Good Omens

It’s fair to say that Team Jumbo Visma are a team who struggle with luck at the best of times. After a week and a bit replete with mishaps at the 105th Giro d’Italia, a dismal outcome for the Dutch team was widely predicted.

Jumbo Visma are the living embodiment of a rollercoaster ride. To follow them with anything beyond mere neutral interest is to open yourself up to a cascading torrent of unforeseen catastrophes, along with a fair whack of glorious triumphs.

They have success, and they suffer. I’d wager that most sports fans would take this life though, over the turgid monotony of the middle ground, without the highs and lows that drag us back to our screens, or to the roadside, never knowing quite what to expect. In this way, Jumbo Visma could be said to be representative of pro cycling as a whole. The mind-blowing joy at one end of a wide and complex spectrum; the pain, both physical and metaphorical, at the other.

It’s at the latter end of the spectrum that Jumbo Visma have found themselves at grand tours that AREN’T La Vuelta a España over the past few years, and nothing typifies the phrase ‘down on their luck’ quite like the Dutch team at the Giro d’Italia. They’ve sustained many hits at the hands of La Corsa Rosa in recent years, from Steven Kruijwijk’s crash into the snow in 2016 to Primož Roglič’s series of issues in 2019. In 2020 Kruijswijk saw the lead slip away once again as he contracted Covid-19 and the entire team was forced to withdraw. In 2018 and 2021, George Bennett did his best to carry the GC hopes for the team, but despite a creditable 8th place finish in 2018, he has never really been a true GC man, not up to the challenge of the stronger candidates.

So, on Friday 13th May, on stage 7 of this year’s Giro, when the news broke that Tom Dumoulin AND Tobias Foss had punctures, it felt like yet another inevitable blow in the grand tour that loves to break Dutch hearts. The dreaded date, one that strikes fear into many superstitious folk, merely added a cruel twist of the knife.

It hadn’t been an easy campaign so far. Dumoulin rode brilliantly on the second stage time trial yet missed out on the win, a loss that seemed to knock his still-fragile confidence. He was dropped early on Etna, a surprise given his upbeat attitude prior to the race, and, with many tougher challenges still lying ahead, it looked as if Dumoulin’s GC hopes were just a fantasy. Rumours abounded of him even leaving the race.

In terms of Jumbo Visma’s other GC hopes, it had been a quiet start from both Norwegian champion Tobias Foss and young Dutchman Sam Oomen. Foss came sixth on the time trial, but outside of this, both he and Oomen had failed to make an impact on the race, and sat at 29th and 31st on GC, respectively. Bad luck seemed, once again, to dog their progress – Sam Oomen’s crash following Stage 5 as he awkwardly tried to hand off a bidon to a fan was a prime example of the adage ‘anything that could go wrong, did.’

I posted this, following the punctures of Foss and Dumoulin.

Not only would the mechanical mean they had to work harder to get back to the peloton, but it happened at the beginning of a climb. Could things get any worse?

They say it’s always darkest before the dawn, and as far as Jumbo Visma are concerned, when the team seem at their lowest ebb, fate, the universe, or the cycling gods often see fit to intervene.

Koen Bouwman was active at the front, trying to get catch the pair of Italian Davides – Formolo and Villela – who had extricated themselves from the pack, ironically at the same time Foss and Dumoulin were struggling behind.

It took an age for the break to finally get away, the attempt of Richard Carapaz to escape bringing the pack back together and allowing Bouwman’s second attempt to get away to stick, along with former lone leader Wout Poels, and Formolo and Villela. This twist of fate combined with Tom Dumoulin finding his way back to the front of the peloton, and shortly after, the pair of Dutch riders finally dragged themselves clear of the rest. They were joined by another Dutchman, mountain breakaway specialist Bauke Mollema, on the hunt for the final piece in the jigsaw of his trilogy of grand tour victories.

The breakaway was finally complete, and as nerves settled and the escapees shored up ready for a day of battle, it became clear that this was a very good situation for Jumbo Visma. The only team with two riders present, with Bouwman in buoyant mood and Dumoulin seemingly rebounding from his disappointing day on Etna, the mood shifted to one of cautious optimism. Dumoulin struggled with mechanical issues but instead of it throwing him off his game, the inconvenience seemed to bounce off him, and he returned to the group time and again, displaying a new-found resilience, perhaps deriving from the lifting of the burden of GC leadership from his shoulders.

The day played out in textbook fashion for Jumbo Visma, with Bouwman clearly the strongest rider of the day, and Dumoulin the perfect foil for him. Dumoulin was dropped only to return to the group numerous times in the latter stages of the day, and the bond between the two Dutchmen, strengthened on altitude training camp in Colombia at the beginning of 2022, showed as Bouwman crossed the line and punched the air, with Dumoulin raising his arms in triumph a hundred metres behind him.

The ensuing celebrations reflected just how much it meant, not just to Bouwman but to Dumoulin too, whose joy seemed almost greater than that of his younger team mate. It feels disingenuous to interpret the psychological state of a rider who has been open about his struggles to overcome mental obstacles in his career. Yet the victory of Bouwman could perhaps be viewed as a relief to Dumoulin. His determined fulfilment of his supporting role on stage 7 of the Giro, rather than that of the main character, could possibly be seen as an alleviation of the pressure that he experiences quite keenly on occasion.

With the general classification a distant dream, singular moments of glory may be all that the Jumbo Visma faithful have to hold on to at this year’s Giro d’Italia, but they are moments that brilliant memories are made of. As they so often do, when under the cosh, the team have unified and given the gift of ‘samenwinnen’ – ‘winning together’, reassuring their fans and undoubtedly bolstering the mood among their ranks. With just over half the Giro remaining, there’s nothing to suggest they will not be up to these tricks once more – and we are absolutely here for it.

If you’d like to read this piece translated into Dutch, visit TJVSupporters.com for a full translation.

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Giro d’Italia – A Preview in Top 5’s

It’s been a year since I kicked off this website with my underdog preview of the 2021 Giro d’Italia so it feels quite poignant to be here, about to encounter the first and arguably most beautiful of the Grand Tours, once again.

The Giro d’Italia garners the lion’s share of the love when it comes to the Grand Tours. While the Tour de France is the ‘gateway Tour’ for many fans, bringing them to the sport in the first place, the Giro is for many their first true love. While the Tour de France endures as the reliable companion, the Giro is the skittish lover who promises much, and – usually -delivers on that promise.

It’s a race unrivalled in its beauty: while the French Alps, the Pyrenees, and the rugged wild chaos of the Picos de Europa all impress, the Giro is the race that even on its quiet days, can charm, entrance and entice. From coastal resorts on crystal blue seas, to quaint medieval villages, to austere monasteries nestled onto mountainsides, the Giro d’Italia really does have it all.

Lest I begin to sound like a travel brochure, let’s return to the cycling. Renowned for being the most ‘climby’ of the Grand Tours, of the three it’s the one that tends to backload with climbing, often making for a couple of weeks of flat stages, and a late surge of action in the GC competition.

This year, the route is more varied than ever, although it includes the least kilometres against the clock in twenty years at just 26km. Beginning in Hungary, the first stage has a punchy finish and is tailor-made for Mathieu van der Poel, Biniam Girmay and the stronger of the sprinters.

After that, a short time trial and a sprint stage virtually guarantee that the rider in the maglia rosa as the race travels to Italy will not be the eventual victor. That honour will of course be decided in Italy itself…

Top 5 Pivotal Stages of Giro 105

The last chaotic couple of years have redefined attacking racing and shown that GC contenders can’t be content to sit on their metaphorical laurels (sitting on actual laurels wouldn’t be particularly aero, let’s face it) while they wait for someone else to animate the race. Having said that, there are always stages meant for sprinters, and others tailor-made for breakaway artists; the profile, length and timing of these stages all but guaranteeing the teams of the main contenders for the pink jersey will control, rather than attack.

Yet it’s early doors this year in terms of stages which should bring the GC race to life. Here are some of the key stages that will make all the difference in the contest – for a comprehensive guide to each stage of the race, see my stage previews over at Cycling News.

Stage 4 – Avola – Etna (170km)

To have such a big climbing day so early on in the race is not unheard of in a grand tour, but the Giro gives us not one but two significant days of ascent before the first rest day this year, when of the three, it’s usually the grand tour most likely to delay its serious elevation metres.

