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Foreign starts at the Giro d’Italia

GIRO 2016 STAGE 2 ANSA credit
A scene from stage two of the 2016 Giro in the Netherlands

Today the Giro exits the Netherlands after another successful foreign start, the third time the race has begun in the country. It was the twelfth edition of La Corsa Rosa to begin outside of the Peninsula.

In the early years the race always started in Milan, the home of the Gazzetta dello Sport – the newspaper which started the race in 1909. The only exception was in 1911, when Rome hosted the start and finish to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Italian unification. Since 1960, the start has moved around each year, occasionally outside of Italy.

So here’s a look at the past foreign starts of the Giro d’Italia, from the tentative move to San Marino, to more exotic climes like Belgium and Northern Ireland.

GIRO 2016 PRESENTATION ANSA
Massive crowds greeted the Giro in Apeldoorn

1965 – San Marino

Giro organisers didn’t stray far from Italy for the first start on foreign soil in the history of the race. In fact, calling it foreign soil is somewhat charitable, given that the peloton set off from the enclaved microstate of San Marino.

Situated near Rimini on the eastern coast of Italy, the 61km2 of San Marino doesn’t have enough roads to on which to stage an actual road stage, so the country only hosted the start of the race. 198km after starting the 48th edition of the Giro there, the peloton arrived in Perugia.

Molteni’s Michele Dancelli, who would go on to win La Flèche Wallonne the following year, took the win on the hilltop finish, beating Adriano Durante and Italo Zilioli to the line.

Michele Dancelli in pink in 1965 (bikeraceinfo)
Michele Dancelli in pink in 1965 (bikeraceinfo)

1966 – Monaco

1965’s start in San Marino must have been a success as the Giro’s second foreign start came the following year. The Principality of Monaco, located in the south of France, was the destination as Giro organisers got a little more adventurous, venturing 12km away from Italian borders for the race start.

The race’s French sojourn didn’t last long though, as the peloton were soon back in Italy, on the road to the Ligurian seaside town of Diano Marina. The Colle San Bartolomeo, situated close to the finish, meant that it was no stage for sprinters though, as double mountain classification winner (1961, 1963) Vito Taccone triumphed over Bruno Mealli and Dino Zandegù.

Vito Taccone in Monaco (Alchetron)
Vito Taccone in Monaco (Alchetron)

1973 – Verviers, Belgium

After six years of keeping the race in Italy, the Giro branched out in 1973. Long-time race director Vincenzo Torriani, having learnt that the Tour de France was planning to visit Great Britain (Plymouth hosted a stage in 1974), resolved to visit each founding member state of the EEC.

With Eddy Merckx having won the race three times at that point (in 1968, 1970 and 1972), his native Belgium hosted the Grande Partenza. The Walloon town of Verviers was the start point before heading on to the Netherlands, Germany, Luxembourg, France and Switzerland before finally making it to Italy on stage five.

The opening day, a two-man prologue, set the tone for the rest of the race as Eddy Merckx and teammate Roger Swerts took the win over the short 5.2km run, pipping Brooklyn’s Roger De Vlaeminck and Patrick Sercu by two seconds. Merckx would remain in the leader’s pink jersey until the race’s end in Trieste, becoming on the third man ever to do so.

Merckx wearing pink in Verviers
Merckx wearing pink in Verviers

Merckx won the first road stage too, from Verviers through the Netherlands to Cologne in Germany, before De Vlaeminck took the win on stage two to Luxembourg. Fellow countryman Gustaf Van Roosbroeck triumphed on the next stage, from Luxembourg to Strabourg, while Merckx completed the early race domination on stage five from Geneva to Aosta in north-western Italy.

Only five stages would be won by Italians that year as Belgians took thirteen of the twenty-one stages. Merckx himself won three further stages, in the end taking the overall win by 7:42 from Felice Gimondi.

1974 – Vatican City

As it did in the 1960s, the Giro stayed out of Italy for the start for the second successive year in 1974. Like the first ever ‘foreign’ start though, the destination was another enclave, this time the Vatican City, the tiny city-state situated entirely within the Italian capital Rome.

Of course, the race didn’t stay there for long, with there being no room in the 110 acres of the Vatican for a prologue, never mind a full road stage. Like the previous year, another Belgian came out on top, this time neo-pro Wilfried Reybrouck. It was a surprise victory, by far the biggest of his short-lived pro career, as Reybrouck shocked the sprinters with an attack 400 metres from the finish in the coastal town of Formia.

1996 – Athens, Greece

The Vatican start was to be Torriani’s last as race director. He stayed on as race director until 1989 (his fortieth year in the position), but wouldn’t see the next foreign start, passing away weeks before the 1996 race.

New race director Carmine Castellano took the race to Greece, perhaps the oddest start location yet considering the country’s hardly-substantial relationship to road cycling. There was a method behind the madness though – 1996 was the centenary year of both the Gazzetta dello Sport and the Olympics.

There were three stages in Greece, the first of which was run in chaotic conditions in Athens, with bad roads, cars in the road and flooding causing a multitude of crashes. Saeco’s Silvio Martinelli won the stage, while the following day’s 235km were ridden at slow speed in protest at the conditions.

Swedish neo-pro Glenn Magnusson took a surprise sprint win on stage two, the first of three career Giro stage wins. The next day saw Polti’s Giovanni Lombardi won the sprint to Ioannina before a presumably grateful peloton travelled back to Italy.

There would be another challenge for the peloton to overcome before reaching Italy though. Florence police, having gotten wind of a Tuscan pharmacy selling vast quantities of EPO to cyclists, travelled down to Brindisi in southern Italy ready to surprise the teams as they departed the ferry from Greece.

However, the carabinieri’s plans were leaked via a CONI official – every team knew of the planned raid – and so team cars were loaded with drugs before going the long way around, driving over 2000km through the Balkans in order to avoid the police. Other teams on the ferry dumped their stashes overboard.

Alex
Alex Zülle was the first man in pink in 1998

1998 – Nice, France

Two years later came a shorter trip outside Italian borders, this time to the south of France. A 7km prologue around the city saw Festina’s Alex Zülle edge out Cantina Tollo’s Sergey Honchar by a single second. Stage one ran from Nice to Cuneo in Piemonte, a sprint finish won by Mariano Piccoli of Brescialat-Liquigas.

2002 – Groningen, Netherlands

Fourteen years ago saw the Giro’s first Dutch start and, as was the case in 1973, the opening stages visited a number of countries. The city of Groningen played host to a twisting 6.5km prologue, won surprisingly by Phonak’s Juan Carlos Dominguez.

Next came a trip to Münster in Germany where Acqua e Sapone’s Mario Cipollini triumphed, having suffered a puncture in his tiger skinsuit the day earlier. Stage two travelled from Cologne to Ans in Belgium and finished with the Côte de Saint Nicholas/Ans one-two cribbed from Liège-Bastogne-Liège. Mapei’s Stefano Garzelli won, but was later kicked out of the race having tested positive for a masking agent.

Cipollini came out on top on stage three to Esch-sur-Alzette in Luxembourg, on a day which took in a lap of the Spa Francorchamps racing circuit. He looked all set to take another win on the final day abroad, but Lotto-Adecco’s Robbie McEwen derailed the Cipo train to take the first Grand Tour victory of his career.

Cipollini kicks his
Cipollini taking out his frustration on his bike in Groningen

2006 – Seraing, Belgium

After a thirty-three year break the Giro started in Belgium for the second time, as Angelo Zomegnan’s reign as race director got underway. A short 6km time trial in Seraing was the opener as reigning champion Paolo Savoldelli of Discovery put in a dominant performance to beat FDJ’s Brad McGee by eleven seconds.

