With the cycling calendar already in full swing, it is so easy to forget the storylines of the previous weeks as new heroes, villains and controversies emerge in the world of professional cycling. Every week throughout the year I will be producing a wrap up article on a major story from the week past, aided and inspired by the art created by the talented Louemans. I hope you enjoy the articles to come.
What to do with Gazprom
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has had incredible consequences for so many people around the world, most notably for the Ukrainian people who are living in the midst of a war. Reactions to the war have included international sanctions applied to both Russia and Russian individuals, private sector cessation of deals with Russian entities and the ban on participation of Russian teams or athletes by sports federations.
Cycling has not been immune from the question of what to do (if anything) with Russian teams and athletes. This conversation reached a fever pitch when, just a few days after Russia’s invasion, 19 year old Czech rider Mathias Vacek won stage six of the UAE Tour whilst riding for Gazprom-Rusvelo.
The actual team Gazprom-Rusvelo is run through a Swiss company called PROvelo AG, located in Lamone. Their general manager is Russian, Renat Khamidulin, and I assume it is this Swiss company that receives sponsorship income, enters into employment agreements and holds the UCI ProTeam licence.
Gazprom (the company) is the world’s largest natural gas producer, headquartered in Moscow and majority owned by the Russian government. The title sponsor of Gazprom-Rusvelo is actually subsidiary of the Gazprom parent entity.
So whilst on the surface it looked like Gazprom (the majority Russian state owned company that is subject to international sanctions) was sponsoring (or even perhaps owning) a Russian cycling team, the legal set up was a little bit more complicated, as it is a Swiss company running the team sponsored by a German company. Once you add to the mix that around half the riders on the team, such as the Czech Vacek, are not even Russian, all of a sudden I was not sure that UCI would ban the team from UCI races.
In practical terms, the team was unlikely to be seen again in major races for the foreseeable future, as I would have been very surprised if race organisers continued to extend discretionary invitations to them to appear at their race. Signs of this had already begun by the end of the UAE Tour as the Tour of Norway, who had already signed the invitation for Gazprom to appear in their race, publicly announced that it had been withdrawn.
The IOC’s Recommendation
Fortunately for the UCI, and unfortunately for the riders on Gazprom-Rusvelo, the UCI’s decision was made much easier when their hand was forced by the International Olympic Committee’s surprise Executive Board announcement earlier this week. The IOC recommended that international sports federations (such as the UCI) ban all Russian and Belarusian teams, athletes and officials from participation in sports events.
Given that the head of the UCI, David Lappartient, had recently been appointed as a member of the IOC, it was inevitable that the UCI would implement these recommendations to some degree. Last night the UCI announced a slightly pared back version of the IOC’s recommendations, but it still included the removal of UCI Team status from Gazprom-Rusvelo (and all Russian and Belarussian teams).
Even without the IOC’s strong recommendation, and despite the complicating factors of Gazprom-Rusvelo’s superficially non-Russian legal status, I would have expected the UCI to still have withdrawn their UCI Team status as the team was ultimately registered with the Russian Federation.
Upon reading the UCI’s announcement, Aleksandr Vlasov, Pavel Sivakov, Riabushenko Amialiusik, amongst others, must have breathed a sigh of relief, as the UCI did not implement the IOC’s recommendation that Russian and Belarusian athletes (even racing for non-foreign teams) be banned from races.
One of the reasons given by the UCI is that banning all the athletes would unfairly punish non Russian teams such as the German Bora-Hansgrohe, who signed Aleksandr Vlasov as a headline GC contender on multiple year deal. However this issue does not end with the UCI’s measures, as the UCI acknowledges that “in the event of a State decreeing stricter measures” regarding Russian athlete participation, those stricter measures would take precedence. For example, the Dutch cycling federation, following their National Olympic Committee’s recommendations, has announced that no Russian or Belarusian athletes may participate in any race organised in the Netherlands.
The UCI’s recommendations specified that “State” sanctions take priority over theirs if they are stricter and it is debatable whether the Dutch cycling federation is included within the scope of that word. My guess is that by the word “State” the UCI actually meant that country by country rules (even if they are implemented by a national federation) regarding this issue will take priority over the UCI’s rules. On the men’s side this meant that, at the time of the announcement, neither Aleksandr Vlasov nor Pavel Sivakov could ride in the Vuelta a Espana, which starts in the Netherlands this August.
Predictably, INEOS Grenadiers announced on the 4th of March that Sivakov, using the UCI’s new fast track system for Russian nationals, had been granted a change to his racing nationality by the UCI to France. As Sivakov already held French nationality and now has a French UCI racing licence, he should be permitted to race in all races on the UCI calendar.
