Going West – Tour of California Round-up

“Go West, young man, go West and grow up with the country” – Horace Greeley

Read The Jersey Pocket Tour of California preview here.

On the surface of things there is a lot that it could be easy to be disparaging about in the Tour of California. The irony-laden fact that the race is sponsored by the makers of EPO has been covered many times before, for example. There is also the abundance of long straight highways used, the awful stop-motion quality of the on-board camera feed and the somewhat presumptuous assertion that the eight day 2.HC category race is the ‘fourth Grand Tour’. But on the other hand, you have one of the most professionally run races in the calendar, the sublimeness of Pacific Highway 1, the very best online coverage I have ever seen and a strong rider line-up that a number of ‘bigger’ races would love to able to attract. Add in the fact that the favourable time difference means that the majority of live racing is on in the evening for British audiences and you have all the ingredients for an accessible, engaging and enthralling race.

Those of us who chose to follow the sun-baked Californian race more closely than the damp Giro stages last week were amply rewarded. We had British winners on 3 stages; we had young riders showing their elders that the next generation is coming through strong and sure;  we had old hands still chancing their arms and we had star turns taking deserved bows as they crossed the line after epic efforts.

Experience watching ATOC tour tracker

 The first thing we had to contend with was how to watch the race. I’ve been tweeting the praises of the Amgen Tour Tracker (web and app) most of this week for it’s excellent information and relative lack of adverts, but as so often in life you had to take the rough with the smooth. In this case that meant opting for the Phil & Paul (or more accurately in this case Paul & Phil) commentary over the much more engaging and informative pairing of Matt Stephens and Brian Smith over on Eurosport. Over the week Stephens and Smith re-animated the often staid arena of cycling commentary offering the kind of relevant and up-to-date insight that is so often missing these days. I often ended up watching the Tour Tracker video for the sidebar info that came with it, whilst playing the Eurosport audio through another device.

Stage 1 kicked things off nicely: A Mark Cavendish stage win and young British prospect Tao Geoghagen-Hart’s top four on GC –  thanks to bonifications earned throughout a long breakaway – made things look quite rosy in the bright Californian sun. Tao also secured the best Young Rider jersey for his efforts and made a significant mark in his first big race for his new Bissell Development team. Later in the week we saw videos of Tao talking about the new wireless (hell, yeah!) shifting system which they are testing for SRAM. This lad has a big future in cycling, writing and/or presenting. Take note. Cav’s win over John Degenkolb was very close and neither knew who had taken it. Phones were produced, Tour Trackers were checked and a beautifully clear finish line photo was seen by the racers in around 20 seconds. We did get a little tired of still images as the week progressed with the live pictures often freezing due to transmission problems but that one was a peach.

Another young name that came to our attention this week was Lawson Craddock. Riding on Degenkolb’s Giant Shimano team, the 22 year old was hugely consistent throughout the week and rode impressively in the Stage 2 Time Trial to take the Young Rider jersey from Tao with a 13th place overall finish, beating more notable names such as Sagan, Ten Dam, Van Avermaet and Terpstra. It was enough for the youngster to hold onto that jersey and strong finishes later in the week would elevate him to 3rd place on GC by the end of the race. The real star of the Time Trial though was Wiggins who went around the Folsom Circuit at a blistering pace to beat closest finisher New Zealander Rohan Dennis by 44seconds. Taylor Phinney was expected to do better than 3rd at 52seconds back and, though Wiggins took the Yellow Jersey from Cavendish, the young American stole the social media limelight by turning to give a single red rose to podium girl Allison Steinkamp as he departed the podium. 

Wiggo ToC

Stage 3 brought the first mountain test and Garmin-Sharp’s Dennis looked to threaten Wiggins on the final climb up Mount Diablo. In a very un Sky-like fashion, it was Sir Brad himself who led the reducing peloton up the slope from the bottom. Despite having no teammates to count on, he looked the personification of assuredness and calm as he smoothly pedalled at high cadence with the air of someone leading out a Sunday club run. Dennis jumped away in the final kilometre to claw back 20 of the seconds he had lost to Wiggins in the Time Trial and, in doing so, made the next few days of racing far more interesting.

The run down Pacific Highway 1 from Monterey to Cambria on Stage 4 was a real treat for the eyes with the rugged coastline providing the most awe-inspiring backdrop. It certainly inspired the five man breakaway who held off the charging peloton just long enough to contest the stage win themselves. Comprised entirely of second tier teams and with a couple of skinny young lads often on the front, it reminded me of last year’s Specialized ad where the young boy is being pursued by Tom Boonen. Tornado Tom was indeed at the head of the chase but even his thunderous thighs couldn’t catch the plucky escapees. Will Routley of Optum took the win.

