It’s Ronde van Vlaanderen season, don’t you know? So yes, I am here to write about the week’s ongoing races, all of which are nice little practice events for the Ronde van Vlaanderen.
Tirreno-Adriatico Best Bet
I am guilty of writing off these races, even one that goes through central Italy, for lack of interest and need of sleep, but the fact is that both races have provided plenty of reasons to stay tuned. Paris-Nice is kind of its usual self, building to a climactic weekend with a larger mountain stage and then a mountain laps thingy around Nice, ascending the Col d’Eze somewhere close to the finish. This time around the Col d’Eze is the penultimate climb, the Col des Quartre Chemins, or the Climb of the Four Paths. Are there four routes to the top? Is this a discounted version of the Eightfold Path to Buddhist enlightenment? Nobody knows. But the winner will roll into central Nice, and it won’t be a bunch sprint.
By comparison, Tirreno-Adriatico has far more ability to vary its courses, and this year’s is looking pretty special. Tirreno, you undoubtedly remember, got postponed once the COVID outbreak hit, in part because Italy was the first place in Europe to feel the devastating effects of the virus, and the race got kicked to September, overlapping with the Tour de France and serving as little more than a warmup for the World Championships. This year, thankfully, the race is back to its traditional place as a Classics tuneup of the highest order. Whether it still has nicer hotels and better food than Paris-Nice, I can’t say, but it’s always good to be a bit further south this time of year.
This year’s race veers south from its usual progression through Umbria and Le Marche, with its major mountain stage topping out in the Abruzzese Apennines, at Prati di Tivo. For my fellow Italian geography buffs, the summit will have a view of the rim around the Campo Imperatore, just south on the other side of the A24, which towers over greater L’Aquila. At 1450 meters, the ascent to the base of the Prati di Tivo ski resort is no slouch, a full 1000 meters at 7%, and the climbers in the race will be in full control.
But for my money the event of the weekend will be the following day’s stage from Castellalto to Castelfidardo, a run up the coast into Le Marche, skimming past the gorgeous coastal park at Numana, and doing laps to the classic medieval hill town of Castelfidardo — the world capital of accordion makers, if you were wondering. The race will hit the town nine times, five times (including the finish) via the “easy” route that tops out with a 12% ramp to the piazza, and four times up and over this thing:
This stage just screams fun, unless of course you have to ride it, or even worse, drive a team car full of wheels up it in traffic. Here’s what the riders’ view will look like as the gradient tops out around 18%:
Intrigued yet? Here’s a bit more to ponder — all pure speculation but hey, why else are you here? This could be the Mathieu vs Wout stage we are all* clamoring for. Despite Van Aert taking stage 1 — the boy has to stretch his legs, after all — my hunch is that they don’t wage too many wars over the central Italian roads. It’s the second week of March, there are several Monuments just around the corner (hold me), and the season for the Classics guys hits its final crescendo a full month from now. Not that “pace yourselves” translates into whatever language these two stars speak, but both have bigger goals than winning the next lap these days.
[* Are we all clamoring for this? Have we reached Mathieu vs Wout saturation levels? Never!]
But this stage could well tempt them into racing, along with their fellow cobbles combatants, the Italian sprinter-climbers, and anyone else looking to prove a point (about suffering? We don’t talk enough about how miserable it is to be a pro cyclist). The startlist includes these guys plus a full Alpecin-Fenix squad, as well as old-guy third wheel Julian Alaphilippe, even older guys Niki Terpstra, Peter Sagan, and Greg Van Avermaet, and classics dudes like Bettiol (hello! I won Flanders! Does anyone remember?), Asgeen, Wellens and more. Giulio Ciccone headlines the local guys trying to make good (he’s from about 150km south of the finish line). Tadej Pogacar and Egan Bernal, despite being from the category of GC guys, both like to go chasing stages, and their Tour pedigree would prompt a reaction from just about everyone who can muster one. It’ll be Sunday, when the viewing audience is large and the price to pay is still small, a full six days away from MSR. I really think this could be a great day of racing.
Speaking of the Classics Guys
The main reason to watch, like I said, is to get a sense of where guys stand coming into the classics. Here are a couple updates.
