Deceuninck-Quick Step’s Perfect Start to the Classics Season

The name of the team seems to change every year – Belgian window manufacturers Deceuninck getting a top billing on the blue jerseys this season – but one thing stays the same… Quick Step riders winning bike races.

Although the World Tour kicked off in Australia in January before the peloton, like a flock of Lycra-clad swallows, followed the sun to the Gulf and the Mediterranean, to many fans it’s the first weekend of racing in Belgium that marks the start of the season proper. So, these true zealots must have been disappointed that this year’s opening races on the northern cobbles coincided with the warmest spell of winter weather ever known (I was out on my summer Bianchi, wearing shorts!). There was an almost total absence of legwarmers and waterproof gilets and hardly a sign of ‘Belgian toothpaste’. Oh well, it’s still only early March…give it time.

Stybar, Jungels and Senechal complete Quick Step Treble

The Belgian weekend begins with the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad – a sort of mini Tour of Flanders, taking in many of that race’s iconic cobbled climbs, culminating in the ‘Muur’ and the Bosberg. Strangely, it’s not a race that Quick Step have excelled in lately; who can forget Sky’s hard-man Ian Stannard riding away from their trio of Terpstra, Boonen and Vandenbergh in 2015? (just writing that last sentence makes me realise once again what an amazing performance that was). But there was no mistake this year, with Zdenek Stybar giving them a first win since Nick Noyens in 2005. Stybar, a Quick Step rider since 2011 and a former winner of the Strade Bianche (and 2x 2nd in Paris-Roubaix) shot clear from a 5 man break in the closing kilometres and, while his rivals were busy watching each other, the Czech rider opened up a decisive gap which he held to the line.

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Bob Jungels holds on for a gutsy solo victory in the Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne

If Stybar’s victory was a win for canny tactics, that of Bob Jungels in Sunday’s Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne was down to sheer guts and dogged determination. With a flat finale across open farmland it’s a race that usually comes down to a bunch finish but not this year. Jungels, the champion of Luxembourg and winner of last year’s Liege-Bastogne-Liege, was the instigator of a move on the Kwaremont that split the bunch with over 50km to go. He then went on a solo attack on the finishing circuit with 15km left, holding a 30s gap and crossing the line 12s clear of Sky’s Owain Doull.

On Tuesday the circus moved onto Wallonia for Le Samyn, a semi-classic run in the area of Mons, and the treble was completed by Florian Senechal, who was recording his first professional victory, sprinting clear of the leading group after team-mate Tim de Clerq’s earlier attack had been reeled in.  That made it 14 wins for the boys in blue – could Julian Alaphilippe make it 15 in today’s Strade Bianche? I’ve just looked at William Hill’s odds and he’s the 3/1 favourite, with Stybar at 4/1 and – if those odds look skinny for a race in which luck is sure to play a part, it just shows how dominant the team is, especially in the early season (either that, or it’s just bookmaker miserliness).

More wins for Bianchi Bikes

Another team that must be pleased with the season so far is Team Jumbo-Visma (though it’s still tempting to call them Lotto NL- Jumbo, especially as the team kit has barely changed and, thankfully, they’re still riding those distinctive Bianchi celeste bikes). With wins in Valencia and the Algarve sprinter Dylan Groenewegen has shown himself to be one of the fastest men in the peloton (it’s a pity he didn’t ride the UAE Tour, where a couple of the tightly-contested sprints saw Gaviria, Kittel, Viviani and Sam Bennett in top-class action). The overall went to team leader Primoz Roglic, who wore the leader’s jersey after the team’s well-disciplined win in the opening T.T.T. After a week of pedalling through the deserts and around the roundabouts of the Gulf’s hideous resorts, Roglic held onto a 31s overall lead ahead of Alejandro Valverde. He heads to the Tirreno-Adriatico before the Giro, where he will have a realistic chance of getting onto a Grand Tour podium after last year’s TdF 4th.

