With UAE Team Emirates’ riders testing their legs in recent European Tour races, the intensity is about to shift up a gear as the team gets set for the official start of the Spring Classics.
The pulsating 10 days of cycling will kick off with the traditional curtain-raiser, the E3 BinckBank Classic, on March 29, for which UAE Team Emirates has announced a stellar line-up.
Leading the team’s charge for one-day glory will be Norwegian sprinter Alexander Kristoff. He will be supported by Belgian youngster Jasper Philipsen, who makes his debut in this race and will be eager to impress in front of a home crowd.
The race also has added sentiment for Philipsen; he won the 2016 junior edition in what was just his second ever road race victory as a junior.
He will be joined by Tom Bohli, Marco Marcato, Oliviero Troia, Sven Erik Bystrom and Norwegian national road race champion, Vegard Stake Laengen.
Commenting ahead of the race, Kristoff said: “With the E3, my northern campaign starts. I’m arriving there with my condition and health better than last year, so I hope to be able to be more competitive. The team is reinforced for these races, so the signs are looking good.”
The 203.9km route will be no easy ride. The hilly parcours are supplemented by cobbled roads, synonymous with the Spring Classics races. With 15 sharp climbs scattered throughout the route, riders will have to show their grit and determination to get to the finish.
The first climb comes after 27km and will give riders just a brief taste of what’s to come. It’s reasonably plain sailing for the proceeding 40km, before the peloton starts to hit the more serious climbs. It will be the second half of the race where the action really starts to hot up.
The route provides a relentless number of hills, and in the past – despite being far from the finish line – riders have used this section as an opportunity to attack.
With just over 50km of the race to go, the peloton will enter the most difficult section of the race featuring the Kapelberg, a 750m climb with an average gradient of 7.1 per cent; the Paterberg, a 400m climb that averages 12.9 and the Oude Kwaremont, a 2.2km haul averaging inclines of 4.4.
All have the added difficulty of being played out along the cobbles. The final climb of the day will see riders tackle the Tiegemberg, 1km of climbing at 5.6 per cent, before a slightly downhill 2km sprint to the finish.
UAE Team Emirates announced on Sunday that Fabio Aru will undergo an operation which will rule him out for at least three to four months.
That means the Italian will miss the Giro d’Italia as a “constriction of the iliac artery in his left leg” was revealed by tests on the twice Giro podium finisher.
“This relatively rare condition is found in professional cyclists given the position adopted on their bikes and can develop progressively over a period of several years,” said Dr Jeroen Swart, head of the medical staff of UAE Team Emirates.
“In the coming days, with a date to be determined based on the availability of the hospital, Aru will undergo angioplasty surgery at the Nuovo Ospedale di Prato, after which he will have to observe an absolute rest period of one month. For something like this, the
return time is estimated at three or four months.”
Not only does that sideline Aru for the Giro, which begins on May 11, but also the Tour of Catalunya taking place from March 25-31.
“From a certain point of view, I can only be relieved to have found the problem,” the 28-year-old said.
“On the other hand, I am angry about the bad luck that has fallen on me for the umpteenth time and that will force me to miss the Giro d’Italia again. I will work to try to put an end to this dark period as soon as possible.”
Having provided six of the previous seven Tour de France champions and with the future now secure thanks to the backing of Britain’s richest man and his petrochemicals company, Team Ineos seemingly possess the formula to continue dominating cycling.
At the start of the year, with Sir Dave Brailsford struggling in his search to find a new sponsor for 2020, the future beyond 2019 was looking distinctly unclear for Team Sky.
Dark clouds loomed over their decade-long dominance – especially at the jewel in the crown of the sport, Le Tour. The sky looked like it might come crashing down. Now, however, it seems the sky remains the limit for Brailsford, Chris Froome, Geraint Thomas and Co following the groundbreaking news of Sir Jim Ratcliffe’s imminent investment.
Everything should be in place for Team Ineos to make its mark in the sport and extend Team Sky’s legacy.
Ironically, despite their future beyond the current season being plunged into uncertainty before it had even started, it was in 2018 that Sky stumbled upon a new-found formula for success.
For so long it had been Froome’s team, and with good reason. The Kenya-born climbing specialist had ascended into solo sixth place on the all-time Grand Tour winners list following his maiden Giro d’Italia triumph.
