Colombian stars assemble at their home race
The most exciting stage race of this week. and arguably the buzziest of the whole month, is the Tour Colombia, returning on Tuesday for its third edition.
Unlike a lot of other recently introduced stage races, held in areas like China and the Middle East with a lot of capital but not much cycling pedigree, the recent boom in Colombian cycling has prompted both crowds to flock to the roadside in their thousands and local star riders to prioritise.
This year’s startlist is chock full of Colombian stars, a celebration of the talent that has blossomed. EF Pro Cycling alone have three (Sergio Higuita, Rigoberto Urán and Daniel Martínez) all of whom appear capable of winning the overall; Deceununck-Quick-Step’s Alvaro Hodeg could dominate the sprints; old-timers Sergio Henao (UAE Team Emirates) and Carlos Betancur (Movistar) could make an impression; and Esteban Chaves will compete for the local Team Colombia, on loan from Mitchelton-Scott.
The biggest star of all, though, will be Egan Bernal (Ineos), competing in his home country having become the first South American to win the Tour de France last year. Bernal has become a superstar in Colombia, and it will be some spectacle to see the fans cheer him on at the roadside.
Other big names beginning their seasons in Colombia
It’s not just the Colombians who will be taking the spotlight at Tour Colombia. Julian Alaphilippe, having been quite possibly the star of the 2019 season, will be making an appearance for Deceuninck-Quick-Step, having had to abandon the Vuelta a San Juan last month.
How he approaches the race will be of great interest. In last year’s edition he was a regular fixture in the punchy stages, and managed to win stage five, but faded away the following day on the decisive mountain top finish.
However, since then his climbing has gone up another level, with a revelatory performance at the Tour de France. If he shows some of that uphill speed on stage six’s Alto del Verjon, could another bid for yellow in July be on the cards?
One rider making his very first appearance of the season will be Richard Carapaz, riding alongside Bernal for his new team, Ineos. Bernal might be the star name, but the Colombian’s fitness is unknown having crashed at the National Championships, meaning Carapaz might be elevated to team leader while the Tour de France winner adopts a super-domestique role - as he did last year in support of Ivan Sosa, who won the overall (but misses this year’s edition due to injury).
Also, look out for Fabio Aru (UAE Team Emirates), who begins 2020 in the belief that he’s capable of getting back to his best this season having apparently overcome years of health problems and injuries.
Nairo Quintana’s stage race debut for Arkéa-Samsic
Another Colombian competing in his first stage race of 2020 this week is Nairo Quintana, although he won’t be doing so at Tour Colombia, but rather in Europe at the Tour de la Provence, a four-day stage race beginning Thursday February 13.
His absence in his home tour in favour of a French race is indicative of the priorities of his new team, Arkéa-Samsic. As a domestic French team, their sponsors are more concerned with making an impression in French races, and in Quintana they hope they have arider who can win them local second-tier events like the Tour de la Provence, as well as get them invites to WorldTour-ranked races.
He’ll line up alongside the team’s other star rider, Warren Barguil, in what will be an early indication as to how well the pair work together as co-leaders.
Both have enjoyed past success at the Tour de France - Quintana with three podium finishes, Barguil as King of the Mountains in 2017 - and will be wanting to make their case to be nominated leader.
Thibaut Pinot returns from seven month absence
The last time we saw Thibaut Pinot (Groupama-FDJ) racing competitively, he was dismounting his bike in tears at the Tour de France, distraught at the horrendous stroke of misfortune that saw him injure himself in a freak accident, and abandon the race while in a position to potentially win it.
Fast forward seven months, and the Frenchman is at last making his return to racing at the Tour de la Provence, having taken the rest of 2019 off in order to recover from the physical (and mental) excursions of that ride.
Pinot is set to embark on an ambitious season, with the Tour de France, Vuelta a España and Olympics road race all potentially on the cards, and he hopes to quickly readapt to the rhythms of racing with a strong ride at the Tour de la Provence.
He’ll be reunited with young compatriot Davide Gaudu, his trusty lieutenant from the Tour, in what looks likely to come down to a showdown between Groupama-FDJ and the aforementioned Arkéa-Samsic pair - but look out also for Wilco Kelderman (Sunweb), defending champion Gorka Izagirre (Astana) and Pavel Sivakov (Ineos).
A Classics double header on Sunday
Before the cobbled classics season gets under way later this month with the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, this Sunday (February 16) offers two very different types of Classics to whet the appetite.
In Spain, some of the world’s best sprinters are assembling in southern Spain to take part in the Clásica de Almería. Having already picked up a couple of runner-up finishes in Spain earlier this year at Trofeo Felanitx - Ses Salines and Trofeo Playa de Palma, Pascal Ackermann (Bora-Hansgrohe) returns in the hope of defending his title.
To do so, he’ll have to get the better of Elia Viviani, who will be determined to get his account with new team Cofidis off the mark after an underwhelming start in Australia last month, while the likes of Luke Mezgec (Mitchelton-Scott) and Bryan Coquard (B&B Hotels-Vital Concept) are outside bets.
If hilly terrain is more your thing, then keep an eye on Trofeo Laigueglia. This Ligurian-held race is more of a lumpy affair, and tends to be dominated by Italian puncheurs - look out for Ineos’ Diego Rosa, veteren Giovanni Visconti (Vini Zabu-KTM), defending champion Simone Velasco (Gazprom-RusVelo) and former winner Davide Cimolai (Israel Start-Up Nation).
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