Friday, 3 July 2015

2015 Tour de France Preview

Note: I am going to write sporadically this year, as I don't want to block off the entire three weeks from any kind of social event in the evening, nor do I want to spend too much time on the writing and research. So if you came to check out the blog, transfer your attention to Politics and Cycling in the South of France. It is there that I will write whatever I write, whenever I write it.

Tour de France 2015 – Introduction

This year, nearly every commentator is excited about the Tour. The main reason is not the route, which is good enough, although there is NO individual time trial of any length. Admittedly the first stage is an extra long prologue, but only 13.8k. The Team Time Trial exists, but it is so strangely late in the race that the organisers had to get special permission from the UCI to break the rules. The first weeks have three uphill finishes plus the flat stages. We have the usual proper climbs in the Pyrenees and Alps. There is one stage early on with cobbles, a trip to Brittany, and jaunt across the Massif Central between the mountains, with another short steep climb on one stage. I think most people are pretty sure it will be a good route.

But what excites the French is that at last they have some sprinters and some climbers who might win a stage or two and who might actually finish in the top ten. Last year they had three in the top ten, and two of the top three. There is no chance they will repeat the latter feat! But what excites nearly everyone, including the French, is that all the BIG GUYS are riding. Froome, Nibali, Quintana and Contador are all in pretty good shape and seriously wanting the yellow jersey. Three of them have already won it, and Quintana is keen to do it one day. Being the youngest he has no big pressure. In addition, with the exception of Kittel, and the partial exception of Bouhanni (recent crash), all the sprinters will be fit and present too. So whatever happens, it is meant to be a great race. There are several stages, not so easy, that will invite a breakaway and unexpected glory for someone.

Yellow jersey favourites have already been covered. Although everyone has a favourite, Froome being the most popular overall, no one really knows who will last the race, who will do well on the climbs, who won't fall off on the cobbles or have a terrible day on one of the three short steep climbs, whose team will disappear or be astounding, and so forth. On the only forum where I had to pick a winner, I picked Quintana. No idea why, just thought he was the best bet. I could mention all the others, and there is a list of maybe ten, who could break into the top four, for one reason or another. To keep this blog short, I will wait on that. It is an exceedingly high quality field this year.

Green jersey. They have changed how the points awarded to guarantee that the winner will be a sprinter. It used to be “the most consistent finisher”, which meant it was nearly always a sprinter, but not necessarily. Now it is a certainty. The top pick of every single commentator I have read is Peter Sagan. Since he is in good shape, and he has won the last three in a row, it is pretty much a no-brainer. Anything else will be a surprise. In my own opinion it will be Alexander Kristoff (Norwegian) who beats him, but it could just as easily be Cavendish. Secretly I am hoping Cav will get back to his glory days, as a crash in 2014, and a not very good 2013, could mean he is nearing the end of his winning ways. Or not! There is an outside chance that Bouhanni or Degenkolb might also make the green jersey a competition, and not a walkover for Sagan.

As for the young rider's white jersey, unless he falls off or something, Nairo Quintana is the choice of every single writer. Well, maybe there are those who might bet on Pinot or Bardet or Kelderman, but the honest truth is that unless something bad happens, Quintana will win the jersey. This won't be such an interesting sub-race, although I have picked Pinot, since the odds are better.

As for the mountains jersey, there is the usual utter uncertainty about it. True, it might happen that one of the Big Four accidentally win it. They are clearly the best climbers, and will get many points by winning or placing highly on all the mountain stages. But big points are also awarded for grand escapes over several climbs, even though at the end it will be one of the big four who take the points on the final climb. So the question is who might be a really good climber, but who knows they can't do much better than seventh or twelfth. Instead of toiling in the first group on the last climb, but losing, they might have the freedom to attack earlier in the stage, and might try to join or initiate a couple of long distance breaks, picking up loads of points for climbs that are hard, but actually don't matter in terms of the overall victory. This is the usual story. The candidates would have to be several minutes behind the top guys after a week or so, or they will not be allowed to escape and take points. If they are far behind on GC, no one will care. In fact, this is the “no one really cares jersey” in the Tour. The “climber's jersey” winner could finish outside the top ten very easily. So we have to wait and see on this one. After the second climbing day in the Pyrenees, we will begin to guess who cares. For the first ten days, it will be worn by chancers and non-climbers. I am secretly against all odds, hoping that Daniel Teklahaimanot will win. He is one of two Eritreans riding the Tour, for the first time in human history. Yes, there is an “African team”, although the leader is Norwegian. Others who are suggested as serious contenders for the mountain jersey might be Joaquin Rodriguez, Pierre Rolland (my pick), Alexandre de Marchi, Rafal Majka (who has to serve Contador normally), Dan Martin, Julian Arrodondo. The list is endless, we just have to see what happens on Stages 11 and 12. Then we will know something. Usually there is no real competition in this jersey contest. The best we can hope for is that there WILL be a contest.

