The Secret Journo: Report 1

You’ve heard of the Secret Pro, right? Well, we’re excited to announce that throughout the course of this year’s Tour de France we’ve secured exclusive rights to the Secret Journo who, free from the ever-demanding and politically-correct shackles of the UCI, ASO and his own editorial staff, will tell us how it really is on the ground over there. Will he tell the truth? Is he even real? Who knows, but at least it will be different to the usual media fare… here’s the first report, just in from Utrecht.

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Our American friends have New York New York. This year’s Tour has Utrecht Utrecht. Which if you ask me is two Utrechts too many. Right up front, I hate Utrecht. It’s a big Dutch uni town and that brings brings back bad memories for this scribe. Throw into the mix the annual scrum of cyclo-groupies, corporate back slappers and overpaid media hangers-on and the next few days are likely to be rather unpleasant, brown cafes or not.

I’ve done a few now, and the Grand Depart is always the same; like one big high school reunion for the media where everyone acts as if they’re best mates at first, until quickly remembering just what tools they really are, albeit 12 months older and with even less hair than last time. Last year the locales for this annual tradition were the pubs of Leeds and other dry stone-fenced nooks of Yorkshire. This year everyone is cruising the Oudegracht and other canals in this uber flat city, microdosing on the local coffee, bakkie. I’m over it already. Thank god the race starts tomorrow and by Tuesday afternoon we’ll be in France.

As for the reason we’re all here, most folks are saying 2015 will be a race in four. I’m not so sure. Questionable steak burgers or not, if Contador can get up again after the Giro I will dip my cap to him, I really will. But I just can’t see it happening. Everyone here is worried about Quintana and rightly so. Fresh and fit, he really seems the stand out, yet unquestionably brings an enigmatic element into the race given we haven’t seen that much of him this season as yet. After the little Columbian I’m also fascinated by the prospects of Bardet. Lots of pressure on his scrawny French shoulders after finishing top ten in 2014. But what’s new in the land of baguettes and smelly fromage? We’ll also be watching Porte very closely, not so much for the overall win but for signals as to whom he might be riding for next year. The peloton’s jungle drums are already banging more than the team mechanics and podium girls.

Stage 1 is pancake flat, but at a smidgen under 14km may not be long enough for Tony Martin to exert his full time trial might. Might be a little biased here but someone like Rohan Dennis might pop up in yellow on Saturday or even the Dutchman, Domoulin or Movistar’s Dowsett.

Until next time…

The rise of the early adopter

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I was reading an interview with Vicenzo Nibali the other day. Among a raft of interesting comments about everything from his childhood in Sicily to the ongoing pressures and suspicions surrounding his team at Astana in the lead up to the 2015 Tour de France, he was quite candid about his indifference for nightclubs and late nights. This made me smile. For while I fully appreciate I’m never going to win much more than a tyre of two from cycling, I can certainly relate to the Shark of Messina on this particular issue.

Sure, I stayed up late and caused havoc to my brain cells (and bank balance) with the best of them in my late teens and early twenties. I still do on occasion even now. But I’m certainly not ashamed to say I’m no night owl. I’m a card-carrying morning person and looking back now I’ve always been one to choose an early night and early start over going late/late.

My love for the pre-dawn hours has existed ever since I used to rise with the ‘thud’ of The Courier Mail as it slammed into our Brisbane carport. If dad, another early riser, beat me to the paper I’d settle for listening to my Walkman or perhaps sneaking out to watch The Ed Allen Show or Aerobics Oz Style. Tragic, but true. I have even fonder memories of rising with the sparrows during school holidays to go fishing for whiting, bream and flathead with my pop on the Gold Coast Broadwater back in the 1970s and 80s. They were great mornings. We never ran out of things to talk about from the moment we left the Paradise Point cottage he shared with my nan to the moment we returned, more often than not with a hefty feed of fresh fish. He was a good fisherman.

These days my pop is gone, but the early starts he inspired in me still very much continue; just with bikes instead of fishing rods. Ultegra instead of Alvey. Bike pumps instead of yabbie pumps.

Given my love of mornings, it was perhaps just a matter of time before I eventually found cycling. Along with fishing, rowing and perhaps dog walking, it really is the ideal pastime for an early riser. I’ve never lived in the country, but suspect rolling along in that final hour before sunrise – especially during winter – is about as close as you’ll get to it without leaving the city limits. It’s a chance to explore your city as if you’re the only one in it. To be free from the usual craziness of traffic and noise. To watch the sun peek its head over the horizon under a blanket of stars instead of, well, just a blanket. And escape the worries of the world – at least momentarily – except, perhaps, for garbage trucks and misplaced wheelie bins.

