The Tour de Romandie really was a mixed bag this year. I was looking for some hints on the riders doing the Giro and I was looking to see how the balance of power was between the TdF contenders, instead I just got to see who was actually good in Romandie. I feel like there is some kind of Yoda lesson about keeping your mind on where you are in there?
Learning much about the Giro from Romandie is always an iffy prospect. Guys who know they need to make a difference in the third week of the giro aren't necessarily prepared to fight for the win here. Nevertheless we did see some encouraging signs. Jurgen Van den Broeck looked uninspired on the big climbs but his final day TT showed that he has a good level when needed, I'm guessing he got the answers he wanted this week even if he was just outside the top 10. Same goes for Uran who showed the kind of passive presence reasonably close to the top that indicates a rider whose form is where it should be. We barely saw him all week and still he did better than he did last year so he looks very well prepared to not quite being able to challenge Alberto Contador in Italy. With the contract situation (with lots of riders' contracts expiring) on Etixx you have to wonder what kind results he needs this summer in order for Lefevere to consider it worth wile to keep him on? He's not a big proven winner but he is very consistent on the level just below. Is that interesting to Etixx? How much can or will they spend on that type of rider? They just today signed Julian Alaphilipe for another 2 years and you know that didn't come cheap after the weeks he's just had. Soon they will have to make decisions on two World champs in the form of Cav and Kwiatkowski so you have to wonder how much will be left in the piggy bank for a non-winning GC rider? The guy probably needs one heck of a Giro.
As for the bigs this was another letdown wasn't it? Froome puttered along but was nowhere near the slam-dunk winner I (and most others?) expected him to be. An anonymous mountain stage to ChampexLac followed by an outright lackluster timetrial. Third isn't bad of course but it's a far cry from the level of ambition we've seen before and his support looked ragged as well. You get the feeling that this organization can't summon the energy to keep up the "100% rallying behind the TdF captain in every race". I suspect they will every bit as sharp as we are used to in July but season dominance with one rider.... we won't see that no more. His rivals Quintana and Nibali were similarly unimpressive. Nibali I saw coming because he was crap most of the year except July and he is clearly using the same slow training buildup as then. Quintana really didn't seem to have any ambition here either and you got the sense he was just going through the motions more or less. Like Froome he seemed more or less content to "just" spin along in the front group without really throwing his hat in the ring for a stage win or a serious GC challenge which was a little disappointing because it felt like the terrain suited his abilities.
Instead we saw others fire the race up and we got it pretty spot on in our preview in saying that the French kids and Katusha could be the major animators. Pinot won the fantastic Queen stage, that had the perfect terrain for an Alpine race, with a solid attack and Bardet tried his best to do the same.His jabs were contained and he had to settle for third on the day and ninth overall but he sure did look like an ever more confident and efficient mountain rider in doing so. FDJ put together what might be their best TTT in recent memory to boost their moral for July which probably overshadows Pinot's slightly less convincing last day TT. Also Morabito sat with Pinot as he should so all in all this was a good week for FDJ who are looking more and more up to the task of supporting a TdF contender. The real stars of Romandie were Katusha in the end though. They were active on the front for all of the Queen stage on Saturday with Romandie veteran Spilak and new sensation Ilnur Zakarin. In the end it was Zakarin who gained time and could then back it up in the timetrial as well. Having Spilak on the podium was no surprise to anyone but the 25 year old Zakarin was probably as surprised as everyone else when he took the win.
Having improved steadily since he became a pro after his two year doping ban at an early age he has a fairly normal progression. That such a big win would come already is a bit of a shock though but Romandie does lend itself to these kinds of odd results from time to time. With a startlist full of big names but not necessarily that many who are actually peaking, a strong second string rider who strikes a strong vein of form can pull off an upset. In this case two great days and a bit of luck landed a World Tour win. Now he will move to the Giro and it wouldn't surprise me if we see a much more anonymous rider as the three weeks progress. It's doubtful that he is suddenly on such a new level that he will contend for much there. Most likely he will be aiming to do well in one of the early mountain stages and then just trying to hold on as well as possible as his form fades. His season is pretty much a triumph already and for Katusha it was another strong race in a season of highs for them. The fickle nature of cycling is really highlighted by the contrast of their season to the season of teams like Cannondale and Jumbo-LottoNL. Katusha can barely put on their cycling shoes before they fall ass-backward into World Tour wins while the other two can't seem to find any wins no matter what they do. Certainly an element of it is roster quality but at some point things like momentum and plain old bad luck play a part too.
This week we move all of our focus and attention here to the Giro of course. We have previews and other general nonsense coming your way in the coming days. It's been a fairly understated buildup so far to the Giro without many of the BIG HYPES we generally see but the race has a course that looks set to deliver in racing what it has lacked in hype. With a weaker field on paper than in some of the later editions, as far as GC competitors and top sprinters go, it still has a many elements that indicate that it will be tight and hard fought throughout the three weeks. There aren't really any dead points in the race and so it might be many times better than we think. With both Sky and Tinkoff coming with big ambitions it's going to be interesting, both as a battle in itself but also as a prequel to what will happen in July. With Contador aiming for the Giro/Tour double it will be fascinating to follow their duel not only in the three week context but also in that broader context because it will certainly be on all of their minds.