WC Mens’ Road Race: 5 Storylines

The infinite ways in which a road race can play out almost always coalesce into something cycling fans recognise – a predictable outcome even where the variables (the riders, the parcours, dogs off their leads) are unpredictable. It can be as binary as the breakaway vs the pack; a sprint vs a lone attacker; the favourites vs the underdogs.

But for this preview, I have taken the liberty of imagining some of the possible outcomes as familiar movie plots. Because nothing lends itself to a story quite like an elite bike race. But which story will play out on the roads of Flanders, come Sunday? Will it be a familiar story, or an unexpected ending? Who’s the lone wolf, who’s the tragic hero and who’s the Hollywood star? Read on to find out… (sensible star ratings at the bottom for anyone who does not buy into this narrative!)

The Western

The Kid, they called him. He came from a lawless place, a place in the North. (Leeds. The place was Leeds). He was a lone wolf, didn’t need no-one else to ride with, but they sent him a few amigos so he figured he may as well do the right thing and stick with the guys for a while.

On through the lowlands they travelled, the plaintive twang of a guitar accompanying their rhythm as they rode in silence, the wind in their hair, the scent of other men on the air. The scent of the enemy.

Like I said, the Kid didn’t play well with others. He liked to go it alone. All day in the saddle gives a guy itchy feet, so he tips his helmet to his amigos and takes his leave. Slips through the pack and heads up the road into the sunset, ready to deploy his weapon if there’s any trouble.

Riding into town he expects the worst. The sheriff’s there with his deputies and the local militia. They all want their pound of flesh and they ain’t going down without a fight.

The Kid takes a drink from his canteen, spits into the dirt, and kicks his steed into a higher gear. He’ll go down fighting, of that there is no doubt.

It’s a straight fight for the line. The firepower all on show, the weak falling into the dirt. It’s down to the Kid, and one final rival. The one he’s been waiting to face again all this time. They cross the line together, both spending their final bullets to try and vanquish one another. Both fall in slow motion from their steeds, and the victor is announced. The Kid is beaten on the line once more, his trigger finger a fraction of a second too slow.

Bloody photo finishes.

The Coming of Age

Our intrepid hero is the young, feisty Belgian Remco Evenepoel. In his comeback season, he’s done everything that’s been asked of him, including surviving an ill-fated trip to Italy, winning in a glorious Belgian homecoming and even that dramatic brush with fire on one of his legendary solos.

He is the hero of his own story now, but he’s been asked to work for someone else. Tired of being told what to do by his evil Grandad, he follows orders and strikes out alone with 50km to go, under the pretence of pulling some of his leader’s rivals along with him.

It’s a long and lonely road and he has adults screaming in his ear, so he tears out his radio and solos to victory, proving to everyone it’s time to take him seriously. Wout van Aert is disappointed but proud of his refusal to submit to the will of his elders. He pats him on the back and says ‘well played’: with his acceptance, Remco becomes a man.

There’s also a dog. (After befriending it en route using a chunk of sausage he was keeping in his pocket for a snack, it chases Remco all the way home).

The Tragedy

After his accident in the Olympic mountain biking, it’s been a tough road back to fitness for Mathieu van der Poel. But he cannot rest knowing he let this one slip away, when he’s so close; so, despite knowing his form is not what it could be, he agrees to lead the Dutch team. His arch-nemesis lines up alongside him. The favourite to win, Mathieu knows he has broken Wout’s heart before: can he do it again, on the biggest stage of all?

When Wout goes with a small group Mathieu tries to stay with him but the pain is too much and he loses touch. In a last ditch effort he spends his final resources of energy to call to his rival. For old times sake, perhaps he can convince him to work with him, and help him make it back.

Wout turns and flips Mathieu the bird before powering away, leaving him in his dust. At the denouement, we see Mathieu bent and broken at the roadside, his tears absorbed into the Belgian soil as he realises that his rampant ambition was his tragic flaw all along.

He vows that one day, the rainbow jersey will be his. And that he’ll make van Aert suffer come cyclocross season.

The Heist

The team have been gathered. Each a vital cog in the success of the plan. No-one’s looking at them as all focus rests on the Belgians and the Danes. They are masters of disguise., wearing blue when the colour doesn’t even appear on their country’s flag.

The getaway vehicle is deployed with 60km to go. Matteo Trentin drives it like he stole it (because he did, obviously) to gap the rest of the group. He’s soon joined up with the hapless breakaway group who realise their day is done.

The getaway driver sets a relentless pace, forcing the patrolling teams to follow his wheel. A frenzied chase across the Flanders countryside ensues, with the brains of the operation buried deep inside enemy lines relaying information to the getaway driver. And some suitably car chase-y music.

Through a combination of brute force and fiendish tactics, the ragtag bunch are able to bring their key man, Sonny Cobrelli, to the final attack. The getaway driver drops him off and he sprints for safety and snatches the loot, sharing the spoils with his loyal crew in the form of a few Peronis in the pub. They won’t be caught until this time next year.

The Hollywood Blockbuster

It begins in media res. The camera zooms in on the eyes of the protagonist: his intense, hazel eyes stare down the lens, his focus unwavering. He can see the finish line in his mind’s eye. He has played out this moment a thousand times. His supporting cast are positioned around him, and they play their parts without fault; they are well trained and loyal (even the boy, who can sometimes be a loose cannon).

Cut to the final 10km. He’s up front with a small group of big hitters. He’s dropped the young upstart Slovenian, all but one of the dastardly Danes, and has even vanquished his greatest rival, and now it’s down to him to bring it home.

A rousing 80’s power ballad plays in the background as the king-in-waiting winds up for the sprint. Alongside him Sonny Colbrelli, Magnus Cort and the plucky young Brit who dogged his wheel in his homeland. They will all soon be trembling in his wake.

They open up the sprint. Vocals soar and guitars crash as the man himself, in the centre of the shot, crosses the line first, and raises his arms. The King of Belgium finally claims his rainbow crown: Wout van Aert is now King of the World.

(bonus plot): The Revenge

Sam Bennett changes his mind and turns up after all. Despite vomiting up the final climb he’s able to make it back across to the lead group and sprints for the win. Tears off his jersey to reveal a ‘SCREW YOU PATRICK’ slogan underneath. Grabs the jersey, drops the mic and rides back to Monaco laughing all the way.

PREDICTIONS

5 stars: Wout van Aert, Sonny Colbrelli, Magnus Cort

4 stars: Michael Valgren, Matej Mohoric, Kasper Asgreen

3 stars: Tadej Pogacar, Ethan Hayter, Mathieu van der Poel, Remco Evenepoel                              

2 stars: Tom Pidcock, Julian Alaphillippe, Mads Pedersen, Primož Roglič

1 star: Caleb Ewan, Alex Aranburu, Peter Sagan, Nils Pollitt, Jasper Stuyven

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AJ Bell Tour of Britain: The Second Half

As my summation of the first four stages of the AJ Bell Tour of Britain consisted, quite predictably, of race reports, it might come as something of a surprise to read the second half, which sadly, will consist of relatively little in the way of cold, hard facts.

There are reasons for this which will unfold as we go along.

Stage 5 featured a relatively short trek through Cheshire. Despite taking in three categorised climbs along its 152.2km route, including the uniquely title ‘Bottom-of-the-Oven,’ the day was pegged for a bunch sprint from the very beginning, given the flat profile of the final 40km or so. Despite a spirited effort from the remains of the day’s breakaway, including Ribble Weldtite’s Dan Bigham, the bunch sprint would finally manifest, but it didn’t go according to plan, as INEOS Grenadiers’ Owain Doull came down on a corner 800m from the finish line, causing a split in the bunch. This prevented some of the key players from taking part in the final run-in to the line, but Ethan Hayter was in blistering form to take the win and control of the leaders’ jersey in the process.

Stage 6 – Friday 10th September

Having watched cycling on TV for a number of years, and with little experience of the real thing, nothing could prepare me for the alternative reality of taking in a bike race live. As seasoned spectators of cycling will know, to attend a bike race in person is to surrender control; to accept that in order to absorb the spectacle in real life, you must inevitably lose your grasp on the nuances of the race.

Quite besides the fact that logistically speaking, it’s something of a nightmare.

Planning your approach involves working out where you want to be, and when. Take in the start, and you won’t make the best climb. Choose to observe the riders attack the tenuous winding cobbled paths of a small Cumbrian village, and you inherently sacrifice your chance to make it to the finish line.

I opted to drive from home to the day’s toughest climb, and set out at 10.30 to head to my destination, the first of several large blocks of driving I would undertake in pursuit of the race that weekend.

The British are legendary in their approach to a sporting occasion, and across every stage of the race so far the support had been evident: even the most remote of roads were lined with fans; families, primary school children, cycling teams who’d rode the route in advance; old couples with Thermos flasks and camping chairs, cool boxes at the ready for picnic lunches, determined not to miss a moment.

Because after all, a moment is all it is (a few, if you choose wisely and position yourself on a steep section of a climb). You are present for a snapshot of a battle in full swing, content in the knowledge you will not know its outcome until later. It would be like turning on a football match, only to switch it off, just seconds later. Yet still, we came out in force, accepting of our fate. Knowing that it would be worth it just to take in a brief portion of the action.

Driving up Killhope Cross in the North Pennines, just outside Nenthead in Cumbria, was in itself a mechanical triumph, for my long-suffering Ford Focus if not for me. Nothing puts the achievements of pro cyclists into perspective quite like grinding between second and third gear up uncomfortable gradients, knowing that one hundred men on bikes will sweep up it with relative ease an hour or so later.

Killhope Cross, the highest paved pass in England, is as ominous by name as it is by nature. Long, arduous and straight for the most part, the gradient kicks up towards the summit, and the Skoda KOM summit sign marked the peak, where hope would, with any luck, be regained. We later discovered that British place naming rules very much applied in the case of this climb – it’s rarely pronounced how it looks on paper – and ‘Killup’ Cross presented the most challenging ascent of the day for the riders.

With the motos flying up the road and the tacatacataca of the helicopter flooding the moody northern English skies with sound, the anticipation rose and we were informed that a leading breakaway group of seven were riding three minutes clear of the peloton.

El Tractor, Deceuninck-QuickStep’s Tim Declercq, drags himself up the Killhope Cross KOM climb*

As the riders approached the crowds leaned inward, bowing then parting as the breakaway rose up the climb with varying degrees of finesse, the likes of slender climber George Bennett making it look easy while the improbable breakaway duo of Tim Declercq and Mark Cavendish from Deceuninck Quick-Step laboured under the stress of the gradient. The support vehicles followed, so close to the toes of the spectators it was a reminder of just how delicate the balance is between safety and chaos in a bike race, something that has been all too evident this season as fans have returned to the roadside.

And then they were gone and the roads fell silent for a few moments in their wake, aside from the buzz of the crowd comparing notes as the peloton drew closer. A second wave of activity signalled their arrival on the hill, and this time, the procession was more substantial. The bunch moved at speed despite the angle and it was all the rapt crowd could do to pick out a face here and there, to call to your neighbour to say who you’d laid eyes on; the speed just slow enough to fathom that INEOS were driving on the front, that Jumbo Visma lined up on the near side, the yellow glare of their jerseys distracting from the presence of Wout van Aert nestled securely within their ranks.

INEOS Grenadiers lead the charge up the climb – Killhope Cross*

Then, finally, the stragglers; the ones making hard work of the climb, those who didn’t have the legs, or had the legs yesterday, or were having a mechanical (Saint Piran’s Ollie Maxwell could be overheard shouting ‘got a big alan key?’ into his team car as he struggled past) or were Julian Alaphillippe, who, unbeknownst to those on the ground, had just suffered a bathroom break misunderstanding and was not happy, hitching a ride via sticky bottle up the business end of the climb.

