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 by: Bill Oetinger  5/1/2024

Who? What? Where? When?

If this is May, it must be time for my annual review of the Euro-pro racing season as it has played out so far, over the late-Winter and early-Sping months: who has done what? And what might it tell us about the prime-time races ahead, with the Giro beginning just five days after this column hits the street.

I just reread my May column from last year to sort of limber up my mind for this task. That column was long…perhaps too long for any but the most manic fans. I said I wasn’t going to cover every race but I ended up mentioning most of them, both stage races and one-days. I hope to go on a bit of a diet this time around and skip some of that minutiae. 

One way I hope to trim things down is by focusing on just a few riders: the ones we think of as the biggest stars with the best prospects for good results in the months ahead. What have they done so far that makes us think they’re in good form? Or not.

But before I get to the big boys, I want to tip the old chapeau to Matteo Jorgensen, the 24-year old American with Team Visma. He rather improbably won Paris-Nice, the prestigious 8-stage race in early March. There was not much to suggest such a win in his rather sparse palmarés, aside from 2nd overall at last year’s Tour de Romandie. He pulled it off with strong performances on the final three stages. He backed that up with a win at the one-day race, Dwars door Vlanderen, on March 27. He attacked out of a five-rider break with seven K to go and made it stick. At 6’3” and 154 lbs, he’s built somewhat along the lines of his famous teammate Wout Van Aert. (Van Aert crashed badly at this race and that put a serious crimp in his Spring season.) Jorgensen may never fill Van Aert’s shoes but these were impressive victories against top-tier competition. Nothing minor-league about them.

Also: Matthiew van der Poel (Alpecin-Deceuninck). Just as he was on my list of top riders for 2023, he is again my only one-day classics rider to get a mention this spring. After tearing up the Winter cyclocross season again—14 wins, including the World Championship (for the sixth time)—he hit the ground running for the road racing season. He won the E3 Saxo Classic on March 22 with a 44-K solo breakaway. Two days later, he finished 2nd to Mads Pederson (Lidi-Trek) in a two-up sprint at Gent-Wevelgem. A week later, he won the Tour of Flanders (for the third time) after a 45-K solo breakaway. Two weeks after that, another win at another Monument: Paris-Roubaix (for the second time) after a 10-K breakaway. Finally, 3rd at Liége-Bastogne-Liége on April 21. That’s a full season right there, although I doubt we’ve seen the last of him this year.

On to the big shots. Might as well start at the top: Tadej Pogačar (UAE). The chipper Slovenian has had a successful spring season but one that bears only a hazy resemblance to his 2023 campaign. His calendar last year was jam-packed with races, of which he won almost everything he entered…until he crashed at Liége-Bastogne-Liége and broke his wrist. This year, heading into May, he has only 10 days of racing: three one-day races and the 7-stage Volta Ciclista a Catalunya. On March 2, he won Strade Bianche (for the second time). In 2022, he won with a 42-K solo breakaway; this year, it was an 81-K break. On March 16, he finished 3rd in the sprint at Milano-Sanremo. On April 21, he won la Doyenne—Liége-Bastogne-Liége—with a 32-K solo breakaway. In between those classics was Catalunya. He finished 2nd, equal on time, in the uphill sprint on Stage 1. He won Stages 2, 3, and 6—all mountain finishes. And, just to remind us that he can sprint as well as climb, he won the bunch sprint in Barcelona on the final stage. On the other two sprint stages, he finished with the same time as the winners. (In other words, he finished with the winner’s time on every single stage.) The final GC: 3:41 ahead of Mikel Landa and 5:03 ahead of Egan Bernal. He also won the mountains jersey and the points jersey.

So…four events entered…three firsts and a third. But the big news about Pogačar is that he is entered in the Giro d’Italia as well as the Tour de France. The competition looks stiff at the TdF but, I have to say, I don’t see anyone else entered in the Giro who is quite at his current level. One might surmise his relatively light early-season schedule was part of a larger plan that includes the Giro.

