These are the Hopeless Weeks for me... when winter is starting to really drag on, when I am becoming increasingly impatient with grit and salt on the roads and still-short daylight, but there doesn’t seem to be much hope of changing these circumstances anytime soon. April in Seattle can be nice but it’s not terribly likely to feel warm and lovely until May. I can’t jet off to Mexico or Hawaii right now and am besieged by social media contacts who can, and have.
Cycling, though, offers some hope. It’s nice somewhere in Europe, and in those places people are beginning to race their bikes. Or it might be nice, and then it might not, though even in the latter case I can enjoy watching them struggle against the conditions.
Every cyclist: Yeah, super awesome that we can entertain you with our misery.
That was sarcastic.
OK, OK, calm down! I mostly will be happy for you if the sun comes out.
Anyway, we are shifting gears in a big way this weekend. Don’t get me wrong, last weekend was super fun. We learned a few things about a few people, and hopefully we didn’t feel the need to get too carried away. This weekend... we will get carried away. The races are bigger and the rivalries are biggest. There is no reason to think anyone will bring something less than all they have. The season, one of the most promising ones anyone can remember (hopefully), is most definitely happening now.
Saturday the action will kick off with what was supposed to be the renewal of hostilities among the Giants of Cyclocross: Mathieu van der Poel, Wout Van Aert and Tom Pidcock. Van Aert, though, bailed to stay with his training following some interruptions from illness, and turns the mantle over to Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne winner Tiesj Benoot. That sounds like a bummer, but Benoot won the race in 2018 and was flying last weekend. Moreover, Jumbo was dominant in Van Aert’s absence, taking four podium places in two events, so consider the battle joined.
This should be a pretty fascinating edition even without the easy preview headline. Van der Poel’s form might be a bit of a mystery, seeing as how he hasn’t officially picked up his race bike yet this year. Two years ago when he was victorious here van der Poel had raced the UAE Tour and a couple other events (KBK, Le Samyn) to open up the legs. On the other hand, he also took the ‘Cross worlds that year, so maybe the mud is where he tees up his early form? Anyway, he is coming to win and he knows what to do, even if people like me can’t totally explain it.
Pidcock is among the bettors’ favorites (with Julian Alaphilippe) to give van der Poel a real scare, and with some significant climbing to work with, perhaps his small frame will help him move up when he feels the need. Pidders took a fifth place in his first attempt at the White Roads, so we know that the course is to his liking. Alaphilippe too, for not dissimilar reasons, and after DS Patrick Lefevre openly challenging the Frenchman to step up this year, I’d say his winning form at the Faun Ardeche Classic was convenient at the very least, as far as internal politics are concerned.
After that, though, the competition drops off into the speculative realm. Could this season’s leading scorer, Bahrain’s Pello Bilbao, upset the applecart? He’s been fifth and 10th in his last two efforts. Could Golden Greg Van Avermaet conjure up the past for another podium (he was second twice a long, long time ago)? Or at least set up the hotter Nans Peters (Trofeo Laigueglia winner) for something big? Can a cycling team be successful while purporting to wear denim jean shorts? I say no to the latter, although if paired with the denim top I will keep an open mind.
I could throw out a bunch of other names like Vlasov, Bettiol, Theuns, Sheffield, Sagan?! or Tim Wellens, just to cover my tracks, but I don’t think any of them will actually win. Anyway, hype video time:
#StradeBianche— AG2R CITROËN TEAM (@AG2RCITROENTEAM) March 2, 2023
La Toscane et du piano
Tuscany and piano #AG2RCITROËNTEAM #RoulonsAutrement #RideDifferently pic.twitter.com/jHKMe2RV1m
A Quick Jumbo-Visma Appreciation Note
When you hear that a team won both the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne in the same weekend, you might be tempted to say “oh, just like Quick Step?” And you would not be wrong... but neither would you be anywhere near as right as you’d think.
For all their brilliance, Pat’s Picks won the Opening Weekend Double in 2019 (Stybar in OHN, Jungels in KBK) and... that is it. In fact, no other team has accomplished this tight-turnaround double dip since the days of yore, namely 1984, when Panasonic got wins from Eddy Planckaert and Jos Lammertink in the two events. Want more? Quick Step only got two guys on the podium at the OHN as recently as 2015 (when Terpstra and Boonen both lost to Ian Stannard) and in KBK Team Belkin tucked two riders (Hofland and Vanmarcke) in behind Boonen. I don’t see any time when even mighty Quick Step got two riders onto both podiums in the same weekend. Jumbo Visma owns that record outright, as far as the post-Hinault era goes.
