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…

EDIT: Apparently the form isn’t showing up on all browsers… I blame WordPress… If you’d like to subscribe to the newsletter and you CAN’T see the form please drop me a message or comment below!

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…

Freelancing is a fulfilling but volatile career, and this website is a place for me to share my passion in a way that I enjoy, and I hope you do too. If you’ve enjoyed this post, please consider buying me a coffee to support my future writing endeavours.

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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.

Prologue

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.

Epilogue

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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The Coming Second of Wout van Aert

Wout van Aert and second place co-exist like strawberries and cream or pizza and pineapple (if you’re MVDP). There’s seemingly no end to the ways in which van Aert can narrowly swerve victory, and it’s become a running joke on cycling social media, with memes dedicated to the phenomenon and a collective eye-roll issued by his army of fans whenever the inevitable happens, once again.

At the 2022 Tour de France, within the space of three short stages, Wout van Aert has hit two significant milestones. He becomes the first man in over 90 years to achieve three second place finishes in the opening three stages of the Tour, after Italian legend Alfredo Binda notched up the same record in 1930.

I initially -erroneously – assumed he was the second man to achieve this unlikely feat, and the irony was almost painful, but it turns out two other men had done it prior to 1930. – both went on to win the yellow jersey).

The second milestone for van Aert – one he may, or may not, have been happy about, was that he surpassed 100 second place finishes in his career (road and cyclocross combined).

The man himself gave a wry laugh and a shake of the head in his interview following yesterday’s stage, in which he lost out on stage 3 of this year’s Tour de France to former team mate Dylan Groenewegen in a last gasp lunge for the line.

‘It’s not funny anymore,’ he said. Even retaining both yellow and green jerseys seemed scant consolation at the time.

Van Aert reacts to being ousted from the hot seat by Yves Lampaert

On stage one he finished five seconds outside the time of eventual winner Yves Lampaert. His face – bottom lip pushed out in resigned acceptance of a truth he hadn’t expected to have to confront – reflected the shock felt by the majority, watching on.

On Stage 2, van Aert once again came agonisingly close, as Fabio Jakobsen took his first win on his first attempt at his first Tour, following the epic ride across the Great Belt Bridge.

While fans of the rider from Herentals bite back their disappointment and wait for the next opportunity to celebrate, there is a buoyant resilience among them, as they appreciate a good thing when they see it.

The number two was also positive for Van Aert, as he climbed onto the podium twice to once again be awarded both yellow and green jerseys. His team have made no secret of the fact they are targeting both prizes, in an audacious bid to do something which hasn’t been achieved since the 1980s. It’s testament to his all-around abilities that he’s in this position in the first place (pun absolutely not intended).

The run of second place finishes in his career has been quite something, and warrants closer inspection. Just this year he racked up two at Paris-Nice, two at the Dauphiné, and second place at Paris-Roubaix.

Let’s consider these in a little more detail.

At Paris-Nice, Van Aert was second to Jakobsen (a pure sprinter, as we all well know) in a sprint finish into Orléans, and second on the final day mountain stage around Nice, ahead of his team leader Primož Roglič, who he towed most of the way there as the Slovenian sealed the overall win. Simon Yates (a strong climber,)won that day.

At Paris-Roubaix, van Aert rode to a creditable second, winning from the group of three that came to the line together, behind breakaway winner and classics specialist Dylan van Baarle. Oh wait – don’t forget – Wout had just recovered from covid, the virus having prevented him from attempting one of his two main goals of the Spring – his beloved Tour of Flanders.

At the Dauphiné there were two more second place finishes: a painful loss on the line to climber David Gaudu following a hilly challenge and summit finish into Chastreix-Sancy, on stage 3, before the very next day he just missed out on the top step in the individual time trial – to World Champion and time trial specialist, Filippo Ganna, the man who also beat him into second place in the past two World Championship elite time trial events.

Van Aert misses out by the slimmest of margins on stage 3

Do you see where I’m going with this?

Versatility is what has made van Aert so competitive, but with diversification comes a wider spread of adversaries – he takes on the best in the mountains and the hills, on the cobbles and on the flat, in punchy finishes, bunch sprints and against the clock. He really can ‘do it all’. Can he do it all best? Sometimes. But always? That’s a big ask.

That’s before we even come to cyclocross. Off-road, the rivalry between the two greatest ‘crossers of the modern era is a familiar story, with van Aert trading blows with van der Poel for the best part of a decade. Both riders are amazing in their own right, and nobody else comes close to them, consistently, either off-road or on it.

