Tour de France Diary: What Happened to the Team Ineos (Sky)Train on Stage 6?

Geraint Thomas removed any lingering doubts about his form when he threw down an incredibly impressive performance by distancing every major rival on the brutally steep La Planche des Belles Filles. Some had questioned how the lackluster form Thomas’ displayed so far in 2019, an assurgent young teammate, and the lack of preparation racing would affect his chances, but the Welshman answered those questions in a few short minutes on Thursday and appears to be the favorite to take the overall for the second year running.

While Thomas might be back on the form that saw him dominate the 2018 edition, his Ineos’ team trademark train was notably absent on the final climb. Wout Poels was dropped on the day’s penultimate climb and Ineos was down to one helper shortly after starting the final climb.

It is possible this is an incredibly measured strategy to save energy for the brutal third week. However, when we consider the team’s lackluster performance in the team time trial, where they lost a whopping 20-seconds to Jumbo-Visma, the fact that they are simply not as strong as years past is a very real possibility.

With a full 4km left on the final climb on stage 6, viewers were treated to the highly unusual sight of Ineos not leading the peloton up a climb at the Tour de France. When Alejandro Valverde went to the front to drive the pace for his Movistar teammates, we knew something was seriously amiss.

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A little over a kilometer later, Ineos was on the front, but the pace had lagged to the point that attacks were able to come over the top and immediately get distance off the front. We can even see Michal Kwiatkowski, leading the peloton, radioing back to the team car in a sign of mild panic and confusion.Screenshot 2019-07-11 at 4.20.50 PM

Less than a kilometer later, Kwiatkowski was dropped while the team’s two leaders, Thomas and Egan Bernal, were left to fend for themselves on the wheels of Groupama–FDJ (just let that sink in for a minute).

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Thomas ultimately nullified any potential issues the lack of team strength presented with his individual strength, but it is certainly something to keep an eye on as the race advances. Ineos has kept the race on an extremely tight leash in Tour’s past, and if they aren’t able to do the same this year, Thomas could be forced to deal with attacks and isolation in a way he wasn’t during his winning ride in 2018.

Other Notes:

  • Richie Porte finished with Egan Bernal, Adam Yates and Jakob Fuglsang 9-seconds behind Thomas on stage 6. While his Trek Team’s dismal performance in the stage 2 TTT put him in a serious hole, the Tasmanian is flying under the radar and appears to be riding as well as he has all season.
  • Nairo Quintana limited his loses to 7-seconds on a stage 6 finish that certainly didn’t suit him.  This is likely one of his best chances to win the race overall and he looks to have sorted out the form issues that have plagued him for the past few seasons. Keep an eye on the slight Colombian when the race hits the high mountains.
  • If Thomas won the battle for the general classification on stage 6, Thibaut Pinot came in a close second. The French rider appears to be as relaxed and on form as we’ve ever seen him.
  • Current race leader Giulio Ciccone has a substantial gap on the serious climbers and time trialists. The young Italian is certainly a talented climber and it will be interesting to see how long he can hold Yellow. I have a feeling it will be for much longer than the conventional wisdom is giving him.
  • Thursday’s stage 6 saw the likely end of GC riders for Romain Bardet and Vincenzo Nibali. This is great news for fans as the two riders will look to animate the race in the third week as they hunt for spectacular stage wins.

Geraint Thomas Should Be Worried About Egan Bernal

Geraint Thomas is heading into the 2019 Tour de France as the defending champion and odds-on favorite to win the race. Chris Froome, Thomas’ Ineos teammate and biggest challenger for victory, will miss the race due to severe injuries sustained at a crash during the Critérium du Dauphiné. With his biggest competition missing the race and the world’s strongest team at his disposal, Thomas should be feeling comfortable and confident in a repeat victory and the fans should be preparing for yet another mind-numbing processions.

Fortunately for us, this couldn’t be further from the truth. The path to victory in the 2019 Tour cracking wide open and the race is shaping up to be the most wide-open edition in years. However, the one constant is that Thomas’ biggest challenge is still coming from inside his own team, only now it’s via the young Colombian sensation Egan Bernal.

