Bradley Wiggins said Friday that success at the Tour of California is a top priority for Team Sky, and he's ready to carry the team's general classification hopes when the race begins Sunday in Sacramento.
"James Murdoch put this down as his second biggest race of the year that he wanted us to try and do well in after the Tour de France," Wiggins said of the deputy chief operating officer for News Corp., which owns team sponsors Sky and 21st Century Fox.
"I think that shows you the level that they hold this race in and how important it is for a company like that," he said. "They put it before every other race. So I think that shows it's important and why we're here with a strong team."
This year will be Wiggins' second attempt at the Tour of California after his debut here in 2008 when the race was in February and he and Mark Cavendish were racing together with Team High Road. Wiggins didn't finish in his first attempt, and he's obviously hoping for a better run this year.
"The last time I was here with [Mark Cavendish], and we had a horrendous time," he said. "We were both fat as anything, and we struggled. I spent one of my worst days on the bike, from some town somewhere [Seaside, ed.] to San Luis Obispo. It was 230km in the rain. Guys were retiring from the breakaway, it was that cold. I've never seen that in any other bike race.
"So that was the last time we were here," he said. "And then I got sick and retired. Cav won the stage and then got disqualified. So it was a horrendous race for us. That was the last time we were here....
Marcel Kittel (Giant-Shimano) wasted no time whatsoever in his quest for success in this year’s Giro d’Italia, roaring past Nacer Bouhanni (FDJ.fr) on Saturday to claim the first mass start stage of the race in Belfast.
Bouhanni had led out the sprint when the peloton blasted round the final corner of the 219 kilometre loop across Northern Ireland and back to the rainsoaked streets of Belfast. But Kittel fully lived up to his status as top Giro d'Italia sprint favourite by streaking past the former French national champion and claiming his first stage win by more than two thirds of a bike length.
For the Giant-Shimano rider his fifth victory of 2014 also completes his ‘set’ of Grand Tour wins, with one bunch sprint win in the Vuelta in 2011, four in the Tour de France last year and now his first in the Giro. After managing to get through the hilly, rainy conditions that predominated on Saturday, victory on stage two also sets the German up firmly as top favourite for Sunday’s flatter run down to Belfast - and looking beyond that, for Tuesday’s climb-free first stage on Italian soil - from Giovinazzo to Bari - as well.
"Honestly it wasn’t that easy to stay in front with the team today [Saturday], I lost them a few times then I had to get to the front after the last corner," Kittel told reporters afterwards.
"I’m proud to have won the stage, it was a hard day in the rain and I’d like to say thanks to my teammate Tom Stamsnijder for the huge work he did to get the break back."
Asked if he was the fastest sprinter in the world or to name the top five fastest, Kittel deftly dodged any potential controversy by saying "I don’t think it’s up to me to make a ranking, I won’t do that.
"I know which riders I have to watch, I keep my eye...
Sky rider says poor weather conditions made for tough stage two
His face grimy and blackened from Saturday's heavy rain showers as he stood a few hundred metres beyond the Giro d'Italia's stage two finish line, Sky's Irish rider Philip Deignan predicted another bunch sprint when the Giro hits his home country for the first time in its history on Sunday.
"The stage will be like today [Saturday]: I'd think a small group will go up the road, the sprinters teams will control it and then it'll be a bunch sprint again," Deignan told a small group of reporters when he was asked how he thinks Sunday's 187 kilometre stage from Armagh to Dublin will play out.
"This time [on stage two] with 20 or 30 kilometres to go, the speed [in the bunch] suddenly went really high, and we knew it would be a bunch sprint, it was pretty standard really."
The tough weather conditions and high speed throughout made for fraught nerves on the peloton's five-hour ride through Northern Ireland. And Deignan - following Dan Martin's abandon - with Nicolas Roche (TInkoff-Saxo) one of just two Irish riders left in the race - said that the fast pace and heavy rain showers meant there was no opportunity for the bunch to notice the countryside they were passing through, let alone admire it.
"I don't think anybody had a chance to enjoy themselves out there, unfortunately the weather conditions were really bad," he said. "It was wet all day and with 220 kilometres in the rain, it was not much fun at all."
Sky's best placed rider in the bunch sprint was Ben Swift, who took seventh. Deignan himself finished in the main pack, in 123rd place.
After crossing the line at the end of stage 2 of the Giro d’Italia, Michael Matthews rolled to a halt at the side of the road and waited to be guided to the podium area. When no chaperone emerged from the throng on Belfast’s Chichester Street, he simply took matters in hand himself, and pedalled back under the drizzle towards the rostrum to claim his pink jersey.
There may have been a degree of confusion in the race organisation as to who precisely had taken command of the overall lead following the bunch sprint, but there was no such misunderstanding in the Orica-GreenEdge camp. All along, the tactic had been for Matthews to take over from his teammate Svein Tuft, he duly did so by landing 8th place in the bunch sprint behind Marcel Kittel (Giant-Shimano).
"The plan was to win the team time trial with the team we brought here, because we brought our strongest team for this discipline," Matthews said.
"We wanted to give Svein the jersey for his birthday yesterday and for all the hard work he does for us and then for me to try to run a place in the sprint today to try to take the jersey and see how long we can keep it for."
