Wilunga to be the battle ground again

Before this edition of the Tour Down Under, it was predicted that Stage 2, the climb of Corkscrew Hill would split the bunch to bots and decide the selection before a final battle of the slopes of Old Wilunga.

And lo, it has come down to that, although maybe not quite in the way we expected.  The crashes that marred the descent of the Corkscrew has contributed as much to the make up of the race, with Phillippe Gilbert and Matty Lloyd, amongst many to hit the bitumen and see their GC hopes tumble down the slope with them.

We also saw some rusty legs from some of the favourites too, notably Simon Gerrans, as the challenge came earlier than normal.

So we have an eclectic mix of GC riders in the running for overall honours, led by Geraint Thomas.  The Sky strongman has trained the house down in Adelaide since Christmas, and was superb in Wednesday’s stage, taking the victory after a bold attack on the climb, a nerveless decent, and trackie’s style sprint.  Thomas is set for a big 2013 with major Classic ambitions (Flanders is his big aim), and a spot in the all conquering Team Sky TDF squad, possibly in the place of Michael Rogers, now of Saxo-Tinkoff.

While Thomas and his team are in control, there are a number of challengers milling around Thomas.  A bunch of riders that are reflecting a new generation.  Winner in Stirling, Tom Slagter of the rebranded Blanco outfit sits 5 seconds back, and his team have a double threat with the exciting Wilco Kelderman sitting in tenth spot.  They have a strong two card hand to play.  Kelderman in particular looks to have a huge future, although he did get involved in the crash that marred Stage 4.

It’s a similar story at Radioshack, emerging from their own tumultuous year.  No Bruyneel, no Frank Schleck, and in terms of GC here, no Andy Schleck.  What they do have however is three riders within touching distance.  Tiago Machado finished third last year, and is primed for a real crack on Wilunga, but the emergence of the Belgian Ben Hermans and the young Kiwi George Bennett has surprised.  

Just 20 years old, Bennett is a precocious talent.  A former mountain biker, he grabbed the silver medal at the NZ Nationals two weeks ago and played a major team role on the US races at the back end of 2012.  If they let him off the leash, Bennett could be the surprise packet.

And it’s brotherly love at Euskatel with the Izagirre boys only fifteen seconds back.  Gorka, the elder is the more widely known, but it’s Jon who is maybe the one to watch with a Giro Stage win under belt last year.

The prospects of a battle royale are good, with several teams desperate to make a mark, knowing that Greipel’s superlative form means victory on the street circuit looks a formality.  So expect Gilbert, Gerrans, De Gendt, Velits and Iglinsky to give it a red hot go on the second ascent of the famous old hill.

 

Andre a sprinting Giant

It may have been inevitable, but it was brutal and brilliant.  Andre Greipel took out Stage One of this year’s Tour Down Under in emphatic style, putting daylight between him and some of the world’s top quick men.  

Lotto were, again, superb in keeping control of the race, positioning their man and letting him do his thing.  And that thing is to crush everyone in his way.  Greg Henderson was describing the finish to his teammates post race, “He pulled out with 200 to go and just *motorbike noise*, and I thought ‘F**k me….” Quite Gregory. Quite.

The boy from Rostock, in the old East, has come a long way from his days as the number two at HTC.  He was winning races in Australia 5 years ago, but seemed destined to be the man who was good, but “wasn’t Cav”.  The move to Lotto 2 years ago changed everything.

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Now Greipel is the most feared fastman around.  His team are the number one lead out train by a distance.  It’s no coincidence.  Andre handpicked ex-HTC riders like Sieberg and Hansen to come to Lotto with him.  He believes in them.  They would crawl over broken class to deliver their man to the line.  Lotto are the very definition of the word team.  Each victory for Andre, is a victory for the guys drifting across the line in his wake.  

On the bike, a machine.  A brutal winning machine.  Greipel snapped five chains in training for the race in two days.  Off the bike, a quiet, friendly, thoroughly decent guy.  One of the most well liked in the bunch.  You won’t get a “f**k off” to any journos from Gringo.

Which brings us to Cav, and seemingly Greipel will never quite escape being bracketed with the Manx Missile.  Five years ago, it was Cav being in the team that stopped Greipel grabbing the limelight.  In Copenhagen eighteen months ago, it’s was British Gold to German Bronze.  In 2012, they traded Tour wins.  Greipel with the Lotto train.  Cav living off Sky scraps.

In 2013 it will be a battle royale.  The two fast men on rival Belgian teams.  Both littered with the remains of HTC.  Sieberg, Henderson, Hansen, Greipel.  Velits, Grabsch, Martin, Cavendish.  Greipel v Cavendish.  Same as it ever was.

