Rutland-Melton-CiCLE-Classic-2015-Spokenforks

Spokies Awards 2015/16 – Winners

The official ‘Spokies’ return belatedly this week to announce the winners of 2016’s awards, as well as the results of our debut inclusion of the public voting polls, discovering who your champions were last season. From the thunderous classics which raised the curtain in 2015 to one of the most exciting World Championships in recent years, the season offered drama in spades from start to finish; while controversy never seemed far away either. Our usual choice of Spokenforks favourite moments and riders from 2015 are also in the mix as ever, offering insight as to who or what caught the public’s imagination the greatest during the year.

Public Polls

Best Grand Tour of 2015 – Giro d’Italia

It was the battle for the maglia rosa which inspired you the most in 2015, the Giro d’Italia dominating the voting to be crowned the best grand tour of the year. The race itself was an unpredictable affair for the most part, demonstrated by the fact we did not see a repeat stage winner in the opening two weeks of the race. This fact was turned on its head during the final week however, as all but the final stage’s unexpected winner was a rider who had already taken victory earlier in the race. Despite Astana’s stranglehold upon the mountains, Alberto Contador’s bad luck and mid-race injury, the Spaniard still emerged champion with a convincing winning margin atop the general classification. Other notable performers during the race were Iljo Keisse, Davide Formolo and Nicola Boem; all of whom took impressive and unexpected victories.

Best Team Kit – MTN-Qhubeka

Indulging your love for style and aesthetics, we asked you to pick the winner of the best kit for 2015 and the Notts County style stripes of MTN-Qhubeka proved to be the most popular. Though the choice of black within kit designs has become the norm recently, the African squad incorporated bold monochrome stripes and the golden yellow of their charity’s design to produce a unique kit which caught the eye with ease. Their colours were flown by grand tour stage winners Stephen Cummings (TdF Stage 14) and Kristian Sbaragli (Vuelta Stage 10); eventually closing their account of wins with an overall victory at the Tour of Britain courtesy of Edvald Boasson Hagen.

Best One Day Race – Paris-Roubaix

No other classic seems to capture people’s imagination quite like ‘The Hell of The North’, with 2015’s edition proving to be another full-throttle affair from start to finish. Much was made of Bradley Wiggins’ participation as a contender for the win, but despite his efforts to show his talents, John Degenkolb utilised a potent combination of tactical nous and strength to outmanoeuvre his rivals and lift the cobbled trophy. You could almost justify a noteworthy mention for any rider who successfully finished this brutal race, but to narrow it down some what, Luke Rowe, Martin Elmiger and Florian Senechal were three who impressed on the day in particular.

Hot Prospect 2016 – Caleb Ewan

It was always going to prove to be an interesting affair learning who you deemed to be the most exciting talent heading into the 2016 season. Perhaps serendipitously, our belated announcements have demonstrated that you know exactly what you are talking about; Caleb Ewan is red hot. Having won all of the Bay Crits, Caleb Ewan started the Tour Down Under with the pressure to seize the crown as the race’s man to beat in the sprints and he did not falter. The young Australian showcased his incredible turn of pace and unique low slung sprinting position in style, securing Ewan two wins which bookended his time at the race and sent out a warning to the old guards of the WorldTour’s sprint finishes.

Official Spokies Awards

Domestic Rider of the Year – Peter Williams


The biggest stage for the British domestic teams on home soil each year is The Tour of Britain, a week long race which tasks the plucky upstarts of the nation’s scene to cause a stir and perhaps catch the WorldTour professionals napping. During 2015, ONE Pro Cycling did nothing to hide their ambitions of climbing towards the very top of the sport, with their showing at The Tour of Britain a definite springboard towards their confirmation as a ProContinental team for 2016. It was Peter Williams who served up the greatest glory for the British team in the face of tough competition however, walking away as King of The Mountains once the week was over; bettering his domestic rival Thomas Stewart by just two points.

Domestic Race – British National Road Race Championship

Podium

No race came close to matching the atmosphere and drama of the British title race upon Lincoln’s famous Grand Prix course; including the legendary Michaelgate. For those who had already seen Peter Kennaugh win upon the GP course a couple of years previous, it seemed certain throughout the day that he would be walking away once again in the red, white and blue bands. It was the performance of Mark Cavendish though which really impressed many stood on the cobbled hill, only just being edged out by his fellow Manxman on a course which many presumed unlikely to feature Cavendish towards the final stages. The women’s race was no different either, leading us neatly on to the next award…

Rider of The Year – Lizzie Armitstead

Of all the riders who tackled the Michaelgate during the British championship, nobody soared up the cobbled climb with such effortless ease and fluidity as Lizzie Armitstead did. The British title was accompanied by an overall World Cup win and ended the year with her hands upon the rainbow jersey as well. Armitstead’s ride at Richmond blended tactical nous and her imperious form to potent effect, adapting throughout the race as breakaways came and went, before then keeping a cool head late on when inadvertently sitting at the front of affairs as the sprint began to wind up and taking the win.

Controversial Moment – Motorbikes

A freak anomaly or a sign of the times, at one point in 2015 it felt like a race could not pass without some incident involving motorbikes and riders. From inadvertently aiding Adam Yates en route to winning San Sebastian to hitting Peter Sagan to the ground only a couple of weeks before the World Championships; much was made of bike vs moto etiquette during the season. There is no doubt that 2016 will serve to demonstrate lessons learned hopefully and highlight the previous year as the anomaly it surely was.

Surprise Winner – Ilnur Zakarin at Tour de Romandie

Ilnur Zakarin schooled plenty of big name riders as to why you simply cannot underestimate a man in top form as they sat and watched him defend his lead at the Tour de Romandie convincingly. A huge ride to Champex-Lac delivered him the lead, but few expected him to maintain it during the final day’s time trial; Simon Spilak, Chris Froome and Thibaut Pinot all falling short despite their best efforts to reel him back. Zakarin would go on to catch the peloton napping once again at the Giro d’Italia, taking the honours on Stage 11’s ride into Imola.

– Thank you to everyone who voted in the first ever Spokies public polls, keep in touch here or via @spokenforks during this year and we will be back in the blink of an eye for Spokies 2016.

