Frank Schleck Says Goodbye to 15 Years on the Bike at Il Lombardia

As the season drew to a close with the final World Tour race of Il Lombardia last weekend, Trek-Segafredo said goodbye to two riders who have become mainstays of the peloton over the past decade and a half.  We take a look at the careers of Frank Schleck and Ryder Hesjedal in this two-part end of season series…

Trek-Segafredo End of Season Special, Part 1

Frank Schleck – Crashes, Climbs and Doping Control. 

Turning pro in 2003 for Team CSC, Frank Schleck closed out fifteen years in the professional peloton at the Race of the Falling Leaves on 1st October 2016.  Growing up, Schleck was something of a racing thoroughbred in his native Luxembourg; his father Johnny having spent nine years as a bike racer and his grandfather Gustave a competitive rider in the 1930s.  Together with his younger brother Andy, the two Schlecks formed part of the generation of riders who turned pro as the Armstrong era was drawing to a close, their obvious talent and potential marking them out as Grand Tour contenders alongside the likes of Alberto Contador.

Although Andy was eventually crowned as Tour de France winner in 2010 following Contador’s positive clenbuterol test and subsequent stripping of the title, both Schleck brothers seemed destined to suffer dramatic crashes in greater number than dramatic victories; indeed, it was a serious fall at the 2014 Tour de France which ended his brother Andy’s career in the saddle.

Early in his professional career, before crashes and scandals had taken some of the gloss off Schleck’s squeaky-clean image, the older brother took a number of notable victories which only increased the belief that Frank would one day win a Grand Tour.  In 2005, two years after signing with CSC, Schleck won the National Road Race Championships in Luxenbourg.  A third place at the Giro de Lombardia, 4th at the Tour de Suisse, and 7th at Paris-Nice rounded out a successful season.  The following year, Schleck won the biggest race of his career thus far, the Amstel Gold Race.  A top ten placing at the Tour de France followed, earning 10th place by virtue of solid climbing performances including an impressive win on Stage 15, when the race scaled Alpe d’Huez.  Schleck, aged 26, was well aware of the legendary status of the Alpe, uttering “it will take me a while before I realise that I’ve won here”.

Two years later, in 2008, the Tour returned to Alpe d’Huez, with another memorable stage.  Schleck, wearing the yellow jersey, was attacked by a member of his own team, Carlos Sastre.  Speaking about Sastre’s attack earlier this year, Schleck downplayed the incident.  “Can I be disappointed?  Yes…but the team comes first”.  It had been Sastre’s own decision to attack, stated Schleck, not a planned move under direction from the team car.  “We knew we had to do something, but it was not planned that he would attack at the beginning…what matters is that we won the Tour…everyone congratulated him, and so did I”.  Whether Schleck could have won the General Classification we’ll never know, although his team were certainly strong enough, and Schleck himself finished 5th after three weeks of hard racing.  2008 was a strong season for the elder Schleck brother, as he once again won the National Road Race Championships, and returned a 2nd place in the Amstel Gold Race, with 3rd at Liège-Bastogne- Liège.

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Image: Wikipedia

Scandal was just around the corner however, and in October 2008, Schleck was forced to admit having made a payment of €7000 to a Swiss bank account associated with the disgraced Spanish doping doctor Eufemiamo Fuentes in 2006.  Bjarne Riis, director of Schleck’s Team CSC-SaxoBank, released a press statement confirming that the Luxembourger had been temporarily suspended until the rider could ‘clarify his position’.  CSC-SaxoBank explained that they had ‘received a thorough briefing’ from Schleck, and awaited the ruling of both the Luxembourg anti-doping authorities and the UCI.  Schleck provided his team and the anti-doping agencies with full bank statements dating back several years in order to prove that no further payments had been made to Dr Fuentes.  Detailed blood values were also supplied, as proof that no tampering had taken place.

Schleck claimed, in a statement released through CSC-SaxoBank, that he had ‘never used or attempted use of a prohibited substance…or method’.  The transaction had been made in exchange for training advice from ‘experts who presumably worked with some of the biggest names in sport…there was no suspicion…of any unlawful action’.  It was claimed that Schleck ‘interrupted’ the contact after speaking with his father and friends, and realised that he had made a ‘serious blunder’.  The Luxembourg anti-doping authorities examined the evidence and cleared Schleck of any doping offences, with CSC reinstating him when the investigation was resolved.

