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.

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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!”

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!

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.

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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.

Quintana talks illness and rider safety at País Vasco

Quintana Contador Movistar Volta Catalunya 2016 COR VOS
Quintana battling with Alberto Contador at March’s Volta a Catalunya (Cor Vos)

Ahead of his bid to add a second Vuelta al País Vasco victory to his ever-growing palmarés, Movistar’s Nairo Quintana talked to regional newspaper El Diario Vasco.

The Colombian had more on his mind than just the week’s racing though, most of all his condition. He’s in good shape, he says, but illness has interfered with preparation for the race somewhat.

“At the moment I feel under the weather,” he says. “Catalunya affected the whole team. I caught a virus which left me with chills and a dry cough. And on top of that it has been raining!”

On the eve of the race, Quintana’s team had been depleted as brothers Gorka and Ion Izagirre were ruled out of the race with gastroenteritis.

Aside from the fight to stay healthy, Quintana anticipates tough competition over the coming days. The 24-year-old singled out Sky’s Sergio Luis Henao (second last year) as well three-time winner Alberto Contador of Tinkoff, who he beat to the overall title at the Volta a Catalunya last month.

“My rivals are fit, on track – especially Contador. He looks good in terms of racing and condition,” he says. “What he does, he does well – attacks, climbs, as usual.  And Froome was pretty strong in Catalunya – he already has a high level. Come Tour-time they will be in even better form.”

Conversation inevitably turned to the race’s route, which has been widely recognised as one of the toughest-looking editions of recent years.

“It is very hard, unreasonably tough I think,” says Quintana. “The climb in the Eibar time trial is also hard, but I like the time trial – the descent is very fast and has some deceiving corners.”

“The hills are not long but they are hard. [The organisers] have to think a bit about the riders before putting together such a harsh route.”

There’s also the question of the weather – rain is forecast during the week, something that riders from Contador to Joaquim Rodríguez have already commented on. Meanwhile Quintana has a complicated relationship with wet weather.

“If the weather is bad the road grime will complicate things,” he says. “I don’t like the rain – I prefer good, clear weather. But if it does rain my allergies don’t affect me and I feel better. When I won here in 2013 it rained a lot and that actually benefitted me.”

Quintana
Quintana, followed by two motos at last year’s Tirreno-Adriatico, said it’s “normal” to be afraid of them (Cor Vos)

Finally, and inevitably, came subject of moto crashes and rider safety. It’s an issue that has been hard to ignore for months now, one that has been tragically brought back to the fore with the death of Wanty-Groupe Gobert’s Antoine Demoitié at Gent-Wevelgem.

“I’m very sad about what happened to Demoitié. He was just doing his job,” said Quintana. “What happened is outrageous, but it’s not [happening] just now. Already last year there were problems at the Vuelta, Clásica San Sebastián, in the classics and at the Giro.”

Rather worryingly, Quintana went on to admit that it is normal to be afraid of motos, saying “Of course (I have been afraid)! It’s normal.”

A number of solutions have been put forward by a number of people around the cycling world, and Quintana calls for a more thorough licensing system.

“Any oversight can mean a tragedy. It cannot be that in a WorldTour race there are people who drive a car only in that race,” he says.

“Just as the directors have to get a license, everyone in the race should have a certificate to authorise them to follow a race, and not start driving directly in the WorldTour.”

On the comeback trail with Taylor Phinney

Phinney with his fans at the Tour of Britain team presentation (Sweetspot)
Phinney with his fans at the Tour of Britain team presentation (Sweetspot)

May 26th 2014 – that was the day Taylor Phinney’s world stood still. Flung into a guardrail while speeding down a descent at the U.S. road race championships in Chattanooga, Tennessee, the then-23-year-old’s left leg was shattered in two places after a race motorbike attempted to pass him on the inside of a corner.

It was a potentially career-ending injury, but now he’s back. Seemingly back to his best too, with a stage win at the USA Pro Cycling Challenge in his native Colorado, only his second race back.

Now he’s in Britain, racing here for the first time, and looking ahead to the World Championships in the USA at the end of the month.

Phinney was in a positive mood after the first stage of the race, which finished in Wrexham. With BMC’s best finisher being Floris Gerts in eleventh, the Coloradan had a different reason for his upbeat attitude.

