We are now less than a week away from the first WorldTour race of the year, the UAE Tour (opens in new tab), and the racing is hotting up across Europe and in the Middle East.
Some riders are still yet to race on the road for their team yet this year, with the likes of Primož Roglič (opens in new tab), Wout van Aert (opens in new tab) and Tadej Pogačar (opens in new tab) conspicuous by their absence, but some stars have already been out performing in their new kit.
At the Tour of Oman, Jan Hirt of Intermarché-Wanty-Gobert was victorious in the desert, while Nairo Quintana looked like he used to winning the overall at the Tour de la Provence. Meanwhile, there was a slew of Spanish one-day races, including a brand new gravel race, which was all reasonably interesting. Quick-Step Alpha Vinyl (opens in new tab) predictably kept winning, but there were other interesting stories.
More racing begins tomorrow with the Ruta del Sol and the Volta ao Algarve, but for now here is what we have learned from the latest tranche of stage and one-day events.
The smaller teams are seriously on it this year
This year will see some movement in the WorldTour, with new licences being awarded at the end of the year for 2023-2025. Teams are ranked on the basis of their 10 highest scoring riders at all UCI races, so every event matters.
Based on last year's UCI team rankings, Cofidis and Lotto-Soudal were in the 'drop zone', while Alpecin-Fenix and Arkéa-Samsic were two ProTeams which could be promoted.
Those latter two already gain access to WorldTour races this year thanks to their ranking, but they might look to gain prowess through a step up. Norwegian team Uno-X have also expressed an interest in a WorldTour slot.
All this means that there is a real battle for UCI points, and a lot of the less successful teams of 2021 are already winning this year. Lotto-Soudal already have five wins, almost half their overall total from last season, while Cofidis, Arkéa, Uno-X and Intermarché-Wanty-Gobert have all been winning races.
Even a race like the Tour of Antalya matters, with Uno-X gaining 125 points for their general classification victory there. Some signings could prove crucial, with Bryan Coquard already winning 77 points for his new Cofidis team through two victories so far. Domenico Pozzovivo signing for Intermarché could be the canny transfer the team needs in order to remain at the top.
We will have to wait and see whether this intense racing for UCI points keeps up throughout the season or dies out - success at the beginning of the season is no guarantee of success throughout the season.
Nairo Quintana has still got it
Nairo Quintana turned 32 earlier this month, but the Colombian won the Tour de la Provence (opens in new tab) with an effort on the final day that seemed to turn back the years.
It is the second time that Quintana has won the Tour for Arkéa-Samsic, and the French ProTeam will be grateful to have a proven climber like that still on the books.
On the slopes of the Montagne de Lure he powered away from Julian Alaphilippe of Quick-Step Alpha Vinyl, and ended up more than half a minute ahead of his chasers.
It is the highest-ranked race Quintana has won since 2020, and will surely give him a boost of confidence ahead of a crucial year. 2022 is the last year of his contract with Arkéa, and the diminutive Colombian will be hoping to prove that he still means business. Last week he suggested (opens in new tab) that he could make a return to Movistar.
Mark Cavendish can still challenge and win races
This time last year many were writing Mark Cavendish off, with the Quick-Step Alpha Vinyl sprinter not having won a race since 2018. However, four stage wins at the Tour of Turkey in April saw him embark on a remarkable run which led to his astonishing performance at the Tour de France last July.
This year he has got off to a flying start, with second on stage one (opens in new tab) of the Tour of Oman and first on stage two (opens in new tab) making it his best opening to a season since 2013, when he won on his opening day.
He might have ended the race in disappointing fashion (opens in new tab), with a sixth place finish and falling out of contention for the points jersey, but his win will remind everyone of his prowess. This is particularly important because of his teammate Fabio Jakobsen's form - the Dutchman has won two races so far this year - and his likely selection for the Tour squad.
Cavendish looks likely to head to the Giro d'Italia at the moment, but as long as he keeps challenging, he can keep his Tour dream alive.
Alexey Lutsenko is good at riding on gravel
Alexey Lutsenko triumphed at the inaugural Clásica Jaén Paraiso Interior on Tuesday, with the Kazakh rider mastering the tricky gravel conditions to dominate, finishing almost a minute ahead of second-placed Tim Wellens.
The Astana Qazaqstan rider has form on gravel - he won the first Serenissima Gravel race in Italy late last year - but this was an exhibition from him. He twice forced a decisive split on the off-road sectors, his second with 28km to go the winning move.
While others looked at sea on the rocky gravel of Jaén, Lutsenko looked very much at home. He is not currently down to ride Strade Bianche, possibly to the relief of other riders, but in this form he would surely do damage there.
A new gravel race is born
Sure, it might not have had a particularly exciting finalé, thanks to the efforts of Lutsenko (see above), but the Clásica Jaén Paraiso Interior looks like it could be here to stay as a great race.
While Spain has an abundance of great stage races, from Catalunya to Pais Vasco via the Ruta del Sol, it has lacked great one-day races, apart from San Sebastian.
This new part-gravel race could be the one to change all that. It is hard, picturesque, and the level can only get better. Strade Bianche has only been around since 2007 and at WorldTour level since 2017, and is already touted as a race ready to be the next Monument, so why not hold a similar race in Spain?
Among the millions of olive trees in this part of Andalusia the race looked great. It could quite quickly become a cult classic like the Breton race Tro-Bro Léon, and will only improve with time.
Ineos Grenadiers can win in more than one way
With the re-signing of Elia Viviani (opens in new tab), Ineos Grenadiers (opens in new tab) showed that they want to win more races, more than their staple fair of GC wins. This might prove wise as the need to diversify away from stage racing increases in the absence of Egan Bernal and if Tadej Pogačar continues to dominate.
Filippo Ganna is good at time trials (opens in new tab), we all knew that, but his early-season form might the sign of something new, as he has suggested that he might target some one-day races this season.
Meanwhile, the British squad are heading to the Volta ao Algarve (opens in new tab) with a team filled with a variety of winners, from Ethan Hayter to Tom Pidcock via Dani Martínez. They might finally be properly breaking out of their boring stage-racing mould of old.
Never give up on the dream of winning
Jan Hirt went 5 years and seven months, 2,048 days, between winning general classification titles (thanks to @ammattipyoraily (opens in new tab) on Twitter for that). The Czech rider won the Tour of Austria in 2016, and then won the Tour of Oman this week.
Intermarché's Hirt had not won a single race in the years in between, so he must have been relieved to cross the line in the red leader's jersey on the final stage.
Another rider for the Walloon team, Alexander Kristoff, is much more used to winning, he has done it 82 times in his career so far. However, the pressure was on at his new team after he moved from UAE-Team Emirates, and the Norwegian delivered, winning the Clasica de Almeria. Never write him off.
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