Thomas crashed out of the Tour de Suisse on the fourth stage, which further complicated the Ineos team hierarchy following Froome’s accident. Things got even more interesting when Bernal went on to win Suisse in dominant fashion. The youngster never appeared under pressure, put time into Rohan Dennis in the mountains and held off the World Time Trial Champion in the race’s lone effort against the clock.

While Thomas will reportedly recover fast enough to start the Tour, his form has yet to click this year and his legs will certainly miss the quality racing the remaining days of Suisse will provide. He is stuck in reverse while the competition is speeding off the start line.

For reference, the last rider to win the Tour de France (defined as crossing the line as the winner in Paris) without finishing either the Dauphine or Tour de Suisse was Marco Pantani in 1998. Of course, Pantani completed the historic double that season and was coming off a Giro d’Italia win. The last rider to win the Tour de France without previously completing the Dauphine, Suisse, or the Giro d’Italia was Miguel Indurain in 1991. It is worth noting that Indurian had already completed the Vuelta a Espana, which in those years took place in early Spring. This means Thomas is heading into the Tour with fewer quality race days in his legs than any past winner in the modern era.

Bernal has potentially been overhyped as the ‘next big thing’ by the cycling media, but his display of combined climbing/TT strength at Suisse should send fear through the competition. Thomas could very well see his bid for a back-to-back thwarted by a teammate, but being outranked by an unproven rider in his early 20s will sting a lot more than by a veteran champion like Froome.

It is important to remember there is a danger of being too sharp, too early, heading into a Grand Tour (see: Primoz Roglic/Giro 2019), but Bernal has looked like the world’s best climber without hitting his best form. Going into a Tour that will be won nearly exclusively on the climbs and team time trial, he has to feel incredibly confident about his chances. Bernal never appeared under pressure during his winning ride at Suisse and was able to ride away from the competition whenever he needed to while looking like he had a few gears in reserve. Most importantly, he limited his losses in the stage 8 time trial to a second per kilometer to Dennis.

Thomas is putting on a brave face but he would be an extreme historical outliner if he went on to win the Tour de France after DNF-ing Suisse. Not to mention the time missed training this week as he recovers from his fall and the difficulty of coming back from direct impacts to the head (according to team doctors, Thomas’ head took the brunt of the crash).

Prior to his crash at the Dauphine, betting markets and Ineos boss Dave Brailsford considered Froome the favorites for a fifth career Tour win in July, so his absence was supposed to be the perfect scenario for the defending champion. With Froome on the sidelines, Thomas was losing a rival and gaining and domestique. Now, with his diminished capacity due to the untimely rest period, the door has been left wide-open for Bernal.

Bernal was originally slated to lead Ineos at the Giro, but an unfortunate (a little too unfortunate if you ask me) collarbone fracture meant he had to shift priorities to the Tour. This set up a massively interesting three-leader scenario for Ineos that promised inter-team tensions that would slowly simmer throughout the three weeks. However, Ineos’ three-leader selection looks like incredible foresight now that they’ve had their four-time winner crash out, their defending champion suffer a devastating setback, and still come out the other side with a viable threat for overall victory in Bernal.

This displays seriously impressive team depth but means there is very little room for error for even the most accomplished riders. Twelve months after taking the win of his career, Thomas finds himself in an eerily similar position; heading to the Tour warding a threat from within his own team.

 

Giro Diary: The Mysterious Case of Simon Yates’ Form and Post-Stage Trainer Workouts

Simon Yates hinted in an interview with The Cycling Podcast following a disastrous performance in the Stage 9 time trial that his lack of form could be due to detraining following his pre-race taper combined with the incredibly easy racing in the first half of the race. Since Yates declared himself the outright favorite and claimed his rivals should be shitting themselves with fear in the days leading into the race, one presumes that he possessed incredible form. Just over a week later, we were all left asking where that form had gone.

