start of the new cycling season, one which promises much, and if the previous two years are anything to go by, will deliver plenty of British success. We’ll have to wait until the summer for Chris Froome to win the Tour de France (ha!), but now is the time to turn our focus elsewhere where the grass is greener and the sun poses a much greater threat to the skin. That’s it, you guessed it’s Australia of course, more specifically South Australia and the area around Adelaide which was the hottest place on the planet only a few days ago. As a result, the emergency services are currently battling some horrific forest fires which are spreading rapidly, and at one stage it looked as though they may endanger the first stage of the long awaited Santos Tour Down Under. Fortunately, it has been kept away from the race route, and today saw the first stage of the race.

Much to the delight of the outrageously partisan media over here, recently anointed Aussie road race champion Simon Gerrans triumphed in the sprint finish, out running German national champion André ‘The Gorilla’ Greipel into second. Fellow Aussie Steele Von Hoff finished in third. As a result Gerrans takes the ochre jersey (a colour which only exists in ‘Joseph and his amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat’ as far as I’m concerned) for leader of the race and apparently intends to hold on to it for the remainder of the Tour.

In all honesty, nobody really cares about the Tour, but it does give the teams their first opportunity to size each other up ahead of following the raft of changes that have taken place throughout the off-season. Most notably of course was the move of the Van Poppels from the now obsolete Vacansoleil to the RadioFactoryTrekLeopard team off of Luxembourg. Vacansoleil weren’t the only ones to fold, as 2013 was the last hurrah for the Basque Euskaltel-Euskadi team, even despite the rumours F1 star Fernando Alonso was interested in bailing them out. Half of the men what wore orange have now moved to Movistar, making it basically the hybrid Spanish team which looks extremely threatening. Other than that, there was a lot of movement, but none of the big guns and only the odd name change to speak of. Also, completely irrelevantly, Saxo-Bank (the bank not the team) has given some support to Lotus F1 Team, yet another connecetion between the two sports, so maybe we’ll see Heikki Kovalainen take to road in the Tour of Oman or summit. I’d definitely like to see Mark Renshaw in control of a hugely powerful motor car. Maybe we could arrange an exchange? Who knows stranger things have happened. Actually, I don’t think they have…

Le Tour 2014 – We are a go.

The countdown doth begin. T-254 days until the Grand Départ on 5th July 2014, which this year will be in the English countryside: Yorkshire. This has been known for a while, but what we found out today was the route for the remainder of the race, including the number of summit finishes and the all important time trials. The organisers, to their credit, always try and shake things up each year, and this time around has been no different, with a couple of notables in next year’s route.

Firstly, it’s hard not to notice the lack of time-trialling kilometres – just 54 in total, which is a very small total, the smallest for a number of years I should hazard to guess. Now, I think the organisers and planners of the 101st Tour have been reading this blog. Towards the end of this year’s race, I came over all weak at the knees when the three men occupying the podium in Paris rode away on the last climb of the race. To me, the race should be decided in the mountains. That’s not to say time-trialling isn’t an art, the opposite of that is true, but pure time-triallists, like sprinters, should not be in the hunt in GC if they can’t ride uphill in my opinion. Brad Wiggins could compete in the hills and to be fair to him was just as strong as his main rivals in that repsect, but used the time trials to assert his dominance. Fine. But I digress. The ‘organisers’ as they are collectively known, a name which has Mafia-like undertones, have done a good job a mon avis. Not much time trials = good. It also makes the decision for Mr. Brailsford slightly easier, as Froome looks set to hold the ‘leader’ role, while Wiggins will be, well who cares, Froome is getting all our attention now.

The other thing which caught my attention is the fact that, on the 100th anniversary of the First World War, the peloton will be riding from Ypres in Belgium through some of the Western Front on Stage 5. A nice touch I thought. Froomey’s been moaning about the cobbles, citing 2009 when there were a few crashes, but Paris Roubaix seems to cope every year, so why should anything be different for the Tour? Just get on with it.

