Ten Takeaways To Watch As The Road Season Starts

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It might feel like the 2021 cycling season just wrapped up, but this past weekend saw the return of European Road Racing action, with the Challenge Mallorca in Spain and GP Cycliste La Marseillaise in France kicking things off, and things kick into even higher gear this week with the Saudi Tour and Etoile Bessèges. Spencer Martin gives us ‘Ten Takeaways’ as the road season starts.

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The pro’s kicked off in Mallorca with young and old winners

With so much action happening in such a condensed amount of time, I’ve created a pre-season cheat sheet below with ten things to watch as the 2022 season takes flight.

Ten Things To Watch As The 2022 Season Starts
1)
The road season has officially kicked off with the Challenge Mallorca in Spain, which runs from Wednesday through Sunday, and GP Cycliste La Marseillaise on Sunday.

  • Both races have strong start lists, but Challenge Mallorca isn’t televised and the front group at the GP resembles a scrimmage between the up-and-coming French riders.
  • While many get extremely excited about these events, I consider them to be more a collection of training events of which the results happen to be tallied.

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The pro peloton off to Saudi

2) However, things get a little more serious this coming week with the de Etoile Bessèges, Volta a la Comunitat Valenciana, and the Saudi Tour.

  • Etoile de Bessèges is essentially another training race, but does feature a very strong start list, interesting parcours, and exciting racing. This all combines to make the race somewhat of a predictor for the spring season to come and worth tuning into.
  • The Saudi Tour got a lot of attention when it was revived in 2020, but the fact that multiple riders caught COVID during the event and many more were left stranded and quarantined in the race hotels for weeks afterward, have likely left a bad taste in everyone’s mouth.
  • Also, the course is absurdly boring and the race essentially functions as a warm-weather race-speed sprint training camp.
  • But, it is important to remember that as much as races like Challenge Mallorca might not have a bearing on the rest of the season, they provide teams in the relegation danger zone like Israel-Premier Tech and Intermarché chances to rack up valuable UCI points.

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Arnaud De Lie – First win in his third pro race

3) From a sporting perspective, the results from early-season races can be incredibly difficult to read. On one hand, their importance is often over-represented due to the excitement of the return of road racing after a long winter. But on the other hand, we are still three months from most of the major spring classics, six months from the Tour de France, and are currently closer to the 2021 Vuelta a España than the 2022 edition.

  • As such, the reading of these results requires some serious weighting. For example, Tim Wellens won Friday’s edition of the Challenge Mallorca, which could lure one into thinking he is on pace for a great season. But, a very important fact is that 50% of Wellens’ 24 career wins have come in January and February.
  • This should be a major red flag since it signals that Wellens is essentially training too hard and too early, and is coming into the pre-season overcooked and ‘stealing’ wins while the rest of the peloton is working their way into shape.

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Early win for Brandon McNulty

4) The winners of the other four stages were Alejandro Valverde, Brandon McNulty, Arnaud De Lie, and Biniam Girmay.

  • McNulty’s impressive solo win is only the 3rd of his career and is likely the biggest so far, but in reality, it doesn’t really tell us that much about the season to come.
  • McNulty was a lead domestique for Tadej Pogačar at the 2021 Tour de France and finished 6th place in the Olympic Road Race, so the fact that he has a world-class engine and has great training habits isn’t exactly groundbreaking.

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Big future for Biniam Girmay

5) However, on the flip side, 19-year-old De Lie’s and 21-year-old Biniam Girmay’s wins were notable.

  • De Lie’s sprint win confirms that the teenage sprinter is a potential star of the future and since at this point, every UCI point is precious for his relegation-fighting Lotto team, this win matters for them.
  • However, I wouldn’t be shocked if this was De Lie’s last win of the season. As his competition gets into real race shape, it will become easier and easier to exploit his inexperience.
  • While Girmay did have five pro victories before his most recent win, the fact that the Eritrean could win a reduced sprint against riders like Michael Matthews and Giacomo Nizzolo is incredibly impressive.
  • Together with his impressive final 200 meters at the 2021 U23 World Road Race Championships, we have pretty compelling evidence that Girmay is the best young rider in the sport that you have never heard of, and that Intermarché – Wanty has completed a recruiting coup by signing him before the bigger squads.

