Photo: @bettiniphoto

#3 The Calendar

FRIDAY, JULY 3, 2020

Author: Simon Nessler @tastasol

A different season shaping up - can Covid-19 be a catalyst for change in cycling?

Make no mistake, Covid-19 is still a significant part of most people’s day, but at least in big parts of Europe it seems like the first wave has ended. Gradually sport has also returned, especially football, and later this month we will also get the first international UCI races.

Some countries have had plenty of national competitions already, and we also had the Slovenian NC in June as the first European UCI race since Paris-Nice. For a long time we’ve been uncertain if it’s possible to actually go ahead with the big races this season, but for now the signs are good. Countries are lifting their restrictions, and it might even be allowed with crowds. But then again – the situation can change rapidly. On the PGA Tour in golf there has been positive tests with every tournament since the restart despite strict guidelines, and we had the catastrophe that was the Adria Tour in tennis. That saw world number 1, Novak Djokovic, and a bunch of other high profile tennis players, testing positive for Covid-19, though the lack of strict guidelines was probably to blame for that.

In a cycling race you get very close to a number of people every day, and the travelling before, during and after races can also be an issue. The UCI released a protocol for the procedures to be followed for the 2020 season, where they also clearly stated that the organisers must plan for managing a suspected Covid-19 case during the race, and to me it looks clear that we can face big changes to the season quite quickly should something happen. Either way, we have a final calendar presented by UCI, and the teams are doing their very best to plan for the months ahead.

With almost all the big races squeezed into just over three months, the shape of the season is of course completely different from what we are used to. A benefit to who?

A Tour de France full of stars

To put it very simply: The stars. If the Tour de France wasn’t the most important race of the season before Covid, it surely is now. The field will be absolutely packed, and as it stands for the moment we’ll also get the anticipated showdown between Ineos and Jumbo-Visma.

Due to the Olympics being postponed, most of the star riders should also go really go for it. Yes, the Worlds RR is just a week after Champs-Élysées, but with no need to adapt to the climate and time zones, the Tour and Worlds is a much more manageable double.

Photo: @bettiniphoto

That means the two super team should face tough competition from the likes of Pogacar, Quintana, Pinot, López, Valverde, Alaphilippe etc. It’s clear that we will be in for a heck of a race! The guys who had to be on the rollers for a month or two because of the coronavirus obviously lost a bit of their top fitness, but given that most countries have been back to something very close to normal for a while, and that the Tour will come after a good portion of “preparation races”, should mean that we get a high level edition of the Tour. And what a fight it will be. Some teams are fighting for survival, plenty of riders are fighting for a new contract in a very tough market, and the route itself should make it a thrilling race. This could very well be one of the best editions ever sporting wise.

The Tour is of course the Tour – it will be a huge race in every season. The broader question is how the other races will be affected by the calendar changes. Until we get to October, there’s not really any conflict. We’ll have a great amount of Italian races in August, with Strade Bianche kicking off the WorldTour season and then Milano-Sanremo and Il Lombardia the following weekends. Yes, the same time we’ll have races like Tour de Pologne, Critérium du Dauphine, Route d’Occitanie and Tour de l’Ain, and we get Tirreno-Adriatico and the Canadian races during the Tour, but the scheduling should still be fairly easily.

The one exception will probably be the men’s ITT in the World Championship, on the same day the Tour de France finishes, but will most likely only end in the real specialist either not going to the Tour or opting to go out of the race some days before the ITT.

Yes, the real concern starts when we are done with the Worlds. Fléche Wallonne, BinckBank Tour, Hamburg, Liége-Bastogne-Liége and the start of the Giro will all follow the next week. During the Giro we’ll have Amstel Gold Race, Gent-Wevelgem, Tour of Flanders, Brugge-De Panne, Paris-Roubaix and then the start of Vuelta a España. Now ladies and gentlemen, this is a real challenge!

