In years gone by, the opening races of the season in men’s pro cycling were viewed as training races, merely preparation for the more important goals of the season. But, recently, we’ve seen a shift toward more high-paced, competitive season openers, with races at all levels hotly contested among the riders. That’s offered us far better insight into early season form, alongside fantastic racing.
With a few weeks of racing under our metaphorical belts, in a schedule which feels particularly packed by contrast with last season’s, ravaged by covid in the early stages, what conclusions can we draw about the state of play in the men’s peloton?
The youth are on the march…
It goes without saying that young riders are hungry to prove themselves in the established pack, but the times, they are a’changin’, and nowhere is this more evident than in the psychology of the men’s pro peloton.
The natural order has been disrupted over the past few seasons and we’ve seen a gradual break from tradition, as no longer do young riders have to start on the bottom rung before making their way up the ladder in their careers, as they used to. They are arriving on the scene already honed through the rising quality of junior and under-23 racing and development squads, ready to win all your bike races.
Let’s consider the evidence: of all the races that have been won so far this season at .1 level or above, 30% of them have been by riders aged 23 or under (at the time of writing). Two of those – Arnaud de Lie and Magnus Sheffield – are still teenagers. Perhaps most interestingly, eight of these wins have been the first pro wins for these riders. While the youth may still respect their elders, they are certainly not scared to take them on.
Who are the young guns you should be looking out for, this season and beyond? Here are just a few of the riders who have caught our eye so far in 2022.
Magnus Sheffield wins stage 3 of Ruta del Sol (Image: Bas Czerwinski/Getty)
The Tour de L’Avenir is always considered a good indicator of future prospects and true to form, the 2021 victor, Uno-X’s Tobias Johannessen, won a stage of Etoiles de Besseges in early February this year, climbing brilliantly to take a stage win.
INEOS Grenadiers’ young American Magnus Sheffield stormed away from the rest with around a kilometre to go on stage 3 of the Ruta del Sol, in a display of raw power which stunned the rest of the peloton.
Team UAE’s 23-year-old Alessandro Covi looks set to have a breakthrough season following a few close encounters with victory in 2021. Covi launched a late solo break to win the one-day Vuelta Ciclista Murcia, and rode strongly at the Ruta del Sol, winning stage 2, wearing the leader’s jersey for the following two days, and finally taking the win in the points classification.
Other riders who have demanded our attention include Anthon Charmig, Maxim van Gils, Santiago Buitrago, Biniam Girmay and Jacob Hindsgaul. And these are just the ones who have taken wins; many more are knocking at the door of big seasons, including Luke Plapp, Carlos Rodriguez and Caden Groves.
Oh, and there’s a young Belgian lad, goes by the name of Remco Evenepoel. Might be worth keeping an eye on him, too…
The sprinting force is strong…
The past few seasons have seen a changing of the guard in sprinting terms, with older riders such as Andre Greipel retiring and new young talents rising through the ranks.
It could be argued that at the top level, sprinting has not been at full strength for a few seasons now. The tides began to turn in 2021, however, with the return of Fabio Jakobsen to the field, the resurgent form of Mark Cavendish and the explosion of Alpecin-Fenix duo Tim Merlier and Jasper Philipsen into elite level racing.
This season that trend looks set to continue. The stars are aligning for 2022 to boast a plethora of sprinting talent at all the biggest competitions. There have already been so many different winners of the fast-finishing races so far this season, it’s impossible to tell who will emerge triumphant at the biggest races.Mark Cavendish wins at Tour of Oman (Image: SWpix/ASO/Oman/Broadway)
So far we’ve seen wins from Fabio Jakobsen and Mark Cavendish from QuickStep, presenting a nice problem for boss Patrick Lefevere and prompting widespread debate as to who should ride the Tour de France.
Other big names taking victory include Dylan Groenewegen, fresh from his transfer to Team BikeExchange Jayco, Fernando Gaviria of Team UAE, and Lotto Soudal’s Caleb Ewan. There are other, lesser known names chalking up victories too, even in the face of stern competition: Lotto Soudal’s Arnaud de Lie won the Trofeo Playa de Palma aged just 19, Amaury Capiot triumphed at the GP Marseillaise to take his first pro win at the age of 28, and Trek Segafredo’s Matteo Moschetti beat a strong field in Antalya.
