I joked last week about the cycling community over-reacting to early season results, but the more I think about it, the more sense it makes. After all, what else do we have to go on, in terms of extrapolating how the bigger races might unfold, that’s more relevant than actual full-blooded racing? Strava data provides more information than we’ve had access to in years gone by but it’s not really enough to draw any solid predictions from, and no substitute for watching riders going head-to-head with actual points and prizes on the line.
So, we speculate, and with good cause. At this stage in the season all the important milestones are still ahead of us, and while some of the key players have yet to show their hand, we have enough to go on to merrily predict the outcomes of at least the first handful of races, should we feel so inclined. Shall we go ahead and do some more speculating?
1. Good form is a better predictor than bad
It goes without saying that if a rider is storming to victory at this stage in the season, it’s a pretty good indicator that they’re feeling good, vis-à-vis the next part of the season, and their confidence in general is going to be pretty high. Plus some riders (I’m looking at you, Tim Wellens) traditionally perform better in the early season.
What’s not so clear is whether we can derive any deeper meaning from riders who have surprised us by not achieving what we might have expected of them in these early season tests. I would suggest, we probably can’t, in most cases. Some riders take longer to reach their peaks than others, and it’s stating the obvious to point out that, whilst they have value in their own right, races such as the Tour of Oman and Tour de la Provence are not the main targets for most riders.
Looking past their physical form, riders will be making decisions based on preserving themselves ready for their main goals of the season, and although many will work for team mates who do value these smaller goals, they will be weighing up the value of turning themselves inside out to finish up a few places higher on a stage that ultimately means nothing to them, in the long-run.
And then there’s the covid-19 complication. Many riders have suffered from it recently and it remains to be seen how it will affect them in the long-term. Which leads me neatly to my next point…
2. COVID-19 will decide as many races as form this season
Even before racing began in earnest this season, the effects of the ongoing pandemic were being felt, with riders and in some cases entire teams taken out of races, either through actual infection or close contacts. I had made a note here to insert some examples but there are too many to mention. Notably, there were a high number of cases during and following the Volta a Comunitat Valenciana, with BikeExchange Jayco, Jumbo Visma and Team DSM all withdrawing from the race. Most recently, Richard Carapaz was diagnosed and pulled from the race in Provence, although interestingly none of his team mates were deemed close contacts which raises questions in itself as to what classes as a close contact, and whether the UCI need to review current procedures.
It seems inevitable that the season will be beset with such incidences and the likelihood of major players being taken out of major races is higher than it ever was in 2020 or 2021. It may also lead teams to make difficult decisions with regard to scheduling; just yesterday, it was announced that Caleb Ewan would no longer ride the UAE Tour. The decision of Lotto Soudal to pull him from the line-up, despite the opportunity for him to pick up some much needed victories in a sprint-heavy stage race, seems a smart one, given the additional risks that extra travelling and longer races entail. Ewan will focus on Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne and Milan-San Remo, prioritising these goals and maximising the team’s chances to take points from relegation rivals Arkea-Samsic. We may see other teams following this trend, being more selective with which races they choose to send riders too, and although this may be detrimental to our enjoyment of racing as the fields are weaker, arguably, than they might otherwise have been ultimately, the health of everyone involved in the sport is the primary concern.
3. Cycling is delightfully chaotic as always
What is it about a sport that’s so complex, so intricate, so deftly woven with tactical decision-making and held together by the finest threads of control that invites such unbelievable chaos? (OK, maybe I’ve just answered my own question). Cycling is fraught with absolute madness at the best of times, madness that, quite regularly, stems from within (need I mention the Astana rap). But throw in even a smidgen of disorganisation from external sources and the whole spectacle takes a turn for the downright weird. It might even, if viewed through a critical lens, seem a bit… amateur-ish. On occasion.
Take this past week as an example. At the Tour of Oman, the live feed of the first stage was a welcome surprise (and was not always available in the following days), but that did not mean we were any the wiser about the outcome of the race. As the cameras followed the riders in the final stretch of the day’s sprint finish, it came down to two riders vying for victory, QuickStep’s Mark Cavendish and Team UAE’s Fernando Gaviria. At the crucial moment, when the riders were about to cross the line… The camera cut away. Outstanding.
And then there was the Tour of Antalya, which took crazy to a whole new level. On stage one the sprint came down to two men: Jakub Mareczko of Alpecin-Fenix and Gazprom-Rusvelo’s Matteo Malucelli. A photo finish is always a tense moment; the commentators had no idea who had won, neither had those of us watching. When an identified hand entered the shot to indicate ‘2’ to Mareczko, this was as close to confirmation as we came, before the podium presentation at least, to knowing the actual result. This didn’t stop the cheerful interviewer from the host broadcaster asking poor Mareczko how it felt to have such a great start to the race, presuming he’d won, despite his downcast body language. Cue facepalm emojis.
The following day the entire peloton were sent across a central reservation to avoid oncoming traffic. A couple of days later, the riders signed on for the race by riding through an aquarium. Because of course they did. They even seemed to position a feed zone on a cliff….