Sicily is the first Italian stage and represents the first real test for the riders in terms of climbing. It follows an early transfer day from Hungary, so the riders are likely to be in good shape. It’s too early to suggest that it will define the GC race, but it’s certainly a chance for those riders who feel good to try and make a statement.

The climb itself is a category one test, listed as 22.8km at an average gradient of 5.9%, but when they hit the beginning of the ascent the peloton have already been climbing for just over 18km so the climb to the summit will be decisive.

Stage 9 – Isernia – Blockhaus (189km)

The second of two huge climbing days in the first half of the Giro culminates in the intimidating ascent of Blockhaus, purportedly the longest climb in Italy. Part of the Apennine ridge running down the centre of the country, Blockhaus is a Mont Ventoux-style climb: long, arduous and never-ending. If Etna hasn’t cause any major ripples in the GC pond, then Blockhaus almost certainly will, as the top contenders try to steal a march on one another in the standings going into the first rest day.

Totalling 28km at an average gradient of 7.3%, the relentless grind of Blockhaus will be a slog from start to finish, and to add insult to injury it’s a double ascent, forcing riders to endure twice the pain as they first have to tackle the Passo Lanciano approach, with the total elevation on the stage a daunting 5000m.

Stage 14Santena – Turin (147km)

The shortest stage of the Giro is a hilly circuit race around the city of Turin. Reminiscent of the final stage of the Tour of Catalunya, the circuit will be a stringent test, with constant ups and downs and no respite. I predict this stage will blow the race wide open, and not only will there be a scintillating battle for the stage, the GC contenders will be forced on the offensive in a fast and furious tour of Turin. One not to be missed, I’m probably as excited for this stage as I am for any of the big climbing days.

Stage 16 – Salò – Aprica (202km)

One of only three stages of this year’s race to receive the Giro’s own top rating of five stars in difficulty, stage 16 features the famed Mortirolo Pass at its centre. ‘Il Pirata’ Marco Pantani made his name on this climb in 1994, and it’s featured on a number of editions of the race. This year the riders will approach from the ‘easier’ side, but they then face an absolutely brutal ascent, the third of three category one climbs, to round out the day.

The climb in question is Valico di Santa Cristina. Gaining 1078m of altitude in just 13.5km, the average gradient for the ascent is 8%, however it becomes steeper as it gets higher, with the second half of the climb averaging 10.1% and maxing out at 13%. With narrow roads and hairpins to navigate, if the race hasn’t blown apart on the Mortirolo, it surely will here. It’s not a summit finish but the race does finish uphill, and it’s a day that will ask questions of the GC leaders and determine who still has a chance to make it onto the podium.

Stage 20 – Belluno – Marmolada (Fedaia Pass) (168km)

The final test of the Giro, Stage 20 is your classic Dolomites climbing day. Featuring the cima coppi, on the Passo Pordoi, the stage has three category one climbs and will ultimately decide the order in which the riders will face the final day’s time trial, but will itself prove far more decisive than the relatively short ride against the clock. The final climb of the whole grand tour is the Passo Fedaia, and it’s a summit finish truly befitting the nature of the race, with the climb progressively worsening to the hellish crescendo of the final 5.4km, which average 11.2%, and feature pitches of up to 18%. It will truly be survival of the fittest GC rider.

Top 5 GC Contenders

Who will wear pink and who will fall short? Here’s my tip for the top 5 GC riders to look out for at this year’s race.

1. Richard Carapaz (INEOS Grenadiers) – probably the favourite of the favourites, the Ecuadorian is no stranger to pink, having won the GC in 2019. He’s been consistent in recent Grand Tours and without the threat of the Slovenians in his way and a decent, albeit possibly not the strongest, Ineos team to support him, he is a sure-fire front-runner.

2. Simon Yates (BikeExchange Jayco) – Yates has struggled with consistency over three weeks in the past but when he’s good, he’s really good. At Paris-Nice he proved that not only was he still a serious contender for GC against top competition, but also that he could put in an impressive time trial performance. Although there aren’t many time trial kilometres in this year’s race, if there’s not a lot in it going into the final day, Yates’ rivals would be right to fear him.

3. João Almeida (UAE Team Emirates) – another strong time triallist, Almeida goes into the Giro sole leader for UAE, following a turbulent couple of years at the Giro where he has come close but not quite been able to put together a good performance over the full three weeks. He was 6th last year, riding for the first half of the race in support of Remco Evenepoel, and 4th the year before. This year he has arguably his strongest chance yet to become the first Portuguese rider ever to win a grand tour.

4. Romain Bardet (Team DSM)– the French are rolling back the years in 2022, with Bardet winning his first GC in nine years at the Tour of the Alps, while his compatriot Thibaut Pinot took his first world tour win in over three years. Bardet has looked revitalised since joining Team DSM and with the support of a strong team and the wind in his sails there’s every possibility that Bardet could challenge for the podium, perhaps even for the maglia rosa, if things go his way in Italy.

5. Pello Bilbao (Bahrain Victorious) – another rider who has shown good form at week-long stage races is Bahrain’s Basque rider Pello Bilbao. He’s been in consistent form this season, making the top ten on GC in four out of the five stage races he’s ridden, and taking a stage in the most recent, the Tour of the Alps. Bilbao’s biggest problem will be proving himself as the out-and-out leader of a team with a number of strong candidates, including Mikel Landa, who himself would love a crack at the title, and Damiano Caruso, who came 2nd in Landa’s stead last year. If he can prove his worth ahead of these riders after the first half of the race has elapsed, he has a team around him strong enough to deliver him to the podium.

Top 5 Stage Hunters

It’s not all about the maglia rosa. Plenty of riders will arrive in Budapest ready for three weeks of chances to attack. Here are five to watch out for when you’re looking for someone to back for a stage win.

1. Lennard Kämna (BORA Hansgrohe) – the German breakaway artist is in good form with two victories and two top tens already this season. There will be a number of stages marked on his card and I’d be surprised not to see him come away with one as he returns back to his best form after a troubled 2021.

2. Mattias Skjelmose (Trek Segafredo) – Trek have struggled in recent seasons to really get a GC campaign off the ground in the Grand Tours. In Mattias Skjelmose they have a potential solution. But aged just 21, this will be his first grand tour, and in a team with other more prominent leaders such as Giulio Ciccone, he may not be a protected rider, but rather there to build experience. He’s not short of talent though, and I expect him to see him showcase it on some of the bigger stages and potentially come away with a stage win for his troubles.

3. Rein Taaramäe (Intermarché–Wanty–Gobert Matériaux) – the Estonian loves a big occasion – he’s often to be found in breakaways on climbing stages and he won a stage at last year’s Vuelta, and wore the leader’s jersey there for a couple of days too. Taaramäe has been visible in breakaways already this season at the likes of the Tour de Romandie and I feel confident in his ability to translate his current form into a stage win.

4. Biniam Girmay (Intermarché–Wanty–Gobert Matériaux)– the first black African to win a Belgian classic, the history maker will arrive at the Giro with his sights set on more glory. He’s in great form, and with both punchy and sprint stages to try his luck on, it feels like the Eritrean is destined to stamp his authority on this Giro d’Italia and add a stage win to his budding palmares.

5. Hugh Carthy (EF Education-Easypost) – despite his impressive win on Angliru in the 2020 Vuelta, 2021 failed to deliver much for the Lancastrian rider, and it’s fair to say looking at previews that he’s being overlooked for this Giro by most, if not all, of cycling media. It’s a long shot, granted, but Carty quietly went about business at the Tour of the Alps and finished 9th on GC, meaning there’s a good chance he will build to some decent form by the time the biggest climbs arrive.

EF have had a quiet season so far and on a good day, Carthy has shown he has what it takes to overcome the likes of Carapaz and Yates. I foresee a stage win on one of the big climbing stages later on in the race for Carthy, maybe with enough of a gap to lift him into the top ten on GC and silence the doubters.

Top 5 Italians seeking home glory

In 2021, Italians accounted for an incredible one third of the stage wins at the Giro. This year, 45 Italians will take to the start line in Hungary, according to the provisional start list. Going for glory in your home grand tour is an honour only three nations get to enjoy, and the Italians are a proud cycling nation who will pin their hopes on a wealth of talent this year.