Rather than travel to nearby countries as it had in the past, the Giro stayed in Belgium for the next three stages, two of which came down to bunch sprints won by Davitamon-Lotto’s Robbie McEwen. In between the Australian’s wins came a hilltop finish at Namur which saw points jersey favourite Alessandro Petacchi crash out and break his kneecap. Gerolsteiner’s Stefan Schumacher was the victor on a wet day.

Savoldelli and McEwen, winners in Belgium
Savoldelli and McEwen, winners in Belgium

2010 – Amsterdam, Netherlands

Six years ago was the last time the race visited the Netherlands. Like this year, it started with a time trial. Bradley Wiggins, Team Sky’s new signing, won the day, beating out BMC’s Brent Bookwalter and Cadel Evans to take pink.

Then came a stage to Utrecht, a straightforward sprint win for Garmin-Transitions’ Tyler Farrar, but one which would see Wiggins lose the race lead thanks to a mass crash 7km from the finish. More crashes marred the final stage in the Netherlands, from Amsterdam to Middelburg. QuickStep’s Wouter Weylandt won the sprint from a split peloton, and was later angrily accosted by André Greipel for a perceived lack of work.

Earlier in the year, Zomegnan had publicly courted the American city Washington DC, with the city’s mayor expressing an interest in hosting the race. A ridiculous idea, it came to nothing and Zomegnan was gone by the time the Giro next started abroad.

Middelburg saw the late Wouter Weylandt take a stage win
Middelburg saw the late Wouter Weylandt take a stage win

2012 – Herning, Denmark

Michele Acquarone was the man in charge in 2012, taking the Giro to its northernmost start yet in Denmark. 21-year-old American Taylor Phinney of BMC took the opening stage, an 8.7km time trial around Bjarne Riis’ hometown of Herning.

Sky’s Mark Cavendish, who had won the World Championships in the country the year before, won stage two, navigating a crash-marred finale to beat Orica-GreenEdge’s Matt Goss. The Australian would take stage three, though only after Lampre’s Roberto Ferrari moved across Mark Cavendish in the sprint, taking out the Manxman as well as race leader Phinney.

Denmark
Denmark hosted the start of the 2012 Giro, with Taylor Phinney donning the maglia rosa

2014 – Belfast, Northern Ireland

Acquarone’s spell in charge of the race didn’t last long – he was sacked in late 2013, blamed for the missing €13m from RCS accounts. Now settled into the two year pattern, new race director Mauro Vegni took the Giro to Belfast for the 2014 opening – the farthest from Italy the race has ever started.

Orica-GreenEdge took advantage of an early start on dry roads to win the opening team time trial around the Northern Irish capital, putting Canadian strongman Svein Tuft in pink. Day two, another wet one, saw Giant-Shimano’s Marcel Kittel take victory in a mass sprint, while the German doubled up on stage three, edging out Sky’s Ben Swift at the line in Dublin.

A wet Northern Ireland hosted the 2014 start
A wet Northern Ireland hosted the 2014 start

The Yates Case: Turmoil with Terbutaline and TUEs

simon yates dauphine 2015 orica greenedge COR VOS
Yates in action at the 2015 Critérium du Dauphiné

Thursday’s news of Simon Yates’ positive test for asthma drug Terbutaline capped a horrific week for British Cycling, with the various Shane Sutton-related scandals that also exploded this week still ongoing. Combined, the scandals have made for a disastrous run-in to the Tour de Yorkshire, one of the flagship events of the British racing calendar..

Others with more interest in track cycling and more knowledge of women’s cycling than I have analysed and picked apart the Sutton scandals better than I ever could (Anne-Marije Rook, Sarah Connolly, Helen Pidd), but the focus here will be on the Yates case.

The Basics

On Thursday British newspaper The Daily Mail teased the positive test of a British ‘track star’ who was gunning for an Olympic road race spot, adding that the test was recorded at a French race in March. Twitter detectives (me included) swiftly concluded that it was likely Simon Yates, an assumption which was soon confirmed by the paper.

The drug that the 23-year-old had tested positive for was Terbutaline, one of the few not yet familiar to cycling fans, doing so on stage six of Paris-Nice. His team, Orica-GreenEdge confirmed this via press release, noting that use of the substance was declared on the Doping Control Form when Yates took the test. The team goes on to say that they were informed on April 22nd and adding that the reason for the positive test was that “a team doctor made an administrative error by failing to apply for the TUE required.”

At the time of writing, there is much to unpack and Yates’ status is up in the air as he waits for the UCI to review his documentation before they rule on the case. As Terbutaline is not a specified substance (a substance more susceptible to a non-doping explanation), Yates is not provisionally suspended per the UCI’s Anti-doping rules, section 7.9.1.

The drug, and its legality

Before getting to the ins and outs of the case, what is Terbutaline? Put simply, it’s a bronchodilator, a substance which dilates bronchial passages, opening the airways and increasing airflow to the lungs.

When inhaled, it’s fast-acting and the effects can last for six hours – that’s slightly longer than the more common Salbutamol. Basically it’s an asthma medication, also used to delay preterm labour in pregnant women.

A beta2-agonist, the drug is prohibited for use in sports, per WADA’s Prohibited List. As opposed to similar asthma drugs Salbutamol, Formoterol and Salmeterol, which are allowed in some doses without a TUE, Terbutaline use is only allowed if the user has a TUE.

wada prohibited list beta2 agonists

The effects of this group of drugs on athletic performance are much debated, with a number of medical studies contradicting one another. For example, this 1996 study concludes that beta2-agonist do not increase physical performance in top athletes, and this 2011 study found no significant effects on healthy athletes from the drugs.

On the other hand, this 2000 study tells us that Salbutamol increases muscle strength and endurance in non-asthmatics, while this study from the same year notes that Salbutamol improves performance during sub-maximal exercise. Meanwhile, this 2004 study suggests benefits for endurance athletes. It should be noted though, that these studies used far greater quantities of the drug than a regular asthmatic would inhale.

However, those studies did not include Terbutaline. A 2013 study specifically dealing with the drug found that the substance aids anaerobic ability and muscle strength while endurance suffered due to the drug’s side-effects.

I spoke to Dr John Dickinson from the University of Kent, an expert on asthma in sport, and he confirmed this.

More recent studies suggested that Terbutaline can improve strength and power performance. Even to get those you’d need to take quite high doses of it. Linking back to the guy who is in the news today – it’s not really likely to improve endurance performance, as far as we know.

simon yates orica greenedge dauphine 2015 COR VOS
Yates donning the best young rider’s jersey at last year’s Critérium du Dauphiné

Asthma in pro cyclists – really?

Whenever a case related to asthma medication comes up, many people react with shock – how could so many athletes, these peak physical specimens, suffer from asthma?

Dr Dickinson, who conducted a study on this subject in 2014, says that this is not so strange after all. He found that 70% of swimmers from the British swim squad have some form of asthma, while a third of Team Sky riders were found to suffer from it. That’s against a national rate in the UK of 8-10%.

Rather than suffering from classic asthma (caused by genetics or environmental factors) though, this is exercise-induced asthma. The symptoms are similar but the condition is instead caused by the heavy, fast breathing induced by exercise. This form of asthma is what Team Sky’s Chris Froome claims to suffer from.

Dickinson reaffirmed his findings when I talked to him.

Exercise-induced asthma, on the spectrum of asthma, is on the milder end of it. Most elite athletes who do have it purely have exercise-induced asthma – they only get it when they’re at the top end of their high intensity exercise, which is increasing their exposure to things that trigger an asthma attack.

The majority of them would be mild to moderate cases. When they’re not training or competing they’re unlikely to suffer.

TUEs

Chris Froome claimed not to have one, the CIRC Report said they were abused, and Orica-GreenEdge forgot to apply for one at Paris-Nice. Therapeutic use exemptions have been in the news a lot over the years. They are, in effect, special permissions for athletes to use an otherwise prohibited substance in order to treat a legitimate medical condition.

