Six things we’ve learned from the first early season stage races

by William Fotheringham

Words by William Fotheringham | Photo by A.S.O/Alex Broadway

It’s February, and last week was that slightly bonkers point in the year when you  suddenly go from basically zero road racing, to too much to take in, with the Etoile de Bessèges, Tour of Valencia, and Saudi Tour all happening at once. Not to mention the last vestiges of the cyclo-cross season.

Red and white is the colour

With relegation from the WorldTour on the horizon at the end of the season, points don’t just mean prizes, they (once again) have a direct bearing on a team’s survival. That wily number cruncher inrng has been crunching the numbers and the basic drift is that Lotto-Soudal and Cofidis are the ones with the most to lose. So which teams won big last week: Lotto-Soudal and Cofidis, the former with a completely new face, Maxim van Gils, at the Saudi Tour, and the latter with two old lags, Bryan Coquard and Benjamin Thomas, at Bessèges. Relegation in any sport sucks for the teams that fall foul of it – witness the perennial debates in British rugby – but for the neutral it provides an extra spice to any competition.

The sprint contests are already taking shape

2021 was a pretty aberrant season for bunch sprinting, with several of the established names from recent seasons either off form, out of favour or recovering from injuries of varying severity. That meant no sprinter dominated and made space for Mark Cavendish to seal one of the great comebacks. With pretty much every sprinter in the pack having a point to prove, bunch gallops could be one of 2022’s great soap operas. Sprinters need to find success early, and the last week has seen wins for Caleb Ewan (pictured above), Dylan Groenewegen, and two for Fabio Jakobsen, the man who is likely to deny Cav the chance take one final magic Tour win. This week, it’s up to Cav to respond at the Tour of Oman and Pascal Ackerman needs to hit form in Spain.

The fight for a wild card slot in the Tour is on

The contest for one of the discretionary places in the Tour de France has been an amusing undercurrent since the point in the 1980s when the Tour almost overnight went from being a race that didn’t have enough teams in it to one that was overwhelmed by the demand. This year, it’s about three teams: TotalEnergies, B&B Hotels and the leftfielders Uno-X. With Peter Sagan on board, TotalEnergies are a shoe-in, so it’s down to the plucky French battlers with the wild kit, and the Scandinavians. The Danish Grand Départ is a huge chance for Uno-X, and having watched their prodigy Tobias Halland Johannessen win the toughest climbing finish at Bessèges, you’d have to say they are in the box seat right now.

The new Merckx chapter three

Another theme this season will be the progress of Remco Evenepoel, particularly when he comes head to head with Wout van Aert. So it’s a positive start to his season with that solo victory in a rolling Valencia stage, not to mention the massive turns he was pulling to set Jakobsen up for this two stage wins. So far so good then, but we’re not in new Merckx territory given he cracked on the off-road summit finish. Which is maybe a welcome bit of perspective.

Dust’n’dirt aren’t always popular

There were critical voices raised after that dirt-road finish at Valencia, with Matteo Trentin joining Evenepoel in raising doubts about whether such roads should play a part in any stage race. There’s a serious point here, which is that professional cyclists aren’t circus performers and they shouldn’t be expected to run risks purely to create spectacle. But from where I’m sitting, pretty much every dirt road that’s been brought into a race be it Paris-Tours or the Tour de France has contributed something. Within reason, it’s a trend that’s here to stay so let’s embrace it.

February is the most unequal month

You can’t help noticing the contrast in early season racing between what’s on offer for women and men. Three stage races last week for men, two hours racing at Valencia for women. The only comfort is that next week there’s a bit more, again in Valencia. It’s a glaring discrepancy, but one that can be expected to be ironed out over the next few years, with the arrival of more top-flight teams in the wake of the long-overdue inception of the Women’s Tour de France making racing more competitive. This in turn should provide a greater incentive for build-up races to enable riders to find form before Omloop kicks the season off in earnest. The women’s calendar is expanding, and it’s reasonable to expect it to spread back into February.

For more reading from the team, why not buy our review of the 2021 season, Racing in the Time of the Super Teams, available through here.

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