Van der Poel’s power, van Aert’s adaptability, Pogacar’s form and Roglic’s matter-of-factness – scene-setting in early spring

The season is now definitely underway and we’ve been given a couple of sighters for the bigger events to come. Let’s take a look at who you need to be keeping an eye on this year.

This early part of spring provides a bit of a warm-up for everyone. We’ve had our first big one-day race and in Paris-Nice and Tirreno-Adriatico, our first big week-long stage races too.

The one-day racers now hit their peak season with the remainder of the spring classics, but we’ve had a couple of teasers ahead of this year’s Giro d’Italia, Tour de France and Vuelta a Espana as well.

Strade Bianche

Strade Bianche is, in many ways, one of the best races of the year, in that almost anyone can win it.

We get cobbled races for the bigger, more muscular riders, and we get mountainous Grand Tours for the flyweights, but almost nothing where both groups – and everyone in between – might legitimately fancy their chances.

The top four at this year’s race is therefore a thing to behold.

  1. Mathieu van der Poel
  2. Julian Alaphilippe
  3. Egan Bernal
  4. Wout van Aert

So that’s the fella who’s won the last three cyclo-cross world championships (van der Poel), the fella who won the three before that (van Aert), the current road world champion (Alaphilippe) and the 2020 Tour de France winner (Bernal).

Elsewhere in the top ten, we had the current Tour champion, Tadej Pogacar; 2020 Tour of Lombardy winner, Jakob Fuglsang; and young Brit Tom Pidcock, who was runner-up to van der Poel in the cyclo-cross worlds last time around and who is very much likely to win a whole bunch of stuff in the coming years.

Now there are quite a few cyclo-cross mentions there, but where else are those sorts of riders going head-to-head with Tour de France winners? That’s a tribute to the race route.

This year’s winner, van der Poel, has only really been making cameo appearances in road racing since 2019, but he has been winning an alarmingly high proportion of the races he’s entered. (The 2019 Amstel Gold was a particular highlight.)

This victory wasn’t quite as visibly striking as that one, but it was still a bit of an eyebrow-lifter.

In road cycling, sprinters tend to have a five- or ten-second maximum effort. Van der Poel has a different sort of body and seems to be able to sustain a similar sort of effort for 20 seconds.

In many ways it’s the same distinction as between a 100m runner and a 200m runner – only these guys are riding 180km first.

In Strade Bianche, van der Poel deployed his 20-second savagery on the steep climb 1km from the finish to get a gap. You can see it in this video from about 3m20s. It’s a pretty comprehensive move anyway, but then consider that the two people he ditches are the world champion – a man whose USP is going uphill quickly – and a Tour de France winner.

That is quite the move. Van der Poel should feature prominently in the coming weeks (and years).

Tirreno-Adriatico

The Italian stage race began with a stage victory for van der Poel’s longstanding cyclo-cross (and now cobbled classics) rival, Wout van Aert. Strikingly, he beat two out-and-out sprinters, Caleb Ewan and Fernando Gaviria, at the finish. He then confirmed that he was looking to beat Tour de France winners Egan Bernal and Tadej Pogacar in the overall. You can’t say the Belgian lacks ambition.

In the end, it didn’t quite pan out for him – although he did also win the final time trial, beating time trial world champion Filippo Ganna in the process.

That gave him second place overall behind Pogacar.

Marco Alpozzi – LaPresse

The Slovenian’s victory was built on a stage win on the race’s one big summit finish. Van Aert finished 45 seconds behind him, which sums up the Belgian’s current position pretty well. He’s got slightly more body to haul up a long climb. He can currently do almost anything, but if he ever decides to try and win a three-week race, he’ll most likely need to sacrifice a bit of muscle.

For Pogacar, everything’s about the Tour de France and while it’s early days, he’s looking good.

The race also featured two stage wins for van der Poel, because of course it did. The second one saw him ride off on his own with 50km to go, only to almost capitulate at the end.

“I attacked from far away because I was cold,” he later explained.

Seems as good a reason as any.

Paris-Nice

The French race was more of a bit more of a Grand Tour preview with 2020 Vuelta champion and Tour runner-up, Primoz Roglic, up against Giro winner Tao Geoghegan Hart among others. Sam Bennett, the sprinter who finally beat Peter Sagan to the green jersey at last year’s Tour was also there.

It largely went to script. Bennett won a couple of sprints, while Roglic won three stages and was very obviously the best.

But then he had a ‘mare.

On the final stage, Roglic crashed on a descent and dislocated his shoulder. That should really be the end of this paragraph, but Roglic got back on his bike, caught back up, and then crashed again when they were going down the same descent again later in the day. This time he knackered his bike more than his body. After getting a replacement, he again tried to chase down his rivals, but after getting tantalisingly close, he eventually succumbed and finished the stage a couple of minutes down.

German rider, Max Schachmann – who also won this race last year – was the beneficiary. I’m not too sure how relevant that is to the bigger summer engagements, if I’m honest.

Roglic, meanwhile, continued his campaign to become my favourite interviewee for the sheer matter-of-factness of his replies.

“How to say it? It’s not the stage we were hoping for,” he reflected after that disastrous final stage. “I did some mistakes today.”

For what it’s worth, Geoghegan Hart was off the pace early on and then abandoned on stage four.

“Landed on my head,” he explained. (He’s fine.)

What’s next?

The rest of the spring classics.

  • Milan-Sanremo (Saturday March 20)
  • Gent-Wevelgem (Sunday March 28)
  • The Tour of Flanders (Sunday April 4)
  • Paris-Roubaix (Sunday April 11)
  • Amstel Gold (Sunday April 18)
  • La Fleche Wallonne (Wednesday April 21)
  • Liege-Bastogne-Liege (Sunday April 25)

I’ll try and do a recap of all of that before the Giro d’Italia gets underway at the start of May. Sign up for the email to have it arrive in your inbox .