After returning to a full race schedule in 2009, Schleck won his home tour, the Tour de Luxembourg, also crossing the line first place on Stage 3.  A stage win on Stage 8 of the Tour of California was matched by claiming the Most Aggressive Rider in the same stage, whilst Schleck secured 2nd place at Paris-Nice, and retained his 5th place in the Tour de France with a stage win on Stage 17.  Whilst attempting the Amstel Gold Race, Schleck suffered one of the many crashes that haunted both his and his brother’s careers, and was taken to hospital with concussion.

His 2010 Tour de France attempt was also affected by a crash.  After winning the Tour de Suisse, Schleck started the Tour de France in good form.  Whilst attempting to ride on the cobbles on Stage 3, a surface he’d never enjoyed, Schleck crashed heavily and fractured his clavicle in three places, causing him to retire from the race.  Fans had grown used to watching the Schleck brothers launching twin attacks and working together to ignite the race; this time younger brother Andy was forced to compete without fraternal support.  At the end of July, both brothers announced their intention to leave SaxoBank, heading instead to a brand new Luxembourg based team, eventually confirmed as being called Leopard Trek.

After recovering from his Tour de France crash, Schleck took 5th place in the Vuelta a España as Vincenzo Nibali won the General Classification.  2011 saw the Leopard Trek team competing for the first time.  Schleck had a successful season, winning the National Road Race Championships, the Critérium International, and 2nd place at Liège-Bastogne- Liège.  In July, Frank stood on the Tour de France podium in 3rd place, with brother Andy in 2nd; the first time in the history of the Tour that siblings had shared the overall podium.  Looking back on his 15-year career, this moment proved to be his proudest.  “I could mention a lot of moments that have stood out, but finishing on the podium at the Tour de France has to be my proudest moment as a bike rider – that memory will never be far away”.  At the end of the season, both brothers joined the RadioShack-Nissan team.

If 2011 had produced his proudest moment, 2012 brought Frank down to Earth hard.  After crashing on Stage 6 and losing two minutes, Schleck’s Tour de France chances looked remote.  Things got much worse on the second rest day, when RadioShack-Nissan removed Schleck from the race after an A sample taken by doping control during the race tested positive for the diuretic xipermide.  Xipermide is banned by WADA for its use as a masking agent for performance enhancing drugs.  Schleck asked for his B sample to be tested, stating that if it came back positive, “I will argue that I have been the victim of poisoning”.  RadioShack-Nissan spokesman Philippe Maertens claimed “the team is not able to explain the adverse findings at this point”.  When the B sample tested positive, Schleck voluntarily attended Pau police station.

He was later handed a 12-month ban, back dated to the time of the positive test.  The anti-doping authorities accepted that Schleck had ‘not ingested the substance intentionally’, which meant that the standard 2-year ban was reduced to 12-months.  Weeks before his ban was due to expire, RadioShack-Nissan terminated Schleck’s contract, leaving him without a team.  Later that month, Trek Bicycles bought out the team’s World Tour license, announcing that Schleck had once again been awarded a contract.  Returning to racing after waiting out the agonising 12-month ban, compounded by the stress and drama of being unexpectedly dropped by his team, Schleck never quite regained his form or fulfilled his early potential.

His 2014 season saw Schleck once again win first place at the National Road Racing Championships.  An 8th place at Grand Prix de Wallonie, 9th in the Tour de Luxembourg and Milan-Torino, and 6th at the Critérium International were his best results, with a 12th place in the Tour de France.  Schleck did not take part in the 2015 edition of the Tour, and finished in 34th place at his last ever attempt at the race earlier this season.  His final win was a stage victory in the 2015 Vuelta, on the mountainous route from Luarca to Ermita del Alta.  Saturday’s Il Lombardia was the last time that Frank Schleck competed as a professional rider.

“Everyone told me that I need to enjoy the last kilometres because it’s going to be something special, and I was waiting to feel this special moment, but nothing really happened…I just felt really tired like I normally do after a race!” exclaimed Schleck after he finished the Monument.  “But then when I came to the bus there was a nice reception from the boys, the team, the fan club, and some family, my kids, my wife, and they reminded me that this is it!”

