Thursday, September 27, 2012

Preview of Giro di Lombardia

After a long and very interesting season it’s now time for the last big race in 2012; Giro di Lombardia. It’s “the race of the falling leaves” but despite it being the end of the season we still have a lot of great riders ready to fight for the last big win and important WorldTour points. Last year Oliver Zaugg took his first professional win ever when he soloed to victory in Lecco, but something tells me that we will see one of the favorites taking the win this time.
Muro di Sormano.
Click for larger view!

There is no way around it. The way he won the World Champions last Sunday, Philippe Gilbert is the big favorite for a wonderful double to end off the season. Gilbert has already won the race twice in the past (2009 and 2010) and the way he has been building up his shape towards the World Champions, I’m sure he wil be ready to take his third Lombardia win. It’s true that the added “Muro di Sormano” probably will make a selection a lot earlier than normally, but with a strong team around him and about 100 km to go from the top, Gilbert shouldn’t have any problems staying in front. 

BMC sports director Rik Verbrugghe told Sporza that 2012 had been an “off-year” for Gilbert and you know you’re talking about a real champion when two Vuelta stages and a World Champion title still is being looked at as an off-year. Gilbert will be eager to end this season with another win and the way I see only a few riders can do anything against that.

One of them is Damiano Cunego. Starting the Vuelta España six weeks ago Cunego’s aim was - like Gilbert -to ride the Vuelta in order to be in the best shape possible for the World Champions. Unfortunately for Cunego, halfway through the race the Italian federation implied their new “clean policy” leaving Cunego out of the roster for Limburg. Cunego kept on trying to hit the right breakaway though - being one of the most aggressive riders in the beginning of the stages - but without any luck. Now it’s time for revenge. Missing out on the World Champions on a route that suited him perfectly, Cunego really wants to show what he can do in Giro di Lombardia, a race he has won three times already. Last year he came to Lombardia just a few days after Tour of Beijing and without jetlag this time I will very surprised if he and in-form and team mate Diego Ulissi won’t have their saying in the final on Saturday afternoon.

Villa Vergano - 7,4% avg.
9,5 km to go from the top.
Another strong candidate for the win is Alberto Contador. I must admit I didn’t put Contador down as one of the favorites before his win in Milano-Torino, but now it would be stupid not to. Despite the scale showing 2,4 kg more than in the end of the Vuelta España, Alberto Contador still managed to drop everyone when he attack on the last kilometer and soloed to his first one-day-race victory ever. Last year Oliver Zaugg managed to go solo on the last climb (Villa Vergano) and keep his lead all the way to the line. Contador knows he doesn’t stand a chance in a sprint against riders like Gilbert, Cunego and Purito, but if he can put in another attack like the one in Milano-Torino on Villa Vergano he will be very difficult to catch.

Joaquim ‘Purito’ Rodriguez is also a good pick for the win and together with team mates Dani Moreno and Alexander Kolobnev, Katusha have one of the strongest teams in the race. Last year Purito attacked too late on Villa Vergano and had to settle with third place. This year he finally won his first Classic in Fleche Wallone and being so close to the overall win in both the Giro and the Vuelta I’m sure he will do anything in this power to end this year with a win and a good taste in his mouth. Another thing to boost Purito’s morale is that a top place in Lombardia most likely will give him another overall World Tour win as Bradley Wiggins seems to be out of shape right now.

As always this late in the season it’s all about who has most left in the tank and that means we often see outsiders shine. I find many good jokers on the start list but as said, I think it will be one of the favorites taking the win. Still, I would like point out guys like Lars Petter Nordhaug and Carlos Betancur. Both riders are changing team next year (Nordhaug to Rabobank and Betancur to Ag2r) but that fact hasn’t benched them for this classic. Nordhaug showed at the World Champions that he’s in great shape when he was with Edvald Boasson Hagen on Cauberg in the final. Nordhaug was just about to bridge the gap to the chasing trio, a move that probably could have given EBH the rainbow jersey, but missed out in the end. With his win in GP Montréal earlier this month there is no doubt though that Lars Petter Nordhaug is in great shape right now and being a disappointed in Team Sky for not fighting to keep him on the team I could imagine he is eager to show them they made the wrong call when they let him go to Rabobank.

Carlos Betancur showed great he is ready for Lombardia when he took 5th place in Milano-Torino, arriving with Purito after a strong finish, and despite having Danilo Di Luca on the team, I think Betancur is Acqua e Sapone’s best chance of a good result this Saturday. Betancur won the hard stage to Frabosa Soprana in Giro di Padania a couple of weeks ago and taking 9th place in Lombardia last year, he sure knows what it takes to be there in the final. 

Friday, September 21, 2012

World Champions Preview - Road Race

Ever since this course was revealed, one rider has been everybody’s big time favorite; Philippe Gilbert. He was unbeatable last season and with the finishing line like just a few kilometers after Cauberg, I too couldn’t really see any other rider taking the rainbow jersey. That was last year though. This season Gilbert has struggled to perform and if it hadn’t been for his two stage wins in Vuelta España I think many would have only counted Gilbert as a dark horse for this Sunday. Now he’s suddenly the big favorite again and even though I must admit it’s hard not to take him as my winner pick, I honestly see a handful of riders able to challenge him.

