If you are like me then you a) should be seriously worried about your life and b) are going going through some early season cycling withdrawals since you are staring at the abyss of THREE WHOLE DAYS of no cycling on video. That's enough to get you panting for the Tour of Langkawi on Thursday night/Friday morning, right? Damn straight I'm right.
Well I'm here to help speed this time by talking about what we've just been looking at: the equivalent of baseball's Grapefruit league: the just concluded pre-season from TDU to Oman/Algarve/Andalusia/Haut Var-a series of races that by themselves mean little to us but could foreshadow the season yet to come. But how can you tell if these results mean anything? Or in other words, should I pick up Fat n Slow (Betancur) for my FSA-DS team? It's a little tricky but just a little IF you keep in mind four things:
- GC riders targeting the Giro should be a little behind GC riders targeting the Tour
- New teams and younger riders who have something to prove tend to go for results in February more than vets.
- Aussie riders doing well in the TDU is the norm because they target that race more than the rest of the world. Don't give them special kudos.
- And I forgot the fourth thing. Oh yeah! Riders looking to hit the cobbles come Omloop are a little more likely to be ahead of those who are waiting until after Milan Sanremo. But this is not an absolute rule.
Most of OPQS: A+
Dominate Qatar with Terpstra winning the GC and one stage and Boonen two stages? Check. Meersman winning one of the Mallorca Challenges? Check plus! Kwiatkowski winning another one of the Mallorca stages? Check, check, check again! Uran a solid 3rd on GC at Oman? Check , check, check. Kwiatkowski winning the GC, ITT, and one of two mountain stages at Algarve? Checkorooni. The Quicksteppers gotta be feeling really really good about this season...
T-Mart and Cav: C+
...except for Tony Martin and Mark Cavendish. Perhaps we should give these two a Veteran Pass but normally they hut the pre-season harder. Still it wasn't that bad as Cav won the last stage at Algarve, albeit against grade B/C competition. It would have been nice if he had been more competitive at Dubai but we'll save his confrontation with Kittel for later.
Reigning World Champion T-Mart meanwhile had two cracks at getting his Panzerwagon in gear. What were the ITT results? 4th @ Dubai and 3rd @Algarve. Plus at Algarve as soon as the road went a teeny bit uphill he got dropped like well let's say 2nd period German.
It's highly doubtful that either of these guys will stay mediocre, but it's equally true that they are being eyed by their rivals like a man looks at a sheep in Wyoming. Fun times!
Chris Froome & Sergio Henao: A+
We didn't see much of Oman but the uphill stages showed a lively and frisky Sky team with Henao playin' all sorts of mind games with the peloton and Froome cashing the check with a decisive move at the end. Exactly what Brailsford wanted to see.
Richie Porte: C-
In contrast to Froome we have the now #2 Sky GC guy, Porte. First, see guideline #3 above: Aussie riders who are billed as GC heavyweights at any Grand Tour DON'T get a gold star for finishing 4th overall at the TDU. And yeah he finished 2nd on GC at Andalusia but that had to be the most uninspiring 2nd place finish we've seen in a loooong time. Andalusia basically featured TWO serious GC riders in Porte and Valverde and Al made Richie look positively sheepish. Sky's Andalusia train looked competent enough but when it was time for Richie to put the hammer down there was....nothing. Baaah. Porte worried the other riders not one bit. Nor did he worry Valverde in the prologue.
But as I said above (guideline #1), a rider going for the GC in the Giro should be holding a bit less form as the Tour GC boys in late February but you got to wonder. Sky takes it's GC ambitions very very seriously. For them 50% of the battle is 90% mental. They want dominance from day 1. That's their M.O. for the last two years behind Froome and Wiggins. Movistar no doubt are reporting everything they saw to Quintana.
Bradley Wiggins: Incomplete
When you are moving from Kate Moss/heroin chic to William The Refrigerator Perry fat ass power bulk you get a pass until the transition is complete.
If there is a Big Three teams in the peloton this year then Movistar is the 3rd along with OPQS and Sky. And as such Movistar has had a textbook start to it's season. It's two leaders, Valverde and Quintana, both dominated their first stage races, Andalusia and San Luis, respectively. Malori won the TT at San Luis over Phinney @ San Luis and was 2nd @Algarve. New fast guy-yes Movistar actually has a sprinter of sorts on their team this year-Lobato was kinda competitive @ Dubai. New team member Izzy was a positive influence @ Andalucia by finishing 4th on GC.
Speaking of Ion Izzy, the main issue for the Movistars entering the season was who was gonna fill Rui Costa's #3 GC chair? Check out Costa's year last year and you can see that being third choice on GC at Movistar is substantial. Iziagirre looked good at Algarve as I said above. On the other hand Benat Intxausti's start has been quiet at both San Luis and Mallorca. So perhaps Izzy is The Chosen One for that 3rd GC Chair? Ruben Plaza and Javi Moreno were pretty damn quiet Down Under but they a pretty far down Movistar's deep GC bench. Igor Anton is just as weird on his new team as he was for the Euskies. Amador looks rock solid though and his form is one to watch as he will be Valverde's main guide on the cobbles next month.