Schleck had announced his retirement at a press conference in Brazil during the Rio Olympics, having previously indicated during the spring that he intended to continue. “Three years ago when I couldn’t race wasn’t nice, so I enjoy it even more, racing my bike, and working even harder”.  It appears that the efforts of the season took their toll on the rider however, as he confirmed his retirement prior to Saturday’s race.  “There is never an easy way to stop doing something you love to do…I’ve always wanted to retire at a level where I was competitive and fit”.

After completing his final race, Schleck found it difficult to imagine that he would not be racing his bike again in 2017.   “I think it will come in the next days and then I will realise it’s finished”.  Looking back on his 15-years as a professional, Schleck reflected on what he called a “long journey”.

“I am happy with the decision…I’ve had many highlights and some nice results…I had some bad periods also, but that’s where you build character…you have to get over those moments, and you fight back, and you keep going, and I am proud of that.  I am proud of my career and I have nothing to regret”.

Team mate Ryder Hesjedal also ended his career at Il Lombardia, although unfortunately he was not able to complete the race, abandoning on the mountainous section which took in five successive summits.  Read the Freewheeling overview of his career in part two of our Trek-Segafredo end of season special.

Weekend Races End in Controversy

Both the final Monument of the year, Il Lombardia, held on Saturday, and Sunday’s Tour de l’Eurometropole finished with an air of controversy surrounding the podium places of each race’s top two riders.

Saturday’s Il Lombardia, won by Orica-BikeExchange’s Esteban Chaves, saw Astana’s Diego Rosa attack twice in the final kilometres, although both surges proved fruitless as his closest rivals, the Columbian pairing of eventual winner Chaves and Cannondale-Drapac’s Rigoberto Uran, were too strong for Rosa to break.  After the race, which saw the Astana rider take second place, Rosa’s Directeur Sportif told the press that he felt ‘truly sick’ at the outcome, claiming that his rider ignored orders.  “If Rosa had listened to me, he would have won”, explained Giuseppe Martinelli, DS for the Astana team.  “I’ve only been this upset a few times in my life…you can’t throw away an occasion in that way.  You can’t lose like that”.

Martinelli told reporters that Rosa should not have expended energy in his two fruitless attacks, and should instead have sat in the wheels on the last two climbs, and made sure he was second wheel in the finishing straight.  “It was clear the other two would help each other, it happened at the Giro d’Italia…instead, he went through first”.

For his part, Rosa admitted that his attack “at 1600 metres was useless”, but claimed that, as Chaves would outsprint him, he had to “play my hand, a surprise.  I believed. I knew that curve at 250 metres.  Uran obviously closed the gap to me, but I don’t want to cause polemics…if I had made it through with two metres on them then it would have worked”.

Sunday’s Tour de l’Eurometropole also finished with the second placed rider at the heart of a controversy.  IAMCycling’s Oliver Naesen claims that LottoNL-Jumbo rider Dylan Groenewegen deviated from his line in the final sprint, causing Naesen to be pushed towards the barriers and therefore become boxed in. He even had to hop over an obstacle on the road surface before crossing the line in second place behind Groenewegen.  Similar circumstances have seen riders disqualified for their blocking actions, however on this occasion the race jury deemed Groenewegen to be the winner regardless.  Naesen was clearly unhappy with the decision, claiming to be the ‘rightful winner’.

Under the UCI rules, riders are ‘strictly forbidden to deviate from the line they selected when launching a sprint’.  The regulations have seen Boudhanni disqualified for cutting into Caleb Ewan’s race line at Cyclassics Hamburg, and Andre Greipel famously fell foul of the rule at the 2015 Tour of Britain.

Naesen, clearly outraged by Groenewegen’s actions, attempted to confront the LottoNL-Jumbo rider in the finishing area, but was blanked by the Dutchman.  Groenewegen told the press “that was chaotic as the leading group was caught in the final metres…I certainly went to the left but I left enough room to pass”.

Naesen’s team later posted a video on their Twitter feed from CyclingHub, showing Boudhanni’s disqualification from Cyclassics Hamburg, adjacent to the Tour de l’Eurometropole finish, highlighting the similarities between the two incidents.  No official statement was made on the social media page, however the CyclingHub retweet made the team’s feelings clear.  Naesen is certain that he is the ‘rightful winner’, but the official results still show Groenewegen’s name.

