#3 When injuries strike

#3 When injuries strike

Injury blog

“There are no shortcuts to any place worth going” – Beverly Sills

OK, so I’m injured and haven’t run for six weeks.

But the last thing I expected was for my marathon training to be disrupted by a broken finger.

Initially, I picked up some runner’s knee. No dramas, some stretches will sort that out. But an operation on my finger? Really?

Typically, I broke it playing cricket. Fingers generally come off far worse than cricket balls in a fight.

Sure enough, my little finger broke and was misaligned. My GP was horrified that I had played four matches with it in that state but, in my defence, I thought it was just swollen.

I went to my GP because my knee was taking longer than expected to heal and wanted a second opinion after visiting a physio.

The finger was a second thought, but the GP took one look and said “Oh, that’s not normal. I’m referring you for an X-ray.”

With that, the beginning of my holiday, and training, was ruined. For someone that visits hospitals with an alarming regularity, I’m really not their biggest fans.

That doesn’t mean I don’t appreciate the miraculous work that goes on within them, it’s just that I associate them with pain and misery.

And sure enough, more of that was to come my way as I was told an operation was necessary. After a delay, I finally got operated on three days after the x-ray and was fixed up with a metal wire poking out of my finger.

Consequently, the training has taken a back seat. But, three weeks after the surgery I’m riding 10 miles a day on my bike and discovering new things about my body.

Firstly, it’s apparent that my conditioning hasn’t suffered too much. My legs are still strong and I’ve not put on any weight.

Also, the fitness is pretty good too. Obviously not as high as it was, but there’s definitely some latent fitness left over from late June.

This is good news, as I hope to embark on a tester run this week.

It’s under two months until the Bournemouth marathon and now, with six weeks of training down the drain, my aim is simply to get round and get used to the process of race day.

I won’t be running for any specific time, and even if I have to crawl along the route, I will finish that marathon. There have been too many sacrifices and hard work to throw it all away now.

I get the wire taken out of my finger this week and hopefully I’ll be able to begin training again as the knee feels better than it was.

With the marathon fast approaching, a few tactical changes will have to be made to my schedule.

Instead of two rest days a week, I’m going to have just one. This will help me regain 25% of my training losses.

The key is not to get injured again, so a degree of caution is needed. If my body is hurting, I need to rest it. A good time in Bournemouth is not the target now. I just need the miles in my legs.

So, it’s interesting times ahead. Training had been going so well with running at a projected three hours and 30 minute pace over a nine-mile distance, and there’s no doubt that a six-week break is a massive blow.

But it’s how you deal with it that counts. Stay positive, continue to eat right and focus on a good recovery and you will give yourself every chance.

It’s a race against time to make the start line in early October, but who said marathons were going to be easy?

2017 Tour de France preview

2017 Tour de France preview

Chris Froome

Chris Froome provided one of the iconic images in cycling history by running up Mont Ventoux in 2016 following a crash with a TV bike. 

2017 Tour de France preview

The 2017 Tour de France appears to be the most open edition for many years, with at least six contenders as the 198 riders prepare for the opening stage in Duesseldorf.

Defending champion Chris Froome has had an indifferent build-up to the Tour, failing to win a single race – a key indicator that he could be beaten come Paris on July 23.

Add to that an extremely flat profile for the race in general and the odds are stacking against the three-time champion.

So, who has a realistic chance of stepping on top of the podium on the Champs-Elysees?

The contenders

Froome will have his work cut out to win his fourth yellow jersey. His form has been good but not spectacular this season, allowing rivals such as former Team Sky super domestique Richie Porte to become genuine candidates for victory.

BMC’s Porte started the season in excellent form, winning the Tour Down Under, before suffering misfortune in the Paris-Nice stage race.

He was then crowded out by tactical riding when well-placed for the Criterium du Dauphine title, allowing the unheralded Jakob Fuglsang to take the overall win.

The Dauphine is often considered a dress rehearsal for the Tour and the sheer unpredictability of the 2017 edition means that the Tour is wide open.

Fuglsang is not expected to have lasting legs for the duration of three weeks, but he could mix things up for his Astana team leader Fabio Aru, who missed the 2017 Giro d’Italia due to injury.

Then there is the prospect of dangerous climber Nairo Quintana tackling the Tour after his second place in the Giro.

The Colombian, who would normally be among the top two or three favourites, has restricted himself to training rides since finishing in Italy as he tries to disprove the trend that sees riders flunking in the Tour having ridden the Giro.

Spanish legend Alberto Contador will also try for the maillot jaune. His form has been good this season and suffered a two-second loss of the Paris-Nice to Team Sky rider Sergio Henao.

Romain Bardet represents the best French hope, but the AG2R rider is notoriously poor in the time trials – and there are 36.5 kilometres against the clock in 2017.

Best of the rest

Team Lotto-NL Jumbo’s Robert Gesink finished a brilliant sixth in the 2015 Tour but has failed to recapture that form, finishing a poor 41st in the Dutch national championships and third in the national time trial.

