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 by: Bill Oetinger  5/1/2019

May: Brought Back by Popular Demand

It’s May again! How did that happen? Seems like only a few weeks ago we were dealing with monsoon rains and widespread flooding around NorCal. The Russian River was up on its hind legs and thrashing about, catapulting poor old Guerneville into the evening news once again. Even my little town of Sebastopol had water, water everywhere for a few days. The Chevron where I gas up the Honda was so far underwater only the top of its roof was visible…12’ deep? And that goes for the bike trail that runs near the gas station. You would have needed scuba gear to ride the trail then.

My, how things have changed. More recently we have experienced another sort of weather extreme: on April 24, records were broken all over the region, not for flooding but for heat: 97° in Healdsburg, 98° in Petaluma…still April, remember. (What global warming?)

The combination of loads of water followed by many warm, sunny days has led to an explosion: everything that grows is going whole-hog, full speed ahead, and anything that blooms is busy doing it, from roses to rhodies, from daisies to daffs. It’s intoxicating and it makes every bike ride a walk along the garden path, with visual treats around every corner and frequently fragrant teasers as well. Aside from hay fever, how could anyone not love this season?

If May marks that magical transition from Winter-Spring into Spring-Summer, it also marks a transition in the calendar for professional cycling. As I write this on the morning of Sunday, May 28, Liege-Bastogne-Liege has just concluded. It’s the last of the spring classics. After a hectic run of months with sometimes more than one important race per week, there will not be another significant one-day race until San Sebastian in August. 

Meanwhile, mixed in with the classics has been a series of stage races from three or four days long up to a bit over a week. If we count every race on the UCI World Calendar up to this point, there have been 15 of them, dating back to the ones in Australia and South America in what would be summer down under. There have been many other races that aren’t part of the top-level UCI calendar, but it’s more than I can keep track of to follow all of them. 

It has become my custom in recent years to devote this May column to a first look at the pro season: what has happened so far and what, if anything, can it tell us about the months ahead? Remember that May brings us the first of the three Grand Tours, the Giro d’Italia. We have the Tour de Romandie beginning this coming Tuesday, the Tour de Yorkshire on Thursday, and then the Giro launches on May 11. Prime time!

I’m having a harder time than usual summing up what has happened so far this year, at least in any way that might support any major themes or some compelling narrative. The results have been so mixed up and unexpected that very little connects or makes sense. The only common thread is that there is no common thread. Rather than being able to read the tea leaves at this point, it is more like the tea cup has been knocked off the table and has shattered on the floor. What the hell?!

Let’s take the classics first. It is understood that one-day events can often produce weird results. But overall, given enough events, we like to think some elite cohort of established stars will dominate. There has been a little of that this year but not much. Many races were won by guys I’ve never heard of. That may say more about me than it does about the races and racers. I’m not a pro journalist covering the pro races. It’s not my day job to know every single detail. But I do follow along pretty closely and yet these names were all new to me: Simone Velasco, Florian Senechal, Alberto Bettiol, Fabio Jakobsen. C’mon now…how many of those names do you know? The most shocking of those was Bettiol, a 25-year old Italian, making the monumental Tour of Flanders his very first professional win. 

Two classic sprinters—Elia Viviani and Alexander Kristoff—won classics with more-or-less conventional sprint finishes. Old warhorse Phillipe Gilbert added a new line to his already glossy resumé by winning Paris-Roubaix. Zdeněk Štybar, always one to be taken seriously in the classics, won twice, Bob Jungels won once.

The two names that jump out as really notable for this spring campaign are Julian Alaphilippe and Mathieu van der Poel. Alaphilippe is a name most of us will recognize at this point. Only a couple of years ago he was the brash new kid crashing the grown-ups’ party. Now he will be on most pre-race lists of favorites for the big classic races. Sure enough, he pulled off a hat trick this spring, and a pretty impressive one at that. His first win was Strade Bianche on March 5, with its grinding uphill finish through the old streets of Siena. He followed that up with a win in la Primavera: Milano-San Remo (March 2). They don’t get much bigger than that. Finally, this past week he won Fleche-Wallone—for the second year in a row—edging out Jakob Fuglsang on the brutal finishing wall of Mur de Huy. (Fuglsang got a measure of revenge by winning Liege-Bastogne-Liege this morning with a solo breakaway off the last big climb,) I still think it’s remotely possible for Alaphilippe to blossom into a legitimate stage race rider but I’m more inclined to think his career will resemble that of someone like Philippe Gilbert: stage wins in Grand Tours and lots of classics success.

