Thursday, February 28, 2013

Strade Bianche: Favorites & Jokers

This may be the strongest field for Strade Bianche so far and therefore very hard to predict a winner. Fabian Cancellara won last year after an amazing solo effort the last 12 km and together with wonder boy Peter Sagan, he is the big favorite. The way I see it there are two likely scenarios.

Scenario 1:
Peter Sagan has one his great days and keeps staying in front when it matters. Sagan is an equilibrist on a bicycle and the white gravel roads should not give him any problems. He is among the best riders on the small steep hills and most likely the fastest rider in the race as well. He won two stages in Tour of Oman before having to withdraw with a sore throat and Thursday he showed to be back as he won GP Camaiore. Knowing how strong he is, you simply cannot rule out Peter Sagan as the big favorite for Strade Bianche. His aim is to win Milano - San Remo and/or Ronde van Vlaanderen this year and taking a win Saturday afternoon will definitely boost his morale. Sagan has Moreno Moser to help him in the finale and Moser showed last year that he can do whatever it takes to bring Sagan to victory. He showed that again in GP Camaiore when he kept the speed up in the break for last three kilometers before Sagan took over in the sprint.

In this first scenario, Peter Sagan wins Strade Bianche thanks to his technical skills and fast sprint on last few hundred meters. Probably in front of Cadel Evans and Oscar Gatto.

Scenario 2:
Fabian Cancellara shows same strength as last year and manages to get away solo. If Peter Sagan does not have any teammates in the final, is caught by bad luck or simply does not have a good day, I doubt any will be able to follow Cancellara. I think BMC will be the only team with more than one rider in the final group - both Greg van Avermaet and Cadel Evans should be there - but I doubt any of them will have what it takes to catch Cancellara. Evans will probably try to dig deep before having a go in Tirreno-Adriatico, but it might very well only be for second place no matter what.

In this second scenario, Fabian Cancellara wins Strade Bianche after a solo attack like last year. Cancellara is very strong right now and remember that a third win of the race will give him a white gravel road named after him. A win here will boost his morale for the upcoming classics and knowing the roads and how to attack them, Cancellara will be very difficult to keep down this Saturday. Like in the first scenario, Cadel Evans takes second place here, probably with Marco Marcato or Giovanni Visconti as the last rider on the podium.

As you can see Peter Sagan and Fabian Cancellara are the two big favorites but if any of these two should strike out, I think Cadel Evans will be ready to take his chance. Evans was outstanding on the epic white gravel stage in the Giro back in 2010 and together with in-form Greg van Avermaet he should be able to do some damage.

Last year I picked Oscar Gatto as my winner pick and he turned out to be one of the strongest rider in the race taking third place after having to get back from a couple of punctures in the final. Last week I said I think Gatto will have a great spring season and this is without a doubt one of the best races for him. Gatto is great on the small hills - don’t forget how he distanced Contador and the rest of the Giro field on a steep finish two years ago - and very fast on the line too. Last year only an outstanding Fabian Cancellara was able to distance Oscar Gatto and even though it’s a stronger field this year, I think Gatto will be there in the final once again.

As always, I would like to mention a few more jokers. Riders like Francesco Reda and Marco Marcato are very strong right now and both seems to be the designated leaders of their respective teams. Reda ended 6th last year in Strade Bianche and has been having a great season so far with Gianni Savio’s Androni team. He took 3rd place overall in Tour Med, finished 2nd in Trofeo Laigueglia and 7th in GP Camaiore in the same selective group as winner Peter Sagan. Marcato has big hopes for this spring season and showed in Oman to be in great shape already. In Omloop Het Nieuwsblad he was the first rider to respond to Sep Vanmarcke’s furious attack on Molenberg and I would expect him to be among the favorites in the final on Saturday. He is good uphill and very fast on the line.

For other candidates look to fast riders who are good on the hills like Giovanni Visconti, Rinaldo Nocentini, Lars Boom and Damiano Cunego.