In order to obtain a TUE for Terbutaline, WADA specifies that along with the request itself, an athlete must submit their full medical file (see below for what that entails).

medical information required for asthma tue - wada

After the CIRC Report found that the UCI’s TUE process was deficient, noting that Froome’s TUE at the 2014 Tour de Suisse was processed by one person. Since then, the UCI has put into place a TUE Committee, a six-person panel, three of which look at each TUE request before a final decision is made about the request.

There are several conditions that must be met before a TUE can be granted, and as a result of the introduction of these measures and the introduction of the TUE Committee, the number of TUEs granted annually by the UCI has decreased year on year (see below for both).

conditions for granting tue, tues annually granted - uci

So it’s pretty thorough, right? Seemingly so, but the system can still be gamed as we have seen in athletics with the coach of the Nike Oregon Project, Alberto Salazar.

After a doctor declined her medication in 2004 for the exercise-induced asthma she was experiencing, Salazar set up an appointment at the Nike Oregon Project with a doctor who had an established protocol. The athlete must go to the local track, run around it, work herself up to having an asthma attack, run down the street and up 12 flights of stairs to the office where the doctor “would be waiting to test you”. Fleshman did this, failed her health test, and was duly prescribed the Advair brand for the duration of the racing season when the pollen count was highest, as well as rescue inhaler Albuterol.

There have been no cases like that in cycling (that we know of anyway), but given the history of the sport it would hardly be a surprise.

With this in mind it seems inevitable that we will see questions arise in relation to Yates’ forgotten TUE (and presumed past TUEs). Is his need for Terbutaline legitimate? Or could a TUE be falsified, Salazar-esque, in a bid to obtain the perceived performance gains? It’s a question that can, and has been applied to every case like this in the past – this culture of suspicion is the norm in our sport.

The BBC’s Matt Slater confirmed via Twitter that Yates had not previously had a TUE for Terbutaline. This fact changes things; with no previous TUEs to point to it will be hard, even impossible, for Yates and the team to prove that his use of Terbutaline was in response to a legitimate medical need (presumably Yates was using Salbutamol previously).

As for the choice of Terbutaline over Salbutamol, Dickinson notes that the differences in effect between the two are negligible.

Sometimes athletes choose Terbutaline because they don’t get along with Salbutamol – either it’s not working well for them or they get more side-effects. There’s not really, from an asthma treatment point of view, that much difference. The effects can last a bit longer so that might be a reason for a cyclist to use it.

And if you’re wondering, as many are, why Terbutaline usage requires a TUE while other asthma drugs don’t; Dickinson has the answer for that too.

The reason Terbutaline needs a TUE and Salbutamol doesn’t is more down to the way the tests differentiate between oral and inhaled form. With Salbutamol it’s quite clear that if level in urine is above 1000ng/mL it’s likely that you’ve taken an oral dose. Whereas with Terbutaline it’s quite difficult to tell the difference between an oral and inhaled dose, so you can’t differentiate between the two.

Questions about Orica-GreenEdge

The Australian squad, who left the MPCC earlier this year, aren’t exactly known for a history of positive tests, unlike some other teams in the peloton, though this incident does bring the team and their staff into the limelight.

First though, lets consider the “administrative error” claim. Considering that TUE applications are not guaranteed to be accepted, it seems somewhat disingenuous to basically claim that the process was a done deal and that all that was missing was the application itself. Given the strict documentation guidelines laid out above, the granting of a TUE was not a given.

The grave error in communication is a worry – surely the priority is to get the TUE approved first before using the drug? Maybe Yates and other team staff assumed that it was granted, but this case just goes to show how important vigilance and double-checking are with regard to TUEs

Just as troubling has been the team’s employment of Spanish doctor Manuel Rodríguez Alonso. Having worked for ONCE and Mapei in the 1990s, he later worked at QuickStep, where Patrik Sinkewitz named him as a provider of cortisone, human growth hormone and EPO.

Alonso has been employed at the team for several years, though it is unknown whether he is still with the team as the website does not list staff members. Given his history though, the fact that Alonso has been associated with the team doesn’t look great.

Yates was World Champion in the points race at the 2013 Track WorldsYates was World Champion in the points race at the 2013 Track Worlds

Conclusion

Ultimately my thoughts were that this situation is the result of an honest mistake by the team, as they had claimed. However, the lack of a previous TUE for the drug does muddy the waters somewhat.

The fact that asthma medication does not have a great effect on athletic performance has not stopped cyclists from abusing them in the past. However, it makes no sense that a rider would risk purposely using Terbutaline without a TUE, given the certainty of being caught if tested.

Regardless, considering Yates’ lack of TUE history for the drug, the outlook for him isn’t great. A ban looks likely, though the length should be a matter of months rather than years. Past Terbutaline cases have included a cyclist (4 months), a swimmer (3 months) and a kayaker (2 months).

As ever, it will be some time before this case reaches its conclusion, but we can thank Orica-GreenEdge’s failure to apply for a TUE for bringing the issue to the forefront once again, letting us take another look at this problematic corner of the sport.

Tour de Yorkshire: Scarborough

scarborough postcard

As was the case with last year’s race, the 2016 stage to the coastal town of Doncaster saw the GC race decided. After finishing second here at the first edition of the race (and third overall), Thomas Voeckler (Direct Énergie) triumphed on Sunday.

“Because I lost last year I knew the final kilometres would be hard, and I knew how to manage the sprint,” said Voeckler. “It was not only my legs that won today, it was with my head. It was difficult for me to follow the attacks sometimes but I stayed patient and managed to always make my way back.”

“To win the stage and overall makes me really happy. I have experienced many things, but still to have such emotions after 16 years feels good.”

Like last year, it was another action-packed stage, the hilliest of the race. Persistent rain and more strong winds served to make the stage harder, but didn’t repel the breakaway, which went early and included names such as Marco Haller (Katusha), Nick van der Lijke (Roompot Oranje Peloton), Loïc Chetout (Cofidis) and Nathan Haas (Dimension Data).

Haas was the main man of the break, taking maximum mountain points over the first two climbs of the day, with those seven points enough to give him the jersey. The break didn’t last very long out front though, being caught by the peloton on the approach to the tough Côte de Grosmont, some 65km from the finish.

Team Sky were in control of the peloton, working hard to ensure a repeat of last year’s overall victory as Pete Kennaugh, Luke Rowe and young Italian Gianni Moscon made big efforts to fracture the main group. The team’s efforts paid off in the crosswinds of the Yorkshire Moors, with only around twenty men remaining after the Côte de Robin Hood’s Bay.

Voeckler Yorkshire stage 3 2016 TDY

Nikias Arndt (Giant-Alpecin) was the main threat, a fast sprinter who lay third overall. An Sky attack-counter attack on the Côte de Harwood Dale saw him dispatched though, and left a lead trio made up of Nicolas Roche (Team Sky), Adam Yates (Orica-GreenEdge) and Steven Kruijswijk (LottoNL-Jumbo) while Voeckler and Anthony Turgis (Cofidis) chased.

The French duo bridged the gap not long after, setting the stage for a mighty battle over the final climb of the race, the Côte de Oliver’s Mount, which lay just 6km from the finish. Roche was the strongest, and the Irishman got a gap on the descent but soon enough Voeckler had joined him.

Riding around the coastal loop into Scarborough, the two were working together well, and it was clear that one of them would end up the race winner. Ten seconds behind Turgis was doing his best to get across – the second-year pro would take the overall victory with a second-place finish.

However it wasn’t to be for Turgis – the gap was insurmountable. Voeckler was well-placed on Roche’s wheel going into the final kilometre and he wouldn’t be beaten to the line by a Sky rider for the second year in a row. Three hundred metres from the finish he went for it, taking advantage of a lapse in concentration by Roche, and winning the second edition of the Tour de Yorkshire.

