Phrases like “start of the spring classics” might resonate now but we’re already one quarter of the way through the season now with 145 days of racing done so far. Here’s a look at the stats and some of the stories behind them like whether FDJ’s surprise success this season is going to cost them financially or some musings on whether the Pro Conti ranks have any must-have teams to award a wildcard.
The story of March is similar to February with Etixx-Quickstep, Astana and Team Sky topping the rankings. Between them these four teams have taken over a quarter of all wins in men’s pro cycling so far this season.
Once again Etixx-Quickstep lead and they’re winning on all fronts, such as Dan Martin’s stage win in the Volta a Catalunya. The only problem is they’re not winning where they’re supposed to: on Belgium soil. Close your eyes and you’ll picture a train of blue jerseys chasing once again after they’ve missed the move of the day. As good as recent wins in Catalonia or Tirreno-Adriatico have been, this is a team with deep roots in Belgium and so far Niki Terpstra’s triumph in Le Samyn doesn’t cut it when it comes to the expectation placed on the team. What if this wasn’t an aberration but a structural problem for the team? A lot of their recruitment is now orientated to picking the best riders from around the world, think of Marcel Kittel, Fernando Gaviria, Dan Martin, Julian Alaphilippe and if this international scouting programme is proving efficient it seems they’re not recruiting the best of Belgium. Jasper Stuyven’s at Trek-Segafredo, Tiesj Bennot, Jürgen Roelandts and Jens Debusschere at Lotto-Soudal, Greg Van Avermaet and Philippe Gilbert at BMC Racing, Sep Vanmarcke at Lotto-Jumbo, Jan Bakelants at Ag2r La Mondiale. Glance at the CQ Rankings and Tom Boonen is the only Belgian EQS rider in the top-100, scope the next 100 and there’s Yves Lampaert in 110th and Pieter Serry in 190th. Lampaert was expected to do more but his girlfriend rammed him with a supermarket trolley by accident, provoking an Achilles tendon injury which has put him out of the spring classics.
BMC Racing are in fifth place but the surprise of the spring so far has been FDJ also on nine wins thanks to the success of their three leaders, Thibaut Pinot, Arnaud Démare and Arthur Vichot who have all won while nobody else has. Pinot’s taken three wins all from last weekend where he took the time trial stage, the mountain stage and the overall at the Critérium International, a celebration overshadowed by the sad loss of Daan Myngheer who died after suffering a heart attack on the opening stage. The race continued and FDJ who had to control the race by themselves and one year ago Pinot looked set to win but his attacks were countered by J-C Péraud. This time “we rode à la Sky” said Pinot as FDJ rode a much more controlled race. We missed the opportunity to see what Pinot could do against a deeper field thanks to the snow-that-wasn’t in Tirreno-Adriatico so the next test will be the Tour de Romandie at the end of April but the surprise was the team’s third place in the team time trial stage where they beat the likes of Tinkoff, Sky and Astana. The team have worked on this a lot and Pinot himself trains regularly on his time trial bike. If anything Pinot has long preferred long steady climbs rather than short spiky ascensions, an effort similar to a TT.
So far so good but can it hold? Nevermind the coming months, can the team stay together? Both Pinot and Démare have contracts expiring at the end of the year and their price is rising with every race at the moment. Nacer Bouhanni’s €1.3m contract with Cofidis raises the bar, “the monument winning Démare deserves similar” is an obvious opening gambit for his contract talks. Meanwhile Pinot, still 25 is improving and even turning weaknesses into strengths as he improves his time trial pacing and learns to cope with the burdens of leadership and the media pressures. You’ll remember FDJ had to sacrifice Francis Mourey’s cyclo-cross contract to find savings to spend on training camps, now the order of money needed to retain Pinot and Démare is much greater. Will the French lottery stump up more money? The team has been looking for a co-sponsor for sometime but has yet to seal a deal. There’s a good chance Pinot and Démare stay, they seem happy in the team and rooted in France. Pinot could have moved to Switzerland to save taxes but (so far) it’s not his style; Démare’s just got a house down the road from his parents.
Tinkoff are a mid-table sixth place for wins but top the UCI team rankings… all those second places by Sagan mean points galore. At the bottom of the table Giant-Alpecin are the only team without a wins and they’ve had five podium places, among them Sam Oomen third in the Critérium International (pictured and one of this blog’s neo pros to watch for 2016) and Tom Dumoulin beaten by one second in the Paris-Nice prologue. Above all they’ve got a lot of goodwill following their training crash so nobody is expecting a trophies and bouquets yet but there will be a point in the summer where we can take stock of where the riders and team management are. Lampre-Merida picked up their first win in last week’s Volta a Catalunya thanks to Davide Cimolai winning a sprint.
For several teams at the lower end of the table this time of year is a busy time with many races in April, the busiest month of the year in terms of race days. It’s here that the teams can pick up more wins rather than hope for success in the set-piece events like the Monument classics and the upcoming grand tours.
In the pro continental ranks Direct Energie are on nine wins, the same as a month ago after their strong start to the season. Bryan Coquard is over his shoulder injury and should start winning soon again. Cofidis are the big climbers thanks to Nacer Bouhanni and his four wins this season, three of which have been in World Tour and helpfully in countries where the consumer lender sponsor has business too. The team’s other winner was Anthony Turgis in the Classique Loire Atlantique who is part of a mini-cycling dynasty with two brothers, the elder Jimmy is a pro at Roubaix Lille Métropole while Tanguy is one of France’s best juniors. Southeast-Venezuela took two home wins in the Coppi e Bartali with 30 something sprinter Manuel Belletti and the 21 year old Jakub Mareczko. Drapac are up to fourth because they’ve taken two wins in the Tour of Taiwan and now moving for a spell of racing in Europe and it’ll be interesting to see how they fare, knowing the terrain counts for so much but veteran rider Graeme Brown will be invaluable here.
One observation among all the Pro Continental teams is the gap between them and the World Tour. Only Cofidis have a genuine world class rider in Nacer Bouhanni, the kind a race would want to give a wildcard because he’s a genuine contender in the sprint finishes although the team have put all their eggs in this one basket and without him they’re far from compelling. It’s worse elsewhere though, look across at the other teams and there few “must have” riders when World Tour races consider who to invite. Pippo Pozzatto probably opens a few doors for Southeast, Sylvain Chavanel for Direct Energie and maybe Davide Rebellin might do the same for CCC too while Bora-Argon 18’s Sam Bennett (pictured) is starting get his foot in the same door. But otherwise we’re quickly down to inviting teams for their ability to enliven a race, to send riders up the road in the early breakaways although there’s a tautology here, these teams have to race like this because they often don’t have a rider who can thrive in the front group after 200km. Of course all this makes the triumph of a smaller team that much more notable, some of these teams have budgets – all their riders, staff, logistics, training camps – that represent a mere fraction of what the likes of Tinkoff, Sky or Astana spend on a single rider’s salary. Lastly amid all this is the chance for talent detection and progress, for example Androni have 19 year old Colombian Egan Bernal who, if things don’t go the way of Betancur, looks very promising and everyone is now talking about Caja Rural’s 21 year old Briton, and Froome body double, Hugh Carthy.