You know what they say about buses. Well, this past month has been no different. You wait months for another road race, only to have them all suddenly arrive at once, hitting you in the face and trying to pull your attention every which way. In fact, I almost don’t know where to start. Lucky for us, we have the exciting races of the… [checks notes] …Tour of Oman and the UAE Tour to begin with. Oh good.
If you know me in some form by now, be it in person or through the lovely invention of Twitter, you’ll know that a) I meme my way through the season, and b) I wasn’t really looking forward to the “desert” races. No offence to the winners of said events, but the landscape doesn’t really leave much to the imagination. It’s all a bit Vuelta-transitional-stage, the kind that leaves poor Carlton Kirby begging for some form of wildlife, a tree, anything to pass the time and comment on. As Fred Dreier once said, it’s like a “battle scene from a Mad Max movie”. Expertly phrased.
The Tour of Oman: 16th of February – 21st of February
Astana once more tried to come for Deceuninck-Quick-Step’s win total crown this year by continuing their strong form, as Lutsenko pipped poor Pozzovivo of Bahrain-Merida to general classification victory at the Tour of Oman. The 26-year-old has now won back-to-back editions of the race, with a trio of stage victories on the second, third and fifth day securing him the red jersey this year. If I had to make a complaint, it would be the fact that said jersey is almost the exact shade of red that we see on the shoulders of the Bahrain-Merida team, constantly causing Lutsenko to accidentally look like a member of the opposition. Or maybe it’s not so accidental…
The UAE Tour: 24th of February – 2nd of March
First of all, I have an issue with this race location. The issue being that the UAE aren’t exactly a shining example for people to look up to in relation to, y’know, basic human rights? That being said, the newly-formed combination of the Dubai and Abu Dhabi races still boasted an impressive field, with the likes of Nibali, Dumoulin, Gaviria, Viviani, Kittel and Ewan all arriving to the start line. Even Froome was scheduled to start at Al Hudayriat Island, tempted by the opportunity to glance up from his stem at all the exciting scenery the UAE Tour had to offer. However, one quick Google search told him exactly what he’d be seeing – or not seeing, rather – and he pulled out a few days prior to the opening stage. Okay, he tweeted that it was to recover fully from the Tour of Colombia, but we know the truth.
Jumbo-Visma, the 2019 edition of the LottoNL-Jumbo team, beat a strong Team Sunweb squad to TTT victory on the opening stage by 7 seconds. Roglic was not only the first man to don the red jersey, but the only man, keeping a tight hold of his general classification prize for seven stages. He also received the honour of looking like a Bahrain-Merida/Trek-Segafredo/Team Sunweb (take your pick) rider for the week, because again, the whole red jersey situation.
Not even stage three winner and world champion Valverde could stop the Slovenian’s success, as the Jumbo-Vista rider won atop the stage six mountainous finish in Jebel Jais to all-but-secure his general classification victory. Day seven was heaven for the Irish Bora-Hansgrohe rider Bennett, sprinting to stage honours ahead of Gaviria, Ewan, Kristoff and Viviani.
Omloop Het Nieuwsblad: 2nd of March
Oh Omloop. Dragging us from the deserted desert and onto the cobbles, this Belgian race helps solidify this time of year as one of the greatest.
That being said, it was not perfect. The ten-minute gap between the women’s and men’s editions of the race was confusing to everyone that has ever watched cycling before. Of course, a strong solo attack by Hanselmann of Bigla Pro Cycling caused her to catch the tail end of the men’s peloton, forcing the organisers to neutralise the women’s race in the fear of Hanselmann overtaking the entirety of the men’s field to win both their race, and her race. Which she could have done.
“We could just see the ambulances of the men’s race. I think we stopped for five or seven minutes and then it just kills your chances.” – Hanselmann.
Being forced to stand in freezing conditions while the men theoretically get their skates on is possibly one of the most unideal situations imaginable, and eventually the 27-year-old was able to set off again. I’m not one for what if’s, because the winner was absolutely worthy, but it would’ve been nice to see exactly how Hanselmann’s move would’ve panned out.
The women’s race was eventually won by Boels-Dolmans’ Blaak. Her perfectly timed and decisive attacks both just prior to, and while on the Muur, were no match for the rest of the peloton on the day, and she claimed Boels’ first victory of the season.
As for the men, who were uninterrupted at the head of their race, a strong group of five would contend for the win in the final kilometres. An attack from Deceuninck-Quick-Step’s Stybar from the leading group containing Lutsenko (Astana), Teuns (Bahrain-Merida), Van Avermaet (CCC Team) and Wellens (Lotto-Soudal) eventually stuck, due to the lack of co-operation by the foursome. They were left looking around at one another, waiting for someone else to make the next move, as the 33-year-old up ahead added to Quick-Step’s 2019 win total.
They’re lucky Ian Stannard wasn’t with them.
Quorn-Brussels-Quorn Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne: 3rd of March
I’ll give you one guess at which team won this race. Go on, guess.
It was Deceuninck-Quick-Step.
Yes, in a complete surprise to no-one, the team notched up yet another win during the 2019 season. This time victory was delivered in the form of Jungels, who soloed his way to the finish line after an attack within the last 16 kilometres. But one of the most notable events of the day was occurring behind him.
Team Sky’s Doull, who not only signed a new contract with the Classics in mind just a few months ago, but also celebrated his first professional road victory last month, rode to an impressive second place behind Jungels. Speaking to BBC Sport Wales, he labelled the podium place as “massive”, and that it changed his own expectations. The Welshman was able to beat the likes of Terpstra and defending Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne winner Groenewegen to second place, and took to Twitter to share his happiness.
