Britain’s new Golden Girl dominates in Minsk

It was appropriate. The last woman standing after 5 days of relentless competition was Becky James. The girl from “The Land of My Father” could not have looked happier as the strains of “God Save the Queen” echoed around the Minsk Arena. The Welsh woman, just 21 years old, put all the pain of Olympic rejection behind her, to scoop 4 medals in Belarus, 2 of them gold.

The James smile became the signature sight on the last few days of competition, as Great Britain’s mix of old and new opened up the throttle and left their rivals for dead. James burst onto the scene as a medal winning teenager at the Dehli Com Games, and after injury and non-selection curtailed her progress, she has now firmly established herself as the new British sprint star following on from Victoria Pendleton. The Queen is dead. Long live the Queen. The watching Meares would of raised an eyebrow.

If James and the Union Jack dominated the latter part of the week, Michael Hepburn and Advance Australia Fair, headlined the opening days. Heppy was in a league of his own in the Individual Pursuit, retaining the title won on home timber 11 months ago. And he led a new look Pursuit quartet to gold over a similarly new look British team. 18 year old Alex Morgan made his senior debut, and walked away with a team gold and an individual 4th. Watch this kid.

Hepburn will now head to road, seemingly banishing the track to the past. But the way he approached the week in Minsk and the way he has matured as a person over the past six months, don’t be surprised if the Queenslander is in the skinsuit at the Rio Velodrome. He has the talent and the team to allow him to juggle commitments. If the desire is there, and the team to match, Hepburn will be there.

It was an uneven week for the Aussie team. The endurance athletes shone with the sprint squad, minus Anna Meares and Shane Perkins, struggling to keep up. There were encouraging displays from Matthew Glaetzer who took 5th in the Sprint and Andrew Taylor, who claimed a Keirin 4th in his Worlds debut. Steph Morton too, showed that she is not out of place at the top table and will only get better.

But Kaarle McCulloch will leave Minsk with regrets after failing to stamp her authority on the event in the wake of Meares “Gap Year”. McCulloch is super quick against the clock, but looked to struggle when she was joined on the track by others. Bunch races do not suit her, and a spell in the Japanese Keirin series may have come at the ideal time. Go away. Regroup. Change of environment. Start again. With Morton and Taylah Jennings in the wings and Meares set to return, theres no time to waste.

The two other stars of the show were Glenn O’Shea and Annette Edmondson. Both claimed bronze medals in the Omnium, both got team pursuit medals, and Nettie also grabbed an IP bronze. The workload undoubtedly took it’s toll, especially on O’Shea who relinquished his World title in the very last event. Edmondson can point to a crash in the elimination race that may have cost her a silver. However, the American Sarah Hammer was a class apart in that competition.

Edmondson and O’Shea are both at the top of their sport and look set to be there right to Rio. Nothing we saw here changed that.

Outside of the Aussies it was a meet that was unpredictable, and full of talking points. Francois Pervis was the sprinter is best form but only ended up with one title. The medals were spread far and wide as the post-Olympic blues seemed to hit. Jason Kenny, the most high profile male on show, rode like a drain. He bombed out in the Team Sprint, missed the medals in the individual, yet somehow claimed the Keirin crown, having squeezed into the final following Pervis disqualification. It was that sort of meet.

But the ride, or rides, of the week came from the Emerald Isle. Martyn Irvine buried himself to make the Pursuit final. The Irishman may have been the bunny to Hepburn’s greyhound but it was silver medal and a huge achievement. And then less than an Hour later, Irvine lined up for the Scratch race, went for it 10 laps from home and only bloody won the thing! Irelands first title since the 1890’s. It was a ride to revel in. A ride that was bad on the heart, but great for the soul.

Track cycling has it detractors, but the show put on by the likes of James and Irvine showed that it is alive and kicking.

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The New Guard on Track for Rio

It’s a chilly, rainy Friday night in the south-west of Sydney. A few hundred spectators have turned up at a venue that housed legends 13 years ago, but now hosts few that could be called household names. It’s a far cry from Rio.

But it’s here at the Dunc Gray Velodrome, that a new wave of Australian track cyclists have taken the first step of a journey. A long and unpredictable journey. A journey that they hope ends in Olympic Gold. And also in redemption. Redemption for a sport that led the way for so many years, before being blown away by the British juggernaut.

The familiar names of the recent Aussie track programme are no around. Perkins, Meares, Bobridge, Dennis, Tomic, Meyer, Howard. The Road. Retirement. Rest. Now it’s the new breed. Morton, Bullen, Davison, O’Shea, Edmondson.

While there’s not quite a root and branch restructuring of the track programme going on, the plates are shifting. Michael Hepburn arrived for one last hurrah in the rainbows. In just his 5th track ride since London, he recorded the 5th fastest time in history in the 4000m Pursuit. Heppy was a key member of the Pursuit team that led the world for much of the last four years before falling in a heap in Olympic year. He may well go to Minsk for this months World’s but it will be a victory lap. The future of the pursuit squad lies in the South.