As has been mentioned repeatedly, Yorkshire will welcome us, guiding us through York, Sheffield, Ilkley, Harrogate and then handing over the rains to Cambridgeshire and London to send the riders off on their merry way onto continental Europe. Bookies are already taking bets on how many stage Cav will win on British soil – it looks like he’ll have three attempts, but I think the domestic media are just resorting to habit and hyping up the home grown (ish) star, only to watch them fail spectacularly. Not saying I want that to happen, but it wouldn’t surprise me.

Right, that’s it. I’m out. Until July…

Terrific Tony takes Time Trial triumph.

Alliteration. That is all.

Here’s an interesting fact for you: if Tony Martin had competed on his own in the World Team Time Trial Championships, he would have finished sixth. Sixth! One man on his own would have been faster than most of the six man teams competing in the competition. Just to outline how incredible this guy is if you can’t already see it, he would have finished 10 minutes ahead of the last placed team Velo Club Sovac. 10 minutes. 600 seconds.  So here’s a list of things you could do in the time after Tony Martin has finished, and whilst waiting for Velo Club Sovac: Do a Sudoku; listen to just under half of ‘Echoes’ by Pink Floyd; clean your teeth 5 times; run about 2 miles; or just sit, watch, and laugh as one lone German manages to absolutely destroy some of the best teams in cycling. Wow.

As you can probably tell, the winner of this year’s individual time trial was Bradely Wigg- what? You mean all the hype and expectation placed on a British athlete by the British media for once didn’t result in British success? That almost never happens, particularly when it comes to football, I don’t know what to say really…

So the winner was of course Mr Tony Martin who, just for a change, pulls on the rainbow Time Trial jersey for the third year in succession. Now, normally I would insist that this is becoming boring and predictable, and petition for him to be taken out of the sport for being too dominant or something stupid like that, but I like Tony. There are a couple of reasons for this: firstly, it’s hard not to be amazed by the utter stupidity of what this guy can do. Bradley Wiggins is a world class time-trialist, winning gold in London and standing head and shoulders above most of the rest of the field (perhaps exclude Fabian Cancellara), but Herr Martin beat him by 46 seconds. Here’s a list of wh- no, that wasn’t clever in the first place. But you get my point, he’s an absolute machine.

The second reason I find myself not despising him for being too good is that most of the time he’s riding with an injury or some flesh wound that would stop us mere mortals from competing. For example, he crashed quite badly early on in this year’s TdF, but still managed to finish, with the added of bonus of, erm, winning the first individual time trial. He also seems to be very unlucky in the grand tours (if you exclude the stage wins), getting mechanical faults at horrendously bad times, and crashing more often than Pastor Maldonado… It’s difficult not to be happy at this guy’s success, but we don’t want you winning four years in a row now do we? Take one for the team and fall off next year please.

Unfortunately it wasn’t to be for Brad, who, to be fair to him, recognised that he was just beaten by the better man. Nobody in the world could have come close to that time, and you just have to take your hat off to the German in this instance. Couldn’t have happened to a nicer country.

So attention now switches to Sunday’s road race, where the Kenyan-born Brit carries the weight of expectation on those ever so skinny shoulders. Spoiler alert: he won’t win. There isn’t enough up and down stuff, and the British team will be competing against pretty much the rest of the peloton, who all seem to want to deny a British victory. That said, I look forward to be proven wrong.

Just a quick note: I managed to get to the end of that without using the words doping or erythropoietin. It’s not difficult. Just trust that some people are better than others, and that they don’t rely on drugs to ensure success. That’s so 1990s…

La Vuelta blog – Stage 4: We’re alive!

