A flurry of mini-previews – Podium Cafe
Saturday sees the men’s and women’s pelotons taking on Strade Bianche. Sunday sees the start of one of the most competitive and exciting weeklong stage races of the season in Paris-Nice, and Wednesday sees another with Tirenno-Adriatico joining the fray. So, with apologies to the Healthy Aging Tour and to GP Artichokes (because I have to stop at some point), let’s go for a very, very quick preview of four races.
Before we start, I will say that this is the year I officially lose patience with Paris-Nice’s (PN) timing. Just run Monday – Sunday. We don’t need an 8th stage. Fix that and the number of riders who can do Strade Bianche (SB) and PN will fly up. This year this is particularly frustrating because the PN parcours is brilliant for a host of classics riders, but the pick of them should all be in Siena, and they’re then stuck riding TA for (warmer, safer, arguably less interesting) preparation for Milan – San Remo and the cobbled races. That’s my one gripe – otherwise, this is a great week or so and I’m looking forward to it.
Strade Bianche Donne
Everyone’s favourite one day race. As a writer, the smartest angle here would be to play the “overhyped and overrated, here’s why” card. Yeah, you won’t get that from me. Beautiful countryside, great roads for tough racing (the gravelled surfaces, the narrow lanes, the short, sharp climbs) and an iconic finish. This is just a stunning race.
When and where?
Tomorrow (Saturday), and unlike in Belgium the women’s race is still being completed ahead of the men’s. They go 136km from Siena to… well, Siena. There’s a lot of riding on the epomymous strade bianche (white roads) including a long section on San Martino in Grania and a tough climb at Tolfe. If the field is still together at the finish expect attacks on the steep climb deep inside old Siena to the finish at the Piazza del Campo.
For both men’s and women’s races, weather may just be a factor with rain forecast after many a dry fortnight.
Most would say that, at the Omloop, Annemiek van Vleuten’s competitors did a wise thing, taking advantage of a rare tactical mistake to eliminate her from the race. Another interpretation is that they made her angry, before she gets to ride a parcours that suits her perhaps better than any other. Both are true. They did the right thing and tomorrow they’ll pay for making her angry.
I’m going with the favourite here. Van Vleuten wins and wins comfortably.
I don’t necessarily want to reopen the “is this a monument?” chat, but one point in favour of this race is that the cream tends to rise to the top. You won’t see many rank outsiders barnstorming the top ten. Still, one name that isn’t yet as well known as I think it should be is Sofia Bertizzolo. The Liv rider is making her first appearance in this race but has gone very well in cobbled races in Belgium, climbs well, and will doubtless want to impress on roads not too far from home.
What, when and where?
As with the women’s race, just slightly later in the day and over a longer (184km) course. The same challenges will crop up again, with the white road sectors and the sharp climbs stretching the field and the final climb the sting in the tail.
I think Wout van Aert will take this for the second year. The course suits him very well and he’s bringing decent cyclocross form with him. Expect competition from the likes of Jakob Fuglsang, Julian Alaphilippe and Tim Wellens.
Again, I don’t think this is a race that rewards outsiders so we need to be a bit creative. Ineos are claiming that this is the year they’ll really race. If so, Pavel Sivakov might be the beneficiary. He’s a good climber and a classy enough bike handler to thrive on this course (he makes his debut) and he might be given some rope if Kwiatkowski and Pidcock are seen as the marked men from his team.
The race to the sun, an eight day stage race that, over the past few years, has given us some of the most exciting racing we’ve seen, with echelons all over the place, attacks galore, close GC battles and even a win for Carlos Betancur.
When and Where?
We start in the environs of Paris on Sunday for a flat stage with an uphill kicker. Stage two is a sprint stage (winds permitting) and stage three a 14km time trial. Stage four is another uphill finish but a tougher one that will be for the puncheurs.
Stage five is another sprinter’s day, stage six is a classics-style bumpy day, and stage seven (next Saturday) is the Queen stage, with a mountaintop finish at Valdeblore La Colmiane after a climb that is more than 16km at 6.2%.
We wrap things up next Sunday with a looped course around Nice featuring five categorised climbs and plenty more uphill stretches. It’ll be a tough final day and the leader’s jersey won’t be safe until late in the stage.
This could be tricky, with enough climbing to make things difficult for the all-rounders, and enough time trialling and punchy stuff to make things difficult for the pure mountain men. Fortunately for me, Primoz Roglic is on the start line. He’s the only rider on the startlist who fits into both categories with ease. Max Schachmann and Richie Porte are among the bigger threats.
Team Bike Exchange don’t have an obvious leader (though there are plenty of days that will suit Bling Matthews admirably) and this would be a good time for Lucas Hamilton to take another step towards the elite. The course should suit, especially if he can minimise losses on Tuesday’s chrono day.
The race of the two seas, the yin to PN’s yang. We get basically the same course every year, we get one reliably great day of climbing (unless the weather intervenes, of course) and lots of great scenery and racing, and everyone leaves much fitter and better able to take on their big spring assignments in San Remo, Flanders or even in future stage races.
When and where?
We start on Italy’s west coast for a pan flat sprinter’s day on Wednesday, and stage two sees an uphill classics-style finish, as does stage three. The Queen stage is Saturday’s stage four with a mountaintop finish into Prati di Tivo.
Sunday looks very entertaining with a series of loops over sharp climbs and yet another uphill finish. Any sprinters left will be rewarded on stage six, before the traditional 10km time trial in San Benedetto del Tronto.
But for Covid I’d have seen a course here to suit Simon Yates, but his form must be a huge question mark. Tadej Pogacar will cope with Sunday’s tapi dei muri and the time trial and can certainly climb, but I think Julian Alaphilippe might just be able to stick around on the big stage on Saturday. If he can, then he’ll be able to win the race on the sharper days.
I don’t have an outsider for the GC, but don’t sleep on Benjamin Thomas picking up another podium on a time trial stage. Not good enough? Well, how about Mikel Landa winning a GC for the first time since Burgos in 2017? No, I don’t think he will either, but he was climbing well last season and this sort of race should suit after he started the year well on Wednesday.