Such a weird schedule. I had to check, are the Olympics happening next month or something? Because it’s been difficult to adjust to the Men’s World Road Race to be contested in the beginning of August, and the women just a week later. In fact, the previous earliest Worlds were in late August, back in the LeMond/Hinault/Kelly etc. days, and for all of this current century the competition has followed the Vuelta a España, in late September or early October.
But this is a new day, and maybe a pretty cool one? I haven’t had time to really watch but the all-discipline Worlds is a dynamic idea, where fans of all cycling disciplines can geek out on bike stuff together, maybe even long enough to stop arguing about which one is superior. Put your beer down, watch the Germans win another Artistic Cycling medal, and drink it all in. The Wheelympics are alright by me.
Of course, another reason for this might just be the UCI pretending to be the Olympics, which may or may not work out. It is rather conspicuous that last Sunday’s Worlds race came a year before the Olympic road race in Paris, to be held next summer, August 4. Was this a means for getting the peloton thinking of how to transition from the Tour de France to a one-day Monument-length race two weeks later? That I am absolutely for.
I might be getting ahead of myself but next year’s Olympic road race is already on my mind, for a few reasons. One, Mathieu van der Poel said after his win that he was running out of career goals — something like “my career is almost finished” but I don’t think he meant he was retiring. [We unilanguage types should cut exhausted athletes speaking in their fourth language some slack here.] The Paris Olympics have to be way up on his radar.
Another reason is that this has to be a great event, right? No disrespect to the one-off Olympic cycling events, which have mostly been gimmicky tourist courses that nonetheless produced a decent race, or even a fascinating one (ni hao Beijing!). The Paris event is also not exactly drawn from any existing race, focusing on the Chevreuse Valley southwest of the capital before doubling back into town and doing three circuits featuring the Côte de la Butte Montmartre, just shy of a kilometer at 4.7%, a long power climb which will probably set up a lot of the top riders we just watched on Sunday. Anyway, it should be a great race, right? How can the Paris Olympics not completely nail the road race? Who better than the French to put this together expertly? Not to mention the fact that all of the world’s top competitors live somewhere in western Europe during the season. Coming off the Tour, riding that wave of euphoria, right into the Olympics... that sounds pretty perfect.
Oh, and Worlds will slot back into their late September place on the calendar, out of respect for the Olympics and their demands on the riders. It happens in Zurich and will combine with Paracycling for the first time, but not all the other events. It will also almost certainly favor the climbier riders after a couple Flanders-ish years, so van der Poel won’t be hanging on to the rainbow beyond his (record-breaking) 14-month turn. Which should point him straight at the Olympic race.
How Is Your FSA Directeur Sportif Team Doing?
Mind you, this is a rhetorical question, like in China where people at one point would greet each other with “have you eaten?” Or here, like how’s your day going? We don’t really want to know specifically, we are just saying hi.
That said, I care A LOT about how my FSA Directeur Sportif team is doing: 245th at present, but more importantly, Number-Bloody-ONE in the Editors’ League, with about 1000 points lead over the teams with a possible Vuelta winner. If I keep that steady trickle of points flowing, or if Ethan Hayter turns back into his old self before the season runs out, then I may very well be writing 10,000 words on my draft strategy (compared to my opponents’ inferior approach) this October.
With the Men’s Elite TT in the books, it’s a fine time to look at the best and worst values heading into the Vuelta, the riders who are telling your team’s story for you. Top-priced, top-performing Tadej Pogačar is largely if not entirely done for the season, which he will conclude by potentially conceding his top ranking... though it will be close. For a couple years running now he’s been the most important rider to have on your squad, both in terms of his #1 ranking and his all-too-friendly pricing. Last year, I bet on him coming back to the field a bit and priced him accordingly, only to be mocked (mostly by Pogs himself) for my temerity. This year, priced to high heaven (42), he fulfilled my prediction a year late. His previous two seasons of over 4600 and 4800 are well beyond his current standing at 3453. I wouldn’t be shocked if he contested some of the fall Italian races, but with a vacation due up and no Worlds waiting, I would be less surprised if he called it a season.
