Pastures New

Hi everyone, just dropping a quick line to let you know that the site will be going offline for a couple of days at the end of the week as I ship across to a new web host – I hope you’ll find the new, improved blog easier to navigate and easier on the eye over.

Functionality may be reduced while this is happening but I’ll be back next week to set out my plan going forward – I hope you’ll be as excited about it as I am, as there will be a few changes, which I hope will be appealing. You don’t have to do anything at all, the URL will remain the same and your subscription is unaffected – this is simply a courtesy email to let you know what’s happening.

Many thanks for your continued support, and see you on the other side!

To the sun, two the seas: a week of two races

There’s something about this week, every year, in cycling that makes me shiver.

The thrill of opening weekend has subsided and the adrenaline rush of the major classics is yet to come. It’s too soon to give any real credence to the relative form of riders and yet it offers us the opportunity to gain a glimpse at them, as they write the opening chapter into the story of the season. And there’s no guarantee that the racing will actually be any good, yet there’s always the promise, the anticipation, and of course, two chances per day to see something unforgettable.

Two major stage races, one in France and one in Italy, both stacked with top riders, both featuring a varied range of stages and both running simultaneously – there’s a fizz about the week, the promise of spring combined with the wild unpredictability of the mid-March weather. The FOMO as you juggle screens in an effort not to miss out on any of the action, flicking between races anticipating decisive moments, trying to keep track of which riders are where, who is relying on who, which sprinters are taking on which finals.

And did I mention the scenery? The stunning hills and beautiful coastlines, the first glimpses of the Alps, pretty towns and dramatic rock formations. What’s not to love?

We’ve seen vintage years – think back to 2021, with the Roglič drama of Paris-Nice combined with the Van Aert/Van der Poel slugfest at Tirreno in 2021 – and some less so, but this year there was much to look forward to, with plenty of intrigue prior to the commencement of hostilities: the reprisal of Pogačar v Vingegaard for the first time since the 2022 Tour de France; the last minute surprise return of Primož Roglič; the possible cyclocross-inspired battles between Wout Van Aert, Mathieu van der Poel and Tom Pidcock, and the trialling of a new team time trial format at Paris-Nice. Not to mention the first appearance together of two Groupama-FDJ riders who had experienced a rather public falling out.

So, which stories lived up to their billing, which failed to materialise, and what surprises were there along the way? Here’s a rundown of a thrilling 8 days.

  1. In the beginning…

Part of the peculiar charm of Paris-Nice/Tirreno-Adriatico week is the slow build. It’s not dissimilar to a Grand Tour, which often opens with flat stages or time trials before the slow crescendo into hills and later mountains, just played out over a shorter timescale.

The first couple of stages did indeed provide a slow burn of an opening to both races, yet with contrasting disciplines on display on any given day, there was always something to talk about.

The only day where one race stands alone is the first Sunday, when Paris-Nice kicks off, while the Italian contingent gets an extra day of recovery after the rigours of Strade Bianche, which features much of the same start list. It would be an early opportunity for the fast men around the hills of La Verrière, with the ever-desired crosswinds failing to show up and leading to a relatively quiet day, despite the best efforts of Tadej Pogačar to entice Jonas Vingegaard into an early GC test. The Slovenian’s attempts to play were stifled by Vingegaard refusing to go with him as Jumbo-Visma had other interests in the stage with Olav Kooij ready to contest the sprint.

Tim Merlier took first blood for Soudal-QuickStep at the finish, but with plenty of other sprinters nipping at his heels it suggested he might not have things all his own way that week.

Stage 2 at Paris-Nice was more of the same, and with no-one joining him in the breakaway Uno-X’s Jonas Gregaard set out his stall for the week, heading out in search of the limited KOM points alone. While the crosswinds failed to materialise yet again and the collective viewing public sighed in disappointment as the famous Paris-Nice echelons were conspicuously absent, the final 3km or so made up for the somewhat uninspiring day by being incredibly stressful, with several roundabouts and immense amounts of tension. Mads Pedersen kept his nerve to storm to victory, with Olav Kooij improving from 4th in stage 1 to 2nd.

The race between the two seas kicked off actually IN the sea in Italy, or at least it looked that way as the short-but-not-short-enough-to-be-a-prologue time trial took place in apocalyptic conditions, with rain drenching the riders and even hail showing up to join the party. Everyone looked very wet and sorry for themselves, and Wout Van Aert decided not to participate in the competitive element at all, getting his run out of the way early so he could go back and relax at the hotel – smart guy. Elsewhere on the course, two Australian climbers showed they’d done their homework, Ben O’Connor (AG2R-Citroen) and Jai Hindley (BORA-Hansgrohe) pulling off excellent rides to finish within the top 20. Primož Roglič put in a strong ride to banish any doubts about his form, and Filippo Ganna did what he does and produced a breathtaking display of power to win by almost half a minute over a shell-shocked Lennard Kämna. And, remarkably, no-one crashed.

The tables turned the following day as it was the turn of the Paris-Nice peloton to face the clock, with some notable differences. It was a team time trial, with a tweak to the rules seeing each individual rider able to ride for their own time over the finish line, and the team’s overall time being decided on the fastest individual, thus determining the stage winner.

French labour strikes caused the stage to be condensed, with teams setting off at 3-minute intervals instead of the previously planned 5 minutes, and it led to some awkward situations, as riders who weren’t going all out were caught in the final part of the course by pursuing teams who were pushing to the line.

As they had at La Vuelta, Jayco-Alula excelled, spending time in the hotseat, before Jumbo-Visma deployed their array of time trial specialists in pursuit of victory and a cushion of time for Jonas Vingegaard. It didn’t play out in quite the way the Dane might have hoped, with UAE Team Emirates looking ragged at first, but managing to hold their form to the final kilometre, when Pogačar was let off the leash to rampage to the line alone.

Perhaps the biggest surprise of the day was Groupama-FDJ, who set the fourth fastest time of the day and set David Gaudu up for a good week on GC, Stefan Küng escorting him to the line like a very fast bodyguard. Jumbo-Visma took the stage win, but not the reserves of time they might have hoped for, and even the stage win was almost overturned by a rampaging Magnus Cort, in scintillating form and proving himself master of many disciplines. Just 1 second separated Jumbo-Visma and his EF team at the finish.

At Tirreno it was a flat stage, and the first chance for the rest of the peloton’s sprinters to test their form. Fabio Jakobsen, Mark Cavendish and Dylan Groenewegen were among the fast men hoping to fight for the honours, and it was Fernando Gaviria, now riding for Movistar, who launched first, but Jakobsen timed his effort to perfection and was able to snatch the first of two consecutive opportunities for the fast men.

The Heat is on

While nothing happened of any consequence for the majority of the day on stage 3 of Tirreno-Adriatico, a lot of ‘peloton rides in straight line down straight road’ taking place, it was still all to play for heading into stage 4 at Paris-Nice. The expected gaps hadn’t materialised in the way some had anticipated following the TTT, and it all kicked off on the hilly stage to La Loges des Gardes. There were finally echelons! We weren’t able to see them as they preceded the broadcast, but there was momentary panic as UAE exploded the peloton and the other GC contenders had to chase back on. Apparently.

Finally we had visuals, just in time to see the breakaway at odds, with Pascal Eenkhoorn and Jonas Gregaard sharing a frank exchange of views, presumably over the shared workload. Pogačar continued to vacuum up all available intermediate sprint points, beating his good pal Michael ‘Bling’ Matthews to the line. It was poised for a full-on GC battle heading into the first summit finish of the week, and the assured dominance of Pogačar throughout the race so far prompted Tour de France winner Jonas Vingegaard to strike first. Pogačar was equal to it, and once the sting had gone from the attack the rest of the GC gang were able to catch up. Next to go was David Gaudu, but Pogačar had the measure of the Frenchman, too – however, the pressure found out Vingegaard, his original effort proving too great and costing him the opportunity to stick with the two leaders. He blew up and was passed on his way to the line by a number of other riders, in a finish that was eerily reminiscent of stage 11 of last year’s Tour when he broke Pogačar No matter, said the team. It’s only March – the season’s main goals are ahead.

Back in Tirreno, and in spite of a relatively dull day, heading into Foligno there was drama as Wout Van Aert and a number of his Jumbo-Visma team mates drilled it on the front with just under 10km remaining, forcing everyone to wake up early as they split the bunch, taking a small group with them. It caused panic among the sprinters’ teams who had to fight to regain the opportunity to contest the final, but in the end, a perfectly executed lead-out from Mathieu Van der Poel ensured no-one could match the final sprint of Jasper Philipsen, and Alpecin-Deceuninck finally broke their 2023 duck, taking their first win of the season.

There’s always at least one day when the competing narratives of the two races intertwine to produce a day of breathless, hectic anticipation and screen-switching and for me, that day was 9th March. Stage 5 at Paris-Nice was memorable as the day in which the public spat between Groupama-FDJ teammates Arnaud Démare and David Gaudu was put to rest in what David Millar described as a ‘public display of affection’ (thanks Never Strays Far). In an audacious move to upset the status quo, sprinter Démare led out his team leader David Gaudu for the intermediate sprint, and Gaudu – who has proven in the past he has a strong finish on him – was able to power clear of Pogačar to snatch 4 extra bonus seconds, bringing him to within 6 seconds of the GC lead. He turned to acknowledge the contribution of the man who he’d openly declared war on, and yet again Groupama proved they were equal to the task, and were riding an excellent team race.

The final would be a sprint, with some confusing roundabouts to contend with on the run-in, and it was Olav Kooij who proved strongest, taking the big win he’d been hinting at all of last season and teasing in the two previous sprint finishes. He became the youngest rider in over a decade to win a stage of Paris-Nice – and it was just one of the reasons that Jumbo-Visma fans would be celebrating, come the end of the day.

At Tirreno, it was finally time for the GC men to stretch their legs, and where Primoz Roglič was concerned, the legs were hairy, and he wasn’t afraid to point it out to interested journalists. It was Julian Alaphillippe though who threw down the gauntlet in his usual style, but it didn’t last long before he was reeled back in. Ganna – still wearing the leaders’ blue jersey – and Van Aert drove the pace for a while causing splits, but Van Aert was knocked off his line by a teammate and collided with Tom Pidcock, ending the day for both of them, at least in terms of being competitive. In a heart-warming display of sportsmanship, Van Aert went immediately to check on the health of his cyclocross buddy, before both remounted their bikes and rode away together, sporting matching road rash on their bottoms.

Hirsute limbs notwithstanding, the surprise return of the elder Slovenian cannibal to the fold was marked by a strong ride into Tortoreto, where a reduced bunch fought their way up the final incline in close quarters with many potential winners having their noses in the wind at one point or another. Alaphillippe came the closest on the punchy finish, but Roglič surged through to win with relative ease in the end, though with not quite enough time to take control of the GC – the blue jersey transferred from Ganna to the somewhat narrower shoulders of Bora-Hansgrohe’s Lennard Kämna.