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Just like old times – A win in Mallorca for Alejandro Valverde

6) Alejandro Valverde is heading into the 2022 season at a mind-blowing 42-years-old, and while I expected him to finally hit the ‘age wall’ and struggle to stay with the best at the biggest races, he has already netted multiple top tens, including a win, at the Challenge Mallorca and is technically off to one of the best starts ever of his career.

  • Does this mean anything? I’m not sure. It could easily be a blip and simply a function of a highly professional middle-aged man simply having a greater ability to hold focus through the winter training months than riders a generation younger.
  • Or, the more likely answer is that it tells us Valverde has recovered well from his crash at the 2021 Vuelta and is coming into his final pro season with the intention to make his mark at every major race he takes part in.

Willunga Hill - Australia - wielrennen - cycling - radsport - cyclisme - Richie PORTE (Australia / BMC Racing Team) pictured during the Santos Tour Down Under 2017 - BikeExchange Stage 5 - in Willunga Hill, Australia on jan 21 - photo POOL/GW/Cor Vos © 2017
Richie Porte – No longer King of Willunga Hill

7) Down in Australia at the race formerly known as the Tour Down Under, 36-year-old Richie Porte has either finally lost his Willunga magic or is taking a more logical and measured approach into the season.

  • After years of winning on the Willunga Hill summit finish at the Tour Down Under with absurdly impressive watts-to-kilo performances, only to never recapture that form again during the European summer, Porte finished nearly 90-seconds off the pace of the winner and was smoked by multiple local develop riders.
  • This is telling us one of two things. One is that at 36, Porte is finally losing his top-end climbing speed.
  • Another is that at 36, he has realized that being in peak condition in January isn’t ideal for a sport where the biggest events take place April-September and is taking a slower build into the season. If it is the latter, Porte could be looking to have another surprisingly good season, like in 2020, just as his Ineos team is facing a grand tour leadership crisis.

James Whelan
James Whelan on the way back?

8) Another interesting data point from the race down under is that James Whelan, the 25-year-old former runner from Australia, who is currently racing for a semi-pro team, is leading the race overall.

  • This is after finishing an impressive second-place at the Australian Race Nationals behind Ineos’ Luke Plapp. While Whelan struggled to gain traction in the WorldTour and was released at the start of 2022 by the EF-Education First Team, these recent results might mean another top-flight could think it is worth their time to scoop him up to develop and refine his massive engine.

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Success for Tom Pidcock

9) Tom Pidcock headed to Arkansas for Cyclocross World Championships in an attempt to win his first Elite Men’s CX title to add to his Olympic Mountain Bike Gold Medal.

  • But outside of his performance at CX Worlds, the bigger question from the weekend is if his extremely long run of last year’s ‘cross season combined with a nearly full road season, Olympic Mountain Bike campaign, another ‘cross season, and then into a full road season will take its toll during his 2022 road campaign.

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Twice positive (covid) – Peter Sagan

10) COVID has decimated the start-list at CX Worlds and could be coming for major road racing events.

  • To compete in one-day races and short stage races (fewer than seven stages) fully vaccinated riders do not have to take a COVID test. With vaccination now required to compete in sporting events by law in France (Tour de France) and to enter the country of Australia (World Road Race Championships), it is difficult to imagine any riders of note will remain unvaccinated, which means COVID cases are likely to be an issue during any major one-day races.
  • However, to compete in stage races of seven stages or longer (aka any major one-week stage race and every grand tour) a negative PCR test dated less than two days previously is required regardless of whether the person is vaccinated.
  • This means major stage racers could run into the same problems Cyclocross has had for its World Championships, where competitors weren’t tested during the regular season, the presence of a travel testing requirement saw a decent portion of riders return positive tests and be unable to compete.
  • Additionally, the grand tours will retain their rest-day testing requirements. While these didn’t cause much of an issue in 2021, the presence of the far more transmissible Omicron variant could wreak havoc on the 2022 grand tours.
  • Smart teams will attempt to use this wildcard element to their advantage by following intensely strict health and safety protocols leading into and during major stage races, and racing with a conversation strategy of staying close enough to the leader(s) to capitalize on a sudden COVID-related withdrawal.
  • This means we shouldn’t expect aggressive racing from riders in the top tens of grand tours in 2022, since everyone will have a potential COVID-withdrawal of the riders in front of them in the back of their mind.

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Pidcock flying in Arkansas


# Spencer Martin is the author of the cycling-analysis newsletter Beyond the Peloton that breaks down the nuances of each race and answers big picture questions surrounding team and rider performance. Sign up now to get full access to all the available content and race breakdowns. #

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