Round-table: The season so far (part 1)

Here at VeloVoices we love to talk about cycling, and nothing delights us more than the opportunity to talk to each other and to fellow fans about the sport. In this first of two posts, we take a look at the riders, teams, race and stories which have caught our eye in the first three months of 2012.

Which riders have particularly impressed us so far this season?

Britain’s Tiernan-Locke leads the UCI Europe Tour rankings

Sheree: In the early part of the season, it’s often riders who’re going to be working for team leaders at the bigger races, or riders from the lower divisions, who seize the opportunity to thrust themselves into the limelight. I’m thinking Jonathan Tiernan-Locke and Julien Simon. Alternatively, it’s riders with a point to prove like Bradley Wiggins in Paris-Nice, or perhaps those who had a disappointing 2011 like OPQS’ Tom Boonen and Francesco Chicchi.

Kitty: Tom Boonen’s back on form – always impressive – but the rider I’m finding really interesting at the moment is Peter Sagan. I just feel like he’s about to come into his own any second now and it’s going to be quite a sight to see. 

Tim: Hey, I did say Sagan was one to watch this year, didn’t I? He’s already a major threat in both sprints and Classics, and he’s only just 22!

Gerrans leads the WorldTour rankings after his Milan-San Remo win (image courtesy of GreenEDGE)

Jack: I agree with Kitty, I think Tornado Tom has been thoroughly impressive, and his win in Gent-Wevelgem shows he’s back to his best. It’s extremely exciting to think he may be able to give Fabian Cancellara a proper run for his money in the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix this year. Other than that, Alejandro Valverde’s been surprisingly impressive since his return, with GreenEDGE’s Michael Albasini having an excellent start to the season.

Tim: I’ll add a couple of names who have emerged from the shadows after switching teams. Simon Gerrans got lost for a couple of years at Sky. It’s easy to forget he was a stage winner at both the Giro and Vuelta in 2009. But he has now emerged as the main GC man for GreenEDGE, winning both the Tour Down Under and Milan-San Remo and jumping to the top of the UCI rankings. He’s a fantastic rider to watch, punchy and tactically astute. Conversely Tasmanian Richie Porte moved to Sky from Saxo Bank, winning the queen stage and the overall at the Volta ao Algarve on his debut. He’ll assume a support role for Wiggins and Chris Froome for the Grand Tours, but he’s definitely one to watch.

And which teams have stood out, and why?

Albasini won GreenEDGE’s third WorldTour event at the Volta a Catalunya (image courtesy of GreenEDGE)

Tim: Omega Pharma-Quick Step have racked up the wins, but I’ve been so impressed by GreenEDGE. I’ve already talked about Gerrans, but Michael Albasini stole all the plaudits at the Volta a Catalunya, winning two stages and leading from start to finish, and Matt Goss led for three days at Tirreno-Adriatico. It’s been quite a debut, and I hope their success helps them secure that all-important title sponsor before the summer.

Sheree: I agree, it’s gotta be super-team OPQS whose champagne bill for all their wins to date exceeds all those of the last couple of seasons. I understand Patrick Lefevre’s thinking of doing an Andy Rihs and acquiring his own vineyard! I’ve also been impressed with GreenEDGE, who came out of the starting blocks firing on all cylinders.

Kitty: I am totally loving the OPQS and Lotto-Belisol teams. Forget about your ‘super-teams’ like Sky, BMC or RadioShack-Nissan, these guys absolutely gel as units and there’s a real esprit de corps [hmm, what’s the French for that? – Ed] in the way they ride together. Granted, they each have a couple of stars, but it never feels like they overshadow the team – they’re a part of the team. Great to watch and great for cycling. They deserve every success!

Jack: I agree with Tim, I think GreenEDGE have had an excellent start to the season, although I think the way OPQS  have begun the year has been extremely impressive. They’ve already had big Classics wins, and I think they’ll be disappointed if they don’t add to their palmares by the time the spring’s out and we head into Grand Tour season.

