I was pretty surprised when they announced that the start of this year’s Tour de France would be in Yorkshire. That it would come back to Britain was no surprise but the Yorkshire bid had seemed to come up quite late in the day and seemed doomed to lose out to Scotland. Edinburgh seemed a much better backdrop for a Grand Depart than Leeds, after all.

That, though, was to assume this would follow the format of previous Grand Departs outside France. The formula is pretty simple – a prologue time trial around the host city that shows off all its best sights, then one or two generally flat stages to take the race back to France. The Tour has started using road stages rather than time trials for the opening stage in recent years, but only when it started in France.

What Yorkshire showed is that you can use the Tour to promote a whole region through the Grand Depart, and that the race organisers are willing to throw in tricky stages as part of it. Stage 2 shook up the race much more than a prologue time trial would have done. Dozens of riders could have ended up in yellow after Sheffield, rather than the Martin or Cancellara battle in a time trial.

Having millions of people lining the route, and making the start of the Tour a massive event across another country means we’re now going to see more Grand Departs following the Yorkshire formula. The format for the next Grand Depart in Utrecht was already agreed as the traditional prologue and flat stages formula, but the next time it goes outside of France (likely to be in 2017 or 2018) I think we’ll see somewhere that wants to set up a much more interesting start. Barcelona’s been mentioned as a possible destination, but what we could see is stages that get to roam across the whole of Catalonia.

It also means the Tour’s next Grand Depart in Britain is a question of when and where, not if. I’d expect it either in 2020 or 2021, but there’ll be lots of places now thinking they could follow Yorkshire’s example. Imagine a start in Edinburgh that rolls out through the hills of the Borders followed by a stage in the Lake District? Or going to Wales for a thrash through Snowdonia or the Brecon Beacons? The Tour of Britain has brought out big crowds on Dartmoor for its stages there, and that could be the centrepiece for a bid from the South West.

Finally, what we also saw on Sunday was that the Pennines offer a great platform for a race. There’s surely the scope to build on the success of the Grand Depart and organise a regular one-day classic that could follow a similar route and create some great racing in the style of Liege-Bastogne-Liege? (You could even make sure the route takes in Lancashire and Yorkshire and call it the Tour of the Roses) Britain still doesn’t have a World Tour race, and as the Tour of Britain’s unlikely to make that step up, this could be a real legacy from the Tour de Yorkshire.

, , ,

Nicole Cooke retires

One of Britain’s most successful road cyclists ever retired today. Nicole Cooke won races all over the world, including a World Championship and an Olympic gold medal in 2008, but she got a fraction of the attention that riders like Mark Cavendish and Bradley Wiggins have received.

I think her retirement shows some of the problems that are faced by women in cycling, especially the lack of attention they receive. Cooke’s retirement has made headlines, though that seems to be just as much for the fact that she’s not gone quietly into retirement as it is for the fact that she’s retired. As she says:

“Tyler Hamilton will make more money from a book describing how he cheated than I will make in all my years of honest labour.”

For me, that goes to the heart of the problem – Cooke and her fellow female professionals have slogged it out around the world, delivering some exciting racing with huge ability, yet she’s had to talk about Armstrong, Landis and Hamilton to get significant attention for her retirement.

So to redress the balance, here’s my favourite memory of her career – winning the Olympic road race in Beijing. Unfortunately, the editing of the video is terrible, and it misses out the key moment when the lead group of five come round the final bend and start the drag to the finish. At that point, Cooke looked like she’d made a mistake and been dropped off the back of the group, but she powered up the final straight, overhauled the others and won the medal.

Chapeau, Nicole Cooke! Or ‘het!’, if you want it in Welsh.

, ,

Giro D’Ireland

We’ve already heard how the 2014 Tour de France will be starting in Leeds, but that might not be the first British Grand Tour of that year. Reports have come out today that the 2014 Giro D’Italia will be starting in Belfast, with the opening stages taking it from Northern Ireland into the Republic, probably to Dublin.

It’s all unconfirmed as yet, but perhaps another indication that the UK remains the largest untapped market for professional cycling in Europe. The other interesting part is that according to that Cycling Weekly report, new rules mean a Grand Tour must run for at least five days before the first rest day, which opens up the possibility of the race having some stages in Wales or England before heading back to Italy. Though there is also the possibility of them putting on a short stage around Dublin one morning, and using the afternoon to fly all the riders and teams back to Italy ready to start again in the morning.

