Tour de Past, Stage 11. 2010, Renshaw loses his head.

 

One of the most dangerous parts of pro cycling are the mass sprints. To be successful in these tightly packed, high speed situations the riders need plenty of bottle. Skill and aggression are also necessary and in 2010s stage 11 these two attributes were used by HTC-Columbia to win the stage.

The teams biggest rival were Garmin-Transitions and the friction between the two was the closest you would get to a football club style rivalry in cycling. They were both American teams and they loved beating each other and as they had two of the top sprinters of the time, Tyler Farrar of Garmin and Mark Cavendish of HTC, the flat stage 11 meant the teams would again come head to head, literally.

Coming into the final 600 meters Cavendish and his lead out man Mark Renshaw were on the left of the road close to the barriers. Just to their right was Julian Dean leading out Tyler Farrar. Dean seemed to be veering left which meant the HTC men might get boxed in. Renshaw decided to put an end to it by headbutting Dean on the shoulder. The first two times didn’t do the trick but the third one certainly did. Dean was moved to the right and a huge space opened up for Cavendish and he did a long sprint for the win as he was charging off Renshaw swung back to the left almost pushing Farrar into the barriers, in effect taking care of both of the Garmin men.

Cavendish saw Renshaws actions as great team work but the commissaries disagreed and disqualified Renshaw from the race.

Giro 100. What? No Team Time Trial? And The 1912 Team Race.

2017 will be the second year in a row that there will be no Team Time Trial at the Giro d’Italia. This comes after a decade of them being a regular feature in one of the first five stages of the race. As someone who enjoys a team time trial I’m hoping they make a return in future editions. You used to be able to count on one being in the Giro and Tireno-Adriatico which was good as the Tour de France and shorter French stage races hardly ever bother with them.

I enjoy them for a number of reasons. Firstly, they are incredibly photogenic. Lines of colourful riders on shining TT bikes is to me top class bike porn. Watching the lines break up as the riders start rotating can also be quite mesmerising to watch. However you can quickly snap out of this meditative state as any rider who crashes will often take down a number of his teammates with him.

This sense of it being a team event is another thing I like about the team time trials. A rider with ambitions for the GC will only get the same time as his teams fifth fasted rider so everyone has to pull together. When they do it presents an opportunity for one of the lesser riders to get a great reward. Usually gregarios grind themselves down in service of their leader and have little to show for it. If their team wins the time trial though they can get given the chance to become race leader. In recent years Svein Tuft, Salvatore Puccio, Ramunas Navardauskas and Marco Pinotti have benefited from being allowed to be the first across the line of the fasted team thus donning the Maglio Rosa the next day.

There was one edition of the race where the riders finishing time contributed to who won the race in every single stage.

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Giro 100. The Giro Start in Sardinia.

Later on today the 100th running of the Giro d’Italia will start in Alghero on the island of Sardinia. As this is the centenary edition the race director Mauro Vegni wanted as many regions of Italy to be visited as possible. Sardinian cycling fans must be delighted as it will be only the 4th time that the race has come to the island. The first visit in 1961, which was the year the Giro was celebrating 100 years of Italian unification, saw a short short stage beginning and ending in Cagliari. It was another 30 years however till the riders returned. At least this time the islanders saw four stages (over three days) when Olbia staged the start of the race and there wasn’t as long a wait till the next sighting of the Maglia Rosa in 2007.

The fact that the Giro has only visited one of it’s regions four times seems odd, especially when you consider that the race has started in the Netherlands three time. This reason for this is mainly down to the North-South economic divide in Italy which shows increasing poverty levels as you head from the top of the boot, down towards the toe and over to the islands.

The Giro d’Italia was set up and run by the Gazzetta dello Sport newspaper which was located in Milan which meant many of the early editions started and ended in Milan. And as the race was created to publicise and increase sales of the newspaper much of the racing was at the top of the country. There has always been more money in the industrial North so the population would be more likely to buy newspapers.

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Digger and the Twitter Doperati.