This year, the absence of Filippo Ganna, who was responsible for two of those wins, will be felt. But there are plenty of opportunities for a home win among the rest of the Italian riders. Here are a few who may succeed:

1. Edoardo Affini (Jumbo Visma) – with such a small proportion of the race given over to time trialling, Affini is one of only a handful of specialist time trialists at this year’s Giro – and most of the others are on his own team. As a result, Affini will have a big chance of keeping the honours for the time trial stages in the home trophy cabinet.

2. Giacomo Nizzolo (Israel Premier-Tech) – despite having won the points classification at two previous Giros, it took until last year for Nizzolo to break the agonising run of second place stage finishes and finally grab a victory. Then it was for Qhubeka Assos; this year the veteran sprinter rides for Israel, and will hope to add a second stage victory to his palmares, in a sprint field that features some – but, crucially, not all – of the world’s best.

3. Vincenzo Nibali (Astana Qazaqstan) – in his final year of racing, the Shark of Messina would love nothing more than to take a stage at his home grand tour. The race visits his home island of Sicily and if he’s on the day of his life, he might think about trying his chances on Mount Etna – and what a way it would be for him to bow out of top level cycling.

4. Giulio Ciccone (Trek Segafredo) – another hope for Trek is the climbing talent of Ciccone, who last shone at the race in 2019, where he took the KOM classification. In that race he won on the Mortirolo and it’s likely that the inclusion of a climb where he’s previously succeeded will give confidence to a rider who struggled last season with bad luck. It remains to be seen how his GC credentials will stack up, or if he may opt for stage hunting, but expect him to fare well on the big climbs.

5. Vincenzo Albanese (EOLO Kometa) – one of the most memorable moments of last year’s Giro was Lorenzo Forunato’s win on Monte Zoncolan, and the subsequent reaction of EOLO team boss Alberto Contador. This year Fortunato’s form is unproven, and although he may fare well again, it’s Albanese who I feel represents a better prospect for a stage win, for Contador and Ivan Basso’s team. The sprinter has had a mixed bag of results so far this season and is yet to win a world tour race, with only one professional win to his name. The home advantage could prove the charm for him in 2022.

Top 5 Things to look out for

1. Underrated Hungary – this year sees the first start outside Italy since 2018, and for anyone unfamiliar with Hungary, which is likely to be a fairly large proportion of the viewing audience, they are in for a real treat. From the Grande Partenza in the stunning capital of Budapest, to beautiful lakeside resorts (Balatonfüred) to otherworldly villages (Tihany), the visit of la Corsa Rosa to Hungary should make for unforgettable viewing. And will undoubtedly add to your list of places to visit.

Beautiful Tihany, on the banks of Lake Balaton in Hungary. Would you just look at it, though?!

2. MVDP in pink (or purple?) – the announcement of the participation of Mathieu van der Poel in this year’s Giro led to much excitement, and with due cause. The Dutch rider made headlines riding his first Grand Tour last summer at the Tour de France, and there’s no denying that he lights up any race he’s a part of, so don’t expect the Giro to be any different. Stage one is has a punchy finish that will suit him well, so there’s a strong possibility that he will be the first wearer of the maglia rosa. While it’s unclear how much of the race he will complete, there’s a good chance we will see him in one of the jerseys at some point in the race.

3. Unpredictable weather – Italy in Spring? It sounds like paradise, but the Giro is notorious for its mixed weather conditions, from long hot days in the south to full-on snow in the mountains. One thing we shouldn’t expect is echelons – these just don’t happen at the Giro, well, until they do. 2021 saw a freak occurrence of every cycling fan’s favourite weather-based phenomenon, so it’s quite possible we will be able to live a full four seasons in the three-week duration of the race – stay tuned to find out what each day has in store – if you can. Which leads us neatly to…

4. (Hopefully) improved television coverage – every year fans bemoan the unreliable coverage provided by the host broadcaster RCS, to the point that it’s become a running joke. Many a time have we sat and watched a static view of a finish line while goodness knows what was playing out on the mountains, as the aforementioned weather interferes with the coverage. This year, we’re reliably informed that a Belgian broadcaster will be taking the reins, so in terms of reliability, it’s got to be an improvement. Having said that, this is the same team responsible for providing us with the finish line shots of Milan-Sanremo, and it’s fair to say these left a lot to be desired.

5. Mark Cavendish’s 18th Giro Win – it’s been 9 years since the Manx Missile last took a stage at the Giro d’Italia, and with a strong, but not insurmountable sprint field attending the race, this year could well see him notch up his 18th win. With the recent announcement of Michael Mørkøv as the team’s 8th member following Ilan van Wilder’s involvement at the crash at Liège–Bastogne–Liège, Cav has an even stronger chance of a stage win or three.

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The 12 Best Riders who DIDN’T win a Spring Classic

It’s hard to believe that spring Classics season is already at an end. It seems mere moments ago that we were counting down to Omloop, impatient for the season ‘proper’ to begin, and yet here we are, already looking back on a monumental couple of months of racing, and beginning a new countdown, as grand tour season is upon us.

Before we cast ourselves headlong into the chaotic pink circus of the Giro d’Italia, I wanted to take a look back at some of the key players from the classics – riders who’ve been integral to our enjoyment of the racing, and to their team’s overall success. Whether they are faithful domestiques or contenders in their own right, these 12 riders have all made a convincing case for being included in a ‘fantasy classics team,’ and all deserve their own success.

There are of course many other names that cropped up when I was considering this list, and this is just one writer’s opinion – feel free to share your own ideas in the comments or on Twitter, but for now, these are the names that rose to the top for me, even if they were unable to rise to the top of the podium, on this occasion…

MEN

Ben Turner – the undisputed MVP of this year’s classics season, 22-year-old Ben Turner has been a revelation as part of the revamped INEOS Grenadiers classics unit which has taken 2022 by storm. Never far away from an attacking move, Turner was not simply a workhorse for his team mates, he was an instigator, taking matters into his own hands on multiple occasions and using his immense power to inflict hurt on the team’s rivals. His value as a domestique could not be underestimated as not only was he able to break the peloton apart, he was also there to provide support for his leaders in the final stages of races. Rather than burning his matches to deliver his protected rider to the front and then letting them take over, he’s been there to provide support right to the line, in a similar vein to the classic QuickStep tactic, a team noticeable by their absence at the front this spring.

It didn’t end too badly for him, in terms of results. In his first classics season, Turner secured a 4th place at Brabantse Pijl, 8th at Dwars Door Vlaanderen, and 11th at Paris-Roubaix – a position affected by a late crash. In short, there’s really no-one else whose wheel you’d rather have going into the business end of a classics race – imagine what he’ll be like with a couple of years’ experience under his belt?

Stefan Küng – the big Swiss time triallist with the catchiest theme tune of the spring deserves a special place in our hearts. The past couple of years have been a rollercoaster of great performances and almost-but-not-quite moments for Küng, as he’s seen the likes of Filippo Ganna, Wout van Aert and even young countryman Stefan Bissegger rise to prominence in his favoured discipline, and many victories snapped up by them that could, in another timeline, have been his.

Battling the clock is not the Swiss rider’s only skill though, and he’s been at the pointy end of the action throughout classics season, animating races along with a select group of top riders – simply put, Stefan Küng is not afraid of a hard day’s work in the saddle.

It would be quicker to list races in which the FDJ rider WASN’T active at the front, but suffice to say his hard work hasn’t gone unnoticed, with many cycling fans and commentators uniting to wish good things for him (while singing his name repeatedly), and hoping that the deserved results come in time. His best results were two podiums – he was 3rd at E3 and Paris-Roubaix, but he scored another three top tens and a 12th in what has to be one of the most consistent classics campaigns of any rider this year. If he had any fault it would be that perhaps he works TOO hard, and lacks the killer instinct required to deliver a blow to his rivals when it matters.

Tiesj Benoot / Christophe Laporte – Jumbo-Visma began the classics season with a roar, as Wout van Aert took victory at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad. It was clear from the outset that their two new signings were going to be worth their weight in ̶g̶o̶l̶d̶ yellow and black. Tiesj Benoot was an instrumental part of the team that day, attacking up the Kapelmuur to test the legs of the front runners as van Aert positioned himself perfectly in the bunch behind.