The fact that the finish line is located 1,7 km after the top of Cauberg means that riders like Peter Sagan, Simon Gerrans and Alejandro Valverde will have a good chance of coming back if Gilbert should manage to drop them. And yes, I think it all will come down to Cauberg. The Belgian team and the Spanish team are simply too strong and with a course like this one they can’t afford not to work hard in order to keep it together in the end. Furthermore they will have Slovakia (6 riders) and probably Australia (9 riders) to help out as well. Simon Gerrans may not want to go up mano a mano with Gilbert and Sagan but he sure doesn’t want to attack 50 kilometers out either. He has been showing great shape lately and Australia need to make sure he gets delivered in a perfect position. This means we have at least four teams to control the peloton and even though opportunistic riders like Thomas Voeckler, Vincenzo Nibali and Alexander Kolobnev want to have a say too, I think this World Champion (like last year) will be won by one of the big favorites.

For quite some time I’ve been naming Alejandro Valverde as my personal favorite for the rainbow jersey and I won’t change that. Despite a hard Tour de France it seems like Valverde came out of the Vuelta as one of the strongest riders and even though Spain have 9 guys who can win this race, I think it will be a mistake not to aim to win with Valverde. Oscar Freire, Dani Moreno, Samuel Sanchez and Purito are all excellent riders for this type of course but in a sprint right after Cauberg none of them can match Valverde’s finish - not even Freire! Alejandro Valverde has a very rare killer instinct when he sees the finish line, like Danilo Di Luca, and if he’s in the front when the approaching Cauberg for the last time, I think  he will be more than difficult to beat. The way I see it, this will be a fight between Valverde, Gilbert and Sagan - probably in that order too as Sagan doesn’t seem as fast right now as earlier this year.

As always I have a couple of jokers too and this being the World Champions one of these is Matti Breschel. I’m not just been patriotic, I actually think Matti has a solid chance of another medal. He should have won in Australia two years ago and after two years full of bad luck it’s now time to take revenge. He showed in Vuelta a Burgos that his shape is good when he won Stage 3 and again in the Vuelta when he tried to anticipate Gilbert’s winning move in La Lastrilla. According to himself he’s not among the favorites and that’s true. He’s not a favorite, but he is one of the outsiders. Matti Breschel is an excellent championship rider who always performs on the big scenes and if he has one of his great days he should do top10 for sure and why not podium again…

Another joker is Moreno Moser. The young Italian has been outstanding in this first year as professional with many great wins and together with Vincenzo Nibali and Oscar Gatto, Moser is probably the best Italian pick for a medal. For the first time in many years the Italian team isn’t build around one rider and that means Azzurri will have to attack, attack and attack if they want to win. Nibali has never been afraid of attacking from afar and even though he often lack some tactical sense you’ve got to admire his way of riding. Like Nibali, Moreno Moser also knows how to take the peloton by surprise. Despite his young age I would say we already know his signature move - a late attack within the final kilometers. Moser has an outstanding engine and if he manages to get up over Cauberg among the first 10-20 riders, I will say it’s almost certain he will try with a solo move on the last 1,7 kilometers. Portuguese Rui Costa is also a rider to look out for this Sunday. Same goes for Michael Albasini and Tour of Britain winner Jonathan Tiernan-Locke.

Winner pick: Alejandro Valverde
Jokers: Matti Breschel & Moreno Moser

During the Vuelta España I had a daily winner pick duel with Eurosport blogger Blazin' Saddles. Surprisingly enough it all ended in a draw after 21 stages, so to settle the score I'll go head-2-head against Felix at the World Champions. You have my winner pick and two jokers already, here are his:

Winner pick: Philippe Gilbert
Joker: Simon Gerrans & Rui Costa

Explanation: The Belgian is coming into form after a terrible season. Two Vuelta stage wins has turned things round for Gilbert, who won the Amstel Gold Race in successive years over these roads. He knows what it's like to win on the Cauberg, plus he has the sprint to take it after the flat 1.7km run over the summit. Peter Sagan has been quiet recently, suggesting his best form came back during his hat-trick of wins during the Tour, while Alejandro Valverde will be exhausted from his final-week exertions during the Vuelta. The flat run-in won't help the Spaniard either. That said, if Sagan is in touch with the leaders over the top of the 10th and final ascent of the Cauberg, then he'll be near-impossible to beat. For my joker, I was tempted by Rui Costa, the in-form Portuguese, and also by Thomas Voeckler, who has the whole French squad behind him on what seems to be a tailor-made course. But I'll go for Simon Gerrans instead. The Australian has ordered his season with the Worlds in mind; he's in form after his win in Quebec and he's podiumed in the Amstel Gold before. If anyone can cause an upset, it's Gerrans.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

World Champions Preview - Time Trial

The two best time trialists of the season, Fabian Cancellara and Bradley Wiggins are not taking part in the World Champions this year that means we could see some surprising names on the final podium Wednesday afternoon. Still, last year’s World Champion Tony Martin is here and together with Vuelta España winner Alberto Contador he is one of the big favorites.

The course last year in Copenhagen was perfect for Tony Martin without any hills and with plenty of parts where he could get his big engine going. This year the course is completely different with nasty hills and many turns. According to home soil favorite Lieuwe Westra the longest straight out part of the total 45,7 km is about 4,5 km while the rest is a couple of hundred meters before turning left and another couple of hundred meters before turning right. It’s a course for riders with good bike handling skills and I think the many turns and the undulating route will make it hard for Tony Martin to repeat his win from last year. I’m not saying he is not going to win, I’m just saying it will be very tough to pull it off.

My personal winner pick for the gold medal is Alberto Contador. The Vuelta was hard - no doubts - but he should be able to recover well and do a great race already. Before Contador got his ban, the Olympic time trial was a big goal for him this season and looking at the two courses I would say this one suits Contador even better. He finished 2nd after Fredrik Kessiakoff without taking big risk on the descent towards the finish line. Contador had best time at the check point and if it had been a time trial for the overall win in the Vuelta I’m sure he would have won too.

