The Tour de France has packed up for another year but, as always, its conclusion marks the beginning of cycling’s transfer tussles and contract clashes. With the rumour mill grinding, this regular column will try to sort the wheat from the chaff and work out who’ll be where next year.
With focus shifting from Flanders to the Ardennes via northern France, April promises to be an action-packed month as the Spring Classics season reaches its climax. But with the Giro d’Italia less than five weeks away, the world’s best stage racers and sprinters will also be preparing hard for the year’s opening Grand Tour. Here’s our monthly summary of the key races to watch out for this month, and some of the more notable birthdays being celebrated.
With seven races March was the busiest month of the year in terms of WorldTour events, but April runs it a close second with six more taking place. The month is bookended by a pair of six-day races: the Vuelta al Pais Vasco (Tour of the Basque Country), which starts today and finishes on the 6th, and the Tour de Romandie (23rd-28th).
Pais Vasco is characterised by large numbers of climbs of modest altitude but frequently steep gradient. Each of the five road stages preceding the concluding individual time trial contains a minimum of five categorised climbs, with the last of these packing a whopping ten into its 166km. Last year Samuel Sanchez and Joaquim Rodriguez shared four stages between them, with the former emerging victorious overall.
As it did last year, Romandie opens and closes with time trial stages, the first of these a short prologue, with the penultimate stage four from Marly to Les Diablerets the sole high mountains test. Bradley Wiggins won here in 2012 as part of his preparation for the Tour de France.
In between, the Spring Classics season comes to an end. First there is the ‘Hell of the North’, Paris-Roubaix (7th), with its fabled 27 cobbled sectors. Last year Tom Boonen completed the last of his four 2012 Classics victories with a breathtaking 55km solo breakaway. Sadly the Belgian champion will be absent after his crash at the Ronde yesterday.
Then come the three hill-packed races which constitute Ardennes Week: Amstel Gold (14th), Flèche Wallonne (17th) and Liège-Bastogne-Liège (21st), with signature climbs such as the Cauberg, Mur de Huy and La Redoute holding near mythical status. After Philippe Gilbert had swept all three races in 2011, last year Astana riders claimed the first (Enrico Gasparotto) and last (Maxim Iglinskiy) of these, with Joaquim Rodriguez triumphant at Flèche Wallonne.
Elsewhere in Europe there are plenty of other races in April. The two most notable semi-Classic one-day races are the sprinters’ race Scheldeprijs (3rd) and the more punchy Brabantse Pijl (10th). Meanwhile the most prominent stage races include the Vuelta a Castilla y Leon (12th-14th), the distinctly vertical Giro del Trentino (16th-19th) and the more sprinter-friendly Tour of Turkey (21st-28th).
There is a varied assortment of birthdays this month, but let’s kick off with a couple of names we can expect to see featuring across the remaining Spring Classics races.
Astana’s Maxim Iglinskiy won only one race in 2012 but what a race to choose! The Kazakh rider took victory in Liège-Bastogne-Liège shortly after his birthday and he will presumably be foregoing cake and celebrations until he has attempted to defend his title – he turns 32 on the 18th, three days before L-B-L. Europcar’s Sebastien Turgot turns 29 on the 11th, just four days after Paris-Roubaix, the race in which he finished second last year. The largely unheralded Frenchman is riding steadily improving form, with his eighth place at yesterday’s Ronde van Vlaanderen following (in reverse chronologocal order) 10th, 12th and 15th-place finishes at E3 Harelbeke, Dwars door Vlaanderen and Milan-San Remo.
Three big-name Grand Tour riders all turn 33 this month. Defending Tour de France champion Bradley Wiggins (Sky), 2009 Vuelta winner and last year’s runner-up Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) and 2011 Tour podium finisher Frank Schleck (RadioShack-Leopard) will each be blowing out 33 candles on the 28th, 25th and 15th respectively. Almost but not quite in the same boat, Ag2r’s John Gadret, third overall and a stage winner at the 2011 Giro, is 34 on the 22nd.
One multiple world time trial champion (Fabian Cancellara) celebrated his birthday in March – April sees the turn of current back-to-back time trial rainbow jersey Tony Martin (Omega Pharma-Quick Step), who turns 28 on the 23rd. Another rising time-trialist, Movistar’s Jonathan Castroviejo, will be 26 on the 27th, but the Spaniard already holds the distinction of having worn the leader’s red jersey for two days at last year’s Vuelta. Younger still, Orica-GreenEDGE’s neo-pro Luke Durbridge will be just 22 on the 9th, but the cherubic Aussie is already a two-time national time trial champion.
Finally, two riders on French teams. Cofidis’ Rein Taaramae is in his sixth year with the team and yet will be only 26 on the 24th. The Estonian has a string of good results in big races – a stage at the Vuelta, third at the Volta a Catalunya, Criterium International and Tour of Romandie, fourth at Paris-Nice – but has yet to achieve his first big overall victory. Europcar sprinter Bryan Coquard, on the other hand, has made an immediate impact in his first pro season, picking up two wins apiece at both Etoile de Besseges and the Tour de Langkawi. He’s 21 on the 25th.
Happy birthday one and all!
Also on the blog
After brief breaks over the Easter period, our Talking Tactics and AntBanter columns return, with Tim focussing on the reasons behind Fabian Cancellara’s tactical tour de force in Flanders. And you can be sure Kitty will have plenty to say about Her Beloved’s victory at the Ronde van Vlaanderen – where she was close enough to touch the sacred haunches – in our fortnightly podcast next Monday.
Of course, there’ll be plenty more in Tweets of the Week, as well as in our Friday Features and our newly-launched Saturday recipe column The Musette.
We’ll keep you in the loop and fully informed with our previews and reviews of all the month’s biggest races. And then we’ll gear up for the start of the Giro d’Italia with a week of comprehensive previews to bring you the low-down on the teams, the riders and the stages behind the year’s first Grand Tour.
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The 95th Giro d’Italia starts tomorrow (Saturday) without the man who won last year’s race ‘on the road’: Alberto Contador. Indeed, the race begins with only the newly crowned Michele Scarponi present of the three current Grand Tour champions – the 2011 winners of the Tour de France (Cadel Evans) and Vuelta a Espana (Juan Jose Cobo) are also absent. Continue reading