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In my previous column, I looked at how last month’s “spring training” races would have a bearing on the one-day classics season, which opened with the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad. Interestingly, the strong men in the famous “sandstorm stage” of mid-February’s Tour of Qatar proved to be the strong men of the Belgian cobbles, with Team Sky’s Ian Stannard defending his Het Nieuwsblad title after he followed (and then defeated!) three Etixx-Quick Step, led by Tom Boonen, in team-time-trial formation, similar to the one they organized in the desert winds of the Gulf state.
Written by John Wilcockson // Photos by Yuzuru Sunada
There will likely be more of the same at the bigger classics to come (but without the unfortunate Boonen who’s now on the injured list), but this week I want to analyze how February’s stage races (notably the Tour of Oman and Ruta del Sol) have given us some early insights into the likely outcome of this year’s major stage races—beginning with Paris-Nice (a mini Tour de France) and Tirreno-Adriatico (a mini Giro d’Italia).
Although the grand tours remain the chief targets of the top stage racers, the early-season events have over recent years added climbs that would previously be seen only in the high season. That was the case with last month’s Ruta del Sol in the Andalucía region of southern Spain. Back in the day, this was just a leg-stretcher for the major stars, a race in which riders got to work with new teammates, mechanics could work bugs out of their tech systems, and directeurs sportifs could get back in the groove of driving a new team car and building the team’s confidence for the new season.
That’s still the case in some ways, but the big difference is the difficulty of certain stages. On February 20 and 21 this year, four and a half months before the Tour, Alberto Contador was battling with Chris Froome as if the maillot jaune were already at stake. Each scored a psychological stage victory over a determined rival: Contador on the Alto de Hazallanas, Froome on the next day’s much shorter, and much steeper Allanas del Santo.
Hazallanas is the nasty 7.3-kilometer climb, with its 9.6-percent average grade, where Chris Horner blasted the opposition at the 2013 Vuelta a España. On that baking-hot early-September day at the end of a 187-kilometer stage, the American veteran attacked solo 5 kilometers from the top and finished 48 seconds ahead of Vincenzo Nibali and 1:02 before Alejandro Valverde, Ivan Basso, Joaquim Rodriguez and Thibaut Pinot. Horner’s time for the complete climb was 23:22, an average speed of 18.74 kilometers per hour.
So that was the benchmark when the Ruta del Sol field reached the Hazallanas climb at the end of a frigid 160-kilometer stage last month. After some initial ramps and a short downhill, 40 riders were still together when they hit the final 7.5 kilometers. That’s when a revitalized Basso, now riding for Contador at Tinkoff-Saxo, accelerated—probably remembering the climb from the 2013 Vuelta. With Contador glued to his wheel, Basso created an instant gap, from which the Spaniard sped away when the Basso dropped back. Behind, Froome was distanced before clawing his way back to the wheel of Sky teammate Peter Kennaugh, who was chasing Contador with Frenchman Romain Bardet of AG2R La Mondiale.
Unlike Horner in 2013, Contador was riding old style: no race radios in this UCI Europe Tour 2.HC race, and he later said his wireless power meter was not operating because of interference from the TV motorcycle transmitter’s signal. “I was climbing blind,” he said. “All I knew was that I was going at such a pace it would be tough for the others to catch me.”
Whereas Horner had checked his monitor on his mostly smooth, out of-the-saddle progress, Contador looked more erratic, swinging his bike from side to side in his well-known style. The Spanish climber slowed before the end, his gap over the eventually chasing Froome closing from half a minute to 19 seconds, with Bardet in third, another 1:20 back. Contador’s Hazallanas time was 23:39—17 seconds slower than Horner’s, but in view of the cold conditions and the early-season effort, it probably equated to a similar performance.
That effort most likely affected Contador the next day when he had a hard time on the finish to a 202-kilometer stage that began in misty rain, with the riders in jackets, tights and winter gloves. This time, Sky took the initiative on the 3-kilometer, 12.7-percent Allanas del Santo climb, first with Nicolas Roche (who was riding for Contador last year) setting the tempo, before attacks came from his teammates Kennaugh and Mikel Nieve. Using their speed, Froome accelerated clear 1.8 kilometers from the top and rode Contador off his wheel when the pitch increased to 20 percent. Froome’s time for the 3-kilometer effort was 11:41, only 15.41 kilometers per hour, but it proved 20 seconds better than Contador and propelled Froome to the overall title.
While Froome and Contador were battling in Spain, a few other potential Tour contenders were fighting out the Tour of Oman on the now infamous Green Mountain in the central highlands of the Gulf state. Rather than rain and cold, extremely hot temperatures (around 90 degrees Fahrenheit that day) were the norm in Oman. Green Mountain is 5.7 kilometers long, has a 10.5-percent average grade, and kicks up to 13.5 percent in the last 2 kilometers.
