Blazin' Saddles

Catalunya and Classics round-up: Big guns flex their muscles

Blazin' Saddles

Our cycling blogger runs the rule over an action-packed week of spring racing as Messrs Rodriguez and Degenkolb prove their pedigree.

Volta a Catalunya

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Joaquim Rodriguez remporte son deuxième Tour de Catalogne

Joaquim Rodriguez remporte son deuxième Tour de Catalogne

On the second ascent of Alpe d’Huez last July BMC’s Tejay van Garderen was reeled in and beaten by a Frenchman from Ag2R-La Mondiale. Eight months on and the tables were turned, with the American pipping Christophe Riblon’s younger team-mate Romain Bardet to take the spoils in stage four of the Volta a Catalunya.

Dense mist and generally woeful conditions dealt TV viewers a dud deal for the queen stage of the race: the host broadcaster was only able to capture the closing moments of the race as van Garderen swept round Bardet to take the win at the ski resort of Vallter 2000.

The five riders that followed rounded off an immensely strong top seven, a veritable who’s who of Grand Tour contenders with Alberto Contador crossing the line ahead of Joaquim Rodriguez, Nairo Quintana, Andrew Talansky, Chris Froome.

This was Froome’s first race since his successfully defended his Oman crown back in February, the reigning Tour de France champion having been forced out of Tirreno-Adriatico owing to a back injury.

A day earlier - in bright sun but freezing temperatures - Froome had tested his rivals with an uncharacteristic series of surging out-of-the-saddle attacks on the steep summit finish at La Molina. But it was the oft-perennial runner-up Rodriguez who proved the strongest as Froome conceded 13 seconds over the line in fifth place behind the likes of in-form Contador, Quintana and van Garderen.

In a tight race, Froome could only take sixth place in the final overall standings – 17 seconds behind Rodriguez, a man whose form will not be too much of a concern for Froome this year given the Spaniard’s decision not to omit the Tour from his schedule and, like Quintana, focus on the Giro and Vuelta.

In fact, Froome said he was quietly satisfied with his performance after returning from a minor back injury, although his seemingly lowly place on GC forced the Sky rider to admit, “It’s never a nice feeling when I know I can win against those guys.”

It could be worse. At least Froome made some impact on the race, which is more to be said than defending champion Dan Martin, conspicuous only because of his retro Andy Hampsten visor-style sunglasses. Irish fans will be hoping for a better showing when the Giro comes to town next month.

Dwars door Vlaanderen and E3 Harelbeke

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Slovakia's Peter Sagan of Cannondale celebrates as he crosses the finish line to win E3 Harelbeke (AFP)

Slovakia's Peter Sagan of Cannondale celebrates as he crosses the finish line to win E3 Harelbeke (AFP)

As the GC men for the Giro and Tour battled it out in Catalunya, the classics men continued to test their mettle over the cobbled roads of Belgian ahead of the approaching monumental Flanders/Roubaix fortnight.

Omega Pharma-Quick Step underlined their spring classic credentials with a comprehensive solo win for Niki Terpstra in Dwars door Vlaanderen, a race enlivened by an unexpectedly spirited performance from Alejandro Valverde.

The Spaniard was a late addition to Movistar’s roster, deciding to put in some practice on the Belgian cobbles ahead of the Tour de France this summer. It was bizarre, therefore, to see Valverde tackle most of the cobbled sections from the gutter or the smoother road-side paths and cycle tracks. To be fair to Valverde, the whole peloton seemed pretty intent on avoiding the cobbles so you can hardly blame the veteran for following suit.

Valverde was part of a small chasing group that was reeled in towards the end of the finish, prompting a frantic bunch sprint for second place. Honorary Belgian Tyler Farrar pipped Astana’s forgotten man Botur Bozic for the runners-up berth, punching his handlebars in anger after clearly having the best legs of the pack’s fastmen. That’s not something you can say often.

OPQS had a 50 per cent chance of victory in E3 Harelbeke a few days later when both Terpstra and Stijn Vandenbergh entered the closing straight alongside Cannondale’s Peter Sagan and Sky’s Geraint Thomas.

