Thursday, July 2, 2015


 Le Grand Départ...

2015 Tour de France route map

The 2015 Tour De France should provide plenty of fireworks for the fans. The extreme lack of time-trial kilometers will make the race one especially for the climbers. The opening prologue stage is the only solo effort against the clock in the race; it is an individual TT of just under 14 kms. Stage 9 features the a 28k team time trial, which, coming so late in the race, and after an especially challenging first eight days, will likely provide some interesting time splits among the overall contenders.

The first week includes several obstacles for the riders to overcome before they reach the mountainous second half of the race, where the real selections will take place. Crosswinds, cobbles and punchy, Classics-like stages pepper the first half of the race, so the GC contenders will have to be extra-vigilant, and their teams will have to keep their leaders well-protected in order to survive the kinds of challenges that took out some of last year's top contenders before they even reached the mountains.

Despite threats of landslides forcing the organizers to cut out what was supposed to be the Tour's highest mountain pass, the Tourmalet-Galibier double, the race remains a mountainous one. I count 57 categorized climbs throughout the route, with six summit finishes (five big ones) and five more stages with climbing finales to light up the TV camera lenses. Combine this with the dearth of TT kms, and we have a race tailor-made for the climbing specialists who don't necessarily fare well against the clock.

Alberto Contador
The list of serious contenders for the overall win is long and illustrious, and is complimented by an even longer list of what I will call "secondary contenders". The top four GC favorites are Alberto Contador of the Tinkoff-Saxo team, Vincenzo Nibali for Astana, Chris Froome of the British Team Sky, and Nairo Quintana of the Spanish Movistar squad.  A huge challenge for all the riders will be simply to survive the first half of the race, with all its menacing pitfalls, just to get the opportunity to reach the mountains, where the real fighting will erupt.

Alberto Contador, the most prolific grand tour winner of this year's contenders, is attempting to complete the first Giro-Tour double since Marco Pantani's famous 1998 expedition. The Spaniard ticked off the first half of the remarkable quest with his win in this spring's Giro d'Italia. Besides his rivals and the tough parcours, El Pistolero's big challenge will be his physical recovery from the efforts of the Italian Grand Tour. If his body has recovered well, then Contador will be a very difficult man to contain. His ability to attack repeatedly in the mountains is a huge asset toward dropping the wheels--and the morale--of his foes. He is highly motivated, and should never, ever be underestimated.

Vincenzo Nibali

Vincenzo Nibali comes in trying to defend his 2014 Tour win after a lackluster first half of this season. He hadn't won a race all year, until last week when he bagged the Italian National Road Race title for the second consecutive year. His form seems to be coming on at the right time. The Shark from Messina can be expected to come fully prepared for the Tour, as he is an experienced Grand Tour veteran who knows what it takes to win the biggest races in the world. His team is strong, and includes several potential stage-winners as well.

Chris Froome

Chris Froome may be the one contender who will most rue the lack of time-trial miles in this year's edition. Despite his inability to capitalize on his great success in the chronos, however, the Kenyan-born Brit also has the chops to make big strides when the roads turn upward. Like Contador, Froome's 2014 Tour seemed to be over before it began, so he will be looking for some payback this time around. The cobbles are back again this year, and may pose the greatest threat to Froome's chances before the real mountain climbing begins on stage 10.

Nairo Quintana
Nairo Quintana spends much of his training time in his home mountains of Colombia, rather than with some of his teammates on Tenerife. Living his whole life at altitude is surely an advantage in an endurance sport, and Quintana is hoping to parlay that into his first Tour de France win. At 25, he is the youngest of the favorites, but many believe that he has a real chance to steal this race from the veterans. Alongside NQ is Alejandro Valverde, an incredibly versatile and successful rider in his own right--and a grand tour winner himself. Valverde offers possibly the best super-domestique talent in the race (and is a legitimate alternative for team Movistar should Quintana fail). Quintana will be the contender who benefits the most from the absence of a long ITT, so this year may offer one of the best opportunities the talented young Colombian will ever get to take the win.

All four of this year's top favorites have enjoyed moments of success against their rivals this year, but each has shown chinks in their armor as well. At this point no single rider seems to look like an overwhelming favorite. What this means is that we may be treated with one of the most thrilling grand tour battles in recent memory. Of course, the treacherous first half of the race may, like last year, prevent some of the favorites from getting the opportunity to duke it out in the Pyrenees and Alps, where the winner will surely be decided.