“There was sweet scenery on the first climb – that climb was very beautiful. I spent the whole way up just looking around,” he says. “It felt like I was on a very fast guided tour of North Wales, which was fun.”

Back to winning ways at the USAPCC in August (Cor Vos)
Back to winning ways at the USAPCC in August (Cor Vos)

While Phinney could spend the first stage of the race admiring the scenery, there are more serious matters up ahead, with stage wins on the agenda for the young squad.

“We don’t necessarily have huge GC ambitions, but we want to get a stage or two,” Phinney says. “So we want to do that however we can make that happen – they’d probably come via breakaways or on the harder days I would guess.”

The team has several options, with Dylan Teuns (top ten last year as a stagiaire) returning. Promising Swiss neo-pro Stefan Küng is also racing, and has already shown his ability on similar terrain with an impressive 25km solo victory at the Tour de Romandie.

At 30-years-old, climber Danilo Wyss is the veteran of the squad, while stagiaire Gerts will get his chance to prove why he deserves to move up from the BMC Development Team for good.

Then there’s Phinney, as hungry as ever, but with his eyes ultimately on a bigger prize.

“I would love to win a stage here, and I think my legs will improve towards the end of the race. That’s how they seem to be these days,” he says. “But in terms of personal goals the Worlds is what I’m looking towards. Obviously with them being in Virginia it means a lot to me.”

Tasting gold in the 2010 U23 TT Worlds (Cor Vos)
Tasting gold in the 2010 U23 TT Worlds (Cor Vos)

Phinney has a varied history with the Worlds, winning the U23 time trial in 2010. Two years later in the senior race he missed out on gold to Tony Martin by six seconds, while his crash meant he wasn’t part of BMC’s winning ride in last season’s team time trial.

Indeed, talk soon turns back to that crash, the crash that threatened Phinney’s career but ultimately caused him to miss fifteen months of racing during his prime. Surely there’s some trepidation coming back to the peloton after such a long time out?

“Actually I wasn’t so nervous, partly because I was racing at home in Utah and Colorado – I’ve always been comfortable in those races,” says Phinney. “It was a fun next step, and coming here is the next step beyond that – the smaller roads, the twists and turns – you know. But I’m just trying to have fun with it.”

“I still have to stay on top of my rehab – my left leg is still a work in progress in terms of regaining the strength, but I’ll just keep on trucking.”

There’s much to say about the cause of his crash too – a subject that has reared its head in recent weeks as Jakob Fuglsang, Greg Van Avermaet, Peter Sagan and Sergio Paulinho have all been knocked from their bikes by passing race motorbikes.

Greg Van Avermaet, one of many moto crash victims this season (Cor Vos)
Phinney’s teammate Greg Van Avermaet, one of many moto crash victims this season (Cor Vos)

“I don’t really know how it can be solved you know. It’s been a strange year with all the run-ins with motorcycles,” he says. “Maybe the answer is in the education [of the drivers] or maybe just have less motos on the road.”

“I think the main issue is that we never find out who those people are. It’s like – there’s a human on the moto, it’s not the moto itself. Right now they’re just guys with helmets on and not knowing who they are just kinda dehumanises them.”

So far though, Phinney has stayed out of trouble, and he’s still keen to emphasise the positives of motos in a bike race.

“In races like this we’re really thankful for the motos – with all the road furniture and stuff these guys really help us out and warn us about what’s coming up.”

Face-to-face with a potential early retirement just last year, Phinney is now back in the peloton, back where he belongs. As for this week, well there’s more scenery to take in, but another win would be nice.

David Blanco, King of the Volta

David Blanco Volta 2012
Blanco with trophy number five at the 2012 race (Volta a Portugal)

An interview with the man who knows Portugal’s big race as well as anyone

“I cry every time I see one of my wins.” So says David Blanco, a Spaniard, and five-time winner of the Volta a Portugal. “It’s hard to explain but even at the Vuelta, my home race, I never had the same motivation as I did when I raced the Volta.”

“It was a strange symbiosis, but perhaps the sum of many things – the weather, the mountains, the people,” he trails off.

Blanco has won the race more than anybody else since it was first run in 1927. In a twelve-year career, he missed just one edition. And yet the Volta is barely heard of outside of Portugal. Ask your average cycling fan for a podium prediction and it’s likely that you’ll be met with a blank stare.