Next up: Jonas Vingegaard (Team Visma). He opened his account for 2024 the same way he did last year, by almost running the table at the 4-stage O Gran Camiño (February 22-25). He was a tepid 45th in the opening time trial—I don’t know why he was so slow: no crash or mechanical—but then won the other three stages, all hilly finishes. Final classification: Lenny Martinez (FDJ) at 1:55 and Egan Bernal (INEOS) at 2:11. He also won the mountains and points jerseys. From March 3-10, he did Tirreno-Adriatico. He finished 9th in the opening time trial and won the two significant mountain stages, 5 and 6, chased home each day by Juan Ayuso (UAE) and Jai Hindley (BORA-hansgrohe). Final GC: 1:24 ahead of Ayuso and 1:52 ahead of Hindley. Not huge gaps but he looked in control throughout.

That brings us to the 6-stage Tour of the Basque Country (April 1-6). But this chapter of the story is about more than just Vingegaard. If you follow the sport at all, you know what happened. On Stage 4, on a fast descent about 36K from the finish, there was a mass crash in a corner. Several “important” riders were involved, including Vingegaard, Primoz Roglič (BORA), and Remco Evenepoel (Soudall-QuickStep). It was a nasty wreck, with big boulders and a deep concrete culvert right where all the bodies flew off the road. Vingegaard got the worst of it: a fractured collarbone, fractured ribs, and a collapsed lung. That put a halt to his Spring campaign. However, they say he is mending well and should be ready for racing again by the Dauphiné in June and the TdF in July.

Remco Evenepoel has also had a fairly light but productive schedule this Spring. On February 2, he won a rather obscure one-day race in Portugal—Figueira Champions Classic—with a 51-K solo breakaway. He won the 5-stage Volta ao Algarve (February 14-18). He finished 2nd but equal on time to Dani Martinez (BORA) on the two uphill finishes—Stages 2 and 5—but he beat Martinez and everyone else in the ITT on Stage 4. He finished 2nd, :30 behind Jorgensen at Paris-Nice. While Jorgensen was clawing his way up the leaderboard over the final stages, Evenepoel was tagging along right behind him. On the final stage, Evenepoel went off on one of his patented solo breaks, but this time Jorgensen stuck to him like glue and they finished together. Remco got the stage win but Matteo got the GC.

And then he crashed out at the Basque Country. He sustained a fractured collarbone and a fractured scapula (shoulder blade). He is also expected to be ready for the Dauphiné and the TdF.

Primoz Roglič is the only one of the Big Four to have a wimpy 2024 program thus far. His first race of the season was Paris-Nice and he didn’t do much. He was kinda, sorta in the mix up to the final day, in 6th place at 1:21. But he suffered what appeared to be a classic bonk on the final stage, finishing in 17th place, 4:04 off the lead, which dropped him to a feeble 10th in the final overall, well off the pace and, notably, a good distance behind his own teammate Alexandr Vlasov. His only other race was the Basque Country. He won the time trial on the first stage, in spite of missing a turn and briefly going off-course. He was :11 ahead of Evenepoel and :15 ahead of Vingegaard. I’m thinking, “there’s that old Primoz we know so well!” But then he also crashed in that hot mess on Stage 4. He didn’t break any bones but was banged up enough to have to abandon. He’s supposedly in better shape, recovery-wise, than either Vingegaard or Evenepoel. He had better be, considering his rather anemic early-season form. He too is slated to ride the Dauphiné and TdF.

The stages for the Giro look fascinating, with a bunch of new summit finishes I don’t know much about. Not a single out-of-category climb anywhere but lots of Cat 2 and Cat 1 challenges and two serious time trials: a longer, conventional one and a shorter one with a wicked uphill finish. The first significant mountain finish is on Stage 2, so they’re not wasting any time in getting after it. Bring it on!

Bill can be reached at srccride@sonic.net

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