Beyond versatility, that’s the other key string to van Aert’s bow. What it all comes down to: consistency. Wout van Aert is one of the most consistent performers in the current peloton. Probably the most consistent. And before you make a joke about ‘consistently second’ let’s remember one more fact – outside of the X second place finishes, he’s also won 5 times this season. Five wins in 25 appearances – a fifth of all participations ending in victory – not including the two green jerseys he won in Paris-Nice and at the Dauphine.

The simple fact of the matter is this: Wout van Aert achieves so many second places because he’s right up there challenging for wins. The frustration belies the facts: he will win more bike races than most others in the current peloton, and will go down as one of the most talented riders of his time. Hopefully the ‘silver’ fallacy will be buried as his record speaks for itself: 35 road wins and 73 cyclocross wins in his elite career so far. Right now, van der Poel by comparison just about outstrips him on wins. Second places though? With a paltry 34, MVDP has nothing on Wout.

Wout has finished in the top two of 70 out of 290 races in his professional career on the road. 24% of the time, when he rides, he’s up there. As far as records go? He’s pretty much second to none.

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Ripping up the Script: how to (maybe) beat Pogačar at his own game

Tadej Pogačar. What CAN’T he do? With the entire narrative leading up to this year’s Tour de France focusing on the younger Slovenian’s defence of the title he’s won twice in a row, there’s no shying away from reality: UAE Team Emirates’ tufted prince and his apparent invincibility in the face of any and ALL opposition are here for all your yellow jerseys.

This year, Pogačar has been declared the king-in-waiting by many before a pedal stroke has been exchanged in anger; he is the centre of gravity around which every cycling fan’s mind eternally circles. Can he be beaten? Or will his omnipotence extend to total domination of the central race in the cycling calendar for years to come?

With arguably his closest rivals, Team Jumbo-Visma, divided over leadership and different coloured jersey goals, the hand-wringing has begun already: exactly what will it take to best the unerring all-rounder, who swept up three out of the four available jerseys at last year’s Tour, and most importantly: can it be done at all?

What CAN he do?

First, let’s consider Pogačar’s strengths. It’s not rocket science to work out why he’s been so successful at whichever races he’s set his sights on over the past couple of seasons. But what is it exactly that he has done to blow away the competition so comprehensively – what are the most resonant strings to his bow?

Go it Alone

There’s no fear of solitude for the young Slovenian, who has proven on a number of occasions that he’s quite content to ride unsupported for lengthy periods of time in order to gain an advantage over his demoralised adversaries. Take this year’s Strade Bianche as a prime example. Despite a difficult day in the saddle for the peloton, who were quite literally blown across the dusty gravel roads in Tuscany, Pogačar rode away from them all to produce a flawless performance and leave everyone scratching their heads about how it would ever be possible to overturn his utter dominance.

Lone ranger: a familiar sight, as Pog takes control at Strade Bianche

Thermonuclear attacks

Of course, he doesn’t always have things his own way, but when he’s had enough of being part of the pack, Pogačar is more than capable of launching himself away from the best riders in the world using his incredible attacking ability. The ease with which he imposed himself on the climbs at the UAE Tour in February, leaving Adam Yates and Aleksandr Vlasov amongst others in his wake in the dunes of Jebel Jais and Jebel Hafeet, are just a couple of the many examples of his ability to kick when everyone else is out of gas.

Time trial

You’ve always needed a decent time trial in your back pocket to be a serious GC contender, but it’s those riders who’ve mastered the discipline who have gone on to really dominate the grand tours over the years. Pogačar is no exception. His incredible ride on the final time trial to overturn Primož Roglič in 2020 was a statement of intent: Pog really can do anything. And he can do it better than you.

Long, relentless climbs

He’s the master of grim attrition. He holds on, and holds on, and when you think he must be done, he goes harder again, wearing down his rivals like sandpaper on rough walls. He’s not your purist’s climber – no sinuous hips swaying as the mountain goat dances on the pedals. But his somewhat mechanical style belies the raw power and bottomless well of endurance he seems to draw upon. Long story short, he’s bloody good at riding up big hills.

Keep up

In the past, Pog’s team mates haven’t always been able to take him to where he needs to be, but as per point one, this hasn’t caused Pogačar any serious problems. He’s quite capable of surfing the wheels of his rivals’ domestiques to stay in contention, something he proved with consummate ease at the 2020 edition of the Tour, where he bought a three-week ticket to the Jumbo Visma train and enjoyed the fruits of their labour, rarely letting his elder countryman out of his sight.

Psychological demolition

The things he can do combine to make Tadej Pogačar one seriously intimidating competitor. What’s worse than his almost otherworldly physical abilities though, is the way in which he refuses to exhibit weakness. There’s rarely a grimace to be seen on his cherubic features, and where Mathieu van der Poel or Wout van Aert have the good grace to collapse dramatically from their bikes following a victory, Pogačar stays resolutely seated.

