Friday Feature: Il Lombardia gallery

Thanks to one of our Guest Voices, Nathalie Novembrini, who provided the narrative after having persuaded her friend Paolo Gianfrate to come along to his first cycling event and take some photographs for us. We didn’t ask Nathalie how she managed to do this, she is after all a sports psychologist!

After an intense week at the World Championships in Tuscany, I had the opportunity to watch another great race this time in my home town – Il Lombardia. As always, the departure was crowded with family, friends and fans. Continue reading

My fantasy, my nightmare

The unzipped jersey of Panache

I smiled as I clicked the final submit button on my fantasy team, confident that my picks were solid and that I would continue my winning ways. After all, I had been in the top 20 of Giro fantasy and had dominated last’s year’s @Velobeats Tour de France league, placing second overall! I was also pleased to have the ‘unzipped’ jersey icon that I designed represent my band of select warriors (and thank you all who are using it as your icon on Velogames). This was my team dressed in custom pixels. Panache was in the winning break! Or so I thought.

But fantasy cycling, like actual cycling, is a seductive mistress that caresses you one moment and stabs you in the heart the next. It appears she has turned on me with blade in hand at this year’s Tour. A dark cave of suffering and misery has replaced my time in the Velogames limelight. I feel like certain big-budget super teams who look great on paper but have no results. Thus far I have had four riders abandon. With a week to go, I sit 116th out of 128 competitors. The lanterne rouge is within my grasp.

Here is my fantasy team, thoughts on each rider, and their current fantasy status. Warning: this is not pretty.

Cadel Evans

Panache had faith in the defending champion (image courtesy of Wikipedia)

I watched Cadel at the Dauphine and thought that he was on a perfect trajectory to peak for the Tour. He would limit his losses in the TTs to Bradley Wiggins and he would attack in the mountains to gain time. Upgrades to the BMC roster would fortify the Australian champion in the mountains as well.  Cadel, I thought, had learned the winning formula and showed that he could handle the pressure.

Meanwhile, Bradley would falter because he peaked too soon. The weight of the yellow jersey would be too much for him. Sky would be divided between Wiggo and Cav … blah, blah, blah…

Well, I was dead wrong. Brad is on fire and Sky have a focused TT/mountain machine that is grinding souls into oblivion and scoring massive points for others. Wiggins is handling the pressure like he’s on a group ride with a bunch of one-legged nuns. Cadel appears to be the second strongest rider … on his team (next to Tejay Van Garderen – blink and you’ll miss him as he rides past …). Riders like Vincenzo Nibali and Jurgen Van Den Broeck continue to finish in front of him. It also appears that luck has turned a blind eye on Cadel as illustrated by Puncture-gate!

Fantasy status: Only 778 points earned up to stage 14. He has earned me no stage win points. Cadel will be fighting just to make the podium, which may limit any possible bonus fantasy points.

Peter Sagan

Sagan has been the star of the TdF – and Panache’s Fantasy Team … (image courtesy of Danielle Haex)

If you didn’t pick the Velvet Samurai™ then you haven’t been watching cycling this season. Multiple wins in California and Switzerland … He’s The Hulk, The Running Man (or Forrest Gump), and a descending demon, all rolled into one. As expected, he is dominating on all types of terrain and is in the clear lead for the green jersey. He has a bright future that could include an Olympic gold medal in a few weeks and/or the rainbow jersey – if not this season, surely in the next few years. You all know why I picked him, because you picked him too. Peter might be the only factor preventing me from becoming the lanterne rouge in the Velobeats league.

Fantasy status: a whopping 1,143 points earned up to stage 14. He has raked in stage win points, green jersey points and will give me bonus points for winning the green jersey.