Diminutive South African Louis Meintjes is steadily improving and could well earn a top-ten finish, while the always-smiling Esteban Chaves represents a danger if he can find some form.

The other jerseys

Double world champion Peter Sagan is virtually a nailed-on certainty to claim the green jersey for the points classification, with the Slovakian having won the maillot verd at each of the Tour of California, Tirreno-Adriatico and Tour de Suisse this season.

He has also won the Tour de France green jersey for the past five seasons.

However, given the flat nature of this year’s Tour, Marcel Kittel could be in with a shout too.

If Chris Froome falls terminally behind in the General Classification, he may well go for the King of the Mountains points.

Quintana is the likeliest to go for the polka dot jersey though, having expended so much energy in the Giro.

Several of the GC riders could elect to do this with the race being so open this year, which would add an extra layer of excitement to an already fascinating edition.

With his GC hopes, Meintjes is set to battle with Briton Simon Yates for the white jersey in the young rider’s classification.

The stages

With what little climbing there is, Tour organisers ASO have been sure to include famous mountains such as the Colombier, Galibier, Izoard and Peyresourde.

There is a disappointing amount of mountainous summit finishes – four – and just five official mountain stages.

This makes the time-trials all the more crucial – and currently Richie Porte is the best man against the clock of the GC hopes, although he has a tendency in his career to blow up in the third week of Grand Tours.

The opening stage in Germany is a prologue, meaning Tony Martin begins as hot favourite to snare the first yellow jersey of the race.

The Brits

British involvement is two riders higher than 2016 at nine, with Team Sky and Dimension Data each responsible for picking three Brits each.

Sky have selected Froome, Luke Rowe and Geraint Thomas, while Dimension Data have gone with new national road and TT champion Steve Cummings, Mark Cavendish, who races despite still recovering from glandular fever, and Scott Thwaites.

Yates will ride for Orica-Scott, while Ben Swift and sprinter Dan McLay compete for UAE Team Emirates and Fortuneo-Vital Concept respectively.

Denouement

It promises to be an edge-of-your-seat Tour this year as the GC riders see what is effectively a level playing field in front of them without there being a clear favourite.

Plus, with so few mountains to separate them, the time-trials will carry even greater significance than usual.

If Porte can hang on for the final week, he will go into the penultimate stage in Marseille as the probable favourite – provided he hasn’t lost time before that.

  • You can follow me on Twitter @NeilWalton89 or WordPress: neilwalton089
#2 Eating right, training right

#2 Eating right, training right

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Jelly beans are a surprisingly useful food for runners as they help to quickly replace sugars used by muscles during exercise.  

“Out on the roads there is fitness and self-discovery and the persons we were destined to be.” – George A. Sheehan.

Ten weeks into training for the Bournemouth marathon in October and it’s difficult to imagine how it could be going better.

In fact, everything is going so well it’s beyond even my crazy expectations.

Running has given me a new direction. It has helped to cleanse negative thoughts and replace them with positive ones.

Then there is the physical side. I’ve never been fitter, eaten healthier or consumed so little alcohol.

Of course, it’s early days with the times but even they are giving me plenty of encouragement.

I’ve gone from an Xbox-playing, FIFA 17-addicted couch potato in February to breaking the 30-minute barrier for four miles in May.

It’s all been about grooving myself into the regime of eating, training and recovering correctly before the running steps up another gear.

The eating

Complex carbohydrates are the best thing to eat for marathon training. If you can balance them in a 4:1 ratio with lean protein (roughly speaking) then you’re sorted.

Perhaps the best thing about the food regime is that I get to eat jelly beans (#winning) plus drink Gatorade and chocolate milk straight after each run.

The idea behind it is to immediately replenish the sugars used by your muscles after running, aiding recovery. The Gatorade tops up the salts lost through sweating and the milk is packed with protein to help your muscles repair themselves after each run.

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Chocolate milk

I’ve found some recipes like kedgeree, some stir fries, chilli con carne and jambalaya that have all been adapted to include complex carbs over the normal simple ones like white rice and pasta.

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Turkey stir fry

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Chilli con carne

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Jambalaya

And, for someone with a severe sweet tooth who used to mix unhealthy and healthy foods, it has been challenging cutting out the sugary snacks, cakes and treats.

To lighten the strict diet plan I do afford myself a cheat night once a week to get my sweet fix – within moderation, though.

Finding ways to make mealtime exciting has been the key and when the training distance increases there are more tasty recipes to try – but more on that in a future blog.

The training

As the weeks of training progress it’s easy to forget just how tough the running was in the first week.

My body massively disagreed with going from couch to three miles in a day, but once the first few runs were over and recovery completed – including some horrific ice baths – the fitness has steadily improved.

Recording all my runs on Strava is great for motivation and to compare against more experienced runners. It’s really surprised me that I’m not hugely off the pace of some established local names, but there’s still a lot of work to do.