Gradual Descent

Wild winds swept across the continent on Friday, and while organisers at Tirreno opted to shorten the final climb, bringing the summit finish to an ‘almost-summit finish’ 2km further down the Fonte Lardina climb in Sassotetto. ASO did not want to take the risk in the Race to the Sun, and with the stage cancelled, all eyes were on Italy, where the high winds played havoc with the riders, the breakaway blown all over the road without strength in numbers, and congratulating one another on lasting as long as they did.

Ascending to the snowy slopes, the climbers rose to the fore and Damiano Caruso tried his luck at a solo charge, but Enric Mas pulled the rest back and the likes of Mikel Landa, Giulio Ciccone and Hugh Carthy were all in the mix. As the line beckoned, Jai Hindley and Tao Geoghegan-Hart looked promising, but with Wilco Kelderman safely depositing Roglič on the wheel of the leaders the Slovenian was easily able to once again poach a smart victory, with the bonus seconds enough to launch him into the blue jersey (though it should be noted that Lennard Kämna remained in the front group of 16 right to the line).

The curtain falls

So to the final weekend, and the buzz of the preceding few days had ebbed slightly as the rampant Slovenians looked to have their respective GCs all but wrapped up. Granted, Tirreno-Adriatico was a closer affair, but with the queen stage already past, it would take something special to unseat Roglič.

Crashes marred the first of two mountain stages at Paris-Nice, with Josh Tarling ending his stint as the second youngest rider ever to race Paris-Nice with a trip to the hospital (he was fine) and Thomas de Gendt coming down and bringing Mattias Skjelmose with him – both men were unable to finish the stage.

Heading to the business end of the day, a monster turn from Tobias Foss ensured the peloton was scattered down the Col de la Couillole like confetti, and he set up Vingegaard for another bite at the UAE cherry, but while he measured his effort better, once again he was not up to the level of Pogačar and Gaudu, who rode away from him at the finish. A clear pecking order established, with Vingegaard third best. It stayed that way on the final day, with the ride to Col e’Eze more exciting in its first half than its second. A day through the mountains of Nice, the short, sharp stage gave no respite to the tired riders, being up and down all day and shelling out anyone not up to the task of repeat climbs very early on.

The hero of the hour was undoubtedly Uno-X’s valiant polka-dotted warrior, the Dane Jonas Gregaard, who had been single-mindedly amassing KOM points all week and was determined to take the jersey home. Despite the race immediately smashing into pieces Gregaard made it over the first two climbs at the head of the race and had to crest just one more category 2 ascent to put the win out of reach of even Tadej Pogačar, who sat in second place. The GC group were drawing agonisingly close, but Gregaard dug deep and put in a monster effort to seal the deal, his face contorted as he made sure of the final set of points. He immediately sat up and radio’ed the good news back to his team – he would be the only rider other than Pogačar to take home a winner’s jersey.

The day played out according to the script after that: the GC group pulled clear on the penultimate climb, and Tadej Pogačar attacked on the Col d’Eze, with the rest unable to follow, although Gaudu did make a valiant effort to do so, for a while.

The young Slovene won by 53 seconds in the end, with Gaudu in an impressive second place and Vingegaard 1.39 behind the leader.

The final GC day at Tirreno was another hilly day, with the classic Italian hilly circuit race format deployed, three times over the Osimo climb and the undulating landscape around it which produced a fun day out for the peloton, at least from a spectator’s perspective. The repeated circuits put pressure on the riders less comfortable with the climbs and the pace at the front of the bunch shelled plenty of riders out the back. Wilco Kelderman crashed, and as the bunch took on the circuit for the final time, a group containing Aleksandr Vlasov and Guillaume Martin escaped for a while. They were eventually reeled in by the GC group as the pace increased, with UAE Team Emirates pacing on the front for João Almeida and INEOS for Tao Geoghegan-Hart. The break were caught on the final climb with 5km remaining and the GC riders launched immediately into attack mode, with Mikel Landa and Hugh Carthy among the early aggressors, with Roglič and Almeida close behind.

With around 8 riders still in contention coming into the final steep cobbled climb up into Osimo, Enric Mas led the charge, with Geoghegan-Hart, Roglič and Almeida in the wheels. Precisely no-one was surprised when Roglič proved the strongest over the line, but it was a promising week for a range of other GC hopefuls.

The final day saw another circuit race, this time on flat roads around San Benedetto del Del Tronto. It was one for the sprinters, and the victor was once again Philipsen, who won a more complicated final bunch sprint, led out by Mathieu van der Poel who had taken the week to finally nail his lead-out man role for his team.

ICYMI – The Best of the Rest

What conclusions can be drawn? With the cycling media generally circling around the subject of Vingegaard’s form, Pogačar’s dominance and Roglič’s inclusion (or lack thereof) in the Jumbo-Visma Tour de France team, I will instead step away from the speculation and take a sideways look at some of the things that happened around the racing, that you might have missed, courtesy of the bookmarks I left on my Twitter timeline.

Road Safety issues!

Route planning is difficult, I have no doubt. But some of these issues could have been avoided. Fetch a cushion to hide behind, and review this short visual summary of just a few of the situations that led to riders being less safe than they ideally should be, at both of last week’s races.

Play spot the course official on this one from Tirreno.

Roundabouts on the run-in to a sprint finish at Paris-Nice – less than ideal.

Tirreno again, this time presented in the medium of badly-arranged police tape. And another official hiding.

All’s fair in love and road furniture – another example from Paris-Nice to prove that both races had their issues.

Sportsmanship! It’s brilliant!

Two examples of the type of great sportsmanship that make this sport so heart-warming at times.

A peloton trident!

Imagine the peloton organising a flashmob – this would be it.

Top 3 GC riders not to write off!

While the two Slovenian cannibals ate their fill, there were a selection of riders who could cause an upset, if they ever find themselves on an off day, or, y’know, not on the startlist.

(1) David Gaudu (Groupama-FDJ) – it’s an obvious choice, but it bears repeating: Gaudu is the brightest spark in the bunch when it comes to French hopes for a good run at the Tour de France. He’s proven beyond a doubt that his team should throw their support behind him come July.

(2) Tao Geoghegan-Hart (Ineos Grenadiers) – continuing the good run of form he’s shown so far this season, Tao was in the mix for all the big finishes and proved to be the closest rival to Roglič, and I for one am here for his return to form, ahead of the Giro d’Italia.

(3) João Almeida (UAE Team Emirates) – the Portuguese is incredibly consistent and labours away in his metronomic style quietly getting the job done. He showed his team why they should support him at the Giro, mainly by being noticeably better than Adam Yates.

Honourable mentions: it was great to see Hugh Carthy, Giulio Ciccone and Mikel Landa all in good early form. Lennard Kämna continues to prove his abilities as a GC rider, too.

Top 3 young guns rising!

With the might of the huge presences around them, the three young riders who took a step up this week were:

(1) Matteo Jorgenson (Movistar) – often a feature of breakaways in 2021 and 2022, the American almost won a stage of the Tour de France last year, but he well and truly bridged the gap to future GC challenger at Paris-Nice this week.

(2) Kevin Vauquelin (Arkea-Samsic) – fresh from his maiden victory at the Tour des Alpes Maritimes et du Var, the young Frenchman was visible a number of times through the week in Paris-Nice, and finished third in the young rider category, behind Pogačar and Jorgenson.

(3) Olav Kooij (Jumbo-Visma) won an impressive 10 races in his first pro season in 2022, but nothing on the level of Paris-Nice – his scintillating form at Paris-Nice hints at a huge future for the young fast man.


We’ve all grown up, let’s be sensible!

OK it’s probably not fair to call it a disappointment but having built up to the return of cyclocross bash brothers to the road together, it was a little sad not to see them clash. Both Van Aert and Van der Poel were clear that they were working for their teams and not really targeting stages, and they dutifully followed through on their promises. Pidcock was likely carrying tired legs from his epic win at Strade Bianche, and then Van Aert and Pidcock crashed, the latter crashing again the next day and stepping off the race. All in all, it never really got off the ground for the three off-road superstars (pun not really intended).

Instead, let’s reframe the disappointment as an acknowledgement that perhaps, particularly in the case of Van Aert and Van der Poel, they have grown up a little – they have understood that flogging themselves to win a stage of Tirreno-Adriatico probably ISN’T the way to win the Tour of Flanders or Paris-Roubaix – and they measure their efforts as they work towards more important goals later in the season. Fair enough, right?


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One week in February…

February. Ah, February, grim bastion of winter, stubborn oppressor of warmth and merciless purveyor of the darkness, we beseech thee… give us something to smile about?

And lo, February delivered. Bike racing, by the bucketload, and it wasn’t half bad.

Remember when February used to consist of a few half-hearted lower level races and the rest of the peloton easing their tired limbs back into their lycra with Paris-Nice the first thing on their minds? No? Me neither. Over the past couple of seasons, the current generation of riders has completely obliterated the notion that February is for slowly emerging from hibernation. It’s full gas racing from day 1 instead, and let’s face it – it’s bloody brilliant.

Last week, just a single week in February, offered four stage races – three men’s and one women’s – and they were more entertaining than any road race in ACTUAL WINTER had any right to be. There were a few problems though – they boasted about ten names between them, and they demanded the use of several screens. Did I manage to juggle the demands of multiple races, so early in the season? Er, no not really, but using the fine services of GCN I was able to catch up and piece together a complex, fascinating jigsaw puzzle of racing from one week in February.

A Slovenian in Spain

Spain warmed up, more figuratively than literally, with a few one-day races, the most significant being the return of Tadej Pogačar at the Clásica Jaén Paraíso Interior. It was only the second edition of Spain’s answer to Strade Bianche, and Pog took the opportunity on his first race back in the fold to decide ‘actually I just remembered, I don’t like these guys after all, before storming away to a deeply impressive solo victory. It was a continuation of the Pogačar show in Andalucia, and the rampant Slovene was in no mood to give gifts at the Ruta del Sol, whose organisers somewhat contrarily put the hardest stage of the week on stage 1. Three category one climbs offered Pog the option of knocking the GC out of the park at the earliest possible opportunity if he was up to the task. Of course, he bit. Just like Jaen two days earlier, Pog rode away from the rest to solo to victory and set himself up with a comfortable 38 second lead – a fairly sizeable gap with a strong team to support him and just four stages remaining, when you’re Tadej Pogačar.

He won again the next day on the hideous, horrible, disgusting ABSOLUTELY BRILLIANT final into Alcala la Real, despite a spirited effort from Enric Mas to stay with him – he almost managed it on a cobbled climb that seemed to go on for-ev-er. Bahrain and Movistar valiantly attempted to keep the GC interesting, but they were all fighting for second place, and it was Mikel Landa who snatched it ahead of his team mate Santiago Buitrago, with Bahrain filling four of the top 11 spots on GC in the end.

