Bad Week for Cycling

Chris Froome: 4-time Tour de France winner, 2017 Vuelta a España winner, 2-time Olympic Time Trial bronze medallist, Sports Journalists’ Association Sportsman of the Year 2017… drugs cheat?

This been another bad week for cycling as news has come out that Froome returned an adverse drug test following Stage 18 of this year’s Vuelta, as his urine was found to contain anti-asthma drug salbutamol in concentrations of 2000 nanograms per millilitre – twice the amount the UCI allow without a therapeutic use exemption (TUE).

Cycling has a bad history of doping with big names like Alberto Contador and Lance Armstrong having been stripped of Grand Tour victories following doping offences, and the sport has been working hard to improve its image to the general public. Froome’s dominance has caused many people to accuse him of cheating in the past – a view not helped considering the investigations into Team Sky and the ‘mysterious package’ that Bradley Wiggins received during the 2011 Criterium du Dauphine – and though I personally don’t think he has deliberately or knowingly done wrong, it does not look good.

Has the drug helped him? Froome regularly takes salbutamol as he suffers from asthma, like many athletes. Studies have found minimal performance benefits to using salbutamol, other than combatting the effects of asthma, and as it is a drug that clearly shows on tests – and being the race leader, Froome knows that he will be tested – it would seem a poor attempt at illegally doping.

15326609365_314eea7e61_o
Will we be seeing Chris Froome (right) at the Giro following the latest news? – Picture from Flickr – @ruby_roubaix

Has he done something wrong? Studies have suggested that dehydration can dramatically affect the concentration of salbutamol in urine, so this could always be having an impact on the result. However from what I have read it is only Stage 18 where the readings have seemed off as opposed to throughout the Vuelta, the studies also don’t usually result in the concentration doubling through dehydration. It is now up to Chris Froome and Team Sky to prove there is a legitimate reason for the adverse reading. That won’t be easy to do!

If Froome is found guilty, chances are he will be stripped of his Vuelta victory and he will also face a ban. Regardless of the result, this is yet more ammunition for those who want to look down on cycling in general and Chris Froome specifically. The timing could not have been much worse as it has recently been announced that Froome will be racing at the 2018 Giro d’Italia with a view to becoming only the third rider to hold all 3 Grand Tour titles at the same time, while he is also nominated for the BBC Sports Personality of the Year award on Sunday. In my opinion, his efforts this year should have been enough for him to win the award but he was already likely to miss out due to the negative perception of cycling and his perceived lack of Britishness. This revelation will likely stop him even making the top 3!

I for one will continue to hope that a legitimate reason for this result can be found as I do not believe Froome to be a doper. I sincerely hope that I’m not proved wrong.

A Race to be Remembered

Chris Froome continued his rise to greatness with victory on the 2017 edition of the Vuelta a España. The Team Sky rider took the general classification red jersey at the end of Stage 3 and refused to relinquish it for the rest of the 3 week race, while also going on to win the green jersey for the points classification and the white combination jersey all on the way to making history.

The entire race was a great spectacle, with a number of attacks – often from the retiring Alberto Contador – keeping many of the fights for the GC podium going down to the wire. The final standings for the race were:

  • General Classification
  1. Chris Froome
  2. Vincenzo Nibali
  3. Ilnur Zakarin
  • Points classification
  1. Chris Froome
  • Mountains classification
  1. Davide Villella
  • Combination classification
  1. Chris Froome
  • Team classification
  1. Astana
  • Combativity award
  1. Alberto Contador

2 out of 3 for my GC podium prediction isn’t bad…

There was plenty to talk about from this race, but I’ll leave the full breakdown to the cycling experts and instead focus on a couple of big talking points:

 

The history maker

This win has made Chris Froome only the 3rd rider to win the Tour de France and Vuelta a España in the same year. What makes this even more impressive is that he is the first to win it since the Vuelta was moved after the Tour. He may not have looked at his best for much of the Tour, but it looks like he timed his season perfectly to peak just in time for the Vuelta’s climb-heavy race. He was one of the few racers able to consistently stick with Contador’s breaks in the opening weeks (more on those later) which quickly helped him get a lead on GC and consistently place well enough to keep the battle for the green jersey going right to the final sprint. Once again he had a lot of help from a strong Sky team, with Wout Poels, Mikel Nieve and Gianni Moscon keeping him in the right position and pulling him through the stages where he struggled. It’s no real surprise to see Nieve and Poels make the top 20 on GC considering the work they did for Froome and the dominance of Team Sky throughout the race.