Peloton Yorkshire stage 3 2016 TDY

Stage Result
1. Thomas Voeckler (Direct Énergie) 4h51:57
2. Nicolas Roche (Team Sky)
3. Adam Yates (Orica-GreenEdge) +00:09
4. Anthony Turgis (Cofidis)
5. Steven Kruijswijk (LottoNL-Jumbo)
6. Lars-Petter Nordhaug (Team Sky) +00:41
7. Gianni Moscon (Team Sky)
8. Chris Juul-Jensen (Orica-GreenEdge) +01:09
9. Ben Hermans (BMC)
10. Nikias Arndt (Giant-Alpecin)

General Classification
1. Thomas Voeckler (Direct Énergie) 13h05:16
2. Nicolas Roche (Team Sky) +00:06
3. Anthony Turgis (Cofidis) +00:16
4. Adam Yates (Orica-GreenEdge) +00:17
5. Steven Kruijswijk (LottoNL-Jumbo) +00:21
6. Lars-Petter Nordhaug (Team Sky) +00:52
7. Gianni Moscon (Team Sky) +00:53
8. Nikias Arndt (Giant-Alpecin) +01:13
9. Serge Pauwels (Dimension Data) +01:20
10. Dion Smith (One Pro Cycling) +01:21

Climber’s Classification
1. Nathan Haas (Dimension Data) 7pts
2. Richard Handley (One Pro Cycling) 7pts
3. Nicolas Roche (Team Sky) 7pts

Points Classification
1. Dylan Groenewegen (LottoNL-Jumbo) 27pts
2. Danny Van Poppel (Team Sky) 21pts
3. Nikias Arndt (Giant-Alpecin) 19pts

Tour de Yorkshire: Doncaster

doncaster postcard

It was a case of another day, another Dutch victory at the Tour de Yorkshire on Saturday. Well two more, considering that Kirsten Wild’s (Hitec Products) win at the women’s race was followed later in the day by Danny Van Poppel’s (Team Sky) in the men’s race.

Aside from that similarity, there was much else in common between the two races. One major story of the day was the lack of television pictures as the television transmitter plane was struck by technical difficulties. This meant that the women’s race, due to be televised in its entirety, was not shown at all, while the men’s race also saw large chunks go unseen.

That the two races ended with bunch sprints was more expected. Wild eased to victory by a bikelength from Lucy Garner (Wiggle-High5) to take £15,000 in prize money – the largest on offer in women’s cycling until August’s RideLondon Classique.

Kirsten Wild Yorkshire 2016 COR VOS

Earlier in the day home favourite Lizzie Armitstead (Great Britain) had been on the attack, along with Leah Kirchmann (Liv-Plantur) and Doris Schweizer (Cylance). Schweizer, the original lone breakaway rider, was joined by Armitstead and Kirchmann on the steep climb to Conisborough Castle some 40km out.

The trio had an advantage of over a minute with 15km left to race, but the Yorkshire crowds were ultimately left disappointed as the peloton made the catch just two kilometres from the finish. Come the finish, Wild just had to hop out of Marta Bastianelli’s (Alé-Cipollini) wheel to launch her sprint with 200 metres to go, taking a well-deserved victory.

Race result
1. Kirsten Wild (Hitec Products) 3h22:26
2. Lucy Garner (Wiggle-High5)
3. Floortje Mackaij (Liv-Plantur)
4. Alice Barnes (Great Britain)
5. Marta Bastianelli (Alé-Cipollini)
6. Anna Trevisi (Alé-Cipollini)
7. Jennifer George (Drops Cycling)
8. Nicola Juniper (Great Britain)
9. Nicole Moerig (Podium Ambition)
10. Evie Richards (Great Britain)


Over in the men’s race it was a rather similar affair – break, catch, sprint. Orica-GreenEdge had done much of the work during the run-in to the finish, work that was in vain, much like Team Sky on Friday. Their great sprint hope Caleb Ewan was nowhere in the final sprint though, finishing 30th while race leader Dylan Groenewegen (LottoNL-Jumbo) and Van Poppel did battle at the head of the peloton.

Van Poppel came out on top, edging out his countryman in a photo finish. It was Van Poppel’s first victory for the team since moving from Trek Factory Racing during the winter, and it means he also takes over the leader’s jersey.

Van Poppel Yorkshire stage 2 2016 COR VOS

The early action of the day, not that we saw much of it, was provided by Gruff Lewis (Madison Genesis), Richard Handley (One Pro Cycling), Edmund Bradbury and Josh Edmondson (NFTO), Michael Mørkøv (Katusha) and Stijn Steels (Topsport Vlaanderen-Baloise). This group made up the break of the day, and were later joined by Nicolas Edet (Cofidis).

Handley led over each of the day’s three climbs, taking the lead in the climber’s classification by one point from his teammate Pete Williams. Ten kilometres from the finish the break’s challenge failed, setting up the Dutch showdown on the finishing straight.

Stage Result
1. Danny Van Poppel (Team Sky) 3h04:20
2. Dylan Groenewegen (LottoNL-Jumbo)
3. Nikias Arndt (Giant-Alpecin)
4. Chris Opie (One Pro Cycling)
5. Loïc Chetout (Cofidis)
6. Albert Torres (Raleigh GAC)
7. Rick Zabel (BMC)
8. Christopher Lawless (JLT Condor)
9. Russ Downing (JLT Condor)
10. Magnus Cort Nielsen (Orica-GreenEdge)

General Classification
1. Dylan Groenewegen (LottoNL-Jumbo) 8h13:15
2. Danny Van Poppel (Team Sky) +00:06
3. Nikias Arndt (Giant-Alpecin) +00:08
4. Caleb Ewan (Orica-GreenEdge) +00:10
5. Stijn Steels (Topsport Vlaanderen-Baloise) +00:10

Climber’s Classification
1. Richard Handley (One Pro Cycling) 6pts
2. Pete Williams (One Pro Cycling) 5pts
3. Jens Wallays (Topsport Vlaanderen-Baloise) 3pts

Points Classification
1. Dylan Groenewegen (LottoNL-Jumbo) 27pts
2. Danny Van Poppel (Team Sky) 21pts
3. Nikias Arndt (Giant-Alpecin) 18pts

Tour de Yorkshire: Settle

settle postcard

A year ago, Dutch team LottoNL-Jumbo were celebrating their first win of the season at the Tour de Yorkshire, courtesy of sprinter Moreno Hofland. This time around they already have a win in the bag, just the one though.

On Friday their 2016 tally was doubled as Dylan Groenewegen sprinted to victory in Settle. It was the 22-year-old’s second win of the season too, his first at the squad since transferring from Roompot-Oranje Peloton during the winter.

After his yellow-clad teammates had chased down a late move from the master of the discipline Stephen Cummings (Dimension Data), Groenewegen manoeuvred perfectly in the final metres to go round Giant-Alpecin’s Nikias Arndt to take a comfortable victory. Stage favourite, Orica-GreenEdge’s Caleb Ewan, was boxed in by Arndt, leaving him no room to fully contest the finish.

Groenewegen Yorkshire stage 1 2016 COR VOS

“When I started to sprint I knew that I was going to win,” said Groenewegen after the finish. “My teammates fulfilled their tasks perfectly and I didn’t have to fight for my position for one single moment.”

Groenewegen was firm about his chances at overall victory, saying that there is no chance the bonus seconds earned today would see him go for the win. “I’ll go for it tomorrow and then it’s for [team leaders] Steven Kruijswijk and Primož Roglič.”

Far from the mild and sunny weather that graced the first edition of the race last year, Friday’s weather was grim – with a strong headwind and driving rain battering the peloton for much of the stage.

