The Big Review: Feb-Mar 22

It’s almost impossible to imagine that for the casual viewer of cycling, the season has barely begun. We’re still over a month out from our first Grand Tour, and with only one Monument under our belts (two by the time of publication), it might seem as if not a whole lot has happened yet.

I am here to disavow you of that spectacularly inaccurate notion. In the first of four Big Reviews of the 2022 season, I will look back on the past two months of pro racing and try to distil the newsworthy moments into a bitesize guide – an aide memoire if you will, for the months that still lay ahead of us.

It will serve as a journal of the unforgettable moments, a barometer to track the progress of your favourite riders ahead of the headline races of the season, with a bit of silliness, because well, bike racing is a bit surreal at times, isn’t it. There will be a chance to remind yourselves who (a) ended up in a ditch (b) had to navigate around reversing vehicles and (c) made actual cycling history.

The first quarter of the cycling calendar technically began right at the end of January with the Mallorca Challenge races and the GP Marseillaise. After that followed a veritable avalanche of races of all shapes and sizes. So without further ado, let’s look back at some of the key moments that have shaped the cycling season so far…

SPRINTING SPRINTING SPRINTING!

The fast folk have played a blinder so far this year.

It might be a flippant remark given that there have, understandably, been a fair whack of races that have ended in sprints. Yet, something about this season, in which we’ve already seen the very best of sprinters performing at the top of their game, leads me to believe that this is the year of the sprinter.

In the men’s peloton, Fabio Jakobsen has shown he’s very much back to his top form, as Mark Cavendish has offered flashes of his. Jasper Philipsen and Caleb Ewan have shone. Fernando Gaviria, Alexander Kristoff, Tim Merlier and Pascal Ackermann have all secured victories. Young prospects like Arnaud de Lie and Olav Kooij have either won or come damn close.

The women’s racing has been so sprint-dominated that even races where climbers may ordinarily shine have gone down to the wire. Take Alfredo Binda, a race traditionally dominated by climbers, as an example: the strength of the fast women transformed a race with numerous climbs into a tactical battle to bring them to the line.

In this spring of sprint dominance, two women have risen above all others: or, at least, their arms have. Repeatedly. Lorena Wiebes and Elisa Balsamo have taken six wins between them so far this season, and are both in blistering form, however, the battle royale we were all hoping to see between the pair has sadly not yet manifested in quite the way we were hoping. At Brugge-de-Panne everything was set for a sprint-off but Wiebes was caught up in a crash not far from the line which led to her front wheel short of a spoke – not ideal for putting down your best power.

Boss Balsamo: the World champion beats Lorena Wiebes into second at Brugge-de-Panne

Gent-Wevelgem saw strong controlling race from Trek-Segafredo which ended in another Balsamo win, and another day of bad luck for Wiebes, which meant a second opportunity missed. We await the next meeting of the two to determine just who is the fastest woman on two wheels this season. I would not like to be the one to call that one.

PELOTON HEALTHCHECK

It’s been a grim couple of months in terms of the overall health of the peloton. Before the season had even begun, Egan Bernal was lucky to avoid paralysis following his collision with a coach on his time trial bike. Bernal’s miraculous recovery has been gripping cycling social media ever since. From the moment he stepped out of his massive wooden front door on 10th February, to his first ride on a static trainer on 16th, to a few weeks later on 27th March, where he was filmed riding with some of his INEOS team mates outside. Bernal’s herculean response to his accident has overwhelmed the world of cycling, to the point that it seems fair to wonder: is he moving too fast?

Cycling fans around the world will follow his progress closely and although there is of course a desire to see a top competitor get back to their best, the simple fact that Bernal is back riding after what he went through is testament to his tenacity. As long as it makes him happy, what more can we hope for?

In terms of illness, somehow February passed relatively quietly, with a few Covid-19 cases here and there, but March was a whole new ball game, as in its stead a series of illnesses took hold. Paris-Nice was struck with a huge number of drop-outs due to illness. Bronchitis, flu and stomach issues were regularly cited as reasons, and the trend continued throughout the month, with the Volta Catalunya struck by a highly contagious stomach bug, riders pictured vomiting at the roadside, many beginning the day only to retire just an hour or two later. So virulent was the sickness it garnered its own name: EF’s Jonathan Vaughters titled it ‘Peloton Flu™’ and it continued to plague riders all month.

Most worrying, are the heart conditions that have made themselves known. Tim Declercq dropped out of racing for a month following a diagnosis of pericarditis, and in Catalunya, Sonny Colbrelli suffered a cardiac incident immediately following his second place finish on stage one. He was later declared well, thankfully, yet his future in the sport remains unknown as further investigations are ongoing.

