Roundtable: What to watch for in early season stage races
It’s February. Do you know where your favorite pro bike racers are? Chances are, stars like Greg Van Avermaet, Geraint Thomas, Fernando Gaviria, and others are tuning up their form at a few key one-week races in warmer climes. These races are important stepping stones toward major events like Paris-Roubaix and the Tour de France. Yet they aren’t key goals for these riders. So how do we evaluate their performances with an eye to the summer’s major races? Let’s roundtable!
We have a few early season stage races coming up: Volta ao Algarve, Ruta del Sol, Tour of Oman, and the UAE Tour, to go along with last month’s Tour Down Under. As a fan, which of these five early season races is your favorite and why?
Fred Dreier, @freddreier: Having never attended any of these race, I can only speak from the perspective of a TV viewer. While I do enjoy the Tour Down Under, it comes so early that I’m not yet out of my mindset for watching cyclocross, and it also airs at strange hours. Thus, the lowly Tour of Oman is my favorite of these, if only because of the race is held on a desolate moonscape, and because of the always fun summit finish to Green Mountain. That stage usually produces a compelling fight between GC honchos. And it’s always so strange to see the sport’s big stars fighting it out against a brown and empty desert landscape, as if it were some battle scene from a Mad Max movie.
Spencer Powlison, @spino_powerlegs: As a fan, I don’t really like any of them, because they often overlap and usually dilute the star riders. We never end up seeing exciting matchups that give us a taste of summertime. If I have to pick just one, it would be Ruta del Sol. This race has an extensive history — back to 1925. It has had some star winners, like Alejandro Valverde and Chris Froome. It also has a good route that makes for unpredictable racing.
Andrew Hood, @eurohoody: Maybe I am biased because I am lucky enough to have gone there the past few years, but the Tour Down Under is tops for me. The race is expertly organized and is one of the best-run races on the international calendar. It’s great to see an entire community wrap its arms around a race. Instead of complaining about road closures, Adelaide and the surrounding region embraces the race and it’s become a popular summer tradition for the larger community. The racing is just intense enough to count, but everyone in the entourage is pretty relaxed. And being in Australia in the throes of northern hemisphere winter is simply bliss. Cooper’s Pale Ale on tap, need we say more?
Which of these five races presents the best barometer for success later in the year?
Fred: I think Oman and UAE Tour often present a great barometer for how to judge the sprinters and sprint teams. Often, the sprinters who are winning at the races are doing so because their teams are organized and well-trained. Often, the sprinters who are struggling at these races continue to do so throughout the year.
Spencer: Either Ruta del Sol or Algarve show me what I need to see when it comes to GC riders. Both have a time trial. Both have significant summit finishes. They are also held on tricky European roads, which tests a team’s ability to keep their leader in position.
Andrew: If you’re a classics-bound rider, the Tour of Qatar was “the” race to test the legs and get gutter-ready. Oman just doesn’t have the same profile (or winds), so it will be interesting to see if the new, week-long UAE Tour can fill Qatar’s void. Among the GC riders, surprisingly it’s the Algarve that usually sees a winner who comes up big later in the season. The race usually features a TT and a Cat. 2 summit finale, qualities that are always a good measuring stick of who’s coming into the season flying high.
What do you look for when watching these races for signs of success later in the year?
Fred: At the Tour of Oman I watch to see if Greg van Avermaet or any other classics man is winning stages because this is often a sign of a rider’s top fitness as he heads into Het Nieuwsblad and then the cobbles season. But mostly I look for sprint victories. These races do present challenging racing situations, with crosswinds and punchy climbs, and chaotic sprint finishes. So I look to see if the top sprint teams like Deceuninck-Quick Step and UAE Team Emirates have their act together.
Spencer: Unless your name is Chris Froome, you don’t really want to come out of the gates and win one of these races in February, if you want to be a contender at a grand tour. Look back at the GC winners, and no one else in recent history went on to win the Giro or the Tour. Now if you land on the podium, like Thomas did at Algarve last year or as Bradley Wiggins did in 2012, also in Portugal, you may be timing your peak just right.
Andrew: More telling sometimes is who isn’t in the mix. The level is so high these days that anyone a pedal stroke or two off the top will have a hard time catching up, especially for classics-bound riders. There are usually some familiar hitters in these early races — Valverde at Ruta and Porte at TDU — who deliver year after year. Winning breeds confidence, so these early-season races might not mean much in the prestige category, but these early season wins can set the tone for an entire season. Sprinters like Viviani and Groenewegen look red-hot coming out of the gates.
Which of these races would you most like to visit as a fan, and why?
Fred: I’m with Hoody — send me to Portugal right now! I’ve heard that racing and riding along the roads in the Algarve is absolutely specular. And while the race may lack some star power, the food, sights, and riding down there far exceeds the lineup.
Spencer: Definitely Tour Down Under because of all the cute koala bears and kangaroos you get to hold and pet at the start village.
Andrew: Algarve, hands down. The southern coast of Portugal is sublime, especially in late winter when the sun is starting to poke out. Once you turn inland away from some of the busier coastal towns, the region is ideal for cycling. The Algarve is laced with small, low-traffic roads that loop over low-slung hills around vineyards, orchards, and small villages. While it’s still a tad cold to swim in the gorgeous beaches, the entire Algarve region serves up a beautiful backdrop for a race. And the best part? There’s almost no one there in February.