Peter Sagan: 2019 World Champion and Home Run Derby Winner?

Peter Sagan’s latest advert left more than a few people scratching their heads, but the real discussion is not being had.

Sagan and Specialized have once again smashed it out of the park. Their newest collaboration “Chasing Rainbows” is a thing of beauty, a work of art just like an Aaron Judge home run swing.

The two themes in the collection are “Overexposed” and “Underexposed”. One new frameset is a combination of chrome-y metallic and rainbow tints, an obvious representation of the rainbow jersey Sagan has donned in the past, most recently for three years in a row. Other pieces in the collection include tyres, socks and road shoes in the same style.

But the main takeaway from the advert? That swing though!

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In case you missed it, I tried to combine both baseball and cycling – two of my favourite sports – in this blog post. Sagan drew comparisons to Justin Verlander, and while one is American and one is Slovakian (I’ll let you guess), would you want to face either of them? No thanks!

The advert begins with a close-up shot of a vase, as piano music plays in the background. Just as a voice tells us to “break the moulds”, Sagan destroys the object with one swing of his bat, shattering the previously white vase into an explosion of red powder. It’s too easy for the 29-year-old, who creates such colourful destruction with only one hand on the bat. It’s the kind of swing that would absolutely send the ball out of the park, with a dramatic bat flip à la Bautista during Game 5 of the 2015 ALDS to accompany it.

The advert continues in this fashion, with Sagan smashing numerous plain vases until eventually he is covered in a variety of different colours. Y’know, like a rainbow. Because he (used to be, sigh) the world champion. The one-minute video ends with the tired Bora-Hansgrohe rider lying on the powdery, vase-littered floor. The voiceover tells us to “just break s–t… break it and go,” as the Specialized logo flashes on the screen.

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Fine words to follow, I guess. While the purpose of the advert might not have been entirely clear initially, I’ve never been happier to see a rider swinging a baseball bat and colliding my sports. He’s not the first cyclist to do so, either, as Geraint Thomas (amongst others) tried their hand at pitching and hitting during the Saitama Criterium in November last year.

Why do I pick out Geraint, you ask? Because he ended up accidentally hitting a fan in the face with a baseball. Specialized are probably happy that Sagan only hit those white vases.

The three-time world champion shares another (weak) link to baseball, too. While the Yankees are busy chasing #28 in 2019, Sagan will be busy chasing the rainbow stripes once more, as he takes on current champion Alejandro Valverde in Yorkshire. Both are events not to be missed!

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Robyn’s Round-Up #2: The Cycling Action So Far

You know what they say about buses. Well, this past month has been no different. You wait months for another road race, only to have them all suddenly arrive at once, hitting you in the face and trying to pull your attention every which way. In fact, I almost don’t know where to start. Lucky for us, we have the exciting races of the… [checks notes] …Tour of Oman and the UAE Tour to begin with. Oh good.

If you know me in some form by now, be it in person or through the lovely invention of Twitter, you’ll know that a) I meme my way through the season, and b) I wasn’t really looking forward to the “desert” races. No offence to the winners of said events, but the landscape doesn’t really leave much to the imagination. It’s all a bit Vuelta-transitional-stage, the kind that leaves poor Carlton Kirby begging for some form of wildlife, a tree, anything to pass the time and comment on. As Fred Dreier once said, it’s like a “battle scene from a Mad Max movie”. Expertly phrased.

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The Tour of Oman: 16th of February – 21st of February

Astana once more tried to come for Deceuninck-Quick-Step’s win total crown this year by continuing their strong form, as Lutsenko pipped poor Pozzovivo of Bahrain-Merida to general classification victory at the Tour of Oman. The 26-year-old has now won back-to-back editions of the race, with a trio of stage victories on the second, third and fifth day securing him the red jersey this year. If I had to make a complaint, it would be the fact that said jersey is almost the exact shade of red that we see on the shoulders of the Bahrain-Merida team, constantly causing Lutsenko to accidentally look like a member of the opposition. Or maybe it’s not so accidental…

 

The UAE Tour: 24th of February – 2nd of March

First of all, I have an issue with this race location. The issue being that the UAE aren’t exactly a shining example for people to look up to in relation to, y’know, basic human rights? That being said, the newly-formed combination of the Dubai and Abu Dhabi races still boasted an impressive field, with the likes of Nibali, Dumoulin, Gaviria, Viviani, Kittel and Ewan all arriving to the start line. Even Froome was scheduled to start at Al Hudayriat Island, tempted by the opportunity to glance up from his stem at all the exciting scenery the UAE Tour had to offer. However, one quick Google search told him exactly what he’d be seeing – or not seeing, rather – and he pulled out a few days prior to the opening stage. Okay, he tweeted that it was to recover fully from the Tour of Colombia, but we know the truth.

Jumbo-Visma, the 2019 edition of the LottoNL-Jumbo team, beat a strong Team Sunweb squad to TTT victory on the opening stage by 7 seconds. Roglic was not only the first man to don the red jersey, but the only man, keeping a tight hold of his general classification prize for seven stages. He also received the honour of looking like a Bahrain-Merida/Trek-Segafredo/Team Sunweb (take your pick) rider for the week, because again, the whole red jersey situation.

Not even stage three winner and world champion Valverde could stop the Slovenian’s success, as the Jumbo-Vista rider won atop the stage six mountainous finish in Jebel Jais to all-but-secure his general classification victory. Day seven was heaven for the Irish Bora-Hansgrohe rider Bennett, sprinting to stage honours ahead of Gaviria, Ewan, Kristoff and Viviani.

 

Omloop Het Nieuwsblad: 2nd of March

Oh Omloop. Dragging us from the deserted desert and onto the cobbles, this Belgian race helps solidify this time of year as one of the greatest.

That being said, it was not perfect. The ten-minute gap between the women’s and men’s editions of the race was confusing to everyone that has ever watched cycling before. Of course, a strong solo attack by Hanselmann of Bigla Pro Cycling caused her to catch the tail end of the men’s peloton, forcing the organisers to neutralise the women’s race in the fear of Hanselmann overtaking the entirety of the men’s field to win both their race, and her race. Which she could have done.

“We could just see the ambulances of the men’s race. I think we stopped for five or seven minutes and then it just kills your chances.” – Hanselmann.

Being forced to stand in freezing conditions while the men theoretically get their skates on is possibly one of the most unideal situations imaginable, and eventually the 27-year-old was able to set off again. I’m not one for what if’s, because the winner was absolutely worthy, but it would’ve been nice to see exactly how Hanselmann’s move would’ve panned out.

The women’s race was eventually won by Boels-Dolmans’ Blaak. Her perfectly timed and decisive attacks both just prior to, and while on the Muur, were no match for the rest of the peloton on the day, and she claimed Boels’ first victory of the season.

As for the men, who were uninterrupted at the head of their race, a strong group of five would contend for the win in the final kilometres. An attack from Deceuninck-Quick-Step’s Stybar from the leading group containing Lutsenko (Astana), Teuns (Bahrain-Merida), Van Avermaet (CCC Team) and Wellens (Lotto-Soudal) eventually stuck, due to the lack of co-operation by the foursome. They were left looking around at one another, waiting for someone else to make the next move, as the 33-year-old up ahead added to Quick-Step’s 2019 win total.

They’re lucky Ian Stannard wasn’t with them.

 

Quorn-Brussels-Quorn  Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne: 3rd of March

I’ll give you one guess at which team won this race. Go on, guess.

You ready?

It was Deceuninck-Quick-Step.

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Yes, in a complete surprise to no-one, the team notched up yet another win during the 2019 season. This time victory was delivered in the form of Jungels, who soloed his way to the finish line after an attack within the last 16 kilometres. But one of the most notable events of the day was occurring behind him.

Team Sky’s Doull, who not only signed a new contract with the Classics in mind just a few months ago, but also celebrated his first professional road victory last month, rode to an impressive second place behind Jungels. Speaking to BBC Sport Wales, he labelled the podium place as “massive”, and that it changed his own expectations. The Welshman was able to beat the likes of Terpstra and defending Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne winner Groenewegen to second place, and took to Twitter to share his happiness.

“Actually can’t believe it, growing up I’ve always wanted to be in the sharp end of these races, but to do it today feels surreal. Thanks for all the kind messages.”

While there was no edition of this race for women, there was one held for juniors. Unfortunately, a large number of riders were taken out in the early stages by the race director’s car. The vehicle suddenly stopped in its tracks, leaving the juniors directly behind with nowhere to go but on the floor. Dutchman van Uden was able to win the race.

 

Le Samyn: 5th of March

Le Samyn was next on the calendar, providing us with an exciting sprint finish that gave us a completely unexpected…

…oh right. It was another Deceuninck-Quick-Step victory(!)

Remember when I said Astana were coming for them? Maybe hold that thought. As the leading group reeled Declercq back in within the final kilometre, his teammate Sénéchal timed his sprint to perfection to claim his maiden professional victory.

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Meme professionally made by yours truly.

 

Strava Bianchi  Strade Bianche: 9th of March

Astana and Deceuninck-Quick-Step would later battle it out on the dirt roads through Italy. Alaphilippe and Fuglsang were tied to each other’s wheels for the final 20 kilometres, until van Aert worked his way back to crash the party with just one kilometre to go. Alaphilippe and Fuglsang eventually decided three was a crowd, dropping him on the final uphill slog to the finish line. It was to be Alaphilippe’s day – if anyone is surprised – powering ahead of his Danish breakaway partner to win on the streets of Siena.