Following any sport closely can be an emotional business for its fans. There can be highs but at times feelings of disappointment and anger will rise out of nowhere as you watch your football team lose a penalty shootout or you see an umpire makes a bad call against your favourite table tennis player. For fans of professional cycling things are slightly different. We get the same emotions but they often come a good time after the action has finished. There’s the disappointment that our favourite riders and their feats we’ve enjoyed have been aided by banned (and legal) substances and anger at the UCI, cycling’s governing body, for their inability to introduce the reforms that could help ensure fairer and safer competition. Although we encounter these feelings time and again we continue to follow the sport because it’s so entertaining. Because of this murky and frustrating history and the regular promises that things will change for the better three groups of cycling fan have emerged.

The largest of these combines are the ‘Optimistic Pessimists’. They still love the sport but watch things with a heavy dose of scepticism. They have been fooled in the past by cheating and don’t want it to happen again. Instead of celebrating an incredible performance the reaction is now “Mmm, not sure about that”. The UCI are still infuriating but in terms of racing things do seem to be changing ever so slightly. A few riders are now willing to speak out against doping instead of being part of the omerta which protects dopers and their feelings are that much of what they see during races seems to be credible. They watch racing in a different way now. As well getting immersed in the tactics and team dynamics, at the back of their minds they are analysing things to work out if what’s happening is believable and clean. It is obvious that doping still goes on at some level but they’re thankful that the eyebrow doesn’t get raised as often as before.

The eyebrows of are the two other sets of fans don’t move at all and they are very much at opposing sides of the “Who is doping and how much of it is going on” debate.

The first lot, the ‘Deniers’, are either gentle souls, who perhaps only follow a few races a year and are just not interested in whether doping happens, or diehards who will always defend their favourite rider or team against allegations of cheating no matter what actual evidence of malpractice is shown to them.

The last bunch of cycling fans are the Deniers sworn adversaries, though they actually make themselves enemies of anyone who doesn’t agree with them. This restless gang of ‘Truthers’ believe that everyone is on the juice and are very vocal about it. Instead of saying “Mmm’ not sure about that” their mantra is “Yep that’s dirty”. They spend plenty of time proselytising and will end up frustrated then angry if you’re not brought round to their way of thinking. Their arguments to back up their beliefs range from sarcastic coughs to elaborately formed concepts which contain ‘secret inside information’. Some say they resemble conspiracy theorists and I’ve even heard people call them a cult. If you use Twitter and follow cycling you will have seen them pop up on your feed from time to time. They are the Doperati and their illustrious leader is @Digger_forum.

Who is Digger?

My introduction to Digger came in 2011. It was the time of the federal investigation into Lance Armstrong which proved to be the prologue for the big mans fall from grace. Floyd Landis was the main witness in the case but was at that time still coming to terms with his own downfall as well being in the process of being investigated for computer hacking. There was also the question of the nearly $1 million raised for the ‘Floyd Fairness Fund’, money that I believed was donated by people being sold a lie. I decided to hit twitter to see what my 20 or so followers made of my opinion by suggesting that Landis perhaps wasn’t the most reliable of witnesses. Not long after I got a reply from someone who, if I remember right, was calling himself Big Tex Is Going To Jail or @Digger_forum for short. I was quite excited because he wasn’t one of my followers. “Wow” I thought, someone must really value my opinion. They’ve taken time to ‘engage’ with me. Dreams of commenting on pro cycling for a living flashed through my mind. Then I actually read the tweet:

“Charming” I thought. I tried to clarify my point but after becoming aware that my new acquaintance was arguing against a point which was different to the one I was trying to make I decided to finish things as it was becoming a waste of time.