It is hard to imagine that a week of ‘easy’ riding (remember, they are riding close to full gas for the last 20-30 minutes to hold their position for the finish) contributed to a significant lack of form, especially since every rider in the race is subject to the same circumstance.

But with the 14 days between the start of the race and the first mountain stage, it begs the questions of it was a better idea to come into the Giro fatigued from training vs tapered and rested. Yates seemed to hint that his taper plus the easy days detrained him and was a mistake.

Lionel Birnie of The Cycling Podcast proposed (half-jokingly and knowing how crazy the idea sounded) potentially going back to the team hotel for an hour-long workout after the stage. Somewhat shockingly, when Birnie floated this idea to Sunweb coach Matt Winston, it wasn’t immediately shot down and Winston seemed to genuinely consider it a viable idea.

However, this approach seems incredibly misguided, as the name of the game in a grand tour is minimizing the total work you do over three weeks. In theory, you would never want to add riding time to three consecutive 30-hour weeks. However, in today’s cycling, where teams are chasing any ‘marginal gain’ (whether they actually help or not) it isn’t particularly difficult to imagine this actually happening.

Just because it could happen doesn’t mean it is a particularly good idea. A major issue is that despite what the roadbook says, it is impossible to predict the events or difficulty of a stage before it happens. There is the possibility of doing a hard workout on the trainer following an ‘easy’ stage, and then an unforeseen incident like a flat, crash, or crosswind echelon occur the following day and the rider’s legs are tired from the workout and make them unable to ride at the necessary intensity and see them lose significant time.

Furthermore, we have heard ad nauseum that Simon Yates spectacular collapse at the end of last year’s Giro was due to doing too much work in the early stages of the race. Thus, it seems somewhat insane to purposely replicate that same scenario. At the end of the day, the goal of a rider in a Grand Tour should be to do the least amount of work as possible whenever possible. The amount of work they will need to perform in the future will only be known when said future arrives, and how their body will react is equally unknown, so it is imperative to save as much energy as possible for the unknown future expenditures.

If a rider was really concerned about losing conditioning during a grand tour, they could strategically put their nose in the wind in the final 40km, or god, forbid, actually try to split the field and take time.

This begs the question of if we are thinking about this the wrong way. The overanalysis of this problem has smart people considering having a rider do extra training outside of the race, instead of riding harder in the race in an attempt to gain time on one’s opponents to, you know, actually win the race.

Since Yates blamed the easy first week as well as his taper prior to the race for his lackluster form at the Stage 9 TT. A potential bulwark against fitness atrophy would be to enter the race with red-hot form, or even slightly overextended, and then use the easy first week to allow your body to ‘rest’ before it enters the mountains. The race course has been public for a while and these neverending days of laid back riding should not be a surprise to Yates and his Mitchelton team.

I’ve been slightly concerned if Roglic can hold the incredible form he displayed in weeks prior, but in retrospect, I wonder if this was actually a calculated strategy to take time in the early tests and use the docile first half to let his body recover. By next week, we will know if Roglic was savy to come into the race so fit or if he has completely overshot the target.

The fact remains that nothing is guaranteed in a Grand Tour and the race profile isn’t necessarily indicative of the importance or difficulty of a stage. Treating a multi-dimensional and incredibly dynamic stage race like a static training lab is the height of cycling hubris and would likely result in unintended consequences and public embarrassment.

Still, don’t be surprised when we hear the hum of trainers coming from the riders’ hotel rooms following stages at the next Grand Tour.

 

Week 1 Giro d’Italia Diary: Roglic Looks like a Blast From the Past in a Throwback First Week

Stage 9:

Nine Stages into the Giro d’Italia, Primoz Roglic is riding a la Indurain* and an eventual victory in two weeks is looking more and more likely by the day. The Slovenian pummeled his GC competition in the stage 9 time trial. Simon Yates entered the stage looking to keep his losses to Roglic under a minute but instead hemorrhaged 3:11 over the 34.8km course. Most disturbingly for Yates, most of his losses came on the climb, his preferred terrain and where he was counting on putting serious time into Roglic in the third week. Roglic is the fastest rider on the flats, climbs and time trials, which my model tells me is critical when trying to win a bike race.

