We’re knee deep in spring and have waded through Holy Week in Belgium, so there’s been plenty of racing to report on – without further ado, let’s rewind to the beginning of April and look back on a spectacular two weeks of racing.
The amuse bouche for De Ronde van Vlaanderen were three one-day races on Saturday 1 April, with contrasting conditions. The Volta Limburg Classic took place in grim, sodden weather and led to an exciting race in both the men’s and women’s categories. Unsurprisingly, Team SD Worx took a stranglehold on the women’s race, with Anna Shackley and Femke Markus in the day’s early break. It was Mischa Bredewold who went on the attack once her team mates had been reeled back in, and despite chasers from the likes of Movistar and Team DSM, the German was able to remain clear to take yet another win for the dominant team on the women’s circuit.
The men’s race saw a strong breakaway stay away all day, featuring the likes of Rune Herregodts (Intermarché-Circus-Wanty), Pascal Eenkhoorn (Lotto-DSTNY) and Oscar Onley (Team DSM), but it was the duo of Alpecin-Deceuninck’s Aussie sprinter Kaden Groves and Lotto-DSTNY’s climber Maxim van Gils who got the gap and ensured the winner would be one of the two of them. They stayed together all the way to the line which was bad news for Van Gils, as Kaden Groves was able to deploy his strong sprint to power to victory, and prove that there’s more to his skillset than simply winning bunch sprints.
Meanwhile in the Basque Country, GP Miguel Indurain, the warm-up race prior to the start of Itzulia, saw a strong ride from local boy Ion Izagirre of Cofidis, who held off the challenge of sustained pressure from EF Education-EasyPost throughout, along with a late surging Trek-Segafredo’s Mattias Skjelmose, to take his second victory at the race, seven years after his first.
The came the big one. The Tour Of Flanders (2 Apr), and it was a brutal, challenging and compelling race from start to finish. I wrote about it at length, recapping the action from the race, applauding the incredible efforts of all the riders, and reflecting on how we reconcile ourselves with the kind of dominance displayed by Tadej Pogačar, as he stormed to his notch up his third Monument of five, with four wins in total. Read it below.
The women’s race was dominated unsurprisingly by the team of the Classics season, SD Worx. The wet cobbles of the Koppenberg caused havoc, with only Silvia Persico able to stay upright to give chase to Lotte Kopecky, and she hung on valiantly for as long as she could but it was another superior ride from the Belgian all-rounder who added a second win in a row to her palmares.
Itzulia Basque Country (3-8 April) has seen some thrilling racing in recent seasons, with its characteristically rolling landscape offering the chance for attacking riding and unpredictable battles for both stage wins and in the general classification. This year, Jonas Vingegaard was the headline act, with David Gaudu the not-so-dark horse, having beaten him at Paris-Nice, and a host of other potential GC threats, with Simon Yates, Enric Mas, Dani Martinez, Sergio Higuita and Richard Carapaz all in attendance.
Stage 1 was one for the faster riders, although as ever in the Basque region it was not simply a case of a flat bunch sprint, with an uphill kick at the finale which thinned the bunch enough to see a mix of sprinters and other riders contesting the finish. Ethan Hayter of Ineos Grenadiers took the victory on a finish that suits his capabilities perfectly, and with it he became the first leader of the race.
Stage 2 finished with a dangerous high speed descent into the town of Leitza, which saw the bunch stretched out as the limits of skill and nerve were tested. Once again, the finish could have been a dash for the line, but with technical corners and coming off of the long descent it was lucky that everything was stretched out, enabling BORA-Hansgrohe’s Ide Schelling to put his nose in the wind, the bravest of the bunch and holding his nerve to tackle the tricky twists and turns that threw the riders out right at the finish line. It marked Schelling’s second pro win, and his first since 2021, and he was followed by Matteo Sobrero and David Gaudu, the latter taking important bonus seconds to push him up to 3rd spot on GC, well placed going into the third stage.