And then they, too, were gone. Like a group of traveling minstrels, the assembled company packed up their flasks and lunchboxes and flags and moved on, almost instantly. Many climbed on their own bikes and rode away; cars pulled out and disappeared, flowing down either side of the hill unburdened by the incline.

The climb was not so easy for many of the riders…*

After the rush, the silence. The air inside my car was stuffy and I took the chance to grab a bite to eat as I trailed out of Cumbria and into Tynedale. The chase was on: via a somewhat less circuitous route than the peloton, I would aim to reach Gateshead, park up and make it to the finish ahead of the leaders. The irony of chasing a bike race while being hampered by cyclists was not lost on me, but progress was steady, and winding my way through small villages and around haphazard corners, I was blissfully unaware that a few miles north, the race had encountered torrential rain, or that the breakaway continued to lead through the downpour.

Across the North Pennines things got surreal. Fighting the effects of days of anxiety-fuelled broken sleep, with Led Zeppelin blasting from the stereo, I was alone. The wild expanse of the moors lay to every side of me and a scattering of sheep were my only company. The minutes ticked down but I was on course to arrive on time. The closer I came, though, the more the traffic built, until I was taking detour after detour to avoid tractors and buses. Ignoring the road closure signs which lie in wait for the race procession, I found myself on the course itself, the signage helpfully informing me I had 5km to go. The buzz of anticipation was back as I completed my own race to the finish line, taking in a damp, sketchy descent that filled me with dread on behalf of the riders, who would take its sinuous curves at twice the speed I dared to.

Finally making it to the car park, finding a space, collecting a press pass, running flat out to the finish line. The voice of Jez Cox, the race commentator, rung out through the PA system and the big screen displaying there were 17km to go. With plenty of time to spare I picked my spot, beyond the finish line. The torrent of information on the race was overwhelming after the 90-odd minutes of rock music and the rush of my own thoughts, a shock to the system as I remembered how things were all that time ago, on the hill in Cumbria. As if to close off that chapter, the breakaway were swept up almost immediately after I arrived and the race for the finish began. With an obscured view of the big screen I relied on the commentary and waited.

The waiting feels different when you watch in person. On TV the final kilometres of a race seem to tick by with increasing speed; in person it’s almost comically slow. When the race eventually drew within a kilometre the crowd came to life and by the time Wout van Aert raised his arms across the line, I felt as though the day had lasted a year. The resultant podium ceremony, in which Wout van Aert smiled and waved, and Ethan Hayter threw a bunch of flowers, badly, came and went in a flash, and press duties called, before the buses rolled out, keen to move on to the next location.

They weren’t going anywhere fast. Rush hour on the A1 to Newcastle is bad enough at the best of times, and crawling back home with the INEOS team bus right behind me was yet another surreal reminder of the reality of bike racing. What other sport finishes for the day after five hours of competition, then jumps on a bus, and rides to a hotel, ready to relocate for another day?

Stage 7 – Saturday 11th September

Sleep still hard to come by, the 6.00am alarm was unnecessary on Saturday morning and with another hour and a half in the car ahead, the day began with my intrepid travelling companion and I navigating our way to the Scottish border town of Hawick. Two for two in the ‘British place names that aren’t pronounced how they look’, we were late to find out that in fact, the name was ‘Hoick’. Which instantly transforms it into Scottish expletive. Onomatopoeia at its finest.

The skies were dark and heavy with the suggestion of rain as we took the narrow country lanes to our destination, feeling like royalty as the cavalcade of motos and race support vehicles seemingly escorted us along the otherwise almost deserted route. Apparently no-one travels to the Scottish borders first thing on a Saturday.

Once parked, getting to the start line didn’t come without its obstacles, namely an unfinished bridge across the river heading into town. I took photos and waxed lyrical about the metaphorical significance of the bizarre sight, a symbol of the fractured union between Scotland and England perhaps, before remembering we had places to be.

The area was busy and the street lined with people as the ever-diminishing group of riders arrived for sign on. Despite the low numbers the process was more than a little chaotic, with teams arriving out of order and drifting into position reluctantly and at different speeds, like a herd of confused cattle.

Andre Greipel and George Bennett shoot the breeze on the start line in Hawick*

Once on the start line though, the atmosphere intensified once more, and the distinctive scent of deep heat laced the morning air. Aside from the obvious significance of the front row, with the jerseys on display, a hierarchy presented itself: Wout van Aert, head down, eyes on his computer display, sitting in line with Pascal Eenkhorn and Gijs Leemreize; much further back, Andre Greipel and George Bennett chatted and laughed, taking the whole thing less seriously. When the countdown began, Bennett wasn’t even on his bike, which he mounted in an almost comically relaxed manner moments after the riders at the front had already rolled away.

It would be a long day in the saddle for riders such as Bennett, who had spent swathes of energy in the breakaway the previous day, but the riders weren’t the only ones heading North.

With less pressure than the previous day due to the length of time we had available, we were able to grab a bite to eat and decompress from the adrenaline rush before we were on our way again. Back past the broken bridge and in the car once more, we headed away from Hawick and through the Scottish countryside. Truth be told, there’s little I remember about that journey. The lack of sleep was catching up with me and we sang at the tops of our voices to an eclectic selection of rock and pop classics in an attempt to stay awake. Arriving in Edinburgh was a shock to the system, fraught with all the usual one way systems, dead ends and ‘no right turns’ that city centre driving in the UK gifts drivers with in order to keep them endlessly circling, like frustrated vultures.

The sensation of disconnect from an actual sporting event was stronger on stage 7, probably because watching a diminutive peloton roll over a start line and disappear from view cannot possibly transmit any sense of what will occur later that day, particularly bearing in mind they don’t race in anger until a few kilometres down the road.

Descending into a media centre in an Earth-themed museum doesn’t help with that sense of connection: dinosaurs wearing masks and busy gift shops with families spilling out of them created a weird schism, already triggered by the dramatic shift from a small town, in which everyone was focused on the start of a bike race, to a big city, in which it wasn’t immediately obvious that anything out of the ordinary was going on.

At the very least the media centre afforded the opportunity to catch up on the race, where we discovered that a strong breakaway group had escaped the bunch and had a significant lead. By the time notes had been made, lunch consumed and post-race interview logistical strategies thrashed out, it was time to head out once again, with the race just over 10km away and closing in fast.

The stunning backdrop of Arthur’s Seat in Edinburgh as the riders came into the finishing strait*

Edinburgh is a dramatic city, and the clouds that had hung low throughout the day so far lifted, scattered by a stiff Scottish breeze to reveal an electric blue sky beneath. Arthur’s Seat, the craggy volcanic outcrop that dominates the skyline, would be the stunning backdrop to the race finale, and with the harsh glare of the sun searing our retinas we chose positions 500m from the finish line to watch a breakaway win stamp their authority on the race’s closing stages. The speed with which Yves Lampaert, Matteo Jorgensen and Matt Gibson flew by was quite literally breath-taking, a stark contrast to the laid-back rolling out of Hawick some four and a half hours earlier, as with heads down they charged for the finish line, still engaged in full-on race mode.

The riders that followed were less frantic in their approach to the finish line and following the race, many complained about the difficulty of a day which, on paper, hadn’t looked the trickiest, given its relatively flat profile in comparison to the day before. However the active, strong breakaway had forced the peloton to work harder than it needed to, for the net result of basically nothing, other than for INEOS who retained Ethan Hayter’s leaders’ jersey for another day.

Jumbo Visma’s George Bennett was upbeat post-race, despite a hard day in the saddle*

Perhaps because of how hard a day it had been, there seemed to be less of a rush to get away, with riders willing to chat by the buses and Jumbo Visma the only team seemingly keen to make a quick getaway.

There was a grimace-inducing bus v car incident in the car park and a few Greenpeace protesters picketed outside the INEOS Grenadiers team bus, looking as awkward as race leader Ethan Hayter did when he climbed aboard, but outside of these mini-dramas slowly the teams trickled away and off to their next destination, and we were left to reflect on what had been a hectic but memorable day.

Later on, footage would emerge of the young rider Xander Graham, streaking along ahead of the breakaway and finally being presented with a bidon by Pascal Eenkhoorn for his troubles, and the following day he received the all-star treatment courtesy of Jumbo Visma, warming hearts and inspiring an outpouring of positivity on social media. Not to be outdone, Mark Cavendish’s young son Casper was presented with an adorable replica jersey by his hero Wout van Aert, and the hug between them ensured that there were no dry eyes left in the house. Jumbo Visma’s marketing team were lauded for their good work on a day in which there were no losers, and the winner was cycling.

The winner, also, was Wout van Aert, who stormed to his fourth stage victory in the Stage 8 sprint finish in to Aderdeen, grabbing enough bonus seconds to oust Ethan Hayter from the top spot and claim the overall victory.

The incredible success of the whole event was testament to Britain’s ability to really pull out all the stops when it comes to a big occasion. A sporting event in particular captures the British imagination like nothing else, and kudos to everyone involved for making it a spectacle so vibrant, inspiring and memorable that the after-image of the race lingers long, with nostalgic social media posts still persisting well into the following week. The race was arguably the best ever, with an incredible calibre of riders, fantastic route-setting taking in some jaw-dropping scenery, and the weather, uncharacteristically, playing its part, robbing the home crowd of their ability to have something to complain about for the eight day duration of the race.

It seems unthinkable that it could be this good again. But with a defending champion who is odds-on favourite to become the World Champion, a talented crop of British riders rising through the ranks at every level, and the success story of this year’s race chalked up in the annals and fondly etched in the memories of everyone involved, there’s no reason to suggest that the 2022 edition won’t be just as amazing.

So, let’s do it all again next year, shall we?

*All photographs by Anna McEwen – Twitter @AnnamacB

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AJ Bell Tour of Britain: The First Half

The 108-strong cast of the 17th modern edition of the Tour of Britain rolled out of Penzance, in the far south-west corner of the island, on a sunny September Sunday, full of promise of a spectacular week of racing to come.

The backdrop to the Grand Depart and Stage 1 was the picturesque coastline and undulating roads of Cornwall – undulating being a diplomatic term for a relentless day of ups and downs. Despite offering just three opportunities to pick up King of the Mountains points, the route was almost never flat, a feature of British roads that riders unfamiliar with the quirks of road systems on a small island may come to resent by the end of their eight day stay, but which make the racing unpredictable and provide an ever-changing set for the audience to admire.

The early stages of the race played out without drama: a small breakaway was released up the road consisting of five riders, who built a modest lead over a peloton that was driven for the best part of the day by Jumbo Visma and Deceuninck Quick-Step, riding for Wout van Aert and Julian Alaphilippe respectively, and contested all the intermediate sprints and King of the Mountains. Nic Dlamini is no stranger to the front end of the Tour of Britain, having taken the mountains jersey in 2018, but he dropped off the pace later in the stage leaving Canyon dhb Sungod’s’s Jacob Scott to scoop up the lion’s share.

The remains of the break were absorbed back into the peloton with just over 20km to go and the run-in to the final began, with Alpecin-Fenix leading the charge. With Mark Cavendish and Andre Greipel pulling big turns on the front as the race wound down, it became clear that they were not setting up for a bunch sprint: the tricky climb into Bodmin would favour a punchier rider, and so it proved as Alaphillippe attacked with less then 2km to go. He was overpowered though by strong sprints from Team DSM’s Nils Eekhoff and ahead of him, Wout van Aert, who produced a dominant sprint finish to become the first leader of race.

Stage 2 marked a step eastwards into the neighbouring county of Devon. Heading out from Sherford near Dartmouth, the temperature soared and the riders were bathed in sunshine. Wout van Aert was resplendent in the blue leader’s jersey and overnight, the commissaires had reconsidered the time gaps meaning that the top 21 riders now all shared the same time.

The day’s stage would take in the most metres of elevation of any of the race’s eight stages, but this did not deter the day’s early break who fought through a number of escape attempts before establishing themselves around 15km into the race. Jake Scott, sporting the green mountains jersey, was part of the move again, a group which also once again number five riders.

