It feels strange to even speak of it after so long, but you know what? Professional road racing is about to start happening again. Rising up from the ashes of the Lancepocalypse, spindly legged racers are due to crawl out from under their off-season rocks, emerging into the blinking light of the 2013 season.
What’s gonna happen?
The Classics, perhaps the least dope-tarnished races of the calendar, will once again give us the Boonen v. Cancellara races we all want to see, assuming Fabian Cancellara has killed whatever chicken he needed to to dispel the voodoo curse that ruined his 2012. We should also see the return of Thor Hushovd to the rutted cart paths of Northern Europe and find out just how serious Peter Sagan is about mixing it up with these infernal cobblers.
The first question of this week’s Group Ride is who will be this year’s Classics star? Can Boonen thrive with Cancellara in the mix, or will someone else rise to the challenge?
Stage racing, if we’re honest, is more of a shit show. TdF champ Bradley Wiggins is talking about skipping the July race in favor of the seemingly more favorable Giro, which puts Chris Froome in the captain’s seat for Sky. Alberto Contador is back in full swing. Purito Rodriguez showed his class last season, but will his team even make the races? And what of the Schlecks? The younger is coming back from an injury-blighted 2012, and the older will probably be suspended.
The second question for this week’s Group Ride mirrors the first. Who will be this year’s Grand Tour star? Can Ryder Hesjedal repeat his Giro heroics? Can any of 2012′s bit part players, Thomas de Gendt, Alejandro Valverde or Vincenzo Nibali, take another step up the podium?
It feels odd to me to be talking about these things. It feels as though some great schism occurred at the end of 2012, and that the future can’t be quite like the past. All I know how to do, at this point, is to look at what’s happened and wonder what will be, and hopefully, in the process, it will all be as fascinating as ever, if only that little bit better.
Image: Fotoreporter Sirotti
Where I live it will be 95°F today, but looking to the weekend and next week the days and evenings, will be getting cooler. Already some of the leaves are starting to lose their chlorophyll, beginning to go yellow or red at the edges. The company I work for is preparing for 2013. There is brochure copy to write. The season is winding down. This might all be a beat or two early, but…
On the roads of Northern Spain, especially the steep ones, the Vuelta is at full tilt, the battle lines drawn, the GC shaking out slowly. It wasn’t long ago that many of us argued over whether Alberto Contador (Saxo Bank-Tinkoff Bank) or Chris Froome (Team Sky) would win this race. Purito Rodriguez (Katusha) apparently isn’t a regular RKP reader. Otherwise, he might have clued us in to his intention to win his home Grand Tour.
If you have been following closely, you will know what surprises this race has offered up. You would have seen the likes of Froome clinging to wheels. You would have seen Contador attacking with his signature explosiveness but not able to close the deal. You would have seen Rodriguez ride the time trial of his life to keep the jersey on his shoulders.
Perhaps it is still early to cast judgement. The top 5, which includes Robert Gesink (Rabobank) and Alejandro Valverde (Movistar), are all within 3 minutes of one another. How many lead changes and plot twists we have in front of us is almost impossible to tell.
But, the excitement of the Vuelta, and some recent comments about the Tour, got me thinking about just which of the Grand Tours I’ve enjoyed most this season. Ryder Hesjedal’s big Giro win was fun to watch and featured plenty of back and forth with Rodriguez as well as Thomas de Gendt (Vacansoleil-DCM) and Michele Scarponi (Lampre-ISD). The Tour, by some estimations, disappointed, with Team Sky managing every last detail to perfection. Still, the Tour is the Tour, a tautology that means something to most race fans.
So, though it might be early, this week’s Group Ride asks the simple question: Which was the best Grand Tour this year? And why?
Last week we discussed the Men of the Hour—a rather easy-to-compile list of the men we all expect to be at forefront of the sport in 2012. But while the sport’s Men of the Hour might be easier to identify, a list of Up-and-Comers is certainly more interesting to make as it allows for more prognosticating. After all, it’s always fun to go out on a limb—especially if you turn out to be right.