Over the last 3 weeks, Froome has once again showed that he is a strong climber but, more importantly a terrific time trialist, having won the Stage 16 Time Trial by 29 seconds to Wilco Kelderman and just under a minute to his closest GC competitors. He has done something unprecedented this year and will surely be targeting a record-equalling 5th Tour de France next year. He may not always be the most popular of sportsmen, but considering what he has done this year, he must surely be in the running for Sports Personality of the Year.

Farewell to a legend

Alberto Contador may not have got the fairy-tale podium finish that he would have liked to end his career with, but this race was a perfect example of what makes him such a great rider. The 7-time Grand Tour winner (not counting the 2 wins that were voided) struggled on the first couple of stages but as a result was allowed the chance to attack on pretty much every stage after. His attacks opened up the race to a point that the GC race was completely shaken up. There was something right about Contador’s last ever mountain stage being a victory on the Angliru and it was wonderful to see the peloton allow him to lead the way into Madrid on the final stage. It was a shame that he couldn’t finish on the podium for GC, but it was great to see him win the combativity award and I don’t think anyone can argue with that call.

Given his history I understand that he will not be universally loved, but he will certainly be missed moving forwards.

The importance of a good time trial

In a race that is over 3,000km long, the impact that a 40.2km stage can have on the general classification cannot be understated. Time trials do exactly that. They are the only stages on a race where a rider is racing purely on their own ability with nobody there to pull them along if they are struggling, and it clearly shows on the race results. All 3 Grand Tours this year have been won by riders with a strong time trial pedigree (Tom Dumoulin and Chris Froome). On the Vuelta, Froome added almost a minute to his GC lead, which allowed him make up the time he lost with his 2 crashes on Stage 12 and take it easy on the more dangerous descents.

Esteban Chaves did lose time on the later stages, but his big loss was a poor time trial that dropped him from a possible podium to only just inside the top 10. It may only represent a small fraction of the total race distance, but a better than average time trial is now a must for someone who wants a realistic chance of winning a Grand Tour.

Teams to watch in 2018

Team Sky may be losing a number of riders at the end of this season, including Mikel Landa and Mikel Nieve to Movistar and Orica-Scott resepectively, but they have recruited well and bringing in quality riders like Jonathan Castroviejo (Movistar) and David de la Cruz (Quick-Step Floors) so I am sure they continue to lead the way in 2018.

Quick-Step will be interesting to watch next year as they are losing their 2 most recent GC riders (de la Cruz and Dan Martin) along with sprinters Marcel Kittel and Matteo Trentin. However they still have Fernando Gaviria, who won 4 stages on the way to winning the points classification at this year’s Giro d’Italia, so I still expect them to be pushing for the Grand Tour points classifications.

I am very much looking forward to watching Orica and Sunweb next year. They may have faded in the last week of the Vuelta, but I expect Esteban Chaves and the Yates brothers to be even better next year, especially with a domestique like Nieve joining the team. On top of this I expect them to work a bit harder on the sprints next year with both Matteo Trentin and Caleb Ewan on the books next season. Sunweb may be losing Tour de France King of the Mountains Warren Barguil but they have 2 impressive GC options in Giro winner Tom Dumoulin and Wilco Kelderman, who are both strong climbers and time trialists. Bringing in Edward Theuns from Trek-Segafredo will be a big help to them and they will also have Michael Matthews there looking to back up his green jersey from the Tour whilst backing up his team leader on climbing stages.

Astana will be interesting to watch but not necessarily for the right reasons. Fabio Aru is clearly a talented rider, but there were questions about his actions on the Tour as his teammates appearing to turn against him – Michael Valgren’s response to hearing his team leader had lost the yellow jersey on Stage 14 was to smile and say “Good” – and this apparent lack of teamwork continued into the Vuelta with the Italian riding off on his own rather than to the benefit of Miguel Angel Lopez. Sunweb kicked Barguil off the Vuelta for not supporting Wilco Kelderman, will Astana have the balls to do the same to Aru if he continues to be selfish next season?