Other possible podium contenders at the 2015 Tour de France include the American Tejay Van Garderen for BMC Racing, Spanish climbing star Joaquim "Purito" Rodriguez of Katusha, Dutchman Bauke Mollema for Trek Factory Racing, and the French duo of Thibaut Pinot of FDJ and Romain Bardet for AG2R. Alejandro Valverde will be working for Quintana, but depending on circumstances, the Spaniard is another possible podium contender himself.

Here is a list of several other big talents who could be vying for high GC positions in Paris:
Rigoberto Uran, Rui Costa, Simon Yates, Richie Porte, Wilco Kelderman, Rafal Majka, Robert Gesink, Andrew Talansky, Pierre Rolland, Dan Martin, Jakob Fuglsang, Louis Meintjes, Jean-Christophe Peraud, Steven Kruijswijk, Tony Gallopin, Damiano Caruso, Ryder Hesjedal, Warren Barguil, Michele Scarponi, Roman Kreuziger, Tanel Kangert, Alexis Vuillermoz, Leo Konig, Tiago Machado, Giampaolo Caruso, Laurens Ten Dam, Michal Kwiatkowski, Adam Yates, Julian Arredondo, Rafael Valls, Kristijan Durasek, Sammy Sanchez, Daniel Navarro, Mathias Frank, and Eduardo Sepulveda.

Despite the mountainous focus, the sprinters will not be left out of this year's Tour. The so-called "flat" stages this year come in various shapes and sizes, with a variety of different finishes, such that no individual sprinter stands out as the overall favorite to win the Green Jersey in Paris. A preponderance of Classics-type stages early on, including finishes on the Mur de Huy, the Mur de Bretagne and the cobbled stage 4 to Cambrai, will give the stronger finishers some opportunities to grab points and bonus seconds that could disrupt the pure sprinters from running away with the Maillot Vert.

Mark Cavendish returns as possibly the standout pure sprinter, but he will be challenged by the likes of Peter Sagan, Andrei Greipel, Alexander Kristoff, John Degenkolb, Nacer Bouhanni, Arnaud Demare, Sam Bennett, Michael Matthews, Edvald Boasson Hagen, Greg Van Avermaet, Bryan Coquard, and Davide Cimolai. Other fast finishers include Sep Vanmarcke, Michael Valgren, Sylvain Chavanel, Pippo Pozzato, Jens Debuscherre, Matteo Trentin, Zdenek Stybar, Luca Paolini, Simon Gerrans, Nathan Haas, Sebastian Langeveld, Dylan Van Baarle, Julien Simon, Kenneth Vanbilsen, Ian Stannard, Luke Rowe, Jacopo Guarnieri, Daniele Bennati, Daniel Oss, Pierre-Luc Perichon, Danilo Wyss, Reinardt and Jacques Janse Van Rensburg, and Tyler Farrar. Many of these names will be leading out their respective sprint leaders, but, particularly on the classics-type stages, they may find opportunities to shine.

Many route breakdowns have been posted online, so I am going to forgo my usual observations of each particular stage profile. But I have picked apart the route meticulously and the following are some of my predictions for the race:

Final GC:

1. Contador
2. Nibali
3. Quintana
4. Froome
5. Van Garderen
6. Rodriguez
7. Pinot
8. Valverde
9. Bardet
10. Uran
11. Mollema
12. Rui Costa
13. Kelderman
14. Porte
15. Yates

Points Competition:

1. Sagan
2. Kristoff
3. Cavendish
4. Greipel
5. Degenkolb

Tony Martin, stage-one favorite

STAGE 1 Picks:

Considering the extreme lack of individual time trial kms in this 102nd edition of Le Grande Boucle, it may seem surprising that almost all of the world's top TT men will be at the start on Saturday. They have just the one short test to show their stuff, but they will also come in very handy for the GC contenders when their teams have to line up on stage 9 for the team time trial.

Here are my top picks for the opening individual time trial prologue stage on Saturday:

1. Tony Martin
2. Fabian Cancellara
3. Tom Dumoulin
4. Adriano Malori
5. Alex Dowsett
6. Matthias Brandle
7. Chris Froome
8. Rohan Dennis
9. Bob Jungels
10. Wilco Kelderman

The list of TT contenders is long, like the GC contenders, so the outcome is far from sure. Here are several other names of riders who could turn in very good results in the opening TT:
Van Emden, Castroviejo, Kwiatkowski, Porte, Durbridge, Coppel, Elmiger, Cummings, Talansky, Matthews, Barta, Contador, Valverde, Thomas, Boom, Chavanel, Clement, Westra, Fuglsang, Tuft, Vermote, D Caruso, Grivko, De Gendt, Irizar, Oliveira, Kristoff, Boasson Hagen.

