Blazin' Saddles

Contador, Cavendish, Sky: 7 things we learned from Paris-Nice and Tirreno-Adriatico

Blazin' Saddles

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With Carlos Betancur and Alberto Contador both winning back-to-back stages en route to securing the first major European stage races of the season, our cycling blogger Blazin’ Saddles takes a look at what we’ve learned from an eventful Paris-Nice and Tirreno-Adriatico.

Contador back to his best - but still lagging against the clock

The big winner from two enthralling week-long stage races was Spaniard Alberto Contador, who will feel vindicated in his decision to mix up his usual early-season schedule and take part in Tirreno-Adriatico. Contador’s back-to-back hilltop wins showed that the Tinkov-Saxo Banker is showing the best current form of the men who will look to top the podium in July’s Tour de France.

But it’s not all smiles for ‘El Pistolero’. After all, on the vicious 30% slope of the Muro di Guardiagrele in Sunday’s explosive fifth stage, Contador struggled to shed a bearded Simon Geschke, whose climbing ability is hardly something to write home to Pinto about. What’s more, Contador found himself 41 seconds down on stage seven winner Adriano Malori in the short individual time trial, the blue jersey crossing the line only just inside the top 30.

So, while Contador has been rolling back the years in many respects, the truth is that the 31-year-old has yet to win an individual time trial since returning from a drugs ban - astonishing (or perhaps not, given the circumstances) considering Contador had previously notched 11 victories in the discipline. In fact, only one top rider has deteriorated more since Contador was banned - his old sparring partner Andy Schleck, who arrived on the Promenade des Anglais in Nice more than 40 minutes in arrears on GC.

First blood to Cancellara in big three tussle - but glory goes to Malori

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All eyes were on Bradley Wiggins, Tony Martin and Fabian Cancellara ahead of the final 9.1km time trial at San Bernedetto del Tronto on Tuesday. Each of the riders touted for a One Hour record attempt this season have had quiet starts to their respective campaigns, with Wiggins seemingly more concerned about his beard than cycling, Martin concentrating on lead-out duties at Omega Pharma-Quick Step, and birthday boy Cancellara focusing on the forthcoming cobbled classics.

The trio would finish one after the other and all within nine seconds over the flat and technically simple course. But only two made the podium - and none on the top rung. Instead, Italy’s Adriano Malori caused an upset with a blistering ride to beat Cancellara, Wiggins and Martin by six, 11 and 15 seconds respectively.

A closer inspection of Malori’s palmares reveals that the 26-yea-old has never finished lower than seventh in a time trial, and his Movistar team-mate Alex Dowsett - winner of the flat ITT in last year’s Giro - has tipped Malori for glory in the 2014 race’s only race against the clock this May.

As for Martin, the world time trial champion, that’s now three ITTs this season without a podium finish. He’ll no doubt cite his lead-out duties, the steepness of the Muro finale on Sunday and the numerous speed bumps on Tuesday - but deep down there may be an element of concern with regards to his form.

Omega Pharma-Quick Step train the best in the business

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Tony Martin may be struggling for individual results, but his OPQS team remain the best all-round outfit in the peloton right now. With the huge engines of Michal Kwiatkowski and Matteo Trentin riding alongside Martin, GC hope Rigoberto Uran and sprint sling-shooters Mark Renshaw and Alessandro Petacchi, Mark Cavendish was delivered to the line in pulsating fashion on Monday - five days after the Belgian team beasted the opposition to win the opening team time trial.

Granted, the Lotto-Belisol team of Andre Greipel had a mass spill on the final bend of stage six, while the Cannondale team of Peter Sagan shot their bolt earlier on while successfully distancing Marcel Kittel and his otherwise impeccable Giant-Shimano cronies. But the fashion with which OPQS still went about delivering their plan in Porto Sant’Elpidio was pretty devastating - with 40-year-old Petacchi having time to sit up to celebrate Cav’s win before realising that he could still sneak second place with a little final dig.

With Kittel currently trashing and making up with his bike with the kind of unwitting insensitivity that echoes domestic abuse, then take these flowers as sign of my remorse - Cav certainly looks to be in the best condition of all the peloton’s top sprinters.

Bookies say Sagan but Cav should be wary of Degenkolb in San Remo

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Slovakian sensation Peter Sagan may be odds-on to break his Monumental duck on Sunday with victory in Milan-San Remo but the form of Cavendish - and the strength of his team - will be a concern to Sagan.

Cavendish won La Classicissima back in 2009 and with future routes likely to be hillier than in times past, this could be the Manxman’s last chance to stand atop the podium in San Remo once again. Cavendish this week said that the introduction of hills such as the Pompeiana would be like race organisers cementing over the cobbles of Paris-Roubaix. “I think that changing the Milan-San Remo route is like getting Banksy to paint the inside of the Pantheon,” he added.

