The European racing season has well and truly kicked off, with action happening across the continent, but mostly in sunny Spain. Before the circus moved onto the UAE, where the men's WorldTour teams are racing this week, lots of stuff happened in Iberia.
Tadej Pogačar (UAE Team Emirates) won three out of the five stages at the Vuelta a Andalusia, proving he never lost his form, while Magnus Cort (EF Education-EasyPost) won two stages at the Volta ao Algarve, capping a sterling start to the year for EF. Ineos Grenadiers, though, had three riders in the top seven, including Dani Martínez winning overall.
At the Setmana Valenciana Fèmines, meanwhile, AG Insurance-Soudal Quick-Step kicked their new era off in a great way, winning a stage through Ashleigh Moolman Pasio and the overall through Justine Ghekiere.
Annemiek van Vleuten is beatable
2022 ended with the consensus being that Annemiek van Vleuten was pretty much unbeatable, especially in stage races. The Dutch Movistar rider won the Tour de France Femmes, the Giro d'Italia Donne and the Ceratizit Challenge by La Vuelta, along with the World Championship road race last year, and is aiming to win at least the first three again.
However, last week at the Setmana Valenciana Fèmines, Van Vleuten was beaten. Not just by one person, but by two on stage three, when she was outsprinted by Ashleigh Moolman Pasio (AG Insurance-Soudal Quick-Step) and Amanda Spratt (Trek-Segafredo), and then she missed out on the overall when Justine Ghekiere (AG Insurance-Soudal Quick-Step) won through a race-defining break on stage four.
Obviously, this is just one race, just a minor setback for the Dutchwoman, but this is a race which the 40-year-old has won for the past two years, and a dominant performance would have set the scene for the coming races. As it is, her rivals will think there might be a chink in her armour, and that something different might be possible in 2023.
Meanwhile, Tadej Pogačar looks unbeatable
Last week I wrote about Tadej Pogačar's remarkable winning streak - at that point it stood at four - but then he went an extended it one further on stage two of the Ruta del Sol to make it five in a row, and three wins in 2023. To then go on and win another stage of the same race, but sadly not a consecutive one, just proved how in form the UAE Team Emirates rider is.
Wherever he lines up, whether that's in a Classic or a stage race, he will be the outstanding favourite. This was true last year too, but it is rare that he has come into a new season so hot. He looks like he means business.
At just 24, he has 50 career victories, a total he has amassed quicker than other serial winners of the last decade like Mark Cavendish or Peter Sagan. To show the length of his dominance, Pogačar has won at least one stage of every stage race he has entered since the 2020 Critérium du Dauphiné. That's 29 months.
The thought of his clash with last year's Tour de France winner Jonas Vingegaard at Paris-Nice is already mouthwatering.
Ineos Grenadiers have many options, but who's on top?
Heading into the final stage of the Volta ao Algarve, a time trial, Ineos Grenadiers had three separate cards to play on the general classification: Tom Pidcock, Filippo Ganna and Dani Martínez, all within 30 seconds of each other.
It led to some questioning their tactics on stage four, which Tom Pidcock had won (just his third road win of his career, incidentally), as the former time trial world champion Ganna looked best positioned for the GC. Some suggested they should have ridden defensively to protect this interest.
In the end, though, it didn't matter, as Martínez rode the best time trial and won the race overall, followed by Ganna in second, with Pidcock in seventh. At an early-season race like the Volta ao Algarve this seems like a blessing, with multiple riders able to show their skills.
However, when it comes to the Grand Tours, the fear is that there is not an outstanding leader. Martínez could do an able job, and Pidcock has not hidden his wish to challenge in the future, but neither of these riders are likely to win the Tour this year. Geraint Thomas will turn 37 during his tilt at the Giro d'Italia, while Egan Bernal is still an unknown quantity as he makes his way back from his freak crash last year.
EF Education-EasyPost gets back to winning ways
It is not even the end of February and EF Education-EasyPost already have more wins than it did in the whole of 2022. That's ten this year, in just a couple of months, versus nine across all of last year.
There was a brief period where it seemed like the American team might even face relegation from the WorldTour, such were their woes, but now they have that status guaranteed, they seem set to make the most of their opportunities at the top table.
Magnus Cort was responsible for two of those nine wins last year, and won two stages of the Volta ao Algarve last week, proving his value to the team. It is not just all on the Dane's shoulders, either, with wins for Neilson Powless, Alberto Bettiol and new signing Richard Carapaz among others. It is already looking like a good year for the men in pink.
Too many bike races gets confusing
Cycling is not the only sport that shoots itself in the foot through its schedule; there are frequent moans about the cricket and football calendars, but there can't be a sport other than cycling that loves to put lots of similar events on at the same time.
Last week, the Tour of Oman, the Ruta del Sol, and the Volta ao Algarve were all on at the same time, all stage races, all ProTour level events. What this must seem like to the casual fan, I don't know.
Then there's a sudden switch to the WorldTour-level stage race the UAE Tour before we swing back to Europe with Omloop Het Nieuwsblad this weekend. It's pretty nonsensical.
It might seem fun to be able to switch between all these men's races - that's not even mentioning the women's racing on at the same time - but it is hard to work out what all these races mean as all these different events are contemporaneous. Omar Fraile (Ineos Grenadiers) won stage five of Ruta del Sol the day after Tom Pidcock had won stage four of another race, but these were different events, in different countries. Confusing.
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