As much as I love the Christmas holidays and the repertoire of Andy Williams, I mostly consider this the last hurdle towards a new exciting season of professional cycling. Christmas carols make room for live streams of the peloton in sunny countries, colorful cycling jerseys & flashy bikes replace the Christmas decoration.
I've been a close follower of cycling for a few decades now. In my close family nobody understands why. My children have been calling me a boomer on multiple occasions after which I had to google the term (Turns out: not good!). Still, this internal youthful excitement that comes with the first remotely important races of the new season beats every teenager's feeling of going out for the first time after 2 years of lockdown.
The new procycling season feels like a new school year, but then in a good way.
New teams, new jerseys, transferred riders, new names, who's riding where, ... The eagerness to discover as much as possible of this wonderful microcosmos has no limits.
Certainties in uncertain times
We're about 3 weeks into the new season. Unfortunately a bit later than usual due to the cancellation of the Tour Down Under, but I'm thanking any possible god out there for the race that could go ahead as planned despite the continuing covid threat. Nevertheless, even in these uncertain times, some things will never change.
Tim Wellens had his traditional February rocket start in Spain winning another stage of the Challenge Mallorca (5 in total, so far). Alejandro Valverde continues what he's been doing for the last 20 years: competing at an insane level; at the age of almost 42!
And Jakub Mareczko added number 55 to his impressive list of insignificant professional wins.
But in his defense: winning is winning; something Alpecin-Fenix desperately needed, given their long list of injured riders.
2021 was a terrible season for Lotto-Soudal finishing last but 3 in the World Tour team ranking. Fellow Belgian teams Intermarché-Wanty-Gobert (WT) and even the procontinental (PC) Alpecin-Fenix preceded good old Lotto. Yet another proof that the team has been on a decline for a couple of years now. Caleb Ewan accounting for 6 of their 12 wins shows they're heavily depending on the Australian sprinter if the other big names (Tim Wellens, John Degenkolb & Thomas De Gendt) fail to deliver. Additionally, apart from Brent Van Moer and Florian Vermeersch the team seemed to lack promising riders that could develop to future leaders.
Enter 2022: 3 weeks of racing, 5 victories. Three of them by the 22-year-old Maxim Van Gils (Saudi Tour stage & GC) and the 19(!)-year-old Arnaud De Lie (Trofeo Playa de Palma in Mallorca). A mind-boggling transformation, to say the least.
There's no stopping this trend of young talents showing off of their potential very quickly in today's peloton. I've already mentioned 2 of them, but I can easily add a few more. Let's start with Carlos Rodrigues (Ineos Grenadiers). Although only 21 years old, the Spaniard already entered his 3rd(!) year as a pro. In the previous years we mainly saw him doing his domestique duties for the team, but ending 3rd in the Volta a la Comunitat Valenciana (preceding established riders like Enric Mas, Alejandro Valverde and Jakob Fuglsang) is a sign he's about to climb the Ineos hierarchy.
Some of these youngsters simply reject the 3rd place and immediately jump onto the highest step of the podium. 21-year-old Biniam Girmay of Eritrea is the gold nugget at World Tour team Intermarché-Wanty-Gobert. He joined the team halfway last year and immediately caused an upset by taking the silver medal at the U23 World Championship in Leuven (Bel); the first African ever to win a medal. This year, he entered competition in Mallorca and promptly sprinted to victory in the Trofeo Alcudia. The fact that he's blazing fast but doesn't have that typical heavy fysique of a sprinter, could mean we might see this guy on hilly races too.
Last week the Tour of the Provence was decided on the first proper mountain top finish of the season. Nairo Quintana took the stage and the GC. Runner-up in that stage (and 3rd overall) was the suprising Dane Mathias Skjelmose Jensen (Trek-Segafredo), 21 years of age. Frankly, I had never heard of the guy, but browsing through the 2021 season taught me he ended 6th in the UAE Tour and 15th in the Tour of Romandie. Very promising results for a neo pro by any standards. The Volta a Catalunya is the next WT race on his schedule. I'm definitely keeping an eye on this talent.
Mathias Skejlmose Jensen brings me seamlessly to the observation that the Danes have been silently developing talents to the point that they've become one of the top nations in cycling. Denmark had a tradition producing decent pros over the last decades; mainly domestiques but always 1 top tier rider per generation. From Rolf Sörensen in the 1990's, over Michael Rasmussen, to Matti Breschel and Jakob Fuglsang in more recent times. But the pool of talent they're currently displaying is unseen:
Jonas Vingegaard (25), 2021 Tour de France runner-up
Kasper Asgreen (27), 2021 Tour of Flanders winner
Mads Pedersen (26), 2019 World Champion
Michael Valgren Hundahl (30), 2018 Amstel Gold Race winner; redeemed himself by taking the bronze at the 2021 World Championships in Leuven.
Magnus Cort Nielsen (29), 6-time Vuelta a Espana stage winner
Sören Kragh Andersen (27), double Tour de France stage winner and 2018 Paris-Tours
Mikkel Honoré (25), Itzulia stage winner and jack of all trades; stellar 2nd half of 2021
Mikkel Bjerg (23), U23 World Champion Time Trial
A lot of good things still to come from these guys!
Early season takeaway
2 names caught my attention in these early season/preparation races. 2 riders that already gave an indication that they will be a serious factor in the big World Tour races:
Alberto Bettiol: The 2019 Tour of Flanders winner had a hard time confirming his newly gained status of classics specialist. 2022 might be different though; we've seen him doing well in Bessèges and showing a lot of eagerness in the GP La Marseillaise. No doubt the Italian still has the intrinsic qualities to score in the Flemish spring classics.
Brandon McNulty: Very dominant in Mallorca. We've seen glimpses of this talent last year in Itzulia and the Olympics. But now, At the age of almost 24, it feels like the American ready to be among the prime candidates for victory in the one-week World Tour stage races and the hilly classics. Revenge in Izulia?
How are you dissecting these early season races? Who do you expect to do well during spring? Please leave a comment below!
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