Six things we learned from the first stage racing of 2022

After a first week of early-season stage races, here is what we found out from the Saudi Tour, Etoile de Bessèges, and the Volta a la Comunitat Valenciana

(Image credit: Getty Images)

Early season racing always takes some time to adjust to, with new kits on show and riders popping up at strange teams - Luis León Sánchez at Bahrain Victorious anyone? 

Once you have settled into the rhythms of the new season, however, there is a lot to learn from these opening skirmishes. There are some new faces to follow, and some old trends to observe as well.

In Spain, Bora-Hansgrohe's Aleksandr Vlasov took his first general classification win in the Volta a la Comunitat Valenciana, where Quick-Step Alpha Vinyl won three stages. In France, Benjamin Thomas kickstarted Cofidis' season with overall victory at the Etoile de Bessèges, while in the Middle East, Maxim van Gils continued Lotto-Soudal's form as he won the Saudi Tour.

So here is what we learned from these opening stage races of the season. We might not be able to work out who will win the Tour de France just yet, but there were still some interesting things to look out for in the first stage races of the year.

Quick-Step Alpha Vinyl get back into winning ways

It took until the second day for Quick-Step Alpha Vinyl to get their season up and running, which is pretty tardy by their standards. Remco Evenepoel's win on the first stage of Valenciana got them up and running, and by the end of that race the "Wolfpack" had won two more stages through Fabio Jakobsen.

The Belgian team won 65 races last year, so they have a way to go until they reach those heady heights. However, they have won a week earlier this year than they did in 2021, so it might be a good sign for this season.

Jakobsen comfortably won two sprint finishes, but it will be the stage five victory that the team savours, as it came about through a perfect example of its leadout train.

Evenepoel, meanwhile, proved once again that he is a force to be reckoned with on punchy finishes, soloing to victory on stage one. He was undone by the steep finish to Antenas del Maigmó on stage three, but still managed to finish second overall and win the young rider's classification. He will continue to build towards his Vuelta a España goal later in the season. 

Quick-Step are back and firing.

Lotto-Soudal are on great form

We already saw how well Lotto-Soudal were going after the Challenge Mallorca, where they won two races, but they continued this hot streak in Saudi Arabia, where the team won two of the five stages and the overall in the desert.

Caleb Ewan won his first race of the season before Maxim van Gils was triumphant on stage four, taking control of the general classification as a result. The 22-year old Belgian took advantage of the crosswinds to stamp his authority on the race, meaning Lotto-Soudal had their first stage race win since 2018.

The team won just 12 races last year, the same in 2020, which was their worst return since 2010. With three-year WorldTour licences being awarded at the end of this season, it is imperative for the Belgian team to step up should they wish to stay at the top table.

Fortunately, the have won five times across the 12 race days they have taken part in this season. If Ewan can keep winning sprints, then they should comfortably take enough results to remain part of the WorldTour this year.

Caleb Ewan and Maxim van Gils

Maxim van Gils and Caleb Ewan at the Saudi Tour

(Image credit: Getty Images)

The battle for Tour de France wildcard spots is hotting up

There are just two spots left for teams to battle out for at this year's Tour de France, and it looks like it will be a drawn out fight. All 18 WorldTour teams are automatically invited along with both Alpecin-Fenix and Arkéa-Samsic, as they occupied the top two spots in the 2021 ProTeam rankings.

This means there are just two gaps. Last year these went to French teams TotalEnergies and B&B Hotels-KTM, who would normally be expected to fill those slots. However, this year's Tour begins in Copenhagen, which means Scandinavian ProTeam Uno-X are interested in taking part.

The Norwegian squad, which contains eight Danes, announced its "dream" to be on the start line of the race in June. 

At Etoile de Bessèges, Tobias Halland Johannessen proved his all-round ability, winning the hilliest stage, coming third in two others, and finishing third overall on GC. The Tour de l'Avenir champion turned professional this year, and has already shown how strong he is on the world stage.

TotalEnergies won the teams competition at Etoile, and will be hoping that Peter Sagan fires at his new team. B&B Hotels-KTM are hunting for big results too, and will want the Tour organisers to remain loyal to French squads.

Groenewgen v Jakobsen might be the sprint battle of 2022

Two men have won multiple sprints this year, Fabio Jakobsen at Valenciana, and Dylan Groenewegen at the Saudi Tour. 

The Dutchmen are inextricably linked by the crash at the Tour of Poland two years ago, which left Jakobsen in a medical coma and potentially life-changing injuries. Groenewegen was judged to be at fault for the incident, and served a UCI ban.

Now, the two are potentially the best sprinters in the world. Groenewegen moved teams in the off-season to BikeExchange-Jayco, while Jakobsen has been backed as Quick-Step Alpha Vinyl's number one fast man, ahead of Mark Cavendish. 

Jakobsen looked imperious in sprints in Valencia, while Groenewegen powered to his victories in the Middle East with the help of his new leadout man Luka Mezgec.

If they keep getting given opportunities, this pair might be the ones to beat in sprints this season, although Caleb Ewan, Sam Bennett, Mark Cavendish and others might have something else to say.

Aleksandr Vlasov could be the coming GC man 

2022 is Aleksandr Vlasov's third year at WorldTour level, and it might be his breakout year. After two years at Astana, the Russian has moved to Bora-Hansgrohe, a team which seems to have more of a GC-focus after the departure of Peter Sagan.

He won Valenciana in impressive fashion, proving the best climber on its queen stage and conquering the gravel. With the backing of Bora, he has the potential to continue pushing on this year.

Vlasov was fourth at last year's Giro d'Italia and has the potential to put in just as good a result at this year's Tour de France, which is currently on his programme. However, he might find it beyond him to get ahead of the two Slovenians, Tadej Pogačar and Primož Roglič. He could be the best of the rest, though.

Filippo Ganna is still good at time trials

A week after he said that he would be targeting Paris-Roubaix and Milan-San Remo this season, Filippo Ganna reminded us all that he is still pretty good at time trialling.

In his world champion kit, the Italian won over the short 10.64km course at Etoile de Bessèges, proving to the world that he still has power in those legs.

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