The early breakaway was made up of six riders, with UK-based pros Pete Williams (One Pro Cycling), Sebastian Mora (Raleigh GAC), Graham Briggs (JLT Condor) and Matt Cronshaw (Madison Genesis) joined by one of the revelations of the spring classics, Nils Politt (Katusha) and Jens Wallays (Topsport Vlaanderen-Baloise).

Peloton Yorkshire stage 1 2016 TDY

Sky kept the group on a tight leash, doing much of the day’s work, though it would eventually amount to very little with Danny Van Poppel’s sixth place all they had to show for their efforts. Meanwhile, up front Williams was battling his way into the climber’s jersey, taking maximum points on the day’s only climb, the Côte de Greenhow Hill.

The break was finally brought back with 30km left to race, while Thomas Voeckler (Direct Énergie) and Anthony Turgis (Cofidis) seemed to signal their GC intentions as they fought over the bonus seconds available at the final intermediate sprint in the final action of the day before the sprint finish.

Stage result
1. Dylan Groenewegen (LottoNL-Jumbo) 5h09:11
2. Caleb Ewan (Orica-GreenEdge)
3. Nikias Arndt (Giant-Alpecin)
4. Thomas Boudat (Direct Énergie)
5. Danny van Poppel (Team Sky)
6. Floris Gerts (BMC)
7. Christopher Lawless(JLT Condor)
8. Dion Smith (One Pro Cycling)
9. Karol Domagalski (One Pro Cycling)
10. Bert Van Lerberghe (Topsport Vlaanderen-Baloise)

General Classification
1. Dylan Groenewegen (LottoNL-Jumbo) 5h09:01
2. Caleb Ewan (Orica-GreenEdge) +00:04
3. Nikias Arndt (Giant-Alpecin) +00:06
4. Anthony Turgis (Cofidis) +00:07
5. Thomas Voeckler (Direct Énergie) +00:08

Climber’s Classification
1. Pete Williams (One Pro Cycling) 5pts
2. Jens Wallays (Topsport Vlaanderen-Baloise) 3pts
3. Nils Politt (Katusha) 2pts

Points Classification
1. Dylan Groenewegen (LottoNL-Jumbo) 15pts
2. Caleb Ewan (Orica-GreenEdge) 12pts
3. Nikias Arndt (Giant-Alpecin) 9pts

Going for gold: Emma Johansson

Oudenaarde - Belgium - wielrennen - cycling - radsport - cyclisme - Johansson Emma (Sweden / Wiggle High5) pictured during the women Ronde van Vlaanderen - Tour de Flanders - from Oudenaarde to Oudenaarde - photo Davy Rietbergen/Cor Vos © 2016
Johansson on the podium at De Ronde

2016 will be a year of goodbyes for Emma Johansson. The Swede, one of the most successful riders in the women’s peloton during the past decade, will step down from top level racing at the end of the season.

Her latest goodbye was to La Flèche Wallonne, the last of the major Spring Classics in the women’s calendar. Johansson finished seventh, 43 seconds behind winner Anna van der Breggen, taking her eighth top ten finish in a row at the race, including three podium placings.

Three days before the 32-year-old was in a more celebratory mood, having won two stages and the overall at the Euskal Emakumeen Bira stage race in the Basque Country.

“The first win of the season is always special,” she says. “I didn’t even think I would be able to start though, so I didn’t expect to do so well.”

The problem? Vomiting and stomach pain just as Johansson was preparing to take the start in the opening time trial, held in Iurreta. She got over the illness though, taking control of the race the next day by beating Cervélo’s Carmen Small to the line in Eskoriatza.

Johansson led from the front the next day, taking another win on the famous climb of the Urkiola. It was the seventh time she had won a stage at the race, and ensured that the overall victory was hers for a second time (she won in 2013, and has finished on the final podium in 2011, 2012 and 2015).

The win marks has seen Johansson come full circle in her professional career, having turned pro with local team Bizkaia-Durango back in 2005. It’s clear that she has an affinity with the area.

“It was like a family for me there,” says Johansson. “I still have a lot of contact with my teammates from then. I loved it there.”

“The weather and the landscape there is a little bit like home, it’s something I’m used to.”

Johansson has also enjoyed herself at another local race, the Emakumeen Saria classic. Over the years she has finished on the podium six times, including a third place this season, and took the win in 2015.

With all this Basque success she must have a decent collection of Txapelas, the beret that is awarded to the winner of most pro races in the region, but Johansson keeps them out of the way: “They’re up in my attic, with the other trophies.”

Emma Johansson Euskal Emakumeen Bira 2013 Orica COR VOS
Celebrating the win at the Euskal Emakumeen Bira in 2013

Despite her great affection for the area, Johansson doesn’t live there – her move away from Bizkaia-Durango to Vlaanderen-Capri Sonne-T Interim after two years at the team saw her settle near Oudenaarde, the home of the Ronde Van Vlaanderen. She still lives there today.

“It’s my favourite place to be when I’m not at home [in Sollefteå, Sweden],” she says. “It’s right in the middle of all the Spring Classics.”

De Ronde is her favourite race, but she hasn’t won having finished in the top five on six occasions. The closest was this year’s edition, when World Champion Lizzie Armitstead pipped her to the line in a two-woman sprint.

After the race Johansson was disappointed but pleased to have left everything on the road during her last time at De Ronde.

“When you’ve done everything you can, you’ve done everything right, and someone is just that bit better than you, of course you’re disappointed,” she said. “We took it in our own hands though, and I just loved the racing today. I enjoyed it from the first moment.”

Johansson’s adopted home of Zingem is part of the course, and every year the town is covered in Swedish flags to support her – a special moment, no doubt.

Emma Johansson Ronde Van Vlaanderen 2016 Wiggle COR VOS
Sprinting against Lizzie Armitstead at De Ronde

In addition to the results in Flanders and the Basque Country, Johansson has finished on the podium at Le Samyn and Strade Bianche so far this season – in her final season, the ability to consistently get results remains.

This consistency (Johansson has been runner-up in the Women’s World Cup in 2010, 2011, 2013 and 2014) has seen her fair share of near misses though, notably the 2008 Olympics Road Race. After three and half hours of racing through the rain, Johansson was beaten in the sprint by Great Britain’s Nicole Cooke, and making the step up from silver to gold is on the wish list for her final season.

“Rio is my big goal, of course,” she says. “I definitely have unfinished business there – that’s why I’m still around. I have been there and seen most of the course already.”

A gold medal would be a dream after that result eight years ago, but would be even more special after her multiple silver (Firenze 2013) and bronze medals (Geelong 2010, Ponferrada 2014) at the World Championships.

Emma Johansson Firenze 2013 Sweden COR VOS
Silver at Firenze in 2013.. Maybe gold in Rio this year?

So far the preparation is going very well, and Johansson’s run-up to race will include May’s Tour of California (the second edition of that race) and July’s Thüringen Rundfahrt, which she has won three times in the past.

After Rio the future isn’t totally planned, but Johansson’s contract runs through 2017. The final year will be different though, with Johansson’s previous statements on the matter suggesting that hers will be a gradual retirement.

“This season I race to the end,” she says. “Then next year I don’t know yet, but there will be no big races – that’s for sure.”

For now though, all eyes are on gold. For a rider who has been at the top of the sport for a decade, it would certainly be a fitting way to go out.

You can follow Emma Johansson and Wiggle-High5 on Twitter, and also watch their great behind-the-scenes video series on Youtube.

The ribin and the piglet: Tro-Bro Lèon

The leaders tackle the ribinoù in 2013 (Tro-Bro Lèon / Sébastien Delaunay)
The leaders tackle the ribinoù in 2013 (Tro-Bro Lèon / Sébastien Delaunay)

“My passion is, sometimes, beyond reason”

So says Jean-Paul Mellouët. He’s talking about his race, the Tro-Bro Lèon, a French Classic which he founded 32 years ago.