Today’s victory by Remco Evenepoel has moved him into second overall and set him up to be the best investment (at 34 points) among the higher priced riders, given that he will compete in the Vuelta a España which he won last year. He is no sure bet to win, and I will be a little surprised if he pulls it off. He needs over 900 points to pass his 2022 total of 3677. But with so much left on his plate, even podium spots will see him hoovering up points.
Next on the price list was Wout Van Aert at 32, and that isn’t going great. Van Aert is a full 1500 points behind his 2022 performance, and while it all feels a bit misleading — he’s still an absolute superstar — it’s safe to say that the results have not gone his way this year, even after two nice rides in Scotland. That’s life as a one-day type, for sure, but the shock of him not chasing the Green Jersey is a blow to his future expectations. Look for Wout to be noticeably discounted (but hardly cheap!) in 2024.
The next several riders are where things get interesting. Let’s set aside Mathieu van der Poel — who rescued his 22-point price with the Rainbow title — and his teammate Jasper Philipsen, also 22 points, both of whom have hit their marks but aren’t likely to add to them going forward. If you had either of these two, you spent your money well enough but aren’t dining out on this result.
No, what you wish you did was pick up either Jonas Vingegaard or Primož Roglič instead. Vingegaard not only doubled his Tour win and shot past his 2022 point total, into third overall at 2651 now, but has also committed to the Vuelta where he might play teammate to Roglič but you can’t rule out something much bigger. Rogs, meanwhile, won the Giro and, at 18 points, is looking like a solid investment even if he does nothing else. Chances are that he does a lot more than nothing, though, including winning the race for a fourth time and maybe contesting Lombardia after that. With 1873 points in hand, he can’t catch his countryman Pogačar — stop me if you’ve heard that before — but he can vault past a couple Belgians, Van Aert and Philipsen, if probably not Evenepoel. If he does, look for Rogs to show up all over the top 10 teams.
On the Women’s side, the biggest stories are the rise of Lotte Kopecky, the confirming greatness of Demi Vollering... and the disastrous overpricing of Annemiek van Vleuten and Lorena Wiebes. Kopecky has taken a lot of food off Wiebes’ plate, and things got worse when the Dutch rider had to abandon the Tour de France Femmes with a few favorable sprints remaining. Van Vleuten, now in her age-41 season, was bound to slow down eventually, or at least leave a bit more space for the rising tide of talent in Women’s Cycling. Wiebes is back for Sunday’s Worlds road race but won’t be a favorite, as the SD Worx teammates Vollering and Kopecky go head to head.
Speaking of the Women’s Tour...
Some encouraging numbers:
Overall some 20 million viewers took in the TV production, which was actually down 11% per stage from last year. But the digital audience tripled to 4.5 million, which I think makes up the drop from television and then some? Not bad considering last year’s race was the first edition of the revived event, really the first of its kind ever, and there was pretty much no curiosity dropoff. I’m not a media expert so I welcome any other analysis you guys can offer here, but the picture looks pretty good.
Matti vs Wout vs Pogs vs Remco
The Ballad of Matti and Wout got a new verse this year, and I probably don’t need to go into that anymore. But I will say this — van der Poel missed out on a chance to win the World Championship Road Race last year when a bunch of idiots kept knocking on his hotel room door the night before the race. With inadequate sleep (and visions of a more appropriately violent response dancing in his head, no doubt), van der Poel was an early withdrawal. This time around the vaunted NL Team undoubtedly found a nice quiet place for him, a wise investment of their massive earnings from their constant success on the women’s side. [Stage 7 of the TdFF scored a 42% TV share in the Netherlands!] Result? Rainbows.
