It’s the first week of a new year and cycling has already had its first winners. One was Australian Luke Durbridge, 21, who typifies the newest generation of pro cyclists that also includes such brilliant riders as Peter Sagan, Thibaut Pinot and Taylor Phinney. None of these young men was even born when veteran pros Jens Voigt, Stuart O’Grady and Chris Horner began their cycling careers. It’s one of this sport’s fascinations that all of those named above, despite being separated by two decades in age, will win bike races in 2013.
Making New Year’s predictions is a hazardous exercise, but I hope that just jotting down some thoughts about this coming racing season will help put into perspective the annus horribilis that cycling has just endured. Month by month, here are some of the events and possible outcomes we have to look forward to in the months ahead.
It seems too early for July’s Tour de France contenders to start racing, but that’s not deterring Alberto Contador from heading to Argentina for the Tour de San Luis (January 21-27), and Andy Schleck to Australia for the Santos Tour Down Under (January 22-27). Luxemburg’s Schleck is continuing his slow comeback to hopefully regain his top form to lead his RadioShack-Trek team at the Tour, while Saxo-Tinkoff’s Contador returns to the South American race where he took two mountaintop stage wins last year—before those results were struck from the record because of his subsequent, and much delayed, doping suspension.
Also starting their seasons this month are the Tour’s top two sprinters: Britain’s Mark Cavendish is contesting his first race with his new team Omega-Quick Step at San Luis, and Germany’s André Greipel, still with rival Belgian team Lotto-Belisol, is planning to win the Tour Down Under for the third time. But this stage race has toughened its courses since he last won in 2010, and a repeat victory for local man Simon Gerrans of Orica is more likely.
Many pros will be making traditional openings to the year in European races such as the Mediterranean Tour in France, Ruta del Sol in Spain and Tour of the Algarve in Portugal, but February’s main focus will be on three UCI Asia Tour races: the Tour of Qatar (February 3-8), Tour of Oman (February 11-16), and Tour de Langkawi (February 21-March 2).
The flat roads and fierce crosswinds along Qatar’s Persian Gulf coast will again give multi-time race winner Tom Boonen of Omega the ideal prep for the early spring classics, starting with the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad on February 23. Sprinters won’t get as much practice at the six-day Oman race because the course, due to be announced on January 13, is expected to be hillier than usual, probably including a couple of summit finishes and a time trial. Even more challenging is the 10-day Langkawi tour in Malaysia, whose mountaintop stage finish at Genting Highlands usually decides the fate of the overall title. Four UCI ProTeams are expected, including the ex-Rabobank’s non-branded Blanco-Giant squad, whose Robert Gesink will likely get an early climbing test ahead of the summer’s grand tours, and Team Astana, whose new sprinter Andrea Guardini will be seeking to add to his haul of 11 stage wins at Langkawi over the past two years.
The month of March is again one of the busiest for the world’s top teams, highlighted by the seasons first major stage races, Paris-Nice (March 3-10) and Tirreno-Adriatico (March 6-12) and two monumental classics, Milan-San Remo (March 17) and the Tour of Flanders (March 31). Milan-San Remo has surprisingly been won the past two years by the Australians Matt Goss and Gerrans, both of whom prepared for the Italian super-classic via the un-typical route of Paris-Nice—which is likely to see more San Remo contenders this year.
Goss and Gerrans will again be looking for victory, backed by an Orica team that includes strong men such as O’Grady, Durbridge, Baden Cooke, Brett Lancaster, Svein Tuft and Tomas Vaitkus. Just as strong on paper is Boonen’s Omega squad that also has Cavendish and French star Sylvain Chavanel as potential winners at San Remo, while BMC’s world champion Philippe Gilbert has d his desire to win either Flanders or San Remo for the first time in his illustrious career. Having a weaker classics team may hurt another likely pre-race favorite, Sagan, whose Cannondale squad is better geared toward stage races. But Sagan will have ideal preparation, starting at San Luis this month, and followed by Oman and Tirreno.