A more unpredictable classics campaign

It’s crowded. There is not really much more to say than that. It’s not possible to squeeze six-seven months of racing into 15 weeks. As so many times before, the Tour de France is kept sacred and will have all the attention when it’s ridden. That can’t be said about the other big races, who will fight each other for attention. In so many ways cycling is the Tour, and the Tour is cycling, but to be honest I would have preferred a calendar that didn’t collide so heavily as the “second part” (after Tour de France) does.

The new calendar has already given us some rather unconventional changes, like Peter Sagan opting to skip the Classics. Sagan was of course planning on going to the Giro before Covid-19, but just as natural, the Classics was also his main objective this spring. Now he’ll probably race one day races like Strade Bianche and Milano-Sanremo, but his presence will be missed – by the audience – for the cobbles in Belgium and France. For the rest it’s a golden opportunity to race a “whole” cobbles campaign without one of their biggest rivals. All eyes on Deceuninck-Quick-Step, who probably also will have to shuffle around on the team in this period. Originally they had planned for Fabio Jakobsen to take Davide Ballerini and Florian Sénéchal with him to the Giro, but at least Sénéchal will be all in on the cobbles. The same goes for Jumbo-Visma, where Dylan Groenewegen had planned to take Mike Teunissen and Amund Grøndahl Jansen for the lead out in the Giro. Those two will also instead be aiming for the cobbles, where they will team up with Wout van Aert as the three classics leaders on the team. For Teunissen and Jansen it will mean a season without a Grand Tour, and for many that will be a tough choice. Unless you are on the team for the Tour de France, you might find yourself having to choose between the biggest one day races in cycling and the importance of riding a Grand Tour annually to build your strength. That being said, there is of course the opportunity to start in the Vuelta a España after competing in most of the Classics (but not De Panne and Paris-Roubaix).

That also seems to be a part of the motivation behind UAE Team Emirates switching their sprinters, with Alexander Kristoff going to the Tour and Fernando Gaviria to the Giro. There’s little doubt that Gaviria is the fastest of the two, but the teams also have to consider giving their stars the best possible preparation for the Classics. Kristoff will then get his preferred preparation with limited support in a team going for the GC with Pogacar, while Gaviria gets a solid team around him in a Giro with more opportunities for the sprinters. And then you also have Philipsen, who will probably ride several of the classics with Kristoff, before heading to the Vuelta. As I see it, the decision to shuffle around was correct by the UAE team, but it’s tough decisions like this the team managers have to face. Some will certainly not be that happy with all decisions (read: Michael Matthews).

The Classics, and especially the ones on the cobbles, could also be ridden differently because of the packed calendar. Because of the autumn we might get rain in Roubaix for the first time since 2002, and most of the Flemish races have been, quite bizarrely, shortened with 11-26 kilometres. Flanders Classics have argued that the decision was made because of the short time between the races, but the effect of making a race 15-35 minutes shorter seems minimal in terms of recovery. The real effect would have been to cut some of the races, but even now they are not that close, as the number of riders competing in all of Brabantse Pijl (October 7th), Gent-Wevelgem (October 11th), Schelderprijs (October 14th) and the Tour of Flanders (October 18th) would probably be minimal, or at least have plenty of riders taking races like Brabantse Pijl and Scheldeprijs like a good training ride and stepping out of the race early in the local laps. Had they still raced races like Dwars door Vlaanderen and the E3 BinckBank Classic you could argue otherwise, but as the calendar stands now, it seems unnecessary. Either way it will make the races a bit easier and given that many riders struggle when we pass 250 kilometres, it should be good news for many. Riders like Kristoff and Oliver Naesen would surely have wanted to keep them at their full length.

Photo: @bettiniphoto

Another point is the potential lack of riders with a good sprint. Due to the clash with the Giro we won’t have riders like Sagan, Gaviria, Elia Viviani, Arnaud Demaré and Michael Matthews present. Especially races like Gent-Wevelgem, De Panne and Amstel Gold Race could be heavily influenced by a lack of the strongest hybrid sprinters. Stefan Küng can’t play on Demaré coming from behind to win a sprint, Tiesj Benoot can’t play on Michael Matthews doing the same (though Cees Bol could perhaps do it) and Bora-Hansgrohe have to approach plenty of races in a whole new way.

