The Return of Racing

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In what has been a very disruptive year so far it is a relief to see that some form of normality is being restored in the professional peloton. Racing has returned and is set to produce some interesting results.

We have already seen the Tour of Poland kick off with a dramatic first stage which included a number of small crashes in a technical circuit. Unfortunately, the stage ended with an enormous crash on the finishing line. We sincerely hope that the riders and spectators involved are ok and have a speedy recovery.

Strade Bianche marked the start of the WorldTour season 2.0 with scorching summer temperatures greeting the peloton. In the first top-tier race since the covid-19 pandemic halted sport, Wout van Aert (Jumbo-Visma) and Annemiek van Vleuten (Mitchelton-Scott) both soloed to victories. The races gave us some strong indications of who is looking on form heading into a key month of racing.

For many of the sport’s top competitors, Strade Bianche marked their first race since March and with a host of major events coming up, there’s little time to find their racing legs. We take a look at how the next key races could play out.

Milan-Sanremo – 8 August

It turns out that the biggest threat to Milan-Sanremo this year could be the group of Italian mayors who have withdrawn permission for the race to travel through the traditional coastal towns. With the race usually scheduled in March when tourists are not flocking to the beach, organisers have been forced to reroute the peloton inland before the customary last 40km sees them tackle the Cipressa and Poggio before the downhill run into Sanremo.

It is yet to be seen how exactly the new route will pan out, but race organisers feel it could shake up what is known as ‘the Sprinters’ Classic’. The 2020 edition will tackle more climbs closer to the finish line which could result in a more select group arriving at the finish.

Predicted heat is a major talking point with many riders having suffered in the scorching temperatures at Strade Bianche. It will be further complicated with race organisers reducing the size of teams from seven to six riders to allow space for Italian second-tier teams Bardiani-CSF-Faizanè and Androni Giocattoli-Sidermec. It leaves top teams concerned with the last-minute decision and their leaders with one less teammate to do the legwork and fetch bottles.

Julian Alaphilippe (Deceuninck-QuickStep) will be back to defend his title as one of the favourites with the Frenchman’s form relatively unknown after a crash took him out of contention at Strade Bianche. He will be supported by a strong team which also features outside bets Zdeněk Štybar and Bob Jungels.

Strade Bianche winner Wout van Aert is a major contender after showing everyone just how hard he worked during lockdown. He was sixth in his debut appearance at the Sprinters’ Classic last year but looks to be on even better form now. He will once again come up against his cyclocross nemesis Mathieu van der Poel (Alpecin-Fenix) who starts his first Milan-Sanremo. An untimely puncture took him out of Strade Bianche contention, but we hope to see these two extraordinary talents go head to head on Saturday.

Oliver Naesen (AG2R La Mondiale) was runner-up last year and will be aiming for the top step, as will 2017 winner Michal Kwiatkowski (Team Ineos) who has always been a contender at this race. Vincenzo Nibali (Trek-Segafredo) will look to exploit the slightly harder route and replicate his winning move up the Poggio from 2018.

There are a whole heap of sprinters hoping it finishes in a bunch kick, including Caleb Ewan (Lotto Soudal), Arnaud Démare (Groupama-FDJ) and Elia Viviani (Cofidis) who will have the full support of their teams, which for Ewan includes Philippe Gilbert, a worthy plan B. The interesting duo of Fernando Gaviria and 2014 winner Alexander Kristoff (UAE-Team Emirates) have shown they can work together well in the closing stages of a race and both present viable options for the win.

The 111th edition of the race might be the most unpredictable yet with 299km in the Italian sunshine to determine the winner. The favourites list is almost as long as the race itself with so many different scenarios of how the last few crucial kilometres could play out.

Team Ineos Launch Jersey, Chris Froome

Critérium du Dauphiné – 12-16 August

While the Critérium du Dauphiné is not the first WorldTour stage race on the new calendar (the Tour of Poland takes that title), it is the first race where we’ll see some of the top Tour de France contenders stacked up against each other. With its proximity to the Tour, ending within two weeks of the Grand Depart, it’s a key indicator as to how each contender is shaping up and where their form is at.