He headed to France later in the year aiming to sweep up his fourth-straight Tour title, one that would take him level for Grand Tour triumphs with legends Fausto Coppi, Miguel Indurain and Alberto Contador.
Sky did indeed claim a fourth straight crown, and sixth since 2012. But it was Welshman Geraint Thomas – so often a domestique throughout his career – who became the dominant force as four-time champion Froome faded on the brutal ascent of Col du Portet.
Nairo Quintana claimed Stage 17 victory but Thomas finished third and gained time on his nearest rivals as Froome disappeared out of the picture. He would recover to overtake Primoz Roglic and finish third overall, but his vice-like grip on the famous race was significantly loosened.
So too it seemed that Sky’s grip at the top of the sport would be prised loose following December’s announcement that the British broadcaster was ending its 10-year association.
And yet with Ratcliffe’s investment, allayed to Thomas’ graduation to a Grand Tour contender and the fact Ineos possess one of the best rosters on the UCI WorldTour – Colombia’s Egan Bernal won the prestigious Paris-Nice race last week – it seems like it could remain business as usual.
In the wake of his Tour triumph last July, 32-year-old Thomas penned a new three-year deal running until 2021. And it’s not as if Froome, 33, will take talk of his demise following the surrender of the famous yellow jersey lightly.
He will be more driven, intent to continue his surge towards the summit, joining cycling’s greats.
A few weeks ago, Brailsford would have held little hope of keeping the dominance Sky had exerted at the top echelon of cycling under his guidance.
With an annual budget estimated at £35million, Sky had always faced strong opponents but had ruled the sport and its prized asset. Froome, Thomas and Sir Bradley Wiggins – the first rider donning Sky colours – had all lifted the Tour title since 2012. Only Vincenzo Nibali, then with Astana, had broken the cycle, in 2014.
Maintaining their status as kings appeared troublesome as investment dried up. Yet now, even greater funding appears as if it will become available, and that only promises more positives for the British team and further pain for the rest of the peloton.
“They’ll probably buy Aston Martins for team cars, they’ll have space shuttle buses, jetpacks,” former Team GB rider Max Sciandri told Cycling Weekly earlier this week.
Pumping in £35million a year to run the project is a significant investment to most, but would appear to be a mere drop in the ocean for a man worth an estimated £21billion.
Add in the fact Ratcliffe is a cycling enthusiast and it seems even more of a promising fit. The team will be officially unveiled at the Tour of Yorkshire on May 2 – Stage 1 passes through Beverley where Ratcliffe went to school.
But should concerns also be raised?
After all, for all its celebration of incredible endurance and the human spirit, and the sheer brutality inflicted on the body – not to mention the horrific accidents and injuries, even common instances of death both during and outside racing – cycling has always been besieged by a seedy element.
For all their success in the last 10 years, Sky have particularly been dogged by accusations of cheating. Froome’s quartet of Tour de France triumphs have been the subject of intense investigation following his 2017 Vuelta a Espana victory – Froome was found to have twice the allowed dose of salbutamol (he suffers with asthma) in his system.
There were even calls for him to be barred from entering the 2018 Giro – along with the Tour and the Vuelta, the third of cycling’s Grand Tour races – while he remained under scrutiny.
Super happy that the team can continue and stay together!!— Geraint Thomas (@GeraintThomas86) 19 March 2019
Thank you to Sky, hello to INEOS🙌👍 https://t.co/L9Qf89ds3h
Anger only intensified when he was not only allowed to compete, but won – his sixth and latest Grand Tour title, which also completed the triple crown.
The fact that Ratcliffe has made his fortune in the chemicals industry will do little to dampen the murmurs of discontent.
Although Deceuninck-QuickStep boss Patrick Lefevre was among those to welcome the Ineos announcement, as well as reports suggesting French oil company Total could back the Direct Energie squad, there are plenty of opposers to Ratcliffe’s arrival – both from within and outside cycling.
Environmental groups have been quick to point out that Team Sky will go from promoting an ocean rescue and #passonplastic campaign to being sponsored by a major producer of plastic.
But Sky has never been proved guilty of any wrongdoing. And it’s not as if it is a sport full of clean noses.
With chemicals tycoon Ratcliffe on board, there is a veritable periodic table of elements now combining to suggest Ineos will continue to concoct success.
As long as the money is pouring in there will likely be nothing periodic about Ineos’ continuing presence among the cycling elite.