After 37 runs, my personal best (PB) for two miles is 14 minutes; three miles is under 21 minutes; four miles under 30 minutes and five miles is 39 minutes.

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Four-mile PB

As you can see, the shorter distances are much quicker than the five and that’s the next target to aim for – taking seven-minute mile pace into distances of four, five and six miles before competing in my first 10k (six mile) race.

At the moment, I’m setting at least one PB per week which is great for morale – the trick is to keep improving and the times will look after themselves.

So, running a three-hour marathon might sound like madness (it did to me) but the training is going to plan so far. Can I dare to dream of London in 2019?

  • You can follow all my marathon training updates via WordPress: neilwalton089
#1 Training for a three-hour marathon

#1 Training for a three-hour marathon

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The London Marathon attracts over 35,000 runners each year.

“My feeling is that any day I am too busy to run is a day that I am too busy.” – John Bryant. 

Running the London Marathon has always been on my bucket list. The trouble is, I’m not the greatest running fan – so why run one?

Firstly, I love a challenge. Plus, if I can raise money for charity along the way that’s even better.

To make things a little more difficult, I’m aiming to qualify for the 2019 London Marathon through the ‘Good for Age’ classification.

This means achieving a time of three hours and five minutes or faster at any marathon in the world from the 1st January 2017.

Running such a speedy time has its advantages. I’ll be fitter, stronger and I’ll spend less time in training and running the 26.2 miles distance itself. I’ll also begin the London event in a specially designated pen, which means I can avoid the dreaded 30-minute walk to the start line with the masses – reducing the risk of getting cold, wasting energy and running a slow time.

So, do I need my sanity tested? Some may argue yes, but I’m lucky to have stumbled across a comprehensive training plan which should help me run a sub three-hour time in London.

Ideally, it takes six months to train for your marathon of choice, but running one quickly takes at least two years of preparation.

It’s this preparation which has thrown me massively. I had hoped to start training in October but, after a good deal of research, it became clear I couldn’t just start training when I wanted.

As a running rookie, I never realised how detailed the planning would have to be.

However, after setting training and meal plans, choosing running locations, seeing my GP and a physio to get the green light to train, I can now get started.

The planning

An initial 5-week training plan will lead into a fresh 24-week scheme, taking me into my first full 26.2 miler – the Bournemouth Marathon in October.

From there, six-month cycles of training – each culminating in a marathon – will begin. I’ll aim to run my second in April 2018, sneaking in another before the cut-off in June if I haven’t yet run under 3hr05m.

Provided I’ve got the qualification time in the bag, I’ll run the next marathon in October 2018 before London in April 2019.

The progress
In writing a blog through my training, I hope to give an insight into how much of a challenge it will be.

I’ll be posting pictures of my Strava times, nutritious recipes, route plans, motivational quotes, running facts/stats and handy tips along the way – roughly once every two weeks.

So stay tuned for all the stumbles, falls, pains and gains as I embark on what could be an immensely rewarding journey.

Top five reasons to avoid transfer deadline day

Top five reasons to avoid transfer deadline day

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TRANSFER DEADLINE DAY: Will any big names sign on the dotted line for your club? Here are five reasons to give deadline day a wide berth.

Luckily, this day comes around just twice a year otherwise I’d go and hide in a dark room and club my head against the wall more often.

Yes, transfer deadline day really is that annoying.

Crammed full of fairytale hope, hoax calls, fictitious player sightings, lamentable TV coverage and social media nonsense you have more than enough reasons to avoid this most horrendous of footballing days.

Granted, a good deadline day does come around – but only rarely. One of the few truly enjoyable deadline days came in the January 2011 transfer window when big-money signings Fernando Torres, Luis Suarez, David Luiz and Andy Carroll were recruited in a day’s spending worth £135m.

Maybe fairytales do happen? Only if you’re a Disney fan.

Just to squash those pipe dreams (and bring ourselves back to reality) here are five good reasons to give transfer deadline day a miss.

  1. Watch the football!

Unusually on transfer deadline day there are actual football matches being played. Come 7:45pm everyone’s attention should be well and truly on those, rather than the guff of transfer rumours.

Most exciting of all is the Liverpool vs Chelsea match, where Reds boss Jürgen Klopp is under serious threat of losing his job should Antonio Conte’s league leaders secure three points at Anfield.

A win for the Blues would leave Klopp’s men 13 points off top spot and spell Liverpool’s fourth defeat in 11 days – a run which has seen the Merseysiders eliminated from both domestic cup competitions.

So let’s all watch the football, not the rumours, yeah?

  1. Sky Sports News

If you’re a Sky producer, there is clearly nothing more exciting than watching unfortunate reporters loitering outside training grounds sniffing out the newest transfer rumours from clubs across the country – often in the pouring rain and freezing cold.