One has to wonder now if the Vuelta a Espana will follow the path of the Tour and Giro in coming to the UK. Edinburgh’s likely interested, following it’s defeat by Yorkshire for the Tour, and as the Vuelta loves hilly stages, there might even be the prospect of it heading up into the Highlands. That might sound far-fetched, but a couple of months ago, so did the Tour de France starting in Leeds.

, , , ,

Jennie’s post on the Tour de France coming to Yorkshire reminded me of a Twitter conversation I had a while ago with Richard Gadsden where we discussed the possibility of creating a major women’s cycling race in Britain.

One of the reasons for the Tour de France coming here in 2014 is because cycling is one of the fastest-growing sports in Britain. Bike sales are up, viewing figures for cycling on TV are high and cycling events bring out huge crowds to watch, whether they’re in a velodrome or on the road. Obviously, the sponsors want to tap into that market and the way to do that is to bring major races here. The problem is that – in men’s racing at least – there’s very little space in the calendar to bring races here. Aside from Grand Tour starts (and don’t be surprised if the Giro D’Italia or the Vuelta a Espana starts in Edinburgh in 2015 or 2016), there’s no space on the World Tour calendar for a race in Britain, and the UCI seem keener to create new races outside of Europe anyway.

There will be the Ride London Classic next year, and the Tour of Britain continues to attract a good field of riders because of its proximity to the World Championships, but unless World Series Cycling actually comes to pass and Britain gets one of the ten races, then there’s very little chance of a regular major race here.

However, it’s a completely different story when we look at women’s professional cycling. As is the case in so many other sports, it’s the men’s version that gets all the coverage and the money, while the women get the few bits that are left over, and as we’ve seen recently, also suffer the cutbacks before the men do. Nicole Cooke has spent large parts of her career winning races in the same style Bradley Wiggins has managed this year (she was World and Olympic champion in 2008) but gets a fraction of the coverage (and the sponsorship) that he does.

What this means is that unlike men’s racing, there are nowhere near as many women’s races, and there’s a huge dearth of them at the top of the sport. There are a bunch of small races, and ones a handful of stages, but only recognised Grand Tour – the Giro Donne (Giro d’Italia Femminile), and even that isn’t certain for next year.

It seems to me that Britain would be a good place to hold a high-profile multi-stage race, and professional women’s cycling is in need of the same. Doesn’t it make sense for the two to come together? The Olympic crowds turned out just as heavily for the women’s road race as they did for the men’s and I believe that you could both get the crowds out for a women’s Tour of Britain as well as getting the media coverage for it. Because it would be pitched as a Grand Tour, and thus at the top of the field, it could feature a lot of the tough climbs that the men’s race avoids – why not have a stage or two in the Lakes, the Highlands or across the steepest part of the Pennines?

Britain has a long tradition of women cyclists who didn’t get anything like the same attention as the men. Jennie mentioned Beryl Burton and I’ve already talked about Nicole Cooke, but there are others like their fellow world champion Mandy Jones or Yvonne McGregor who never got the recognition they deserved. There’s a new crop of great young British women cyclists – Lizzie Armitstead, Laura Trott, Jo Rowsell, Dani King, Lucy Garner and others – who are desperately looking for the opportunities that are easily available for their male counterparts. Giving them a major race at home, with a home crowd cheering them on and a media that’s already shown lots of interest in them, could be just what we need to kick off a real step change in cycling and attitudes to women’s sport in Britain.

Of course, it’s easy for me to say what a good idea this is, as I’ve not got the money to invest in trying to make something like this happen (though it is on my list of ‘things to give money to’ if I ever have a EuroMillions win) but what would be the steps to make this happen? What sort of funding and backing would be needed, and where would it come from? The original Grand Tours and major cycle races came about mainly because newspapers wanted to make a name for themselves and generate exclusive content that their rivals wouldn’t have. One hundred years on, perhaps we should be looking to websites that want to make a name for themselves?

,

-It’s been announced this morning that the 2014 Tour de France will be starting in Yorkshire. Yorkshire had been bidding for a while to bring the race back to Britain, but the expectation had always been that it’d be sometime later in the decade, so this is a welcome surprise.