An early crash caused trouble for Jumbo Visma, losing Chris Harper, and later Thomas Mein of Canyon dhb Sungod also needed medical attention.

Scott repeated his attacking moves from the previous day to once again take top spot in the intermediate sprints and climbs.

Heading into Dartmoor the breakaway were able to drop two of their number and slim to a threesome. The climb of Rundlestone awaited the riders – a long, relentless slog across Dartmoor, windy, harsh and bleak despite the sunshine.

When the American team Rally Cycling’s Robin Carpenter struck out for victory with 24km to go, Jumbo Visma, with Tony Martin at the head of the race, were unable, or unwilling, to close the gap to the leader, and no-one else seemed to have the desire to take up the mantle – Qhubeka and Movistar took turns before Jumbo Visma took over again with George Bennett and they drove the time gap down. But it was too little too late; Carpenter took the victory and the leader’s jersey in a surprise breakaway win and a huge achievement for his team, the American Pro team Rally Cycling.

The Welsh portion of the Tour began on Stage 3 with a team time trial. Taking place across a tricky 18km course featuring a number of awkward twists and turns, the stage was not ideal for teams unused to the discipline, which was basically all of them.

Pre-stage attention focused on Dan Bigham’s Ribble Weldtite unit, expected to be well-drilled in the discipline and the most likely of the British Conti teams to have an impact on the big hitters. They arrived on the start ramp sporting a selection of different aero helmets, and they set a good time, taking the early lead on the stage before the World Tour teams rolled out.

Historically high achievers in the team trial discipline, Jumbo Visma were handicapped by the loss if Chris Harper from their ranks, and an imbalance in abilities was evident in the early phase of the race where Gijs Leemreize had to fight to regain the wheel of his team after time trial specialist Wout van Aert set off at a blistering pace. After eventually dropping Leemreize, the team suffered further catastrophe as Pascal Eenkhoorn had a mechanical close to the finish, and they were forced to slow to allow him to catch up, then urge him across the line to record a time. The first of the World Tour teams out of the blocks, Jumbo Visma still took the lead, but were later pipped to the post by a well-oiled Deceuninck QuickStep team by a margin of just three seconds.

Jumbo Visma weren’t the only team to suffer misfortune during the race, Qhubeka-NextHash suffering a crash and distancing their own riders repeatedly as they struggled through the course.

INEOS Grenadiers were on another level, though. With strong time triallists among their number and no weak link they were always going to be favourites for the win, and so it went, as they put in a powerful and disciplined team performance to better Deceuninck’s time by 17 seconds. Along with the stage victory, Ethan Hayter claimed the blue leader’s jersey for the first time, Rally’s Robin Carpenter having worn it in anger for just under 22 minutes.

Climbing from the south to the north of Wales, Stage 4 was touted as the queen stage of the race, and at 210km it as also the longest.

Jacob Scott continued his dogged pursuit of the mountain’s jersey, and was joined in the breakaway by another familiar face, Nicolas Sessler of the Global6 Cycling Team, Caja Rural’s Jokin Murguialday, Robert Donaldson from the Great Britain team, Ollie Peckover from Swift Carbon and local boy, Ribble Weldtite’s Gruff Lewis.

The breakaway built their gap up to around nine minutes but as the peloton began to reel them in a second breakaway group headed up the road, comprising the unlikely trio of Tom Gloag, Ben Healy and Marc Soler. They caught the first group with just over 60km to go and the expanded breakaway worked together for a while before the inevitable occurred and the groups came back together. A further group of hopefuls including Team DSM’s Max Kanter, Gonzales from Caja Rural and Mauro Schmid tried their luck but were once again swallowed up again as they came into Wales’ largest seaside resort, Llandudno.

The bunch were tense heading through Llandudno into the final double climb, which began with Marine Drive, breath-taking with its dramatic backdrop of rock walls, cliffs dropping down to the coast as the riders wove around the headland. Owain Doull pulled hard on the front for INEOS and it looked as though the main group would go into the final climb together, but Movistar’s American climber Matteo Jorgensen had other ideas, launching a hopeful attack from the front going into the last part of the climb. He pulled out a 15 second lead but without support it wasn’t enough and once again, the group came together on the descent as they headed for the spectacular Great Orme.

The dramatic, short sharp climb maintained a relentless 13% which stretched out the peloton, spear-headed by Jumbo Visma’s George Bennett, towing Wout can Aert, and as the climb kicked up to 15% a small group attacked led by Israel Start-Up Nation’s Michael Woods. Woods kept the tempo high with Julian Alaphillippe looking strong beside him to gap all but van Aert who dragged himself up the climb behind the Canadian and the World Champion going into the flat section with 1km to go.

The easing of the gradient enabled race leader Ethan Hayter and Alaphillipe’s team mate Mikkel Honore to close down the leading trio, and with 300m to go Honore attacked, provoking an immediate response from van Aert, and leading into the killer final stretch Honore led out Alaphillippe for a two-up sprint with van Aert. The sprint to the line was agonisingly close but van Aert took it by the slimmest of margins, both riders veering across the line from the sheer effort. They later collapsed side by side, spent from pouring everything out on the road, and as van Aert reclaimed the leader’s jersey from Ethan Hayter, cycling fans both from within and outside of the UK marvelled not only at the epic battle that played out in North-West Wales, but at the course itself, which seemed almost monument-worthy in its sheer difficulty.

George Bennett leads the charge up the Great Orme for Team Jumbo Visma

INTERMISSION – please be aware that the second half may contain flash photography. Along with piecemeal reports, missing pieces but hopefully, some rider interviews. As I am attending stages 6 and 7 – see you on the roads!

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Post Vuelta Review: A Big Bag of Thoughts

Following the mad rush of last season’s grand tours, this season has felt like a return to something resembling normality. It’s been a long summer though, and now it’s late, and we’ve all had a bit too much to drink, and people are being silly and making up poems. No-one has time to read a whole review when they’re in this state, so have this instead. Some lists, some face-offs, and – yes, you heard me – a poem. What more could you possibly desire? May I present to you: my La Vuelta a Espana Big Bag of Thoughts.

Top 5 Surprise Packages

You know the ones. The ones who don’t jump out at you from the startlist. The names you might overlook. The names you may not even have heard of. There’s always one, who takes you by surprise, but from this Vuelta, I bring you FIVE.

  1. Magnus Cort – the devastating Dane came and conquered La Vuelta. With three stage wins, a could-have-been-a-stage win up the wall of Valdepeñas de Jaén and a second place on the final time trial, Cort was the Wout van Aert of the Vuelta, winning in the hills and in a sprint and doing it in style. Never underestimate a Dane.
  2. Michael Storer – the baby-faced assassin, the Destroyer, Storer the Explorer – the Australian has as many nicknames as he has victories, taking two stage wins and the King of the Mountains jersey for his troubles. An exceptional breakout performance for the young DSM rider.
  3. Louis Meintjes – the South African seems to have been on the scene for an age and has had his moments on the fringes of GC battles, but at this Vuelta he had a resurgence and reminded the cycling world of his talent, prior to his nasty crash on stage 20.
  4. Odd Christian Eiking – the Norwegian rider on the Belgian team, in their first year with World Tour status, ensured that their fantastic season continued by claiming the red jersey on stage 10 and retaining it for the next six stages. True Viking spirit (see poem, below)
  5. Jay Vine – the breakthrough Aussie rider for Alpecin-Fenix showed grit and determination to underscore his potential, spending time in several breakaways and showing willingness to attack despite the odd mishap. I’m looking forward to seeing what he can produce in the future.

Top 5 (actually, just 2) Disappointments

From Mikel Landa’s lack of form and strange exit from the race after a bizarre attack on stage 17, to the promise of Bahrain’s Mark Padun who had stunned in the Dauphine yet failed to live up to billing at the Vuelta, there were a few riders who fell short of expectations this Vuelta. Michael Matthews produced the sum total of nothing despite his team’s sporadic forays into the action; Arnaud Demare continued to hopelessly seek the form he had found in 2020 but which has since eluded him; and Richard Carapaz and Tom Pidcock’s Olympic exertions proved too much for them to be fully competitive in the race.

Yet, to criticise riders for a lack of form doesn’t sit right with me. In an incredibly demanding and punishing sport there are many reasons why a rider may not hit the heights they – or their team, or the fans – set for themselves, and to pick them apart feels unsporting.

Instead, I will focus on the two things out of our control that let us down.

  1. Lack of crosswinds – the word ‘echelons’ became an incantation, a curse, a secret word oft repeated and then quickly hushed on social media, as the usually prevalent Spanish crosswinds were repeatedly promised, yet repeatedly failed to make an appearance. In an opening week where a little more action would have been welcome, the absence of the aforementioned weather condition left the whole thing feeling a little bit flat. The hallowed event did occur once or twice, but they were so brief that it begged the question: if echelons transpire and cycling fans posting on social media aren’t around to see them, have they even happened?
  2. The Coverage – after a Giro and Tour de France’s worth of wall-to-wall coverage, it was deeply disappointing to discover that the coverage of La Vuelta did not include the crucial early parts of the racing. There’s something special about watching from kilometre zero; on days when the parcours is relatively flat or a bunch sprint is almost inevitable, the scrap to establish the breakaway is often the hardest fought racing of the day, outside of the last 10km or so, and to miss all the excitement just wasn’t fair
Visual proof that there was an echelon. Once. Unless this is a mirage.

Top 5 Memorable Moments

  1. Storer and Sivakov bicker up a big hill – there’s nothing better than some mid-race beef, and it didn’t get better than stage 7, when Michael Storer pounced on Pavel Sivakov’s mechanical failure and sprung an attack in a race where the two of them were leading from the original breakaway. The Russian didn’t take kindly to what might have been perceived as unsporting, and he let Storer know his feelings in no uncertain terms. Cycling fans broke out the popcorn, and enjoyed the show.
  2. The WALL – I’ve discussed stage 11’s epic surge of the peloton in pursuit of Magnus Cort up the Valdepeñas de Jaén in my second rest day piece. It was a feast for the eyes, and that is that.
  3. Gamoniteiru – the ever-increasing brutality of ‘Angliru’s evil little sister’ was a spectacle to rival some of the most iconic climbs of the Alps and Pyrenees. With mists clouding the view, the atmosphere was tense as the GC contenders battled up the steadily increasing gradients and it was one for the purists, with Columbian Miguel Angel Lopez emerging from the mist to take an emphatic win
  4. Jay Vine crashes, podiums anyway – I’ve written about Jay’s heroics on stage 14 in the aforementioned second rest day piece, but I’m full of admiration for the young Aussie and will be watching his progress closely next season
  5. Superman Lopez disappears – just when you think cycling can’t get any weirder, one of the main contenders for the overall race win drops out of the race, mid-stage. Movistar’s Miguel Angel Lopez was dropped on stage 20 by a select group including his team mate, Enric Mas, and he either couldn’t bridge the gap, or was told not to (reports vary), and the time between them stretched out, his podium spot evaporating in the process. It wasn’t ideal for the Columbian rider, who had taken a dramatic victory just two days prior on the fearsome Gamoniteiru, and he made his feelings known in no uncertain terms by stepping off the stage. There was some confusion as to his whereabouts, and as to the reasoning behind his decision, but he later apologised and speculation about his mental health abounded. Here’s hoping he’s OK – the pressure of elite level sport, particularly an endurance sport like cycling, cannot be underestimated, and we all make mistakes. Moving on…

Head-to-Heads

What better way to remember a grand tour by, than to pit the stars of the race against one another. Which contenders will land the killer blows? (Spoiler alert: it’s me).

GC SURPRISES:

Jack Haig v Enric Mas

For the second time in the space of two grand tours, Bahrain-Victorious were forced to go with Plan B as leader Mikel Landa was not on form. Haig rose to the challenge in style, a natural leader and strong rider, the Aussie is one for the future.

