Cycling's WorldTour gets back under way on Saturday with Strade Bianche with no shortage of COVID-19-related talking points regarding form, expectations and the on-going concerns surrounding the remainder of the new-look 2020 season.
Often played out over muddy roads in March, Strade Bianche has the honour of rebooting the WorldTour cycling season this Saturday – and with the mercury hitting the high 30s in Italy, we can expect an unpredictable race over the dusty white roads of Tuscany.
With the re-start just days away, let's look at some of the talking points as this unprecedented pandemic-ravaged hiatus comes to an end.
Cycling's 100 Days
When the peloton cautiously rolls out of Siena on Saturday it will have been 138 days since Max Schachmann won the shortened Paris-Nice, the last pre-pandemic WorldTour race. For most of us, those uncertain days in March – back when everyone seemed to be hell bent on hoarding loo roll, hand sanitiser and flour – seem like an age away; if the same season, then certainly another era.
But when the pack hits the white roads of Tuscany to the collective appreciative sigh of fans the world over, it will mark the first chapter of, if not a novel or a short story, then a novella of 100 pages, whose conclusion we may never get to read.
Strade Bianche 2019
Image credit: Getty Images
From Strade Bianche to the last day of the Vuelta, on 8th November – yes, you read that right: 8th November! – there are 100 days. 100 days into which have been crammed all three Grand Tours, five Monuments, and many of the other major classics and shorter stages races, including Tirreno-Adriatico, the Tour de Pologne, the Criterium du Dauphine and the BinkBank Tour.
Whether the calendar is grossly overambitious remains to be seen. Surely it would be wiser to concentrate on quality over quantity. After all, we all know what happened to Napoleon on his comeback at the end of his own 100 Days… and unlike Bonaparte, cycling may not even make it as far as Paris; its Waterloo may come much earlier.
Getting your head round the new calendar
La Primavera in the height of summer and the Race of the Fallen Leaves before those leaves have even turned brown, let alone contemplated falling…
The remainder of the season is going to throw up some baffling scenarios for the traditionalists.
Forget the Spring Classics: this year, those cobbled races we usually enjoy in April are taking place not only in October but at the same time as the Giro and, in Paris-Roubaix's case, the Vuelta. The Ardennes are also in October, while Il Lombardia – usually the fifth and final Monument, the race which winds things up – will this year be second on the list, in the thick of the restart, just one week after Milan-San Remo, in the middle of August.
In a year where races have been postponed or cancelled, Il Lombardia is the outlier: one that has been called forward.
While the Vuelta remains the third and final Grand Tour, its overlap with the Giro means no rider will be going for an Italian-Iberian double, while this year's Tour, the main event for the casual cycling fan, kicks Grand Tour season off in late August, running through to September (that's to say, later than the Vuelta in any normal year).
And any one with ambitions to be crowned the time trial World Champion won't be able to ride into Paris, which could put a big question mark over Tom Dumoulin and Rohan Dennis' availability for Martigny. That said, the Australian has only completed one Grand Tour since 2015 and so he should be OK either way.
If you're going to have to self-isolate for two weeks after a race then you might as well make the most of it. This was clearly Bora-Hansgrohe's mantra at last week's Sibiu Cycling Tour, where the team won a clean sweep of four stages, plus the general classification.
Gregor Muhlberger and Pascal Ackermann both took a brace of wins, with the Austrian topping the overall standings ahead of his compatriot and teammate Patrick Konrad. It was pretty much a Bora training camp in all fairness. Let's just hope none of the Bora team had their eyes on any of the upcoming Italian races…
For sending a team to cycle in Romania is a bit like booking a holiday in Spain right now; there's only one certain outcome: a 14-day quarantine on the other side.
It's not as if the warning signs weren't there. Before the event started, there was a spike of COVID-19 cases in Romania, which has the rather dubious honour of boasting one of Europe's poorest public health services. Such was the concern that the Alpecin-Fenix team of Mathieu van der Poel decided, along with Androni Giocattoli-Sidermec, to pull out at the 11th hour. Wise move.
Their caution was rewarded with the announcement this week from the Italian health minister, Roberto Speranza, that anyone who had been in Romania or Bulgaria in the last 14 days must be quarantined for a fortnight if entering Italy. That would end any hope Ackermann may have had of making his Monuments debut in Milan-San Remo on 8th August.
With coronavirus cases on the rise again in Spain, the UK government has been quick to order a similar quarantine for people returning from any trips there. It is likely other nations – including France and Italy – will follow suit.
With that in mind, you'd think it would be inconceivable that any top riders would want to risk yet more enforced self-isolation to ride, say, the Vuelta a Burgos. But try explaining that to the star-studded start list, which includes the likes of Richard Carapaz, Fabio Aru, Simon Yates, Mark Cavendish, Remco Evenepoel and the world champion Mads Pedersen.
