Pinot on Tour de France abandon: “it’s the biggest disappointment of my career”

Amidst all the confusion that surrounded the cancellation of stage 19 of the Tour de France, the early abandon of Thibaut Pinot (Groupama-FDJ) had almost been lost in the fray. Two days away from the end of his best Tour in years, the Frenchman climbed off his bike in tears 40km into the penultimate Alpine stage.

The trouble began for Pinot, who lay fifth overall at the start of the day, when he dropped back to the medical car after 30km. Bandaging his thigh didn’t help, and he only fell further back from there, with teammates patting him on the shoulder as they passed.

It soon became clear that the issue, which later turned out to be a torn inner thigh muscle, was terminal. Pinot struggled on up the second climb of the stage, Montèe d’Aussois, over three minutes down on the peloton, and ended his race on the climb after a brief embrace with teammate Matthieu Ladagnous.

“Since the Valloire stage [18], I felt a very sharp pain in the vastus medialis, a bit like a tear,” Pinot said to French newspaper l’Equipe after the stage. “During the stage, I clenched my teeth and finished as best I could.

“This morning I was in a lot of pain. I tried, but it didn’t hold. I believed, I’m someone who has always fought. I was hoping to get that little bit of luck to make it through and I didn’t. I think it’s the biggest disappointment of my career.”

Team boss Marc Madiot said to Le Parisien that he too was disappointed by the cruel end to Pinot’s Tour, adding that, “it’s part of the life of sport – there are great joys and difficult, more delicate moments.

“We’re going to surround him with affection and sympathy,” Madiot said. “We’re going to help him rebuild for the next steps of his career. The team will be around to show him that we love him. He doesn’t deserve this.”

Madiot added that Pinot sustained the thigh injury on stage 17 to Gap, saying that Pinot hit his knee on his handlebars while avoiding a crash. “Yesterday evening we were. Optimistic, and this morning it seemed fine. In fact, it got worse pretty quickly.”

The incident was confirmed by Pinot, though he couldn’t be certain that the collision caused his injury.

“I took a slight blow to the knee on the Gap stage, but I don’t even know if that’s where it came from. I really felt the pain restart during the first descent of the stage 18.

“Did I make a small tear that I aggravated during the stage? I don’t know about that. I just know that the pain did not forgive.”

Pinot’s abandon from a contending position is the latest in a line of bad luck at Grand Tours. Back in 2016 he was a polka dot jersey contender at the Tour before being forced to abandon with bronchitis. The following season he was badly off-form after finishing fourth at the Giro d’Italia, while last year saw him quit the Giro on the penultimate day with pneumonia, having held a podium spot until then.

This year’s Tour looked different, with strong time trial results plus a stage win on the Tourmalet signalling Pinot was well in with a chance of taking his first Tour podium since 2014, or perhaps even more.

“Since last Sunday in the Pyrenees, I felt I was able to do it [win the Tour]. Without this, I’m sure I would’ve done it. I was convinced of it and that nothing could happen to me.

“In the end, we’ll never know. Now, I’m pissed off. It’s going to take time to bounce back.”


Tour of Britain 2017: Katusha get aggressive on stage 7

Having defended the green leader’s jersey, as well as taking the stage victory, LottoNL-Jumbo were the most successful team on the penultimate stage of the Tour of Britain. But the most visible team on the race’s toughest stage was Katusha-Alpecin, who sent four of their remaining five riders on the attack at some point.

In the end, the Swiss team came away with a fourth place in the sprint thanks to European champion Alexander Kristoff. But, having started the late-stage attacking in earnest some 70km from the finish in Cheltenham, they can lay claim to having made the race. 

“It was the first stage where you can really do something,” said DS Torsten Schmidt after the stage. “Now we had a hilly parcours, and we were looking for our chances. I think the guys did a really nice job. When I see the whole team working and fighting I’m happy with the boys.”

“We had to start at 80km to go; the parcours got harder than before so we had to start and early final to make the race hard,” he added. “Otherwise we would come again with a really controlled race from the bunch and there aren’t many stages here where you can do something with a really active race.”

First to go on the offensive was Tiago Machado, who escaped the peloton alone in search of the day’s early break, then three minutes up the road. He had opened up a minute gap over the peloton when, 15km later teammate Reto Hollenstein jumped into a move containing Michał Kwiatkowski (Team Sky).

Clearly a plan was afoot, but the pace of LottoNL-Jumbo behind put paid to it before the move got too dangerous. Almost immediately, world time trial champion Tony Martin leapt out of the peloton. With 30km of the stage remaining, a win was not out of the realms of possibility for the 32-year-old who lay sixth overall this morning.

“He had his chance and he looked for a chance to go away,” Schmidt said. “We knew about the last climb, that there would be action, but of course he had to look for his chance. He tried. With all five guys everyone gave their best.”

“I think with Tony we had a good chance to move up in GC,” a wet and grimy-faced Nils Pollitt added. “It was a good idea because the hour before was really fast, and then he counter-attacked. With Tiago and Reto we had two guys in front so in the end it was really good for us.”

Pollitt himself put in an attack, waiting until that final climb to try and escape the peloton. It wasn’t to be, but having a team sending almost every rider available on the offensive is something to be commended in modern cycling.

However, after the antics of today’s stage, tomorrow is all about points classification leader Alexander Kristoff and the probable sprint finish to end the race in Cardiff. The Norwegian leads the points classification by 11 points and only a disaster would see him lose the black and orange jersey.

“He finished fourth. Of course it’s a nice place but a win is a win eh?” said Schmidt. “I think tomorrow is a bunch sprint again. We have very fast guys here, and it’s a really fast peloton so it’s hard but he’s there every day so why not?”

Why not indeed. After all, that could’ve been Katusha’s motto today.

Americans Abroad: Costa & Eisenhart at the Tour of Britain

Taylor Eisenhart, riding as staigiare for BMC (@tjeisenhart Twitter)

Taylor Eisenhart and Adrien Costa, two of America’s brightest young talents, made the trip across the Atlantic last week for the Tour of Britain. The week-long race marked the latest stage in their apprenticeships at two of the biggest teams in pro cycling – BMC for Eisenhart and Etixx-QuickStep for Costa.

22-year-old Eisenhart, who has raced for BMC’s Development squad for the past four seasons, was in high spirits as he prepared to start the race in Glasgow.

“It’s a dream come true for sure,” Eisenhart said of racing for BMC. “This is for sure the biggest race I’ve ever done – it’s like a show here – the crowds, everything. I’m more than excited to get this race going.”

The Utah native started his apprenticeship at his home race, August’s Tour of Utah, where he finished a strong seventh overall and supported team leader Darwin Atapuma as the Colombian finished fourth.

“I definitely wasn’t expecting that result. When we hit the first climbing day I looked back and there was nobody else on my wheel and just five guys up the road,” he said. “I was like ‘ok, we’ll see where this momentum is going’ and I was like ‘woah I can hang with the best at this race.’”

It’s a run of form he kept going at the Tour du Limousin, helping teammate Joey Rosskopf to the overall victory, and something he hopes to keep up this week. “By the time we hit the summit finish on stage six hopefully I’m the last guy for Rohan [Dennis] or I’m also up there in the mix,” he said. “Especially considering how I was climbing at Utah – I’m more than capable of being up there on those stages.”

Costa was also going well at Utah, ending up in second on GC – ahead of seasoned pros such as Andrew Talansky and Darwin Atapuma. Then he was off to France for the famous U23 proving ground, the Tour de l’Avenir – he took third overall to cap a great August.

Britain was Costa’s first race with Etixx-QuickStep, though he was already familiar with the team having taken part in a training camp with them back in December 2015. Racing with the team was a different experience though.