Does he even sweat? It’s questionable. Also he laughs and jokes with his rivals, insists on being a young man having fun doing his sport with the requisite insouciance and playful likeability that quite frankly makes it hard to dislike him on any level. Why could he not have just been a bit of a bastard, and made it easier on all of us?

It’s all a game to him. Quite literally, as he proved at the Tour of Slovenia recently, where he lost a game of rock, paper, scissors with team mate Rafal Majka to decide who would be the winner of the fourth stage. What damage, psychologically speaking, does it do to rivals, to see him goofing around not only after races, but also during them?

What CAN’T he do?

Having dealt with his strong suits – a full wardrobe of them – it’s now time to get down to business. If the other GC candidates want to find a chink in Pog’s armour, it’s here. Whether alleged by the media, observed during races or claimed by the man himself, it will be down to Jumbo Visma et al to work out which weaknesses are legitimate, and which they can expose and exploit to get the better of him. In short, exactly how is anyone getting around this infallible superhuman this July?

Luck/force majeure

Let’s get this one out of the way first. It’s entirely possible given the fragile state of the peloton’s health that Pogačar could contract covid-19 or some other stomach or respiratory infection either prior to, or during, the Tour de France. Equally, there’s every possibility that he could be caught up in a crash, or have some other mishap befall him – consider for a moment the carnage of the first week of last year’s edition, which deprived us of the very battle we are hoping to see reprised once again this year, following various accidents for the Jumbo Visma team.

Yet however much cycling fans or rival teams might wish they didn’t have the Slovenian phenom to contend with, this isn’t the one. We want a fair fight. No hollow victories here. To be the best, you have to beat the best. And so on, and so forth. Plus, Pog seems impervious to such things, such is the nature of the man/beast – viruses run screaming from Pog. Bicycles bow to his superior skill and refuse to fail in any way. Etc. Moving swiftly on…

Heat

Here’s where we get into the truth of Pog’s weaknesses. However few they may be, they do exist, and his self-professed dislike of hot conditions could be the first way in which other teams might look to expose him in France. With Europe experiencing unprecedented heatwaves, there’s no indication that this July will be anything other than a scorcher in France, and this might present an opportunity for the likes of Roglič and the rest.

Sure, it was hot in Slovenia last week, as Pogačar and his team put on the expected indomitable performance on home turf, but with Matej Mohoric’s Bahrain Victorious the only really strong competition, the Tour of Slovenia is hardly an adequate reference point for Pog’s performance under hot conditions. The Tour de France is an entirely different proposition, and being put under real pressure for an extended period of time in high temperatures could, maybe, be his undoing.

Teamwork

One of the main criticisms levelled at UAE Team Emirates in previous seasons was the lack of infrastructure in place to support Tadej Pogačar. The oft-quoted example is that of Itzulia Basque Country 2021, in which Jonas Vingegaard marked him into oblivion as Primož Roglič stormed to victory.

The team went about seeing to this problem in the off-season, recruiting a raft of luxury domestiques to support him in the mountains – the likes of George Bennett, poached directly from the service of Roglič, along with João Almeida and Marc Soler. Rafal Majka has looked strong in recent weeks and will also be key.

Yet UAE have looked lost on occasion, in terms of uniting behind a leader. Without Pog they appear wayward and directionless, a collection of supremely talented individuals with no clear collective goal. Of course this won’t be an issue at the Tour – Pog is there, and we’ve seen him marshal his troops like a consummate general so far this season, as his confidence has grown, but with a brand new configuration of riders around him, it still may not be enough to provide the support he needs.

Cobbles?

Ok, this one is a little tenuous. But with a hefty portion of cobbles on the menu as part of this year’s Tour parcours, there has been much talk of which GC guys are going to struggle on the unfamiliar surface.

The words ‘struggle’ and ‘Pogačar’ rarely appear together in a sentence though and it’s well-documented that Pog has experience off-road, racing mountain bikes as a young rider and taking part in cyclocross in the off-season. He elected not to ride Paris-Roubaix but coped admirably with the demands of the cobbles of Flanders, where his weakness wasn’t the pavé but simply being outsmarted by a man who’s ridden those types of finishes many, many times.

With the high potential for chaos on stage 5 into Arenberg, it’s likely that the only way the cobbles defeat Pog links directly back to point number 1, but there is also the slim possibility that he could get caught out in the tumult and lose some time.

Tactics

Tactically, Pogačar could be argued to be a little naïve. He’s been smart plenty of times – but using a rival team’s train as a launchpad is nothing new, and in terms of the finer points of cycling strategy, let’s face it, he’s never truly been tested. When you know you’re the best in a race, it’s academic. Over three weeks, a couple of huge attacks, a strong time trial, and simply staying upright has historically been enough for Pogačar to deliver a win.