What else? I suppose that might be enough. My teams in the various fantasy leagues I enter might be mentioned later in the blog. I don't know if you all know this, but in 2014 I finished third in a huge fantasy Tour with thousands of entries. Podium, mate! I won't be able to do that this year, it was largely luck, plus brilliant non-silly picks. But if I can beat the other guys in my bike forum or two friends from Lancashire with whom I have a new “league competition”, I will be quite happy. One thing non-players don't know is that if you have more than one team, you can be happy about at least 18 or 24 or 36 riders, in a kind of family way. There are no prizes or entry fees in my leagues. After a few years you have had many riders, and you really don't care who wins. You just want to score a few points and enjoy the race.

I really must stop now. Tomorrow or the next day, I shall write again.

Below is the little article I wrote for a website for British immigrants (500 word limit)

The Tour de France begins Today!

What might be particularly interesting to British sports fan? More specifically than the race itself as a sporting event of huge ampleur, the crowds (12,000,000, they say), the utterly gorgeous countryside (in HD), the gossipy stories, the heartbreak and the joy, the young and the older. Like life, the Tour contains everything.

But the two overwhelming Brit concerns are with Chris Froome and Mark Cavendish. Froomie, although born in Kenya and raised in South Africa, is the great English hope for the yellow jersey. He won it in 2013, but crashed out last year. He is probably the favourite to win the yellow jersey. “The Big Four” is the name for the riders who are head and shoulder above the others. One of them will win. Another is the 25 year old Colombian Nairo Quintana, who has already won the Giro and finished second in the Tour. I am vaguely hoping he will win. Vincenzo Nibali, winner of all three Grand Tours, only one of five or so riders in history to do this, and last year's winner, will also be a factor. He is a kind of modest, cool, attacking, thinking rider. Old school. The last is Alberto Contador, who is trying to be the first guy since Marco Pantani to win the Giro and the Tour in the same year. He just won the Giro. He has won the Tour twice already. So we have three former winners and the young guy of infinite potential battling it out. Nuff said.

I should add quickly that there are ten Brits riding, some of quite high standing. Guys like Alex Dowsett (British time trial ace), Geraint Thomas (Welsh and a superb rider in all terrain) are only two who might make a big impression, not to mention young Simon Yates in the mountains. In addition, one can imagine that young Peter Kennaugh, the British road champion might do well on one stage.

The other major British interest is Mark Cavendish, one of the finest sprinters in cycling history. Recently there has been talk of Cav reaching his less quick, more mature years. Slowing down. Not quite good enough. Last year he crashed on the first stage. The year before he was well beaten by a young German sprinter who is not in the race this year. This Tour will be an attempt at a big comeback. He has won a few races this year, but never with the level of opposition the Tour provides. Cav has six guys totally dedicated to protect and help him win flat stages. Quality riders, only one purpose. If he wins big this year, he will have won more Tour stages than anyone except Merckx.

Although the mountains are the best for drama of scenery and racing, I have a feeling the first few stages, on the “flat”, are going to be more uncertain and unpredictable than usual. So see what a fine way it is to spend half an hour inside a hot afternoon. The countryside alone is worth the look. Next time I will give you a couple of sites that provide true geek information.   

Thursday, 3 July 2014

Preview - Tour 2014

Tour de France Preview 2014

Those of you who have found this URL again know that usually I write something every day, some days 1500 words or more. For nearly 19 years. This year I am going to write when I write. That is, there happen to be several dates during the Tour which actually are more important than the Tour. One of them might be a local concert with some friends. Then there is the meeting with cousins in Paris. A Social Forum I have been quite active organising. is taking place during the first two days of the Tour. Then there is the World Cup. At least it seems to be too busy to have time to write as I usually do. So I am easing the pace a bit, as befits a man in his later years. On the other hand, I would be quite disappointed if I don't write something now and again. After all, my four fantasy teams in various leagues are pretty much picked. So I can at least comment on my teams and how they are doing. Joke. Maybe not.