Benoot was active the next day at Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne but his crash at Strade Bianche was a portent of doom. One of the most poignant images from a disaster-strewn day for the peloton depicted Benoot sitting at the side of the road, battered and dejected as a fan offered him a coat, his instrumental role as part of Jumbo Visma’s one-day set-up in jeopardy.

He bounced back in style though, and assisted in Wout van Aert’s second win of the season at E3 Saxo Bank classic, before taking his own shot at leadership at Dwars Door Vlaanderen, where he claimed a spot on the podium, finishing second behind Mathieu van der Poel. He also took third at Amstel Gold Race.

Laporte has taken a victory this season, at Paris-Nice, but as it’s not a classics win he’s eligible for this list. He took second at E3, crossing the line arm-in-arm with his leader, and narrowly missed out on another second place days later at Gent-Wevelgem, when Biniam Girmay made history to become the first black African rider to win a Belgian classic. 9th place at the Tour of Flanders rounded out an impressive campaign for the French rider who has looked revitalised since joining his new team.

It’s hard to argue which of Jumbo Visma’s two super signings has had a bigger impact in the classics season, but looking back at the results, it’s also fair to say that both deserved a win of their own.

Spring Protagonists: Campanerts, Benoot, Kung, Turner were all key players in 2022 (oh, yes, there’s also MVDP in the picture)

Victor Campanaerts – another time triallist turned classics rider, Campanaerts has been open about his shift in focus, which is more wholesale by comparison with Küng, and the Belgian rider is clearly loving life as a one-day specialist. He’s hugely popular with fans for his full gas riding and never say die attitude, and along with Küng was one of a select group of special riders who were always to be found animating races, attacking and bringing chaos down upon the bunch with gleeful abandon throughout the spring. Campanaerts suffered for his art in more ways than one: he crashed heavily at Roubaix and at the Tour of Flanders but he picked himself up and continued. He even broke a tooth at De Brabantse Pijl, turning such a huge gear that his characteristic determined look actually caused him a dental-based injury.

Like Küng, Campanaerts is one of those riders for whom you only wish good things. He was a brilliant advocate for Qhubeka Assos until their demotion and now, at Lotto Soudal, he is a role model for the younger riders and a strong presence in the bunch. And his presence almost guarantees fireworks. Or the need for dental treatment.

Benoît Cosnefroy – After a strong start to the season at the French one-day races (Cosnefroy bagged 5th and 3rd at the GP Marseillaise and Drome Classic respectively.), the AG2R rider opted to miss the early block of cobbled classics, joining the bunch for Amstel Gold Race. The rest is history. He almost didn’t make this list, as for a few precious moments, he had won the race, after a valiant two-up break with INEOS’ Michal Kwiatkowski ended with him being briefly awarded the victory.

But it was not to be. In a second photo finish in as many years, Kwiatkowski was latterly declared the winner. The French rider took defeat with good grace, and came back just a few days later to take another second place, coming in first from the select group behind solo winner Magnus Sheffield, undone twice in as many races by the British team.

Cosnefroy is a total joy to watch. He’s punchy, climbs with power and fluidity, and brings races to life by his mere presence and OK yes I’m big fan of him but it’s not hard to see why – he is one of those riders who pours his soul into his riding and is a likeable individual both on and off the bike. I foresee more good days in his future, and I will be the first one dancing with a jersey hanging from my teeth whenever he snags a win.

Déjà vu all over again: the second of two agonising photo finishes in as many years at Amstel Gold Race

WOMEN

Lianne Lippert – With bags of young talent coming through the ranks and Lorena Wiebes in sparkling form, Team DSM have been visible at the front of all the races so far this season. While the first half of classics season was, on the whole, all about the sprinters, in the latter half, the climbers have come into play, particularly in the Ardennes classics which are far more suited to the mountain goats than the fast women. Liane Lippert has led the charge for DSM in recent races, constantly involved in the big moves, and never far from the front of the race, happy to mix it with the bigger names and stronger teams. For her troubles, she’s finished in the top ten of all her last four participations, with a third place finish at Amstel Gold Race and De Brabantse Pijl the highlights of her campaign.

Lippert is definitely one to watch going into the summer and no doubt she will be stage hunting at races such as the Giro Donne and the Tour de Frances Femmes. In this form, you would not rule her out.

Ashleigh Moolman – in her last season of professional racing, Moolman Pasio is proving she still has plenty to offer, both as a top class climbing domestique and a contender in her own right. While the season has yet to really get going in terms of serious climbing, the past week in the Ardennes have given us a sense of the form the veteran South African is in ahead of the big stage races, and it’s clear she intends to go out on a high.

She rode for Demi Vollering at La Fleche Wallonne and Liège–Bastogne–Liège and there was nothing to choose between them at either race, as the pair finished third and fourth in the standings at both. Moolman Pasio’s explosive attack on the Côte de La Redoute at Liège–Bastogne–Liège was the decisive move that really tore the peloton apart and forced Annemiek van Vleuten to show her cards early. It worked for the Dutch woman in the Ardennes, but with Moolman Pasio leading the charge at the major stage races, van Vleuten is going to have a real battle on her hands.

Brodie Chapman / Grace Brown – FDJ Nouvelle-Acquitaine-Futuroscope began the season a little off-kilter – there were a few cases of questionable tactics (see Le Samyn) and a couple of races where they didn’t perform as expected. But they have always been there or thereabouts, and the fearless attacking nature of these two riders is part of the reason why they are always visible at the business end of one-day races.

Chapman attacked twice at Dwars Door Vlaanderen to light up the race and spent time in the breakaway at the Tour of Flanders too. Grace Brown has been a key aggressor in a number of races this season, making it three riders in the top 10 for FDJ at Flanders, and coming 11th at Strade Bianche.

The vibe in the team is clearly one of unity and confidence despite the recent absence of their nominal leader Cecilie Uttrup Ludwig, who was side-lined from the Ardennes Classics with a positive Covid-19 diagnosis. Even without the Dane among their ranks, it was in the Ardennes where the French team really found their stride, with Marta Cavalli in flying form, taking two of the three classics there.

Her win at Amstel Gold Race seemed to light a new fire under the team, who animated the racing after that, going on the front foot and bringing the race to the likes of SD-Worx and Movistar. Brown attacked solo at the pointy end of Liège–Bastogne–Liège and gave Annemiek van Vleuten something to think about, and although Cavalli wasn’t able to make it three from three, she led out Brown to an extremely well earned second place.

Pauliena Rooijakkers – Canyon//SRAM’s number one at the classics is undoubtedly Kasia Niewiadoma, and while the Polish rider has had a good season so far, it’s her team mate Rooijakkers who’s caught our attention on more than one occasion with her brave and powerful attacks. She wasn’t particularly active earlier in the classics season but as climbing is her real strength, it’s unsurprising her best form has come in recent weeks, in the Ardennes.

Prior to this though, it was her gutsy break at Brabantse Pijl that had everyone talking about her. Commentators on the race even had her confused with Niewiadoma for a while, as they assumed it would be the team leader making such a dominant statement. Rooijakkers fought hard to stay away but didn’t quite have the legs that day, losing out to Demi Vollering but still finishing an impressive sixth on the day (with her team leader, Niewiadoma, taking second).

Rooijakkers was active again at both La Flèche Wallonne and Liège–Bastogne–Liège, finishing a creditable 11th place in both, and with such an active classics campaign behind her, don’t be surprised to see her breaking out for a stage win or two over the summer.

Shirin van Anrooij – OK I might be a bit biased because I love seeing cyclocrossers do well on the road, but Shirin made the transition between disciplines look like a walk in the park in the beginning section of this season. Immediately a vital part of Trek-Segafredo’s engine room, van Anrooij has regularly been seen at the front driving the peloton, and her work for her team mates has paid off, with some notable success for Trek across the classics season.

She’s also had her own chances – she was the best placed Trek rider at both Omloop het Hageland, where she was 5th, and Le Samyn des Dames, where she came 7th. All this from a 20-year-old CX rider? Impressive stuff. Van Anrooij clearly has a bright future ahead and I can’t wait to watch her come into her own over the coming seasons.