Sky have got transfer deadline day so wrong it’s just painful. Who wants to see hours of repetitive ‘breaking news’, unsubstantial updates, snazzy graphics and theatrical presenting?

Their self-indulgent coverage has gone too far. Fair enough, if a big-money signing is made let’s pay attention, but until that happens it’s just not worth our time.

  1. False rumours

These days, with smartphone use in overdrive anyone can be a transfer scout or even a journalist. All it takes is some intrepid fan rocking up to their favourite club’s ground and lucking out with a chance ‘sighting’ of a big-name ‘transfer target’.

Of course, over-enthusiastic fans aren’t just to blame, it’s mostly newspapers. Nonsense rumours, unconfirmed reports, plausible transfer suggestions and the madness of the Chinese Super League just fuel the imaginations of transfer deadline day nutters.

  1. Social media

Nothing says “this is a shambles” like a good-old meme. Whether it be Harry Redknapp’s face photoshopped onto Del Boy’s body, or Jim White’s most ‘memorable’ quotes, social media will usually rip the proverbial out of deadline day.

That said, social media is a rumours wasteland on deadline day, full of time-wasting reports, gossip and users looking to score a few retweets and likes.

Even worse are the users that post ‘breaking news’ from clickbait ‘football news’ accounts and profiles, taking their reports as gospel. Can’t we just watch the football now?

  1. Phone-ins

Football phone-ins are all about opinion and should be encouraged. Better still, fans can have their say on which players they’d like to see move to their respective clubs.

But do we really have to sit through an analysis of the transfer window? And what about the pundits that are regurgitated from show to show without lending any insight into the transfer rumours that are likely to hold true?

Sure, if a former player sheds light on what deadline day is like from a player’s perspective that’s some interesting background, but should washed-up pundits be given a chance to say how clubs should go about their transfer business?

It’s all a matter of taste, but I’d rather see more input from the fans that pay to watch their clubs each week rather than the players that were paid a fortune for to play for them.

You can follow me on Twitter @NeilWalton89 and WordPress: neilwalton089

Are football fans spoiling the darts?

Are football fans spoiling the darts?

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Michael van Gerwen beat Gary Anderson 7-3 in the 2017 PDC world championship final, but was interrupted by an intruder while throwing for the match at 6-2.

It was the showpiece event of the PDC darts season.

Gary Anderson, world champion in 2015 and 2016, was looking to retain his crown against a rampant Michael van Gerwen in the 2017 world championship final at Alexandra Palace.

Scotland’s Anderson took an early 2-1 lead in sets, breaking the throw of his Dutch counterpart.

But, in a high-quality encounter, van Gerwen then moved through the gears, winning 12 out of 13 legs on his way to taking the next five sets for a 6-2 advantage.

Needing just 115 points to secure his second career world title, van Gerwen was interrupted by a disgraceful spectator, who leapt onto the stage and picked up the Sid Waddell trophy before being tackled by security guards.

That neither player was unhurt was a minor miracle. Van Gerwen, who went on to lose that set, somehow recomposed himself and won the match 7-3.

It says a lot that, despite the brilliance of van Gerwen, some anti-fan thought it was more entertaining to steal the winner’s trophy than watch the action.

Were 42 maximums insufficient entertainment? A 108 average for van Gerwen and a 104 average for Anderson?

The sight of van Gerwen dismantling his closest rival should have been one to cherish.

Instead it was clear that, despite a record 42 maximums being thrown in the match – a world final no less – the fans at Alexandra Palace had decided the match was over given van Gerwen’s superiority and would turn their backs on the play.

Facing their peers, a large number of supporters began orchestrating footballing chants such as the Kolo/Yaya Toure song, oblivious to the darting treat that van Gerwen and Anderson were serving up.

Of course, darts actually has a lot to thank these fans for.

The popularity of the sport has risen astronomically and one of the key reasons for attending live matches is the chance to sample the atmosphere – driven by Planet Funk’s ubiquitous song ‘Chase the Sun’.

The level of play is perhaps the biggest factor though, with perfect 9-dart legs and 170 maximum checkouts a regular occurrence on the PDC circuit, which now sees more 100+ averages than not.

But along the way to stardom the sport has taken with it more and more football louts looking to get drunk, shout abuse at players and now, invade the stage of play.

With the growing amount of unsporting behaviour, more commonly associated with football, now being seen at the darts, PDC bosses should be taking proactive measures to combat what has unfortunately become a trend.

There is no harm in having a drink, chanting songs and creating a wonderful atmosphere, but why not make songs about darts players and keep the environment a positive one?

Presently, each player’s walk-on songs provide darts-themed chants, Phil Taylor’s ‘walking in a Taylor wonderland’ song is also routinely heard, but there should be more tungsten tunes than footballing ones.

Perhaps the PDC could learn lessons from the fans on its rival BDO circuit, where players are respected in the same manner as snooker players with silence on crucial throws and knowledgeable applause throughout.