Cav will have the likes of the in-form Kwiatkowski and Belgian powerhouse Tom Boonen to help him tame the long parcours on Sunday - but should the race come down to a bunch sprint, as expected, then Germany’s John Degenkolb is likely to be in the mix. With four wins to his name so far this season, Degenkolb - and not Kittel - will spearhead Giant’s assault on the first of the major spring classics. An each-way podium of Cavendish, Sagan and Degenkolb certainly appeals.

Betancur will excite this July

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While one high-profile Colombian is sitting out of this year’s Tour de France, another is making his long-awaited debut. Despite still carrying a bit of off-season puppy fat, Carlos Betancur became the first Colombian - and the first rider from a French team since 1991 - to win Paris-Nice on Sunday after taking back-to-back stage wins in the Race to the Sun.

While Carlos Quintana struggled to make a huge impression over the border in Italy as he builds up his fitness ahead of his season’s main target, the Giro, Betancur outlined his early-season promise and showed that he will be a real threat in April’s Ardennes classics, where last year he finished third and fourth.

While Betancur stresses that he hopes to show “real ambition” in the Grande Boucle, you suspect that he hasn’t got quite the requisite all-round ability to threaten the likes of Chris Froome and Alberto Contador in the race for the GC. But a stage win in France is a realistic target - as is Colombia’s second white jersey in as many years.

And with Quintana under pressure to deliver after last year’s stellar performances, Rigoberto Uran looking like a spare cog at OPQS and Sergio Henao flattering to deceive at Sky, perhaps Betancur will be the stand-out Colombian this season.

Crashes and illness bring Sky back down to earth

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There was a moment last week when it looked like Team Sky were on the cusp of underlining their all-round brilliance once again. With Chris Froome hobbling away from Tirreno with a sore back, Richie Porte was controversially pulled from Paris-Nice to take his friend’s place and Geraint Thomas in turn elevated to team leader in Paris-Nice.

Race organiser Christian Prudhomme felt Dave Brailsford has shown Paris-Nice disrespect in depriving the fans of the chance to see the defending champion, Porte, in action. But when Thomas soared into the yellow jersey after a successful break in stage four, Sky looked odds-on for their third Paris-Nice victory in as many years.

Three days later - and on a day that saw Tom Jelte Slagter take another victory - Sky’s hopes of the overall win lay, like Thomas, in a bloody heap on the side of the road. Second to Slagter in stage five en route to taking the maillot jaune, Thomas, then trailing Betancur by eight seconds on GC, crashed on a zippy descent and finished some seven minutes down on the winner Slagter.

Thomas’s alarming propensity to bite the tarmac is a worry for Sky. The Welshman seems to fall to the ground and injure himself at the same rate as Arsenal’s first team midfield. Whether its a technical problem, a question of poor positioning or unnecessary risk-taking, or just rotten luck, remains to be seen. But there’s no denying that crashes are stopping Thomas from reaching the lofty heights he’s capable of.

Hours later, over the border in Italy, Porte pulled out of Tirreno-Adriatico ahead of stage five due to illness. The Tasmanian was fourth on GC, 34 seconds down on then-leader Kwiatkowski and poised, perhaps, to strike ahead of the hilly stages in which Alberto Contador excelled. Sky’s miserable week was further compounded.

Bjarne Riis may be right - we may witness a fight in July after all

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It tempts fate to read too much into Alberto Contador’s strong early-season form - especially seeing that his two-stage salvo in Tirreno-Adriatico came in the absence of his big rival Froome. But there’s no denying it: Contador seems to have both the swagger and hunger of a champion once again.

Many have attributed Contador’s strong form to his new trainer - former Sky directeur sportif Steven de Jongh, who left Dave Brailsford’s outfit last season over the issue of zero tolerance (the Dutchman admitted taking EPO on several occasions between 1998 and 2000).

While a proud Contador insists that de Jongh hasn’t disclosed anything about Sky’s training methods - nor that he even has any interest in finding out - it seems highly unlikely that the Spaniard would show no curiosity towards the successful secrets that made him look so comparatively ordinary over the past year or so.

Until Contador and Froome come head to head later in the month at the Volta a Catalunya we’ll only be able to speculate about who seems to have the edge in this early phase of the season. But Tinkov-Saxo manager Bjarne Riis certainly echoed the hopes of most cycling fans when he said, following his rider’s Tirreno overall win and in relation to July’s Grande Boucle, “I think we might have the battle that everyone dreams of.”

Blazin' Saddles - follow on Twitter @saddleblaze

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