The 101st Tour will start in Leeds – presumably with a prologue time trial around the city – followed by another stage in Yorkshire, and then a third stage starting somewhere in the south of England and finishing in London. More details will come in January, but I’m sure people are already poring over their maps of Yorkshire to put together dream routes. A lot of the highest roads in England are in the North Pennines around Yorkshire, so it could be possible to put together a decently hilly stage, even if none of them would rank above a category 3 for the Tour.

I’m also curious to find out where the other stage will be – if it’s starting further south and heading into London, there’s a chance it could start or pass through somewhere in the East (Cambridge, maybe?) which would make a nice stopping-off point on the way home after a weekend in Yorkshire.

This will be the Tour’s fourth visit to Britain – in 1974, they had a stage racing up and down the Plymouth bypass, in 1994, the opening of the Channel Tunnel was marked by two stages taking them from Dover to Portsmouth, and in 2007, the Grand Depart was in London. The gap between British stages is getting smaller, and a natural progression (and the economics of going to what’s probably Europe’s fastest growing cycling market) suggests the Tour could return again this decade – and there has also been interest from Edinburgh in hosting a Grand Depart.

See you in Leeds in 2014!

, ,

Eight months before Le Grand Depart in Corsica, we now know the full route for the 2013 Tour de France. It’s the 100th Tour, and the organisers have clearly set out to make it a memorable one.

It follows the approach the Tour organisers have taken a lot in recent years of letting the action of the race reach a crescendo in the final week, with the first two weeks as a steady build up to the finale. There’ll be lots of dramatic images in the first two weeks, but a lot of that will cover for the main contenders waiting in the pack, conserving as much energy as possible for the Alps.

The start in Corsica will be the first time the Tour has visited the island (meaning all of European France will now have been visited by the race) and the opening stage is designed to end in a sprint finish. Of course, a break could get clear, but it looks likely that it’ll be the first opportunity to see Omega Pharma-Quick Step working for Mark Cavendish in the Tour as he attempts to shed the record of having the most Tour stage wins without ever wearing the yellow jersey.

Unlike last year, the wearer of the maillot jaune could change a lot over the first week. The next two stages in Corsica provide opportunities for breaks to get clear over the mountains, and then the Team Time Trial in Nice will shake the order up again. If the favourites keep their powder dry in the Pyrenees at the end of week one, then there’s a chance for a climber to get away and put themselves into yellow for a day or two. The big names will be able to hide in the shadows until midway through week 2, when the first individual time trial arrives on the road to Mont Saint Michel.

After that, the Tour really picks up as it heads south towards the Alps. Bastille Day will be a monster for the riders – a 242km stage over bumpy terrain but with only one categorised climb: Mont Ventoux. Because after five hours of riding, your day’s not complete without going up one of the Tour’s legendary climbs, is it? With a rest day following, this is where the big names are going to be duelling each other to the top. A hilly time trial a couple of days after that will shake up the order some more, before we come to the undisputed queen stage of the 100th Tour.

There were lots of rumours floating around about the 2013 race going up Alpe D’Huez twice to mark the 100th Tour on its most iconic climb. I heard suggestions that it would be part of two different stages, that one climb would be a time trial, even that there’d be a descent of it, but I definitely wasn’t expecting it to be climbed twice in one stage. Expect lots of shots of anguished riders getting to the top at the end of the first climb and realising they’ve got to do it again. I’ve already made sure my diary’s clear for the 18th July next year, and I wouldn’t be surprised if some of the camper vans are heading there now to ensure they get a good spot.

There’s still more climbing for two days after that, and it’s possible that the race could be decided on the climb to Annecy Semnoz on the final Saturday. It’s a new climb and a new stage finish location, which means the roads round there will be packed full of pro cyclists on scouting missions next spring.

The riders get a few hours longer to recover before the final stage into Paris, though. They’re departing from Versailles and passing through the gardens of the palace on their way to the Champs-Elysees, but it’ll be as the sun is getting low in the sky. For what I believe is the first time since the finish switched to the Champs-Elysees, it’ll be an evening finish with the final sprint expected to take place at sunset (around 2145 local time, 2045 UK time). It’s almost as if they asked what could be a better backdrop for the finale than Paris, and realised the only possible answer was Paris at night. Or maybe hoteliers want to ensure that people coming for the finish stay for the night, rather than getting the evening Eurostars and TGVs back home.