Julian Alaphilippe is coming out flying, not surprisingly, with the rainbow on his shoulders and a brand that doesn’t allow him to stay in the shadows for long. As a former Milano-Sanremo winner, and second in the sprint last year to Van Aert, he’s obviously an A-1 favorite for La Classicissima next weekend. Speaking of which, here is this year’s route:
About as straightforward as it gets — no Turchino, just a simple climb, and the old-school finish of the tre capi-Cipressa-Poggio to sort out the winner. It’s 2.2km from the bottom of the Poggio descent to the line, with no turns. Without much time after the descent, the race favors the bold over those hoping for a regrouping, though as usual with MSR, all scenarios are possible.
All of that is about what you would expect with Ala, who will retry his 2020 plans as far as Flanders, with Liege-Bastogne-Liege at the end and probably Brabantse Pijl and Amstel Gold in between. No word on Paris-Roubaix other than that it’s a career goal, but unlikely anytime soon. Particularly not with Olympics and a favorable Worlds on the dock.
So mostly it’s about Flanders. And because every article I write is partly a Ronde preview, I will say this: his 2020 experience may be an outlier, as everything was that year, but he’s obviously good on punchy courses and not particularly troubled by cobblestones. If a lot of riders just sit on Mathieu and Wout all day, you can bet Ala will try something brash, because Quick Step always do. His sprint win today makes me think his hand is finally all better and everything is a go for the major spring events.
Another guy who... I guess is a bit obvious to bring up, but anyway,... is Mads Pedersen, winner of Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne. Not a huge palmare, but with Mads, when we last saw him excel in Flanders, it came in a bunch of results. There are still three huge weekends between now and De Ronde, but he is biding his time battling pure sprinters in bunch finishes at Paris-Nice, with some impressive returns. Maybe moreso than winning a smaller sprint at KBK, he has been second to Cees Bol — ahead of the major sprint names — in the second stage and third in amongst the Bennets and Demares in stage 1. Mads is flying, and when he gets hot, the results tend to happen in bunches. Before his worlds win, he won GP d’Isbergues solo. Before winning Gent-Wevelgem last fall (still feels weird to say), he won a stage of Binckbank. Before getting second in Flanders in 2018, he was fifth in Dwars.
The sprinting speed is a huge thing, given how fast Ala, Mathieu and Wout all are when they can smell victory. Moreover, Mads should have strong support from Quinn Simmons and Jasper Stuyven, among others, in Belgium. Trek are a juggernaut, even after Strade where all of their strategic plans burned down, fell over and sank into the swamp.
Probably one of the more intriguing issues out there is whether Peter Sagan, sticking with an ex-rainbows theme here, can make it back in time to contest the classics. Sagan caught COVID during camp and just got back into racing. With three full weeks before de Ronde (and four to Paris-Roubaix), one would think the needn’t cancel his plans for another run, but the effects of COVID vary quite a lot, and while elite endurance athletes are battling the virus from a position of strength, they also have more to lose from any diminishment of oxygen processing capacity. Sagan has two Tirreno stages under his belt, taking 11th in the flat Lido Camaiore event and a day in the gruppetto today. That’s it. I would guess we don’t see much of Sagz for the first couple weeks of his racing calendar, and it’s safe to say that the race against time is on for the Classics.
One rider getting lost in the shuffle, but maybe unfairly, is Tiesj Benoot. With a clear leadership role at DSM for the classics, he might not be the strongest guy on the strongest team, but he’s not too far off either. Benoot was one of the big losers from last year’s jumbled calendar, as he came out of his Paris-Nice debut flying, losing the overall to Max Schachmann by 18 seconds after taking second on the final day behind Nairo Quintana. He’s in the midst of a quixotic pursuit of his potential in stage racing while still keeping a foot in the classics. More of the same for a guy who doubles as a graduate student when not riding — he doesn’t seem to prefer the simple approach to life. Chapeau to that. Anyway, he’s 33 seconds down on Schachmann now and a full 1.04 to Primoz Roglic at Paris-Nice, so he isn’t exactly poised to win the thing, but you can expect him to make a stab at something this weekend, and give us some further hints of his form heading back to Belgium.