Van Vleuten also broke away from an incredibly strong leading group in the women’s race that contained the likes of Boels-Dolmans’ van der Breggen and CCC-Liv’s Vos with 12 kilometres to go. The Mitchelton-Scott powerhouse maintained her lead, soloing to victory by an impressive 37 seconds ahead of Boels-Dolmans’ Langvad and Niewiadoma of Canyon-SRAM.

 

Operation Aderlass: Ongoing

I first caught major wind of Operation Aderlass after seeing a tweet involving an elite athlete being caught red-handed. Max Hauke, a cross-country skier, was captured on video allegedly in the middle of a blood transfusion during the Nordic skiing world championships.

Then came the spread to other sports.

As someone who works in cycling and is currently undertaking a placement year in anti-doping, this was an incredibly disappointing and yet – unsurprising – revelation.

Rewind to the 2017 Vuelta a España. The Aqua Blue Sport team bus had been completely burnt due to an arson attack during the night. An unfortunate discovery for any team, let alone one on the Professional Continental circuit in their debut season. Denifl’s victory on the 17th stage felt like something of a fairy-tale for the Irish team, a triumph in the face of adversity, a feel-good story that we often crave in such a demanding sport. The Austrian won in style, attacking the torturous 180km stage – the toughest of all 21 stages – almost from the flag drop, remaining ahead of the likes of Chris Froome and Alberto Contador all the way to the painstakingly tough finish atop the Alto de los Machucos. He dedicated the win to his wife and new-born son.

Denifl, who was scheduled to ride for CCC in 2019 until his contract “dissolved” on Christmas Eve last year, recently confessed to blood doping in an interview with police. It had blindsided me, serving as a stark reminder that the sport I love is still not immune to the occasional breaking of hearts.

Waking up the next day, I rolled over to check my phone – just as I had done the day before. There was the news another cyclist had been caught up in Operation Aderlass – again, just as I had found out the day before.

Georg Preidler confessed to police that his blood had been extracted twice in 2018 for a potential transfusion at a later date. He then emailed his team, Groupama-FDJ, to terminate his contract. Teammate Pinot described how he had shed a tear upon hearing the news, describing the events as “high treason” and a “betrayal” before labelling Preidler an “idiot” for “screwing up his life”.

Pinot’s sharing of his heartbreak, although devastating, was a glimmer of light in the darkness. For many years I’ve been hoping more cyclists would be more vocal surrounding the sensitive subject of doping, revealing their true thoughts and feelings with us. While I’ve accepted this is certainly a concept easier typed than done, I welcome the amplification of more athletes’ voices.

In addition to Pinot, Marcel Kittel has also spoken about the recent developments in the doping scandal, taking the time to pen his thoughts before publishing them online for the world to see. The German has been a favourite of mine since the release of the Argos-Shimano documentary, when the sprinter even refused to take tablets from his team doctor in the fear of not knowing what they might contain. He also previously stated he was “sick” of the cycling community defending Armstrong. The 30-year-old explained his feelings towards the complications surrounding doping – the environment, the support systems – framing his words to question how we can help those who have, quote, “slipped off the narrow path.”

“The more important questions are, how can we help athletes like Georg Preidler, who apparently slipped off the narrow path and could no longer hold out against the pressure? Some athletes aren’t as lucky to have the environment that I have, one which has supported and protected me during my whole sports career. Success in sport is not just physical but also involves mental strength. That is why I think that especially young athletes can and must be prepared for this situation with coaching and much explanation, in order to be strong later when they are faced with temptation… Sport plays an important role in society, keeps people healthy and fit, and provides both entertainment and role models. But all of that can become too much for an individual and he breaks because of it, or tries to find a shortcut through doping.”

At the moment, 21 athletes from five different sports are currently under investigation.

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Strap yourselves in folks, because next time I’ll be recapping races such as Paris-Nice, Tirreno-Adriatico and Milan-San Remo. Will Deceuninck-Quick-Step win every race between now and October? Let’s find out…

Robyn’s Round-Up #1: The World Tour and Conti Action So Far

One of my New Year’s resolutions was to write more. No matter the subject, no matter how random. Fortunately for you, I’m not back with another blog post involving photoshopped riders or trying to force my baseball comparisons down your throats. This year I’m trying to do a monthly round-up of all the action that’s gone on, be it World Tour or Continental level. So, what’s happened so far in 2019?

Australasian Action: January – February

You know the road cycling season is back when we start getting those Instagram posts of koalas and snakes. You also know the road cycling season is back when Amanda Spratt kicks things off with a bang. While most of us were recovering from the drunken antics of New Year’s Eve, Spratt soloed to victory on New Year’s Day during the Bay Crits, reminding all of us of a healthier way to start off the year. At the Santos Women’s Tour Down Under, the Australian dominated alongside her Mitchelton-Scott teammates, with the team winning two out of four stages. Spratty topped the overall classification, keeping a tight hold on the ochre jersey after her triumphant win on the second day. Thrice is nice for the 31-year-old, whose overall victory this year solidifies her status as Queen Down Under™, reigning victorious in the overall standings for three years in a row.

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All Hail Queen Spratty. c: Santos Tour Down Under

Prior to the men’s Tour Down Under was the Down Under Classic. Caleb Ewan notched up his first victory in Lotto Soudal colours, ahead of Bora-Hansgrohe’s Sagan and former teammate Edmondson.

This year, the Tour Down Under returned with a twist for the men. The iconic Willunga Hill? No longer the star feature on the penultimate stage. This bad boy moved to the final day, the perfect conclusion to an expectedly explosive six days. Daryl Impey ensured double success for Mitchelton-Scott in the TDU – the South African won the fourth stage into Campbelltown and finished the race sat at the top of the general classification for the second year in a row.

Oh yeah, and Richie Porte won on Willunga for the sixth time in a row. Obviously.

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The Cadel Evans Great Ocean Road Race followed the Tour Down Under, extending the Australasian action and nicely letting us vicariously live in warmer conditions for a little bit longer. Astana’s Sierra broke away from the leading group and soloed to victory with 4 kilometres to go, finishing ahead of Mitchelton-Scott’s Kennedy and Spratt. The men’s edition of the race would be the complete opposite. Attacks were constantly neutralised, resulting in a fiercely contested bunch sprint between the likes of Viviani and Ewan. The Italian just managed to edge out his sprinting rival; inevitably only the first of many sprint showdowns this season. It’s what we deserve.

Last but not least, the Herald Sun Tour. Only a two-stage event for the women, Kennedy helped cap off an impressive first month for Mitchelton-Scott, winning the overall by 36 seconds over her teammate Spratt. Team Sky dominated the men’s five-stage race. Not content with only winning the team classification, their Dutchman van Baarle topped the overall standings. This still wasn’t enough for the British World Tour team, as stage victories awaited both Halvorsen and Doull, victory arrived for Knees in the form of the mountains classification, and Sivakov earned his place as the best young rider. Not a bad few days!

Vuelta a San Juan: 27th January – 3rd February

Somewhat overshadowed by a certain Deceuninck-Quick-Step rider (more on this later), the Vuelta a San Juan was a week-long race towards the end of January. Gaviria just managed to clinch the opening stage victory in a packed bunch sprint, reminding us all that he’s actually a UAE Team Emirates rider now, no longer a member of the Wolfpack.

Before the rest day, the race was dominated by the men in blue for various reasons. Alaphilippe won back-to back stage victories in the form of a solo attack followed by a time trial, resulting in him leading the general classification. UAE rider Gaviria then timed his bike throw to perfection at the stage four finish line after 185.8 kilometres. Post-race day, the general classification would be topped by a different man in blue. Stage five winner? Winner Anacona. (I tried to make winner, winner fit in many ways here and that is what you get). No large bunch sprint for victory awaited the peloton by the end of stage six, with Continental rider Tivani – at the risk of sounding like Carlton Kirby – really ‘putting the cat amongst the pigeons’. His breakaway group managed to keep the World Tour teams at bay, winning a three-man sprint after 140 kilometres at the front. The final stage ended in jubilation for Irish rider Bennett, pipping Quick-Step’s Hodeg to the line. Winner Anacona won the overall, thankfully, as I feel like if you have such a promising name, you need to deliver.

But let’s ignore the actual racing for a second. My favourite moment of the Vuelta a San Juan had to be at the finish line of each stage, when winners would be blasted with confetti after exhausting themselves over hundreds of kilometres. I say: more (of the environmentally friendly kind) please. And if anyone happens to actually implement my ideas, I would like more podium puppies too. It’s only right.

So, what more is there to say about Iljo Keisse that I didn’t already cover in this blog post? Not an awful lot. In summary, Deceuninck-Quick-Step found themselves in hot water when Keisse imitated having sex with a San Juan waitress, and later issued an apology after she rightly filed a police report. In an ideal world, Quick-Step would’ve pulled him from the race and this would’ve been the end of it. Except it wasn’t. After some unnecessary comments from Lefevere, the team issued an apology that everyone saw through. Lefevere obviously thought Keisse was an innocent bystander, promptly victim blaming his way through the saga and posting a Daniel Craig meme on Instagram that he probably found on some Facebook page.