Let’s not eradicate the football-type atmosphere completely, but shape it more in support of the high-quality darts being played.

You can follow me on Twitter @NeilWalton89 and WordPress: neilwalton089

Consistent Rosberg deserves maiden F1 title

Consistent Rosberg deserves maiden F1 title

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Nico Rosberg claimed his first F1 world drivers’ title in Abu Dhabi

Loyalty can be seen as a fault in many sportspeople but for Nico Rosberg – F1’s newest world champion – it is probably his best quality.

Existing in a world of driver merry go-rounds, Rosberg has had just two teams throughout his 11-year F1 career.

Beginning with Williams in 2006, he spent four seasons with the British privateer team before joining the might of Mercedes in 2010.

Despite a difficult start, the German consistently outperformed F1 legend Michael Schumacher at the team and finally, in his seventh campaign with the Brackley-based outfit, his loyalty has paid off with a world title.

Rosberg is known for sticking to his guns. His system of operation is to study his car’s setup in forensic detail, chipping away at the balance throughout a race weekend until he has extracted the maximum performance from it.

In addition, this season especially, and despite being the title favourite before today’s season-ending Abu Dhabi GP, he has insisted he is just taking each race as it comes with his sole focus on trying to claim victory.

Rosberg’s studious approach has often undermined his talent – of which he clearly has plenty.

He comes from a racing background and has now emulated his father Keke, who won the driver’s title in 1982 through a triumph of consistency over victories, of which he took none.

Nico joins Damon Hill – 1996 world champion – as the only other driver to have won the world title after his father.

Of course, after 11 seasons in the sport, Rosberg has clearly had to wait a long time for world championship glory.

His feat took 206 races to accomplish – the longest stint in history – and is beaten only by Nigel Mansell’s 12-year drought in terms of timespan.

Rosberg also took 111 races to secure his first race win, which came in the 2012 Chinese Grand Prix. He has since gone on to take 22 more, benefiting from the outstanding Mercedes car in the new hybrid era.

However, he will always be compared to team-mate Lewis Hamilton, who had won the two previous championships in a straight fight between the pair.

This sudden projection into battle has tested their once strong friendship. The duo had grown up racing each other in karting and spent a considerable amount of time together on and off the track.

Now, their relationship looks strained, often frosty.

Perhaps the low point in recent times occurred when Rosberg threw his cap at Hamilton in the aftermath of Hamilton’s 2015 title win at Austin, when Rosberg had run wide when leading, gifting his rival the win he needed to clinch his third career title.

But there can be no doubt that the unmatched pace of the Mercedes car presented each driver with a unique situation.

They both knew that they would likely enjoy a private war for the title, such has been the superiority of their Mercedes car.

And there can also be no doubt that this driver pairing has forced the other to up their game.

For Rosberg, his aim has been to beat Hamilton – widely acclaimed as a faster, more naturally talented racer.

For Hamilton, his target has been to dominate races in the same way his idol, Ayrton Senna, did.

At times, the duo have realised their goals – but neither has had a true rule over the other.

Rosberg has had periods of dominance, such as winning the first four races of this season, that created a foundation for his title win.

Whereas Hamilton had been irresistible in July, winning all four races. His latest win in Abu Dhabi was also his fourth in succession and his tenth overall.

Rosberg has notched nine victories, but it is the same quality his father exhibited which has eventually taken him to his title win – consistency.

Looking at the numbers, he has put himself into a fantastic position in each Grand Prix.

For a start, he has never qualified adrift of the top two. He has made fewer poor starts than Hamilton and he has had fewer retirements – the only one coming during the pair’s infamous crash in the Spanish Grand Prix in May.

Much has been made of Hamilton’s misfortune with power-unit failures. Realistically, his retirement when leading the Malaysian Grand Prix was his downfall – but Rosberg only finished third after a first-corner tangle with Sebastian Vettel.

Hamilton’s other gremlins occurred in China and Russia during qualifying. His seventh place to Rosberg’s victory in Shanghai was the costliest, but he recovered to take second in Sochi, again behind his team-mate.

Hamilton had also been in terrible form in Baku and Singapore, leaving Rosberg to take easy wins.

There lies the difference. Where Hamilton has dropped the ball, his team-mate has invariably punished him. The triple world champion has also suffered a number of shocking starts from pole or second.

The getaway in Japan springs to mind as another major factor in his demise, having gone from second to ninth before the first turn. He later clawed back third place.

The bottom line is that Rosberg has raised his level and maintained it across the record-breaking length of this 21-race season.

He has not been intimidated by past failings against Hamilton, notably in wheel-to-wheel combat.

He has also appeared stronger mentally than his rival, whose emotions have notoriously fluctuated throughout the duration of 2016.

Adding all these equations together we are left with a simple answer: Nico Rosberg completely deserves to be the new F1 world champion.

