Let’s start this article with a nice easy cliché: Cycling’s offseason gets shorter every year.
Time was, cyclists stopped in (the northern) winter, or turned to cyclocross or track. Some still do. After riding anywhere up to 100 race days, plus training, enjoying a couple of months off seems a reasonable return. Thing is, though, these days there’s cycling in the southern hemisphere, and in the hottest bits of the northern hemisphere. There’s been action carrying on since the end of November, but it is ramping up now. Plenty of warmer climes have realised that being seen as optimal in-race training for Euro-centric teams and riders is the best way to get big names to new events. On top of which, spring is coming to Europe.*
We are therefore properly into the early season. Between now and the Omloop, still sitting as the true start of the cycling season for my money, there are races aplenty. This is a whistle-stop tour of this flurry of racing, and a few thoughts on what to look for. With some FSA-DS pointers lobbed in, because I know what you’re all thinking about.
Oh, and I’m not talking about the GP Laguna Porec, the GP Alanya or the Tour of Antalya, and definitely not anything about the GP International de Ville d’Alger. I love you guys, but there are limits.
* Some of Europe. The amount of time I spent scraping ice off my car this morning suggests Edinburgh remains bewintered.
When is it? It has started! Runs until Saturday 10th.
Why is it? Despite the demise of the Tour of Qatar, there remains a place for the “Middle-Eastern warm-weather wide-road sprinty stages where a bunch of guys get used to their new sprint trains and try not to crash” races.
Who is it? Kittel, Cavendish, Viviani, Groenewegen, Degenkolb… a bunch of big sprinters. Groany won stage one and Vivi stage two, as polemica about sprint trains began.
What matters? The sprint stages won’t tell you too much but it is worth keeping an eye on them to get some sense of form and trains for the early season. There’s a steepish finsih on the way to the Hatta Dam (Thursday), but Alpe d’Huez it ain’t. Kittel has taken the overall for the last couple of years. The injury report really matters, and then the sprint results is what counts. If you’re free, I hear the TV coverage is decent.
Don’t tell Ursula, but… everyone who looked at the top-ten yesterday scurried off to research Jacob Hennessey, fifth in fast company and newly signed by Michelton’s development team. Let me save you the bother. He’s 21, British, came up through the Academy and won Gent-Wevelgem U23 last year. He’s fast, but it is a year or two too soon for signing him, I think. Also, he isn’t in our database yet.
Who wins? Marcel Kittel normally does. I think he probably will again.
Colombia Oro Y Paz
When is it? This one’s started too, and runs until Sunday 11th.
Why is it? This is a new and exciting race, and probably deserves more attention than I’m giving it. It is a celebration of the move towards a more peaceful Colombia, and a celebration of the international success their riders are having. It is also a chance to ride good roads and big climbs in a tropical environment.
Who is it? As you’d expect, shed-loads of Colombians (we’re just coming off their national champs, which helps) highlighted by Gaviria, Chaves, Quintana, Lopez, Pantano, Henao and Uran. Alaphilippe is the biggest of the European names.
What matters? It matters for cycling that this event is a success. It’d be great to see a truly popular event in a country that is among the biggest producers of world-class cyclists. Let’s hope this works.
Don’t tell Ursula, but… Once we head into the hills (the first three stages are flat, but things get tougher for the last few, without ever being totally alpine) this could be pretty significant in picking your favourite Climbian for the next season. The winners of stages four and six in particular are worth writing down as you finalise your team.
Who wins? Henao looks to be in the best form of the big names and I can see him taking this.
Tour Cycliste International La Provence
When is it? The flag is waved on Thursday 8th, and they race until Sunday 11th.
Why is it? Because France has a right to pre-season racing too. This is the third incarnation of this inoffensive race.
Who is it? The French teams, with a couple of Pro-Conti outfits sneaking over the border from Germany and Italy. Warren Barguil, Tony Gallopin and Sylvain Chavenel are among the biggest names.
What matters? Stage one is a 5.8km prologue, added for the first time this year. After that, it is rolling stuff, no big hills but not easy for the sprinters either. Rohan Dennis and Tommy Voeckler have taken it in the last couple of years.
Don’t tell Ursula, but… I don’t think any of us would have relished putting a price on Barguil, now in his new Pro-Conti digs and very much the big man on campus. He makes his seasonal debut here, leading a strong-enough team in a race that should suit him well enough.
