The early season stage races are generally seen as a tune up for the classics season that starts in earnest this weekend with Saturday’s (that’s right; Saturday) Milan San Remo. An early marker had already been put down ahead of Tirreno by Fabian Cancellara. Overhauling previous winner Zdenek Stybar and Peter Sagan (have you noticed that people are already talking about the ‘curse of the rainbow jersey’) Cancellara has followed up a fine result in Sienna with victory in the final TT stage of Tirreno today. Cue speculation about a Cancellaraesque (read solo breakaway) win for the man himself in MSR but even if that seems a bit fanciful he looks in great form in his final season of racing.
If we’re looking purely at results you would have to put Cancellara well ahead of his fellow valedictorian Tom Boonen who could only manage a 6th place finish on the second stage of Paris Nice in an otherwise low key week on the ‘Race to the Sun’. The only silver lining for the Etixx team leader was that (at least) he didn’t crash out of the race like he did a year ago, effectively ending his season. Boonen may yet come good, he’s looked fast in a few of the bunch sprints I have seen him contest so far this year and I would rather see him add to his tally of monuments purely because I’m in team Tom rather than team Fab. The dream outcome would be a the two veterans going wheel to wheel at the Ronde and Roubaix in April but I suspect I might be disappointed.
While Cancellara has provided some easy headlines ahead of Milan San Remo the rider that we might be ignoring is Orica’s Michael Matthews. Before disappearing from view on Sunday’s final stage Matthews held the overall lead for almost the entire week after winning the opening prologue and the second stage. He might not be the fastest sprinter in the pack; in fact he might not be the fastest in his team but he’s hitting form at just the right time for Saturday’s ‘sprinters classic’.
So far in this post I have stuck to the script as far as the dotted line between Paris Nice, Tirreno and the classics goes but that’s only part of the story of these two stage races. Well, that’s normally the case anyway. The GC in both races is usually disputed between and won by a grand tour rider. In recent years Paris Nice has been a bit of a Sky benefit with Bradley Wiggins and Richie Porte (twice) taking the win. The queen stage of both races decides the outcome that’s cemented by a final TT stage. Paris Nice ended with a road stage this year and it’s true that the final GC was studded with grand tour riders but Tirreno delivered a different outcome after Sunday’s queen stage was cancelled due to bad weather. As the only mountain stage of the week this left the GC open for a classic specialist and Greg van Avermaet duly took the overall after victory in the penultimate stage put him into the lead.
Rapidly becoming the Katie Hopkins of the pro peloton Vincenzo Nibali drew a lot of criticism for suggesting that the stage should have gone ahead. In the immediate aftermath of Nibali venturing his opinion on social media it seemed like he was a lonely voice but Michael Rogers took a more reasoned view today when he said he thought he understood part of the Nibali motivation. Rogers suggested that it was Nibali’s desire to race that laid behind his intervention. While Rogers didn’t agree with Nibali that the stage should have gone ahead he could see why Nibali would have wanted it to. Viewed in this way Nibali’s comments make more sense as he needs to deliver a stronger set of results than last year. While another victory in Tirreno would not have gone amiss the strategy Nibali seems to have embarked upon has so far only alienated his fellow riders and fans alike. There have already been incidents of riders getting injured unnecessarily this year on top of the bike / car v rider accidents from last season and the direction of travel is firmly in the direction of improving safety.
Nibali wasn’t the only grand tour rider having a difficult week. Defending Paris Nice champion Richie Porte turning out for his new BMC team made the podium but lost out to the rider who has arguably replaced him as Sky’s second string grand tour leader Geraint Thomas. Porte played down his expectations, but BMC made the kind of noises that pointed towards their expecting more from the latest expensive addition to the roster. Thomas and Porte were split by Alberto Contador who huffed and puffed but couldn’t really find anything steep enough to deliver a killer blow to Thomas.
Perhaps the most interesting grand tour story of the week is Thomas’ victory. After delivering his and Sky’s best ever result in a classic with a win in the E3 last year Thomas went on to ride superbly in the Tour and was instrumental in Chris Froome winning his second maillot jaune. Thomas has talked about leading the team in grand tours and this win may be another step on the journey but at what cost to Sky in the classics?
A couple of other mentions..
Steve Cummings ‘stealing’ another stage win is always great to watch. Marcel Kittel absent from the sprint proceedings in Paris Nice and I could also say the same for Alexander Kristoff (but welcome back Arnaud Demare). Too early to say if Kittel is reverting to the shadow of 2015 yet though.