You can follow me on Twitter @NeilWalton89 and WordPress: neilwalton089

2016 Vuelta a Espana preview

The 2016 Vuelta a Espana rolls off on Saturday with three giants of cycling waiting to battle it out for the final Grand Tour of the year.

Tour de France winner Chris Froome, fresh from competing at the 2016 Olympics, will contend with Alberto Contador and Nairo Quintana for the Vuelta, both of whom missed Rio to concentrate on the red jersey.

On paper, Contador and Quintana look like the favourites, but who else can challenge this illustrious trio?

The contenders

Froome may be the 2016 Tour champion but his exploits in Rio will have taken plenty from his tank. Finishing 12th in the road race, he then won bronze in the time trial when admitting he had nothing left in his legs.

His powers of recovery will be severely tested on another brutal Vuelta parcours that includes ten new summit finishes.

On past precedents, riders such as Froome with a busy schedule in the lead-up to La Vuelta often do not fare well, and this plays into the hands of three-time winner Contador and Quintana who are both fresh.

Contador’s crash and illness at the Tour forced an early abandonment and he has since had the time to rest and prepare himself for a tilt at a fourth Vuelta title.

Quintana, meanwhile, suffered with a mystery virus during the Tour but recovered to finish on the podium in third.

The Colombian has been unlucky in this race before, having crashed in a time trial when well-placed to win in 2014, and crashing again in the next stage.

Movistar have named Alejandro Valverde as their leader but it is unlikely he will be able to challenge Contador and Quintana is waiting in the wings should he falter early on.

Esteban Chaves is another Colombian looking for Vuelta glory and, after a second-place finish to Vincenzo Nibali in the 2016 Giro, he has geared his season around a Giro/Vuelta run.

Chaves claimed fifth in the 2015 Vuelta in his breakthrough season and it is clearly a race that suits the smiling Orica BikeExhange rider.

Outside challengers include Steven Kruijswijk, who crashed late in the Giro when in the maglia rosa, and Andrew Talansky, who has solely focused on the Vuelta this year.

The other jerseys

The green points jersey is likely to be taken by a pure climber, such is way the Vuelta weights the points on each stage.

This structure has been labelled unfair by several of the world’s top sprinters in recent seasons and consequently there are no notable fast men other than Movistar rider Jose Joaquin Rojas at the Vuelta this season.

Instead, with the mountainous terrain on offer the Vuelta has attracted several of the world’s top puncheurs who may fight it out for the white combined jersey and the blue polka dot king of the mountains jersey in addition to the green.

Puncheurs, or one-day classic specialists, favour short sharp bursts up hills and with the likes of Philippe Gilbert, Niki Terpstra, Simon Gerrans and Zdenek Stybar on show, cycling fans will have plenty to enjoy over the three weeks.

The stages

La Vuelta organisers Unipublic have been sensible this year, with the race mainly based in the mountains of northern Spain and few lengthy transfers between stages.

There are some stonking summit finishes on show, including stage three’s arrival at the Mirador de Izaro, which features an incline of a whopping 29%, a gradient which saw riders climb off and walk in the 2013 Vuelta.

Stage eight sees the riders take on La Camponera, which elevates to 24% in places, while the run in to the stage 17 summit finish takes place on the Mas de la Costa, which averages 15% for 4km and tops out at 22%.

The toughest stage looks set to be the fourteenth, with three category one climbs and the summit finish atop the ‘especial’ category Col d’Aubisque.

There are five official flat stages, while the race kicks off with a team time trial and features a pivotal individual time trial on stage 19.

The Brits

There are a good selection of Brits in the 2016 Vuelta. Chris Froome is the headline act and he is joined on the Team Sky roster by Peter Kennaugh, who surrendered his Rio road race spot to the in-form Steve Cummings.

Simon Yates also enters his first Grand Tour since a ban for a failed drug test – something his team take responsibility for regarding their failure to notify the UCI of his asthma medication.

Yates will have his work cut out to emulate brother Adam, who finished an astonishing fourth in the Tour de France in July.

Young Brits Hugh Carthy (Caja Rural) and Scott Thwaites (Bora Argon-18) both make their Grand Tour debuts to bring the total number of British riders present at the Vuelta to five.

So, that leaves nothing else to do other than kick back with a large glass of Rioja and watch the riders slog it out in 40C heat, go head-to-head in the high mountains and fight for the final Grand Tour of the season.

There is also the chance for an unheralded sprinter to make a name for themselves and watch out for those pesky Brits – Froome, Carthy and Yates could all feature in the top ten on the General Classification if it goes to plan.

But, with Contador, Quintana and Froome all lighting up the front of the race it’s going to be a treat, and my money is on Quintana to emerge victorious.

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2016 Tour de France preview – Third time lucky for Quintana?

The 2016 Tour de France rolls off today as the 198 riders begin their 3,535km dash around France with a poignant first stage that finishes in Utah Beach to commemorate the D-Day landings of World War Two.