But he’s not been pushed to the limit on many occasions. Of the two notable losses in his recent history, tactics could be blamed in both cases. The aforementioned two-up sprint which somehow deteriorated into fourth place at this years’ Ronde (still an exceptional achievement in his first appearance), and the also aforementioned undoing at Itzulia constitute the best examples. But if teams are able to combine not only their own resources, but perhaps those of others too, and deploy military level strategy, there might be some hope of finding a way past Pogačar.

Punchy/summit finishes

Once again, it’s not exactly a weakness – Pogačar can punch with the best of them, and usually does, but a stage which offers a chaotic reduced bunch sprint up a short, sharp climb also plays right into the hands of Roglič, who is a master of this discipline. There are plenty of other riders, too, who love these types of stages and won’t be involved in the GC battle. If the classics season and Pog’s performances at Milan-Sanremo and La Fleche Wallonne are taken into account, there is plenty of evidence to suggest that he may not win that often on a stage like this. That’s before taking into account the number of summit finishes of all kinds on this year’s Tour route.

It’s dependent on many factors; if he’s in the mix it may not matter to the overall standings in terms of time gaps, but bonus seconds can add up and it’s just these kinds of gains that other riders and teams should look to take advantage of in order to win.

Jonas Vingegaard

The Jumbo Visma lieutenant-turned-co-leader is the closest Pog has to an Achilles heel. Second on the Tour last year, despite working for his erstwhile leader Roglič for the first nine days, Danish Dynamite Jonas was able to stick with Pogačar on all of the long climbs in the second two weeks and even ride past him on Ventoux. Jonas rattled Pog’s cage at Itzulia earlier that year and you get the impression that he’s really the only individual who can occasionally get under Pog’s skin.

Vingegaard showed scintillating form at the Dauphiné, and while he does pose a potential obstacle to Pogačar, his head-to-head with the younger Slovenian may pose more of a threat to the order within his own team…

Vingegaard puts pressure on Pog: is that PAIN on his face?

THE STRATEGY

Pile on the Pressure

A grand tour is a long, arduous endeavour, and when you’re a marked man, there is nowhere to hide. In 2020, Pog followed in the wheels and was able to stay out of trouble, as all attention focused on Jumbo Visma, the then-favourites. Last year, the level of competition was simply not there. This year, the key could be to apply pressure from as early in the race as possible. Pogačar has not faced 3 full weeks of sustained pressure at any point in his career and if other teams can combine to make life difficult for him, there is the slimmest possibility that cracks may appear – but only time will tell.

The Rebel Alliance

‘The enemy of my enemy is my friend.’

-Ancient Proverb

Teaming up with your rivals is probably not a great way to go about winning, unless it represents your only viable option. Could INEOS and Jumbo Visma form a rebel alliance, to test UAE Team Emirates; pool resources and form a strategy to undermine the defending champion? Perhaps they might find support from other teams too; teams with designs on GC, or even those looking for stage wins, who may be willing to work for mutual gains.

It’s wildly speculative and the chaotic unpredictability of the first week at the Tour de France means anything could happen, and survival will be key, but over the course of three weeks, an entente cordiale might be a master stroke for any who hope to get past him.

THE VERDICT

So, can it be done?

Is there even the slightest possibility that Tadej Pogačar’s seemingly unassailable hold over La Grand Boucle can be shaken, or even that he might be forcibly separated from the yellow jersey he has been custodian of for so long?

Pogačar has broken the mould, and the only way to play him at his own game is to rip up the script and forge a new mould. If the teams around UAE follow the unwritten rules of grand tours and save themselves for late attacks in the mountains, or rely on time trial advantages and then sit on slender advantages, they are going to come unstuck. They must find a new way to ride a grand tour; spring surprises, attack at random, allow rivals up the road and force UAE to chase them down. They will need to be bold, and to be willing to lose, in order to win. Defence will most definitely NOT be the best form of attack.

Ultimately it will likely depend upon the curious combination of factors that prevail at grand tours – both manageable and those beyond the control of the peloton – to decide whether or not the almost imperceptible flaws identified here can be exploited. If they can, maybe, just maybe, we might see a deviation from the absolute inevitability that is Pog in the yellow jersey on the Champs Elysees, come 23rd July.

Freelancing is a fun but volatile career, and this website is a place for me to share my passion in a way that I enjoy, and I hope you do too. If you’ve enjoyed this post, please consider buying me a coffee to support my future writing endeavours.

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The Big Review: Giro d’Italia 2022

Or: all the things I wish to remember from this year’s Corsa Rosa

And so here we are, dearest word-consumers, about to find ourselves in ACTUAL JULY. One Grand Tour safely stashed in our 2022-shaped back pockets, with all the action, drama and memorable moments that come along with it, and time propels us on to the next, with barely time to gather our thoughts.