Marquees in Fashion Across the Globe

For your average Joe, Brazilian club football is a bit of a mysterious beast. The name Santos will be familiar. Maybe even Flamengo. The more hardcore football fan will nod wisely at Fluminese, and Corinthians and Sao Paulo. Maybe even Palmeiras. But what of the less than glamorously named Botafogo?

Blank looks.

Ok then what if I told you they were a powerhouse 100 years ago? Jairzinho, World Cup legend, is a club hero? Garrincha and Gerson too. RIng any bells?

Probably not. You see Fogao – Great Fire – are seldom seen on the big stage these days. No Copa Lib triumphs. No recent superstars. The sole national title, achieved in 1995 thanks mainly to a swag of goals form occasional national team striker Tulio, was even overshadowed by relegation 7 years later. A fall from grace after a brief golden period.

Back in the top flight, but seen as workmanlike, modern day Fogao have lived in the shadows of the glamour boys of Rio football. Flamengo and it’s big names. Fluminese and it’s recent football, even Vasco, the boys with the cool kit, and continental trailblazers have left Botafogo behind.

But this season, something has changed. It’s a change we’re seeing here in the A-League. Botafogo have gone all marquee on us.

On the 30th of June this year, Clarence Seedorf, he of the 87 caps, 4 Champions league titles, member of the FIFA 100 and the Real Madrid Team of the Century, and owner of the deepest voice in football, put pen to paper with Botafogo and became the Club’s first genuine superstar in years.

Seedorf’s move follows the trend of the Campeonato Brasileiro being able to not only keep it’s young stars, but also attract plenty of talent to it’s shores. Alongside Seedorf, the likes of Wagner Love, Luis Fabiano, Deco and Diego Forlan have all made the move to Brazil over the past few years, with startlets like Neymar, Ganso and Leandro Damiao resisting the lure of the Euro, for the time being at least.

The booming Brazilian resources industry means the local economy is in fine fettle, with the local currency providing players with plenty of reasons to stick around, or give Serie A a go.

Seedorf’s arrival sparked hysteria amongst the Fogao faithful. In the season opener, played 2 months before Seedorf’s arrival, just over seven thousand hardy souls took to trip out the much maligned, and unloved Engenhao as the home side recorded a 4-2 win over Sao Paulo. Fast forward to Seedorf’s debut against Gremio. Same venue. Nearly thirty five thousand on hand for the Dutch debut.

Seedorf is on T-Shirts, billboards and TV ads around Rio. He is a star. An expensive one too, at a reported $65000 a week. However, and in a cautionary tale for the A-League, the novelty seems to have worn off a touch with the crowds. A few weeks later just over five thousand came to see the win over Figueirense, and in subsequent games, gates of between fifteen and twenty thousnad have been the norm, well in excess of the league average, but disappointing in the light of that opening day crowd.

I saw Seedorf first hand last week, after venturing out to Rio’s Olympic athletics venue for the match with Corinthians. The crowd was a touch below seventeen thousand, but made a noise double that, helped by a raucous travelling party from Sao Paulo. The game was entertaining, if a little scrappy at times, but Seedorf was brilliant.

He was involved in everything that was good about Fogao, popping up wide left, wide right, through the middle, in front of the back four. Despite his years, he showed energy that put many of his teammates to shame, coupled with the touch and vision that you’d expect from a player of his calibre. Two goals in the draw were his reward, plus the adoration of the home crowd, who stopped getting on the back of their coach, former Kashima boss Oswaldo de Olivieria, to lay themselves down at the feet of their hero.

But Seedorf can’t save Botafogo or the Brazilian league alone. He is one of a number who are arriving, and whilst things are bright financially, overall the footballing picture is uncertain. Crowds, for a country of Brazil’s status and population are poor. The calender is messy, the prices too high, the stadiums ill suited and the football often below par.

The local game needs a boost, and like in Australia, the big names are providing one. But it’s only one part of a much bigger jigsaw.

The Premier League: 8 Key Questions

  1. Can City go back-to-back?

The heart-stopping finale to last season may still be fresh in the minds of the City faithful, but the warm and fuzzy has well and truly gone from Roberto Mancini.  The Italian has cut a cranky figure during a surprisingly quiet pre-season at Eastlands.  When asked about the lack of transfer activity, Mancini spat out “Ask Marwood”.  Jack Rodwell is the only new face at City, and it’s hard to see him being in the first team in the immediate future.  Van Persie headed toward Salford, leaving Mancini with pretty much the same squad.  The good news? Tevez is back in the fold and looks interested, Balotelli hasn’t gone loopy and the creative core of Silva, Nasri, Aguerro will be better for another pre-season.  City deserve favouritism, but only just.

