Will Mathieu van der Poel's Quarantine Hurt His Classics Chances & Tour du Var/UAE Tour Notebook

MvdP's Classics preparation runs aground & notes from the weekend races

UAE Tour Stage 1 Notes:

Since I expected a weekend of dull, inconsequential early-season racing this weekend, I didn’t budget much time for viewing/keeping up with pro cycling. But when I fired up the first stage of the UAE Tour on Sunday morning, I was treated to the following:

As you can see above, crosswinds spewed echelons all over the open desert roads only six kilometers into the start of the stage! This must have been a true punch in the gut for riders who flew into the UAE expecting a few days of easy racing in warm weather before ramping up the pace for some spicy sprint finishes.

In fact, by the end of the stage, the Deceuninck - QuickStep goon squad had shredded the race to pieces and Mathieu van der Poel won the stage out of a reduced sprint finish (which is like shooting fish in a barrel for him).

Also, this win could be a sign that MvdP's sprint, which disappeared in 2020, could be coming back to a world-class level in 2021.

MvdP Win Profile 2020:

MvdP Win Profile 2019:

The reduced group shown in the gif above is all that remained from 139 riders at the start of the race. Below is the top-17 from the stage, which were the only riders within a minute of the stage winner.

Everyone else was off-the-back and out of contention for the overall win. This means the overall is going to be fought between last year’s winner, Adam Yates and Tadej Pogacar, Joao Almeida, and Neilson Powless.

Stage 2 Notes

The 13-kilometer stage 2 time trial took place early this morning and as expected, Filippo Ganna won the stage handily. This is hardly a surprise since he is far and away the best time trialist in the world and has won the last eight individual time trials he has started.

But if we look further down the results sheet, things get more interesting.

The young Swiss Rider on EF, Stefan Bissegger, put in a great ride to get second place and is the revelation of the day.

Tadej Pogacar, who was considered a pure climber just 12 months ago, came in 4th, just 24-seconds back on Ganna, on a pancake flat, 13km pure power TT, which should be one of his worst disciplines. He finished just behind TT prodigy Mikkel Bjerg, ahead of four-time Spanish time trial champion Luis Leon Sanchez and Joao Almeida, who rode to 4th overall at the Giro based on his ability in the three TTs (Stage 1, Stage 14 & Stage 21).

BTP readers will know that I believe that Pogacar should be considered a world-class time trialist after his performance at Stage 20 of the 2020 Tour de France, but the greater cycling narrative has yet to catch up with his performances. In fact, Matt White, the Director of the BikeExchange Team, even recently said that a TT-heavy Tour would hurt Pogacar’s chances of repeating. This performance should put an end to that misconception and force everyone to re-adjust how they perceive Pogacar’s TT ability.

Current GC Top Six

Chris Froome, in his first race with this new team, Israel Start-Up Nation, finished over eight minutes off the back on Stage 1, but we shouldn’t read too much into this since so he was with other big names like Vincenzo Nibali. But the most concerning data-point for Israel and Froome was his 1’36 gap to Ganna in today’s TT. If he truly wants to challenge at the Tour this season, he needs to be an elite time trialists, and finishing over a minute behind his main challenger, Tadej Pogacar, doesn’t bode well for his chances this summer.

Stage 3 Preview: I expect Pogacar to extend his lead by winning on tomorrow’s summit finish at Jebel Hafeet. Almeida will hold his second-place and Yates will move into third place.

Tour du Var Takeaways:

In a bit of disorienting scheduling, while some of the sport’s best riders were facing off in the Middle East, the other half of the sport’s stars were facing off in the South of France in a mountain-only three-stage race.

The race was an action-packed event since the organizers did a great job of packaging short stages with dynamic topography.

Stage 2: The “easiest” stage of the race saw Mike Woods take the overall lead from Bauke Mollema from Trek-Segafredo on a steep uphill run to the line that perfectly suited Woods's abilities. Woods only took the overall lead by a single second after crossing the line 1.1-seconds in front of Mollema. I initially thought that should have left the riders tied on time and Mollema in the lead due to a countback on stage placings. But the race jury decided to extend that 1.1s out to a full 2s, which meant Woods was able to take the lead. It is inane that an objective sport like cycling from point A to point B can be left up to a jury. It makes zero sense that riders aren’t timed using electronic timing systems to take the subjective guesswork out of figuring out when each rider finished.