The level at which Portuguese cycling is run is the primary reason. There are six teams in the country, all of which race at Continental level, the third tier of cycling, and rarely venture outside of Iberia to compete.

There are financial reasons for that, but this insularity is the main cause of Portuguese cycling’s solitary confinement. Names like Rui Costa, Tiago Machado and Sergio Paulinho are familiar to our ears, but what exactly is Paredes Rota dos Movéis?

“I started as a professional there in 2000,” says Blanco. “They invited me to ride the Volta a Portugal Futuro the previous year, and I finished third so they signed me.”

The team, now known as LA Aluminios-Antarte, boasted another familiar name at the time, Ezequiel Mosquera. “I chose them because Ezequiel (a fellow Galician) was there,” he says. “In Spain the level of talent was very high so it was tough to turn pro. Because of that, Spanish riders were cheap, which meant that there were around sixty riders in Portugal then.”

Blanco was twenty-five when he turned professional, late thanks to his time at university, studying business in Santiago de Compostela. Born in Berne, Switzerland to Spanish parents, Blanco’s family relocated there when he was five years old. Soon after his love affair with the bike began, inspired by 1988 Tour de France winner Pedro Delgado.

The Galician city, which Blanco still calls home today, is the end point for one of the largest religious pilgrimages in the world, The Way of St. James. Hundreds of thousands of people set out on foot, by bicycle or on horseback, in a nod to their medieval counterparts, to visit the shrine of the apostle.

Blanco, a Catholic himself, sees a similarity in the Volta. “It’s like a party for everybody. The word I use is romería (a Catholic day of celebration and pilgrimage),” he says. “It doesn’t feel like any other race. People, even those who don’t care about cycling, visit as they would a party.”

At the Volta a Catalunya in 2006 (AFP)
At the Volta a Catalunya in 2006 (AFP)

That the race is held in August, a time when much of the public are on holiday from work, is both a help and a hindrance.

“The race’s place in the calendar is its biggest problem. Before the ProTour (now known as the WorldTour), plenty of big teams visited but now the Tour de Pologne and the Vuelta are too close. It will never be moved from August though.”

It’s something of a conundrum then. Whereas once upon a time the race could boast startlists featuring Lampre, Festina, QuickStep and more, Spanish ProContinental squad Caja Rural are the cream of the crop in 2015, while a smattering of foreign Continental-level teams will also take part.

In the mid-2000s the race enjoyed 2.HC status (it’s now 2.1), and there was a push towards the ProTour, but such a move would have been at the detriment of the local teams.

“Thank God they didn’t upgrade. Portuguese teams would’ve disappeared because they’re too small, too poor to move up,” says Blanco. “Just look at what happened in Spain. We have no races, no teams, no future.”

WorldTour teams do visit the country, but only for February’s Volta ao Algarve, a training race, closer to their home bases in northern and central Europe than the likes of Oman and Qatar. The race is a rare success story for Portuguese cycling in the wake of the global financial crisis, which hit both Iberian countries hard.

From a combined twenty-three teams (nine Portuguese) in 2006, the countries now share just ten, while numerous races have also disappeared from the calendar.

“Of course there’s less money in Portugal. Since the ProTour was introduced, it has been good for the elite teams but misery for the rest,” Blanco says. Disdain for the elite of cycling is a recurring theme in our conversation, with Blanco referring to the UCI’s top tier pejoratively several times.

“All my life I dreamed of becoming a professional cyclist. I achieved it, but when I saw what was behind the curtain it felt like a nightmare.”

“Portuguese teams have budgets of €300k or so. In my final year the salary was a complete joke,” he says. “I can thank God I earned good money before so that wasn’t a problem for me but there are many riders there earning €1k a month or less, sometimes not even that.”

Just as in wider society, a growing economic disparity is a problem in cycling, with the idea of a budget cap being mooted by figures such as Oleg Tinkov in recent times. One would assume though, that Tinkov had his own roubles in mind, rather than the financial security of riders.