Not to forget: First man through the last corner wins the race.

* * *
Peter Sagan - Fabian Cancellara

* *
Cadel Evans - Oscar Gatto - Marco Marcato

Francesco Reda - Giovanni Visconti - Damiano Cunego

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Omloop Het Nieuwsblad: Favorites & Jokers

Sep Vanmarcke surprised many last year when he outsprinted Tom Boonen for the win and I wouldn’t be surprised if another outsider takes the win this time. Most of all because they aren’t any top top favorites on the start list. Tom Boonen is here, yes, but not in the shape he would have liked to be in, and therefore we have to look to Terpstra and Chavanel to find the team leaders of Quickstep this Saturday. 

Niki Terpstra has shown to be very strong right now and he is not afraid of attacking. If the weather conditions blow the race apart early my pick for winner will be Terpstra. It does require he attacks and gets away alone though. Despite not being slow on the line, I simply can’t see him beat other candidates like Jurgen Roelandts, Greg Van Avermaet or Filippo Pozzato in a sprint.

In this very moment, my own personal favorite is Filippo Pozzato. I think he will have a great spring season this year, winning a least one of the big classics. Last year he waited too long in Ronde van Vlaanderen and made a horrible tactical mistake in Paris-Roubaix - I doubt he will fail like that again. Pippo showed in Trofeo Laigueglia that he is in great shape already and being fast on the line and strong on the hills, it be very difficult to drop him.

Greg Van Avermaet too is very fast on the line - even faster than Pozzato - and he must be named as one of the favorites. The reason why he isn’t my first pick is because of the strong team BMC send to the race. With Hushovd, Oss, Phinney, Blythe and in-form Schar in addition to Van Avermaet, the chances of one of those getting into the final break and therefore not pulling for a sprint is quite high. I would imagine BMC have Van Avermaet set as their designated leader, but everything can happen in these races.

I think it will be an advantage only to have one captain this Saturday and that’s why I also name Jurgen Roelandts among the best winner candidates. Roelandts was very strong in Tour Méditerranéen and being the only team leader on Lotto-Belisol - who are winning as they please this season - I would be surprised not to see him in front on Saturday. He finished last season in a very strong way and this could be his chance finally to breakthrough in the classics. Roelandts is very fast and the way he won the stage to Grasse in Tour Med really showed he is one to take seriously for this race and the up-coming classics.

Other strong candidates for the win are Lars Boom and Juan-Antonio Flecha but like Terpstra these two need to get away alone or in a group without sprinters in order to win.

As always, I have a couple of jokers for you too and the first one is no stranger if you regularly visit this site. Oscar Gatto got a little breakthrough last year with strong attacks but the best has yet to come. Being the sole captain of Vini-Fantini in the classics, the responsibility is naturally bigger now and I think Gatto will prove to be worthy of it. Gatto is very fast on the line and very difficult to drop on the hills. He is not afraid to take initiative and attack from a far and with Strade Bianche coming up soon, this would be an excellent opportunity for Gatto to build some self-confidence and show he is rider to look out for in the Spring Classics this season.

My second joker is Zdenek Stybar. Few riders can match Stybar’s shape right now - thanks to cyclocross in the winter - and even though he is very inexperienced in these kind of races, he sure has the power to fight for the win. Stybar is good on these hills and fast too should it come to a sprint. As already mentioned, Quickstep have a lot of riders to play out this Saturday, but don’t be surprised if Stybar ends up being their man for the win.

For a super joker look to Martin Elmiger. The Swiss veteran has had a great start of the season for the new IAM Cycling team and even though Heinrich Haussler is the team captain here, I’m sure Elmiger will put in at least a couple of attacks. I will expect him to get into the big break of the day and that could very well prove to be important if the race splits up early. Elmiger is very strong and on a good day not too slow in a sprint either. I will be a big surprise should he take the win, but under the right circumstances he might just surprise and get on the podium.