Given the composition of the group, anything other than a Sagan win was about as likely as Thomas getting through the spring without at least three high-speed crashes. Sagan duly delivered. But can the Slovak sensation ever make the step up and finally win a Monument?

Gent-Wevelgem

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John Degenkolb sprints to win the Gent-Wevelgem (AFP)

John Degenkolb sprints to win the Gent-Wevelgem (AFP)

In fact, it will be interesting to see who wins a Monument first: Sagan or the ever-improving John Degenkolb. While Sagan’s ability over cobbles will always put him ahead of the reckoning in races like the Tour of Flanders or Paris-Roubaix, Degenkolb’s climbing ability and fast finish could see the German prevail sooner rather than later in Milan-Sanremo, Liege-Bastogne-Liege or the Giro di Lombardia.

The in-form Degenkolb put his San Remo puncture-on-the-Poggio disappointment aside on Sunday to beat Frenchman Arnaud Demare and Sagan in a three-way gallop at Gent-Wevelgem described by the Belgian commentators as a “sprint between the new wave”.

Amid the lurid brothels of the Wevelgem high-street, Degenkolb proved the hardest, pounding home in that distinctive rocking hammer-head style of his to pip Frenchman Demare after both riders had seen off the early challenge by Sagan. The crash-strewn finale brought down a number of riders, including Degenkolb’s fellow German Andre Greipel, who will now miss the remainder of the classics season with a broken collarbone.

It was a bad day in the office for Team Sky, for whom only Luke Rowe managed to get to the finish without coming off his bike. Both Ian Stannard and Chris Sutton were involved in large spills that resulted in a trip to the hospital for check-ups. Thomas also came down - his latest accident after a heavy fall during Paris-Nice.

Given his propensity to tackle the tarmac, it’s a surprise that Thomas has any skin left at all. It’s testament to his unflagging bouncebackability that Thomas has vouched to put in a good shift during next Sunday’s Tour of Flanders. “The form’s there,” he said. “I’ll just rest up now and take it easy and all systems go for next week.”

Settimana Internazionale Coppi e Bartali

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Team Sky's Ben Swift

Team Sky's Ben Swift

If Sky had a hard time in Belgium then the same cannot be said of their dominant performance in northern Italy where only Cannondale’s Elia Viviani stopped the British-based team from nailing a clean sweep for the entire four-day race.

Ben Swift’s opening morning stage win was followed by a Sky victory in the four-man team time trial. Peter Kennaugh soloed to victory in stage two before Viviani’s victory in stage three. Business resumed on the final day, with Dario Cataldo taking the individual time trial, Kennaugh securing the overall win, Swift retaining the points classification and the entire team unsurprisingly topping the team standings.

Spare a thought for Vasil Kiryienka, mind. The Belorussian may have played his part in Sky’s TTT win, but suffered the ignominy of being the only member of his team not to leave the race without an individual scalp.

Criterium International

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Critérium International 2014 Péraud

Critérium International 2014 Péraud

With all the big-name cyclists busy racing at at least one of the above events this week, the organisers of the Criterium International were always going to struggle to attract top talent - particularly seeing that Corsica’s relevance to the cream of the crop is not as high as it was last year when the island also hosted the Tour’s Grand Depart.

It’s perhaps a sign of the times that the only two stand-out names on the start list were those of Luxembourg brothers Frank and Andy Schleck. True to current form, Andy was dropped on the final climb of the decisive third stage before retiring from the race alongside 37 other riders.

Frank, meanwhile, showed something of a resurgence, attacking his fellow escapees with talkative, carefree abandon on numerous occasions on the Col de l’Ospedale before eventually being felled by his namesake, Matthias Frank.

Jean-Christophe Peraud took the overall victory by one second ahead of Frank (the Swiss - not Schleck), with Tiago Machado of Portugal in third. Compare that to last year’s podium of Froome, Richie Porte and van Garderen, and that’s an indication of the gulf in talent between last year’s and this year’s event.

Corsica’s five-year deal with the Criterium International is now over, with the race tipped to move to Yorkshire in 2015 following the English county’s hosting of the Tour’s Grand Depart this summer. If Sky actually deign to send a team you can expect Thomas to give it his all - provided he manages to stay upright.

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