Colombia – Something tells me we’re on the verge of a renaissance, as Colombians have been taking some pretty huge scalps at the U23 level over the past few seasons including the Baby Giro (now called the GiroBio), the Tour de l’Avenir, and the World Road Championship. It’s therefore no surprise that much of the country’s best talent—men such as Rigoberto Uran, Fabio Duarte, Carlos Betancur, and Sergio Henao—is now turning heads as pros. But 2012 should see an even better sign of the South American nation’s resurgence as the Colombia Coldeportes team—the first full-time, European-based Colombian squad the sport has seen in years—has already gained entry into some of Europe’s biggest races. The team’s main goal? A Tour de France invite—and they think they can get it as soon as this year.
Sep Vanmarcke – Belgium’s Sep Vanmarcke burst onto the scene with a second-place ride for Topsport Vlaanderen at Ghent-Wevelgem in 2010, beating George Hincapie and Philippe Gilbert in the process and earning himself a contract with Garmin-Cervelo. Fast forward one year and there was Vanmarcke again at the front during the classics, this time burying himself for the sake of teammates Thor Hushovd, Heinrich Haussler, and Tyler Farrar, yet still finding the strength to finish 4th in the E3 Prijs Vlaanderen and 20th in Paris-Roubaix. Thor’s departure bumps Sep up a rung in the squad’s cobbled hierarchy this year, and considering Farrar’s inconsistency on the pavé, Vanmarcke could easily find himself in a position to win a race for himself this spring.
Salvatore Puccio – This is more of long shot, but keep an eye on Team Sky neo-pro Salvatore Puccio, the winner of the 2011 U23 Tour of Flanders. Talented young Italians come a dime-a-dozen, which explains why most find themselves signing their first professional contracts with Italian squads. Not Puccio though, his impressive U23 resume turned some World Tour heads and the Italian was smart to take advantage of an opportunity to join one of the best cobbled teams in the sport. If Puccio’s decisions on the road prove to be just as savvy, expect big things.
Omega Pharma-Quick Step – The losers in the Philippe Gilbert sweepstakes made smart choices on this winter’s transfer market, bolstering their stage race ranks with the additions of Tony Martin and Levi Leipheimer, while avoiding a potential logjam at the head of their classics squad (I doubt Gilbert and Tom Boonen would have fared well together in the same team). With Martin and Leipheimer, the team now has two men ideally suited to the route of the 2012 Tour de France—and both can counted-on to win their share of stages and overall titles in smaller stage races as well. In fact, the season’s already started-off on the right foot at Argentina’s Tour de San Luis with Francesco Chicchi winning two stages and Leipheimer currently leading the overall after winning the ITT. Better still, Tom Boonen and Sylvain Chavanel appear healthy, fit, and motivated. Their return to form is certainly a good sign for the spring classics—and for a team looking to be competitive all season long.
Thomas De Gendt – Another member of the Topsport Vlaanderen class of 2010, De Gendt had quite an impressive World Tour debut with Vacansoleil in 2011, winning stages at Paris-Nice and the Tour de Suisse. A man built for the Ardennes, De Gendt should get more chances to ride for himself in all the spring classics this year—especially if Stijn Devolder proves unable to regain his Ronde-winning form from 2008 and 2009. But while the classics remain a goal for any Belgian, I wonder if De Gendt’s destined for greater things—like grand tours. The 2011 Tour de France was the 25-year-old’s first ever 3-week event. Not only did he finish the race in his first try, he finished 6th on Alpe d’Huez and 4th in the ITT in Grenoble, Stages 19 and 20 respectively. Those are telling results, for at a time when most riders were getting weaker, the Tour rookie was getting stronger.
Rabobank’s Young Grand Tour Men – Rabobank’s Robert Gesink is still only 25 and despite his poor Tour de France last year remains Holland’s best hope for grand tour success. However, with men like Steven Kruijswijk and Bauke Mollema nipping at his heels, he’ll need to do something soon (like, now) if he wants to stay relevant. In 2010, Kruijswijk finished 18th in his first Giro d’Italia—at barely 23 years of age. He bettered that result considerably last year, finishing ninth and then following it up with a stage win and third-place overall at the Tour de Suisse a few weeks later—against some very tough pre-Tour competition.