There was a sting in the tail at the end of March, and it wasn’t just the return to colder weather following an early Spring phase of warmth and sunshine. Coronavirus is still a thing, despite the best efforts of many countries to try and side-line it, and it took one of the biggest competitors out of the biggest of races. Wout van Aert tested positive with Covid-19 days before the Tour of Flanders and reminded us that no matter how far we have come, the spectre of the pandemic is sadly still a prominent issue, and likely to affect many more races and riders ongoing.

Thoughts remain, always, with the family, friends and team mates of Amy Pieters, who remains in a coma following her training accident in December 2021.

The return of the prodigal son, and other former protagonists

Early season is always dominated by discussions among avid fans over who might fare well over the coming season, and it’s always interesting to note riders who have had a quiet season or two come back to the fore.

Among others, it’s been interesting to see the likes of Mikel Landa, Steven Krijskwijk and Warren Barguil having good days out on the bike following some lean seasons, the latter even picking up two wins already this season.

It was the return of Mathieu van der Poel, though, that garnered headlines in mid-March. The back injury that had plagued him, exacerbated by his crash at the Tokyo Olympics, and preventing him from taking part in the 2021-2 cyclocross season, abated in time for him to return for the first Monument of the season, Milan-San Remo. In reality, he’d only been absent since the end of the 2021 season, where he came second at Paris-Roubaix, but the doubt over his condition led many to speculate over whether he would play any kind of role in the 2022 season at all. As it turns out, he is…

SOME DOMINATING HAPPENED

Oh, for the halcyon days of early February, when the whole of the cycling season lay out before us with its many still-to-be-determined outcomes. Young pups such as Lotto Soudal’s Maxim van Gils and Bahrain’s Santiago Buitrago triumphed at the Saudi Tour, and Uno-X’s Tobias Johannessen at Étoile de Bessèges, and there was a thrilling sensation of hope and promise that this unpredictability might continue deeper into the season.

Then, the natural order of things began to re-assert itself. It began with the dual Paris-Nice/Tirreno-Adriatico week – arguably one of the most exciting weeks on the cycling calendar, as two separate pelotons, both full to bursting with top-notch talent, battle the varying conditions and parcours in France and Italy.

Of course, the déjà vu that is the Pog v Rog narrative will once again play out as we gallop inexorably towards the Tour de France, and the beginning of the 2022 version (Pog v Rog: The Revenge. Part Two) could not possibly see the adversaries face-off at the earliest opportunity. No; each thread of this narrative will be woven separately, and never the twain shall meet, until the roads of Denmark beckon for the Grand Depart on Friday 1st July.

This of course enabled both protagonists to dominate the heck out of their respective races. At Paris-Nice, Roglič put to bed the demons of 2021, as he and his Jumbo Visma team mates put in a rip-roaring performance, taking three stages and cementing themselves at the top of the general classification from day one.

Primoz Roglič: scaring the living daylights out of his fans since, well, forever

But, this is Primoz Roglič we’re talking about, and things never come easily. He gave his faithful fans a scare on the final day, struggling on the final climbs, but domestiques don’t come more super than Wout van Aert, and the Belgian champion towed Roglič up the Col de Turini and to assured victory.

At Tirreno-Adriatico, the Pogačar subplot was smooth by contrast. He walked the general classification, playing his UAE team mates like a finely tuned instrument, but in the end, it was always about him, and Jonas Vingegaard, the pretender to the throne of both Slovenians. He’s perhaps the only rider left who seems unafraid of Pogačar; but just as at last year’s Tour, the Dane wasn’t able to overcome the younger man’s challenge and win the – what colour was it again? – jersey.

Elsewhere, it was Aussie Rules at the Tour of Catalunya – for the first three days at least. Michael Matthews, Kaden Groves and Ben O’Connor took a stage each in Spain, amid a backdrop of riders dropping like flies from illness, and driving rain where there should have been glorious sunshine.

The Jumbo Visma dominance was not limited to stage racing. Their classics team is revitalised and has stepped into the vacancy left behind by a shadow of the former Quick-Step team. They declared their intentions on Opening Weekend, taking Omloop het Nieuwsblad with the ebullient Wout van Aert, who followed up a few weeks later with victory at the E3 Saxobank Classic. It wasn’t all about the Belgian champion though; his worthy understudies Tiesj Benoot and Christophe Laporte both had their chances in his absence, at Gent-Wevelgem and Dwars door Vlaanderen respectively, with both providing rock-solid support for van Aert whenever he was present.

