Mid-February is very early in the cycling season to make grand statements about the hierarchy of riders in world cycling. Riders are still getting up to speed with racing after the winter offseason, some still burning any lingering after-effects from Christmas-time indulgences, and nobody intends to reach peak form until the bigger races coming up from spring onwards.
At the same time, there still has been a considerable amount of racing already this year. We’re already three events into the women’s WorldTour and two in the men’s, while there’s been plenty of other stage races from South America and Australia and Europe and the Middle East.
With this in mind, one early-season statistic does stand-out as unusual and worthy of attention: as of February 15, only one sprinter in the men’s peloton has one more than one bunch sprint so far in 2023. And yet more surprisingly, that sprinter is not a name who would have been expected to be prolific, but second-year pro Sam Welsford (DSM), who’s acclimatising to the road having previously focussed his attention on the track.
Welsford’s two wins came at the Vuelta a San Juan, a race that epitomised how open bunch finishes have been so far this year. Sam Bennett (Bora-Hansgrohe) and Fabio Jakobsen (Soudal - Quick-Step) both went into the race as the marquee sprinters, and initially lived up to the billing by taking a win each on the first two days of the race. But on stage four Movistar did a number on them both by ejecting them from the peloton on the climbs to set their man Fernando Gaviria up for the win, before Welsford took them by surprise to pip Bennett into second on stage six and Jakobsen (dramatically hindered by a spectator’s overhanging arm, that nearly took him out) the following day.
Image by James Startt
While there was little to choose between these stars in Argentina, other top sprinters failed to capitalise on comparatively weaker fields in other races. Dylan Groenewegen (Jayco-Alula) looked all set to fill his boots at the Saudi Tour after winning the opening stage, only to be defeated by Jonathan Milan (Bahrain-Victorious) the following day, dropped on a hillier stage three, and mistime his sprint on stage five to be passed by Simone Consonni (Cofidis).
Elsewhere, at the Tour Down Under was not the happy hunting ground it usually is for Australian favourite Caleb Ewan. Despite showing promising form prior to the race by winning the Schwalbe Classic, he left himself with too much to do on stage one and couldn't quite catch Phil Bauhaus (Bahrain-Victorious) in time, and was caught out of position on a stage four sprint won by Bryan Coquard (Cofidis). Ewan’s Lotto-Dstny teammate Arnaud De Le has had more success, winning three races already, but have been a result of his multifaceted skills rather than just his fast finish; two have come from reduced bunch sprints, and another from an uphill finish.
Other star sprinters have left it later to return to racing. Tim Merlier certainly started his first season riding for new team Soudal - Quick-Step with a bang, claiming the opening stage of the Tour of Oman last week, but has been restricted by a lack of opportunities for sprints provided by that race’s hilly parcours; Mark Cavendish was also present at that race, but is still building his way up to form following his belated move to Astana. And two of the quickest sprinters of all last year, Jasper Philipsen (Alpecin-Deceuninck) and Arnaud Démare (Groupama-FDJ) have yet to race at all in 2023 deciding instead to make their bow in the cobbled Classics at Opening Weekend at the end of the month.
Whereas all this leaves us none the wiser as to which men will dominate the sprints this year, two names have already emerged as firm front-runners in the 2023 women’s peloton: Lorena Wiebes (SD Worx) and Charlotte Kool (DSM). Given her virtual invincibility in the bunch sprints last year, it was hardly a surprise to see Wiebes claim her first win of the year at the UAE Tour last week, but the way Kool managed to not only took her on at that race, but even ultimately get the better of her, sets up what is likely to be a mouth-watering season long duel between the two.
Wiebes must surely have believed that she was moments away from winning on her very first race day of the 2023 season, when her lead-out rider Barbara Guarischi dropped her off in the final of the UAE Tour opener, allowing her to open her sprint from the very front. It’s a sight the Dutchwoman (who won a whopping 23 races last year) has grown very accustomed to, so to see the open road suddenly occupied by Kool to her left must have come as a shock; even more so when she found herself incapable of matching her rival’s speed, and defeated into second place.
Wiebes had her revenge the very next day when she won by a comfortable bike-length in another drag race between the two, but another win for Kool on the final stage proved that the first result was not a mere aberration. If anything, this win was even more impressive, as the DSM rider had to work her way up a few wheels having been distanced slightly from Wiebes in the finale. That Kool still had the power to storm past her and maintain her advantage suggests that even a good lead-out and a head start isn’t enough for Wiebes to be confident of victory anymore.
Their burgeoning rivalry has all the more intrigue for their history together as teammates. Last year, Kool was riding as Wiebes’ main lead-out rider; now that Wiebes has moved to SD Worx, she has the freedom to start riding for herself. Rather than enjoying the extra resources her new team has at their disposal, so far the main consequence has been that Wiebes’ invaluable ally has been turned against her, and become a serious rival. As stunning as it was to watch Wiebes win so often last year, the emergence of someone capable of challenging her is very welcome.
With no more stage races in the Women’s WorldTour until May’s Vuelta Femenina, we won't be treated to any more daily battles between Wiebes and Kool for a while, although both are down to ride Gent-Wevelgem in March, which does tend to be come down to a sprint finish.
But the UAE will host more desert sprinting showdowns next week when an illustrious field featuring Bennett, Gaviria, Groenewegen, Ewan, Merlier, Cavendish, and Welsford assemble for the men’s UAE Tour. Perhaps a clearer picture of who’s the quickest sprinter in the peloton will emerge this time?