The offseason is rough if you're a climber. Take Carlos Betancur, for example. Talented as he may be with a 3rd at Fléche Wallone, 4th at Liége-Bastogne-Liége, and 5th at the Giro d'Italia last year, he got little but grief this winter. "He's had a few too many empanadas," they all said of the compact Columbian. "He's overweight," was the chorus and questions about how he would fare in the Ardennes classics and beyond were rampant.
You know the rest of the story, don't you? That chubby Columbian showed up to Paris-Nice, won two stages, and then won the overall. His first stage win came after he attacked on a sharp rise in the last 8km, getting away with Bob Jungels and Jacob Fuglsang and out sprinting them at the line. Then - on the next stage! - he won an uphill sprint against Rui Costa. Yes, he might've benefitted a lot from Tom Slagter's unfortunate derailleur implosion in the final kilometer, but it was an impressive show of uphill prowess from a chubby kid.
The point is, as is it always is this time of year, that the real racing has started, and it's time to look to races now to predict what might happen in a month's time in Amstel Gold, Fléche Wallone, and Liége-Bastogne-Liége. We're past the time of boasting about "perfect" winters of training and sandbagging about one's prospects. This isn't the Tour Down Under or Tour de San Luis, people, it's the real deal. You have it now - at least in part - or you won't in a month. So who looks good?
Fortunately we have two perfect races to give us an idea of who looks good. In France we had a scorcher of an edition of Paris-Nice. No time trials, no mountain finishes, just plenty of punchy stages with the occasional uphill finish and lots of time bonuses to go round and decide the overall victor. In a word, a pretty fair approximation of racing in the Ardennes with the exception of a stupid steep uphill finish like the Mur de Huy. A few days later, we had Tirreno-Adriatico in Italy, more of a sprint fest with occasional forays into the mountains, but with one technical and uphill finish that brought a twinkle to the eye of Peter Sagan and Philippe Gilbert. Nearly everyone had a stage to their liking, so everyone had an incentive to give it a go. So, at the end of this past week and a half of racing, who looks good?
Tom Slagter: If not for a poorly timed mechanical in the final kilometer of Paris-Nice's Stage 6, Slagter might have won a stunning three stages in the Race to the Sun. His first showed punch and daring as he attacked on the final climb of Stage 2 some 15 kilometers from the finish, getting Geraint Thomas for company and cooly refusing to pull through in the final kilometer before outsprinting his companion for the win. The second win came on Stage 7. Slagter controlled the group in the final kilometers, shutting down most dangerous moves on his own before somehow having the power to come around Rui Costa in the closing meters.
Since last year's Tour Down Under we have been watching Slagter with eagerness and wondering when the young Dutch rider would grow into the rider tailor built for the Ardennes he seemed to be. With a great capacity to get over the shorter climbs and a dangerous finishing kick out of a small group, Slagter has it all. And while it is one thing to look at his physical performance in Paris-Nice as confirmation he is heading towards a good year, the way he raced says even more.
Michal Kwiatkowski: What do you say about a rider who makes Peter Sagan look silly on the steep ramps into the Piazza del Campo at the end of Strade Bianche that hasn't already been made perfectly clear on the road? Especially when that same rider won two stages and the overall the Volta a Algarve? I can only think of four words, and those are "Don't bet against him." Kwiatkowski was 4th in Amstel Gold last year and 5th a few days later at Fléche Wallone. This year, he shows even more promise and power, and should he find himself in the final selection in Amstel or Liége he will be hard to beat in the sprint. He led Tirreno-Adriatico for days and came second to Peter Sagan on Stage 3, but imploded on the truly mountainous day, losing minutes to Alberto Contador. But there are no mountains in Belgium or the Netherlands, so who is going to bet against the young Pole? Not me.
Carlos Betancur: Overweigh? Heh, that's a funny joke. Either my eyes deceive me or Betancur is not carrying that "extra 5 kilos" his team manager says he still is. Performance this week aside, little Carlos is starting to look pretty lean in the "punchy, small, not wisp thin" style Paolo Bettini personified. Then, there are the results. Betancur looked unconvincing on Stage 4 when he made some probing accelerations on the Côte du Mont Brouilly that went nowhere just before Tom Slagter made everyone else look like fools, but after that he seemed punchy as could be, and just as important, quite attentive. Fléche Wallone is calling his name and I'd put good money on him to go top 5 at Liége as well.
Philippe Gilbert: What more assured way is there to lose a bike race than to open up your uphill sprint some 400m from the line with Peter Sagan on your coattails waiting to pounce? Gilbert found this out the hard way on Stage 3 of Tirreno-Adriatico, but the effort was impressive, especially the way he held on to finish the stage in 4th. That was about the only sign of life we've seen from the Belgian who so memorably swept the Ardennes in 2011, winning four races in a row. But as Gilbert showed in 2012 with nary a sign of winning form until weeks before the World Championships, he does not need to be in shape for months at a time in order to pull his form together in time for the biggest races. There's only a few problems for Gilbert, though, and that's how formidable his opponents above looked last week.
Tony Gallopin: The perpetually promising Frenchman finally showed what he is capable of last year when he won San Sebastian. Last week, he was anonymously in the top ten on three of the hardest stages at Paris-Nice. He will need a moment - or more - of inattention from the bigs to win in a month's time, but with his respectable finishing kick he's an outsider to win Amstel Gold on the form he's in.
Daniel Moreno: Permanent lieutenant to Joaquim Rodríguez who gets his own chances every now and then, Moreno won Flèche last year and had good finishes on the two mountainous stages in Tirreno, showing he's coming into form at the right time. But if he wins Amstel or Liége, it will have to be solo, and it's hard to see him doing that with the form other guys are carrying right now.
Arthur Vichot: Not really on many people's radar for a killer Ardennes run, but after winning the final stage of Paris-Nice with a nicely timed sprint - especially after having his chain skip in the final 300m - and finishing third overall, he's a darkhorse contender. I wouldn't be surprised to see his breakout year continue with a top 10 or two in a month.
Joaquím Rodriguez: Tirreno used to be J-Rod's playground. Remember how he used to win the finish atop Montelupone every. Single. Year? Well, Montelupone is gone, and without it Rodríguez seems to be facing a distinctive lack of mojo before the Ardennes that should be his bread and butter. Who knows, maybe he can pull it together to win Flèche again or finish a step higher on the Liége podium than his second from last year. He's been around the block enough times he should know what he's doing, so maybe I'm wrong about him.
Dan Martin: Started racing in Tirreno, anonymously. I know he's taking a later start to the season than most others, and he did a similarly late start last season and went on to win Liége, but I think it's too much ground to make up in too little time. Maybe he's just going for the Giro.
Jelle Vandendert: Remember when Vandendert seemed on the cusp of becoming an Ardennes favorite after playing superdomestique par excellence for Philippe Gilbert when he was winning everything? Yeah, I vaguely remember that too. But though he had a solid Ardennes campaign in 2012, finishing 2nd at Amstel and 4th at Flèche, he disappeared last year. And after this year's Paris-Nice? Well... *Crickets chirping*