I am sure I must have left some out, but already you can see how much competition there will be to determine who gets to wear the first yellow jersey of the race.

The 2015 Tour de France will be broadcast on cable television in the U.S. each day by NBC Sports Network.

Enjoy the race!

Friday, April 24, 2015

Greg Henderson races to call Fabio Aru a cheater, then backpedals

On Greg Henderson's controversial comments about Fabio Aru
April 24, 2015

By now many of you will have heard about Lotto Soudal's Greg Henderson calling out Astana's Fabio Aru after the latter skipped the Giro Del Trentino due to a "stomach virus".

The first tweets went like this:

“Sad to see @fabaro1 "sick". Mate make sure next time u come back to our sport "healthy". Aka. Clean! #biopassport! Or don't come back!”

And later posted: “I am so sick of it. It becomes common knowledge within days. Why try cheat.”

Cyclingnews notes that Henderson has close to 40,000 followers on Twitter.
[See further down for a follow-up tweet from Henderson...]

Greg Henderson, vocal opiner
Greg Henderson has always impressed me as a highly talented lead-out man/sprinter, always ready to sacrifice for his team, and battle through some of the most challenging stage finales to help secure top results for his team.  As an avid cycling fan, and with no other direct connection to the sport or its personnel, other than as a fan, I am probably not alone in wondering as to the veracity and the ethical implications of Greg Henderson's incendiary comment on Twitter about Fabio Aru.

In play are the facts of the matter themselves (is Aru actually involved in any blood passport investigation?), Henderson's previous relationship with the Italian climber and his currently contentious Astana team, and perhaps just as significantly for the sport, the cumulative moral and practical effects of potentially bearing false witness.

With no apparent evidence at this point to back up Henderson's questionable claim, a lawsuit certainly seems plausible...and likely necessary. It is difficult for me to imagine Henderson voluntarily uttering such reproach in so very public a forum, without offering any supporting evidence. [Henderson did allude to a "source" but as yet has not elaborated on that source].

Like me, I assume many of us do suspect biological anomalies when a rider--particularly a star rider--suddenly drops out of a scheduled race. But many factors come into play when teams and riders make such decisions, and with no other public suggestion of impropriety, it was very irresponsible and seemingly vindictive for Greg Henderson to publically call out Aru.

Fabio Aru, in the spotlight
Further, such comments do nothing to promote the cause of "healing" the vulnerable sport of professional cycling. If Henderson has some inside knowledge then he should share it with the appropriate authorities, not take to the public arena to voice slanderous accusations. We are experiencing a fragile era in pro cycling where each step needs to be taken with great care and consideration, so that we can move away from impropriety and toward a cleaner, more respectable institution.

Manx sprinting legend Mark Cavendish commented recently that cycling has strayed from its previous characterization as a sport of "gentlemen"--and I am liberally paraphrasing here--toward a slicker, shrewder cutthroat market. It pains me that a pro of Henderson's stature should be so insensitive to the rippling effects of seemingly unsubstantiated claims of doping, while the sport is still reeling from some of its most damaging scandals, and (hopefully) striving to improve the fairness of the sport as well as the public perception of the sport.

Stop chasing away sponsors!

We all want a level playing field, and most of us aspire to a clean sport, but there is an appropriate time and place to voice contentious opinions, particularly as they naively beg for litigated responses, and a volatile, though pedestrian, "social media" site wholly dedicated to online bragging is not it. Having said that, I'm sure the Kiwi learned a lesson, but one other point sticks in my craw...

Why would such an established veteran in the sport call out a rival unless he in fact does have some information that has not been made public? Whether that information has credence is one issue, but public insinuation in the absence of first-hand proof is another. I can't help but wonder what or who Henderson's mysterious source was, and if we will ever unearth any facts to back up his claim. But one disturbing thought lingers: has it become generally accepted within the pro peloton that the entire Astana team is a reprehensible collection of cheaters and liars? Or did Henderson pick up on some contentious detail, like the fact that Aru claimed to have been treated for a viral infection with antibiotics (typically for bacterial infections). The predicament smells to me like the Lotto-Soudal rider proceeded from comments by sources he has trusted, and opened his mouth before considering all the facts.