Il Lombardia 2016 – Preview

Il Lombardia holds a special place within the race calendar, as the last of the five Monuments and the final World Tour race of the season.  The event, known as the Race of the Falling Leaves, does not close out the World Tour season this year however, with the Road Race World Championships taking place later in the month in Doha, scheduled to avoid Qatar’s high summer temperatures.  With the course for the World Championship Road Race being pan flat on this occasion and therefore a sprinter’s paradise, Il Lombardia, with its new, seven summit parcours, could be called the de facto climbers’ World Championship race for 2016, with a line up to suit.  You won’t find Andre Greipel, Mark Cavendish or Marcel Kittel anywhere near this year’s edition in particular, with the new route from Como to Bergamo containing 4,400 metres of climbing over 240 kilometres.  That’s 1000 more metres of ascending than the race contained last year when Vincenzo Nibali was victorious.

The first of Il Lombardia’s seven categorised summits is the famed Madonna del Ghisallo, topped with an iconic chapel which doubles up as a cyclist’s shrine, housing a host of artefacts to Italian riders, such as the bike that Fabio Casartelli was riding when he was involved in a fatal crash on a treacherous descent in the 1995 Tour de France.  Coming 65km in to the race, the first climb is unlikely to have too much of an impact upon the race overall – that honour will no doubt fall to a 75km stretch of road between the 100km and 25km to go markers, containing five of the seven categorised climbs, two of which are new to the race.  Valico di Valcava averages 8%, and is a long climb of almost 12km.  Sant’ Antonio Abbandonato, new to Il Lombardia, is half the length of the Valico di Valcava climb, but steeper, with an average gradient of almost 9%.  The Miragolo san Salvatore averages a 7% gradient; however the first 2km includes sections topping 11%, making for a tricky climb with the possibility of hurting a few riders.

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After the 75km stretch of successive summits, the peloton may feel that the hard work is behind them, however the race organisers have devised a course which will thrill fans right up to the last few metres, with the final, uncategorised and partially cobbled climb of Bergamo Alta appearing just before the route finishes, after a full 25km of descending.  This year the race finishes in Bergamo, having ended up in Como the year before, when Nibali took victory.  The last winner in Bergamo was Etixx-Quickstep’s Dan Martin.  So who is expected on the Como start line this time around, and who has the legs to face the thousands of metres of climbing?

Unfortunately for the Italian home fans, Vincenzo Nibali will not be racing to defend his title; therefore leadership of the Astana team falls to Fabio Aru, who does have a good chance on a course of this profile.  Supported by Jakob Fuglsang and Diego Rosa, Aru will hope to keep the race in the hands of an Astana rider.

Dan Martin will of course be looking to repeat his winning 2014 performance in Bergamo, no doubt bolstered by the return to the scene of his victory.  Etixx-Quickstep are fielding a strong team for the 110th edition of the iconic Monument, and could feasibly launch a double-headed attack with Martin and Julian Alaphilippe, ably supported by an in-form Petr Vakoc.  Perhaps the strongest team on the start line however, are the current leaders of the UCI World Tour team competition, Movistar.  Alejandro Valverde heads a star-studded line up of team mates comprising Winner Anacona, Jon Izaguirre, Dani Moreno, Nairo’s younger brother Dayer Quintana, Francisco Ventoso, Javier Moreno  and Giovanni Visconti.

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Looking to thwart Movistar’s aim of a 4th win in the UCI team competition are the Tinkoff boys, on a final World Tour outing before the team disbands at the end of the season.  Tinkoff need 70 points to dash Movistar’s hopes, but this could be a tall order, especially given Movistar’s solid line up, and Tinkoff not fielding two of their star riders – Sagan is of course expected to be focusing on retaining his rainbow jersey in Qatar, whereas Contador, who could have been an exciting prospect on this climber’s parcours, is suffering from a flu-like virus.  Roman Kreuziger and Rafal Majka spearhead the Tinkoff line up, with Majka, a former Tour de France King of the Mountain’s jersey holder, eyeing up the 4,400 metres of climbing with a decent chance of placing well.  Elsewhere, Ag2r-La Mondiale rider Romain Bardet is definitely one to watch in this race; the course suits his style and his form at this late stage in the season remains good.  Last year’s runner up, Dani Moreno of Movistar, has both the legs and the team mates to carry him to a strong finish, and Lampre-Merida’s Rui Costa stands a good chance, as does the Columbian Rigoberto Uran of Cannondale-Drapac.  His team will be hungry for a big win after having two riders on the Milano-Torino podium earlier in the week with Mike Woods and Uran himself, and early indications are that his form remains strong.