Join me again as I analyse the winners and losers from the classics season, and delve into the winning moves, in my Big Review: Classics Edition, coming soon.

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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.

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For the Love of Bees: on Team Jumbo-Visma, risk, and – sometimes – glory

In August 2021, Primož Roglič did something that many bike racers like to do on occasion: he launched an attack. Heading up the cat 2 Puerto de Almáchar climb, deep in the Andalusian Hills of southern Spain, Roglič stood out of his seat and launched off the front of the peloton in search of more time as he sought to win his third consecutive Vuelta title.

Shortly after his attack, a hair-raising descent saw Roglič hit the ground following an over-committed turn. Down but not out, he picked himself up and continued on, joining up with the chasing group and finishing the stage thankfully unharmed. He didn’t gain over his immediate rivals but did pick up a few seconds over the likes of Egan Bernal and Adam Yates.

Was it worth it? The armchair pundits collectively griped over how unnecessary it was to take that risk. He had plenty of other chances to pick up time, right? Why bother putting himself in danger for relatively little gain?

Primož Roglič’s response when questioned about it later that day perfectly encapsulated not only his own gutsy yet slightly unhinged approach to racing, but also the mentality of the team he has called home for the past six seasons.

‘No risk, no glory.’

And who are we to argue?

Many times in recent years, the teams with the strongest riders have chosen to ride defensively; to conserve energy, guard their protected riders and not make any waves until it’s absolutely necessary. And the complaints have been voluble: we want to see racing! Not faceless dominance.

This is not how Jumbo-Visma choose to ride. While the strength of the team cannot be denied, having ample resources is no excuse to be boring, as far as the Dutch team are concerned. They have assets and they use them. They animate races, they provide stories, they are so often a talking point – not always for winning, either. As a unit they are redefining the notion of a cycling super power. They are superheroes with flaws – they possess chinks in their aerodynamic armour that humanise them, and make them identifiable.

Wout van Aert and Christophe Laporte head up Jumbo Visma’s classics unit
Photo: Bram Berkiens, Jumbo Visma

Prospective fans take note – following Jumbo is not akin to glory hunting. This is not the Manchester City of cycling. You have a rollercoaster ride ahead of you, should you choose this path. One day you’ll be celebrating a Mapei-style 1-2-3 at Paris-Nice, the next you will have your heart smashed as one or another of your team hits the deck, again. (And again. And again.) On balance, it’s probably pretty bad for your health.

No, you cannot rely on them to bring you glory. A team who are infamous for their dalliances with ill-fortune, it’s almost a running joke among the cycling community that Jumbo-Visma will suffer some sort of incident or accident as they navigate their way through races of all kinds. They don’t play it safe but equally, they’re not stupid, and on many occasions bad luck seem inexplicably to find them. Take the ‘allez omi-opi’ incident from last year’s Tour de France, the first in a series of misfortunes which struck the team during the biggest race of the season, leaving them with just four riders, and causing the abandonment of their GC plans.

Yet here, on the knife-edge between total collapse and Hollywood-style redemption, is where Jumbo-Visma continually find themselves. And they thrive there. When under the cosh, they pull together and accomplish wonderful things. Those four riders went on to secure four stage victories and a second place on the GC podium. Not too shabby, by anyone’s standards.

Their team ethic, simply stated by their motto ‘samen winnen’ (winning together) is real, and tangible, and is a big part of what attracts so many to follow them, garnering admiration and warm reaction from many quarters. Their recently formed women’s team has flourished under just such a mentality; despite having superstars such as Marianne Vos within their ranks, they are a unified bunch who will work for one another no matter what, and are having the time of their lives while they do it. They bring out the best in one another. Their Development Squad is well organised and offers real chances for progression. And it goes without saying that it’s backed up by enviable technology and exceptionally qualified staff.

Jumbo-Visma don’t pretend to be anything they’re not. Their branding reflects their heart-on-sleeve style of approaching bike racing. They offer insights through behind-the-scenes movies, tongue-in-cheek social media videos, opening their doors to give fans a real insight into the personalities within the team. It gives us a hint of what we can expect from the touted Netflix series which looks set to follow the Tour de France. The Jumbo-Visma team are well versed in being the centre of a story, and there’s no doubt in my mind they will steal the show.

So how has this season gone so far, for a team who have famously lost a Tour de France that was theirs for the taking, twice in a row? The answer is pretty darned well, to be honest. Wout van Aert won the opening weekend race at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad in dominant fashion, proving that Jumbo’s wise investments in the off-season really were just that as his newly replenished classics team supported him all the way.

Tiesj Benoot has been pivotal in one day racing so far and may have gone on to play a bigger part at Strade Bianche, a race he had already won previously, if it wasn’t for an unlucky crash, one of many on a day fraught with chaotic cross winds. Who knows what might have been, given the confidence the former Team DSM rider has been displaying.

Benoot himself challenged at Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne, with Christophe Laporte a key man for the team there, another rider who has found a new lease of life in his new team this season. He carried that form into Paris-Nice where the team pulled off a spectacular performance on stage one, filling the podium in a display of raw dominance rarely seen at World Tour level. Laporte, van Aert and Roglič took 1, 2, 3 on the day and held those positions the following three days, shifting position on GC after stage 4’s time trial in which van Aert triumphed over Roglič and Rohan Dennis.

Lest we forget, Jumbo’s signing of Rohan Dennis was another brilliant bit of business for the Dutch outfit. The Aussie national champion came into his own in the time trial, taking the baton from Laporte by completing the podium and driving into the following stage in the mountains as Roglič’s key climbing domestique, as van Aert let the yellow jersey go, in favour of conserving his energy for his own goals later in the Spring. Admittedly, Roglič was a little isolated later on stage 5, but he was equal to the challenge.

Meanwhile, Roglič’s regular mountain detail were busy with races of their own. Sepp Kuss and Jonas Vingegaard fared well at the two early French one day classics, with Vingegaard winning the Drôme Classic and Kuss 3rd at Faun-Ardèche. This week, instead of supporting Roglič, they are taking on Tirreno-Adriatico, keeping a close eye on UAE Team Emirates’ Tadej Pogačar.

Primoz Roglic and Jonas Vingegaard
Photo: Bram Berkiens, Jumbo Visma

This team present perhaps one of the only hopes of resistance to the imperious reign of Tadej Pogačar. The hope might be a slim one, but with Wout van Aert at the classics, and Jonas Vingegaard in longer races, they are hopes nonetheless. The young Dane appears to be one of the few riders left who doesn’t seem to fear the Slovene and was the only one who came close to him at last year’s Tour de France.

Will everything run smoothly, and will the team continue to succeed at this high level all season? Almost certainly not. But we are guaranteed to be fully entertained along the way.

Jumbo-Visma know what they’re doing, no doubt about it. They know how to win fans, and to keep them. Do they make the right decisions, tactically? Not always. But it’s that element of doubt that keeps things interesting. They have the potential to function as a well-oiled machine. They don’t do things by halves. They do some things really, really well (time trialling, La Vuelta a Espana). And even when they’re not on top, they give you something to talk about.

Purists may criticise their occasionally unconventional or overly risky approach, but they are bold. They are fearless. They try things. This summer, they may try to do something that hasn’t been attempted since the 1980s – to win the yellow AND the green jersey at the Tour de France. It’s a possibility which has led many to frown and tut and shake their heads. Yet look at the resources they have among their ranks, and dare yourself to ask – why not?

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’22 Preview: Chapter 5 – Underdog Edition

Right, let’s be honest with each other. OK? If you’ve caught the previous chapters in my 2022 Preview series you’ll have read about the comings and goings from each of the World Tour teams, the recollections of their 2021 successes, and the anticipation of their goals for 2022.

However. If you’ve been awake for even a day over the past few weeks, you’ll have noticed there’s, er, there’s been some bike racing going on. Quite a bit of it actually. And it may not have escaped your attention that I still have a whole load of teams to preview. Which leaves me in a bit of a pickle.

What can I say, I’m a busy person. HOWEVER I do not want to leave you feeling unsatisfied, nor do I wish to discriminate against all the other lovely teams who I’ve not yet lavished any attention on.

So here’s the deal: as we still have (*checks date*) THREE WHOLE DAYS until opening weekend, I have opted to stick my fingers in my ears and pretend the season hasn’t actually started properly yet. That way, this still counts as a preview, right?