As of this writing, Aru is considering legal options to vindicate his reputation; and Henderson has issued a public apology for his comments:

When you are sick. You are sick. Jumping to conclusions helps nobody. My mistake @FabioAru1. I should shut my mouth. Sincere apologies.

more to come...

Friday, April 17, 2015

brief update...

Sorry I haven't been blogging much lately. So much going on. But I have been following every race all season, and will at least post previews for the Grand Tours (just about 2 weeks until the Giro d'Italia!) I already have all 3 GT's assessed and predictions ready.
Hope you enjoyed the Classics!

Monday, March 16, 2015

2015 Paris-Nice Race Wrap

Richie Porte in the Col d'Eze TT

Congratulations to 2015 Paris-Nice winner Richie Porte! The Tasmanian talent who is preparing to lead Team SKY at the Giro d'Italia later this spring, won the final time trial stage up the Col d'Eze. The 1:39 he gained on yellow jersey wearer Tony Gallopin was enough to propel Porte to the top of the final General Classification. Michal Kwiatkowski and Simon Spilak rounded out the rest of the podium, both finishing thirty seconds off the winning time.

Tony Gallopin did not have a good day on the mountain, and mentioned after the stage that he was not happy with having chosen to ride the timed climb so much in the tri-bar position.  Gallopin lost the race lead he had grabbed on yesterday's sixth stage into Nice, coming in 1:39 behind Porte in the TT, and wound up finishing just 6th on GC. Porte's teammate Geraint Thomas was pushed off the podium over the last two stages, and ended the race fifth overall. Jakob Fuglsang also underperformed, sliding from fifth overall to seventh.

French hope, Tony Gallopin on the move in stage 6

Escape artist and KOM winner, Thomas De Gendt

Michael Matthews of Orica GreenEDGE managed to hold on and win the points jersey he first grabbed with his win on stage 3. Thomas De Gendt of the Lotto Soudal team won the King of the Mountains jersey by making the break three consecutive days, including the very mountainous fourth and sixth stages. While he was not able to defend the overall race lead he had held earlier, Michal Kwiatkowski of Etixx-Quickstep did walk away with the white, best young rider's jersey.

The stage winners from this 2015 edition of the Race to the Sun were:

Prologue TT: Michal Kwiatkowski (EQS)
Stage 1: Alexander Kristoff {Katusha}
Stage 2: Andre Greipel (Lotto-Soudal)
Stage 3: Michael Matthews (OGE)
Stage 4: Richie Porte (SKY)
Stage 5: Davide Cimolai (Lampre)
Stage 6: Tony Gallopin (Lotto-Soudal)
Stage 7: Richie Porte (SKY)

The final podium (L to R): Kwiatkowski, Porte, and Spilak

Final Overall Standings:
1. Richie Porte  (SKY)         29:10:41
2. Michal Kwiatkowski  (EQS)  + :30
3. Simon Spilak  (KAT)                ST
4. Rui Costa  (LAM)   
5. Geraint Thomas  (SKY)         :41
6. Tony Gallopin  (LTS)           1:03
7. Jakob Fuglsang  (AST)         1:05
8. Rafal Valls Ferri  (LAM)      1:24
9. Gorka Izaguirre  (MOV)      1:38
10. Tim Wellens  (LTS)            2:18

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Bragging Rights in Fantasy Cycling Leagues

Okay, bragging time. In case you need a reason to have any faith in my picks for race winners, I am pleased to give you one. Here are the results of today's fourth stage of Paris-Nice on one of the cycling fantasy leagues I play in. The first image shows the 12 riders I picked to finish high in today's mountaintop finish on the Croix de Chaubouret. The second image shows the results of the leagues' 397 players today. My team is named "bkSuperbas", after the old Brooklyn baseball club.

Considering the field of climbers at the race, and his recent performances, I don't think anyone would fault me for picking Kelderman, he just didn't quite have it today. And I'm guessing everyone had Majka as a pick today. The talented Polish climber, and last year's Vuelta a España King of the Mountains, finished in 4th place overall at the tour of Oman a few weeks ago, after finishing 4th on the queen stage up Green Mountain.

Can I  pick 'em, or what?

OK, done bragging.
Hope you're enjoying the race!