The battle for the first yellow jersey is likely to be between Marcel Kittel, Andre Greipel and Mark Cavendish, but it is the fight to wear the maillot jaune in Paris on July 24 that is the most appealing.

This Tour looks set to be a tense shake-up between reigning Tour champion Chris Froome and in-form Colombian climber Nairo Quintana.

The contenders

The past few editions of ‘le Tour’ have been ideal for Froome. His Tour victories of 2013 and 2015 combined just the right amount of time-trialling and high mountain passes, although Quintana very nearly snatched victory last season with an astounding attack on the famous Alpe d’Huez.

This year, Quintana will be licking his lips with a more mountainous route and two climber-centric time trials providing plenty of opportunity to put time into his rivals.

Quintana has finished second to Froome in each of the British rider’s wins but this year he looks the stronger of the two.

The Movistar rider has won three stage races this season already, triumphing in the Route du Sud, Tour de Romandie and the Volta a Catalunya.

Meanwhile, Froome is peaking at just the right time as he looks to win a third Tour and maintain his form for a tilt at the gold medal in the Olympic road race at Rio 2016.

The Kenya-born Brit took victory in the most prestigious warm-up for the Tour de France, the Criterium du Dauphine.

While the clash between Froome and Quintana will dominate the headlines, those writing off two-time Tour winner Alberto Contador do so at their peril.

The Spaniard has quietly gone about his business this season with the goal of timing his form for the Tour, and with his explosive climbing style and unparalleled ability in uphill time-trials he will undoubtedly be on Froome and Quintana’s watchlist.

There is also an intriguing dynamic at Astana where 2016 Giro d’Italia winner Vincenzo Nibali will be riding in support of 2015 Vuelta a Espana victor Fabio Aru.

The Italians are known to dislike one another but they will be forced to help each other as Astana look to pull a tactical blindfold over their rivals.

Nibali will be gunning for a fast start and if he gets an early lead it will afford Astana the luxury of masking which rider is their preferred leader – giving their rivals two riders to mark instead of one.

Best of the rest

There is no doubting Richie Porte’s quality, but he has a worrying tendency to blow up in the latter stages of a Grand Tour.

He has consistently underperformed on the biggest stage and his exit from Team Sky was an understandable decision given he had been Froome’s wingman and deputy and simply failed to deliver.

The situation at his new team, BMC, is similar to that of Astana’s, as American rider Tejay van Garderen is also in contention for the yellow jersey.

The lanky time-trial specialist comes to the 2016 Tour with unfinished business as illness in last season’s edition cruelly robbed him of a podium spot as he was forced to abandon the race from third place on stage 17.

BMC can afford to place Porte as their leader and, if he’s strong enough, he will most likely keep that status to the end of the race. If he does run out of legs in the third week, van Garderen will naturally be high in the General Classification and the team can then support him instead.

There is also a strong feeling in France that Thibault Pinot or Romain Bardet could have a Tour to remember. Bardet in particular has been in excellent form this season and his demon descending abilities could be a factor on some hairy descents lined up for this Tour.

Pinot has long struggled with time-trialling and descending but the uphill stages against the clock will be more to his liking and he will always be a threat on the major mountain stages.

The other jerseys

Sadly, if Peter Sagan doesn’t win the green jersey it will only be through an accident. The world champion is supreme at picking up intermediate sprint points on hilly stages and he has won the last four green jerseys.

The sprinters will take the majority of the flat stage wins, with Sagan usually in the top five, but the Slovakian’s ability to survive in breakaways and win uphill sprints makes him the overwhelming favourite to take five in a row.

Marcel Kittel is tipped to win the most stages this year, but he will be challenged by fellow German Andre Greipel and British rider Mark Cavendish.

Kittel has been in scintillating form during 2016, often winning stages by several bike lengths and, if his Etixx Quick-Step team can provide a good lead-out train, he will again be untouchable.

The King of the Mountains classification is likely to be won by a GC contender, just as Froome did last year.

Failing that, a rider who is consistently in the breakaways can mop up points for being the first man over the summit. However, with the majority of points weighted for summit finishes, a pure climber is more likely to win the polka dot jersey.

The white jersey, given to the highest-placed rider under 25, is the most open for years after Quintana recently turned 26, but expect the winner to come from this trio of Warren Barguil, British rider Adam Yates or Louis Meintjes.

The stages

The 2016 Tour is full of mountains and consequently the warm-up races have been too, most noticeably with a focus on uphill time-trials.

Stage 12 stands out as the best stage in the race as the riders ascend the legendary Mont Ventoux on Bastille Day.

Froome has also earmarked this as the most attractive stage and given he beat Quintana convincingly on Ventoux in 2013 he will fancy his chances once more.

The back end of the Tour is usually slanted upwards and this edition is no different. Stages 17, 18, 19 and 20 are Alpine monsters, traversing Switzerland and then back into France.

With 54km of time-trialling to be done, including one uphill and the other with two tricky climbs, time gaps will quickly appear in the GC race.