Who wins? Gallopin, back with a French team has had an all-French calendar in 2018. 9th in the Marseillaise and subsequently winning in Besseges, there’s no reason he can’t keep that going.
Vuelta Ciclista a la Region de Murcia Costa Calida
When is it? A one-day event on Saturday 10th.
Why is it? 38th edition of a hilly pipe-opener with a pretty impressive list of winners, this is a good chance to get some race climbing into your legs, in a reliably warmish bit of Spain.
Who is it? Valverde, Fuglsang, Nieve, Gilbert and, uh, Konrad and Spilak headline the six WT teams who are here. As you can see, QuickStep and Mitchelton are taking this more seriously than Katusha and Bora.
What matters? As I say, a pretty good list of previous winners and not a bad startlist. No idea what the coverage will be like, but if you can watch it, that might be worthwhile. If not, a careful study of the race results will be worthwhile.
Don’t tell Ursula, but… Caja Rural have always got a climber or two that pays the rent for an enterprising FSA-DSer. There’s a few candidates lining up here and it’ll be interesting to see what their pecking order looks like now that Roson has followed Carthy through the revolving door. Quick Step bring the heart of their Ardennes squad and the pecking order is up for grabs.
Who wins? Valverde. Because that is always the answer with this sort of race at this time of year.
When is it? The first one-dayer for Sunday 11th.
Why is it? Italy! Sunday! One day racing! Confusing sort-of-circuit courses! Pretty views! Because this is what cycling does!
Who is it? A who’s who of Pro-Conti teams getting their reps in, with all the Italian squads represented. The sole WT team is AG2R, who don’t bring their strongest line-up but Silvain Dillier is probably their top name. Niccolo Bonifazio heads up an Italian team.
What matters? Not the biggest race on this calendar, and very much a tune-up, but there’ll be some good racing and some decent views – and probably a reduced-field sprint. That’s the usual recipe and these races generally throw up some watchable cycling.
Don’t tell Ursula, but… We all know by now that there’s a boatload of late-season points out there in the Italian one-day races, and plenty of them fall to smaller teams. This might give you a clue as to who will benefit.
Who wins? If he gets over the hills, Bonifazio looks like he might be the fastest man here.
When is it? This is the second one-dayer for Sunday 11th.
Why is it? This is something for the faster men who make the trip to Spain. Hills, yes, but they come early and the field should come back together. The fast men who stay in Europe do need to warm up too.
Who is it? Similar squads to Costa Calida, and relatively few sprinters will appear. Caleb Ewan the biggest name, with Danny van Poppel likely competition and Trentin around in case Ewan doesn’t make the finish. Quick Step look like the animators and plenty of Pro-Conti quicks will want to grab some headlines.
What matters? Sprinter form, just like Abu Dhabi. This time, with serious hills to get over, so that’ll teach you a thing or two about who’ll cope with the tougher sprint races of the spring. MCN showed something here and kept it going for a big year.
Don’t tell Ursula, but… It might just be the Pro-Conti teams that are worth watching. There are plenty of cat-5 and 6 points in things like the Coupe de France and various Belgian races. The right man spotted now can make a big return for a small price, and the likes of Wanty, Direct Energie and so on have provided these gems in the past.
Who wins? Rudiger Selig sprung a surprise in grabbing second last year, and I’ll back him as a surprise winner in 2018, against some slightly untrustworthy opposition.
Tour of Oman
When is it? Starts on Tuesday 13th and runs until Sunday 18th.
Why is it? The next step on the Middle Eastern tour, but this one comes complete with hills. Serious hills, in some cases, and the climb to Green Mountain is a proper lump. The presence on past podiums of Froome, Valverde, Aru and Nibali are among the legit climbers who have vanquished the sprinters in years gone by.
What matters? Green Mountain – which goes down on Saturday 17th. If you’ve missed proper climbing, this is when it comes back, and will get us watching the mountain goats again. Lots of strong teams, and it looks like Lopez, Nibali and Costa among the big names. There are lots of classics riders tuning up too, including GVA.
Don’t tell Ursula, but… I might be overstating the impact of this race on the rest of the year. Yes, it is good to see proper climbing again, but Hermans won last year, and didn’t go on to have a stellar year. Visconti and Kudus might also have suckered in a few more VDS owners with their exploits on Green Mountain than they deserved. Watch, yes, but tread carefully.
