Friday Group Ride #105

A friend posted on Twitter the other day, “Why do I have such a hard time caring about the early-season desert races?” and I replied, “Because those are training rides the UCI has sold ads for.” Which is pretty cynical, though essentially true.

Everyone loves to throw their arms up crossing the finish line, but only the guy in first place doesn’t look like an idiot doing it. Andre Greipel won the sprint this morning at the Tour of Oman ahead of a hard-charging Peter Sagan. Marcel Kittel, the new fast German, took yesterday’s dash, and Sagan won the uphill finish the day before on the Arabian peninsula.

They are racing in earnest, even if relatively few people are watching. As much as searching for form, some riders are trying to make statements about their worth, and this is the time of year when not everyone is racing to win, when wins are available to those who really need them. But what are they worth?

In the present day, the early season is made of races like the Tour Down Under, Tour of Qatar, Volta ao Algarve, Tour de San Luis and Tour of Oman, and here are the names of some riders who have won at those races already this season: Tom Boonen (Tour de San Luis), Simon Gerrans (Tour Down Under), Edvald Boasson-Hagen (Volta ao Algarve), Alejandro Valverde (Tour Down Under). I think it’s safe to say that each of those riders has something to prove right now.

This week’s Group Ride asks the question: Which of these results is most significant? Who needed to throw that victory salute the most? Are there any results here that will bear on the big time races, later in the year?


Follow me on Twitter: @thebicyclerobot

Image: John Pierce, Photosport International

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  1. Adam

    All of Omega Pharma Quicksteps win. The best way of looking at wins in these races is as insurance for later in the year. I’m not certain, but I think you’ll find that OPQS has won more already than all of last year. Come June it won’t matter that it was in the desert or in Argentina – there’ll be a slightly lighter load on their shoulders.

  2. gus cinci

    Boonen, man. He does have a lot to prove and it seems he has it together this year. There’s a different something in his visage that evidences seriousness. Plus, during the TT at Qatar he was doing most of the pulling while yelling at his teamates to go faster.

    he’s back and visibly motivated.

  3. Tom

    Boonen needed to. I think Boassan-Hagen’s win is indicative of a good year coming. Valverde made a statement but I think it was, ‘I’d better win now because I won’t later on…’

  4. Moose

    Calling early season pro races “training rides” with ads is absurd and simply not true. I’d like to see you say that in person to Sagan, Boonen, or Greipel (be sure to update your dental plan first). This kind of cynicism from cycling fans is bewildering. I can’t imagine another sport where the fans (of an arguably obscure sport in North America) would react to the extension of the regular season by belittling the races and the professionals who participate in them. What’s true int hese early season races is true of races, namely, that riders have a variety of reasons for participating in them. Some are there to win, others for experience, and a few come to fine-tune their form and support the sponsors. Instead of snarky comments like this, we should be supporting these new races and demanding even more. Maybe I underestimate the self-loathing of the cycling fan.

  5. Wayne

    While it may seam extreme to call the early season rides “training rides” cycling is not the only sport to have seasons so long that some contests are of doubtful value. It is not unheard of for NBA players to wait to have surgery until just before the season starts and then miss 20 or so games of an 82 game season. Why interrupt your vacation in the off season with rehab when it cam be done in the early season? Baseball teams give games off not because the players are injured but just to give them rest. Baseball has a 162 games season so why not as long as the fans keep paying.


  6. Mike

    Moose, pretty harsh comments–while I agree with some of the sentiment, it’s just not true that other sports fans are any different. Although, I’ll give you this–other sports call a spade a spade, which is “pre-season.” Cycling just sort of jumps right in.

