Will we ever learn not to make mountains out of molehills, where sport is concerned? The season is barely a month old and the virtual walls of social media platforms over reverberate with noise as cycling fans and pundits do what they do best: over-hype, wildly speculate, and extrapolate future outcomes based on extremely limited evidence.
But what else are we supposed to do? It’s the early season in pro cycling, and we cannot help but clutch onto these early indicators of form in an effort to construct multiple future narratives to discuss over coffee with friends, or debate over social media. So, let’s embrace all those hot takes and indulge all the sensationalist hyperboles, and just for a moment suspend our indignation and soundly ignore the refrain of the level-headed – ‘but it’s only February!’ It just may be that these early season insights really are the clues we need as to how the season will unfold.
Pretenders to the throne
Once the major races begin, all eyes will be on the cycling superpowers of Ineos Grenadiers, UAE Team Emirates and Jumbo Visma, but if we’re to give credence to the results so far, it might be deduced that they will not have things all their own way. Two teams in particular have opened their accounts strongly, with new signings and experienced campaigners alike staking their claim on early wins.
Intermarché-Circus-Wanty have six wins so far, with Rui Costa unleashing his best form in years after leaving UAE Team Emirates, young Belgian baroudeur Kobe Goossens winning two consecutive days of the Mallorca Challenge and Biniam Girmay grabbing a win just as he did early in 2022 (and look how that year turned out).
Girmay celebrating his stage victory at Volta a la Comunitat Valenciana (Dario Belingheri/Getty Images)
EF Education-EasyPost have also taken six wins (plus a raft of national titles), with Alberto Bettiol taking a surprise TT win in the Tour Down Under Prologue, Neilson Powless dominating in France, taking wins at the GP la Marseillaise and Étoile de Bessèges, and Magnus Cort at his belligerent best in Portugal, taking two stand-out stage wins and spending time in the leaders’s jersey at the Volta ao Algarve.
The future is now
The men’s peloton is getting younger – it’s no longer speculation but fact, as Raul Banquieri showed recently the average age of the peloton has dropped steadily from just over 29 in 2010 to just over 27 in 2023. And with youth, comes reckless abandon, a healthy disregard for tradition and the exuberance of just getting out there and smashing it.
The early season provides the opportunity for young riders to get their feet under the table, dip their toes into the lukewarm pool of elite-level racing before it really heats up in the late spring and summer, and generally just have a go. It gives us a chance to wildly speculate about their future prospects, and extrapolate how many Grand Tours they might win, and who the next big rivalry will be between.
So, who shone, from the young bunch of riders fresh from the U23 ranks? Jumbo-Visma’s Thomas Gloag was almost equal to the challenge of Giulio Ciccone and Tao Geoghegan Hart at the Volta a la Comunitat Valenciana, winning the youth ranking and coming second on stage four. Team DSM’s Oscar Onley picked up where he left off at the end of last season, winning the white jersey at the Tour of the Algarve, one of only a few capable of keeping up with Tom Pidcock on the Alto do Malhão. Søren Wærenskjold looked strong for Uno-X in the Algarve, and Cian Uijtdebroeks put in a strong shift at the Tour of Oman and the Challenge Mallorca.
Onley wearing the white best young jersey during the Volta ao Algarve (Tim de Waele/Getty Images)
And then there are the riders we already knew would be big, but who are proving they are ready to take their performances to the next level, taking their first pro wins in February: Ben Turner won the Vuelta a Murcia, after a 2022 Classics season proving his worth to Ineos, and Movistar’s Matteo Jorgenson won a stage and three jerseys including the overall at the Tour of Oman, after threatening wins in the past couple of years. Arnaud De Lie graduated to the big leagues after a year of racking up points for his Lotto-Dstny team at lower level races; his schedule was upgraded to include many of the major Classics, as he notched up victories early with multiple wins, at Valenciana and Étoile de Bessèges.