As I became more familiar with twitter and started using it to follow professional cycling I set up a new cycling specific account (@JamesRannoch), mainly so my friends wouldn’t get annoyed by me adding pictures of men in Lycra to their timelines. I saw Digger get mentioned now and again and I occasionally dropped in on his profile and followed some of his ‘conversations’. He seemed to have some pretty extreme theories but to me it looked like were built out of suspicions which he was taking as fact. I didn’t disagree with everything he said, he raised and highlighted some important issues, but I held back from engaging with him when I did. It was obvious that there was no point in arguing with him because his mind wouldn’t be swayed by anyone else’s opinion. But the older I got, the grumpier I became and the less I was able to suffer him gladly. His infuriating debating style should have been scarring me away but it was drawing me into his world of accusations and innuendo. I started to become a little obsessed with disproving some of his more ridiculous theories. I felt that it was morally wrong throwing out proclamations about peoples integrity with flimsy evidence and cowardly to do so from behind an anonymous twitter handle. This would be fine if he was just prattling away in the corner of a pub somewhere because we could just nod or tut at the right moments but he was stating, as fact, things which could effect innocent people on public forums. There is also a fair amount of anger and venom whipped up among his followers and that anger and venom has been joined by spit and whatever else and is now getting directed at the condemned riders from the roadsides of the world. I’d had enough and ended up doing something I am not very proud of. I became a twitter troll. I was going to satirise this so called Digger and my shield of anonymity would be @Borer_forum.

First I tried to find out who this faceless keyboard warrior was, to see exactly what I was up against. There are many theories about his identity and background but after extensive research I could only find one reliable description of him and a photo which surfaced online a few years back.

Next I would employ my arguing skills to take apart all his theories. Unfortunately it didn’t take long for him to block me. There would be no late night debates about hidden motors as we smoked cigars. I wouldn’t receive scented jiffy bags containing long agonising letters about the differences between intramuscular and intravenous. I tried wooing him back with poetry…

….but alas, to no avail.

So I was reduced to taking incessant screen-grabs, much like the great man himself, of his more ridiculous tweets and posting them to the Borer account. Very quickly I found that following him so closely wasn’t good for my blood pressure and general happiness so I decided I would write a blog about Digger, put Borer into retirement and enjoy my life again. This has taken a lot longer than I’d hoped for thanks to the Fancy Bears but here’s what I found:

(Some of the screen grabs are straight off his time line so read from the bottom to the top.)

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Tour de Past, Stage 5. 2014, The Cobbled Stage.

 

This was one of the most action packed stages of the Tour de France in my memory. Pre-race it was described as a mini Paris-Roubaix and had been talked about as the old “Stage where the Tour won’t be won but could be lost”.

It is remembered for the contrasting fortunes of the ‘Big Three’. Alberto Contador, Vincenzo Nibali and Chris Froome were considered to be the top GC riders of a generation but this would be the first time that they would be racing against each other in a Grand Tour. Their battles down in the mountains were being eagerly anticipated but it was the flat roads of Northern France which would be decisive.

Froome had come into the race with mixed form, he won the Tour de Romandie but had suffered from illness and injury at various parts of the season. After a great 2013 he was looking vulnerable and it seemed he was not as strong mentally as well as physically. So much had been made in the media about this cobbled stage and Froome’s ability or inability to tackle it. He was constantly asked about it and seemed increasingly nervous in his answers as the day drew closer. His mental state can’t have been helped much when on the previous days stage he had a crash, damaging his hand and ending the day with the left side of his jersey and shorts in tatters. Then, on the morning of the stage, a downpour. It was the last thing Froome would have wanted. It was possible he was past his nervousness and had now accepted the fact that something bad was going to happen. It took only 35km for Froome to go down, but this was only his first crash as he managed to gingerly get back on his bike. After another 45km he was down again. Looking at his face you knew what was coming and although he tried to remount his bike then had a quick discussion with his team doctor and DS it was clear that his Tour was over. It later emerged that he had injured his hand the previous day and crashing on it twice meant he was going to find it nearly impossible to control his bike. The ironic thing of it all was he hadn’t even reached the feared cobbles of the stages as his team car’s door was getting slammed in his face the days breakaway riders had only just reached the first sector of pave, Carrefour de l’Arbre.