As my first two pieces were about the Big Dogs, and the next two dealt with The Pack, this fifth and final chapter will focus on The Underdogs. Briefly and swiftly and concisely (and other words meaning it won’t take very long) we will zoom through the remaining teams, in alphabetical order, check out their key players and summarise their most important aims for the season ahead.

How briefly? Well, the first couple came out at 88 WORDS. Weird, right? So I’ve stuck with it. Using this extraordinarily arbitrary and yet freakishly appropriate number of 88 words per team, LET’S DO THIS.

Astana Qazakstan Team: (*must not talk about the rap, must not talk about the rap*)

After a dismal 2021, the only way is up for Vinokourov’s team. They’ve arguably improved on last season already with Alexey Lutsenko winning Clásica Jaén.

Astana will target Grand Tour GCs with Lutsenko and Miguel Angel Lopez, one day classics with Gianni Moscon and in his last season of competition, a farewell win or three for returnee Vincenzo Nibali.

Chances? It will absolutely be a better season for Astana given their new personnel, and they will have more to show for their efforts in 2022 than last year.

Cofidis

One several teams in line for ‘relegation’ from the World Tour at the end of this season, Cofidis have banished last season’s poor showing and have opened their account with some absolutely brilliant performances, with multiple wins for Benjamin Thomas and Bryan Coquard already under their belt.

Chances? Guillaume Martin means business this season and will be aiming to place highly on GC at Grand Tours. The pressure of fighting for survival has given them the incentive: can they overcome the disadvantage and stay afloat in the World Tour?

Guillaume Martin shows strong early season form at the GP Marseillaise

Groupama-FDJ

With no Thibaut Pinot, no grand tour stage win and Arnaud Démare’s form departing him, 2021 was a case of ‘not quite good enough’ for Groupama, much like their hapless time trial star Stefan Küng who, aside from the European Championships, was the nearly-man all season.

Chances? Things are looking brighter this season. The team look good thus far and aside from the slightly odd decision NOT to send Pinot to the Giro, with the addition of Michael Storer from DSM, it’s likely they will far exceed last season’s results.

Israel – Premier Tech

The oldest kids on the block have done little to shift their ‘retirement home’ reputation, signing Jakob Fuglsang and Simon Clarke as Andre Greipel and Dan Martin retire, but they have plenty of talent capable of producing much-needed results as they seek to secure their position for another three-year cycle.

Chances? New signings Fuglsang, Clarke and Giacomo Nizzolo will be hoping to produce some good performances; Michael Woods and Mads Würtz Schmid are the major hopes. And can Chris Froome return to any kind of racing form?

Lotto Soudal

The Belgian team have suffered a dearth of results in recent seasons leading to their current precarious position, threatened with the loss of World Tour status at the end of this season. They’ve responded in startling fashion, with Tim Wellens, Arnaud de Lie, Caleb Ewan and Maxim van Gils all picking up victories in the early part of 2022.

Chances? With Victor Campanaerts reportedly galvanising the team, and classics season ahead, it’s hard not to root for Lotto Soudal. Sadly, they have the hardest job ahead of them.

Caleb Ewan sprints to victory at the Tour des Alpes Maritimes

Team BikeExchange Jayco

2021’s highlight for the Aussie team was a podium place and stage win at the Giro d’Italia for Simon Yates, but other than that there wasn’t much to write home about.

Despite the loss of Estaban Chaves, the late signing of Dylan Groenewegen is a huge boost for the team.

Chances? Although Michael Matthews may target green, by far the bigger draw, and more like to produce wins, will be the battle between Groenewegen, Fabio Jakobsen and an array of other brilliant sprinters at the Tour de France.

Team DSM

Despite taking three stages at La Vuelta, there was not a lot else to shout about for DSM in 2021, and it’s fair to say that their all-around vibe lately has been distinctly… off. They’ve suffered a number of departures, some in acrimonious circumstances, with the core of their squad taking a battering.

Chances? DSM will be banking on the continued resurgence of Romain Bardet, a marked improvement in their sprinting contingent, and good starts for riders coming through their development squad, otherwise it could be a lean season.

THERE! All the World Tour teams, previewed, in time for Opening Weekend. Someone show me to the cobbles!

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7 things we learned: 10-15 Feb 2022 Edition

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.

Insert your own shark-based pun

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.

Is that a Ganna that I see before me? In a sprint? Why yes, yes it is.

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.

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7 things we learned (and 3 we already knew): 2-6 Feb 2022 Edition

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.

Maxim van Gils fighting the good fight for Lotto Soudal at the Saudi Tour

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.

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’22 Preview: Chapter 4 – The Pack (2): The Opportunists

Our pack may not be top of the list of favourites for every race they are involved in, but they are up there fighting, and have plenty of opportunities to take big wins. The previous chapter looked at those teams who are challenging the top dogs for supremacy. This piece will focus on a set of teams who take their chances when they can; they spread their resources and play to their strengths, and there will be no shortage of names from these teams on the list of victories come the end of the season.

ICYMI: Chapter 1 and Chapter 2 looked at the Top Dogs, and Chapter 3 focused on the Challengers.

EF Education First-EasyPost

Everyone’s second favourite team (or something like that), EF are certainly a unique bunch; one of the few outfits in the contemporary peloton with a discernable identity, a vibe perhaps would be a more adequate term. The American team headed by Jonathan Vaughters is a diverse bunch of individuals, yet there’s no shortage of opportunities and you can never rule them out as they possess quite the range of talent.

Ins and Outs

EF brought together a seemingly incongruous bunch of new signings across the off-season, but they have recruited bags of talent, along with a group of characters who on the surface of it, seem to fit the mould. From seasoned pros like the smiliest man in cycling Esteban Chaves, to older riders looking for another shot at success such as Brits Owain Doull and James Shaw, to rising stars like Marijn van den Berg and Ben Healy.; but perhaps their most intriguing signing is their most recent: climbing sensation Mark Padun. The Ukrainian made waves at the Dauphiné before being frustrated by his team’s tactics at La Vuelta which prevented him from taking his own chances. Instinctively, this feels like a good fit for an interesting and off-beat character, who can expect more freedom with his new team.

2021 Highlights

EF made headlines in all kinds of different ways in 2021. Lachlan Morton, adventurer without portfolio, completed his alternative Tour de France, going off-piste in the most hipster and yet hardcore fashion to generate incredible headlines and raise loads of money for a good cause.

It’s so EF to start with something that isn’t even connected to racing, isn’t it? Racing, at which they did extremely well, remaining on brand as predictably unpredictable, the wins coming from different riders in the most unexpected ways. Neilson Powless won at San Sebastian, Magnus Cort ran riot at La Vuelta, and Michael Valgren once again had a late surge of form to podium at the World Championships.

The team arguably fell short on their GC goals, though. Following a podium spot for Hugh Carthy at La Vuelta in 2020, hopes were high for the lanky northerner to achieve in the Grand Tours. He managed 8th on GC at the Giro and retired from La Vuelta through illness, before finishing a troubled season with a spate of DNFs at the Italian Classics.

2022 Goals

EF are one of those teams who lack a standout leader and as a result, it’s easy forget that they are still absolutely stacked. Where other teams flounder without clear leadership, EF thrive on variety and you get the impression there’s no hierarchy, and anyone could take their chance on the day if they were feeling good. It gives them the advantage of adaptability and the ability to be spontaneous, and let’s not forget they have a rider for almost any circumstance. Alberto Bettiol, Hugh Carthy, Magnus Cort, Neilson Powless, Michael Valgren – their roster sparkles with potential race-winners. They are somewhat lacking in the sprinting department but plenty of their riders have strong finishes, and with young fast man Marijn van den Berg on board, they may have chances on flat stages too. They are likely to target breakaways, stage wins and one-day races.

Summary

With a mixed bag of brilliant talents and a general vibe of positivity, it will be intriguing to see how EF put together their season. With Bettiol revitalised, Mark Padun given a new lease of life and Magnus Cort in ominous form last season, there’s every chance they will take some big wins in 2022.