Nowhere but in cycling do you experience such bizarre occurrences. But as long as rider safety continues to be prioritised, let the chaos continue; I’m here for it.
4. Everything is better with Fillippo Ganna
Traditionally a more common problem for the likes of Movistar, one of the major criticisms levelled at INEOS during the 2021 season was their inability to unite behind a single leader. INEOS, perversely, struggled with too much talent in 2021, an embarrassment of riches which worked in their favour at times (remember the podium at Catalunya, fully populated by their riders) yet against them at others; such are the dangers of putting too many eggs in your proverbial basket.
Let’s examine a time when INEOS didn’t do this, and it worked: the Giro d’Italia. They were very clear on their goal – to deliver Egan Bernal to Milan in pink. What else should we note about this extraordinary team effort? Fillippo Ganna was there.
Fillippo Ganna. He’s a beast of a man, and what he does, he does so spectacularly well you have to feel sorry for everyone else around him. INEOS brought him to the Tour de La Provence initially with the intention of taking the Prologue stage win (which he did) and then, presumably, protecting their GC hopes (which he did: by keeping the leader’s jersey himself, for all but the final day). After the loss of Richard Carapaz to covid, and with Ethan Hayter clearly struggling with his early season form, Ganna took it upon himself to protect his own lead; taking part in a reduced bunch sprint on stage 2 and even having a worthy crack at the final climb on the Queen stage, Montagne de Lure, finishing a creditable 1.23 behind the eventual winner of both the stage and the General Classification, Nairo Quintana. A quite special effort from a supposed time trial specialist.
And then it went a bit wrong. In an entirely INEOS-based edition of ‘cycling chaos’, an illegal bike change before the climb of Montagne de Lure saw Ganna disqualified from the race; a disappointing ending to a fine week from the Italian powerhouse, especially given the effort he put in to drag his 88kg frame (as verified by the man himself) up that final climb.
There are a number of riders who make watching a race instantly better: Julian Alaphillippe and Mathieu van der Poel stand out as two of this generation’s finest. And Fillippo Ganna is right up there with the best of them.
5. Sprinting is back part 2
In last week’s piece I wrote about the incredible depth in sprinting right now, and this week’s action continued to support this theory. In Oman, Fernando Gaviria took two wins and Mark Cavendish one, with young Aussie track sensation Kaden Groves and resurgent Belgian Amaury Capiot performing solidly throughout the week. Alexander Kristoff won at the Clasica de Almeria, Bryan Coquard took a second victory for Cofidis in as many weeks, and Elia Viviani won a tough stage of the Tour de la Provence. Even Fillippo Ganna tried to get in on the action at that very same race, protecting his leader’s jersey and making a surprisingly decent fist of the challenging uphill finish on stage 2.
You can slice it different ways, arguing who may or not be considered a pure sprinter, or whether finishes technically count as sprints, but on paper a total of 15 different sprinters have shared the spoils so far this season, and we STILL have yet to see the likes of Sam Bennett, Tim Merlier and Jasper Phillipsen return to the fold. One thing is for certain: a hell of a season of sprinting awaits us.
6. The Great Gravel Debate, 2.0
Does it belong in modern day road racing, and if so, to what extent? This is a succinct summary of the gravel debate that has rippled through cycling social media in the past couple of weeks, in no small part prompted by the final stage of the Volta a Comunitat Valenciana, combined with the comments of a few riders who seem negatively predisposed to such surfaces.
On the one hand, from a spectator’s perspective, the variation and added risk that gravel adds to racing could certainly be said to increase interest and perhaps attract a wider audience to the sport. Many argue that riders’ bike handling skills should simply be up to task, and that the ability to apply oneself to diverse surfaces, from tarmac to cobbles to gravel, is part and parcel of belonging to the upper echelons of the sport.
Purists disagree; there is enough danger and risk inherent in road racing without adding in additional risk, they argue. Those who have trained all their lives to ride on the roads should not be expected to have to deal with these additional demands on their attention, and should not have to face the unpredictability of a surface which could end their race, through puncture or accident. Last year’s Montalcino stage at the Giro d’Italia was as decisive as it was stunning; whether that decisiveness was to the detriment of the overall race would of course depend on who you asked.
In races like Italian should-be monument Strade Bianche, mixed media, hipster fixture Tro-Bro Léon, and new kid on the gravel races block, Clasica Jaén, which ran for the first time this week, we have at least a partial solution. Beautiful races that do what they say on the tin. Don’t like gravel? Don’t race them. Can’t get enough? Have at it.
It’s a debate that warrants a more in-depth post, but having enjoyed the beauty of the inaugural Clasica Jaén this week, I am counting the days until Strade Bianche, one of my favourite races of the year.
7. Bernal takes his first steps to recovery
I can’t let the most beautiful moment of the week go by without comment. Following his horror crash a few weeks ago, Egan Bernal shared a video of himself walking out of his home on social media earlier this week. It was quite simply the purest joy to see him back on his feet so soon after such an ordeal, and quite frankly miraculous given the severity of his injuries.
Who knows what lies ahead for Bernal but he is already on the road to recovery and he has the whole world of cycling on his side as he begins to rebuild. We will be with him every step of the way.