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.

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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.

Reach for the Sky as Wiggins goes for broke

It’s takes a lot for a Brit to forego the chance of Olympic gold medal success. To defend a crown in front of a passionate home crowd on the Velodrome. That’s exactly what Bradley Wiggins has done.

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On Sunday 20th of February 2011, Wiggins was part of a British Quartet that dominated New Zeland in the Teams Pursuit at the Manchester World Cup. At the time, Wiggins, a three time Olympic gold medallist, was on track to defend the teams title in London. But it was to be the last time he stepped onto the boards in competition.

At the time, the talk of a Tour/Track Olympics double was in the air. Glory on the cobbles of the Champs Elysees, and on the pine of East London. But something changed. A perfect storm of circumstance. Now it’s Yellow in Paris that drives Wiggins, rather than Gold in London.

From a surprise fourth place in the 2009 edition of La Grand Boucle, Wiggins crashed back down to Earth in his much hyped Sky Tour debut. The man to win the Tour for Britain. Twenty-Fourth on GC. A performance that cut him man deeply. “The first public failure of my career…..too pompous…..consistently mediocre…..” All these words uttered by Wiggins once the dust settled.

From being a Tour contender to one of the pack, needing to readjust and refocus.

First came a new philosophy within Team Sky. Collective responsibility. Look at all races not just Brad at the Tour. New coaching techniques and personnel. Then came a closer relationship between Track and Road. For Wiggins, this the point where his twin ambitions were supposed to begin. It turns out it’s where they ended.

For all the bullish talk prior to Manchester, it was the last hurrah in the Velodrome. Within four months, Wiggins had podiumed at Paris-Nice and won the Dauphine. Still the talk in British circles was of a triple Gold medal tilt. In reality, Wiggins had become a fully fledged road racer.

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The Tour should have been confirmation of this. In peak physical condition his inexperience in a Grand Tour bunch cost him his collarbone and a place in the world’s biggest bike race. In the end, he sat at home watching a time trial decide the race. What if, what if, what if……

Six weeks later he was on two podiums. Third at La Vuelta. Second in Copenhagen at the World’s Time Trial.

As 2011 became 2012 the decision was formalised. The Track was gone. Focus now would be road, and road alone. Tour de France glory. Then the Olympic Time Trial. Not the double many envisaged two years prior.

Again the form lines speak positively. Paris-Nice victory. Dauphine victory. The double only ever done twice before. Two blokes called Anquetil and Merckx. Add the Romandie jersey to the mix and Wiggins stands alone.

And so to Liege and the Grand Depart. Team Sky are attempting an audacious move. Yellow and Green in Paris. Twin Gold in London.

It’s a high stakes game and they run the risk of losing the lot. The team is there for Wiggins once the roads head skyward, with Froome, Porte and Rogers ready to counter the moves that Evans, Sanchez, Gesink and Nibali through at them. But before that it’s about Cav. Stage wins to grab the green. Knees, Siutsou, Eddy Boss and Eisel in the train for their man. How much of a toll will this take out of the team come the third week? Can Wiggins maintain this exceptional form? Will Porte and Rogers have the energy in the tank to by up there fighting for Bradley come the Pyrenees? Can anyone really take enough time out of him in the mountains and defend it in the final time trial? So many questions. Evans is the only one who looks capable of challenging at this point. His attacks during the Dauphine, especially on the downhill, smack of a rider in decent form but a rider who knows that he must maximise every opportunity. Cadel cannot afford to reach the Chartres time trial with a deficit. Every second counts. No-one knows that more than man who missed the jersey by just twenty three of them in the past.

Cadel knows how to win this bike race. Brad doesn’t. The signs point to a battle royale.

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Wiggins himself, is remarkably laconic about it all. There is a maturity about him as a rider, even if it doesn’t allows come across in his public pronouncements. (See his Romandie presser for more details http://road.cc/content/news/57430-thats-entertainment-bradley-wiggins-reinvents-post-race-press-conference-video )

The window of opportunity is closing. There is no Schleck or Contador to ride away from him in the hills. No super teams ready to dominate. This is his time. There may not be another. It’s all or nothing. The effort it will take to win the Tour has already compromised another track Gold. It may destroy his Time Trial hopes.

But it’s time. Glory in Paris, then a homecoming.

He believes he is ready. His team believes he is ready. Now he just has to prove it.

Tour Contenders Narrow to Two

It’s so close you can almost taste it.  July in France.  Le Tour.  Yellow jerseys.  Late nights. Gate and his cheese.  The month of the year when everyone suddenly talks about bikes.

There’s added interest this year of course.  Cadel Evans triumph last year captured the imagination, with over a million Australians watching in the wee hours, all the papers putting a bike rider from Katherine on the front page, and thousands lining the streets of Melbourne to welcome him home.  Add to this Australia’s own team Orica-GreenEDGE, making a Tour debut, and you feel that this will be the biggest one yet from an Aussie perspective.