Yeah, I’m a morning person alright … and that’s why dad often goes to bed before you do these days, kids. Get over it  ;-)

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USER REVIEW : ZWIFT

Not sure about you. But from this rider’s experience, structured high-intensity turbo training can work a treat, especially when used in a block as preparation for a burst of hard racing. Just a shame it’s so damn boring, right?

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Until a week ago I only really considered using the trainer when the weather was diabolical outside – and whenever I did it would be strictly whilst listening to a playlist of up-tempo ‘bangers’ on my iPhone. But last week a truly shithouse patch of cold and damp weather descended on my home town, Sydney and it was clear I’d be on the trainer five days in a row. Oh, joy.

Out of some curiosity and a lot of boredom-induced desperation I decided to watch a couple of Sufferfest videos, just the free ones on Strava, in an attempt to break up the monotony. I have to say I was pleasantly surprised at the added motivation provided by little more than the sporadic sound of revving engines, cheeky subtitles and archival footage of Thomas Voeckler’s contorted face. My post-ride data confirmed I’d been able to maintain higher wattage and intensity for longer than I’d previously managed listening to the Presets, amongst others. Who’d of thought?

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Yesterday, as the drizzle returned to Sydney once more, so did my curiosity. I’d been hearing things about something called Zwift for a while, both from industry colleagues and also a few club-mates who’d been using it. I knew Jens Voigt was a Zwift ambassador and that it was some kind of virtually reality training thing, but that was about it. I started to snoop online and realised that right now the beta operating software, both for my laptop and smartphone, is free. In fact, all you need to use it is an ANT+ adapter for your mac or PC (about $50) and a trainer with the usual ANT+ sensors such as speed/cadence and heart rate. Power meter is optional.

I quickly set up a user profile, again free, and much to my kids’ displeasure I pinched the old laptop they use to play Minecraft and fashioned a temporary structure in front of the trainer. It was time to ride around the fictitious Zwift island known as “Watopia” – a 9km(ish) loop with a bit of everything: a long steady climb, fast downhill sections, a sprint and plenty of undulations.

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It’s pretty neat and makes training a hell of a lot more interesting than staring at a wall or fan. Whizzing past 3D scenery, your customisable avatar responds directly to your riding effort on the trainer. You can wheelsuck other riders from all over the globe, you can hammer for the sprint or the KOM, you can ride tempo or go all-out for a PB. Perhaps most intriguingly you can also choose to ride alone, or as part of a real bunch. No longer will wet weather – or being interstate or even overseas – need to spell the end to your regular bunch ride. Just get everyone on the trainer at home to log in at the same time and away you all go!

It’s still early days and the obvious weakness in the Zwift (beta) offering right now is a lack of variety. Basically you can ride the island clockwise or anti-clockwise and that’s it. But this will be changing soon with the Zwift tech bods already well advanced on building new courses, including ones that recreate some of the world’s most famous racing parcours. Imagine riding the Tour of Flanders or climbing Alpe d’Huez. One particularly cool addition will surround this year’s UCI Road World Championships in Richmond, USA where Zwift users will be able to ride the world championship course itself.

When trying to think how best to describe Zwift I’d say it’s like the graphics and user experience of Second Life (remember that one?) meeting the training intensity and motivation of Sufferfest meeting the addictive sociability of Strava.

The founders of Zwift say their mission is to make indoor cycling as fun, entertaining and engaging as outdoor cycling. I say they’re well on the way to achieving exactly that. Once it’s rolled out fully – since 15 May 2015 it’s been in an Open Beta phase – talk is the cost will be around the US$10 per month. I reckon that’s a bargain and it certainly doesn’t take much imagination to see Zwift is likely to be huge in the very near future. Wonder if you can still buy shares in the company?

