Well, sports fans, Europe is starting to play games again. Football kicked off in Germany in the middle of May and the other major leagues are all up and running. We had lots of lovely cricket (yes, cricket. Hush.) this week. The USA is (sort of) getting going with the NBA and MLB. I suppose we really are coming back into the sporting world.
Road cycling is harder to put in a bubble, but as I post this we’re two stages into the Vuelta a Burgos and three days away from the first World Tour race since Paris-Nice abruptly finished in March. How much of the season we’ll actually see depends on money, weather, and the possibility of peloton or regional spikes in infection, but it really is coming back.
Just because we need a bit of optimism in our lives, and we need the chance to talk about cycling, I’m going to assume for the purposes of this article that the season will happen according to the ambitious new schedule. It clearly isn’t what anyone expected when race programmes were set out over the winter. Everyone will have to live with disruption, but this will hit some harder than others. That means winners and losers, and that’s always grist to my particular mill.
Ready to roll
This is kind of obvious, but it matters. As so often, the pick of the euphemisms comes from horse racing. “He’ll come on for a gallop,” say the trainers of horses who you just can’t get fit without a race. Some horses have the ability to “go well fresh” and others “need the run”. I’m very comfortable applying the same principles to cyclists as to horses, which isn’t weird at all.
Finding the guys in the right stable is the trickier bit. To begin with, basically you’re looking at riders with a track record of starting the season effectively in February and March. There’s a debate to be had about whether they are naturally fitter riders early in their seasons, or whether they are focused more on the early races, for whatever reason.
This year, I think you should also think about lockdown locations – there are some places where it has been easier to ride a bike for the last few months. Team resources also plays into this, and so does experience – who has had access to training camps, and how well can they hone their fitness without race conditions, those sorts of questions.
Anyone struggling to overcome injury, deal with confusing situations, suffering from shielding-type conditions or in a part of the world that has been particularly badly hit is at a disadvantage.
Winners: I have a sneaky suspicion we’re going to see a good re-start to the year from a few of the Astana guys. They always go nicely in some of the early races. People like Jakob Fuglsang and Alexy Lutsenko. On both of those guys, more to come in my Strade Bianche preview. Other hot starters who are set up to go well include Alejandro Valverde, Emmanuel Buchmann, Richie Porte and Primoj Roglic.
Losers: Chris Froome is a slow starter with an injury, an asthma condition (allegedly) and a whole load of headlines around team changes, as well as doubt about his race programme. None of that is great. Nairo Quintana has been stuck in Colombia and has suffered a crash. Michael Woods is still recovering from a horrendous crash.
Don’t need the big hills
There’s a reason we hold grand tours in high summer, guys. Snow melts in hot weather. Do you fancy your chances at seeing every high mountain stage completed as planned? No, me neither. Look for guys who can get clear of their rivals on smaller climbs, go well in the time trial rig, and take advantage of chaos on flat stages. That means all-rounders, preferably with support from their teams on the road and good bike handling.
Winners: Um, Primoz Roglic again? Remco Evenpoel. Actually, Emmanuel Buchmann again. Also, and I realise this won’t be a universally accepted position, I don’t think this season is bad news for Geraint Thomas.
Losers: I wouldn’t be buying Romain Bardet stock, I’m sorry to say. Once again, there’s evidence here that 2020 may not be Nairo Quintana’s year.
If you’re a big team, you can throw money at all the logistical nightmares that make up a cycling season. If you need another bus, or an extra car, you can get one. Having people on the road with feed bags isn’t a problem. Your second and third and fourth DSs are probably extremely competent. A smaller team? Well, you start the season early and make a plan so that you get scarce resources optimised. Except in 2020, when you don’t.
How do you plan for the Giro and Flanders happening on the same day? What if you end up with a self-isolating group of masseurs in that same week? What if you have to find six guys to hand out water bottles and your DS is sick? Make no mistake, this compressed year is going to be hard for everyone, and hardest of all for the little guys.
Winners: Ineos, natch. The other big world tour teams will also benefit.
Losers: Any smaller team trying to compete in conflicting races, with the Giro/cobbles clash looking toughest to resolve. Hidden in here is the teams with financial headaches in the background, which is (spoiler alert) most of them.
Put it all together
There’s a decent list of names here, and I’m sure you could add more. For instance, this would be a great year to be the sort of sprinter who can freelance rather than relying on a train, and for classics riders who aren’t hoping for team tactics to play a major role. You could probably add more names to each of the categories I’ve listed above. Ultimately, we’ve never seen a year like this and it is awfully hard to know how it will shake out, but I am comfortable with the idea that an experienced rider who readily reaches a prolonged peak, and is an all-rounder on a well-resourced team is particularly well suited to this year.
What I’m really saying is, fifty-two FSA-DS owners have Primoz Roglic on their team. Twelve have Alejandro Valverde. That leaves 874 of us with regrets. I think. But by all means, make a case for your VDS guys, or mine. Or just tell me where I’ve gone wrong in this quick and dirty analysis.