“I don’t really have any personal ambitions – I’m just trying to help the guys and see what I can learn,” he said at the start of the week. “I want to have some fun and I’m excited to discover this whole new level of racing.”

In the end Costa’s experience was a short-lived one, crashing hard on day two after his wheel slid on a reflector in the road as he ate a gel. He struggled on to the finish, rolling across the line in his blood-stained and ripped kit, over 23 minutes behind the winner – teammate Julien Vermote.

Suffering deep wounds to his elbow and side, he was off to hospital for surgery to close them – but not before a 24-hour wait. His race was over, but he remained with the team for the rest of the week.

“The cuts were right down to the bone on my elbows and on my abdomen, so it would’ve been too painful to clean and stitch while I was conscious,” Costa said outside the team bus before stage four. “Unfortunately I think if it had been on a normal road it would’ve been just a normal road rash sort of a deal but it was a really gritty, heavy road so obviously it cut me a lot deeper than normal.”

Costa, heavily bandaged, was smiling but clearly devastated to be out of his first race with the Belgian squad.

“It really sucks because you don’t get this opportunity every day, so for me that was the biggest bummer,” he said. “The wounds should be pretty much healed in three, four, five days so I just have to be careful with the bandaging. Hopefully I have a couple of races next week, so that should be nice.”

Meanwhile Eisenhart soldiered on, and looked to be improving as the week went on, taking sixteenth place in the Bristol time trial. After the summit finish of Haytor on stage six – where Eisenhart worked hard to help teammate Rohan Dennis take third – the Utahan reflected on his week.

“The whole race has been really hard – a lot harder than I honestly expected,” he said. “I think these power climbs are really just nutting me up. It’s different to getting on a 20km climb and setting a tempo.”

“The climbs – this whole race, just the style of it – it’s a lot more punchy, aggressive. It’s always very nervous in the bunch – honestly it’s been a fun race but it’s been tough.”

While Costa was forced out of the race early, Eisenhart left it much later – abandoning on the penultimate lap of the London criterium. The tough week eventually proved a bit too much for him, according to BMC DS Jackson Stewart, who said that he and teammate Loïc Vliegen had been suffering from stomach cramps.

He goes home having helped deliver team leader Dennis to a second overall and a stage win in Bristol, while Costa’s team went away with two stages and a spell in the yellow jersey.

But the calendar rolls on, and so will the American duo. Both headed to Belgium for the next stage of their apprenticeships. On September 17th they race the GP Van Petegem, while Costa’s first race back was the GP de Wallonie.

Looking further ahead, the duo’s futures are set, at least in the short term. Eisenhart was coy about exactly what he’d be doing in 2017 though.

“I’m still keeping that under wraps,” said Eisenhart. “I can say that I’m extremely excited with the team that I signed with for next year, and they’ve had a lot of belief in me for a while now. As each days goes by I think more and more about it and I know it’s the right place to be.”

Meanwhile Costa will return to Continental team Axeon Hagens Berman for 2017, though it wouldn’t be a surprise to see the teenager move on to the WorldTour after that. “It’ll be good to stay one more year at U23 level – at least one more year,” he said. “It was super fun this year, and it was only my first year as an U23, so there’s still time.”

So the Tour of Britain may not have been as positive an experience as the two young Americans might have hoped for, but it’s just the start of a new experience, a new chapter in their careers – and there’s a long way to go yet.

Dombrowski aiming high in the Pyrenees

Dombrowski Giro 2016 CORVOS

Today is the day – the Queen stage of the Vuelta a España, heading unusually into France and the Col d’Aubisque. It’s one of the most-oft used climbs in the Tour de France but is not a mountain that springs to mind when you think of its Spanish cousin.

Calendars around Europe will have had September 3rd circled with big red rings for some time now, as climbers and GC contenders alike have anticipated this mammoth day in the mountains. Among those men looking forward to today’s feast of climbing is Joe Dombrowski, the talented American climber riding for Cannondale-Drapac.

Dombrowski is in Spain fresh off the back of a successful summer, one which saw him sign a new contract with the men in Argyle. Spring saw him excel in the Dolomites and Alps at the Giro d’Italia, taking a third place on the final mountain stage of the race.

Since penning his new two-year deal Dombrowski put in a strong all-round performance at August’s Tour of Utah, riding to eighth on GC while helping team leader Andrew Talansky secure a podium spot along the way. The duo reprise the same roles at the third Grand Tour of the season, and after a series of strong rides during the season Dombrowski has earned some extra wiggle room to try for his own results.

“I’d like to get up the road on these days [stages 14 and 15], and that can put us in a position to win the stage,” Dombrowski says. “But like we saw with Lagos da Covadonga [stage 10], the breakaway was caught but we had Andrew behind so I ended up waiting and pulling for him in the final kilometres. So it’s advantageous for us to have someone up the road too.”

Dombrowski, who turned 25 in May, was one of three Cannondale riders in the break that day, the others being Pierre Rolland and Moreno Moser. It didn’t end in success as Movistar’s Nairo Quintana charged to a decisive victory, but for Joe and the team it signified that things are on the right track.

“From the team’s standpoint it’s been a really good race. We’ve got two big objectives with the GC and for us to go for stages,” he says. “We’ve not won a stage yet but we’ve ridden really well in terms of putting us in the best situation to do that. I’ve been riding pretty well and enjoying it so everything’s going pretty good.”

Dombrowski Utah 2015 CORVOS
Joe celebrating overall victory at the 2015 Tour of Utah

What’s so special about this weekend then? Thirteen days into the race we’ve witnessed as many uphill finishes as other Grand Tours could muster over three weeks – ample opportunity for a flyweight climber like Dombrowski to excel.

“The Vuelta tends to have a lot of uphill finishes but a lot of the time they’re pretty short and steep. A lot of the time it’ll be just flat all the way to the final climb, and it being on the flat all day isn’t super suited to me.”

For a great number of the peloton more climbing just signals more suffering and pain, another day just trying to survive, but for Dombrowski this weekend equals opportunity and a chance to show what he can do. There’s suffering for him too of course, but roommate Ben King has been a help during the race, as each night a Spanish hotel room turns Virginian.

“Yeah we’re both from Virginia, so it’s nice to have somebody – not just an American – but somebody from back home at the race,” says Dombrowski. “It’s nice because so much of what we do is foreign, at least for us as Americans racing in Europe. So when you’re doing a Grand Tour it’s nice to be with somebody that you have a lot in common with – that’s super nice.”

Just a week before the start of the Vuelta, Dombrowski was a world away from the short sharp hills and featureless plains that characterise the race. He was back in the USA, racing mountain bikes at the famous Leadville 100 in Colorado.

Joe wasn’t the only roadie there either, with teammate Alex Howes and Giant-Alpecin’s Laurens Ten Dam also making the switch to fat tyres for the day. It all came about during a breakfast at the Giro d’Italia, according to Dombrowski.

“I was speaking to our press officer Matt Beaudin one morning. I said ‘oh yeah Cannondale can give me a new mountain bike and I’d do Leadville,’” he recalls. “He was like ‘It’d be such a great story – the team would love it, and Cannondale would love it.”

But thoughts of the Vuelta – primarily the close proximity of the two races, plus jetlag from the travel – temporarily put paid to the Leadville plans. At least until July.

“JV [team boss Jonathan Vaughters] sent me a text – it was just ‘Leadville?’ – he was all about it and for Cannondale it was a really interesting, marketable story,” says Dombrowski. “So we went ahead and did it, and it was honestly great. I grew up racing mountain bikes so it was kind of a fun challenge.”

“I don’t know that I’d say it was good preparation,” he says jokingly. “I wanted to win. I was close – I ended up coming second – but it was super fun and I think valuable for the team and me and my own ‘brand’.”