With Movistar’s team tactics the subject of ridicule on cycling social media, it’s often easy to overlook the fact that there are talented riders within their ranks missing out on their chances as a result of poor organisation. Mas is the rising star of the Spanish team but having arguably underperformed in recent seasons, his strength in this Vuelta was a pleasant surprise and if they have any sense, Movistar will build the team around developing Mas’ GC chances in seasons to come.

WINNER: Jack Haig. Marshalling his troops like a seasoned campaigner, Haig has really shown he has what it takes to mix it with the big guns

TEAM HONOURS

Team DSM v Intermarché-Wanty-Gobert Matériaux

Sure, Jumbo Visma won the day, and Bahrain were exceptional, but the two teams who really stood out in terms of unexpected performances were DSM and Intermarché. Team DSM were quiet in the first week but from stage 7 onwards they charged into battle with rampant abandon, grabbing three stage wins along with the top two spots in the mountains jersey competition. Romain Bardet is looking better than ever and Michael Storer is one to watch, although we will be doing so at Groupama-FDJ, where he has signed for the 2022 season.

I’ve waxed lyrical in other places about Intermarché, but you’ve got to hand it to them, they really brought their A game to Spain. They didn’t have a bad Giro, with a stage win for Taco van der Hoorn, but were quiet at the Tour, so it was great to see them fighting both in the breakaways and even for the GC with Eiking, Taaramäe and Meintjes all having great races.

WINNER: Tricky one this one, but for a team of their status to spend 9 days in possession of the leader’s jersey, and to do so with such assured confidence, it has to be Intermarché

SUPER DOMESTIQUE

Sepp Kuss v Gino Mäder

Kuss has developed his unique role as last man standing in the mountains for Primož Roglič in recent seasons, and no-one does it quite like him. With his tongue hanging out and bouncy climbing style, the American can stay with the best of them up the big climbs, and this Vuelta has been no different, as he’s been there for the Slovenian all the way. This was no more evident than on the climb to Lagos de Covadonga on stage 17, when he assisted Roglič to a brilliant stage win, then sharing a grin as they crossed one another as Rog made his way back down the mountain.

Gino Mäder has undoubtedly had a breakout season. His talent is undeniable and in support of Jack Haig, he came into his own, quickly maturing into a selfless and devoted support rider yet securing the young rider’s jersey and 5th place on GC in the process.

Comrades: Kuss grins at Roglic as they pass each on the climb of Lagos de Covadonga

WINNER: This one was almost impossible to call. Both riders had exceptional races in support of their leader, but I’m giving the win to Sepp Kuss, purely for the fact that his sacrifice was so apparent in the final stages of the mountains. In the final day’s time trial he trailed in over five minutes down, proof if it were needed that he’d left everything on the punishing Spanish mountains for his team leader.

NO RISK, NO GLORY

Primož Roglič v Egan Bernal

The two titans spent the third week battling one another for supremacy in the mountains, and it was a thrilling battle. The new catchphrase, fresh from the lips of the Slovenian after his ill-fated attack on stage 10 which ended in him crashing down a dusty descent, seemed to encapsulate his whole racing style as he sought to find gaps on his rivals.

In the final week, Bernal finally hit top form once again, and he took up the mantle of risk-taker, hitting out on stage 17 in a long-range attack that only Roglič himself was able to match, eventually coming through to take the stage victory.

WINNER: Despite the attacking spirit he showed in the final week, this one has to go to the King himself, Primož Roglič, who demonstrated the true nature of bike racing, going after every move, launching some of his own, and giving his fans more stressful moments as he almost took a wrong turning during the final time trial. It’s a rollercoaster ride where Primož is concerned and he did coin the phrase, after all.

SPRINT KINGS

Jasper Phillipsen v Fabio Jakobsen

The first week offered a number of opportunities for the sprinters, and there were a few names in the mix for the honours. Two rose to the top however and over the course of four stages, they shared the spoils equally with two wins apiece, and establishing a true head-to-head battle for the green jersey.

Each rider had his own story to tell, and those stories have been covered in other cycling media, particularly Jakobsen’s incredible return from the horrific injuries he suffered at the Tour of Poland in 2020. But it was hard not to be happy for Phillipsen, who was the bridesmaid at the Tour de France, picking up a remarkable three second and three third-place finishes from six opportunities. The sight of him, champagne glass in hand, tears rolling down his cheeks as he slumped in defeat at the end of the Champs Élysées, captured the hearts of many cycling fans, and it was wonderful to see him finally claim the victories he was so capable of earning, before he stepped off the race after stage 10 due to illness.

WINNER: Fabio Jakobsen took the green jersey from his rival on stage 8 and didn’t give it up, taking it all the way through the mountains and picking up another win on the way. This one has to go to the Dutchman.

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GONE BUT NOT FORGOTTEN

There were a number of fallers from the race; equal to the Giro at 40 and fewer than the Tour’s 43 this year. While it’s sad that any rider cannot complete a race, there were some significant losses in particular to the GC battle and to some of our favourites. Here are three of the fallers, remembered:

Hugh Carthy was high on the list of favourites for this race, particularly in light of his brilliant performance at the race in 2020. He dropped off the pace in the first week though and when he announced his withdrawal due to illness on stage 7, it was a big loss to the GC battle.

Alejandro Valverde never fails to light up a race, and on his home turf, spearheading his Spanish team, a stage win or two, or perhaps a top 10 on GC, could never be ruled out for the veteran. Fate had other ideas though, and when he hit a pothole and careened over the side of a steep hill during stage 7, anxious fans feared for more than just his chances in the race. The cycling gods were watching though, and miraculously, he wasn’t badly hurt. However when shots of him crying emerged shortly after fans and pundits alike were led to speculate whether this would be the end of an era. Not so, though, as the irascible Spaniard confirmed in an interview just over a week later he would ride on into 2022.

Giulio Ciccone has impressed this season with his climbing and has been a contender for GC in both the Giro and the Vuelta. His character both on and off the bike has earned him many new fans and with a couple of forays into breaks, it was clear Ciccone was feeling good going into the final week, and the big mountains where he would expect to shine. It was a huge loss to the race when he crashed on stage 16, denying us the chance to see him fly.

And now for something completely different…

An Ode to Odd Christian Eiking

Your name is Odd

But that’s OK

For you fought with valour

And were a bit better

Than Guillaume Martin

You wore red with honour

Like the blood

Of your Viking ancestors

Or the Cofidis breakfast buffet*

Humble yet determined

Your team defending

With honour and courage

And fluorescent elbows

The spirit of battle

Lives on as you surrender the prize

To your Slovenian adversary

The future is bright

And hopefully, more than a little

Odd

*allegedly

The Final Curtain

And so, the red curtain falls on grand tour season as the Vuelta draws to a close, crowning a fantastic champion in Primož Roglič with a traditional Galician hat. The Slovenian secures his third victory in as many seasons, a hat-trick written in stone after an incredible fourth stage victory on the final day’s time trial, and once again the cycling world hopes to see the top GC riders face off against one another, in the season to come.

There are a few more significant races left on the 2021 calendar before the riders hang up their helmets for a well-deserved off-season break, but fear not! writebikerepeat will be here, covering the Tour of Britain, all the rest of the major one day races and the cyclocross season, along with plenty more features along the way. SUBSCRIBE to keep up to date with the latest news, below.

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AJ Bell Tour of Britain: Preview

The rescheduled 17th edition of the modern reincarnation of the Tour of Britain will take place over eight stages and feature racing in all three countries of mainland Great Britain. The race was relaunched in 2004 following a five-year absence from the racing calendar and this year, just as in previous years, the race will feature a spread of World Tour. Pro and British Continental teams, with many riders looking to use it as a springboard for the World Championships in Flanders later this month.

History

First held in 2004, the Tour of Britain was a five-stage race for its first year, increasing to six for the next two. It extended into its current eight stage format in 2007 and has maintained that ever since.

London has hosted the most stages in the Tour’s history, with a circuit of the capital the traditional setting for the final stage of the race, but it does not feature on this year’s route.

Mark Cavendish leads the record number of stage wins in the race, with ten to his name. His team, Deceuninck Quick-Step, also lead the number of stage wins with 22 overall. The Netherlands has the most overall winners of the race though, with four, just ahead of France who have had three winners.

The race was not run in 2020 due to the covid-19 pandemic. The reigning champion from 2019, Mathieu van der Poel, will not defend his title; he was due to take part in the Benelux Tour instead however he has withdrawn from road racing due to a back issue.

Last 10 winners:

2019: Mathieu van der Poel

2018: Julian Alaphilippe

2017: Lars Boom

2016: Steve Cummings

2015: Edvald Boassen Hagen

2014: Dylan van Baarle

2013: Sir Bradley Wiggins

2012: Nathan Haas (following Jonathan Tiernan Lock’s disqualification due to doping)

2011: Lars Boom

2010: Michael Albasini

THE COURSE

Stage 1

Beginning on the coast in the far south-west of England, Cornwall plays host to this year’s Grand Depart and the first stage of the race begins in Penzance, before travelling 180.8km north-west through the stunning Cornish landscape, taking in three cat 3 climbs along the way, before a likely bunch sprint finish into Bodmin.

Stage 2

The race departs from Sherford in Devon and works its way through Dartmoor National Park before finishing in the university town of Exeter. The route features three cat 2 climbs in addition to a significant amount of uncategorised climbing along its 183.9km distance, but with a flat finish, the likelihood is another sprint, possibly contested by a reduced bunch or between whatever is left of the day’s breakaway.

Stage 3

The race moves to Wales on stage 3, and the backdrop for the first team time trial in the race since 2018, and only the second one since its modern inception, is the picture postcard Carmarthenshire town of Llandeilo. The 18.2km time trial course is mostly flat with a small climb at the end as the riders head towards the National Botanic Garden of Wales. All eyes will be on British conti team Ribble Weldtite, who count among their number time trial specialist Dan Bigham, along with Team Jumbo Visma who won the last team time trial at a grand tour in the 2019 Tour de France and feature some brilliant time trial specialists in Tobias Foss and Wout van Aert.

Stage 4

Stage 4, the Queen stage and the longest of the tour at 210km, takes the race from the south all the way to the north of Wales. Beginning in the seaside town of Aberaeron, the route takes in four categorised climbs, including the 9.4km cat 1 ascent up to Ffynnon Eidda (Eidda’s Well), before heading to the breath-taking headland of Great Orme in Llandudno for an incredible uphill finish which will test the leaders, whether they come from a breakaway or represent the GC.

Stage 5

A punchy day in the North-West, stage 5 has the possibility of ending in a sprint in Warrington, but in all likelihood will be a day for the breakaway, as the race tackles three categorised climbs on its way from Alderley Park in Cheshire through the picturesque countryside, including the memorably named ‘Bottom of the Oven’ climb just outside of Macclesfield. It doesn’t get much more British than that.

Stage 6

Traversing the North of England from west to east, stage 6 is a beast, coming in at just under 200km and featuring three category 1 climbs in quick succession, including the notorious Hartside Pass and Killhope Cross, the latter of which can claim to be the highest paved pass in all of England. With Burtree Fell not long after, the three tough climbs represent a huge challenge for the riders in what is arguably the toughest stage of the race, and will undoubtedly stretch out the field as it heads for Gateshead, and an uphill finish to the Angel of the North.

Stage 7

The first of two stages in Scotland, stage 7 begins in Hawick and spends much of the day going up and down, with three second category climbs along with a whole host of uncategorised climbing. The finish in Edinburgh city centre may well be a sprint but is not guaranteed to be a bunch sprint given the tough nature of the route which again clocks in at just under 200km.

