Bike races are like buses. You wait all winter for one, and then three come along at once. With the drudgery of January barely behind us, February swept in and with it, the start of road season. OK, sure, the Mallorca Challenge races raised a flicker of interest last week and the GP Marseillaise last Sunday well and truly swept the winter cobwebs away, but last week saw three separate stage races competing for our attention, as 2022 went from a slow coffee ride to full gas in a matter of moments.
So, what do know now about the riders and teams of the men’s pro peloton, that we didn’t know a week hence? Let’s take a look back at the week that was and examine the evidence.
1. Lotto Soudal: it turns out they were just procrastinating
There’s nothing like the pressure of a deadline to motivate you. The deadline, in Lotto Soudal’s case, is the end of the season, at which point, if they have not accumulated enough points, they will be relegated from the World Tour and drop to Pro Team level.
The UCI scoring system runs in three-year cycles for some presumably arbitrary reason, and Lotto Soudal’s failure to rack up enough points in recent seasons has led to a precarious situation for the Belgian team. But like a phoenix from the flames, they have soared into the new season with new-found purpose. This comes in no small part from a collection of talented youngsters who have taken up the mantel and are delivering wins like they’re going out of fashion. After Tim Wellens set the bar with his usual early season victory, this time at the Trofeo Serra de Tramuntana, Arnaud de Lie quickly followed up two days later with a sprint victory at the Trofeo Palma, and in the week just gone the team dominated at the Saudi Tour, with Caleb Ewan and Maxim van Gils taking a stage each, and van Gils the overall.
It’s a great start as the endangered Belgian outfit has hit the ground running in an effort to come back from the brink of relegation. Will it be enough to save themselves from the abyss, once the bigger races kick off? That much isn’t certain, but they have the resources and the incentive; it’s now down to whether they can convert it to survival.
Not to be outdone, Cofidis, another team in danger of relegation, also pulled off a handful of wins last week, courtesy of Brian Coquard and Benjamin Thomas at Étoile de Bessèges. The battle to remain in the World Tour is truly on.
2. The Saudi Tour… ugh, where do I start
The first desert race of the year was the Saudi Tour. Oh, where do we start on the moral minefield that is sportwashing. While some fans prefer to avoid watching these races altogether, and some choose to completely separate their enjoyment of sport from such ethical conundrums, many more, like myself, occupy the middle ground. We’re sitting on the fence, and we’re very uncomfortable there.
As a writer with a modest platform it behoves me to state my moral objections to races being staged in states with poor human rights records, and Saudi Arabia is a state which falls squarely onto this target.
This makes it all the more difficult when it turns out that the racing is really quite good.
At least the UAE Tour has the decency to be mainly staged across a desert car park with a few roundabouts, adding visually barren to morally reprehensible on its lists of ‘reasons to avoid’.
The Saudi Tour, was a quite different proposition. It had a lot. Crosswinds for days, an astoundingly good climb (ridiculous name notwithstanding), and some quite breath-taking scenery to boot, red sand coating the riders as they rode into some quite atrocious conditions, and treated those who could see through their ethically-squinted eyes to a real battle of wills.
Outside of the extremely large elephant in the room, rider safety was also an issue, with road furniture and loose gravel causing issues for the riders. And the TV coverage was a non-starter on day 1, with the broadcast aircraft not given clearance to take off. So, ultimately many reasons not to watch. And yet…
3. Masses of young talent on display
In amongst the veteran victories of Valverde and Wellens in the first week of season, the rising stars of the sport also shone. Intermarché’s Biniam Girmay (21) and Lotto Soudal’s Arnaud de Lie (19) took take victories in Mallorca, and as if inspired by the achievements of their fellow young folk, the second week of racing also provided some stand-out performances by a number of box fresh pros and neo-pros.
In Saudi Arabia, 22-year-old Colombian Santiago Buitrago rode with the surety of a veteran to take victory on stage 2, and he defended the leader’s jersey admirably for a day before he was forced to surrender it to Maxim van Gils (also 22) following a supreme climbing performance up Skyviews of Harrat Uwayrid (see, I told you it had a ridiculous name). Also impressing at that race, the young Dane Anthon Charmig (23), who was active throughout and pushed both his young rivals for wins throughout the five days. Indeed, the three occupied the top three spots in the young rider classification.