Said stage was another hilly one, with a hideous wall at the finish that would find out anyone who didn’t have the legs. Esteban Chaves was the first to launch a late attack and he had a gap on the rest for a while, before he was joined by James Knox and Juanpe Lopez – a trio that looked capable of staying away, until a determined bunch closed them down heading into the hideous slope of the final wall up to Villabona. Sergio Higuita looked to be leading the pack until a bizarre scenario involving a crooked barrier, a badly placed neutral service bike and a jagged manoeuvre by Lopez ensued, sending Higuita veering off course and bringing everyone following him almost to a standstill. Not caught out by the pile-up though, Jonas Vingegaard powered through and clear to take the stage, and the leader’s jersey.
It was all yellow after that, with Vingegaard the stand-out rider of the bunch. His better at Paris-Nice, Groupama-FDJ’s David Gaudu couldn’t match him at the second time of asking in 2023, later complaining of having been hampered by allergies, and the best of the rest were two Basque boys, Mikel Landa (Bahrain-Victorious) and Ion Izagirre (Cofidis), who both enjoyed their home advantage and the legs needed to ride themselves into second and third sports on the podium respectively.
The part-Dutch, part-Belgian one-day classic Scheldeprijs (5 April) broke Holy Week up with another tilt at the ‘sprinter’s world championship’ title, although in terms of field composition and level of racing I’m still very much in the Brugge-de Panne camp. That being said, the dry, relatively still conditions at Scheldeprijs all but guaranteed two bunch sprint finishes, and so it turned out. In the women’s race, the rematch between Lorena Wiebes and Charlotte Kool finally played out for the first time since the UAE Tour, with Wiebes equal to the challenge of her former teammate, though she only nicked the victory by a narrow distance. Chiara Consonni took third place on the podium for UAE Team ADQ.
In the men’s race, the stand-out favourite for the race was Jasper Philipsen, but with Mark Cavendish, Caleb Ewan and plenty more big names on the start list, it wouldn’t be a walk in the park. In the end, Philipsen edged it, from Sam Welsford and Mark Cavendish, the Belgian’s stellar season continuing and the British champion landing his first podium of the year.
Alongside Itzulia, the sprint-heavy Region Pays de la Loire tour accounted for the sprinters who weren’t either riding Paris-Roubaix or Scheldeprijs (they largely avoided Itzulia for its total dearth of sprint stages). Of the four stages in Western France. Cofidis’ Bryan Coquard took stage 1, but couldn’t contest the stage 2 sprint after a big crash brought down a number of riders, including GC favourite Kevin Vauquelin. The final was instead contested by Groupama-FDJ, EF Education-EasyPost and Uno-X, and despite it looking as though it should be a walkover for Arnaud Démare, the final twists and turns took the sting out of his pace allowing the Uno-X pair of Erland Blikra and Stian Fredheim to come through and claim first and second spot in jubilant fashion. Démare is slowly building his form following a bout of covid in February, and the third stage posed the most stringent challenge, with a category one climb, but it still all came down to a sprint with Coquard making it two wins from three days. The final stage was won by Fredrik Dversnes, an impressive two wins in four for Uno-X, with Tudor Pro Cycling's Alexander Kamp taking the overall classification to continue an excellent season for the Pro team.
Paris-Roubaix (8-9 April)
Is there any weekend in the cycling season that encapsulates the drama, euphoria and heartbreak of the sport of cycling than Paris-Roubaix? The answer is unequivocally NO, and this year proved no different, with the emotional rollercoaster of a last-gasp, totally unexpected underdog victory in the women’s race and a soaring Greek tragedy of a men’s race where the cycling gods dealt the cruellest hand to many of their subjects. I wrote about both in depth, far too much depth to go in a newsletter, so please go and read about them as it was quite the effort to recap such epic racing in such a short space of time.
The Roubaix emotional hangover always takes a couple of days to subside, but there was no time to mope as there wasn’t a single day without a UCI race this week. Ronde van Mouscron (10 apr) kicked off the week, a tough romp round Hainault, Belgium, that ended in a bunch sprint with a storyline that would make for an awesome movie, as elder sister Arianna Fidanza led out her younger sister Martina to victory, the sisters riding for Ceratizit-WNT holding off a charging bunch.
