The early season racing in Australia and the Persian Gulf is behind us which means the “real” professional cycling season is finally underway. We are less than a week away from Milan Sanremo, or “La Classicissima,” the first monument of the season, so it is time to finally take stock of where we are and who are the riders to watch for the coming weeks.
First up on the roll call are three riders whose futures are trending down as we head into one of the most critical points of the spring season.
Dumoulin may be feeling a slight hangover from his dream 2017 that saw him win the World Time Trial Championship, become the first ever Dutch winner of the Giro d’Italia and a media darling in the process. However, his 2018 hasn’t been as kind. The best way to describe his 2018 so far is that the pressure of being a newfound star appears to be getting in the head of the usually charismatic Dutchman. On top of his Abu Dhabi Tour meltdown, he recently crashed out of Tirreno-Adriatico on stage 5 and he is doubtful to appear at Saturday’s Milan Sanremo. This is certainly not the preparation he was hoping for heading into an attempt to defend his Giro d’Italia crown in May. A successful defense of the Italian Grand Tour looks like a longer and longer shot with every passing race and if the Dutchman doesn’t turn it around soon, he may be forced to write off the spring and turn his focus to the Tour in July.
When Geraint Thomas found himself ensconced in the Maglia Azzurra during stage 5 at Tirreno-Adriatico, he must have felt like something wasn’t quite right and disaster was around the corner. Since the Welshman has abandoned his promising one-day Classics career to chase the stage racing dragon, everything that could go wrong has gone wrong (see here, here, and here). His Team Sky teammates literally had the wheels fall off at the Tirreno team time trial last year. This fiasco ended up costing him the overall win. He then went on to crash out of both the Giro d’Italia and Tour de France. Not to be deterred, Thomas set his sights on winning the 2018 Giro d’Italia, only to have his superstar teammate Chris Froome wave him off and declare now that he had thought about it, he was going to be the leader at both the Giro d’Italia and Tour de France (this means that for four straight Grand Tours no other Team Sky rider was given their own chance to win. THIS IS INSANE! Froome was basically asking for a mutiny at that point.)
Thomas had put all of this behind him and actually out-ridden his team leader Froome at the summit finish on stage 4 to declare himself the new alpha at Sky. Unfortunately, this all came crashing down around him with one kilometer to go as his chain inexplicably slipped off his chainring and he was left yelling on the side of the road, waiting for a new bike as his rivals disappeared up the road. His Team Sky leadership was over almost as quickly as it had arrived and Thomas is now left to emotionally pick up the pieces of an almost comically cursed stage-racing career.
I don’t in any way doubt Thomas’ physical ability as a Grand Tour rider, but he is 31 years old, on the most talented stage racing team ever assembled and has never finished higher than 15th in a Grand Tour. One can’t but feel like time is running out on his ill-fated stage racing career and wonder what may have been had he had remained on promising Classics trajectory. Even if Froome’s adverse analytical finding sees him unable to race the Giro and Tour this season, the stable of talented young riders on Sky is lining up to push out Thomas. Exhibit A: Earlier this season, Thomas’ “teammate” Michal Kwiatkowski jumped up the road on the final stage Volta Algarve to take the leader’s jersey right off the Welshman’s back.
The only rider having a worse week than Geraint Thomas is Chris Froome. Froome came into the season with many questioning whether he should even be lining up due to his ongoing case from his adverse analytical finding (aka he had too much of an allowed drug in his system and has to explain how so much of it got there) during last year’s Vuelta a Espana.
Putting all of that aside, right now Froome’s biggest problem is that he has stunk on the bike so far this season. He was 10th at the Ruta del Sol, a race that he had won the last time he attended in 2013, and has been consistently off the pace of the top group at Tirreno-Adriatico, a race where he previously finished 2nd overall. To add insult to injury, members of the media are questioning if his flat at the end of stage 5 was legitimate, or if he was attempting to hide how much he was struggling to stay in the group. Whether it is true or not is irrelevant, the fact that we are even asking that question about a rider who was discussed as a possible winner of the near impossible Giro/Tour double mere months ago shows how far and quickly his star has fallen.
Now let’s take a look at three riders trending up coming off the first big block of serious racing.