The big question, of course, is who’s going to win it? There’s great anticipation about Wiggins getting the chance to take on Contador and Schleck, but he’s also talked about attempting the Giro/Vuelta double next year and leaving the Tour to Chris Froome. As the course looks nicely balanced between time trialling and climbing – with the prospect of climbers having to attack on the last few stages to claw back time lost in the TTs – it does look very open. Will Nibali centre his season around it again, or will he switch back to targeting the Giro? How much will the young challengers – Van Garderen, Rolland and Pinot – have improved over the winter?

Whoever gets to wear yellow in Paris, it looks like it’ll be a fantastic race and hopefully will the spectacle and drama the Tour needs to remind people that cycling has always been about more than just Lance Armstrong.

,

Wiggins, Froome, Cavendish, Boasson Hagen, Eisel, Rogers, Porte, Knees, Sivtsov. Just as dedicated football fans like to recite the England team that won the 1966 World Cup, in years to come those nine names will show you know your cycling history and can name the team that rode Bradley Wiggins to Tour de France glory.

And in the spirit of professional cyclists for over a century, they’re already focusing on their next race. For Wiggins and Froome, that means riding in support of Cavendish in the Olympic road race on Saturday, then trying to repeat some of their feats of the last few weeks in the time trial next Wednesday. Others will be there – notably Edvald Boasson Hagen trying to get one over his team mates – and the road race especially will be an interesting tactical battle.

Crossing the line on the Champs-Elysees also signals the start of professional cycling’s summer silly season. Under UCI rules, no contracts can officially be signed until September, but that hasn’t stopped the rumours starting as riders who’ve shone in the Tour look to cash in on their moment in the sun. Vincenzo Nibali is reportedly off to Astana, with Roman Kreuziger making way for him by moving to Saxo Tinkoff. RadioShack-Nissan-Trek appears to be on the brink of collapse which raises the prospect of just where their riders will go next year and which team might step up to take their place on the World Tour (my guess would be Europcar).

There are also rumours about some Sky riders as well – as has been pointed out, many of their riders would be leaders at other teams, and some may want to take that opportunity. Lots of teams are showing interest in Chris Froome, though Sky aren’t showing any desire to release him from his contract. Conversely, Dave Brailsford has said that Mark Cavendish can leave if he finds a team that will focus on him and sprint victories in a way that Sky won’t. My guess would be that he’ll end up at either Omega Pharma-Quick Step or Orica-GreenEdge, assuming either of them can afford him.

After the Olympics, it’s the third Grand Tour of the season, and there’ll be a lot of attention on this year’s Vuelta a Espana. It’s the return of Alberto Contador to competition after his doping ban as well as (hopefully) Andy Schleck’s return from the injury that kept him from the Tour and Joaquim Rodriguez’s attempt to win a Grand Tour after Ryder Hesjedal pipped him to the pink jersey in Italy. On top of that, Chris Froome has already said he’ll be riding it, presumably as Sky’s leader, which makes you wonder if after waiting 109 years for a British Grand Tour victory, two will come along at once.

As an interesting aside, the last seven Grand Tours – from Andy Schleck’s 2010 Tour victory through to Wiggins yesterday – have all gone to first-time winners, though part of that was caused by Contador being stripped of the 2010 Tour and 2011 Giro as part of his ban.

Wiggins doesn’t appear to be riding the Vuelta this year, which does raise the prospect of him riding the Tour of Britain, which could turn into a very long victory parade. However, that would suit British Cycling very nicely, as the increased public interest in professional cycling in the UK could (and probably should) result in a lot more interest from sponsors and investors. In my opinion, one of the important tasks now is to try and boost all the levels of professional cycling in this country, be it looking at ways to get a one-day World Tour race in Britain or getting more backing for the smaller teams to help them step up a level. For instance, it’d be great to see Endura Racing having the finance to be able to move up to the Professional Continental level.

By the way, I won’t be writing about the Vuelta as I did the Tour because I’m away for part of it. However, I expect it will get a lot more coverage in the British press than it’s had before. ITV4 took the risk of showing a lot of coverage of it last year, and I’d expect they’ll be doing the same again this year.