Who wins? Vincenzo Nibali has made a career of winning races he’s expected to, and races he isn’t. He’ll add this to his overworked trophy cabinet.
Volta ao Algarve em Bicicleta
When is it? From Wednesday 14th until Sunday 18th.
Why is it? They’ve been riding here for 43 years before this one. Why not? Handy for most of Europe and reliably warm, with tourists and locals alike to enjoy the show.
Who is it? Some big teams, and some big riders. Thirteen WT squads, and names like Kwiatkowski, Gilbert, and Boss Hog. It isn’t just classics guys, with plenty of climbers and sprinters among the crowd.
What matters? Bumps everywhere and winning a stage or the overall would be a good sign for any of these guys. The Queen stage is probably the last one on Sunday, 175km of hills that finishes with an uphill 3km.
Don’t tell Ursula, but… This is a pretty useful little indicator for the year. Some big names have won, yes, but form names too. Well worth checking how your fancied riders perform before you finally hit submit.
Who wins? Kwiatkowski can basically win on any terrain and he’s made a habit of going well here, with two wins and two runners-up since 2013. A third win this year, I think.
Vuelta a Andalucia Ruta Ciclista del Sol
When is it? Again, from Wednesday 14th until Sunday 18th. So there’s three meaningless early stages of meaningless races for you to watch on Valentine’s day!
Why is it? This is a venerable race in a bit of Spain with a serious cycling heritage. Moreover, there are those who think of this as the true season opener.
Who is it? Seven world tour teams, including Team Sky bringing Froome and the associated circus back to the forefront of everyone’s mind. Movistar are here with a strong team, whilst Kruijswijk heads up the Lotto-NL squad.
What matters? This is a well-balanced profile and stage 2 has the steepest finish, whilst there’s a 14km time trial to wrap things up. There’s nothing to match it as a GC contest this early in the season.
Don’t tell Ursula, but… Yeah, this is a good place to look for clues. Like Algarve, the final GC is likely to have a familiar look but you should definitely keep an eye on anyone you’re planning to spend serious points on.
Who wins? Valverde isn’t back, after winning five of the last six, so we need to look elsewhere, but I’ll stick with Movistar and Mikel Landa.
Tour Cycliste International du Haut Var Matin
When is it? A weekend race, this one is the 17th – 18th.
Why is it? The French season continues to ramp up, and this is two days of bumps around the Cote d’Azur. For anyone competing, there’ll be bigger days to come. Still, this is the 50th time we’ve done it, so there’s obviously a benefit.
Who is it? Three world tour teams, Astana joining the French boys from FDJ and AG2R. Pinot is the biggest draw so far committed.
What matters? Some nice kudos, and of interest to the French teams, but this is about conditioning, with bigger prizes to follow.
Don’t tell Ursula, but… No, I think if you’re looking at this race for insight into the FSA-DS season, you’re looking too hard.
Who wins? Probably not enough hills for Pinot to get clear, and I think Alexis Vuillermoz probably has a bit more kick. He could pick this up.
Abu Dhabi Tour
When is it? This starts on Wednesday 21st, and runs through opening weekend, wrapping up on the 25th.
Why is it? Following the Tour Down Under and CEGORR, the third race on this year’s World Tour. Plenty of points and plenty of prestige. Modernists would want you to see this as the start of the northern hemisphere season. It isn’t, but it is a big part of the early season.
Who is it? The big teams, as mandated by the UCI. Plenty of big names, too, with Dumoulin perhaps the biggest of all. Valverde, Majka, Zakarin, Lopez and Aru are among those who have committed.
What matters? There’re three stages for the sprinters, but the GC will come down to Saturday’s 11km time trial and the concluding climb of the final stage, 11km at 7% on the way up to Jebel Hafeet. Last year’s finish was a curiously lacklustre affair, with the bigs electing not to chase down Rui Costa, who took the overall.
Don’t tell Ursula, but… Too late for any of this stuff – the FSA-DS deadline is before this race starts and, as a WT race this is a cat-3 and comes with plenty of points. So if you’re going to get an early lead, picking the podium here is probably a good idea. Speaking of which:
Who wins? The time trial pushes this towards Dumoulin and whichever leader Sky bring. Still, I’m sticking with my early season rules and going with Valverde.
All of which takes us past the start of the FSA-DS season, and up to the beginning of the cobbles weekend. Which means it is about time for me to get some beers in and see what damage Cuddles has done during his hibernation.