  7. David Hendry

    I suppose the early season rides must be worthless or they would have been riding them for a hundred years. I recall being really impressed by the early cobblestone classics thinking that here was tradition that the cyclists had been doing for decades. I only later found out that the race course was being changed regularly to try and include sections of cobbles to create the difficulty and injury the cognoscenti seem to think are needed for a race to be appreciated. Remember at one time the TDF was only a few years old and people were talking about why it was necessary to send riders all over the country when they could be so much better seen at the local velodrome. At the time the realm of pro cycling was one of the biggest sports in the world including the USA but it revolved around track racing rather than road racing. Now a newly wealthy place starts a bike race only to denigrated by the cognoscenti because they haven’t been doing it long enough. I know I’ll never do either but give me an early season in Australia and the dessert rather than in the rain snow mud and disgusting roads of Belgium and northern France.

  8. ben

    Training rides…maybe a bit low of a term, but to borrow from Joe Friel…these are “C” level races for most and maybe “B” priority to guys like the ones Robot listed. Lower priority to be sure and I think that was what Robot was going for and certainly, as fans, they’re not as high-of-priority to watch/follow as the Classics or GTs.

    As for Robot’s question…I think Boonen has a lot to prove to himself if no one else. Confidence is important and it’s good for him that he’s picked up a couple of early early season wins before pulling back and gearing up for April. Greipel too. Being a sprinter in the age of Cav isn’t easy, so honing form and tactics will be key to him. Sagan and Boasson-Hagen? They’re great riders that probably saw opportunities to stretch themselves a bit and pick up points for their teams. Remember too how important car placement is during the classics and how these races contribute to that.

    Valverde? Who’s that again?

  9. Moose

    Perhaps I was too harsh. Sorry. It’s just that it seems a bit off for us to call a pro race contested by the fastest men on earth a training ride, especially when the highest achievement we’ll ever see will be at the Thursday night world championships at Hains Point or the local office park crit. If we want to grow our sport, we should applaud the efforts of sponsors, race promotors, and broadcasters. And we shouldn’t decry their efforts simply because they’re fueled by a profit motive – we’ve all got a mortgage to pay.

  10. Author

    @Moose and David Hendry – I think the difference is that the Tour de France, a complete invention of Henri Desgranges’, was actually quite popular right out of the gate. It was raced during what was traditionally a racing season, and fans came to the roadsides in droves.

    There is nothing inherently wrong with the desert races. I believe the pros look at them as tune ups for the bigger events. If you listen to their quotes after each stage, this is borne out. Sagan, for example, spoke about winning in Oman as a good portent for his first main objective of the year, which is Milan – San Remo. I do not believe any of them would take my suggestion about the nature of these races as a reason to punch me. They race to win. They race for real, but no one is basing their season on the results they get there.

    Further, if you watch Oman or Qatar, what you will notice is that there are very, very few fans by the side of the road. There are no native riders in the peloton at all. These are not cycling mad countries, clamoring for the big names to race on their roads.

    What they are is warm places where the pros can race themselves into form. The UCI can sell ads, take in sponsorship dollars. It’s a mutually beneficial arrangement for all.

    And so, the point was not to denigrate the races. I may have expressed it cynically, but they are what they are, in effect, the pre-season.

    The point, if we might return to it, was to ask what the (pre)season results mean.

  11. Author

    @Alan – A win IS a win. I’d probably give my left coconut (I’ve got kids. The coconuts aren’t in such high demand anymore) to win a town line sprint, which I almost never do.

    The guy who has won already this season who most intrigues me is Marcel Kittel.

  12. DavidA

    @Robot, good point. The warm early season races give way to cold,sloppy tough as nails Northern races…Het Volk, Flanders, E3,P-R,etc. These classics/semi-classics are won in Nov and Dec. the training for them begins that far away. So who ever is winning now is a good indication of form over this build-up.That doesn’t take into account crashes, sickness, injury or personal-junk that can de-rail the best trained PRO. The opportunity to race in the sunshine with 2 camels watching the finish, out weighs hords of fans in pissing,cold rain in the riders minds anyday. What better way to spend Millions of oil money…. Pro bicycle races. The perfection of the man/machine brought to the fore front of our sports crazed society…:)

  13. CAT4Fodder

    Andre Greipel’s calves are larger in circumference than any spot on my legs. least it explains the 1900 watts. Hoping he really proves to be a challenge this year for Cav. Imagine the drama and excitement for the Green Jersey.