In France, Norwegian Tobias Johannesen backed up the promise he made last summer; the Uno-X rider won the Tour de l’Avenir in 2021, and at Étoile de Bessèges last week he rode strongly to take a win on stage 4 and the youth classification. Meanwhile the second placed rider in l’Avenir, Carlos Rodriguez, had a great ride in Spain, picking up two podium spots on stages 1 and 3 of Volta a la Comunitat Valenciana, and coming second in the youth classification behind Remco Evenepoel. Who we shall come to later…
Ah, the youth these days. Just writing about them is exhausting; trying to keep up with them must be a real challenge. The future of our sport is safe in the hands of these incredible talents though, and the season ahead will be a hell of a ride if this past week is anything to go by.
4. Sprinting is BACK
OK, it was never gone, but the past few seasons have seen top sprinters fade in and out, with the old guard such as Andre Greipel and Marcel Kittel taking leave of the sport, and the likes of Arnaud Démare, Alexander Kristoff and Nasser Bouhanni inconsistent; meanwhile, new names such as Tim Merlier and Jasper Phillipsen have made the step up to top level competition. Sprint fields have been spread a little thin the past few seasons, with not enough riders at the top level to produce sprints the likes of which will go down in the history books. In times gone by, and with a full-strength field of pure sprinters, Wout van Aert winning on the Champs Élysées would, arguably, not have been a possible outcome (although it’s worth remembering that van Aert has beaten Caleb Ewan in a flat sprint).
This past week we’ve seen Ewan, Dylan Groenewegen and Fabio Jakobsen all back to their formidable best. Sam Bennett, Tim Merlier and Jasper Philipsen haven’t even ridden a bike in anger yet. How will Arnaud Démare shape up this season? And how about the likes of Elia Viviani, now back at INEOS, Pascal Ackermann, Cees Bol and Fernando Gaviria, and of course, a resurgent Mark Cavendish?
Then there are the young guns coming through – two at Jumbo Visma, David Dekker and Olav Kooij who will both seek to step into the sizeable void left by Dylan Groenewegen, and two at Team DSM – Alberto Dainese and Marius Mayrhofer. Not to mention Biniam Girmay at Intermarche, Marijn van den Berg at EF and the aforementioned de Lie at Lotto Soudal, all of whom will not make life easy for the established fast men.
It could be an incredible season for sprinting and with Wout van Aert, a rejuvenated Peter Sagan and, injury-permitting, Mathieu van der Poel in the mix for the green jersey at the Tour de France, there are no easy wins on the cards for the sprinters, which promises a thrilling season of fast finishes for the fans.
5. Mads Pedersen – when he’s good, he’s GREAT
The Danish former World Champion did not have a great 2021 season by his own standards. Although he began with a win at Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne, he faltered as the season progressed, suffering some bad luck with a few crashes and not living up to expectations as a result.
Whatever he did in the off-season, it’s worked. His first race back was Étoile de Bessèges and he impressed right from the off, taking the win on the first stage in a sprint and coming second in the final time trial, during which he was 8th fastest up the final climb, ranking alongside team mate Bauke Mollema. With climbing legs like these and clearly feeling good, he will have his sights set on the classics and in this form, you’d be a fool to rule him out.
6.Turgis, Bettiol show strong early form for classics
Speaking of classics form, a couple of other performances stood out during last week’s stage racing. Alberto Bettiol curtailed his 2021 season due to an issue with his bowel but like Pedersen, he too has hit the ground running. He was lively at the GP Marseillaise, instigating a fair bit of the action as the race split apart, and he dominated at Étoile de Bessèges, always in contention and coming in second in the GC overall. Expect the feisty Italian to animate things in the classics and perhaps to repeat his incredible feat at Flanders in 2019 and stand on the top step of a podium at a top tier race.
At the Saudi Tour, Anthony Turgis put in a speculative one-man punt for glory on stage 3, a relentless drive into a block headwind following a day that had already been beset with wind-based challenges, crosswinds causing the bunch to splinter into echelons right from the off. Turgis is the most hyped under-rated rider never to win a classic, but on this form, there’s a chance he might do something useful this season.