Tadej Pogacar…Remember the Name

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Team UAE’s new star Tadej Pogacar on the podium at the Tour of the Algarve

Former champion ski-jumper Roglic is probably the best-known sportsman from Slovenia, but there is a new kid (almost literally) on the block after the Tour of the Algarve was won by his compatriot Tadej Pogacar (Team UAE). Remember the name…well, learn how to spell and pronounce it, then remember it. There is an old head on his 20 year old shoulders – dropped early on the final climb of the last stage (won by Stybar), he lost a minute and looked in danger of losing the leader’s jersey he had worn since winning stage 2, but he coolly rode back into contention to limit his losses and took overall victory by 15s from Soren Kragh Andersen. Pogacar won last year’s Tour de l’Avenir and is very definitely a young man going places.

Fabien Grellier dons the Balaclava

Team Astana have also had a superb start to the season – with 15 victories (4 in the Tour of Rwanda) they’re actually 1 ahead of Deceuninck-Quick Step! Luis Leon Sanchez won the Tour of Murcia, Jakob Fuglsang took the Tour of Andalucia (taking the leader’s jersey after Tim Wellens cracked on a proper mountain stage in the Sierra Nevada, a stage won in superb solo fashion by Simon Yates) and Kazakh champion Andrey Lutsenko totally dominated the Tour of Oman. He took overall victory by 44s from Domenico Pozzovivo and won 3 of the 6 stages, including that which finished atop the Green Mountain.

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Direct Energie’s Fabien Grellier…still waiting for a 1st pro win

His late capture of Direct Energie’s Fabien Grellier on that brutal climb enabled the Frenchman to go to the head of the leader board for the “Balaclava Award” (I am convinced that Grellier is an avid reader of this blog because he also won last year’s TdF virtual intermediate sprints competition !!) . He had been part of a 6 man break that had built a lead of 6 minutes, and still had 4 mins advantage with 20km to go, but the 10% slopes of the 6km climb and an Astana-led peloton put paid to the chances of all but Grellier. He was visibly tiring in the last kilometre, and, with Eurosport only showing recorded highlights, with no time gap graphics, it was impossible to know whether he would hold on or not until Lutsenko suddenly appeared, having gone clear of his GC rivals. He was caught with 100M to go (and lost a further 7 seconds!!). Grellier’s performance is lauded on the following grounds: (1) he went into the stage in 43rd place, 8-20 down, so could not hope to challenge overall, (2) Lutsenko and Astana were 100% certain to chase down the break to seal overall victory and (3) it just looked such a bloody awful climb, snaking up through a barren landscape that could have been Tolkien’s inspiration for Mount Doom – perhaps Grellier was carrying the One Ring, and its weight slowed his progress. He can wear the imaginary balaclava with pride!

 

Bianchi Takes Former Ski-Jumper Roglic to Pyrenean Glory

In a few hours Geraint Thomas will be able to cherish the extended lap of honour that is the right of Tour de France winners, as he leads Team Sky around the finishing circuit of central Paris and over the finishing line on the Champs Elysees. Since the famous final stage T.T. that decided the 1989 Tour by a handful of seconds in favour of Greg Lemond, the last stage has never had any overall significance. To all intents and purposes it is a day off for the GC contenders as the surviving sprinters fight out the finish.

Thomas consolidated his win with a solid performance in the Pyrenees, shadowing all the attacks that Tom Dumoulin could muster. The mountain stages were notable for the eclipse of Chris Froome and the daring stage 19 win by Primoz Roglic, who jumped ahead of Froome to claim the 3rd podium place, only to falter in yesterday’s T.T.  Roglic rides on the famous celeste Bianchi bikes for Dutch team Lotto NL- Jumbo, who had looked likely to gain a mountain win last week when Steven Kruijswijk set off on a solo attack on Alpe d’HuezKruijswijk gets close at Alpe d’Huez…but not close enough.

