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 by: Bill Oetinger  5/1/2017

The Nearly-Ready-For-Prime-Time Players

It’s official. With the last few fronts that rolled through in late April, the rain season of 2016-17 (counting from October) is now the rainiest ever in Northern California, or at least since they started keeping records in 1902. (The previous record was for the winter of ’83-84, when I was trying to build a new wing onto my house.) I’m glad my current cycling life is laid back enough that I don’t mind a few of my rides being rained out. There were many past years when this would have had me in a stew of frustration…either that or out there in the rain, pounding the miles. Not anymore. That said, I don’t want to lose out on all my rides, so better weather is much to be wished for.

Barring a few straggling sprinkles, I think we can be fairly confident that brighter days are ahead; that we have put this worst of all possible winters behind us and can look forward to rides with only arm warmers and vests as a hedge against the elements.

That’s what May means to me: the bad or at least dodgy days of winter and early spring are over and pleasant riding is the order of the day. It also marks a tipping point in the sport of bike racing: the end of the spring classics season and the advent of prime time on the pro racing calendar.

The last monument of the spring season—Liege-Bastogne-Liege—was last Sunday, April 23. There are no more one-day classics until San Sebastian at the end of July. There has been a steady run of short stage races as well, beginning with those down in Australia in January and arriving now at the Tour of Romandie, rolling out its final miles as I write this. In just a few days—on May 5—the Giro d’Italia begins, the first of the grand tours for this year. From now until September, there is a more-or-less steady procession of stage races, one after another, including the three grand tours and any number of one-week challenges.

Last year in May, I wrote a review of what had transpired over the spring campaign as a set-up for the months to follow: who had done what and what might that mean for the big races ahead. I had my review organized by event last year but this year, just to make a change, I’m going to organize things by individuals, highlighting the accomplishments of what I might call the hottest, most intriguing riders so far this year. These racers are not ranked in any order of significance, aside from the fact that inclusion on the list means they’ve done significant things.

Michal Kwiatkowski, 26, Poland, Team Sky. Finished first on Strade Bianche (3/4), the race across the white gravel roads of Tuscany, with the brutal uphill finish through Siena’s centro storico. Second at Amstel Gold (4/16) and third at Liege-Bastogne-Liege, two prestigious one-day classics. Second overall at the the five-stage Volta ao Algarve (2/15-19). Most significantly, first at the great monument Milano-San Remo, winning by half a wheel ahead of Peter Sagan and Julian Alaphilippe in a three-up sprint.

Philippe Gilbert, 34, Belgium, Quick-Step. First overall at the Three Days of De Panne (3/28-30), winning one stage. First at Amstel Gold and second at Dwars door Vlaanderen (3/22) and E3 Harelbeke (3/24). The biggest win of his spring season was the legendary Tour of Flanders (4/2), going off the front in an epic, solo breakaway with 55 K to go, hanging on to win by :29.

Greg Van Avermaet, 31, Belgium, BMC. Won the spring one-day races Omloop Het Nieuwsblad (2/25), E3 Harelbeke (3/24), and Gent-Wevelgem (3/26). He was part of team time trial wins for BMC at both Tirreno-Adriatico and Valenciana. He was second at Flanders and Strade Bianche. But the cherry on his cake this spring was winning the Hell of the North: the infamous cobbled monster Paris-Roubaix (4/9).

Richie Porte, 32, Austrailam BMC. First overall at the Tour Down Under (1/15-22) while winning two stages. He won a stage at Paris-Nice. Most significantly, he won the five-stage Tour of Romandie (4/25-30). He attacked on the final climb on Stage 4 and no one could or would go with him out of the leaders’ group. He scooped up Simon Yates out of the remnants of a breakaway and towed him to the line, where Yates took the win and the overall lead by :19. But in the final day’s time trial, Porte beat Yates by a whopping :40 to claim the overall victory.

