February. Ah, February, grim bastion of winter, stubborn oppressor of warmth and merciless purveyor of the darkness, we beseech thee… give us something to smile about?
And lo, February delivered. Bike racing, by the bucketload, and it wasn’t half bad.
Remember when February used to consist of a few half-hearted lower level races and the rest of the peloton easing their tired limbs back into their lycra with Paris-Nice the first thing on their minds? No? Me neither. Over the past couple of seasons, the current generation of riders has completely obliterated the notion that February is for slowly emerging from hibernation. It’s full gas racing from day 1 instead, and let’s face it – it’s bloody brilliant.
Last week, just a single week in February, offered four stage races – three men’s and one women’s – and they were more entertaining than any road race in ACTUAL WINTER had any right to be. There were a few problems though – they boasted about ten names between them, and they demanded the use of several screens. Did I manage to juggle the demands of multiple races, so early in the season? Er, no not really, but using the fine services of GCN I was able to catch up and piece together a complex, fascinating jigsaw puzzle of racing from one week in February.
A Slovenian in Spain
Spain warmed up, more figuratively than literally, with a few one-day races, the most significant being the return of Tadej Pogačar at the Clásica Jaén Paraíso Interior. It was only the second edition of Spain’s answer to Strade Bianche, and Pog took the opportunity on his first race back in the fold to decide ‘actually I just remembered, I don’t like these guys after all, before storming away to a deeply impressive solo victory. It was a continuation of the Pogačar show in Andalucia, and the rampant Slovene was in no mood to give gifts at the Ruta del Sol, whose organisers somewhat contrarily put the hardest stage of the week on stage 1. Three category one climbs offered Pog the option of knocking the GC out of the park at the earliest possible opportunity if he was up to the task. Of course, he bit. Just like Jaen two days earlier, Pog rode away from the rest to solo to victory and set himself up with a comfortable 38 second lead – a fairly sizeable gap with a strong team to support him and just four stages remaining, when you’re Tadej Pogačar.
He won again the next day on the hideous, horrible, disgusting ABSOLUTELY BRILLIANT final into Alcala la Real, despite a spirited effort from Enric Mas to stay with him – he almost managed it on a cobbled climb that seemed to go on for-ev-er. Bahrain and Movistar valiantly attempted to keep the GC interesting, but they were all fighting for second place, and it was Mikel Landa who snatched it ahead of his team mate Santiago Buitrago, with Bahrain filling four of the top 11 spots on GC in the end.
UAE Team Emirates monopolised four of the five stages, with Tim Wellens grabbing a stage win on the third day and Pog making it 3 in 5 on stage 4. Alessandro Covi was their nominated man on the final stage, and Pog launched an epic lead-out which almost saw his entire team and everyone else dropped, and it may have proven too much for Covi in the end, as he wasn’t able to finish the job – instead, Omar Fraile launched a perfectly timed attack to come through from way down to spoil the UAE party. Not that it was a bad week’s work for the Emirati team.
Meanwhile, in Portugal…
The field at the Algarve was arguably the strongest of the three stage races, or at least perhaps the most balanced, but with the UAE Tour beginning on Monday the sprint field on the other hand wasn’t all that deep. Alexander Kristoff scored his first victory for Uno-X in what turned out to be the only bunch sprint finish on stage one. His team mate Søren Wærenskjold stormed into third position, both of them and BORA-Hansgrohe’s Jordi Meeus able to beat European champion Fabio Jakobsen into fourth, after a less than perfect lead-out put the Dutchman out of position.
EF Education-EasyPost took control on stage 2 following another steep battle to the finish line, which saw reduced bunch surge for the line and Soudal-QuickStep’s Ilan van Wilder, in his first foray into GC leadership, made the classic oft-repeated erorr of celebrating as he crossed the line, just as Magnus Cort steamed through on the inside – his late attack and brilliant positioning to take the shorter inside line gifted him with not only the stage but the yellow jersey.
Former early celebrators Alberto Bettiol, Wout van Aert and Jasper Phillipsen were quick to lend their support to the young Belgian.
And then came stage 3 – WOW. What can I say about stage 3? If you didn’t watch it, of all of the action this is the stage I’d urge you to go back and watch on catch-up, probably from about 25km to go. The launchpad for the winning move was way back then, heading into the intermediate sprint. A group broke clear to fight it out amongst themselves for the bonus seconds, and in doing so, found themselves with a gap
What happened next to transform the sprint group into a breakaway in unclear – likely Ganna and Pidcock agreed to keep their feet on the gas, and Tobias Foss appears to have said something to encourage Cort, and that was that – they were away. The supergroup breakaway – featuring Ganna, Pidcock, Foss, Cort, Madouas, and Rui Costa, worked as a team time trial unit with a peloton led by the sprint teams ruing their mistakes. They fought tooth and nail to make up the deficit and with 500m to go the peloton made the catch, but it wasn’t over – race leader Magnus Cort wasted no time, launching his sprint to power clear and win a second stage in as many days, and leaving the viewing public in disbelief at what they had just witnessed. Truly brilliant racing.
