A midweek pot-luck today, as we draw breath after a start to the FSA-DS season that took in the inaugural UAE Tour, two hilly races in France, Opening Weekend and Le Samyn. There’s no attempt below to be comprehensive, just a few of my thoughts coming out of the first bout of races, with a few diversions for other matters arising.
The Joy of Teammates
My wish for all of you is that you have someone who’ll do for you in life what Tim Declercq will do for the Deceuninck Quick-Step team in a bike race. Namely, put everything they have on the line in pursuit of your success. His ride in the finale of Le Samyn was the most visible part of Quick Step’s tactical success in the opening three classics, but it was far from the only part.
Yes, Bob Jungels was the strongest man in the field at Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne. Yes, Zdenyk Stybar showed power and nous to get into, and away from, a very strong group at Omloop. You’d better believe I’m coming back to talk about Florian Senechal. I’m just going to take a moment right here at the top of my article to talk about the power of teammates in classics racing. Jungels wouldn’t have won if he rode for a different team, nor would Senechal. Stybar? Possibly, but before he powered clear he was in the lead group with Jungels, Yves Lampaert and Phillipe Gilbert, and they were all covering moves. He covered the right one.
My favourite bit of racing so far in 2019 was watching the Wolfpack kill the chase at KBK. Coming into some of the turns, they were four abreast at the front of the chase and taking sloooow lines. Poor Jempy Drucker looked like he was doing the birdie dance when trying to get some help reeling in Jungels – the next six guys in line were all Steppers and they weren’t taking a turn however hard he flapped his elbows. Guys were having to sprint to get into position to pull, and they were taking shorter, weaker turns as a result. It was masterful. It takes nothing away from Jungels’ win, but it is the joy of having the strongest team out there, executing simple plans brilliantly. They were number two in our initial cobbles rankings. I can’t see that lasting.
Unpleasant Diversion – Operation Aderlass
We need to talk about doping, guys. Don’t worry, I’m not going to delay you long. Operation Aderlass has resulted in the busting of a significant drugs ring in Austria, dragging in athletes from across numerous sports. The pictures of cross-country skier Max Hauke mid-transfusion are perhaps more powerful than the story, though the facts are bad enough. With around forty blood bags taken (Aderlass is German for bloodletting, I believe) the story is unlikely to finish with the five arrests seen so far.
For the world of cycling, it means two riders have lost their contracts, Stefan Denifl and Georg Preidler. Denifl was without a contract after Aqua Blue went under, and has enjoyed sporadic success over a long pro career, with 2017 (winning the Austrian Tour and a stage of the Vuelta) his finest year. Georg Preidler was a member of Groupama-FDJ’s team until he confessed to having blood extracted (presumably in anticipation of being shopped by the authorities had he not done so). He was the reigning Austrian time trial champion and a more-than-useful rider before this bust.
Austrian cycling has been enjoying something of a boom in recent years and we must hope that no more riders were involved in this affair. The likes of Grosschartner, Konrad, Muhlberger and Postlberger will need to continue to ride well, and ride clean, if the sport is to retain credibility in Austria. The impact on neighbouring Germany will be worth watching, too; Europe’s richest nation has struggled to generate sponsors since the fallout from the worst doping excesses of the nineties and noughties, and this may cause a backward step.
My last observation before we move onto happier things is one of frustration at cycling again being seen as “the dirty sport” in the general sporting press. These men are cheats, who should and will be banned. It isn’t okay. Yet that’s also true for the skiers (and, as a biathlon fan, I snigger at the idea that cycling is dirtier than winter sports) and, of course, the soccer players. I am still waiting for the reckoning coming to soccer, rugby, American football and most of all to tennis, but none will ever be treated with the contempt that cycling retains despite doing so much to counter doping attempts. Just google operation aderlass to see which sport gets the ink.
Florian Senechal and Roubaix
The field at Le Samyn wasn’t great. If you run down the list of major players for the big cobbled classics, far more weren’t on the startlist than were. Still, if you watched Senechal’s win you realise how far up Lefevre’s pecking order he’s moving. The power was always there. He showed two things on Tuesday – most importantly, he finished the race nicely from a small group on an uphill drag (with, as discussed, a massive assist from Declercq) but the manner in which he moved over the cobbles is also worth noting.
On the last few sectors of cobbles, he was able to glide away from Terpstra and Boom, two useful yardsticks, after moving off the crown of the track. With (much) longer and (much) rougher secteurs to come on the roads of his home region, you’d like his chances of causing serious damage to a tougher field. I’ve long thought he was a Paris-Roubaix winner in waiting and he’s now done enough to become a major player in the best team that’ll line up there. I’m going to move on quickly before I jinx him.
