A different kind of desert spring

I’m not entirely sure how one goes about peeling one’s eyes. I guess the eyelid is the thing that needs peeling, in which case the phrase “don’t unnecessarily close your eyes” seems more apt. I’ve been avoiding unnecessary closure of my eyes during the early season races in a bid to spot signs of spring. It’s not easy, but it’s what winter racing’s all about.

First up, it was the Tour Down Under

A World Tour race, no less, which means you’re supposed to try and win it. I think all teams take it seriously these days, but there seems to be a general acceptance that it will mainly be the Aussie riders duking it out for the overall win. Mrs Slagter’s favourite son, Tom-Jelte, took the win in 2013, but other than that it’s been Aussie, Aussie, Aussie – Cameron Meyer in 2011, Simon Gerrans in 2012 and 2014 and the rider called Rohan (Dennis) this year.

Dennis pipped countryman Richie Porte by two seconds with yet another Oz, Cadel Evans, finishing third. He earned his win by taking stage three. Porte and Evans were tracking each other at the front on the final climb with everyone umming and ahhing about which of the pair looked the stronger when suddenly Dennis came scorching past, having climbed the early part of the slope at a steadier pace.

Afterwards, Phil Liggett displayed his exceptional knowledge of contemporary cycling by positively snorting at the suggestion the BMC team might race for Dennis rather than Evans from that point on. Dennis is, of course, a hugely promising rider – one who is actually having a stab at the Hour Record at lunchtime today – while Evans was in the final World Tour race of his career. Only in the unpeeled eyes of a man still wedded to old, familiar names would the idea that Dennis was a worthy contender for the Tour Down Under seem ridiculous.

Dennis can climb and time trial (hence the Hour Record attempt). He is a proper stage racer. Watch out for him.

(Update: Dennis did indeed get the Hour Record – and by some margin as well.)

Next was the Dubai Tour

It’s a flat race. In four stages, a 17% slope at the end of stage three was pretty much the only meaningful incline. Our man John Degenkolb took victory that day as the 300m wall was short enough to be more of a sprint effort. He pipped Alejandro Valverde and perhaps threw his new Giant-Alpecin branded helmet into the ring for the two Tour de France murs on which I’m placing disproportionate importance this year. The Mur de Huy and Mur de Bretagne are maybe a bit longer than this one was, but they’re not dissimilar.

Degenkolb finished second overall as Mark Cavendish won stages one and four. A few seconds down on Degenkolb on the Mur de Hatta Dam, he gained a 10-second bonus for each and this is precisely why time bonuses matter. Elia Viviani, now with Team Sky, won stage two and provided Cavendish with good competition in the sprints. The Manxman seems to be in decent form and his reasonably strong showing on the one climb we did see might hint that he’ll be there or thereabouts at Milan-San Remo next month. Degenkolb too.

What’s next?

More evidence-gathering ahead of the spring classics in the Tour of Qatar where Tom Boonen and his Etixx-Quickstep team-mates will apparently be trying to drop Bradley Wiggins ‘everywhere we can’. The only means of achieving this in a race where stage profiles are a series of straight lines is to take advantage of crosswinds to form echelons.

Crosswinds are a big thing in the cobbled classics, so the Tour of Qatar is almost like a controlled test. Because of this, the results will be of interest even if the race won’t be much of a spectacle in itself. Stage three’s 10.9km time trial seems crucial and it too will offer us a fairly clear indication of the form of a number of spring classics contenders.

The Tour of Qatar starts today. I wouldn’t watch it, if I were you, but keep an eye on results. Or maybe just wait until I provide a comprehensive three-sentence summary several weeks after the race has finished.