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 by: Bill Oetinger  5/1/2018

Mr Bill’s Springtime Non-predictions

Spring has sprung. Okay, technically Spring sprang back around March 21, the vernal equinox, six weeks in the rear view mirror now. I’m always happy to celebrate the rebirth of the warmer seasons at that equinoctal tipping point; to rejoice in the blossoms and sunny days and dry roads—mostly dry roads anyway. But it never feels like we’ve arrived at prime time for cycling until we get to May.

This is filtered through my local lens of Northern California weather. Your seasonal results may vary. But the advent of May is about more than just dry roads and sunny skies where you or I ride our bikes. It’s about the progression of the professional peloton through its traditional, annual trajectory. The end of April marks the end of the spring classics season and the launch of the Giro d’Italia, first of the three grand tours. In addition to the one-day spring classics, there have also been several fairly ambitious stage races in the first four months of the year, ranging from three to nine days. It’s been a busy time for the hard-working pros, often slogging it out in miserable conditions. (You and I may take the day off when it rains or snows but the pros don’t get paid to take days off.)

Anyway…here we are on the cusp of the Giro and all that follows. If you’re a racing fan, you probably have at least a vague idea of how we got from the January team training camps to the full slate of big rides we’re seeing now. But to perhaps sharpen your focus a little bit, I’m offering up this summary of what has transpired so far in 2018. It’s not a comprehensive retelling but more like a roster of who has done what. As the vendors at the ballpark say: “Can’t tell the players without a program!” Consider this your program: who will be the big names and chief protagonists in the weeks and months ahead…at least based on what they did so far this spring (and of course on their past palmarés).

Alejandro Valverde, 38, Spain, Movistar. In my similar article from this month last year, by far the longest entry was for Valverde, based on an awesome run of success in early-season races. Unfortunately, his storybook season ended with a knee-shattering crash on the first stage of the Tour de France. His heart must have shattered along with his knee…he was on such a roll. One year later and one year older, he’s almost back to the same amazing form as last year. He won the Volta a Communtat Valenciana, a five-stage race from January 31 to February 4, winning Stages 2 and 4. He finished second at the Vuelta a Murcia on February 10. He won the five-stage Abu Dhabi Tour (2/21-25), taking the decisive mountaintop finish on Stage 5. He opened March with a fourth at Strade Bianche in Siena, then won the seven-stage Volta a Catalunya (3/19-25) for the third time, winning Stages 2 and 4 and also taking the mountains jersey…and beating Nairo Quintana, his nominal team leader. On March 31 he won the one-day GP Miguel Indurain, attacking on the final climb and coming in solo. He did not do quite as well in the spring classics as he did last year, when he won Fléche Wallone (4/18) for the fifth time and Liege-Bastogne-Liege (4/22) for the fourth time. This year he finished fifth at Amstel Gold (4/18), second by :04 to Julian Alaphillipe at Fléche and only 13th at LBL. CyclingNews lists GP Miguel Indurain as his ninth win of the year. I only show six wins here. Not sure what I’m missing, but any way you cut it, that’s an impressive spring campaign.

Michal Kwiatkowski, 27, Poland, Team Sky. Kwiatkowski won the overall at the five-stage Volta ao Algarve (2/14-18), winning Stages 2 and 5. He won the overall at the seven-stage Tirreno-Adriatico (3/7-3/13) without winning a stage. He hung around the front every day and never had any significant lapses. As noted last year, he is not a threat to win a major stage race, at least not as long as he’s riding with Team Sky as a super-domestique for Chris Froome. (Ditto for his teammate Wout Poels, who will be one of Froome’s killer lieutenants in the big races. Poels has won two races so far this year: a stage at Paris-Nice and one at the Vuelta a Andalucia.)

Out of all the hot riders I had on my list last year, Valverde and Kwiatkowski are the only two who have done anything significant so far this year. Philippe Gilbert, Greg Van Avermaet, Nairo Quintana, and Richie Porte: not a single one of them has won a single race. And Alberto Contador has retired. I had a secondary paragraph under the heading, “Who else?” to mention a few more riders who had done good things in the spring campaign: Sergio Henao, Geraint Thomas, Thibaut Pinot, Rohan Dennis, Vincenzo Nibali, Peter Sagan, and Primoz Roglic. Their results this year have ranged from respectable to remarkable…

Sergio Henao won the Columbian National Championship. Geraint Thomas was third overall at Tirreno-Adriatico and second overall at Volta ao Algarve, winning the Stage 3 time trial. Rohan Dennis has won three individual time trials and one team time trial.

