With the 2013 season now under way, we have a brief hiatus in the WorldTour until Paris-Nice next month. But that isn’t to say February is quiet in terms of racing – far from it. Many of the big names in the pro peloton launch their campaigns this month, some in distant, exotic and warm locales such as Malaysia, while others will be braving some downright wintry conditions as the European season gets going. Here is a summary of what we will be watching over the next few weeks.
There are three big stage races in Asia in quick succession during February. The Tour of Qatar (3rd-8th) is really one for the sprinters. Tom Boonen has won the overall here four times, including last year. Injury will prevent him from defending his title, but OPQS are sending a half-decent substitute in his place: Mark Cavendish.
The Tour of Oman (11th-16th) has only been on the calendar since 2010. It favours riders who can both climb a bit and time trial well, as evidenced by its roll call of past winners: Fabian Cancellara, Robert Gesink and Peter Velits.
Last but by no means least, Malaysia’s ten-day Tour de Langkawi (21st-2nd March) is a climber’s race packed with sprint stages. The race has been won in each of the past four years by riders from Androni Giocattoli – twice by Jose Serpa, now with Lampre – while Farnese Vini’s Andrea Guardini (now Astana) has won 11 stages in two years.
In Europe there are no fewer than 18 UCI-sanctioned races this month, mostly in the heartlands of France, Spain, Belgium and Italy.
The big stage races in France this month are the five-day Tour Méditerranéen (6th-10th) and the shorter Tour du Haut Var (16th-17th). Both favour climbers, although the former is slanted more towards stage racers while the latter is more of a Classics-style affair. Last year Endura’s Jonathan Tiernan-Locke won both races as part of an impressive early season surge which prompted his move to Sky for this season. There is also the one-day Classic Sud Ardèche (24th), which tends to be a more ‘domestic’ affair. Eight of the race’s 12 winners are French, most recently Remi Pauriol (FDJ) last year.
In Spain, we have the four races which make up the Challenge Mallorca (3rd-6th), a combination of flat and hilly parcours popular with teams looking to fine-tune their preparations for the bigger races ahead. This is followed later in the month by the four-day Vuelta a Andalucia (17th-20th) – also known as the Ruta del Sol – which last year was won by Alejandro Valverde, his first overall stage race victory since his return from his doping ban. And February closes with the Clasica de Almeria (27th), a flattish sprinter-friendly race.
Belgium offers up a series of one-day semi-Classics. Firstly there is the weekend double-header of Omloop Het Nieuwsblad (23rd) and Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne (24th). The former was one of the hidden gems of last year’s calendar, with Garmin’s Sep Vanmarcke achieving a rare feat – defeating Tom Boonen during his annus mirabilis – while Mark Cavendish claimed the latter. Three days later comes the hillier Le Samyn (27th), where the balance between sprinters and Classics men is more even.
The Italian season gets off to a relatively quiet start, with only the one-dayers Trofeo Laigueglia (16th) and GP Camaiore (28th) of note. The first of these is very much a sprinter’s race, the latter a climber’s.
Last but by no means least Portugal hosts the mountainous Volta ao Algarve (14th-17th), the first of many races dominated by Sky (and won by Richie Porte) in 2012, while Switzerland hosts the GP di Lugano (24th), which has been won in recent years by both stage racers/climbers and sprinters, but is particularly popular among the Italian contingent, who have won six of the last seven editions.
Bernie will no be short of birthday wishes from his many fans (image courtesy of Francesca Starbuck)
It’s Valentine’s Day this month, and the 14th also happens to be the 36th birthday of BMC’s Cadel Evans. No wonder the 2011 Tour de France champion is nicknamed ‘Cuddles’, eh? Speaking of which, perennial ladies’ favourite and former Cav-minder Bernhard Eisel (Sky) turns 32 on the 17th, and I’m sure there’s no shortage of female admirers who would gladly cuddle up to him.
February will also see a number of Grand Tour contenders blowing out the candles on their birthday cakes. 2008 Olympic champion and 2011 Tour de France polka dot jersey Samuel Sanchez (Euskaltel Euskadi) will be 35 on the 5th, while Lotto Belisol’s Jurgen van den Broeck, four times a top ten finisher in Grand Tours including a pair of fourths in France, hits the big three-oh today. Many happy returns, Jurgen!