Bardiani-CSF have had a great few weeks, especially Italian favourite Sonny Colbrelli, who last week crossed the Tre Valli Varesine finish line in first place, ahead of the likes of Nibali, Aru, Gilbert and Viviani.  Team Sky have brought a strong squad, including Pete Kennaugh and Ben Swift, with Wout Poels looking to be in race winning form.  Supported by Mikel Landa, Vasil Kiryienka and Mikel Nieve, with the excellent tactical mind of Nicolas Roche, Poels has a good chance of a late season podium appearance.

With a host of other big names – Mollema, Schleck, Bakelandts, not to mention Olympic medallists Greg Van Avermaet and Tom Dumoulin, the race looks set to be one of the most exciting of the latter half of the calendar.  Those who are disappointed by the Doha parcours – and there have been many critics of the pan flat desert course – will no doubt prefer the climbs, descents, and potential for set-piece battles that Il Lombardia 2016 offers.  It’s going to be an exciting race for sure!

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GB’s World Championship Teams Announced

The teams Great Britain will be taking to next month’s UCI Road World Championships in Doha, Qatar, have been confirmed as follows:  –

Elite Men

Mark Cavendish, Steve Cummings, Ian Stannard, Geraint Thomas, Adam Blythe, Alex Dowsett, Luke Rowe, Scott Thwaites, Dan McLay and Ben Swift.

Eight riders from the list will make the final confirmation, with two also competing in the individual time trial.

Elite Women

Lizzie Deignan (formerly Armitstead) Hannah Barnes, Alice Barnes, Dani King, Laura Massey, Annasley Park, Abby-Mae Parkinson, Hayley Simmonds and Eileen Roe.

Hannah Barnes and Hayley Simmonds will compete in the women’s individual time trial.

U23 Men

Gabriel Cullaigh, Scott Davies, Jon Dibben, Chris Latham, Tao Geoghegan Hart and James Shaw.

Two of the above will be selected for the U23 time trial.

Lotto-Soudal Confirm Boycott of World Championship Team Time Trial

Lotto-Soudal have announced that they will not be sending a team to compete in the team time trial (TTT) at next month’s World Championships in Doha, Qatar.  The announcement follows August’s war of words between the governing body, the UCI and the Association International des Groupes Cyclistes Professionels, AIGCP, which looks after the interests of cycling teams worldwide.

The AIGCP released a statement last month threatening a boycott of the Doha TTT, after an ‘overwhelming majority’ of WorldTour teams voted not to participate.  The dispute stems from the reintroduction of the team time trial at the World Championships in 2012, which the UCI included in the event to make the programme more appealing to fans and spectators.  Whilst the individual time trial and road races are contested by national teams; financially assisted by home federations as an incentive to participate, the TTT is open only to commercial teams, and is not subject to the participation allowance which is available at all other top races.

The UCI dismissed the boycott threat, announcing that all WorldTour teams should be present.  “We continue to expect excellent participation…the Road World Championships is a celebration for the whole cycling family…the UCI, a non-profit organisation, reinvests any surpluses in the development of the sport of cycling”.

The dispute with the UCI also includes issues with the expansion of the race calendar, which has seen the addition of 10 extra events, all in far-flung locations.  The AIGCP has concerns over the financial pressures upon teams, given that sponsors will have already allocated budgets for future seasons, which may now be inadequate due to the expanded race schedule.

The debacle with the reduction of the WorldTour licences has also concerned the teams’ association, as has the two-year licence, previously three years, another outcome of the dispute with ASO (see Freewheeling article ‘WorldTour Woes’).

As with the licence reduction, these disputes all have the potential to negatively impact the future of the sport, as sponsors reassess their involvement with teams which will require much larger budgets in order to be competitive.

Shock at Paralympic Road Race as Iranian Cyclist Suffers Fatal Crash

Earlier this afternoon, Freewheeling learned of a serious crash at the Paralympic C4-5 road race.  it is with great regret that we now have to report that Iranian cyclist Bahman Golbarnezhad has passed away as a result of that crash.

Deepest condolences to Bahman’s family, friends, and the whole of the Iranian Paralympic team.