  1. Can Van Persie deliver the title back to Old Trafford?

It was a transfer saga of the summer, and a coup for United to pull it off.  The best striker in the Premier League last season leaving 3rd place to join 2nd.  It’s big money for an injury prone, 29 year old, but if Van Persie delivers as he did in 2011/12, it’s money well spent.  The problem here for United is how to fit him into the system.  Is it back to the 4-4-2?  Where does Kagawa fit in? Is Rooney up top or in the hole? What about Young, Nani, Valencia, Wellbeck?  Defensively nothing has changed either.  The anticipated move for Baines hasn’t materialised, Rio and Vidic are a year older, as are Carrick and Scholes.  Tom Cleverley, so impressive in the Olympic campaign and in England’s win over Italy, has a pivotal year ahead of him.  It looks set for a Manchester title battle.

  1. Can Di Matteo revive Chelsea?

Sounds odd to say the European Champions need reviving, but we have to be honest. Chelsea’s UCL triumph was almost achieved despite themselves.  Now the hard work really starts.  Drogba will be a huge miss, almost as much for his personality as his goals.  Torres is coming good, but in the striker stakes, the cupboard is pretty bare behind the Spaniard with Kalou, Anelka and Drogba gone.  Only Sturridge remains.  Countering that is an abundance of midfield creativity, with Marin, Oscar and Hazard all arriving to join Mata.  There’ll be the usual reliance on Lampard and Terry to go around once more, and defence could be an Achilles heel.  A title challenge is unlikely.  A tilt at the top 4 should be a given, but a bad start and who knows what could happen down the Kings Road.

  1. Are the North London clubs in transition?

It was heartening for Arsenal fans to see Wenger be proactive in the transfer market, bringing in Podolski, Giroud and Carzola all before the inevitable Van Persie exit.  But again, questions are being raised about the club’s ambition with another big name exiting the Emirates. Alex Song could be next, which would leave a hole in the defensive part of the side.  As per usual, creativity is not a problem for the Gunners, with the new boys joining Walcott, The Ox and rejuvenated Rosicky and Arteta.  But it’s the return of Jack Wilshere that may ultimately decide the fate of Arsenal this year.  His injury is career threatening, but if he returns at the same level as in 2010/11 Arsenal will have a good season.

Up the Seven Sisters Road, it’s all change. No more Arry. No more Luka. In come tactics. And a swagger. Villas-Boas has a fair bit to prove, but has probably chosen the perfect club to start his coaching comeback.  For all the pretty football in the early part of last season, Spurs collapsed under the distraction of Arry courting England, and a squad threadbare in key areas.  The latter part hasn’t changed with Defoe the only striker at the club.  This is the area in need of urgent attention now the Modric deal is concluded.  Vertonghen is a shrewd addition as is Sigurdsson, and expect a more advanced role for Gareth Bale, as AVB seeks to implement his Porto system on Spurs.  Top 4 challengers again, but no sack if he doesn’t make it this season.

  1. Can Rodgers revive The Reds?

He’s the British coach that even Craig Foster likes.  No pressure then at Liverpool for Brendan Rodgers.  The architect of Barcelona-in-South-Wales, has taken his Northern Irish Tikka Takka to Anfield, to try and revive the sleeping giant, after 2 years of Hodgson/Dalglish related misery.  It seems the majority of Liverpool fans are all for Rodgers and are prepared to give him time to succeed.  Fed up of false dawns, they want a coach, and a playing style, to stick.  The early signs are promising. Youthful signings who fit the Rodgers philosophy of pass, pass, pass, press, press, press, and the relative light use of Andy Carroll, all point to a brighter future.  They will be tough to beat at Anfield but it’ll be on the road where Liverpool’s destiny this season will be decided.  Either way, the future is certainly brighter than it was 12 months ago.

  1. Can anyone make the break into the top 4?

Newcastle got damn close last season.  Everton have been there or there abouts before, as have Villa.  The Geordies look best placed to have another crack with a settled squad and a confident coach who has delivered above expectation.  Papiss Cisse was the revelation of last year and his partnership with Demba Ba will make or break Newcastle’s season.

Everton have again had to cut their cloth.  Pienaar and Naismith come in. Rodwell leaves.  Traditionally slow starters, if they can hit the ground running, and Jelavic is amongst the goals they will on course for a good season.