7. All is not always as it seems; cyclists are a proud bunch
In case you missed it, this video clip was doing the rounds on Twitter after stage 4 of Volta a la Comunitat Valenciana…
It depicts the emotional reaction of Manuel Peñalver, a rider local to the area, from Spanish Pro Team Burgos BH, after he came in a creditable second place on the stage, losing out in the final sprint to Trek Segafredo’s Matteo Moschetti.
The pride of his friends, family and local community leads us to believe it’s a moving moment where a rider who, let’s face it, you wouldn’t have put at the top of your list for taking even a podium spot. However, shots of him slamming his handlebars in frustration as he crosses the line, followed by a post-race interview where he tells of his frustration at not being able to do the job for his home crowd, make the emotional scenes clearer: he’s angry, not joyful. He felt he let people down.
Cyclists are fiercely competitive and an incredibly proud bunch; the moment is not what I expected on first viewing, but it still goes to show just how much these races mean to the athletes competing in them. Better luck next time, Manuel.
Three things we already knew, confirmed…
1. Remco does Remco things
What is it about Remco? The young Belgian inspires over-reaction and hyperbole like just about no-one else in the mordern peloton. He stormed through Valenciana, winning stage 1 in emphatic style, soloing to victory just under 5km from the finish. True to form, he struggled on the gravel climb on stage 3, bringing back painful memories of his cruel dispatch on the Montalcino stage of last year’s Giro. It could be argued though the the length and gradient of the climb were what did for him, in the end.
Not to be deterred, Remco reverted to rouleur, spending the final two days driving the peloton like a mini version of Tim Declercq, his hard work resulting in another victory for the team on one of those occasions, as Fabio Jakobsen sprinted to victory on stage 5.
Yet he fell to second on GC, losing out to BORA-Hansgrohe’s Aleksandr Vlasov. It was the first time he’d ever finished a week-long (or shorter) stage race and not won GC since 2019. Fans who had acclaimed him earlier in the week were quick to denounce him; bold, sweeping statements were thrown around about his ability to ever win a Grand Tour, and there was heated debate as to whether this actually mattered in the long-run, and whether Lefevre’s Grand Plan for Remco was really in his best interests.
Lest we forget, Remco is 22 and this is his first full season back following an accident which threatened not only his career, but his life. The kid has bags of talent, and seems perfectly suited to stage races without big climbs, time trialling and the classics. The future isn’t exactly looking to bad for him, so let’s cut him some slack.
2. The early season is by definition unpredictable, yet we will inevitably read too much into it
There’s no pastime at which cycling fanatics excel quite like overthinking early season form (I’ve managed to get 2000+ words out of it) and the armchair pundits were out in force last week making bold predictions about various riders and teams. And why not – we’ve all been starved of our addiction for months, and it’s great to speculate about the season ahead, and we can only work with what we see in front of us.
And what we saw was a vast array of winners: of 21 races so far on the calendar this year, there have been 18 different winners. There were many questions raised: is this the season Aleksandr Vlasov actually has some GC success? Are Uno-X going to become everyone’s favourite second team? And if Jay Vine is that fast up a climb on a time trial, exactly how many points is he going to win the Tour de France polka dot jersey competition by?
3. QuickStep can dominate in two places at once. And they sure do love echelons
QuickStep Alpha Vinyl are almost defined by their ability to accomplish a great deal – they are the definition of strength in depth. They showed that last week by sending strong teams to both the Saudi Tour and Valenciana, and shining in both. Tim Declercq almost rode himself to a GC win in the desert as Andrea Bagioli just fell short, possibly suffering the ill-effects of an early crash. In Valenciana Fabio Jakobsen took two stages and Remco one, although the overall win eluded them at both. The absolute epitome of their ability to use their strength for pure domination was expressed through their bullish approach to the wily crosswinds in the Saudi desert. They delighted in tearing the peloton to shreds with repeated attacks, and they ride an echelon like they’re surfing a wave. They are tuning up for their regularly scheduled assault on the classics and once again, responsibility will fall to the very best to stand in their way.