Actually, scrap that – it’s the Breizh (Breton) Classic. At least that’s what Jean-Paul would say, for it’s a race that personifies the rugged coastal region situated on the western tip of l’Hexagone. The Bretons are out there on their own, and they seem to prefer it that way.

For centuries, the sea has been a dominant part of life in the region, providing a livelihood for generations of sailors and fishermen, as well as featuring heavily in Breton mythology.

Kêr-Is is one example. A city built in the far-western Douarnenez Bay for the King of Kerne’s daughter, Dahut, it became a city of sin under her influence. While her father slept, Dahut opened the city gates, allowing it to be swallowed by the sea. According to legend, she later became a morgen (siren), having been thrown into the sea as punishment.

Stories are told too, about the shadowy figures of Kannerezed Noz, three washerwomen with green skin and webbed feet. Said to gather by the sea at midnight, they wash the clothes of those about to die. Unsurprisingly, they are seen as a bad omen and appear, in various guises, throughout Celtic mythology.

 

Winds blowing from the coast are another obstacle during the race (Tro-Bro Lèon / Sébastien Delaunay)
The race skirts the coast of Brittany’s north-western tip (Tro-Bro Lèon / Sébastien Delaunay, also header image)

Legends and myths aren’t the only commonality shared between Brittany and the other Celtic nations though, as strong traditions of fishing and farming endure. Other common/shared traits include an independent spirit, a seemingly incomprehensible (and under-threat) language, and a resolute people.

Five-time Tour de France winner Bernard Hinault is a man who neatly encapsulates the latter. Defiant, brisk and pugnacious both on and off the bike, he was a patron of the peloton as a 23-year-old.

Le Blaireau was not the only star the region has produced, with Tour winners Jean Robic, Lucien Petit-Breton and Louison Bobet all hailing from the region – or in the case of Robic, “born in the Ardennes by mistake.”

There are fewer big names in Brittany nowadays, at least not to the extent of Hinault. But each year the first Breton over the line in the Tro-Bro Lèon (Tour of Lèon, the north-west part of Brittany) is rewarded with a piglet. It may seem a novelty but the origin of the prize is serious, as Mellouët explains.

“The idea came from the young farmers of the area,” he says. “It was to promote their breeding business.” Another Breton sport, Gouren (folk wrestling), traditionally awards the winner a ram.

Pierre-Luc Périchon won the piglet in 2014, with a fourth place (teammate Benoît Jarrier won one last season). He’s not a Breton but rides for locally-based team Fortuneo-Vital Concept (formerly Bretagne-Séché Environnement). So what did he do with his new pet? “Actually I couldn’t bring him on the train, so he went to the farmer who offered to take it.”

Originally a track rider, Périchon transitioned to the road in 2008, turning professional five years ago with Roubaix-Dalkia. A good all-rounder, Périchon finished fourth at the Tour de Langkawi last season, and won the 2012 edition of Paris-Camembert.

He has raced Tro-Bro Léon four times, with consistent results, improving from 64th to seventh in 2013, before missing out on podium places in the final sprint at the two most recent editions.

“Yes, the race is quite different to riding on the track but the level of effort isn’t,” he says. “The classics often provide more disjointed racing but it suits me better. I’m quite at ease on the pavé. The approach to the ribinoù is similar to Roubaix but as for riding them, it’s more like cyclocross.”

 

(Tro-Bro Lèon / Sébastien Delaunay)
There are 25 sectors of ribin in the race (Tro-Bro Lèon / Sébastien Delaunay)

As Périchon points out, the race doesn’t quite offer the same challenges as the cobbles found in Belgium and Northern France. The ribinoù are dirt farm tracks, more comparable to the roads found at Strade Bianche.

Mellouët, a designer by trade who takes on a raft of responsibilites every year, including the design of the race poster, agrees.

“They say that this is the Breton Paris-Roubaix but it’s not comparable,” he says. “My inspiration for the race came from Roubaix and the Belgian cobbles but our ribinoù are not paved. We currently have 30km in the route, while we started out with just 10km.”

Something the race does have in common with Roubaix is the hand-picked selection of sectors. “I choose my ribinoù according to their length and difficulty. And if there’s grass in the middle it’s even better – more rustic,” Mellouët explains. “As the race evolves each year I try to find new locations.”

The race has evolved, and then some, since the first edition in 1984. Back then it had a budget of 8,000 Francs and the race route included only four ribinoù. Now those numbers have swelled – there were 22 ribinoù last year, while the budget hovers around the €250,000 mark.

On the subject of money, the race has a special reason for existing. Rather than using his race to sell newspapers – the reason many of the biggest races around today were started – Mellouët had an altogether different, more patriotic, motivation.

“The race was created in order to support the Diwan schools which my children went to.” A share of the money raised by the race’s cyclosportive, first run in 2008 and led last year by Stephen Roche, also goes to the schools.

These schools, privately-funded and not recognised by the French government, provide an education in the Breton language, with the first opened in the 1970s. Mellouët, born in 1949, was brought up during an era where speaking Breton was actively discouraged by schoolteachers.

So there was a noble cause behind the race’s creation. Only the first race didn’t quite go to plan.

“We set out the signposting of the route the night before the race, and of course there were some slight errors,” says Mellouët. “Some riders took the wrong route! The local press said there would be no second edition but they were wrong about me. Stubborn as a Breton, they say.”

There was, of course, a second edition, with the arrows set out so well that the Highways Authority asked for them to be covered up. Up until 1999 it was run exclusively for amateurs, with Estonian Jan Kirsipuu a notable early winner.

Pierre-Luc Périchon and his prize (Tro-Bro Lèon / Sébastien Delaunay)
Pierre-Luc Périchon and his prize (Tro-Bro Lèon / Sébastien Delaunay)

Sixteen editions have passed since professionals were first invited, and despite Mellouët’s insistence that he will find someone else to organise the race (he says it every year), there are ambitions for growth. Moving up to 1.HC status is a target, though only if the UCI reforms the calendar, says Mellouët – but that ambition is balanced by a desire to retain the local feel.

That said, the race hasn’t seen a Breton winner since 2008, when FDJ’s Frédéric Guesdon beat Maxim Gourov of A-Style in a two-man sprint. “Every year I expect a successor to Guesdon,” says Mellouët. “This year we can hope for a rider from Bretagne-Séché or Johan Le Bon, who is always very motivated for this race.”

Le Bon hails from the town of Lannion – 100km east of the race’s HQ in Lannilis – and has yet to win Tro-Bro Léon, his best result second place to then-FDJ teammate Francis Mourey in 2013. Several ex-winners are down to start this time around though, including Mourey, Europcar’s Vincent Jérôme, and last year’s winner – Alexandre Geniez of FDJ.

The diminutive sprinter Samuel Dumoulin (AG2R La Mondiale) will also be there – he won back-to-back editions in 2003 and 2004. Meanwhile Périchon’s past results suggest that he can join them on the roll of honour. He’s coy about it though, “It’s held when I normally have good form, so I have aspirations.”

Whoever is the next conquerer of l’Enfer du Ouest, Mellouët will be there in his hometown of Lannilis, ready to greet them. There will be a new name for the history books, a new home for a piglet and soon after, a new edition to start organising.

Follow Tro-Bro Lèon on Twitter here, organiser Jean-Paul Mellouët here, and Pierre-Luc Périchon here.

Sunday’s race is only broadcast on France 3 and French Eurosport, so look to the usual alternatives.

Who is Imanol Erviti?

Erviti Movistar 2015 Vuelta Espana COR VOS

The Spring Classics usually throw up a surprise or two, and this season was no exception, especially at Paris-Roubaix where we saw rank outsider Mathew Hayman win from the early breakaway.