Tim: Well, that was pretty unanimous, at least as far as OPQS is concerned …

Kitty: Maybe I’m just bitter about Milan-San Remo (although I’m not, really) but I’m not really warming to GreenEDGE. I don’t know why, as they have had a great season so far. I just don’t get a vibe off them.

Jack: I don’t like GreenEDGE, but I’m still very impressed with their start to the season.

What have been our favourite races so far?

Kitty: Milan-San Remo, E3 Harelbeke and Omloop Het Nieuwsblad [the race with the title which gives proof-readers nightmares – Ed]. Hell’s bells, all three were balls to the wall racing and exciting and unpredictable right up to the end.

We loved the excitement of Omloop …

Sheree: I love them all! Do I have to choose one? In that case, it’s got to be the ones I’ve watched live: Tour du Haut Var, Paris-Nice and Milan-San Remo. Watching on television is better than not watching at all but I just love soaking up the atmosphere from behind the barricades and watching the professional peloton compete on roads I know well. I think it’s fair to say that the winners of all three were something of a surprise to the pundits and that’s what‘s great about cycling: it’s unpredictable.

… as well as the ‘most beautiful’ Strade Bianche

Tim: I’m paying particular attention this year to races I haven’t previously followed closely. Omloop Het Nieuwsblad had everything you could possibly want from a one-day race: attacks, crashes, an unpredictable finish and a new winner in Sep Vanmarcke. And for sheer tension I loved the end of last Thursday’s stage four of the Volta a Catalunya, which featured a long, 90kph descent just before the finish, with a five-man breakaway being hunted down by a chasing group and – barely – holding them off for long enough for Rigoberto Uran to claim a famous victory. I think I rode every pedal-stroke with them in that final 15km.

Jack: Like Sheree, I love all the racing! I think Milan-San Remo was excellent; it’s always nice to see a breakaway succeed rather than a sprint success. Gent-Wevelgem was exciting, as was the Criterium International. Cadel Evans was very impressive, and I say that through gritted teeth! Not forgetting the most beautiful race of them all: the Strade Bianche.

Off the road we’ve had some huge stories such as the Contador and Ullrich doping bans, and the dropped federal case against Lance Armstrong. Other than those, what has been the most notable non-racing story?

Jack: I must admit, I find most of the non-racing stuff quite tedious. Probably the tooth infection which has caused Philippe Gilbert a few woes so far! Let’s hope it’s cleared up by the time the Ardennes classics are up!

Sheree: For me it’s the financial problems facing race organisers. While, it’s admirable that many of the races are organised locally and staffed by volunteers I would like to see more races coming under the umbrella of larger organisations such as RCS, ASO and Unipublic to safeguard the future of continental racing.

Kitty: For me, it’s the spectre of the ‘new’ untraceable EPO. Depressingly familiar – as a cycling fan, I’m always hoping that doping is on the decline (hoping but not necessarily wholly believing) but when I hear things like this, well, it just makes my heart sink.

Offredo received what many consider to be a harsh ban (image courtesy of Wikipedia)

Tim: Much of the non-racing news has been pretty unedifying. The rumoured breakaway league can only divide the sport at a time when, more than ever, it needs to come together to protect its commercial viability outside of the Grand Tours. Also Yoann Offredo’s whereabouts ban appears harsh given the nature of his ‘crime’. I don’t mean to trivialise the importance of the system but he missed his third test because he was racing, not because he was hiding. Sometimes cycling’s movers and shakers are their own worst enemies.

Jack: Offredo will be a big miss this spring. I think with his Classics riding abilities he was set for big things.

Sheree: I agree with your comment, Tim, on the Offredo decision but of more importance will be the CAS decision on Alex Rasmussen. Yes, he didn’t abide by the rules but then neither did the UCI. This could be a real hot potato.

Tim: Agreed. If the ban is upheld, then who watches the watchers? [Quis custodiet custodes? Ah, the benefits of a classical education … – Ed.] And then there’s this latest news about Eddy Merckx being implicated in a corruption case involving his bike company. Keep an eye open for that one over the coming weeks. Anyhow, let’s call it a day for now and reconvene tomorrow, shall we?

Look out for part two of our round-table tomorrow, where we tackle some of the other big issues from the last three months.

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