Cycling focus turns now to Vuelta
While most cyclists are enjoying some downtime in London following the completion of all cycling events (bar BMX and mountain biking) in the Summer Games, many high profile riders are priming themselves for a fierce three-week battle in northern Spain.
As Bradley Wiggins, winner of the Tour de France and Olympic time trial gold, sips on vodka ‘n slimline tonics with celebrities like Paul Weller in London’s fashionable nightspots, the former biggest name in cycling is warming up with the six-day Eneco Tour in the bleak Benelux region of northwestern Europe.
Fresh from his retroactive two-year doping ban, Alberto Contador tested out the tricky Bemelerberg and Cauberg climbs ahead of next month’s world championships at Limberg. The Spaniard finished safely in the peloton in stage three of the Eneco Tour as he continues to ride into form ahead of his home Vuelta, a race the 29-year-old has ridden in just once when he took the overall victory back in 2008.
Supported by his trusty Spanish lieutenants Benjamin Noval, Jesus Hernandez and Daniel Navarro – three chaps whose own careers have been stalled while their raison d’etre sits out that clenbuterol ban – Contador will target nothing but victory in his return to the pro peloton. With five mountain-top finishes and five other hilly stages over three weeks that won’t see the peloton drop south of Madrid once, it’s a climbers paradise of a Vuelta and one which Contador should start as overwhelming favourite.
His main contenders will include fellow Spaniards Joaquim Rodriguez, absent from Katusha’s shambolic Tour de France, and the defending champion Juan Jose Cobo (also pretty much absent in the Tour for Movistar – although unlike J-Rod, Cobo was actually there), as well as Britain’s Chris Froome, fresh (or not so fresh) from his Tour exertions and Olympic bronze time trial medal.
Froome finished runner-up in last year’s Vuelta – but did so while having to ride predominantly in support of Wiggins. In July’s Tour, Froome once again showed the world that he’s by far the best climber at Team Sky – and with the team leader status finally in his favour he will be keen to mount the top rung of a podium after two consecutive stints as bridesmaid.
Poor Froome – the 27-year-old has not had a break all summer: first, riding in support of Wiggins throughout the Tour; then riding for Mark Cavendish in the Olympic road race days ahead of his time trial bronze; and now as Sky’s numero uno in Spain. He won’t complain, mind. At last he has the billing that matches his skills. Whether or not he has the strength is another matter.
Supporting Froome will be a Sky outfit deprived of the main British stars (who will no doubt be kept back for an honorary loop of Britain in next month’s Milk Race) but still bristling with talent. Colombian duo Rigoberto Uran and Sergio Henao are there, so too is Richie Porte. The Tasmanian is the only other member of Sky’s victorious Tour de France squad to make the Vuelta selection – but at least Porte will have had time to relax a little during the Olympics. (He really should have been given Cadel Evans’s slot in the time trial, but that’s another matter).
Froome and Porte have been training in Monaco during the London 2012 Team GB gold-rush. It will be interesting to see if their combination becomes anything like the inter-team ‘rivalry’ between Wiggins and Froome in July. Watch this space.
Returning to London 2012 – and a disappointing Games for the Aussie cyclists at least ended on a high-note as Anna Meares ended her nation’s Velodrome gold drought with victory (albeit a controversial one) over her British sprint rival Vicky Pendleton.
Great Britain ended the games with three road medals (one of each colour) and nine track medals, including seven golds – prompting rum accusations of foul-play from France. One of the French selectors claimed that Britain were using ‘magic’ and not Mavic wheels while sprint silver medallist Gregory Bauge said on record that Britain had “prepared” very well for the Games (in France, the verb “preparer” has doping connotations when used in a cycling context).
The French sports paper L’Equipe even ran a poll on their internet site asking the public if they thought Britain’s success came down to “cheating”. More than 70% bitter French fans voted “yes”.
It’s quite remarkable that question marks have been raised. After all, this is a nation that picked up even more medals last time round in Beijing: eight gold, four silver and two bronze. It’s a national team organised, trained and run by the same people that masterminded Team Sky’s victorious performance in the Tour de France. And it’s a nation hosting the Olympics with all its public behind its riders, who have been preparing for these Games for the past four years, if not longer. The rush of performing on home soil cannot be underestimated – and success can often be contagious.
Let Britain bask in their glory – for these things often go in cycles. It’s understandable why France feel so bitter: for so long without a winner in the Tour de France, the French at least used to dominate on the track. Now, in the space of two weeks, they have seen the neighbours from across the English Channel win the Tour and then dominate in the Olympic Velodrome. All this after London beat Paris to host the Games… Sacre bleu!
What was disappointing, however, was Australia’s performance in ‘The Pringle’ Velodrome (and on the road, for that matter). Billed as the “Ashes on Wheels” the showdown between Britain and Australia never really materialised until the final race between Meares and Pendleton. And by then, Pendleton could afford to be gracious in defeat after being disqualified for a second race during her home Games. Had Pendleton not already won a gold medal for the team pursuit, you would have thought she would have been less prepared to accept the decision which saw Meares (and her elbows) go into the second race one-up on her rival.
As it was, it seemed like Team GB were happy to share out their success elsewhere and let even the old foe Australia have a taste of glory. It’s the end of an era: in Rio there’ll be no Hoy or Pendleton, and the other nations will have to step up to the plate. Who knows, maybe they’ll prepare better?
There’s talk, however, of Wiggins and Cavendish returning to the track with the men’s pursuit team. Now that would be fascinating.
Felix Lowe is an English photographer, writer and Arsenal fan with a penchant for pro-cycling. Eurosport writer and blogger, Felix has covered the major cycling races in the pro calendar for the past decade and is now taking up the sport himself, at the ripe age of 31.