I admit it’s a little late due to circumstances (mostly) beyond my control, but for posterity, and because I’m a bit weird when it comes to finishing things, I couldn’t let the 2022 Giro go without marking some of my favourite moments, in my usual scatter-gun, listicle style. Read it all, pick the bits you fancy, dip into it as and when you desire a return to the glorious rose-tinted days of yore (er, May), and I’ll see you in a mere matter of days for the departure of the yellow-fuelled hype train.

TOP 5 AWESOME STAGES

All stages are equal, but some are more equal than others. Or words to that effect… Let’s face it, despite the grand length of a grand tour (clue’s in the name), you’re never going to get 21 barnstormers; the riders couldn’t manage it and, frankly, neither could we, as much as we’d like to pretend we’d love a high octane three weeks of non-stop action.

There’s something for everyone; a little punch here, a flat sprint-y one there, a vertiginous jaunt through achingly pristine mountains to make us all glad we’re sitting on our butts at home. The Giro had 21 such treats in store, but these were the stages that lit up the race, for me:

Stage 1 – Budapest – Visegrád (195km) –ah, the first Grand Tour of a new season; the freshly brewed hype, the rose-draped Hungarian crowds; the first stage was so full of excitement and hope. Then a breakaway of just two riders detached themselves barely 30 seconds after the first flag drop and that was that for the day.

Dull, right? Well, mostly. Until the final punchy climb, that is, when all hell broke loose as the hopefuls for the stage win went hammer and tongs up the short sharp ascent to the Castle to be crowned the first king of the race. Caleb Ewan took a spill in his haste to keep up with Biniam Girmay, and Girmay was unable to get in the way of Mathieu van der Poel and his goal – the maglia rosa.

Mathieu in pink – the man, the myth, the maglia rosa

Stage 8 – Naples – Naples (153km) – no messing about with dramatic mountain passes and hairpin bends, stage 8 provided us with a crit race around the city of Naples, and it was cracking entertainment. It provided another round of everyone’s new favourite rivalry, van der Poel v Girmay, along with a commanding performance from the breakaway king, veteran Belgian rider Thomas de Gendt who went on to win his first stage of the Giro since his historic victory on the Stelvio in 2012.

Stage 9 – Isernia – Blockhaus (189km) – there was much hype over the Blockhaus stage, and with just cause. The climb was arduous and seemingly endless, and with a summit finish approaching followed by a rest day, it was time for the GC battle to kick off in earnest, with a gradually thinning group of favourites giving us our first glimpse into the heart of the GC battle – who would stand up to the test, and who would fall by the wayside? The answer surprised many, with Romain Bardet and Mikel Landa at their best, matched by pre-race favourite Richard Carapaz, UAE’s leader João Almeida, and eventual winner, Bora-Hansgrohe’s Jai Hindley.

Stage 14 – Santena – Turin (147km) – how did I love stage 14? Let me count the ways. The shortest stage of the race featured circuits of Turin with vicious climbs, the GC contenders with no choice but to get involved, riders all over the road, pure chaos and balls-out attacking. Every grand tour should have a stage like this. I bloody loved it.

Stage 17 – Ponte di Legno – Lavarone (168km) – otherwise known as ‘The One Where Mathieu van der Poel gives it a good old crack in the Alps’, followed by the ascendency of a really worthy winner and future star of the sport, Santiago Buitrago, sandwiched around young Jumbo Visma breakaway star Gijs Leemreize getting closer than anyone could have predicted. Stage 17 was the mountain stage that had it all, and was my favourite of all the final week’s stages in terms of pure entertainment from start to finish.

TOP 5 MEANINGFUL STAGE WINS

I waxed lyrical in an earlier piece about a stage win I enjoyed, for many reasons (my partisan feelings for Jumbo Visma the primary driver behind the piece). With hindsight however, there are a few stage victories that stood out because of their meaning, to the individual, the team, or the sport as a whole. These were my picks:

Thomas De Gendt (Lotto Soudal) – Stage 8 a full decade after his first Giro stage win atop the Stelvio, the iconoclastic Belgian did what he does best, but in quite uncharacteristic style, as the criterium-style race around Naples became the perfect launching pad for a breakaway attack. He was able to stay away from his break mates as well as the pursuring spectre of van der Poel and Girmay to seal the deal, at the age of 35.

Biniam Girmay (Intermarché–Wanty–Gobert Matériaux) – Stage 10 – after making history at Gent-Wevelgem in the Spring, Girmay had the form to make history once again, and become the first African rider to win a stage at the Giro d’Italia. His victory had a sense of inevitability about it. He came close many times: beaten to the line by MVDP on stage 1, he proceeded to be out of position in several bunch sprint finishes but he was not daunted and kept at it, undaunted.