Samuel Sanchez

Panache chose Samu over FroomeDog. #Unluck (image courtesy of Danielle Haex)

Last year Samu wore the polka dots on the final podium and this year he wanted to do even better. With Alberto Contador on the sidelines, I believed that Sanchez would be Spain’s shining carrot for the Tour. Surely he would take a stage win and be top ten on mountain-top finishes! He was to be the X factor of the GC contenders. I was torn between selecting Sanchez or Chris Froome. I chose the defending Olympic road race champion – who proceeded to crash during stage eight, fracturing his right hand and injuring his left shoulder, while FroomeDog has been in perfect form. In my head, I see a Holy Grail Knight shaking his head: “You have chosen poorly.”

Fantasy status: a measly 60 points earned until he was forced to abandon.

David Moncoutie

Other than some upstart named Rein Taaramae, David Moncoutie is the Cofidis team. Known for being aggressive in the mountains and always trying to get in the break, David seemed like a sure thing for a decent price. The 2012 Tour would also likely be his last, so naturally he would want to put on a show! This is France’s greatest sporting spectacle and Cofidis would need David to get camera time and go for stage wins to satisfy sponsors and justify their selection.

But none of this was to be. Alas, Moncoutie crashed on stage 12, suffering heavy contusions to his left side and forcing him, for the first time, to abandon a Grand Tour. Cofidis now find themselves with no star while they deal with the doping-related arrest of Remy Di Gregorio and a struggling Taaramae.

Fantasy status: a dismal 20 points earned until Moncoutie was forced to abandon.

Marcel Kittel

This Argonaut was felled by a dodgy tummy … (image by Panache/ccarls1)

I’ve had my eye on Kittel since last year’s blazing performance at the Tour of Poland. We all know that this kid is fast. I selected him because he was young, healthy and had a team dedicated to getting him to the line first on the flatter sprint stages. Winning the sprints was his sole purpose and if he didn’t win, he would at least be in the top five and earn me some points.

I thought Marcel would have the stomach for victory in his Tour debut but he did not, quite literally. A stomach bug prevented Kittel from eating properly and as the Tour rolled on, he could not stay nourished. He abandoned after stage five.

Fantasy status: one point earned … that’s right.. only one freakin’ point until he was forced to abandon. All I have to say about that is … poop.

Tony Martin

Punctures, falls, abandonment for Tony Martin (image courtesy of Wikipedia)

I thought Tony Martin would be my ringer. He is the man who could have taken it to Fabian Cancellara in the prologue and put me in the lead on the first day of the Tour! But he could also be decent when the road goes up. Ha ha, I laughed, rubbing my hands together, take that other Velobeat players! Pride comes before a fall, however, and Lady Luck had different plans as she tightened her chastity belt and would not let Martin near her. Everything went wrong for Martin from the start. Before breaking his hand in the first stage, he punctured in the opening prologue, dashing his hope of claiming the yellow jersey [He was never going to beat Fabs, don’t kid yourself, Panache – Kitty.] One puncture is bad enough but then it happened again in the stage nine time trial! Discouraged and needing to mend to keep his Olympic TT hopes alive, Martin abandoned at the start of stage ten.

Fantasy status: a dismal 30 points earned until he was forced to abandon.

Johnny Hoogerland

Anybody seen Johnny? Panache hasn’t … (image courtesy of Danielle Haex)

Before the beginning of the Tour, Johnny Hoogerland publicly stated that his goal was to get the win the King of the Mountains jersey. After witnessing his panache last year, I had to believe he was sincere. Surely the horrendous crash from last year would inspire him to greatness!

Has anyone seen Johnny Hoogerland? Anybody … (sound of crickets chirping, tumbleweed rolling down the street). Johnny, your lack of activity has thrown my fantasy team into a barbed wire fence! You know how bad that hurts! Help a brother out!

Fantasy status: zero points. Goose egg. Who would have guessed that Johnny Hoogerland would have no fantasy points? None??? The Mayans might have been correct … the world might end this year.

Marcus Burghardt

I didn’t expect much from Marcus because I know his role is to protect Cadel, carry bottles, and be a good domestique.  He was my last pick because I had four extra Euros to spend and that is how much he costs. I am shocked he has earned me more points than Marcel Kittel and Johnny Hoogerland combined (I can’t believe that) … So, Marcus, chapeau!

