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Revenge of the Veterans: Wout Poels, Nairo Quintana and Mark Cavendish Strike Back Against the Youth Movement

Ten Takeaways from the action-packed racing weekend

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After Nairo Quintana stormed to an impressive victory at the Tour de la Provence, the theme of veterans remerging from the wilderness to beat riders from younger generations continued this past weekend. At the Vuelta a Andalucía, 34-year-old Wout Poels shocked the favorites to take the overall win, while at stage 2 of the UAE Tour, 36-year-old Mark Cavendish bested some of the sport’s best sprinters to win stage 2, and Nairo Quintana continued his comeback tour by winning the Tour des Alpes behind two incredibly impressive solo breakaways. The outlier was 22-year-old Remco Evenepoel’s dominant overall win at the Volta Algarve, but even this result was a return to the past since it was a repeat of his win at the 2020 edition of the race.

These victories were highlighted by older riders capitalizing on the mistakes of younger, less experienced rivals (Poels at Andalucía and Cavendish at UAE), a return to old form (Quintana at Alpes), in the case of Evenepoel, world-class dominance in a single discipline (the time trial at Volta Algarve).

10 Takeaways from Andalucía, Algarve, Alpes & UAE:

Poels Capitalizes on Self-Inflicted Wounds at Vuelta a Andalucía:

Stage 4:
18km:
 Simon Yates, who has proven he is likely the strongest GC rider in the front group, makes a big effort to bridge up to a three-man move. At first, this looks impressive, but when examined closely, doesn’t make a ton of sense. Firstly, the move was already being brought back by the chasing group, and his acceleration only destabilizes this chase and forces him to burn valuable matches. Secondly, Bahrain, the strongest team in the group, has Damiano Caruso in the move, while their two GC options, Jack Haig and Wout Poels are still in the chase group with Yates. This means Caruso won’t work with the two others and the likelihood of this move staying clear is almost zero.

15.5km: Shortly after putting in an immense amount of effort to bridge that gap, Yates is then sitting on the front, which puts him in an incredibly vulnerable position. This means when Alexey Lutsenkso attacks and is followed by Poels, they are moving much too fast once Yates sees them for him to respond.

Astana’s Miguel Ángel López is the leader on the road at this point, which means Lutsenko shouldn’t be attacking or working to pull a GC rival away from his teammate, but he is shockingly doing both. Also, in the distance behind, we can see the chase group breaking down as everyone looks at one another to do the work.

Adding insult to injury, Lutsenko is beaten by a much-slower (on paper) Poels in the sprint finish, which means Astana loses out on both the potential stage and overall win.

1) Just as I thought Miguel Ángel López was ready to put his miserable tenure at Movistar behind him by winning the overall at Andalucia, his Astana team massively screwed up their strategy in the stage 4 finale and almost certainly cost the Colombian the overall win.

  • His Astana teammate Alexey Lutsenko had no reason to attack in the finale, and once he did, had no reason to work with López’s main GC threat Wout Poels, yet he did both.
  • This attempt to get himself a stage win costs López valuable seconds to Poels, and eventually, the overall victory.
  • It isn’t clear to me if this order came from the team car, or was a nifty bit of improvisation by Lutsenk. But either way, it makes it clear that his Astana team lacks either the tactical nous and/or focus to help López get back onto grand tour overall podiums, and the Colombian rider will likely find himself at odds with yet another set of team management.

2) The race’s overall winner, 34-year-old Wout Poels, resurrected his long-dead GC career by shocking the experts by getting his first overall GC victory in six years.

  • While he has been absent from the front of major races in recent years, he looked like the Poels we knew at Team Sky over the weekend when he powered away of all other GC contenders at the end of stage 4 and rode so strongly on the stage 5 summit finish that he distanced López, who needed to put time into Poels to take the overall win.

3) Simon Yates looked the strongest of the GC contenders in both stage 4 & 5, but still only finished 20-second back in fifth place overall.