His principal victim this time was, you guessed it, Van Aert, who was brilliant compared to everyone other than van der Poel. Why? Well, it’s hard to imagine him having had adequate sleep, with he and his wife having welcomed baby Jerome into their lives on July 20. I’m not going to do that “yo, look at the calendar next time!” thing, because conception isn’t always as simple as it sounds and plenty of people take babies when they can get them, regardless of the work interruption potential. But for all his advantages — help at home, money to invest in quiet hotels and so on — there is very little chance a new dad hasn’t lost some little bit of energy to the experience. Next time around I would guess the Van Aerts will not be in baby-welcoming mode. The result... rainbows? tbd.
Pogačar taking third, ahead of Mads Pedersen, reinforced the extent to which he has inserted himself into this classics world and into the seemingly endless conversation among the two ex-Crossers. It’s been brilliant, for reasons we all know already. But will it last? I am going to guess it does, for at least one more season, and after that the results will probably determine his fate. Pogačar is at a bit of a crossroad, ceding his Tour supremacy to Vingegaard, but we can’t overreact to the results given his wrist injury. There is very much a world where he has the spring season he had, followed by an ideal Tour prep (and a better TT bike), where he then gives Jonas all he can handle and more. It’s far too early to draw conclusions on what the ideal season for the Slovenian star would be. There will probably be a Giro in there and a Paris-Roubaix sometime as well, as Pogs seems set to be that guy, a throwback-style star who captures all our imaginations as much as, say, Shohei Ohtani in baseball has rewritten what a player even is there. My point is, I don’t see Pogs’ dropoff this year forcing him back into a Tour-only type of rider. Maybe in a couple years, if he can’t do everything and win Yellow, he is forced to narrow his approach. But I seriously doubt he’s even thinking about that yet.
The fourth wheel on the Car of Destiny is Evenepoel, who himself is rewriting record books. Just as we wonder if van der Poel can win something like Liege and expand his palmares (probably not), so too we might be wondering what else Evenepoel has in store... in a few years. Wilf Peeters has already said he expects Rem to ride Flanders “one day,” though when is a tricky question. This year was all about the Giro, which he left with Covid and is just trying to salvage in Spain. In that sense, today’s Rainbow performance in the TT is a nice prize, reminding the world why he’s considered an elite grand tour rider. Next year will be all about the Tour de France... and then he can start thinking about other matters (Olympics, more rainbows, maybe classics). His chances of making the Tour podium next year seem pretty solid, and the chance to see him head to head in the biggest race against the two recent winners will be fascinating.
For now, though, he just needs his dad to stop talking about how he’s thinking of jumping to INEOS. Can Belgian fans have two minutes to enjoy his exploits before the shit hits the next fan? Maybe... but the Vuelta will tell us a lot about where his destiny belongs. Soudal Quick Step are (for now) nowhere near the quality of Jumbo Visma, and won’t be anytime soon, when it comes to grand tour support. UAE as well are building a juggernaut around Pogačar. INEOS, meanwhile, are the only team with the depth and cash to come close to those standards, though how much is enough? Evenepoel’s time trialling ability is his greatest advantage, which doesn’t really rely on team support, and even his climbing performances are kind of like time trials where he doesn’t attack (or cover attacks) so much as grind away at the hillside.
But I would feel like a shitty cycling fan if I were too dismissive of the importance of teamwork, after literally spending parts of the last 35 years preaching to anyone who will listen that it’s not actually an individual sport. And furthermore, the main competition consists of two teams who have perfected the art of buying advantages (i.e. investing in technological advancements), and a third team that has perfected the art of hiring Tadej Pogačar. All of these things add up and are piling up to the disadvantage of Remco. If the Vuelta demonstrates the superiority of team strength over singular talent, it may force Evenepoel to accept what he has so far denied, that Quick Step aren’t going to work for him.
Anyway, these are great times for the sport. Really, the only way they could be greater if just ONE MORE champion-level rider would get in on the broader fun...