  14. Nick

    Um, not to get us back on track or anything, but seems like the consensus is Boonen had a lot to prove after the past few years, and he’s coming out strong to claim the right to still be called “Tornado Tom.” He needed to win, and he is winning. I’m starting to salivate already at the possibility of an on-form Boonen dueling it out with Spartacus, Hushovd, and crew.

  15. melbin_rider

    as indeed the sport gets more global, the calendar gets fuller. maybe nothing can compare to tradition (and of course hardly any fans roadside doesn’t help either, though tour down under is well attended), but it’s still UCI points on offer. so what do they mean. well to reiterate what others have already said, points mean status survival. points mean car order. points mean contract dollars. winning equals confidence, not just in one’s self, but in team mates (to lead out, to pull, to pace back quickly after a puncture). as for the particular winners, well for the guys winning in pet events (Greipel in oz, Tomeke in Qatar), then maybe it brings them to a certain level of comfort, like reigniting the fire. for those guys with something to prove, then only they could answer whether the wins have vanquished their monkeys / demons. certainly for Gerro (and really the whole GreenEdge team) winning tour down under probably was in his / their top 3 goals of the season. either way, if you don’t think winning ‘training rides’ is important, you surely must agree if still preferable to not winning them.

  16. Robot

    @melbin_rider – The Tour Down Under is a different case in my mind. Fans do come to see that race. There are a host of Aussies in the pro peloton, and now there is Greenedge. Australia has a much different cycling culture than, say, Oman.

    The difficulty with TDU is that it’s so isolated on the calendar. It’s a good race in a bad spot, I think. If it were in the end of February, I bet more guys would race it with intent, wanting to win (as you say, preferable to win the town line sprint than not), but also with an eye to holding form for the March and April races.

    Stuck in the first of January, it doesn’t fit, except as a stand-alone event (albeit a good one).

    Absolutely see your point about Gerrans and GreenEdge getting the monkey off their backs, not to mention rallying home support, which must be key for future sponsorship.

  17. Jesus from Cancun

    I think Valverde had the most to gain. His win might have helped him gain confidence after 2 years out, and re-establish himself as one of the protected riders at Movistar.

    You could also mention Leipheimer’s win at San Luis as a much needed confidence booster after a team switch. It must have felt good to beat Contador, even if it was in an early season race.

  18. Conrad

    Yes its good to see Boonen “back in the saddle”. I predict awesome spring classics. Last year was really interesting- it was like Spartacus Vs. the rest of the peloton. We’ll see if he is allowed any more breathing room this year.
    Its hard for me to get too excited about the early season pro races too- but I think any time there is a race people are going to go all-out. Whether that is your local Cat 4 early season race or the Tour of Oman.

  19. Le Cashier

    I guess it depends on what the riders goals are this year. The London games throws a wrench into the mix. Does a rider want to be at peak form for the spring classics, the tours or the olympics? Winning brings confidence.

    As far as the races being just training rides here’s a clip from Herm Edwards, then coach of the NY Jets “You play to win the game…, …if you tell me it does not matter then retire, get out.”

  20. Mike Owens

    I don’t know the background of the commenters stating that Boonen needs to proove something in 2012 but I think they are ill-informed, morons or both. At the finsh, he was 20 meters from jumping across a gap and in a for a good chance of winning his his third Ronde last year. He won Gent-Wevelgem, he had a major bike malfunction (lost 2+ minutes) in Paris-Roubaix, chased and appeared to be dropping riders like they were standing still, then a big crash to end his race. Late in the year, he breaks a bone. I would have said he looked nearly as good as ever last year so nothing to proove this year.

  21. Robot

    @Mike Owens – You’re welcome to your opinions here and encouraged to express them, but don’t call our readers morons. That’s not how we roll at RKP.