Matthews was a relatively late addition to Orica-GreenEdge's Giro line-up but given his team’s prowess against the watch, he knew there was a chance that he would spend time in the maglia rosa during the opening week of racing. Their emphatic victory in Friday evening’s team time trial – allied to Alessandro Petacchi’s apparent unwillingness to contest sprints – now means that the prospect of a long stint in pink is opening up before Matthews.
"After I found out that I was doing the Giro, the plan was to try to get the...
Sprint finishes at the Giro d'Italia have a reputation for being technical affairs and even on the race's excursion to Ireland, there was a finale worthy of the bel paese, with a sharp corner placed just 300 metres from the end of stage 2 in Belfast.
Mercifully, in spite of the rain that bathed the road, there were no fallers in the finale, but that corner still proved fatal to Nacer Bouhanni's chances. The FDJ.fr man appeared well-positioned entering the last turn, but when the Orica-GreenEdge train slowed to ensure that Michael Matthews negotiated the corner safely to claim the pink jersey, he suddenly found himself exposed in second position.
Bouhanni was left with little choice but to open his sprint from distance, a tactic wholly at odds with his punchy style, and although he put up fierce resistance, his strength abandoned him in the final 100 metres, and he had to settle for a distant second place behind Marcel Kittel (Giant-Shimano).
"I launched my sprint from too far out but I had no choice because I was in second position," Bouhanni said. "GreenEdge slowed a bit, so I had to go with 300 metres left and I faded completely in the end. In the last 50 metres I had no more force left," Bouhanni said at the finish after his soigneur had helped him into a long-sleeve jersey ahead of his ride to the team bus.
"Kittel was stronger than me and when I went from 300 metres to go, he was able to come up from behind and go past me. He was stronger today, so we'll see tomorrow."
Saturday's opening road stage brought the Giro peloton northwards to the Giant's Causeway and along the country Antrim coast under dark clouds like falling masonry as local poet Louis MacNeice would have put it. Bouhanni said that racing for five hours wrapped against the cold and buffeted by the wind and rain had taking its...
Evans: Thanks to team’s hard work I could stay safe
BMC Racing rider Brent Bookwalter’s concern about his knee injury - caused by a crash during team time trial practice at the Giro d’Italia - has continued after stage two's rain soaked 219 kilometer trek through Northern Ireland.
“It was a little bit of a struggle to be honest,” Bookwalter said after the stage, “really, really bad at the start, even putting light pressure on the pedals, so it’s a little demoralizing having so much pain this early in the race and even in the neutral [section].”
“There so much of the race ahead, so I’ll try to hang in there and hope that it will get better. It got a little better during the stage, but it was always [playing] on my mind.”
Bookwalter finished in the main pack, in 160th spot and he is hoping the early rest day will “allow my body to get on top of this and I can come back good.”
Like many other riders in the peloton, Bookwalter described the first road stage of the race as “difficult, pretty nervous, with the rain and the wind, and [with] some of these unpredictable Irish roads, it all kept us on our toes.”
“It was quite a long stage in the wet” added BMC Racing leader Cadel Evans, “but thanks to the hard work of the team I stayed safe.”
After his squad's impressive team time trial performance on Friday, Evans had no problems holding onto his top placing overall in the following stage. He is currently 14th at 10 seconds behind race leader Michael Matthews (Orica-GreenEDGE).
“It’s not often that we have a Grand Tour finish in such a big city as Belfast, which has more traffic islands, roadworks, [and so on] so for that reason it was maybe a little more dangerous and intimidating.”
"We're getting excited about the Tour of California," the team's director, Axel Merckx told Cyclingnews. "I think we have a really well-balanced team for the race and we have Oram for the overall."
Oram is 21-years-old and comes from Auckland, New Zealand. Merckx noticed his potential as a general classification rider two years ago and signed him to the former Bontrager-Livestrong Team for two season, and then brought him over to Bissell this year.
He showed good early-season form on the North American circuit with a win at the San Dimas Stage Race's uphill time trial followed by a second place overall at the National Racing Calendar's Redlands Bicycle Classic.
Racing against some of the best overall contenders in the world, such as the 2012 Tour de France winner Bradley Wiggins (Team Sky), will be a much bigger challenge. Merckx believes his youngsters are not only capable of performing well in the overall but also on a daily basis as well - in breakaways and sprints, on the climbs and in the young rider category.
The team's roster also includes promising sprinter Nicolai Brochner, climber Clement Chevrier along with Tanner Putt, Gregory Daniel, Ryan Eastman, Tao Geoghegan Hart and Ruben Zepuntke.
"We have Brochner for the sprints, Chevrier for the climbs and all the other guys will have the opportunity to get in the...
Johansson won the opening stage of the Women's Tour ahead of world champion Marianne Vos (Rabobank/Liv) thanks to aggressive racing and with one stage left to race, is 19 seconds off the pace in the general classification.
Elvin, who has won back-to-back Australian national road titles, is representative of the teams "love to race" philosophy; while Johansson is a serial winner and podium place getter and both riders have made this evident during the four stages of the British race.
Expect Orica-AIS, which finished 2013 as the best ranked women's team, to animate the 108.1km stage five from Harwich to Bury St Edmunds and do its best to record a second stage win.
Next up for the team is a team time trial camp but first, is a chance to "go home" and enjoy a small period of rest.
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