Fantasy Status: 23 points.

Jeremy Roy

Mr Roy came into the Tour in some of the best form of his life. This was evident in the French national TT and road races where he nearly won both. Last year he was awarded the most combative rider in the entire Tour! He was in every break trying to make something happen! This year, he helped set up Thibaut Pinot’s victory in stage eight by getting in the break and turning the screws. That is all we have seen of him. Who would have thought that Roy would be playing third wheel to Pinot and Federigo?

Jeremy, where are you?  Are you hiding out with Hoogerland?

Fantasy Status: 25 points.

One thing I have learned from this fantasy-turned-nightmare team is, if I can’t pick a winning team from all the cyclists in the peloton, what hell must a team’s management go through trying to build a winning team for the Tour? Unless, of course, you’re David Brailsford…

Tour de France analysis: The conservation of energy

Ask a physicist about the Law of Conservation of Energy, and they will tell you it states that ‘the total amount of energy in an isolated system remains constant over time’. Or, to paraphrase it into cycling terms: a rider only has a certain amount of energy, so don’t waste it.

Never is this more true than at the Tour de France, where riders can expend (and therefore must consume) upwards of 5,000 calories per day over three weeks – it’s no surprise so many of them suffer from ‘digestive issues’ – and every one of them, even the yellow jersey, is practically on their hands and knees by the time the Champs-Élysées finally hoves into view. Energy is a scarce resource, and just as some riders are better than others at maximising their talent, the same is true about tailoring their efforts appropriately. It’s worth bearing the Conservation of Energy in mind when we assess the performance to date of the riders so far.

Are BMC’s tactics really that good?

Earlier in the week, Sky came under some fairly heavy criticism for not riding closer to the front to ensure Bradley Wiggins – who crashed out of last year’s race with a broken collarbone – had the best possible chance of avoiding crashes. Meanwhile BMC were roundly praised for regularly putting themselves on the front of the peloton in the closing 15-20km or so of stages, not because they were trying to set up a sprinter but because it is part of their strategy for keeping defending champion Cadel Evans out of trouble.

There is some considerable merit in the criticism of Sky, just as some of the praise of BMC’s tactics is also correct. But is it really so clear cut? I’m not so sure.

Burghardt has kept Evans out of trouble, but at what cost to his energy reserves? (image courtesy of BMC)

Sky team principal David Brailsford often talks about the cumulative benefit to be derived from incremental gains, and the converse is true in terms of the eventual impact of decremental losses. Start with one of cycling’s basic truisms: it takes more effort to ride at the front than it does to ride behind the man at the front. That’s why Evans is never at the front of the BMC line – a Marcus Burghardt or a George Hincapie hammers away at the front while Evans enjoys the benefit of sitting in the ‘hole in the air’ created behind them, while also enjoying a position near the front of the peloton where he is least likely to be caught up in a crash.

But the downside is that Burghardt and Hincapie expend considerably more energy than they would if they were sitting in the middle of the peloton. That has no discernible effect in the first week of the race. But what about in week three, when Evans really needs his team to chase down a dangerous break in the Pyrenees and they run out of reserves?

By comparison, will Sky benefit down the line from the admittedly riskier tactic of hiding their riders away inside the peloton for long stretches in the race’s early days? (Although they have been more prominent at the front in recent days, ostensibly adopting BMC’s tactics.) And how much will Vincenzo Nibali and Denis Menchov, whose Liquigas and Katusha teams do not have the same strength on paper as either BMC or Sky, benefit from having hidden to the point of near-invisibility all week?

It’s hard to quantify. But I do wonder whether BMC’s early shows of strength – though impressive – will end up costing them later in the race. After all, riders only have so much energy which they need to conserve as much as they can, and nobody ever won the Tour by flexing their muscles in the first week of the race. There is a fine balance between mitigating risk and having a relatively fresh team in the final week – BMC have opted for the former, Sky arguably the latter.