Stage 8

The final stage of the race takes place further North than the race has ever travelled in its short history. Beginning in the pretty harbour town of Stonehaven and working its way inland, before returning to the final destination on the race’s route, the city of Aberdeen. It’s another day for the puncheurs, with an early cat 1 climb and a couple of cat 3s, before a descent into the finish in Aberdeen to crown the 17th champion of the Tour of Britain.

The Contenders

The field for this year’s Tour of Britain is one of the strongest in its history. 108 riders have been provisionally announced including representation from World Tour, Pro and British Continental teams.

Team Jumbo Visma send a strong team to Britain, and with Belgian national champion Wout van Aert the sole leader they will have an excellent chance at both the overall win, as well as potential stage victories. The course will suit van Aert’s varied skillset, with a number of chances to sprint along with some tough, punchy climbing, and will be the ideal build-up to the World Championships, where he will lead a strong Belgian contingent on home soil. In support he has two more national champions, Norwegian Tobias Foss and Kiwi George Bennett, in what is likely to be his final stage race in support of the Dutch team.

Deceuninck Quick-Step arguably more than match Jumbo Visma in their firepower. Current World Champion and 2018 winner Julian Alaphillippe will be one of the favourites the take the overall victory as he looks to hone his form prior to defending his World title in Flanderes. The peloton will likely be bossed by El Tractor, Tim Declercq, and supported by climber Mikel Honore and time trial specialist Yves Lampaert the Belgian team could prove to be the strongest in the race.

Out to rain on their parade, the INEOS Grenadiers will lead with Ethan Hayter. The young Brit has had an incredible season, winning Olympic silver in the madison and taking victories in the Tour of Norway GC along with two stages of the Ruta del Sol. He too is a great all-rounder and could challenge for the general classification with a strong INEOS team behind him, comprising the experience of Richie Porte, Rohan Dennis and Michal Kwiatkowski along with promising Spanish newcomer Carlos Rodriguez.

Israel Start-Up Nation’s Dan Martin and Michael Woods will aim to use the climbs to add to their teams’ hopes, while Movistar’s Marc Soler and Arkea Samsic’s British rider Connor Swift will also hope to challenge for the leadership of the race.

Mark Cavendish is the overall leader in terms of individual stage victories at the race, with ten, and he will look to add to that total with a few possible chances at a bunch sprint. He won’t have it all his own way though, with veteran German Andre Greipel in the mix, along with van Aert, Hayter and Team DSM’s Max Kanter amongst the sprint competition.

writebikerepeat’s STAR RATINGS

5 stars: Wout van Aert, Julian Alaphilippe, Ethan Hayter

4 stars: Michael Woods, Tobias Foss, Mikel Honore

3 stars: Marc Soler, Connor Swift, Richie Porte

2 stars: Rohan Dennis, Michal Kwiatkowski, David Ballerini

1 star: Dan Martin, James Shaw

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La Vuelta a Espana: Rest Day Reflections 2

The second week of the Vuelta has been at times, as predicted, a fiery affair. Following the ponderous, often snooze-inducing flat stages of the opening week, punctuated by just a few brief interludes of excitement, the race roared to life under the sweltering Spanish sun. The week has been a big bag of surprises, with dramatic landscapes, impossible ascents, breakaway madness and tussles for supremacy in the general classification too. At times, though, it’s also been literally, and figuratively, a bit flat.

Join me for a run-down of the talking points from each stage as I pick through the best bits, and marvel as I collate the votes from a panel of one in writebikerepeat’s Vamos! Vuelta Victors (trademark pending).

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After the cagey testing of stage 9, many criticised red jersey wearer Primož Roglič for his lack of attack. He covered moves from Adam Yates and Movistar pairing of Enric Mas and Miguel Angel Lopez to ensure none of his main rivals stole any precious seconds from him, while Damiano Caruso stormed to a stunning solo victory up the road.

Stage 10 by contrast saw a bold move from Roglič , the rest day apparently giving him the confidence to try something, and he distanced the rest of the bunch on the day’s only cateogorised climb, but not enough to prevent him striking out on the descent. His risk-taking was punished as he slid out on a corner and was unable to stay upright. Was it ill-judged? Perhaps. Did it bring the race to life? Absolutely. His critics were quick to lambast the unnecessary risk-taking, but many had been critical of his defensiveness the day before. When asked, Roglič himself simply shrugged and said ‘no risk, no glory,’ a soundbite which will hopefully silence the doubters. Sure, it could have ended worse. But he’s racing his bike and having a good time doing it and if that’s not things we love to see, then I don’t know what is (I have written at length about Roglič in my latest piece for TJVSupporters, if you care to read more of my thoughts on the matter).

The GC battle was completely shaken up quite apart from Roglič s attack and resulting spill, as the breakaway were so far up the road that two of their number overturned the time difference to move into virtual first and second spot in the overall classification. As it became clear that the peloton would not chase down the lead group, all that remained to be seen was who would be wearing red at the end of the day. The two contenders: Guillaume Martin of Cofidis, and Intermarché-Wanty-Gobert Matériaux’s Odd Christian Eiking. The latter had the advantage at the beginning of the day, and as the lead group closed in on the finish line, behind eventual stage winner Michael Storer, raising his arms for the second time in the space of a few days, the Frenchman could not move clear of the Norwegian. Eiking took control of the red jersey, and Intermarché, control of the race for the second time.

Stage 11 featured another instalment of ‘things we love to see’ with the most intense uphill finish since Strade Bianche. With a wall of a final climb similar visually to the Italian classic’s infamous Piazza del Campo, the sharply angled streets of Valdepeñas de Jaén played host to an epic final battle. The lone survivor from the day’s breakaway, stage 6 winner Magnus Cort, was denied a second victory as the peloton surged up and over the climb, Enric Mas and Primož Roglič stopping for a quick game of rock paper scissors to determine who would be the one to break the Dane’s heart. In the end, it was the whole GC bunch, as Cort gave in and wove up the climb like a drunk on his way home from the pub.

Stage 12 was a twitchy, crash-riddled charge through the sweltering landscape leading into Cordoba. The fight for breakaways was becoming more intense and the hectic, downhill battle set up the tone for the rest of the race, the ongoing tension resulting in crashes for Alpecin-Fenix’s Tobias Byer, who was later forced to abandon the race, and Adam Yates, along with a number of Jumbo Visma riders, who were caught out in a larger crash on a corner.

The temperature at the finish line was reportedly 41 degrees as a perky group of four used the day’s final climb to launch an attack. Giulio Ciccone, Jay Vine, Sergio Henao and Romain Bardet looked good for the win for a while but, ably assisted by the fire power of Bike Exchange’s leadout train, working for Michael Matthews, Magnus Cort and his leadout man Jens Keukelaire slingshotted to the front allowing the Dane to take his second stage win, the day after he was denied by the GC group in Jaen.

Extremadura? More like extremely flat…

Stage 13 was the longest stage of the race at 203km, and  long, hot trek through the alien landscapes of Extremadura, from barren wilderness to quaint Castillos, and the landscape was the only thing worth commenting on during a dull, sweaty day in the saddle for the riders, leading into the inevitable bunch sprint.

The sprint itself was by no means straightforward, despite the uncomplicated lead in to the final. It turned out to be a messy affair, with Deceuninck Quick-Step pushing the pace so high that their own sprinter, green jersey wearer Fabio Jakobsen, was not able to keep up. Instead, they towed Matteo Trentin to the line and almost gifted him the win, but for Florian Senechal who was too strong over the line and ensure that the Wolfpack didn’t lose everything after their mad dash for the line. There was some controversy following the stage as Jakobsen was heard criticising his lead-out man for dropping him, although he stated to the media that he’d given his team the go-ahead to sprint without him, as he didn’t have the legs. He retained the green jersey despite the mishap and will have his chances to go again in the third week.

Stage 14 continued the race’s journey through Extremadura, taking in some extreme climbing along the way. The days’ breakaway took some time to establish itself but once it did, was released without protest by the peloton. The ten-man strong group featured some new faces including Britain’s Matt Holmes and Tom Pidcock, They group were back together in time for the zig-zagging struggle up Alto Collado de Ballesteros, with its striated concrete and narrow hairpins, and as they ascended the probing attacks came and went as various riders tried their luck. Lotto Soudal’s Matt Holmes’ attack stuck, until he suffered a flat tyre, leaving AG2R’s Nicolas Prodhomme to try his luck solo.

The GC group made it up the climb without incident despite the knuckle-biting corners, and the race re-entered stalemate heading towards the final climb of the day, the breakaway being let out to over 14 minutes at one point.

The group pursuing Prodhomme now consisted of Jay Vine, recovered from a collision with a support vehicle in time to chase back on, Pidcock, and Bardet. Bardet kicked on the final climb though, passed straggler Andrey Zeits from BikeExchange, and reached for glory.

The banks to either side of the final climb spilled over with fans, a welcome sight as Bardet flowed up the climb, victory now assured, and took control of the mountains’ jersey in the process. A popular victory amongst the cycling community and one taken in style, with Bardet looking the best he’s been in some time; perhaps ever.

Stage 15 was a strange beast that seemed to reflect the general mood of the race so far. On paper it could have gone either way; a big day for the breakaway, or a day in which the GC came to life. Odd Christian Eiking still had the jersey and Intermarche, who had defended it admirably for the past five stages, would continue to do so.

The opening of the race turned out to be the most exciting part of the day. The breakaway, once again, took a long time to establish itself, with many attempts quoshed by the peloton as the group tore across the pancake-flat plains of Extremadura, stretched out and forming echelons at times, the intensity of the racing almost impossible to believe given the climate and the hard days that had gone before.

Eventually a break tore free from the clutches of the bunch and headed up the climb, including UAE’s Rafal Majka who stayed with the group for less than 40km before striking out alone. He would not be seen again for the rest of the day, and despite Steven Krijswijk’s best efforts to peg him back, the time gaps between the groups on the roads remained almost eerily static for the rest of the day. Adam Yates launched a late attack to dig 15 seconds out of his deficit on GC but other than that, it was a strangely lacklustre day.

Heading into the second rest day, Odd Christian Eiking retains the red jersey and Intermarche have now spent more time in control of the race than any other team. How long will they be able to hold on?

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writebikerepeat’s Vamos! Vuelta Victors

Do you love the title? I spent ages on it. Anyway, this section is dedicated to recognising outstanding contributions to the cause of our entertainment during the three long weeks that make up a grand tour.

BEST NAME: Odd Christian Eiking

This one is pretty obvious. When your name sounds like an activity you might take part in on a Norwegian stag do, AND it rhymes with Viking, you can’t go wrong. The End.

PEOPLE’S CHOICE AWARD: Romain Bardet

Like Kenny Ellissonde in week 1, everyone loves Romain Bardet. His victory on stage 14, believe it or not, his first World Tour victory NOT to take place on French soil, was universally met with joy and as he took ownership of the blue polka dot jersey it led me to wonder – are climbers just easier to love?

COMBATIVITY (THE REAL WINNER): Jay Vine

After working in the break all day on stage 14, his collision with a support vehicle and resulting fight to get back into the break, and his eventual podium place on the stage, it was laughable that the day’s combativity award went to Burgos’ Daniel Navarro. He too crashed, taking out Sep Vanmarke in the process, and finished down in 12th place – er, what were they thinking? I’m here for Jay all day; the Aussie has impressed in his first grand tour and I don’t think he’s done yet. Expect more Vine-shaped fireworks in week 3.

The ‘I’M NOT ANGRY, I’M JUST DISAPPOINTED’ award for failing to live up to the hype – jointly awarded to Michael Matthews and Mikel Landa

Sorry Bling, but you’ve had your chances. I was willing to wait, I was bearing with you. I had you in my VeloGames team, for goodness sake. The green jersey was yours. Except it wasn’t. The last straw was the failed chase in stage 12 that brought back the breakaway group of favourites, and didn’t even result in a win. Expecting better from you in week 3, young man.

