What did we learn from the first elite road races of the year?

Alejandro Valverde is still good; Lotto-Soudal are hungry for results; Biniam Girmay might be a force to be reckoned with

Alejandro Valverde
(Image credit: Getty Images)

Road cycling is back. It might still feel like the depths of winter in the UK or in America, but in the sunnier climes of southern Europe, men's elite road racing is back. Cyclocross might have dominated the news, but there were still some exciting things happening on tarmac.

In the coming week we have the first elite stage races to look forward to, but there has already been some action. In Mallorca, the five races that make up the Challenge Mallorca have taken place, with stars of the WorldTour winning the Trofeos. Meanwhile, the French racing scene got underway with the GP de Marseille. 

The WorldTour season does not kick off for another three weeks with the UAE Tour, while traditionalists insist that racing does not matter until Omloop Het Nieuwsblad a week later. However, you can't ignore the fact that professionals are already battling out for wins on the road this year. Here are some things we learned from the opening races of 2022.

Alejandro Valverde has still got it

This is Alejandro Valverde's 21st year as a professional cyclist. The man is 41. This year will be his final season before retirement, it has already been announced, but the Spaniard shows no signs of slowing down.

Back in 2002 his second race with his first pro team, Kelme-Costa Blanca, was part of the Challenge Mallorca, and this was how the Movistar rider chose to start his last season on the road. 

Three races, three top-six finishes, including winning the Trofeo Pollença-Port d'Andratx on Sunday. He sprinted away to victory out of an elite group which included Tim Wellens and Brandon McNulty, who had already won this year. 

Following the race, the 41-year old expressed his surprise that he was still winning, two decades after his debut. 

"It's something so difficult to achieve, both physically and especially on the psychological standpoint," he said. "I'm really surprised to continue doing well. When I was younger, I stated that I thought I wouldn't be in the peloton when I reached 34 – now I'm turning 42 in April, and I'm still racing, and winning."

It was Valverde's 131st win of his lengthy career, and he has won a race in every year of his career apart his neo-pro season, the 2011 season when he was banned for doping, and 2020.

While the level at Mallorca might not be the highest, this result proved that Valverde is not going to quietly shuffle off into retirement, there will be no rest until the very end.

Biniam Girmay might just be the Eritrean star cycling needs

Cycling is huge in Eritrea, so it is a huge shame that they have not yet had the breakout star that the country deserves and is desperate for. Merhawi Kudus is still on the WorldTour, now with EF Education-EasyPost, but others have faded away or not been offered opportunities in the first based by European-based pro teams.

Biniam Girmay might just be the breakout star. Second at the U23 World Championship Road Race back in October, the 21-year old signed for Intermarché-Wanty-Gobert last year, and has already delivered for them in 2022.

He won the Trofeo Alcúdia-Port d'Alcúdia in front of established sprinters such as Giacomo Nizzolo, Pascal Ackermann and Michael Matthews, and impressed in what was just his sixth victory of his career so far.

Girmary is scheduled to race the Giro d'Italia, so it will be fascinating to see how he goes against sprinters on the highest levels, but this early season victory will be nothing but good for his confidence. Considering Intermarché only won nine races all last season, the Ethiopian will surely get more chances as the season goes on, as the team hunt for precious victories.

He has a contract until 2024 with the Belgian team, so he has plenty of time to bed in, and establish himself as a force in the WorldTour.

Lotto-Soudal love early season results, and they desperately need them

Lotto-Soudal, ever presents in the WorldTour, had a difficult 2021. They won just 12 races, 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, they have already won two races this year. Tim Wellens won the Trofeo Serra de Tramuntana, before Arnaud De Lie won Trofeo Playa de Palma-Palma on Sunday. 

Not that early season form is new to Lotto-Soudal. The squad have won at least one race in January every year apart from 2021 since 2015, when they won on the first day of February. Even in the dry spell years of 2020 and 2021, they triumphed at the beginning of the season. What they need to do next is convert this into results throughout the season.

Whether this is because they just take the Challenge Mallorca more seriously than other teams, or they come into the season red-hot is up for debate.

One reason for their performances early in the year is Wellens, who has a habit of being on-song from the beginning. He has won the Trofeo Serra de Tramuntana four times in his career, showing that the Mallorcan races are more than just a warmup for him.

Should Lotto wish to remain in the WorldTour, they will need more than just a couple of wins from their stars like Wellens, however. It will be interesting to see whether they can sustain it this year.

Brandon McNulty means business

Riding in the shadow of Tadej Pogačar must be difficult, and when UAE-Team Emirates signed more talented climbers, you feared for the future prospects of Brandon McNulty.

The American is a proven climbing talent, and was part of Pogačar's team at last year's Tour de France, but had not won for UAE until last week. He won the first day of the Challenge Mallorca, triumphing after attacking from 60km out and soloing to victory. 

That performance underlined how he is looking to go about this year, and the 23-year old backed up his level with fourth behind Wellens and second behind Valverde in the coming days. It served as a statement to his team that he means business this year and should not be forgotten about in a vastly talented squad.

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