So this year, the course is slightly more pointy, slightly more mountains and mountaintop finishes than in the last few years. No team time trial at all. ONE and only one, slightly hilly, individual time trial the second last day. Plenty of sprint stages as well, so it looks “a balanced course”, as they say. We have to wait to see if it will be a tour of anthology or a last week without surprises. I was vaguely planning a trip to the Pyrenees, staying with pals, so I could do a daily trip via car and bike to the finish of three Pyreneen stages. The finishes are close enough that it would have been only an hour or two by car to near all the finishing climb. But then I thought about it, missing my nap for three consecutive days, riding the bike no matter the weather (it can get wet, hot and windy in the Pyrenees), being wasted all three days, and realised I can't do it. Hope I get a chance to do it one day. So the last three days in the Pyrenees followed by the time trial, should make for an eventful third week. Fireworks probably. If things go as planned, there should also be surprises that happen in the first two weeks. Plenty of flat stages where we should see the mighty three, Greipel, Kittel and Cav, duke it out. With six or seven, not quite top level sprinters ready to take advantage of mistakes. Arnaud Demare is a first- time French sprinter who is wearing the jersey of French national champion. We will see how good he is in the very best company. I won't mention all the others, because there are maybe seven or eight more who might just snatch a stage. I think most of the sprints are on good roads, a bit wide and smooth. More mass sprint finishes this year than usual, I reckon.

This Tour begins with two days in Yorkshire, riding around on the hills beloved by many millions of people, especially cyclists and walkers. The Yorkshire stages are supposed to be a sprint finish win for Cav, and the other a win for a classics rider. Someone with a powerful, short hill climbing ability, a puncheur. I have friends who might be on that last short but steep hill in Sheffield called Jenkin Road, or “Cote de Jenkin” for the Tour. There are some fears expressed about narrow poorly surfaced roads with dry stone walls everywhere in the Dales. Me too actually. I am really excited to watch those stages, as I have ridden those roads. There should be tens of thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands of cyclists and others out on the roads of Yorkshire this year. Observers on TV will be stunned. Even English people don't realise how easy it is to get from all the big cities of the North to the route of the Tour. The third day, there is a ride through the Essex countryside and a finish in front of Buckingham Palace. Should be millions out in London and Essex too. In order to see the Saturday live, I might have to absent myself a bit from my very important Social Forum. Maybe I should organise a TV at the event. I shall also have to miss the France-German footie match. But Sunday I shall be watching avidly.

Then they are off to the North of France, with a “commemorating World War I” twist to it. Besides various semi-non-descript stages before the Tour reaches the Vosges mountains, there will be a stage containing nine sections of pave, totally 15.4 k. Lot of worries about the light weight mountain climbers, the slightly casual bike handlers, the unlucky, the slightly less powerful, those without a genius cobbles rider to follow, and so forth. The teams of favourites have usually got one or two guys on the team who know the cobbles, and will hopefully gain a few seconds leading their GC contender properly throughout that day. Until the Vosges Mountains, there are at least several occasions when some rider who had hoped for a high finish will lose a packet of time and give up on the GC. I hope I am wrong, but something will probably happen to someone during those days. I was actually slightly upset when Dan Martin crashed out of the Giro after a few minutes. A few minutes! So I am hoping for good racing and no damage to anyone, except maybe a bit of lost time.

The Vosges mountains are not really high, not like the Alps and the Pyrenees. But they picked a good route which could see some changes and surprises. The first stage near the Vosges is flat except three climbs in the last few k. Should be fun to watch and nice to see the approach to the hills. Then a stage with big climbs, but not at the end. So which sprinters will not be dropped? Then the last stage in the Vosges/Jura (Stage 10) is actually very wearing and difficult, seven classified climbs, with a proper climb at the end. Froomie won the stage there two years ago, breaking into the limelight. Les Planches des Belles Filles is the name of the climb. Gotta look up that name, must be a story there. At least one climber is bound to lose time. According to legend, during the 30 years war, a group of young girls jumped to their death the avoid being raped and massacred by Swedish mercenaries.  Hence the name:  "The Plank of the Beautiful Girls."

The Tour then wanders south, over some hilly bits which are often produce an interesting stage, the threat of breaks and all, nice countryside. Stage 13 finishes on a 20k climb to Chamrouuse, which is preceded by another Category One climb. The next day, they do the famous Col d'Izoard and again end by riding up another climb. By the end of these few days, another few contenders will have blown it, and some others will have emerged. Already there have been four “mountaintop finishes”. Only two more in the Pyrenees during the last week. So there should already have been a fair bit of serious racing.

