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What Are We Learning This Week?

Some first-week notes on how the season is unfolding

3rd UAE Tour 2021 - Stage 3 Photo by Tim de Waele/Getty Images

Five days into the 2021 Cycling season, can I just say... OMG we are five days into the cycling season! And only one brush with catastrophe!

The “preseason” (aka FSA DS signup season) is behind us and shit has gotten kinda sorta real, but my Belgiophilic brain can’t get past the importance of this weekend’s races as the event that really signals the imminence of spring. And I’m not apologizing. Part of this has to do with races being in the Arab world, which looks lovely and has roads, and which is acceptable given the investments coming from there, if not athletes. If the UAE and Bahrain are for cycling, then I... er, well let’s not get into politics. [Glass houses, after all.] But whatever that all is about, the fact is that races in the Arabian time zones do not work for west coast USA fans watching live action; CET is rough enough. So fine, peloton, go ride in the sun and pet some camels. Stretch out your legs. And come home safe.

So what has this week shown us? Let’s run through some brief take-home messages from the UAE Tour, with apologies for my lack of access to full race video, and a few other happenings as well.

The Pogačar Plan

Tadej Pogačar is probably in good shape? And this is probably OK? But I can’t help pumping the brakes on his performance so far. Pogačar is leading the race and all but certain to win, avenging his defeat last year to the Wrong Yates, who he outsprinted on the main climbing stage Tuesday. He also crushed Yates in the time trial, where there is no Right Yates, and is cruising home to the win.

By home, I mean on the soil of his team sponsor, which serves as a convenient and pretty solid explainer as to why he is going so well. For a distant sponsor having its one moment in the sun (ahem), with a reigning Tour winner stopping by... I mean, he absofuckinglutely has to win, right? Literally nobody else is racing this event with the same incentives. Pogačar has a package to deliver, and he will deliver it on time.

So then my question becomes, is this a good idea? Last year he was a bit less geared up for the UAE Tour, and then went on to win the Tour de France. In light of 2020, this is a worthless data point when answering the question, should a Tour de France contender have race-winning form in February? The 2019 UAE event was won by Primož Roglič, who then raced the Giro three months later rather than the Tour a full five months hence. Emmanuel Buchmann finished fourth in the ‘19 UAE and went on to a solid fourth at the Tour that year, which is a good sign for this program. Also before the UAE Tour we had the much cooler Tour of Oman, which Chris Froome won twice during his prime Tour years, to no detriment to his July ambitions. Presumably Pogs will downshift a bit, and his calendar shows him going to Strade Bianche, Tirreno, the Basque Country Tour, the Ardennes, and the Dauphine as his Tour prep. In the end, I think he can safely run this errand for his sponsors without it detracting from his bigger goals.

Cycling’s Other Golden Age

We have talked a lot about entering into a new golden age of grand tour GC battles, but are we also entering into a new golden age of time trialling? Culling again from the UAE Tour, as well as some other sleuthing I’ve done over the past year or so watching some of the new talent entering the WT level, and it’s pretty clearly getting interesting, fast. Or maybe not: Filippo Ganna is undefeated over his last year’s worth of cronos, including three at the Giro and the worlds. This week he again stamped his authority on the UAE time trial, winning the short event by 14” over Stefan Bissegger.

3rd UAE Tour 2021 - Stage 2 Photo by Tim de Waele/Getty Images

But if Ganna can be stopped, the list of riders lining up to stop him tilts very, very young. Ganna himself is 24, and among his closest pursuers at the UAE Tour — an early season test for crono specialists given that it comes with delicious, delicious World Tour points — included Bissegger (22), Mikkel Bjerg (22), Pogacar (22), Joao Almeida (22... are you sensing a trend?), Stefan De Bod (24) and Dani Martinez (24). The last man to beat Ganna, and I use “man” somewhat generously, is Remco Evenepoel, who is just now able to buy beer in the US. Another of Ganna’s closest pursuers at Worlds was the Belgian champion, Art Van something or other, a graying 26-year-old who was not in the UAE this week. I know I am missing several more names of young strong kids showing up in these races. It’s impressive.