  22. Conrad

    Mike I can see your point that Boonen was riding well last year. But its my understanding that Quickstep is a Belgium based squad that focuses on the spring classics, and Quickstep had a dry spell there for a while. Given his track record I think fans and sponsors were expecting wins in monuments, not just good finishes.

  23. Mike Owens

    It is acknowledged that the phrase “having to prove oneself” is when an athlete has to show that they are still able to perform at a level commensurate with their past performances (i.e., are they past their prime or over the hill?). Boonen showed that he was certainly at a level where he could win as in the past. That he didn’t, no matter what his sponsors, countrymen, and fans (me) wanted, has nothing to do with whether he needs to prove anything this year.

  24. Paul I.

    There have been some pretty interesting happenings already in the pre-season. Valverde making his comeback down under, and looking pretty damn good in the process. Tony Gallopin shocking everyone by beating the like of Purito, Andy Schleck and Fuglsang on a mountain stage. Both the Lotto and Omega Pharma halves of the divorce having a ton of wins. Sky dominating at the Algarve (including Wiggins beating Tony Martin in a time trial). I’m certainly enjoying it already, it’s a nice taster for the classics to come. Shame none of it is on TV. Supposed super teams BMC and Radio Shack Nissan had better be looking over their shoulders, because Sky and OPQ look very strong.

  25. Fat Monte

    I’d give my left nut to win any of those “training rides.” Heck, I’d give it just to be talented/young/strong enough to make the field.

  26. Nick

    @Robot – thanks for trying to keep the conversation civil. People can have different opinions that value different pieces of facts differently without being disrespectful.

    @Mike Owens – I think what a number of people here (including myself) are referring to when saying Mr. Boonen has something to prove is this:
    2004 – 17 wins
    2005 – 13 wins
    2006 – 20 wins
    2007 – 11 wins
    2008 – 15 wins
    2009 – 6 wins
    2010 – 4 wins
    2011 – 2 wins

    Those numbers don’t count overall GC wins or jerseys attained, only stage wins. They are also pure numbers and don’t hold any context (was he 2nd in every other stage he contested? Was he dead last? Was he injured? Were they big races he targeted and din’t win, or small races he dominated against lesser competitors?) But it seems many of us have noticed his decline in wins over the past three years and were/are hoping for better results in 2012.

  27. Souleur

    I think the most refreshing was to see Edvalds performance, as I see him really having a big year.

    These races don’t yield any meaningful results later, in that they are training races. Sure, throw a UCI golden star on it, but it is what it is…its Qatar/Oman et al. They are warm, its a great place to loosen up and flat.

    Boonens performance, really was a warm up and is hard to say anything more than that. He normally rides well now, last year did much the same. Boonen has a ton of pressure on him and moving to Monaco hasn’t really bought him brownie points with the Belgians. I heard the word ‘ex-communication’ in circles here, but so am I.

  28. Todd

    Early season faces USED to be glorified training rides…remember the days when ‘C’ list pros (whow would never feature for the remainder of the season) won races early in the season because all of the other riders were just out for an easy spin? The ‘A’ listers used to get to the finish line, grab a frame pump/saddle bag, and go ride another 50-100km. Now, we hear from rated pros how HARD the early season races are, you see a lot of jostling for position/results/points from day one of the season, and you see evidence that the pros are suffering like dogs (see the recent pic of Cav sitting in an Igloo cooler full of ice as an example).
    No doubt, some pros still used these races strictly as training, but that is balanced by the pros who go out there to test themselves for the Classics season.

  29. Moose

    My early classics money is on Phillipe Gilbert for the hilly races and Boonen for P-R. I’d prefer to see Spartacus win, but he’ll be marked too closely (again) to pull of his usual attack-from-the-front strategy – sadly that only works for one season until everyone catches on to it. If Fabian breaks away, Boonen will hang on and pip him in the sprint.

    I love this sport!

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