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!

 

Fabien Grellier Leads Direct Energie to Victory in Paris

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A first Grand Tour win for Geraint Thomas and for Wales. A 6th Tour de France win for Team Sky. It had taken nearly 3 weeks for the speculation as to who was leading Sky to be resolved; only when Chris Froome struggled to hold a wheel on the last climb of the Pyrenees did we definitively know the answer, even though Thomas had been wearing the yellow jersey since his first stage win in the Alps. There was the little matter of the T.T. to get through, but there was never a chance of Thomas conceding nearly 2 mins to Tom Dumoulin in a 31km test, barring a crash or a major mechanical issue.

So to the ceremonials. The peloton rolled through the suburbs of Paris at a leisurely pace. There were the handshakes, the winning team linking arms for the obligatory photos, the glasses of champagne drunk while on the move. There was a dramatic sprint finish, with Alexander Kristoff winning his first stage for 4 years – with Gaviria, Greipel, Kittel, Groenewegen, and even Cavendish, absent, and points winner Peter Sagan nursing injuries picked up in a crash earlier in the week, it would be hard to give the race its usual unofficial title of a sprinters’ world championship, but the Tour is all about surviving the mountains to get to Paris, so credit to Kristoff and Demare and Colbrelli.

All of the jerseys had been decided before Paris – if Thomas could be named the overall winner after Saturday, it seems like weeks ago that Sagan claimed his record-breaking 6th green jersey. The French had 2 reasons to celebrate after Julian Alaphilippe was a convincing winner of the Polka Dots and Pierre Latour eventually had a comfortable winning margin over Egan Bernal in the Young Riders’ white jersey competition.

All to Play for in Armchairtifosi.com Intermediate Sprints

The only competition that was still up for grabs as the peloton completed its laps of the Paris circuit was the Armchairtifosi.com Intermediate Sprints. After my last update on Thursday Fabien Grellier was clinging onto a slender 1 pt advantage. Friday’s “sprint” was at the halfway point of the 200km stage, which happened to be about a third of the way up the fearsome Col du Tourmalet – a break of more than half-decent riders had gone clear, intent on either salvaging a stage win or putting the leaders under pressure, and it was Adam Yates who led from Bob Jungels and Mikel Nieve, all of whom were scoring their first points in the competition.

There were no points on offer for the T.T. so it all came down to the last stage and the group of 6 riders who went clear on the first circuit included none other than Wanty’s Guillaume van Keirsbulck – if only he had known how close he could have come to glory! If he had led over the line with 5 laps to go he would have moved onto 8 pts and snatched a last-gasp victory. Direct Energie had sent Damien Gaudin to police the move and hoover up the points but his efforts were not needed as B.M.C.’s Michael Schah led AG2R’s Silvan Dillier to a Swiss one-two, while Van Keirsbulck picked up a single point in 3rd place. Schah’s non-existent lunge for the line to gain the points meant he moved up to 4th in the final standings; equal on points with Yoann Offredo, but they finished 90th and 91st respectively on GC (with a time gap of only 13s.)

Mention must be made of Team Sky. Overall victory (again) and 2 riders on the final podium but they failed to gain a single point in the competition.

FINAL STANDINGS IN THE ARMCHAIRTIFOSI.COM INTERMEDIATE SPRINTS COMPETITION (NOT SPONSORED BY CHATEAU D’AX FURNITURE)-(ties decided by GC positions)

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FABIEN GRELLIER (DIRECT ENERGIE) held on to win the armchairtifosi.com intermediate sprints competition

1st-FABIEN GRELLIER (FR)(Direct Energie) 7 pts; 2nd-SYLVAIN CHAVANEL (FR)(Direct Energie) 6 pts; 3rd- GUILLAUME VAN KERSBULCK (BEL)(Wanty Groupe- Goubert) 6 pts; 4th- Michael Schah (SUI)(BMC) 5pts; 5th-Yoann Offredo (FR)(Wanty Groupe- Goubert) 5 pts; 6th- Greg van Avermaet (BEL)(BMC) 4 pts; 7th-Julian Alaphilippe (FR)(Quick Step-Floors) 4 pts; 8th- Jerome Cousin(FR) (Direct Energie) 4 pts;

equal 9th – Kevin Ledanois(FR)(Fortuneo-Samsic), Laurent Pichon(FR)(Fortuneo-Samsic), Marco Minnaard (NL)(Wanty Groupe-Goubert), Damien Gaudin (FR)(Direct Energie); Adam Yates (GB)(Mitchelton-Scott), Elie Gesbert (FR)(Fortuneo-Samsic), Pierre Rolland (FR)(E.F.Drapac),  Thomas de Gendt (BEL)(Lotto Soudal), Gorka Izagirre (SP)(Bahrain- Merida), Christophe Laporte (FR) (Cofidis Solutions), Kristan Durasek (CRO)(UAE) all 3 pts

TEAM STANDINGS – 1st-DIRECT ENERGIE 23 pts; 2nd-WANTY GROUPE- GOUBERT 14pts; 3rd-FORTUNEO-SAMSIC 12pts; 4th-B.M.C. 9 pts; 5th- Quick Step Floors 8pts; equal 6th- Bahrain-Merida, Lotto Soudal and Mitchelton-Scott  5 pts.

