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April 17, 2015

 A few days after Paris-Roubaix, and on the eve of the hilly Ardennes Classics, is not such a bad time for me to write my first blog in quite a few months. Don’t worry, I’m not getting lazy, nor am I lost for words, it’s just a question of finding a few peaceful days in which to put my thoughts on record, for there have not been too many of those since the season began in mid-January. I’m currently enjoying a few down days in the Ardennes, a different sort of Belgium that is no less attractive than the north, albeit with a few more hills. Ironically, midway through the spring classics season does seem to be the perfect time to reflect on the year thus-far, because as distracting and absorbing as the classics are, these memorable races also act as a very clear, pivotal point, in the year - a time to reflect and a time to pause. And if the action on the cobbles and in the winds hasn’t been enough – though believe me, it has - there have been enough off-the-bike controversies to slate even my thirst for debate.


The Classics first – what a great series of races we’ve enjoyed in the past few weeks. From a lively Milan-San Remo to the E3, Ghent-Wevelgem and Tour of Flanders in Belgium, and last weekend’s Paris-Roubaix, it’s been a period of intense, exciting racing. The clear winners were John Degenkolb and Alexander Kristoff, the first having been triumphant in San Remo and Roubaix, the second in Flanders - having already won the 3 Days of DePanne; Kristoff also went on to win the Scheldeprijs G.P in Antwerp. These two burly sprinters have turned themselves into classics specialists overnight, and left other sprinters scratching their heads in a mixture of dismay and hope – hope, that they too can win a big Classic. Aside from this, the talk amongst the teams, the fans and the media has been largely about Team Sky’s inspiring racing and the desperation of Etixx to pull off a major win following the injury to Tom Boonen in Paris-Nice. Well, we should also reflect on the crashes and gales that turned E3 and Ghent-Wevelgem into war-like zones – I’ve never seen a Classic like Ghent-Wevelgem in my career, and that’s saying something!


The risks involved with professional cycling have never been more evident this springtime. Snow threatened the Tirreno-Adriatico race just a few weeks after intense heat and sand storms endangered the Tour of Oman. Then came the horrible crash on stage one of the Basque Country when cyclists ploughed into metal poles a kilometre short of the finish line. Most recently, and so badly-timed during the flagship one-day Classic of our sport, Paris-Roubaix, a railway crossing closed on the peloton, splitting it in half and creating alarming scenes for million of TV spectators to gape at. Talk of a TGV train almost killing cyclists as it passed at 300-kilomtres-per-hour were false (in fact it was a TGV train travelling on normal rails at 80-kilometres-per-hour) but this latest incident is bound to stir controversy and lead to safety upgrades. Which is no bad thing. Bike races cross railway lines many times in a single day, and the schedule of the race is always a consideration when it comes to rigid train schedules. But this incident, in a Paris-Roubaix far ahead of its intended schedule, was a bit too close for comfort, and it might lead to a route-change in that, and many other races.


I think I will remember the flat classics more for the absence of Boonen, and Cancellara (victim of a huge a huge crash in E3), than I will remember the racing. Don’t get me wrong, the racing has been terrific, ironically more so in the absence of these two great champions. But I’ve been in Flanders since March 26th, and it is eerie how quiet the Flemish fans were with no Boonen or Cancellara to focus on. As a Brit, it was so exciting to see Geraint Thomas win E3, and so to send Team Sky into orbit before the bigger classics. But the locals need something more parochial than a Brit, a German, a Norwegian or an Italian winning ‘their’ races. Both Boonen and Cancellara are in the sunset of their careers, but they were so sorely missed in the cobbled Classics where even the podium places of Greg Van Avermaet weren’t enough to get the Flemish excited. In case you are wondering, Switzerland’s Cancellara became an adopted Flandrian many years ago, so popular is he in this part of the world – a man who beat and was beaten by Boonen. The Classics in northern-Europe are not just about the winners and losers. They are as much about the millions of roadside fans who need their heroes to cheer on.


Weather has been a dominant factor in this first third of the season, inciting a debate that reached new ferocity after the gales that decimated Ghent-Wevelgem on March 29th.  For sure I have never seen such winds at a bike-race, and Ghent-Wevelgem was already considered the sport’s most wind-blown race. Really, as entertaining as it was to experience such brutal racing conditions, Ghent-Wevelgem was one race that could – but not should – have been cancelled. Those 30-miles-per-hour winds had the capacity to make our half-ton motorbike sway alarmingly at a scary angle, so I cannot imagine what is was like to pedal an eight-kilo bicycle along. Riders fell all over the place, either physically blown over, or spooked by the gusts that pushed them to the very edges of the road – where they fell anyway. A few fell into small canals, where swimming became a requirement if you wanted to make a quick exit before photographers arrived. It is when you see a big man like Gert Steegmans abandon with shock, when you see him choking on the muddy water he’d swallowed, that you realize how dangerous the conditions were. Yet out of that danger came a greater admiration for the cyclists in an already-tough sport.


Each spring I stay in Kortrijk, a lively market town in the heart of west Flanders, for the full three weeks duration of the cobbled Classics. Because I stay in the same hotel as Team Sky, I do sometimes get to see the likes of Bradley Wiggins close-up, while queuing at the Nespresso coffee-machine each morning, or when he eats his breakfast, often alone, in the hotel’s lounge. I’ve been photographing Brad’ since the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney and, believe me, although we rarely talk, you feel you know someone quite well when you’ve been photographing him for so long. Bradley has been entertaining me and my camera in so many ways, and not always on the bike. He’s an enigma for sure, and as such a high-value attraction to aim a camera at. I was lucky enough to see him race on the track before he became a Tour and Olympic champion on the road, and I can see exactly how he achieved his goals. He’s a very focused athlete, and Paris-Roubaix was well within his reach if the tailwind on April 12th had been more of a headwind – a crosswind better still. Now that would have been the ultimate way to close a career down. Maybe he’ll create a monstrous distance in his Hour Record attempt on June 7th and go out on a spectacularly high note?