Stage 4 was the big climbing day, and a group pulled clear of the rest featuring Ilan Van Wilder, Tom Pidcock and Oscar Onley of Team DSM, the young riders showing the rest how it’s done. João Almeida did João Almeida things, pacing his way up and launching an attack with around 350m to go, but it wasn’t enough, Pidcock taking off to storm through to victory and take the yellow jersey.
The final stage’s individual time trial would prove decisive, but not quite in the way that everyone expected. Resplendent in Italian national kit and messing with everyone’s minds because he wasn’t in his rainbow stripes, Fillippo Ganna wasn’t able to pull off a victory, losing out to nearly-man Stefan Küng who was finally able to get the better of his long-time rival to take the stage win. Pidcock, riding in the yellow jersey, was the third best of the Ineos riders, his performance memorable only for his incredible save that was testament to his remarkable bike-handling skills – video evidence provided.
It was in fact Dani Martinez who put in the most consistent performance of the week, proving that to win a GC, you don’t always have to be front and centre in stages. A brilliant TT performance followed a solid ride the rest of the week to deliver Martinez to the GC win, with Ganna in an unlikely second place.
French riders, for French teams, In France
The race with ALL the names, the Tour of the Maritime Alps et du Var (helpfully shortened to Tour 0683 after the department the race takes place in) is a short three-stage romp around southern France, with strong showings from all the French teams while many of the other teams were in the Algarve or at Ruta del Sol.
I’ll be honest, this wasn’t winning my ‘battle of the screens’ most days, simply because I was more invested in the Algarve race, so I have less to say about it, but as feels right and appropriate, the race was mostly dominated by French riders for French teams. Kevin Vauquelin of Arkea-Samsic pipped Neilson Powless and Kevin Geniets to victory on stage 1, with Trek Segafredo’s Mattias Skjelmose storming through to take stage 2 ahead of Powless (again) and Vauquelin. Aurélien Paret-Peintre won stage 3 for AG2R Citroen, with Vauquelin sealing the deal on GC. Allez!
The women’s calendar is rapidly expanding, meaning that the Volta Femenina de la Comunitat Valenciana (such a mouthful, they chose a completely different name for it) wasn’t even the first stage race for the women of the year, nor was it the second (third, it was the third). With only a YouTube livestream to keep up with the race, and questionable camera-work throughout (OK they probably didn’t have the budget for it – some coverage is better than no coverage) it was tricky to get a handle on this one, but it looked to be a good race.
Most of the top sprinters were in the UAE, leaving Elisa Balsamo to open her account with two wins in two stages, with flawlessly executed team work from her Trek-Segafredo team and in particular lead-out woman extraordinaire Ilaria Sanguineti. The following two days would decide the GC, with Annemiek Van Vleuten back for the first race of her final competitive season. She was, of course, the strong favourite, with FDJ-SUEZ’s Cecilie Uttrup Ludwig also tipped to be in contention.
It was not to be for the World Champion though. Van Vleuten’s most recent conqueror got the better of her in the end – with a breakaway of three riders on stage 3, Ashleigh Moolman-Pasio bested Amanda Spratt and AvV in the dash for the line to take the overall lead. It turned out to be a fantastic race for Moolman-Pasio’s new team, AG Insurance-Soudal QuickStep, as on the final day her team mate Justine Ghekiere was one of two riders to gap the peloton, Ghekiere losing out on the stage win to Elise Uijen of Team DSM but taking enough time over the rest, including Moolman-Pasio, to win the general classification.
And so one week in February concluded, and we all breathed a sigh of relief that the one after only contained the UAE Tour and no-one’s all that fussed about watching the peloton pound their way through a featureless desert and round a hundred roundabouts for way longer than is necessary (unless there are crosswinds, then it’s sort of alright).
Is it too much too soon? Will we all be burned out by July? Perhaps the more pertinent question is how this intensity level will impact the riders of the pro peloton long term. That remains a question mark right now.
We head into so-called ‘Opening Weekend’ laughing ourselves silly at the suggestion that it represents any sort of beginning – we’ve all been sitting glued to our screens for a month already, Omloop, what makes you so special?*
*Cobbles. The answer is cobbles.