For Villa just forgetting last season’s flirtation with relegation may be enough. The McLeish year was traumatic, and he’s replaced by another Scot in Paul lambert who did wonderous things at Norwich.  The football should be better, the fans should be happier and the results should improve.  Not enough to crack the big boys, but enough to be competitive again.

  1. Can Norwich and Swansea go again?

A massive challenge lies ahead for the 2 sides who impressed and delighted in equal measure last season.  Both are under new coaches, with Chris Hughton at Carrow Road, out to build on the reputation he developed at Newcastle, then Birmingham, and amazingly Michael Laudrup in charge at Swansea. Yes, Michael Laudrup.  At Swansea.  On paper the changes will be felt least at Norwich with no major departures, Grant Holt retained and Michael Turner on board.  The Swans however have lost not just Rodgers, but 2 key members of that impressive midfield in Sigurdsson and Allen.  Laudrup forged his coaching reputation with a young, exciting Getafe team, but has found recent jobs trickier.  On paper his style is similar to Rodgers, but in reality times could be much tougher this time around in South Wales.

  1. Who will go down?

A really tough call this year.  Wigan have flirted with relegation for years now, and no matter how much we respect Martinez football, they may finally run out of luck, especially if Victor Moses moves on.

The promoted teams all face a tough year with Reading perhaps the best placed to survive, with a solid, settled squad, good youth set up and a star signing in Pogrebnyak.

Southampton were League One 2 years ago, and will bank on home form in front of a parochial crowd to keep them up.

West Ham snuck in through the play-offs after faltering late on.  Big Sam will divide opinion inside and outside the club once again, but they have enough Premier league experience within the squad to survive.

QPR survived on a fraught final day, but seem set to prosper in 2012/13 after Mark Hughes latest shopping spree that brought in Park and Fabio from United plus Robert Green, Junior Hoilett and Andy Johnson.

 

Predictions

Winner: Manchester United

UCL Spots: Manchester City, Arsenal, Tottenham

Europa Spot: Chelsea

FA Cup: Chelsea

League Cup: Newcastle

Relegated: Swansea, Southampton, Wigan

 

 

Return of the King?

I was asking people around the office for their view on Alberto Contador this week.  Divisive was my word.  The general feedback though was positive….erm….let me rephrase….upbeat.

There is no doubt that Alberto the rider is to be cherished.  A daring, attacking presence who looks as good on the bike as anyone we’ve ever seen.  A rider who animates races, who grabs the attention. Alberto the person is a more complex case.

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Flashback. 2010. Geelong Road Worlds. A quiet morning suddenly lit up but the news wires. Contador went positive at the Tour. The intervening two years have been an almighty mess of court cases, legal action, race wins, race wins stripped, he said/she said, and finally a suspension. A suspension of half measures though. Ban him for long enough to ensure that ASO or the IOC aren’t embarrassed by Dirty Bertie returning. Let the Spanish worry about that.

Contador himself has always protested his innocence, and presented the “Steak Excuse” that launched a thousand jokes.  Maybe it was true. Maybe it wasn’t. Maybe it’s more sinister. We’ll never truly know.  What we do know is that the process was a farce, and unfair to the rider, the sport and the public.

So in plain black and white Alberto is a doper. The 2010 Tour positive, plus the links to Puerto, should make him persona non grata.  Yet throughout this years Tour de France there was a common theme.

“Be good if Contador were here.”

And therein lies the problem.  Contador as a bike racer illuminates the peloton.  He can seemingly win races at will. Dance on those pedals and disappear up the road.  What was on paper a barn burning 2011 Giro parcours, was turned into a procession after just 9 days, when Contador erupted on the slopes of Mount Etna to make the result in Milan a formality. Except, the record books say Scarponi won the race. The irony. 

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And now he returns. In Spain. The conquering hero to the locals.  The disgraced athlete to the critics.

He’ll probably win the Vuelta.  Froome will challenge in the Time Trial and on the climbs.  Rodriguez will attack on the steepest ramps but can’t compete against the clock.  Alberto, even without racing days, should be too good.  And we’ll watch him making the climbs look stupidly easy and seeing the pain he’s inflicting on his rivals, and we’ll enjoy it.  A guilty pleasure.

So should we celebrate his return?  Well in the light of the current goings on with WADA, USADA, UCI and LA, I’m delighted we”ll talk about AC in a racing context.  