All to Play For as the Pyrenees Beckon

So, no cycling today – just the ITV highlights programme as Ned and crew savour the rest-day delights of Carcassonne and the survivors get ready for the final week. Since the race left the Alps the GC men haven’t had much to do. Roglic clawed back a few seconds on the finishing ramp to Mende, and yesterday Dan Martin attempted to undo the damage done to his chances after a late puncture on Saturday, only to be recaptured by the Sky train. The rest of the week will be somewhat more animated. The next three days in the Pyrenees are crucial for Geraint Thomas to hold on to, or even extend, his not insubstantial lead, ahead of the time trial on Saturday where Tom Dumoulin can be expected to blast back into contention, if he hasn’t already. Not that Thomas is a bad time trialist. Then there’s Froome. Everything is still to play for.

The same could be said of the Armchairtifosi.com Intermediate Sprints Competition – or, at least the individual rankings, as Direct Energie seem to have “done a Sagan” and settled the Teams competition with a week to go.

Points for De Gendt

On Friday stage 13 tumbled down from Bourg D’Oisans and rolled past the chateaux and vineyards of the Massif Central to finish at Valence in the Ardeche. With most of the top-drawer sprinters eliminated or abandoning in the Alps, Peter Sagan didn’t look unduly troubled as he swept past Demare and held off Kristoff and Degenkolb in a drag race to the line.  A bunch sprint had looked inevitable long before the peloton had reeled in the last survivor of the day’s 4 man break. Surprisingly that last survivor was Michael Schar (BMC) and not the man who had instigated the break hours before, Lotto Soudal’s Thomas De Gendt. It was equally surprising that it had taken 13 stages for De Gendt to get in a break as he has already collected stage wins in this year’s Tours of Romandie and Catalunya, spending more time alone than Greta Garbo. De Gendt won a Tour stage in 2016 but he will always be remembered for his epic solo win at the Passo dello Stelvio in the 2012 Giro d’Italia, when he took 3rd overall. Back then he looked like being that rare beast – a genuine Belgian Grand Tour contender – but he has since settled into the role of a freewheeling (forgive the pun) knight errant; even his name makes him sound like he belongs in the pages of Medieval history not the modern professional peloton (one day I’ll write a blog post, or a Ph.D. thesis, on the similarities between the Age of Chivalry and the code of the peloton. You have been warned). On the road to Valence the Belgian took his share  of KoM points, plus the official intermediate sprint, and he rolled across the Armchairtifosi line in the little town of Beauvoir-en-Royans ahead of Schar and E.F. Drapac’s Kiwi Tom Scully.

Direct Energie Save Energy?

On Saturday’s stage to Mende a group of 31 riders (the best placed of whom was 39 minutes behind Thomas) was allowed a huge lead – Direct Energie got 5 of their team into the escape but somehow managed to avoid scoring any points as Spanish National Champion Gorka Izaguirre (Bahrain Merida) led Jesper Stuyven (Trek Segafredo) and Tom Jelte Slagter (Dimension Data) over the imaginary line, halfway up the delightfully named 4th cat climb of the Col du Pont Sans Eau. Izaguirre added 3 more points to the solitary one picked up by his team-mate and brother Jon before the Alps – brought to the race with the aim of helping Vincenzo Nibali in the Mountains, their leader’s untimely departure has left them free to try for stage wins, and Jon came close on Sunday, when 2nd in the 3 up sprint to Magnus Cort Neilsen.

Grellier Deposes Chavanel at the Top of the Rankings

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New Armchairtifosi.com Intermediate Sprints Leader Fabien Grellier (Direct Energie)

Sunday’s stage from Millau to Carcassonne was a fantastic advert for cycling – as far as the overall picture goes it was a complete irrelevance, as another big break of riders with no GC hopes  went clear, but it produced a brilliant race like a one-day classic, with lone breaks and counter-attacks  before Neilsen predictably outsprinted Izagirre and Bauke Mollema. The Armchairtifosi.com points were awarded with 50km to go, as the break began the ascent of the 1st Cat Pic de Nore, a climb which, incredibly, had never before featured in a TdF stage. The riders had just passed through the feed zone in the town of Mazamet, birthplace of 90s French legend Laurent Jalabert (after whom the climb to Mende on Saturday is named). It was all change on the leader board as Direct Energie’s Fabien Grellier got the 3 points to move ahead of team-mate Sylvain Chavanel. Grellier had gone clear with Trek’s Julien Bernard, son of another 90s French hero Jean-Francois Bernard, while another of Bahrain’s newly-underemployed climbers Domenico Pozzovivo led the rest of the break in 3rd place.  23 year old Grellier has spent the whole of his pro career at Direct Energie – his best placing so far was 2nd in the Fleche du Sud in 2015; like Geraint Thomas, he will have a nervous 3 days in his quest to hold on to a jersey and, also like Thomas, the most likely rider to wrest it from his back will be a team-mate.

ARMCHAIRTIFOSI.COM INTERMEDIATE SPRINTS COMPETITION – Standings after 15 stages

1st- FABIEN GRELLIER (FR)(Direct Energie) 7pts; 2nd-Sylvain Chavanel (FR)(Direct Energie) 6 pts; 3rd- Yoann Offredo(FR)(Wanty Groupe- Goubert) 5pts; 4th-Jerome Cousin(FR)(direct Energie) 4 pts

TEAMS  – DIRECT ENERGIE 21pts; 2nd-Fortuneo Samsic 12pts; 3rd-Wanty Groupe- Goubert 11pts