 

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A Day At The Races – Tour of Britain 2015


Tour of Britain Stage 7 – Fakenham to Ipswich

Terrain: Country lanes & military airbase

Weather: Lazy drizzle & grey skies

Total Distance: 227.1km                Crowds: Waterproof ponchos everywhere

Start: Fakenham Racecourse        Best Game Face: Graham Briggs

Bradley Wiggins Factor: Parting fans like Moses to make sign-on


Lean racing machines stalk Fakenham racecourse as commonplace, so to see a crowd gathered around the parade ring is nothing unusual here. But today’s runners and riders distinctly lack the expected glossy manes of racehorses, even if Rasmus Quaade does sport a powerful moustache, however plenty here still share a fondness for oats with the thoroughbreds who normally excite the grandstand. This toy town sized venue sits nestled amongst the intricate spaghetti work of Norfolk’s roads, testing both bus and driver as much as any Alpine ascent, resulting in a tediously drawn out transfer for all the riders.

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Unsurprisingly, the day’s dank dawn has done little to persuade the teams away from their space age wagons, with only a handful of British domestic teams bold enough to saddle up on the turbos outside. So unattractive is the weather, that for many of the squads here, the sign-on process has turned into a 100m dash from bus to stage and back. When out onstage however, the speakers gurgle with the daily spiel, guaranteeing each rider’s wave earns a cheer from the crowd; now steaming beneath their complimentary rain ponchos.

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Despite the sport’s huge groundswell of interest on British turf thanks to Cavendish, Wiggins, Armitstead Hoy, Pendleton and Froome; cycling remains a strange beast. There are no true limitations for ambling around the riders and their buses, teams relying on the constraints of social norms stopping strangers from inviting themselves onto the bus and generally being weird. The majority of today’s attendance is firmly ensconced within touching distance of the Team WIGGINS van. A sea of limbs grasping smartphones in place of autograph books, contorting their bodies to rattle off selfies with the thread slim Bradley Wiggins stalking the crowded barrier in shot.

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This knight’s fellow men-at-arms form the remaining five sixths of his battalion, three of whom slink away to sign-on and return with little interest from the crowd. Bradley on the other hand cycles the hundred meters to the stage with an amateur town crier ahead of him, negotiating a gangway through those magnetised into orbit by his charisma.

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Wiggins narrows the scope of a race so acutely that appreciation of the breadth and depth of riders here can became momentarily suspended. Regardless of whether Britain is truly enamoured or simply infatuated by cycling, the profile of the sport has struck an exponential phase of development. This 2015 line-up bolsters World Champions, several National Champions, Grand Tour jersey winners, Monument winners and one of Eritrea’s favourite sons. A once backwater race now sits at the top table of cycling with the room to grow in stature yet further still, admittedly how best to do so is uncertain, though Tour of Britain’s take on the eccentric Tour de France advertising cavalcade could be a start.

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Fakenham’s drizzled starting line becomes populated all of a sudden, the weather inspiring riders for a Le Mans style scramble to saddle up and ride out with no hanging around. The previous six days of racing are already etched deep on the brow of many, exaggerated by the tangible heavy sigh pressing down on the peloton from the cinderblock sky above. As they trickle out from the racecourse like a loose thread, it seems that a miserable day is all that lies in store for these riders.

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Finish – Ipswich Town Centre

Weather: Blue skies and obscene levels of sunshine

Crowds: Skilled in parkour to get a good view

Bradley Wiggins Factor: Encouraging the 60+ age group to sprint over walls


Like ants beneath a magnified sun, the riders now skitter across scorched tarmac, sailing through the technical kilometres preceding the Ipswich town centre finish. Britain’s climate has impersonated a more continental vibe for the latter half of the day, spectators swap their hot chocolate for cool lagers, while riders strip down to short sleeves for the heated finale into town. Whereas Fakenham’s departure point felt like a juddering steam engine building up pressure to leave the station, the habitual scanning from ‘jumbotron’ to finishing straight (and back again), is more akin to waiting for a thundering bullet train to blitz its way to the line. So eager are those gathered to witness the anticipated showdown between Elia Viviani and André Greipel, that the rooftops of estate agents, apartments, bars and banks now become sky-high terraces for those able to negotiate their way to the summit.

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If the start’s modest crowd of enthusiasts and dedicated Rapha/Wiggins acolytes demonstrated a local interest, Stage 7’s town centre finale confirms a nation’s burgeoning obsession. Barriers are five bodies deep, even beyond the finishing line, with 50km still to race before the peloton begin bearing down on the county capital’s outskirts. Time is said to be relative at best, but waiting for first sight of a rider exiting the final bend exaggerates this further still, spectators hung in suspended animation, as minute by minute nothing changes in Ipswich. ‘Jumbotron’ serves as the only assurance that there is indeed a race worth waiting for here. A breath which never quite suffices or the infinite fall of shepard tones, being a spectator feels punishing on occasion, with the prospect of watching paint dry seeming electric after a while.

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Time at the line is focused on one calculation: the exact moment at which your eyes can scan down from the live TV and register that the riders are now before you with only 100m left. From rider to spectator, road racing’s facets are sunk deep within hours of increasing tension, before venting frenziedly and abruptly for the mad rush across the line. Synapses spark in an attempt to translate the initial smattering of vibrant jerseys into rider names, and in turn, vocalise some sort of motivational howl to nudge your favoured rider over the line. Today that rider is André Greipel, cementing his season’s final victory in a year which has seen him collect at least one win from nine of his ten stage race appearances. Who said sprinting stopped at 33 years old?

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Then it dawns across the crowd – “That’s it.”
The race both comes to life and fades within several pedal revolutions; perhaps no other sports is so tightly bonded to ‘the moment’ in that respect. Rugby, tennis and football drag beyond an hour and have their entirety spectated upon from one location, while much of track and field, or even gymnastics, is the repetition of efforts in pursuit of perfection. Staying at home for armchair race coverage fails to guarantee witnessing everything either, as directors cut from camera to camera in an attempt to please every nation’s fans; missing breaks suddenly forming, riders being dropped or losing everything altogether as weather sabotages live feed.

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Those who prop themselves up against a race barrier exchange hours of staring at dire advertising hoardings, for a fleeting moment which places them alongside their heroes. In that moment comes the satisfaction of sharing it with those who inspire you, a process repeated for fans from kilometre zero to the day’s final podium presentation. Photography mirrors this attribute of cycling well, all of the shots here could be flashes in the memory of any individual who turned out for the day. There is no football style ‘build up play’ to be remembered when standing roadside, this sport hinges on being in the right place at the right time; on either side of the barriers.