Earlier this year I picked Lieuwe Westra as joker for the World Champion time trial and after his insane time trial in Post Danmark Rundt (where he beat Geraint Thomas with 19 seconds over just 14,5 km) I would say he seems ready. Normally Westra is better in the short time trials but on home soil and with the hills in his favor I think he will be able to get a very good result. It won’t be easy getting on the podium, but I think he can do it on a good day.

Another outsider for the podium is Tejay van Garderen. In the team time trial TJ went so fast over Cauberg that Phinney couldn’t follow and that probably cost BMC the win. Both Phinney and TJ have high hopes for this time trial but I think TJ has the best chance of a medal - mainly because of the hills. It also depends on the weather. A strong tail wind will minimize the influence of the hills and that would mean Taylor Phinney finally could step up on the podium after his two 4th places at the Olympics. Both Americans have a good chance, but I’ll go with Westra and TJ as my podium jokers.

Winner pick: Alberto Contador
Jokers: Lieuwe Westra & Tejay van Garderen

Friday, September 14, 2012

Extra focus on the team time trial

The World Champions Team Time Trial is already this Sunday and therefore I decided to repost the article I wrote about the event earlier this year. Here you go:

Since the UCI revealed there would be a team time trial for sponsored teams on the menu for the World Champions in Limburg this year, every team with ambitions has been rearming their roster with strong time trialists.

Given the fact that the World Champions takes place in Holland, Dutch Vacansoleil-DCM is naturally one of the teams with an extra focus on the team time trial. With strong riders like Stijn Devolder and the two season-sensations Lieuwe Westra and Thomas De Gendt on the team, Vacansoleil-DCM were already set to clock in a decent time on home soil. Still, to increase their chances, they went out and signed Swedish time trial specialist Gustav Erik Larsson (who started out winning the opening time trial in Paris-Nice this year) and Danish Martin Mortensen who is always among the best time trialists of his country.

Swedish time trial specialist, Gustav Erik Larsson, is signed to
give Vacansoleil-DCM a better chance of succes in the TTT.
"Gustav [Erik Larsson] is a great cyclist who can give us joy all year long, but of course we had that [the World Champions TTT] in mind when we signed him. Martin [Mortensen] is also on our 10-riders list [for the TTT]. Valkenburg is definitely a goal for us and we already went to inspect the course last January. We also had our team presentation in the south of Limburg, near to the track”, Press Officer of Vacansoleil-DCM Ard Bierens tells me.

It’s not only Vacansoleil-DCM who have been reinforcing their roster. For this season BCM Racing signed super time trialists like Marco Pinotti (winner of the individual time trial in Giro d’Italia this year) and Tejay van Garderen together with Philippe Gilbert (Currently national time trial champion of Belgium) and Thor Hushovd, while Astana signed Janez Brajkovic and Andrei Kashechkin. Team Sky got Richie Porte and Konstantin Sioutsou and Movistar signed Vladimir Karpets, Jonathan Castroviejo, Giovanni Visconti (and Alejandro Valverde).

One of the strongest teams in the first half of 2012, OmegaPharma-Quickstep, already had a strong lineup for the team time trial with riders like Sylvain Chavanel, Niki Terpstra, Dario Cataldo and Tom Boonen. Those riders probably wouldn't have been able to win the World Champion Team Time Trial, but with the new signings of Tony Martin, Bert Grabsch, Levi Leipheimer, Peter Velits and young-gun Mikael Kwiatkowski they will be among the top favorites together with Team Sky.

One could argue that the lack of training together and oiling the machine before the World Champions would be a problem. Lately we have seen more and more team time trials in the stage races but without a long one in the Tour de France this year and only two very flat ones in the Giro (32 km) and Vuelta (16,5 km) there won't be many chances for the teams to practice in races. According to Vacansoleil-DCM’s Ard Bierens that won’t have much influence on the team’s preparations though.

It’s not a problem. Eneco Tour also has a team time trial now and together with the others during the season it’s enough. At the end it all comes down to the day itself and the performance then. It isn't easy to ride many races with the expected WC-selections, so that [not training together much]won’t be a problem”, he says.

Vacansoleil-DCM aim to end in the top10 in the World Champions Team Time Trial on home soil this year.

The World Champion Team Time Trial course in Limburg - 53,2 km.
One of the only teams that breaks the pattern of signing strong riders for the team time trial is Team Saxo Bank-Tinkoff Bank. Bjarne Riis has always been very fond of the discipline and even though he gets Alberto Contador back in time, he still let go of both Richie Porte and Gustav Erik Larsson. On paper Riis shouldn’t be very optimistic but after a good performance in the Giro d’Italia (Saxo Bank taking 4th place) the Danish team owner is now confident he can put together a strong team.

Team Saxo Bank taking 4th place in
the TTT in Giro d'Italia this year.
That's the plan - to have a good team there, come out of the Vuelta in good shape and then do well. We have proved that even with a team that is absolutely not favorites, we can go fast in the team time trials. We have a lot of experience in that. You saw we were fourth in the Giro team time trial recently and that was a surprise for many.  I’m confident we're going to be strong”, Bjarne Riis tells Eurosport.

The World Champions Team Time Trial 2012 takes place on Sunday the 16th of September with the first team starting at 14:30. The distance is 53,2 km and the course features three climbs; Lange Raarberg (1300 meters with 4,5%), Bergseweg (2700 meters with 3,3%) and the legendary Cauberg (1200 meters with 5,8%).