Spaniard Imanol Erviti was one of Hayman’s companions in that move, and the only other man in the break to finish in the top ten. The Movistar man’s ninth place came a week after an equally surprising seventh in the Ronde Van Vlaanderen.

So who exactly is Imanol Erviti, the anomaly among these top ten standings, otherwise filled with cobbled specialists?

The 32-year-old is one of a rare breed in cycling – a one-team man. Since turning professional in 2005, Erviti has stuck with Eusebio Unzue’s Abarca sports through its several different iterations. He’s not the first rider to stay with the team for such a long time, following in the footsteps of José Vicente Garcia Acosta (17 years) and Pablo Lastras (18 years).

Like those riders Erviti is a gregario, a worker, a loyal lieutenant to long-time team leader Alejandro Valverde. He has helped Valverde achieve some of his greatest victories, including the 2009 Vuelta a España and last year’s Liège-Bastogne-Liège, and was supposed to ride in his service at the Ronde Van Vlaanderen.

Instead Valverde went to an altitude training camp to prepare for the Giro. The rest is, for Erviti at least, history.

Erviti Movistar 2015 Ronde Vlaanderen COR VOS 2
Erviti on the way to a surprise seventh-place finish at De Ronde

At De Ronde he became only the second Spaniard in history to finish in the top ten, the first since Juan Antonio Flecha in 2008. That ride included over 180km in the breakaway. At Roubaix he was out front for over 200km.

Speaking to Spanish newspaper Marca after Roubaix, Erviti said, “I have raced these cobbled classics many times and have returned disgusted, so the results are a surprise. However, my physical performance doesn’t surprise me.”

This spring saw Erviti race the two cobbled Monuments for the twelfth time, and with his previous best result being a 40th place at the 2009 Paris-Roubaix, it was a surprise to everyone. Of course, experience plays a big factor at these races, something that Erviti agrees with.

“Maybe [these results could have come earlier], but I don’t know. Clearly it’s a matter of experience and learning how to manage in these races,” he says. “The method is more or less trial and error. Maybe there are teams who are experts in these races and can teach you a lot faster, but they are not like Movistar in other aspects.”

“Everyone has their way and I do not regret mine.”

Erviti Movistar Roubaix 2016 COR VOS
Sprinting to ninth behind Heinrich Haussler and Marcel Sieberg at Roubaix

So there are no regrets about this late emergence, but does Erviti forsee a future in leadership?

“It’s a step on the way and what I need to do is to keep working so that it’s not the final step,” he says. “Being a leader is nice but it’s not easy in any race, and it’s a big responsibility.”

Erviti is not a natural leader, and even if he has done well on the cobbles he’s unlikely to lead a team again until next April. It’s his willingness to work for others that is of most value to his team, and this is something that has caught the eye of others too.

One notable man who has recognised Erviti’s talents is Spanish national coach Javier Minguez. The ex-Vitalicio Seguros DS has been in charge of World Championships team selection since 2013, and has selected Erviti in 2014 and 2015. It’s no small deal when a country like Spain could easily fill a squad of stars.

“Imanol is a very good rider, and he has very specific qualities to do the hard work,” says Minguez. “These are qualities that every leader wants to have at his side.”

Minguez wasn’t surprised about Erviti’s rides over the past few weeks though.

“He’s a rider with the quality to do very well in races like De Ronde. Usually his gregario mentality limits his thoughts about showing his personal brilliance though,” he says. “He has the physical potential that allows him to do extra work on behalf of the team.”

Erviti Movistar 2015 Ronde Vlaanderen COR VOS
Erviti riding in the break at De Ronde

Minguez wouldn’t be drawn on whether these performances are likely to secure him another Worlds selection, but don’t be surprised to see him in Qatar, working for Spain’s stars once again. It’s a role that he’s comfortable with.

“I have been a gregario for a long time,” he says. “It’s what I’m good at and suits the qualities I have, so this is not something I want to change.”

After the highs of the cobbles it’s back to that supporting role for Erviti now, starting at the Amstel Gold Race before racing the other Ardennes classics. Then he hopes to ride the Tour de France, his seventeenth Grand Tour, in service of Nairo Quintana.

But first, the big question – which race is harder?

“They are both very demanding. You push your limits in both. Roubaix is hard for the enduring pain, De Ronde for the gradients,” he says. “The worst of Roubaix is undoubtedly the falls and danger, but the impact of reaching the vélodrome is the best.”

 

A POTTED HISTORY

Born in Pamplona, Navarre, Erviti started out at the local Ermitagaña Cycling Club. He rode in the amateur ranks with Bideki, the ONCE feeder team previously known as Iberdrola.

The team had previously brought through Alberto Contador and Juan Manuel Garate among others, but shut down in 2002. A move to Serbitzu-Kirolgi followed and steady results, including stage wins at the Vuelta a Valladolid and Vuelta a Navarra saw him secure a contract with Pamplona-based Illes Balears for 2005.

Since then Erviti has stayed with the team, helping them top the ProTour/WorldTour rankings in 2008, 2013, 2014 and 2015. It hasn’t always been about toiling away for the leaders though. In 2008 he won stage 18 of the Vuelta a España, outsprinting breakaway companion Nicolas Roche in Valladolid. Two years later came his next (and most recent) victory, again at the Vuelta and from another breakaway.

The spring Erviti the worker has proven his talent as a sometime breakaway specialist once again.

Les Amis de Paris-Roubaix

Work on Haveluy-Wallers - April 2 - LES AMIS DE PARIS-ROUBAIX
Work on Haveluy-Wallers on April 2 (Les Amis de Paris-Roubaix)

Think Paris-Roubaix and you think of the roads. It’s not about the 205km of the plain asphalt roads though. No, the majority of the race is run on roads no different from any other on the calendar. The other 52km are what set this race apart. The cobbles are Paris-Roubaix.

As crazy as it sounds now, there was, once upon a time, a push to wipe out these cobbled roads. In the aftermath of World War Two, France began to modernise the damaged road system, and the pavé of the north slowly disappeared.

The race first lost a cobbled sector to the unrelenting march of modernisation in 1939, with more and more covered by asphalt as the years rolled by. The advent of live television only accelerated this process as local authorities, ashamed of their poor roads, would resurface them if the race passed through.

In 1983 that changed. Paris-Roubaix organiser Albert Bouvet and Jean-Claude Vallaeys, founder of Vélo Club Roubaix, founded a new organisation – Les Amis de Paris-Roubaix (the friends of Paris-Roubaix). The group’s aim was to preserve cobbled sectors, repairing and restoring them each year.

Les Amis repaving Ennevelin on March 19 (Les Amis de Paris-Roubaix)
Les Amis repaving Ennevelin on March 19 (Les Amis de Paris-Roubaix)

Fortunately, they are still at it today, headed up by President François Doulcier. His day job, a car assembly line manager, Doulcier joined the group as a member in 2001, and has been President since 2011.

The organisation has grown from 40 members when Doulcier joined to over 200 today. These members come from around the world, from Belgium to Brazil, and anybody can join for a fee of between €20-30.

This money goes towards the maintenance of the cobbles, and the same local authorities who were once dead-set against the race now work with Les Amis in order to carry out the work, as Doulcier explains.

“For the big jobs, the work is funded by the local government, yes. Smaller jobs are done by the students, and they are funded by us as well as local communities.”

Those students are from the Raismes Horticultural College near Valenciennes. The school has been involved since 2002, and groups of students have worked on the cobbles every spring. Last year they worked on Quérénaing-Maing  and Wallers-Hélesmes (otherwise known as Pont Gibus), while this spring has seen them restore sector 19, from Haveluy to Wallers.

“These are future gardeners, and the paving work is part of the landscaping integrated into their training,” says Oliver Codron, the landscaping teacher at the college.