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Ultimately it becomes an addiction, wanting another pass by the peloton, spotting your favourite rider or dreaming of seeing the race winning move vanish up the road. Even nowadays with parades of press motorbikes surrounding the bunch and helicopters overhead, certain aspects and stories of the race are only documented through those dedicated followers at the roadside. For those who decided to watch Stage 7 at some point from Fakenham to Ipswich, all now possess a moment which intertwines them with the race. Yet a lucky few will have walked away with a story too and it is in the pursuit of those tales which fuels interest to become obsession.

END.


Tour de Yorkshire – Stage 1 Preview

The inaugural Tour de Yorkshire opens its doors to a strong peloton of WorldTour and ProConti squads today; as well as the plucky British teams aiming to cause an upset during the three days in the county. As was seen during Le Tour de France’s excursion to Yorkshire last year, the terrain and course could prove more testing than the European riders expect; being caught short on day one could prove costly. Glancing upon Stage One’s profile for the first time gives the impression of a sprint finish being a guarantee, but with a rolling day in the saddle which includes 5 nasty climbs, this could prove a banana skin for many.

Course:

Exiting from the costal town of Bridlington, the peloton will then travel 174km en route to the finish at the seaside resort of Scarborough. The riders will have 51km under their belt before they are tasked with the day’s first climb; this being Cote de Dalby Forest. Though only 600m in length, the average gradient of 8.9% is likely to give some riders an idea of what shape they will be in come the finish in Scarborough.  A touch over 40km will separate the bunch from the second ascent of the day which comes at Rosedale Abbey in the North York Moors National Park; Cote de Rosedale Abbey to be exact. It is the longest of the day at 2.8km and possesses and average gradient of 7% over its entirety.

A drop down the other side will offer the peloton a certain level of recovery as they approach a potent double header of climbs in under 10km; beginning at 123km with Cote de Grosmont. A length of 400m might induce a scoff from some, but Grosmont is sure to get the blood pumping as they haul themselves up its ferocious gradient of 16.9%. It is here we could see a few riders have their doors blown off by the tempo and slip out the back of the peloton as the bunch reorganises itself for the following ascent of Cote de Briggswath. An average of 6.2% over 1.3km will ensure any recovery found between the two climbs is short lived, rolling onwards through Whitby and onto the day’s final climb. If a breakaway has been swallowed up already by this point, the Cote de Robin’s Hood Bay could act as a solid springboard for anyone fancying a late attack for the line with approximately 27km remaining. The climb itself is 1.5km long and offers up an average of 10% in order for anyone wishing to spoil the sprinters’ day by launching a bid for home; a move Robin Hood would surely endorse.

The remaining ride into Scarborough should prove a more comfortable affair for many and the finish itself looks distinctly flat on paper. A sprint does seem likely, but the size and representatives present in such a bunch will vary greatly depending on the attrition rate apparent in the preceding hours of racing through Yorkshire. If a breakaway proves troublesome to catch, or the county displays its knack for four seasons in one day, the peloton could find life much harder if they hope to keep their sprinters happy come the seaside finale in Scarborough.

 

 

 

Tour-De-Yorkshire-Spokenforks-Preview

Contenders:

The German sprint ace Marcel Kittel attends this race as a marked favourite for the bookies, but many will be surprised by this factor given his recent struggles with form and condition during 2015 thus far. Had this opening day been a flatter affair it may have been possible to make a case for the ‘be-quiffed’ sprinter, but with five climbs present likely to build fatigue Kittel has not experienced for sometime now, doubts are well founded that he might not even be present to contest the finish.

As a Yorkshire lad himself, Ben Swift is likely to be eager to give the locals something cheer about during this three day spin around his home county. The harder nature of Stage 1 certainly leans towards a stronger sprinter such as Swift, but the flat finish negates this enough to place him back at square one. Team Sky are registered a British team and would certainly like to put Yorkshireman Swift in the first leader’s jersey of the Tour de Yorkshire and will work hard to do this. The finish itself should mean the purer sprinters go speeding past him, but a day ‘blessed’ with typical Yorkshire weather and motivation stoked by home pride are factors not to be ignored.

A sprinter who started the 2015 season well was Matteo Pelucchi of IAM Cycling, but heading into the first day in Yorkshire, his form has been absent for sometime now. Having won his opening two races in the shape of  Trofeo Santanyi-Ses Salines-Campos & Trofeo Playa de Palma-Palma, he then proceeded to finish on the podium twice in Oman before a solid 10th place at Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne in March. Since then his placings have been far from impressive, averaging between 150th – 170th during his time at Tirreno-Adriatico and Catalunya; as well as a few DNS or DNF along the way. His lack of recent competition could be interpreted fairly as a positive or negative; is he race fit or lacking race fitness for example? Regardless, Pelucchi has not offered much for a while now and Stage 1 does not suggest he will change this in Scarborough.

Though Bradley Wiggins makes his debut for his eponymously titled team here, attention on Stage 1 will be better focused upon the performance of their strongman sprinter Owain Doull. He is young still, but has shown encouraging form during the season so far with solid performances at Tour de Normandie, Le Triptyque des Monts et Châteaux and ZLM Roompot Tour for Great Britain. A win would be a dream result for the promising Welshman, but he should certainly feel comfortable aiming for a top ten placing; beyond that is hard to say.

BMC offer up Greg Van Avermaet, Jean-Pierre Drucker and Rick Zabel as viable options for the opening day’s ride to Scarborough. The Belgian Avermaet has had an impressive Spring campaign, charting in the top 5 at Amstel Gold, Paris-Roubaix and Tour of Flanders thanks to his great form. He certainly enjoys a hard day’s racing and often benefits when attrition leaves a reduced bunch to duke it out for the stage win. Teammate Drucker enjoys a testing day too and could secure himself a top ten if allowed the space to ride for it, though yet to take a win this year, he should see this as a chance to open his account. Zabel is still learning the ropes, but much is still expected of him due to his surname, a quick finisher who will benefit on the simple run into Scarborough; remaining in contention will be his major challenge.