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Touring Tasmania

Originally posted on Carbon Addiction Cycling Photography:

Back in March I was fortunate enough to spend several days riding through Tasmania – my first ever visit to the Apple Isle – as the guest of a boutique ride tour operator called Tas Pro Cycling Tours.You can read a day-by-day review of the 500km trip in the upcoming issue of Bicycling Australia magazine. But here’s a photographic taste of the trip. If you’ve never been down there with your bike, you really should. Grab a few mates and get in touch with Richard, Kristy and Todd. You’ll have a ball.
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Heading up the 99 Bends near Queenstown.
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GEELONG FANS, QUEENSTOWN.
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Always nice to have a mechanic on hand, thanks Dale.
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Todd, Dean and Richard, all smiles on Hobart’s Constitution Dock.
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Looking dowwwwnnn to the Tarraleah spillway.
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Ed had never ridden more than 100km in a single ride. He did it 4 times in 4 days on this tour.
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much…

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On-bike cameras? Hardly a revolution.

Sorry, but we’re struggling to understand the hype surrounding on-bike cameras. The way people in some quarters are talking about them you’d think strapping a GoPro to your stem or seat post is some kind of technological and financial holy grail, an exciting new income stream set to rescue the sport from the ongoing financial volatility that has plagued it since, well, forever.

Seriously?

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Look, we understand the footage is now (or in the very near future) able to be broadcast live which, technically speaking at least, is a big deal as the logistical obstacles posed by point-to-point racing have been quite significant. And true, if you’ve watched some of the race footage released to date it can be impressive stuff, providing an intriguing insight into the goings on from the very heart of the pro peloton.

Earlier in the year the 2015 World Track Championships were a real eye opener, featuring live cutaways to on-board cameras as the riders orbited the track at Saint-Quentin-en-Yvelines. That was pretty neat, albeit a very different environment to road racing.

But all the same, much of the hyperbole currently being sprouted seems way over the top. Unlike many sports where fans are a considerable distance from the action in the stands, cameras at bike races – be they in fixed locations or zipping back and forth on motos – are already able to get us incredibly close to the action.

On-bike cameras are just another camera angle and unless something dramatic is actually happening at that moment in the race – such as bunch sprints or perhaps riding through a frenzied crowd on the slopes of an epic climb – chances are the novelty will soon wear off. By way of example, much of footage from the recent Dauphine (released post stage, not live) actually seemed rather pedestrian. Seen one video grab, seen ’em all.

And that’s the thing. On-bike cameras aren’t content in themselves, but a way to deliver content. Their use is no different to the occasional helicopter shot as the peloton passes another French chateaux at the Tour de France. A quick shot from stump cam at the cricket. Or a sweeping drone or spidercam flight over a packing scrum at the footy. It’s just another option at the host broadcaster’s disposal; a novel new way to break up the coverage and provide another dimension for viewers, sure. But it’s certainly not the fundamental game changer many seem to be toting.

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Having spent far too many hours cheering in front of the idiot box over the years, a host of other sports – including, but certainly not limited to, motor sports and cricket – have been innovating with this kind of fly-on-the-wall footage for years if not decades. To us it seems more a matter of cycling finally catching up, rather than blazing amazing new trails.

A welcome development? Sure. A revolution? Nah.

Sorry Brian.

Mikel who?

In a Giro d’Italia that has delivered little more than pain and/or disappointment for several of the most fancied pre-race chances including Porte, Uran and Pozzivivo – and confirmed Alberto Contador’s status as a rider who’s as tough as he is talented – one undoubted shining light has been Astana’s 25-year old Spaniard, Mikel Landa.

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Currently sitting in 2nd on overall GC, 50 seconds ahead of his team leader Fabio Aru, and with two stage wins already under his belt, the performance of the former Euskaltel-Esuaki man who made his debut with the Orbea Continetal squad in 2009 has been something of a revelation. His name featured in few pre-race podium predictions, but not dissimilar to Chris Froome’s upstaging of Bradley Wiggins in the 2011 Vuelta a España, he’s continued to eclipse his more fancied team-mate, Aru.

Somewhat inevitably given the deep and ongoing suspicions engulfing the team he currently rides for – and may well be leaving at season’s end – there has been the odd eyebrow raised. Guilt by association can be a powerful force. For this we feel a little sorry for the Spaniard.

Whether in turquoise or orange, Landa is clearly no mug on the bike. True, prior to this year’s Giro his best finishes in a Grand Tour were a modest 28th at the 2014 Vuelta as well as 34th in last year’s Giro won by Movistar’s Nairo Quintana. But it’s worth noting as an amateur Landa finished 5th at the 2010 Tour de l’Avenir, also won by Quintana ahead of another rising star of the peloton, American Andrew Talansky. Further digging shows he also won a stage of last year’s Giro del Trentino, not to mention Stage 5 of this year’s Tour of the Basque Country. In other words, he hasn’t come from nowhere. His form and results have been building, slowly but steadily, for several seasons.