TREK SEGAFREDO

Another team who have a strong sense of identity, the Trek team strikes me as a unified force who set sensible and realistic goals, that they occasionally achieve. Refocusing their attention to one-day racing and stage hunting

Ins and Outs

Trek lose a key man in Vincenzo Nibali; the Shark was only with Trek for two seasons, but he will ride his final season with Astana. Trek have added a fair few names to their roster, with a mix of younger riders such as Antwan Tolhoek and Daan Hoole, and more experienced heads: the likes of Tony Gallopin and Jon Aberasturi. Their most exciting acquisition is one Filippo Baroncini. The young Italian won the U23 World Championship road race in 2021 and is a strong rider with a big engine, who will likely do well in one-day races as he begins his first season as a pro.

Jasper Stuyven celebrates victory at Milano-Sanremo

2021 Highlights

There were highs and lows for Trek last season. Their year opened with success, as 2019 world Champion Mads Pedersen won at Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne, and Jasper Stuyven won the first Monument of the year, powering to victory at Milano-Sanremo. Things did not go so well in the Grand Tours, with Giulio Ciccone crashing out of both the Giro and La Vuelta, and although Bauke Mollema was able to win a stage at the Tour de France, the second half of the season was less successful, with very little to show for their efforts and continued bad luck for Mads Pedersen, who might hold some sort of record for the number of times he crashed in 2021. Jasper Stuyven finished 4th in the World Championship road race in Leuven after a day to forget for the Belgian team.

2022 Goals

Mads Pedersen and Jasper Stuyven are two big hitters who can challenge the best riders out there over their favoured terrain. If they are on form they will both be dangerous and Trek will look to them for wins in one-day races and on trickier flat stages of longer races. Giulio Ciccone will lead the team at the Giro, a race at which he has been steadily improving over the years. A podium finish is likely his aim. The Tour and La Vuelta are less certain but it’s likely the team will go stage hunting once more in France with the hope of repeating Bauke Mollema’s 2021 success.

Summary

While Trek sometimes fly under the radar, if their key riders can time their form and stay upright, and they continue to aim for realistic targets, it could be a really good year for the American team.

INTERMARCHÉ–WANTY–GOBERT MATÉRIAUX

It may only have been their their first season as a WorldTour team, but everyone’s favourite neon-sleeved Belgians looked right at home in the peloton, and they didn’t waste time in making their presence felt.

Ins and Outs

The Belgian team have been very active in the transfer market, picking up a number of young riders as well as a few more experienced racers including sprinter Alexander Kristoff to bolster their ranks, as Danny van Poppel departed. Perhaps their most exciting new signing is U23 World Championship runner up, Eritrean Biniam Girmay, a powerhouse of a rider who has already picked up his first win of the season at the Trofeo Alcudia, and at the age of 21 looks to be an incredible talent.

2021 Highlights

Intermarché were anything but wallflowers at the Grand Tours. They dominated for much of La Vuelta, with Rein Taaramäe taking a stage and the red jersey in the first week, perennial nearly-man Louis Meintjes challenging on GC before he sadly crashed out on stage 19 and Odd Christian Eiking the unlikely bearer of the red jersey for a whole week before Primož Roglič wrested it from his shoulders. Let’s not forget the Giro d’Italia, where the team produced one of the most memorable moments of the season courtesy of the fantastic breakaway win of Taco van der Hoorn.

The team grabbed a couple of other odd wins on one-day and stage races, mostly courtesy of van der Hoorn and Danny van Poppel, but all in all, it’s fair to say they were probably pretty happy with how things went.

2022 Goals

If you were to offer Intermarché a repeat of last year’s level of success in 2022, they would probably bite your hand off. However, that’s not to say they are lacking in ambition. Some would argue the team performed beyond expectation last season and as such, to aim for similar goals would be prudent. They will look to Girmay to fulfil his potential in his first year with the team and lead them in one-day races, Taco van der Hoorn to repeat his breakaway antics and Lorenzo Rota to improve on his recent close calls and achieve some wins.

Summary

A popular team among cycling fans, many will hope to see Intermarché repeat their successes of 2021, but they may truly have to harness the power of opportunism to grab their chances when they arise.

AG2R CITROËN

The first French team to feature in the preview, AG2R were also the most successful of the French World Tour teams in 2021. They made headlines before a bike had been ridden in anger with the revelation of their new kit, the brown bib shorts dividing the crowd like marmite. They retain the shorts this year along with the sense of promise that their good run of form will continue.

Ins and Outs

The team have made barely a ripple in the big pond of the transfer market, losing a couple of riders, including Tony Gallopin, and bringing a couple on board, including Clément Berthet from Delko and Felix Gall from DSM. They consolidate by retaining the core of their team, aiming for consistency going into the new season.

2021 Highlights

AG2R’s moments of last season can be distilled quite simply: one stage win in each Grand Tour, courtesy of Andrea Vendrame (at the Giro), Ben O’Connor (at the Tour de France) and Clement Champoussin (at La Vuelta). The wins were all memorable in their own way and reflected the team’s plentiful climbing talent. Ben O’Connor’s win almost propelled the team into the yellow jersey following an impressive solo effort where he rode away from the pairing of Sergio Higuita and Nairo Quintana in grim conditions to win in the Alps.

The team’s classics unit was less successful, with veterans Greg van Avermaet and Oliver Naesen falling short in one-day races, although van Avermaet’s third place at the Tour of Flanders was arguably an achievement worth noting, in the year which marked the end of his reign in the infamous golden helmet.

2022 Goals

Following a lack of results in the classics it’s likely that the team will dedicate a portion of their resources to rectifying this in the upcoming season. Benoit Cosnefroy is rising to his best form has the potential to become AG2R’s primary focus in terms of wins, with Aurélien Paret-Peintre another rider who promises much and could come good this season. Beyond them, there are potential stage winners scattered throughout the team: Dorian Godon, Clement Champoussin and Andrea Vendrame along with Ben O’Connor who will try his luck on GC at the Tour de France again this year, aiming for the yellow jersey which narrowly evaded him in 2021.

Summary

The brown shorts remain and as far as I’m concerned, the most stylish French team in the peloton is also the strongest. They will try their luck across various forms of the sport and they will likely surprise a few once again.

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Keep up with the ‘22 Preview series over the next couple of weeks to find out which teams are aiming for what in the coming season. Subscribe below to make sure you don’t miss a post, and if you’d like to support the site, I’d be hugely grateful – you can do so at my Ko-Fi page. Thanks for reading!

’22 Preview: Chapter 3 – The Pack (1): The Challengers

Welcome back to ’22 Preview, a series of articles in which I take a look at each of the men’s World Tour teams (and a few added extras) in an effort to see what the future holds for them in this new season. In Chapters One and Two, I examined the fortunes of the Top Dogs – the four teams who are likely to challenge for the biggest prizes this year. The next two posts will look at the Pack – eight teams who will try to keep up with, or even, outshine their wealthier rivals, as the season unfolds.

The Challengers are four teams who aren’t just making up the numbers; they’re causing the favourites some significant headaches, or are even turning the tables and becoming the favourites themselves, in certain circumstances. Check out my previews of Bahrain Victorious, Movistar, Alpecin-Fenix and BORA-Hansgrohe, below.

BAHRAIN VICTORIOUS

2021 was a good year for the Bahrain team, as they made good on the promise of their new name and actually won some stuff.

They arguably over-achieved in all of the Grand Tours, and were never far from the headlines both on and off the bike. Will they remain in the limelight in 2022?

Ins and Outs

Although Bahrain haven’t been a major player in the transfer market this season, they’ve made some sensible acquisitions, adding stars of the future such as Danish U23 time trial champion Johan Price-Pejtersen as well as seasoned old hand Luis Leon Sanchez. They’ve retained their full core of key personnel and look to continue their form as a strong unit going into the new season, with the only notable mover being Mark Padun, who had a chequered season but showed great promise in the mountains.

2021 Highlights

With stage victories in all three Grand Tours, and podiums in two, Bahrain shone over three weeks, but they also picked up wins on other ground. Sonny Colbrelli had a stand-out season, winning the European Championships, the Benelux Tour overall (with teammate Matej Mohoric in second) and finally putting together an unforgettable ride to win Paris-Roubaix. There were other reasons to celebrate, too. Damiano Caruso pulled out a surprise second place at the Giro and topped it off with a stage at La Vuelta. The spirited GC effort at La Vuelta was as welcome as it was unexpected, and Gino Mäder rose to the challenge as super domestique for Jack Haig, securing the white jersey in the process to top off a breakout year.