The Dauphiné is especially key this year given the lack of stage racing leading up to the Tour. Due to the compressed calendar, there are only five stages this year rather than the usual eight, but the organisers have tried to make up for that by designing an aggressive route. No individual time trials allow the pure climbers to have their fun, and with lots of mountains to play on, it’s sure to be an exciting race as riders put the final touches on their Tour de France preparation.

Look to the regular big names to contest for overall and stage honours with almost every Tour contender lining up. Team Ineos’s trio of Tour de France winners in Egan Bernal, Geraint Thomas and Chris Froome are expected to go head to head against the Jumbo-Visma big three of Primož Roglič, Tom Dumoulin and Steven Kruijswijk. The two dominant Grand Tour forces will look to test each other and exploit any weaknesses that might emerge.

While it would be surprising to see someone not wearing an Ineos or Jumbo-Visma jersey winning the race, opportunists such as defending champion Jakub Fuglsang (Astana) will look to use the team rivalries to sneak away with the overall victory.

Nairo Quintana (Arkéa Samsic) had some great early season form and this race will be particularly important for his team being a French outfit. The Colombian is looking more like the rider who won the Giro d’Italia and Vuelta a España in the past, so it will be interesting to see if he can translate his new lease of life into a serious general classification attempt at the Tour.

Young gun Tadej Pogačar (UAE-Team Emirates) is heading into his first Tour de France and should be in good form. Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) might be almost double his age but he cannot be discounted in these shorter stage races as he looks to add to his impressive 127 career victories.

Other names to look out for include French pair Thibaut Pinot (Groupama-FDJ) and Romain Bardet (AG2R La Mondiale), as well as Mikel Landa (Bahrain-McLaren) and Rigoberto Uran (EF Pro Cycling) who have seen success in this race in the past.

Il Lombardia

Il Lombardia – 15 August

Il Lombardia is usually the season closer but has been moved forward to avoid clashes with both the Giro and Vuelta. It is still however, the Monument closest to its original scheduled date, but sadly it does clash with the Critérium du Dauphiné. This might see a slightly weaker field than it would normally enjoy, but there are still a host of big names likely to contest the race.

From the start in Bergamo, the course sees the peloton tackle the famous Madonna di Ghisallo climb where the moves are likely to come thick and fast before the lakeside run into the popular tourist town of Como.

With its move from autumn to summer, the heat will once again be a major focus and could be a strong factor in deciding who wins on the day. Racing these long classics in the middle of summer adds a different element to the race with temperatures known to creep into the high 30s in northern Italy in August.

Bauke Mollema (Trek-Segafredo) showed incredibly strong end of season form to take his first Monument victory here last year. He’s due to line up at the Tour de France two weeks after Il Lombardia so should have some good legs to show off before heading to France.

Mathieu van der Poel is a favourite at every race he starts and it’s no different for Il Lombardia. The punchy finish should suit him down to a tee and he would likely be the strongest in a small group sprint finish. The heat could be the only issue for the cyclocross world champion as he is more accustomed to freezing temperatures and Belgian mud.

Italian fans will be hoping Vincenzo Nibali puts on a show for the home crowd. He lives just around the corner from Como in Lugano and is known to train on these roads often. The two-time winner of this race is set to complete almost exclusively on Italian roads this year, perhaps trying to use the home (socially distanced) crowd to his advantage.

Maximilian Schachmann (Bora-Hansgrohe) and Michael Woods (EF Pro Cycling) are two other names worth keeping an eye on with both riders showing strong form coming out of lockdown.

As with many professional races, us mere mortals can also ride the route in the Il Lombardia Sportive, you can read our review here.