Students work on Haveluy-Wallers - April 2 - LES AMIS DE PARIS-ROUBAIX
Students work on Haveluy-Wallers on April 2 (Les Amis de Paris-Roubaix)

Lugging around twenty-pound stones is some apprenticeship for these students. It’s estimated that over 50,000 cobbles have been repositioned and restored by students of the college over the years.

“There are classes of fifteen to twenty working for fifteen days. The budget for their work is €15,000 each year,” says Doulcier. “The heavy work has a budget of €100,000.”

Of course the organisation, which is entirely voluntary, does not make a profit – their work is a labout of love.

The heavy work described by Doulcier is outsourced to companies. He says a team of four work for several months, with 100 metres of the route taking around a month to renovate.

Such work includes a street sweeper cleaning the famous Trouée d’Arenberg sector – its forest location means that moss and mould thrive on the cobbles there.

Arenberg brings with it another problem – cobble theft. Yes, really. Each year the organisation replaces dozens of stones in the forest and elsewhere. Finding the replacements isn’t a problem though, as the group has a stockpile of over 90,000 thanks to local authorities, who save the stones they dig up.

Street Sweeper cleaning Arenberg - March 25 - LES AMIS DE PARIS ROUBAIX
The street sweeper cleaning Arenberg on March 25 (Les Amis de Paris-Roubaix)

This year, the work has been extensive, with restoration carried out at a number of well-known sectors, including Auchy-lez-Orchies, Mons-en-Pévèle and Carrefour de l’Arbre. For Les Amis (or the ‘convicts of the road’ as they call themselves), this has just been a regular year.

“The repairs have been a similar level to recent years,” says Doulcier. “In addition to the spring work, the pavé is checked throughout the year in order to identify any potential problems.”

Don’t think that the group is making the race easier though – the challenge is in maintaining the cobbles. That is, keeping them tough to ride as well as preserving them aesthetically.

“We don’t want to turn it into a pool table,” Doulcier jokes. “We have to keep the challenge of the cobbles, but remove the ruts and potholes.”

For now though, he can sit back and enjoy the fruits of his organisation’s labour. On Sunday the peloton will roar over the same rough cobbles that Les Amis have spent months painstakingly renovating.

Sunday’s victor will take home one of the famed cobbles of Paris-Roubaix – one from the vault I’m sure. But then it won’t be long until thoughts turn to next year, for Doulcier and Les Amis, at least. The work is never done.

 

Scheldeprijs: Clash of the sprint titans

 

Kittel Cavendish Greipel Scheldeprijs 2016 sprint COR VOS
The big three faced off for the first time this season at Scheldeprijs (Cor Vos)

Not everybody love Scheldeprijs. It’s a flat windy race, stuck mid-week between two races of much greater prestige, a time when most fans are either basking in the afterglow of De Ronde or looking ahead to Paris-Roubaix.

The race is 200km long and part of the Flanders Classics organisation group, but it stands apart from its stablemate – races like Gent-Wevelgem and the Ronde Van Vlaanderen. Scheldeprijs lacks the hills and the cobbles that make those races selective.

In recent years the race’s main obstacle has seemingly been the pile-ups that decimate the field as riders fight for places before the finish in the town of Schoten, north-east of Antwerp. Things were changed this year, with an alternate route designed to prevent a repeat of last year’s mass crash in the final kilometre.

Other than that, it’s the lack of obstacles that make the race notable. Aside from adverse weather conditions and the usual bad luck of ill-timed mechanicals or crashes, Scheldeprijs is almost always destined to end in a sprint – in fact the race is informally known as the ‘Sprinter’s World Championships’.

And today it did. Whether it was down to the redesign, good luck, or just a more careful peloton, there were no major crashes on the run-in, so we saw a clean sprint. A clean sprint featuring the generation’s top three sprinters – Mark Cavendish, André Greipel, and Marcel Kittel.

Cavendish Greipel 2011 Tour de France Lavaur COR VOS
Ex-teammates Cavendish and Greipel embrace after the Brit wins in Lavaur at the 2011 Tour (Cor Vos)

Six years may separate them, but Cavendish and Greipel came to prominence at the same time, battling to be top dog at HTC-Columbia between 2008 and 2010. Cavendish, armed with his low-profile aero style, came out on top, taking 15 Tour de France stage wins as the German was consigned to “shitty small races” (Cav’s words, not mine).

During that time Greipel won the Tour Down Under twice, along with four stages of the Vuelta a España and two at the Giro d’Italia. 2011’s move to Omega Pharma-Lotto saw him ride the Tour, finally. He won a stage, but Cavendish was better, taking three and later winning gold to Greipel’s bronze at the World Championships in Copenhagen.

Meanwhile, ProContinental team Argos-Shimano were nurturing their own sprinting talent. Kittel, another big tall German (both are 10cm taller than Cavendish), was busy winning a variety of Europe Tour races, also tasting victory at his Grand Tour debut at the Vuelta.

At the 2012 Tour it was a draw as both Greipel and Cavendish won three stages, while Kittel left the race after five stages due to illness. The next two years would see him usurp the title of ‘World’s Best Sprinter’ though.

In 2013 he took four stages including Paris, a stage which Cavendish had claimed ownership of, having won it four years in a row before. The Brit won two stages that year, Greipel just one.

Kittel Greipel Cavendish Tour de France 2013 2 COR VOS
Kittel beats his rivals to the line in Paris at the 2013 Tour (Cor Vos)

2014 saw Kittel win another four, including Paris once again. Cav crashed out early and Greipel took another solitary win. It was also the final year of his Scheldeprijs three-peat, though none of those races saw the all of the ‘big three’ take the start.

Of course we all know what happened last season. It was Kittel’s annus horribilis, as he was plagued by a virus which saw him take only one win all year. Cavendish took Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne and a host of stages at the smaller races he had once derided Greipel for having to ride.

Meanwhile Greipel, at the age of 32, took advantage to win four Tour stages to Cavendish’s one. The tables had finally turned.

While Kittel may have won this race three times, he had never before faced off against his two great sprint rivals here before. That has been something of an oddity, but you can file it alongside the fact that the trio only have one Tour de France green jersey between them.

Back to today though, and it was Kittel who triumphed, taking a record fourth win at the race. He sprinted from the front, and was unassailable. Cavendish, hidden behind him, was able to draw alongside him but couldn’t move ahead. Meanwhile Greipel came in behind the duo, unable to get near either of them. On the line Kittel took it by just half a wheel.

Today’s race was the first time that the calendars of the three men have lined up so far this season. The next, should all go to plan, will be in July. The last meeting of the year, most probably, will be at the actual World Championships, in pan-flat Qatar.

In 2016 it’s round one to Kittel, just.

The sprint, in their own words

Cavendish – “I was a little bit late to go actually. When I saw 150 metres to go I thought there was still 50 more metres so I thought I better go now.”

Greipel – “Because of the tailwind in the final road to the finish line I’d planned to take the initiative.”

Kittel – “I started my sprint with around 200 meters to go. I made a small mistake, sprinting in a gear which was too big at first, so I had to shift up. It wasn’t easy, but I gave my all.”

Cavendish – “When I came alongside Kittel I thought I had the better of him. He was just able to pull that little bit more out; it was something I used to be able to do but not anymore. I’ve lost by closer this year – it is how it is.”

Kittel – “I saw Cavendish come around and tried to shift down again, but it didn’t work. Suddenly my legs got really soft and I just tried to hold it as good as possible to the finish. I managed to keep my advantage.”

Greipel – “But then [when it came to the sprint] it became clear that I can’t compete with Mark Cavendish and Marcel Kittel at the moment. I know I can sprint better than I did but today is today and the best rider won.”

Kittel Cavendish Greipel Scheldeprijs 2016 podium COR VOS
On the podium earlier today (Cor Vos)