A look back. In previous years five races have been picked as highlights but that was just too hard, there were more than five stages of the Tour de France that stood out, just picking between them was much. Some highlights in rapidfire…
Paris-Nice gets a quick mention for the tweaked time trial rules. To repeat a point made before this wasn’t revolutionary but it was fun enough for a mid-week afternoon in March. The stage result was decided by the time of the first rider from each team and riders dropped by their team got the time they crossed the line with and it was interesting to see UAE go down to one rider, Pogačar obviously while Jumbo-Visma rode collectively. The rest of the race was fun as a Pogačar-Vingegaard rematch but the Slovenian was clearly superior in the moment, even grinning to the TV camera at one point as he sat on his rival’s wheel on the Loge des Gardes summit finish. As the days went on Pogačar just kept extending his lead
- With hindsight, you might remember Danish fans getting stressed at Vingegaard’s performance in March but a month later he cruised through the Basque Country taking three stages and the GC in the Itzulia race
How to pick a highlight among the spring classics? The Ronde and Roubaix were both great editions and both deserve a mention. Pre-race picks Pogačar – him again – and Mathieu van der Poel took solo wins after seeing off their rivals and in each case Wout van Aert was left chasing after mishaps. Van Aert still won the E3 ahead of the aforementioned champs and was strong enough to gift Gent-Wevelgem to team mate Christophe Laporte and the “still hasn’t won Roubaix or the Ronde” sets up a nice narrative going into 2024. Even if a handful of riders and teams shared the spoils it was often thrilling to watch rather than feeling like a monopoly. Many will probably pick the Ronde over Roubaix but here the finishing circuit with its laps is beginning to feel a bit boring but it did mean the long dual climb of the Kwaremont and Paterberg supplies as much climbing as you can get in this area, a launchpad for Tadej Pogačar.
Among the smaller stage races on the calendar the Tour of the Alps was lively, never a dull stage and despite variable weather, visually appealing too.
The Giro d’Italia wasn’t a thriller and if the course and startlist were contributors, so were outside elements like grim weather for days on end and pesky Covid. But there were some good days. The stage to Fossombrone was one of them, in part because it came after the Grand Sasso stage that saw little happen, a headwind was partly to blame but it was surprising that there was little competition to get in the breakaway which stayed clear. The following day overcompensated, non-stop action where the breakaway took ages to form and when a move did go, for a long time it struggled to take 20 seconds as the bunch chased hard. Despite the efforts Ben Healy went clear in the finale to take the stage win and really make a name for himself after an excellent debut to the season. Behind we saw a battle on the Cappucini climb with Primož Roglič on the attack and Evenepoel distanced but with hindsight he was probably coming down with Covid; Tao Geoghegan Hart looked very sharp too but his Giro would be over soon. There were other good days and the penultimate stage on Monte Lussari proved a thriller as Roglič overhauled Geraint Thomas on the steep mountain path to the delight of Slovenian fans who’d made the short journey. Mark Cavendish’s win on the final day was impressive too.
- With hindsight the boring parts seem to have faded. The nadir was the chaotic rider protest which came after days of cold weather, for good reason some worried about a sketchy descent… but the compromise was to skip the first climb of the day instead for fear of bad weather but conditions there weren’t so bad and still tackle the “dangerous” descent which turned out to be ok too. Cavendish’s win and the manner of it mattered, he got new confidence for the Tour and it showed with the help of a leadout what was still possible so we’ll see what 2024 brings.
The Critérium du Dauphiné used to be a staple supplier of annual highlights but less so recent editions. 2024’s stages wouldn’t make a five-of-the-best list but it was still instructive with Jonas Vingegaard becoming increasingly untouchable. The highlight though was the return of the Bastille finish above Grenoble, a steep climb and best of all, included after the Chartreuse trilogy. Ideally the day would have seen a duel on the slopes rather than Giulio Ciccone taking a solo win and for a moment Jonas Vingegaard was closing in but it was just good to see the climb back.
- With hindsight it was good to see an old climb back and with a big crowd, as the Puy-de-Dôme summit finish in the Tour didn’t evoke history or a party
June also saw the release of the Netflix series “Tour de France: Unchained” and in the moment it was a big talking point for the sport although I didn’t find it great art. It did get big audiences and the first effect of this was the reported audience demographics for the Tour de France in France, while the TV audience grew slightly, the component mix of this saw an influx of younger viewers and this is welcome. Since then Netflix has published audience data for the first time and the Tour series was the 984th most watched program. This was behind the copycat Formula 1, tennis and golf versions but crucially the data covers January to June only so in less than a month Tour de France: Unchained put on a substantial audience.
- With hindsight the series just felt overtaken by the Tour de France itself
The Tour de France was so good, where to begin? In the Basque country obviously where the big crowds bought a festive atmosphere that lasted throughout the race, at times being too delerious. So many stages were great, in fact only Stage 4 to the Nogaro circuit was dull, one of those days where nobody wanted to go in the breakaway but a grand tour is meant to have siesta days and if we had one it was amid sleepy sunflower country. Vingegaard and Pogačar traded blows and while they seemed inseparable, the Dane was always in the lead and Pogačar trying to find a way through. The duel ended in the Alps, the Combloux time trial and then the Col de la Loze finished off Pogačar but the action didn’t finish, Felix Gall’s stage win earns him a place in the revelations of 2023 alongside Ben Healy, Max Poole and and Josh Tarling. Two “transition” stages at the end were excellent, Kasper Asgreen’s unexpected win in Bourg-en-Bresse and then Matej Mohorič the next day in Poligny where he finished off a day’s sport with an eloquent post-race interview that spoke for many riders and touched plenty of fans alike. Every year French newspaper Le Monde does a “siesta guide” but it’s practically redundant given the course changes and aggressive peloton. Yes there’s a lot more to the season than the Tour but having so many of the best riders together and in peak form, all with saturation media coverage in many languages, it’s a feast.
- Looking back the summary seems to be Vingegaard beating Pogačar but there were so many days of great sport, it’d be good to rewatch them again and again in the coming days… if GCN+ hadn’t just refunded me
The transition to the Tour de France Femmes worked smoothly and the week’s racing was entertaining, it wasn’t an SD Worx monopoly show. The Tourmalet stage was great, including the visuals amid the clouds.
Skipping back, overlapping races on the calendar can sound problematic but Tirreno-Adriatico was partly created to give more riders a week’s racing ahead of the classics, for those not riding Paris-Nice. And if the Tour of the Basque Country clashes with Paris-Roubaix they’re for very different riders, there’s little opportunity cost. But the Giro Donne in July means the race often gets overlooked because all the world’s cycling media is drawn to the Tour de France, but it did have some great racing. Annemiek van Vleuten won three stages and was second and third on two more days, one of which saw Antonia Niedermaier win. The German rider is the latest skimo athlete to cross to cycling and trumping the likes of Toni Palzer, she’s won already too. The race should get some better coverage and organisation now it’s being run by RCS but we’ll see if a date change happens. It wasn’t Van Vleuten’s last win but it did see her career end in style.
Talking of calendar changes, the Glasgow Worlds were interesting for four reasons. First was the change in date, a summer event rather than a late season one and this altered things with Pogačar and others among the challengers. Second, the concept of nearly all disciplines together, a cycling olympiad. It sort of worked but does feel like something that’s manageable once every four years. Third was the urban street format with all those corners and ramps, to take ten seconds in the road race was to be well clear. Finally was the quality of the road races, in part because of the point made in the previous sentence. A rider might take only a few seconds’ lead or look to be almost dangling off the front but they were away, we saw this on the opening day with French junior Julie Bego’s win and it stayed until Mathieu van der Poel’s masterpiece over a week later, aided by Scottish hospitality. Cycling is so often a rural sport but taking the sport into the city brings new racing. The Zurich course for 2024 sounds promising, no way as intense but challenging all the same.
- Could the lasting element to all this be course design? It could be the worlds, it could the Ronde, or can you feed a peloton into a city circuit during a grand tour and not just stick to grand boulevards and alleys?
Is the Vuelta a España better with hindsight? Sepp Kuss took the lead thanks to a big breakaway (Lenny Martinez was in the lead for a day, then Kuss took over). There was some tension on the Angliru about whether Sep Kuss could win and social media raged over Jumbo-Visma’s riding. But now everything is done and dusted maybe the outcome looks even better? Kuss’s achievements can be seen in a wider lense, no secret he’d done the Giro and Tour but to win a grand tour with this was special. His ride in the time trial was strong too. And the upshot was that Roglič ended up moving teams which promises to make the 2024 Tour de France more spicy. Plus with hindsight Jumbo-Visma management couldn’t radio-control everything at the best of times but they were also presumably massive distracted by their sponsorship issues and merger planning. Remco Evenepoel adds a touch of mystique, the unexplained collapse one day but untouchable on other days, it’s probably giving him more space now ahead of the Tour de France and the latest objective is a top-5 in his first go at the Tour de France.
A few more fun things. First a wider observation: one reason it’s hard to pick is that we’re seeing better racing, moves go from afar. Strade Bianche didn’t get mentioned yet because it wasn’t a thriller but it was a performance to see Tom Pidcock go solo with 50km to go. If you want an emblematic example of this audacity, Remco Evenepoel attacked on La Redoute to win Liège when nobody had tried this far out for ages, he went earlier than he did last year. Some just don’t like to sit still – think Mathieu van der Poel who could but doesn’t rely on his sprint – and fuelling plays a part among other things. At this rate maybe someone will attack before the Poggio or ahead of the Mur de Huy in 2024?
Arnaud De Lie just feels fun to watch, you can often sense he is going to win an uphill finish and then see it happening before you. Guillaume Martin won a serious literary prize the other day and it’s great the peloton has characters like this. One departing character is Thibaut Pinot and he got a great send off but it was exceptional, the careers of Peter Sagan, Rohan Dennis, Greg Van Avermaet or Nacer Bouhanni ended in near obscurity (not them, just the manner of their stage exit). Reading L’Equipe right now is confusing as you see Ineos, Bahrain, Samsic and Arkéa logos… on football shirts but the cycling coverage is excellent, in July it’s superb. I enjoy podcasts and Radio Cycling has been a good edition, it’s got audio news but it’s often not reporting what’s happened but what is happening or even what might happen.
Enough for now, a long post but typed at speed and if you have any additions and suggestions please share…