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Early season opportunities: Wins for the little guys

Early season races provide opportunities for unheralded riders like Damien Howson or Manuel Senni to add to their palmares and stay hungry.

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The big names usually get the wins. That’s how pro cycling works, and that’s why they get paid the big bucks. A team goes all-in for its proven winners. If it’s not Mark Cavendish or Marcel Kittel taking the sprints, there’s a John Degenkolb or Peter Sagan ready to step in. And in the stage races, if it’s not Chris Froome’s and Nairo Quintana’s turn for glory, there’s Alberto Contador or Vincenzo Nibali.

But despite some 400+ racing days across the elite men’s road racing calendar, it’s still fairly rare for one of the “little guys” to take the flowers. On occasion, especially in early season races, teams will let their workers have a chance to shine. That happened twice this week across the peloton.

In stage 1 at the Herald Sun Tour, Orica – Scott’s loyal worker bee Damien Howson took his first pro road stage win of his career. Orica opened up its offenses on a late-stage climb, letting Howson have his run for glory ahead of designated team captain Esteban Chaves. The move paid off, and the Aussie fended off new Sky arrival Kenny Elissonde to grab the win.

“I’ve been living my successes through others, which I am always happy to do, but it’s nice to get a little bit of glory today,” said the 24-year-old. “This is my first win in these colors, and it’s been a long spell without a win.”

Halfway across the globe at the opening stage of the Volta a Valenciana, it was no surprise to see BMC Racing power to victory in an unusually long team time trial of 38km on a hilly course around Orihuela. BMC prides itself on team time trials, and the riders in red drilled it to take a 21-second win over defending champion Wout Poels and Sky. Other teams bled time, including Thibaut Pinot’s FDJ, at 1:30 slower, or Ilnur Zakarin’s Katusha squad, at 1:52.

It was refreshing to see BMC open the door for its budding Italian star Manuel Senni to cross the line first to take the leader’s jersey. While not a victory, it’s a chance for the 24-year-old to enjoy the spotlight for at least a day. Senni was a last-minute replacement for the ill Manuel Quinziato, so the payback was even sweeter.

“I came into this race late, so I was just trying my hardest to stay with them for as long as possible,” Senni said. “In the end, I still had good legs and was able to go all the way. On the run into the finish, I was sitting at the front, so before I knew it, I had crossed the line first. There wasn’t any plan for that to happen, but I am super happy about it.”

Teams will often use early season races as an opportunity for its second-tier riders to have a chance to go for their own results. Once the season’s main goals arrive, be they one-day classics or stage races, everyone slots into their traditional roles.

“It’s important for riders to keep racing to win, and we have to give them their chances,” said BMC Racing’s Jim Ochowicz in an earlier interview. “You see riders win at the U23 level, but often they get put into a helper’s role on a big team at the WorldTour. We try to give them chances along the year so they do not forgot what it’s like to win.”

So far this season, we’ve already seen a mix of established names taking early wins, such as Bauke Mollema (Trek – Segafredo) at the Tour de San Juan and Richie Porte (BMC Racing) at the Santos Tour Down Under, but some others have taken full advantage of an opening. Danny Van Poppel (Sky) took a morale-boosting win at the Herald Sun Tour prologue, and Nikias Arndt (Sunweb) snagged a big victory at the Cadel Evans Great Ocean Race.

Riders are smart to press the advantage when they get a chance. Teams want to see riders be aggressive, and results only mean that more chances will open up in the future. Or, in the case of Thomas De Gendt, make opportunities when there might not be any. The veteran Belgian attacked with gusto at the Tour Down Under in three stages, and came away with the king of the mountains prize. It might not seem like much, but for a rider who earns his stripes in breakaways, it’s a symbol of something bigger.

“You have to race hard every chance you get. Because usually, I am working for André [Greipel] or our GC leaders,” De Gendt said. “It’s important to gain results across the season, because if all you do is work for the others, you can lose the sensation of riding to win.”

Last spring, some early season “plan B” winners included Poels (Valenciana) and Gianluca Brambilla (Mallorca Challenge), two riders who later enjoyed breakout seasons. As a result, both will see even more opportunities in 2017.

With the first major European stage races still a month away, many team’s Plan B riders are waiting in the wings to show what they’ve got. After Valenciana, the peloton stays busy at the Volta ao Algarve and the Ruta del Sol in Spain, and Haut Var and La Provence in France.