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Cricket Noises: A February Cycling Story

The hole in the schedule proves that the season hasn’t really started... but it’s coming up quickly

4th Tour Dubai 2017 - Stage Five Photo by Tom Dulat/Getty Images

On Sunday, two minor classic races will reawaken the men’s pro peloton from its temporary slumber, with the Clasica Almeria and Trofeo Laigueglia taking place, in Spain and Italy respectively, and coming a day after the Vuelta a Murcia. Not a bad lineup if you forget that Murcia used to be a stage race and this week, with no races happening at all, we are mourning (in our own way?) the disappearance of the Tour of Qatar and Tour Mediterranean.

Whether anyone cares is an open question. The disappearance of races is always an unpleasant development, but neither the Tour Med nor Qatar were historic events or filled any niche in the sport that fans cherish. They were (and in Qatar’s case, may be again) training races at a time when everyone is more or less in training. Every time someone wins, it’s more or less a statement about where he is in his training versus the rest. But things are going to get incrementally more useful and fun pretty quick.

  • The Volta a la Comunitat Valenciana is in comeback mode since last year, after a seven-year hiatus, and the race got interesting in the final 4km of the penultimate queen stage, where Nairo Quintana of Movistar brushed off a field of less notable climbers to power away for the stage win and overall victory. Quintana accelerated away as the peloton turned onto the base of the final climb, with BMC’s Greg Van Avermaet holding a 55-second overall lead and already going backwards. Quintana drew Dimension Data’s Merhawi Kudus for company for about 1km but was then on his own, putting nearly five minutes into the Belgian for the win, and 40 seconds or more into everyone else.
  • Damian Howson won the Jayco Herald Sun Tour, with a couple big stars on hand in Chris Froome of Sky and Esteban Chaves of Orica-Scott. Those guys conceded a minute-plus to Howson, but got their work in under the warm Australian sun.
  • Lilian Calmejane upset favorite Tony Gallopin in the Etoile de Bessges stage race to win the GC. Arnaud Demare won two stages and Alexander Kristoff one more, in a bit of a preview of the upcoming classics.
  • Speaking of the Classics, Van Avermaet didn’t show too much, while Tom Boonen and his teammate Fernando Gaviria cleaned up a total of three stages the previous week in Argentina.

Quintana’s win is the only one for me that merits an eyebrow raise. The 4km effort wasn’t especially long or draining, but he did look pretty dominant. We shouldn’t be surprised that a rider of that stature had no rival in a smallish Spanish warm-up race, but he was just so impressive.

It also suggests that his early-season form is that of a guy who plans to win a grand tour in May rather than one keeping things under wraps for July. Quintana shrugged off the suggestion after winning in Valencia that he was doing anything unusual, saying he likes to be in winning form this early, but that’s not entirely true. He won the Vuelta a San Luis in 2014, but otherwise hasn’t generally won a race before March. So we could be looking at a guy getting hotter than usual, earlier than usual. Nairo is a man on some sort of mission, tackling the Giro-Tour double against all reason. Dare to dream...

While nothing much has been accomplished for the 2017 season, that’s going to start to change. Despite being a climber’s race of sorts, there’s an impressive lineup of classics guys headed to the Tour of Oman, including Boonen, Van Avermaet, Kristoff, Oliver Naesen, Alexis Gougeard, Niki Terpstra, Stijn Vandenbergh, and old friend Filippo Pozzato.

The Ruta del Sol will definitely be a climbers’ race for GC, with a legit queen stage and an 11km time trial among the five stages.

Andalucia queen stage

The lineup is glittering with stars, including Alberto Contador, Alejandro Valverde, Mikel Landa, Thibault Pinot, Vincenzo Nibali, Warren Barguil, and the whole Cannondale climbing roster.

A raft of top sprinters are slated to race in the Volta ao Algarve starting next Wednesday. The Tours of Provence and Haut Var kick in next. Then things get started for real. The Abu Dhabi Tour, love it or not, is a World Tour race and has a huge lineup scheduled to attend from February 22. Minus the classics guys, who will be at the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad when the season unquestionably* begins February 25.

So things are taking shape. Whether they are doing so in a way that gets you excited right now, well, you’re not alone if you’re laying low. But enjoy the relative calm, because it’s over really, really soon.