As for Landismo, he’s had a fairly woeful season on the whole. His GC credentials remain unproven and his claim over the leadership of Bahrain Victorious was in doubt even before the first rest day. Just as Damiano Caruso did at the Giro, though, Jack Haig has ascended through the team’s ranks to take control and he looks the equal of the top GC men. It will be fascinating to see how he goes in week 3.

THE WHACK-A-MOLE ‘Can’t Keep a Good Man Down’ AWARD – Magnus Cort

Serial breakaway-botherer, EF’s Magnus Cort has been incorrigible at this year’s Vuelta. In addition to his two stage wins, he almost got another on stage 11, thwarted at the last by a rampant GC bunch, and has been relentlessly on the attack in many an escape group. To say he was on good form would be an understatement. Don’t write off his chances at another win or two in the final week.

THE ALPECIN-FENIX AWARD for team punching most above its weight – Intermarché-Wanty-Gobert Matériaux

Between Rein Taaramäe in week 1 and Odd Christian Eiking in week 2, the Belgian team have had control of the race lead for over 50% of the grand tour so far, and it’s testament to their work ethic that they have retained the jersey for so long. Can they carry it all the way to the final stage?

COOL POINTS – awarded jointly to Enric Mas and Primož Roglič for their casual, mid-wall eyeballing session on stage 11, where they appeared to size each other up, work out a plan, then attack, all up a 30% gradient. Then an extended post-race handshake/back pat sequence followed and yes, they are now the official Bosses of the Race.

’HOLY CRAP’ MOMENT OF THE WEEK – The peloton pours up the hill like the zombies in World War Z towards the hapless Magnus Cort (cue Jaws theme)

The peloton surge over the final climb on stage 11, led by Jumbo Visma’s Sepp Kuss

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La Vuelta a Espana: Rest Day Reflections 1

The Vuelta is like a sigh of relief.

After the pressure cooker of the Tour de France, with its whirlwind of sponsors; its media circus; its prestige; the Vuelta feels like a letting go.

Languid, sultry days traversing the dry Spanish landscape, with its rocky outcrops and deserted plains; there’s a hipster vibe to it that gives rise to an expression of feeling, an expression of movement; an expressiveness that isn’t given breathing room at the Tour.

The Giro is expressive, too, sure. Its expression lies in the landscape; the demonstrative nature of the locals; the purity of the natural climbers leaving everything out on the vicious switchbacks of the Dolomites. The Vuelta by contrast can be gruesomely relentless; there are endless ups and downs, and the late summer heat plays its own, often significant, part. Yet without the grandeur of the Alps or the arresting backdrop of the Italian scenery, it’s possible to see why some view it as the lesser of the grand tours, in terms of both difficulty and setting.

It’s far from easy though, especially at this stage in the season. The peloton is tired, after a long season of racing. They’re less given to chasing down breakaways, and breakaways less given to making the effort, outside of three riders from Spanish pro teams. The bunch move at what might appear, from an outside perspective, to be a lethargic pace. They’ve worked hard all year, and it’s hot. Yet they are still alert: judging, controlling, lying in wait. It’s still the pro peloton, after all, and just as you shouldn’t provoke a sleeping lion, underestimate them at your peril. They will strike eventually, and when they do, it will be deadly (just, not in the first week…).

They in turn, should not underestimate the course that remains ahead of them: a final week featuring the challenging terrain of Extremadura and Andalucia, and the daunting climbs of Asturias, which may not be the Pyrenees, but will test them right to the very last.

It is fair to say, given all evidence so far, that the season will not end in a whimper: it will end in a roar.

*

Stage 1’s 7.1km Prologue was never going to cause insurmountable time gaps, however with a fiendishly technical parcours, it was no mere formality. The riders who did well were those who excelled not simply at the time trial discipline, but were also punchy riders capable of some grit in the uphill sections.

Roglič, fresh from his Olympic time trial victory, dashed the hopes of Alex Aranburu who had sizzled in the hotseat for a long part of the day. The big losers of the day were Mikel Landa, and Tom Pidcock, more affected than he perhaps expected from his post-Olympic celebrations.

It was a great day for Jumbo Visma who would begin day two sporting two of the four available jerseys, with Sepp Kuss performing best on the climbing sections of the opening days’ time trial and securing the polka dot jersey. Not so good for Bahrain-Victorious’ serial GC hopeful Mikel Landa, one of the significant losers of the day in terms of time. So too, Tom Pidcock, who later admitted to suffering from the excesses of his post-Olympic celebrations.

Stage 2 was a sprint day on paper, and as it so often does, ‘on paper’ manifested itself into being, and as is so often the case, it was sadly not without incident. Agonisingly close to the 3km mark a crash in the peloton brought down a number of riders, and slowed the progress of many more. BORA were the most badly affected but as attention returned to the front of the race, the fallout from the crash would not be seen until later, with the resulting split in the peloton causing time losses to – most significantly – Adam Yates and Hugh Carthy.

Stage 3 offered an early opportunity to the climbers, and with the slopes, came the chance for the GC contenders to potentially steal a march on their rivals, with the climb of Picón Blanco waiting at the end of a tricky day. Estonia’s Rein Taaramäe took the stage honours, as the GC battle threatened to kick off but never really sparked into life, with Movistar’s Enric Mas the only man able to make a difference, claiming just three seconds from his rivals.

Stages 4 and 5 were flat stages for the sprinters, stage 5 quite literally flat as the proverbial pancake, as the race traversed the arrow-straight plains south-west of Madrid. It was a long, hot day in the saddle for the riders and the audience too, suffering as the monotonous kilometres wound out to the seemingly inevitable two-up scrap between Jakobsen and Philipsen. Would anything of note happen in the first week, in the race for the red jersey? It was looking unlikely…

All action, All the Time

Just five days into the race, I posted the following on Twitter.

It prompted a discussion which reminded me that grand tours are three gruelling, long weeks for the riders to endure, and that it wasn’t so long ago that grand tours always began this way: ponderous, cagey, and measured, a war of attrition rather than an all-out battle from kilometre zero on day one, which is what they have shifted to these last couple of seasons. There was a real split in reactions though – many who preferred this more classic style of racing, but a large number who admitted to enjoying the gripping, frenetic nature of the latter day tours.

It’s testament to the unique nature of the post-covid year and the unique set of riders we are currently enjoying that this first few days of La Vuelta should feel so… inconsequential. But with the GC battles in both the Giro and the Tour effectively tied up by the first rest day, the entertainment of stage hunting was all we had left to get excited for.

After the Giro’s precedent-setting run of breakaway wins and the nasty weather conditions that hampered a number of the GC contenders, Egan Bernal stole a march on the GC on stage 9 and carried the maglia rosa for the rest of the race, consolidating his lead and building on it

The Tour was action-packed for the wrong reasons; with crashes galore in the first few days, it was still notable for its strong breakaways, and with serial agitator Mathieu van der Poel in yellow the race was electrified from day one. Yet Tadej Pogačar’s utter annihilation of the rest of the field on stage 8 left the remainder of the race feeling flat, and the GC fire completely extinguished.

Despite the excitement of the early days and the frantic chasing of breakaways, neither the Giro nor the Tour gave us what we craved: a traditional GC battle. This Vuelta is proving to be more of a classic; a slow-burner, unpredictable and attritional, and all the more likely to provoke exciting racing in the latter stages. After the year we’ve had, despite all its thrills and spills, isn’t a good old-fashioned three week contest what we all really need? So: we would bide our time.

*

Stage 6 was the first to really enliven the race, but even then, it was relatively inconsequential in terms of the general classification standings. After a fast opening section downhill, the day was once again relatively flat, but the finish provided exactly the spectacle fans had been waiting for. The visual chaos as the cameras struggled to work out who to focus on while EF’s Magnus Cort was at the head of the race, ascending the implausible twists of the road into Cullera, meant that hearts were racing as the audience scrambled to work out who was where.

The resulting drama, as Roglič rounded the final corner with Bagioli and Mas chasing, and closed down Cort as the Dane headed for his fourth overall stage victory at the Vuelta, was breath-taking. The ensuing gaps between the GC contenders contributed a few seconds to Roglič’s advantage over the others.

Stage 7 featured a gruelling uphill-downhill course through the mountains of Valencia, and you’d have been wise to bet on the breakaway, even more so once it was finally established and numbered a massive thirty riders, including many seriously strong contenders.

It slimmed down eventually to INEOS’ Pavel Sivakov and DSM’s Michael Storer, who battled it out in an ill-tempered fight up the final climb of Balcón de Alicante resulting in a gritty performance from Storer to grind out the victory. It showed up weaknesses in the GC group too, with Ciccone, Carapaz and Landa losing time and Hugh Carthy retiring from the race altogether through injury.

A clear group of leaders were emerging though…

Storer and Sivakov engage in a lively debate on Stage 7

GC Outlook: Cloudy at first, Clearing later

As a result of the course setting and the low physical impact of the first few stages (hot conditions aside), the GC battle remained a mystery to be solved in the first week, with no early strikes at the overall leadership.

That wasn’t to say the red jersey did not fall on worthy shoulders. After Roglič’s initial two days in the jersey, courtesy of his stage-winning performance in the opening day’s prologue, he surrendered the leadership first to Rein Taaramäe, who then ceded it to Kenny Ellissonde. It’s always a reminder in the early stages of grand tours that the race is about more than just a handful of top riders. Seeing teams put in the hard yards at the front of the peloton to defend the leader’s jersey is a privilege, and both Intermarche Wanty-Gobert and Trek Segafredo put in an honourable shift when it was their time to do so.

As the jersey transferred back into Jumbo Visma’s custody on day six though, it was time to consider the competition and figure out who might be capable of wresting control away from the two-time winner, in his potential hat-trick year.

INEOS are the obvious choice of main challenger, but with their ever-so-polite British-inspired ‘no you, no you, I insist’ policy on team leadership, this is still up for debate. The triumvirate of possible winners spent the first few days dancing around their potential chances, Bernal deferring to Yates, despite him losing time after stage 2’s crash, and Carapaz looking inconsistent following his exertions at the Olympics.

Movistar too brought a pair of GC contenders, along with the ever-present lurking threat of Alejandro Valverde, ready to disturb the peace whenever he had the chance. Superman Lopez and Enric Mas both looked strong in the opening week, with Mas the only rider capable of taking seconds from Roglič, and when Valverde crashed out on stage 7, while some spoke of a loss of leadership in the time, others saw an opportunity for Movistar’s potential leaders to break free of the shackles of Valverde’s interminable patriarchy.

Stage 8 was another sprint stage, enabling the main peloton to keep its top dogs protected ready for the greatest challenge yet: stage 9‘s 4,500m of elevation, as the riders took on the first all category climb of the race so far, the Alto de Velefique. The day belonged to Bahrain Victorious’ Damiano Caruso. The Italian, who came second at the Giro, was once again able to capitalise on the poor form of team leader Mikel Landa to take his own chances, riding to an impressive solo victory.

Following the stage, the INEOS debate continued to rage. Adam Yates looked the strongest through the climbing sections both in stage 9 and previously, frequently going on the attack and testing his rivals, yet he has lost more time through bad luck and poor positioning than Egan Bernal, who currently sits above him in 5th in the GC.

Bernal appeared to suffer on yesterday’s climb yet it’s possible he was conserving energy, and with the rest day to recover, unless he is hampered by his back condition, he is likely to launch a fresh attack on the GC race. One of the most explosive riders around, what Bernal lacks in consistency he makes up for in pure acceleration, and if his team unite behind him, he could still be a major thorn in Roglič’s side pushing into the later stages.

Ominous in the yellow corner though, the single-minded focus of Jumbo Visma behind leader Primoz Roglič, on the face of it stands more of a chance of success simply by virtue of their dedication to one goal: to deliver Roglič safely to the final time trial, and there, hope he can repeat his recent dominant performances against the clock to secure the victory.