Mind you, all of this was accomplished with their second unit, with Van Aert of training in Spain. The cards analogy would be that while two kings beats an ace, two kings plus an ace just fucking destroys an ace. Cycling is not so simplistic, and maybe if Jumbo are too hard-headed about it, Wout will end up marked out of existence while nobody else is willing to leave his side. But if I know this, they definitely know this, and Van Aert has always been a generous teammate. So really, look for Jumbo to just unleash Hell over and over in the spring classics until everyone sends up the white flag. That’s the plan anyway.
The Race to the Sun is one of my favorite names, along with E3 Prijs, because of the futility implied — and cycling is all about futility. Yes, I suppose the organizers of Paris-Nice know that they cannot reach the actual sun, nor would anyone want to, but it mostly seems like a race to find even a ray of sunlight, which doesn’t appear until the end of day 7, at the earliest. It’s not quite as pathetic as paying homage to a road that doesn’t exist, but it’s close.
Incongruously, though, this year’s Paris-Nice will be not only not pathetic but potentially massively consequential. First, the startlist is massive, just guys all over the place, a big turnaround from years of Tirreno-Adriatico eating off its plate. The stage battles will be hard-fought even while waiting for the big battle to happen, with a few big sprinters and far more stage hunters oozing out of every team’s startlist. Kristoff versus De Lie versus Merlier versus... Ethan Hayter? will make for good TV on the trio of clear sprint events, and the middling stages (#s 5 and 6 I think) could get interesting too.
All that, though, is sprinkles on a Vingegaard vs Pogačar sundae. Media depictions may be hard to rely on, but it kinda seems like the two are eyeing each other, given how aggressively they’ve raced ahead of this showdown. If nothing else, they should be eyeing each other, and they should be racing hard coming into the event. That’s grand tour psychological chess 101. The next moves get far more interesting... does one rider try to lay the smackdown? Does it work, or does the other take the “oh, you were going all out that day? Really? Interesting...” approach? It’s probably more complicated than that — each of them also has a program to implement for maximum long-term effect too. So the temptation to junk the “planned effort” for the statement ride will be another tension.
The mere fact that Pogačar has been dragged into an early-season chess match is the best news of all, as far as the sport’s health is concerned. A year ago he seemed like a Merckxian figure, just toying around half-bored until we got closer to July, winning occasional races like a band playing their big hit in an encore. Sure, here you go, my lovelies. Feast on this for a bit. Vingegaard followed Pogs around a bit at Tirreno last year but was always a minute or so away on GC, seemingly not terribly intent on winning at the expense of his program. They weren’t really playing chess so much as kind of eyeing each other warily. Now, it’s totally different.
For Pogačar this is all good news. By all accounts he’s a voracious competitor, and in that brief time when he was an all-too-easy double Tour winner with nobody close on his tail, he was not at his best. Great athletes need a serious rival to fully focus them, and having kicked him around last year in France, Vingegaard now has Pogačar’s full attention. No, Pogs shouldn’t just empty the tank for this little skirmish if it doesn’t suit his build up to the Tour. But even short of turning himself inside out, he can still send Jonas a little message about how the Slovenian intends to go to war later on. I can’t wait to see how this goes, even if both of them end up holding their fire.
Is this even the third best race happening over the weekend-plus? [Tirreno starts Monday.] No, I’d give the nod to two races in Belgium, the GP Criquelion and Grote Prijs Jean-Pierre Monseré. Not because those races will be anything more than the usual YurpTour sprints, but because Tirreno might be a bit of a dud. Or even a huge one. Van der Poel’s presence is usually good news and the Italian press will make a lot out of Van Aert being on hand too, but neither one of them can afford to go bananas this far in advance of the first Monument, Milano-Sanremo, still two weeks away. They might sprint it out somewhere? They might duke it out on stage 3 to Foligno with Pidcock and Ala too? But in the more obvious sprint events, van der Poel will be setting up Jasper Philipsen against Quick Step’s Fabio Jakobsen. Unlike the Jonas vs Tadej match, there aren’t any messages to send that haven’t been sent 100 times already. I’d expect people to wait for another day.
On the GC side, it could be a fun course (weather permitting), as the race tops out at 1,451 meters on stage 5 where they race to the Sarnano Sassotetto ski resort. But don’t go listening for any messages. Jai Hindley is the biggest name here along with Simon Yates, and they can’t really send messages without more people to hear them. Seems like a perfect opportunity for everyone to get in their work.
OK, who are you counting on this weekend? Remember, you can still add to your FSA DS private league, and maybe this weekend is a perfect time to send messages of your own (albeit fantasy ones)(NTTAWWT).