Nairo Quintana, 27, Colombia, Movistar. First overall at the five-stage Volta a la Comunitat Valenciana (2/1-5), winning Stage 4. More importantly, first overall at the seven-stage Tirreno-Adriatico (3/8-14), winning the queen stage (Stage 4) against a robust roster of contenders. He attacked with 2 K to go and never looked back. No one could hold his wheel. That’s pretty much all he has done this spring, but it was the sort of move that looks most like what we expect to see from him in the big stage races ahead.

Alejandro Valverde, 37, Spain, Movistar. At age 37 (as of 4/25), you might expect this old trouper to be gradually fading away. Not so fast! He has had by far the best spring campaign of his long and illustrious career…a spring that rivals the best of any rider in any era. He was first overall at the five-stage Vuelta a Andalucia (2/15-19), including winning Stage 1. He was five seconds behind Alberto Contador going into the final day’s time trial, and he beat Contador against the clock by six seconds, thus winning the overall by a slim one second! He won overall at the Volta a Catalunya (3/20-26), winning Stages 3, 5, and 7, with Contador in second on GC, 1:03 behind. He was first overall at the Tour of the Basque Country, this time :17 ahead of Contador. He beat Contador by :03 in winning stage 5 and took another :14 seconds out of his countryman while finishing second overall in the ITT. (Contador used to always beat Valverde in the time trials…not anymore.) Three stage race overalls. What about the classics? He won the Vuelta a Murcia (2/11)—for the fifth time—by going on a 70-K solo break to win by over two minutes. He won Fleche Wallone (4/19)—for the fifth time—by launching his patented sprint over the last 200 meters on the brutal Mur de Huy. He won Liege-Bastogne-Liege (4/23)—for the fourth time—with a similar attack from about 200 meters on the long, uphill grind to the finish. In both la Fleche and LBL, it was Irishman Dan Martin whom he overtook in those final meters. This guy is so hot right now, you’d need barbecue mitts to shake his hand. But will that translate to glory in the months ahead? He has, over the course of his career, entered 21 grand tours. He has 16 top tens, including one first, two seconds, and five thirds. But at the ripe old age of 37, I doubt many people would have marked him out as a favorite for 2017…only who would have predicted this run of astonishing success in the spring? Stay tuned…

Alberto Contador, 34, Spain, Trek-Segafredo. I used to apply the nickname “Mr Almost” to Valverde, based on all those seconds and thirds in the grand tours. So far in 2017, he seems to have passed that dubious mantle to Contador. Note the three second places to Valverde listed above: losses by :01, 1:03, and :17. But wait…there’s more! He also finished second on the prestigious, eight-stage Paris-Nice (3/5-12). This one was as painful as any of the other near-misses. He entered the final stage :31 behind Sergio Henao (Sky), but he hoped for something good to happen when he attacked on a climb with 52 K to go. Over that climb and the final one, he built a lead on Henao of over a minute, meaning he was the virtual leader. Two riders stuck with him all the way back down the mountains to Nice, while behind, Henao had the company of 20+ riders to power the catch-up train. In the end, David de la Cruz outsprinted a gassed Contador for first, depriving him of four bonus seconds—:10 for first, :06 for second. Meanwhile, the Henao bunch swarmed in with just enough time pulled back that when it was all reckoned up, he had beaten Contador by a measly two seconds. Those four bonus seconds Contador lost made all the difference. Last year, Contador finished second at Paris-Nice by a grand total of four seconds. Racing is cruel! But give el Pistolero some respect here. He suggested last year that 2016 might be his last season, but he signed up with a new team and so far has been active and feisty, almost up to his old, solid-gold standards. He might surprise us yet.