The greater significance of all this is that if Ganna is something less than completely

Cycling: 15th Tour of Flanders 2018 Photo by Luc Claessen/Getty Images

unstoppable, you can expect Tour de France rosters to be impacted by this heightened competition. Not only is an ITT win a nice skin for your collection, it’s also a skill that translates well in the other dirty work a Tour team needs from its domestiques — providing strong pacing for your captain or the odd breakaway threat. The Tour features two meaty ITTs this year, which isn’t nothing. The Giro has a decent last-day one as well. And with Olympic medals on the line too, the entire discipline is at DEFCON 1 for 2021.

Flanders Classics Steps Up for Women’s Cycling

On the women’s side, the calendar got a boost from our friends at Flanders Classics, despotic overlords to almost all of the Cobbled Classics. I may not always want to like them (shouldn’t I be the despotic overlord of the Cobbled Classics?), but the reality is that they are running a pretty smart program these days. As of 2021, there will be Women’s events for all the races they run, leaving the E3 Prijs Binckbank Whatever classic as the lone sexist holdout. As of last year, FC had women’s events everywhere but the Scheldeprijs, and in 2021 that base will now be covered as well. Yay? The Scheldeprijs is the least watchable cobbled classic, but it’s still a hard race with worthy winners. And with the GP de Dottignies falling off the calendar two years ago, there is room for another women’s event in the category of mid-week sprinters’ affairs.

The other change of note at FC is that they plan to time the women’s events to finish some 60-90 minutes after the men, which they believe — based on one data point and probably some other acceptable logic — will increase ratings for the gals. This will be the case on Saturday at the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, when the Women are scheduled to finish 1:10 after the men.

About That Giro Course...

Yesterday the Giro d’Italia at long last revealed its course, which CyclingNews (who I love very much) called a “race for Egan Bernal, Thibaut Pinot and Vincenzo Nibali.” Did they release the 2016 Giro course? Maybe there is an institutional rule among all CN writers to never, ever underestimate the Shark, under any circumstances. And I would not blame them.

Their point stands, though, that the Giro is a climber’s race. And that water is wet. This year’s course, which doesn’t quite make it as far south as Napoli, is not worth a full breakdown at this time, but is worth a couple quick observations which I think help shape the overall narrative.

103rd Giro d’Italia 2020 - Stage Twenty One Photo by Tim de Waele/Getty Images

First, as just about any post on the subject will note, there is not that much time trialling involved: just two presumably flat circuits around Torino and Milano, the first and last stages of the race. The Torino ITT is 9km, so it will carry little meaning beyond the first few awardings of the maglia rosa. The Milano event, however, is 29.4km, and could see the race victory up for grabs once again. No doubt the pure climbers will want to go all out in the mountains with that final day looming over them.

Secondly, the first two weeks are more or less in line with a standard Giro course nowadays — an exciting gravel event in Tuscany, a theoretically exciting (but probably anticlimactic) Appennine stage to Campo Felice, a wind-swept plain just above the Rocca di Cambio ski resort, which features a bit of dirt road at the end. Stage 6 to Ascoli Piceno, through the lovely Le Marche side of the Appennines, is my pick for some early excitement. The Campo Felice stage looks more like a breakaway-fest, like so many L’Aquila stages before, whereas the Ascoli Piceno finish might have some real gradient to it, and also comes early enough that the climbers will be spoiling for a fight. The major mountains come later, and as usual feature lots of real major mountains, but that’s a topic for another day.

To me, this is a balanced course by Giro standards, missing huge early climbs but with enough of them to help shape the race, and with enough crono kms to keep the pure climbers on edge. I’ll take it.

Cycling: 101th Tour of Italy 2018 / Stage 9 Photo by Tim de Waele/Getty Images