No? Probably not? Why not? Apologies for the title which evokes Betteridge’s Law that states “any headline that ends in a question mark can be answered by the word no” but it’s a way to explore questions about Simon Špilak, the calendar and more.
After the Critérium du Dauphiné the talk was all what it meant for the Tour de France. One week later and the day after another selective Alpine stage race and all there’s none of this talk.
There are several reasons for this. First let’s start with Špilak and he’s going to the the Tour… of Poland rather than the Tour de France. That’s interesting alone, he’s just won a top mountain stage race but won’t do the Tour de France despite appearing in top shape. One main reason is he’s a specialist at one week stage races rather than grand tours (he’s a specialist in Swiss races because of his 12 career wins, half of them have come from the Tour de Suisse and the Tour de Romandie). His record in grand tours is less illustrious, his best performance is 48th place overall in the 2008 Giro and if he finished the Tour de France in 2009 he was DNF in 2010 and 2014. Grand tours are not for everyone to put it mildly, riders slip into a catabolic state the longer they race as the body begins break down from the relentless grind. Perhaps Špilak knows he can’t last the distance? Either way he avoids them despite enjoying mountainous stage races.
We know he doesn’t like the heat, sometimes he nicknamed “The Iceman” because he seems to thrive in cold conditions and often wears a layer less than others, cutting or rolling up the sleeves of his short sleeve jersey to make them shorter, even on icy days. As it happens he’s won races in broiling heat too. Perhaps another reason he’s not the talk of the town today is because he’s not that talkative, he speaks good Italian but when interviewed about his win yesterday he began by declaring “I’m very happy” in Italian in a deadpan tone with an inscrutable face. That’s not a criticism, merely his style but it might explain why the media aren’t rushing to find out more about the stoic Slovene.
“Tell me who you have beaten and I’ll tell you who you are“: so wrote Antoine Blondin several times as he chronicled the sport over the years. We can broaden things from the micro about Špilak to the macro. The Slovene was joined on the final podium by Damiano Caruso and Steven Kruijswijk. Caruso is no Tour contender because he’s going to be Richie Porte’s sherpa but this is an important “what does it all mean for the Tour?” aspect given Porte ran out of team mates in the high mountains during the Dauphiné so having Caruso will help Porte twice over, first for confidence and second for the physical support. Kruijswijk made a good recovery after his late Giro abandon but won’t be riding the Tour so no extrapolations can be made there, the same for Domenico Pozzovivo whose stage win and fourth place overall won’t make the headlines but will have Ag2r La Mondiale management purring at the ranking points bonanza.
The Tour de Suisse simply doesn’t attract enough of the big Tour de France contenders any more. It wasn’t always this way but we have to go back to 2001 to find someone doing the Suisse-Tour double and that was Lance Armstrong, since stripped of the result and arguably more interesting because he flashed up some suspicious tests but was not target-tested at all but that’s another story. For years Jan Ullrich’s pre-Tour build up included the Tour de Suisse but today few of the Tour’s contenders attend.
Last year Tejay van Garderen won the Queen Stage in the Tour de Suisse to bolster his credentials as a dual-leader chez BMC. Thibaut Pinot has opted for Suisse before to race away from the French media. But it’s an uncommon path. Even the Tour de Suisse’s commercial links to the Velon teams don’t deliver that much as the real stars have gone to the Dauphiné, mainly because of the calendar slot: it’s too close to the Tour de France. Any weaknesses or problems discovered in Switzerland leave little time to be remedied. Allow for some rest following the race, factor in some tapering before the Tour and the window to actually train is very small between today and the start of the Tour.
Calendar slot: The Tour de Suisse knows this and wants to move its slot the calendar, perhaps starting one week earlier to attract more big names. But will the UCI allow this? Already the Tour de Suisse and Dauphiné compete for riders and overlap with Suisse starting Saturday 10 June and the Dauphiné finishing on Sunday 11 June. This is competition for riders, not audience. To go from overlap at both races to an outright clash is something the UCI may have reservations but then again the World Tour calendar is crowded and incoherent already so why not? Above all it’s not easy finding a spare slot given the slots occupied by other World Tour events the newly-promoted Tour of California and the Giro, where race boss Mauro Vegni wants to move his race to a later slot. The UCI will validate the 2018 calendar in the coming days.
Swiss lessons: we can still extrapolate plenty from the past week of racing. Peter Sagan was beaten early in the week but recovered to win two stages and the points jersey so his quest for the green jersey in the Tour de France looks on track. Michael Matthews may challenge but might fancy a shot at the yellow jersey instead if he can place high in the opening time trial and then poach some time bonuses at the intermediate sprints and finish line. Ion Izagirre had a good week too, nothing spectacular but another name to watch in July while if you want to extrapolate beyond July then Movistar’s Mark Soler, still 23, is looking more and more like a replacement for Spain’s ageing generation of grand tour riders.
Busy weekend: talking of the future yesterday we saw Wout van Aert beat Mathieu Van Der Poel to win Ride Bruges, formerly known as the Elfstedenronde and, yes, a road race rather than a cyclo-cross and maybe it’ll be the same in the 2022 Tour of Flanders? Meanwhile in the Alps Egan Bernal won the Tour de Savoie-Mont Blanc ahead of Bjorg Lambrecht and we’re surely going to hear more of them, Bernal seemingly being Sky’s latest recruit. Plus there was the Tour of Slovenia won by Rafał Majka and a good four days for Bora-Hansgrohe since the Pole took a stage and team mate Sam Bennett took two more. The Route du Sud had the surprising result of Silvan Dillier winning the overall while Pierre Rolland took the stage into the Cirque de Gavarnie. Marcel Kittel and Dylan Groenewegen duelled at the Ster ZLM Tour.
It all goes quiet: so much action over the weekend but now there’s just one international race on the calendar – Halle-Ingooigem in Belgium – during the next two weeks until the Giro Rosa and Tour de France start. The national championships take place and a new UCI rule this year says they have to be held in the last full week of the month of June, with dispensation available for the southern hemisphere, so more countries are holding their championships in this upcoming slot than ever.
We go from one Alpine stage race where riders are observed, interviewed and analyzed for every possible meaning for the Tour de France to another where Tour speculation has vanished and where many participants are coming to the end of a block in their season: all in the space of one week. Simon Špilak was a convincing winner but is 300/1 to win the Tour de France and that’s still expensive given he’s not due to start in Düsseldorf. It shows us the oddities of the calendar and the specialist niches that exist throughout the year.
Now we go into a strange quiet period with only one international race ahead before the Tour de France begins in July but stay tuned for the nationals because they’re often on TV and fascinating because of their tactics given the concentration of some teams.
Top photo credit: Katusha-Alpecin / Tim de Waele