Disagreeable Diversion – On riders’ weights
‘Tis the season for riders to come out from offseason training programmes. For many a year, I went through this process in April with thoroughbreds. Peering at them through binoculars looking for ribs (you should be able to see the last two if a horse is ready to go, paddock watchers!) and checking coats for signs of heat lamps or wind operations. It’s a rite of spring, and we get it in cycling, too. It just comes rather earlier. Who’s had a good winter? Who is ready to improve? Who’s
on a good handicap mark likely to be undervalued by Ursula?
All that’s fine. The checking for winter weight, though, I find a little distasteful.
I don’t think there’s body-shaming going on. The men and women in professional cycling are endurance athletes, they need to be fit and for most of them that does mean they need to be very thin. They also talk about their own weights extensively and openly. So I’m not arguing that anyone is doing anything wrong by talking about it, even joking about it. I just don’t like it very much, and I think it is an unhealthy by-product of the cycling commentariat.
Early season VDS clues
If I don’t enjoy talking about riders’ weights, I do enjoy talking about their prospects. The first Wednesday in March is about the right time for the first regrets of the new VDS season and for team’s plans to start coming into sharper relief. Pulling a few names from the results sheets so far:
- Good news for – David Gaudu and his 305 (!) owners, after he climbed as well as anyone en route to a podium in UAE and a youth jersey. He’ll be working for Pinot for much of the season but has shown how good he can be when given a chance for himself.
- Bad news for – Mark Cavendish and his 67 owners, and perhaps for Marcel Kittel and his 314 (!) owners. Cav showed nothing at all in UAE and is looking like a spent force. He’s proved time and again that he’s capable of rising to big occasions, but it is a long time now since he resembled the Manx Missile of yore. Kittel did show a little spark in grabbing third on stage five, but doesn’t appear to have the speed of his competitors early in the season. The sprint hierarchy is still in flux but early in the year Viviani and Groenewegen (with Ackermann lurking) look to be continuing their successes of 2018.
- Good news for – AG2R fans, with Alexis Vuillermoz (106 owners) winning in Drome and finishing seventh in Ardeche, and Romain Bardet (45 teams) taking home 7th and 4th in those same races. Not the stiffest of competition they’ll face this year but a welcome win for a team that have struggled to get them, and a sign that both men are climbing well and coming into the season in form. Keep an eye on them against tougher competition in Tirenno-Adriatico and Paris-Nice respectively, and join me in feeling sad that Romain won’t return to Strade Bianche.
- Not really bad news for – anyone relying on riders impacted by illness or injury. This is another spring tradition. These guys spend their winters going all over the world, then they come back together to cramped accommodation and buses, often wet and cold conditions, and they push themselves to exhaustion, whilst being very thin (I know I’ve just said we shouldn’t talk about weight, but they are collectively thin). The wonder isn’t that lots of them get sick in spring, the wonder is that more of thme don’t. So, look at Tim Wellens’ recovery from infection to a good run in Algarve and Omloop, and try not to worry if your guys are missing the odd race at the moment. We also seem to have avoided serious injury to star riders for now (though Colbrelli and Benoot are among those who are banged up), and long may that continue.
Divisive diversion - My family and other worries
Put in a fantasy team, I said to my wife. It’ll be fun, I assured her. So she submitted a team, named for reasons I won’t bore you with after a cuddly seal in our house. The next thing I knew, the Seal had a twitter account and was trash talking me. A win at Omloop and a deficit after the first couple of races I could cope with, but a 1-2-3 at Kuurne had me starting to worry. Then she grabbed a 1-3 at Le Samyn and I am even more worried. The second place overall (yes, really) has me very worried indeed. There’s a bet, you see. I get a bottle of whisky if I win. She gets an article about how good her team is if she wins. There’s one silver lining – it gives me a reason to look forward to the end of the cobbles season and, hopefully, her dominance. Fruitlessly, I urge you all to root against the Seal.
2019’s pecking orders not established yet
13 of 354 race days are behind us, or 3.67%. If you want to get all Seemsez about it, in statistical terms that isn’t very much. For all we’ve learned a lot, the rest of March is going to teach us a lot more.
- I’m looking to see whether Quick Step can maintain their cobbles dominance when Sagan, Kristoff and Gaviria join the fray and when the likes of Benoot, the Trek team and Vanmarcke reload.
- I’m wondering what grand tour clues we’ll be able to garner from the Turini pass in Paris-Nice or from the hilly parcours of Tirenno-Adriatico. We might have to wait for Catalunya to get some meaningful early answers.
- I remain fascinated by the sprinting hierarchy, or lack thereof. Milan-San Remo might tell us something (then again, it might not) and there will be clues popping up in every stage race. Watch this space for the sprinters.
- I’m hoping for dreadful weather across Belgium and Northern France every day until the 15th April. So there.