Oh-one more word about Movistar and Valverde. Have you ever seen a GC guy have this kind of spring pre-Tour schedule in the last oh 50 years: Murcia, Almeria, Strade Bianche, MSR, Dwars door Vlaanderen, E3, Big Mig, Pais Vasco, and the Ardennes trio. Yeah there's the cobbles races supposedly to deal with the Tour's stage 5. But that doesn't explain Strade Bianche or MSR. Valverde did ride SB last year for the first time (finished 9th) so maybe he's gotten the one day Classics bug in his system at the end of his career? If so, chapeau. Moving on...
Fairly quiet start for Katushas as their team leaders are all vets: been there, done that. No news here. Kristoff maybe had the biggest need for some positive reinforcement and he got it with a solid sprint victory @ Oman and a hand full of top placings as he prepares to hit the cobbles hard.
In contrast to Katusha, a team headlined by veterans not worried about producing results in February, a team like Cannondale, much younger and so more dependent on early success, the pre-season means more. You want to get that winning vibe going. Sad to say though that's not happening with this team. You wonder if the Alonso rumors are affecting things.
Sagan is looking his usual deadly self though he has just one win. Oman is a great warm up race for him and he's used it well. He'll be a major factor just about everywhere. Outside of him though there's not much going on. Viviani's been a sprinting non-factor and you have to wonder a bit if last year was his career year. Moreno Moser is supposedly in much better shape than last year-so we are told-but he's raced two stage races (San Luis and Oman) with no impact. You'd think if he was starting in January that they'd put him in the TDU since that parcours seems to match his strengths. Ah well. Basso's raced just once.
So I dunno about this team. Where's the coaching? At any rate: not good enough. Sagan B+, but the rest of the team: D.
It feels weird to think of Lampre as the Big team in Italy but there you go. And their results this pre-season have been strong and encouraging.
Start off with Sasha Modolo, a cheap pick up from Bardiani. He's got four sprint wins so far. Continue with Diego Ulissi, 3rd on GC at TDU. Like Porte, Ulissi is targeting the Giro and so backed off on his training. He next raced/trained at Mallorca with back of the pack placings but popped up to a 5th at last weekend's Trofeo Laiguelia, showing him picking up the pace. Laiguelia also saw climby domestique Jose Serpa pick up a win, showing nice teamwork. In a reduced peloton of about 27 riders, Lampre had five of 'em. So when Sinking Dope attacked on the last climb, Lampre could easily cover with one of their guys while the others held back, making other teams chase. That must have been a satisfying victory.
Algarve saw decent debuts of the World Champion plus the GC Gun for Hire. Costa wound up 3rd on GC, Horner 8th. (Baby Polanc finished 24th.) A couple of the rest, Pozzato and Niemiec, get veteran passes.
Alberto Contador: B+
Is he over the hill? Can he seriously challenge Froome? I'll describe his debut @ Algarve as cautiously optimistic. Kwiatkowski won the thing and beat Bert in the TT and first mountaintop finish but Bert returned serve by controlling Kwiat and Costa then pulling away for the win on the second mountaintop. Algarve was a funny race with most of the main contenders outside of Kwiatkowski being vets not looking so much for a win as a sharpening of form. But Bert needed some kind of win here at a minimum and he got that. It would have been nice if he had won the GC though and that lowers his grade.
Greipel is on. Van den Broeck is not. Roelandts is somewhere in between.
Cance gets the veteran pass and so should the Shlecks, though of course we have no idea if they will do anything come March. New guy Arredondo showed just how misleading the first two races of the year (San Luis and TDU) can be: after two climby wins at San Luis, the Argentinian Climbing Sensation (ACS) was a non-factor at Andalucia. Would liked to have seen more from Jungels though Zoidl's Mediterranean Tour was hopeful. Oh-and Nizzolo bagged a win then picked up an owie. Not seeing much inspiration here.
Taylor Phinney: B+
We're looking at his TT skills here. 2nd @ San Luis. 1st @ Dubai. Then a clunker: 12th @ Mediterranean Tour. If he had won that last TT I would have predicted Big Things for Fin this year. Now? No idea.
Tejay Van Garderen: A
2nd to Froome @ Dubai? Gotta be relaxing on his nerves.
Rest of BMC: A-
The vets are all doing okay though if you are hoping for Gilbert to return to his form of a couple years ago I've got a bridge in Brooklyn to sell you. Cummings is enjoying the new management. New kids Stetina and Atapuma had a nice start @ San Luis.
Fat n Slow: A-
No one illustrates how long the pre-season is than Carlos Betancur. Awful @ San Luis (111th on GC) with a gut to make Wiggo proud, a quiet 11th a@ Mediterranean, he then blitzed Haut Var with the stage win a 2nd place on the climb and the GC win. He's looking okay folks. But he keeps the nickname.
Any thoughts by you? Put 'em in the comments.