Americans Abroad: Costa & Eisenhart at the Tour of Britain

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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.

Drapac at the Volta

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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.”

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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.”

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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!”

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.

Conclusion

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.

 

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!

A history of 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.

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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.

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.