Riding for Geox-TMC at the 2011 Vuelta a España (Cor Vos)
At the 2011 Vuelta a España with Geox-TMC (Cor Vos)

Financial security was at the forefront of Blanco’s mind when he chose to join Spanish team Geox-TMC in 2011, his penultimate year as a professional. Yet despite the team winning an exciting edition of the Vuelta a España with Juan José Cobo, Blanco had bitter memories of the season, calling it nothing short of a disaster.

“I could never find good condition on the bike. Later I learned that I had a bacterial problem with my stomach that affected me all season,” he says. “The salary, along with my Volta wins, meant that I put too much pressure on myself, and tried to race far more than I was used to.”

“It was nice to win the Vuelta, even though in the end it helped nothing. To this day I still don’t understand why Geox left – perhaps Formula One is more chic than cycling.” Geox now sponsors the sports Red Bull team.

While undoubtedly a miserable time for Blanco, his experience with Geox was hardly the only dark point of his career. May 2006 saw the eruption of Operation Puerto, the biggest doping scandal to hit the sport since the Festina affair of 1998. At the time, Blanco was riding for one of Spain’s premier squads and the team at the centre of the investigation, Kelme.

He had finished tenth at the 2004 Vuelta whilst working for team leader Alejandro Valverde, who ended up fourth, while another teammate, Carlos Garcia Quesada was fifth. An opportunity to move to the powerhouse Banesto team followed, but Blanco remained at Kelme, a decision he calls, “the biggest mistake of my life.”

“Anyway, after Puerto I was destroyed emotionally. My teammates had stopped training but I decided that I had to do something special if I wanted to continue in the sport.”

“To tell the truth I never thought I could win the Volta, but I knew Portugal well and knew there were teams with good money who could offer me a future,” he says. “I was disappointed with what happened in 2006 and how the ‘elite’ reacted to me so I lost the motivation to race in the ProTour again.”

The rest was, as they say, history, with Blanco winning two stages on the way to opening his Volta account. Portuguese teams chased his signature, but Blanco instead chose to join a newly-founded team, run jointly by Russian footballer Valery Karpin and the local government.

As it happened, he never turned a pedal in anger for Karpin-Galicia. A meeting with Duja-Tavira, the Algarve-based team which has existed in some form since 1976, saw him rescind his contract and return to Portugal.

Trophy number four in 2010
Trophy number four in 2010 (Volta a Portugal)

The late Xavi Tondo won that year’s Volta, with Blanco finishing fifth. He only had to wait a year to take victory number two though, beating future teammate Cobo, as well as a young Dan Martin.

Blanco’s third victory came in 2009, although he was second originally. Nuno Ribeiro of Liberty Seguros had won the race, but it was later announced that he had tested positive for CERA just before the start, along with teammates Isidro Nozal and Hector Guerra. The scandal saw the Spanish bank leave the sport for a second time in three years.

“I count it as a victory but what happened in 2009 was bad for everyone,” Blanco says. “I never felt the happiness of a win, and I think Portuguese cycling is still suffering from that stigma.”

If there is a stigma surrounding the sport, it’s an unfair one. The Portuguese Anti-Doping Federation (ADOP) runs its own version of both the Biological Passport and the ADAMS Whereabouts system, the only country in Europe with such a program in place for Continental-level teams.

With Ribeiro’s disqualification, Blanco not only won his third Volta, but he was also elevated to first place on stage ten, which finished atop the famous climb of the Alto da Torre.

Far from a single-lane goat path climb you might see in the Vuelta, the road to the top of the second-highest peak in the country is smooth and wide. The gradient constantly changes though, and at 27km long, it takes well over an hour to race up from the town of Seia.

“It’s a very special climb. You need to know it to be able to win. I suffered in the early steep sections,” he says. “The rest of the climb is for powerful riders – my favourite part.”

“I never understood why riders waited for those to attack, rather than the sections where I would suffer more. The only time they did that was when Tondo won in 2008,” Blanco says, smiling.

After 2009’s retroactive victory, he was first to the top again the following year, also taking the win at the other summit finish of the race at Senhora da Graca. Fellow countrymen David Bernabéu and Sergio Pardilla would join him on the final podium.

Blanco climbing to victory on Torre in 2012
Blanco climbing to victory on Torre in 2012 (Volta a Portugal)

It was win number four, taking him ahead of Portuguese cycling legend Joaquim Agostinho, and level with Marco Chagas, who now commentates on the race for Portuguese television. His fifth would have to wait though, with the move to Geox meaning that Blanco would miss the race for the first time.