23 years young for Quintana (image courtesy of Movistar)
One of Jack’s riders to watch, Nairo Quintana (Movistar) will be 23 on the 4th. He’s not the only young ‘un who turns a year older during February, as Elia Viviani (Cannondale) – who bookended his 2012 with wins at the Tours de San Luis and Beijing – will be 24 on the 7th.
Classics specialists are also well represented this month, with Garmin’s Johan Vansummeren (Paris-Roubaix, 2011) and IAM’s Heinrich Haussler (who was edged out at the 2009 Milan-San Remo by one Mark Cavendish) celebrating birthdays on the 4th and 25th respectively.
Finally, a mention for an old personal favourite of mine. Sandy Casar is starting his 14th consecutive season riding for FDJ and turns 34 tomorrow (the 2nd). In his long career, he has won stages at the Tour de France three times (in 2007, 2009 and 2010), and is a strong enough all-round rider to have finished sixth overall at the Giro and in the top 30 at the Tour in each of the last five years.
Happy birthday one and all!
Also on the blog
In addition to the very best race reviews and analysis, we’re going to be expanding on our weekly columns over the course of February. Of course, the ever popular Tweets of the Week will hit the blog every Tuesday, with our Friday Feature continuing to bring you the best in interviews, photography and other exclusive content.
Tim will be launching his new Talking Tactics column next Wednesday, in which he delves into the race strategies employed by riders and teams. And Thursday will become the regular slot for AntBanter, which we hope will eventually become a weekly column.
Watch out for more new columns as the year progresses, with Sheree cooking up some new ideas too.
And, of course, keep an eye open either on the blog or on iTunes for the VeloVoices Podcast, which will be available to download on selected Mondays during the year.
Stage 11: Albertville to La Toussuire-Les Sybelles, 148km
Europcar’s Pierre Rolland picked himself up off the tarmac to take a terrific win, while Cadel Evans (BMC) was the big loser, dropping off the podium and likely out of contention to take the yellow jersey in Paris.
There were numerous attacks on the Col de la Madeleine – an hors catégorie climb which kicked off a brutal day in the saddle with four categorised climbs, three of which were classified over category two. Initially there were over 20 riders in the lead group, with Sky’s Mick Rogers sitting on the front of the peloton ensuring they didn’t get too big an advantage. By the time of the second HC climb, the Col de la Croix de Fer, the group had dramatically reduced in size, but their lead had grown to over four minutes.
It was on this ascent that Evans tried an interesting move, with 64km still to go to the finish. Having sent teammate Tejay Van Garderen up the road earlier, he bridged across and join the American. But they were never able to open up a meaningful gap, and an elite chase group of the major GC contenders formed. By the time they hit the hairy descent from the second category Mollard, only four men remained out front: Pierre Rolland (Europcar), Chris Anker Sorensen (Saxo Bank-Tinkoff Bank), Vasili Kiryienka (Movistar) and Robert Kiserlovski (Astana).
It was pretty quickly three when Rolland rolled around a corner and off his bike. But, some even greater risks later, he rejoined, just in time for the final climb up to La Toussuire. Rogers continued to set the pace, with four Sky riders prominent at the front – including the maillot jaune Bradley Wiggins.
Almost as soon as the climb began the attacking started. Janez Brajkovic (Astana) and Jurgen Van Den Broeck (Lotto-Belisol) jumped from the Wiggins group, while Rolland managed to distance his breakaway companions out front.
With around 10km to the finish, having fittingly lurked up near the front of the Wiggins group, the ‘Shark of Messina’ Vincenzo Nibali (Liquigas-Cannondale) kicked for the first time, only to be pegged back by an impressive Chris Froome (Sky). But he was the only teammate Wiggins had left, and as Nibali attacked for a second time, he appeared to crack.
For the first time in the Tour, Wiggins looked rather isolated. But not for long. Froome astonishingly rode back up to the front of the group, and began to claw back a dangerous-looking group now containing Brajkovic, Van Den Broeck and Nibali. The pace proved to be too much for Evans, who was sent backwards, nursed by the white jersey of Van Garderen.