Though JLT-Condor will fancy their chances of a good overall placing, this has not stopped them from bringing Ed Clancy, Tom Moses and Graham Briggs to Yorkshire in hope of a stage win. Clancy has not done a great deal in 2015, but such a naturally talented sprinter can never be ruled out from causing an upset. Moses and Briggs on the other hand have had more convincing openings to the season, the former finishing 11th in the testing Melton CiCLE Classic on Sunday and the latter displaying promising form during his only outing so far this year at February’s Herald Sun Tour.

Tom Scully had a great time during the Tour of Normandie, eventually finishing third overall having sustained a great level of form after his second place on the opening day’s prologue. Having spent several seasons racing in Britain now, he is certainly not adverse to a bumpy day of riding, but he is yet to capitalise on his domestic results when it comes to races such as the Tour of Britain for example.

NFTO will look to former WorldTour rider Steele Von Hoff as their man for the sprints here in Yorkshire. On Sunday he emerged as the champion of the arduous Melton CiCLE Classic and has form at the Tour of Britain in 2012 & 2013 where he had to settle for podium places behind the winner. He is evidently in good form right now and will be motivated to demonstrate that he still has what it takes against the best quick-men in the bunch as he eyes a move back to the top tier.

Outcome:

1st Ben Swift 2nd Steele Von Hoff 3rd Matteo Pelucchi

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Monument Three – Paris Roubaix Preview

Course:

This year’s Paris-Roubaix takes a familiar shape as previous editions; softening the riders up with 100km of flat racing before the cobbles appear on their radar. Overall, the peloton will need to tackle the 253.5km which leads to the historic finishing line at Roubaix’s velodrome; while also surviving the 27 sectors of bone rattling pavé. In order for favourite to succeed here, they will have to sustain their luck and strength over a total of 52.7km worth of race deciding cobblestones.

Like many crucial one day races, the desperation to be represented in the day’s early breakaway will result in a thundering pace until the peloton concedes and allows one to form. The aftermath of this will be a lull in tensions; this is probably the only time in the race the peloton will experience something resembling a breather. The first sector on the agenda strikes after 98.5km, igniting the fuse to every subsequent sectors hell for leather approach. The three star ranked Troisvilles is the first challenge; followed by Quievy (3700m), Saint-Python (1500m) and Verchain-Maugré (1600m). Ranked at 4 stars, Haveluy is a tough sector which will give some insight as to who is looking most nervous when jostling for position on the best part of the road.

As iconic as it is infamous, the next sector is Trouee d’Arenberg and its 5 star ranked cobblestones which can break a rider’s hopes of winning in Roubaix. The peloton’s approach to this sector is notorious for its speed and intensity; hitting the first row of cobblestones at speeds akin to a sprinter’s leadout. Chaotic crashes have often peppered the ride through Arenberg, instantly scuttling the chances of contenders; a simple puncture at this point would have the same outcome. Due to the nature of Arenberg, teams will attempt to keep their leaders’ at the front of affairs through sheer speed over the treacherous road, often resulting in an elite group being formed by the time they exit. By now it will be noticeable as to how heavily thinned the ranks will have become since finishing Arenberg, making it apparent as to who now lacks support from their team.

Next is Mons-en-Pevele (5 stars) with 49km to go, a sector which is likely to shape the composition of the eventual group from which we see the winner emerge. The final 30km to Roubaix require the riders to stay upright over Cysoing-Bourghelles, Bourghelles-Wannehain, Champhin-en-Pevele; all before entering the decisive 5 star Carrefour de l’Arbre. Over 2km long and coming only 17km from home, this has often been the site upon which the day’s winning attack has been forged. Once completed, the final pavé which separates them from the famouns velodrome are those of Gruson and Hem.

Outcome:

With Paris-Roubaix sitting as the third monument in the season, we have a vague idea of who are likely to be the major protagonists by now; having already seen the riders duel for the wins at Milan-San Remo and Tour of Flanders so far. Form is certainly able to be sustained across these successive weekends of classics racing, but each race offers attributes which lean towards the capabilities of certain riders in particular within the peloton. For curtain raising Milan-San Remo we had to cast an eye over the fastest finishing strongmen who were likely to still be present once they arrived on the Via Roma after over 6 hours of racing. In the fields of Flanders those who could cope with the repeated anaerobic efforts required to dominant the vicious hellingen were always going to be apparent and when it came to more than one rider contesting the finish, whoever seemed fastest on paper was sure to be the favourite.

The roads to Roubaix are another differing opportunity once again, but one which requires the least tangible and most transient of all race winning factors; luck. Perhaps because of this, Paris-Roubaix is seen has the crowning glory of the classics season for its ‘against the odds’ chances of winning. Lacking crucial climbs such as the Poggio or Paterberg as featured in Milan-San Remo and Flanders respectively; Paris-Roubaix has the ability to churn up contenders who have otherwise been absent during the campaign thus far. Perhaps the most tactically ridden of all the monuments, this cobbled juggernaut can see favourites’ chances wither rapidly after simply choosing the wrong wheel to follow over the pavé or digging too deep too soon in the race. This ensures a very anxious day where riders attempt to anticipate the moves of the day’s most fancied riders, in order to be one step ahead as the fireworks erupt dramatically in the peloton.

As ever it will be a difficult race to control, some of the major names here lack a team able to keep this occasion from boiling over and rosters which do display strength in numbers are subsequently lacking in a man convincing enough to win it come the end. The history books are perhaps a little overdue at present for an unexpected name to enter beneath the title of ‘monuments winners.’ There is no reason to exclude the possibility of a strong pack of well organised rouleurs making a bid for freedom and staying away with little cohesion from beyond the major names to chase. Underdogs will be much less inclined to play ‘cat and mouse’ in the later stages with any fellow escapees, as they will be all to aware how difficult it is to win this race; spurning the opportunity to contest the win due to silly games would be foolish.

The rider which nobody will wish to take all the way to the finish as either part of a small breakaway or bigger sized bunch is man of the moment Alexander Kristoff. Though his form has been clear already this season with dominant performances in the Middle East, De Panne and only being bettered by John Degenkolb when attempting to defend his Milan-San Remo title; it was still surprising when he added Tour of Flanders to his palmares recently too. His biggest benefit on that occasion was some surprisingly poor tactics from Dutchman Niki Terpstra, the Etixx-Quick Step man worked comfortably with the Norwegian danger man throughout; seemingly towing him to the finish in the absence of any meaningful attacks. With its flat terrain and arduous distance, Kristoff will view this as an opportunity to add another monument to his cabinet; a man who can absorb the efforts of others and be confident of being the fastest man at the finish should he be present in the leading group.

