The effect of lockdown on our lives appears, at least in part, to have messed with the natural order of things; and for the professional peloton, it has been no different. For every rider who’s been able to discover some sort of inner calm, focus and method, moulding and remoulding their physiologies and pyschologies with distant and unknowable targets in mind, there’ve been another ten who appear to have frittered the time away on watching the box set of Ozark in their pants.
And, before going into our shuttered world, there was probably no way of guessing in advance exactly which camp which rider would fall into. So, here’s a tabloid style, and thoroughly unsatisfactory guide to the most notable lockdown losers and stay home heroes that I have been able to observe from the torrent of televised racing since it all re-booted and we were able to consume it all again, in our pants, like the box set of Ozark – although in the case of racing, it gets more interesting, rather than less.
In the women’s peloton, it’s been like watching a particularly well-crafted Netflix trailer, and then finding that the first episode won’t load. Because, the only race televised, and even then we only saw the final 25 kilometres, has been Strade Bianche, two weeks ago to this day. Prior to that, we read reports of solid form from perennial winners Elisa Longo-Borghini and Anna van der Breggen as the women’s peloton contested a non-world tour triptych of one day races in the Northern Spain – but they were picking up podium places, rather than flat our winning. That’s because they weren’t allowed to by the incontrovertible dominance of World Champion Annemiek van Vleuten, whose winning streak now spans not only lockdown, but a calendar year – six races in a row going back to the Yorkshire worlds and running through to Siena’s uphill finish – for which she was made to work hardest of all by a huge ride from Mavi Garcia of Ale BTC Lubljana. Garcia’s probably the most improved woman to emerge into the daylight of racing and definitely one to watch when they finally re-start the re-start on the 26th of August in France at the GP Plouay followed by La Course. But an honourable mention should go to the American Leah Thomas who crashed on the gravel of Strade Bianche and got back up to finish third.
With the men – there are two slightly backfiring superstars to observe, both scratching around to remember what it was they used to with consummate ease before COVID messed with their lives – though they’re at very different points in their seasons, let alone careers, neither Mattieu van der Poel nor Peter Sagan have quite got to grips with the new normal yet. In the case of van der Poel, his 3rd at Gran Piemonte suggests he’s knocking on the door, whereas in the case of the Sagan, two 4th places at Milano Torino and Milan Sanremo (good though they are) are perhaps suggestive of a rider hanging onto form like muscle memory, rather than building towards another peak. Who knows – the class will surely out at some point to come?
Likewise, a few GC and climby riders appear to be finding life on the open road a little less comfortable than a few months of turbo-training. It’s clear that Chris Froome’s in that category – the small matter of shattering his leg a year ago may be playing a minor role in his travails – but I’d add slightly underpowered 2020 versions of Yates A and indeed Yates S into the mix, Thomas G, Kwiatkowski, Castroviejo into the mix as well. And Egan Bernal looks shaken, bruised and stirred. It’s all a bit surprising, really. Even Nairo Quintana, who started 2020 in such sparkling form, looks like he might have spent a bit too much lockdown time wondering into rooms and forgetting why he went there. And Tejay van Garderen is still, infuriatingly for his many admirers, Tejay van Garderen. And young Tadej Pogačar has had to watch on while Remco Evenpoel has definitively snatched his title of world’s most precocious talent.
There are plenty of riders who are holding their form just where you’d imagine them to be: Jakob Fuglsang, Romain Bardet, Richie Porte, Miguel Ángel López to name but four. Julian Alaphilippe to name but five. Fabio Aru makes it six. These par for the course have emerged the other side of the world falling apart as if the world never fell apart and what’s all the fuss about anyway.
Then there are the smug few, who have gone into lockdown and started to use phrases like “I didn’t want to say this, but I’ve actually quite enjoyed it”. Mostly they ride for Jumbo Visma and are called Wout van Aert, Primož Roglič, George Bennett and Sepp Kuss, ably supported by Tom Dumoulin, Steven Kruijswijk (who had to abandon the Dauphiné with a dislocated shoulder) and in a slightly do or die way, the rubbery form of Robert Gesink.
But also, it’s worth noting the growing confidence of Valerio Conti, Dauphiné stage winner Davide Formolo and Guillaume Martin who is now mixing it with the very best climber and not getting dropped routinely when the pace increases. The emergence of Astana’s Alexander Vlasov is deeply exciting too; a rider who didn’t exist on people’s radars before COVID stopped the world, nor his support rider Harold Tejada. Other lockdown success stories include the spectral Emmanuel Buchmann, who appears to have morphed into something even more skeletal and invisible than he was before and might well be ghosting his way onto another largely unacclaimed podium finish, of not the Dauphiné (he crashed out), then why not at the Tour? And Thibaut Pinot too looks energised, purposeful, strong as an ox and good to go. His team are clearly on the right trajectory as well, judging by the manner of Arnaud Démare’s victory at Milano Torino in a packed sprinter’s field.
Then there’s The One. Remco Evenepoel will have won Lombardia by the time you read this. And if he doesn’t, it’s not my fault.
So, there we have it; a little look what we might have learned from the last two weeks of watching the telly after four months of watching the telly. I suggest we all now stay at home and carry on watching the telly. The changing fortunes are going to be fascinating.