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What have we learned over the last week?

Four lessons from six races in three countries

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A whistle-stop tour of the last week in cycling, taking one lesson from each of the countries that’ve hosted men’s cycling.

In Belgium we learned that an armchair ride matters

I suppose that we didn’t really learn that. We also didn’t really see that. Still, it is worth a quick look at how each of the Belgian races was won, and how fresh the winner was, comparatively. Davide Ballerini spent much of the day in the front selection being well looked-after by Stybar and Alaphilippe (who served as both a super-domestique and a hare up the road, which is quite the performance) before being beautifully led out for a dominating win at Omloop.

Mads Pedersen didn’t follow attacks in Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne and when the race came back together he was fresh enough to finish strongly (after being beautifully led out). Then Tim Merlier won Le Samyn after Matheiu van der Poel (with Florian Senechal) broke the race apart. When it came back together he was by far the strongest in a reduced sprint, with DQS having burned all their matches fighting his teammate.

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Whilst there’s no such thing as an armchair ride in cycling you need good teammates and you need good luck (to be in the right breaks, or to sit back and wait for it to come back together). Of course, if you don’t have legs, brains and bravery none of this other stuff will matter, but Belgium has provided a trilogy that demonstrates once again what a true team sport road cycling is.

In France we learned that… David Gaudu really is worth the hype

I’ve spent a few years writing that every cyclist has a different trajectory. Some take longer to mature than others, and some burn bright and then fade. I’ve also said that climbing is a fungible skill. While I’ve been saying that, Egan Bernal and Tadej Pogacar have won the Tour. They won the Tour de l’Avenir in 2017 and 2018 respectively, and each won the Tour two years later.

Meanwhile, David Gaudu won the Avenir in 2016. A year ago, his biggest pro win was at the Tour de l’Ain, if Will is reading this, and at Romandie if he isn’t. In any case, it was a stage win from one of two biggish races, but nothing electrifying. He finished the peculiar 2020 season in sparkling form just as his erstwhile leader, Thibault Pinot, was struggling to the end of another tough year. Gaudu grabbed two stage wins in the Vuelta and looked a threat, grabbing a top ten and starting to show his U-23 form at last. Some of us had been waiting a while.

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He opened this year with a strong performance at the Var, and then a very strong win against a deep field in Faun-Ardeche. This is only early season stuff and it’d be a shame to react too much, but it was another wildly cheering result in a career that is trending in just the right direction. Paris-Nice next, and thence to the Ardennes, where he’ll be well worth watching.

Also worth noting in passing that Jake Stewart (told you!) took second in Omloop, where Kevin Geniets also impressed, and that Pinot’s back improved enough for him to take 8th in Ardeche. Saturday was a very good day for Groupama-FDJ. They’re getting deeper, younger, and more impressive. Just a shame Arnaud Demare couldn’t make the right group at Kuurne on Sunday.

In the UAE we learned… very little, really

I lost an argument (well, a polite discussion) to Jens in the live thread for this race. I was saying how much I like this year’s parcours, and that it feels like well-balanced stage racing. He pointed out that all it tells you is which GC threats are in decent form and taking the race seriously, and that the Tour of Qatar was more fun when it was classics guys going eyeballs out and a GC that nobody cared about. He was right and I was wrong.

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The racing was fun, the roads were good and we got a couple of mountaintop finishes. But all we learned is that when UAE send a good team, Pogacar is a better climber than the wrong Yates, and that some teams will always be caught out by echelons, because not everybody can be in the top third of the field.

So, yes, a fun week and great to have some WT cycling back, but I won’t be basing too much on the competition that we saw, such as it was.

(If I brought back “Boring Andrew’s buckets of cold water overreaction game”, the overreaction would be “Pog will win the Tour easily” and there would be four buckets of water thrown).

In FSA-DS we learned that this is the middle of the beginning

Some interesting chat about the value of looking at the leaderboard early in the season. My view is that there’s something interesting about looking, but you’d be wrong to put too much emphasis on what you see. So far, we’ve had four group four races, and one each from groups five and three. Now, that’s a lot for this time of the year (with UAE in and out of the scoring period, and with the French races bumped up a category) but we are still yet to get going. A reminder – Primoz Roglic is the highest-cost rider in the field this year and he’s yet to race.

When we get to the 17th March, I think we’ve got to the end of the beginning. That’ll give us two more cat-three races (Tirenno-Adriatico as well as Paris-Nice), three more cat-fours (Strade Bianche, Trofeo Laigueglia and Nokere Koerse) and a couple of cat-fives (Grote prijs Jean-Pierre Monsere and GP Industria & Artigianato). By that point almost everyone without an injury has ridden, we’ve seen a wide range of courses, and we’ve got enough points in the bank to start making meaningful comparisons.

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So, we’re not there yet, but we have enough data to be intrigued. As I’ve said, Faun Ardeche has made me regret overlooking Gaudu, who I didn’t think would win enough or take one-day racing sufficiently seriously. I’m thrilled with both Anthony Turgis and Jake Stewart who’ve shown plenty in grabbing second places. I’m still not ready to talk about my ed’s league team (and I’m really, really not ready to talk about dithering over Davide Ballerini and Matej Mohoric (both of whom are on my normal team) only to pick Ballerini, drop him and pick Mohoric. Guess how their respective seasons will go now…). I am also cruising along in the top third (248th at last count) despite only scoring points in Belgium. This is a neat trick and for now it is amusing, but I hope something changes soon. Tomorrow, for preference.

What else did we learn?