Welcome to the 2022 Cycling Season! Things kicked off in earnest this weekend, as you all know by now, with two rousing classics in Belgium, another one in Holland for the women, and a pair of French climbing events that, all together, produced some spectacular racing and results. I barely made it back in time from an exhausting week away (vacations are killers), and could do little more than haul myself out of bed to rewind the race videos before my notifications spoiled the surprise (my brother got me on Saturday). So thanks to all for holding things down, and maybe what I am really doing is welcoming myself back to the fight.
Anyway, I thought rather than recapping all of the results — which you already know because you have an FSA Directeur Sportif team and spent the weekend refreshing your point totals and whereismyfsadsteam.com for upcoming race starts — I would try to break down the bigger picture.
The Omloop is a cherished institution, especially to older fans who can remember it as Het Volk and scenes of guys with thick clothing and thin tires. The race has long been a harbinger of spring and a good place to start getting truly interested in the upcoming season, since it tends to look a lot like the cobbled classics to come, as long as the snow doesn’t stick.
Nowadays, though, it is one of several races going on, including the UAE Tour of some import, a race that didn’t exist back when the Omloop was being fought over by the Van Petegems and Museeuws of the cycling world. Teams are a bit more judicious about deploying their charges too soon or in bad weather, where a setback can be costly to the more important objectives. So for the peloton, maybe miles are just miles and the Omloop is only one of several choices to keep that form on the fast track to big success. And maybe those warmer weather options are looking like the better choice. There’s a reason riders have been moving to Monaco and Girona since forever.
But despite all that, I do think riders take these races very seriously. From Wout Van Aert going long Saturday to ditch the likes of Colbrelli and Van Avermaet, to Quick Step in full team mode at Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne Sunday, to two days of Julian Alaphilippe looking (in vain) for a way to crack the races open in southern France, you saw top riders on the men’s side showing up looking very serious about winning. On the women’s side, the two races were won by Annemiek van Vleuten in a tough, practically solo effort (I know), and Marta Bastianelli Sunday in Tielt — the stars were out there too.
So what do these races mean? Are they part of a larger program, or just races people like to win even if they don’t necessarily set them up well for later? I’m just going to write about the men so I don’t expose too much of my ignorance. And I start from the position of worrying that winning the Omloop is not a recipe for future success.
I don’t think I am being overly biased when I say that the focus of spring, for the classics riders, should be Flanders and Roubaix. Sure, there are some smaller teams or riders who aren’t quite at Flanders-winning levels who might see contention at Dwars or whatever they call De Panne nowadays as the true goal. And for those teams, if they have a rider who is ahead of schedule in his seasonal preparation such that he can get a result in the opening classics, that’s worth selling out some future hopes for.
For the big teams and the big riders, this is a harder call. Or is it? Tom Boonen famously never won the Omloop — and yes, it must be nice to be famous for the few races you didn’t manage to win. Neither did Fabian Cancellara. Fast-forwarding to the current times, neither Wout Van Aert nor Mathieu van der Poel had won prior to this weekend. Along those lines, last year’s storyline was how the Big Two seemed to have lost a step in Flanders, particularly Van Aert, after an exhausting run that began way too early. The conventional wisdom has been that the tradeoff from winning the Omloop is just too costly for the later, bigger events.
And that conventional wisdom is garbage. Unless maybe you just did a big season of cyclocross.
Boonen never won the Omloop, and sure, he was probably saving a bit of his best form for later, but he still managed two second places — once to his teammate Nick Nuyens — and two thirds. He also won KBK a record three times, a day after the Omloop. These results were spread among his most and least successful classics years, with a KBK win in ‘09 and his two seconds at the Omloop previewing magical runs in 2005 and 2012. So to draw conclusions from Boonen’s exploits is not super helpful. Even if you think other riders can be like Boonen, which is mostly not true.
Rather than hunting for examples of guys who saved their legs for later — something we don’t actually know happened — let’s look over the last five years’ worth of performances on the opening weekend and see how those riders fared the rest of the spring. I am going to include a section on the Cobbles, a section on the Faun climbs (Faun Ardeche and Faun Drôme classics), and a section on the Strade Bianche which is a week away. I will start with 2016, throwing out 2020 for obvious reasons, and see if we get any conclusions from how these performances did or did not set up the top riders for spring classics success, both on the cobbles and in the Ardennes.