Roglič looks to be back to his best form, and has ridden within himself, and not taken any risks so far. Unlike his Slovenian compatriot, he has elected not to strike an early blow and try to take a commanding lead. Instead, he’s banking on his consistency and conserving energy in the hot conditions for the relentless climbing of the final week. It’s a cool, calculated approach which has served him well in the past, and if any individual has a hope of surpassing him, they will need not only their own team, but likely other teams to assist – an alliance of the big hitters might be the only way around yet another inevitable outcome in this, the final grand tour of the 2021 season.

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There’s something about La Vuelta…

Despite coming in third in a recent poll containing just three options, La Vuelta a Espana has always held a peculiar charm. From over 600 respondents, a loyal minority of 22% picked the Spanish Grand Tour as their favourite, and I’m happy to count myself among them.

It’s understandable that it didn’t rate as highly for cycling purists as the number one option, the Giro d’Italia (40%) or the crowd pleaser, the biggest race of them all and proven gateway tour for cycling fans, the Tour de France (38%). Let’s look at the evidence.

First up in the season, cycling fans are foaming at the mouth for a three-week stage race come May, which must surely account for at least a proportion of the rose-tinted light in which the Giro is viewed. Or perhaps it’s the breath-taking scenery, the brutal climbing, or the chaotic unpredictability of the Italian weather and infrastructure that throws many a spanner in the works of the best-laid plans.

The Tour of course is, and will always remain, a steady contender for everyone’s favourite race. It’s the Tour de France; the summit of achievement within our sport. The highest stakes, the hardest fought, the greatest cost for the most prestigious prize. A race for true all rounders and for teams with strength in depth, with significant amounts of time trialling, iconic climbs, and plenty of chances for sprinters too.

It’s no wonder that by the time we reach the end of the summer, some of us are feeling the same fatigue as the riders. Another three week grand tour, and one that doesn’t boast the drama of the Giro or the prestige and history of the Tour, is always going to have its work cut out for it.

Team Jumbo Visma line up at the team presentation ready to take on the final Grand Tour of the season

However, the Spanish race has a vibe unlike the others. It’s the hipster tour, somehow more laid back than the rest despite its rigours, and with scenery to rival France and Italy, it’s a spectacle for the fans too. So why should you overcome that race fatigue and tune in, commit yourself to another three weeks of disrupted schedules and emotional ups and downs? Read on, and I’ll tell you.

La Vuelta a Espana is unpredictable; but where the Giro suffers from extraneous factors which often combine to affect the riders’ progress, at la Vuelta, the unpredictability comes almost always from within. Factors that combine to create this effect include, but probably aren’t limited to, the following:

  1. It’s the final shot at glory in the pro cycling season. GC contenders who have missed out, crashed out, or just not come to form at the right time, have one last chance for success. Sprinters or punchers without a stage victory can potentially retrieve something to add to their palmares before they run out of opportunities
  2. It’s a shop window. With the transfer season in full swing, it’s a fantastic platform for riders to present themselves to teams for new or renewed contracts
  3. It’s a mixed bag of strong riders and new talent. Although it’s often seen as a last resort, a case of ‘just send whoever’s still fit’, the rigours of the season that may have taken their toll on the peloton gives young, lesser-known riders the opportunities they have been waiting for to have a crack on one of the greatest stages of them all
  4. As a result, you never know what – or who – to expect, when it comes to stage wins, or even GC podium challenges, and dark horses often emerge who you then go on to notice the following season. And where did they have their breakthrough? You’ve got it – the Vuelta.
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La Vuelta is by no means an easy ride, though. With so many conflicting goals in this last chance saloon, the racing overall can be chaotic, with individual ambitions often taking precedence over team aspirations. And although it may not have quite the number of iconic climbs as the Tour or the Giro, la Vuelta is often a ‘climbier’ race overall. Where the Tour usually has more opportunities for sprinters and time triallists, and the Giro usually saves the gruelling ascents for its final week, la Vuelta has categorised and uncategorised climbs popping up from the early stages right through to the close. As a result there are less days of resting in the peloton in la Vuelta, and in recent years at least the GC battle is has been combative from the get-go. And of course it isn’t short of monster summits – who can forget the titanic battle up the Angliru in 2020, with Hugh Carthy rising above the rest to take the stage win.

The final question is – if you’re not already watching La Vuelta a Espana, why not? It’s not only the last chance for the riders, but it’s out last chance too, to claim a delicious slice of juicy Grand Tour action. If the last few years are anything to go by, guaranteed you’ll still be talking about it come Christmas.

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Olympic Despatches: Track Cycling

Day 1: Monday 2nd August

With the outdoor cycling events completed, attention turned to the indoor discipline. Track cycling has been one of the most hotly anticipated events of the Games, not least because of the absence of top-level indoor cycling events over the past year and a half; the impact of the covid-19 pandemic has been more keenly felt by the track cyclists than their road-based compatriots given the lack of competitive opportunities.

As such, the events for both men and women opened with a degree of uncertainty surrounding form; with nothing to go on since the World Championships in February 2020 there was a sense of who might perform well, but no recent evidence. It would be down to the qualifying rounds to determine who would challenge for medals, and who would miss out.

The opening day’s action in the Izu Velodrome comprised three qualifying events and one final.

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The team pursuit events begun with qualifying rounds where teams race solo, aiming to post the fastest time possible in order to achieve the highest ranking. There was drama in both the women’s and the men’s events from the off.

The women’s top qualifiers were Germany, in scintillating form and setting a new World Record on their blistering first run. Great Britain started strongly but faded in the second half of the race, yet still qualified in second place, breaking their own previous World Record but not hitting the newly raised bar set by the Germans. The US team were third, with Chloe Dygert proving almost too strong for her own team as they lost her wheel in the closing stages of the race.

In the men’s event, Fillippo Ganna proved similarly too strong for his team, however the Italians were able to make the most of his pace to post the second fastest qualifying time. The hotly tipped World Champion Danish team set a new Olympic Record, although their use of kinesiology tape on their shins raised queries and eventually protests from other teams, as it was deemed to be providing an unfair aero advantage.

The Australian men’s team suffered a devastating blow during their run as Alexander Porter’s handlebars snapped off, causing him to crash. They had a re-run but must have been shaken by the freak occurrence; thankfully the equipment failure was prevented on the second run by what seemed to be the liberal use of duct tape. Team GB’s men, with veteran Olympian Ed Clancy among their ranks, qualified in fourth position and would have the chance to ride for gold in the following day’s first round.

The shell-shocked Australian men’s pursuit team console one another after Alexander Porter’s freak crash

The women’s team sprint event consisted of eight teams and would run both qualifying and final heats in the same session. Germany set the fastest time in the qualifying round, ensuring a brilliant start in both events for the Germany’s women. China qualified in second position, and the Netherlands and ROC would fight it out for the bronze medal.

Later in the bronze medal run, the ROC made short work of the Netherlands to claim bronze, and China were able to overturn Germany to claim the first track cycling gold of the Tokyo Games.

Day 2: Tuesday 3rd August

The second day of action featured the business end of the women’s team pursuit competition. The heats were up first to determine who would race for which medals.

The first battle was antipodean in nature, with Australia taking on New Zealand. After starting strongly, Australia faded through the central 2km as NZ slowly consolidated, making up their losses and taking control. However, they dropped to three riders quite early and Australia immediately regained the lead, and took the win despite being spread out across the track.

The second heat was more straightforward, with Canada steadily increasing their dominance over France. In the third, Great Britain took on the USA. The teams were closely matched, trading the lead several times, but in contrast with New Zealand in the opening heat, when GB went down to three it seemed to galvanise them, the race was obviously going according to plan and they injected some pace and pulled out a lead over the Americans. They crossed the line setting another new World Racord, and caused a moment of drama as Katie Archbold lost concentration and collided with a teammate, both falling off their bikes; both thankfully were unharmed.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Germany were extremely dominant in the final heat, Italy never really having a chance. Germany broke the World record yet again, and set up a mouth-watering gold medal run against the British.

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Next up were the men’s sprint team qualifiers. Of the eight teams involved there were three who clearly rose to the top. Australia looked good until the Netherlands arrived and put down a new Olympic Record. Great Britain were also strong, setting the fastest opening lap, but coming in second overall.

In the bronze medal race, Australia dropped a rider, Matt Glaetzer falling off the pace to let the French in for the win. In the final, despite starting strongly once again, the Netherlands set an electrifying pace once again to claim gold, with the British taking silver.

In the men’s team pursuit first round, Canada won comfortably over Germany, and Australia took on Switzerland in the hope of redeeming themselves after the prior days’ disappointment. They did so confidently, destroying the Swiss and the Olympic record in the process.

Italy took on New Zealand next. The race was run at an incredible pace and was closer than some might have predicted, but Italy just bested the Kiwis, smashing the World Record, however New Zealand themselves broke the record with an extremely strong run.

World Champions Denmark would take on Great Britain. It had the air of a grudge match about it before the race even got underway; British aerodynamics expert Dan Bigham quitting Team GB to work with the Danish raised a few eyebrows. The shin tape was off after protests from a number of teams (including GB), yet the Danes would apparently not face further sanctions. As if that were not enough, prior to the race, veteran rider Ed Clancy had announced his retirement from the sport effective immediately as a result of persistent trouble with sciatica. First reserve Charlie Tanfield took his place.

The race was sadly not as competitive as the spirit in which it took place. Despite a good start from the British quartet, Denmark quickly asserted their authority and from around one kilometre onwards, they built on their advantage. It looked set to be a dismal end to GB’s medal hopes as Charlie Tanfield lost contact with Ethan Hayter and Ethan Vernon and as the laps ticked down, the Danish closed the gap on the British. They were about to lap Tanfield when one of the Danes touched wheels with him and caused a crash. Despite being at fault, the Danish rider appeared to berate Tanfield, although he later apologised, stating that he was frustrated and angry over what could have been the end of their Olympic campaign.

Debate raged following the race over whether the Danes should be disqualified for causing the crash, with UCI regulations and precedents quoted, and the Danish coach weighing in over whether Tanfield’s being dropped by the team should have been flagged earlier. Eventually it was adjudged that because Tanfield eventually crossed the line, the Danes had clinched the victory.

Drama as Dane Frederik Rodenberg collides with Great Britain’s Charlie Tanfield

Day 3: Wednesday 4th August

In the men’s individual sprint Great Britain’s Jack Carlin set the fastest time in the early stages of the qualifying event, breaking the Olympic record in the process. It held for a long time, until Nicholas Paul from Trinidad and Tobago missed out by the slimmest of margins to go second, followed right away by Tjon En Fa from Suriname who also narrowly missed out on the top spot. Following their team win yesterday the Dutch pairing of Jeffrey Hoogland and Harrie Lavreysen laid down a new marker in the race, Hoogland setting a new Olympic record in his run and Lavreysen immediately equalling his time. Last out was the defending champion, Brit Jason Kenny. He posted a solid time to finish in 8th.

Women’s Keirin heats were up next. Great Britain’s Katy Marchant had a strong, confident ride to take first place in the first heat. In the 2nd Germany’s Lea Sophie Friedrich was powerful, taking the lead and winning from the front. In the 3rd heat Kelsey Mitchell from Canada came from behind to jump into the lead. She had a battle but the remaining riders had too much to do and she held on to take the win. The 4th heat saw Olena Starikova from Ukraine hold off the rest. and in the 5th Lauriene Genest of Canada came through for the victory.

Men’s individual sprint head-to-heads were next up. In the early runs there were convincing wins for Harrie Lavreysen, Jack Carlin, Nicholas Paul and Jeffrey Hoogland, and also ROC’s Denis Dmitriev. The next few were more close-run, with German Max Levy overturning the higher ranked Tjon En Fa from Suriname and Jason Kenny having to work to progress along with Nick Wammes from Canada, who rode from the front against Stefan Boetticher in the most evenly matched of the head-to-heads.