We were treated to an even greater escape on Stage 5 when Taylor Phinney – perhaps anxious to get back onto the podium to meet Miss Steinkamp again – drove off the front after the last climb of the day and plunged down and along the last 12km to Santa Barbara alone. He TT’d out a gap of 35 seconds by the finish and had time to literally take a bow as he crossed the line. It was a mighty effort and an impressive way for the US to record their only win of the week. 

phinney rose

Stage 6 was the second (and last) big mountain finish. The aptly named hors category Mountain High was the destination and Garmin and others were looking to end Sir Brad’s time in yellow. Dennis couldn’t make an attack though and it was left to Tom Danielson to bridge up to the breakaway after earlier attacks from Ben King and George Bennett had shaken things up a bit. This time though Wiggins had a teammate with him and Joe Dombrowski put in a mammoth shift bringing his leader up the final ramps. The stage was won by OGE’s Columbian climber Chaves but Wiggins managed to come home in 5th alongside fellow Brit Adam Yates, who had ignited a splintering of the chasers in the final yards. The small split gained the race leader a couple more precious seconds and the race was nearly in the bag.

Peter Sagan won the sprint after a lumpy Stage 7 into Pasadena had put Cavendish 6’21” behind by the end. Thor Hushovd looked to have been on for the win but Sagan popped out from a hidden viewpoint and shot past the Norwegian champion to rescue an otherwise mediocre week. Danny Van Poppel of Trek Factory racing continued his good week with a 3rd place beating Degenkolb, who had made it to the sprint intact. All that remained then was for a repeat of the Stage 1 showdown on the final stage with Cav and Degenkolb again going head to head. There were worries about Cavendish who had lost his lead-out man Renshaw in the lead-up and who later said he wasn’t feeling too good at the stage start but he produced a great final burst to win by a clearer margin than before. No phones were needed this time. There was some disappointment on the last stage with Tao Geoghagen-Hart crashing hard and coming in 14 minutes down but greater concern was for Belkin’s Moreno Hofland who also crashed breaking a vertebra and ribs. He will be in hospital for a week before he can fly home.

wiggo podium

Brad’s podium smile said everything that was needed about winning a race that was high on his and his team’s agenda. He says that his next race will now be the Tour de France and that he is fully committed to supporting Chris Froome. Indeed, his leading of the peloton up Mount Diablo earlier in the week almost looked to be specific training for leading Froome up some of the Alpine climbs in France in July.  The Tour of California came of age this year with it’s status much elevated by this edition. It also won great respect for being a race where youngsters are being given a chance and are really grasping it. It was hugely refreshing to see. We tip our ten gallon cycling caps to y’all and, like many top riders, I suspect we will be back for more next year.


Best of the West – Tour of California Preview

Until very recently the Tour of California has mainly been the preserve of US based racers and US teams. Taking time out to fly the States for a week-long race in May has not often been high on the priority list for European racers and the list of previous winners reflects the US-centricness of the event. Only 7 of the 24 available podium places have been taken by foreigners since the inaugural race in 2006. The first four editions of the race were held in early February before a move to May in 2010 then brought the race into direct competition with the Giro d’Italia.

It was assumed that this would lead to a further decrease in the number of European pros making the Trans-Atlantic trip but as of 2012 the race seems to be growing in popularity with teams seeing the benefit in the race as a both a useful training block in the lead-up to the Tour de France and as a marketing tool.

California is the worlds 7th largest economy and, like France, is blessed with stunning scenery of hugely varying terrain. Both these facts contribute to make the race a more attractive prospect and this year we may be seeing a tipping point with high-profile riders such as Bradley Wiggins and Mark Cavendish heading for the Golden State to compete alongside the top US riders.

2012tourof cali flag

Sky have targeted the race as a big priority for former Tour de France champion Wiggins this year. Although British by registration and perception, the team are bankrolled by 21st Century Fox, the media arm of the split-apart News Corp, which owns Sky Broadcasting. The teams media appearances on Fox TV’s morning shows and at the company’s film studios have been widely shared in what appears to be a targeted media strategy to raise the profile of the team in the New World. With both Dave Brailsford and Fran Millar in the U.S. for the race, their determination to launch the TeamSky brand into a huge, largely vacant, market should not be underestimated.