Russian Hack Leads to Questions For Wiggins and Froome

Russian ‘cyber-espionage’ website Fancy Bears has released documents detailing medical data and therapeutic use exemptions (TUEs) for a number of athletes as a result of a hack on the World Anti-Doping Agency (Wada) database.

On Tuesday 13th September 2016, the Russian group released data attributed to tennis stars Venus and Serena Williams, and the US gymnast Simone Biles, amongst claims that they had ‘sensational proof’ of athletes participating in doping practices.

The following day, details of therapeutic use exemptions obtained by Sir Bradley Wiggins and Chris Froome were released, alongside medical reports on numerous international athletes.

Froome’s data showed TUEs from 2013 and ’14, confirming statements made previously by the three-time Tour de France winner to the Scotsman newspaper, in which he explained that he had used TUEs twice in his career, providing dates which correspond to the leaked Wada data.  Froome was shown to have been prescribed prednisolone, used to treat autoimmune and inflammatory conditions, during the 2013 Critérium du Dauphiné.  The second TUE, which was widely reported, dates from April 2014, when Froome was competing at the Tour of Romandie.  When questioned about the leak, Froome explained that he had ‘no issues’ given his previous transparency on the matter.

“I’ve openly discussed my TUEs with the media and have no issues with the leak, which confirms my statements”.  Froome went on to explain that he had twice used TUEs in his 9-year career, the last being in 2014.

The release of Sir Bradley Wiggins’ data caused more of a stir, with the cyclist forced to release two statements to clarify what he’d written in his autobiography regarding the use of needles.  Information published in the leak showed that Wiggins was permitted to use injectable Triamcinolone Acetonide to treat a pollen allergy, which appeared to contradict comments in his 2012 autobiography, ‘My Time’, in which Wiggins claimed to have never received injections in relation to his cycling career.  In a statement released on behalf of the Tour de France winner on Saturday, it was claimed that Wiggins “stands by his comment concerning the use of illegal intravenous needle injections”.  The spokesman went on to explain that the comments in the book were made in relation to the “historic and illegal practice of intravenous injections of performance enhancing substances, which was the subject of a law change by the UCI in 2011.  The triamcinolone injection that is referred to in the Wada leaks is an intramuscular treatment for asthma and is fully approved by the sports’ governing body”.

Triamcinolone is a controversial substance owing to the fact that Lance Armstrong tested positive for the drug at the 1999 Tour de France.  It was subsequently revealed that Armstrong had used a back-dated medical certificate for saddle sore cream in order to claim a TUE after his team were informed of the positive test.  Wiggins was prescribed the medication as a result of his asthma and pollen allergy, however the substance is included on the Wada prohibited list due to its action as a corticosteroid.  Corticosteroids are open to abuse due to their ability to improve recovery by reducing inflammation, and some are questioning the timing of Wiggins’ TUEs for this particular medication – right before the 2011 and 2012 Tour de France (he won the latter), and once prior to the 2013 Giro d’Italia.

Wiggins also faces questions over Team Sky’s 2011-2012 involvement with Geert Leinders, a disgraced cycle doctor banned for life after he was found to have committed serious anti-doping violations whilst working for the Rabobank Team.  Wiggins has made it clear that Leinders was not involved with issuing his TUEs, which were verified independently to Wada, UCI and British Cycling guidelines.

Geraint Thomas to Lead Team Sky at Eneco Tour

We may be nearing the end of the 2016 race calendar, but there’s still plenty to look forward to in September and October.  In terms of stage races, the Eneco Tour takes place from the 18th – 25th of September.  With Chris Froome taking a well-earned break after a season packed with highlights, Freewheeling favourite Geraint Thomas will lead Team Sky after riding the GP de Quebec and Montreal last week.

Freewheeling is looking forward to seeing Thomas back on the road following his crash whilst riding in a medal winning position at the Olympic road race in Rio.  Catch up with all the pre-race info on the pages of Freewheeling in the coming days!

Race Reports – Trittico Lombardo pt.1

What with all the excitement of Cycle to Work Day and the GP Wallonie on Wednesday, you could be excused for thinking that Freewheeling had missed the start of the Trittico Lombardo.  Not so! Here’s our race reports for the Coppa Bernocchi and Coppa  Agostoni.