The Tour then moves west, getting to Nimes one day, spending a bit of time with possible windy challenges, then skip over the most of Languedoc Roussillon (where I live) to start the last week. They have a second rest day before they hit the Pyrenees. My wife asked if I knew if they took busses or train or plane from Nice to Carcasonne, and I don't. Longish drive though. The next three stages all climb big mountains. After a flattish start, the first one climbs a rather hard col, but then takes a fast downhill to the finish. The next stage climbs three category one passes, and then ends at the ski station in St. Lary - Pla d'Adet. Probably the “queen stage” of the Pyrenees and maybe the Tour. The last day begins more or less easily, then they climb the Tourmalet and end up climbing Hautacam. No doubt someone will profit from that day, near the end of the Tour, last day of climbing. Should be someone going for something.

The rest of the Tour is a flattish stage, the ITT and the Champs Elysée. This year, instead of my (lightly planned, alleged) trip to the Pyrenees for the three days, I might be forced to see the Tour the last day. Or rather be part of “the Paris spectacle”. I might not, it is not really how I would prefer to see the Tour. Still, I might be there anyway to meet some cousins I don't know. We will see. I must confess I would like to be near that last curve through the Place de la Concorde, as they head down the Champs for the last time.

So sprinters first. Sagan is totally odds on favourite to win the green jersey. If something does not happen to him, and he usually finishes races, then few will bet against him. Current odds I could get on him are 4/7, Cav 11/2, Kittel 6-1, and the rest following quite a bit behind. So the green jersey contest might not be all that fascinating. According to nearly everyone, Sagan will take the lead shortly into the race and keep it til the end. Wouldn't it be nice to have a surprise? The more fascinating race is between Cav and Kittel. Obviously Greipel, Kristoff, Demare, Mathews, Degenkolb and Modolo (plus others on the odd occasion, like Coquard, Eliani) will be part of the backdrop, part of the setting. But what some avid fans want to know is will Cav win more stages than Kittel. Last year Kittel took four stages, and Cav only two, his worst haul in his short Tour history. But this year, he has his self-selected lead-out man, Mark Renshaw and the wily, old, still quite fast, Alessandro Pettachi, who are meant to surmount all problems and deliver him to the 200 metre mark on every sprint stage. But the Giant train is now considered “the best”, and Kittel is stronger than Cav. Although I read Cav has been to the weights room this year to try and pick up a bit more strength without losing his fabled “jump”, quick acceleration. So that's the story of the sprinters. It could also be the old versus the young, but they are only a few years apart. A very interesting “young, new sprinter” this year is Arnaud Demare, wearing the national French jersey without any adverts on it (Thanks you, Marc).

As usual, I have no idea who will win the KOM jersey. Could be anyone. For nearly any reason. Might be some guy who just rides for points on mountain climbs that the rest don't care about. Like Voeckler or Jalabert have done lately. Any decent climber can target the jersey and win it. Every year I hope there will be two or three guys who battle for the jersey, but there never are. So pick a climber and back him. I will give you some odds early on, and tell you who my colleagues on my cycling forum think will win. I don't have a pick yet. Two of the best possibilities will be Froome or Contador. They will be racing seriously near the front, on all the last mountains stages. This might “as a side effect” get them more points than other riders who try to get the big points on the mountains that precede the last one, and then get dropped on the last important climb. Other riders like Pierre Rolland or Joaquin Rodriguez, or Valverde or Bardet or Pinot are excellent climbers. One or more of them might make a mess of their GC chances, lose many minutes early on, and then target the KOM as a second chance at some kind of glory. Even Nibali might try for it if he is not focussed on the GC. So there is a bit of mystery and surprise in the spotted jersey competition, even though I doubt there will be an actual contest. The mystery will be who actually choses to target the jersey. We shall see. In fact, after the stages in the Vosges we will have a lot of clues, but not until then.

Young rider. The white jersey. There are a number of candidates for this. I think I might go for Tejay Van Garderen, but I could just as well speculated on Michael Kwiatowski or Andrew Talansky or … others who might well accidentally happen to be sixth or eighth at the end of the Tour, but are also young. I picked Talansky in the office betting pool. So this jersey is usually decided by the end of the second week. Not terribly interesting though, since if they are the best “young” rider, they are most likely in the top ten. Top ten means you get contracts for years to come, with any team you wish. Any team wants a top ten finisher. So the fact that he is young is still worth emphasising. Last year the guy who was second, was also the best young, best climber as well. But Nairo Quintana won the Giro this year instead. It is pretty unusual to be the best young, best climber and second in your first Tour. He will be back. Still as a young rider.