A return visit is something Dombrowski says he would like, and dabbling in cyclocross is a possibility too. We might have to wait a while to see Joe back racing on knobbly tyres though, at least not if his plans for the road pan out.

“If I came back and it was Leadville – Vuelta the way I did it this year then I think it’d depend on how I ride the Vuelta,” says Dombrowski. “Say I wanted to ride GC at the Vuelta – then I wouldn’t want to ride Leadville the week before, that’s for sure.

Joe laughs again, but his ambition is serious, and the subject of progressing towards a GC leadership role is something that came up during his contract negotiations this summer.

“I’d say I’m headed in that direction, but I’m not at level of Andrew [Talansky], Pierre [Rolland], or Rigo [Uran] yet,” he says. “I’d like to keep progressing and move towards being that sort of rider. I think working on having a well-rounded skillset is the best thing for me now, because if you ride GC in races you really have to be able to do everything in all sorts of different situations.”

“I’m actually coached by JV so it’s kind of a unique situation. Normally you’re not negotiating your contract with the same guy who coaches you, but I think that’s where he’d like to see me go.”

An odd situation maybe, but the arrangement seems to be working out quite well so far. Dombrowski might well be headed that way too, based on his current rate of progress. But before that there’s work to do in the Pyrenees – mountains to race, results to chase and a leader to pace.

Contador plays down expectations ahead of Vuelta a España

Contador Vuelta Burgos 2016 CORVOS
Contador climbing to victory at the Vuelta a Burgos

Alberto Contador sought to play down suggestions that he is the main favourite for the upcoming Vuelta a España. The Tinkoff rider, who will be looking for a fourth victory at the race, said, “I can rest assured that this race is already on my palmares.”

Referring to his rivals, Team Sky’s Chris Froome and Movistar’s Nairo Quintana, Contador said: “I’m sure that they are looking for their first Vuelta title. Froome has been on the podium I think three times now, and he has a very strong team.”

“For Nairo it’s the same, since the last day of the Tour, we’ve heard nothing about him and he’s been resting and recovering for La Vuelta. I’m sure both of them will be here in optimal condition.”

But the Spaniard, who will be starting his final Grand Tour for Tinkoff tomorrow, sees another threat for the General Classification in the familiar guise of Quintana’s veteran teammate Alejandro Valverde.

“Everybody is talking about Froome, Nairo and me, but I think that there’s another favourite and that’s Valverde because he was very strong during the Tour and at the Vuelta he has more options,” said Contador. “He has lots of finals very suitable for him, also with time bonuses. The parcours is better for him than for me.”

Contador Tour de France 2016 CORVOS
The media scrum at the Tour de France

Contador, who was forced to abandon the Tour de France on stage 9 due to fever, continued to soften expectations when talking about preparation and race days. Asked about a possible advantage he might enjoy over rivals who finished the Tour, he said: “When I abandoned the Tour I was in optimal form. I was penalised because the crashes and bruising meant I had to stop riding.”

“My first proper training after the Tour was at Clásica San Sebastián and the Vuelta a Burgos, so I probably have less preparation for this Vuelta, and maybe less than other years. I don’t think I have an advantage.”

The recent Vuelta a Burgos was the latest addition to Contador’s palmares as he edged out Sergio Pardilla (Caja Rural) and Ben Hermans (BMC) to overall victory by just one second after a fiercely contested final summit finish. While it wasn’t a vintage Contador performance, it surely only signalled good things for him.

“A victory always gives you confidence, but the day after you must start from zero again and continue working,” he said of his fifth win of 2016. “It’s good for the team, but here the race is much longer, the rivals are different and we have a lot more stages so we start from zero.

Contador Froome Valverde Vuelta 2015 CORVOS
A third victory, at the 2015 Vuelta

He will not be starting from zero in terms of Vuelta victories though. His three victories (a 100% record in terms of starts to wins) see him lie joint-second on the all-time list, alongside Tony Rominger and one behind Robert Heras.

“I’m calmer now after three victories. That is incredible to me and that allows me to relax,” Contador said. “If I can I will look for a fourth victory but we will see, and we will go day by day and see if that’s possible.”

Another Vuelta victory would be a perfect way to send off his Tinkoff team, the last iteration of the CSC/Saxo Bank squad which started out in 1998 and is due to disband at the end of the year. While a number of the team’s riders – most notably Peter Sagan – have already announced their 2017 homes, Contador would not be drawn on where he will race next season. He has been strongly linked with Trek-Segafredo but today talked only of his commitment to his current team.

“At this moment I am a rider for Tinkoff. Tinkoff is my team and I will give 100% for this team,” he said. “The other reason [I won’t speak about my future] is that it’s the last big tour in this jersey, so the best thing is to do my maximum for this team. Next year will be another story and time for talking about the future will come.”

Drapac at the Volta

drapac-peloton-volta portugal

It was late afternoon in the northeast Portuguese town of Macedo de Cavaleiros. Thick crowds, enjoying the summer holidays, lined the roads awaiting the arrival of A Grande, the Big One, the Volta a Portugal. No doubt they were all were clamouring for a home win.

Would it be a rider from one of the teams sponsored by the big soccer clubs in the blue stripes of W52-Porto, or the green stripes of Sporting Clube-Tavira? Maybe a victor from Efapel, in their yellow fluo kit?

The expectant crowds would be disappointed though, as two men – an Australian and Italian – in red rode into town first – Drapac’s Will Clarke and Androni Giocattoli’s Marco Frapporti. The peloton, some five minutes further back, was out of the picture. The duo’s fellow breakmates were long gone too, having been left behind some 70km into the 159km stage.

Frapporti was the only obstacle that stood between the Clarke and a stage victory – on only the third Volta stage his Drapac team had ever raced. The Italian had been keeping Clarke company ever since the duo launched their attack at an intermediate sprint two hours earlier.

“Up to that point it was full gas, and I think some in the bunch were happy for the respite,” says Clarke. “The bunch was in pieces. I knew Marco from some races before, and I know he races hard so he was a perfect breakaway companion.”

Their gap to the remains of the break, which in W52’s Rui Vinhas included the man who would be riding to a surprise overall victory, quickly ballooned out to two minutes. It didn’t start falling until the cat-and-mouse games began.

“In the last 10km I think we knew we’d stay clear, and I was expecting Marco to attack me on the final climb before the finish,” Clarke recalls. “That didn’t happen though, and Tom [Southam, Drapac DS] had me keep an eye on him. I started feeling really good on that climb and then when we got over I was confident for the sprint.”

Clarke’s gameplan was put into action in the final 2km as he took up prime position on the Italian’s wheel. They waited, waited, waited… Until the 500m sign. The race through the final bends was reminiscent of a track sprint, and then with 250m to go Clarke dived up the inside of the final corner. It was over.

It was the Clarke’s fifth win of the season, though his explosive effort wasn’t a surprise given prologue victories at the Herald Sun Tour and on the arduous Kitzbüheler Horn prologue at July’s Tour of Austria. The result also meant that the Volta was already a success for the men in red.

“Coming in, we aimed for at least one stage win,” said teammate Lachlan Norris. “Wilbur’s strength early on really made us lift the bar, and we contested every day.”

Southam agreed. “None of these guys knew what to expect here, but they’ve come through with a well-executed win and a handful of really strong rides on other stages [Drapac racked up four other top ten finishes at the race].”

But why the Volta? The eleven-day race is held at the height of the Portuguese summer – when temperatures regularly touch 40 °c (100F) – and is raced at a furious pace by the domestic teams for whom it is the focus of their entire season.