Cavendish won the points jersey at the Giro last year meaning he has won that particular competition in all three Grand Tours. With the triple accomplished he too is looking for new goals and a better lead-up to Le Tour where he will be aiming to wrestle back the sprint crown from German man of the moment Marcel Kittel. With Tom Boonen and Niki Terpstra on board as well as favoured lead-out man Mark Renshaw, Cav will be looking to continue the improved form he showed in the recent Tour of Turkey

Wiggins has spoken of wanting to “Break America”- a statement that sounds as if it has been crafted by his new agent Simon Fuller, who more famously represents Victoria Beckham and the Spice Girls. Wiggins will be as focused on winning here as he was in France in 2012 and in the Tour of Britain last year. We all know what he can achieve when he puts his mind to it and the course is well suited to him. The two mountain finishes are not viciously steep and the short race includes a 12.1mile time trial.


Other strong teams are BMC in their home race, Sagan and Orica-Greenedge. BMC bring local hopes Taylor Phinney and Peter Stetina along with greg Van Avermaet and Thor Hushovd. Sagan – who appears in a ridiculous poster for Cannondale’s Tour of California team with an eye-watering crotch bulge of Spinal Tap-like vegetable-based explicitness – loves racing in the States. He won Stages 1 and 3 here last year and four stages in the US Pro Challenge which is run in August. After a relatively underwhelming Spring Classics campaign he will be looking to get back to winning ways. Orica bring young Brit Adam Yates – hot from his win in Turkey – along with more experienced heads such as Matt Hayman and Matthew Goss and will be looking to carry on the great work being done in the early stage soy the Giro by the team.

A couple of other British names to look out for are Tao Geoghegan-Hart, who is riding in his first year as a pro in the Bissell Development team, and Scott Thwaites, who is riding for NetApp-Endura.

There is no Baldy again this year (neither the famous mountain of the same name or Chris Horner feature) but lest we forget him in his final year of racing, someone who is racing is Jen Voigt. It was in this race last year that Voigt, when asked why he was still getting in breakaways at his age, replied “Because I’m mother-fucking Jens Voigt”. There still is a Wild West out there and it feels like Jens and the boys are gonna have some fun finding it.

The Tour of California runs from Sunday May 11th until Sunday May 18th. The Tour have a really comprehensive app available for iOS and Android that is worth a download if you want to get into the heart of the action.



