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.
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
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.
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!