Thanks to those of you who’ve read my ramblings about the Tour this year, and see you all next year for the 100th edition. All we know about it so far is that it starts in Corsica with three road stages, followed by a team time trial in Nice. The rest will be announced in October, but expect the 100th edition to contain a lot of legendary stage locations. At the very least, I would expect the Tourmalet, Alpe D’Huez and Mont Ventoux to make an appearance. I’m getting excited already…just 342 days to go.

,

And so it all comes to an end for another year. For once, the final time trial wasn’t critical to the final result, merely a final exclamation mark added on the end of what’s been a pretty emphatic victory. Wiggins has continually referenced Miguel Indurain as his hero, and this has been a very Indurain-esque victory. Wiggins has blown away the competition in the time trials, and then dared them to try and attack him in the mountains, riding down anyone who tried. It’s been a Tour of brutal efficiency rather than style and panache, but there are many ways to win a Tour and Wiggins chose the one that suited him best.

There wasn’t a major shake up of the finishing order yesterday, mostly a stretching of some of the gaps, but we did witness one sad moment as Cadel Evans slipped down another place and was caught on the road by Tejay Van Garderen. All that scene needed to be complete was for Evans to have some symbol of the BMC team leadership to hand off to Van Garderen as he passed. I hope that’s not the last we see of Evans at the Tour, as it would be sad to see that as our last memory of the champion, and I hope he comes back to support Van Garderen next year.

I’ll have a proper look back at the Tour tomorrow, but as well as Van Garderen and Wiggins, the other two jersey winners have to be noted on the final day. Peter Sagan has had an incredible impact on cycling in the last year, and the green jersey is likely to be the first of many major prizes he’ll win. The question that’s still hanging is whether he can become a Grand Tour GC contender in years to come, but I think we’ve got a few years of him demolishing sprints and winning classics before then.

Thomas Voeckler’s King of the Mountains win has been conducted in traditional Voeckler style – with a face that could take part in professional gurning championships and an ability to break, and then attack the break at the right time. With Rolland’s white jersey last year, that makes it back-to-back titles for France, and perhaps their Tour fortunes might finally be getting back on track.

It’s the traditional-since-1975 end on the Champs-Elysees, and will feature all the sights we’re used to – the jersey winners sharing a glass of champagne, the peloton hitting central Paris at high speed, riders trying to get away and being chased down and then a Mark Cavendish victory at the end.

Well, all but the last are guaranteed, but after his sprint on Friday showed what form he’s in at the end of the race, I doubt you can find many people who’d suggest other potential victors. The only problem that might have caused is that other teams may not want to let it get down to a bunch sprint and will prefer to take their chances in a break, leaving Sky on their own to chase it down. Whatever happens, I do expect we’ll see the spectacle of the yellow jersey at the front of the peloton, either leading the chase or leading out the sprint, though we probably won’t get a repeat of 1979 or 1982, when Bernard Hinault won in Paris while wearing the yellow jersey.

,

Three weeks ago, we were all focused on Liege and the prologue of this year’s Tour. It seems odd that we’re not coming to the finish, with just two stages left before everything’s sorted, and this time next week we’ll be watching the Olympic road race.

And as if in practice for that, yesterday we saw Mark Cavendish at his best, reminding everybody just why he’s the world champion. It was one of the bext wins of his career, and a good way to finally match Andre Darrigade’s 22 wins as the Tour’s leading sprinter. I think the best perspective on it came from Nicolas Roche in an interview afterwards when he said he only noticed that Cavendish had gone past them when Luis Leon Sanchez started coasting to the line, assuming the bunch were about to swamp them. They hadn’t realised just how far he’d leapt from the bunch, and that if they’d carried on going, they’d have got second and third on the stage.

It’s also a signal of how confident Bradley Wiggins is in his overall victory that he was able to lead the chase through the last few kilometres and not worry about conserving all his energy for today’s stage. For anyone who hadn’t guessed it, it’s likely the same tactics Great Britain will be using next Saturday, as they’re the ones that worked out very well in Copenhagen last year. We’ll likely see a replay on Sunday in Paris, which may mean we get the spectacle of the yellow jersey leading the peloton in the last few kilometres, which will be somewhat different to the normal routine of the day.