Volta a la Comunitat Valenciana: 6th – 10th of February

Before I start recapping this race, I just want to say how weird it felt watching cycling at night. That being said, maybe I prefer it? Actually spending my day outside before settling down in bed at night to watch some cycling lies in stark comparison to spending the entire day covering Grand Tours and trying to write something about it at night. I digress.

Naturally, the general classification after the opening stage was led by those blessed enough to manage a decent time trial. Boasson Hagen eventually lost the lead on the fourth stage, with previous wins from Trentin and Van Avermaet not putting a big enough dint in the time gaps. Adam Yates secured an uphill victory ahead of Valverde on the penultimate stage, but a fourth place from Izagirre meant the Spaniard was all but assured to clinch overall victory. The ultimate day left little to the imagination, the 88-kilometre stage set up for an eventual sprint. The bunch would be dramatically reduced after a crash inside the final 3 kilometres, and Groenewegen surged ahead of his fellow sprinters to take the stage win.

Perfs Pedal: Perfect for Canyon

A lot of things haven’t shocked me so far this season, and Canyon dhb p/b Bloor Homes’ performance at Perfs Pedal is another to add to the list. Yes, the team contending with the likes of EF Education First (etc etc) and Deceuninck-Quick-Step for the longest team name came out on top once again. They managed to get two men on the podium; Paton placed third behind teammate and race winner Vaughan.

On this subject, it’ll be interesting to see how the Conti scene develops this season – especially with the unfortunate losses of both JLT Condor and ONE Pro Cycling. Their presence will be missed in the peloton, but various riders have been lucky in securing spots on other Continental teams. As there’s no Chorley Grand Prix this year (thanks, Brexit), I’ll have to wait a little bit longer for my own season to start.

Zwift

Another fun note to add to this post has been the recent domination of Zwift throughout cycling headlines. Their KISS Super League series appears to be a fun way for riders of all levels to compete against each other without actually leaving the house, and can also be a unique way for fans to see the action through Facebook/Instagram Live features organised by teams. I never thought I’d be sucked into this world, and I’m yet to sit through an entire Zwift race from start to finish, but it has been an entertaining concept so far.

Last but not least, the closing segment:

Drum roll please…

Things We Should Leave in January

  • Patrick Lefevere
  • That Astana rap video. No, I have not got all the way through. No, neither do I want to. Can we please just not talk about it again?

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Coming up next are races such as the Tour of Oman and Tour of Colombia. I wonder what will happen between this blog post and the next? See you soon!

 

O Captain, My (Road) Captain!

“It’ll be my fifteenth attempt at winning.”

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Those were the words spoken by Mathew Hayman before the greatest victory of his cycling career.

Looking back on the 2016 Paris-Roubaix edition of Mitchelton Scott’s Backstage Passes, his words would surprisingly echo the exact unpredictability of the famed one-day race.

“The best bit of advice I’ve ever got for Paris-Roubaix comes from Marc Wauters, and it’s always keep riding.”

A star feature of said Backstage Passes – professionally put together by Dan Jones at the time – he helped Mitchelton Scott reinvigorate the sport, transcending the once closed-door nature of cycling teams. Showcasing their differing and yet equally lovable personalities worldwide, it was a unique way to interact with fans. We’ve been able to witness Hayman at his peak, as he was shocked into a state of disbelief after crossing the finish line at Roubaix. We’ve been invited to listen as he imparted his words of wisdom to the world. A favoured development through the years has been that of the growing friendship between Hayman and Chaves; the Colombian’s adoption into an Australian team and subsequent assimilation of their phrases into his vocabulary, all while under the nurturing wing of the man he calls “boss”. But my appreciation of Backstage Passes is an article for another time.

Hayman will undoubtedly be missed. Not only for his experienced presence in the peloton, but for his time spent being a dedicated domestique, putting everything he has on the line for his team. Not forgetting his amiable personality, the lessons he’s managed to teach his teammates throughout the years, and the lessons he will inevitably still be teaching as he remains with Mitchelton-Scott post cycling-retirement. All of the above will compile the shining legacy of one of the greatest Australian cyclists we have been fortunate to witness.

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10th April, 2016. Paris-Roubaix.

You can come back a lot in this race,” he told the camera before taking to the start line. “Keep believing, keep riding, it’s not over until you get to the velodrome.”

Never before have words been so oddly foretelling, but the then-37-year-old was speaking with almost unrivalled experience. As someone who had been there at Paris-Roubaix, done that, crashed numerous times and ripped the t-shirt, Hayman was well versed in the mercurial nature of the race dubbed “The Hell of the North”.

Paris-Roubaix is a race unlike any other. Labelling such a brutal event as a “breath of fresh air” in the calendar might appear strangely conflicting, but it’s true. In a sport that can often pinpoint the three-week-long Grand Tours as its focal points, the one-day, short, sharp, and anything but sweet Paris-Roubaix is a welcome sight in a lengthy season.

The Australian’s arrival to the start line in Compiègne coincided with his return from an ill-timed injury. Hayman had broken his arm just five weeks prior. He had been forced to train on the turbo trainer in his garage while utilising a ladder as an arm rest for his cast, demonstrating possibly one of the most unorthodox preparation methods for the iconic race in recent years.

Tenacity is a notable trait in every cyclist that lines up to start the cobbled classic. You can see it build throughout the course as various riders try their luck and attack from the head of the race, never giving up in their pursuit of the famed cobblestone prize and their name engraved in the history books.

Crashes would litter the 257-kilometre route in 2016. Paris-Roubaix prides itself on being equal parts dependent on luck, and the skillset of the rider. Anyone can be forced to abandon at any time. Teammates can be left behind. Hayman’s compatriot Docker was ruled out after a nasty crash in the Arenberg Forest, dropping the number of Orica-GreenEDGE riders down to seven. Viviani was hit from behind by a motorbike. The unbeknown fate of three of the Italian’s teammates (Rowe, Puccio and Moscon) left Team Sky momentarily disjointed after hitting the ground. The predictable script-like race nature that has befallen many Grand Tours as of late is easily ripped up and thrown out of the window from Compiègne to the Roubaix Velodrome.

Cancellara’s swansong Roubaix was eventually cut short, an abundance of crashes leaving him too far behind to contend. A decisive split soon emerged; four-time winner Boonen, Boasson Hagen, Stannard and Vanmarcke joined Hayman, compiling the five-man leading group that would eventually contest for the win.

Roubaix forced riders to exert every last drop of motivation they could find during their endeavours. As they painstakingly pedalled their way to the finish line, five became two.

“Hayman has won 2 professional races; Boonen has won 109. The odds are stacked against the Australian.”

It was Boonen against Hayman as they began the first lap around the velodrome. The perfect cat-and-mouse situation, until Vanmarcke worked his way back into contention with Stannard eventually re-joining them. Hayman’s refusal to give up prime positioning on Boonen’s wheel would be his salvation, utilising the height available from the velodrome to build momentum.

The tables suddenly turned, Boonen found himself boxed in. 200m… 100m… Stannard was relentless, creeping up around the side, and Boonen refused to be shaken away in his pursuit of yet another Paris-Roubaix win.

But this was Hayman’s year.

As he crossed the line and met Dan Jones just a few moments later, his face was an assortment of emotions. Shock, disbelief, relief and eventually jubilation. The entertaining nature of this win, combined with the sheer likeability of the winner wrapped the 2016 edition of Paris-Roubaix in a neat underdog story bow, certifying itself as one for the books.

“This doesn’t happen… it doesn’t happen.” Hayman told Durbridge in disbelief as they celebrated.

“It does to you,” he replied, before turning to the camera, “that’s one for the good guys.”

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29th June, 2017. The Tour de France.

Constructed between 1990-1997, the Rhine embankment was particularly symbolic of “Düsseldorfers’ Rhenish joie de vivre”; perfectly fitting with the exuberance that the Tour de France seems to bring to the countries it visits, before eventually returning to its home country.

The embankment was the long stretch of pavement for cyclists to head down after their team presentation, circling back on themselves in the shadow of the Rhine Tower. My friends and I settled down here, propped against the barriers that kept the fans at a safe distance. As it happened, waiting here proved to be a very smart idea. The crowds dwindled the further away you got from the main presentation area, the stage surrounded by fans of the Tour. Riders would slow down here, iPhones out on the embankment, photographs of the Rheinturm to be uploaded to Instagram that night.

A smile here, a wave there, and it looked like the cyclists seemed to appreciate four cheering women in the relatively quiet area.

Mathew Hayman was actually the first rider to stop for us. Granted, I don’t think we asked anyone before him. We thought we’d try our luck with the so-called “dad” of the peloton. And he happily complied. Hayman stopped, signed all our yellow “allez, allez, allez” banners that we’d collected en route, and asked where we were from and how long we were in Düsseldorf for. Then I decided to tell him.

“Mat-” my northern accent said, documented on video, “your Paris-Roubaix win is my favourite of all-time.”

Then came the smile. The sincere “thank you”. The joking “it took a while!” comment. Suddenly, Luke Durbridge also pulled up next to us. “Come and meet some of my friends”, Hayman told him. Durbridge signed our banners too, and asked if we knew any good bars in the area. A couple of minutes later, and the two Australians headed in the direction of the Rheinturm, leaving us with memories to last a lifetime.