South Australia to be precise. SASI Super coach Tim Decker is taking control of the pursuit programme, and things will change. The focus on numbers, data, outputs will give way to a focus on the athlete as a person. South Australia have had a stunning Championship, with their mens quartet breaking four minutes. Decker arrives at the national team in a position of strength.

The sprint squad is set for an overhaul too, with the emergence of the NSW programme as a force. The team sprint victory over a strong SA unit raised an eyebrow. And on Friday night Mitch Bullen swept the highly fancied Matthew Glaetzer with a ride of audacity and brute strength. Bullen imposed himself on the race and found a gap through sheer presence. Dare I say it was Hoy-esque.

The women’s team is set for less dramatic changes, but the absence of Anna will allow the existing talent to shine. The spotlight will be turned elsewhere. And the first place will be Annette Edmondson.

Nettie is the next bona fide star of Australian cycling. Articulate, photogenic, and outrageously talented. World and Olympic medals in 2012. Two national titles so far in 2013, and surely favouritism for the Ominum in Minsk. And anything else she fancies. Nettie is the leader of a band of endurance riders that are the envy of the world. Add Melissa Hoskins, Amy Cure, Ash Ankudinoff. The Women’s pursuit squad will be the strongest group for years.

In the sprints, the gap year for Meares was the chance for Kaarle McCulloch to shine. But suddenly the gap left by Anna is being filled by two emerging sprinters with vastly different backgrounds. Steph Morton won Paralympic gold as a pilot last year. This week she claimed team and individual sprint gold, beating McCulloch in the process. Morton has arrived at the nationals leaner and meaner. On the bike she resembles Meares in style. A powerful diesel that hits the front and never looks like losing it.

The other challenger is Queensland teenager Taylah Jennings. Jennings dominated last years World Juniors in Invercargill, sweeping all six events in the Ominum, before switching to the sprints for her first senior year. She cuts a diminutive figure on the bike, with her build still more akin to a pursuiter, but she is dynamite. Bronze in the individual sprint was her initial reward from the nationals, but this is just the start. Her future is bright.

All of the riders I’ve spoken about are looking, not just at Minsk in 3 weeks, or Glasgow in 18 months, but toward Brazil. The boards of Rio and the Australian resurgence.

8 things we learnt after the Tour Down Under

1. Dutch Cycling may have another star on its hands

Tom Slagter won the Ochre Jersey, surprised many, and catapulted himself into cycling’s big league. After finishing the Willunga Stage a close second to Simon Gerrans, the Dutchman declared that the parcours of the whole race “was made for me. It’s perfect.” Slagter now joins teammates Bauke Mollema, Robert Gesink, Steven Kruiswijk and Wlico Keldermann as standard bearers for a newer,cleaner era of Dutch Cycling. Likened by some to Joaquin Rodriguez, the diminutive Slagter has the kind of explosive climb that will bring him much one day success.

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2. Blanco hit the ground running

Results in Adelaide have given Blanco more points in one week than they ammassed in 5 months as Rabobank in 2012. The entire team were superb, with aggressive, positive racing, strong results and a good team spirit. The Aussies on board, led by a rejuvenated Graeme Brown, did their bit too. David Tanner led out Slagter in Stirling, Mark Renshaw almost snatched victory from Andre Greipel on the final stage, and Jack Bobridge was active in the KOM competition. A great start for a team with money in the bank, for now, but no name on the shirtfront.

 

 

 

 

 

 

3. Greenedge are more comfortable in their own skin

Pressure? What pressure? The Orica-GreenEDGE team arrived with fanfare, and public expectation, but left with a stage win, some promising signs and a sense of calm amongst the team. Simon Gerrans delivered on Willunga but it wasnt a tour solely about results as it was 12 months ago. This year was about building. Building Matt Wilson as a DS. Building the Mouris/Impey/Goss train. Building Luke Durbridge into a real threat in week stage races. And I think they’ll be pretty pleased with the outcome. The confidence gained from Gerro’s win eased the angst felt after Stage 2 where Simon Clarke admitted that the team had “screwed up”, and now with a good start both here and in San Luis the team

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will head toward the European season in high spirits.

 

 

 

 

4. Lotto’s sprint may be unbeatable

The way Lotto handle the sprints is a thing of beauty. The power. The precision. The trust. The intelligence. They are making the High Road train look shabby. If Lotto deliver Greipel as they plan at 200m he is unbeatable. Andre is in the prime of his career and is blessed with a group of teammates with believe in him totally. And vice versa. Greg Henderson is in “world’s best lead out territory” and the battles throughout 2013 between Greipel and Cavendish will be epic.