Domino effect will cause further disruption
Sibiu and Spain today, Strade Bianche tomorrow… With Italy one of the worst hit nations in the world during this COVID-19 crisis, and fears growing of an rise in cases (owing primarily to the relaxation of restrictions and subsequent influx of tourists), it would not be implausible that France decides to impose its own preventative quarantine measures.
With that in mind, only a fool who had serious aspirations to ride the Tour would gamble on riding in the upcoming Italian classics.
Can we now expect many big names to give Strade Bianche, Milan-San Remo and Il Lombardia a wide berth?
Image credit: Getty Images
Or will many riders play an elaborate game of double bluff? Mindful of the possibility that all cycling is soon derailed once again, will some riders try and at least salvage something from a sorry season by notching a win or two in Tuscany, Lombardy and on the Italian Riviera?
Following the recent cancellation of the GP Fourmies in France and the Canadian GPs, Deceuninck-QuickStep manager Patrick Lefevere told Het Nieuwsblad this week: "The dominoes are falling again." Indeed, they are. This week the Boels Ladies Tour joined the list of casualties after local municipalities could not grant permits due to COVID-19 concerns. A predictable pattern is emerging.
Perhaps the best way of securing some kind of continuity is taking a leaf out of Vincenzo Nibali's book. The Italian, who is based in Switzerland, is only racing in Italy throughout the remainder of the season – a safe and sensible approach to the new normal.
Exciting and unpredictable racing?
Let's be optimistic and assume that we will get to see some racing this year. With riders coming back after a four-month hiatus longer than any winter break, this is a completely unprecedented setup. Who knows how the body will react to being cooped up and only riding competitively on Zwift. There is no way of knowing who will shine and who will struggle as the races get going again.
What's more, COVID-19 will hang over the peloton like the sword of Damocles for the remainder of the season. Will it change the way the Tour is ridden, for instance? With the chance of the wheels coming off the wagon at any point in the race, will riders and teams be more aggressive or more conservative? You'd think the former.
After all, if you know there's no tomorrow, you're going to do your darndest to pull off a win today. Like a game of musical chairs, all the GC favourites will want to be the man in yellow when, if, Christian Prudhomme has to pull the plug. In a year as crazy as 2020, most will happily accept a de facto victory on their palmares.
Will Chris Froome ride the Tour?
Again, more optimism: August goes ahead without too many glitches and the peloton descends upon the French Riviera for the start of the Tour on 29th August. The big question: will Chris Froome be one of the Ineos Grenadiers in what we now know will be his final few months with the British team?
Since he last won the Tour, in 2017, Ineos have won it twice with two different riders, so it's fair to say that Froome isn't exactly top dog anymore – even though the 35-year-old just the one win away from joining the five-Tour club. To do so, he'll have to become the oldest Tour winner since 1922.
Truth be told, we still don't know whether Froome will be competitive again following his horrific accident last June. The only race he has done since was the UAE Tour back in February, and he was merely going through the motions.
You'd imagine that Dave Brailsford has done his calculations. He can't think Froome, at 35 and commanding the current salary he has (or is after), is any better than any of the options he currently has, namely, Egan Bernal and Geraint Thomas. Otherwise he would have kept him on and not allowed the Kenyan-born Briton to join Israel Start-Up Nation for 2021.
Now the question is whether it makes any sense in letting Froome ride one last Tour for Ineos before he leaves. It would be a great story were Froome to make history with a fifth win – a bit of a publicity coup, as well – but highly unlikely given his advanced years, the injuries he sustained, and the rise of his teammates.
But Froome is a winner, and it's difficult seeing past him giving it his best shot rather than ride in the support of others. Wouldn't this be divisive for Ineos? And given Froome will soon be a direct rival, wouldn't it be in the team's interests not to give him any opportunity to get back to his best.
Brailsford is renowned for his ruthlessness and he will know that there's no room for sentimentality in cycling. Or perhaps Brailsford has done his calculations and come up with the conclusion that, this year, the only way Ineos are going to beat Jumbo-Visma and their leading trio of Primoz Roglic, Tom Dumoulin and Steven Kruijswijk, is by fielding their own three-pronged attack?
Time will tell. If indeed it does. For now, it will be interesting to see how both Froome and Bernal fare on their return to competitive cycling on Saturday at the Route d'Occitanie.
Will Simon Yates go full circle at the Giro?
The rescheduling of the season has forced many riders to reshuffle their own plans and go all-in for the Tour when they might have previously been targeting a stab at the Giro and Vuelta. As a result, the Tour start list reads like a who's who of GC talent. Anyone trying to pick out a top five with zero form to go by will be grasping at straws.