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Hayman didn’t need to ask us questions, sign our things, share a laugh. But he did anyway. To this day, I’m thankful that he stopped for us. Now the time has come that Mathew has hung up his cleats, he no doubt has a lot of cycling memories to look back on. In retrospect, so do I. I try and travel to a lot of races. But this one moment is possibly the greatest cycling experience I’m yet to have, as both a fan and a journalist. Hayman was one of the most welcoming riders I’ve ever spoken to in my life, and whenever his name is mentioned, I look back on this moment with a smile.

Thank you, Hayman.

Iljo Keisse’s Season Started in the Worst Possible Way

“They cannot come to another country and treat women as things, as something insignificant and worthless.”The San Juan waitress who filed a police complaint against Iljo Keisse.

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The Vuelta a San Juan has barely begun and Iljo Keisse has already been thrown out of the race.

It should have been a normal team photograph with a fan. Instead, the Deceuninck–Quick-Step rider decided to pose inappropriately with the woman as, unbeknown to the waitress, he was captured miming a lewd sex act behind her.

Keisse is not the first rider to disappoint me, and I’m certain he won’t be the last. He apologised on Tuesday, the usual “I made a mistake” followed by a “I wish I could turn back time…”. He was promptly removed from the race, his first of the new season, by the Vuelta a San Juan organisers. The woman reported him to the police, resulting in Keisse being given a fine of 3000 pesos. According to Cycling News, the local judge who had found Keisse guilty told Telesoldiario:

“Woman have to be able to walk quietly down the street, be happy at work and at home. Things have changed socially. That’s enough of sexist jokes and macho attitudes that are no longer socially tolerable.” – Enrique Mattar.

Then it somehow got worse for Deceuninck–Quick-Step.

Team manager Patrick Lefevere tweeted that Julian Alaphilippe’s victory on the third stage was “nice”, but the “cinema around Keisse” was not.

He took it one step further, labelling the woman – undoubtedly the real victim in this situation – as “motivated by money” in an interview with Het Laatste Nieuws. He has since threatened to pull his entire team from the race.

“If it depended on me, the whole team would leave the Vuelta a San Juan. We are reviewing what the UCI regulations say, and then we will quickly decide whether we will start or not.”

Quite an overreaction to the appropriate action taken by organisers, especially as Deceuninck–Quick-Step rider Alaphilippe is on a winning streak. He currently sits at the top of the GC thanks to his back-to-back stage victories.

Even if this was not during the #MeToo era, Lefevere’s comments would be striking. You’d think that Deceuninck–Quick-Step would simply accept the fine, maybe even have removed Keisse from the race themselves, but Lefevere’s wildly unprofessional comments appear to have missed the mark and then some. Especially during a time where both men and women feel able to speak out about the inappropriate actions they have been subjected to.

The entire situation could have been dealt with more professionally. I’ve seen numerous tweets from cycling fans who have also been let down, not only by Keisse’s actions, but the subsequent comments from a man as influential as Lefevere. As someone who even bought into their “Wolfpack” mantra via a top from their team store, it feels tarnished.

If this has taught me anything, it’s that we cannot let these issues be brushed under the carpet. We must continue to spot inappropriate behaviour and challenge this, as well as any inappropriate comments that arise. After all, it is 2019.

 

 

It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year…

It truly is the most wonderful time of the year.

Cycling is back in session! The Australian races are officially warming us up like a set of rollers as we prepare to dive headfirst into the 2019 season. Haller (Katusha-Alpecin) stormed to the overall Bay Crits victory as Scandolara (Roxsolt Attaquer) retained her title from 2017 the Bay Crits were not held in 2018. Let’s not forget how we were blessed with the first national championships of the year in Australia and New Zealand, too.

Of course, the Australasian action doesn’t stop there. From the 10th to the 20th of January, the Tour Down Under returns.

The newest edition of the Santos Women’s Tour Down Under began with a 112km stretch through the Adelaide Hills; 19-year-old Paternoster (Trek-Segafredo) edged out second-placed Roy of Mitchelton-Scott in a bunch sprint. Mitchelton-Scott controlled the peloton throughout the second day, eventually forcing a crucial split in their favour as the riders approached the base of Mengler Hill. Naturally, their efforts produced a remarkable 1-2 win as they reached the summit. Spratt managed to distance teammate Kennedy by 39 seconds to ensure victory. The Australian team helped cement Spratt’s stronghold on the leader’s jersey with their third day domination; Brown pedalled to victory as the ochre jersey crossed the line in 5th. Thrice is nice (no, sadly this phrase wasn’t my idea) for Spratt, eventually reigning victorious in the Women’s Tour Down Under for the third year in a row during the early hours of yesterday morning. Fellow Aussie Hosking was able to see off some fierce competition to win the 25-lap circuit ultimate stage.

The Down Under Classic – a precursor to the men’s TDU – took place on the 13th of January. No surprise here that Caleb Ewan notched up another victory in his new Lotto Soudal colours.

The men’s edition of the Tour Down Under begins tomorrow. This year the organisers decided to spice things up even more for us, like Australia needed any more heat? Stage 6, the concluding stage, will now be the one to feature the famed Willunga Hill, no doubt forcing the Tour Down Under to a climactic head on a perfectly fitting scene. Despite Richie Porte experiencing more than his fair share of bad luck in other races – take Grand Tours for example – he always outshines the peloton on this short but not-so-sweet stretch. Willunga is his territory.

While important questions are already up in the air: “Who ate too many mince pies?” “Will Porte make it six times on Willunga Hill?” – I’m bringing you the most important content you’ll receive all week.

That’s right, animal photos!

In case you don’t know, the start of the year always produces adorable snapshots of riders alongside various animals. In the past, we’ve had the likes of Simon Geschke kissing a koala, and subsequently giving us his best Britney impersonation.

2019 is no different, so cue the koala/snake/kangaroo cuddles.

All together now, one-two-three:

“Aww!”

(P.S. yes, I resisted the temptation to write Joey with a joey. You’re welcome.)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Of course I’ll be updating this collection when more photos start rolling out of Australia. All credit to the respective riders/teams and their Instagram accounts.

Anti-Doping Diaries: UKAD’s Annual Clean Sport Forum

As part of my anti-doping and sports integrity research placement in the Carnegie School of Sport at Leeds Beckett University, I was supported to attend the UK Anti-Doping (UKAD) Annual Clean Sport Forum. As someone who is incredibly passionate about this area – something that might come hand in hand with working in cycling – I didn’t necessarily mind the 4:30am alarm to roll myself out of bed and travel to Cardiff. Numerous key figures in anti-doping convened at the Principality Stadium, and I managed to put my rugby-loving, half English/half Scottish genes aside to revel in the beauty of the home of the Welsh national rugby union team.

UKAD is the national organisation responsible in protecting a culture of clean sport in the UK. Their annual Clean Sport Forum is the largest event for UKAD’s stakeholders and partners, providing a perfect opportunity for those in anti-doping to share their most recent findings, and to network.

After some much-needed complimentary coffee, Anne-Marie Batson – sports journalist and broadcaster – began the forum. Batson introduced Trevor Pearce, the Chair of the Board at UKAD since February 2017. Pearce stated that UKAD must lead not only nationally, but internationally, and spoke about the recent controversy surrounding WADA and Russia, with the latter’s recent reinstatement. He believes we should continue to press on WADA to get future governance right, and to recognise the athlete community as essential. An important note, especially after the controversial decision to reinstate Russia, as numerous athletes from various sports around the world were quick to share their frustration.

The first official segment of the day focused on “Key Trends in Anti-Doping Legal Cases”, delivered by Jonathan Taylor and Richard Bush of Bird & Bird. Taylor and Bush presented us with three key trends: proof of source, cognitive impairment and the IOC reanalysis programme.

Regarding proof of source with anti-doping, the Code states that “the term intentional… requires that the Athlete engaged in conduct which he or she knew constituted an anti-doping rule violation”. Intent is the key difference between an athlete receiving either a two or four-year sanction. As an anonymous baseball official said in 2018, “people do not test positive by accident. There is always some explanation. It doesn’t enter the body by osmosis”. There must be a balance of probability (>50%) to not violate the Code. Cognitive impairment can occasionally influence a violation of an anti-doping rule. In some cases, this can be through depression. The procedure for cognitive impairment is through receiving a medical diagnosis that the impairment did have a bearing on the violation, and cases can conclude with a “No (or No Significant) Fault or Negligence”. Taylor and Bush drew on two cases: UKAD v Bailey (2018), and UKAD v Grady (2017). In UKAD v Bailey, a rugby league player tried to explain his anti-doping violation as a fault of the anti-doping personnel, who he believed had spiked his drink after it didn’t “crack” when opened. Due to this, Bailey refused to provide a sample for testing. His actions could’ve resulted in a four-year ban, but ultimately led to a finding of No Fault or Negligence instead. The tribunal found that this behaviour was entirely irrational: “Any ordinary rational person would not have refused to provide a sample because he had drunk from a water bottle which did not ‘crack’”. In the case of UKAD v Grady, a basketball player was subjected to an In-Competition test, testing positive for a metabolite of cannabis. Despite the lack of medical diagnosis, the tribunal declared that it was likely the player suffered depression, therefore bearing no significant fault or negligence.

In relation to the reanalysis of samples, the IOC have been storing samples from the Olympics since Athens in 2004. Following an intelligence gathering process, samples from Beijing in 2008 and London in 2012 were analysed. This subsequently generated a large number of cases. 1,053 samples from Beijing were reanalysed to produce 65 cases, and 492 samples from London resulted in 41 cases. In the case of Gnidenko et al., v IOC, UCI & WADA, three Russian athletes that competed at Beijing/London re-tested positive for Turinabol. Their appeals were rejected by CAS, and two of them were stripped of their silver medals (the other placed eighth).