UAE Team Emirates monopolised four of the five stages, with Tim Wellens grabbing a stage win on the third day and Pog making it 3 in 5 on stage 4. Alessandro Covi was their nominated man on the final stage, and Pog launched an epic lead-out which almost saw his entire team and everyone else dropped, and it may have proven too much for Covi in the end, as he wasn’t able to finish the job – instead, Omar Fraile launched a perfectly timed attack to come through from way down to spoil the UAE party. Not that it was a bad week’s work for the Emirati team.

Meanwhile, in Portugal…

The field at the Algarve was arguably the strongest of the three stage races, or at least perhaps the most balanced, but with the UAE Tour beginning on Monday the sprint field on the other hand wasn’t all that deep. Alexander Kristoff scored his first victory for Uno-X in what turned out to be the only bunch sprint finish on stage one. His team mate Søren Wærenskjold stormed into third position, both of them and BORA-Hansgrohe’s Jordi Meeus able to beat European champion Fabio Jakobsen into fourth, after a less than perfect lead-out put the Dutchman out of position.

EF Education-EasyPost took control on stage 2 following another steep battle to the finish line, which saw reduced bunch surge for the line and Soudal-QuickStep’s Ilan van Wilder, in his first foray into GC leadership, made the classic oft-repeated erorr of celebrating as he crossed the line, just as Magnus Cort steamed through on the inside – his late attack and brilliant positioning to take the shorter inside line gifted him with not only the stage but the yellow jersey.

Former early celebrators Alberto Bettiol, Wout van Aert and Jasper Phillipsen were quick to lend their support to the young Belgian.

And then came stage 3 – WOW. What can I say about stage 3? If you didn’t watch it, of all of the action this is the stage I’d urge you to go back and watch on catch-up, probably from about 25km to go. The launchpad for the winning move was way back then, heading into the intermediate sprint. A group broke clear to fight it out amongst themselves for the bonus seconds, and in doing so, found themselves with a gap

What happened next to transform the sprint group into a breakaway in unclear – likely Ganna and Pidcock agreed to keep their feet on the gas, and Tobias Foss appears to have said something to encourage Cort, and that was that – they were away. The supergroup breakaway – featuring Ganna, Pidcock, Foss, Cort, Madouas, and Rui Costa, worked as a team time trial unit with a peloton led by the sprint teams ruing their mistakes. They fought tooth and nail to make up the deficit and with 500m to go the peloton made the catch, but it wasn’t over – race leader Magnus Cort wasted no time, launching his sprint to power clear and win a second stage in as many days, and leaving the viewing public in disbelief at what they had just witnessed. Truly brilliant racing.

Stage 4 was the big climbing day, and a group pulled clear of the rest featuring Ilan Van Wilder, Tom Pidcock and Oscar Onley of Team DSM, the young riders showing the rest how it’s done. João Almeida did João Almeida things, pacing his way up and launching an attack with around 350m to go, but it wasn’t enough, Pidcock taking off to storm through to victory and take the yellow jersey.

The final stage’s individual time trial would prove decisive, but not quite in the way that everyone expected. Resplendent in Italian national kit and messing with everyone’s minds because he wasn’t in his rainbow stripes, Fillippo Ganna wasn’t able to pull off a victory, losing out to nearly-man Stefan Küng who was finally able to get the better of his long-time rival to take the stage win. Pidcock, riding in the yellow jersey, was the third best of the Ineos riders, his performance memorable only for his incredible save that was testament to his remarkable bike-handling skills – video evidence provided.

It was in fact Dani Martinez who put in the most consistent performance of the week, proving that to win a GC, you don’t always have to be front and centre in stages. A brilliant TT performance followed a solid ride the rest of the week to deliver Martinez to the GC win, with Ganna in an unlikely second place.

French riders, for French teams, In France

The race with ALL the names, the Tour of the Maritime Alps et du Var (helpfully shortened to Tour 0683 after the department the race takes place in) is a short three-stage romp around southern France, with strong showings from all the French teams while many of the other teams were in the Algarve or at Ruta del Sol.

I’ll be honest, this wasn’t winning my ‘battle of the screens’ most days, simply because I was more invested in the Algarve race, so I have less to say about it, but as feels right and appropriate, the race was mostly dominated by French riders for French teams. Kevin Vauquelin of Arkea-Samsic pipped Neilson Powless and Kevin Geniets to victory on stage 1, with Trek Segafredo’s Mattias Skjelmose storming through to take stage 2 ahead of Powless (again) and Vauquelin. Aurélien Paret-Peintre won stage 3 for AG2R Citroen, with Vauquelin sealing the deal on GC. Allez!

Setmana Ciclista

The women’s calendar is rapidly expanding, meaning that the Volta Femenina de la Comunitat Valenciana (such a mouthful, they chose a completely different name for it) wasn’t even the first stage race for the women of the year, nor was it the second (third, it was the third). With only a YouTube livestream to keep up with the race, and questionable camera-work throughout (OK they probably didn’t have the budget for it – some coverage is better than no coverage) it was tricky to get a handle on this one, but it looked to be a good race.

Most of the top sprinters were in the UAE, leaving Elisa Balsamo to open her account with two wins in two stages, with flawlessly executed team work from her Trek-Segafredo team and in particular lead-out woman extraordinaire Ilaria Sanguineti. The following two days would decide the GC, with Annemiek Van Vleuten back for the first race of her final competitive season. She was, of course, the strong favourite, with FDJ-SUEZ’s Cecilie Uttrup Ludwig also tipped to be in contention.

It was not to be for the World Champion though. Van Vleuten’s most recent conqueror got the better of her in the end – with a breakaway of three riders on stage 3, Ashleigh Moolman-Pasio bested Amanda Spratt and AvV in the dash for the line to take the overall lead. It turned out to be a fantastic race for Moolman-Pasio’s new team, AG Insurance-Soudal QuickStep, as on the final day her team mate Justine Ghekiere was one of two riders to gap the peloton, Ghekiere losing out on the stage win to Elise Uijen of Team DSM but taking enough time over the rest, including Moolman-Pasio, to win the general classification.

And so one week in February concluded, and we all breathed a sigh of relief that the one after only contained the UAE Tour and no-one’s all that fussed about watching the peloton pound their way through a featureless desert and round a hundred roundabouts for way longer than is necessary (unless there are crosswinds, then it’s sort of alright).

Is it too much too soon? Will we all be burned out by July? Perhaps the more pertinent question is how this intensity level will impact the riders of the pro peloton long term. That remains a question mark right now.

We head into so-called ‘Opening Weekend’ laughing ourselves silly at the suggestion that it represents any sort of beginning – we’ve all been sitting glued to our screens for a month already, Omloop, what makes you so special?*

*Cobbles. The answer is cobbles.

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Clash of the Off-Road Titans

(Or, the Cyclocross World Championships – elite races preview)

Sit back, relax, put the Rocky themetune on Spotify, because we’re going in. However you dress it up, both the elite races at this year’s cyclocross World Championships feature very public rivalries, and are expected to come down to head-to-heads in both cases between the top four riders in the sport so far this season.

I’ll throw in the usual disclaimer of ‘cyclocross is unpredictable and anything can happen’ before swiftly moving on to examine the finer points of the two head-to-heads that will almost certainly decide which riders will wear the lauded rainbow stripes going into 2023/24.

Using a highly scientific (completely made up) method, I’ll pit the pairs against one another across a series of categories, to ultimately determine who I think will take the win in the elite women’s and men’s races.*

*Please do not stake your house on this


If you happen to be reading this and you’re not sure who I’m talking about, welcome out from wherever you’ve been hibernating, please allow me to (briefly) illuminate you as to exactly who we’re screaming at this weekend.

The women’s CX season has been dominated by not two but three riders – all Dutch – but following the recent decision of Shirin van Anrooij to remain within the U23 category for another year, it’s the pair of queens Puck Pieterse and Fem van Empel who will duke it out for top spot in Hoogerheide this weekend. Both are ridiculously talented, and have achieved A LOT this season – they are well matched, yet contrasting in their skillset, and they challenge one another constantly to stay at the top of their game – both could have opted to remain U23 this year, but the fact that they haven’t, and that they are far and away the top two favourites for the elite race, speaks to their prodigious respective talent.

Although of course, the riders will be racing for their national teams at the weekend, it’s worth noticing that it’s Jumbo Visma v Alpecin-Deceuninck rounds 1 and 2. On the men’s side, it’s the much-anticipated clash of Van Aert and Van der Poel following a year off last year, and unlike Puck and Fem, whose rivalry is blossoming, these two have been knocking one another around the metaphorical muddy ring for a decade already. They know each other inside out, they have contested seven elite World Championships previously, and it’s openly accepted that they will occupy the top two spots on the podium, bar serious incident. Like Puck and Fem, both have been on excellent form this season, and it’s too close to call – without my serious, scientific analysis of course – who will go on to be victorious.


Let’s start by considering the form of the riders based on this season’s racing, and in particular their past couple of races.

Head-to-head, it couldn’t be much closer between Pieterse and Van Empel, with Fem leading 6-5 in terms of results so far this season when both have been in the race. Their most recent head-to-head resulted in a win for Fem at the UCI World Cup in Benidorm, in another tense, close battle.

They opted to avoid one another this past weekend, but both inevitably topped the podium at their respective races. This sentence applies equally to our men’s pairing, who also chose to amplify the anticipation for the big clash by choosing to take a week away from one another’s company.

Van Der Poel came out on top the last time they faced off, in Benidorm, though Van Aert leads the head-to-head form 6-4. Following a year in which we were starved of them as a duo, it’s been good to see that they are still on pretty equal footing – good for our entertainment, that is.

VERDICT – The form guide gives Van Empel the edge over Pieterse – for the men, it’s too close to call. Van Aert leads on number of wins this season, though VDP has the upper hand from their most recent encounter – I’m calling this one a draw.


Having considered this season’s form, it’s worth casting our eyes back a little further, or a lot further, in the case of the Vans, who first clashed at an elite World Championships in 2015. Feels like a lifetime ago, doesn’t it? Mathieu took that one, despite Wout besting him 9-6 in the season head-to-heads. An interesting point of note, as it was not the first time that the season’s dominant rider went on to lose the rainbow stripes. Wout did it to Mathieu twice, in 2017 and 2018, despite having been soundly dominated by the Dutchman over the course of both seasons. In fact, VDP’s record over his Belgian rival is quite something – he leads the head-to-head series 119-60 overall, winning two-thirds of the match-ups between them, and taking the World title for the past three years that he’s ridden it – 2019, 2020 and 2021 (Van Aert was still recovering from the horror crash at the Tour de France in 2020).

The history between the two Dutch women is far fresher in the memory – they’ve raced one another in elite races since the 2019/2020 season despite their relative youth, and Puck leads the overall series 31-17, having had the upper hand in every season other than this one. They have both tasted the rainbow at U23 level, Fem winning in 2021 and Puck the reigning champion from this time last year.