Of course there will be news items, conflicts, gossip, possibly scandal before and during the Tour. This year there are three items I will mention, although there are others lurking in the background. They are part of the Tour, the gossip, the decisions, the breaks, the mysteries. So Betancur, touted as the leader of AG2R, a French team which has done very well recently, seems to have some serious problem, physical or mental. He didn't mange to make the trip back from Colombia in time to be on the team. This was a surprise to to the managers. Whether this is a dope problem, illness or something else, I don't yet know for sure. Anyway, lots to reveal later. Probably. Nacer Bouhanni, the second high-class sprinter on the FDJ team, winner of three stages in the Giro this year, was not picked to ride the Tour. Hard to have two sprinters on the same team, and also support a GC contender (Thibaut Pinot). So Marc Madiot says. It is pretty well known that Bouhanni is going to leave FDJ, maybe go to Cofidis, where he will be the number one sprinter, with support. More to come on this. Too bad, I would have liked to see him up against the big guys. If Arnaud Demare, the “other” FDJ sprinter and current French Champion does well, wins one stage or two, then it will have been a good decision. If not … David Millar was recently informed, even though he owns part of the team, that Garmin does not want him to ride the Tour in his last professional year. A bit harsh, but it must mean that Garmin want Talansky to have all the support he can have to do well. Millar is not happy. Some say he was not that fit or strong. I will keep you up on any gossip that seems important. You know that Kreuziger, Contador's number one supporter in the mountains is not riding. You can look up why he is not riding (irregularities), but he is not riding. Dan Martin is not over his Giro injury, and won't be there either. For that matter, Ian Stannard and Edvald Boasson Hagen won't be on the Sky team due to injuries, which is a big deal I think. Stannard is the kind of guy that ride as fast as anyone for tens of kilometres, a locomotive. Sky will miss him.

I almost forgot the yellow jersey. This is meant to be either Froome of Contador. It seems to boil down to whether Contador will be able to successfully attack Froome (and gain time) before the last time trial, where he is meant to lose considerable time to Froome over the 54 k. So either Contador attacks or he loses. Actually, the same goes for every other contender. The odds are about even for those two favourites. The next rider has odds of 11, 33 or higher. So I have no idea which of those two will actually win. In my fantasy teams I have one or the other, in one team, both of them are on the same team. And yet another team has Valverde and Nibali in case something happens to them both. Since I don't really care who wins, I am hoping I am wrong about it being only two guys in contention. So I would prefer that Talansky, Nibali, Rodriguez, Tejay, Valverde, Rui Costa, one of the young French climbers or someone else (Chris Horner?!) benefit from a bit of luck a bit of luck, and upset all the predictions. But on the other hand, the most likely outcome is those two giants will be a few minutes ahead of everyone else at the end. Might even be a shoot-out duel up some hill between the two of them, good image, non? There are debates about which rider has the strongest team. But in each case, the teams of both riders have nothing else to do but to get their leaders well up any mountain safely, where the Big Favourites try blow off everyone else, including each other.

That is probably quite enough for the preview. In case you want to checkup on the fantasy leagues I play in, you can look in the following sites. Some people do not even know they exist. I have been doing better this year in some of the leagues than ever before. I might be getting good, but I am not sure. I admit that most people I know, even cyclists who like the Tour, think this fantasy league game is a complete waste of time (or have never heard of it). They might be right, in some sense. I might one day write a blog about this question, why I do it, the complexity of the activity, what I learn, and so forth. I think I did that once, but I could do it again. Must search through the blogs to see what I said a few years ago. Anyway, you may or may not hear more about this. But I only enter fantasy leagues which have ONE team you pick at the start, and then you don't have to “trade riders” during the race. I don't like that and it is far too much work. One of the leagues I am in has ten thousand entrants. I think. Anyway thousands. One of them has about a dozen. But a high quality dozen, one of our guys wins the huge leagues and others do very well. I am not so skilled and knowledgable as several of the guys in the small league, so it so even more fun trying to beat them. I nearly won the Giro competition this year! Like ten points out of hundreds.

I think that's about enough.

Have a good Tour. Vive le vélo.