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Vuelta España 2012 - Bravo Alberto!

Alberto Contador showed seven fingers when he crossed the finish line in Madrid with a big smile on his face and happy team mates at his side.

There are no doubts that in Contador's mind the last two voided Giro and Tour wins still count for him and I'm sure it won't take long before he shows two full hands crossing the finish line as winner of yet another Grand Tour.

Alberto Contador got the prize for most aggressive rider in the race and that seems like a fair choice looking at his eagerness to attack during this Vuelta.

From day one Alberto Contador had his mind on winning Vuelta España - and nothing but that - and three weeks later he pulled it off. There is nothing left to say but:


Vuelta Preview - Stage 21

I can't be satisfied with the amounts of points I've got in my competition with Felix during this Vuelta, but at least my predictions on who's the strongest and what's going to happen seem to fit. Anyway, it's time for the last stage of Vuelta España 2012 and I can't see this end in any other way than a mass sprint on Plaza de Cibeles.

John Degenkolb has shown to be nearly unbeatable when he's up there in the finals and I'm sure Argos-Shimano want to demonstrate their strength by ending this race with a fifth stage win for the fast German. It's the classic finish in Madrid on Paseo del Prado with the finish line next to the Cibeles fountain. In total the riders do 10 laps in the center of Madrid, much like we know it from the Tour de France, and with all the jerseys settled already there isn't really anything left but the stage win to fight for. Well, maybe Alejandro Valverde will try to rip the green points jersey of Purito's shoulder, but I'm sure Purito won't let that happen like in 2010, when Mollema "stole" the jersey on the very last day in Madrid.

It should be a fight between the usual suspects Degenkolb, Swift, Bennati, Viviani, Davis etc. so again it's almost impossible to pick a joker. I have tried Manuel Cardoso, Matti Breschel & Lloyd Mondory - without luck - earlier in this Vuelta but I think I will give one of them another shot. Lloyd Mondory seems to be getting stronger and stronger during the race and he's not afraid of taking chances in the final. He's not as fast as Degenkolb and co. but if he times his sprint right, I think he can get close to a Top3 - which is the best I can hope for with a joker on this stage.

Winner pick: John Degenkolb
Joker: Lloyd Mondory

To make this Vuelta a little bit more interesting I’ve challenged Eurosport blogger Blazin' Saddles to a winner pick duel during the race. You have my winner and joker picks above, here you have Felix':

Winner pick: John Degenkolb
Joker: Assan Bazayev

Overall score:
Felix 9 points
Mikkel 9 points 

Friday, September 7, 2012

Vuelta Preview - Stage 20

Just a few days ago we all thought this would be the stage where the Vuelta would find its final winner. In a way it still is, but definitely not like we expected it to be. Only a total off day or bad luck can rip the red jersey of Alberto Contador's shoulder and I can't see it happen.

Contador will win this year's Vuelta España, like predicted, but the second place is still wide open! Before the stage there are only 46 seconds between Valverde and Purito and even though only the victory seemed to count for Purito I'm sure he will do everything he can to end second instead of third. No disrespect for Alejandro Valverde, but it's no shame to lose a Grand Tour to Alberto Contador. Second place after the Spanish legend is still something you can be proud of.

Therefore I expect Purito to give everything he has left in the tank in order to drop Valverde on Bola del Mundo. So far Purito has taken 55 seconds (without bonus seconds) on Valverde on the previous stages ending with a climb (without taking stage 4 into consideration) but it has never been more than maximum 19 seconds á stage (without bonus seconds) so he really needs to dig deep and probably even win the stage in order to overtake Valverde in the general classification. Not an easy task, but never the less a task I think Purito can manage. Mentally it won't be easy but there are no doubts  that the last climb suits Purito very well with parts of 23% within the last kilometer.

Bola del Mundo - Click for larger view!
A few days ago I thought Purito might let Contador take this stage on home soil near Madrid, but after the epic stage to Fuente Dé the tables have turned. It would be an amazing finish to this Vuelta for Alberto Contador if he wins on Bola del Mundo in the red jersey - and I’m sure he will try hard to do so - but I also  but I think it will be difficult to drop Purito if the Katusha captain can put his mind to take the 2nd place overall instead of winning. No matter what this is a stage you need to watch live!

As you can see I think this will be a fight between the best riders and therefore it's very difficult to pick a joker. I really think Igor Antón will try something on a climb that suits him perfectly but it won't be easy to get away as Rabobank will work hard in order to protect their 6th and 7th place overall. I agreed with Felix than any rider outside of the top3 can be seen as a joker for this stage the only problem is who to pick? I have a feeling Antón has what it takes to pull it off, but I also have a good eye to Sergio Henao. It seems like Team Sky are giving Uran and Henao green light to try own luck as the podium is out of reach for Chris Froome and if the favorite hesitate a bit Sergio Henao could profit with a strong attack.

With my luck the last couple of days (Tiralongo & Valverde on stage 17 and Degenkolb and Matti on stage 19) it will probably be the one I don’t pick who wins. Anyway I’ll take Antón and hope for the best!

Winner pick: Purito
Joker: Igor Antón

To make this Vuelta a little bit more interesting I’ve challenged Eurosport blogger Blazin' Saddles to a winner pick duel during the race. You have my winner and joker picks above, here you have Felix':

Winner pick: Alberto Contador
Joker: Thomas de Gendt

Explanation: Belgian all-rounder Thomas de Gendt came into the race with high hopes but so far has just a couple of breaks and a second place to his name. The 25 year old loves these big stages - just look at his track record with the Stelvio and Ciutu Negru - and he also has the polka dot jersey in his sights. A good day could see de Gendt take the stage and become king of the mountains before riding into the sunset on his belated honeymoon. If so, then his new wife will be a lucky girl... But my favourite for the Bola del Mundo showdown is the man I always tipped to win the entire race: Alberto Contador. His form had been consistently high and he's in the ascendency after that win at Fuente De. He also deserves a second stage scalp in a race he has lit up with his constant attacks. That said, I can envisage a situation where the Big Three mark each other out all the way to the summit and Contador gives the win to Purito or Valverde in a magnanimous display of seigneurial largesse.

Overall score:
Felix 9 points
Mikkel 9 points 

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Vuelta Preview - Stage 19

On paper this looks like another sprint stage without any categorized climbs on the menu, but don’t let that fool you! We are in Spain and especially the last 65 kilometers are up and down all the way to the finish line where it kicks up with 4,5% the last 1700 meters.

With about 8 km to go there’s a another uphill part with an average gradient of 7% over 800 meters on a tiny road towards Zamarramala. After that it’s downhill again before the final 1700 meters I just described. The forecast says the riders should have a tail wind the last 30 km and that means it will be another fast finish despite the ‘climbs’.

The uphill part with 7% towards Zamarramala. 8km to go.
In my opinion this stage looks good stage for guys like Gianni Meersman - fast guys with a good punch in a slightly uphill finish - and therefore I think that especially Lotto will do everything they can in order to set up Meersman for the final sprint. 

So far Rabobank haven’t even been close to a stage win and if they miss the morning break (again) they should be willing to help out Lotto, Argos-Shimano, GreenEdge and whoever wants to give their fast guy a chance. I have a feeling Matti Breschel soon will strike. He's using this Vuelta as warm-up for the World Champions and tomorrow's stage would be a good rehearsal for Limburg! Look out for the fast Dane...

It’s not given it will end in a sprint and even though the morning break might get caught before the line, the uphill part with 8 km to go will be a good place to attack for guys like Gilbert, Nocentini etc. Why not even Purito who will be eager to take some time on Valverde and maybe put Contador a little under pressure.  On the other hand, Valverde could be a sneaky pick for the stage win which will give a bigger gap to Purito before the Saturday’s steep finish on Bola del Mundo.

My favorite though is once again John Degenkolb. The fast German missed out on stage 18 in the last tricky corner and I’m sure he will be eager to take revenge in La Lastrilla. Some might say that the finish is too hilly for him but don’t forget that he has won on steeper finishes than this one earlier in his career. If Argos-Shimano can manage to keep it together before the last 2 km, I think it will be very difficult to beat Degenkolb. Even for guys like Meersman and Gilbert.

Winner pick: John Degenkolb
Joker: Matti Breschel

To make this Vuelta a little bit more interesting I’ve challenged Eurosport blogger Blazin' Saddles to a winner pick duel during the race. You have my winner and joker picks above, here you have Felix':

Winner pick: Gianni Meersman
Joker: Remi Pauriol

Explanation: Lotto Belisol are down to just five riders but Friday's uphill sprint will be each man for himself and I have a feeling Gianni Meersman may finally turn things round for the winless Belgium outfit. I expect fierce competition from Philippe Gilbert, perhaps even Alejandro Valverde, and a whole cluster of riders also looking to deliver a first win for their teams - Dutchmen Pim Ligthart and Robert Gesink, for instance. I fancy Astana to have a pop through Seeldraeyers, Zeits or Bazayev. But I'll stick with Meersman for his sprinting abilities. For my joker I'm going to go for a Frenchman. We're two stages from Madrid and still yet to see a win from a French rider. Christophe Riblon or Romain Sicard are long shots, but I'm going to go even more outré with Remi Pauriol from a break. With the scores tied 9-9 it's time to be bold. Or 'fou' as they say in France...

Overall score:
Felix 9 points
Mikkel 9 points 

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Vuelta Preview - Stage 18

To be honest I’m still not sure how I managed to lose 3 (or 5!) points in my duel with Felix on yesterday’s stage. Tiralongo looked like a sure thing and when he blew, Valverde seemed to be able to catch Contador, oh well… Now it’s time for what should be the last sprint stage before Madrid and I would be surprised if the sprinters let this one go.

Nobody imagined that stage 17 would be as hard as it turned out to be and with that in the legs I guess the riders would be happy to let a few guys get away early on the stage. It’s the longest stage of this Vuelta España and even though it’s flat all the way from Aguilar de Campoo to the finish line in Valladolid it will be another tough day in the saddle.

Last 2 km of finish in Valladolid.
That being said, it does seem like the biggest obstacle doesn’t occur until after 204 km of the stage’s total 204,5 km. Right after crossing the river in Valladolid the road turns left in a 90° bend into a smaller road which means that if you’re not among the five first riders in that turn, you can kiss your chances of winning goodbye.

I think Argos-Shimano will take control of the race as we have seen before but I also expect Team Sky to help out now when Chris Froome isn’t gunning for the podium anymore. Ben Swift seems to be coming around again and even though it will be tough to beat John Degenkolb, I think Team Sky at least will try to give him a chance to do so.

It’s not easy picking a joker since there haven’t really been any jokers in the top3 in the previous bunch sprints but people are getting tired now and this could mean that Manuel Cardoso has a chance. I have backed Cardoso as my joker earlier in the race, without luck, but normally Cardoso gets stronger during the race and it wouldn’t be the first time the Portuguese champion takes top3 in a sprint in the final week of a Vuelta. Caja Rural already got their stage win when Antonio Piedre won the in Lagos de Covadonga and I hope that the euphoria on the team can give Cardoso the last few percentages he needs in Valladolid!

Winner: John Degenkolb
Joker: Manuel Cardoso

To make this Vuelta a little bit more interesting I’ve challenged Eurosport blogger Blazin' Saddles to a winner pick duel during the race. You have my winner and joker picks above, here you have Felix':

Winner pick: John Degenkolb
Joker: Jan Bakelants

Explanation: What a stage yesterday! Shame there were no TV images of Contador's decisive attack - the early pace was so fast, the host broadcaster hadn't even got the cameras rolling. Bert's magnificent win was history in the making and a tactical masterclass. Above all, it was totally unexpected. To be fair, I had predicted the win for David Moncoutie and he was at least in the break. But my joker Rob Ruijgh spattered egg on my face when he withdrew shortly after the start. Spoilsport. Shows what I know - I even predicted no action from the GC contenders. Anyway, moving on... Today should be more straight forward, with John Degenkolb taking his fifth Yaaah! For my joker, I'll go for Jan Bakelants. The last rider to win at Valladolid was the late Wouter Weylandt and fellow Belgian Bakelants was a team-mate of Weylandt at Leopard Trek. It would be a fitting tribute - plus RadioShack could do with a lift. 

Overall score:
Felix 9 points
Mikkel 9 points 

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Interview - Vuelta Update with Laura Meseguer

Laura Meseguer, Eurosport. Vuelta 2012.
With less than a week left of this year’s Vuelta España it’s now time for an update from the center of the race. Laura Meseguer follows the Vuelta circus everyday in her job as interviewer for Spanish Eurosport and to get a view from behind the lines I made the following interview with Laura on the second rest day of the race.

Laura. We are now already at the second rest day of the Vuelta. How will you describe the first two weeks?
I think it’s been a good show for everyone! The favorites are strong and they all show a very competitive personality which are giving us one of the most equal races this year. That being said we have also seen John Degenkolb taking four impressive stage wins and by that giving his team some good headlines which are very important for a team like his that wants to be on the World Tour.

Which rider has impressed you the most so far?
It’s impossible just to mention one. I will say all the four favorites - inclusive Froome - because of their strength, aggressiveness, consistency and the show they have given the fans. And all the riders fighting for Top10 who have to cope with the demanding pace set by the favorites. Also the whole Argos-Shimano team for the incredible strength they have shown to obtain all their good results in this Vuelta. After Stage 13 [where Argos-Shimano tried to bring back the break alone but failed by very little, edt.] many riders in the peloton were impressed by their work and Degenkolb himself said he saw it as a victory.

In your new job as interviewer for Eurosport you have a finger on the pulse of the peloton. What do the riders think of the race so far?
They enjoy it and they all agree that the favorites are giving us a good show. Of course they say it’s a very hard race, but compared to other times where you hear more complaints from the riders, they really seem to be enjoying this one.
Laura Meseguer & Alberto Contador.

And being behind the red tape of the race, do you have any good stories to tell?
Well, I can’t really think of any right now, but some of the Argos-Shimano riders told me that Pablo Lastras had come to their team bus after stage 13 to congratulate them on their hard work. Degenkolb said  he was thrilled that a cycling icon like Lastras had come to congratulate the team.

It’s now set to be a fight between Purito and Contador for the overall win. Talking with both riders almost every day, who do you see as the strongest before the last week?
I see a Purito more focus than ever and only the victory counts for him. All his victories this year, the leader’s jerseys he has been wearing and the fact he has improved his time trial skills and in the high mountains, it all gives him an immense security. Alberto is back again and he expects to win. He looks relaxed and he is giving everything he has. Still I sense some insecurity or weakness from him, even though he doesn’t let it show.

So, in your opinion, do we see a weaker Contador than earlier or just a stronger Purito than ever?
Both. It’s only normal that Alberto isn’t at the same level he was at in the Giro last year. It’s still Alberto though and everybody shows the same respect and fear as always. I think he is more or less as strong as before. Right now Purito is very, very strong and it’s clear to everybody that it will be difficult to take this Vuelta away from him.

Looking ahead, what do you think we can expect of the last week?
Uff…I don’t know, but I think we will see some drama on a stage where we didn’t expect it! It’s a feeling I have. I don’t think Bola del Mundo will make big differences in the classification though, but I’m sure the favorites will be very alert at all time the rest of the week.

Laura Meseguer & Miguel Indurain.
Bola del Mundo will be spectacular though. Do you think it will be as spectacular as Mirador de Ezaro or Cuitunigru?
Sure! And I think Alberto still have some attacks left in the tank. He won’t quit without trying again and again!

And the million Dollar question. Who will win this Vuelta?

Okay. Last one. I’m sure the riders are enjoying this rest day after three hard days in the mountains, but what about you?
To be honest, the rest day is pure agony! I just thought about  it earlier; working in TV means that we are covering more or less the same amount of kilometers as the riders are. We always have to stay alert, check our watches and make sure to send in our images on time. It’s stressful and I’ve been running around a lot! I will certainly end this Vuelta España in very good shape!

Vuelta Preview - Stage 17

This stage has "breakaway" written all over it. It's true that the last two stages before the rest day also ended up with a break making it to the line but since the last climb here isn't hard enough for the favorites to try something, I think Saxo Bank would be happy to see a break take the bonus seconds.