Iconic: Sonny Colbrelli’s Paris-Roubaix victory was arguably the standout moment of Bahrain’s season

2022 Goals

If Bahrain can match 2021’s achievements in the coming season they would doubtless be content. It will be very much ‘as you were’, with the key players all targeting similar goals – one-day races for Colbrelli, week-long targets for Mohoric, and Haig likely to go for GC once again in at least one Grand Tour. There’s likely to be a fair amount of stage-hunting along the way, and following another disappointing season in 2021, the big question for the team will be: can Mikel Landa produce a result? He targets the pink jersey at the Giro and it’s fair to say that, with the talent Bahrain has besides Landa, the Spaniard could find himself increasingly adrift in a career which has faltered in recent years.

Summary

Bahrain bring a well-rounded unit to the new season capable of challenging in every area. While some may say they over-achieved last season, their success announced them as contenders to the traditional top teams, and it’s likely they will continue on this trajectory in 2022.

MOVISTAR

Arguably Movistar’s greatest achievement of the past season has been the continuing popularity of their Netflix show ‘The Least Expected Day’. It’s raised the profile of the team while simultaneously providing fodder for the team’s detractors, as their questionable tactics and ongoing internal politics gave the impression of a team without a plan.

Ins and Outs

Miguel Angel Lopez is the biggest name to leave the team, following the Vuelta drama that saw him stepping off the race on stage 20. Movistar have sustained a few other notable losses, with the unsettled Marc Soler lured by Team UAE, and loyal servants David Villella and Dario Cataldo also departing. The team go some way to replacing them with a further pair of Spaniards, Gorka Izagirre and Alex Aranburu.

2021 Highlights

The Spanish outfit have long been derided for their inability to unite behind one leader and the strategy certainly proved problematic for them once again in 2021. They picked up a few small wins, including a couple for the perennially competitive Alejandro Valverde, but the best they could do at a Grand Tour was a single stage win at La Vuelta. Granted, they came second on GC through Enric Mas, but only after an ignominious display from Miguel Angel Lopez as the joint leader policy once again failed to translate into a coherent plan. A costly strategy as they were left with no choice but to part ways with Superman.

2022 Goals

Losing Lopez and Soler is a blow and finding victories may be a more difficult proposition this season. However, wins will be secondary to ‘La Ultima Bala’ as the veteran has finally decided to end his long career. Expect overblown emotional montages and plenty of hopeful but ultimately fruitless attacks at Grand Tours as the man who has arguably run the show at Movistar for several of his eleven years milks his final year of competitive racing for all it’s worth (update: he’s already taken his first win of the season at the Trofeo Andratx, so it’s started out well). Personally, I wouldn’t be surprised to see him resurface at a Pro level team a la Davide Rebellin once he realises life off the bike isn’t for him.

Outside of the Valverde circus, and in a startling turn of events, the team have already announced they will go to the Tour de France with just one leader: Enric Mas. Valverde will ride the Giro and La Vuelta where he will be hoping for a stage win, the perfect fairytale ending.

The team will look to Aranburu to bring about some success in one-day races; he was 6th at Omloop and 7th at Milano-San Remo in 2021 so it’s not out of the question to imagine that he might be able to produce something for the team on his day.

Summary

It’s always been Bala. At least, it sure feels that way. This season will mark the end of an era but, if there is any mercy in the world, a new beginning for the likes of Enric Mas who has a good few years of his peak ahead of him and, outside of the shadow of Valverde, could remake the team into a more cohesive and unified force. Maybe.

ALPECIN-FENIX

The top ranking UCI ProTeam in 2020 proved yet again in 2021 that they deserved their spot alongside the World Tour teams. They ranked in the top five in terms of wins across the season. While much of the spotlight inevitably falls on Mathieu van der Poel, the team have proven beyond a doubt that they are not a one-man band, with nine separate riders chalking up victories throughout the year.

Ins and Outs

Alpecin have maintained their steady state in the off-season, retaining their core riders and MVPs and bringing in new talent from their development squad, along with one or two new signings, the most significant arguably the Austrian Michael Gogl, who had a decent season in 2021, most notably making up the final member of the Strade Bianche breakaway supergroup as the understudy more commonly known as ‘and Michael Gogl.’ He finished an impressive 6th.

2021 Highlights

It was a great year for Alpecin-Fenix, as they racked up victories across various forms of racing, including a stage win at each of the three Grand Tours, with five overall. Mathieu van der Poel’s Strade Bianche win must surely go down as one of the most memorable cycling wins of all time. Besides these, there were plenty of wins at both week-long stage races and one-day races at various levels, including van der Poel’s unforgettable 50km solo effort on stage 5 of Tirreno-Adriatico, van der Poel’s sprint win in the first WT race of the season at UAE, and van der Poel’s unexpected romp around Switerland in the yellow jersey after two early stage wins at the Tour de Suisse. It wasn’t all about the Dutch superstar though; his Belgian compatriots Tim Merlier and Jasper Philipsen notched up numerous sprint wins between them.

MVDP in all his glory at Strade Bianche

2022 Goals

The team have established themselves as hitters both in one-day racing and at Grand Tours. With two of the strongest sprinters in the peloton in Merlier and Philipsen, if there’s a flat stage or a one-day race that offers the chance of a sprint finish, expect Alpecin-Fenix to be in the mix.

The team goals in terms of one-day racing may be somewhat scaled back as Mathieu van der Poel’s back injury continues to plague him, and his fitness will likely dictate their success at the Monuments. He had given a hint that he might challenge long-time rival Wout van Aert for the green jersey at the Tour de France, but the feasibility of such a goal will very much depend on his ability to rehabilitate in time.

Summary

It’s likely to be another good year for the Belgian team with two world class sprinters and a strong supporting cast, but they feel the absence of MVDP if he continues to struggle with injury.

BORA-HANSGROHE

Following a season of mixed fortunes, the German team look quite different going into 2022, and with arguably the hottest kit in the peloton, will this season be a new start for a team that has lost one of its major assets?

Ins and Outs

BORA’s roster has seen some significant changes, primarily as a result of the departure of Peter Sagan and his entourage. This left some fairly hefty gaps to be filled. Sam Bennett is the most notable of the new arrivals; following his acrimonious split with Quick-Step the Irish sprinter will be keen to prove a point this season. Further quality additions to the team’s ranks include Aleksandr Vlasov, Sergio Higuita, Marco Haller and Jai Hindley. Young Belgian talent Cian Uijtdebroeks rides his first year pro with the team and will be one to watch.

2021 Highlights

BORA suffered some bad luck last year, beginning with a training accident in which a number of their riders were hurt. It set a precedent for a year in which their GC hopes were dashed in the Giro as Emanuel Buchmann crashed out, and Peter Sagan failed to live up to his own high standards after he contracted covid-19 at the end of 2020 and struggled to return to form.

There was still some success; the overall win at Paris-Nice for Max Schachmann at the expense of Primož Roglič, two breakaway Tour de France victories, a handful of sprint victories for the departing Pascal Ackermann, a stage of the Giro and the green jersey for Sagan and victory at Gran Piemonte for British track star Matt Walls.

2022 Goals

The team look to be a more well-rounded unit going into the new season and have a sense of positivity that they will hope to translate into results. Perennial nearly-man Wilco Kelderman targets the Giro alongside co-leaders Emanuel Buchmann and Jai Hindley, and the main focus at the Tour de France will be the green jersey for Sam Bennett. There will be plenty of stage hunting opportunities for the likes of Lennard Kämna and Nils Pollitt, and with the array of sprinting talent the team have accrued any relatively flat one day race will offer opportunities for all-important victories.

Summary

It should be a better year for the German team in terms of overall number of wins, and in Sagan’s absence other riders will have their chance to shine. However their ability to perform at the highest levels in GC battles remains in doubt.

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Keep up with the ‘22 Preview series over the next couple of weeks to find out which teams are aiming for what in the coming season. Subscribe below to make sure you don’t miss a post, and if you’d like to support the site, I’d be hugely grateful – you can do so at my Ko-Fi page. Thanks for reading!