* * *
Pozzato - Roelandts - Van Avermaet

* *
Boom - Flecha - Terpstra

Gatto - Stybar - Elmiger

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Imagine if it happens in cycling…

Sorry for the lack of updates on the site. Last weekend I took some days off to go and see the Biathlon World Championship and that got me thinking…

The winner of the women’s sprint, Olena Pidhrushna, was as a huge surprise for everybody - including the Ukrainian herself - and the way her victory was described in the media amazed me. Not in the biathlon arena or in the media did I ever hear anybody talk about doping and if you look at the facts, such a suspicion would have been instantly in the world of professional cycling.

This is what I’m referring to. Olena Pidhrushna got sick after the last World Cup event (in Antholz, Italy where she got her best results this season) just a few weeks before the World Champions and she didn’t even join the Ukrainian team until a few days before the World Champions started. She wasn’t feeling well enough to participate in the mixed relay just two days before the sprint, but still she managed to take the gold medal in front of the big favorites. At the press conference after the sprint victory Olena Pidhrushna said she wanted to thank her trainers for “getting me back in such a good shape in so few days after my sickness”. Normally Pidhrushna isn’t among the fastest in the track but in this sprint she had the 6th best time of all, she has only done better once this year. Some journalists tried to get Olena Pidhrushna to elaborate on her sudden great shape after being sick, but she refused to answers any questions in that direction.

I’m not saying that Olena Pidhrushna didn’t race clean last weekend, not at all, but imagine what people would have said if some lower class cyclist suddenly won the Tour de France or the World Champions without an individual victory all season and after being in bed sick just a week before. Somehow I think “surprise” wouldn’t quite cover it…

In cycling all the riders in UCI’s testing pool are required to fill out their whereabouts. Every rider with a biological passport are in this testing pool and that means that all riders from the World Tour and Pro-Continental teams have to update their whereabouts. In biathlon only 38 out of the 150 registered male athletes are in the testing pool while the numbers for the female athletes are 38 out of 125. You may ask yourself why only 25% of the athletes have to fill out their whereabouts, but according to IBU it’s very simple: 

“Only a limited number of athletes are in the IBU Testing Pool, because it is a very difficult task to get the 24 hour a day whereabouts of a large group. It takes an immense amount of work by the athletes and the IBU.” - it says on their website.

Having only one person to take care of the testing pool, IBU are leaving out a number of prominent runners high on the world ranking. Number 11, 12 and 20 on the currently male ranking list are not in the testing pool and that’s despite the fact that they are all Austrian. Do I need to remind you what happened at the Winter Olympics in 2006? It’s like if UCI had decided not to test the best Kazakh riders after Vinokourov and Kashechkin both got tested positive riding for their home team. Again, I’m not saying that the three Austrian athletes are doped, I’m simply pointing out that it would have been ‘a big thing’ had it happened in cycling. 

Saturday, February 2, 2013

Tour of Qatar: Preview & Favorites

Looking at the start list you may think the Spring Classics are starting early this season. Thanks to the heavy wind and sunny weather, every rider aiming at the cobblestones classics want to be here. The hotels are the best the riders will see during the season and despite the lack of hills - or turns for that matter - Tour of Qatar now counts as an important race for all teams with high hopes in March and April.

There is no need for stage profiles as they are all pancake flat. Five stages in the heavy cross wind expected to end in a sprint plus a team time trial on the second day. Tom Boonen normally owns this race and in his absence we have to look to a couple of other of the big contenders for Paris-Roubaix later this year.

First up is Edvald Boasson Hagen. Team Sky have had a new approach to the season training very hard during the winter and we already saw what that meant when Geraint Thomas showed off in Tour Down Under. It’s not often you see a track rider drop the climbers on 20% as Thomas did in Australia. Edvald Boasson Hagen didn’t seem to hit it off Down Under, but he did put in a good effort on Willunga Hill for Thomas and managed to take third place on the finale stage. The Norwegian wonderboy aims big at the Spring Classics this season and after getting the legs ready Down Under, I think he will be the man to beat in Qatar. Team Sky have a great team for the TTT and if Eddy mingles with the best in the mass sprints as well I can’t really see who should beat him.