AND SOME HISTORY WAS MADE…

Fifth place at the E3 Saxobank Classic is not too shabby by any rider’s standards. But when that rider has never ridden the cobbled streets of Flanders before, not even riding the race route ahead of time, it’s even more impressive. Add to that the rider’s tender age of 21, and it was enough to have Wout van Aert almost choking on his lunch. The E3 winner was full of praise for Intermarche’s Biniam Girmay, genuinely taken aback at the quality of his performance given his lack of experience.

Two days later, at Gent-Wevelgem, Biniam made history. He overpowered Jumbo Visma’s Christophe Laporte to take victory and become the first black African ever to win a Belgian Classic. The cycling world was united in joy and Eritrean cycling fans rejoiced as they witnessed a ride that would mark the day one of their own outrode a selection of the finest contemporary classics riders, in a display of confidence and dominance that belied his age and relative inexperience.

It was a truly special way to end a month of great racing, and the significance of Biniam’s win will be felt for many years to come; here’s hoping it’s just the beginning of a more diverse future for the sport.

PEOPLE DID THINGS THEY WEREN’T SUPPOSED TO DO!

This mad sport never fails to produce surprises. There were many of them to report on, in the first quarter of the season.

Lots of them were Fillippo Ganna. Ganna sprinted uphill, AND made a decent fist of climbing at Tour de la Provence, and he did an illegal bike change and was disqualified in the process. ALL the things he wasn’t supposed to do. Once, (at the UAE Tour) he didn’t even win a time trial. There’s no end to the surprises the smiling Italian has in store for us this season, on the evidence we’ve seen so far.

Matej Mohoric did a thing he WAS allowed to do despite the UCI rule having passed by literally everyone else on the planet. His genius/daredevil/hare-brained (delete as appropriate) descent from the Poggio at Milan-Sanremo, in which he deployed a dropper post meaning he could maintain a more aero position, thus circumventing the rule which banned the very ‘super tuck’ position he himself made famous, was inspired.

Later, and in a shocking and never before seen display of laissez-faire, the UCI dutifully informed everyone ‘yeah, it’s fine’ , and we were left mopping our brows as we imagined how bad it could have been, save for a few millimetres of kerb (Mohoric himself was reported to have asked if there was a hospital in Sanremo, indicating an alarming level of unhinged disregard for his own safety).

The moment Mohoric met gutter… the collective gasp caused a shockwave across the Earth. Well, almost.

People aren’t supposed to beat UAE Team Emirates. Or so they would have you believe, given the clutch of sparkling talent they recruited in support of Tadej Pogačar during the off-season. But therein lies the rub – without Pogačar, they seem to have forgotten how to decide on leadership and as a result, they left themselves wide open to attack at the Tour of Catalunya, with INEOS and BORA-Hansgrohe gleefully bullying them into submission via an audacious attack by Richard Carapaz and Sergio Higuita. While João Almeida and Juan Ayuso floundered and seemingly without a road captain to marshal the troops, UAE lost the general classification. With the same situation set to unfold at Itzulia Basque Country in early April, it will be intriguing to see who, if anyone, will step up to the plate.

Uno-X are a UCI Pro team and therefore they are supposed to dutifully send a guy in the break and sit in the bunch all day, yes? Er, no. What Uno-X do is refreshing and thrilling in equal measure. They attack! They get people (usually Tobias Johannesen) in late breaks for victory! It’s awesome! More of this, please.

Quick-Step MIA; INEOS rise to the challenge. What’s going on this Classics season, eh? Not content with allowing Jumbo Visma to upstage them at literally every classic so far, Quick-Step have also been caught sleeping where the British team are concerned. Not famed for their classics unit in the past, the signing of the engine otherwise known as Ben Turner, along with the continued excellence of Dylan van Baarle, Jhonatan Narvaez and Tom Pidcock, ensured the Jumbo bees wouldn’t have it all their own way in the tussle for one-day supremacy. Thankfully, as so far, the usually incorrigible ‘Wolfpack’ have been tamed into submission. Definitely one to be filed under ‘people doing things they aren’t supposed to be doing.’