Furthermore, Taylor and Bush touched on potential changes to the Code. Initially constructed by two lawyers, the Code has developed into one of the most broadly applicable legal instruments ever created. Revisions could include recalibrating sanctions (harder or softer depending on the circumstances), and provisions to protect whistle-blowers (i.e., not allowed to threaten their lives).

One of the most important aspects of the day focused on code compliance by signatories. When explaining the reinstatement of Russia, Bush spoke about the “new regime” coming into force from April 2018, leaving the “old regime” behind. But what does this mean? Essentially, this means that reinstating Russia forces them to hand over all data from the Moscow laboratory by the end of the year. If not, in accordance with the new regime, they will be made non-compliant again; Russia will be subject to harsher terms due to the newer, stronger International Standard for Code Compliance by Signatories. They noted the criticism this move has received from the media, and included the fact there is an online service called “WADAConnect”, where every query is looked at.

“Carrot or Stick: Tools to Improve Governance and Professional Standards and Their Impact on Anti-Doping” was the second talk of the day, delivered by Rachel Burrows, Kevin Currell and Brian Rhys Davies. Davis voiced that when organisations receive public money, it is somewhat assumed that they’re complying with anti-doping policy, but the “how” is not checked. Now, the biggest change is that there are checks in place to determine whether policies are implemented properly in accordance with governing bodies. Athlete voices were again mentioned for the traction they’re gaining, yet on occasion they can be ill-informed. Organisations should still work with them for a better system, and the trio considered the concept of structural changes to benefit athletes, such as positions in panels or on boards. Governance can always be improved, and a variety of recommendations were addressed by the speakers. Such recommendations included continuing education and helping athletes and parents understand the impact of food over supplements. An important grey area surrounds food as supplements, like protein Mars bars. Where is the line? Other recommendations raised included the push for athlete accountability, and further progress with athlete voices.

The “Overview of What the Assurance Framework Will Mean for Your Sport” talk was delivered by Nicole Sapstead and Matthew Johnson, the Chief Executive of UKAD and Director of Legal for UKAD, respectively. All who receive funding are subject to co-compliant rules, yet they acknowledged that people are never properly held to account over requirements. It was proposed that they will actually seek assurance that people are delivering in this area, with the incentive of publicly reporting what people are doing potentially driving this along. So, the overarching aim is that sports councils will work alongside UKAD in the delivery of anti-doping. This is helped by a brand new “Assurance Team” that will assist with delivering requirements in the policy. Paul Ouseley is the Head of Assurance, working alongside Alicia Lauckner as the Assurance Framework Project Manager, Adam Goble as Assurance Manager, and Pola Murphy as Compliance Co-Ordinator.

In the same talk, we looked at possible new requirements to the policy, in relation to NGBs and sports councils. This included annual publishing and reporting of requirements, maintaining individual membership records with access on request, appointing Anti-Doping Officers with appropriate training, and working with UKAD to develop education and information programmes.

Josie Smith (Head of Substance Misuse, Public Health Wales), Eric Kendall (Wales Government Agency Intelligence Network and Regional Organised Crime Unit) and Amanda Hudson (UKAD’s Head of Education) organised the “IPEDs in Wales” segment of the day. In 2016, the largest face-to-face survey on steroids and IPEDs was conducted, with 684 participants. Around 54% of individuals stated that the number one reason for IPED use was in relation to body image (not for performance enhancement use). Over 70% of people that experienced adverse effects either simply wait for them to go away, or treat them themselves. The role of the media is changing perceptions of not only body image in general (it was suggested that Love Island can influence the use of IPEDs), but in sport, and what sport can do to influence looks. In terms of Image and Performance Enhancing Drugs (IPEDs), it was noted that there is an overlap between the concepts of “aesthetics” and “improving performance”. Steroid abuse can also be manifested in other areas, such as domestic abuse and crime. But why are UKAD dealing with this? Well, because they have a duty to ensure IPEDs aren’t seen as the latest piece of sporting equipment, as there is a crossover with image enhancement and sport. In terms of IPEDs in public places such as leisure centres, Scandinavia was favourably mentioned, with their research and education programmes for certification of clean leisure facilities. According to the speakers, parents are now actively debating over pushing their kids away from sport. “Think Real”, launched by UKAD, Sport England and Team GB, is a new education programme that is trying to tackle health issues faced by schoolchildren, and working with parents is being promoted.

After a generous buffet organised by the hosts, we got the green light from the lovely security guards to look further inside the Principality Stadium. As someone who has only been to Twickenham, I appreciated the chance to look around another stadium, especially seeing what it’s like to sit in the nicely cushioned VIP area. No plastic chairs here! A refill of coffee and a few pictures of a trophy later, we were back in the meeting area for the fifth talk of the day.

This was focused on “Psychological Pressures of Sporting Life: Exploring the Connections Between Mental Health and Doping”, by Dr Claire-Marie Roberts (UKAD Board Member), Kitrina Douglas (Senior Research Fellow, Leeds Beckett University), and Richard Bryan (Rugby Director, Rugby Players Association). Drugs are not solely used to gain an advantage in sport. Individuals that are facing mental health problems can turn to drugs to improve their body, or ease their mental health issues. It was argued that the sporting environment still doesn’t help mental health problems in elite athletes. For example: take the playing load in rugby; the accompanying psychological load that can be undertaken is extreme, especially in relation to injuries, with stressors and internal/external expectations all a part of this. Bryan mentioned an interesting statistic surrounding injuries, retirement and mental health. Only 30% of athletes choose when they want to retire. The acceptance of having to give up the sport you loved so early comes as a shock for most, and surely impacts some athletes in terms of mental health. Mental health issues can also be exacerbated through negative comments received on social media.

The Rugby Football Union currently operates a two-strike policy for illicit drug use; the first positive test/admission of use is kept confidential, and the public are unaware. The key focus is on helping the player with treatment/rehab. The second strike can warrant suspension, with details released to the public. In the words of Bryan, a positive test can arise when several issues crystallise. He spoke about Andy Irons, the three-time world champion in surfing who used cocaine amongst other drugs, and simply didn’t get the help he needed. People knew the issues and drug abuse problems that Irons was facing, yet for some reason, there was an unnerving code of silence. He died in 2010 as a result of cardiac arrest and an acute mixed drug ingestion.

But what can be done? We need to change the stigma that perpetuates mental health issues as some sort of weakness, with the help of national governing bodies. We need athlete support personnel – not just performance support.

The final talk was delivered by Dr Danielle Moncrieffe, a research associate at the Drug Control Centre. I was sat next to her for the duration of the event, and found what she had to tell me between talks to be very interesting; I couldn’t wait to see her presentation on the “Latest Scientific Developments in Anti-Doping”. She began by mentioning the daily operations involved in working in the lab, surrounding the routine analysis of over 8,000 sport samples a year.

The routine analysis of samples is a comprehensive process. The sample arrives in the lab, with a unique number and barcode. This helps the designated worker book in the sample, with a chance to report any anomalies; as such, the chain of command now rests with the lab. The B sample is safely stored as the A sample is opened. A recent change has been to this machine, making sure the device that lifts the bottle opens it in such a way that I believe further prevents hairline fractures. After this, the sample is split, parted into the appropriate volumes needed to conduct various tests. While some tests are applied to all samples, others (like the test for EPO) can be specifically requested. The lab scientists test for the compounds stated in WADA’s Prohibited List. Covering all stimulants, glucocorticoids, natural/synthetic cannabinoids and other substances with similar chemical structures, the Prohibited List is extremely in-depth. There are approximately 250 entries, with the list annually refreshed.

Sample analysis is the more technical side. The samples will pass through two screenings for prohibited compounds (LC-MS, GC-MS). Additional tests can follow, covering pH, Ethanol, ABP, Growth Hormone and EPO. Succeeding this, the results shown are either “negative” or “suspect”. The latter requires a repeat analysis, perhaps with an adapted method or specific confirmation analysis.

30 people work in the laboratory in King’s College London, with 20 lab scientists split between research and routine work. Some priority areas of the research into anti-doping involve working towards more cost-effective testing, the ability to detect so-called ‘designer substances’ and improvements towards existing analytical methods with equipment more sensitive to compounds. Furthermore, priority areas include research towards longitudinal urinary excretion patterns (looking at ABPs) and critical reviews that support interpretation of data collected by the laboratory. I found that the priority research area mentioned last actually presented itself as the most interesting: alternative specimens. This involves research surrounding dried blood spots, oral fluid and breath as potential anti-doping measures.

The dried blood spots (DBS) method was presented as the future; a technique surrounding sample collection in the fight against doping. It’s a bio-sampling method using a small volume of blood being collected on a piece on filter paper. Implementation involves the collection of DBS from an entire group of people, transporting the samples to the laboratory and rapidly screening them for specific compounds. If certain compounds are detected, the DBS screen triggers a targeted urine test. The urine test is performed on the targeted individual.

In contrast to urine, the blood spots are 20-100x less in volume, meaning we need increased sensitivity. Luckily, the instrumentation for this has already been produced. Advantages for using dried blood spots over urine include: the sample collection itself is quick and of a lower volume, resulting in a reduction in shipping costs as there is no need for temperature controlled transport. In addition, there is a decreased chance of sampling manipulation and infection. On the other hand, blood spots must be dried immediately after collection on the filter paper, which can take up to two hours. The extraction of some analytes from the cellulose matrix may prove difficult, and there can be an influence of blood haematocrit or even inconsistency with the blood spot volume.

My first anti-doping conference was so insightful as someone who has just started working in this area. The hot topic of the day definitely appeared to surround Russia. At the time of writing, they still had a month to grant the WADA inspection team full access to their laboratory and data. WADA President Sir Craig Reedie was “confident” in Russia’s ability to meet the end-of-year deadline, finding it “hard to believe… Russia won’t deliver.”

They would miss the deadline.

I, for one, was not surprised. The laboratory in question was at the heart of the doping scandal that rocked sport just a few years ago. Now, there has finally been a development. Weeks after the initial investigation team were forced to leave due to their equipment being deemed “not certified” under Russian law, they will return to Moscow on the 9th of January. What they will find, and whether Russia will face the sanctions deserved for missing the important deadline, is anyone’s guess. In light of the findings, the designated Compliance Review Committee will meet in Montreal next week to produce a report and recommend actions for RUSADA.

Off-Season Thoughts: What if Cyclists Weren’t Cyclists?

Chris Froome: Long-Distance Running

A pretty obvious one to start with, really. If cycling fans around the world weren’t gripped to their television sets during the first two weeks of the Tour de France in 2016, they certainly were after stage 12. Mont Ventoux has always provided the perfect setting for a dramatic finish after hours spent toiling away in the saddle – this day seemed to go one pedal stroke further. Crowds are drawn to the French Grand Tour like a moth to a flame, and the Mont Ventoux finish bears no exception. The roadside was packed with eager viewers that day, complete with flags draped around their necks, cameras gripped in hands. A lack of barriers or any actual crowd control tends to go hand-in-hand with the underlying feeling that something is about to go terribly wrong, and peaking in climactic fashion like the pinnacle of a well-written symphony, it did.

Echoing the improvisation displayed by Team Sky during the previous stage (which featured that eventual Sagan-Froome sprinting tag-team), Froome was again forced to act fast. The final stretch of the 21km climb was met with an excited bottleneck of fans, causing a motorbike to stop en route. There was nowhere to go for the trio behind. Richie Porte (does he have any luck?), Bauke Mollema, and yellow jersey-wearing Froome hit the ground. I remember that day being a hectic mess, and yet everything seemed to simultaneously stop and carry on in one moment. There was the yellow jersey on the ground, losing time as Nairo Quintana eventually rode past him. What was he going to do?

Then came the famous outcome. The all-too memorable and memeable sight of Froome running – yes, running – up a mountain during a cycling race. This isn’t a duathlon, Chris.

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After a shake of the head as he crossed the line, the Brit ended the day over six minutes behind the stage winner – whose win was so overshadowed by drama it’s potentially the brain-racking answer to a future sports pub quiz – Thomas De Gendt. No sweat for Team Sky though; Froome was eventually given the same time as Mollema. The Dutchman that was part of the tangled up trio had managed to remount and cross the line five minutes behind De Gendt.

When all else fails, run.

 

Geraint Thomas: Baseball

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Look at him. Eyes on the ball. Poised. Ready. Here is a man that’s about to launch a 500-foot bomb to the left-field bleachers, potentially the sort of hit that could break the all-time single-season team home run record à la Gleyber Torres this year.

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Getting carried away? Absolutely not. Look at that stance. He knows he’s just earned himself a legendary Sterling call; no need for the jog to first base followed by a panicked ‘oh shit’ run to second as the ball actually falls short of clearing the wall. Get the most recent Tour de France winner to the Home Run Derby and watch him blow Bryce Harper out of the water.

Need further proof? Look away now, Shohei Ohtani.

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That’s right, he can hit dingers and clock a nasty 100mph on the mound. Batters, beware. Granted, the form needs some work, but the potential is there should he find himself searching for a sports-related post-cycling career like Bouhanni. With Sky pulling their sponsorship at the end of 2019, who knows…

 

Nacer Bouhanni: Boxing

“Boxing is my passion, cycling is my job.” – Nacer Bouhanni.

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This one was inevitable. Bouhanni is no stranger to controversy, and admitted back in 2014 that he wanted to take up the sport after his cycling career came to an end. Looks like he was pretty impatient, as the Frenchman has been involved in multitudinous conflicts and relegations in recent years. The 28-year-old was ruled out of the Tour de France in 2016, after becoming involved in an altercation with drunk men outside his hotel before the national championships. You’d be forgiven for expecting him to make up for lost time at the succeeding Tour in 2017, perhaps winning stages to make up for the chances he lost, bumping shoulders with the likes of Kittel and Cavendish. Instead, he allegedly punched Jack Bauer. But don’t worry – he got his retribution in the form of a whole minute taken off him in the GC. A minute. For a sprinter. In a classification he doesn’t care about.

At the Tour de l’Ain that same year, an elbow from Bouhanni during a high-speed sprint left Maldonado requiring stitches under general anaesthetic as the former pedalled to stage victory. Just a few weeks later, the Cofidis rider was involved in a clashing of words with AG2R-La Mondiale’s Barbier, citing Barbier’s sprint as dangerous and irregular.

It’s never nice to witness a team manager openly criticising their own riders, and Cédric Vasseur chastised Nacer early in 2018. He publically launched into attacking Bouhanni’s level of fitness and attitude towards teammates, before further declaring that he was untrustworthy and that Cofidis “wouldn’t even enter him in a sportive”. The amalgamation of a deterioration of high-profile victories and increase in incidents stuck to Bouhanni throughout this year, coming to an ugly head after Eschborn-Frankfurt in May. Reports of a “violent altercation” on the team bus with his own DS began circulating after the one-day race in Germany.

By the time his contract at Cofidis runs out at the end of 2019, Bouhanni will be 29 years old. A quick highly-technical Google search told me that boxers can hit their prime around this age, so will we eventually see him throwing hands in the ring rather than on the roads? Only time will tell.

 

Esteban Chaves: Gymnastics

Yay, Este! The always-smiling Colombian is one of the more petite riders at World Tour level, naturally making him a perfect fit should he ever make the switch to gymnastics. He’s got his balance technique on lock from rubbing shoulders with opposing team members, dedication derived from those days he drags himself out of bed to train (regardless of how tempting the snooze button might be), and core strength from those important conditioning workouts.

But let’s break it down even further. Which artistic discipline would suit him best?

Chaves doesn’t necessarily take part in a sport that focuses on upper body strength – unless you’re Bouhanni – so I’m ruling out the rings. I guess that also counts out the parallel and horizontal bars alongside the pommel horse. So, it looks like by process of elimination, it’s either floor or vault.

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I went to one gymnastics class as a child and promptly got sidetracked by the squash taster class being held instead. When I finally went to try gymnastics, I did learn how to forward roll alongside 30 other children on the same mat, but my knowledge of the exact skills that separate the two disciplines is about as non-existent as my own upper body strength. I’m going to say that Esteban suits the vault discipline the best – his light weight would enable him to gain more height. That is my very scientific reasoning.

Of course, there’s also the chance he could pull a James Corden and surprise us all with his ribbon ability.

 

Conor Dunne: Pole Vaulting

You: “enough vault talk”

Me: “no.”

Yes, moving on from one vault to another, and the gentle giant would be a perfect fit for pole vaulting. Taller athletes generally have a better time with the “pole strike” – their higher reach ability means they can strike the pole at a higher angle according to McGinnis.

Height is an advantage that Conor has in spades. The 6’8” Irishman stands out above the peloton – literally. Here he is at the Tour de Korea in 2016, just conserving all that energy thanks to his breakaway partners…

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c: Reddit

A shock withdrawal from the Tour of Britain – which should have been their final race of the year as a team – left Aqua Blue Sport riders in a sudden limbo. Dunne and teammate Warbasse improvised and established their own week-long race. The No-Go Tour was born. They ventured out on their bikes through unknown roads and mountain climbs, clocking up a similar amount of mileage that they would have covered during the Tour of Britain.

Both riders now fortunately have contracts for 2019. Warbasse is headed for AG2R-La Mondiale, as Dunne signed with the Israel Cycling Academy. However, there’s still pole vaulting…

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Peter Sagan: Unicyclist

Still a cyclist, but different. But the same. Just with one less wheel, so it counts for this blog post.

The superhuman rider is no stranger to balancing on just the one wheel. The time or place has no impact on Sagan, who once easily popped a casual wheelie while riding up Mt Baldy during the Tour of California and simultaneously trying to grab a cookie from Phil Gaimon. Which, is probably the strangest sentence I’ve ever had to write. Alpe d’Huez can be a struggle for the best of the peloton, and in the midst of the Tour de France – arguably lacking in its ‘fun’ moments, comprehensible with so much on the line – Sagan decided to show us a lighter side to the race in 2013. To the delight of the awaiting fans clad in polka dot Tour merchandise, the then-Liquigas rider obliged to their encouragement, and travelled up the climb on one wheel, and with no hands.

Unicycling can also be performed as a team sport incorporating the likes of basketball, hockey and handball, which I imagine someone like Sagan will have no trouble participating in.