24-year old Dutchman Mathieu van der Poel came out of nowhere this season, if you count cyclo-cross as nowhere: he is the current World Champion in that discipline. But he had not done anything of note on the pro road circuit until now, when, in the space of three weeks in April, he won Dwars door Vlanderen, De Brabanste Pijl, and Amstel Gold. He had been working his way from cyclo-cross into mountain bike racing but with these road results, who knows what lies ahead for this young man, described as the hottest property in racing right now.

That does it for the classics and monuments. What about those stage races?

I will repeat my disclaimer that it is possible to get weird results in spring races, although it is harder to pull off an out-of-left-field, WTF? result in a multi-day race than in a one-day event. That said, consider the following list of 2019 stage race winners whose names might not be familiar to the average bike race fan: Daryll Impey, Winner Anacona, Alexey Lutsenko, Tadej Pogacar, Diego Rosa, Felix Grossschartner, Pavel Sivakov. Okay, I do at least know some of these names from past seasons. But they aren’t what anyone would call big stars. Not yet, anyway!

There have been some bigger stars opening their accounts for 2019 in the spring events. Not the superstars of years past but what I think of as the new, emerging class of future stars, perhaps destined for really big things in the not-too-distant future.

I have been touting Egan Bernal for a couple of years now. He won the important spring race Paris-Nice, 39 seconds ahead of Nairo Quintana.

Miguel Angel Lopez arrived in prime time with his third place finishes at both the Giro d’Italia and Vuelta a España last year. This spring he has won the Tour of Colombia and the Volta a Catalunya, 14 seconds ahead of Adam Yates and 17 ahead of Bernal.

Jakob Fuglsang won the Vuelta a Andalucia, 7 seconds ahead of Ion Izaguirre.

Ion Izaguirre won the Volta a Communitat Valenciana, 7 seconds ahead of Alejandro Valverde. He also won the Tour of the Basque Country.

Primoz Roglic won the UAE Tour, 31 seconds ahead of Valverde, and he won the prestigious Tirreno-Adriatico by 1 slim second over Adam Yates, with Fuglsang third at :30.

If you look down through the top ten at most of these races you can see the same names over and over, plus a few more who may not have won but were always in contention. You can see a trend beginning to build, but will it carry over into the weeks and months ahead?

Of the riders on my own Top Ten list for 2018, almost none of them has shown any sort of form for the new season. Alaphilippe, Roglic, and Valverde are the only ones from my list whose names have appeared in this spring wrap-up (and Valverde barely squeaks in). Simon Yates (not Adam, his twin), Geraint Thomas, Chris Froome, Peter Sagan, Tom Dumoulin, Thibaut Pinot, Michal Kwiatkowski: not much so far. Simon Yates has won a couple of stages. Pinot won the Tour de Haut Var, a minor league stage race. A podium here or there for a couple of others. Slim pickings.

It’s not uncommon for the biggest names to take a backseat during some of the spring events. They will ride in support of their lieutenants in the smaller races…the lieutenants who will support them in the Grand Tours. But it seems to me a bit out of the ordinary to see such a sweeping lack of results from the riders who have dominated the sport in recent years. Can they all be simply keeping their powder dry for the big events or are they really off-form? We will find out soon enough. 

Full rosters for all teams at the Giro have not yet been announced but the names that are available so far make for rich speculation:  Miguel Angel Lopez for Astana; Vincenzo Nibali for Bahrain-Merida; Simon Yates and Esteban Chaves for Michelton-Scott; Alejandro Valverde for Movistar; Primoz Roglic for Jumbo-Visma; Egan Bernal for Sky; Tom Dumoulin for Sunweb. A lot of big guns there. Lots of possibilities. Bring it on!

Bill can be reached at srccride@sonic.net

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