Besides being a build-up race for the spring classics, Tirreno has attained a recent status as an early indicator of the year’s grand tour contenders with the victories of Cadel Evans of BMC Racing in 2011 and, last year, Vincenzo Nibali—who has just switched to the well-financed Astana team. This year, Team Sky’s defending Tour de France champ Brad Wiggins is riding Tirreno instead of defending his title at Paris-Nice, aware that he needs to be on top form for his first serious bid to win the Giro d’Italia, which starts less than two months later. Wiggins may also ride Spain’s first UCI WorldTour event, the Volta a Catalunya (March 18-24), or the two-day Critérium International (March 23-24)—held on the French island of Corsica where this year’s Tour de France begins.
One of the big unknowns is whether Schleck’s RadioShack team will rebound from its series of 2012 setbacks: Schleck’s spinal injury, his brother Fränk’s still-unresolved drugs infraction, Fabian Cancellara’s bad crashes at Flanders and the Olympics, and the resignation of team manager Johan Bruyneel after his implication in the USADA doping affair. The best possible result for the team would be a quick victory, most likely from Cancellara, who has won San Remo and Flanders in previous years. If the two monuments elude Cancellara, he’ll also be a candidate to win a lesser one-day race in March, including Italy’s iconic Strade Bianche (March 3), or Belgium’s gritty E3 Harelbeke (March 22) and Ghent-Wevelgem (March 24).
Last year, Boonen won four cobbled classics in a row: Harelbeke, Wevelgem, Flanders and Paris-Roubaix. The odds of a repeat are virtually zero, but the Belgian superstar will surely be on top of his game in a bid to win at Roubaix (April 7) for a record-breaking fifth time. Cancellara will surely be his biggest challenger, while many fans will be rooting for BMC’s Thor Hushovd, who at 35 will likely be bidding to win the Queen of the Classics on the Roubaix velodrome for the last time in his long career. The Norwegian, who has placed third and second in previous editions, may have the support of another cobblestone expert, teammate Alessandro Ballan, who recently broke a leg in a training accident; but his most valuable colleague might well be American youngster Phinney, the two-time under-23 Paris-Roubaix winner, who placed 15th in his pro debut last year.
While the classics season is winding down for the likes of Boonen and Hushovd, it will ramp up in April for those who excel in the short, steep climbs featured in Spain’s Tour of the Basque Country (April 1-6), and the first hilly classics in the Dutch Limburg region and Belgian Ardennes. These open with the Amstel Gold Race (April 14), where Gilbert is hoping to shine on the Cauberg climb at Valkenburg, where he won this race in 2010 and 2011 and where he attacked to win his rainbow jersey last year. But the Dutch classic often produces surprise winners, and perhaps a rider like Garmin-Sharp’s Fabian Wegmann could succeed 2012 winner Enrico Gasparotto of Astana.
The two Ardennes classics, Flèche Wallonne (April 17) and Liège-Bastogne-Liège (April 21), rarely produce shocks. The midweek Flèche finishes atop the ultra-steep Mur de Huy and in the past three years has seen wins for Evans, Gilbert and current world No. 1 Joaquim Rodriguez. Perhaps this will be the season that Contador takes his first major one-day classic following his victory in Italy’s Milan-Turin on a similar uphill finish last year—especially as his Saxo team now has other strong support riders in Matti Breschel, Timmy Duggan, Karsten Kroon, Nicolas Roche, Michael Rogers, Rory Sutherland and Oliver Zaugg.
Teammates such as these can make an even bigger difference in the much longer Liège classic, where 2009 winner Andy Schleck is hoping that his best form has returned and Spain’s Alejandro Valverde of Movistar wants to shoot for a third victory after his successes in 2006 and 2008. Other men who could shine at Liège, after what should again be a thrill-a-minute finale over a succession of steep climbs, include Astana’s Nibali, BMC’s Evans and Gilbert, Cannondale’s Sagan, Blanco’s Gesink, Orica’s Gerrans, Garmin’s Dan Martin and Ryder Hesjedal, and Euskaltel’s Samuel Sanchez.
Along with Wiggins, Nibali, Gesink, Hesjedal and Sanchez are all early favorites for May’s Giro d’Italia, and their paths to the year’s first Grand Tour may well go via the Basque Country, Italy’s Giro del Trentino (April 16-19) or Switzerland’s Tour de Romandie (April 23-28). Look for early previews of both the Giro and Tour in part two of this season guide next week.
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