“After Geox I was just thinking about my happiness. I was about to retire after that fiasco, but I wanted to do another year, just to erase 2011 from my mind,” he says. “In January I decided that I would try and be the first to win five Voltas, so I started the search for a new team.”

Efapel-Glassdrive was the destination for his final season as a professional. Once again, he was victorious on the Alto da Torre, climbing into the lead on his favourite mountain.

“The last Volta win is my favourite. That year I enjoyed every race as if it was my last,” he says. “I cry just thinking about how happy I was. It really was a dream come true.”

Riding into Lisbon in the yellow jersey was his last act as a professional cyclist, and then Blanco was off. To Africa, specifically. He moved with his wife to Equatorial Guinea, where she worked. Blanco admits to “doing almost nothing” during those three years – a well-earned rest.

Now back in Santiago de Compostela, Blanco has grand plans in an altogether different sport, moving from one type of climbing to another.

“I’m currently working to open a climbing wall centre, with help from ex-World Champion Ramón Julián,” he says. “I started climbing thanks to my brother-in-law, and I loved it. Together we had the idea to start this project.”

Blanco will take some time out from working on his new project to visit the Volta once again this week. It will be a while before he sees anyone come close to his record-breaking five victories, but perhaps he’ll witness the beginning of a challenge.

The 77th Volta a Portugal runs from July 29 – August 9. Indoorwall in Santiago de Compostela opens September 4.

Rebel with a cause: Davide Rebellin

Rebellin in the leader's jersey, days before his unlucky exit from the 2015 Tour of Turkey (Cor Vos)
Rebellin in the leader’s jersey, days before his unlucky exit from the 2015 Tour of Turkey (Cor Vos)

He’s riding his 23rd year as a pro but the controversial Italian isn’t slowing down yet

Everything changed on May 3rd, the last day of the Tour of Turkey and the now-customary Istanbul circuit race that saw the peloton cross the Bosphorus, hopping between the continents. Davide Rebellin, the 43-year-old Italian riding for Polish squad CCC Polsat Polkowice, was primed for a podium spot few would have expected at the week’s start.

But then, just thirty kilometres from the end of the race, it happened. In the crowd there was a moment of inattention, a dog running free from the lead, unwittingly causing chaos in the massed ranks of the peloton.

Rebellin’s teammate, the equally divisive Stefan Schumacher was the first to go down. Rebellin followed, hitting the road hard. His shoulder was dislocated, his race over, a victory gone.

Three weeks later he was back. Seventh overall at the Tour of Norway was followed up with a fifth place at the Italian National Championships in June. But Rebellin was still dwelling on Turkey and an opportunity missed.

“I’m still recovering from the disappointment,” he says. “The shoulder doesn’t hurt when I ride though, but I will have an operation at the end of the season.”

“Last week it popped out as I turned over in bed. I’ll have to be careful to avoid falls too.”

Earlier in the race there was a surprise win on the tough summit finish of Elmalı, beating eventual winner Kristijan Durasek and moving into the leader’s jersey. The remainder of the peloton was spread over forty minutes, with only one other man within a minute of a thrilled Rebellin.

rebellin face cor vos
Davide Rebellin, now in his 23rd year as a professional (Cor Vos, also header image)

Despite this mountain-top success, among others, Rebellin has been more renowned for his ability in the classics, rather than stage races. Maybe his drift towards success in the latter is a product of aging – when there is less explosivity in the legs for the short, sharp classics-style hills.

“Compared to previous years I feel that I’ve improved in the long climbs but have lost a bit in the sprint,” says Rebellin. “Something that has changed is that nowadays I have to do more races to find a good condition.”

One stage race that Rebellin was forced to miss out on was his home Grand Tour, the Giro d’Italia. There were suggestions that race organisers RCS Sport had barred him and Schumacher from riding, with race director Mauro Vegni commenting in January, “I’d like to have a Giro start without riders who stir controversy.”

It’s a stance that has opened Vegni up to accusations of hypocrisy, with numerous other riders who had served doping-related bans allowed to ride. At the Giro this year were Ivan Basso, Franco Pellizotti, Ilnur Zakarin, Alberto Contador, Diego Ulissi, Giovanni Visconti and Tom Danielson.