Tag, you’re it. Or at least that’s how Vincenzo Nibali must be feeling after today’s stage, where he once again finds himself wearing red and clambering onto the podium. He can say whatever he likes, we all know he’s been trying to avoid the jersey like the plague (bubonic), and so he must be guttappointed (gutted+disappointed) that he has failed to evade the clutches of the leader’s “fleece” once more. Most men in the peloton would do anything to get their hands on the jersey, but no, Vinny likes to be different. That’s the true mark of a champion: being unable to lose. Physically unable.

But his usurpation of Horner’s lead didn’t come without controversy. Yesterday, the commissars ruled that the supposed time gap between two groups on the road was not sizeable enough to constitute a difference in the given times for the day. Faced with a very similar situation today, this time they said the gap was big enough, and so Horner lost time, depriving him of the chance to continue in ‘rojo’. All we want is consistency ref! Hopefully it will all be forgotten soon enough, but for the moment at least, it’s quite amusing that Vinny N can’t even lose. I’m better than the Giro champion in that respect then, at least. Here’s a tip for the race leader, from someone who truly knows what it takes to defy expectations and fail spectacularly. If he wants to make sure someone else is winning, then he should have done something extreme, like just walked the last 500m or something. Or maybe he should change his diet, and go for highly fatty foods. Seems to work for me…

In other news: Phil Liggett has returned! That news in itself has made my day, and it was great to hear his dulcet tones once again fill my living room after a tough day. He also contrasts nicely with Graham Jones, and whilst the two of them don’t have as much “banter” as can be expected with Paul Sherwen, they compliment one another well, and I’m looking forward to the relationship blossoming over the coming weeks. Alright, I’ll shut up now.

In other other news: hahahahaha. Sorry, but there is little more satisfying that watching some members of cycling’s elite peloton have to get off and essentially walk part of the way up a 3rd category climb. Ok, it’s not often you get 3rd categories with 28% gradients in them, but this is the Vuelta let’s not forget. Harsh to laugh I know, but it certainly was not a sight I’ll forget too cheaply.

So the winner of the day was definitely the viewer, as we got to witness the guys almost go backwards, in some cases, as they tackled the little uphill stretch about 30 km from the finish. Oh yeah, and Daniel Moreno did quite well today as well. The loser, other than Vinny N or old-man Chris, to me was Cameron Meyer bless him. Unbeknownst to him when he was dragging the bunch along not far from the finish, he was being called Christian Meyer by our quasi-papal friend Phil Liggett. Or maybe Phil knows something we don’t: the Aussie has an identical twin brother who also races for Orica. Christian Meyer is best friends with Francesco Cancellara and Jason Rodriguez maybe?

I would also like to point out that the world has not ended as predicted by the organisers, and that we all breathe to watch another stage. (Breathe to live another day?) The next one in the long list may be the first time we get to see the fast men in action, and a chance for teams like Argos-Shimano to prove just why it is they’ve come here. The two 3rd categories shouldn’t pose too much of a problem (although we’ve heard that before), and I anticipate everybody being together for the final dash. Someone like Edvald Boasson Hagen might have a good shout at victory, or maybe one of the Argos boys. I’ll see you there.

La Vuelta blog – Stage 3: A minor bollard altercation

E-che-lons! E-che-lons! Like the long lost cousin, they have once again returned to Grand Tour racing, and to devastate the peloton a la the Tour, where Valverde was caught and lost a whole bunch of time. Or at least that’s what I expected/hoped. But no, suddenly we turned back into the mainland, where there is no wind it appears, and the peloton manages to regroup and ride the remainder of the race together. Boring. It would have been much better to see a relatively big name lose a bit of time just to add to the excitement, but you can’t win ‘em all as they say. Still, a bit of wind is better than no wind, as they don’t often say…

So to the finish, where today history was made. Christopher Horner of the United States of America today became the oldest person ever to win a stage of a Grand Tour. Ever. Nobody older than his glorious 41 years, 307 days has won before, and it was great to see him live the dream and wear the red jersey. He said he wanted to do it yesterday, but a certain Irishman turned Frenchman stood in his way. Ivan Santoromita tried today, but was no match for the LeopardRadio TrekShack representing yank, who claimed the 10 second time bonus and now leads Nibali by 6″. That’s pretty much a perfect result for the Astana rider, as he stays well in the lead of the major favourites, but without the gargantuan task of having to carry the jersey all the way to Madrid. Now it appears the Italian kind of let Horner win today, and so I would say it was an example of matesmanship, but they’re on different teams. How about mutualinterestsmanship? No? Tough crowd.