VERDICT – historically speaking, it’s Van Der Poel and Pieterse with the edge.


Time to check out Hoogerheide. It’s no secret that the course was designed by Mathieu van der Poel’s father Adrie. It’s his birthplace (not literally on the course – although I haven’t verified that), and the GP Adrie van der Poel is held there annually since the man himself bowed out of the sport in 2000. It’s a strange phenomenon, going into a race knowing the father of your arch rival set the course, and it could be argued that it’s had the desired effect in previous years – Mathieu has won every elite head-to-head between the two on the course, and has taken the honours there five times between 2015 and 2020. Interestingly, Wout has beaten him there once – in the U23 World Championship in 2014. But that was a long time ago.

So to the course itself. It’s a fast, flowing course, with a number of technical elements, so there’s really something for everyone. There’s a high staircase, and planks which have been moved this year to a spot which will actually cause the riders to have to take them uphill – something which could be the ruin of anyone not secure in their bunny-hopping. Naturally, this gives Van Der Poel and Pieterse the edge on this course feature – though Van Empel’s bunny-hopping has improved this season – but Van Aert has looked shaky on them ever since coming down hard going over them in Antwerp in December.

The course has a long, rising start/finish straight which could lead to an epic sprint for the line, if the pairs stay together that long. Prior to that is the infamous off-camber section, which could see mistakes made as the pressure mounts, and will require nerves of steel to take at the kinds of speeds these maniacs travel at.

VERDICT – There’s not much to choose between the two pairs in terms of the parcours and this is mainly because there really is a fine balance on this course between power and technique. However, his familiarity and success on the course leads me to suggest Mathieu has the edge in this category. For the women, I’m giving the edge to Fem, simply because of the long drag to the finish, where her power will really come into play.


This is basically a glorified weather forecast. It’s set to be relatively dry this week in the area, however the ground is already quite waterlogged from earlier in the month, which partly explains the course being rearranged slightly. How this will play out over the weekend could dictate how it goes for our fair rivals. The women’s elite race takes place on Saturday afternoon, and is the fourth race on the course – it has less time to dry out fully but less racing to get it all churned up. The conditions arguably don’t have a huge bearing on the women’s race – both Fem and Puck have won in horrible conditions this season, with Fem victorious in the slop at Dublin and Puck taking the spoils in the slick mud of Overijse.

For the men, the conditions could play a more significant part in deciding the outcome of the race. Wout is famous for being a demon in the mud – not that Mathieu is a slouch, but he’s more error-prone and Van Aert’s diesel power and size really suit gross conditions. By the time the men take to the course, 7 races will have taken place on the course, and if the water-logging has affected the parcours at all, it will be at its worst by that point.

VERDICT – Unless it’s a mudfest, which looks highly unlikely, the conditions probably won’t have a big impact on the result in either race. A draw!


OK this is a category that I have made up to reflect just general indefinable feelings and totally non-scientific stuff, for example: psychological advantage. It’s east to over-analyse this sort of thing and impossible to quantify, but it feels as though there has been a genuine shift in mindset from Van Aert over the past two seasons. Where in the past MVDP seemed to have the better of him, or at least the ability to get under his skin, Van Aert seems to have risen above it of late, taking his losses on the chin and always moving forward.

Conversely, Mathieu is the same instinctive, mood rider he always was. He takes risks, and he makes mistakes, but he also has plenty of days when he is on fire, and the risk leads to reward. He’s prepared well this year and despite a brief complaint about his back in early January, he seems to be in great shape. He’ll have confidence on a course he has succeeded on in the past, and in knowing that Wout hasn’t gotten the better of him at Worlds in five years, so in terms of mood – it’s highly likely his will be set to VERY GOOD. Wout has no reason to be anything other than his usual steady, unflappable self – he knows he has it in him to beat Mathieu, and if he can’t get a gap during the laps he will be confident in his sprint. Wout hasn’t worn rainbow stripes in any discipline since 2018 which feels like something of an aberration given his incredible results in the interim – and despite his form he may be considered the slight underdog, given the course and its implications.

Fem van Empel riding for Jumbo Visma has brought a satisfying symmetry to the whole affair. She has characteristics that make her reminiscent of the legend, and now team mate, Marianne Vos, and Wout Van Aert himself. Fem too is a powerful rider with a strong sprint, and like MVDP, Puck Pieterse is going to have to rely on her excellent technical skills to maximise any gaps she might be able to find around the course, as she will not want it to go down to a sprint finish. But Puck is stone cold on big occasions and will bring her A game to the uphill bunny hops and tricky off camber sections – but will it be enough to outlast Van Empel in the final?

VERDICT – Mathieu, on this course, with this form, has the edge here – if he can get a gap. If not, Wout will use the underdog spirit of it NOT being his Dad’s course, and having missed out for the past 5 years, to nail him on the sprint. OK FINE, I’m giving them a point each. Pieterse will call upon her supreme technical skills but I just can’t see past Van Empel on that long final run-in. I’ll give them a point each too. I’m not good at this, am I?

Er, Excuse me, We’re here too!

(Or, my brief run down of the possible threats to the main contenders)

I don’t want to be disrespectful. There are many hard-working, fantastically talented individuals in the world of cyclocross who will also be racing at the weekend. And while I’ve spent the majority of this article covering the most likely outcome, sport is sport, it’s unpredictable, and you just NEVER KNOW. So, who could cause an upset to the top billed stars?


The most obvious answer here would have been Shirin Van Anrooij but the Trek-Baloise Lions rider announced after the Benidorm World Cup that she would have plenty of time for elite championships, and has elected to remain U23 for another year, leading to a lot of people nodding with their teeth gritted and saying they totally understood her decision (while clearly being gutted that we’d miss out on the battle).

Speaking of Benidorm, the top 3 women became a top 4 there, as Italian Silvia Persico managed to keep up with the three Dutch for the majority of the race. She started her season late but has ridden well, and if she’s on a good day, she could cause an upset – and she has a hell of a sprint on her. Ceylin Del Carmen Alvarado is on excellent form this season, and she probably poses the biggest threat to her countrywomen; Lucinda Brand could be in with a shot too if she’s on the form of her life – she hasn’t quite had her usual edge so far this season. Annemarie Worst, Inge van der Heijden and Aniek van Alphen have all performed well this season too.


It’s been an incredible season in men’s cross in terms of competition, and, with the exception of Val di Sole, in races that HAVEN’T featured Van Aert or Van Der Poel, there has been a broad spread of winners and contenders. Eli Iserbyt followed his usual pattern of clearing up in the early season before going off the boil a bit, but he has looked fast in the past couple of weeks. Michael Vantourenhout has had almost the opposite pattern, peaking in mid-season, taking the European title and having a good run over the kerstperiode. But the two work well together and could cause some trouble. Lars Van Der Haar performs well on big occasions and the course suits his capabilities. Laurens Sweeck has had a brilliant season following his move to Crelan Fristads, winning the World Cup overall and proving that there is life beyond Pauwels Sauzen Bingoal.


Despite the level of competition, I can’t see past a one-two for both of our hotshot duos. I hate predicting races so I’m not going to guess, but using my EXTREMELY SCIENTIFIC methodology, I have the scores at 3-2 to Van Empel and 3-1 to Van Der Poel so – I’ve called it – Mathieu and Fem will win.*

*Maybe. This is in no way guaranteed. I reiterate, please do not bet your house on it.


I had a lot of fun writing this piece. If you’ve enjoyed reading it, or any of my other work, you can support me by buying me a coffee.

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Festive Cyclocross – An Extended Review

I’m cross-posting (pun accidental but delightful) this from my newsletter, partly as I know not everyone wants to make that kind of a commitment (we all have a lot going on in our inboxes, am I right?) and partly for posterity, as my longer form pieces is what this site is all about, and my newsletter has tended to absorb so much of my energy the past few months that there’s not much left for long-form writing.

Anyway, here, for anyone who’d like a record of it, is a chronological review of the 2022/2023 kerstperiode – the European festive cyclocross racing block that this year featured 10 races over a two-week period. This year’s was particularly memorable, so here for your reminiscing pleasure, are 2000-odd words about it.

The kerstperiode ushered in the return of all kinds of riders – Marianne Vos, Zdenyk Stybar, Clement Venturini and Quinten Hermans to name but a few who returned to the field to join the mass participations of the heart of the cyclocross season.

The unique Zilvermeercross at Mol (23rd Dec) in Belgium kicked off proceedings. Taking place in the dark, just two days after the winter solstice, the race combined sand sections with a long straight along the ‘Zilvermeer’ (silver lake) which offered repeat chances to attack, opportunities that Shirin van Anrooij didn’t need as she put on a show of dominance in the absence of her two young compatriots, Pieterse and Van Empel, with team mate Lucinda Brand a distant second. For the men, Mol served as chapter 1 of the blockbuster thriller that would unfold over the Christmas period featuring the three contemporary protagonists of the sport: Wout van Aert, Mathieu van der Poel and Tom Pidcock. The two old rivals used the straight section to attack the rest, then each other, pulling clear before Van Aert dropped the hammer, recording a blistering fastest lap to storm to victory. 1-0 Belgium.

Chapter 2 was the World Cup in Gavere (26th Dec), a brilliant, undulating parcours with the requisite mud lending itself to a thrilling race. Van Anrooij continued her fine form, churning out the power in the heavy conditions, Puck Pieterse unable to match her, suffering a mechanical and with the conditions. Young Brit Zoe Backstedt chalked up a second 4th place in as many races, this one her most significant elite result to date. Pidcock and Van der Poel traded attacks and shared the lead with Van Aert under pressure in third, but the Dutchman pulled clear on lap 5 of 6 to level the score at 1-1. (Props to Cameron Mason who worked his way through the field to an impressive 9th).

The ups, downs and thick mud of Gavere were forgotten the following day in Heusden-Zolder (27th Dec), the first of two consecutive races in the Superprestige series. Another natural course but with sharp descents and fast sections, it was a total contrast with yesterday’s slogfest, the riders flying round the course at breakneck speed. With the top 3 women absent, Ceylin del Carmen Alvarado, Lucinda Brand and Inge van der Heijden were the key players, Alvarado edging a close contest that had us guessing right to the line.

The men’s race (Chapter 3) was a straight punch-up between Wout and Mathieu, a true revival of the old rivalry that was missing last season. The final sprint that we were waiting for didn’t quite materialise, Van der Poel unclipping in the finishing strait to take the sting out of his final push for the line, following a mistake on the final climb. There was excitement too in the chasing group, Van der Haar with astonishing speed in the later laps chasing on like a rocket, eventually beating Pidcock into 3rd.

The return to the calendar of Diegem (28th Dec) was yet another contrast – another evening race, on a more urban course – essentially a mucky romp round a town park. Think Glastonbury with bikes. With Van Empel still absent, it was Puck v Shirin round 2, Pieterse with the edge in the early stages, Van Anrooij grinding alone to claw back much of the time but in the end unable to close the gap. Puck put in an injection of pace to pull away again on the final lap, and celebrate a hard-fought win.