Building Hype for the Vuelta

The 2017 edition of the Vuelta a España gets underway on Saturday and the provisional starting list has been announced. It’s time to begin the hype! With the Giro and the Tour out of the way this year, this is the final chance for teams and riders to prove their worth in a Grand Tour in 2017. This will also be the last time we see some of these riders in their current team colours as some will be retiring or moving to different teams after the season.

With this in mind, here are a few things to watch out for over the 3 weeks of racing:

 

Making history

Only 2 riders have ever won the Tour de France and the Vuelta in the same year: Jacques Anquetil in 1963 and Bernard Hinault in 1978. Chris Froome will be hoping to add his name to the list. Sky’s 4-time Tour de France winner has never yet won the Vuelta, finishing second three times, including last year when Nairo Quintana denied him the double by just 83 seconds. There is no Quintana this time, so despite a strong set of competitors including Vicenzo Nibali, Alberto Contador (more on him soon), Tour rivals Romain Bardet and Fabio Aru and the 2017 Tour’s King of the Mountains Warren Barguil.

Froome may not have often looked at his best in the Tour, having not raced much before the event, so you wonder if he has timed everything to give him the best chance of winning both races as opposed to just the one.

He may not have his star lieutenants from the Tour – Geraint Thomas, Michal Kwiatkowski road captain Luke Rowe and the departing Mikel Landa – however he still has a strong team around him including Wout Poels, who was a big part of his 2016 Tour de France victory.

Getting the double isn’t going to be easy, but I think this could be the year that Froome finishes in the coveted Red Jersey.

End of an era

This will be the last Grand Tour that Trek-Segafredo’s Alberto Contador races before retiring. The Spaniard is bringing an end to a 14-year professional career that has included controversy due to doping allegations (he had victories in the 2010 Tour de France and 2011 Giro d’Italia voided) but despite this still has victories in 2 Tours (2007 & 2009), 2 Giros (2008 & 2015) and 3 Vueltas (2008, 2012 & 2014) to his name. His recent results (he hasn’t made a Grand Tour podium since his 2015 Vuelta triumph) hint that finishing on the ultimate high of a final victory will be beyond him, but expect to see him pushing for a couple of stage victories and having a big impact on the race.

Three-pronged attack

The depth of quality that Orica-Scott have for General Classification is scary! For the 2017 Vuelta, Orica have decided to name Esteban Chaves and Adam Yates as co-leaders, while also giving Simon Yates the freedom to attack in the mountains. Chaves has not had the best of seasons as he recovers from injury but has done well in the last 2 Vueltas, finishing in the top 5 both times. The Yates twins are both very impressive young riders (Adam won the white jersey on the 2016 Tour, Simon did the same this year) and Simon also looked very good on a number of breakaways during last year’s Vuelta. I look forward to seeing the dynamics of the team as the race goes on and would not be surprised to see the twins go on an attack together on at least one stage. I don’t know how well Chaves will do this year, but I would not be surprised to see a least one Yates pushing for the podium.

Predicting the podium

I’m very much going out on a limb here but I think that with my increasing understanding of the Grand Tours it’s about time to start throwing out some predictions. This is a very difficult race to judge until we see how racers are performing (Quintana certainly didn’t live up to expectations on the Tour this year), but as of now my predicted podium is:

  1. Chris Froome
  2. Vincenzo Nibali
  3. Adam Yates

Screwing Up on a Grand Scale

The Tour de France, the Giro d’Italia and the Vuelta a España: the 3 Grand Tours of cycle racing. The best cycle teams in the world fighting it out over multiple stages spanning a couple of weeks for victory in a number of different classifications including Points, King of the Mountain and the all-important General Classification. Victory in these races would be a highlight of a professional cyclist’s career, a chance for them to compete against the best of the best. Yet far too often, we see results being decided by outside influences that are out of the competitor’s control, but could be avoided by the organisers.