What does the season ahead hold in store for us? The Ardennes classics will let us see the climbers at their most potent, well the climbers plus a few power-sprinters like Philippe Gilbert and Alejandro Valverde. Etixx might even get some recompense in a sad classics campaign by seeing Michal Kwiatkowski win big - the Polish World Champion looked ferociously strong at the end of the Basque Country Tour. It’s been noted that little Joaquin Rodriguez is in pristine form as well, and therefore a firm favourite for the Fleche Wallonne. But if Movistar do a very good protecting job, 'Purito' will have Nairo Quintana to worry about. And I’m saying that Dan Martin will have his eyes set very firmly on actually winning Liege-Bastogne-Liege this year, twelve months after he was the virtual winner until a fall in the last 300-metres.  If I’m looking forward to the three one-day classics in the Ardennes hills, I’m even more excited about the up-coming Tour of Romandie and Giro d’Italia, two great feasts of cycling that never fail to satisfy. Richie Porte is in the form of his life, and the Giro is a real prospect of victory for the Tasmanian. But when you then look at his expected opposition from the likes of Alberto Contador, Fabio Aru, Carlos Betancur and Rigoberto Uran, you know it’s going to be an epic fight.


This year’s Giro has eight decisive mountain stages, including six summit finishes - a few less than in recent years. This means the sprinters have a renewed purpose, a factor that might see ‘stars like Sasha Modolo, Alexander Kristoff (if he rides) and Andre Greipel managing to smile a little as they suffer in the mountains between sprint-stages. The sprinters have always been a great part of the Giro, for the sharp-end manner of their bike-riding skills and devillish characters seems perfectly placed in such a bike-loving, Giro-loving country. The days of a Mario Cipollini ruling the Giro peloton are long over, but it’s still fun to see these swashbuckling guys have fun while they can.  With fewer climbing stages and more chance of sprint-finishes, there’s also a chance that this Giro will revert back to some of its more humorous self, with 'biscotti 'and 'gelati' stops a delight to look forward to. But at the end of the day, most peoples’ attention is bound to be on Contador, and whether the talented rider can win a second Giro and set himself up for a double at the Tour de France in July.


I’ll enjoy the transition from Classics to summertime stage-racing for another reason – the chance to see some new faces through my viewfinder. Although we are in mid-April, and I’ve been on the road since mid-January, I’ve yet to set eyes on some of the biggest names in the sport. Alberto Contador has raced mainly in Spain or Italy, while Chris Froome seems to have only raced in Spain. I’ve not seen either of them, seeing as they both missed the Arabian races in February, nor have I seen riders like Jurgen Van Den Broeck, Dan Martin, Ryder Hesjedal, Rigoberto Uran, Simon Gerrans, Carlos Betancur, or Bauke Mollema. Yet these are probably the guys who will win the crucial stages in races like the Giro, Tour and Vuelta, and possibly the overall G.C as well. It seems to me the majority of these guys have been hiding in preparation races or at training camps, and that therefore the months of May, July and August will be the period when they show their ambition and competitive spirit. Judging by reports of the Ruta del Sol – won by Froome, after a titanic five-day fight with Contador – both ‘stars returned to their respective corners to lick their wounds and re-think the campaign ahead. If their next clash is the Tour, we can expect a mighty dust-up in the Pyrenees and Alps, but I wouldn’t want to place any bets just yet.


Will the internal problems at Tinkoff affect Contador at all? Yes, of course they will, but Contador is a mean guy when he has to be and will likely turn the upheaval to his advantage, something that new teammate Peter Sagan has not been able to. Neither Sagan nor Contador nor many - if any - of their teammates will have enjoyed the fall-out between owner Tinkov and manager Riis, a man revered for his motivational skills. Tinkov’s control of the team is absolute right now, and seeing as the boss spends most of his spare time riding alongside his employees on their days off, the capacity is there for some serious demotivation. I'm sure Sagan cannot wait to get to the Tour of California for some easy-pickings in a race he loves - maybe to get away from Tinkov too. Some people are saying this is the beginning of the end for the team, that Oleg Tinkov is growing tired of his project already and wants out. But I think he’ll eventually settle on the staff he really likes, and who tolerate him, and that eventually Tinkoff-Saxo will become a feared outfit once again. It only takes one big result to turn things around.


The season seems to be speeding through its races, and if you think I am already thinking of the Giro d’Italia, you’d hate me to tell you that I am in fact well beyond the Giro with my thinking and planning. The Tour, the Vuelta, and even the Worlds in Richmond, Virginia, are already set up for hotels, moto-drivers and other logistics. I’m actually as far ahead as the new ‘tour’ in Abu Dhabi in October, and my end-of-year hibernation in New Zealand. Which in turn means I am already planning for 2016, and yes, as far ahead as the Worlds in Qatar next year. Qatar's feasty winds mean protection for my cameras will be required. In Paris-Roubaix last weekend I wrapped both Nikon D4s bodies in cling-film, and the non-moving pieces of my lenses too. It seemed to work, with minimal inconvenience when shooting, and I had no need to visit a Nikon repair shop as I usually do. Next clean and check will be done after the Giro and in time for the Tour in July. Now that’s when everything has to be bright and sparkling, and ready to capture (hopefully) some iconic images again.GW




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