Where the top 3 were spread out in Heusden-Zolder, they were packed together at Diegem, engaged in a breathless battle to the line that had me on the edge of my seat. Seriously, it was one of the best sporting events I’ve seen in some time. It marked the midpoint of the story – the action twisting and turning, the outcome impossible to predict. They wasted no time, quickly to the front. They were evenly matched, Van der Poel majestic through the sand, taking a gap, then Van Aert in the ascendancy. Pidcock stayed with him though, and after dropping Van der Poel the two traded blows all the way to the line, the final few turns ridden to perfection by Pidcock, who made a big statement, taking second for the first time in a race featuring all three of them.

Rounding out 2022 was the Azencross at Loenhout (30th Dec), as the Exact Cross series continued. On a flat mucky course and in quite disgusting conditions it was a walkover for Van Anrooij in a field lacking in depth. She was smiley across the line, her victory uncontested, but the battle of the young riders behind drew interest, with the rapidly improving Marie Schreiber clear in second and Kristyna Zemanova fighting for a podium spot. Manon Bakker the oldest of the front bunch at the ripe old age of 23, with impressive junior Lauren Molengraf in 4th and 19-year-old Line Burquier filling out the top 5.

The final battle of 2022 proved to be the final chapter in the ‘big 3’ narrative. In heavy mud that isn’t his forte, Pidcock hung on to his more senior rivals, his efforts like a concertina each lap as he closed the gap, then fell back again, seeming to lose touch completely on lap 6 before improbably working his way back by lap 7 immediately attacking. Van der Poel launched repeated attacks on the final lap but the long awaited, yearned-for sprint out involving all three finally manifested, Van Aert proving the most powerful fast man to take his 4th win in a row.

Sven Nys’ self-titled race (like my poem?) in Baal (1st Jan) was up next, and we’ve finally crossed over into 2023 (happy new year!). Out with the old and in with the new, as teams traded riders, kit and gear like some kind of muddy bike-themed swap shop, with commentators and fans alike trying to spot the differences from just two days earlier. Quinten Hermans and Corne van Kessel either forgot, or chose to ignore, that both had switched teams that day, the former Tormans team mates riding together as they so often did before, despite belonging to Alpecin-Deceuninck and Deschacy-Hens-Maes respectively.

The return of Fem Van Empel, now an all-new member of Jumbo Visma, was bad news for the rest of the women’s field. With no Pieterse or Van Anrooij to spar with, the imperious young Dutchwoman was free to rampage to victory, a full two minutes clear of Lucinda Brand in second, Alvarado missing out after one too many mistakes. Two of the men’s top three chose to sit this one out too, Pidcock the only ‘big three’ member on the start line. With Vantourenhout on a better day than team mate Iserbyt, and Van der Haar working his way up the field, they looked to be fighting for second as the Yorkshireman carved out a lead, that was until the pump track saw him crash out, flipping his bike over the barriers, an unusual mistake for the mountain bike Olympic champion. Dazed and bruised, his lead evaporated, allowing his junior rival Eli Iserbyt to rise like a phoenix to victory, his first since October. 

Herentals (3rd Jan) was another race to feature just one of the terrific trio, this time Puck Pieterse the lone representative of the 20-year-old Dutch trident, and the undulating, muddy course suited the mountain biker in her, leading to the expected win, by just under half a minute from Brand, with Annemarie Worst putting in a good performance to take 3rd. The men’s trio was one down, Pidcock sitting this one out after his crash, leaving Jens Adams to cast himself in the role of third wheel to the Two Big Vans. It was Van Aert’s home race – the Belgian has won both of the previous editions of the relatively youthful cross – and after dispatching Adams, the two big guns went to work, matching each other pedal stroke for pedal stroke, eyeing one another on the athletics track, and taking it right down to the wire… almost. A rear puncture suffered by Van Aert on the final pass through the pits denied us of the sprint once again, leaving Van Der Poel to take the spoils, bringing the series to 4-2 in favour of the Belgian.

Two infamous sand races were the bread in the sandwich that completed the New Year racing block. Koksijde (5th Jan) saw an exciting start to the women’s race, with only Pieterse missing from the big hitters, Van Anrooij and Alvarado making the best start and a chase group of five on the tail of Van Anrooij who led going into lap 2, including Fem Van Empel. Fem edged closer to her rival as the race progressed but van Anrooij’s command of the sand was superior and she notched up another victory to add to her steadily growing collection. After a few near misses, Van der Poel was in no mood to mess around, quick off the mark but not alone for long, with his old pal Wout on his wheel and sand specialist Laurens Sweeck taking his turn to mix it with the Vans. The lead riders were all guilty of small mistakes, but as the rain came down churning the sand into cement, Van Aert attacked and quickly opened up a gap, taking advantage of a change of tires to further increase his lead, flying over the sand and putting victory beyond doubt, as Van der Poel suffered a bad day at the office, later complaining of back pain.

The meat in the sandwich was Gullegem (7th Jan), and on a dull day the parcours was hard going, deeply rutted mud hampering the participants. Alvarado went out hard with EF’s Zoe Backstedt powering along in second, with Denise Betsema and Inge van der Heijden in pursuit. One too many mistakes for Backstedt saw her miss out on her first elite podium though, as Alvarado sealed another win in her excellent season. Despite being the lone representative of the big 3 in the men’s race, it wasn’t straightforward for Wout van Aert, who made numerous mistakes and only (!) won by 23 seconds.

The final race before nationals was the World Cup in Zonhoven (8th Jan), and it saw all three of the biggest names back in action for the women. The treacherous sand descents spelled trouble, Van Empel falling twice on first lap, along with Backstedt, and Pieterse coming unstuck on the second. Once again Van Anrooij was the steadiest on the sand, taking advantage of the errors of her compatriots to power to a third World Cup win of the season. Vos and Cant reprised their rivalry, putting on a display of power to sprint for 11th place. If autumn belonged to Van Empel, then arguably, the winter was Van Anrooij’s. It remains to be seen if the Baloise-Trek rider will opt to compete in the elite category at Hoogerheide – the race would be poorer without her.

Like so many others, the men’s race came down to who would make the least errors. Once again, Van Aert was able to use his consistency and his strong sand riding skills to gain the advantage over Van der Poel, who went all out in his usual guts-or-glory style, and suffered unforced errors as a consequence. The Belgian wins the winter, the Dutchman arguably the underdog in the battle for the rainbow stripes.

Which brings us up to date, bar the national championships which took place this weekend just gone – the British elites were the only ones available to view, and in truly horrific conditions in Cumbria, Zoe Backstedt and Cameron Mason ground out well-deserved wins to become new British champions – congratulations to them both.



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Snapshots from the Tour

The bigger the race, the longer it takes me to reflect upon the events that came to pass. The Tour de France is the biggest race of the year, and there are always myriad stories to tell, from the individual moments that capture the imagination, to the big picture, the glorious, technicolour whole.

The 2022 edition was a race so huge in its significance and scope that I found myself wanting to say the right thing, rather than everything – I have already written about Wout Van Aert’s second places and about the incredible events of stage 11, as these events grabbed me at the time and demanded my attention. But as time passed and the memories of the other stages blended into one, I sought to pick out the individual stories that stayed with me, and to write short vignettes about some of the images that comprised the whole of last summer’s unforgettable Tour.

Some of them are defining moments, some of them are just visual snapshots of odd, stand-out events. Borrowing stills from the footage, I have created a memory with words to stand alongside the image. It’s a project I began some months ago, and it may not be complete for some time, as life intervenes and I find myself wishing for something better than just stills from live footage – in the future, I would love to run this project collaboratively, with amateur photography captured in the moment.

Anyway. It’s a bit different from my usual pieces, calling to my creative roots and occupying some liminal space between the cold, hard reality of elite level sport, and the wonder that this reality evokes in our imaginations, in these moments of joy, excitement or defeat. I hope you enjoy it.

Stage 1 – Copenhagen – Copenhagen (13.2km) – 1st July 2022

The most northerly Grand Depart in tour history. The torrents render the streets of Copenhagen slick, the ebullient crowd vibrant with multi-coloured umbrellas, the famous mermaid right at home. Stefan Bissegger, time trial specialist, slips and slides, clattering to the deck, his electric pink skinsuit splashing across the tarmac. The crash of the time trialist is somehow more inelegant, the aerodynamic beauty colliding with reality in a painful fracturing of expectation. Both his, and ours.

Stage 2 – Roskilde – Nyborg (202km) – 2nd July 2022

The bridge from one land mass to another is the focal point and the peloton rises to boiling point, surging for position as if it were the entrance to the Molenberg. The hoped-for winds don’t materialise, yet the bunch is dwarfed, suddenly a miniature version of itself, riders clustering together like penguins, outliers risking total alienation on the vast surface of the arrow-straight road. They churn and broil, seeking at once to to gain an advantage, and to find shelter.

Stage 3 – Vejle – Sønderborg (182km) – 3rd July 2022

Magnus Cort and his thousands of compatriots light up the roads beneath a cobalt blue sky. The roars send him on his way, the quirky, moustachioed lone ranger, once rose-tinted, now be-speckled in polka dots, resplendent on his solo jaunt. Reflecting the joy from the masses gathered in sporting communion, as he sprints against nothing but a reason not to for a single point. He and the jubilant horde of fans representing the true heart of Denmark, the passion that unites them, on a day that would later seek to divide, marred by tragedy.

Stage 4 – Dunkerque – Calais (172km) – 5th July 2022

An inauspicious claim to fame, Wout van Aert has three seconds places in three stages, frustration in the time trial followed by two close calls in the sprints. When the attack comes, it’s devastating. Gravity-defying. The team combining their resources in a dazzling show of dominance. They tip him over the top of the climb and he engages time trial mode, pushing power into the earth, man versus peloton, and what a man to take them on. 10km to find his way to top spot on the podium. A solo drive to bury the doubters.

Stage 5 – Lille-Métropole – Arenberg Porte du Hainault (154km) – 7th July 2022

‘Chaos is inherent in all compounded things. Strive on with diligence.’ – Buddha

You predict chaos, and chaos ensues. There is beauty in the chaos, but only when viewed from a distance. Too close, too painful. The undoing of one Primož Roglič, as chaos in the shape of a misplaced haybale brings him to the ground. Painful echoes of crashes past. Behind him, his team scattered across the road, panic gripping them as they play frantic chess with bikes. Roglič takes a seat from a fan and relocates his own shoulder., all unseen by the TV cameras. A world apart. Alongside, his team mates fly by, not noticing him there. The other half of the team will come back for him but the damage is done and his dream is over for another year. For the time being, chaos is king.