Meanwhile Contador and Nibali had so far stayed out of trouble but as the peloton crossed the second section of cobbles Sep Vanmarck, trying to force the selection, turned on the gas. Contador got detached from the front group but Nibali was able to hold on. From then on Contador was left trying to limit his losses as Astana pulled off a performance worthy of winning Paris-Roubaix itself. Jacob Fuglsang started driving things along  for Nibali and he was soon joined by teammate Lieuwe Westra who was in the days break. Incredibly the trio plus Belkin rider Lars Boom managed to create a gap between them and the rest. They had managed to outfox the likes of Fabian Cancellara and Peter Sagan who were the experts on the days terrain. At the end after Lieuwe Westra dropped back having done a mountain of work Boom pulled off an attack which won him the stage. Fuglsang and Nibali were 2nd and 3rd almost a minute ahead of Cancellara and Sagan but more importantly 2 minutes 45 seconds ahead of Contador. Few stages have ever made so much damage to the GC.

It is always sad when a rider crashes out of a race but when it’s a contender getting into the team car you can get a feeling that the race is being spoiled, that it won’t mean as much, that what could have been an epic race is now going to be a second rate show. I would have been more disappointed at Froome abandoning the race had I not thought something was going to happen to him anyway, I must have subconsciously prepared myself for the outcome. But still, the fact that I wouldn’t see the “Big 3” fight it out in the mountains was depressing. However, I knew that the manner of Nibali’s ride would mean Froomes exit would not diminish the importance of of his potential Tour win and the prestige of the race overall.

Much was said before and after the stage about the suitability of having a cobbled stage in the Tour de France. Some said it could reduce the GC fight to a lottery while other had concerns over rider safety. To address the first concern, Nibali benefited over his rivals due to good preparation and a strong team performance not luck. Time was gained in the same way as it is in the mountains. Considering safety, while Froome’s crash and one which took out Valverde and Van Garderen may have been caused by the race for position on the first sector, in the end more riders crashed off the pave than on it. The organisers took out two sections of cobbles in the morning before the stage when they saw how heavy the rain was but they were obviously happy with the way things turned out as they included a cobbled stage in the very next edition of the Tour de France.

Tour de Past, Stage 1. 2006, Thor Hushovd gets a paper cut.

 

First published July 2016.

Today the Tour de France starts with what can only be described as a sprint stage. The route from Mont-Saint-Michel to Utah Beach is similar to many first days of the race. But as well as sprint stages kicking off the Tour in recent years there have also been time trials and short hilly finishes meaning the first yellow jersey of each edition of the race has been worn by different types of riders ranging from Marcel Kittel to Alejandro Valverde.

Remember the good old days though? A time when the Tour used to follow a set formula for the first few days. Start with a prologue then a couple or three days for the sprinters. “I like what I know and I know what I like” was the order of the day. Except some people of the “variety is the spice of life” persuasion didn’t like it and found the format too boring and predictable meaning we’ll probably have a stage 1 finish atop the Galibier before long.

I loved these stages. The usually technical prologue could often catch out some big names and the sprints were hotly contested between many riders. They were different to the sprints of today. Lead out trains were smaller, the front of the peleton wasn’t an arrow head, I have memories of a mad gallop to the line, riders strung right across the road, wide boulevards. Ah the memories.

In 2006 Thor Hushovd had won the prologue, as expected, so was in yellow as the peleton raced into Strasbourg on stage 1 proper. Being one of the top sprinters of the time he was expected to be in contention for the stage alongside the likes of Erik Zabel, Daniele Bennati and Robbie McEwan, who Paul Sherwen kept reminding us had the nickname ‘The Scarlet Pimpernel’. The end of this sprint seems fairly routine. You can see Hushovd next to the barriers and he hardly gets going, probably too boxed in and he rolls over the line in 9th as Jimmy Casper wins. The French are delighted with the victory and everyone breaths a sigh of relief as the sprint ends without a crash.

Bizarrely though the camera is soon on the big Norwegian and he is lying on the road with his yellow jersey covered in blood. After he is led away in the ambulance it becomes clear from video replays that as he was racing towards the line he brushes against one of those stupid cardboard hand things giving him a massive cut. Embarrassingly for the organisers these green hands were handed out by one of there sponsors PMU. To add insult to injury, as well as losing a lot of blood, Hushovd lot the yellow jersey as George Hincapie gained some bonus seconds in some of the intermediate sprints.Thankfully in the end the injury wasn’t too serious and Hushovd was able to continue in the race.