It finally happened on stage 10, a stage perfectly designed for his capabilities, with a short climb leading to a reduced bunch sprint finish, where he was able to turn the tables on van der Poel and take a sweet victory for himself, his team and the die-hard Eritrean fans celebrating at home. And everyone liked this.

A bird’s eye view of history in the making – Biniam Girmay wins stage 10 of the 2022 Giro d’Italia

Giulio Ciccone (Trek-Segafredo) – Stage 15 – times were tough for Ciccone in 2021. Riding as a GC rider for Trek at both the Giro and the Vuelta, he was caught up in crashes and unable to complete either race, let alone show himself at his best. Once again pegged for general classification in this year’s Giro, the first week and a half saw Ciccone hidden in the bunch and not making any waves, a pale imitation of the glasses-throwing maglia azzura winner of 2019.

Once he’d lost enough time to no longer be a threat, he unleashed his best climbing form, proving his doubters wrong, as he rode solo to victory in Cogne, a win complete with sunglasses throw. Without the pressure of GC Ciccone seems to ride with more freedom and panache, and the victory kicked off a gripping battle with Koen Bouwman for the king of the mountains jersey which saw him animating the following stages too.

Santiago Buitrago (Bahrain-Victorious) – Stage 17 – in spite of being happy for Ciccone’s brilliant victory, it was impossible not to feel for the young Colombian Buitrago on stage 15. He worked tirelessly to try and close the gap to Ciccone and proved that second place is sometimes the worst place to finish. His disappointment spurred him on to once again go on up the road in stage 17, but his day was almost over when he misjudged a turn and he came off his bike early in the day. His anger at the mistake was the final push he needed to ride away and take a fantastic first grand tour stage win, at the age of just 22.

Dries De Bondt (Alpecin-Fenix) – Stage 18 the award for the best post-race interview of this year’s Giro must surely go to the former Belgian champion De Bondt, who at the age of 30 took his first grand tour stage win following an impeccable performance from the breakaway. The four-man group, also featuring Edoardo Affini (TJV), Magnus Cort (EF Education-EasyPost), and Davide Gabburo (Bardiani-CSF-Faizanè) worked brilliantly as a team to put the win beyond a doubt, and de Bondt was able to seal the deal. His joy following the stage was a true delight.

THE REAL MVPS (A TOP 5)

There were a few riders who made this year’s Giro truly memorable. Who, why, how? Here:

Mathieu van der Poel (Alpecin-Fenix) – it’s literally not possible to write an article about the Giro d’Italia without mentioning this man. What did MVDP NOT do at the Giro? He was the first man to wear the maglia rosa. He animated almost every stage at some point or other, from punchy finishes to sprint stages, the second stage time trial where he almost won despite having only completed a handful in his career, to full-on mountain stages, where he defied those who doubted him by heading off in breakaways, getting some training in and even making it over a category one climb and halfway up another one at the front of the race, on stage 17.

It was the first full grand tour of the Dutch genius’s career, but you wouldn’t have known it. He rode in his usual inimitable style, ripping up the rulebook and providing great entertainment both for fans on the ground and for us watching from a distance via social media. There were the daily gruppetto wheelies, as he rode up climbs on one wheel, with one hand, high-fiving the crowd. He even wheelied into the stadium on a TT bike on the final stage, like the king he is. There was pineapple pizza-gate, as he trolled the Giro social media team with his crimes against cuisine, putting ketchup on spaghetti and proving that he really does not give a f&*k. And of course, finally winning the Most Combative Rider prize. What a guy.

Lennard Kämna (Bora-Hansgrohe) – when looking back in years to come and reminiscing about the role the feisty German played in the race, it will be easier to try and recall stages he WASN’T involved in at the 105th Giro. Kämna stated his intent from day 1. He was the second man to attack up the final climb at Visegrád, after Lawrence Naesen, and his attack looked as though it might stick for a while. He sat in the hot-seat after a brilliant time trial on stage 2, coming in 8th on the stage eventually. He won stage 4 up Mount Etna, wore the King of the Mountains jersey for three days and combativity numbers on more than one occasion.

That’s before we even come to the audacious piece of tactical bike riding which led to the demolition of Richard Carapaz’ GC challenge on stage 20. Part of a breakaway group of attackers, Kämna dropped back and when Hindley launched his attack on the Marmolada, Kämna was there to offer him a helping hand, playing the role of both bridge and slingshot, as he supported Hindley at the crucial moment, and allowed him to dig in and extend his lead even further.

Jai Hindley (Bora-Hansgrohe) – The Australian won the Giro, so it seems unfair not to include him. Two years on from just missing out at the hands of Tao Geoghegan Hart’s final time trial performance, and being remembered more for his rain jacket malfunctions than his overall performance, Hindley showed why the Giro is his favourite race this year.