 

Philippe Gilbert: Rock Climbing

A collective gasp was shared around the world when Gilbert crashed during the Tour de France this year. In a clip that’s still uncomfortable to watch, the Quick-Step Floors rider overshot a corner on the descent of the Col de Portet d’Aspet. In the blink of an eye, he had clipped the stone wall on the right hand side and disappeared over the edge, sending shockwaves throughout the cycling community. Crazily, to those unfamiliar with the tenacity of cyclists, Gilbert eventually reappeared from the ditch and remounted his bike to complete the remaining 50km, albeit while suffering visible injuries in addition to a fractured patella.

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c: ASO

He didn’t necessarily climb up by himself, but it takes a dedicated (and crazy?) kind of person to re-scale the wall they clattered over. At least he solidified his status in the hearts of many, and won a combativity prize at the end of the day for his efforts. Rock star, and rock climber.

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Thank you for lasting this long through a nonsense off-season post! Stay tuned, as I’ll be publishing my final blog post of the season, soon.

 

 

 

From Hope to Hopelessness: Of Course, La Course Is Still Neglected

La Course was once a promising concept. Derived from the hard work of “Le Tour Entier”, a petition was launched in 2013 for ASO to allow women to race the Tour de France, after the subsequent death of the “Tour Cycliste Féminin”. For so long, the men’s Grand Tours have been provided with ample coverage; lengthy Tour de France stages have been broadcast from start to finish since 2017, lying in stark comparison to the Giro Rosa, occurring simultaneously and yet consistently subject to a lack of live images. If we wish to watch women tackle their (only) Grand Tour, we must simply make do with highlights – a seemingly common theme throughout the entirety of the women’s season.

Prudhomme initially appeared to brush off a question involving a women’s Tour de France. He then went one step further, declaring the event as “impossible” to run parallel to the men’s race. Instead, we received “La Course”. Not the overdue multiple-week event that people were hoping for, but undoubtedly a step in the right direction.

The inaugural edition consisted of 13 laps of the Champs-Élysées, just prior to the final stage of the 2014 Tour de France. La Course’s initial attachment to the men’s Tour provided the event an opportunity to flourish, with a staggering 157 countries able to witness Dutch powerhouse Vos reign victorious, as she edged out Wild in a dramatic sprint to the line. Millions of viewers were captivated by an exhilarating women’s race live on TV, and La Course seemed to take off from there.

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Vos wins the inaugural edition of La Course. (The Independent)

The 2015 edition of the race followed the same one-day format, because hey – if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it? Unfortunately, La Course was to be overshadowed by unfavourable weather conditions; torrential rain prompted numerous crashes, as notable names such as van Dijk and Ferrand-Prévot hit the ground.

Fast forward to 2017, and ASO finally decided to spice things up a little bit, experimenting with a two-day event that raised more questions than answers. The first stage involved a limited 67.5km route, eventually blown apart at just under 5km to go by none other than van Vleuten. The then-national time trial champion was able to hold off the looming Deignan, raising her arms as she soloed to victory on the Col d’Izoard. Fun fact: according to Strava, only Barguil and Bardet were faster than van Vleuten when the men raced up the Izoard just a few hours later.

So, you’d expect all of the women’s peloton to be able to race the second stage, right? Well, no. They didn’t. The field for the final day was slashed to just 19 riders. It wasn’t your usual time trial, too. The chance to watch interesting alliances form was quickly established, as riders were able to wait for one another en route. Deignan, sitting in second place, chose to work with both her teammate Guarnier, and third-placed Borghini. Yet ultimately, there was nothing the trio could do to overpower van Vleuten; the dominance of the Orica Scott rider throughout the two days resulted in her clinching the overall victory.

The 2017 edition of La Course was interesting to say the least. I appreciated the effort to extend the event to two days, but if you combine the kilometres raced across both stages, it only adds up to a measly 90km. Not even the length of a standard Tour de France stage. I haven’t even touched on my annoyance at the fact that not everyone could race the second day, either.

So, onwards to 2018, and back to a one-day event. This time, we received a grand total of 112.5 kilometres of racing. What a treat! Without being biased, this one stage was easily more exciting than anything the men had produced so far. (The men were on stage 10 of the Tour de France and in my defence, Geraint Thomas was not in the yellow jersey yet). Would it be van der Breggen’s year? Would we witness another van Vleuten masterclass? The dominant Dutch duo battled it out across the final few kilometres, gripping spectators with every turn of the pedals. Van der Breggen initially dropped her fellow countrywoman, but van Vleuten was relentless. Drawing on every ounce of time trialling ability she has (which as we all know, she has in boatloads), Van Vleuten clawed her way back into the race as the finish line got closer. 100m to go. 80m to go. 50m to go, and she was there. At just 30m to go, van Vleuten heaved past the Boels-Dolmans rider, snatching the win with the final few pedal strokes that she could muster.

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Van Vleuten celebrates after pipping van der Breggen to the line in 2018. (SBS)

The reversion of La Course to a one-day event had given me the hope that ASO now had a solid platform on which to rebuild this race from. Evidently, they think a one-day race is enough for now. The lacklustre reveal of the route for the 2019 edition consists of nothing but a 5-lap circuit, chalking up around 120 kilometres of racing. It is, once again, attached to the apparent “main event” of the men’s Tour de France.

ASO have had years to organise a working, entertaining model for La Course. It’s time to accept the fact that the race will possibly never be built to that standard that we want, and that the riders deserve. La Course will not evolve into the women’s Tour de France under the organisation of ASO. This isn’t a post trying to demean said organisation, because as Emma Pooley once said, they have no obligation to provide us with a women’s Tour de France. As long as they carry on trying to do the best with La Course as they can, this is acceptable. La Course is still an interesting race, and if we have exciting future battles like the van Vleuten vs van der Breggen matchup we were able to witness last year, I’m here for it. You could say, La Course has not run its course just yet. Sorry.

I’ve accepted that we can’t develop La Course into the women’s Tour de France. The latter will hopefully come later, as a separate event. However, we do need to keep challenging for more success in relation to the Giro Rosa. The WWT have only one Grand Tour in Italy, in comparison to the men’s Grand Tours in Italy, France and Spain. As of 2018, viewers worldwide face the only options of either constantly refreshing Twitter, finding a questionable and delayed stream, or watching highlights for the Giro Rosa on YouTube. Disappointing for such a high-profile race, but not surprising – even in this day and age. It is simply not good enough.

So, La Course remains a one-day event for 2019, designed for the puncheurs of the peloton. Whether ASO will experiment again, push the boat out and find a successful multiple-day model in the years to come, is anyone’s guess. Whether we’ll receive live coverage of the Giro Rosa in the years to come, is also anyone’s guess. We just have to keep pushing for it.

 

 

 

 

The Cyclist Counterparts of Baseball Players

The beauty about being a writer is that you can, pretty much, do whatever you want with your work. You can take certain perspectives on a subject, ramble on about a not-so-hot take, or write 15 pages on how following an American baseball team leaves you with extreme sleep deprivation for half of the year. That’s a different blog post. Today, ladies and gentlemen, I’m coming at you with a combination that I don’t think has ever been covered before. Yes – I’m mixing cycling and baseball. Crazy isn’t it? Now before you close this page thinking “what on earth is she doing here?”, let me explain.

I love both sports.

Simple.

When I was first getting involved with baseball – aka when I’d ruined my sleeping pattern one long summer and wanted to know what my friend Lakon was talking about at 3am – I was drawn to the characters. The ones that looked like they had fun playing the sport. The same applies to cycling. When I was a tiny track cyclist at the Manchester Velodrome, I wanted characters to look up to. Thank you, Laura Trott Kenny.

So, without further ado, I’m combining the two. Baseball players and their cyclist counterparts. Let’s do this.

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Smiles All Round

Baseball: Francisco Lindor. The 24-year-old shortstop isn’t nicknamed “Mr. Smile” for defying Tom Hanks and crying during a baseball game. As of August 2018, the Cleveland Indians star currently boasts a batting average of .296, and when not lodged between second and third base in the infield, can be found taking his rightful place as the leadoff hitter in the line-up. As well as being talented (he hasn’t been an All-Star for 3 years in a row for nothing), the Puerto Rican is always smiling, and is an absolute character. His personality shines through both on and off the field, be it through grabbing microphones, diving away from a fly ball that never landed, or by having fun with long-time friend Baez whenever the opportunity arises.

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Who can forget when he shaved off those curls after losing a bet (never challenge your high school baseball team to a perfect season), or when he dyed his hair blonde at the start of the season and looked like a happy hybrid of Amber Rose and Sisqó? I can’t wait to see what Lindor will do next.

Oh, and mic him up during every game for the foreseeable future. Every game. Thank you.

Cycling: Esteban Chaves. Everyone’s adopted son, but first and foremost, Mitchelton-Scott’s. (Yes, the temptation to write Orica-GreenEDGE here was unreal). Not many people could bounce back from an injury that threatened to end a career before it had even truly begun, in the way he did. Back in 2011, Chaves was in stellar form, winning the Tour de l’Avenir – aka the “U23 Tour de France” – and signed his first professional contract with Colombia-Coldeportes for the 2012 season. His career was on the up, but in 2013, disaster struck. He arrived at the start line of the Trofeo Laigueglia in February, but did not make it to the finish. Not only did the then-22-year-old puncture his lung in a horrific crash, but he fractured his skull in numerous places, and tore his axillary nerve. The doctors had no idea if Chaves could return to racing.

