Friday Feature: Britannia rules the roads

Image courtesy of Wikipedia

When David Brailsford announced the launch of Team Sky, he stated their aim was to produce a British Tour de France winner within five years. Most cycling fans – myself included – laughed at him. We should have known better. Having masterminded the rise of British track cycling, which culminated in a dominant performance at the Beijing Olympics – seven gold, three silver and two bronze medals in ten events – it took just three years for Britannia to rule the roads as well as the track. (They already ruled the waves – the Olympic ones at least – with an impressive recent history in sailing and rowing events courtesy of big names such as Redgrave, Pinsent and Ainslie.)

The current UCI rankings underline just how big a force Britain has become over the past few years.

It should come as little surprise to find Bradley Wiggins sitting atop the individual rankings. Two individual time trial wins and overall victory at the Tour de France – the first by a British rider, in the 99th edition of the race – catapulted him above Katusha’s Joaquim Rodriguez with an advantage of close to 200 points over the Spaniard, with Vincenzo Nibali (Liquigas-Cannondale) in close attendance after his podium finish in Paris.

WorldTour individual rankings (courtesy of UCI)

Wiggins’ success is no one-off either. He gained 266 points at the Tour (200 for winning, the rest for high stage placings), but also 100 each (plus change) for his victories at Paris-Nice, the Tour de Romandie and the Critérium du Dauphiné. And that doesn’t even include last week’s Olympic time trial win – his fourth gold and a record-breaking seventh medal for a British athlete – which does not count towards the UCI rankings. In seven time trials of 10km or over he has raced this year, he is unbeaten. It is a quite remarkable record.

A knighthood (he already holds a CBE) looks about as inevitable as the sun rising in the morning and setting in the evening. Arise, Sir Wiggo. There is also a very good chance he will succeed teammate Mark Cavendish as BBC Sports Personality of the Year, which would make him the third winner from cycling in the past five years, following Sir Chris Hoy in 2008.

Speaking of Cavendish, he is 27th in the rankings and missed out on gold in the Olympic road race but three Tour de France stage victories of genuine quality – the last on the Champs-Élysées after being led out by the yellow jersey himself – in spite of being a secondary focus were a vivid reminder of why he sports the world champion’s rainbow jersey. Let’s not forget he is only the second Briton to have earned the rainbow stripes (after Tom Simpson in 1965) and the only one to have won the Tour’s green jersey. Oh, and three wins at the Giro d’Italia too. It says much about the impeccable standards he has set over the past five years that this supposedly represents a ‘poor’ year for him.

Almost forgotten in the frantic media scrum which surrounds Wiggins is Sky’s other British star, Kenyan-born Chris Froome. At any other time in British cycling history, we would be celebrating the emergence of our greatest talent for a generation. Second at both the 2011 Vuelta a Espana and this year’s Tour, he was second to Wiggins in both the Tour’s long time trials, and only a strong ride by world time trial champion Tony Martin knocked him down to bronze in the Olympic race. Nonetheless, his 206-point haul in France has catapulted him up to sixth in the individual WorldTour rankings, and another strong performance at the Vuelta will likely see him move into the top three and have teams clamouring ever louder to tempt him away from Sky for 2013.

Froome has excelled over the past 12 months, but has had the misfortune to be overshadowed by Wiggins (image courtesy of Roz Jones)

Three other Brits feature in the top 100 overall. Two are Sky men – Ben Swift (86th, 24 points) and Olympic team pursuit gold medallist Geraint Thomas (88th, 22 points) – while veteran David Millar (Garmin-Sharp) jumps straight in at 97th with the 20 points he earned with his breakaway win on stage 12 of the Tour. And other familiar British faces in the peloton include Ian Stannard, Jeremy Hunt (both Sky) and Steve Cummings (BMC), who earn their corn not with WorldTour points but in putting in the hard, unglamorous kilometres chasing down breakaways and setting tempo for their more illustrious teammates. It is not just the strength of the most elite names but the depth of talent which boasts a British racing licence that really shines through. It is a far cry from the days when the most impressive Brit on show at the Tour de France was TV presenter Gary Imlach.

