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If you felt starved of road racing this winter, this coming week will make for a veritable feast.
The men’s peloton will be busy with stage races in Saudi Arabia, Spain and France, while women’s racing kick-starts at the one-day Vuelta CV Feminas.
A stack of top stars, including Richard Carapaz, Thibaut Pinot, Fabio Jakobsen, Caleb Ewan and Vincenzo Nibali, are expected to be in action across three men’s stage races. Meanwhile, the one-day Vuelta CV Feminas will see new WorldTour teams making debuts in a preview of what will be a bigger and bolder women’s season.
Here’s what you need to know ahead of racing this week:
Saudi Tour: February 1-5
Riders to watch: Sam Bennett (Bora Hansgrohe), Caleb Ewan (Lotto-Soudal), Dylan Groenewegen (BikeExchange-Jayco), Fernando Gaviria (UAE Emirates)
The route: Five hot and sandy days in the northern Al-Ula region will bring four sprint opportunities and a stage 4 summit finish that will have the peloton clicking into the small ring for some fearsome 22 percent grades.
What to watch: Want sprinters? The Saudi Tour has got sprinters.
The sprint showdown between Sam Bennett, Caleb Ewan and Dylan Groenewegen makes for the Superbowl of turn-of-the-decade fastmen, and they’ve all got points to prove.
Bennett is back with Bora-Hansgrohe after falling from favor at Quick-Step, Ewan needs to find his legs ahead of his Milano-Sanremo mission, and Groenewegen has switched to BikeExchange-Jayco in pursuit of a return to the top of the Tour de France.
- Groenewegen ‘back to the old Dylan’ ahead of 2022 Tour de France return
- Ewan tipped over Gibert for MSR finish
“For a sprinter, it’s really important that you have confidence and motivation. Last season it was really hard,” Groenewegen recently told VeloNews. “Now with a new team, the motivation is really high to take the victories. Thinking how I train now, I’m really the old Dylan from before the last two years.”
Bennett, Ewan and Groenewegen were cast into the shade by Fabio Jakobsen and Mark Cavendish in 2021.
Team shuffles and a realignment of priorities could see the trio swinging with Quick-Step in a spectacular season of sprinting in 2022, and the Saudi Tour will give a preview.
Volta a la Comunitat Valenciana: February 2-6
Riders to watch: Fabio Jakobsen and Remco Evenepoel (Quick-Step Alpha Vinyl), Tao Geoghegan Hart and Elia Viviani (Ineos Grenadiers), Jakob Fuglsang and Giacomo Nizzolo (Israel Premier Tech), Wilco Kelderman and Aleksandr Vlasov (Bora-Hansgrohe), Vincenzo Nibali (Astana-Qazaqstan), Alexander Kristoff (Intermarché Wanty), Joey Rosskopf and Co. of Human Powered Health.
The route: Like most early season races, expect a stack of sprinter-friendly finishes. But in a rare diversion from the burly world of the bunch sprint, the climbers will be able to test their winter training in a tough mountaintop test to the 1080m Antenas del Maigmó on stage 3.
What to watch: If you’re not getting enough sprint excitement at the Saudi Tour, tune in to Valenciana to see the rest of the peloton’s fast-finishers in action.
Veteran sprinters Elia Viviani, Giacomo Nizzolo and Alexander Kristoff will be going up against star of 2021, Fabio Jakobsen.
The young Dutchman will have the luxury of Quick-Step’s all-slaying leadout train, while Viviani and Co. will still be finding a groove with their support units. But could experience pay off for the elder statesmen of the sprint scene?
“Looking at the team for Valencia, we can definitely get some chances, especially with Fabio [Jakobsen], as some of the stages should end in a bunch sprint,” said Quick-Step sport director Tom Steels. “But also with Remco [Evenepoel], Mikkel [Honoré] and Mattia [Cattaneo] we can do something nice. The route is a demanding one, with two hard uphill finishes; one of these has a few kilometers of gravel roads, which will make things even more difficult.”
Also: In a throwback to the middle of last decade, Nibali is back in an Astana jersey. Whodathoughtit.
Etoile de Bessèges: February 2-6
Riders to watch: Richard Carapaz and Filippo Ganna (Ineos Grenadiers), Thibaut Pinot (Groupama FDJ), Magnus Cort and Alberto Bettiol (EF Education-EasyPost), Pascal Ackermann and Diego Ulissi (UAE Emirates), Mads Pedersen and Bauke Mollema (Trek-Segafredo).
The route: The five-stage race in France’s Gard department brings two sprint stages, a pair of hilltop finishes and a short final time trial in a route offering a little of something for everyone.
What to watch: Will we see Thibaut Pinot V.2.0 in 2022?
Pinot is looking to put some tough times behind him and has the Tour de France in his sights this season. The Groupama-FDJ captain has been tipped for the Tour in 2022 after the back injury that torpedoed him in 2020 saw him miss out on all three grand tours last year.
Also read: Pinot tipped for Tour return
The long-suffering hope of French cycling says he’s in great shape and he’s hoping to start the year the right way. Sunday’s GP La Marseillaise saw the Groupama-FDJ captain active and agressive in what could be an entrée for bigger things in Bessèges.
“We decided to bring forward my start to the season at the Grand Prix La Marseillaise because I feel pretty good, my last two training camps did me a lot of good and I felt an improvement on the last training camp in Tenerife,” Pinot said last week.
“The field is very tough [for Bessèges], it’s a good thing for a historic French race like this. There is a TT and hilltop finishes, this and Marseillaise will really launch my start to the season. There is a way to have fun if the sensations are there, in any case, I’m delighted to be back in France.”
A false dawn or the start of a French renaissance?
Vuelta CV Feminas: February 6
Riders to watch: Sorry to say it, but there’s not much in the way of information available for Sunday’s race right now.
What is known however is that top-tier teams Movistar, UAE-ADQ and Uno-X will all be there, as will some leading conti squads including Valcar, Ceratizit-WNT and NXTG.
The route: This one-day race is short but sweet at 92km. The route loops out of the Paterna suburb before darting into the center of the city of Valencia for a sprint finish.
What to watch: Sunday’s race will be all about checking out what new player Uno-X and the new-look UAE-ADQ are all about ahead of a year that sees the Women’s WorldTour swell to 14 squads.
The Scandi-based Uno-X has pulled together a strong roster for its first year in the peloton and is diving directly into the WorldTour with big ambition.
Uno-X has a totally new line-up and there will be wrinkles that need ironing out – Sunday’s Spanish race could show how big or small those creases are.
Meanwhile, UAE-ADQ rolls into its new chapter this week.
UAE Emirates men’s team and sovereign wealth fund ADQ took control of Alé-BTC Ljubljana to bring the new-look team to life this winter and shook up the rider roster and staffing setup.
Can the women’s team hit the same highs as Tadej Pogačar’s men’s crew?