Tour de France Rest Day Ramble: Who is Trending Up & Team Ineos’ Leadership Battle

As the Tour de France heads into the final week, the race is as wide open as we’ve seen in recent memory. Six riders are clustered within 2:14 of the lead, which is astonishing in a race where the winner has been all but decided by the second rest day.

Endless questions hang over the third week, like what the hell happened to Team Ineos(Sky), who is the leader at Ineos, and most importantly, who will emerge as the race winner by this time next week?

While Julien Alaphilippe currently holds a hardy 1:35 lead over Geraint Thomas, he isn’t a proven elite climber over the highest Alpine passes. With world-class climbers like Egan Bernal and Thibaut Pinot and powerful diesel-engines like Geraint Thomas and Steven Kruijswijk all within 2 minutes, his lead appears tenuous with three brutal days in the alps, featuring horrid climbs like the Izoard and Galibier, still to go.

To help visual the direction each contender is trending, I laid out the gap each one had to Alaphilippe following the first true mountain stage on Saturday’s along with the gaps facing them after Sunday’s Stage 15, along with the pros and cons for each rider’s chance at overall victory.

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Egan Bernal

  • Following Stage 14:
    3 minutes down on Julien Alaphilippe
    46 seconds down on Kruijswijk
    58 seconds on Geraint Thomas
  • Following Stage 15:
    2 minutes 2 seconds down on Julien Alaphilippe
    15 seconds down on Kruijswijk
    27 seconds on Geraint Thomas

Pros: Has to be considered one of the best climbers in the race just as we head into three difficult and high days in the Alps. Looked strong in the finale of today’s stage. He is a better climber than the three riders in front of him on GC.

Cons: Completely unproven in a leadership role in the third week of a grand tour. Was gapped by Thibaut Pinot in the last few hundred meters of today’s stage.

Steven Kruijswijk

  • Following Stage 14:
    2 minutes 14 seconds behind Alaphilippe
    12 seconds down on Thomas
  • Following Stage 15:
    1 minute 47 seconds behind Alaphilippe
    12 seconds down on Thomas

Pros: Incredibly consistent rider. Tends to not go too deep and his fifth place at last year’s race shows a proven history of riding strong in the third week.

Cons: Had to ask George Bennett to slow down in the final few kilometers of Saturday’s stage. History of the third-week crash and time loss in the 2016 Giro still hangs over him.

Geraint Thomas

  • Following Stage 14:
    2 minutes 2 seconds behind Julien Alaphilippe
  • Following Stage 15:
    1 minute 35 seconds behind Julien Alaphilippe

Pros: As things currently stand, Thomas is the main benefactor of an Alaphilippe collapse in the high mountains.

Cons: He appears to at less than his best and has lost significant time in the last two mountain stages. Currently in an open war-of-words with co-leader Egan Bernal.

Thibaut Pinot

  • Following Stage 14:
    3 minutes 12 seconds behind Alaphilippe
    1 minute 10 seconds behind Geraint Thomas
    58 seconds behind Steven Kruijswijk
    12 seconds behind Egan Bernal
  • Following Stage 15:
    1 minute 50 seconds behind Alaphilippe
    15 seconds behind Geraint Thomas
    3 seconds behind Steven Kruijswijk
    12 seconds ahead of Egan Bernal

Pros: Appears to be the strongest rider/climber in the race. If Alaphilippe cracks, Pinot has an extremely manageable amount of time to make up on the riders currently in front of him and his punchy nature makes him the most likely to nab precious time bonuses.

Cons: Lost time in the crosswinds on stage 10. Has a history of inconsistent performances late in grand tours. Claims to struggle in the heat with a major heatwave rolling through France for the final few stages.

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The first thing that jumps out is how extremely tight the race is behind Alaphilippe. Pinot is only 3 seconds behind Kruijswijk, 15 seconds behind Thomas with Bernal only 12 seconds behind him. This means that if Alaphilippe slips and loses the lead, the Tour could very well be decided on finishing time bonuses on these final mountain stages. This has the potential to set up the most exciting final weekend since Lemond triumphed over Fignon by 8 seconds on the final stage in 1989.

The second trend that jumps out is just how quickly Pinot made up the time he lost in the crosswinds on stage 10. He nailed back 1 minute 41 seconds on Thomas in just two mountain stages by just being simply stronger than the rest when the race goes uphill.

The third is how Bernal is emerging as Ineos’ best shot at overall victory. The Colombian stumbled in the time trial, but has furiously eaten into that deficit and made up time on co-captain Thomas over the weekend.

When we look ahead at the profiles for the brutal final three alpine mountains stages (Thursday, Friday, and Saturday), it is clear that climbing prowess will be key to riding into Paris in Yellow.

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Many pundits have said that Ineos has to pick a leader and that Thomas is the safer choice, but I’m curious how they are coming to that conclusion. Thomas is hemorrhaging time in the mountains just as the race heads into the Alps. Meanwhile, his teammate who is only 27 seconds in arrears is clearly the superior climber. If I was forced to pick one, Bernal has to be considered the most likely to ride into Yellow in the Alps.

Another issue is the team’s mysterious case of missing form. While some have said it is simply not the Sky team of yore, they came to the Tour with the exact same support team in both 2018 and 2019 (subbing Dylan van Baarle for the injured Chris Froome in 2019). If they continue to lack their usual firepower, it will have major implications in the final few mountain stages where a team leader could be isolated from their team with 50km and an HC climb before the finish.