But one notable rider is keeping to his original plan and eschewing the Tour – at least, the GC battle – and that's Simon Yates. The Briton has unfinished business at the Giro since compatriot Froome wrested the pink jersey off his slumped shoulders in stage 19 in 2018 after that now famous salvo on the Colle delle Finestre.
Bolstered by his win in the Vuelta, Yates returned to Italy last year and was bullish with his chances. But his bid to exorcise his demons fell flat as Richard Carapaz came up trumps, leaving the Mitchelton-Scott climber to bounce back with two stage wins on the Tour.
So, it's third-time lucky for Yates in the Giro as he looks to close a chapter of his career so that, presumably, he can then concentrate on the next one – namely, methodically completing the grand slam with a yellow jersey.
Yates will come up against that man Carapaz again – the Ecuadorian now the fourth Grand Tour winner on Ineos' books – as well as former winner Vincenzo Nibali and the Dane Jakob Fuglsang. Throw in the Belgian tyro Remco Evenepoel, who is set to make his three-week debut, and there you have your top five – at least, on paper.
Predicting the outcome of the maglia rosa will be a far easier enterprise than doing the same for yellow or red this autumn.
Addio Ungheria, ciao Sicilia
While it has been known for a long time that Hungary had pulled out of hosting the Giro's grande partenza because of the pandemic, it was only announced last week that the 103rd edition of La Corsa Rosa will now start in Sicily.
The initial plan was that the race would head to Sicily for three stages after the opening three in Hungary – including the race's first summit finish, on Etna, in stage 5.
But the cancellation of the Hungarian tryptic has forced RCS to bring forward and rejig the Sicilian leg of the race. The new plan is to kick off with a 16km individual time trial between Monreale and Palermo before a lumpy 150km second stage to Agrigento – whereby essentially splitting in two the initial stage 4 itinerary, which was to run between Monreale and Agrigento, famed for its temples.
The stage up Mount Etna from a new approach to the north then goes ahead in stage 3, bringing forward the race's first summit finish by two days. It is followed by the old stage 6 between Catania and Villafranca. RCS are yet to announce the make-up of two new stages – 5 and 6 – on mainland Italy before the old route is picked up as it was with stage 7 between Mileto and Camigliatello.
Will Giro-locked Peter Sagan ride Roubaix?
Of all the years to be tied into an agreement with RCS to ride the Giro d'Italia, this was not it – especially if you're a cobbles classics specialist. But Peter Sagan is clearly a man of integrity, and the Slovakian has agreed to honour his agreement of making his Giro debut this year – even if that means missing out on the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix.
Of course, it remains to be seen what would happen if Sagan has already withdrawn from the Giro by the time the Hell of the North comes along on a Super Sunday that also includes the Giro's final day time trial into Milan and the Tourmalet stage of the Vuelta.
Given the mountainous nature of the final week of the Giro, it would be strange to see Sagan still kicking around – especially seeing that he will be one of the few riders taking on the Giro after the Tour this autumn.
So perhaps there is another agreement in place with race organisers – one that allows Sagan to race in Italy, do his bit and notch a few stage wins, then leave in time to make it to the start line of Paris-Roubaix. Stranger things have happened.
Van der Poel to rule the Autumn Classics
One rider who certainly will be at Roubaix is the Dutch sensation Mathieu van der Poel. The 25-year-old had hoped to make his Grand Tour debut this year, but a combination of coronavirus and a lack of Tour invite for his Alpecin-Fenix team means Van der Poel's racing this autumn will be very much tailored around the classics.
After all, he is riding them all. With Strade Bianche, San Remo, Lombardia before his single stage race, Tirreno-Adriatico, and then the Ardennes and cobbled classics following soon after, the stage is set for Van der Poel to come of age in 2020 – especially given Sagan's absence.
The form is certainly there: the Dutchman recently set a new Strava record on the 23km Col du Petit Saint-Bernard climb in the Alps. The specialists from Deceuninck-QuickStep and Lotto Soudal, as well CCC veteran Greg van Avermaet, will have their work cut out.
Super Sunday sends shivers down the spine
Let's not get too excited. Chances are, it will never happen. Or if it does, half the pro peloton will be in quarantine somewhere. But the prospect of a men's and (first ever) women's Paris-Roubaix, a mountain-top finish on the Col du Tourmalet at the Vuelta, and the deciding time trial of the Giro in Milan, all taking place on Sunday 25 October is enough to set pulses racing among us race-starved fans.
Quite how the TV schedulers are going to cope is another matter – although the Giro TT does take place in the evening. Let's hope there's some kind of staggered system that will allow us to watch them all, one after the other – if they ever take place, that is.