People being where they weren’t supposed to be – an audacious top 6

  1. Julian Alaphilippe, being upside-down at Strade Bianche in an audacious attempt to complete a full 360 flip in vicious crosswinds
  2. Trek-Segafredo’s Mattias Skjelmose rode off a cliff at the Tour of Catalunya. In an audacious attempt to appear to be superhuman, he immediately declared ‘I’M FINE’ before grabbing a bike and being on his way
  3. In an audacious attempt to spice up proceedings at the EasyToys Bloeizone Fryslan Tour, the women riding the individual time trial were forced to ride around reversing vehicles and share the road with oncoming traffic as they attempted to set the fastest time through a busy urban environment. This was even more audacious than the stage winner’s prize itself, a selection of, um, adult toys.
  4. In an audacious attempt to make the race more exciting, Pog, Remco and Vingegaard went the wrong way in Tirreno. (Even that wasn’t enough to stop Pog winning.)
  5. Three riders at the Volta Catalunya opted to check out life on the other side of the motorway as they took a wrong turn and in an audacious attempt to, er, not interact with oncoming traffic, they were forced to dismount and climb back over the central reservation.
  6. Simon Yates had an audacious attempt at redefining himself as a time trialist – at Paris-Nice, the BikeExchange Brit almost upset the yellow and black applecart, clocking up the fastest time at the first split and coming in 5th overall.

OTHER THINGS HAPPENED AND HERE ARE SOME OF THEM!

Lachlan Morton is a Special Human being – let’s not pretend we didn’t already know this; EF Education Easypost’s Australian without portfolio is an adventurer, an extreme athlete, and above all, an incredibly good person. He rode 1000km in 48 hours to raise money for Ukraine with the aim of raising $50,000. To date, he’s raised over five times that, more than $250,000. Staggering.

Redefining training rides – Alpecin-Fenix’s attempts to downplay MVDP’s inclusion in their squad for Milan-Sanremo involved the use of the word ‘training ride’ and of course, cycling social media went into meltdown. ‘Imagine using the longest one-day race in modern cycling as a training ride? Only MVDP!’ And words to that effect. In reality, it was a wise move. Seven and a half hours of sitting in the wheels, followed by a twenty-minute effort? What better way to test yourself after a few months out from racing? It didn’t work out all that badly, with Mathieu ‘disappointed’ with his third place podium spot. Only MVDP.

Primoz Roglič is meticulous in his Tour de France preparations; in 2021 we saw him reconning routes several months in advance, and eschewing racing in favour of even more recon. It proved fruitless in the end, but in 2022, he took to the cobbles to take part in a practice ride ahead of the cobbled stage 5 of this year’s Tour. There has been concern expressed over Primoz’ abilities on the surface, and how he will need Wout van Aert to tow him all the way through Denain and Arenberg, but the Slovenian put those concerns to bed by joining in with an attack and coming within a kilometre of riding for the win. Not a bad day out, really.

Everyone wants to see Coppi e Bartali televised – the greatest line-up ever to not be televised. Well, since, like, 2020 when races weren’t regularly televised. OK, it’s a nice problem to have, but there’s no denying that when you saw the likes of Mathieu van der Poel, Ethan Hayter, Marc Hirschi and Alberto Bettiol taking to the start line in Italy, you wanted to see that race. The truth is we are spoiled with coverage and this ‘first world problem’ demand to see EVERY race actually reflects just how far cycling broadcasting has come in recent years. With women’s coverage increasing dramatically this year too, things are looking up for fans of bike racing. Now to deal with the inconvenience of the off-season…

Quick-Step have a women’s team – it was touted for some time following Deceuninck’s vocal departure from Quick-Step at the end of last year, for, among other reasons, their lack of commitment to women’s racing. March finally saw an agreement which brought some equality to Lefevre’s team. Team NXTG, a Dutch development squad, have received investment from AG Insurance, with support from Quick-Step. The team straight away rebranded to reflect the change: AG Insurance-NXTG will target World Tour status in 2023.

While Lefevre’s attitudes towards women have in the past been criticised, it’s an opportunity for him to make good on his promise to support the development of women’s cycling and offer opportunities to young riders for years to come.

*

Thoughts go out to the family, friends and colleagues of Richard Moore. His sudden and tragic passing deeply affected the cycling community at the end of March. His wonderful personality, heart and great writing inspired so many; RIP Richard.

Enjoying the site? Buy me a coffee and support my continued investment in my writing – I will be eternally grateful.

Also, subscribe below to receive email updates whenever new content goes live.

Published by katymadgwick

I am a freelance cycling writer and fiction author. I have followed pro cycling for nine years, making the move in 2021 into writing and content creation. You can find my work at rouleur.cc, Cycling News, Cyclist Magazine, the British Continental and on my own site: writebikerepeat.com. I am a co-host on the Quicklink podcast, and also have a YouTube channel where you can find my Highlights Reel series, featuring conversations with cycling fans about the 2021 season.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: