Ten riders to watch for the season. There are a couple of tips for riders to get breakout results but others are cited for varying reasons, from the way they shape the sport to the way their team is counting on them.
Tadej Pogačar because he’s an obvious pick and also because it’s becoming as much about what others do as he does. To explain, he was so solid last year that he’s quickly become a cornerstone of the sport, the kind other teams are basing their race schedules around, even recruitment decisions. This is rational because at his best he can win time trial stages, take summit finishes and even sprint for Monuments and time bonuses alike, and there’s every sign he’ll improve with experience too. Yet, this position’s a hard one to occupy at the best of times and arguably he’s not been pushed hard in grand tours, he was upright when others fell in last year’s Tour and then Jumbo-Visma and Ineos went into salvage mode to get a podium, rather than to knock him off it. Alas, one test here was going to be how Pogačar would cope with this year’s long climbs like the Granon, Alpe d’Huez and Hautacam against Egan Bernal and Ineos and that dream’s been extinguished this week. But the point stands, Pogačar will find repeating much harder especially if whole teams try to take him on.
Mark Cavendish or how to go out on a high. Do you remember André Darrigade’s last race? You’d need to be pretty old, so how about Mario Cipollini’s last race? No? Marcel Kittel’s last day? No, me neither. So a rider doesn’t have to pick a perfect moment to leave the sport to still be held up as a champ: the palmarès speaks more than the exit. Still it’s something to think of, as are any missing races. Once nice problem for Cavendish is that his career has been so long that he’s outlasted cultural reference points, for some time the only things he had left to win were Gent-Wevelgem and Paris-Tours, longtime held up as classics accessible to the sprinters, but now their format’s changed. In winning those Tour de France stages last summer Mark Cavendish buried the talk of decline after a four year spell with just two wins. So what to do? Just start winning, keep winning and try to finish winning.
Ivan Sosa is both a great signing and marks a reversion to tradition for Movistar who spent the last couple of seasons hiring young riders from all over the place and frankly got little to show for it. Now they’ve signed a Spanish-speaking climber who on his day can ride with the very best. You might remember Sosa as Gianni Savio’s pension top-up, he rode for the Androni team in the wake of Egan Bernal and got the “New Bernal” label, although Sosa’s more a pure climber. Trek-Segafredo wanted him, lawyers got involved, he went to Sky and he was solid but not spectacular. But he was paid well to do this on a team with big leaders. Now he’ll have more chances and while winning a mountain stage is always a big ask, he’s a contender and should give Movistar some previous wins this year.
Who is the best sprinter in the world? I’d say Caleb Ewan but wouldn’t spend hours arguing it. Ewan’s shown he can win often and win big, plus he’s got a tendency to question things and search for improvements. Still, his crash at the Tour de France had a reckless touch and if there is a prize for being the best sprinter, it’s not for what you’ve done before, it’s for what you can win today and tomorrow. His success is linked to his whole team’s success this year as if he can score UCI points – in one day races as much as grand tours – then the venerable team will avoid relegation from the World Tour. But just winning sprints is a start. There’s talk of Milan-Sanremo, and he can, but so many riders feel Sanremo is within their grasp, that’s what makes the race so interesting. He’s interested in the worlds too but we don’t know the official route yet so note his polite interest but don’t bet on anything.
This time last year Remco Evenepoel was on the mend from a big injury, in contract talks, and team management were trying to secure long term sponsorship. All of these were interconnected, Quick Step’s sponsorship of the team rides in part on the prospect of Evenepoel winning big which required him to be fully fit. Then the Giro didn’t work out and we saw “classic Remco” wins in the tours of Belgium and Denmark but now he’s got a normal season ahead with fewer outside pressures, a chance to widen the repertoire. The Vuelta is his next grand tour but a diet of week-long stage races awaits, including big ones like Tirreno-Adriatico, the Basque Country and the Tour de Suisse.
Mark Padun had a breakout win in the Tour of the Alps in 2018 and the following year a win at the big Tre Cime di Lavaredo climb, but in the smaller Adriatia Ionica race. Then things went quiet until the 2022 Dauphiné. One stage win would have been a result, instead he took two, consecutively and the hardest ones on the final Alpine weekend. The apparent ease of his wins, plus riding for Bahrain, did more than raise eyebrows so some are waiting to see how he fares with EF Pro Cycling this year but all this imposes some kind of outside test that neither proves or denies anything. One difference is his new team will want him in breakaways more often and he’ll be more central to their way of racing than he was at Bahrain. There’s shades of Carlos Betancur here, the prodigiously talented Colombia won some races while visibly overweight and Padun’s had food and diet issues to tame.
Last year was all about leadership lessons for David Gaudu, sent into races as the boss and being expected to manage the pressure and get the best of those around him at Groupama-FDJ. By all accounts it worked, he had some decent results all year; but his season was outwardly defined by a collapse on the hot day on the slopes of Mont Ventoux where his Tour de France plans wilted. Now 2022 is all about converting being in the front group into wins. Easier said than done and there’s a lot riding on him given the team’s two other leaders Arnaud Démare and Thibaut Pinot are, well, worth watching this year. Now at 53kg or less Gaudu is going to struggle if there’s a stage race but all other hilly terrains are open.
Does home advantage work in cycling? Ethan Hayter was pushing Julian Alaphilippe and Wout van Aert hard in the Tour of Britain. If it helped, he managed fine without it as he was comfortable in almost any hilly road race all year, plus he’s the British time trial champion, he took silver in the velodrome for the Tokyo Olympics too which was the season’s big goal. All that before turning 23 and once he did, he won a rainbow jersey on the track soon after. Versatile, he and Ineos will be happy if he can keep on scoring like this, they’ll hoover up more stage races this way. But the next test is how he can cope with longer distances and deeper opposition in World Tour races. The Giro is on the cards and he’s a name to add to the list of contenders for the opening day’s uphill finish and the waiting maglia rosa.
Alessandro Covi is a straight pick as one to watch for results this year, assuming he can get a chance on a crowded team. He had a lot of placings last year, and often in hard, hilly races which are the kind where a little experience can go a long way so he should be able to improve with the wisdom learned. But UAE is a big squad with obvious ambitions for the grand tours with Pogačar and João Almeida. They’ve got sprinters like Pascal Ackermann and Fernando Gaviria who will want lead out riders. So it’s not going to be opportunities galore for Covi and then he’s got team mates like Ulissi and Trentin who are in a similar niche.
Why have the Pyramids lasted so long? One factor must be design, engineering a wide base able to support each successive load is a winning format. For years the Total Energies team under past names was the top of a strong pyramid. Back in the day, the Europcar team was full of riders who’d graduated from its impressive Vendée-U amateur squad, which was then one of the very best squads on the French U23 scene. Now it isn’t and with the stream of local talent drying up the pro team’s been buying older foreign names in order to swing wildcard invites. Now to make them incontournable comes Peter Sagan, along with his large entourage of loyal riders and support staff. The Total Energies pyramid looks inverted, can the structure hold up? If so there’s a pivot point with a giant sponsor – one of the world’s largest oil forms – looking on and they might be persuaded to buy more. Is Sagan up for it and how does he fold into a French team that’s more a family firm than a multinational? Into this comes expectation management, the team hasn’t won a Tour stage since 2017 so one triumph here would be a joy, but it’ll be judged by a higher standard now. For Sagan too just repeating something like last season would be solid, a string of world tour level wins and to parlay the Giro stage win into the Tour… although Wout van Aert and Mathieu van der Poel have their plans too.