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 by: Bill Oetinger  9/1/2020

Pro Racing: Better Late Than Never!

You don’t need me to tell you 2020 has been a crazy year…an appalling, dreadful, crazy year. The world has gone haywire in just about every way possible, thanks to an itty bitty virus none of us can see or feel or smell. You also don’t need me to document all the ways the world has been turned upside down since the early months of the year. 

Amidst all the death and suffering, the economic meltdown…all of it…there has been a yearning to get back to some semblance of normal life. Witness the ill-advised reopenings across our states, back in June, which only made things worse, prolonging the suffering. 

But clumsy reopenings aside, one way people have been wishing and hoping for a taste of normalcy has been in sports, from football to futbol, from basketball to baseball. Bit by bit, in hesitant fits and starts, those in charge have been trying to plot a path forward for all of our beloved spectator sports. No one would suggest these truncated, contrived seasons are the real thing…normal. But to sports fans dying of thirst, a glass half full is still better than nothing. We’ll watch whatever weirdness they throw together, glad to have something—anything!—to keep us amused. And we’ll let history sort out the questions as to whether these oddball seasons are legit.

Muddling and bumbling its way through all the chaos has been the grand old sport of bike racing. Unlike most seasonal sports, bike racing has a calendar that stretches almost all the way through the entire cycle of any given year, beginning with races in the Southern Hemisphere in late January. Thanks to that early start on the race program, we actually had quite a few good events run before everything screeched to a halt in mid-March.

After having a number of races cancelled between mid-March and the end of July, we are now back in business…kind of, sort of. If you are reading this column anywhere near its published date of September 1, you know the Tour de France has just begun, approximately in the time slot normally allocated to the Vuelta a España. The Giro d’Italia will follow in fairly short order and the Vuelta will happen after that, deep, deep into autumn. So…we’re back!

That being the case, I’m going to craft a column more-or-less like the ones I usually write in May, just before the Giro, wherein I review the spring season and see if we can find any interesting trends heading into cycling’s prime time, normally late spring and mid-summer but in this whacky season shoehorned into the last few months of the year. I could make the case we need a review of the season more than ever this year because it has been so strange and because what happened before things went nuts in March now seems so long ago as to be almost from another time, another world.

So let’s climb into our time-capsule and hit rewind, all the way back to the early months of 2020.

The Tour Down Under, January 19-28…won by Richie Porte, thanks to dropping and distancing Daryll Impey on the last climb of the last stage, Willunga HIll.

Vuelta a San Juan (Argentina), January 26-February 2…won by Belgian Remco Evenepoel by virtue of winning the time trial.

Volta Communitat Valenciana, February 5-9…won by Tadej Pogačar, winning two stages in the process.

Tour of Oman, February 16-21…won by Alexy Lutsenko, who won the two stages with uphill finishes.

Volta ao Algarve, February 19-22…another triumph for Remco Evenepoel, winning two stages, including the ITT.

Ruta del Sol, February 19-22…won by Jakob Fuglsang, who won two stages and tied for first in a third, the time trial.

UAE Tour, February 23-27…won by Adam Yates after taking out the hilltop finish on Stage 3.

Paris-Nice, March 8-14…won by Max Schachmann. He won Stage 1 and then hung on for the rest of the week while all his rivals failed to mount a challenge.

And there, between Paris-Nice and Tirreno-Adriatico, the season ground to a halt. Confusion and consternation on all sides. A vast swamp of uncertainty. A slough of despond. Now what? I doubt it’s possible to appreciate or calculate the number of brain cells and nerve bundles burned up over the ensuing weeks as those in charge scrambled to salvage something from the wreckage. May, June, and July went by with nothing to show for those usually busy months except speculation and frustration, aside from all that behind-the-scenes rejiggering of the calendar to finally get things moving again.

Which brings us to August. There was a light, tentative reboot to the season: three “classics”—Strade Bianche and Milano-San Remo—both won by rising star Wout Van Aert, and Il Lombardia, won by Jakob Fuglsang. And then the traditional prep race ahead of the Tour de France, the Critérium du Dauphiné, August 12-16. This was won by relatively unheralded Dani Martinez. But there’s a fair bit of backstory behind that finish. Primoz Roglič had a comfortable lead until he crashed badly on Stage 4 and had to abandon. Also abandoning or crashing out on Stage 4 were Egan Bernal—the defending TdF champ—and Steven Kruijswijk and Emmanuel Buchmann. Meanwhile, Bernal’s famous teammates, Chris Froome and Geraint Thomas, were looking very much off-form, getting dropped early and often and generally stinking up the joint.

That’s where things stand heading into le Tour. The line-up for the Tour, as always, provides us with fodder for wild surmise. But probably the most notable thing about the entrants is who’s missing: four-time past champion Chris Froome and 2018 champ Geraint Thomas. Instead, their powerful Ineos team is going with last year’s champ Egan Bernal, backed up by last year’s Giro winner Richard Carapaz, with Thomas slated to lead the team at the Giro and Froome to take the reins at the Vuelta. What a roster that team has, able to throw past champions into all three of the Grand Tours.

The Bernal-Carapaz tag team will have stiff competition from the Jumbo-Visma teammates Primoz Roglič—the defending Vuelta champ—and Tom Doumulin, the 2017 Giro winner. They’re two of the very best time trialers, which is always important, although there is only one ITT this year. Who else? Mikel Landa finally is his own team leader at Bahrain-McLaren, with former Eneos lieutenant Wout Poels in support. Youngster Enric Mas and oldster Alejandro Valverde are flying the colors for Movistar. And Tadej Pogačar will be entering his first TdF for UAE Team Emirates after his break-out performance at last year’s Vuelta. Veteran Fabio Aru is the official team leader for UAE but everyone agrees that Pogačar is the hot ticket right now. Of course, in this strangest of all seasons, who knows what wild card rider might get in amongst the heads of state and shake things up? I’m glad I don’t wager money on the outcome because I have no idea who might prevail.

The results of the season so far—such as it is—don’t offer any really solid hints as to favorites for the big events ahead. Roglič looked good at the Dauphiné until his crash. Pogačar looked sharp in winning Vallenciana and was second at the UAE Tour. Fuglsang shows good form, as do several other riders we expect to see rising to the top. But no one looks like a prohibitive favorite. We’ll find out soon enough.

But the main thing is…racing is back. It has been a rocky road to get here. Let’s hope the virus leaves our hard-working heroes alone and that we are allowed to enjoy a Tour as good as any we’ve seen in recent years. 

Bill can be reached at srccride@sonic.net

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