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Primoz Roglic’s Bianchi Leads Dumoulin, Thomas and Bardet on the descent of the Col d’Aubisque

Friday’s stage was a brutal test to put at the end of the 3rd week of a Grand Tour – 4,800M of climbing and the ascents of the Col d’Aspin, the Col du Tourmalet and the Col d’Aubisque. It was on the last climb that Roglic’s teammates, Robert Gesink and Kruijswijk, attempted to break Team Sky but, though they couldn’t shake off Thomas on the ascent, Roglic’s daring descent opened up a decisive gap and he finished 19 seconds clear of his rivals. It was his 2nd TdF stage win following a win in similar style last year, attacking over the Col du Galibier in the Alps. He is becoming one of the leading stage race riders and has the vital abilities to climb and to time trial with the very best.

The 28 year old Slovenian came into top-class cycling via an unusual route as he was a former Junior World Ski Jumping champion, switching to cycling when he felt that his opportunities in that sport were more limited. He was soon in the big-time, finishing a close 2nd to Dumoulin in the opening T.T. of the 2016 Giro in Apeldoorn and then taking the 40km T.T. stage in Chianti.

Last year Roglic preceded his TDF stage win with overall victory in the Volta ao Algarve, and 4th and 3rd places in the Tirreno-Adriatico and Tour of Romandie respectively: at both races he won the T.T. stages. He ended the season with a close 2nd to Dumoulin in the World T.T. Championship on a lumpy course at Bergen in Norway.

This year Roglic has gone from strength to strength, winning the overall competition at the Tours of Romandie, the Basque Country and Slovenia and, with a contract at Lotto NL-Jumbo for the next 2 years, and a strong team to back him, it cannot be long before Roglic’s Bianchi takes him to a Grand Tour podium place.

Kruijswijk gets close at Alpe d’Huez…but not close enough

Today’s dramatic stage that finished atop Alpe d’Huez saw a fantastic win for Britain’s Geraint Thomas, the first rider to win this stage in the maillot jaune. He extended his overall lead and left the question as to who is really leading Team Sky unanswered. It may not be answered until after next week’s stages in the Pyrenees and the time trial.

The iconic climb to the ski resort of Alpe d’Huez, with its 21 hairpin bends, was first included in the Tour in 1952, when the stage was won by the legendary Fausto Coppi. The fastest (possibly chemically-enhanced) ascent of the climb was by Marco Pantani, who clocked 37m 35s in 1997.

 

 

Think of Coppi and Pantani and you think of Bianchi – the oldest bike brand in the world and, with their distinctive celeste frames, perhaps the most easily recognisable. Today Bianchi supply bikes to the Dutch-based Lotto N.L.-Jumbo team who scored two stage wins last week thanks to their sprint sensation Dylan van Groenewegen. He was forced to abandon the race after sustaining injuries in Sunday’s stage over the cobbles to Roubaix, his badly broken Bianchi a sorry sight to anyone with aesthetic sensibilities.

For much of today’s stage, it looked as if there would be another rider winning on the Italian brand, as Lotto’s team leader, Steven Kruisjwijk struck out from the original breakaway group with fully 60km to go. He took a 6 minute lead onto the Alpe – Kruijswijk is a proper climber, whose prowess in the mountains saw him leading the2016 Giro d’Italia until the final weekend, and for more than half the 15km climb it looked like it would be not only enough for him to win the stage, but also take the overall lead from Thomas. It was not to be. Kruijswijk began to tire as Bernal led Thomas and Froome back after attacks by Bardet and Quintana, and he was caught with just over 3 km to go. An honourable defeat and at least he had the honour of leading through “Dutch Corner”, the bend near the church where the Dutch fans congregate (rumours are that some of them arrive and start on the Heineken in April) to noisily greet their heroes, though it has been 29 years since  a Dutch rider won at the Alpe.