The Brits

There is a ‘magnificent seven’ of British riders in this year’s Tour. Team Sky boast four of those with Froome, Geraint Thomas, Ian Stannard and Luke Rowe.

Team Dimension Data have two in the shape of Mark Cavendish and Steven Cummings, while the relatively unknown sprinter Daniel McLay makes his Tour debut for the Fortuneo-Vital Concept squad.

Denouement

As always there is plenty to look out for in the Tour this year. There are races within the race, races within each classification and there will be plenty of cat and mouse too.

It will be hard to take your eyes off the GC battle though. Froome, Quintana and Contador will be cutting shapes on some brutal mountain passes and it could come down to who handles the time-trials better than the others.

But there is a lingering feeling when looking over the parcours that this could well be Nairo Quintana’s year. On the Alpe d’Huez last season he will have sensed a weakness in Froome and the Colombian’s sparkling form this season gives him his best shot yet at climbing into yellow.

You can follow me on Twitter @NeilWalton89 and WordPress: neilwalton089

Euro 2016 blog 3 – Miserable England dumped out of Euro 2016

It was one of those nights that had an air of inevitability about it.

England, faced with a 1-0 goal lead against supposedly inferior Icelandic opposition, conceded two quick goals, each as woeful as the other, and then proceeded to lumber to defeat.

This was Hollywood lumbering. The supposed megastars of the English game. Players currently commanding multi-million pound wages were lumbering around the field like brain-dead zombies in pursuit of an impossible equaliser.

For the magnificent Iceland, it was their easiest game of the tournament so far. Having taken the lead they could afford to play to their strengths – defend in numbers and then break on the counter-attack.

The tactics worked perfectly because England failed to prepare for them.

Iceland had utilised the booming long throws of Cardiff City midfielder Aron Gunnarsson throughout the whole tournament, but England were hopelessly inept in conceding the equaliser.

It was no surprise to see Kari Arnason’s flicked header from the edge of the area land in Ragnar Sigurdsson’s path. The Iceland centre-back, who had a towering game, lashed home the volley in a sea of space to cancel out Wayne Rooney’s fourth-minute penalty.

What followed was equally predictable.

Putting together one of the moves of the match, Iceland swept upfield with ease, shifting the ball to target man Kolbeinn Sigthorsson, whose shot squirmed underneath Joe Hart’s pitiful dive.

Hart’s second grave error of the tournament – and second when diving low to his left – cast England into the land of the living dead.

Suddenly, players who had had magnificent seasons in the Premier League caved under the pressure.

The tension was palpable even before the match began. Joe Hart in particularly was too tense – nervous, even – shaking his head as if to rid himself of the strain.

As Ian Wright remarked after the match, England “were petrified.”

Wayne Rooney was dreadful. Gary Cahill was worse. Harry Kane was shocking. Manager Roy Hodgson resigned after the match.

Kane’s presence over free-kicks and corners was torturous. It was as if he tried to copy Gareth Bale, scored a worldy in training and was suddenly England’s best free-kick taker. He failed horribly.

His demise to the land of the dead, where his touch against Iceland was heavier than that of a zombie, was the scariest to watch.

Free-kick after free-kick. Shot after shot. Each clubbed wildly shy of the target with increasing desperation.

It was a disease that spread through the England side as the game wore on. To a man, their first touch was awful, with players letting the ball roll under their foot and technique malfunctioning.

There was no pressing of the opposition, no desire and no quality.

Too many times England were hesitant going forward. There was a suffocating tendency to pass the ball sideways. There was barely any creativity and only lethargic movement off the ball.

Substitute Marcus Rashford was the brightest spark, at least showing a willingness and ability to beat defenders and inject some life into a motionless attack.

Take nothing away from Iceland though. It is insignificant that they have a population of just over 300,000. What mattered was their commitment to the cause, their execution of a gameplan and tactics, plus their desire to put their bodies on the line.

Their fans were astounding. The cavernous ‘Viking chant’ even intimidated those watching on television. They supported their team in unison with passion, deafening noise and zero violence. They were a lesson to the footballing world.

On the pitch, the players followed suit.

Ragnar Sigurdsson delivered a man-of-the-match display in defence. Birkir Bjarnason menaced England on the counter and Ari Skulason completely shut down the pace of Kyle Walker.

Their display fully merited the win and a quarter-final match against hosts France, and who would bet against them defeating another under-fire team?

But for England this was a truly horrific match.

They haven’t learned from previous mistakes and have a nightmare record in knockout football.

They are paralysed by fear when the going gets tough, crippled by pressure and expectation.

Their gruesome fate was inevitable as soon as the 18th minute. They were dead and buried. The referee should have blown for full-time there and then – a kind of footballing euthanasia.

But unusually for these zombies they will get another chance in the land of the living. They will be praised again and all will be well…until the next major tournament comes along.

You can follow me on Twitter @NeilWalton89 and WordPress: neilwalton089