After Yates’ TT meltdown, Vincenzo Nibali looks like the only rider able to challenge Roglic since he was able to limit his losses to 1:05 in the TT, keeping his deficit at 1:44, and possess valuable experience and third-week killer instinct.

However, it feels odd to be declaring anything since the race has yet to enter the mountains. Race organizer Mauro Vegni chose to throw us back into the 90s by making us wade through ten sprint stages and two time trials before hitting any mildly interesting terrain.

Despite the lack of inclines, we’ve seen Roglic put serious time into his rivals at every opportunity and have seen a major pre-race favorite, Dumoulin, leave the race, and another, Yates, face significant time losses.

While anything can happen at the Giro, and some may point to Froome overcoming a 3:22 deficit on stage 19 as proof that this race isn’t over, this type of comeback likely won’t be possible unless Roglic suffers a tragic crash. Nibali was only able to come back from 4:33 down in the final week of the 2016 Giro due to a Kruijswijk crash and Froome relied on a massive tactical error in 2018 (Dumoulin sitting up to wait for Sebastian Reichenbach, which allowed the lead balloon from 40-seconds to a few minutes). Dumoulin’s grip on the 2017 Giro only loosened slightly when he had to pull over for an emergency poo at the base of one of the most critical climbs in the race.

Roglic appears to have a champions’ ‘cool-under-pressure demeanor’ and likely won’t be frazzled in the final week. Having said that, he doesn’t have a particularly strong or experienced team, and he entered the race with red-hot form. 14 days will have passed between the opening stage and the first major mountain stage, and all that riding through the rain and cold could send Roglic sliding down the other side of the fitness pyramid.

*Yes, Roglic doesn’t actually hold the leader’s jersey at the moment, but we all know that Valerio Conti is nothing but a puppet regime installed by Roglic and his Jumbo junta.

Other notes from the first week:

Stage 7:

Pello Bilbao gets in the breakaway, wins the stage and takes over a minute on the other GC favorites. He is now sitting best of the rest, 1:42 behind Roglic. The Basque climber is a bit of a Grand Tour enigma, but he could find himself leading the race if Roglic puts a foot wrong.

Why did Mitchelton send Lucas Hamilton in the breakaway on stage 7? Seems like a waste of precious energy that could be used when the race enters the high mountains

This runs contrary to the team’s tactics last year, where they used the entire team to peg back every breakaway, and certainly burns less aggregate energy, but is still burning up a valuable domestique. If Yates was truly confident, they would run the Sky model of no stage-wins. Knowing what we know now about his lackluster form or possible illness, was this a sign that he didn’t feel 100% confident and a young rider was let off the leash in an attempt to get something out of the race? Or is he so confident that his hubris is once again making him burn team energy unnecessarily?

This decision looked even worse after Hamilton failed to win the stage. That is a LOT of energy for a valuable domestique to burn.

UAE Team Emirates’ Incredibly Strange Week:

Stage 3: Fernando Gaviria is beaten by Elia Viviani in the sprint. Viviani is later suspended and Gaviria is given the stage win.
Stage 4: Had a rider leave the race due to suspicious blood values (found via internal testing)
Stage 6: Valerio Conti gets in the breakaway, is beaten at the finish line, gets second place and takes the leader’s jersey.
Stage 7: Gaviria abandons the race

Get a ‘stage win,’ hold leader’s jersey, but also fail to have a rider cross the line in first place and have a rider leave the race under suspicion of doping. Talk about the ultimate mixed bag.

Stage 1-9:

These long, throwback spring stages, while boring, are certainly taking their toll on the riders. Combine this with the cold and rainy weather, and they will hit the mountains with a significant amount of fatigue. Expect to see to a few days of big time losses from a few major favorites late in this race.