As with most riders time will ultimately tell, of course. But with the mighty Spanish Armada of Contador (32), Rodriguez (36), Valverde (35) and Sanchez (37) not getting any younger we’re certainly enjoying the rise of a fresh new face on the GC scene who, should his current trajectory continue, may well find himself standing on the top step of the overall podium in the not-too-distant future.

Porte of no return?

As Aussie cycling fans we hate to say it. But, as we feared could happen a month or so ago, could the main thing we’ve learned about Richie Porte from this year’s aborted Giro d’Italia campaign be that he’s good – but perhaps not quite good enough, or durable enough, to stand at the very summit of world cycling in his own right?

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With echoes of the situation encountered by Mark Renshaw when Cav’s extraordinarily successful lead-out man went to Rabobank/Belkin to chase his own sprinting opportunities in 2012-13, and came up just short, it’s beginning to seem Porte’s finest moments on two wheels are typically reserved for when he’s working in the service of others in his role as a super domestique.

This is not to say the likeable, but reportedly complex to manage on occasion, Tasmanian isn’t a fine rider. He clearly is, and certainly has several plumb results to show for it, most notably dual successes in ‘the race to sun’, Paris-Nice. But as also evidenced on many occasions in the past few seasons, his best efforts seem to come when the spotlight is shining less brightly and/or elsewhere.

For example, he’s been tantalisingly close on overall GC at the past two stagings of the Santos Tour Down Under – especially this year – but not quite close enough. Up against the numerical might of Orica-GreenEDGE he’s also been very close to the top step in two of the past four National Championship road races, but has instead had to settle for a solitary green and gold skinsuit as 2015 ITT Champion – an event where, perhaps not coincidently, others such as Bobridge, Dennis and Durbridge were prominent in pre-race discussions. Before his ill-fated 2015 attempt on the maglia rosa, his much-anticipated tilt at the 2014 Giro was abandoned before it even began. Then two months later when Chris Froome crashed out on Stage 5 of the 2014 Tour de France, presenting a gilt-edged ‘Plan B’ opportunity on the biggest stage of all, Porte was a shadow of the powerhouse he’d been in the previous two instalments when riding first for Brad Wiggins and then Chris Froome. Struggling with illness he laboured to Paris in 22nd, almost an hour behind the overall GC winner, Vincenzo Nibali. His best-ever finish in a Grand Tour, by a clear margin, remains his very first – 7th in the 2010 Giro.

Yes, he’s suffered from illness. Yes, he’s had crashes. And yes, he’s certainly had more than his share of bad luck – seriously, who could have foreseen the wheel change fiasco and subsequent two-minute penalty involving his well-meaning countryman Simon Clarke in week one of the Giro? But whatever the specific instances, something all-too-often does seem to happen to Porte. That he’s fast becoming something of a bad luck magnet must be cause for tremendous frustration for Porte himself and his well-paying masters on the Death Star at Team Sky. Oh Richie, what’s happened this time?

Perhaps we’re wrong, but it’s almost as if the added pressure of team leadership shackles Porte, physically and mentally, rather than set him free. Private motorhomes or not, helping him make that final lofty step into the top echelon of GC contenders is proving a tough nut to crack, and no doubt Brailsford, Ellingworth, Kerrison and Co are working hard to crack it. Now in his thirties Porte’s time isn’t up just yet, but like the finishing gantry in a time trial the clock is certainly ticking. Mind you, a decade ago people were no doubt saying similar things about another guy called Cadel Evans…

The challenge of challenges

Screen Shot 2015-05-19 at 8.13.43 pm If you’re on Strava, or have been at some stage in the last few years, chances are you’ll be well aware of their penchant for staging ever-more-regular challenges to keep us hooked, sorry, I mean motivated. Tens of thousands of cyclists from all over the planet sign up to them every month – yes, including the one writing this piece right now. Sometimes, typically by neglecting my work and/or family life, I manage to complete a challenge and earn the triumphant ‘right’ to purchase a jersey I don’t really need and would certainly never wear. But like the vast majority of participants I rarely do well on the overall leaderboards, in fact I think my best ever result was about 2,500th. 