He asserted his dominance in the mountains, beginning with a win on Blockhaus that struck the first psychological blow to his rivals. He was comfortably part of the main group of contenders on the crazy stage around Turin, and never allowed Carapaz, Landa and the others out of his sight as the race drew on. He calmly executed a decent time trial on the final day to put his victory to bed and was able to celebrate becoming the first Australian winner of the Giro, and only the second winner of a Grand Tour ever from the nation.

Juan Pedro Lopez (Trek-Segafredo) – ‘Juanpe’ Lopez: prior to the Giro, you’d have been forgiven for not knowing the name. But the young Spaniard took the maglia rosa on Mount Etna and held it for a full ten days before finally losing it on stage 14, and he earned himself a horde of new fans by working his ass off to keep the leader’s jersey, learning the ropes along the way.

We all went on a journey as he grew into wearing one of the most revered jerseys in the sport; who could forget his shy suggestion that the peloton might stop so he could take a comfort break? And his vast range of emotions, from tears, to anger, to joy reflected the emotional rollercoaster we all enter into every year when we follow a grand tour. Juanpe finished the Giro in the white jersey which was a well-deserved prize for the role he played in the contest as a whole, and no doubt we’ll be hearing more from him in seasons to come.

Juanpe Lopez: finished in white after ten days in the maglia rosa

Koen Bouwman (Team Jumbo Visma) – it’s common in grand tours for some, if not all, of the subsidiary jerseys to be awarded to the eventual GC winner. One of my favourite things about this year’s Giro was that it finished with four different jersey wearers, and that’s due in part to a hotly contested King of the Mountains competition, with its eventual winner Bouwman instigating plenty of action and winning two stages in the process. Combined with a strange, last man standing style GC battle which saw many breakaway winners and very few GC winners in the mountains, this guaranteed that the maglia azzurra didn’t simply default to the overall winner. More of this, please!

UNSUNG HEROES – TOP 6 RIDERS WHO DIDN’T WIN A STAGE

Hugh Carthy (EF Education-EasyPost) – the lanky Lancastrian quite literally rode himself into the Giro. He didn’t look to be up for a GC battle early on, but by week 3 he was most definitely ready to take on the big climbs, his favoured terrain. Carthy is made for week 3 of the Giro, and he set about inserting himself into every breakaway going in an effort to try and add to his palmares. And in a surprising addition, his heart-rate became a constant source of interest (especially when it was -1 – see Whoop data, at the end of the post). It’s a shame he wasn’t able to convert his appetite for victory and good legs into a what would have been a richly deserved stage win.

Gijs Leemreize (Team Jumbo Visma) – another young Dutchman benefitting from the lack of GC action from his team leaders, Leemreize was frequently a part of breakaway action and almost made it count on stage 18, when he went all the way to the line on the stage won by Dries de Bondt. He dropped Mathieu van der Poel on a climb on stage 17, and once again came close to a win. Another one to add to the watch list.

Davide Formolo (UAE Team Emirates) – how can you not love Davide Formolo? Lining up daily at the head of the peloton, shooting the breeze with race director Stefano Allocchio, working for his team mates, for the peloton and sometimes just because he loves to work. He’s a man of many faces, most of them variations on a grimace, and his love of suffering endears him to fans and means that he’s always involved somewhere on a big climbing stage. He wasn’t as close as many to a win but his work on stage 7 against the dual power of Bouwman and Dumoulin makes him worthy of this list, for my money.

The many faces of Formolo – suffering doesn’t come much more animated than with this guy

Wilco Kelderman (BORA-Hansgrohe) – the perennial nearly-man suffered a crash on stage 9 of the race which he blamed on his disc brakes. He lost so much time that his prong of the alleged Bora ‘trident’ was irrevocably blunted. Undeterred, he shifted effortlessly into the role of super-domestique and committed himself to Jai Hindley’s cause wholeheartedly, working tirelessly to help secure the Australian’s historic win. It would be a crying shame if he doesn’t one day take the big win that he has come close to on so many occasions.

Thymen Arensman (Team DSM) – the young Dutchman put in a strong effort following the departure of his team leader Romain Bardet, securing 4th place in the young rider competition and proving why he has been snapped up by Ineos. He rode maturely in the mountains, snapping up 2nd place on stage 16 and 5th on stage 20, before putting in the second best performance of the day on the final time trial.