Sky’s three biggest British stars account for 995 of the 1,318 points which give them a handsome lead in the WorldTour team rankings, an advantage which is likely to be consolidated further by a top-ten placing (at least) for Froome at the Vuelta. Such is their strength in depth – Michael Rogers, Rigoberto Uran, Sergio Henao and Edvald Boasson Hagen can also boast in excess of 100 points each this year – that even if one discounted all Wiggins’ 601 points, Sky would still be third overall in the teams’ table, trailing only Liquigas-Cannondale and Katusha. Or, looking at it another way, there are seven Sky riders who individually have more points than the whole of the Saxo Bank-Tinkoff Bank team, who prop up the rankings with a meagre 88 points.

WorldTour team rankings (courtesy of UCI)

Beyond the WorldTour outfits, it would be remiss of me not to mention Endura Racing’s Jonathan Tiernan-Locke, who currently sits third in the Europe Tour rankings. The 27-year old has taken a slew of race wins so far in 2012: five stage victories and three overall classification titles at the Tour Méditerranéen, Tour du Haut Var and Tour Alsace.

Overall, Britain is the third-ranked nation on the WorldTour (calculated by the total points accumulated by all riders of that nationality), trailing only Spain and Italy, both of whom contribute a much higher number of riders.

Three years ago, David Brailsford essentially threw down a gauntlet which declared ‘The British are coming’. As the latest rankings amply demonstrate, it would be fair to say that the Brits have arrived, put their feet up on the coffee table and are happily consuming beer and a takeaway curry. And there’s no sign of them going away any time soon. The cycling world laughed at the audacity of Team Sky’s ambition then. No one’s laughing at them any more.

Link: UCI rankings

Rider updates: Alberto Contador, Alexandre Vinokourov and Nicolas Roche

I’m following the progress of three stage racers in 2012: arguably the greatest of his generation, Alberto Contador – finally back racing after several months on the naughty step – Astana’s Alexandre Vinokourov – gilding his swansong season – and AG2R’s Nico Roche – looking forward to riding for Alberto next season at Saxo Bank-Tinkoff Bank. Two of my riders are in the points though sadly Alberto won’t be gathering any for a couple of years. Here’s a quick summary of what they’ve been up to in the past month or so.

Alberto Contador (Saxo Bank-Tinkoff Bank)

Image courtesy of Saxo Bank

Results: Returned from suspension and currently racing at the Eneco Tour.

WorldTour ranking: Not ranked.

Alberto’s not been twiddling his thumbs while he’s been sitting on the sidelines. He’s continued with his heavy training schedule which has included reconnaissance rides of the major obstacles in the forthcoming Vuelta a Espana – one of his major goals – including stage 16’s queen stage in Asturias. The final climb, the Cuitu Negri [that looks seriously steep – Ed], had to be undertaken in a 4×4 as they were still relaying the road surface.

Ahead of the start of the Eneco Tour, Alberto gave a press conference where he firstly expressed his heartfelt gratitude to his supporters, family, friends and Saxo Bank, acknowledging their role in helping him cope with his ban and long battle against the doping charges.

He says these events have changed him and the way he sees the sport forever. He recognised that he’d been living inside a pressure cooker but felt that this experience can only make him mentally stronger in the future.

It is difficult to assess [the effect of the experience], but it is true that it in some ways takes away the perception that I had eight years ago. It also makes you grow up and see cycling as a part of your life, but not your whole life. I think it will help me in tough situations; it will be good in dealing with situations where there is a lot of pressure.

Those six months have been difficult and I’ll remember them forever. I did not want to be idle, I changed my training locations, there have been days of having more desire and others less, but I’m just as tired as another year at this time because I trained hard to be going well here.

I’m looking forward to competing because this is what I like to do. [My goals are] above all to enjoy the competition and pick up the pace after so many months, because training is never the same. I have desire to do well.

Alberto also spoke briefly of his support for out-of-competition doping controls and his desire to see changes made to modernise and eliminate shortcomings in the current system.

While the sprint-friendly Eneco Tour isn’t exactly suited to Alberto’s characteristics,  he’s relishing the opportunity to be competitive once again ahead of the upcoming Vuelta a Espana where he’s planning on winning a second title. It’s four years since Contador has raced in his home Grand Tour and, having lost two of his titles  – the 2010 Tour de France and 2011 Giro d’Italia – as part of his ban, will be keen to win on home soil.

Alberto’s also continued with his charitable works. His Contador Foundation will be one of the sponsors of the 2012 Kids Mountain Bike Race on 19th August in Las Navas del Marques, Avila. The foundation aims to use cycling as a way of promoting education and culture to Spanish youth.