The opening weekend of the spring classics is less than 24 hours away so it’s time to inflict my take on the opening few weeks of the 2016 season on you. Omloop Het Nieuwsblad takes place tomorrow (the race that almost makes me want to find some dodge Sporza feed* on the ‘dark web’) followed my the arguably less interesting but certainly more accessible Kuurne Brussel Kuurne on Sunday. OHN seems (I say ‘seems’ as the proof is surely in actually being able to watch the race) to have the monopoly on drama and excitement whereas KBK has played out like an race staged as a benefit for Etixx (the erstwhile Omega Pharma Quick Step). OHN on the other hand has had two head to head finishes (in 2013 and 2014) and last year’s race where Etixx had a three to one advantage over Sky’s Ian Stannard and still couldn’t win. I haven’t studied the odds for a Stannard three-peat (he won in 2014 too) and I am so semi-detached at the moment that I can’t say for certain he’s even riding (he must be surely?) but if he does line up tomorrow Stannard is going to be marked like a Boonen or Cancellara. Forget winning the Ronde or Roubaix three wins on the bounce would be amazing under the circumstances. This could all play into Sky’s hands of course; Stannard is one of the least selfish riders in the peloton and I could imagine him playing with the race to allow a teammate a clear run.
Poels the new Porte?
I had been wondering about this question after Wout Poels took the GC at the revived Volta a Valenciana at the beginning of the month. I had been taken a little by surprise as the early season pro-cycling fix is normally only provided by an post breakfast date with the Tour of Dubai on Eurosport. But there it was on the schedule and (confession time) I was less interested in who was racing but where they were. You see the Comunitat of Valencia is where Mrs VCSE and I have our main training ‘holiday’ and sure enough wasn’t one of the stages passing through with a few k’s of where we stay.
Anyway, my thoughts turned to Wout after he took the race lead early on with the first stage TT. Now Richie Porte was still around at Sky a year ago when Poels came on board but now Porte has switched to BMC there’s a potential vacancy as Sky’s forlorn hope for GC on the grand tours that Froomey doesn’t fancy. OK, so new signing Mikel Landa is supposed to be the shoe in to lead Sky at the Giro but might Poels turn out to be the more willing disciple of the Brailsford way? Poels wasn’t quite up to the job last week at the Ruta del Sol against a tougher field so he may yet remain cast as loyal water carrier for Froome but that Porte shaped hole remains and it’s not obvious to me yet that Landa is better equipped to fill it.
Talking of Richie, his season is starting the way last years finished. There was a stage win in the Tour Down Under but that race is hardly an indicator of form for the year ahead. I might be doing him a huge disservice but for all that he is talking a good game I’m less convinced of Porte as a grand tour winner than I was a year ago. His teammate Tejay van Garderen might have been feeling a sense of deja vu also after losing the GC on the final day at the Ruta del Sol to Alejandro Valverde. BMC have the look of one of those expensively assembled football teams; full of talented individuals but not that good as a whole.
Porte missed out in Oman to Vincenzo Nibali. The insight those of us attending the Cycling Podcast special at Foyles last week got was that Nibali had (something of a novelty apparently) trained ahead of Oman and as a result he’s in good form. If the rumours are true (and based on my evening at Foyles they may well be) Nibali will leave Astana at the end of this season so some early season victories may help adding the zeros to a new contract at a new team.
Boasson Hagen redux
One transfer that has paid off handsomely is Eddy Bos’s move from Sky to (the now) Dimension Data (ex MTN).Two stage wins in Oman and a top 10 GC finish goes nicely with last years win at the Tour of Britain. EBH was never my favourite rider at Sky as he just seemed to lack the final few percent but maybe he is another rider who didn’t quite fit the Sky mould. It must have been a helluva contract to for him to want to stick it out though when you look at the transformation a new team has made to him.
His new teammate Mark Cavendish shared a brace of wins with him in Qatar and the GC thanks to time bonuses. Where it counts however (for us armchair fans) is head to head with his (Cavendish) sprint rivals. We don’t have sight of whatever strategy Cavendish has for 2016; is it all about a gold medal in Rio? Against Kittel and Kristoff the statistic is currently one win only and the other two look like they are flying.
So what do the early season outings tell us about how the rest of the year is going to shape up? Answer so far seems to be not (that) much. Chris Froome and Nairo Quintana have had pretty low key starts so we’ll have to wait until Paris Nice and Tirreno Adriatico (most likely the latter) to get a feel for what the grand tours might look like. It’s too early for the classics form to be settled either, with the notable exception that defending Ronde champion Kristoff looks strong already. The sprinter’s battle looks like it will be properly epic though with Kittel looking back to his best, the aforementioned Kristoff and a strong supporting cast with the likes of Ewan and Viviani to name but two. Cavendish might find the two K’s too much on the road this year but Viviani could end up putting a dent in his track hopes too.