Omloop/KBK Weekend: Pretty stellar finale at the Omloop, with Van Avermaet winning a sprint from Sagan, Benoot and Rowe. Note, this was on the old course, which had a heavy phase that ended 30+km from Gent, with a flat (though sometimes cobbled) run to the line. It looked a lot different to fans, but the new Old Ronde-style course has the same elements, requiring attackers to make it stick for a while on the flats.
In KBK, Jasper Stuyven won by going solo for the last 17k. Behind him the sprinters did their thing from a big pack.
Faun Classics: Petr Vakoc won both races. Whatever happened to that guy? Anyway, back then the Drôme Classic, a Europe Tour 1.1 race, attracted minimal World Tour interest.
Strade Bianche: Cancellara takes the victory over Stybar and Brambilla. Notably, the entire Omloop podium of GVA, Sagan and Tiesj were in the top 8.
Translation to the Cobbled Monuments: Sagan’s big breakthrough year, as he and Sep Vanmarcke tracked down an aggressive soon-to-retire Cancellara on the Oude Kwaremont and ended his storybook finish, riding away to the finale where Sagan dropped Sep on the Paterberg and soloed home to the win. Van Avermaet and Benoot both crashed out and missed out on the Hell of the North.
Of the riders who did succeed in April, P-R winner Matthew Hayman and third place Ian Stannard weren’t any more interested in opening weekend than you would expect. One notable data point is Sep Vanmarcke taking third and fourth in the two monuments after skipping opening weekend, for reasons I can’t dredge up. Vanmarcke was a former winner of the Omloop in 2012 and a regular combatant, and yet when he skipped it, he ended up having his best season. On the other hand, “best” really just matched placements that were identical to his 2014 results, and in 2014 he fought for the Omloop (took fourth). So Sep is a perfect example of a guy who can prove both sides of the argument. Not helpful!
Translation to the Ardennes: Your winners were Gasparotto, Valverde and Poels, not Vakoc. Make of that what you will.
Omloop/KBK Weekend: In the Omloop, Van Avermaet defended his title in a sprint over Sagan, again, with Vanmarcke along for the ride. Luke Rowe, Oliver Naesen and Jasper Stuyven were notables in the chase.
In KBK, Sagan took the sprint from Stuyven, Rowe, etc. with GVA, Naesen and Stybar in the top ten, just seconds behind. Pretty beefy weekend of work from those names.
Faun Classics: Let’s skip past this for one more year, it wasn’t until 2018 that World Tour teams began taking these races seriously.
Strade Bianche: Kwiatkowski takes a riveting win from GVA, Tim Wellens and Stybar, with Dumoulin, Durbridge, Benoot and Thibaut Pinot mixed in — quite a crowd.
Translation to the Cobbled Monuments: Scene of the most recent Podium Cafe in-person monuments trip, we will never forget the victory by Philippe Gilbert while Sagan, GVA and Naesen were in hot pursuit, until a spectator’s jacket fouled Sagan’s wheel and took them all down. GVA recovered for second place followed by Niki Terpstra and Dylan van Baarle.
In Paris-Roubaix, GVA got his cobble with Stybar, Langeveld, Stuyven and Moscon in the velodrome sprint. Shout out to Adrian Petit for taking top ten at the Omloop and in Roubaix.
Lots of data all pointing at the opening weekend taking nothing out of the legs of the top contenders in April. Even Gilbert was hanging around at the Omloop (13th). But the big story was Van Avermaet who, short of Tim Wellens winning the Tour, had only to not stick a hand pump in Tom Boonen’s wheel to have Flandrien of the Year in the bag.
Translation to the Ardennes: Gilbert won Amstel, which again supports the idea that starting early is no impediment to finishing late. So too was the work of Michal Kwiatkowski, second in Amstel and third in Liege. Speaking Wellens, he was fourth in Brabantse Pijl, then fell back, which indicates that maybe his early work was an issue, but in reality his work in the Ardennes has never been anything special.
Omloop/KBK Weekend: In Ninove — the Omloop now having switched to emulating the old Flanders route — Michael Valgren snuck away to win alone over a large peloton including 55 riders, a list long enough to cover all the big names. [Vanmarcke and Stuyven were top five.] KBK ended in an even bigger sprint, making it pretty hard to draw any lessons from the races, other than that the weather was nice.