Two-time Giro d’Italia winner Gilberto Simoni said “never again” after racing to an anonymous 108th place in 2005, while just this year Androni Giocattoli’s Franco Pellizotti admitted he was wrong to laugh at the level of competition.

Back in the mid-2000s, the likes of Lampre, Saunier Duval, Fassa Bortolo and Southam’s old team Barloworld raced there, but nowadays only a handful of ProContinental teams turn up at the start. It’s perhaps understandable given the length, heat and position on the calendar, so what did Drapac see in the Volta?

“Racing here was a very considered, deliberate choice,” says Southam. “I wanted the team to come here as I believe it’s one of the hardest races we could go to this year.”

“One of my – and the team’s – objectives was to push the guys to develop through quality, hard racing, and the Volta is perfect for that.”

Southam has experience racing in Portugal, describing the experience as “telling myself I would ride one more kilometre before I’d get off, and then repeating that 160 times a day.”

adam phelan break stg7 volta portugal
Adam Phelan in the break on stage 7

And after hearing what his riders have to say it doesn’t seem like racing there has gotten any easier.

“There’s only one way to describe it and that’s hard. From start to finish,” says Clarke. “They really push it more on the downhills than I have experienced in any other race and quite a few selections were made even before the key climbs.”

“The courses are mega,” says Norris. “But it’s also how they race – they race up, they race down and they don’t stop! It was hot as well, which was another challenge.”

“Yeah it was very hot every day and it took a few days to get used to it,” Clarke agrees. “In the first days, it was hard to breathe deeply because it irritated my lungs and made me cough.”

“Overall I really enjoyed it though,” he continues. “It was well organised and had a nice atmosphere, with huge crowds [the race is held during Portugal’s summer holidays] which was really cool. The race was really big over there.”

Even climber Brendan Canty found the race tough going. The 24-year-old Victorian, who has been linked with a move to Cannondale-Drapac as part of their upcoming merger, harboured GC ambitions before the race. His form was good, having won a summit finish the Tour of Austria, while earlier in the season he took the white young rider’s jersey at the Tour of Oman.

Through the prologue and first three stages he was going well, lying in 31st overall – just 15 seconds behind reigning champion Gustavo César Veloso, one of the many Spanish exiles to have raced across the border in recent years. But come the race’s first summit finish on stage four – the famous ascent of Senhora de Graça – hopes of a high overall placing unravelled.

“Initially we had a couple of riders with GC ambitions, but as the race progressed our focus turned towards stage results,” says Canty. “Unfortunately I didn’t make the bottom of Senhora de Graça with the front of the race after the peloton had split up during the stage.”

“Personally, I was a bit disappointed with my own performance, particularly after a strong result at the Tour of Austria,” he continued. “The crowds were really impressive though. It was one of the best atmospheres I’ve experienced in a race.”

will clarke stg3 volta portugal

Despite the GC disappointment, it was a successful race for the team, their first Volta but sadly also their last. Just before the Tour de France, lead sponsor Drapac confirmed a five-year deal with the WorldTour Cannondale team.

The upshot of the deal is that the ProContinental team will be dissolved, with the staff and riders either going to the WorldTour, the Continental development squad Drapac-Pat’s Veg, or elsewhere.

With many team members facing uncertainty over their future, the deal must have affected how they raced in Portugal?

“There’s extra pressure to perform, and no doubt the current scenario could cause some problems amongst a team,” says Canty. “However, it also takes an entire team working together for someone to achieve results. Given next year’s situation, it’s really impressive to see the team come together and ride the way we did.”

“This time of year there’s always a lot going on!” says Norris. “At this stage, I haven’t signed with a team but I’m hoping what I’ve done over the past two seasons will show my worth to a team for 2017.”

So despite the unease about the future for some of the Drapac boys, there was no hint of a falling-out or intra-squad rivalry. Well, at least not on the road anyway…

“We did have an internal moustache competition during the race,” says Canty. “As judged by the podium girls… I ran a surprising third place!”

News shorts – Portugal


W52 Volta Portugal

78th Volta a Portugal

Sunday saw the end of the country’s premier race, the 11-stage Volta a Portugal. Once again W52-FC Porto-Porto Canal – or ‘Team Sky of Portugal’ as some have christened them – won, though winner of the past two editions Gustavo Cesar Veloso missed out to his own teammate, Portuguese all-rounder Rui Vinhas.

Vinhas took the leader’s jersey as part of a breakaway that gained 3:51 on the peloton on the hilly stage three to Macedo de Cavaleiros. For the rest of the race he confounded expectations, riding stronger than many expected to keep the lead over the famed mountains Senhora da Graça and Alto da Torre, leaving himself an advantage of 2:25 on Veloso going into the final time trial stage in Lisbon.

Even with this gap it didn’t seem likely that he could keep the lead over the 32km course – last year he shipped 4:05 to Veloso over a similar distance. Hang on he did though, riding the time trial of his life to limit his losses to just 54 seconds as Veloso won his third stage of the race. W52 took four of the top five spots on the day, finishing one-two-four on the final GC.

It’s by far the biggest victory of Vinhas’ career, and only the second Portuguese victory in the last 13 years. His win also marks a break from Galician victories – Spaniards from the region which lies just to the north of Portugal (namely Veloso, David Blanco and Alejandro Marque) have won the past four editions.

Vinhas W52 Volta Portugal

After the race there was a hint of polêmica as Veloso gave a television interview right in front of his teammate, claiming that “I’ve shown that I was the strongest in the mountains and time trials. I did the job I had to do and next year I hope to win.” Later in the day he took to Facebook to walk back his comments somewhat, congratulating his teammate on the win.

Australian team Drapac rode the race for the first (and last) time. Will Clarke took a stage win for the men in red, outsprinting Androni Giocattoli’s Marco Frapporti from the same breakaway that gave Vinhas the race lead. Look out for a feature on how the team’s race went somewhere in the near future.

The demise of LA Aluminios-Antarte

Long-running team LA Aluminios-Antarte will stop at the end of the season, according to team boss Mário Rocha. The team, which is based on Paredes Cycling Club near Porto, has been running under various sponsorships since 1995.

“The truth is that the manager of LA-Antarte fears cycling is heading for new scandals like in 2008 and 2009,” read a statement from the team. “People involved in the scandals back then have returned to cycling in recent years, and this has happened due to the lack of strength from the FPC (Portuguese Cycling Federation), which seems committed to drag the sport back to the past.”

It’s a strong statement from Rocha, who made reference to the Liberty Seguros team, which ceased operations in 2009. Ex-team manager Américo Silva returned in 2015 to take charge at Efapel, while his rider Nuno Ribeiro (who won the Volta a Portugal in 2009 before testing positive for CERA and losing his title) is manager of the all-conquering W52-FC Porto-Porto Canal team.

LA Aluminios Antarte Volta Portugal

Rocha continued: “Against this background there are not the conditions to stay in the sport, not as sports director, nor as president. During a meeting with the FPC last year I warned that if nothing changed I would abandon cycling.”

“This is the time to abandon cycling, with a clear conscience and my head held high.”

For a scene that has been beset by doping scandals in the past it is hardly a ringing endorsement for the current state of play. The FPC does run a biological passport system, which Continental teams elsewhere do not have to abide, though clearly this isn’t enough for Rocha to have confidence in the way the sport is run in the country.

Towards the end of last season there were rumours about six biological passport cases, and Rocha said that the FPC held a meeting with all the teams about it. No riders have been suspended since, however.

The team, which consists of nine riders, didn’t pick up a stage win at the Volta, though star rider Amaro Antunes finished 6th overall. Another major name and winner of the 2013 Volta, Alejandro Marque, is 34 and could retire, while Hernâni Brôco has already indicated that he will be retiring.