As for Mollema (who along with Gesink just extended his contract with Rabobank through 2014), his 2011 was even more impressive: tenth in Catalunya, ninth in Paris-Nice, fifth in the Tour de Suisse, and fourth at the Vuelta (along with the green points jersey and a day in the red jersey as race leader). Like Gesink, Mollema’s also a talented single-day rider who should challenge in hillier classics such as Liege-Bastogne-Liege and il Lombardia (I’m still getting used to the new name too). And Mollema’s only 25 as well—that makes 3 super talents for Rabobank—all under the age of 26. With all three riders deservedly expecting grand tour leadership in 2012, Rabobank’s management might have a problem on its hands—then again, it’s not a bad problem to have. And in case they’re reading, here’s an easy answer: Kruijswijk gets the Giro, Gesink the Tour, and Mollema the Vuelta.
France – Yes, we’re still waiting for the true return of the French to the top steps of the sport’s most prestigious podiums—but there’s good reason to believe it’s going to happen soon. First of all, a very talented group of young French professionals is on the rise, led by men such as Pierre Rolland, Arnold Jeannesson, and Thibaut Pinot. It’s been a while since France had a rider who looked as if he could develop into a legitimate grand tour contender and now they have three.
Better yet, France has been identifying and developing young riders (juniors and espoirs) better than any country in the world, as evidenced by Frenchmen winning three of the last four junior world titles and two of the last three U23 world titles. While a rainbow jersey is never a one-way ticket to greatness, the French Federation’s run of success certainly bodes well for the future—especially since world champions aren’t the only quality riders the program is producing. And last but certainly not least, one has to expect that Thomas Voeckler’s heroic 2011 Tour de France (coupled with a terrible showing in the 2010 World Cup by the French national soccer team) has inspired at least a handful of young French boys to choose cycling over soccer that otherwise might not have. It only takes one rider to change a generation’s perception of a sport—maybe Voeckler’s stunning performance will reap greater rewards 5 to 10 years in the future.
Young Italian Sprinters – If last season is any indication, Italian fans might soon have someone other than Daniele Bennati to hang their field sprint hopes upon. Sacha Modolo, Andrea Guardini, and Elia Viviani won a combined 29 races in 2011—and all but a few came via field sprints. The three still need to prove themselves in World Tour races (only Viviani won a race at the World level—and even that was in Beijing), and Modolo’s the only one to have started a grand tour (twice, in fact—but he failed to finish both times). But at ages 24, 22, and 22, respectively, they still have time to develop.
Project 1t4i – Even though it’s a Dutch squad, Project 1t4i (formerly Skil-Shimano) will be led by two young Germans this year: 2011-revelation Marcel Kittel and HTC-import John Degenkolb. It goes without saying that Kittel is an up-and-comer—the 23-year-old won 17 races in 2011 (18 if you count the Amstel Race in Curacao) including four stages each at the Four Days of Dunkirk and the Tour of Poland. Kittel’s biggest victory—and proof that he’s a force to be reckoned with in coming years—came at the Vuelta a Espana in September, the first of what looks to be many grand tour stage victories throughout his career.
No slouch himself, Degenkolb won six races in 2011 including two stages at the Criterium du Dauphiné. That said, it’s clear that Degenkolb (also 23 years of age) is a future classics star—he reminds me of Matthew Goss in that he’s a talented field sprinter who shows even more potential as a classics hard man. Last year, the rookie was given a start in every spring classic that mattered from the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad (he finished 12th) to Paris-Roubaix (he finished 19th). With 1t4i already receiving several wild card invites to just about every cobbled race on the calendar, Degenkolb will be given new chances to impress in 2012.
So that it for my Up-and-Comers for 2012. If all goes as planned, our 2017 Men of the Hour will be a list of mostly Colombian, French, and German riders.
Who’s on your list Up-and-Comers for 2012? Come join me on the limb!
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International