  • This failure to win an early-season race certainly won’t ruin his season, but the fact that he missed the obvious breakaway (two riders high up in the GC from the two strongest teams in the breakaway) at the end of stage 4 after being so active pulling back obviously doomed moves (ones with no GC threats from Bahrain) shows that his race-reading ability hasn’t improved as he has entered the veteran stage of his career.

4) Bora-Hansgrohe might have flopped in the GC competition, but this is a feature, not a bug, in their 2022 strategy, and they displayed incredible teamwork on the final stage to deliver Lennard Kämna the stage win.

  • Instead of fighting for 8th place on GC, the German team has decided to come into the season with a more aggressive racing style that prioritizes stage wins.
  • And on stage 5, they did just that by packing the move with three strong riders and playing the odds by displaying a willingness to lose the stage in the critical moments to beautifully walk Alessandro Covi into a trap and send Kämna clear for the win.

5) It is clear that Ineos has struck gold with 19-year-old American Magnus Sheffield

  • The young American proved an impressive versatility by using raw power to power clear in the final kilometer to win stage 3 and then coming back and hanging tough to finish third in the summit finish on stage 5.
  • Ineos tends to take a venture capital ‘spray and pray’ approach with young talent, but it is already clear that Sheffield is one of the team’s rare development hits and could be a star for the team in years to come.

Volta Algarve:

Stage 4 TT:
Remco Evenepoel clinched overall victory by absolutely dominating the 32km-long stage 4 time trial. To do this, he utilized perhaps the best aerodynamic form I’ve ever seen on a bike.

Stefan Küng, the European time trial champion, finished nearly a minute behind Evenepoel, and if we look at their respective positions, this makes sense.

Küng, who relies on his raw strength to push a massive gear, is chugging along at an average of 50km/h.

Küng’s form and speed are respectable, but when we look at Evenepoel, who is traveling a full kilometer per hour faster, the difference in their form is shocking.

Evenepoel is tucked in so tightly that there is almost no space between his hands and his head (this position is also incredibly dangerous since the rider can’t really see where they are going) and has significantly reduced his coefficient of aerodynamic drag (CdA). This means he can produce much less power than Küng while traveling significantly faster.

Stage 5 Summit Finish:
1.3km: 
Towards the end of Sunday’s final stage summit finish, Evenepoel accelerates and blows up what is left of the peloton. However, while this move is strong, it can’t shake the strongest tier of riders and they are able to follow him.

100m: And when they get into the final hundred meters, Brandon McNulty opens up his sprint, followed closely by Dani Martinez, and we see Evenepoel left in the dust. Of course, with a minute plus gap over McNulty, it doesn’t really matter for Evenepoel, but, this doesn’t mean he wasn’t trying since, as we saw just a kilometer earlier, he clearly wanted to win the stage.

6) Remco Evenepoel wins the overall title for the second time in his career after a jaw-droppingly dominant performance in the time trial and easily defending his lead on the summit finish on the race’s final stage.

LOULE, PORTUGAL – FEBRUARY 20: Remco Evenepoel of Belgium and Team Quick-Step – Alpha Vinyl yellow leader jersey competes during the 48th Volta Ao Algarve 2022 – Stage 5 a 173km stage from Lagoa to Malhão-Loulé 514m / #VAlgarve2022 / on February 20, 2022 in Loule, Portugal. (Photo by Luc Claessen/Getty Images)
  • Evenepoel’s time trial performance and his average speed of 51km/h for nearly 40-minutes were truly impressive. To put this into perspective, Filippo Ganna, the world champion, averaged 52.8km/h for just over eight minutes last week at the Tour de la Provence, and while Ganna put 1.7-seconds per km into British time trial champion Ethan Hayter, Evenepoel put a whopping 2-seconds per km into Hayter. In short, Evenepoel is entering the conversation as the best time trialist in the world.
  • This second career overall win at Algarve means he now has 25 pro wins at the age of just 22 years old (which I believe is second only to Eddy Merckx’s 27 pro wins at the same age).
  • touched on this over the weekend, but this win only tells what we already know: that Evenepoel is a great small-race racer and time trial machine. What I want to find out is if he can transition this talent into winning big races in 2022 (out of his 25 pro wins, only three are at the WorldTour level).
  • An interesting thing to note is that he is actually technically regressing. While he won both the upfill finish and time trial en route to his overall victory at Algarve in 2020, he lacked the late-race pop to compete for the reduced uphill sprint finish on Sunday. This might seem like an absurd nitpick, but Evenepoel’s inability to develop a race-winning strategy outside of ‘ride everyone off my wheel’ will seriously hamper his future development as a star rider.