W52 Fafe Volta Portugal
W52 on the front of the peloton near Fafe, a common sight during the Volta

W52-FC Porto to turn ProContinental?

While one team folds, another soars, and after W52’s hugely successful Volta there have been rumours that the team could attempt to move up to ProContinental level next season.

The rumours started when rider António Carvalho appealed to the team president to do so during an interview on live television. Directeur sportif Nuno Ribeiro fuelled the speculation, adding, “We took another step this year and perhaps at the end of the season we can go one step further.”

Yesterday Maximino Pereira, a DS since the team’s inception in 2004, said that “it would not be easy” to do so, adding that it would be up to the football club that sponsors the team, FC Porto. Their deal with the team, which started this season, runs for five years and Pereira added that “in a year or two we can think about it.”

The team already has the largest budget in Portugal, at €700,000. Stepping up to ProContinental level would mean adding another two riders to meet the ProContinental minimum of 14 as well as meeting minimum wage requirements, something which could double the investment needed according to Pereira.

Becoming the first Portuguese ProContinental team since Benfica in 2008 would open up a raft of new possibilities for the team, as it would enable them to compete in WorldTour events. After the way they raced the past few weeks it would certainly be interesting to see how they match up with the higher level of opposition on offer at races like the Volta a Catalunya, Vuelta al Pais Vasco and even the Vuelta a España.

Brandao Efapel Volta Portugal
Could Efapel’s Joni Brandão be on the move?

Transfers and rumours

Trek-Segafredo have confirmed the signing of the talented 23-year-old Ruben Guerreiro on a two-year contract. Guerreiro has raced for American Continental team Axeon Hagens Berman for the past two years, impressing this year with a 13th overall finish at the Tour of California.

In June he became U23 Portuguese National Champion after a 50km solo ride, while he was also on the podium at U23 Liège-Bastogne-Liège. In 2014 he won the Volta a Portugal do Futuro, and is certainly one to watch next season.

Joni Brandão (fifth in the Volta this year) of Efapel has been linked with several teams, including Lampre, Caja Rural and Androni Giocattoli. He’s a strong climber with a good time trial and won the first edition of the Grande Prémio Cova da Beiras in May, demolishing the field on the summit finish. Earlier in the season he showed himself outside Portugal, coming third at the Volta a Castilla y León in a field that included strong Movistar and Caja Rural squads.

Last season he was runner-up at the Volta a Portugal, and is one of the strongest riders in the country. Considering his young age relative to riders like Veloso, Marque and Rui Sousa (who have been dominating presences at the race), he looks like the best candidate to move up to WorldTour or ProContinental level – a move that Portuguese-based riders rarely seem to make.

goncalves caja rural volta portugal
José Gonçalves triumphs on stage 7 of the 2016 Volta

Caja Rural’s all-rounder José Gonçalves has also been linked with Rui Costa’s team. Primarily a sprinter, he can climb very well too (13th at the 2014 Volta, 34th at the 2015 Vuelta). This year he won the Tour of Turkey, a race Caja Rural dominated after crosswinds tore the peloton apart on stage three.  He has also taken a stage win at the Volta in each of the past two years.

Meanwhile, twins Ivo and Rui Oliveira are names that have been linked with Axeon Hagens Berman. The pair, who ride for U23 team Liberty Seguros-Carglass, have both seen success on the road at National Event level (amateur, with no UCI points) this season.

Rui won the Taça de Portugal one-day race Ovar-Murtosa, while the pair finished third and fourth behind professionals Rafael Reis and Alejandro Mestre at the Volta a Barraida stage race, with Ivo winning a stage there.

Finally, with the disbanding of LA-Antarte it looks like Amaro Antunes will be on the market. This year he finished tenth at the Volta ao Algarve, including a fourth place finish on the Alto do Malhao alongside Fabio Aru and Thibaut Pinot, while he has finished top ten at the Volta for three years running. He could easily slot in at ProContinental or WorldTour level.

Veloso Vinhas W52 Volta Portugal
Vinhas & Veloso

The new-look WorldTour

Brian Cookson UCI CORVOS

Tuesday saw the UCI announce the races that will make up the 2017 WorldTour calendar. All the regular names are there, including races run by the ASO, which resolved its conflict with the sport’s governing body earlier this year.

As part of the WorldTour reforms the current group of races will be joined by an influx of varied new ones, ten of them in fact, which range from the sandy, windswept Tour of Qatar to the muddy, windswept Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, among others.

UCI WorldTour 2017 additions

Judging by the events involved it seems there are a myriad of reasons involved in their selection.

  • The Cadel Evans Road Race attracted nine WorldTeams this season and looks a logical enough addition given its proximity to the Tour Down Under
  • The money grabs – the Tour of Qatar and the 1-year-old Abu Dhabi Tour fill an empty slot in the WorldTour calendar between January’s Tour Down Under and March’s Paris-Nice but the racing is hardly vintage.
  • Spring classics Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, Strade Bianche and Dwars door Vlaanderen provide great racing, though perhaps just the first two would have done.
  • Turkey has been linked for a while, though its inclusion is less sensible than ever given the political situation in the country and the fact that the new organisers oversaw what was hardly a success this season, with only two WorldTeams showing up.
  • Finally, Eschborn-Frankfurt, California and RideLondon all hit important markets, with American long overdue a top-level race. The Tour of Britain would perhaps have been a better choice than RideLondon, though that likely would’ve caused a similar problem for local teams as California’s inclusion could.

All races have been awarded with three-year licenses, in accordance with a new application process, something which the UCI claim was “was met with significant interest from race organisers”.

This new-look WorldTour is a far cry from the unpopular reforms originally proposed way back in 2014, which featured shortened races and a confusing B-team system. While these additions certainly seem a better idea than those reforms, there are – as ever – a number of problems and questions that arise as a result of this expansion.

The increased number of calendar clashes is the first problem that springs to mind. With 37 events spread over 176 days there will now be a further 14 racedays during which WorldTour events clash with each other, with seven already on the calendar. The 2014 reforms called for fewer clashes, a plan which has obviously been abandoned.

Many of these clashes are easy enough to deal with – for instance, teams already send squads to the Ardennes and the Tour of Turkey with no problems. A bigger problem will be the weekend of July 30th, which sees three events crammed in. Clásica San Sebastián is held on Saturday, the same day the Tour de Pologne starts and a day before the RideLondon-Surrey Classic.

Marc Madiot FDJ CORVOS

It’s a calendar that FDJ boss Marc Madiot has described as making “no sense”, adding that his squad wouldn’t miss out on French races to meet the WorldTour’s requirements: “it’s part of our duty to support local races as well.” This sentiment is likely to be echoed by other teams, while his thoughts about the UCI’s proposed participation rules (a minimum of ten WorldTeams at new WorldTour events) have already been stated by the AIGCP (the association of pro teams).

At the time of writing the AIGCP has yet to release a statement on the newly-announced reforms, though it’s easy to get a sense of what it would be, given their response to the UCI’s June 23rd press release, which first brought up the subject of participation rules.

“The AIGCP maintains that it is not the case that the PCC approved the principle of setting up for newly-promoted WorldTour events… nor is it the case that the PCC agreed to examine such a proposal at the next meeting of the PCC. On the contrary, it was confirmed, as was approved by the Management Committee and the PCC in 2015, that newly-promoted WorldTour events bear the full responsibility for securing participation of at least 10 WorldTeams with no coercive mechanisms.”

Right now it is unclear how this rule would be enforced. Would the UCI strongarm teams into turning up in Turkey? How would they pick who goes and who doesn’t? The other races (with the exception of Frankfurt at 4) already attract between 7 and 12 WorldTeams, and there probably wouldn’t be too much trouble getting to 10.