Traditionally held over three consecutive days – although not anymore – the Trittico Lombardo is an important series of events in the Italian race calendar.  Last year Vincenzo Nibali took both the Coppa Bernocchi and Tre Valli Varesine, with fellow countryman Davide Rebellin winning Coppa Agostoni.  As a staple of the Italian season, you’d be mad to bet against a winner from that country securing victory.

Coppa Bernocchi

Part one of the 2016 Trittico, Coppa Bernocchi took place this year on 14th September.  Founded in 1919 by businessman Antonio Bernocchi, Coppa Bernocchi has seen 85 Italian winners from almost 100 editions.  In a sea of green, white and red, Steve Cummings’ 2008 win whilst riding for Barloworld leaps off the page.  The 2016 edition, taking place five days before Sunday’s European Championships, was an excellent way for the Italian national side to spin their legs in race conditions.  Starting in Legnano, the race took in seven laps around Olona, which included a climb of Piccolo Stelvio, before flattening out, creating perfect conditions for a bunch sprint.

An eight man break managed to establish a 4 minute lead before the Italian national team – featuring Olympic gold medallist Elia Viviani, reeled six of the leaders back into the pack.  The two riders still off the front, Riccardo Viela (Caja Rural-Seguros RGA) and Vitaliy Buts (Kolss-BDC Team) were joined by three Italian riders on the last of the seven laps, including Sonny Colbrelli of Bardiani-CSF.  Colbrelli launched a surprise attack, which was neutralised when the bunch came back together with 15km to go.

As expected, the race was decided with a bunch sprint, which saw Giacomo Nizzolo secure victory over a brace of Bardiani riders, Ruffani and Simion, in a time of 4:25:53

Coppa Agostoni

24 hours later, the riders gathered at the start line for the Coppa Agostoni, a race held in memory of the Italian cyclist Ugo Agostoni, a winner of Milan-San Remo before his death in World War 2.  As with the Coppa Bernocchi, the race palmarès is littered with Italian winners.  The 2000 victory for the German Jan Ullrich, followed two years later by a French win for Laurent Jalabert, stand out as anomalies in an event dominated by the Italians.

The race saw an early break of thirteen riders, including Alexander Kolobnev riding for Gazprom-Rusvelo.  The break almost attained a full 6 minute lead before this was brought steadily down during the circuit of Colle Brianza.  As before in the Coppa Bernocchi, the Italian national team were instrumental in closing the gap.  The original thirteen man break was whittled down to six with 1 and a half minutes in hand.

As the bunch hit the climb of Lissdo, Fabio Aru of Astana leapt from the peloton with three others, and started the chase.  Aru’s attempt was ultimately swept up along with the majority of the leading riders.  Benito was the lone leader for the remainder of the race before he was caught in the final kilometre.

Colbrelli won the bunch sprint in a time of 5:05:57, with the lone leader Benito securing 26th.  “Yesterday I wanted to try something new by attacking from a distance” Colbrelli explained of his unsuccessful attack in the closing stages of Coppa Bernocchi.  “I wanted to fight back today.  I was feeling well and after my teammates were second and third yesterday, we needed a win”.  Colbrelli has seen a total of five victories this season, and will be joining countryman Vincenzo Nibali at the new team Bahrain Merida for 2017.

The third and final race of the Trittico Lombardo, Tre Valli Varsine, takes place on the 27th of September, four days before another Italian classic Il Lombardia, pegged as ‘the final Cycling Monument of the season’.  This year, Il Lombardia; also known as Giro di Lombardia, starts in spectacular scenery at Lake Como, finishing 245km later in Bergano.  Look out for our race preview coming soon!

Race Report – Grand Prix de Wallonie 2016

Crossing the line in the late summer air, Lotto-Soudal’s Tony Gallopin took the first win of his 2016 season after an exhilarating final climb in the Grand Prix de Wallonie.  Freewheeling’s pick of the race, Czech Petr Vakoc of Etixx-Quickstep, came in a close second, with Jerome Baugnies of Wanty-Groupe Gobert completing the podium.

Freewheeling takes you through the breakaways, crashes, climbs and chases of the 56th edition of the Wallonian classic….

With an individual stage win at the 2014 Tour de France, a stint in the yellow jersey at the same race, and a strong season in 2015, this year was set to be a good one for French rider Tony Gallopin.  The 28-year-old had been a mainstay of the top ten finishers in a host of prestigious races throughout the last two years, and looked set to build upon the successes and add to his impressive palmarès going into the new season.   Prior to the Grand Prix de Wallonie, Gallopin’s season hadn’t gone quite according to plan, with a number of somewhat frustrating near misses taking the place of overall victories, including a solid second place at the Clasica San Sebastian and third at Brabantse Pijl.