7) Ineos, despite bringing a depth of GC talent and putting in significant work at the front across both Algarve and Andalucía, Dani Martínez’s 3rd overall at Andalucía was the only podium place they could come away with.

  • For the team that dominated one-week stage races in 2021, this can’t be the result they were hoping for across the two races.
  • And more importantly than the results, they failed to find any obvious solutions to their grand tour contender depth issues.
  • However, one interesting bright spot is Martínez’s stage 4 TT performance. While he joined everyone in being blown out of the water by Evenepoel, he impressively finished only 32-seconds behind Stefan Küng over the 32km-long course and signaled he could be a viable grand tour GC option for Ineos in the near future.

Tour des Alpes:

8) Nairo Quintana took the overall win after proving his strength for the second-consecutive weekend by storming clear in the final kilometers of both stages 2 & 3. While I cautioned last week that he still has a way to go before being back in the grand tour contender conversation, this performance further cements his status as ‘back’.’

  • This was impressive and great to see, but as I said last week, while Quintana is riding well at the moment, he will still need to improve his watts per kilo climbing performances before the Tour if he wants to consistently stay in the front group on the hardest stages.
  • And with his Arkea team recently turning down an invitation to the Giro d’Italia, his best chance at winning a grand tour in 2022 has unfortunately been tossed out the window.

Cavendish Shows the Kids How It’s Done at The UAE Tour

ABU DHABI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES – FEBRUARY 21: Mark Cavendish of United Kingdom and Team Quick-Step – Alpha Vinyl celebrates winning during the 4th UAE Tour 2022 – Stage 2 a 176km stage from Hudayriyat Island to Abu Dhabi Breakwater / #UAETour / #WorldTour / on February 21, 2022 in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. (Photo by Tim de Waele/Getty Images)

After being left in the dust on stage 1 when Jasper Phillipsen dusted Sam Bennett for the stage win (I’m sure the irony of the first WorldTour race of the race being won by a rider from a non-WorldTour team was not lost on the UCI), Mark Cavendish came back with a vengeance to win the second stage and once again relegated Phillipsen to second place.

Something that caught my eye in the finale was how Sam Bennett’s Bora teammate Danny van Poppel failed to leave room on the inside for Bennett to sprint through, which allowed Cavendish to smartly launch off Van Poppel’s right shoulder. The traffic this move brings means Bennett, likely the fastest straight-line sprinter in the field, is unable to even open up his own sprint. This combination of smarts and speed is what makes Cavendish a competitive sprinter while being more than a decade older than his competition.

9) While Mark Cavendish had a decent showing at the recent Tour of Oman, this win is an order of magnitude more impressive since he beat nearly every top sprinter (outside of his own teammate, Fabio Jakobsen) in the sport.

  • While Jakobsen looked great at Algarve, performances like these from Cavendish will continue to put pressure on his QuickStep team to take him to the 2022 Tour de France.

10) Sam Bennett might be the fastest sprinter at this race, but his leadout and positioning struggles on stages 1 & 2 show us that he is still attempting to get used to not having the supremely strong QuickStep team at his disposal in the finale, and hasn’t totally clicked with his new Bora-Hansgrohe squad.

  • It also shows us just how important the well-drilled QuickStep outfit is for sprinters and why Cavendish re-signed with the team despite the possibility he won’t even make the Tour start list.