Finding such a surpsingly generous partner on his way to victory in Flanders must surely be the last time that will happen for a while given his form. Nobody will have the slightest interest in aiding Kristoff and, much like Geraint Thomas so far this season, is bound to find people missing their turns in a chase as they place everything on the Katusha man to close the gaps and hold the wheel. As mentioned earlier, some contenders come here with teams which are likely to see their support evaporate not long after Arenberg; meaning all the tactical nous will need using if he has the chance of winning as the most marked man here.

A man with an equal claim to being the fastest finisher in Roubaix is the German powerhouse John Degenkolb; the other monument winner so far in 2015. His build and mentality suit the testing cobblestones which so many fear and he seemed quite the revelation when taking the sprint for second place last year in the wake of Niki Terpstra’s astute race winning attack. It seems laughable to think Degenkolb could find himself squirrelled away in the group which reaches the line first, but many riders could be so eager to exploit an opportunity to distance Alexander Kristoff that they might allow the German’s presence in the meantime; rather than spurn the chance to crack Kristoff. With a team which includes Ramon Sinkledam and Bert De Backer, Degenkolb has a more fancied support team than his rival Kristoff; this should mean the need to ride aggressively becomes less apparent.

A man who may have previously been picked out as one of the main protagonists ahead of 2015’s Paris-Roubaix was Sep Vanmarcke; the talented Belgian prodigy still lacking a major title. Across his classics campaigns thus far, he has demonstrated a level of consistency which places him in similar regards as Fabian Cancellara. Though repeatedly entering these monuments as one of the strongest riders, Vanmarcke is plagued by misfortune and poor tactical decision making when it counts the most. He has also found Cancellara an indomitable foe despite a relatively short, yet prolific, role in the last few seasons on the cobbles alongside him. What makes it difficult to back Vanmarcke with absolute conviction is how stuttering his performances have been so far at Flanders, Gent-Wevelgem, Strade-Bianche and E3 Harelbeke. We have witnessed Herculean efforts against the odds at both Strade-Bianche and Flanders, ensuring that his conviction or desire to win these major races remains unquestioned. The queries which do surround Vanmarcke are predominantly based on his habit of expending too much energy when it is not necessary. During Gent-Wevelgem he mismanaged his finite resources and was unable to make the crucial moves in Flanders for, possibly, similar reasons. Of course, if he does arrive at the start in Compiegne on one of his good days, he will remain a man who cannot be allowed an inch during the final decisive kilometres on the approach to Roubaix.

Etixx-Quick Step will be confident of once again being the protagonists with the greatest numerical advantage during the crucial moments of the race, but have already squandered such advantages more than once this season. Niki Terpstra was beaten into second place by the ruthless Alexander Kristoff at Flanders, though it was still an ultimately impressive performance in terms of strength. However, as soon as it became apparent that these two were going to collaborate in an attempt to stay away, it was a given that Terpstra could not afford to simply tow the Norwegian into Oudenaarde when possessing such a potent sprint. This was just another page in the growing annals of Etixx-Quick Step’s incompetence when it comes to putting a race to bed in the face of golden opportunities. Terpstra is of course an extremely powerful ride to have onboard for a race such as Paris-Roubaix and comes here as the defending champion, but it seems more logical that they will back Czech road race champion Zdenek Stybar to lead their charge across the cobblestones instead. Stybar has been one of the most consistent riders in terms of performance; both physically and tactically. Featuring at the pivotal moments in E3-Harelbeke (when going clear with Peter Sagan and Geraint Thomas), Strade-Bianche (dispatching the likes of Alejandro Valverde and Greg Van Avermaet for the win) and played a solid team role during Flanders. Should both Terpstra and Stybar make it into the elite group, they surely have the majority of tactical outcomes covered and will feel confident of finally bring a classic home to Etixx-Quick Step this season.

Terpstra took the win last year after splintering off the front of the decisive breakaway and soon set about time trialling his way to the finish at Roubaix’s velodrome solo. One rider who will look to last year’s victory by the Dutchman as inspiration will surely be Bradley Wiggins; coming to the race with the intention of finishing his career with the famous cobblestone trophy held aloft his head. With the news that Wiggins has been timing the pavé sectors in order to gauge his efforts and the tempo of the peloton, no rider will have studied this race so meticulously as the British World Time Trial Champion. Many will argue that such a scientific approach to Paris-Roubaix is a waste of time, you need to be racing in the moment and reacting to the ever changing maelstrom which surrounds you. He might know how many watts to put out going through Arenberg, but does Wiggins have the ability to ‘read’ the cobblestones in order to stay upright and puncture free? The answer is a surprisingly positive one for the ageing Sky rider who has already contested this race on several occasions, dating back to his early days at Marc Madiot’s Francaise Des Jeux squad. His support will include the flying Welshman Geraint Thomas, strongman Ian Stannard, wiley lieutenant Berard Eisel and promising youngster Luke Rowe. These are all men who are happy to sacrifice themselves in order to ensure Wiggins a safer passage through the day and hopefully position him amongst the decisive riders towards the end of play.

For Wiggins, he will expect his teammates to soften up the other favourites for him, before attempting to breakaway solo and motor to the line with the huge engine he has. Something worth keeping mind is what could happen as a result of Geraint Thomas attacking; a man there to work for Wiggins. The bunch could try to call their bluff though and let Thomas get away, something which would need to be judged accurately to ensure he does not vanish up the road and takes the win for himself. Given that this is Wiggins final race and his last attempt at securing another palmares topping race win, would we perhaps even see him working to bring back his own teammate in desperation?