With just under 4km left, Froome had done the astonishing, and ridden Wiggins back to the Nibali group. What he did next, was even more startling. He rode straight through the group and attacked, leaving the race – and his team’s – leader isolated. No doubt a few expletive-filled radio transmissions later, he stood down, as everyone – bar the leading Frenchman – came back together.
Out front Rolland managed to make it a second consecutive Europcar victory, while Thibaut Pinot (FDJ) out-sprinted Froome to take second, and round off a perfect couple of days for French cycling.
VeloVoices rider of the day
With Froome and Nibali both having been nominated earlier in the Tour, today’s award must go to stage winner Pierre Rolland. A couple of years ago, the future of French cycling looked very bleak indeed. After the retirements of Richard Virenque and Christophe Moreau, there was a desperate dearth of climbing talent – until last year.
Rolland won the stage at the summit of Alpe d’Huez en route to winning the white jersey, and today confirmed his credentials with another huge performance in the mountains, despite his crash earlier in the stage. With Rolland and Pinot climbing with the best riders in the peloton, to paraphrase a certain French multinational telecommunications corporation advert: the future of French cycling is bright. The future is yellow.
Wiggins and Nibali kiss and make up (not literally)
After the ongoing slanging match between the pair, it was nice to see Bradley Wiggins and Vincenzo Nibali recognise each others’ efforts at the end of the stage with an on-bike embrace. Nibali let L’Équipe know in no uncertain terms what he thought of his British counterpart before the race began, with Wiggins returning the favour rather more subtly in post-stage interviews throughout.
Thus, it was nice to see a mark of mutual respect, with Wiggins recognising how hard the Italian had tried to force a gap, and Nibali how excellently Sky have ridden to defend the maillot jaune.
There’s no doubt as to who the day’s big winners and losers are. Bradley Wiggins has comfortably survived the toughest stage of this year’s Tour, whilst Cadel Evans‘ chances of taking the maillot jaune are now close to nil.
An enormous amount of credit must go to Chris Froome – without him Wiggins would have been completely isolated on today’s stage, and would most likely have lost time. But Nibali and Van Den Broeck will feel that even with his Kenyan-born teammate alongside him, they could – and should – have put time into the race leader today.
When they formed an extremely strong group with Janez Brajkovic – around 20 seconds ahead of Wiggins and Froome – they should have had the strength to open up a bigger lead. Three on-form climbers were together but didn’t seem to be riding in unison, when doing so would have had benefits for all.
No doubt there will be more opportunities for Nibali and co to make up time – but they’re fast running out of kilometres in which to do so. The way Sky fell away on the final climb will give them reason for optimism, but better racecraft is required if they are really going to put the yellow jersey under threat – especially when factoring in the final time trial.
As for the other classifications which were fought over today, Fredrik Kessiakoff (Astana) did enough to retake the polka dot jersey after losing it to Thomas Voeckler yesterday – although after putting in such an effort today, how long he will be able to keep it remains to be seen. Rolland may well fancy a pop, just 11 points behind in second place.
Despite aiding his ailing leader Evans, Tejay Van Garderen is still comfortably in the white jersey of best young rider, almost two minutes ahead of Thibaut Pinot. In the BMC team bus tonight I’d imagine much of the discussion will be focusing around whether Van Garderen should ride for GC position rather than helping his weaker teammate in the upcoming stages.
VeloVoices will bring you previews of each day’s stage every morning, live coverage of every stage on Twitter, reviews in the evening and in-depth analysis after selected stages.
We’re now less than one day away from the start of the 2012 Tour de France, and if the bookies are to be believed this year’s race is a battle between just two men – Sky’s Bradley Wiggins and BMC’s defending champion Cadel Evans – with 196 other riders merely background characters.
In truth that is unfair on a field of undoubted quality. Although shorn of Alberto Contador and Andy Schleck, the peloton contains nine Grand Tour winners: Evans, Denis Menchov, Vincenzo Nibali, Michele Scarponi, Ivan Basso, Juan Jose Cobo, Alejandro Valverde, Alexandre Vinokourov and Ryder Hesjedal. And then there are at least half a dozen others who could conceivably consider at least a podium finish to be a reasonable target.