In the women’s keirin repechages GB’s Katy Marchant had to race again after being relegated following deviating from her line during her heat. She was made to work to come from behind but took the win in style.

In the men’s sprint repechages, Malaysia’s Awang and Sahrom, and Tjon En Fa and Boetticher recorded successes.

The most highly anticipated event of the day was the men’s team pursuit finals. The heats would be run in reverse order with the battle for gold last.

Team GB had a rollercoaster 24 hours following Ed Clancy’s departure and Charlie Tanfield’s crash, and they set out to put down a good run in the 7th/8th place run-off, and make a statement. They were up on their Swiss opponents straight away and built on this lead over the course of the 16 laps, finishing the run with almost 4.5 seconds over their rivals and improving on their qualifying time.

The second heat was a carbon copy, with Canada going off quickly and maintaining their early lead over Germany, then building on it to take 5th spot.

The bronze medal match, which many would argue should have featured Great Britain, instead was contested between Australia and New Zealand. The antipodean rivals could not be split over the first half of the race, trading the lead and proving to be perfectly matched. In the second half though, one of New Zealand’s riders crashed through a touch of wheels, and the third rider lost touch with his team. The Australians reeled them in and overtook the forlorn third man on the track to immediately claim the bronze medal, which will feel like a just reward for their own crash drama on the opening day. The unlucky Kiwi, national time trial champion Aaron Gate, was mortified to miss out on a medal in such a dramatic fashion and was spotted apologising to the camera that was trained on him following his accident.

The final featured the two undisputed strongest teams of the competition so far, Italy and Denmark. It was always going to be a close one, but the race that unfolded turned out to be one of the most thrilling track cycling battles in recent Olympic memory.

Italy had the best of the early part of the race, edging ahead in the splits and holding their ground. It would not have been an Olympic final if there wasn’t some drama still to be had, however, and as the halfway mark approached, Denmark began to chip away at Italy’s slender lead and claw back at the deficit. At 2500m the Danes dropped to three and had control of the clock, and from that point on they injected a lethal dose of pace and were suddenly half a second up on their opponents.

From that point on it looked a done deal: Denmark extended their lead to 0.8 of a second and must have been able to visualise the gold medals around their necks.

But they did not account for Italy’s grit, and Fillippo Ganna’s breath-taking prowess. With an electrifying turn of pace, the Italian powerhouse accelerated and slashed the deficit in half and in half again as the end drew near, and as the two teams approached the finish line time stood still as cycling fans around the world held a collective breath awaiting the clock’s unequivocal ruling: the Italians had come through to take gold, and had smashed the world record in the process. The jubilation and emotion from the team was on another level as they celebrated an unforgettable victory and one that will go down in history.

Ganna’s delight as the Italian pursuit team take gold in an electrifying final

In the final set of sprint head-to-heads Hoogland beat Boetticher with ease; Paul dominated Awang. Dmitriev bested Wammes; Levy beat the Polish rider Rajkowski. New Zealands’s Sam Webster bested the Frenchman Vigier despite a spirited comeback; likewise the home talent Wakimoto who pushed Jason Kenny hard, although the Brit triumphed.

In the final set of repechages, Wakimoto, Sahrom, Awang and Vigier won their respective head-to-heads to progress to the following days’ racing.

write.bike.repeat‘s Olympic Dispatches aims to cover all cycle sport disciplines (with varying degrees of knowledge and experience) throughout Tokyo 2020. Join me here, or over on Twitter @writebikerepeat, to talk about the action, and check back often for new content – sign up below if you’d like to receive notifications about new posts when they drop!

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Olympic Despatches: Individual Time Trial

The final events on the road would see a small but perfectly formed field of 39 men and 25 women take on a long, undulating course against the clock. The distance was 44.2km for the men and 22.1km for the women, taking place over a lap (or two) concluding, as in the road race, on the Fuji International Speedway track. Yet despite the diminutive numbers, the race would be epitomised by stories of redemption: cycling is full of characters, and some of the protagonists were about to take centre stage.

There were some who chose to focus all their energies on the event; undisputed time trial machine and reigning World Champion, Italian Fillippo Ganna began his Olympic campaign on the road before he would double up on the track; Australian Rohan Dennis, too, foregoing his place in the road race too in order to focus on the individual event.

Many of the riders were competing in both road race and time trial though, and some, such as silver medallist Wout van Aert, who worked tirelessly and without assistance just two days previously, would undoubtedly be carrying tired legs coming into the race. In the women’s race, the Dutch pairing of Annemiek van Vleuten and Anna van der Breggen would seek to overturn the relative disappointment of their team performance on the road.

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The startlist was curated to maximise excitement, with the favourites going off last. Yet some stories worth telling from the day didn’t revolve around challenging for medals: the first competitor off the runway for the women was Masomah Ali Zada. Originally from Afghanistan, she sought asylum from the political unrest there in 2017 and was able to secure a scholarship to compete in the sport she loved, but was abused for taking part in when she was living at home. She raced for the Olympic Refugee Team and made history in the process as the first female Afghan cyclist to compete in the Games.

The course was challenging, with no flat sections outside of the finishing strait, and with a steep climb around 9km in, the strongest riders were able to make their mark. Of the early starters, two Canadians – Karol-Ann Canuel and Leah Kirchmann – filled the top two places at the early intermediate split.

Present also were two from the break that went on to prove successful for Anna Kiesenhofer in the road race, Anna Plictha and Omar Shapiro, and with all eyes on her, the USA’s Chloe Dygert. A time trial specialist, Dygert won the World Championships in 2019 in Yorkshire, riding what many deemed a perfect race despite horrendous conditions, then she crashed in the 2020 World Championships. Despite only just returning to competition off the back of the injuries she sustained there, Dygert was still one of the hot favourites for the title.

At the business end of the race, Great Britain’s Anna Shackley hit the top of the leaderboard and remained there for all of ten seconds until she was deposed by Canuel and moments later, Australia’s Sarah Gigante stole the top spot. Times aren’t important when it comes to making history though; Masoumah Ali Zada completed her race and it was impossible not to feel her passion as she went on to express her pride at her performance.

It wasn’t just at the finish line that times were steadily improving; out on the course, the intermediate splits were becoming progressively quicker too, and in particular for Annamiek van Vleuten, riding for her second shot at an Olympic medal following her silver in the road race. She caught the USA’s Amber Neben, herself a statistical point of interest as the oldest road cyclist in the OIympic Games at an impressive 46.

Annemiek van Vleuten drives for home in the Olympic individual time trial

The course was fiendishly tricky, appearing to be uphill almost all the way, and while van Vleuten dug in and attacked the climbs, Dygert, complete with her pink shoes and socks, struggled. Grace Brown and Anna van der Breggen made steady progress, but as the kilometres ticked down, van Vleuten’s lead extended, and unless someone had an astonishing second half of the race, it looked increasingly likely she would take the win.

She crossed the line, setting the fastest time comfortably, and her wait began. One by one, the remaining riders on the course came across the line, and, one by one, they failed to best van Vleuten’s time. Switzerland’s Marlen Ruesser came closest, 56 seconds behind to take the silver, and van Vleuten’s Dutch teammate van der Breggen was able to pip Grace Brown by 7 seconds to make it two medals out of three for the Dutch following their disastrous run of luck in the prior days.

For van Vleuten, it was a personal story of redemption, coming back from the horrific injuries she suffered at the last Games in Rio to finally realise her dream of Olympic gold. As the men’s race got underway, she sneaked past the camera, grinning and clutching her gold medal as her countryman Tom Dumoulin warmed up on the rollers in the background: would the Dutch have their day again?

The story of the early part of the race mirrored that of the women, with a Canadian in the lead. Hugo Houle impressed, taking the hotseat after narrowly beating South Africa’s Stefan de Bod.

The first competitor to rise to the challenge was Italian Alberto Bettiol, who set a new fastest intermediate split and continued to look strong throughout. He didn’t appear to be the most aero of time triallists, attacking the course as though it had wronged him, yet he posted the fastest time of the day, unseating Hugo Houle. By contrast, Remco Evenepoel was poetry in motion: smooth, fluid and perfectly aerodynamic. He opened his account with measured conservatism, but buried himself through the last few kilometres to take 35 seconds off of Bettiol’s time and raise the bar. He held the hotseat for only a few minutes, however, as Rigoberto Uran replicated the impressive time trial form he displayed to win the time trial at the Tour du Suisse to steal into first position.

This top three of Uran, Evenepoel and Bettiol would remain in place for a while as rider after rider rolled through, unable to improve upon their times, but at the other end, the big hitters were taking to the roads: time trial specialists Tom Dumoulin, Rohan Dennis and Stefan Kung started consecutively and immediately made in-roads into the time of the current leader, Dumoulin ahead at the first intermediate split.

With Wout van Aert and Fillippo Ganna rolling off of the starting ramp, all the participants were finally out on the course, and the top times were bettered over and over, but it was Slovenian Primoz Roglic who was setting the course alight, with Fillippo Ganna hot on his heels.

It was clear that Dumoulin was on also on fire, scorching through the first lap in absolutely blistering form, over-taking his minute (and a half) man, USA’s Brandon McNulty., himself an excellent time triallist (although having steamed into the lead with Richard Carapaz on the road race, it could be that McNulty was another suffering from heavy legs).

Whilst I may have run out of heat-based imagery, there was no doubt the contest remained spicy, as just ten seconds separated the top ten riders at the first intermediate split. Meanwhile at the halfway mark, Roglic shaved over 8 seconds from Dumoulin’s dominant time, his face set in a mask of pure, single-minded focus, and on the surface at least, not troubled in the slightest by the injuries he sustained at the Tour de France. Kung and van Aert were both still in touch, first one and then the other dropping into fourth spot right behind Rohan Dennis, but subsequently bumped down again as Ganna snatched third spot.

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On the second lap, strong performances became even more assured; on the climb, Dennis passed his INEOS teammate Geraint Thomas who was not on his best day, and Roglic overtook Kasper Asgreen. The Dane was briefly able to re-establish his lead on the road, and for a while the two engaged in a back and forth race as Asgreen held out for a few minutes before Roglic passed him again, along with Joao Almeida.

Roglic crossed the finish line in an astonishing time, taking over a minute off of the previous best set by Tom Dumoulin who himself had ridden arguably the ride of his life. Roglic continued over the line at speed, seemingly determined leave nothing to chance.

At the third time check, even Ganna had fallen off the pace, the heat and climbing perhaps troubling him, and at 44 seconds down on Roglic, the writing was on the wall, the outcome all but confirmed. Neither Kung or van Aert could make an impression on the top three, and as Ganna finally approached the finish line, it became clear that neither could he, as a possible medal slipped through his grasp, Rohan Dennis with a solid performance to secure bronze.

Head down, Primoz Roglic rockets towards the finish line

Roglic has waited a long time for this success: despite winning the Vuelta in two consecutive years, his loss at the 2020 Tour de France remained unavenged, and he was thwarted in the 2021 edition following a crash that saw him unable to make it past day 9. He suffered during the road race but the time trial course was perfect for him and his focus and determination throughout the race was unerring.

The smiles on the podium said it all; well-deserved success and a celebration to put to rest the struggles of the previous year. Alongside him, his Jumbo Visma teammate Tom Dumoulin, dealing with his own struggles by choosing to step away from the sport earlier this year, and returning in superb form to take a hard fought silver medal.

The road cycling events came and went in a flash, but there was more than enough entertainment to last us for the next three years. As we turn our attention indoors, to the velodrome, the track cyclists have a lot to live up to.

write.bike.repeat‘s Olympic Dispatches aims to cover all cycle sport disciplines (with varying degrees of knowledge and experience) throughout Tokyo 2020. Join me here, or over on Twitter @writebikerepeat, to talk about the action, and check back often for new content – sign up below if you’d like to receive notifications about new posts when they drop!

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