Horses for courses is a saying which perhaps serves cycling better than its intended sport, or any other sport for that matter. A sport where riders can pull  race winning performance out of thin air simply because they hold an affinity for the given terrain or course. Lars Boom is one such rider who should be included when summarising the danger men 2015’s Paris-Roubaix. He won the apocalyptic Tour de France stage which tackled the cobbles during last year’s race; taking the win in a rain soaked affair which saw the impressive efforts of Vincenzo Nibali triumphing over the treacherous stones while others faltered. This is not to say Boom’s claim to a Roubaix win is simply limited to that one day during Le Tour, a day where others have to measure their efforts for the next two weeks of further efforts. The Dutchman has appeared comfortable within the eye of the storm as the peloton hit crucial sectors at incredible speed and like Vanmarkce, is only bereft of a better showing here due to misfortune.

Greg Van Avermaet will have been disappointed to have no capitalised on the absence of both Fabian Cancellara and Tom Boonen during last week’s Tour of Flanders. Unable to bridge the gap to the leading pairing of Terpstra and Kristoff despite the assistance of Peter Sagan; Avaermaet finished third one a day where he really could have taken all the glory when looking so strong on the final ascent of the Paterberg. Despite Avermaet not necessarily appearing to be the typically styled rider to benefit in the cobbled classics, he has a fourth place at Paris-Roubaix and often ends up in the elite group during a arduous race. Though he might no have as great a level of depth in his support squad as other contenders here, he should have plenty of confidence with Daniel Oss as his key man; the Italian has appeared in superb condition this Spring so far.

A couple of seasons ago, many would not only have bet that Peter Sagan would have taken a monuments win by now, but probably had a small shelf dedicated solely to them. In reality however, Sagan has failed to kick on from the performances which first brought him centre stage on the WorldTour. As ever he remains a consistent finisher in anything from one day classics to three week grand tours and anything in between. Of the five annual monuments, Sagan has currently bagged two 4th place finishes at both Milan-San Remo and Tour of Flanders; leaving only Paris-Roubaix as a possible win as neither Liége-Bastogne-Liége or Giro di Lombardia favour his strengths. If Paris-Roubaix was 50km shorter, it would be easier to back his chances, but sadly for the Slovak rider, he often dwindles during these longer one day affairs. His overall form has been troublesome this year, during Strade-Bianche he went on the attack at one point, only to be caught and churned out the back as soon as he had been reeled in. During E3 Harelbeke he made the decisive move with Stybar and Thomas, but looked on the rivet during the last 20km; unable to take a turn and eventually bonked so hard after Thomas’ attack (and Stybar’s subsequent pursuit) he could not manage to hold on for third in the final few kilometres; instead finding his name plunged into the midsts of the chasing pack.

Another rider who seemed destined to become a major figure in the classics scene for the foreseeable future was Belgium’s Jurgen Roelandts. This year appears to be the best build-up he has ever had heading into Paris-Roubaix, stating throughout the media that he feels he can put in a solid performance on the cobbles. He appears to be feeling strong off the pack of encouraging showings at Gent-Wevelgem and Flanders; yet will not be that closely marked despite evident form. Like many dark horses at this race, their chances do not come when facing the major names head-to-head, but rather anticipating the moves and aiming to get ahead of the game before they make them. Roelandts remains one to watch and if he uses his head properly, could certainly be on the coattails of the elite group.

Reigning Belgian champion Jens Debusschere could be worth keeping an eye on for home fans too, with encouraging signs apparent heading into Paris-Roubaix. At Gent-Wevelgem he played his cards very close to his chest when making it into the decisive lead group and measured his efforts extremely closely when forcing the likes of Geraint Thomas and Niki Terpstra to close the gaps to the wheels ahead. Ultimately this possible unwillingness to chase blew up in his face as Luca Paolini capitalised on the cat and mouse to slip off the front and solo to victory. He has the capability to smuggle himself aboard a breakaway, but it will be another question as to whether or not he can cope with the subsequent attacks as riders aim to drop one another. If he is present in a group which makes it into Roubaix first, he is fast enough to be a key threat to the hopes of the strongmen with lesser finishing speeds after such a long race.

Outcome: 1st Zdenek Stybar 2nd Geraint Thomas 3rd Jens Debusschere 

Omloop-Het-Nieuwsblad-Spokenforks-Preview

Omloop Het Nieuwsblad Preview

The European curtain raiser to the classics season begins with the 70th edition of Omloop Het Nieuwsblad; requiring a real specialist to rise to the occasion and slay this tough beast. With weeks of racing in the legs of many who found seasonal refuge in the climates of Oman, Dubai and Qatar; a taste of Belgian grit will be a shock to the system for the ill-prepared. Life in the continental spring shall not start softly at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad; this is no longer a case of ‘getting the miles in’ for the peloton.

Course:

Short, sharp and often cobbled climbs will be the order of play for a large part of the day; the diet of many champion strongmen. Its 200km distance is enough to jelly the legs of many, but when factoring in the possibility of dismal weather, this really can become a war of attrition. The total of official climbs has increased by one (to 11) and has once again utilised the testing Muur van Geraardsbergen; a formerly decisive cobbled climb of the Tour of Flanders. Despite many of the hills being unlikely to decided the race’s outcome, it is a case of the accumulative damage inflicted throughout the day which will see contenders tossed aside.

Omloop-Het-Nieuwsblad-Spokenforks-Preview

Life will become tense as the peloton approach the 65km marker, where positioning for the oncoming barrage of hills and attacks will be imperative for those with an eye on the win. The Taaienberg will appear around this time; signalling a crushing triumvirate of slopes (as well as the obligatory Boonen attack) in the space of 10km alongside the Elkenberg and Wolvenberg. This trio is followed by another, on this occasion pavé in nature, which will lead directly into the final two climbs of the day. Afterwards, any leading breakaway will be left with a flat 37.2km run to the finish; provided with three further cobbled sectors upon which to play their race winning moves or gamble to win in the sprint.

Omloop-Het-Nieuwsblad-Spokenforks-Preview

Outcome:

Classics specialists are few, but contenders remain many as ever; these turbulent courses can churn up the most unlikely of winners on occasion. At this point in time, even the strongmen favourites are unlikely to be riding at 100% for this opening of the classics season. This has not prevented Greg Van Avermaet being named favourite however; the combination of a strong team and finishing second in last year’s edition being deciding factors. Many times before GVA has been deemed a forgone conclusion for a race win, but he always remain an awkward fit as a ‘dead-cert’ bet. BMC will also field Philippe Gilbert alongside him; though it does not seem a race to lure Gilbert out all guns blazing.