Stage 6 – Binche – Longwy (220km) – 8th July 2022

The yellow jersey goes out on a high. A breakaway jaunt, one of many, and with the peloton looming, Van Aert bears down on the pedals, one last throw of the dice, as he kicks away from Quinn Simmons, a final flex as he heads solo towards the knife edge on which the outcome of the stage will balance. He can’t be assured victory, but he will go down fighting, taking the lauded apparel on a victory lap which although doomed, stands for everything he is about as a rider.

Stage 7 – Tomblaine – La Super Planche Des Belles Filles (176km) – 9th July 2022

One dogged breakaway rider, two determined rivals. Lennard Kämna fights his bike up the agonising gradient of La Planche des Belles Filles, head swinging from side to side as if the effort of his neck alone can drag him up the climb. Behind, the tenacious couple around which the race revolves play tag. Too soon to separate them, they toy with one another, bravado overwhelming the dogged resilience of the lone man. He is broken in the final 100m, undone by the surge, his head dropping. Spent, he fades into the scenery as the gladiators spar to the line.

Stage 8 – Dole – Lausanne (186km) – 10th July 2022

A fourth country in twice as many days, the flat farmland of Eastern France precedes the elevation of Switzerland, precipitates the peloton switching off. They resemble a migration, a flock of rainbow birds asleep on the wing. The mistakes bring down first the crowd, then later the lone ranger, France’s enigmatic pedal dancer Thibaut Pinot, stricken not once but twice. If he didn’t have bad luck at his home Tour he’d have none at all. A crash, then a collision, a soigneur and a pendulous musette the unsuspecting culprit, onlookers holding their breath as their hero holds his face. Not tears, but broken sunglasses. He will fight another day.

Stage 9 – Aigle – Châtel Les Portes du Soleil (193km) – 11th July 2022

A day of battles, first between veterans for polka dot glory – Simon Geschke and Bob Jungels, a German and a Luxembourger both riding for French pride. Geschke claims the points and accedes the day, his goal achieved. The second battle man versus climb, as Jungels strives to give his team something to celebrate as their GC chances slip into the rear-view. 50km alone, Jungels digs in with the phoenix Pinot valiantly rising in pursuit, yet never close enough. A glorious debut Tour victory secured after a final drive to the line, joy replacing pain, his name etched in history.


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Yin, yang and sore elbows: some thoughts on the World Championship road races

Two mornings, two early alarm calls. Two bleary-eyed visits to the kitchen to make the first cup of tea of the day and catch up on two very important races.

The elite road race weekend has come and gone, and as always, it leaves in its wake a multitude of conflicting emotions, questions and talking points. It’s beyond doubt that we came away from Wollongong with two worthy winners: arguably the two top cyclists of year (those arguments are for another time and place) – Annemiek van Vleuten and Remco Evenepoel – were crowned World Champions, and donned the rainbow jersey to celebrate their achievements.

To have had access to a time machine a week ago, you’d have looked at those two names on paper and assumed they would win the race in the exact same style: both riding away solo, too strong for the others to follow. Both are capable of just that, as has been demonstrated many times in the past (less for Remco merely as a result of his relative youth – but he has form, nonetheless).

Yet take that same time machine and hope forward five or ten years, and look again at those names, and you will remember two very different races.

What makes a good race, anyway?

There exists a fragile dichotomy in the hearts of sports fans: the desire to see top level sporting endeavour – athletes pushing boundaries, going beyond limits, breaking records, achieving things never before achieved – combined with the need for meaningful competition. When one of the elements is missing, the imbalance can result in dissatisfaction and frustration.

Cycling is a strange and nuanced sport in its ability to frustrate, and to excite, in equal measure, within the space of single race days. To lean back on my old favourite football comparison (my main frame of sporting reference from childhood), it’s the difference between watching a thrilling nil-nil draw, and going away satisfied with the level of entertainment (if not the result) and being left a bit cold watching Man City thrashing [insert team name here] 6-0 in a dazzling display of footballing prowess – which, unless, you were a Man City fan, was ultimately like fancy cake decoration – aesthetically pleasing, but nothing compared to the taste of a really good cake.

To extend this metaphor to cycling Remco would be the pretty frosting on the cake – the dazzling display, the complete imbalance as he leaves swathes of talent in his wake. He’s not alone, of course, in an era which has served up young prodigies like courses at an all-you-can-eat buffet. Tadej Pogačar has been subject to the same criticism – if you can call it that – take the crowd-dividing Strade Bianche as an example. Plenty of people were quick to defend the Slovenian following his ‘race-killing’ performance on the white roads in March, lauding his prodigal talent, and making such bold statements as ‘do they even like bike racing?’ As if the fans looking on would not want to see feats of peerless athletic endeavour. Of course, we do. We all hope to see brilliant talents rise through the ranks and achieve greatness. Who doesn’t want to be able to say they were there, looking on, when a rider broke Merckx’s record, or eclipsed it? Or even became the rider who would in a generation become the one used as the comparator – who, in 20 years, will be ‘the new Evenepoel’ or the ‘new Pogačar’.

Watching these young prodigies who seem to defy our expectations is a privilege, but for every yin there needs to be a yang – perhaps part of the reason why Wout van Aert and Mathieu van der Poel’s rivalry is so storied – both of them have prodigious talent, but perhaps one without the other may not have led either to greatness? Or may have left the watching public feeling hard done by – take this past winter in cyclocross as an example. Van Aert without his counterpart won all but one of the races he entered, proving his superior talent, but killing the competition.

It’s a delicate balance, finely poised between all-encompassing, breath-taking spectacle, and a race which in 5 years’ time, you might struggle to recall anything much of, beyond the enduring sense of exhaustion, and the sight of Remco powering along solo from 30km out. And it’s why I loved the women’s World Championship road race so much more than the men’s, despite the fact that the winner was Annemiek van Vleuten, a rider so dominant that she normally renders her competition moot on the first incline of note.

The Least Expected Way

Van Vleuten’s elbow injury, sustained just seconds into the mixed time trial earlier in the week following a crash caused by a mechanical issue, led to many doubting her ability to even take part in the race, and she herself expressed reservations as to her fitness, speaking in unusually muted tones in her pre-race interview on Saturday.

The Tour de France Femmes winner went on to work for her team mates despite apparently not being able to stand up out of her saddle – still she conquered Mount Pleasant with ease, on the final passage waiting at the top for Marianne Vos who laboured in her wake. She went on to catch the lead group of five along with a small select group and came from nowhere in the final kilometre, pushing a giant gear and delivering an incredible surge to the finish line to grab victory in the most dramatic fashion and regain the rainbow jersey for the first time since 2019.

Pure joy for the Dutch women as Annemiek van Vleuten realises what she’s just done

Although some argued it sets a dangerous precedent to glorify riding while injured, let’s be clear on the facts: Van Vleuten was medically assessed and deemed fit to race. She made her own decision – in the penultimate season of her career – not to pass up an opportunity which she may only have one more time. Van Vleuten is a master of suffering and has been through a lot worse, so for her, the pain, while difficult to manage (she described the race as ‘hell’), was not something she was unable to cope with. She may have a few days or weeks recovering from the effort and allowing herself to heal; she may have done permanent damage – the risk was one she chose to take herself, on medical advice.

Personally speaking, I don’t feel it overshadowed her win, although I understand the arguments against the glorification of her succeeding despite injury. The discomfort for me arises in race situations where riders who are clearly unfit to be on a bike are put back on and told to ride on – Marta Cavalli after the shocking crash at the Tour de Frances Femmes; George Bennett, shaking his head after a crash in 2021 Paris-Nice; Marc Soler with two broken arms, or vomiting repeatedly off his bike – all of these, to varying degrees, felt far worse in terms of setting ‘an example’ than Van Vleuten risk assessing herself and choosing to be there for her team – and in the end, prove that she can win against adversity.  After all, pain management is part and parcel of elite level sport to a lesser or greater extent – pushing through boundaries, carrying on when you don’t feel as though you have anything left, burning through the pain barriers. The language of pain is synonymous with this sport, for better or worse.

The manner and style of Van Vleuten’s win was unexpected, dramatic and scintillating – she employed race strategy, calling on her years of experience, to turn a situation which wasn’t ideal into a winning move. The power she pushed in her final attack was astonishing and with the pack closing in behind her in those last few metres, it delivered an outstanding piece of sporting entertainment and one which will stay with me for a long time. It was my favourite win of Van Vleuten’s simply because she had to find a way around her less than ideal circumstances – to fight her way back despite the race not going her way. Isn’t that what makes sport great? If there’s any discomfort at all, it’s in admitting that it was the elbow injury that led to the more satisfying race experience, from a spectator’s perspective. As if to find a way to hamper Van Vleuten is the only way to ensure a level playing field. Such is the greatness of the rider.

Which brings us back to Remco. We can’t criticise Evenepoel for being too good, or for making the race boring – for those of us who may have found it so; he was demonstrating incredible power and determination, and he was astute tactically, despite his relative youth, but alongside respecting his performance, and applauding his brilliant season, we have every right to feel aggrieved that it wasn’t the battle we had hoped for, in one of the biggest races of the year. It was up to other teams to find a way to beat him – which began and ended in their collective decision to allow him up the road in the first place. He simply made the most of a favourable situation.

Cycling is a sport of ambivalence – many, many times we will watch a rider who may not be our favourite cross the line first at the expense of someone we might rather have won, but never does that take away from the ability to nod and clap and say ‘fair play’ to the winner. As long as it’s a good race, right? So are we doomed to these kinds of dominant non-events in future seasons, or will a new kind of balance arise in the peloton? In short, what will the rest do about it? How do other riders and teams find a solution to the young prodigies who burst through and are seemingly invincible?

It didn’t take all that long for Jumbo Visma to solve the Pogačar ‘problem’ – this summer at the Tour de France they proved that he could be beaten, banishing the claims that he would win every Tour for the next decade that had been bandied about on social media. True, it took considerable resource and an audacious plan, and it was still only down to the superior skills of a better rider in the end, in Vingegaard, who was able to hold on for the three weeks of competition.

Remco takes the win for Belgium, the first to do so from the nation for a decade

Now, we are asking the same of Evenepoel. What can others do to beat him? Or perhaps, to frame it differently, can he and Pogačar provide the same foil for one another that Van Aert and Van der Poel do, and offer us balance once again – and some really exciting racing.

As for Van Vleuten, since her victory on Saturday she has indicated that she may not retire as planned, after next season, and, once healed, the women’s peloton will go back to facing the same problem they have grappled with for many seasons: how to solve a problem like Van Vleuten. Answers on a postcard!

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ALL NEW: Newsletter now launching!

Welcome back to the site and apologies for my absence. It’s been a busy summer of um, watching a lot of bike racing, and writing about a lot of it too, albeit for other outlets. Which is fantastic and I am truly grateful for the opportunities I’ve been afforded, but I’m anxious to keep up to date here, as this is a place for me to share my voice and thoughts outside of the constraints of traditional media (in short, I can write poems when I fancy, or create silly lists now and again).