When Geraint Thomas began Stage 9 of this year’s Giro on Sunday, he was 2nd in the GC, only 6 seconds behind leader Bob Jungels heading into a stage that could make or break a rider’s GC hopes. By the end of the day, bloody and bruised, he had dropped to 17th in the standings, 5 minutes and 14 seconds behind new leader and GC rival Nairo Quintana. This was not due to him struggling on the Blockhaus climb, but instead was the result of a completely unacceptable accident 13.5km from the finish. With the peloton spread across the road fighting for position, a police motorbike was stopped at the side of the road where it shouldn’t have been. Wilco Kelderman did not have the space to avoid it and in the resulting collision the majority of Team Sky, including Thomas, were brought down, along with Adam Yates of Orica-Scott, who has gone from 3rd (10 seconds behind the lead) to 16th (4 minutes and 49 seconds behind). Both of these riders were contenders for the General Classification but can probably now consider their chances over! Sky’s second GC contender Mikel Landa fared even worse in the incident, losing almost 27 minutes to the leaders.

While this can be considered an unfortunate accident, it is not an isolated incident of a rider being affected by outside forces that should not have been present. I have only started paying attention to the Grand Tours at last year’s Tour de France and in less than 12 months have noticed a number of incidents:

  • On Stage 7 on 2016’s Tour de France, Adam Yates’ attempt to gain time on his GC rivals was hit when the flamme rouge collapsed right in front of him. He had no time to stop before hitting the marker and ended up riding the rest of the Tour with a cut chin. This incident could have been much worse had this happened when the peloton was passing, but it still meant that Yates lost his chance to build an advantage against his rivals.
  • Yate’s trouble with the flamme rouge was quickly forgotten after Stage 12’s incident. After high winds caused the stage to be shortened, much of the last kilometre was left without railings to hold the crowd back. They duly swarmed all over the road, leaving a space barely wide enough for the riders to pass through. This led to an incident where 3 GC riders (Bauke Mollema, Richie Porte and yellow jersey Chris Froome) crashed into the back of a motorbike that was forced to stop by the crowds, leaving Froome’s bike unusable. As the Team Sky car was some distance down the road, this led to the famous images of the yellow jersey running up Mont Ventoux to reduce the hit on his finishing time while he waited for his team to catch up with a replacement bike.
  • Stage 5 of the 2016 Vuelta a España saw Steven Kruijswijk’s season ended early after a collision with a bollard left him with a broken collarbone. This bollard should never have been left in the way and, as if that wasn’t bad enough, was left at an angle pointing towards the oncoming riders. In truth, it is lucky that only Kruijswijk and Jan Bakelants hit the post as the peloton rode past.
  • Just a couple of days before this latest accident, Stage 7 of the Giro saw a miraculous near miss as riders came around a blind turn to find a marshal standing in the middle of the road flagging to warn of a traffic island. Somehow the peloton avoided hitting him, but that could have been a serious incident. Surely it would have been better to use barriers to block the road on one side of the island so that the island was part of the edge as opposed to being in the middle of the road?

4 incidents and a near miss. From just 3 races. And these are just the incidents that immediately came to mind, so there may be others that I have missed. All of these crashes have involved riders that would be hoping to compete in the General Classification, so the race results are being heavily impacted by each of these incidents.

Crashes happen, I accept that. Bad weather or riding too close to someone in a group can easily result in a number of riders going to ground, that is to be expected in the sport. What cannot be considered acceptable is outside factors that are wholly avoidable being allowed to affect the outcome of an entire race!

Would this be accepted in any other sport? If a fan ran onto a football pitch and booted the ball into the net, we would not count it as a goal, so why should we allow a rider’s GC standings to be affected by an outside stimulus? To continue the football analogy, clubs and tournament organisers do not wait for something to happen and then say it will not affect the result, they take steps to stop a match being decided by outside influences. That is why you see stewards and barriers all around the grounds to stop spectators getting onto the pitch. I appreciate that each stage of the Grand Tours is too long to have barriers every step of the way, but there are things that can be done to help. Having more spotters travelling in advance of the race to ensure there are no unsafe obstacles in the way would allow race directors and stewards to take appropriate steps to ensure that by the time riders get to that point in the road there is no chance of an issue.

Hopefully the riders affected will be able to minimise the losses over the remaining stages. More importantly, fingers crossed this is the last time we see a rider’s race ruined by something completely avoidable.

 

What were your thoughts on the accident? Do you think more can be done? Comment on here or feel free to tweet me @PS_tetheridge