Done with the brown paper packages tied up with strings? With the new season less than a week away there’s plenty to look forward too and with this in mind, here are a few favourite things for the year ahead.
I was thinking of doing “ten predictions for the year” but the prime question of “who will win the Tour de France?” felt impossible to call and so all the rest of the predictions got binned as well. If our central forecast is a new duel between Jonas Vingegaard and Tadej Pogačar, there’s little between them. UAE’s recruitment, and they way they rode in Lombardia, shows they’re upping the support for their leader while Jumbo-Visma have been hiring well too, although Primož Roglič is going to the Giro. Whether it’s a duel or something else happens thanks to action from other riders, who knows but it should be fun to watch. This time last year the battle to salivate over was Egan Bernal taking on Roglič and Pogačar in July and of course all changed.
Staying with the Tour de France, one thing that won’t change is the route. It’s intriguing because of the hard start in the Basque Country and then the Pyrenees coming up fast, nobody can ease their way into the race. The Puy de Dôme summit finish is enticing although the fear is we’ll all be sick of the Poulidor-Anquetil duel tale from 1964. The Alps have a lot to offer right to the end. It’s the whole route and the way the race is approached these days, even the sprint stages come with added pathos if Mark Cavendish is trying for that extra stage win.
The Tour Down Under is back after the Covid hiatus. Sure it’s a hors d’oeuvre to open the season but when you’re hungry after the long winter fast it’s mouthwatering. Past editions have been an interesting for the delicate way time bonuses settled a lot of the top-10, the TDU’s had the finesse of a track points race, only raced in the Outback, only his has been something for connoisseurs of countback. Now the men’s race has a prologue time trial and a more classic feel of a stage race with added climbing, this year’s course has the the climbs of Corkscrew, Willunga – sans Richie Porte, nor a summit finish – and Mount Lofty. Will it be better? Hard to say but it’ll be different to watch and as ever seeing the new bikes and jerseys in the austral sunshine is a special moment.
The spring classics offer action galore and arguably the period from late March to April is an extra grand tour. Two particular races come to mind, Strade Bianche and Paris-Roubaix. Strade Bianche is a new race in a sport where the Amstel Gold Race look is still an upstart. There’s no settled tactic to triumph in Sienna, the winning move can go anywhere and it’s this element of uncertainty that makes it compelling, plus it is so seductive with the Tuscan landscapes, a grande partenza from the Flemish landscapes. Paris-Roubaix is much less scenic but it too can take many forms with breakaways coming and going and where riders can seem out of the action after Arenberg only to be contenders later on, it’s the sheer length of this race with slow motion form of action at times that can be so gripping.
The Giro d’Italia is shaping up nicely. The bid to attract Remco Evenepoel with three time trial stages was dampening spirits, because sure it’s exciting that he plans win a second consecutive grand tour… but watching him do it if he rode away with the maglia rosa with ten minutes on his next rival then it might not be so gripping. But now there are plenty of more contenders with Primož Roglič, Geraint Thomas, João Almeida and Aleksandr Vlasov, all are excellent against the clock. Viewed from here just the thought of writing the Giro contenders preview is interesting, and Evenepoel and the others will be worth watching closely this spring.
Talking of things worth watching, hopefully this includes the Netflix Tour de France documentary due for release this summer. There are films about teams but too often “behind the scenes” access is really staged scenes filmed by communication agencies, it’s PR. There are some exceptions, “El Día Menos Pensado” about Movistar an obvious example. And while Netflix seems to be casting around for subscribers by supplying content for every niche interest, this docu-series is promising thanks to the access and amount of footage accumulated, it’s across many teams.
Not that we need dramatised series for excitement. Live TV is often so great that there are days when you turn off the TV or close that browser tab and know you’ve watched something special. We seem to be in period where the breakaways have more chance of making it. Long range attacks in the mountains can pay off, creating a virtuous cycle as it encourages more to try them, blowing the race apart and so making them work. Similarly those “nailed on sprint stages” aren’t so certain either, in part with organisers throwing in something to spice up the finale, or just because teams race everything more aggressively. Seeing scripts being ripped up can confound a race preview or two but all the better.
The dash for points isn’t over but as a new three year promotion and relegation contest begins it’ll just feel less urgent, no need for weekly spreadsheets here or in a team car either. But the battle to get the automatic invite to the Tour de France for 2024 could be interesting, Total Energies and Lotto-Dsnty qualify automatically because they topped the rankings last year but who will be the top two teams in the Pro Conti ranks by the end of the 2023 season? Israel should mount a good charge as well, Uno-X can keep up their progress and then there’s a second group of teams in this level who will be scrapping for results in the short term but in the medium term will be after more than points in order to move up, they’ll want to sign star names and become “must have” teams. Also if one or two can secure deeper funding then they’ll be set to qualify for the invitations and in time move up. In short, the scrap among these second tier teams is a secondary story with less urgency but one to watch both for in-race tactics but also slower, longer terms plans.
Back to bigger things and the World Championships in August should be great. For starters, August means many racing with their Tour de France form and this in turn means we could get a more interesting start list in Glasgow. Also there are all the other disciplines at the same time meaning even more action together, like a cycling-only Olympics. If this concept works – and France is hosting a multi-discipline worlds in 2027 but the format’s untested – it could be a good showcase for the sport. Ideally we’ll even see riders mixing and matching, if someone’s in peak form for the road race then why not also use it for the track or mountain bike?
Women’s cycling continues its rise with more races, more TV airtime, more professional teams and more to enjoy. This blog’s niche focus is on the men’s side – click elsewhere for women’s race coverage, I try to link to previews from others – and so I can just be a fan of women’s cycling and sit back and enjoy it all, especially as it’s increasingly aired on regular TV so there’s sport but also more with many interesting characters and personalities. The big test is to see how many broadcasters who show the men’s Tour live will exercise their option to show the women’s race live as well.
The Vuelta a España feels like a long way away and the route announcement due this week never gets as much attention as the Giro and Tour. Round here I don’t know Spanish roads so well so analysis is harder but it’s more general to the sport, teams diligently do pre-Giro and Tour recon rides but the Vuelta much less so. Anyway the various white jersey competitions are in need of a rethink given they are designed to signal promising Under-25 riders. Only gone are the days of admiring an eighth place in the Tour de Romandie or nodding approvingly when a neo-pro survives deep into a Monument classic. Now they win outright and reshape the sport. The Vuelta will see Juan Ayuso and Cian Uijtdebroeks in action, plus many of Groupama-FDJ’s new recruits so it’ll be interesting to see these names in action together, a big version of the Tour de l’Avenir.