He has been found guilty of doping, has been suspended and now returns. As the current rules say. Like Basso. Like Valverde. Like Vino. Like Millar. Like Scarponi.  The sport is full of returning riders, some contrite, others unrepentant. Some who are cheered to the rafters now. Some who are forever tainted in peoples minds. The issue will always divide, and until there is consensus between governing bodies, and anti-doping agencies it always will.  The sport needs to decide if all doping is equal. If all dopers are to serve suspensions or be thrown out of the sport.    The current system and the way it is policed is disgraceful.

I like watching bike races. I like watching exciting bike riders. I like watching Alberto Contador. I think the peloton has missed him. He’s back, and now we deal with it.

 

 

The Changing of the Guard

Stage 11 of the Tour offered a great deal. A classic, dramatic Alpine day. A French winner. A champion fighting for his life. A team controlling like we haven’t seen in years. But most of all, it offered a glimpse of the future.

In time, we may go back to La Toussuire and mark in down as cycling’s red letter day. The moment that the peloton’s old guard got the tap on the shoulder.

Evans fought for his life. An audacious move, perfectly planned and executed, which could, and perhaps should, have gained him big time. But as the mind showed it was willing, the body failed. No fairytale Schleck like attack. “Not my best day” he said afterward. No Cadel, but you went down swinging. This was no surrender.

More of the races big names came and went. Frank Schleck looked comfortable in the lead group, before cracking close to the finish.

Valverde, Cobo, Menchov, Basso, Vino, Kloden, Horner, Scarponi. Tapping away behind the actual race.

Even Wiggins, he of the strongest team, best preparation and pottiest mouth, seemed to feel the effects of the racing, holding onto wheels for grim death.

Instead we were treated to the young guns, Pinot, Rolland and Van Garderen. And the prime timers. Van den Broeck, Froome and Nibali. Exhilarating, dashing riders. Always eager to make their mark, take a chance. Have a go.

We knew of Rolland, from his victory on the Alpe last year. But this win cemented him in the new group. Crashing at high speed, getting up and riding past the break to take the win. Guts, talent, panache. Call it what you will. I call it class. Forget the theatrics of Voeckler. Rolland is the jewel in Europcar’s crown.

And Pinot. The youngest man in the bike race, now with 2 wins in a week. France have been yearning for a star for years. Now they have two.

Tejay was quite brillant too. Stronger than his captain who he laid himself on the line for, Van Garderen looked in the kind of form to take the stage.

As did Froome who bowed to team orders and dragged the Maillot Jaune across the line. In the last 5km, Froome was the strongest man, and Sky could’ve made a tactical gamble and let him go to seal a strong 1-2. Instead pragmatism reigned. Froome was a good boy, and Wiggins remains in control.

An era of Champions is coming to an end. The generational change may not be immediate but it is knocking loudly on the door.

The Vuelta Espana will offer a peek at it, as Froome is expected to take on Schleck and Contador and Rodriguez. And maybe Van Garderen will be given the chance to ride GC for BMC. In the Sky camp, Uran and Porte are both top 10 material.

It’s an exciting prospect.

Wiggo is Human. Just.

There’s been a bit of a storm circling around Bradley Wiggins over the last few days. Not about the way he rides a bike, which is incredible, but more about a few dirty words he said to the members of the Fourth Estate.

Brad was asked but the doping rumours that swirl around on Twitter. His colourful response contained an F, a W and a big C bomb. I know. Shocking.

Since then he’s been lambasted by some, including my own colleague Mike Tomalaris who doesn’t like what he see’s as Wiggins disrespectful and boorish behaviour.

Sure, Wiggins choice of language left a bit to be desired, but his response was primal. A deep seated anger at those casting aspersions upon his work. Upon his very being. The bait was laid and he gobbled it up.

But give me a man who reacts with honesty and fire over one who trots out the same anodyne media quotes. Wiggins is honest, up front and speaks his mind. As someone who’s job is the media, I like this. He’s interesting.

Wiggins is a complex character. A deep thinker and a man prone to huge periods of self doubt, and dark depressions. One of his close advisors said that Brad called him a few days ago and asked him to come over to see him before the Time Trial as he had to talk to him about it. He also revealed the black periods following races, where Brad fails to cope with life away from the bike race.

Ego? No. Arrogance? No. If he’s guilty of anything its of trying hard to disguise his own insecurities. With the media he’s pugnacious but I feel it’s a sign of his own insecurities. And of having a slight potty mouth.

It’s a strange media landscape we live in. We bemoan the lack of characters in sport these days; how they are all media trained robots, but expect them to still entertain us, and be role models. Yet in this tour Peter Sagan has been criticised for celebrating wins, and Wiggins for speaking his mind.

Damned if you do.