Alexander Kristoff is the other major favourite for Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, returning from his dominant performance in the Middle East which resultantly saw Tom Boonen leave empty handed. Kristoff genuinely appears to be on form for this race so early in the classics campaign and will thrive if conditions become atrocious in the Belgian countryside. One glaring negative is the lack of depth apparent in his support team; no big name lieutenant is apparent to marshall Kristoff through the decisive maelstrom.

It would be challenging to argue Sep Vanmarcke’s credentials as one of the most talented riders to emerge from Belgium in recent years; especially in this environment. A true specialist with the consistency to negotiate the full support of his team, he is likely to be an antagonistic character amongst the pack. The day’s course probably calms down too far from the finish for him to be part of a winning move; it is over the difficult sections where he will make others suffer most. Teammate Tom Van Asbroeck could be an alternative; he has shown good condition already this year and is more than handy in a selective sprint.

The entire Etixx-Quick Step team pose a threat to everyone’s ambitions; Tom BoonenZdenek StybarNiki TerpstraStijn Vandenbergh and Guillaume Van Keirsbulck could all take the reins if plan A  does not go well. Though Boonen was consistent in the Middle East, it seems unlikely that he will find himself in a position to sprint for the win and demonstrate his turn of pace. On the other hand, Stybar has already demonstrated form beyond his usual terrain and has a much greater chance of finding himself in a race winning position.

Omloop’s defending champion this year is Ian Stannard, a rider who can win this back-to-back but will need truly atrocious conditions to do so. The assembled ranks of Team Sky also bolster Elia VivianiBradley Wiggins and Luke Rowe; it is perhaps the later who is the biggest wildcard for the team. The young Welshman is a growing talent on the classics scene and could be a threat in a reduced bunch kick.

Outsiders and dark horses are plentiful, with the permutations for what could happen in the race so broad proving inviting. Heinrich Haussler has demonstrated early season condition in both Australia and Qatar to hint at a possible return to the sort of form he wielded several years ago now. He enjoys a day on the cobbles and is long overdue for a another good result in such races; he is another who might benefit from a tougher ride. FDJ will aim for their riders to peak later in the classics campaign, but still come here with an aggressively mustered squad of riders. Perhaps the standout man in regards to being present at the decisive moment is Matthieu Ladagnous; he was on the ball at Haut Var last week and also suits the 1.5% drag when sprinting for the finish line. Pim Ligthart is another who has opened the season well and is likely to have the entire team at his disposal if he decides to really pursue the day’s racing. Buried beneath the big names at BMC is another possible contender for the day in the shape of Jean-Pierre Drucker. Having only recently stepped up to a major team as he approaches 30, the Luxembourg rider has a great depth of encouraging results at a variety of classic races and could serve as a handy contingency plan for any unforeseen events.

1st Zdenek Stybar 2nd Matthieu Ladagnous 3rd Jean-Pierre Drucker

Tour-of-Qatar

A New Hell – Qatar Part 1

While professional cycling continues to expand across the globe, attracting an increasingly diverse audience, landscapes previously untouched by the technicolour peloton are now becoming a common sight. However, there is a downside (for the riders at least); as along with the tapping of new lands comes the discovery of environments never raced upon for good reason.

The Tour of Qatar returns to 2015 on the back of its 10 years’+ success, having seen the race won by Niki Terpstra last year. Glamourous and exotic, the attraction was evident when drawing a stellar field once again in 2014, but this year has already proven to be a new hell in the opening three days. Vicious crosswinds created an ever shifting silk carpet of sand which slickened the already flawless tarmac; shattering the peloton as riders panicked to join the resulting echelons. It might be a cliché, but echelons do not always mean a race is won in that moment: rather often leaving contenders’ ambitions of winning cast out on the scything gale which etched the diagonal battalions across the road.

Tour-Of-Qatar-2015-Wiggins


The Succeeding:

  • Appearing at the front of affairs to take a rare victory, José Joaquín Rojas was the winner on Stage 1; taking advantage of messers Boonen and Démare’s tired legs after a tough opening day.
  • Alexander Kristoff only required the first day as his season opening dry run, before securing his first win of 2015 on Stage 2. Benefiting from a tortuous 194.5km of crosswinds, Kristoff displayed the indomitable mettle which earned him Milan-San Remo last year. When quizzed as to the day’s weather, the strongman bragged – “In Norway I live at the coast. We even have more wind there.”
  • With the important week’s time trial falling on the third day, the arena was set for a showdown between Fabian Cancellara and (recently crowned) World Time Trial Champion Bradley Wiggins. Sadly, the script had not been sent to Niki Terpstra; the Dutchman deciding to overhaul both his rivals to win by 8 and 9 seconds respectively to take the leaders’ jersey.
  • Almost overshadowing the flying Dutchman’s efforts on the day was that of Team Sky’s Ian Stannard  (registering an impressive 5th place time) who finished only 10 seconds off Terpstra’s pace; subsequently moving him up to third in the general classification.
Tour-Of-Qatar-Peloton-Dusty

Putting it in the gutter…or desert in this case.


The Suffering

 

  • After Stage 2, Marca conducted an interview with Alejandro Valverde as to his experience of the local weather. Opening with the understated “This is inhuman” response, the Movistar team-leader expanded further: “In the first stage we saw that this was a bit hard, but today was… I have not seen anything like this. It’s not just the wind, the sand too, you can not even breathe or anything … Awesome.” Though delirium had not set in at this point after the finish, the Spanish climber stated he …”would rather do the Tourmalet five times.” Go on then.
  • Bradley Wiggins shipped time on both Stages 1 & 2, entering the time trial with an accumulative deficit of  10:01 to (then leader) Alexander Kristoff. Failing to survive the maelstrom present when fighting to bridge across to the forming echelons the source of his time losses’. Wiggins will need to display greater determination and grit in order to win his desired Paris-Roubaix later this Spring.
  • So far in this edition of the Tour of Qatar, the top tier sprinters have found life very hard work beyond Alexander Kristoff’s bold performance earlier in the week. The likes of Marcel Kittel, Nacer Bouhanni and Sacha Modolo have all failed to navigate the echelons, marshall their sprint trains or survive the pace in a variety of ways. The remaining stages might come as the perfect opportunity for Arnaud Démare, Adam Blythe, Andrea Guardini and Sam Bennet to all open their accounts in 2015, benefiting from the unpredictable conditions seen so far.
Wiggins-Spring-Classics

A Spring In His Tale – What Suits Bradley Wiggins?