It’s difficult to argue that ‘Tadej Pogačar being quite handy at this bike racing malarkey’ is a thing we’ve learned in the opening few weeks of racing of 2023, as we have known this irrefutable fact for quite some time now. However, in a break from his customary return to action at the UAE Tour, Pogačar showed up in Spain this year, perhaps to right the perceived wrongs of 2022 by winning all of the bike races as early as possible.
He launched a 40km solo at Clásica Jaén Paraíso Interior, almost a carbon copy of his Strade Bianche dominance in 2022 on a similar surface, before rocking up at the Ruta del Sol and winning three out of five stages and the general classification.
Pogačar and Sergio Samitier in the breakaway during the Clasica Jane Paraiso Interior (Dario Belingheri/Getty Images)
So, have we learned anything? Perhaps that he’s a fearsome lead-out man – so much so he almost dropped Alessandro Covi on stage five (the Italian missed out on the stage, arguably because he was so puffed from trying to keep up with Pog). Or that he’s ridiculously calm under pressure, taking a bike change while leading a race (Clasica Jaen) with Antarctic levels of chill. But for those who were looking hard enough, perhaps we could read between the lines and suggest that the man himself has not learned – his absolute inability to allow a challenge to his supremacy go unfollowed, as witnessed during the Vuelta a Andalucia when he chased down potential GC rivals without any real need to, may have offered a small hint that he has not learned from his past mistakes. Will it be a problem? It’s difficult to say, and could simply be attributed to his sheer lust for racing, but as it did in 2022 it may catch him out. Nevertheless, it all but guarantees another entertaining season courtesy of the tufted one.
Ineos spoilt for choice
For a team who were united behind a single leader for so many years, the Ineos Grenadiers have been doing an excellent impression of Soudal - Quick-Step of late. With a broad range of young talent coming through to replace the veterans, and an new interest in the Classics manifesting itself, the team’s reinvigorated outlook on their place in the peloton has been refreshing and is perhaps best represented by their approach to stage racing, which we have learned so far this year is paying dividends, and offering the team multiple options going into the bigger races.
At the Volta Comunitat Valenciana, Tao Geoghegan Hart showed his best form since his 2020 Giro d’Italia win to take a stage and achieve third place overall. At the Volta ao Algarve, while the word ‘trident’ was never overtly used to describe the British team’s approach, Dani Martínez, Tom Pidcock and Filippo Ganna all featured on GC with Martínez and Ganna topping the standings after five days and Pidcock in seventh, with one stage win to his name. Egan Bernal will return to the Tour de France this year and while his top form is as yet unknown, he will have Carlos Rodríguez, Martínez and Pidcock alongside him as yet again, Ineos spread their bets.
Ganna and Pidcock during the Volta ao Algarve (Tim de Waele/Getty Images)
The Opening Weekend: Jumbo Visma stun while De Lie rallies
The final thing we learn in February is reliable year in, year out: who is in good form, going into the Classics? Opening weekend provides a strong indication of how the spring will unfold, and the evidence this year was unequivocal: Jumbo Visma can, and likely will, rip every race to shreds. With their newly supercharged Classics squad they’ve levelled up yet again, and they were the imperious puppeteers of both Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne, launching moves early and taking a stranglehold on race tactics by ensuring multiple team members in the lead groups on both days. Traditionally a sprinters’ classic, they smashed Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne apart, giving the sprinters’ teams no chance of holding things together, with many of the likely candidates racing at the UAE Tour.
Jumbo Visma at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad (Getty Images)
The stand-out performance of the weekend though has to go to the aforementioned De Lie, who came second at Omloop behind Van Baarle’s solo win, despite coming off his bike and having to work his way back onto the chasing group. The following day he came seventh at Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne, second in the bunch sprint that followed up the leading group of five. Lotto-Dstny’s faith in him has already paid off and it’s cemented expectation surrounding the young Belgian – big, big wins are coming his way.