La Course by Le Tour de France- 29 August

The biggest women’s race of August and usually one of the most exciting on the calendar is La Course, now in its seventh year, run by the Tour de France. Kicking off on the same day as the men’s race in Nice, the course features a two-lap race around the outskirts of the city with two category three mountain passes for the bunch to contend with. It’s a fairly flat run-in on the famous stretch of the Promenade des Anglais by the beach.

The question everyone will be asking is if anyone can stop Annemiek van Vleuten. The world champion is unbeaten this year, winning every race since she pulled on the rainbow stripes in September last year. While she is clearly the strongest female rider this year (maybe ever), the course might not be selective enough for her with 40 flat kilometres between the last climb and the finish. The first climb is only 8km into the race and we can expect van Vleuten and her team to try and make it as hard as possible from the outset.

The course is only 96 kilometres long which means it should be an exciting race right from the gun. The women do not have as many race days as the men beforehand so it will be interesting to see how the race progresses and which riders are looking good.

Marianne Vos (CCC-Liv) has won more bike races than some seasoned professionals have raced and will look to add to her two previous victories at La Course. The defending champion probably has the edge on van Vleuten in a sprint so will do everything she can to hang onto her flying Dutch compatriot.

Anna van der Breggen (Boels-Dolmans) comes in with arguably the strongest team and the Olympic champion should feature later in the race. The Dutch woman will retire after the postponed Olympics in 2021 and will want to add to her singular La Course title from 2015.

Besides the Dutch, there are several other riders who present an outside option for the race. Ashleigh Moolman (CCC-Liv) features at the pointy end of almost every bike race she starts and should work well with Vos as they look to outnumber van Vleuten. If it comes down to a bunch sprint, Coryn Rivera (Sunweb) will be one of the favourites, as will Chloe Hosking (Rally) who won on the Champs-Elysées in 2016, but they’ll both have to survive the climbs first.

Other names to look out for include Elisa Longo Borghini (Trek-Segafredo), Marta Bastianelli (Alé BTC Ljubijana) and Amanda Spratt (Mitchelton-Scott) who will all look to put their mark on the race.

bike racing - tour de france

Le Tour de France – 29 August-20 September

The Tour de France will be the first major test to see if cycling is ready to return. A month-long adventure for staff, riders, media and spectators, it’s something of a circus, but can it complete its run covid-free?

Running a weeklong stage race across a specific region of a country is a completely different ball game to making the Tour go smoothly all over France. With so many more factors coming into play, it’s going to be a mammoth task for organisers to ensure the safety of not only the riders and staff, but also the general public.

The Tour route this year is one of the hardest in recent memory, which means many top sprinters are opting for the Giro or Vuelta instead. Only one time trial, which finishes up the notoriously steep La Planche des Belles Filles, is sure to keep the climbers happy and will mean that the Tour will likely be decided in the mountains.

The 2020 Tour crosses the entire country starting down south in Nice before making its way to the western coast and into to the Alps. The traditional finish on the Champs-Élysées might be without the usual massive city centre crowds, but it’s still sure to be a memorable Tour.

The usual suspects should take centre stage after the Dauphiné with Egan Bernal coming in as the strong favourite. Team Ineos clearly have the fire power to win the race, taking out seven of the last eight editions, and should put their leaders in the perfect position to take control early. They will be pushed all the way by a strengthened Jumbo-Visma squad who will be looking to steal yellow from the British squad’s tight grip.

After last year’s heroics, Julian Alaphilippe will probably not be given the same freedom, but he’s sure to leave his mark on the race with his characteristic attacking style. Though he’s said he’s not going for GC, it will be interesting to see if his legs tell a different story when it comes down to it.

It will definitely be a different Tour de France than usual and sure to be one we remember for a long time. The added storyline of covid-19 precautions and the enforcement of team “bubbles” is not going to go away either, and perhaps one of the most intriguing questions remains: will the peloton even make it to Paris?

August is set to be a blockbuster of a month for cycling. We may have missed out on almost five months of racing, but the riders are sure to make up for it with an absolutely packed calendar.

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