Who else? As noted, Sergio Henao (Sky) won Paris-Nice. He also won the Colombian National Championship. Geraint Thomas (Sky) won the Tour of the Alps (4/17-21), wining one stage. He also won Stage 2 of Tirreno-Adriatico. Thibaut Pinot (FDJ) was second overall at the Tour of the Alps, winning State 5, third at the Vuelta a Andalucia, winning Stage 1, and third at Tirreno-Adriatico. Rohan Dennis (BMC) won the Australian time trial championship. He won the Tour la Provence. He was second overall at Tirreno-Adriatico, winning two stages (an ITT and TTT). He won one stage at the Tour of the Alps and one stage at the Volta a Catalunya. Vincenzo Nibali (Bahrain-Merida) won the six-stage Tour of Croatia, admittedly against a rather minor-league field. Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe) brought his new team their first victory with a win in the spring classic Kuurne-Bruselles-Kuurne. He finished that oh-so-close second at Milano-San Remo, after launching the decisive attack on the Poggio. He won two stages during Tirreno-Adriatico, including a steep, uphill finish against a start-studded cast of climbers. He crashed out of both Strade Bianche and Flanders. Primoz Roglic (LottoNL-Jumbo): almost a new name for me but a bright new talent. The Slovenian won the Volta ao Algarve, was third overall at the Tour of Romandie, winning the time trial, fourth overall at Tirreno-Adriatico, and fifth overall at the Tour of the Basque Country, winning Stage 4 and Stage 6 (the ITT). 

Conspicuously absent from this list of spring hot shots is the rider who, on paper at least, must be considered the best in the world: Chris Froome. His spring campaign was a dud. In the Volta a Catalunya in late March, he showed signs of good form but then inexplicably lost 26 minutes in one stage. People were expecting him to open his account for 2017 at the Tour of Romandie, but while Porte was attacking on the queen stage, he was going out the back of the lead group, ultimately dragging in 1:15 behind Yates and Porte. Then in the final time trial—usually one of his strengths—he was :38 behind Porte, his former lieutenant. He claims to have some lower-back issues but also admits he just doesn’t have the legs yet this year. All he really cares about at this point is the Tour de France, so he has two-plus months to find those legs.

When we look at these tea leaves, what can we predict about the big races ahead, beginning with the Giro this week? I don’t make predictions, at least not ones that are so emphatic I might live to regret them later. But we can at least say this about the folks on this short list…Kwiatkowski, Van Avermaet, and Gilbert are not major players in the big stage races. They are essentially classics riders…winners of one-day races. They may win stages here and there during the big events, but nothing more than that. They have already had successful seasons with what they did this spring.

I can tell you one interesting thing: Nairo Quintana is going to try and do what hasn’t been done in quite a long time: the Giro-Tour double. In spite of his relatively modest accomplishments this spring, he is probably as likely to get there as anyone else who has attempted it lately. But I wouldn’t bet on it. His time-trialing is still not absolutely top-shelf. The parcourse for the Giro looks typical of it type, with five tough mountaintop finishes and three or four other hilly stages that could shake things up. Also two time trials, one on the final stage…no processional promenade into Milano this year. Vinnie Nibali is back to defend his maglia rosa, but as much as I admire him, I find it hard to imagine he can match Quintana in the big mountains. That said, he appeared totally overmatched last year as well and somehow he won. As usual, some of the sports biggest stars will take a pass on the Giro to focus on the Tour, but there are still some very good riders entered. It could be a breakout race for one or two newbies.

The Tour of California (5/11-20) also looks typical of what those organizers put together. They have a modest uphill finish on Stage 2, near San Jose, then another run at Mt Baldy down in SoCal on Stage 5 and a short, flat time trial on Stage 6. Baldy will probably decide the overall, with the ITT perhaps sorting out some close placings. As always, they are tardy in publishing the starting rosters, so there’s no way to guess who the players will be.

One thing I can predict for sure: it’s going to be entertaining. So while you’re not out on your own bike, churning out the miles and dreaming dreams of glory, find the time to pull up some streaming video of the pros doing their thing…or perhaps even pedal out to a spot along the Tour of California route and cheer them on up close. Our rainiest winter ever is behind us and we are looking forward to prime time. Bring it on!

Bill can be reached at srccride@sonic.net

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