The Upcoming Tour de France Gets More Interesting by the Day

Back in January, I wrote that the Giro d’Italia had the potential to outshine the Tour de France in 2019. With a large field of exciting young talent and the (in)famously chaotic and unpredictable Italian terrain, the Giro seemed poised to topple the Tour, which has become a bit of a snoozefest in recent years.

When that original piece was written, the 2018 Tour de France runner-up Tom Dumoulin and 21-year old Egan Bernal were both targeting the Giro d’Italia. However, Dumoulin was forced to leave the Giro following a crash on stage 4. While this seriously dampened the fight for the general classification in Italy,  it adds fuel to the Tour’s GC fire.

Meanwhile, Egan Bernal ‘broke’ his collarbone a week before the start of the Giro. This means he will likely line up as a legitimate leader of Team INEOS’, who are already struggling to balance the ambitious of last year’s winner Geraint Thomas and 4-time winner Chris Froome.

There were mummers that the Colombian sensation would be lining up at the Tour all the way back in March. I believe this was the INEOS team brass sending up a trial balloon as they looked for an insurance policy as their aging superstar duo struggled through their worst spring campaigns in years.

Since Bernal is already back on the bike and setting PRs on training climbs less than two weeks after breaking his collarbone, it is safe to assume he is going to line up at the Tour de France (which features a route perfect for Bernal with a high-altitude, numerous climbs and a mere 27km of TTs).

I personally subscribe to the fringe conspiracy theory that Bernal and INEOS faked the collarbone break as cover to duck the Giro and get their best climber at the Tour without seriously damaging Thomas’ and Froome’s egos (who have both been quietly struggling to find form in recent months). Bernal’s incredibly quick recovery could potentially support this crackpot idea (release the x-rays!).

All of this combines to give us a fantastically dramatic backdrop for this summer’s Tour. Having three legitimate contenders on one team will be thrilling to watch and could potentially dull the team’s unmatchable strength. The INEOS riders give all the right answers through gritted smiles, but the tension will simmer under the surface and they will have to make due will fewer domestiques and team organization in critical moments (see: Froome’s lack of a full team while chasing after his crash on stage 1 of the 2018 Tour).

The addition of fresh (and hopefully healthy) Dumoulin, the best GC rider under the age of 30, makes this even more interesting. Dumoulin’s focus on the Giro was always a strange fit since he won the race back in 2017 and seems poised to take the title of the best grand tour rider on the planet from Froome. His preparation for the Giro seemed off and it felt like he was hedging to leave something for the Tour, while Primoz Roglic came in red, red, hot, and looks impossible to beat at the moment. The only way he can advance his career and raise his profile is a Tour de France title, so as sad as it is to see him drop off of the Giro, this short-term loss could pay major dividends in July.

Flanders is a Waiting Game and Bettiol Played it Perfectly

The Ronde van Vlaanderen, or the Tour of Flanders, arguably the most prestigious and dynamic one-day race on the calendar was won by Alberto Bettiol, a complete outsider and unknown prior to Sunday. The 25-year-old Italian shocked the cycling world when he held off a chasing group comprising the best one-day riders in the world to take the first win of his professional career. While the favorites and pundits were shocked such an outsider rode way away with such a major win, those watching the race unfold in the finale 150km shouldn’t have been. Flanders is all about hiding from the wind and saving your bullets for the final 20km. Bettiol did exactly that and was rewarded with the biggest victory of his professional career.

The two most-hyped young riders coming into the race were Wout Van Aert and Mathieu Van der Poel, former and current Cyclocross World Champions who have experienced immediate success on the road. While they are both incredibly talented and undeniably some of the strongest rides in the race, their inexperience in long Classics was apparent on Sunday.

Flanders rewards those who wait,  but both Van der Poel and Van Aert were on the front eating wind while launching unsuccessful attacks much too far from the finish line.

As the screenshot below shows, Van der Poel and Van Aert were on the front attacking to split the field with 79kms left to race while their rivals sit in the wheels getting a free ride.

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Even a cursory re-watch of the race shows both Van der Poel and Van Aert using significantly more energy than eventual winner Bettiol at almost every point. In the screenshot below, Van der Poel is attempting to bridge up to a group of non-threating riders at a point where he should be recovering for the Oude Kawaremont.