With this in mind, I’m launching a newsletter – it will be weekly at most, more likely fortnightly, so it will not take up too much space in your inbox, I promise. I appreciate it’s a big deal to commit to yet another voice bombarding your already sagging inbox but rest assured, if you enjoy cycling news and opinion and are open to a slightly different angle, along with some unique content, your subscription will be well worth your while. Plus it will feed my fragile sense of self-worth – didn’t you know egos fed on email addresses?

I’ll still be posting plenty of content here on the site – longer posts, reviews, lists and in-depth opinion pieces will still be here for your delectation. This is a quick and easy way for me to stay in touch with you in smaller more palatable chunks – a tapas of writebikerepeat rather than a three-course-meal, if you will!

Please sign up below and I’ll see you soon…

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The Utrecht Files

Day 1. Prequel – the Travelogue

This isn’t a confessional. Nor is it therapy. 

Focus on the cycling. Focus on the cycling.

But in the beginning, there was none. It was the night before… as the saying goes. It started with a narrowly avoided panic attack in the aisle seat (22C) of a KLM plane, next to a quiet but polite guy with a beard who asked for a cup of tea as his complimentary drink with a Dutch accent while I was clamouring for beer. Perhaps for him a nostalgic holding on to a trip or stay now at an end. For me, an admission of self-medication, as my heart and stomach leapt a fraction of a second behind the plane, juddering through the lumpen British clouds, my brain dancing its usual overthinking Irish jig. Irish because nothing else makes that much agitated movement but yet appears so (almost) serene on the outside.

My shaking fingers gripped my book a little too tightly, clammy fingertips fumbling the pages as I turned them. ‘The Beast, the Emperor and the Milkman’ by Harry Pearson. Reading about the cold, Belgian winter while the blinding sunlight seared my retinas in late summer striking a discordant note, yet somehow a comforting distraction.

And so, to land. A smooth transition, pushing down the fear and going through the motions. Pass through passport control. Buy a train ticket. Find the platform.

View from A Dutch Train Window. Arty, no?

As the sun pondered its descent over the outskirts of Amsterdam, making up its mind as I drew closer to Utrecht, my nerves sank with it.

I was in one of the most relaxed countries for the start of the most relaxed grand tour. Channel it. 

Anxiety doesn’t fit with the Vuelta. And honestly, I can’t imagine a place where I could have walked alone at night through bustling streets and felt so immediately at ease, the tempting scents of grilled fish mingling with cigarette smoke as the shouts and laughter embraced locals and travellers alike.

That was until I remembered I had forgotten my plug adaptor. 

Spiralling into sweaty-palmed panic I surrendered to the familiarity of McDonalds and pondered what I’d become, eating cardboard fries in a country where I could get the real authentic version if I looked a little harder while experiencing a minor existential crisis over my reliance on technology.

Piece by piece I talked myself down and made my way to my accommodation via a circuitous route, accidentally taking in the finish of tomorrow’s first stage and feeling strangely detached. As though this wasn’t the real thing; merely set dressing for a dress rehearsal. Not reality. Not mine, at least. The hoardings and red signage ignored by the few passers-by I encountered, a weird, empty façade of something long gone rather than a promise of what was to come.

I followed the Oudegraacht canal – hours earlier home to barges full of pro teams, fans crowding along the railings to greet them, now just echoes swept away on the current – away from the bustle of the dual-level city nightlife and onto a tree-lined street, devoid of lighting, dodging bicycles and mopeds as I prayed the keys in my possession would fit a lock somewhere along here. They did.

I melted onto my terrace facing nothing but the backs of rooves, the privacy a comfort, with the start list for the race spread out in front of me. I stared at the names and willed myself to jot down witticisms but my pen remained lidded on the table. I didn’t know anything. I was out of place.

I got changed and headed out again, chasing the rising clamour of good times being had. I chose a seat in the window and drank a beer and clammed up over ordering in Dutch but said ‘dank je wel’ about 100 times. I alternated between gripping my phone to stay connected, with the communities nestled within its bright screen and satisfying weight, and people-watching: the throngs of young people going about their exciting lives blithely unaware, or uncaring perhaps, that a bike race was about to descend. There was a stubborn continuity to the party, as though it had been going on long before the part-time fans arrived, and would carry on long after they drifted away again. The party in Utrecht is a perma-party.

I wandered home, a piece that didn’t fit into the puzzle yet. I turned on the TV and watched Friends and couldn’t sleep. Tomorrow, at least, there would be cycling.

This picture is here to ensure that just one thing on this day’s entry reminds you of cycling.

Day 2. Stage 1: The TTT

Write about the bike race. Write about the bike race. Write about the bike race.

The mantra that’s supposed to keep me on track while I reflect upon the past 24 hours, and yet, the racing itself represents a tiny portion of what I’ve experienced on my Vuelta trip, and actually, it’s not really what I’m driven to write about.

A thing I took a photo of without realising its significance. Nope, I couldn’t believe I was that dense, either.

The day started with sun, as we wandered along the course, took in the start ramp and the print on the tarmac that announced the transfers of Dylan van Baarle and Wilco Kelderman to Jumbo-Visma. Took in the long train of team buses (minus Jumbo Visma who were mysteriously absent), and felt the first spits of rain as clouds drew in ominously, and leaned over the barriers as the teams rolled out for their warm-ups. It was the best view we’d have of them all day (Jumbo-Visma once again, were absent – ‘fashionably late’ would be their vibe the whole weekend).

There’s a peculiar reality to face when you choose to watch a bike race in person. You are accepting that you will see little to none of the racing itself. You are surrendering your understanding of the overall situation to gain a slice of the atmosphere; instead of analysing aero positions, and watching clocks tick down from the comfort of your sofa, you are choosing the experience – to ‘be there’ and tick something off some list – ‘first time in a city/country’, ‘first time at a particular race.’ The social aspects that come with it, at the expense of well, your actual money.

It takes on a whole new significance when – sometimes – you’re actually paid to write about this sport.

As it is, I’m not working, and I can’t lie, it’s led to some major existential questioning as I have had to remind myself every five minutes ‘I’m on holiday’ to avoid feeling like an outsider. I reflected on the fact that I’m here as a fan – and it’s because I’m a fan that people read and enjoy my writing on the subject. So this piece comes from that place – where I started – and where I remain, regardless of whether or not I’m being paid for my opinion or my knowledge.

If I was offered a last-minute assignment to write about yesterday’s team time trial, I could wax lyrical about the broader picture – the poignancy of the moment when Robert Gesink donned the red jersey; the significance of Jumbo-Visma crossing the line all together – the collective gasp and healthy dose of schadenfreude as Ineos posted a time one second faster than QuickStep, the latter complete with their aero snoods. But I would need to re-watch the entire thing to provide an accurate report as to how the whole thing actually went down.

Sometimes I reflect on my life choices. Standing in a cordoned off car park by some industrial equipment to watch a group of men in strangely shaped helmets with head-tights is one of those times.

It reminds you of the double-edged sword of sports broadcasting – the way you are bound by what the broadcaster chooses to focus on; the way they choose to edit their programme. From the angles they select, to the teams they linger over, to the stories they miss entirely. When you’re there on the ground you have a small inkling of this, if you happen to be standing near a big screen, but you absorb other things. You interact directly with elements of the sport, whether it be locking eyes with a rider as they warm up and trying to work out what’s going through their heads – the dead stare of Marc Soler enough to chill you to the core, witnessing an impromptu Cofidis team meeting (and trying to decipher the French that it was conducted in), or wondering if Thibaut Pinot was looking pointedly at you, or in fact simply contemplating how his team managed to end up on stage in the first place.

You can laugh and wave as the BikeExchange boys troop off-stage, Luke Durbridge conducting the crowd with enthusiastic gestures. They’ve spent the large part of their time in the ‘hotseats’ not sitting on the actual seats, preferring to perch on the edge of the stage with their legs dangling like school boys as they studied the screen to see who would knock them from their perch, with as much keen-eyed enthusiasm, more actually, than the crowd that watched them do it

The boyband known as BikeExchange in a relaxed moment during the filming of their latest video.

You can run from start to finish – quite literally as they are just 100m or so apart – and lean over to take a photo as teams streak past, not really considering for a moment how much better it would look if you just took a screenshot from the footage – the same footage everyone else at home is watching. Yet they can’t hear the sound of the wheels on the tarmac, amplified eightfold as the teams whip along in formation, the whirring of the aero wheels on the smooth roads like a quiet song, an eight-part harmony of technical wizardry and physical prowess.

You can give yourself over to the moment – the ‘being there’ of it all. The sights, sounds, smells and tastes of an unfamiliar city, the shared experiences with other like-minded individuals.

The real emotions of the moment, as Jumbo Visma’s Robert Gesink was able to step up onto the stage to don the red leader’s jersey, the appreciation for a Dutch servant of a Dutch team, in a Dutch grand tour opening, made all the more significant as I was surrounded by ‘home’ fans, and theicing on the cake, watching his two gorgeous children just a few metres away, joined by team boss Richard Plugge who crouched down next to them, sharing in their pride. The crowd cheered his name in a relay with the compere, and the obvious joy of his team mates, sharing in his special moment, well… there are tears, yes. The gathering and release of tension, not just from the race itself, but from the last few days of stress and anxiety.

Hometown hero: faithful servant Gesink is the first man in red, after Jumbo-Visma demolish the time trial

The crowds disperse in every direction and my companions and I drift off to find food and celebrate an enjoyable day. Back at the hotel I think about watching the stage, so I can gain some perspective on the broader context of the race, but tiredness has tracked me down and I give in. Mañana…

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About yesterday…

13th July 2022: the 108th Tour de France, Stage 11

It was the race we all deserved.

Stage 11 of the Tour de France 2022 will go down in cycling history as the day we celebrated the attacking spirit of this unique generation of talent; a day of pure, undiluted joy at the spectacle of this incredible sport.

Some will talk about this with their friends over a beer in a bar, others will be inspired to jump on their bikes and go on their own rides, such was the soul-inspiring spectacle we were treated to from Albertville to Col du Granon. The way I express myself is through words though, so here is a record, not just of the facts, not just of the key moments, but the emotional, fragmented, incomplete reactions of the day my brain was able to process.

If I was more eloquent, it would be a poem. What it really warrants is a novel. But here, it will be recorded as simply one of the greatest stories in modern cycling history.


Before the storm, the calm. Rolling out of Albertville, the peloton all smiles despite the gathering heat; icepacks removed from jerseys before they set to work for the first of two back-to-back days of gruelling endurance. For some, it would come to define the race and their part in it. For others, it was simply about survival.

Chapter 1 – The Boys are Back

It began with a couple of legends, and a simple two-man break.

What has undoubtedly been missing from this year’s Tour is a good old fashioned, full-blooded, balls-to-the-wall Wout van Aert v Mathieu van der Poel battle.