But on the bike, the race looks more and more likely to come down to a battle between two riders.  Evans goes in as second favourite to Brit Bradley Wiggins, having the season of his life.  Third favourite? At this stage, Daylight.

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Wiggins dominance in 2012 is total.  He took out Paris-Nice in March.  disappeared into training camps, returned in April to dominate the Tour of Romandie.  Took off again to Team Sky’s high altitude camp on the Canary Islands, and has bossed the field in the Dauphine, the classic barometre of Tour form.  Wiggins has looked in control amongst a strong Sky unit on the climbs, and crushed a top quality field in the Time Trial, to take the yellow.

Evans, in contrast, has had a difficult time of things in 2012.  Illness has blighted his campaign after early season success in Corsica at the Criterium International.  He was, by his own admission below par at two of his pet events, Tirreno-Adriatico and Romandie.  But this week Evans has shown that he is on the right track.

Victory on Stage 1, and time taken on the downhills prove that Evans is physically strong, and is mentally fresh.  The time trial performance was not terrible, but suffered in comparison to Wiggins.  There’s room for improvement there.

The other contenders are not faring so well.  Vincenzo Nibali has been touted as a podium shot, but the Italian had a poor Tour of California, and was dropped early on the major climb of the Dauphine.  Major improvement is required.

It’s been a bad few weeks for the experienced riders. Basso blew at the Giro as did Frank Schleck.  Chris Horner lost his California Crown, Dennis Menchov has barely been sighted at the Dauphine and Sammy Sanchez crashed and struggled on.  Vuelta Champ Cobo also pulled the pin early.  Over at The Shack, Andreas Kloden hasn’t ridden much and at Omega-Pharma Levi Leipheimer is on the comeback path from a broken leg.

Things look brighter amongst the next generation.  Robert Gesink produced a stellar ride on Mount Baldy to claim the California crown, and his Rabobank team boast two more young guns in Bauke Mollema and the hugely impressive Wilco Kelderman.  Gesink was a major let down in last years Tour suffering from injury and mental fatigue, but the signs are, the young Dutchman is ready to take the next step.

Over at Lotto-Belisol, there’s quiet optimism over the form of Jurgen Van Den Broeck, who has been in the lead group at the Dauphine all week.  The Belgian was a casualty of the early carnage last year but looks ready to take a top 5 spot.

And then there’s Andy. Andy Schleck should be a favourite.  The, now, 2010 Tour winner, and multiple runner up is in the prime of his career, let things at Radioshack are not good.  There talk all year long has been of a fall out between the Schlecks and the man expected to take them to the next level, new DS Johan Bruyneel.  Bruyneel himself has thrown out various incendiary comments to the media about the Schlecks.  Whether these were designed to motivate them or not, the effect has been disasterous.

Andy’s form is atrocious.  He has abandoned three of his nine races this season, and failed to crack the top hundred during his seven active stages of the Dauphine.  There was a crash and talk of a knee problem but all is not well in the Schleck camp.

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While physical ailments are the public excuse, it appears that its a fragile mind rather than body that is taking it’s toll on Andy.  From the very public criticism of his time trialling from all and sundry, to Bruyneel’s barbs, to the idea of tackling the Tour without his favourite DS Kim Andersen in the car, Andy appears to be falling apart mentally.  As exhilarating a climber as there is anywhere, Schleck version 2012, is a shadow of his former self.

There are even suggestions that Radioshack will head to the Tour without the brothers who, essentially, created the team.  Unthinkable a few months ago, with just three weeks to go, it seems very possible that Bruyneel will build his GC team around Kloden, Horner and Fuglsang. Personally I think the Schlecks will start in Liege, but it would be a miracle to see either on the podium in Paris.  whatever happens over the next 3 weeks, I’m expecting a messy divorce later this year.

Which brings us back to the start.  Evans versus Wiggins.  BMC versus Sky.  Australia versus Britain.  Wiggins is in the form to win the Tour.  Evans probably isn’t.  But where will each rider be in 5 weeks?  Can Wiggo hold this phenomenal form right through to Paris?  We know that Evans can, and will build over the next few weeks.

The course suits both in a way.  Wiggins will take big time on Cadel in the TT’s, but there are enough short steep finishes, and dizzying descents for Evans to claim time, much as he did in last years race and this week’s Dauphine.

And then there are the teams.  Team Sky have resembled US Postal this week with a crushing display of strength at the head of the peloton.  But next month they may be compromised by the inclusion of Mark Cavendish.  Expect Cav and Bernie Eisel to join the core of the Dauphine squad.  This is a complication BMC don’t have, now that Thor Hushovd has ruled himself out of the race.  BMC, Phillippe Gilbert and all, will ride for Evans 100%.

Whatever happens, the emergence of Wiggins as favourite will change the dynamic of the race.  Every other team have to attack if they want to win the race.  If it comes down to the final Time Trial, then Wiggins will take the crown.  It promises to be an exhilarating three weeks.