The three-time world champion missed the standard early season tune-ups, Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and Kuurne–Brussels–Kuurne, where he usually announces himself and/or hones his form. However, if anyone thought that the birth of his first child and a late start to the European season would hamper his Classics campaign, they were proven wrong this week. Sagan looked strong but maybe missing the top gear at Strade Bianche last Saturday. While not at his best, he still managed to finish 8th at the absurdly hard race. And while he hasn’t won a stage at Tirreno this year, he has three 2nd place finishes, two to Marcel Kittel and one to Adam Yates. Kittell, a 190-pound monster, was created in a lab to be the fastest road cyclist in the world on a flat, straight finish, while Yates is a 125-pound climber who floats away on the steepest pitches. It is likely that these two riders have never even ridden next to each other in the group and possibly don’t even know the other exists. The fact that Sagan finished behind each on back-to-back days is a testament to his otherworldly versatility. Most importantly for Sagan, on stage 5 he showed a willingness to sit in the group and force other riders/teams to chase, even if it meant having his bluff called and the lone rider staying away. The Slovak is showing his competitors that the days of relying on him to chase back every move in the finale of the race are over. These tough lessons could pay major dividends at the upcoming Monuments, where patience is arguably more important than physical form.
If this impressive consistency still had us asking questions about his form going into Sanremo, the means in which he clawed himself back into the pack on stage 6 at Tirreno should leave no doubt. With 8km to go, Fernando Gaviria crashed directly in front of Sagan. For every other ride on the planet, this would have meant they were going down as well. However, Sagan reminded us that he isn’t every other rider. He somehow managed to hop over the fallen Colombian, stop, get a new bike from his team car, chase back on to the full-speed peloton, and still nearly beat Kittel in the sprint to the line. This highly impressive chase forced Sagan to tip his hand more than he would have liked, but it could end up being a mere teaser for a truly dominant Classics run from Sagan.
The young Belgian finally made good on his vast reserves of potential by winning Strade Bianche in highly impressive fashion. Benoot has been tipped so heavily as the star of the future, that it was shocking to learn his Strade victory was the first in his professional career. Certainly not a bad way to announce to arrival. However, the most impressive thing about Benoot isn’t his ability to win races, it’s his ability to compete for the win in almost every race on the calendar. In the age of specialists, it’s shocking to see a rider win a one-day classic and finish top-ten at three conservative climbing stages the following week. Benoot’s top ten finishes at the Tirreno-Adriatico summit finishes are arguably more impressive than his win at Strade. The only issue facing him at the moment is having to decide if he wants to be a stage racing specialist or a one-day Classics star. While leaving the one-days for the promise of Grand Tour success can be a gamble (see above: Geraint Thomas), Benoot’s lack of finishing punch could leave him an also-ran throughout his Classics career. He would be wise to consider taking his immense talents to the Tour de France in an attempt to become the first Belgian to win since Lucien Van Impe in 1976. This is certainly a tall order that comes with substantial risk, but Benoot is the real deal with the talent to take on this challenge.
Kwiatkowski is one of the most underrated riders in the professional peloton. The former World Champion has an impressive palmares despite spending most of his career on crowded teams that don’t always let him race for the win. He is a rare rider that can regularly win one-day Classics (Milan-Sanremo, 2x Strade Bianche, E3 Harelbeke, Classica San Sebastian, Amstel Gold, World Road Race Championship) while climbing with the best in the high Alps of the Tour de France. He won Volta ao Algarve by taking the lead from his teammate Geraint Thomas on the final stage and wrestled team leadership away from Froome and Thomas at a stacked Tirreno-Adriatico. His usurping of teammate Geraint Thomas on the final stage of Algarve earlier this season signaled that he finally might be ready to shrug off the yoke of Team Sky domestiqueness (these crude images violate my number 1 rule: an on-form World Champion should never be relegated to set pace for teammates) and ride for himself. The looming suspension of his team leader Chris Froome has thrown the traditional rote hierarchy of Sky into disarray as the other riders sense that Froome either won’t be able to compete at the upcoming Grand Tour or won’t be on his best form due to the stress of his ongoing legal battle. This means that everyone is auditioning to be the new Alpha at every day of every race between now and the Tour. Kwiatkowski will most certainly show up ready to defend his Milan Sanremo title on Saturday. However, I wouldn’t be on him to take the victory, only because winning this race is hard, and winning it twice in a row is nearly impossible. But if he continues his impressive run of form, my money is on the young Pole to come out of the Sky scrum as their Tour de France leader. If that happens, the dynamic 2018 Tour route could play right into Kwiato’s hands and we could see the emergence of a new Grand Tour contender.