The imperious rivals obviously agreed, as they clamoured behind the commissaire’s car waiting for the yellow flag to drop so they could get down to business. Today would be the day.

Prudhomme duly waved the flag and the pair got straight to work, and cycling fandom worldwide collectively fainted.

What is it about these two riding together, whether against one another or in partnership, in early breakaways such as this, that stokes the fire of our imaginations? They are just two proper bike racers. The best in their generation at a certain kind of racing (and pretty darn good at most other kinds too) and so evenly matched, they just can’t shake one another.

They rode alone for just over 30km before a group of 18 made it across to swell the breakaway ranks to 20. A more serious prospect for long-term survival, and perhaps a stage winner among them.

Chapter 2 – A Pretty Distraction

The wiggly switchbacks of the Lacets de Montvernier were cute, weren’t they? I mean, I’m not for a moment suggesting I could ride up them – I’d literally get off my bike and have a sandwich before even reaching the second hairpin, but these guys ate them for breakfast. ‘Mini Alpe d’Huez’ brought the drop-dead gorgeous looks to the early part of the stage, as the aperitif for a three-course menu of climbing already began to make a difference to some.

The first casualty was Van der Poel, as the early escape routine with Van Aert took its toll. He would later abandon the race altogether, leaving us to wonder if the breakaway with Wout was simply just one last bit of fun, before he succumbed to the inevitable, and admitted he wasn’t able to stay the course. A test, perhaps – checking in with his body to see if there was anything left there to draw on, before he apparently decided there was not.

If the Lacets de Montvernier was the aperitif, a pretty distraction, the Col du Télégraphe was the starter. A mere category 1 climb, it wasn’t here where the majority of the day’s ascending would take place, and yet if you were to start this story on the Galibier, you’d already have missed the first key movements of the day.

As the breakaway approached the top of the climb, and the sprinters were shelled out the back, Tiesj Benoot and Primož Roglič slid out from the UAE slipstream and struck the first blow in what – spoiler alert – would be the most aggressive, breath-taking day of racing in recent memory.

After ceding control to UAE for a while, Jumbo Visma took matters into their own hands once again, Benoot dictating the pace, pushing on, and as they crested the Télégraphe, Roglič attacked once more, bridging to Christophe Laporte who had been in the day’s early break. A cunning plan, and one, we would later discover, that had been months in the making.

Chapter 3 – The Selection

The pinch point of the day is the short, soul-destroying descent that leads straight into the climb of the Col du Galibier. An unforgiving plateau that doesn’t offer enough relief before the HC test ahead, yet the group that breaks away speeds towards the real climb as if they can’t wait to face the challenge.

And so it begins… Vingegaard and Pogacar eye one another as the attacks begin in earnest

The selection has been made: Vingegaard, Roglič, Pogačar, Thomas. With so much of the day’s work still to do this small, elite group extricates itself and despite the shallow gradients, the Jumbo Visma pair go straight to work. Vingegaard and Roglič take turns to dig, and Pogačar himself kicks on in defiance, rising to the bait dangled out for him by the Dutch team. The three continue to take chunks out of each other, passing by riders from the early break as they fly through like a freight train. There’s even a moment where Vingegaard and Pogačar look at each other like they’re gearing up for a sprint finish. There’s still 58km to go.  It’s all Thomas can do to hang on and hope he is there for the later stages.

The attacks continue to come – it’s gripping stuff, truly electrifying racing. I’m shaking, honestly – adrenaline coursing through me, as I fail to believe what I’m seeing.

Back in the main peloton, Marc Soler sets off in pursuit of his team leader, and it doesn’t take him long to catch onto the group and lend support to Pogačar Meanwhile, up the road, Wout van Aert is busy tempo-ing up the climb in the style of his effort up Mont Ventoux last year, his presence as much a threat to his rivals as it is a comfort to his team.

Chapter 4 – The Business End

There’s still a peloton of GC favourites and their domestiques on the climb, however easy it is to forget in the ensuing chaos. Kuss and Kruijswijk, backstops for the marauding pair of Roglič and Vingegaard, David Gaudu, Romain Bardet, Nairo Quintana and more. They’re determined to feature in the day, to rise above the realms of mere side characters.

For a while, there’s a stalemate, as the aggressors gather themselves for the stiffer challenge of the upper slopes of the Galibier. At the head of the race, French favourite Warren Barguil attacks the business end of the climb, striking out in search of victory.

Jumbo Visma have five riders for a while, with Bardet and Quintana along for the ride. It’s Pogačar who decides it’s time to up the pace and only Vingegaard can go with him – the two protagonists isolated and hovering on the precipice of uncertainty over who would be next to attack.

Barguil crests the climb amid a sea of baying fans ahead of polka dot Geschke. Shortly after, Van Aert tops out and seems to slow. Bradley Wiggins suggests he stops for a comfort break. Either way, he’s waiting. But it’s not for Jonas.

Chapter 5 – Descent into chaos

Bardet passes the leading pair over the summit and with a descent ahead of him, the thought occurs that perhaps it could be his day. Wout Van Aert rides with Vingegaard for a while before dropping further back and actually stopping at the side of the road – he had been called back to pick up Roglič. Many questioned the logic but it seemed clear – it’s a three week race. All hands will be needed on the metaphorical deck, going forward.

Many improbable things happened on stage 11, but one of the funniest was the sight of Van Aert at the head of a line of riders, including three from Groupama-FDJ, Roglič and Tom Pidcock, steaming past the yellow jersey group as Van Aert brought them all back together.

Jumbo Visma might have preferred he didn’t bring along Rafal Majka for the ride.

Chapter 6 – Where Yellow Jerseys are conquered

The climb of the Col du Granon has not been used in the Tour since 1986. That year, Greg LeMond ousted his own team mate Bernard Hinault from the yellow jersey and went on to win, in a year of questionable tactics and self-interest disguised as team work.

Today, Jumbo Visma cannot be accused of anything like this. They are pulling off the plan of the century, a heist of truly remarkable proportions.

There’s a sting in the tail, from the young Slovenian, there must be? He smiles at the camera, gestures and we all fold our arms and nod sagely – this is not over. Not by a long chalk.

Wout Van Aert leads the train of GC riders to the foot of the Col du Granon before signing off for the day, his job as super domestique well and truly complete, and Roglič leads the charge up the lower slopes of the climb, in what will be his final contribution of the day. He slips back and Majka takes up the pace-setting, the Polish domestique asserting himself at the front of the bunch, steadying the tempestuous ship of Pogačar’s yellow jersey campaign for a while.

Up ahead, Barguil grimaces as his team mate Nairo Quintana leaves the GC group and strikes out in pursuit. Honourable mentions for the sterling efforts of Dylan Teuns, Pierre Latour and Simon Geschke, but they slip back and for a while Arkea-Samsic are in places 1 and 2 on the road.

The yellow jersey group remains steady – six riders, two each from UAE and Ineos Grenadiers, along with Vingegaard and Bardet grind their way up gradients of 10 and 11%, each waiting for the moment one of the protagonists breaks ranks. My heart still races – it’s a hardly an entente cordiale – there is plenty of fight left in this one.

Barguil cracks and Quintana takes the lead and back in the GC group it’s Romain Bardet who’s first to go, taking up the baton of French hopes with 4.8km of climbing to the summit, and he gets a gap, but 200m later the moment comes – Vingegaard puts in a vicious kick and distances the rest almost instantly. He reaches Bardet, passes him, opens out a gap of 10 seconds, 15, and Pogačar can’t respond! He’s done, at least temporarily. Moments later, Geraint Thomas too passes the yellow jersey. It’s surreal. This wasn’t supposed to happen.

Vingegaard is on the day of his life. He bares his teeth, driving past Quintana, pushing on for the summit, putting time into Pogačar with every pedal stroke, narrowly avoiding a spectator with a flag who is perilously close to unseating him – hearts stop, and start again.

2km from the summit he blinks hard, pain etched across his face, not giving up a second of the precious time he’s accruing with every metre of altitude he gains.

Time stretches out. The gradient is cruel, and the more time passes, the worse it gets for Pogačar. The yellow jersey, isolated and alone on the Col du Granon, cutting a melancholy figure as he drives his spent body up the climb, watching riders pass him by one by one – after Thomas there’s Gaudu, then Yates.

Vingegaard crosses the line and wobbles as he punches the air, being careful to retain his other handlebar. He has poured everything he has into this day, and it will be one to savour, later, when he recovers. He collapses over his handlebars, nothing left to give.

Later, in his interview he breaks off to hug Wout Van Aert, swearing in disbelief. It’s a dream. Perhaps redemption, for a team who have suffered in their attempts to win this race over the past few seasons. It’s far from over. But they will always have today.


The adrenaline buzz from the day lasted long into the evening. I watched the highlights show on ITV4 – they are the masters of putting together a narrative in just 45 minutes or so, but even they were unable to fully represent the events of the day in a holistic way.

I watched again and felt an unexpected pang.

It’s a bittersweet sensation, watching someone you believed to be infallible, crack before your eyes. Daniel Friebe wrote on Twitter that he felt sad and in spite of everything, I understood that feeling. Perhaps not sadness, but a shock to the system.

The stage was so momentous, not just for this year’s race, but for the wider connotations. It represents a reframing of our cycling reality; the myth of Pogacar’s invincibility that cast a tufted shadow over the next few years has been irrevocably destroyed. Whatever he goes on to do, the memory of this stage, his capitulation in yellow, will remain as a reminder to all who might challenge him that he is human, he is beatable.

It may be a temporary lapse; a blip which he will overcome, perhaps even today, on Alpe d’Huez, but it will always have happened. An inedible wound to his pride and to our perhaps unrealistic expectations of his superhuman abilities on a bike.

He showed true character after the stage, congratulating Vingegaard, smiling as he collected his white jersey on the podium – the one he will now wear. He complimented his rivals and smiled as he considered the days ahead.

It’s far from over. What he does next will define him – as a competitor, as a sporting legend. He will have his day – perhaps not today, on another long, arduous day in the Alps, but with the shorter, sharper climbs of the Pyrenees lying in wait followed by a long final time trial, there are plenty of chances for Pogačar to have his revenge.

From a Jumbo Visma perspective, the joy gave way to apprehension. Stage 11 felt like a kind of healing from the shock and awe of La Planche des Belles Filles in 2020, when defeat was snatched from the jaws of victory. But the redemption is not complete until the team ride down the Champs-Élysées with the maillot jaune among their ranks.

We are only halfway through the race.

But what a race. This is bike racing, folks. And it’s bloody brilliant. Win or lose, you have to hand it to Jumbo Visma – they have brought everything to this Tour de France and made sure it’s one we’ll never forget. All in, full gas, full-blooded racing, no holds barred, all hyperboles employed at all times. They are an antidote to the past decade of controlled racing, simultaneously a throwback to the racing of the past and something that we’ve never seen before. A Team.

THE team.

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