5. Adam Hansen is Australia’s most underrated rider

Maybe not in the cycling fraternity, but in the wider sporting world. 3 Grand Tours completed in 2012. Pivotal member of the aforementioned Sprint Train, decent climber, hard man, good bloke, leader not a follower. Hansen is a class act.

6. Andy Schleck has a lot of work to do

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Pre-race Andy said that it was about just being on the bike and racing again. He also admitted that he was nervous. 7 days later, he’d lost 16 minutes on the Stirling stage, got dropped in the first 500m of Willunga’s first circuit, and abandoned the street circuit at halfway, before riding home and not making the teams presentation. Not the greatest return for the

2010 Tour champ. Jens Voigt said that “Andy needed a kick up the arse midway through the week, and after today (Sunday) he needs another one. Schleck is targetting being at full tilt in April for the Ardennes. On this showing that is highly unlikely. All’s not lost for Radioshack though. Their old guard may be failing, but in Hermans, Bennett and Machado, they have a talented group.

 

7. The Tour Down Under should stay in Adelaide

There have been more noises of the race going elsewhere but let’s be honest. Could it work elsewhere? The riders love it. Great weather, same hotel, short transfer, good racing. The race works in South Australia. Why change? That’s not to say we can’t have another UCI race around this time, and the great challenge is for the organisers to work with the new UCI Oceania President Tracey Gaudrey, and the men behind the Sun Tour in Victoria, to allow that race to complement the TDU.

8. We place way too much importance on the Tour Down Under

And I’ve done it myself! But it is the first race of the year. Every rider’s modus operandi is different. Every rider’s condition is different. We read so much into a performance or a result, but in the context of a 10 month season, what happens in Lobethal in January is forgotten by the time we get to Lyon in July. Let’s enjoy the Tour Down Under for what it is.

Gerrans Willunga Win a Classic Move

Rewind the clock twelve months.  Simon Gerrans was being cheered to the rafters as Tour Down Under Champion, just 2 weeks after taking away National glory.  GreenEDGE were under pressure to begin their debut season with a bang. With victories. With Glory. Gerro delivered.

 

He was on rare form.  The best rider in the world over the first three months of 2012.  Three months that culminated in those rarest of beasts.  An Australian on the top step at a classic.  And not just a classic. La Primervera.  Milan – SanRemo.  A Monument of the sport.

 

Gerro’s win surprised many, probably even himself.  But when the legs are that good…..

 

His target last year, as every year, was glory in the Ardennes in April.  And on the roads of France in July.  But the trouble with form is that it can be a fickle beast.  Gerrans was unable to hold it through to his pet events Amstel Gold and Liege-Bastogne-Liege.  He wasn’t bad by any means.  But he wasn’t in the mix.

 

Come July in France it was a similar tail.  Decent legs, breakaway attempts, punchy finishes, no no results.

 

The Bell Curve saw a resurgence in August in the one dayers, but overall it was strange paradox of a season.  Moments to be cherished.  Moments of regret.  

 

Now fast forward.  Willunga 2013.  The battleground that saw Valverde pip the national champ twelve months previous, was treated to another afternoon of drama.  But this time Gerrans, with no Ochre aspirations triumphed in front of an exultant home crowd.

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The pressures on the team leader this year are vastly different.  GreenEDGE had to win everything in January last year.  No excuses.  Start with a bang.  Gerro, you’re the man.  It’s a different environment this time around.  

 

The pressure is less.  Simon’s failure to conquer the Corkscrew on Stage 2, shut the door on defending the title.  But at the same time,  allowed him the freedom to do what he does best.  Assess the legs.  Assess the race.  Assess the parcours.  Assess the riders. And win the race.  He does it better than most.

 

Gerro’s form is good, perhaps not quite at last years level, but still very good, and with some careful management it can continue to grow and peak in mid-April, the roads of the Ardennes, the roads he cherishes the most.  The lessons of last year will be learnt.

 

There’s something magical about the races in the sport’s heartland.  The cobbled climbs.  The unpredictable weather.  The crowds, shouting themselves hoarse.  Their breath reeking of Leffe or Duval as the riders past by, inches away.  It’s a battleground for riders.  Riders like Gerrans.

 

The challenge ahead though, is daunting.  Philippe Gilbert has shown enough in Adelaide to suggest that his legs are good.  Cancellara and Boonan will be ready to battle.  Andy Schleck is targeting La Doyenne, with Nibali and Evans also sniffing around.  

 

Gerrans will be assisted by a team a year older and a year wiser.  Lieutenants like O’Grady, Langeveldt, Albasini and Mouris.  Strong men.  Hard men.  Men of the classics.

 

Gerrans is already assured of his place in Australian cycling history.  Wins in all three Grand Tours.  Natioanl Champipon.  Stage race winner.  Classic winner.

 

Claim victory in April, and not only will he be in the Australian Hall of Fame.  He will move into rarified air.  A two time Classics winner.  It’s what a rider of his ability deserves.

 

 

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.

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.