The WorldTour career of Britain’s Bradley Wiggins looks destined to be wrapped up during the Spring of 2015; stepping down to his eponymously titled ‘WIGGINS’ Pro-Conti team. Though yet to be officially confirmed, Wiggins appears to be taking his bow from the WorldTour in the form of a serious run at the classics; culminating in an attempt to secure Paris-Roubaix victory with his last hurrah. With speculation rife as to what his programme could be ahead of Paris – Roubaix, Spokenforks has investigated to see which races might take Bradley’s fancy and whether he will have a chance at an early season win.

  • Paris – Roubaix

Driven by an obsession with the legendary classic and motivated by last year’s unexpected top 10 finish upon his debut; Bradley Wiggins has Paris-Roubaix in his crosshairs. Agreeing on the perfect cup of tea seems an easier task than identifying what makes a Roubaix champion though: The grit of De Vlaeminck? Boonen’s tenacity? Cancellara’s power? Whatever the answer to the physical requirements of a winner, Bradley Wiggins will need buckets of luck in order to win his day in hell. He shall be a marked man, so a Johan Van Summeran inspired victory might be off the cards; Team Sky’s tactics will need to be spot on come April 12th.

  • Milan – San Remo

Part of his Spring campaign might also include an appearance at one of the most gruelling days in the saddle. Last year’s edition of Milan – San Remo bordered on the apocalyptic at times, making it difficult to envision Wiggins riding its entirety should similar conditions be present once again. Teammate Ben Swift secured a podium here in 2014 and will want assurance that the team will be totally committed to him once again as he targets his own (and Sky’s) first Classics win. Favouring the tough men with a fast finish, Wiggins has little chance of pulling off an upset here should he wish to; though Vincenzo Nibali did animate the race late on last year however. Unless Bradley Wiggins has another Tour de Romandie-esque sprint hidden up his sleeve, do not expect much to shout about here.

  • Tour of Flanders

Fabian Cancellara will be eager to complete a hat-trick of consecutive wins at this race in 2015, but Bradley Wiggins could play a role in the final outcome on the day. A good head for tactics and a massive engine are common ground shared by these two time trial specialists, making the notion of a fight between the two seem quite plausible. Cancellara has found riders following his wheel in these big races, but repeatedly shows the required class to dispatch all pretenders to his thrown once the chips are down. Bradley Wiggins could prove an unexpectedly challenging prospect to ditch on the short cobbled ramps of Flanders though. With the assumption that Wiggins has been training for the short anaerobic efforts required to win Paris – Roubaix, a spectacular edition might just be on the cards in Flanders.

  • Omloop Het Nieuwsblad

The nearest thing Sky have in the trophy cabinet to a Classics win thanks to Ian Stannard, there is no doubt he will want to defend his title after a injury hit 2014 season. On first glance, Omloop Het Nieuwsblad is the type of race where Wiggins can demonstrate his effectiveness and impact within a support role, setting a potent pace and keeping Ian Stannard or Geraint Thomas out of danger. It might not be a huge stretch however to picture Wiggins acting as a plan B; possibly finding himself in a winning position after smuggling himself aboard a breakaway late on.

  • Kuurne – Brussels – Kuurne

Team Sky have had success twice here in the form of Chris Sutton and Mark Cavendish (2011 & 2012 respectively) and are likely to fancy another victory with Ian Stannard, Ben Swift or even Elia Viviani leading the attack. Should Wiggins ride here, his role will be to support once again in a vein similar to that of Omloop Het Nieuwsblad; keeping his teammates out of trouble while making life hard for everyone else.

  • Strade Bianchi

Perhaps not an obvious choice of programming for Wiggins, Strade Bianchi offers a mixed bag of Roubaix inspired roads and testing hills fitting of the Flanders’ landscape. It would not be totally foolish to envision this a dry run for Paris-Roubaix, as Team Sky begin testing how Wiggins and the squad function best at a race requiring skill and luck in equal measure. Recent winners come from a similar mould also, with the victories of Michal Kwiatkowski and Fabian Cancellara surely seen as encouragement for any attempt by Wiggins to win here. A dry and dusty sun baked day in Italy would be enough to offer us all a glimpse into the future and the real chance of ‘Wiggins’ being forever affixed to the Roubaix shower block.

  • Dwars door Vlaanderen

With former winners of this race including Nike Terpstra and Sylvain Chavanel in recent years, Bradley Wiggins might find himself an unexpected contender on the day depending on events. However, attention is likely to be focused more upon another Grand Tour winner in the shape of Nairo Quintana; a man who has decided to make his cobbled debut in preparation of the inclusion of pavé at this year’s Tour de France once again. Vincenzo Nibali is, thus far at least, the only Grand Tour rider to have demonstrated a real level of fearlessness and ability when tackling the dangerous cobbled sectors of Paris-Roubaix during 2014’s Le Tour de France. Witnessing how his fellow general classification riders will fair during Dwars door Vlaanderen will make fascinating viewing for the Italian.

  • E3 – Harelbeke

Another favourite of messrs Boonen and Cancellara (8 wins between them) should only lure Wiggins along in order to gain race sharpness and further experience on the cobbles in a hectic race. Once again however, it is likely that attention will be drawn away from the Sky man, with Nairo Quintana set to race E3 – Harelbeke as well as Dwars door Vlaanderen during his swotting up of the cobbles. Geraint Thomas has finished well here twice recently and is likely to be leading the charge once again with Bradley Wiggins his loyal lieutenant.

  • Gent – Wevelgem

An attractive prospect to both sprinters and strongmen alike, Gent – Wevelgem is a testing day which usually leaves an elite group of riders to duke it out for the win come the final kilometres. Perhaps a target for Ian Stannard, Wiggins could be part of the squad which aims to shell the rivals out the back before helping Stannard on his way to a big win.

  • Scheldeprijs

The last chance to get some race fitness into the legs before Paris – Roubaix; Wiggins might decide to swerve an appearance at a race dominated by sprinters to assure he suffers no last minute injuries before the big day. Marcel Kittel will be attempting to make it 4 wins on the bounce in 2015; could Wiggins be part of a team which leads Elia Viviani to victory over the all conquering German?