Alexandre Vinokourov (Astana)

Olympic road race champion Alex Vinokourov (image courtesy of Alex Vinokourov)

Olympic champion! (image courtesy of Alex Vinokourov)

Results: 31st overall at Tour de France. Won gold medal at Olympic road race. 3rd at Critierium Castillon-la-Bataille.

WorldTour ranking: 159th, 4 points.

Alex decided not to take part in his national championships, instead conserving his energy for his final appearance at the Tour de France. While he would have been disappointed not to win a stage we saw Alex do what Alex does best: attack. He finished fourth on stage 16 from Pau to Bagneres-de-Luchon after launching an early attack. The following day he attacked again, missed out on victory, but took the honours for the most aggressive rider. But finishing empty-handed on the Champs Élysées would have left Alex feeling decidedly frustrated.

His response was unexpected. While everyone was eagerly anticipating GB’s Mark Cavendish to lift gold in the Olympic road race, Alex kept himself in contention. He got into the expanded breakaway towards the end of the race, seized his chance on the run-in to the Mall and imperiously sprinted to victory.

It was a fairy-tale ending to bring down the curtain on his long and illustrious career. The Daily Mail, however, had never heard of him and dubbed him the “nobody from Kazakhstan”. [To be fair, the Daily Fail haven’t heard of a lot of things, including research, decency and a balanced view of the world – Ed.]

After the race, an elated Alex said he would retire after the Olympic time trial:

I just won an Olympic title. It was a dream, so I cannot be sad. This is the last important race of my career, but I might race some other races at the end of this season as an Olympic champion.

Despite saying he’d be taking a break, Alex has been doing the rounds of the post-Tour criterium circuit wearing an Astana jersey bearing the hallowed Olympic rings [er, I’m not sure that’s allowed – Ed]. In addition, I understand he’ll be taking part in the Clasica San Sebastian on 14th August, where he was runner-up in 2010, and he’s been promised the number one dossard. I assume by then Astana’s kit supplier will have come up with a suitably gilded jersey, nothing that contradicts either the IOC or UCI’s rules. Next season he’s likely to take up a post as one of Astana’s directeurs sportif.

In recognition of his imminent and final retirement, a number of Vino tributes have popped up on YouTube. It seems only fitting:

Nicolas Roche (AG2R La Mondiale)

Image courtesy of AG2R La Mondiale

Results: 2nd in Irish national road race, 3rd in national time trial, 12th overall in Tour de France, 89th in Olympic road race.

WorldTour ranking: 75th, 36 points.

Nico Roche publicly stated he was aiming for a top ten finish at this year’s Tour de France. Things went his way in the first week where he managed to avoid all the spills and thrills to give one of his best performances in the first of two long time trials. As the Tour entered the Alps, Nico was looking to turn in good performances, particularly on the difficult stage to La Toussuire. Sadly, it wasn’t to be his day and he lost six minutes. After the race’s conclusion, having achieved his highest placing to date (12th), Roche admitted:

I’m a bit disappointed. In my mind I was thinking, “right, top ten is my thing this year.” I stayed in the top ten for a while but then I had that really bad day in La Toussuire where I lost six very precious minutes. I had a last chance to provide a great time trial on Saturday, and I did just a very average one. The guy behind me, Andreas Kloden, did an amazing ride and he overtook me, so I even lost one place. But at the same time there are no regrets. I did everything at 100 per cent and tried to attack. I progressed in my climbing as well, so I’m happy enough.

There were rumours circulating during the Tour as to Nico’s next team, rumours that were subsequently confirmed. He’ll join the Danish-registered Saxo Bank-Tinkoff Bank team next season and ride in support of triple Grand Tour winner Alberto Contador. Nico’s always ridden for French squads and has been with his current team AG2R La Mondiale since 2009.

I’ve had eight years in very similar teams, I think now it was time to move on and to see different things. There will be Alberto Contador and others, so it’s going to be a very high quality team and obviously I’m going to have to work harder again to make my spot there.

I’m putting away my major personal ambitions on the Tour and will focus on other races during the year where I should be able to have my chance and obviously if I have to ride for Contador during the Tour I will do it and hopefully help him win it.

Nico’s currently riding on the lucrative post-Tour criterium circuit but like his new future team leader, Alberto, will be lining up in Pamplona, Navarra on August 18th for the start of the Vuelta a Espana.

Previous update:  June 21stApril 10th, February 22nd

Rider profiles: Alberto Contador, Alexandre Vinokourov, Nicolas Roche

Websites: Alberto Contador

Twitter: @albertocontador, @nicholasroche