The peloton enters the Cantabria region and despite the GEOX team not existing anymore we should see local guys like David de la Fuente and Juanjo Cobo try their luck. Felix came close the other day, but yet so far, when he picked de la Fuente as his joker, but maybe this could be his day? Anyway, I will stick with my previous joker Paolo Tiralongo - last chance for the Italian climber as my joker, maybe...

The stage's final climb up to Fuente Dé.
Click for larger view! Source: climbbybike
On paper this stage really looks good for a guy like Tiralongo. One could argue that the last long climb to Fuente Dé doesn't really suit the Italian climber, but the two climbs before that most certainly do. Collado de Ozalba and Collado La Hoz are both around 6 km long with an average gradient of 6,6% and 7,6%  and don't forget that Paolo Tiralongo nowadays has a very good sprint too. He showed that in the Giro earlier this year when he outsprinted Michele Scarponi and won on Rocca di Cambio - the training climb of yesterday's stage winner Dario Cataldo, but that's another story.

Another rider I have backed (too) many times in this Vuelta is Damiano Cunego. The "Little Prince" started the Vuelta as warm-up for the World Champions, but after the new Italian "clean" strategy, Cunego is no longer in the run for a spot on Azzurri's team. Looking at it, this stage seems tailor-made for Damiano Cunego, but without much to warm-up for now I'm not sure he will have the needed motivation anymore. Still - as I've said many times already - look out for Cunego!
The last turn before the finish line.

If this stage ends in a sprint anyway I think it will be fighting between Gianni Meersman and Alejandro Valverde. Meersman showed great shape earlier in the race and if he keeps that up he might have a chance as the last climb has an average gradient of only 3,9%. While it's not sure that Meersman will be there in the final, I think it's safe to say that Alejandro Valverde most certanitly will, so even though Gianni Meersman is an interesting outsider I'll go with Valverde as my favorite.

Winner pick: Alejandro Valverde
Joker: Paolo Tiralongo

To make this Vuelta a little bit more interesting I’ve challenged Eurosport blogger Blazin' Saddles to a winner pick duel during the race. You have my winner and joker picks above, here you have Felix':

Winner pick: David Moncoutie
Joker: Rob Ruijgh 

Explanation: This is a very hard stage to predict - but one thing is almost certain: a break will stay out and it won't contain any of the GC men. French veteran David Moncoutie has pretty much waved goodbye to securing a fifth consecutive king of the mountains title but he will still hope to take a stage win for a fifth successive year in what could, after all, be his last Vuelta. This is the last chance he realistically has - I can't see his battle-bruised old legs getting up the Bola del Mundo in pole position. It's a gamble putting Moncoutie as my winner though: should he win, I'd be far better off taking five points from him as joker. I could then cover my back with a security blanket Mikkel has no doubt opted for: that's to say, one of the Big Three taking the win. That said, I could even throw in Purito as a joker, considering the likelihood of a break staying out... But heck, I'm going to be honest and stick with my gut-feeling, so for my joker I'll choose Rob Ruijgh. Vacansoleil still need a win and de Gendt will probably hold back until the penultimate stage (he needs the mountain points for the polka dot jersey). I feel Damiano Cunego will want to try something after his snub for the worlds, while the likes of Gianni Meersman, Paolo Tiralongo and even Philippe Gilbert will be hungry. Javier Aramendia will no doubt be back in the mix after a quiet week. Simon Clarke, too, may have a pop. Decisions, decisions... with so many permutations, it's going to be fascinating. And I'll no doubt enter stage 18 three points down on Mikkel... or worse, five!

Overall score:
Felix 9 points
Mikkel 9 points 

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Vuelta Preview - Stage 16

Many said the three mountain stages in Asturia would make the difference but after two it’s still a close race between Alberto Contador and race leader Purito. Now it’s time for the hardest of the three-in-a-row when the peloton climbs up all the way to Cuitunigru.

Cuitunigru before the new asphalt.
Normally Puerto de Pajares would be the finishing climb, but to spice up this Vuelta even more Unipublic decided to add another three extremely steep kilometers to Cuitunigru. As you can see on the picture the road - or what should we call it? - wasn’t really ready for pro cycling so make sure there wouldn’t be any problems new asphalt was put on earlier this year. Better road conditions or not, this is an insanely hard finish and on paper it looks perfect for Purito with a part of 25% just before the line.

Still I wouldn’t be surprised if a break makes it again. Imagine if Team Saxo Bank had worked hard to pull back the break on stage 14. Then Purito would probably have won the stage and taken even more bonus seconds. It seems like the this race will be won with very few seconds and as it is now, Contador can’t afford to let Purito take seconds for free anymore.

Everybody knows a break has a good chance of making it and therefore everybody want to be in it as well. The first categorized climb, Alto de Cabruñana, starts after 41,2 km and this is probably where the final break will be established. 
Last 2,8 super steep km of the stage
Click for larger view!