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This trend of the two young guns using unnecessary energy continued throughout the day, with both Van der Poel and Van Aert attempting to ride away from the group with 28km to go while Bettiol deftly stayed in the wheels.

 

When Tim Wellens attacked a kilometer later, Bettiol was able to easily cover the move, while Van der Poel struggled to close the gap. Notice how a free-wheeling Bettiol is sitting right behind Van Aert while Van der Poel is spending precious energy behind.

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When Bob Jungels countered Wellens move, Bettiol is able to easily latch on, while Van der Poel and Van Aert are forced to chase (note Van Aert on the front pulling what remained of the peloton in the background).Screenshot 2019-04-08 at 1.28.18 PM

When Sepp Vanmarcke, who was strategically placed up the road earlier in the day, drops back, Bettiol has a teammate and a gap going into key sections.

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Up until this point, it is nearly impossible to find an image of Bettiol on the front. The Italian leveraged his team’s perfect strategy to get a free ride to the base of the Oude Kwaremont, where he launched his vicious race-winning move.

In fact, the first time he touches the front is when he goes around Van Avearmat during his race-winning attack 9-kilometers later.

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Bettiol was so fresh compared to the others that no one could even come close to matching his pace. You have to wonder if Van Aert and Van der Poel had ridden a smarter race if one or both of them would have been able to jump on the wheel. Instead, their precious energy had been burned in the many kilometers prior and all they could do is watch as the win goes up the road (also, Van der Poel’s crash with 60km to go and subsequent incredibly impressive chase likely sapped what was left of his race-winning mojo. On the other hand, the massive effort to chase back on meant he should have been even more conservative heading into the Oude Kwaremont).

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Bettiol would pull out 10-seconds by the top of the Oude Kwaremont, and take 10 more on the 3 kilometers to the base of the Paterberg. The bunch would take 3 seconds back on the steep climb but would fail to take any more time and ultimately finish 17-seconds in arrears.

The young Italian wasn’t a household name before Sunday, but he displayed a champion’s patience all day and capitalized on other’s over-eagerness and hesitation to take a beautiful solo win.

Other Race Notes:
Previously unknown 24-year old Dane Kasper Asgreen rode to an impressive second place after clipping off the front with a little over 50-kilometers to go. This invasion of the young guns could signal a major demographic shift amongst top favorites for these top-tier classics.

Alexander Kristoff looked incredibly strong up the steep bergs and invincible in the bunch sprint for third place. Watch for the big Norweigan to take the win at next weekend’s Paris-Roubaix.

Many are expressing disappointment with Deceuninck-Quick Step tactics and results, but they were successful and springing an unknown rider to second place after finding themselves in an incredibly difficult position with Bettiol up the road and Kristoff lurking in the chase group. Their star riders (Stybar, Gilbert, Jungels, Lampert) simply weren’t strong enough, but that is understandable after Stybar and Jungel’s incredible form in February/March, Gilbert being over-the-hill and Lampert looking off his best all season.

Alexander Kristoff Is Underrated Because He Doesn’t Fit an Archetype

This past weekend saw Alexander Kristoff break a long winning drought by taking victory at a brutal edition of Gent-Wevelgem. The win was a much-needed return to the top step of the podium in the spring classics for one of the most underrated riders in the peloton, who, with his recent show of form, should be considered a favorite for this Sunday’s Tour of Flanders, and next Sunday’s Paris Roubaix. Since Gent-Wevelgem moved to its current schedule slot in 2011, three riders have won both Gent and Paris-Roubaix (Sagan-2018, Avermaet-2017, Boonen-2012) and one rider has won Gent before winning Flanders the following weekend (Boonen-2012).

Despite the fact that Gent-Wevelgem has produced the Paris-Roubaix winner three out of the past seven years, Kristoff will likely struggle to match the pre-race of riders like Peter Sagan, Greg Van Avermaet and John Degenkolb. He is rarely mentioned as a true star, but he currently holds as many monument titles as Peter Sagan and Team Sky, while having more than a superstar like Van Avermaet.