When asked about it, Rebellin had a different view. “I would’ve wanted to do it but the choice not to take me was down to the team,” he says. “I have the right to participate in races, just like others who have served doping bans. It wasn’t the case that there was discrimination against me, even if others have been in that situation.”

Whatever went on, it eventually turned out that he wouldn’t have been able to participate anyway, thanks to his shoulder injury.

On the way to a now-rescinded silver medal at the 2008 Olympics (Cor Vos)
On the way to a now-rescinded silver medal at the 2008 Olympics (Cor Vos)

The controversy Vegni talks about, and something that many still hold against Rebellin, is his ban after testing positive for CERA during the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. The Veronesi took silver in the road race, a result that was later rescinded as he was banned for two years.

“There are people who believe in my innocence. I’m clear that some justice has been done though, even I’ll never have what they took from me – the medal, the races I was forced to miss, and then there have been the moral an economic damages,” Rebellin says. “The judge’s ruling earlier this year has declared my innocence of doping with a full acquittal.”

That’s not quite the whole story – a court in Padova found he had no criminal case to answer after the Italian Olympic Committee (CONI) had sought €500,000 damages and a year’s imprisonment for his positive test. The sporting sanctions remain, however.

Enough about the past though, what does the future hold for Rebellin?

“I started racing when I was ten years old, with my father’s team. At the moment I don’t know when I will stop,” he says. “I’ll decide during the course of the season whether to do another year.”

“I still want to race, train, I still have the determination. What keeps me in this condition is the life I live. My diet, rest and recuperation are all better than they were ten years ago. That’s where my results come from.”

A three-time winner at Flèche Wallonne, he last won in 2009 with Androni Giocattoli (Cor Vos)

After twenty-three years involvement with the sport, there are no plans to forget about cycling once he retires as a professional. “Training young cyclists is an option – both amateurs and professionals,” says Rebellin.

“I’ve already decided to arrange training camps with amateurs, and ride with them on the French Riviera. I can give them advice, share my experiences and just be among those who love cycling.”

Rebellin has been based in France for over a decade now, living in Monaco with his wife of just over a year, Françoise, and their pet cats. It’s clear that his whole outlook on life has changed in those years spent in France. “I thought I was only able to pedal before Françoise,” he says. “I was like half a man. Now I’m less insecure, more focused on doing things I love.”

Expat life hasn’t all been plain sailing though, with the Italian authorities accusing him of using his Monaco property to avoid €6.5million in taxes while supposedly still living in Italy. Rebellin was eventually cleared this year, with the case thrown out alongside the CONI charges.

There are, of course, many obvious positives of living on France’s south coast for a cyclist – the weather, the roads, easy travel to races and, last but not least, the company.

“There are many professionals based here. Sometimes I train with Niccolò Bonifazio, Oscar Gatto or my new teammate Sylvester Szmyd,” he says. “My favourite climbs are the Col de la Madone and the Col de Turini.”

For Rebellin there was another, rather more unexpected advantages – a stroke of luck that led him to join CCC in 2013.

“A Polish friend of mine, who works in Monte Carlo put me in touch with Piotr Wadecki (team DS), so he’s the man I have to thank,” he says. “We talked, found an agreement and now here I am.”

Moving to the Polish ProContinental squad was a bold move, but one that has paid off, as the team grows in stature with every passing season. “We’re improving every year, with better riders and better organisation, as well as invited to bigger races,” says Rebellin. “I think we are growing to become one of the best in the world.”

The CCC-Sprandi train in Turkey (Cor Vos)
The CCC-Sprandi train in Turkey (Cor Vos)

CCC is the ninth team of Rebellin’s career, and having spent three years in the distinctive orange kit, it’s also his second-longest stint at a team. German-based squad Gerolsteiner was his home from 2002 to 2008, the prime years of his career, during which time he became the first ever rider to complete the fabled Ardennes Triple in 2004, as well as winning Paris-Nice four years later.

Despite his many successes, Rebellin still laments one race he missed out on. “Being a classics-style rider, my failure to win the World Championships is my biggest regret,” he says. “My favourite victory was Liège, but the Worlds is the race I miss most from my palmarès.”