We shall see. Sky’s first week riding may have shown less panache than BMC, but it might ultimately turn out to be more efficient. And one day those marginal energy savings could add up to the team effort which wins the Tour.

To sprint or not to sprint?

I’ve been a big fan of the Tour’s new points system since it was introduced last year. By reducing the number of intermediate sprints to one and increasing the number of points and placings available, what used to be a meaningless token swept up by the day’s breakaway has now become the race-within-a-race of a green jersey competition in which Peter Sagan‘s lead has concertinaed from seemingly insurmountable to potentially vulnerable.

Greipel has sacrificed his green jersey chances for stage wins (image courtesy of Lotto-Belisol)

But even here, with the sprinters often racing for a valuable 10 or 11 points from out of the chasing peloton, the Conservation of Energy still applies. The vast majority of these sprints have been won by a rider – usually Mark Cavendish – racing at no more than 95% with the aim of winning with the least amount of energy, in order to save something for the end-of-stage sprint. It’s often been a bit like watching a dance rehearsal where everyone steps through their moves at half-speed.

In some cases, riders have taken this to the extreme, eschewing the intermediate sprint altogether to focus on conserving their finishing burst. In effect, this means sacrificing green jersey aspirations for a greater chance at stage wins. So while Cavendish, Matt Goss and Sagan have contested every sprint, Andre Greipel, Tyler Farrar and many of the other fast men have kept their powder dry for the finish. Doing so certainly hasn’t harmed Greipel, who took back-to-back victories on stages four and five, and might well have made it three in a row in Metz yesterday had he not dislocated his shoulder in an early crash.

It has added a new dimension to sprint tactics, giving us a clear split between those who want the jersey and those who seek only the glory of stage wins as riders have had to nail their colours to the (green) mast. The fact that riders have to compromise one option to pursue the other is all down to the need to conserve that 1% extra energy that makes the difference between a great jump in the closing metres of a sprint and one which makes no impression whatsoever.

Doing a McEwen

I’m fascinated by the way some riders are obviously so much better at finding ways to conserve their energy than others, who look positively wasteful by comparison. In his autobiography One Way Road, three-time green jersey winner (and now Orica-GreenEDGE sprint coach) Robbie McEwen describes his almost obsessive focus on saving small scraps of energy that he could use to his advantage in the final bunch sprint. These ranged from always taking the best possible line through corners – something a lot of riders are quite lackadaisical about – to ‘surfing the peloton’ (using the energy of the bunch to allow him to ease smoothly up towards the front with minimal effort), to what Kitty calls ‘doing a McEwen’: cruising up to the front of the pack at the foot of a mountain, and then slowly drifting down to the back as the climb progresses, thereby minimising effort.

Is Farrar wasteful with his energy? (image courtesy of Danielle Haex)

On the flat stages, it’s noticeable that Cavendish is the heir apparent to McEwen. Of all the sprinters, his ability to read the shifting sands of the peloton and put himself onto the right wheel at the right moment with the minimum energy expenditure is arguably the best of the bunch.

Some riders possess that instinct, others don’t. For instance, I’ve long been of the opinion that Tyler Farrar is a talented sprinter but also one who is slightly wasteful with his energy. Whereas Cavendish typically cruises about a third of the way back in the peloton before decisively ghosting his way to the front when he needs to, Farrar seems to waste effort drifting aimlessly backwards and forwards – just watch how he’s often caught out by crashes in the bunch that others always seem to avoid, which must surely cost him in some small way at the end of the stage. Whether that is the result of too much nervous energy or not enough instinct is unclear.

I’m not sure who else might one day replace the departed Robbie as the king of ‘doing a McEwen’ in the mountains. But I’ll be watching out on this afternoon’s climbs to see which sprinters keep popping up at the front of the bunch in the foothills, before slipping gently back down again. I’ll probably be conserving my energy by sitting back and relaxing with a beer while doing it …

VeloVoices will bring you previews of each day’s stage every morning, live coverage of every stage on Twitterreviews in the evening and in-depth analysis after selected stages.

Link: Tour de France official website