The hill-climb record for Green Mountain stood at 18:33, a time set last year by Froome, when he beat runner-up Tejay van Garderen of BMC Racing by 22 seconds. Van Garderen was back in Oman this year, along with grand tour standouts such as Nibali of Astana, Valverde of Movistar, Rafal Majka of Tinkoff-Saxo and Thibaut Pinot of FDJ. This early-season race, taking place in a desolate part of an Arab land with virtually no spectators on Green Mountain’s wide highway, is a far cry from the crowd-infested climbs of the Tour in July. And yet the riders still got motivated, knowing that good performances here could help shape their whole seasons.
Nibali was eager to tackle his first major climb of the year and stretched his legs on the opening slopes, hoping his acceleration would help Astana teammate Jakob Fuglsang (who’d finish in 10th that day); but van Garderen’s ambitious BMC team then put its race plan into action. “The plan was to start the climb and make a good tempo for Tejay,” sports director Valerio Piva said. “We know he does not like the accelerations.”
Taking over from his teammates, Belgian Ben Hermans was the rider who caused the most damage when the gradient steepened. “Tejay asked me to go as hard as I could to put all the guys on the limit and then he could attack,” Hermans said. “I pulled until 1.5 kilometers to go, so it was still quite long for Tejay.”
This may have been just a “spring training” event, but like the efforts being made that same day by Contador and Froome, the lean American clearly had the summer (and his Tour rivals) in sight. “When I attacked, I dropped Valverde…and Majka got dropped off my wheel. So I was thinking, ‘All right, smooth sailing,’ those were the two guys I was worried about,” said van Garderen, who hadn’t reckoned on a little-known rider from the Lampre-Merida squad sticking to his wheel on the steepest sections of the climb.
This was seventh-year Spanish pro, Rafael Valls, 27, who’d had no real successes since his 2010 season when he won a mountain stage of Argentina’s Tour de San Luis and took a second place to Sylvain Chavanel on a hilly stage of the Tour de France. No wonder van Garderen was surprised. “With him being a dark horse, he was able to catch a free ride and sit on my wheel,” the BMC leader said. “He attacked, then I was on him, and I countered. He countered and had that last little bit in the end.”
The quality of van Garderen’s effort was reflected in the times. He climbed that steep 5.7-kilometer mountain a split-second faster than the record time set by Froome a year ago—a record that Valls now hold in 18:28. Behind the leading two came Valverde, Majka and Pinot, followed by Valls’ team leader, Rui Costa.
Whether Valls can confirm that startling show in Oman may be seen on Thursday this week, when the Paris-Nice peloton tackles a hilly 204-kilometer stage that ends with the steady, 10-kilometer, 6.7-percent climb of the Croix de Chaubouret mountain above Saint-Étienne. Other riders to look for in the expected showdown are van Garderen and his on-form BMC teammate Rohan Dennis, Team Sky’s Richie Porte and Geraint Thomas (who both won hilltop stages of Portugal’s Tour of the Algarve last month), along with French hopes Bardet and Jean-Christophe Péraud of AG2R and likely grand tour contenders Majka of Tinkoff-Saxo, Fabio Aru of Astana, Andrew Talansky of Cannondale-Garmin and current race leader Michal Kwiatkowski of Etixx-Quick Step.
Over in Italy, starting this Wednesday with a 5.4-kilometer individual time trial, Tirreno-Adriatico won’t see Froome trying to add anther stage race win to his palmarès because of a chest infection preventing him from starting. In his absence, we can expect defending champion Contador to put on a show this coming Sunday on the Terminillo mountaintop stage finish above Rieti. The Spaniard, who’s gearing up for the Giro that starts May 9, is most likely to be challenged by Nibali of Astana, Pinot of FDJ, along with a number of climbers who’ve yet to show their form this year: Rodriguez of Team Katusha, Nairo Quintana of Movistar, Rigoberto Urán of Etixx, Ryder Hesjedal and Dan Martin of Cannondale-Garmin, Jurgen Van den Broeck of Lotto-Soudal, Leopold König of Sky, Domenico Pozzovivo of AG2R, Przemyslaw Niemiec of Lampre and Bauke Mollema of Trek Factory Racing.
While races in February constituted spring training, Tirreno-Adriatico and Paris-Nice give riders a first feel for the upcoming Giro and Tour, and the dress rehearsals will come in April for the Giro and June for the Tour. And judging by the races that have already happened, those grand tours should be excellent.
You can follow John at twitter.com/johnwilcockson