So the winner today then looks to be Nibali, who relinquishes the “burden” of the red jersey, but hangs on to the virtual race lead, and looks in a great position to pounce when we head for the slightly bigger hills towards the end of the race. As for a loser of the day, I think it was the guy who thought it was a good idea to put bollards down the middle of the causeway which took the riders out to the Illa de Arousa. He caused a bit of havoc, culminating in the lead group agreeing to slow down so they weren’t separated, and will most likely lose his job. Poor guy. I would also like to bemoan the fact that, as we were heading into the business end of the race, the Spanish TV director decided to focus his attention onto the languishing David Arroyo, who had been hanging off the back of the group and was trying to get on. Great to see, thanks for the update, but I think most people would rather see the attacks developing off the front, not a Spaniard who was, well, doing very little.

Tomorrow looks a similar day to today, but with the 3rd category bump coming a bit further out from the finish this time. There’s also a little hillock right on the finish line, so that may be a springboard for an attack, but I think the favourites will again contest the finish, or at least the minor placings. Not much of any significance to the overall standings though. The stage is also titled “The stage at the end of the World”. Ominous, and perhaps the organisers know something about the Gregorian calendar that we don’t. But if we do make it through the night, then I look forward to the 4th stage of the 2013 Vuelta.

 

La Vuelta blog – Stage 2: The Franco-Irish refrain

We’ve only just finished the second stage of this year’s Vuelta, and already the surprises abound. Firstly, Nicolas Roche won. That’s a shock in itself, as he’s gone two years without tasting victory, and then we have the fact that a number of “pre-race favourites” couldn’t handle the pressure on the slopes of the fantastically named Alto Do Monte Da Groba. If you were in any doubt as to which country we were racing in before the final 11km, then seeing signs for that hill would certainly remove any doubt. The men in question were Sky leader (in name only) Sergio Henao and the near-geriatric Samuel Sanchez – both of whom couldn’t keep pace with the tempo set by Movistar at the front of the peloton. By essentially ruling themselves out of the running early on, it does leave the door open for men like Rigoberto Uran to assume de facto leadership of Team Sky, and for the likes of Carlos Betancur to make some inroads. Oh, hang on, Betancur is over 11’30″ of the pace. This prediction lark ain’t easy…

I mentioned that Roche Jnr hadn’t won a stage in a while, and it was obvious he was more relieved than anything in his post match debrief. Entertainment was provided though, by attempting to decipher his accent; it was a synthesis of a Dublin lilt and southern French twang, which I guess is a result of his Irish heritage versus the amount of time he’s spent racing in France. Either way, it meant I was focusing more on the accent and less on the content of the interview, but I could take a good guess as to what he was saying: “Yeah, it was nice to get a win which settles a few nerves, but I’m trying to take it one stage at a time, and not get too far ahead of myself. Blah blah cliché blah.”

Talking of slight oddities in the race, you can’t help but question the race tactics of Movistar who, to use a cliché frequented by cycling commentators, ‘buried themselves’ at the front for most of the climb, only to let the equally stunningly named Leopold Konig ride away and drag Pozzovivo, Moreno and of course Roche with him. I doubt any of the escapees will be challenging by the 11th summit finish, but the Spanish team had done a lot of work up until then, it surely would have made sense to try and keep everyone together. Oh to be a Directeur Sportif… I’m sure their reasons will become clear over the course of the race though.