Faun Classics: Finally expanded to a fair number of top riders, the two events were won by Romain Bardet and Lillian Calmejane. Others having a good weekend included Bob Jungels, Jhonatan Narvaez, and Max Schachmann.
Strade Bianche: Benoot gets his mini-monument! Followed by Bardet, Van Aert, Valverde, Stybar and Sagan, among the stragglers.
Translation to the Cobbled Monuments: In Flanders, Niki Terpstra rode away from Mads Pedersen, defending winner Gilbert, and... Valgren. Top ten is all from among the usual suspects (Wout, Stybs, Benoot, Stuyven, etc.). Sagan took Paris-Roubaix over GVA, Terpstra, Dillier, Sep, Stuyven and so forth.
Was it all good weather? I don’t recall anything much of it. Certainly the big names carried their form through to the end. Valgren among them was the one that jumped off the page, because...
Translation to the Ardennes: ...he went on to win in Amstel, over Kreuziger, Gasparotto, Sagan and the rest of the climbers. Alaphilippe broke through at La Fleche, while Jungels took Liege over Woods, Bardet, Gasparotto and so forth.
Jungels and Bardet both got very early starts in the classics, while guys like Alaphilippe, Gasparotto and others rode in the Arabian stage races, then didn’t race again until Paris-Nice. This is an alternative plan — race, rest and train for a spell, race the stage events (P-N, Tirreno). Fewer of the climbers are lured away from this rather sane approach to the season compared with the cobbles guys who mostly feel like they have to be at the Omloop. Strade Bianche becomes more interesting as a top objective for a lot of guys, although maybe not pure climbers, though some of them turn up.
Omloop/KBK Weekend: Stybar, ever the cold weather classics warrior, wins the Omloop over Van Avermaet, Wellens, Lampaert, Naesen, Gilbert and Trentin. KBK was another giant bunch sprint... after Jungle Bob got away for the win.
Faun Classics: Calmejane and Vuillermoz with the wins, with Bardet again lurking among the few notables on the top ten.
Strade Bianche: Alaphilippe takes it from Fuglsang and Van Aert, with Stybar, Benoot, Van Avermaet, Lutsenko and Wellens in the mix.
Translation to the Cobbled Monuments: Not too well correlated, as de Ronde went to Alberto Bettiol over Asgreen, Kristoff and van der Poel, with only Naesen, Benoot and Van Avermaet in the mix. Then Gilbert won Roubaix over Nils Politt and Yves Lampaert, with the Seps of the world just behind.
This was an interesting Cobbles season, but you couldn’t really trace it back to the opening weekend. It doesn’t mean that opening weekend was a pro or a con; it just didn’t really line up at all.
Translation to the Ardennes: Heh well this was when van der Poel made his mad dash to the line, snatching the win from Ala, Fuglsang, Kwiatkowski and Trentin. Then Ala won La Fleche and Fuglsang took Liege. Others in the mix were Schachmann, Formolo, Ulissi and so on.
By 2019, if not sooner, it was clear that Strade Bianche was pretty well connected to later results. There is a chicken-vs-egg thing where maybe the races connect the riders, or maybe the riders are just so great that they are the ones connecting the races through their superiority. Either way, they certainly weren’t torpedoing their April hopes by getting an early start.
Omloop/KBK Weekend: Ballerini wins the Omloop from Jake Stewart, Vanmarcke, and some even older guys than Vanmarcke. KBK goes to Pedersen from Turgis, Pidcock, Trentin etc. with Colbrelli, Politt and Van Avermaet around.
Faun Classics: Gaudu wins the Ardeche from Champoussin, Carthy, Frølich Honoré, Godon, Vlasov etc. Then Bagioli beat Impey for the Drome classic, with Frølich Honoré, Godon and others in the bunch sprint for second.
Strade Bianche: Another van der Poel classic, dusting Alaphilippe and Egan Bernal in the finale. Van Aert, Pidcock and Pogacar were all in the first chase group.