One final point can be made about the balance of the calendar. With the new additions the calendar looks even more front-heavy. Nine of the new additions take place before July, in addition to 17 of the 27 current races.

Personally I would’ve liked to see the Arctic Race of Norway, Paris-Tours and Milano-Torino promoted to give the August and September calendar a boost. The latter two races certainly strike me as more deserving from a racing standpoint than some of the UCI’s chosen ten.


Ultimately it looks as though little will change from our point of view – these races will outwardly remain largely the same, though the additional WorldTour points will make a difference for teams, whether or not they choose to attend.

But it does seem like the UCI have inadvertently created another class of races, not quite WorldTour and not Continental-level either. The races are presumably paying similar fees to the current WorldTour races, only to see 7 less top tier teams competing.

The question of cycling’s top tier and how to organise it fairly and positively for all has yet to be solved, and this latest move from the UCI isn’t going to be the final fix. Indeed, it’s probable that the WorldTour problem will never be solved to the satisfaction of everybody involved. One thing is for sure – I certainly don’t think this is the answer.


The Giro d’Italia in pictures

A pictorial look back at the first Grand Tour of 2016, a dramatic edition of the Giro d’Italia.

All photos supplied by RCS, courtesy of ANSA, Claudio Peri, Alessandro Di Meo, Luca Zennaro and Matteo Bazzi.

The crowd during the presentation of Giro d'Italia 2016 at Alpedoorn, 5 May 2016. ANSA/MATTEO BAZZI
Big crowds welcomed the Giro d’Italia for the race presentation in Appeldoorn
Madrina Giorgia Palmas with Trofeo Senza Fine Award on the podium on occasion of the presentation of Giro d'Italia 2016 at Alpedoorn, 5 May 2016. ANSA/CLAUDIO PERI
Madrina of the Giro Giorgia Palmas poses with the Trofeo Senza Fine at the race presentation
A runner during the start of the TTT first stage Giro d’Italia cycling race in Apeldoorn, Nederland, 6 May 2016.ANSA/ALESSANDRO DI MEO
The start of three weeks of racing – a rider heads off on the opening time trial in Appeldoorn
Tom Dumoulin from the Netherlands of Team Giant Alpecin win the first stage of the Giro d'Italia 2016 at Apeldoorn, Netherlands, 06 May 2016, an individual time trial over 9.8km through Apeldoorn. ANSA/LUCA ZENNARO
Home favourite Tom Dumoulin won the time trial, taking the first pink jersey of the race
Giro d'Italia 2016. ANSA/ALESSANDRO DI MEO
A fan takes in the action on the second day of the race, from Arnhem to Nijmegen
Etixx-QuickStep’s Marcel Kittel was dominant in the sprint, easily winning in Nijmegen
Dutch rider Maarten Tjallingii of the team Lotto Nl Jumbo wears the overall Blu jersey as he celebrates with his son on the podium after the third stage of the Giro d'Italia cycling race over 190km between Nijmegen and Arnhem, Netherlands, 08 May 2016. ANSA/LUCA ZENNARO
There was more home success on stage three as LottoNL-Jumbo’s Maarten Tjallingii took the blue mountain jersey after starring in the day’s breakaway
German rider Marcel Kittel (C) of the Etixx–Quick-Step team celebrates after winning the third stage of the Giro d'Italia cycling race over 190km between Nijmegen and Arnhem, Netherlands, 08 May 2016 ANSA/LUCA ZENNARO
While Marcel Kittel won once again in Arnhem, the third and final stage held in the Netherlands
Italian rider Diego Ussi (C) of the Lampre Merida team celebrates after crossing the finish line and win the fourth stage of the Giro d'Italia cycling race over 200 km between Catanzaro and Praia a Mare, Italy 2016. ANSA/ALESSANDRO DI MEO
Upon the race’s return to Italy in the coastal town of Praia a Mare, Lampre-Merida’s Diego Ulissi won his fifth stage of the Giro
The pack is on the way of the fifth stage of Giro dÕItalia cycling race from Praia a Mare to Benevento, 11 May 2016. ANSA/CLAUDIO PERI
Schoolchildren cheer on the peloton on stage five
Arrivo quinta tappa  ANSA / MATTEO BAZZI
With Kittel gone, it was André Greipel’s turn to dominate, winning in Benevento on stage five
Dutch rider Tom Dumoulin of Team Giant wearing Pink Jersey in the pack on the way of the seventh stage of Giro dÕItalia cycling race from Sulmona to Foligno, 13 May 2016. ANSA/CLAUDIO PERI
Pink jersey Dumoulin rides among the peloton
The pack is on the way of the seventh stage of Giro dÕItalia cycling race from Sulmona to Foligno, 13 May 2016. ANSA/CLAUDIO PERI
The peloton descending on the road to Foligno, stage seven
Spanish rider Alejandro Valverde of Movistar Team rides on the gravel on the way of the 8th stage of Giro dÕItalia cycling race from Foligno to Arezzo, 14 May 2016. ANSA/CLAUDIO PERI
Stage eight’s strade bianche climb of Alpe di Poti. Here, Tom Dumoulin would lose the pink jersey to stage winner Gianluca Brambilla
Italian rider Gianluca Brambilla of the Etixx - Quick Step team, celebrates after crossing the finish line to win the 8th stage of the Giro d'Italia cycling race over 186km from Foligno to Arezzo, Italy, 14 May 2016. Brambilla took the overall leader's pink jersey.   ANSA/ALESSANDRO DI MEO
Brambilla soloed to victory in Arezzo, attacking from the breakaway
Slovenian rider Primoz Roglic of Lotto Jumbo on the way of the TTT 9th stage of Giro d’Italia cycling race from Radda in Chiantie to Greve in Chianti, 15 May 2016. ANSA/CLAUDIO PERI
Primož Roglič of LottoNL-Jumbo surprised everyone to win the wet Chianti time trial
Italian singer and songwriter, Francesco Guccini, looks the  10th stage of Giro dÕItalia cycling race from Campi Bisenzio to Sestola, 17 May 2016. ANSA/CLAUDIO PERI
Italian singer Francesco Guccini greets the peloton on stage ten to Sestola
Italian rider Giulio Ciccone of the Bardiani CSF team jubilates with Mario Cipollini (L) after crossing the finish line to win the 10th stage of the Giro d'Italia cycling race over 219km from Campi Bisenzio to Sestola, Italy, 17 May 2016.  ANSA/ALESSANDRO DI MEO
Bardiani-CSF’s neo-pro Giulio Ciccone celebrates with Mario Cipollini after winning stage ten with a late attack
Luxembourg's rider Bob Jungels of the Etixx - Quick Step team, celebrates on the podium wearing the overall leader's pink jersey after the 11th stage of the Giro d'Italia cycling race over 227 km from Modena to Asolo, Italy, 18 May 2016.  ANSA/ALESSANDRO DI MEO
Bob Jungels became the first Luxembourgish rider to wear pink since Charly Gaul in 1959
Giro d’Italia 2016 - 99a Edizione - 12a tappa Noale - Bibione 182 km - 19/05/2016 -  - foto Luca Bettini/BettiniPhoto©2016
Trek-Segafredo riders pass a villa on the road to Bibione, stage twelve
Blue Jersey, Italian rider Damiano Cunego of Nippo Vini Fantini on the podium of the 12th stage of Giro d'Italia from Noale to Bibione, 19 May 2016. ANSA/CLAUDIO PERI
Nippo-Vini Fantini’s Damiano Cunego experienced a mini-renaissance during the Giro, leading the mountains classification for much of the race
The pack is on the way of te 13th stage of Giro d'Italia 2016 from Palmanova to Cividale del Friuli, 20 May 2016. ANSA/CLAUDIO PERI
The peloton rides through an well-decorated town on stage thirteen to Cividale del Friuli
Giro d'Italia 2016. ANSA/ALESSANDRO DI MEO
Mikel Nieve won the day while Movistar’s Andrey Amador became the first Costa Rican to ever wear pink
Spanish rider Alejandro Valverde of Movistar Team (L) and Italian rider Vincenzo Nibali of Astana Pro Team on the way of the 14th stage of Giro dÕItalia cycling race from Alpago to Corvara, 21 May 2016. ANSA/CLAUDIO PERI
Alejandro Valverde and Vincenzo Nibali ride the mammoth Dolomite stage fourteen. Both would lose major time on the road to Corvara
The pack is on the way of the 14th stage of Giro dÕItalia cycling race from Alpago to Corvara, 21 May 2016. ANSA/CLAUDIO PERI
The peloton riding the high, scenic Dolomites
Colombian rider Esteban Chaves (R) of Orica Greenedge team, celebrates after crossing the finish line to win the 14th stage of the Giro d'Italia cycling race over 210 km from Alpago to Corvara, Italy, 21 May 2016. ANSA/ALESSANDRO DI MEO
Orica-GreenEdge’s Esteban Chaves won the day, after he and Steven Kruijswijk dropped Nibali on the Passo Valparola
Dutch rider Steven Kruijswijk of  Team Lotto Jumbo, celebrates on the podium wearing the overall leader's pink jersey after the 14th stage of the Giro d'Italia cycling race over 210 km from Alpago to Corvara, Italy, 21 May 2016. ANSA/ALESSANDRO DI MEO
Meanwhile Kruijswijk took the pink jersey, and a 41 second lead over Nibali
Italian rider Vincenzo Nibali of Astana Pro Team changes his bike on the way of the 15th stage of Giro dÕItalia cycling race from Castelrotto to Alpe di Siusi, 22 May 2016. ANSA/CLAUDIO PERI
Nibali was in more trouble on stage fifteen, changing his bike and losing minutes in the Alpe di Siusi mountain time trial
Russian rider Foliforov Alexander of Gazporm team celebrates on the podium after winnig the fifteenth stage of the Giro d'Italia 2016, long individual time trial from Castelrotto to Alpe di Susi 10,8 km, Italy, 22 May 2016 ANSA/LUCA ZENNARO
Gazprom-Rusvelo’s Alexander Foliforov was the surprise victor, edging out Kruijswijk by fractions of a second
Spanish rider Alejandro Valverde of Moviestar team celebrates on the podium after winning the sixteenth stage of the Giro d'Italia 2016, from Bressanone to Andalo 132 km, Italy, 24 May 2016 ANSA/LUCA ZENNARO
Movistar’s Alejandro Valverde won the next stage to Andalo, moving up to third overall at his first-ever Giro as Nibali floundered
German rider Roger Kluge of IAM Cycling team wins the seventeenth stage of the Giro d'Italia 2016, from Molveno to Cassano D'adda 196 km, Italy, 25 May 2016. ANSA/LUCA ZENNARO
Roger Kluge can’t believe his victory on stage seventeen, coming as it did two days after IAM announced the team would fold after 2016. The German held off the peloton with a late attack
Dutch rider Steven Kruijswijk of Team Lotto Jumbo wearing Maglia Rosa (L), Italian rider Giovanni Visconti of Movistar Team, Russian rider Ilnur Zarkarin of Team Kastusha and Colombian rider Esteban Chaves of Orica GreenEdge during the 18th stage of Giro d'Italia 2016 from Muggi˜ to Pinerolo del Friuli, 26 May 2016. ANSA/CLAUDIO PERI
The peloton struggle up the steep cobbled Via Principi d’Acaja in Pinerolo on stage eighteen
Italian rider Matteo Trentin (L) of Etixx Quick Step team, celebrates after crossing the finish line to win the 18th stage of the Giro d'Italia cycling race over 240 km from Muggio' to Pinerolo, Italy, 26 May 2016. ANSA/ALESSANDRO DI MEO
Meanwhile, Etixx-QuickStep continued their great race as Matteo Trentin came from behind to surprise Cannondale’s Moreno Moser
Stage nineteen saw the race’s big turning point as Kruijwsijk crashed trying to follow Nibali down the Colle d’Agnello