The following bears no relevance or meaning to anything, but I would like to see Amets Txurruka of Caja Rural do well this Vuelta. This is for no other reason than the fact that his name is both fun to say, and fun to hear other people say. Maybe he can pull a one-two with Benat Inxausti on the next stage. If all goes tits up I’m moving to the Basque country where the ‘x’s thrive.

Right, tomorrow is another slopey finish, although without the 10% gradients which we had today. It has all the hallmarks of a ‘puncheur’ stage, and everybody is looking in the direction of Philippe Gilbert, who is yet to record a win as World Champion. Who knows, maybe tomorrow will be his day? I doubt that major changes will be seen on the GC table, but I reckon something relatively major will happen to someone relatively important. It’s just have a hunch. You don’t get that sort of cutting analysis everywhere do you… See you on Stage 3 peeps.

La Vuelta blog – Stage 1: Janez Brajkovic and the glass pontoon…

The 2013 Vuelta is a go. And unwilling to disappoint as ever, this year’s race began on water. Yep, like the race started off the coast of Spain. The teams started on a glass pontoon and then hit the mainland after about 25m – doesn’t sound like much, but the gimmick was one of the better ones I’ve seen on a Grand Tour. That, and the fact that the teams got the boat to the start line, which may seem like a good idea; but unless they were arriving from Mexico, then they would have got a boat out into the bay, simply to just turn round and come back again. Was it really worth it? Unfortunately not, I’m loathed to say. But seeing as the racing began in the sea, I would like to propose a re-naming of the race, to the Vuelta a Espana y North Atlantic ocean. Rolls off the tongue quite nicely if I say so myself…

The first team off were NetApp Endura who are competing in their first Grand Tour, and did a remarkable job finishing seventh on the stage. Not many people would have expected that, and they even beat some big names like BMC and Orica GreenEDGE – not bad for their first go. I doubt they’ll do owt in the race proper, but if one or two of them can get in the mix on a couple of stages, then they truly will deserve their place in the tour.

The second team off were- Nah I’m just messing…

So I think each day I’ll also do a “biggest winner and loser” of the day… It may be a little clichéd but you know what, I don’t care. I can’t promise any meaningful insight though. The winner of the day then to me is clearly Vincenzo Nibali, who gets the dual benefit of taking a lot of time out of his major rivals, whilst not actually holding the red jersey. That honour is bestowed on team-mate Janez Brajkovic, who has had a pretty terrible year all things considered. He broke his collarbone and abandoned Le Tour at a fairly early stage, so it was a true show of matesmanship from the Italian to allow Janez to take the red jersey, if only for one day…. (This word will catch on, if it’s the last thing I do). That’s one back for Slovenia, who have been losing out in the battle with their eastern European rivals Slovakia when it comes to sporting prowess. All they need now is Robert Koren and the Tigers from Hull to win the English Premier League, and it’ll be a great contest.

The loser of the TTT today was Purito Rodriguez, who lost 59 seconds to his main rival Nibali. His Katusha squad had a bit of a nightmare on the road, and it cost the Spaniard, who now has an awful lot of work to do to make up some of that time. It bodes well for the race neutral, as it means he will have to go on the attack, possibly as early as tomorrow, but it’ll take a lot out of Joaquin just getting on level terms with Nibali, let alone going past him. Having said that, I would not be at all suprised if Astana held the red jersey all tour, via Brajkovic, Nibali or whoever else. It’s time for Movistar and Katusha to step up.

The Spanish organisers obviously weren’t fans of small talk, as no sooner has the Vuelta a Espana y North Atlantic ocean begun, than we have our first summit top finish. It’s a first category, so should provide a few fireworks, and it’s the first time we’ll get to see all the big names in action and get an idea of who’s on form and who’s not. I doubt a break will be allowed to stay clear this early on, but as we’ve seen, this year’s cycling has been nothing if not unpredictable. I think a pre-race favourite may take the stage, but don’t ask me which one… I look forward to it immensely.