Only guy I can think of is Mark Cavendish.  Quickstep are always on top of their game in this race and must be one of the favorites for the TTT as well. Cavendish is not a stranger to Tour of Qatar, but he always seems to have bad luck or get caught in the wind when it counts. Quickstep have guys like Terpstra and Stybar to keep Cavendish safe, but both of those might as well give a go themselves in the challenging weather conditions. If you are looking for a joker for the overall classification, I’ll recommend Niki Terpstra.

No wonder the cross wind plays a
huge factor in Tour of Qatar...
I said we had to look for Paris-Roubaix contender to find the overall winner and I know Mark Cavendish doesn’t fit this category but the next one will. Fabian Cancellara has always been good in Qatar and with a strong team for the TTT and last year in mind, Cancellara will definitely be a marked man. Last year Tom Boonen started his amazing season by winning in Qatar and hungry for revenge Fabian Cancellara might as well do the same and show the world that he is ready for the classics. The race normally splits up many times during the six days and only a few riders know when to be in front as well as Cancellara do. Radioshack need a new beginning after Bruyneel and the best man to give them that is Swiss.

Last one of my top favorites for the overall win is Taylor Phinney. The young American has set Paris-Roubaix as his goal big goal this season and helped by a very strong team and a fast finish on the line, Phinney should be named as one of the main contenders. As many other teams, BMC are sending their Classics riders to Qatar and having Marcus Burghardt, Michael Schär and Greg Van Avermaet to help Phinney stay in front and out of troubles, I think BMC will be one of the controlling teams in this race. Phinney may not have what it takes to beat Cavendish, Guardini or Degenkolb in a sprint finish, but he is consistent and fast and says he’s coming into the race “strong and confident”.

For what concerns the sprint field this may not be as great as in Tour Down Under, but with names like Mark Cavendish, John Degenkolb, Andrea Guardini, Nacer Bouhanni and Elia Viviani on the start list, it should be five very interesting days. Mark Cavendish showed in Argentina that he is ready to win early this season when he won the first stage of Tour San Luis and I expect him to take the first stage in Qatar as well. Andre Greipel turned out to be a level - or two - above everybody else in Australia and I’m certain Cavendish is eager to show he’s up there too.

There aren't many spectators in the dessert for Tour of Qatar
and it wouldn't be a lie to say most of them aren't human.
Andrea Guardini didn’t really hit it off in Tour Down Under and even though he may not be one of the best in the cross wind, he should be able to try his luck in a couple of stages. If he manages to stick to the right wheel in the final, he could be the best pick to beat Cavendish.

If not Guardini then John Degenkolb. Argos-Shimano have always aimed at getting ‘the best leadout train in the world’ and they showed last year what they are capable of with Marcel Kittel and Degenkolb. Yet it all went wrong in Tour Down Under. Not a single day did they manage to time it well so you can be sure they too are eager to get started. John Degenkolb was outstanding in the Vuelta last year and without Lotto-Belisol, Argos-Shimano could very well be the leading team in the sprints.

For other fast guys look to Nacer Bouhanni, Elia Viviani, Alexander Kristoff, Heinrich Haussler, Kenny Van Hummel, Yauheni Hutarovich and Sacha Modolo. Especially Modolo, who showed to be very fast in Argentina.

That is for me. As always I will leave you with my pre-top10 for the overall classification.

1. Edvald Boasson Hagen
2. Fabian Cancellara
3. Taylor Phinney
4. Niki Terpstra
5. Mark Cavendish (winner pick if he stays up front in the cross wind)
6. Greg Van Avermaet
7. Juan-Antonio Flecha
8. Geraint Thomas
9. Heinrich Haussler
10. Alexander Kristoff

For stage previews, winnerpicks and jokers make sure to follow me on Twitter @mrconde