Thibaut Pinot won the five-stage Tour of the Alps (4/16-4/20) without winning a stage. Like Kwiatkowski at Tirreno-Adriatico, he simply stayed near the front all week and when others faltered, he eventually rose to the top.

Vincenzo Nibali won only a single one-day race but it was a whopper: Milano-San Remo. He attacked the bunch on the Poggio, extended his lead on the descent and hung on for a clear and impressive—and hugely popular—win. He won the final monument of last season—Lombardia—with a similar tactic.

Peter Sagan has also had just one win but it too was big: Paris-Roubaix. He won it the classic way: riding almost everyone off his wheel with 55 K to go. Only one rider stayed with him and he easily beat him in the velodrome sprint.

Primož Roglič won the uphill finish on Stage 3 at Tirreno-Adriatico. More impressively, he won the six-stage Tour of the Basque Country (4/2-7). He went into the final stage with the lead but almost lost it all. After crashing early in the stage—a stage with eight big climbs—he ended up battling alone—no teammates—against five Movistar riders, including Quintana and Mikel Landa. They attacked him again and again but he hung in there and saved his lead. And now, as I write this on April 29, he has just won the prestigious five-stage Tour of Romandie, besting a prime time roster of rivals. I expect we’ll see more good results from him soon.

Add to this list Julian Alaphilippe (25, France, QuickStep) who won Fléche Wallone and two stages of the Tour of the Basque Country. I don’t see him as a fully formed grand tour rider yet but he might get there someday.

Spring racing can be flukey: one-day races or short stage races can produce unexpected winners…riders whose success cannot have been predicted by any measure of conventional wisdom. This year is no exception:  Daryl Impey at the Tour Down Under; Marc Soler at Paris-Nice; Tiesj Benoot at Strade Bianche; Bob Jungels at Liege-Bastogne-Liege. Are these results one-and-dones or are they harbingers of bigger things to come for these unheralded riders? We shall see.

Dig and scour as I might, I can’t come up with too many other likely stars to trot out there for possible glory in the weeks ahead. Well okay, there are two riders I haven’t yet mentioned: Tom Dumoulin and Chris Froome, between them, the winners of last year’s three grand tours. And here’s the really big news: both are planning to attempt the Giro-Tour double. At least that’s the game they’re talking now.

You know I don’t like to make predictions because I am so often wrong, and this is a case in point. After Froome completed the Tour-Vuelta double last year, I ventured the opinion that he wouldn’t risk his chances at a fifth Tour de France title by attempting a Giro. So much for that idea. Neither of these champions has done much this spring. I can’t find any significant results for Dumoulin and Froome’s best showing was a fourth at the Tour of the Alps. (He said he felt great and he did look frisky and in good form.)

Last year’s Giro route seemed almost tailor-made for Dumoulin, with two time trials totaling over 67 K—his strong suit—and not too many really steep pitches in the mountains. This year will not be like that. There is only one serious ITT and it’s less than 35 K. Meanwhile, there are numerous steep mountain finishes, including the brutal Monte Zoncolan on Stage 14. I have the greatest respect for Dumoulin, but this seems like a tall order for him. Froome also kills the time trials so he will miss having more of them, same as Tom. But he should—should—do better on the steeps. Could it be the year for some specialist hill monkey who can survive the time trial and pile up enough time in the mountains? Fabio Aru? Esteban Chaves? Even Pinot? They’re all entered. We’ll find out soon enough!

The dark shadow looming over all of this is Froome’s still-pending case concerning his positive drug result from last year’s Vuelta. (If you want to know more about it, look elsewhere: the news articles are out there.) It is strange and frustrating that the court case has dragged on this long. They say it will be decided before the Tour de France but not before the Giro. Usually such cases are decided in the off-season. Either you’re convicted and pay the penalty or you’re exonerated and carry on. To have this matter hanging there, unresolved, while you’re competing in really significant races…that seems extremely awkward, not only for Froome and his team but the riders competing against him.

I’m going to keep channeling Cleopatra (the Queen of Denial) and hope Froome is absolved of any wrong-doing. I don’t want to go back to the dark ages of riders failing tests and then having their results nullified. Our sport is better than that now…right? I hope so!

Bill can be reached at srccride@sonic.net

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