This could make it one of the most open and unpredictable Tours in recent memory, on a parcours designed to allow the advantage to swing between the pure climbers and the all-rounders. But who are the genuine contenders, and who are likely to be exposed as mere pretenders?
The big favourites
Evans will undoubtedly put up a fierce defence of his title (image courtesy of Wikipedia)
Let’s start with the overwhelming favourites in most people’s eyes: BMC’s defending champion Cadel Evans and Sky’s team leader Bradley Wiggins.
Evans finds himself cast in the role of underdog, second favourite at 9/4. He hasn’t enjoyed the stellar results he did in the run-up to last year’s Tour, but a swashbuckling win and third overall at the Critérium du Dauphiné signalled he is building towards a peak at the right time.
An excellent time-triallist who has also become a top-notch climber in his own right, he proved twice on the Galibier last year that he can lead a chase single-handed, and he has the psychological advantage of knowing he can win the Tour, rather than just thinking he can. Evans is also one of the toughest battlers in the peloton, and having worked so hard for so long to gain the crown, he will not relinquish it easily.
How will Wiggins cope with being the favourite? (image courtesy of Wikipedia)
However, it is Wiggins who is the overall favourite at positively stingy odds of 5/4, built on the back of overall victories at Paris-Nice, Tour de Romandie and the Dauphiné. With both Fabian Cancellara and Tony Martin feeling their way back to fitness and form, the Briton has been the outstanding time trial exponent so far this season.
He could easily gain five minutes or more on the climbers across the two long time trials, and with his climbing ability continuing to improve he will be tough to distance even on the big summits, where he need only stay in touch. His only discernible weaknesses are a lack of explosiveness on the steepest climbs and the fact he has not yet won a three-week race.
Ultimately it may well be the battle that goes on inside Wiggins’ head which determines whether he emerges triumphant or cowed come Paris, and it is here where Evans may have a decisive edge.
Can Menchov spearhead a successful Russian attack? (image courtesy of Katusha)
With Contador (suspended) and Schleck Junior (injured) both absent, there’s a big void between the two favourites and the next tier of contenders in terms of odds. Each of the following is a potential winner in the right circumstances, but also offers an attractive each-way option for a finish on the podium. Aside from Evans, two of the other eight former Grand Tour winners in the field stand out above the others.
It has been three years since Denis Menchov (18/1) won the Giro, the most recent of his three Grand Tour titles (he also won the Vuelta in 2005 and 2007). The 34-year old Russian, now with Katusha, is a strong all-rounder with a history of being accident-prone. He has barely raced all season, placing well on occasion at the Vuelta a Andalucia and the Volta a Catalunya. More relevantly, he won his national time trial championship last week.
Can Nibali add a Tour title to the 2010 Vuelta? (image courtesy of Danielle Haex)
Liquigas-Cannondale’s Vincenzo Nibali (20/1) has not placed lower than seventh in any of his last five Grand Tours, including his 2010 Vuelta victory. His spring form was outstanding, winning Tirreno-Adriatico and finishing third and second at the one-day Milan-San Remo and Liège-Bastogne-Liège respectively, but he has been quieter since, culminating in an anonymous ride at the Critérium du Dauphiné.
The Italian is a good time-triallist and an excellent climber who can also attack with devastating effect on the descents. He’ll be ably supported by a strong team which includes fellow Grand Tour winner Ivan Basso, although their resources may become diluted if the prolific Peter Sagan emerges as a green jersey contender.
Behind these two come a gaggle of five riders, all of whom have shown the capability to deliver at least a podium finish. Lotto-Belisol’s Jurgen van den Broeck (20/1) was fourth at the 2010 Tour. The Belgian is a so-so time-triallist whose accelerations could put rivals into trouble on the steeper climbs, but his odds don’t look particularly generous despite his encouraging fifth-place finish at the Dauphiné.
Rabobank’s Robert Gesink (26 years old) and Sky’s Chris Froome (27) are the strongest representatives of the next generation of cycling stars. Both 25/1, Gesink was fifth behind van den Broeck in 2010 and climbed to victory in the Tour of California last month after an impressive solo attack. Froome was second at last year’s Vuelta, just 13 seconds off top spot, and finished fourth in helping Wiggins to victory at the Dauphiné. Gesink’s a decent shout as a dark horse, while Froome – who is also one of the best time trial riders in the peloton – is a real long shot, as he will only come into play should Wiggins falter.