Methods in the Madness – Spring Classics Round-Up

“This be madness, yet there is method in it” – Hamlet
And we are done. Bergs have been beaten, cobbles have been conquered, pavé passed and Murs mauled. The Spring Classics season is over and there is a small chance to draw breath and reflect on the tumultuousness before the Grand Tour season comes to rule our lives once more.
It has been an undeniably classic Classic season. Most recent past campaigns have been over-shadowed by the savagery of the weather or the apparent dominance of one particular contender. But this season the weather has been relatively benign and the racing wide open. It’s made for a series of great spectacle and no little drama.
Drama is, of course, the key element of the Classics. Reduced to a single day, all the action is laid out before us in one go and unfolds like a hard-hitting play rather than an extended mini-series. Unlike stage races, where sub-plots and tangents are explored alongside the main narrative, one-day racing is direct, daring and usually brutal in it’s single-minded adherence to a primary theme.
As with all reductive acting, baring your soul, hitting your marks and displaying exquisite timing become ever more important. With nothing to save yourself for the following day, everything can be left on the stage today. This should mean that the Spring Classics are characterised by bold, ‘balls-out’ races where those who are prepared to risk everything at the defining moment will most often be rewarded. Method acting – total immersion in the role – is the only way to win.
het nieuwsblad
‘Immersion’ was the key theme in the sodden fields of Northern Europe where the season’s first hero emerged from the deluge at Omloop Het Niewsblad. Like a Shakespearean yeoman of old, Ian Stannard wore down the opposition in filthy conditions and lion-hearted a win over much favoured opposition. Grim-faced in victory, the toll of the day’s efforts was so thoroughly etched on his face that he could barely manage his victory soliloquy after his giving everything in the final act of a day that set the precedent for the nerve-jangling racing that came in the following weeks.
The following day, Kurne-Bruxelles-Kurne – totally abandoned in 2013 due to snow and ice – was completely dominated by the OPQS classics team who briefly threatened to sweep all before them. Tom Boonen laid down a marker to the other big guns that would long linger in the minds as the Classics progressed. He was back on his favoured stage, with good form and great support.
Strade Bianche
Attention lingered in Italy a while longer for the first Monument of 2014, Milan-San Remo, La Primavera. The script changed, changed and changed again in the weeks leading up to the longest single-day race on the World Tour calendar and, as climbs were omitted, reinstated and then omitted again, sprinters – expecting to be understudies at most – were suddenly scrambling to speed-learn re-written lines as they were thrust into the limelight much earlier than expected.
milan sanremo kristoff
The omission of Le Manie and then also of the additional Pompeiana was meant to make the race a sprinter’s delight and so it came to pass. But the ‘favourites’ – short on form and shorter on specific training for this race – were beaten by a less-fancied (but still well touted) rider. Sadly Boonen was missing due to a personal loss so it was left to Norway’s Alexander Kristoff, riding for the Katusha team, who was emphatic is the final yards denying Cancellara, Britain’s Ben Swift, and even Sagan, Ciolek and Cavendish. It was a performance that made a lot of people sit up and take note, particularly for the upcoming cobbled Classics.
My own personal highlight of the year was the frenetic E3-Harelbeke race in late March. It was no surprise to see OPQS duo Niki Terpstra and Stijn Vanderberg in the small group contesting the finish after a thrilling race of attack and counter attack. Nor was it a surprise to see Sagan beat both of them to the line despite being outnumbered. The surprise was that joining these three in the sprint was Sky’s Geraint Thomas, who capped off a storming race for Sky by beating the ponderous Vanderberg to take third place. It was a race you could not take your eyes off for a moment and if I only go back to watch one race this season, this is one I will pick.
In England April is synonymous with passing rain showers but in cycling it means cobbles – long periods of persistent cobbles. The Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix; for many the painful apex of the Spring season. The Tour of Flanders was meant to be the Cancellara and Boonen showdown; the Oscar-tipped heavyweights facing off mano e mano. Sagan threatened to steal the show once more, as did Greg Van Avermaet (BMC), Sepp Van Marcke (Belkin) and Vanderberg once again but it was Cancellara who showed up exactly when it mattered; shattering the already select chasing group on the last ascent of the Oude Kwaremont to catch the leaders on the Paterburg. He then contrived to unsettle the group of four in the final run-in with a display of nonchalant gel-eating that was full of artful arrogance, before dispatching them in a late, late sprint. Kristoff tried to bridge across in the dying kilometres, and would have been favourite if he had made it, but the group stayed uniquely focused until only 200m out denying him the opportunity to catch them. Boonen, his mind possibly still elsewhere, came a creditable 7th.
The crash-strewn race was certainly a vintage edition with a very strong supporting cast including a swashbuckling, but ultimately doomed, early breakaway led by Taylor Phinney and a cameo from Bradley Wiggins which both astounded (due to it’s length) and gratified (due to it’s persistence). Thomas placed high in the Top 10 and all the elements seems to be aligning for an equally enthralling Paris-Roubaix. It was undeniably Cancellara’s day though and, whilst E3 was the race of the season, his was the standout performance.
The weather held during the week between the Ronde and Roubaix, guaranteeing a dust-infused race rather than the often expected mud-fest. Boonen was back and, at one point, seemed about to repeat his memorable long range one man show of 2012. He faltered though – perhaps having spent too much time in the wind already in the knowledge that he lacked the race fitness to take it all the way. His OPQS teammates Stybar, Vanderberg and Terpstra looked also to have fluffed their lines as a large group, including Cancellara and the much faster sprinter John Degenkolb of Giant-Shimano approached the final cobbled secteurs. With Sky’s Geraint Thomas and Wiggins also in close attention it was always going to be peppered with attacks before the rush for the line and Terpstra was the one who made it stick. Looking distinctly non-aero with his mouth so far agape, desperately trying to find more air for his lungs, he time-trialled his way to the Velodrome and had enough of a gap at the end to savour his final lap. Cancellara lost out to Degenkolb in the sprint for second but podiumed to continue an impeccable record of finishing in the top 3 of the last 12 Monuments which he has made it to the finish in.