Domenico Pozzovivo (Intermarché–Wanty–Gobert Matériaux) – the veteran Italian rode his 14th Giro this year and while it seems that the stars of the sport are getting younger year on year, those more long in the tooth have been proving this season that they still have plenty of appetite for battle. With his impressive ride on Blockhaus, Pozzovivo put himself in contention on GC and forced himself back into the public imagination. His crash on the descent from the Mortirolo on stage 16, a grim reminder of his horror crash in the 2015 Giro, sadly set him back, but he was thankfully unharmed and still able to go on to secure 8th spot on the GC in the end.

AND ONE WHO DID…

Alessandro Covi (UAE Team Emirates) – he won a stage, but still belongs on the Unsung Heroes list for me, as his incredible victory on the Marmolada went largely unnoticed due to the broader, more crucial narrative of the GC being decided on the slopes up to the summit finish of Passo Fedaia.

What a stage win to be so overlooked though… Covi headed off solo on the 2nd major climb of the day with over 50km remaining on the stage. He ascended the Passo Pordoi alone, snapping up the Cima Coppi points for his troubles, and that, as they say, was that. Neither his breakaway companions nor the GC contenders saw him again that day as he rode magnificently, alone and without assistance over thousands of metres of ascent, to his first grand tour victory.

His stage 20 triumph will be one of the defining moments in the young Italian’s career and yet it went by the wayside, from a media perspective, as Bora-Hansgrohe and Hindley masterminded a brilliant GC raid. And that was mightily unjust. So here I am, celebrating an immense performance. GO ON COVI, MY SON!

A BAG OF OTHER BITS

And some other things happened! Like the world’s most niche short story collection, a Grand Tour is always replete with subplots and side notes, little vignettes of the random, the weird and the wonderful, and this year’s Giro was no different. Bet you didn’t have any of THESE on your bingo card…

MVDP didn’t have Wout to play with, but Biniam was up for the challenge. The two newfound rivals butted heads almost every day right up until the moment when Girmay had to leave the Giro. His win was acknowledged with a thumbs up from van der Poel, and the first chapter in this new head-to-head was concluded.

Giant Prosecco bottles really aren’t sensible – both of the aforementioned riders were injured by wayward cork action, including the Eritrean who was forced to withdraw from the race as a result of his unwanted interaction. Luckily he’s all OK.

Mikel Landa crashes into his own team mate. Finally, fans of Landismo had something to shout about, as the Spaniard looked in good shape and went toe-to-toe with the other GC contenders and was genuinely in with a chance of winning. Nothing ever goes quite according to plan for the Basque rider though, and as he hadn’t crashed yet he took matters into his own hands on stage 16, crashing into his own team mate, Pello Bilbao, because apparently he has to engineer SOME chaos in every grand tour he rides.

De Gendt GC when two De Gendts – Thomas (Lotto Soudal) and Aimé (Intermarché) lined up for the Grande Partenza, little did we know we were in for a contest-within-a-contest based on name alone.

Thomas tweeted this, following stage 3:

When Aimé responded in kind after stage 5, the De Gendt rivalry was born. Although it was effectively over as a contest following Thomas’ stage victory on stage 8, it just goes to show what a unique community exists within the peloton and how lucky we are to have such an excellent bunch of characters to support.

Sprinters dropped! – the sprinters had a hard time this Giro, in particular Mark Cavendish and Caleb Ewan who were several times distanced on days which were expected to end in bunch finishes. They still did end in sprints, but the pace was too tough for some and Arnaud Démare became the primary beneficiary, his Groupama-FDJ team masters at keeping him in touch even on tough climbs.

The sprinters’ teams had their work cut out for them throughout the race, as they rolled the dice and took their chances against various breakaways on deceptively tough stages. On stage 11 it worked out, with Démare snatching victory when one link in the breakaway group blinked, and their day was done. Stage 18 though was a different story (see above).

Bora tactics on stage 20 – I’ve run out of time, words and conviction but you know this already. It was a thing of beauty, they played a blinder, a GC won and lost in the space of just a couple of minutes, etc. It may not have been a vintage GC battle but the closing act on the Passo Fedaia really was something to behold, and the German team were the masters of strategy.

Whoop data – telling us everything we didn’t know we needed to know about riders’ heart rates during stages, including at one point that Hugh Carthy had a heart rate of -1. Worrying stuff!

FINITO

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Good Omens

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Giro d’Italia – A Preview in Top 5’s

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

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

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

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

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

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

Top 5 Pivotal Stages of Giro 105

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

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

Stage 4 – Avola – Etna (170km)

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

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

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

Stage 9 – Isernia – Blockhaus (189km)

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

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

Stage 14Santena – Turin (147km)

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

Stage 16 – Salò – Aprica (202km)

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

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

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

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

Top 5 GC Contenders

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

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

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

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

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

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

Top 5 Stage Hunters

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Top 5 Italians seeking home glory

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Top 5 Things to look out for

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

MEN

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

WOMEN

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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