Italian riderVincenzo Nibali of Astana team wins the ninethteenth stage of the Giro d'Italia 2016, from Pinerolo to Risoul (FR) 162 km, Italy, 27 May 2016. ANSA/LUCA ZENNARO
Kruijswijk would end up losing five minutes to stage winner Nibali. He dedicated his victory to a rider from his youth team who was killed a week earlier 
Chaves took pink but lost 53 seconds to Nibali on the day’s final climb. Kruijswijk ended the day 1:05 down
The pack is on the way of the 20th stage of Giro d'Italia 2016 from Guillestre to Sant'Anna di Vinadio. ANSA/CLAUDIO PERI
The peloton on the penultimate stage of the Giro, from Guillestre to Sant’Anna di Vinadio
Italian rider Vincenzo Nibali (C) and his teammates of Astana Pro Team go to win the PinkJersey on the way of the 20th stage of Giro d'Italia 2016 from Guillestre to Sant'Anna di Vinadio. ANSA/CLAUDIO PERI
Nibali and his Astana teammates played the stage to perfection. Here, they prepare to mount an assault on Chaves’ 52 second advantage
(L-R) Italian rider Vincenzo Nibali of Astana Pro Team goes to win the Pink Jersey on Colombian rider Esteban Chaves of Orica GreenEdge and Spanish rider Alejandro Valverde during the 20th stage of Giro d'Italia 2016 from Guillestre to Sant'Anna di Vinadio. ANSA/CLAUDIO PERI
Nibali made his move on the Colle della Lombarda, dropping Chaves and eventually taking the race lead in the most dramatic way
Vincenzo Nibali (C) vince il Giro d'Italia 2016, secondo classificato Esteban Chaves (S) e terzo Alejandro Valverde (d) Torino, 29 maggio 2016.  ANSA/ALESSANDRO DI MEO
The final podium in Turin. 1st – Nibali, 2nd – Chaves, 3rd – Valverde
Giro d'Italia 2016. ANSA/ALESSANDRO DI MEO
Sky’s Mikel Nieve won the mountains jersey thanks to his Dolomite breakaways
Giro d'Italia 2016. ANSA/ALESSANDRO DI MEO
Consistent finishes from Trek’s Giacomo Nizzolo saw him win the points jersey, though a stage win would still elude him after he was demoted on the final stage due to irregular sprinting
Giro d'Italia 2016. ANSA/ALESSANDRO DI MEO
Jungels was a revelation, taking the young rider’s jersey and finishing sixth overall
Vincenzo Nibali wearing Pink Jersey holds the Trofeo Senza Fine Award with his teammates of Astana Pro Team on the final podium of the 99th Giro dÕItalia cycling race. Torino, 29 May 2016. ANSA/CLAUDIO PERi
Nibali is hoisted aloft by his team as he clings onto the Trofeo Senza Fine, his for a second time

Russians at the Giro: Alfa Lum to Ilnur Zakarin

Zakarin Giro d'Italia 2015 podium COR VOS

Russia and Italy have, in cycling terms at least, a close relationship. Over the years many Russians have moved to the Peninsula to start their careers in the U23 and pro ranks, while WorldTour team Katusha have always had an Italian flavour in the form of riders, staff and their service course in Brescia.

The relationship also extends to the biggest race in Italy, the Giro d’Italia. Since Soviet cyclists started racing in the West, only Spaniards and the natives have more Giro wins than Russia’s three, while Russia are also third in the stage win rankings with 25 during that time. What’s even more amazing is that these Giro successes can all be traced back to one team.