La Vuelta blog – Race Preview: (Intelligent) Guessing

Hola! I’m back. Or as they say in Spai- sorry, no, ‘hola’ is as far as the Spanish goes, so those reading this for insightful linguistic commentary, please leave now. Actually, my Spanish can be stretched a little further – I know a little bit, but it can’t compete with my near fluency in French… “Como esta? Si, la gente esta muy loca.” That’s a reference for all the younger readers, but truly is the limit of my Spanish ability. *Warning: Satire alert* I’ve been taking lessons from Alberto Contador, so I also know how to say “I did not purposefully take clenbuterol, my meat was contaminated.” I’m here for 21 stages guys…

Anyway, I’m already being sidetracked (this bodes well for the Vuelta), and so before I get onto the topic of ICBMs or bovine TB, or some other minor irrelevance, let’s move onto the main topic of this little race preview which is, you guessed it, to, erm, preview the race. The main theme this year is mountains, as there will be 11 summit finishes, which makes the contest look absolutely mouth watering. And with only one individual time trial, it has all the makings of a classic race, which will be decided in the hills. Anybody who read my penultimate TdF piece, will know that I got slightly emotional about the fact that that race too was won in the mountains, and so I am eagerly anticipating a bit of good ol’ bike racing at altitude. Oh, you’ve not read it? You should, it’s very, let’s say, unique: http://csquared95.wordpress.com/2013/07/21/tdf-blog-stage-20-and-the-winner-is/ I know what you’re thinking though, and I will attempt to exclude all emotion for the rest of the race; why get sentimental when you can be cold-hearted. That’s my motto anyway.

Most of the big names are here to contest the leader’s jersey (whatever colour it is this year), and there doesn’t seem to be a stand out favourite as far as I’m concerned. Now I’ve said that, Nibali will probably win by 15 minutes, but when you have Valverde, Rodriguez, Martin and Henao to compete with him, it suddenly looks like a great race. I don’t care what anyone says, Froome was always going to be in yellow in Paris, providing he didn’t a) dope b) end up in a ditch courtesy of a stage 3 crash, or c) forget the maillot jaune to focus on the more important and nobler win in the team competition. That’s not the case here though, and Nibali is probably favourite, but I can see either him, Rodriguez or Valverde on the top step in Madrid. Vincenzo may be fresher having skipped the Tour, but Valverde didn’t race as hard as he could have thanks to the whole cross wind debacle.  Equally, ‘Purito’ looked devastating on his day in the Alps, and both he and Valverde have home advantage. As for a winner, I am going to tentatively defy the bookies and go for Valverde, but as I said, I can feasibly see all three of them winning it. Anybody outside of that little group would be a surprise though.

This year, the time bonuses doth return, and so we have 10, 6 and 4 seconds being awarded to the first three across the line respectively. That makes the summit finishes even more enticing a prospect, but being the purist I am, I’m not their biggest fan – I think it’s unfair to penalise a rider by 4 seconds for finishing half a wheel behind the winner. But hey, that’s just my opinion, and hopefully we’ll see the riders, to use a woefully woeful cliché, leave everything on the road.

We’ve also got the team time trial, which is my absolute favourite discipline. As long as not too much damage is done, it will be a great way to start the race, and makes every rider fight for his place in the competition from day one. Right, I am going to attempt to predict winners, but with my luck, I will be wrong more often than not. So tomorrow will be won by, erm, Team Sky. Just as long as the Orica boys don’t chime in with an upset again.

And because this is the first post of the tour, I’ve also got to make my predictions for race winners, which will most likely bear absolutely no resemblance to the final outcome. But here goes: Red jersey: Alejandro Valverde. Green jersey: Carlos Betancur. Polka-dot jersey: Samuel Sanchez. White jersey: J.Rod. Let’s be honest though, it’s all guesswork. Until stage 1 fellow Vueltarists…

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