Many fans couldn’t care less about the first four weeks of the professional cycling season. Part of me can’t blame them. I mean seriously—Argentina? Qatar? Oman? And of these early races, only a few feature terrain that puts the majority of the peloton into the red zone. In most cases, crosswinds and cold weather do more damage than the actual racing does. Even Southern Europe was not immune, as record low temperatures turned most races into leg-warmer contests where the rider able to stay the warmest the longest often found himself on the top step of the podium. You’re forgiven for not caring.
On the other hand, the first weeks of the season offer our first glimpses of new riders and teams, many of whom are eager to impress following seasons that fell short of expectations. These early tests also offer pundits a chance to determine which riders are starting the year in good shape, making them possible contenders for the season’s first major rendezvous in Belgium, France, and Italy.
So whether you weren’t paying attention either by choice or by accident (and before the “real” season begins this Saturday with the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad), here’s a quick rundown of what you missed, packaged together in a little game I like to call Win, Lose, or Draw (no Dom DeLuise required).
Omega Pharma-Quick Step (Win) – Belgium’s Omega Pharma-Quick Step has enjoyed a terrific start to the season—one that calls to mind the exploits of HTC-Columbia/High Road. At this point in the season it’s usually one or two riders that have won the bulk of any one team’s race victories; in Omega Pharma’s case, six riders have shared the spoils (Chicchi, Boonen, Fenn, Leipheimer, Ciolek, and Velits), with two more (Martin and Trentin) just missing wins themselves. If the team continues its torrid pace once the “real” racing begins in earnest, they could easily end the season as the year’s top-ranked squad.
Lotto-Belisol (Lose) – Andre Greipel has already won five races for the restructured Belgian squad and Tour-hope Jurgen Van den Broeck looked strong in Qatar; but the team also lost Jurgen Roelandts after a crash in Stage 1 of the Tour Down Under. Roelandts was the team’s best hope for the cobbled classics, an important block of races for any Belgian team—especially one trying to keep up with Omega Pharma-Quick Step’s early season success. Without Roelandts, Greipel might need to ride himself into contention for the flatter classics—Milan-San Remo comes to mind, but Ghent-Wevelgem and the Grote Scheldeprijs might be better bets for the German speedster.
BMC (Draw) – BMC made the biggest splash this past off-season, but they’re winless so far in 2012. That said, with men like Gilbert, Evans, Hushovd, and Van Avermaet on the roster, there’s hardly good reason to worry. This weekend’s Omloop will be our first opportunity to see some of the squad’s biggest names racing au bloc. And with two former winners and several other possible contenders on the roster, don’t count them out.
Tom Boonen (Win) – Omega Pharma’s most successful rider thus far has been Tom Boonen, a welcome sight considering the Belgian’s frustrating past two seasons. Boonen’s sprint speed appears to have returned, but perhaps more importantly, so has his confidence. Here’s a an interesting bit of trivia for those hoping to see Tommeke add another Flanders or Roubaix to his resume: each year that Boonen won the overall title at the Tour of Qatar, he took one of the two cobbled monuments as well.
Southern European Races (Lose) – There was a time when Mallorca, Southern France, and Italy were three of the sport’s most weather-friendly early season locales. But not this year as frigid temperatures and snow forced the abbreviation or cancellation of reventsaces in all three countries. But don’t get your hopes up for an “epic” weekend of racing in Belgium—the forecast calls for dry, sunny conditions. Go figure.
Mark Cavendish (Draw) – Two stage wins in Oman plus a bout of sickness and a crash amount to a draw for the reigning world champ. On the bright side, Cav’s wins indicate that his Team Sky lead-out train is coming along quite nicely.
Jonathan Tiernan-Locke (Win) – Easily the season’s biggest surprise has been Endura Racing’s Tiernan-Locke, the winner of both the Tour Mediterranean and the Tour du Haut. The British rider won each event’s “queen” stage and in doing so, the overall titles as well. Thanks to his victories, Tiernan-Locke has apparently attracted the attention of several World Tour squads. Look for him to finish the season in a new uniform.
Greenedge (Lose) – Australia’s Greenedge Cycling team won its first two important goals of the season—the Australian Road Race Championship and the Tour Down Under—but have since fallen flat in their inaugural World Tour season. With so many flat races on the schedule (and shortened ones at that), you have to think that a roster with such an impressive set of speedsters would have produced more results. But let’s be fair: many upstart World Tour squads (especially those created out of thin air) have often struggled to find consistent results during their first seasons (Team Sky and Slipstream come to mind) but have gone on to win several major races.
Alberto Contador (Draw) – For Alberto Contador’s fans, his two-year retroactive suspension counts as a loss. To proponents of a cleaner sport though, it’s a clear win. But at the end of the day, Contador’s suspension and the loss of his titles dating all the way back to the 2010 Tour de France amount to nothing more than a draw. First of all, Contador’s reputation seems to have survived the court of public opinion. Second, he’ll be back and racing in time to win his second Vuelta a Espana—which just about everyone expects him to do easily. Even his sponsor still supports him—a smart move considering he’s still likely to command a tremendous salary in spite of his suspension.
Elia Viviani (Win) – I identified Viviani as one of several young Italian sprinters to watch as part of my Season Preview a few weeks ago. So far, the Liquigas-Cannondale rider has lived-up to my expectations. Viviani’s already won five races, and until the win by his teammate Moreno Moser (yes, he’s Francseco’s nephew) in Sunday’s Trofeo Laigueglia, he was undefeated on home soil. If he manages to take a stage or two in next month’s Tirreno-Adriatico, look for Viviani’s name on the list of contenders for Milan-Sam Remo.
Rabobank (Lose) – Last year, Rabobank had already won nine races by this point in the season. This year, they’ve won nothing. Worse still, Oscar Freire—the man they let go to make room for Mark Renshaw—has already won two races for Katusha. Luckily, Matti Breschel seems to be healed and ready to contend this weekend in the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, a race Rabobank won last year as well. Too bad the winner (Sebastian Langeveld) now rides for someone else (GreenEdge).
Alejandro Valverde (Draw) – Similar to Contador, Valverde’s status depends entirely on your perspective. For many, the Spaniard’s return to racing leaves a black eye on the sport and its ability to fairly mete out justice. For others, it simply marks the return of one of the sport’s most talented and exciting riders, someone capable of challenging Philippe Gilbert in the Ardennes. And while he’s already won two races, he’s still a long way from redemption.
French Youth Movement (Win) – It was also good month for young Frenchman as Europcar’s Pierre Rolland, Saur-Sojasun’s Jerome Coppel, and FDJ-Big Mat’s Arnaud Demare and Nacer Bouhanni took wins. While Rolland and Coppel have bright futures as stage racers, Demare (the reigning U23 World Road Race Champion) and Bouhanni give the nation two young sprinters to root for at Paris-Nice.
Saxo Bank (Lose) – We’ll know for sure sometime in March, but if the team’s hearing before the sport’s Licensing Commission on February 27 doesn’t go well, they could find themselves on the outside looking in at the rest of the World Tour. Bjarne Riis has struggled in the past to find sponsors to support his program; a demotion certainly won’t make life any easier.
Share your early season Win, Lose, or Draw contestants below!
Follow me on Twitter: @whityost
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International