While it’s a relatively long time trial at 51km, it’s not a very complicated route. There aren’t too many technical parts, and no steep climbs or descents, which makes it the perfect course for the power time trial specialists. It would have been interesting to see how Tony Martin or Fabian Cancellara would have done on this stage, but as it is, I suspect the winner will be either Wiggins or Tejay Van Garderen. Froome’s a good time triallist, but his best results have come on courses where he can use his climbing abilities more, but I suspect he’ll be happy finishing in the top 5, protecting his second place from Nibali.

Barring an absolute disaster, though, Wiggins and Froome will remain first and second at the end of the stage. The real battle will be taking place behind them. Van Den Broeck probably won’t be able to make up three minutes on Nibali, but it’ll be fun to watch him try, and Van Garderen probably won’t move up from fifth, but if he’s on form this could be BMC’s best chance for a stage win this year, and a chance for him to get his first Tour stage and lay down a marker for future years.

The interesting battle comes from seventh to eleventh place with just a couple of minutes separating Zubeldia, Rolland, Brajkovic, Pinot and Roche and all of them looking to grab a place in the top ten, both for the bragging rights and the ranking points. Further down the rankings, some riders will be looking to try and get their moment in the spotlight, or showcase themselves and their time trialling abilities. Others may be indulging in personal rivalries – David Millar was talking on Twitter last night about he and Dave Zabriskie will be fighting to avoid having to say that the other’s a better time trial rider.

Three weeks ago, I think we were expecting more drama on this stage, but Wiggins and Sky have dominated this Tour to such an extent that the final weekend’s a bit of a procession. Perhaps the main enemy Sky have to fight is complacency, losing focus and making mistakes. Two minutes isn’t that big a gap if you hit a crisis.

,

It’s been a while since we’ve a Tour where all the major issues have been settled so early. After his performance yesterday, there’s no way Thomas Voeckler can lose the King of the Mountains title, and while Peter Sagan could theoretically be caught in the points competition if Andre Greipel won every sprint up to and including the Champs-Elysees while Sagan barely figured, it’s not likely to happen. In the young riders white jersey competition, Tejay Van Garderen has a three minute lead over Thibaut Pinot (with third place Steven Kruijswijk an hour behind) and isn’t likely to surrender that in the time trial.

And in the general classification, Bradley Wiggins still has his two minute lead over Chris Froome, despite the odd way they finished the stage yesterday. Behind them, the rest of the finishing order seems pretty settled, unless there are some superheroic performances in the time trial to gain a place or two.

Of course, you should always take a moment to let it sink in when you’ve pulled off a big achievement, but I’m guessing Wiggins now wishes he’d waited till after he crossed the finish line for his. Now we’ve got yet another round of debates on whether Froome should have gone and tried to catch Valverde, and if he would have been able to beat Wiggins without team orders in place. As many people have pointed out, though, it’s not as if Froome wasn’t aware of what the situation would be when he signed his contract with Sky after last year’s Vuelta – and he was offered the chance to lead other teams, but turned it down. I also have a feeling that we’ll be seeing this same debate ironically repeated in years to come, only with people questioning why Geraint Thomas or Peter Kennaugh aren’t being allowed to attack Froome, their team leader…

Sadly, with the King of the Mountains jersey settled, we won’t get the spectacle of Voeckler and Kessiakoff sprinting up category four climbs in a desperate battle for the single decisive point. The question today will be whether the peloton want to chase down the break or if the terrain will let it stay away. There’s a small climb just 10km from the end which will keep things interesting, either as a chance for someone from the break to launch an attack or for a team to really force the pace and try to split the peloton. We might also see Sky working hard for Cavendish today now the mountain duties are over. This will be a chance for them to practice tactics before the final sprint in Paris and for Cavendish to start getting his routine for the Olympics right.

TV coverage is on ITV4 from 1pm and Eurosport from 12.30. If you’re watching it on Eurosport, then keep watching after the Tour coverage for some highlights from the Women’s Grand Prix Series that happened earlier this year. You may even see me amidst the rain-sodden crowd in Colchester.

In other TV-related news, this year has unsurprisingly set new records for ITV4 in terms of viewer numbers, and they’ve announced that they’ll be showing Saturday and Sunday’s stages on ITV1 as well.

,