The Giro di Sicilia began the next day, with a feisty uphill battle for the line in store for stage 1 ensuring that the sprinters of the piece would have to wait, but punchy finishers might get their chance. UAE Team Emirates bossed the final few kilometres of the race and we all assumed Diego Ulissi would be the chosen man, but it was Kiwi kid Finn Fisher-Black who clipped off the front with 800m remaining in the race, pulling out a gap that was too great to bridge for any of the rest. He took his first pro win after a year to forget with injury in 2022.
The race that awards cheese as a prize and is inexplicably popular with German cycling fans, Paris-Camembert was completely unavailable to watch so I spent an agonising hour refreshing text feeds to try and piece together what on earth actually went on at the race. Despite strong challenges from the big guns of Groupama-FDJ and Cofidis, Valentin Ferron (TotalEnergies) was able to hold on for the win, ahead of Ewen Costiou (Arkea-Samsic). Honourable mention goes to Uno-X's Fredrik Dversnes who came back from a last gasp puncture to make it onto the podium.
The warm-up to the Ardennes classics De Brabantse Pijl (12 Apr) features a number of very tough cobbled climbs (and some uncobbled ones). In truly filthy conditions the women battled around the circuit, with an elite group of seven riders pulling clear and battled all the way to a reduced bunch sprint for the line. And in a continuation of the startling revelation that SD Worx are actually beatable, Silvia Persico made good on the promising form she displayed at Flanders to out-power Demi Vollering and take the win, with Movistar’s German champion Liane Lippert also pushing the Dutchwoman close to take third.
The men’s race was a really tricky one to predict, particularly this year, with arguably the top riders all opting to sit out. There was a wide spread of potential favourites, and in wet and windy conditions the race split relatively early, as the repeated circuits of the area began to take their toll on riders who didn’t have the legs. A strong attack from Remi Cavagna was followed by a handful of others who bridged to the breakaway and pulled out a gap on the chasing peloton. The strongest of the group were AG2R-Citroen’s Dorian Godon and EF Education-EasyPost’s Ben Healy, both of whom looked equal to everything the parcours could throw at them as they repeatedly distanced the rest on the difficult climbs. Breaking clear of the bunch with 16km remaining, they fought it out all the way to the line, where Godon proved too strong for Healy, outsprinting him to take his biggest career win, and with his teammate Benoit Cosnefroy storming through from the peloton past the remains of the attacking group to take third, the French team kicked off their Ardennes classics campaign in the best possible way.
After that there was just the Giro di Sicilia for a couple of days. Stage 2 was a sprint, but though Mark Cavendish was expected to contest the final he didn’t make it to the front of the bunch. Nor did Elia Viviani, leaving the less likely suspects to battle it out, a battle which was won by Intermarche’s Niccolò Bonifazio. Stage 3 was a hillier affair with a short, twisty climb to finish. Tudor Pro Cycling once again proved they were no just making up the numbers, Swiss champion Joel Suter riding solo to victory, to seal a really strong win from the breakaway.
The week concluded with the first of three Coup de France fixtures, the Classic Grand Besançon Doubs (14 Apr), and even I haven’t watched all of it yet it’s that fresh but I did see the final 5km or so and it was truly compelling, with the French teams going toe-to-toe and some amazing attacking racing up the final climb, with 19-year-old Lenny Martinez putting in continual digs to try and gap Cofidis’ Victor Lafay. In the end, Lafay’s experience and steady climbing won the day, with Martinez' repeated attacks not enough to distance him and leaving the young rider without the strength to sprint for the line. A great race to watch and a great ride from both the winner and runner-up.
And in Sicily, the final stage and overall was taken by Alexey Lutsenko, Astana-Qazaqstan finally off the mark with a win.
And That’s It
I’m going to send this out before any more racing can take place – they really do come thick and fast at this time of year, don’t they?
Until next fortnight’s edition, when we will be almost ready for the Giro d’Italia (gasp, faint, hyperventilate etc) enjoy the racing!