Not sure about you, but from time to time I have this compelling urge to peruse these digital scoreboards, usually in a state of disbelief, as I explore just how far some people are prepared to go for a bit of digital fame. On many an occasion I’ve stared at the mind-boggling stats of the top three or four riders of a hotly-contested distance or climbing challenge trying to comprehend how their two-wheeled feats were even possible. The dreamer in me wants to believe, a bit like Lance Armstrong, pre-Oprah. The skeptic in me, of course, suggests it’s all probably a case of systematic Strava doping. 

This brings me to a chap you’ve likely never heard of, a Turkish cyclist by the name of Dincer Unsal. According to his Strava profile Dincer lives in the Turkish capital of Ankara. He rides a Cannondale. And apparently he’s climbed almost 50,000m in the first two weeks of May. Not only does this mighty performance place him first in the current Strava climbing challenge at the time of writing – from nearly 107,000 entrants – it puts him a massive 19,000m ahead of the second-place holder, Elizabeth Larochelle from Montreal, Canada. Holy crap. 
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But here’s where things get dodgier than a US Postal  training camp. You see, closer inspection of Unsal’s ride data suggests all is not quite as it seems. His total climbing for all of 2015 is just 38,000m. In other words, some 12,000m less that he’s supposed to have groveled up in the past fortnight or so. Further examination shows our man Dincer has actually climbed a far more mortal 12,500m this month. Which begs the question: WTF is going on Strava???? Screen Shot 2015-05-19 at 7.51.10 pm Now I’m not saying all Strava challenges are corrupt, bogus and subject to manipulation by tech-savvy lycra geeks. Nor am I suggesting Unsal has intentionally rorted the system. But, well, it’s just another timely reminder that like so many things we’ve learned about our great sport in recent years, if it seems too good to be true – it probably is. Some people will do anything for the right to buy a jersey, I guess.

Please don’t fence me in

cage-fight Sigh. Another spectator has caused another crash on another stage of another bike race. With Alberto Contador’s Giro d’Italia tilt now seemingly hanging by his strained shoulder ligaments and poor Daniele Colli’s arm pointing in the wrong direction, all because some ill-advised clown decided to lean too far over the barriers to get a photo of the sprint, calls are pouring in for more to be done by race officials, such as implement a double barrier system or even somehow ban fans from using zoom lenses. I’m all for reducing obvious risks to protect riders. But seriously? Where do you drawn the line here? It’s not as if there weren’t barriers last night. Proximity to the peloton – even in the sprint – is one of the greatest assets cycling has to offer, it’s a hugely appealing point of differentiation from other sports, and you can’t fence (let alone double fence) off an entire course even at a Grand Tour, let alone smaller UCI races. As Giro Race Director Mauro Vegni told reporters himself: “I don’t feel that we have to put the Giro in a cage away from the public … we can’t punish 20,000 people because of the actions of one person … but unfortunately, nowadays situations with cameras and mobile phones have become so dangerous and the people don’t seem to realise the risks these boys are running.” It doesn’t matter how far you go, or how much money you spend. There will still be corners or roads or traffic islands or climbs where fans get very, and potentially dangerously, close to the bunch as it speeds past. At some point we have no choice but to show some faith that the vast majority of people will do the right thing – and of course also accept there will be occasions when regrettably some people don’t, be it because of alcohol, ignorance, a distraction or just plain stupidity. This happens in every facet of life. Cycling is not Robinson Crusoe here. Thing is, we can never underestimate the ability of people to do stupid stuff in life, including when standing along the course of a bike race. It’s why the Darwin Awards exist. As Michael Turtur explained to me last year when discussing the logistical challenges of organising a ‘safe’ Tour Down Under, even the best-laid plans of Race Directors can only do so much to protect riders from morons (and in the case of the TDU, even rogue kangaroos). Given the very nature of road racing means it’s conducted on open roads, you can never mitigate every eventuality. Idiots will still find new ways to do truly idiotic things – it’s only a matter of time before a drone crashes into the peloton, if it hasn’t already. By all means run campaigns imploring fans to do the right thing and make them more aware of the risks, and certainly hold the perpetrators personally accountable for endangering the lives of riders by slapping them with large fines and/or even jail time if it’s warranted. But, really, sometimes people stuff up. Shit just happens. yes, it sucks. But it’s also life. Just finally, let’s not forget that for every disturbing incident like last night’s at the Giro or Loren Rowney’s horror crash at this year’s Molecaten Drentse 8 in the Netherlands, there are hundreds of bike races and stages held every year where nothing untoward happens. Let’s keep some perspective here.

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