“Actually can’t believe it, growing up I’ve always wanted to be in the sharp end of these races, but to do it today feels surreal. Thanks for all the kind messages.”
While there was no edition of this race for women, there was one held for juniors. Unfortunately, a large number of riders were taken out in the early stages by the race director’s car. The vehicle suddenly stopped in its tracks, leaving the juniors directly behind with nowhere to go but on the floor. Dutchman van Uden was able to win the race.
Le Samyn: 5th of March
Le Samyn was next on the calendar, providing us with an exciting sprint finish that gave us a completely unexpected…
…oh right. It was another Deceuninck-Quick-Step victory(!)
Remember when I said Astana were coming for them? Maybe hold that thought. As the leading group reeled Declercq back in within the final kilometre, his teammate Sénéchal timed his sprint to perfection to claim his maiden professional victory.
Meme professionally made by yours truly.
Strava Bianchi Strade Bianche: 9th of March
Astana and Deceuninck-Quick-Step would later battle it out on the dirt roads through Italy. Alaphilippe and Fuglsang were tied to each other’s wheels for the final 20 kilometres, until van Aert worked his way back to crash the party with just one kilometre to go. Alaphilippe and Fuglsang eventually decided three was a crowd, dropping him on the final uphill slog to the finish line. It was to be Alaphilippe’s day – if anyone is surprised – powering ahead of his Danish breakaway partner to win on the streets of Siena.
Van Vleuten also broke away from an incredibly strong leading group in the women’s race that contained the likes of Boels-Dolmans’ van der Breggen and CCC-Liv’s Vos with 12 kilometres to go. The Mitchelton-Scott powerhouse maintained her lead, soloing to victory by an impressive 37 seconds ahead of Boels-Dolmans’ Langvad and Niewiadoma of Canyon-SRAM.
Operation Aderlass: Ongoing
I first caught major wind of Operation Aderlass after seeing a tweet involving an elite athlete being caught red-handed. Max Hauke, a cross-country skier, was captured on video allegedly in the middle of a blood transfusion during the Nordic skiing world championships.
Then came the spread to other sports.
As someone who works in cycling and is currently undertaking a placement year in anti-doping, this was an incredibly disappointing and yet – unsurprising – revelation.
Rewind to the 2017 Vuelta a España. The Aqua Blue Sport team bus had been completely burnt due to an arson attack during the night. An unfortunate discovery for any team, let alone one on the Professional Continental circuit in their debut season. Denifl’s victory on the 17th stage felt like something of a fairy-tale for the Irish team, a triumph in the face of adversity, a feel-good story that we often crave in such a demanding sport. The Austrian won in style, attacking the torturous 180km stage – the toughest of all 21 stages – almost from the flag drop, remaining ahead of the likes of Chris Froome and Alberto Contador all the way to the painstakingly tough finish atop the Alto de los Machucos. He dedicated the win to his wife and new-born son.
Denifl, who was scheduled to ride for CCC in 2019 until his contract “dissolved” on Christmas Eve last year, recently confessed to blood doping in an interview with police. It had blindsided me, serving as a stark reminder that the sport I love is still not immune to the occasional breaking of hearts.
Waking up the next day, I rolled over to check my phone – just as I had done the day before. There was the news another cyclist had been caught up in Operation Aderlass – again, just as I had found out the day before.
Georg Preidler confessed to police that his blood had been extracted twice in 2018 for a potential transfusion at a later date. He then emailed his team, Groupama-FDJ, to terminate his contract. Teammate Pinot described how he had shed a tear upon hearing the news, describing the events as “high treason” and a “betrayal” before labelling Preidler an “idiot” for “screwing up his life”.
Pinot’s sharing of his heartbreak, although devastating, was a glimmer of light in the darkness. For many years I’ve been hoping more cyclists would be more vocal surrounding the sensitive subject of doping, revealing their true thoughts and feelings with us. While I’ve accepted this is certainly a concept easier typed than done, I welcome the amplification of more athletes’ voices.
In addition to Pinot, Marcel Kittel has also spoken about the recent developments in the doping scandal, taking the time to pen his thoughts before publishing them online for the world to see. The German has been a favourite of mine since the release of the Argos-Shimano documentary, when the sprinter even refused to take tablets from his team doctor in the fear of not knowing what they might contain. He also previously stated he was “sick” of the cycling community defending Armstrong. The 30-year-old explained his feelings towards the complications surrounding doping – the environment, the support systems – framing his words to question how we can help those who have, quote, “slipped off the narrow path.”
“The more important questions are, how can we help athletes like Georg Preidler, who apparently slipped off the narrow path and could no longer hold out against the pressure? Some athletes aren’t as lucky to have the environment that I have, one which has supported and protected me during my whole sports career. Success in sport is not just physical but also involves mental strength. That is why I think that especially young athletes can and must be prepared for this situation with coaching and much explanation, in order to be strong later when they are faced with temptation… Sport plays an important role in society, keeps people healthy and fit, and provides both entertainment and role models. But all of that can become too much for an individual and he breaks because of it, or tries to find a shortcut through doping.”
At the moment, 21 athletes from five different sports are currently under investigation.
Strap yourselves in folks, because next time I’ll be recapping races such as Paris-Nice, Tirreno-Adriatico and Milan-San Remo. Will Deceuninck-Quick-Step win every race between now and October? Let’s find out…