Can Frank finally emerge from Andy’s shadow? (image courtesy of Danielle Haex)
Finally we have two hugely experienced veterans. Samuel Sanchez (Euskaltel-Euskadi) and Frank Schleck (RadioShack-Nissan) can be found at 25/1 and 33/1 respectively. The Spaniard, the reigning Olympic road race champion, has three Grand Tour podiums to his name including third at the 2010 Tour. He was also King of the Mountains last year and this season can boast overall victory at his ‘home race’, Vuelta al Pais Vasco.
Frank has too often ridden in the shadow of his brother Andy, but with the 2010 champion out he will have the freedom to target an improvement on last year’s third-place finish. Sanchez is the better all-rounder, Schleck arguably more consistent. Either or both could easily finish on the podium, although Frank will have to show better ability in the TTs than he ever has before.
There are a number of prominent riders on offer at apparently attractive odds, who are in reality only for the brave of heart or the full of wallet.
One last hurrah for Vino? (image courtesy of Wikipedia)
Of the other five previous Grand Tour winners, current Vuelta champion Juan Jose Cobo (200/1) will be riding primarily in the service of Movistar leader Alejandro Valverde (40/1), who enjoyed early season successes on his return from a doping ban but in reality is more of a prospect for stage wins than the overall. Lampre-ISD’s Michele Scarponi (250/1) was declared the winner of the 2011 Giro after Contador was banned and finished fourth there in May, but is a notoriously weak time-triallist. Two-time Giro winner Ivan Basso (150/1) will ride in support of Nibali, while Alexandre Vinokourov (Astana) will target a breakaway victory in his farewell Tour.
Newly crowned Giro winner Ryder Hesjedal (Garmin-Sharp) is 50/1 to complete a Giro/Tour double which has not been completed since Marco Pantani in 1998. Don’t waste your money. He may go well but it will be a surprise if he finishes anywhere near the podium.
Rolland will seek to build on his Alpe d’Huez success (image courtesy of Europcar)
Also featuring in the betting are Alpe d’Huez stage winner Pierre Rolland of Europcar (50/1), Astana’s Janez Brajkovic (66/1), and Rabobank’s Bauke Mollema (125/1). Each is a talented young rider, but even at these odds they should be considered highly speculative.
The same goes for veteran riders Andreas Kloden (66/1) and Chris Horner (150/1) – both RadioShack and riding to support Schleck – and their former teammate Levi Leipheimer (now Omega Pharma-Quick Step, 80/1). The latter has the capability to deliver a big performance – but people have been saying that for years without joy.
Long-time 2011 yellow jersey Thomas Voeckler (Europcar) is 150/1, reflecting both the exceptional nature of last year’s performance and the knee injury which nearly ruled him out of this race. He will doubtlessly animate the race at some point, but it will take a remarkable performance to do more than that.
Despite this being his Tour debut, Peter Sagan (Liquigas-Cannondale) is the odds-on favourite for the green jersey at 10/11, off the back of five stage wins at the Tour of California and four at the Tour de Suisse. Sagan is fast, powerful and versatile: he can win flat-out sprints, short time trials (he’s a decent bet to take the first maillot jaune in tomorrow’s prologue) and has the strength to get over medium mountains and take vital intermediate points in the manner of a Hushovd or Zabel.
Cavendish will face stiff opposition as he looks ahead to the Olympics (image by Panache)
World champion and reigning green jersey Mark Cavendish has drifted out to 10/3 in recent days, off the back of admissions that his focus this July is Olympic gold rather than green – which has cost him some top-end speed – and that Sky’s primary focus is to put Wiggins in yellow. Mind you, Cav always sandbags at this time of year, but while he will still be involved at the sharp end he won’t dominate the sprints the way he has over the past four editions, where he has averaged five victories per year.