Translation to the Cobbled Monuments: Well, the Ronde van Vlaanderen happened on time, and there we got a bit of a data point of note, with both Van Aert and van der Poel not looking fresh enough to win. Asgreen got the sprint, just ahead of van der Poel, who muscled out a fine second place. Van Avermaet and Stuyven were next, and Van Aert led the bigger bunch in. Paris-Roubaix wasn’t til October and doesn’t help with this discussion, though of course I am always happy to talk about Paris-Roubaix (Colbrelli beats Vermeersch and van der Poel in the velodrome).
Translation to the Ardennes: Van Aert rebounded to beat Pidcock and Schachmann at the line, with Alaphilippe close by. Ala then took La Fleche again, over Roglic and Valverde, with Pidcock, Gaudu and Schachmann around. Then Pogacar bested Ala in Liege, with Gaudu third.
Van Aert I already discussed, he apparently wasn’t too spent from the early start, while the Strade guys showed up later too (minus van der Poel). Gaudu is our first real data point from the Faun races to the end of Liege, showing that it is possible to run that program successfully.
So Can I Have My Bad Answer to the Weird Question Now?
Yes. And it is... the data doesn’t tell us very much. Very satisfying, I know! But the lack of an answer is kind of an answer. I would draw the following conclusions from all of this results chatter.
- Starting early does NOT hinder your chances of winning later, in most cases. There might be a caveat for the guys coming off a cross season, especially one involving cross worlds, which takes guys like Wout and Mathieu (and now Pidcock) right up to early February racing under duress. If they tread carefully enough, that doesn’t have to be a barrier to success in April, but it is something to be managed carefully. Van Aert this year took leave of worlds, in part due to the timing (and also the added stress of traveling to the USA), so there is a good chance that he has himself well positioned for excellence, even having already dropped some of it on the Omloop. Wout is a special rider, and we can expect special things. Just maybe not superhuman “win everything for months on end” stuff.
- The opening weekend should be treated as a preseason(ish) event, with the top riders in attendance and racing hard. We saw some brilliant work by top guys at the Faun races, an emerging and exciting trend that you would not have talked about four years ago. Plus the expected greatness of the Omloop and KBK. By preseasonish I would suggest that there is a bit of randomness to be attached to which riders are hot now. All of them are taking their form up slowly and probably very few of them, at least the top guys, think they are where they need to be for Flanders right now. So when everyone is at 75%, who wins can be a bit more random than say who wins Paris-Roubaix.
- Having said that about some randomness, by the same token there is plenty of evidence that says stars are stars. Greg Van Avermaet is a super elite classics rider and you can’t slow him down much anywhere between Valentine’s Day and Easter. Or you couldn’t, for a while. He and Gilbert and Sagan and Vanmarcke and Benoot and Stybar and Stuyven... etc. etc. ... the pre-Wout-vs-Mathieu gang of known cobbles quantities did a very good job of shooting down the theory that the opening weekend was some sort of curse. They are effectively the successors to Boonen, without the tendency to kick the Omloop to a teammate. On the Ardennes side, I guess I could talk about Valverde, but I’d rather talk more about Alaphilippe, Fuglsang, Schachmann and Trentin, the guys who of late have been unstoppable in that same range of weekends. The cream keeps rising, most of the time. Fortunately, there is a lot of cream these days.
- Strade Bianche now looks like the race to pay closest attention to (I am not telling you anything you didn’t totally know already). The brilliance of it is how it brings together guys from the cobbles and Ardennes (see previous parenthetical). You can get some hints from opening weekend, but you can get slightly stronger ones from next weekend. And even stronger ones after that. And then the guy who showed you he’s about to go big in Flanders or Liege will... get an ill-timed mechanical and some jabroni blogger will write a post in 10 years about how he shouldn’t have expended so much energy at the Faun Ardeche race.
- Want a definitive statement? Hm... I would have to crunch the numbers, but I would say that anything before Saturday is a result you don’t want to rely on. This is consistent with how we start the FSA Directeur Sportif, and really the UAE Tour, I guess I have to grudgingly include it in races to be mindful of, but before that, I wouldn’t get too excited about what you’ve seen. Maybe that means my guy McNulty isn’t actually on the way to a monster season (although counterpoint: maybe he is!), but whatever. I have to believe, without the benefit of any insider information, that January is still very much January (Aussies and Kiwis aside), and half of February is in the same boat.
Feel free to disagree, dissect, and otherwise do your thing! And let’s get geared up for Awesome Weekend #2, just around the corner.