He persisted, going from doctor to doctor in order to find the news he was hoping for. The Colombian we all know and love was then signed to Orica GreenEDGE, and went on to secure a 2nd place overall at the Giro d’Italia in 2016, and a 3rd place at the Vuelta a España that same year. He’s on his way to winning a Grand Tour – trust me. This is the hill I will die on.

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Chaves, in the middle of the Giro d’Italia, made signs of support for all his team. Yes, he’s still smiling after that lack of sleep.

Oh, he’s also extremely likeable. I’m unsure if anyone has a bad word to say against him, but if you somehow do – I don’t want to hear it. Chaves is without doubt, the happiest rider in the peloton. He’s constantly smiling, even in a sport that enjoys putting riders through back-to-back 200+km sufferfest days in the saddle. He’s been unofficially adopted by the Australian public and cycling fans around the world, and we will gladly take the unproblematic idols where we can get them. Who can forget that time ‘Este’ drew posters for the whole team at 4am in the middle of the Giro d’Italia, and handed them out on the bus? Okay, maybe a lot of people, but that was something that stuck with me. What about his adorable friendship with Hayman and Bewley? Cycling needs Esteban Chaves to keep smiling. Here’s a picture of him and a dog for good measure. #BlessedImage

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Photo: VeloNews

There’s a lot to love about the lil’ Colombian, and his own love of smiling draws parallels between himself, and a shortstop all the way over in Cleveland.

Red Hot Rookies

Baseball: Gleyber Torres. Gley-bae. The guy I sorely missed during his recent 10-day stint on the DL. Initially signing with the Chicago Cubs in 2013 as an international free agent, he was traded to the Yankees in 2016 for pitcher Aroldis Chapman. Torres made his debut in pinstripes against the Blue Jays on the 22nd of April this year (see, I remember this ‘cause it was my birthday the day after), a game which the Yankees would win 5-1. I love a good double play, and the 21-year-old initiated the 4-6-3 kind on his debut, quickly grabbing Solarte’s grounder and launching it to Gregorius, who catapulted the ball to Austin to end the sixth inning. Torres also received a standing ovation in his first at-bat. Yes, he would go on to strike out and end the game going 0-for-4 at the plate, but his career in pinstripes has quickly taken off to reach new heights since then.

The rookie second baseman hit his first home run off the Indians’ Tomlin at the start of May, breaking the then-scoreless game with a 3-run blast deep to the left field bleachers. It was a beauty. In the words of Sterling: it was indeed “Gleyber Day”, and he was the “Gleyber of the Month”. Naturally, he received the classic Silent Treatment™ from his teammates as he got back to the dugout, before they showered him in seeds, praise and back-pats (most notably Didi and Tanaka which, for some reason, still makes me very happy). Torres didn’t look back, quickly becoming a favourite to see in the line-up. At 21, he became the youngest player in American League history to homer in four consecutive games. Then, the DL came calling – at a time where he boasted a batting average of .294 with 15 home runs to his name. On the 4th of July, Torres didn’t look happy during a plate appearance against the Braves. He was pulled before the fifth inning, and it was revealed post-game that he’d suffered a right hip strain. A shame, when you consider this ruled him out of his first All-Star Game. Not that Torres didn’t have a good time anyway – the Venezuelan still looked in his element at the event, taking in the experience from the dugout. Come on, we saw him with that rose gold iPhone. Recording and cheering on Judge as he hit his first All-Star home run? It was adorable.

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I wanted to mark Gleyber Torres as the Esteban Chaves of cycling, and in some regards, he is. But he’s sure as hell one red hot rookie too. (As is Miguel Andújar)

Cycling: Egan Bernal. Like Torres, Bernal is just 21 years old, and has had a mightily impressive season with Team Sky, so far.

Also a winner of the Tour de l’Avenir, Bernal’s cycling ability is evident. He powered his way to time trial success at the Tour de Romandie this year, and the Colombian would also take the combativity award the next day. He finished in a commendable 2nd overall, behind LottoNL-Jumbo’s Roglič, and topped the young rider classification. He would claim another young rider classification just a few weeks later, at the Tour of California. Dominating the 7-day race, Bernal climbed to victory on both mountain stages, leapfrogging Van Garderen in the standings to claim overall victory in the general classification, too.

His selection in Team Sky’s Tour de France line-up came as no surprise. His strength was often relied upon, as he was seen towing Froome back to the leading group in vital moments. There’s no doubt that he helped salvage the Brit a podium place at Paris while simultaneously displaying the coolest of heads.

Bernal and Torres are displaying some serious talent for guys so young. It’s going to be exciting watching these red hot rookies develop even further.

Dynamic Duos

Baseball: Oh how the Yankees fan in me wants to write an extensive paragraph rambling on about Judge and Stanton as a dynamic duo. Alas, we don’t get enough content of them being buddies outside of the baseball field. So, the obvious choice: Anthony Rizzo and Kris Bryant.

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The Chicago Cubs first and third basemen easily have one of the best bromances in the game, solidified by their adoption of the ship name ‘Bryzzo’ and showcasing it wherever possible. This marketability in their bromance has led to the creation of numerous commercials involving the pair. Their first take at acting (maybe stick to the day job, guys) came in the form of the ‘Bryzzo Souvenir Company’.

“We put the ding in dingers”.

If you’ve watched the bloopers that stem from this, and I really urge you to, I can’t picture this line without Bryant’s failure to ding the bell at the end. In fact, here it is.

Cycling: Long live the Richie Porte/Chris Froome bromance. A strong rider in his own right, Porte was often relied on as a super-domestique for Froome, resulting in the latter’s win at both the Tour de Romandie and the Critérium du Dauphiné – and I’ve not even begun to mention the Grand Tours.

A super-domestique is often a team leader’s last line of defence, and Porte proved just that as Froome claimed his first Tour de France in 2013. Froome’s podium topping position in Paris was largely helped through Porte’s efforts to bury himself for his yellow jersey-wearing teammate, especially on the Mont Ventoux and Alpe d’Huez stages. In 2015, Porte once again aided Froome to victory in this race, helping limit his losses on the final mountain stage on Alpe d’Huez. Quintana was able to break away and claim over a minute over Froome, yet Porte didn’t panic, helping pace his team leader up the final climb as the last teammate standing.

The pair would reunite once again, albeit the next year while riding for different teams, during a memorable stage of the Tour de France. Froome was on Porte’s wheel, and the crowds on Ventoux were hectic. As such, they formed a bottleneck, forcing motorbikes to a halt. BMC kit-clad Porte couldn’t avoid colliding into the back of one, subsequently bringing down Froome and Mollema – resulting in those images of Froome running up Ventoux without a bike.

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GIF: Deadspin

Despite Porte’s move away to BMC and Froome’s interesting tactics to defeat his former teammate at the Dauphiné in 2017, the Tasmanian insists that they’ll still be friends off the bike. They’ve been through too much.

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Photo: VeloNews

Honourable Mentions: AKA the Shorter Versions as This Blog Post Is Getting Long

The Veterans

Baseball: Brett Gardner. Gardy. Megamind. Okay, I’ll put some respect on his name – after all, he has just marked 10 years since his pinstripes debut in 2008. 2008! The experience from the longest-tenured Yankee combines perfectly with the newer faces of the Baby Bombers, who take their place in the line-up behind the 34-year-old leadoff hitter.

Cycling: Mathew Hayman. His experience is undoubtable, as Hayman turned pro back in 2000 with Rabobank. Fast forward 18 years and he’s now one of the most respected riders in the peloton, busy looking after his team (or his kids away from his kids, when you take Chaves, the Yates twins and Ewan into account), all with a sought after Paris-Roubaix win under his belt. There’s no crying in baseball, but there definitely was at this moment in cycling. Why? Because he’s one of the good guys, going up against the favourite in a sprint finish… and he broke his arm just 5 weeks prior.

People I Just Wouldn’t Want to Face

Baseball: Justin Verlander. The 35-year-pitcher for the Houston Astros recently contributed to a 2-1 win over the LA Dodgers, striking out 14 in 7.2 innings. See also: Luis Severino at his best and Max Scherzer. No thanks.

Cycling: Peter Sagan. God, could you imagine having to compete against him in anything? World Championships? Nope. The points classification at the Tour de France? Absolutely not. A sprint finish when Sagan doesn’t even have a sprint train? Forget about it. The Bora-Hansgrohe rider will simply utilise the wheel of any rider he can, weaving his way around before he’s ready to unleash his full sprint.

The Relatable Small Ones

Baseball: José Altuve. I can’t help but like this guy, and the fact he stands at 5’5”/5’6” (depending on who you ask) as one of the shortest baseball players makes him all the more likeable. Relatable, too. His home run count? Not so relatable for me. Moving on.

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Here’s Altuve standing next to a 6’7″ Aaron Judge. I feel it, buddy. Photo: Concord Monitor

Cycling: You could throw any one of Chaves, Ewan and Quintana in here. I’ll go for the latter, because I sympathise with the Movistar leader right now. Or should that be 1/3 of the Movistar leaders? Anyway, the 5’5” Colombian stands out amongst some of the taller members of the peloton, but his ability, just like Altuve’s, is undoubtable.

So, there we have it. An incredibly random first post about baseball that combines cycling for the sheer hell of it. But who do you draw comparisons to?