What does it mean? Simply put, we could be in for the most exciting season of sprinting that the sport has seen for some time. The UAE Tour this week is road-testing the theory, gathering the world’s best in what some would argue is one of the most important fixtures of the season, as far as the fast men are concerned.
We have already seen Jasper Philipsen and Mark Cavendish take wins, with Sam Bennett riding his first race of the season also looking in ominous form. With two more sprint stages to come before the riders return to Europe, it’s anyone’s guess as to who will emerge as the top dog in sprinting by the end of 2022.
WorldTour Statuses Hang in the Balance…
The UCI’s application system for WorldTour status was overhauled in 2018, with teams required to reapply every three years (this article summarises the system clearly and succinctly).
The new system leaves teams who fall near or below the low-water mark of 18th place in the rankings in a precarious position, in danger of being effectively ‘relegated’ from the WorldTour. With the first three-year cycle due to come to a close at the end of this season, those teams are facing a good old-fashioned relegation scrap.
So, who’s up against the ropes? Arguably, everyone from around 14th or 15th place down could find themselves in trouble, with the likes of Lotto Soudal, Cofidis and Israel-Premier Tech in the most danger. The system also represents an opportunity, of course, with the likes of Total Energies and Arkea-Samsic the most likely beneficiaries of any of the current World Tour teams’ inability to defend their position.Caleb Ewan wins at the Saudi Tour Stage 1 (Image: ASO/Broadway/SWpix)
The pressure seems to have had the desired effect. Lotto Soudal and Cofidis in particular have both come out swinging, to continue the boxing metaphor. Lotto in particular seem to have a new lease of life and have picked up a raft of wins.
Caleb Ewan won a stage at the Saudi Tour with young climber Maxim van Gils winning another and the overall at the same race. Perennial early season victor Tim Wellens won in Mallorca, as did young sprinter Arnaud de Lie. Wellens and Ewan also claimed stage victories at the Tour des Alpes Maritimes.
Cofidis have made a strong start too, enjoying the return to form of sprinter Bryan Coquard – the Frenchman has taken two wins for his team. His compatriot Benjamin Thomas took a stage and the overall at Étoile de Bessèges.
Nairo Quintana at the Tour Des Alpes Maritimes Et Du Var Stage 3 (Image: Dario Belingheri/Getty)
Other teams in the mix have made in-roads into their fight for survival, too. Intermarché-Wanty-Gobert have picked up wins through Biniam Girmay and Jan Hirt. And French Pro Team Arkea-Samsic have been proving their worth largely through the early season form of Nairo Quintana, who has dominated the Alpine climbs of the Tour de la Provence and the Tour des Alpes Maritimes, winning a stage and the general classification at both stage races.
Israel-Premier Tech have yet to secure a win in 2022 and will rely on later races for their survival.
Expect the fight for points to have a huge influence over racing in 2022, with teams being selective about which races to send riders to, and race tactics likely to look a little weirder than usual. To give an example, a team may fight to have three riders in the top 10 of a race, rather than going simply for the overall victory, as the overall points total would be higher as a result. Lotto Soudal elected not to send Caleb Ewan to the UAE Tour, favouring Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne for a chance to score greater points and presumably not wanting to take any risks on his health, given the prevalence of covid-19 within the peloton.
Filippo Ganna is the master of many disciplines…
The final word must go to the Italian Grenadier who is going above and beyond this season in his efforts to prove he can do it all. Not content with being a top class rouleur and ever-reliable driver of the peloton, in addition to his well-known abilities against the clock, the Olympic track gold medallist and World time trial Champion has been trying his hand at other skills.Ganna at Étoile De Bessèges (Image: Luc Claessen/Getty)
For a self-confessed 88kg rider, it seems that he isn’t half bad at climbing. His efforts on the final climb at the Tour de la Provence up Montagne de Lure (where he was unfortunately later disqualified for an illegal bike change), and on Jebel Jais at the UAE Tour, have proven him to be a phenomenon who defies labelling.
Add to that his spiriting efforts on stage 1 in Provence where he took part in an uphill sprint to the line, and what we have here, is a rider of grave concern to the rest of the peloton.
Quite what Ineos plan to do with Ganna going forward is a mystery, but we will certainly enjoy watching whatever it is as it plays out over the coming seasons.
Cover image: SWpix/A.S.O./Alex Broadway