In Roubaix BMC had, as has become habitual, showed flashes of tenacity but come away empty-handed yet again. Their time finally came in the Dutch Amstel Gold Race. In a move that mirrored his entire season last year Philippe Gilbert sat anonymously in the pack for 95% of the race and then, just as he had in the dying moments of 2013, emerged with impeccable timing to ride the rest off his wheel on the upper half of the Cauberg. With Van Avermaet probing and prodding throughout the day and a sacrificial attack from Sammy Sanchez on the lower ramps of the Mur, which everyone with an ambition to win had to counter, for once BMC played their roles expertly and suddenly Ardennes Week took on a whole new complexion. In truth Gilbert’s counter-attack past those who has been duped into going too early was a magnificent end to an otherwise less than enthralling race but it set the critics alight with talk of the possibilities of a sequel.
gilbert amstel
The early season talk of Cancellara, Sagan and Boonen halted overnight as they all re-focused on other goals and Gilbert was once more the talk of the town. Sky’s abysmal showing in AGR also stalled the talk of their excellent improvement at a single stroke, reducing the field of apparent contenders for the remainder of the Spring Classics to only Philippe Gilbert and and the Iberian all-rounders Rui Costa, Rodriguez and Valverde.
With the final two classics coming quick on the heels of Amstel, Flèche Wallone and Liege-Bastogne-Liege arrive like the swift crescendo of a bloody Shakespearean tragedy rather than the slow, measured denouement of a Pinter play. Gilbert had wielded his power once, could he strike twice more in quick succession and take the crown as 2014 King of the Classics? With no one rider having taken more than a single win this year the opportunity was certainly there..
But good theatre doesn’t always work well with such generous predictability. Great dramas sometimes need a point of low ebb and often it needs a villain to deliver it. For plenty of cycling watchers unrepentant doper Alejandro Valverde of Movistar would fit that bill perfectly. Taken in the context of the whole Classics season his unpopular win at Flèche-Wallonne makes for a great narrative – the dark ending to the middle Act allowing the possibility of a redemptive finale in Liege, but put simply Valverde displayed better timing than his rivals and showed greater experience to be in the right place to save energy until making his attack when the vicious Mur de Huy flattened a little in the final 150 metres. Riders who would have been deemed more ‘worthy’ winners came second and third – Dan Martin of Garmin and Michael Kwiatkowski – whilst Gilbert could only manage tenth and Sky bathed in even greater ignominy than at Amstel Gold by only finishing two riders – the best of those six minutes off the pace.
mur de huy
Valverde has had a very strong start to 2014 and his detractors might yet have to stomach more of him winning before the year is out. His early season wins in Murcia, Roma Maxima and his total dominance in Andalusia were apparently viewed with some degree of tolerance at least but winning a Classic seems to be the limit of acceptance. There were reports of him being booed on the podium. The suggestion followed that the notices following to a possible Monument win at Liege-Bastogne-Liege (which he has won twice before), Grand Tour GC or World Championship would be long, loud and much more vitriolic.
With plenty of the Grand Tour contenders taking part in a race more suited to them, the stage was well and truly set for the 100th edition of the oldest classic of them all, Liege-Bastogne-Liege,  La Doyenne. Chris Froome, Vincenzo Nibali and defending champion Dan Martin were all expected to be in the mix at the end of the 262km race that segues most neatly into the long stage races coming ahead. The release of an image of Froome’s paper-thin legs cross-crossed with bulging veins a couple of days before the race showed that he was following the method actor’s well-worn path to glory by shedding weight for a role.
Sadly a number of big marquee names either did not make the start or suffered during the race. Froome pulled out just before the sign-on, citing a mild chest infection, and was joined by team mate Peter Kennaugh who was suffering from an unrelated illness. Sky’s day was even more abject than at Amstel and Flèche with only first timer, Nathan Earle, making the finish, down in 70th place. World Champion Rui Costa and last year’s No.1 rider Joachim Roderiguez also pulled out during the race after getting caught in crashes. The litany of withdrawals were the main action in a long race that, like Flèche, only really got animated in the last couple of kilometres, by which time it was too late for Nibali to make a break and yet still too early for Gilbert to try to sting the other contenders. Dan Martin seemed to have made the right jump on the final climb but lost grip under his front wheel on the very last corner, coming down ignominiously to allow Valverde, Gerrans and Kwiatkowski around to contest the sprint finish. The Australian Orica-Greenedge rider held off the strong challenges from the Spaniard and the Polish national champion to take his second Monument win and prompt a wave of anti-Valverde gratefulness. It seems that it is just fine for Alejandro to take second places.
And so the curtain fell and the season of madness ended. Looking back on the Spring Classics as a whole would appear to show a gradual decline in excitement and entertainment since the peak of E3 and Flanders; exposing the flaw of trying to look at them as a unified ‘Classics Season’. Despite outward appearances they are too different to be holistically viewed in this way and, without an ultra-dominant Merckx-like character vying for the win in every one, would almost always lack the crescendo that a normal ‘season’ of linked sporting events typically brings. The very strength of the one-day races – the ‘all or nothing’ requirement – inevitably leads to some days producing all the action and some days producing none. We are in a period of generally more cautious, controlled racing and the geography of Ardennes Week makes those races especially ripe for the well rehearsed late surge. It’s just a shame that no-one seemed to think that a secondary break, a moment of improv if you will, launched after the early breaks were caught, was worth a chance.
We shouldn’t leave the theatre despondent though. We have seen some fine interpretations of the old familiar stories. They are called Classics for a reason and, like Shakespeare, they will picked over and analysed, meddled with and modernised, but they will endure and they will delight for many, many years to come.