His best result at the Worlds remains his fourth place in 2008, as teammate Alessandro Ballan took victory. It’s a result he will never improve upon, due to the Italian Federation’s policy of not selecting riders who have served doping bans.

At the moment he’s leading CCC at the Tour de Pologne, his third time racing there with the home team. “I will be seeking a stage victory,” he says. “As for the general classification – I will take it day by day.”

While Rebellin may not be universally popular, it’s hard not to admire his ability to keep going. Comfortably the oldest rider in the professional peloton, he still competes for wins regularly.

There’ll be a rest period after Pologne and then he’s on the hunt again, heading back to Italy for the Autumn Classics, with the Giro di Lombardia the major goal. Look out for the man in orange, still hungry to make his mark, and with perhaps only a few more chances to do so.

 

Interview: Giro Gregarios

Paolo Tiralongo with team leader Fabio Aru in 2014 (Cor Vos)
Paolo Tiralongo with team leader Fabio Aru in 2014 (Cor Vos)

Before the Giro I spoke to three men – three riders who have all won stages at the race but are more well-known as workers, or gregarios, for others.

Astana veteran Paolo Tiralongo helped Vincenzo Nibali win the Giro in 2013, as well as working for Alberto Contador during his now-nullified 2010 victory. He has also experienced personal triumph at the race, winning stages in 2011 and 2012.

Australian Adam Hansen is riding his fourth Giro in a row for Lotto-Soudal, his sixth overall. A key part of André Greipel’s sprint train, Hansen won a Giro stage back in 2013.

Cannondale-Garmin rider Ramunas Navardauskas was part of the squad that assisted Ryder Hesjedal’s unlikely Giro win in 2012. The Lithuanian wore the pink jersey for two stages that year, and went on to take a stage win of his own a year later.

Here’s what the trio had to say about La Corsa Rosa and their experiences with the race.


Memories of the Giro from before you became professional?

Tiralongo: This will be my thirteenth Giro. Cycling has changed a lot since I was young, before there was more room for personal initiative – now everything is focused on the team and the leader.

Hansen: Actually I didn’t follow the Giro, or any professional cycling, before I moved to Europe [In 2003 Hansen swapped mountain biking in Australia for racing at Continental level in Austria.]

Navardauskas:  I remember Cipollini. I always heard about big names like that but when you’re a kid you never think that one day you’ll be there too.

Tiralongo after his 2013 win at Rocca di Cambio (Cor Vos)
Tiralongo after his 2013 win at Rocca di Cambio (Cor Vos, also header image)
Where does the Giro rank for you?

Tiralongo: For me, and every Italian rider, it’s the most important race of the season. It’s our home country and we are more visible, more popular than at any other race.

I think that everyone who can finish this race is a hero. Even if you don’t win, the climbs are equally long for all. Cold is cold, rain is rain – it’s the same for everybody.

Hansen: It’s definitely one of my favourite races. I’ve been a few times and every day you’re racing, every day you have a chance. It’ll be my eleventh Grand Tour in a row, and I think the plan is just to keep going.

Navardauskas: It’s been a lucky race for me and I have good memories of it. Sadly I’m not at the race this year but as always work is work – the Giro, Tour, Vuelta, wherever you go it’s always a big responsibility for the team.

Working for others vs winning for yourself?

Tiralongo: A real gregario is happy when a teammate or leader wins. You’re happy because you know you have contributed to the result. The team has to come first to achieve certain results – it’s the only way.

The victory at Macugnaga [in 2011] was my first. I arrived at the finish with my friend, Alberto Contador, who was my teammate at Astana the year before – we helped each other. The next year I desired the win at Rocca di Cambio [beating Michele Scarponi], and fought for it. They were special moments.

Hansen: For instance when Greipel wins it’s very special because the whole team is working, protecting him from the wind and so on. And you do feel proud of it, and I think that’s one of the good things about being a domestique.

As for my stage win, it was just all the years of riding, all the years of being a domestique – everything paid off in that moment. It felt like the small token or present you get for finally making it. The win was the greatest moment of my cycling career.

The day when I won – it was the kind of day where you want to be in the break because the weather is so bad. In the last ten kilometres I was thinking “the peloton will come or I’ll crash or flat any moment now.” It was an unexpected win.