One of the other bizzare things of the day is Bernard Eisel finishing in 8th place riding for……FDJ.

A Sunday In Glasgow

With Flanders out of the way I find this is the perfect time of year to revisit ‘A Sunday In Hell’. Jorgen Leth’s masterpiece is perfect for getting you into the mood for Paris-Roubaix. I’ve long been a fan of the film so when I entered a cycling short film competition a few years back I decided to pay tribute to it, replacing ‘The North’ with Glasgow.

I hope you enjoy it and below is a link to the full original ‘A Sunday In Hell’.

Txurrukas Txorica Txadventure and other odd rider transfers

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Photo from Xabiaz on Flickr

As I was skimming down the start list of the Tour of Catalunya today I had to do a double take about a third the way down. Wearing number 78 for Orica Green-Edge would be the Basque climber Amets Txurruka. I’m positive that I was already aware that the 33 year old had joined the Australian team, as I like to keep up with the transfers in the off season, but seeing things written down in the context of an actual race was still a shock and I’m sure I’ll still be rubbing my eyes in a comical fashion when I see Txurruka in his Green-Edge colours.

Yeah sure, riders move from team to team all the time but there are some examples of a certain type of rider pitching up at a certain type of team that feels so odd that something jolts inside you when you find out and you feel that the universe just won’t be the same place anymore.

Witnessing the start of Txurruka’s Txorica Txadventure (sorry) was exactly one of those occasions of weirdness. After spending his first season as a professional at Barloword, the last ten years have been spent at the Spanish regional teams Euskatel-Euskadi and Caja Rural. So a Basque, who is well into his twilight years, moving to an Australian team with a strong identity of having riders from the colonies will always strike me as bizarre every time I see him now.

But with cycling at a stage where old stalwarts are getting ready to retire and the new generation are trying to better themselves, there have been plenty of other strange moves which are curious for different reasons.

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My First Cyclocross Experience.

Cyclocross World Championships review, by a road racing fan.

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On Sunday the final event of the cyclocross season was held in Oostmalle, Belgium.

This occurrence always gets me excited as it means that the the road racing season, proper, would be about to start. Sure there have been some silly little races in the Middle East and other places that aren’t Europe but with Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and Paris-Nice on the horizon things are starting to get serious.

This year is different however.  I finally got round to watching my first weekend of cyclocross recently. It was the World Championships in Zolder and as it was only three weeks ago and the fact that I thoroughly enjoyed things means that this February the end of the cyclocross season has come to soon.

Before I sat down to watch my first race, the Womens Elite Final, I thought I’d have enough knowledge of ‘cross’, as they call it, to understand what was going to happen. While I had never watched a full race, never mind a weekend of racing, I had seen plenty of clips of the sport on the internet, though mostly of racers bunny hopping over obstacles, to show me what went on. I was also aware of some of the riders, past and present, from listening to podcasts and from them popping up on various social media time lines. I was familiar with recent World Champions Lars Boom and Zdeneck Stybar. Marianne Vos and Pauline Ferrand-Prevout were the two huge names on the womens side of the sport and like Lars and Zdeneck  had changed disciplines and were now riding on the road.

So I was expecting some form of road racing on mud with things playing out the same way as in a one day classic. The terrain would certainly be different but the riders and the equipment were essentially the same. I thought I would be watching a condensed version of Roubaix or Flanders where the strongest team would gradually grind down the opposition allowing their team leader to claim victory. Right from the start though I became aware that I didn’t have a clue. So here is my guide to cyclocross, for a roadie.

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Katushas unfortunate kit design.

Before the start of the season when all the teams were unveiling there new kits it was pointed out that there was a flaw in Katushas design. If three members of the team were standing next to each other your eyes were drawn to three massive red K’s.

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But yesterday another problem with the Russian teams gear emerged as Alexander Kristoff sprinted, head down, to beat Mark Cavendish in stage 2 of the Tour of Qatar.

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I’m just hoping they carefully consider what helmets to use during time trials because something like this, at a certain angle, would be highly inappropriate.

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It was a good day all round for the team as they learned they wouldn’t face sanctions despite their recent problems over doping.