The Grand Prix de Wallonie was the Frenchman’s first win of the 2016 season, showing the rider coming into form in time for the European Championships this Sunday.  Although the field for this years’ Wallonian adventure was arguably less strong than in previous years, the hilly course led to a fascinating finish after 205km of hard racing, with Gallopin only just managing to hold on for victory after a valiant chase from Etixx-Quickstep’s Petr Vakoc.

This year the course featured seven tough climbs, four of which came within the last 40km of the race.  To begin with, the route was fairly flat, allowing the riders to set an aggressive pace straight from the off.  Four riders went clear of the bunch in the opening kilometre, being reeled back in soon after.  From there, the race headed into the Ardennes, with a trio of climbs loaded into the front end of the parcours.  The first of these, Cote de Saint-Hubert, came after 31km, followed by Cote de Saint-Remacle, and Cote de Webomont at almost 60km.  The middle section of the race was fairly flat, as riders anticipated the four short, sharp climbs coming up within the final 40 kilometres.

Numerous attacks were attempted in the early stages of the race, before a group of six riders managed to go clear, including Johan Le Bon of FDJ and Stef Van Zummeran of Belgian team Verandas Willems.  The break managed to establish a gap of 24 seconds before Axel Flet of Veranclassic-AGO attacked from the front of the peloton.  Flet was unable to reach the six leading riders, as the peloton ramped up the speed and started to chase.  Various attacks were launched with the breakaway now 30 seconds ahead, although none were successful until John Hemroulle (Color Code), Samuel Leroux (Veranclassic-AGO) and Gregory Habeaux (Wallonie-Bruxelles) reached the leading group with 170km remaining, the gap having grown to 4 minutes 20 seconds.

The nine man breakaway managed to extend their lead to almost 6 minutes before Lotto-Soudal started putting in big turns at the front of the peloton, aided by riders from Etixx-Quickstep.  With the gap gradually being closed and down to 2 minutes, the leading group approached the four remaining climbs as Samuel Leroux was dropped.  The race approached the 30km to go mark, with Etixx-Quickstep taking control of the peloton and bringing the gap down to under a minute.  With the chasers accelerating hard, a crash split the bunch as Benoit Jarrier of Fortureo-Vital Concept and Jonathan Fumeaux of IAM Cycling got swept up in the chaos and hit the tarmac.

With only 20 seconds remaining of their advantage, the breakaway tackled the slopes of the second of the four final climbs, Côte de Lustin.  Johan Le Bon sat up at the foot of the slope, as Habeaux accelerated, dropping riders in the attempt.  Pouilly steadily rode across the gap to rejoin Habeaux at the head of the race, leaving three clear groups on the road.  Pieter Weening of Roompot-Oranje attacked from the peloton, joined by Christian Mager of Stölting.  The pair rode up to the chase group before pulling away and bridging the gap to Habeaux and Pouilly.  Seizing the advantage, Weening stepped up the pace; dropping his three companions to lead the race alone.

On the penultimate climb, Etixx-Quickstep managed to bring the race together, mopping up what remained of the breakaway and chase groups.  Tony Gallopin and Jan Bakelants took control in a group of seven riders on the climb of Tierre aux Pierres, stretching the gap to just under half a minute.  Wanty-Groupe Gobert chased hard, closing the gap to 15 seconds at the foot of the final climb, Citadel Namur.

With time and road running out, numerous attacks were tried.  Gallopin, riding on the wheel of Bakelants, jumped with 1km to go, immediately opening up a 5 second advantage.  Vakoc made a move as the road flattened out in the final few metres of the race.  Hesitating on a corner, Vakoc seemed unsure of how to come around Gallopin in the front.  The Czech rider came within a whisker of taking the race for Etixx-Quickstep, Gallopin however held him off to cross the line in first place with a time of 5:06:17.  Vakoc was awarded the same time in second place, with Jerome Baugnies of Wanty-Groupe Gobert completing the podium for the 2016 Grand Prix de Wallonie.  Lotto-Soudal take the race for the second year in a row – will 2017 see a hat-trick in Wallonia?