Three of Cavendish’s former teammates are also likely to feature heavily in the points competition. Orica-GreenEDGE’s Matt Goss (9/1) is more in the Sagan mould and claimed a maiden Giro stage win last month, but has not yet hit the form which catapulted him to victory at Milan-San Remo in 2011. Andre Greipel (Lotto-Belisol, 12/1) was unbeatable early in the season and recently added a brace of victories at the Tour de Luxembourg and another at the Ster ZLM Toer to take his 2012 total to 14 wins. And finally Mark Renshaw (50/1) has recently shown signs of completing the transition from lead-out man to featured sprinter, winning at the Tour of Turkey and being there or thereabouts in bunch sprints elsewhere. However, he will lack support from a mountains-focussed Rabobank whose top priority is Robert Gesink.
Beyond the above, it’s hard to see anyone else seriously challenging regularly enough basis to take the green jersey. J J Rojas (Movistar, 14/1) will consistently pick up placings but lacks out-and-out pace. Marcel Kittel (Argos-Shimano, 20/1) is blsiteringly fast on the flat – I’d tip him to win a stage early on – but lacks experience of a three-week race. Veterans Alessandro Petacchi (Lampre-ISD, 25/1) and Oscar Freire (Katusha, 50/1) are getting long in the tooth, while Tyler Farrar (Garmin-Sharp, 33/1), like Rojas, will struggle to live with the top-end speed of Sagan, Cavendish and company.
The mountains competition is difficult to predict, primarily because it is often won by a rider who is not a threat in the general classification, while the top contenders are content to watch each other.
The performance of Voeckler will have a major impact on Rolland’s KoM hopes (image by Panache)
Favourite Chris Anker Sorensen (Saxo Bank-Tinkoff Bank, 13/2), David Moncoutie (Cofidis, 8/1) – a four-time winner of the mountains classification at the Vuelta – and Johnny Hoogerland (Vacansoleil-DCM, 8/1) have relatively short odds with good reason. All able climbers, they are likely to be given the freedom by both the peloton and their teams to attack in the mountains.
Jelle Vanendert (Lotto-Belisol, 16/1) and Pierre Rolland (Europcar, 20/1), both mountain stage winners last year, may be constrained by team orders if they are asked to support leaders Jurgen van den Broeck (25/1) and Thomas Voeckler (50/1). Similarly Dan Martin (Garmin-Sharp, 14/1) may be allowed off the leash, but only if Garmin do not choose to support Hesjedal (50/1) 100%.
The positioning of this year’s major climbs may count against reigning KoM Sanchez (image by Panache)
A number of GC leaders also feature prominently in the betting, notably defending mountains king Samuel Sanchez (Euskaltel-Euskadi, 8/1), Michele Scarponi (Lampre-ISD, 10/1), Frank Schleck (RadioShack-Nissan, 14/1) and Robert Gesink (Rabobank, 25/1). However, unlike last year where key summit finishes brought the GC leaders into play, this year there are just two summit finishes, neither of them hors catégorie, with most of the HC climbs featuring early on in stages. I suspect this will favour the breakaway artists in terms of racking up mountains points.
This year the mountains classification will be shaped by two stages – 11 and 16 – and decided on stage 17. These three days offer a maximum of 65, 60 and 57 points respectively towards the polka dot jersey, as follows:
Stage 11: Albertville to La Toussuire – HC, HC, cat 2, cat 1 summit finish (for which double points are awarded). 20 + 20 + 5 + 20 = 65 points available.
Any rider who has serious KoM aspirations will be desperate to get themselves into the early break on stage 11, where the yellow jersey contenders will gladly let them go unhindered over the first three summits, and potentially even the final climb depending on tactical considerations. Anyone who misses out will literally face an uphill battle to claw their way back into contention on the two Pyrenean stages.
If you fancy a long shot, look to someone such as FDJ-Big Mat’s Arnold Jeannesson (66/1). He climbed well for much of last year’s race and spent two days leading the young rider classification. He’s exactly the sort of rider who would be allowed to slip into a breakaway on the road to La Toussuire, and possesses the climbing legs to contest the mountain-top sprints in search of points. In my opinion, you’re more likely to find value down here at longer odds – particularly among French riders such as Jeannesson – than you are higher up the order.
So, have you seen someone you fancy having a flutter on? Happy hunting and good luck!
All odds are taken from Ladbrokes and were correct at the time of writing this morning (Friday).