It could lead to the races being more open, and hopefully some new riders will emerge that wouldn’t have gotten the chance otherwise. Combine it with the shorter distance, and I’ve got a feeling we could see some riders really getting their breakthrough this season. With the relative lack of racing, especially guys who finish the Tour de France should be followed closely. Time and time again we’ve seen riders coming out of a Grand Tour with a little added power in the legs, and those who can manage to finish the Tour in a good way, could be in for a great run in the Classics.

Another question is how the riders actually will plan their classics campaign. Will guys like Mathieu van der Poel, Wout van Aert, Matteo Trentin and Michael Valgren try to race both Amstel Gold Race (10th of October) and Gent-Wevelgem the following day, or will it be a significantly reduced starting field in either one or both of them? What will Julian Alaphilippe do? The Frenchmen has decided to defend his title in Sanremo after all, but who will he cope with mixing Ardennes with Flanders? The Tour of Flanders could very well end up being his first race on the cobbles for the season.

With so much unknown, it again creates a more unpredictable season that should be a joy to watch.

What can Evenepoel do?

Talking about riders getting their breakthrough, that’s for sure something that we could also expect in the Grand Tours. As earlier mentioned, the Tour will be packed. The Vuelta could also be packed if a good portion of the GC riders decide to do a Tour-Vuelta double, but other than Peter Sagan, you wouldn’t expect many riders to ride Giro d’Italia and another Grand Tour this year. Given that you also misses out on most of the classics, Liége-Bastogne-Liège and Amstel Gold Race being the most relevant, the Giro will probably have the weakest start field amongst the tree Grand Tours.

The top level will still be great, with Vincenzo Nibali, Simon Yates, Richard Carapaz and Jakob Fuglsang, but it could be some surprising names getting in the top 10. It’s a big chance for Marc Soler to prove himself, for Carl Fredrik Hagen to back up his sensational 8th place from the Vuelta last year and then of course a golden opportunity for Remco Evenepoel.

The boy wonder seems to be getting better for each day that passes, and for him the corona break might just have given him the extra time to really fight amongst the best. It will be thrilling to see what he can do in the long mountains, as that’s the one area where we still don’t really know what he is good for. Yes, he’s done very well in the mountains in San Juan and he’s been good in shorter hills competing against the best in the world, but the long mountains in a high level WorldTour race remain uncertain.

Given his talent, it’s no doubt that he can become a great Grand Tour rider, and Evenepoel himself has hinted that he wants to ride the Giro to win. It looks like there is every reason to follow the Giro closely this year.

And of course, it ends with an ITT the same day as Paris-Roubaix and the Tourmalet stage in Vuelta. Depending on how the organisers manage to co-ordinate their races, 25th of October could be one of the greatest cycling days of all time.

Something a bit more unknown is how the late ending to the season will actually affect the riders. They have been able to get a good break these last few months, but most of them are not used to competing at a high level so late in the year. The Vuelta doesn’t end before the 8th of November and could again be an arena for some surprises. This season requires the riders to be in good shape from the start of August, and it’s the riders being able to get through these 15 weeks who should be able to fight for the win in Madrid.

One day races dominate for the women

The same goes for the women, but compared to the men they won’t face a completely packed calendar. Already before the season started, they lost two of their biggest women’s races in Emakumeen Bira and Tour of California (cancelled for both genders), and due to Covid-19 we won’t have Ladies Tour of Norway and Women’s Tour. We’ll still have Giro Rosa, Boels Ladies Tour, Madrid Challenge, Tour of Chongming Island and other races below WorldTour level, but compared to the men, it’s mostly about the one day races for the women. And we have a lot of them, so that’s good news! With only 31 race days on the WorldTour it should be a good year for the biggest stars, who will probably end up riding most of the races. While we always love a surprise, this should mean some great fights between the best riders and some high-quality racing.

Hopefully, we’ll have Marianne Vos, Annemiek van Vleuten, Anna van der Breggen, Marta Bastianelli and the rest of the best fighting week in, week out.