The big Norweigan raised eyebrows in 2013 when he finished in the top 10 at three separate monuments (Tour of Flanders, Milan San Remo, and Paris Roubaix). The following season, he won Milan San Remo, along with two Tour de France stages, and then added a second monument victory in 2015 with a win at the Tour of Flanders. While he hasn’t been able to capture quite the same success in the years since, he won the European Road Race Championships in 2017 and was a tire width away from being World Champion later that year.

While having a proven track record as a monument winner, Kristoff is consistently written off as washed up despite being two years younger than Van Avermaet, who the media seems to count as a favorite for what seems like every race he starts. Van Avermaet is showered with adoring coverage even as he struggles to convert victories at the biggest races.

Kristoff’s struggle to stay relevant in the past few seasons (even while he racked up an impressive 25 wins from 2016 to 2018) likely stems from the fact that he was somewhat unfairly labeled a “sprinter” following his first two Tour de France stages wins in 2014, along with the unfortunate narrative that is he is overweight.

With an ability to hit peaks of over 1500 watts at the end of races, Kristoff can wind up to the speeds necessary to win in the most competitive bunch finishes, but he lacks the fast-twitch abilities of pure sprinters. This means he isn’t able to consistently nab first week Grand Tour stages wins. But what he lacks in quickness he makes up for in raw, overwhelming power and an ability to crank out watts for hours on end while still producing a race-winning sprint. We shouldn’t consider top 10s in an easy-stage bunch sprints a disappointment, we should be impressed that such a diesel power is able to mix it up with the quickest riders on the planet.

For example, according to Velon, Kristoff averaged a stunning 345 watts for the entire 5.5 hours of Gent-Wevelgem, and still managed to hit 1432 watts to win the reduced bunch sprint.D3AFDPPXgAAxVqL

Producing this amount of power for over five hours is incredibly impressive, and should make him one of the top favorites for both Flanders and Roubaix.

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It would be a mistake to assume Kristoff is simply a pair of strong legs that smashes his way to wins. His victory on Sunday at Gent was more than just the product of superior power. Kristoff made a canny solo move off the front 8 kilometers before the final passage of the Kemmelberg climb. While this move caused him to burn more energy, it allowed him to ride the final climb at his own pace and get over the top with the lead group. This meant that he was able to sit on and recover for a few kilometers while the other sprinters like Viviani and Degenkolb were forced to chase furiously to catch back on.

While he possesses world-class power and tactical nous, Kristoff may not be considered a world-class classics contender due to the fact that his natural body shape can make him appear out of shape. Cycling has an obsession with rider weight, even to the point of being detrimental to performance. Hugh Carthy on EF often shows up to races looking unhealthily skinny and has struggled mightily with results in the past few seasons. However, his weight is rarely, if ever, publically mentioned as a determining factor in this lack of performance. To many in professional cycling, the math is simple, skinny equals fast. Therefore, a rider can never be criticized for shedding a few too many pounds.

If skinny equals fast, then fat (or slightly bigger) must equal slow. Even if the objective of cycling is to cross the finish before your competitors, this reality will often become decoupled from rider weight. Kristoff has delivered big wins while being called fat by his own team, but few stop to consider the possibility that he is winning because of his bigger physique. The Cobbled Spring Classics, Kristoff’s best races, do not feature any long, sustained climbs, where a lighter rider can gain an advantage, and power-to-weight ratio matters little when hammering over the cobbled flat roads and short, explosive climbs of Northern Europe. If Kristoff worked to dropped weight like his former Katusha team suggested, it is likely he would lose his ability to produce 345 watts for over five hours.

Despite the stigma surrounding bigger, stronger physiques, Kristoff should line up at whatever weight he feels allows him to ride the fastest, and in turn, gives him the greatest chance of victory.

With the big fan looking back on form, the rest of the peloton should consider themselves warned and avoid taking him to the finish at all costs.