Back in 1988, Primo Franchini’s Alfa Lum team were enjoying the results of a young Maurizio Fondriest. The then-23-year-old was a star in the making, winning stages at Tirreno-Adriatico and the Tour de Suisse as well as narrowly losing Milano-Sanremo during his second year as a professional.

A surprise win at the World Championships in Belgium at the end of the season meant he was off to Del Tongo the following season and Franchini was left with a rebuild job. Luckily for him, Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev’s Perestroika reforms saw the end of the amateur status of Soviet athletes as many moved abroad to compete.

With the Soviet economy collapsing, a new agency called Sovintersport was created. Overseen by friend of Vladimir Putin and ex-KGB agent Sergey Chemezov (who also had a role in creating the Russian Global Cycling Project and has served as chairman of the board at the Russian Cycling Federation), the agency brought in money by exporting Soviet athletes who were already professional in all but name.

Alga Lum team dinner 1989 Tchmil Ugrumov Poulnikov Konyshev
Alfa Lum’s Soviet squad, 1989 (Flickr – Anders)

Franchini took advantage of this, making a deal with Sovintersport and rebuilding his team entirely with Soviet riders. During the following two seasons, names such as Konyshev, Poulnikov, Tchmil, Soukhoroutchenkov, Ugrumov and Abdoujaparov would be introduced to western European racing thanks to Alfa Lum.

This starry alumni would go on to rack up nine Giro stage victories and four top-four finishes, as well as seven classification victories. Meanwhile two other riders who moved to Italy after Perestroika, Evgeni Berzin and Pavel Tonkov, won the race in 1994 and 1996, sharing twelve stage wins between them.

Now, twenty years on from those mid-90s glory days, Russians are back in vogue, with two teams racing La Corsa Rosa, a new star rider battling for the podium, and a stage win on one of the race’s toughest days. With an all-time high of seventeen Russians in this year’s race there’s a lot to talk about, so for this, the first in a two-part series, we’ll take a look at the biggest name of the lot.

Zakarin triumphs in Imola last May
Ilnur Zakarin triumphs in Imola last May

Ilnur Zakarin, a lanky 26-year-old riding for Russia’s premier team Katusha, was an unknown to many cycling fans before the spring of last year. After serving his apprenticeship with Russian teams lower down the ladder, he hit the big time only a few months after joining Igor Makarov’s team.

A top ten finish at January’s Tour de San Luis showed his aptitude for stage racing but he really got going in April and May. The Vuelta al País Vasco, one of the hardest week-long races in cycling, concluded with Zakarin in ninth overall, which he followed up with overall victory at the Tour de Romandie. His first Grand Tour, the Giro d’Italia, came days later and with it his first ever Grand Tour stage victory, on a rain-sodden hilly stage that ended on the Imola racing circuit.

This seemingly ready-made stage racer emerging so suddenly was a boon for Katusha, a team who had yet to find a homegrown Grand Tour leader. And with long-time leader Joaquim Rodríguez recently turning 37, Zakarin’s rise has been timed to perfection.

2016 has seen him consolidate and confirm his talent, winning a stage and finishing fourth at Paris-Nice, taking fifth after an aggressive showing at a snowy Liège-Bastogne-Liège, also finishing in the top ten at the Volta a Catalunya and Tour de Romandie.

Zakarin wins at May's Tour de Romandie, a victory that was later rescinded due to irregular sprinting
Zakarin wins at April’s Tour de Romandie, a victory that was later rescinded due to irregular sprinting

A Muslim Tatar hailing from the city of Naberezhnye Chelny, some 570 miles east of Moscow, Zakarin is Katusha’s leader this May, the first time he has ever led a Grand Tour team. The race has, so far, been a voyage of discovery for him.

“It’s one of my big goals, along with the Olympics,” he says. “Plan A is to fight for a high place on GC, though I can’t say which exact place I want to reach. It’s the first time that I have ever gone for a high result so we’ll see.”

Coming into the final rest day he finds himself in sixth overall, 4:40 behind leader Steven Kruijswijk and 1:49 behind the man in third place, Vincenzo Nibali. With three summit finishes left to race, it’s certainly within the realms of possibility that Zakarin can finish on the podium.

“There is still a week ahead, with many important stages left,” he said after Sunday’s Alpe di Siusi mountain time trial. “I will go day by day, giving my best in every stage.”

A natural time trialist, Zakarin has been winning races against the clock for years, and was National Champion in 2013. Thanks to the three time trials on the route, this edition of the Giro was thought to suit him well (before the race he said: “I studied the course and saw things that I liked. We have three time trials, so no need to panic.”), but the 40km time trial on stage nine was a disaster for him.

Zakarin fell twice on the wet roads in Chianti, also stopping at one point to change bikes A ride which, through the first two checkpoints looked like making him the first Russian in pink since Denis Menchov in 2009, ended with him dropping out of the top ten.

Menchov Rabobank Giro d'Italia 2009 Rome COR VOS
Denis Menchov’s famous fall during the 2009 Giro’s final time trial

Back in July of that year, when Menchov (a cycling hero of Zakarin’s) was basking in the aftermath of winning the Giro, Zakarin’s world was being turned upside down. Still just 19, he had tested positive for the anabolic steroid methandienone, and would be banned for two years.

Nowadays Zakarin doesn’t like to talk about it, brushing off questions with responses about looking to the future and not the past, but it left a stain on his record as he worked his way up through the Russian cycling pyramid.

Success came at every level, winning the GP Adygeya and finishing in the top ten at the U23 Giro in 2012 with Continental team Itera. He moved up to ProConti RusVelo for 2013, and the good results kept coming, with wins at the Tour d’Azerbaïdjan, GP Sochi and the GP Adygeya once again, as well as a second place in the Tour de Slovénie.

During this final season with RusVelo, Zakarin made a number of big changes in his life. First and foremost was a move – not to the usual pro cycling bases of Lucca, Nice or Monte Carlo, but to Limassol, a city on the Mediterranean island of Cyprus.

His wife Viktoria, a nutritionist, moved with him, and has been a major force behind his rise to prominence. Put on a special diet by her, Zakarin claims to have lost ten kilograms as a result – and the weight loss has done no harm at all his climbing ability since his move to Katusha.

“When I came to Katusha and to the WorldTour I wanted to get some strong results,” says Zakarin. “I felt like I was ready, but I saw immediately that the level was higher. I did not expect the big results, but then I gained confidence.”

Zakarin with the favourites group during stage 12 to Asolo
Zakarin with the favourites group during this year’s stage 12 to Asolo

He surely didn’t expect to end up where he is now when he first got on a bicycle either, but he tells the story of how he began, and how he looked up to Menchov, Viatcheslav Ekimov and Pavel Tonkov as he grew up.

“I had some friends in school who were in a cycling club, and they invited me to join,” he says. “It was nice to ride the ride, to compete with other guys. The results came quickly so I decided to continue.”

“My brother Aidar is also a cyclist – he’s with Gazprom-Rusvelo. When we were younger we wanted to be like the Schleck brothers. If we can get the same palmarés it would be nice.”

Matching the Schlecks is a distinct possibility if Zakarin keeps learning and developing the way he has so far with Katusha, but he will want to go one better than Andy’s second place at the 2007 Giro d’Italia.

For the man who was born seventy years to the day after the great Campionissimo, Fausto Coppi, this year doesn’t look like being the one he will take home the Trofeo Senza Fine. There’s time for Zakarin though, and from what we’ve seen of him a Giro win might not be far away. The motto of Tatarstan is, after all, Bez Buldırabız! – We Can!