Navardauskas: When your leader has a chance to win, it’s always bigger. A leader that wins the General Classification has made his career – in the future you can tell your friends, your kids that I was there, I helped that.

Anything is possible – when we started the Giro, Ryder was more of an outsider and then we started getting better as a team, every day more motivated. That win is like a personal win.

Pescara - Italy - wielrennen - cycling - radsport - cyclisme - Adam Hansen (Lotto Belisol) pictured during the Giro D'Italia 2013 - Stage 7 from San Salvo to Pescara - 177 km - photo RB/Cor Vos © 2013
Hansen won a rain-soaked stage to Pescara in 2013 (Cor Vos)
Giro vs other Grand Tours?

Tiralongo: The Giro is the hardest. Its climbs are long and steep, real climbs. Additionally, the weather is more uncertain and it can be really cold. On the other hand the Tour is hotter but the race is more controlled in comparison. The Vuelta is, of course, the hottest and the fastest.

Hansen: The Tour is where results count, where you have more sponsor pressure. At the Vuelta, they bring in young guys and it’s a good chance to build for the Worlds. It gives you more opportunities to have a go too, but it’s also more relaxed – you wake up later and start racing later.

As for the Giro, I think it’s the most traditional Grand Tour. They’re real cycling fans, whereas at the Tour there are more tourists – it’s a big circus. The Giro is more pure in that way.

In terms of racing, I think the Giro is the hardest but the Tour is the hardest to win at. It’s harder to finish the Giro than it is to finish the Tour. The ultimate goal is to complete the set and win a Tour stage too.

Navardauskas: I’ve never done the Vuelta but I think that some years the Giro is much harder than the Tour. The mountains are harder and it has difficult stages. Sometimes there’s really bad weather makes it even harder.

The Tour has a bigger name than the Giro but it’s very hard to do well in either. When you’re in the race you don’t think about comparisons though.

Best and worst Giro memories?

Tiralongo: My two victories are the best. The ugliest memory I have is the 2013 edition. Despite Vincenzo Nibali’s victory it was three weeks of agony for me because I was ill. I didn’t give up though.

Hansen: 2007 was pretty bad – I broke my hand. It was my first Grand Tour and I didn’t know what to expect.

I think the stage last year, going up the Gavia – that was pretty bad. It was a nightmare – we didn’t really know what was going on. There wasn’t really a race going on because you couldn’t see anybody.

Navardauskas: Obviously I had my first stage victory at a Grand Tour there, and I have worn the pink jersey. They are very, very happy memories. From the Grand Tours I have done I can say that every rider has his own very bad day.

I think the worst for me was in 2012, when I rode the Giro a month and a half after I broke my collarbone. On the third stage I crashed – it didn’t break again but for several days after every stage was really hard and exhausting.

The stage finish suits all-rounder Ramunas Navardauskas (Cor Vos)
Navardauskas wore the pink jersey in 2012 (Cor Vos)
The hardest Giro stage?

Tiralongo: I can’t say one stage but the 2011 edition, won by Contador. I have never seen so many tired riders. There was a lot of climbing despite the alteration of the Zoncolan stage [there was 409km of climbing on the original route].

Hansen: Definitely the Gavia stage. It’s one thing to be cold while you’re racing because you can get heat from that, but it was the descents. When you have fifteen-twenty kilometre descents, you’re just freewheeling and getting colder and colder.

Navardauskas: In 2012, when Hesjedal was our leader and he was in second place. It was the king stage – huge, huge mountains – and I remember it was very hard from the beginning with huge steep climbs. Yeah (laughs) it was just very hard.

Goals for 2015?

Tiralongo: In the Giro I will work for Fabio Aru – I have a lot of experience so that will help. We have a strong team and the aim is to win the Giro. I don’t know if it will be my last participation – it will be up to me to decide when I retire [Tiralongo’s contract runs out this season].

Hansen: It’s very new for the team because we have both Greipel for the sprints and Van Den Broeck as our GC guy. It’s going to be exciting. And, looking at the parcours, maybe there will be chances for me to go on the attack too.

Navardauskas: I was a reserve for the Giro so I had to be ready to race but seeing as I am not going to Italy this is my time to rest after Romandie. Next I will go to Germany [to the Bayern Rundfahrt] and then we will see from there. I just try to get good results and work for the team everywhere I go.