The craziest part about this is that Woods sat up before the finish line and coasted through while Mollema was desperately chasing right behind. You can see this in the screenshot below and it happens a shockingly amount in races that are decided by fractions of a second.

Stage 3: The hardest stage of the race, which features a sharks-tooth profile, saw the peloton explode before the TV coverage began. I have no idea how it happened, but Woods’ Israel team let a break get up the road with essentially the entire Groupama-FDJ team, many of whom were within multiple riders within a few seconds of the overall lead and Mollema’s teammate, Gianluca Brambilla, who was only 13-seconds out of first place at the start of the stage.

I’m sure the racing was incredibly hard and it is easier to say things from the couch than actually executing in the race, but the fact that Israel couldn’t control the race and allowed Brambilla to get up the road shows that for all their talk of fortifying the squad in the off-season, they still have a ways to go before they can truly control a WorldTour-level race.

Brambilla dropped the rest of his breakaway companions, including Tao Geoghegan Hart on the Col de la Madone. Afterward, he had an incredibly impressive solo ride to the finish line as the small Woods group chased behind.

But in yet another strange finish-line move, he also sat up well before crossing the line despite needing a 13-second gap on a group chasing just behind.

In the screenshot below, we can clearly see Jakob Fuglsang lead the chase group over the line 15-seconds later, which means Brambilla took the overall win by two seconds.

In another odd subjective time judgment, the official results show the group coming in 18-seconds behind, thus giving Brambilla the overall win by five seconds.

Some Takeaways:

  • Riders should stop sitting up to celebrate in time-based stage races decided by a handful of seconds!

  • Cycling needs to figure out some sort of objective timing system as margins get tighter and tighter. Mistakes of a few seconds here and there don’t really matter at Tour du Var, but what if that extra three seconds decided a bigger race? After all, we saw three all grand tours in 2020 decided by less than a minute.

  • Geraint Thomas’ still seems to be missing climbing form. The Ineos rider came in close to four minutes behind the lead group on Stage 3. Right now, Tao Geoghegan Hart appears to be the far better option between the two for Tour leadership.

  • Despite being favored by betting markets to win the opening stage, Tom Pidcock got a rude awakening in his opening weekend. The much-hyped rider finished 86th, 81st, and 37th in the three stages and it is becoming clear he will need some time to adjust to the higher level of racing.

  • Brambilla and his Trek team played their tactics perfectly. It was great to see him given an opportunity to race in an event that suits his style so well. He is a career opportunity but for a day, he was flat out better than some of the biggest names in the sport.

Mathieu van der Poel Quarantine Speedbumps

Just as Van der Poel was heating up at the UAE Tour and looking like he could mount a serious challenge for the overall win, his Alpecin-Fenix Team was forced into self-isolation after a staff member tested positive for COVID.

The issue for MvdP, assuming he doesn’t have COVID himself, is that outside of not being able to race the remainder of the UAE Tour, it isn’t clear when MvdP will be able to return to normal training.

With the major objectives of the Spring right around the corner, this could seriously derail his ability to train or simply just stay in shape.

  • Strade Bianche: 13 days away

  • Milano-Sanremo: 26 days away

  • Tour of Flanders: 41 days away

  • Paris-Roubaix: 48 days away

UAE is incredibly strict with COVID protocols, so I assume MvdP and his team will be placed in a hotel for an immediate quarantine with no ability to train. However, we simply don’t know at this point enough yet to fully press the panic button on MvdP’s looming Classics campaign, and he is talented enough to miss a day of training and still be better than the rest, but the image of riders marooned in the Abu Dhabi hotels after a COVID outbreak at the UAE Tour in 2020 will be looming large in the Alpecin-Fenix rider’s minds.

I promised the conclusion to the rider preview today in the last newsletter, but to keep this at a reasonable length, I will be sending that out later this week on a slower race news day.