An entire team losing their mojo in 12 months is incredibly strange and something we’ll explore in more depth in a later feature.

Podium Prediction:
1st Pinot
2nd Bernal
3rd Kruijswijk

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.

Screenshot 2019-07-11 at 4.19.37 PM

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).

Screenshot 2019-07-11 at 4.21.19 PM

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.

 

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.

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.

Screenshot 2019-04-08 at 1.24.38 PM

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.

Screenshot 2019-04-08 at 1.21.00 PM

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.

Screenshot 2019-04-08 at 1.27.31 PM

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.

Screenshot 2019-04-08 at 1.28.43 PM

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.

Screenshot 2019-04-08 at 2.03.21 PM

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.

Is Milan San Remo Still the Sprinter’s Classic?

Milan San Remo has traditionally been known as the sprinter’s classic, due to its penchant for being the easiest classic to ride and consistently serving up fast-finishing winners. Despite being the longest race on the calendar at close to 300km, and featuring a mid-race mountain pass along with two climbs inside the final 20km, Milan San Remo has consistently been the lone chance for pure sprinters like Erik Zabel, Mark Cavendish, and Mario Cipollini to win a monument.

However, the last three years have seen a stark shift away from the pure sprinter demographic to more traditional allrounders and even GC contenders. Michał Kwiatkowski won from a breakaway group in 2017, Vincenzo Nibali took a spectacular solo victory in 2018, and Julian Alaphilippe won from a 12-person peloton in 2019. None of these winners would even remotely fit the role of a sprinter (Alaphilippe’s surprising bunch sprint victory at stage 6 of Tirreno-Adriatico aside).

With editions in the 2000s and 1990s dominated by true sprinters, we have to go all the way back to the late 1980s to find three consecutive victories for non-sprinters  (Laurent Fignon ’88-’89 and Gianni Bugno ’90).

Part of the reason for this evolution is the increased speed the winners have been riding up the final climb of the race, the Poggio, which tops out 6km from the finish line.

On Saturday, the lead group of Julian Alaphilippe, Michal Kwiatkowski, Oliver Naesen, Alejandre Valverde, Peter Sagan, Matteo Trentin, and Wout Van Aert set the fastest time ever up the Poggio with a time of 5:37 (this is according to La Gazzetta Dello Sport. For the record, Kwiatkowski’s Strava file has him clocked at 5:41 with an average speed of 38.3km/h). This is over 30-seconds quicker than 2016, the last time a sprinter (Arnaud Démare) won the race, and more than a minute faster than 2014 when John Degenkolb took the victory.

Below is a chart depicting the average speed for the fastest time up the Poggio from 1979-2019 courtesy of Mihai Cazacu at Climbing-Records.com (who recorded a slightly slower, but still second-best ever time of 5:50 and average speed of 38.06 km/h).

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The chart depicts a noticeable increase in speed with the introduction of EPO to the peloton in 1991, along with a noticeable decrease with the introduction of the bio passport in 2009. Twitter anti-doping crusader Ufe recently published an annotated version of the chart.

While there can be endless debate about what the faster climbing times mean (for what its worth, level-headed cycling statistician Cillian Kelly seemed to find the increased speeds concerning shortly after the race) the fact is that the Poggio is being climbed with a ferocity we haven’t seen in years. It is difficult to imagine any pure sprinter staying with the lead group over the Poggio on Sunday following Deceuninck – Quick Step’s train, Alberto Bettiol’s race-splitting attack and Alaphilippe’s counter that killed off any sprinter’s chances.

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The fact that Deceuninck – Quick Step possessed a huge pre-race sprint favorite in Elia Viviani and chose to completely spike that card by drilling it up the Poggio in an effort to flush out any sprinters and get Alaphilippe in a reduced group over the top shows the seismic shift the race has undergone in only three years. To see a team with likely the strongest sprinter specifically working to isolate an all-rounder in a group of normally faster finishers (Sagan, Trentin, Kwiatkowski, Matthews) was astonishing. The fact Alaphilippe won the race shows their supreme confidence was correct, but it was still bizarre to see a team purposely burn of their star sprinter in the “sprinter’s classic” (If I was Viviani, I would have been on the phone with my agent immediately following the race to see if any other teams need a sprinter).

There must be widespread headshaking amongst the biggest, faster riders in today’s peloton at the sight of their lone monument being overtaken by the allrounders and Grand Tour champions. But the lack of bunch finishes is likely welcomed by RCS.

The race organizer added the  Poggio in 1960 after 89 riders made it to the line together in the 1959 edition. The climbed helped the attackers and reduced the size of the finishing group for a few years, but soon the sprinters began to dominate again.

To curb this domination, RCS added the Cipressa in 1982, but the increased speed of racing gave the sprinters the upper hand once again. RCS Sport planned to add an extra climb to the finale in 2014 an effort to burn off the fastmen and reduce the chances for big, boring sprint finishes.

While the plan to add an extra climb was thwarted by a landslide that rendered it unrideable, it seems the request for more aggressive racing has been answered organically. Whether by utilization of doping practices or simply realizing that riding up a climb faster makes it more difficult for riders that can’t ride up climbs as fast as you, Milan San Remo has seen a rapid evolution in the nature and speed of the finale.

This is all part of a larger trend of seeing the new wave of fast-finishing all-rounders that can climb with the best winning on all but the flattest, fastest finishes (which are featuring less and less in Grand Tours). It is hard to argue with the increased excitement factor, but it will be interesting to see if this new trend sticks, or if we see a reemergence or mass sprints on Via Roma once again.