Damiano Cunego has been trying very hard to get in the break the last two days but without any luck and he knows he needs to dig deep at least once to realize his shape before the World Champions. I think Cunego will do everything he can do make it this time and even though my jokers from the previous days (Quintana, Jeannesson & Tiralongo) also have a very good chance I put my faith in the Italian Prince. Meaning that with my luck in the duel against Felix, Tiralongo probably wins the stage…

Winner pick: Purito
Joker: Damiano Cunego

To make this Vuelta a little bit more interesting I’ve challenged Eurosport blogger Blazin' Saddles to a winner pick duel during the race. You have my winner and joker picks above, here you have Felix':

Winner pick: Alberto Contador
Joker: Cayetano Sarmiento

Explanation:Well, well, well. I picked the wrong Caja Rural guy yesterday: even though David de la Fuente was in the break, it was his team-mate Antonio Piedra who took the win. To make things even worse, de la Fuente was pipped for third and so didn't even pick me up the one consolation bonus point that could make the difference in my duel with Mikkel come Madrid. How to drag myself up from that? Well, be bold and pick two riders Mikkel won't pick - that's how. First up, my favourite for the win is Alberto Contador, who will surely make it third time lucky after yet another attacking display. Bert is so close to distancing Rodriguez. He has to keep motivated and press on. J-Rod will certainly like the 22% ramps of the last climb of Cuitu Nigru, but he won't like the length: at 19km long and coming after two Cat.1 climbs, this will be arguably the hardest finale in this year's Vuelta. The queen stage should be won by whoever wants to be crowned king of the race. Does Contador have what it takes? As for my joker, I was at first hesitating between Damiano Cunego of Lampre and Gustavo Cesar of Andalucia. Lampre have been shamefully quiet these past two weeks and the Little Prince is surely keeping something special back for the big occasion? As for Cesar, the climber has also been rather lacklustre - and after Caja Rural's win, the pressure will be on Andalucia to deliver the goods. But in the end I went for Cayetano Sarmiento in a bold display of recklessness. Liquigas are also having a pretty shoddy race, and Sarmiento is one of the lesser-known of the swelling Colombian contingent in the pack. But he showed his climbing ability in the Dauphine and this could be his chance to sign on with the big time. If there's any justice in the world, Saddles will be rewarded for his troubles and deservedly distance Mikkel.

Overall score:
Felix 9 points
Mikkel 9 points 

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Vuelta Preview - Stage 15

There may not be as many climbs on the menu as on the last stage but I think we will see a very similar scenario. Team Saxo Bank - Tinkoff Bank did everything right and with 500 meters to go it looked like Alberto Contador would be able to pull it off. The way I see it they need to continue this strategy in order to tire out the rivals and then hope Contador will keep on getting stronger and stronger.

Even though I expect Saxo to keep working hard, the profile of the stage makes it a lot easier for a break to get good gap in the beginning and I wouldn’t be surprised if a break makes it all the way like in 2010 when Lagos de Covadonga last appeared in the Vuelta. What has changed from back then is the weather. In 2010 Carlos Barredo won on his training climb in pouring rain but this time it should stay dry and once again without much wind.

Detailed profile of Lagos de Covadonga
Click for larger view! 
The climb up to Lagos de Covadonga is feared by many riders and the profile shows why. It’s said to have an average gradient of 7% but that is mostly because of the two short descents near the top. When the climb really starts, about 11 km from the line, the percentages don’t really drop below 8,5% for 8 km before the first descent of 500 meters. After that the climb kicks up with 11%  before yet another short descent with 1 km to go. The last 500 meters are uphill with about 10% all the way to the line.

It’s another perfect stage for race leader Purito as he should be able to re-join Contador on the small descents, if Contador drops him, and then  beat him in the final uphill sprint. Still I expect Contador to take stage win soon and it’s really a crap shoot between him and Purito again this time.

As I said, I think a break will make it. One thing is setting a high pace, but I’m sure Contador and the rest of the Saxo boys are getting tired of Purito stealing the bonus seconds every time. Therefore it might be more clever to let a break go to make sure Purito doesn’t get any bonus seconds and then try to drop him on the final climb.

Because the chances of a break making are pretty good almost every rider want to get in the break. It’s difficult to pick just one since riders like Nairo Quintana, Paolo Tiralongo, Christophe Le Mevel, Tiago Machado abd Damiano Cunego all sound good to me, but will try my luck with Arnold Jeannesson. The French climber came to the Vuelta with pains in his knee but has been getting better and better every day. On stage 12 he tried to attack early on the steep final climb but died trying because of a wrong gearing. After the stage Jeannesson said he still aims for a stage win in the mountains and if he manages to get in the right break I think he will be difficult to shake on the final climb.

Winner pick: Purito
Joker: Arnold Jeannesson 

To make this Vuelta a little bit more interesting I’ve challenged Eurosport blogger Blazin' Saddles to a winner pick duel during the race. You have my winner and joker picks above, here you have Felix':

Winner pick: Alberto Contador
Joker: David de la Fuente

Explanation: Let's be honest - there's really no point picking a wildcard in these key mountain stages because the winner will surely only be one of the Big Four (or Dani Moreno). Twice I have picked Alberto Contador - and twice I thought the points were in the bag until the final few hundred metres. First, he was beaten to Jaca by Valverde and then yesterday he was pipped by a rampant red Rodriguez. Contador's morale must be pretty low, with his Spanish rivals now having five stage wins between them. But surely it's a matter of 'when' and not 'if' Contador takes a stage scalp. For all Rodriguez's dominance, he still only holds a 22-second lead over Contador in the GC. One attack that sticks and Bert will be in red - and although I have a major man crush on J-Rod at the moment (and hopes he takes the overall win) I am going to go against the grain and stick to Contador to take the win at the mythical Lagos de Covadonga. As a token joker, how about Caja Rural's David de la Fuente? He's kept quiet and may fancy getting into the break. I have a feeling about Andrey Kashechkin too. 

Overall score:
Felix 9 points
Mikkel 9 points 

Right winner pick gives 3 points, if the joker wins it's 5 points while it's 1 points if the joker makes top3 on the stage.