For other riders, things are not as easily fixed as for Sivakov. Whilst this year the Vuelta starts in the Netherlands, Amstel Gold Race is only one men’s World Tour race that appears annually in the country. On the other hand, the Women’s World Tour Calendar has Ronde van Drenthe one-day race in just over a week, Amstel Gold Race and Simac Ladies Tour on the calendar in the Netherlands. Belarusian Alena Amialiusik, an important domestique for Niewiadoma in hilly races for Canyon-Sram, will not be able to participate in any of these events.
I will continue to monitor the releases of the national cycling federations, as more of them may announce similar measures to the Netherlands in the near future.
The Two ‘Vans’ Ignite Omloop
What a difference some new teammates can make. The incredible support for Wout van Aert at Omloop last weekend was in stark contrast to the classics of 2021 for Jumbo-Visma, where all too often van Aert was isolated early in races, having to close attacks from Quickstep himself before the final phase of the race had even begun. Tiesj Benoot’s aggressive moves in both Omloop and Kuurne caught all the other teams on the back foot, having to chase whilst Jumbo riders sat in the wheels – a situation they cannot afford to repeat in future races.
A couple of hours later, Annemiek van Vleuten showed that she barely needs any help in the finale of a race, despite being put in a difficult tactical situation by SD Worx. Despite van Vleuten having to close a gap to Reusser before the Bosberg and dragging Vollering all the way to the finish line, she was able to beat Vollering in one of the longest sprints I have ever seen. A terrifying omen of things to come this year, with it possible that van Vleuten wins almost every major race she lines up at.
José Neves’ Watts are not Enough
I will admit that I have a weakness for watts analysis and crazy climbing performances. So when I was told that Portuguese champion José Neves did 7w/kg for 14 minutes in an untelevised Portuguese race in 2021, my interest was piqued and I vowed to track his progress in 2022. Last week he lined up at the new hilly Galician stage race Gran Camiño, won by Alejandro Valverde, and I have both positive and negative news to report.
The bad news for Neves fans is that he cannot ride his bike in a group in a race, which is a precondition for ability to ride at World Tour level, no matter how good your legs are. During stage 3 he was dropped by the group after taking some slow speed corners badly, ruining his chance at a top result.
Neves positioning and cornering problems were endemic to his race, leading him to be extremely deep in the field before the tart of the brutal Mirador do Ezaro climb, where he still managed to come 8th. He was also slower on descents compared to even Mike Woods.
The good news for Neves fans is that he did show good legs in a UCI race outside of Portugal, albeit often chasing from a bad position. He set the best ever time on the 3.3km 10% Sant Esteban-Lornis climb, doing 6.6 w/kg for 11.5 minutes, chasing the group.
This was followed by 6w/kg for over 22 minutes on the final climb of the day, after chasing solo on the descent and the best part of the last third of the stage.
Riders with Neves’ physiology are uncommon, but if he does not vastly improve his handling and bunch awareness, he will not be able to contribute to a team at World Tour level. He should consider focussing on improving these areas whilst preparing for Zwift Academy in November this year, where he would have a high chance of winning an Alpecin-Fenix Contract.
Tesfatsion Wins Tour du Rwanda
Eritrea’s Natnael Tesfatsion of Drone Hopper – Androni Giocattoli took out his second Tour du Rwanda General Classification victory with a Contador like consistent performance throughout the eight stages but no stage victory. He took the yellow jersey after stage 6 when was the only one to stay with Ukranian Anatoliy Budyak on the punchy finish. On stage 7 he extended his lead on Mont Kigali over Budyak and Angel Madrazo, to seal the GC win.
Jakobsen Fires back at Kuurne
Despite Fabio Jakobsen taking two wins apiece at Valenciana and Algarve, Cavendish’ exploits in the Middle East had lead certain people (myself being the main culprit) of re-igniting the #CavToTheTour movement.
Perhaps hearing those whisperings, Fabio Jakobsen laid down a bold marker at Kuurne – Brussel – Kuurne, opening up his sprint with over 200 metres to go, with no lead-out and Caleb Ewan in his wheel, winning the race easily.
I do not think it is a coincidence that Quickstep team boss Lefevere left open the possibility for Cavendish to go to the Tour instead of Jakobsen in a recent interview. Quickstep have been the best sprint team in the world for several years, and internal competition amongst their sprinters, be it Viviani and Gaviria or Cavendish and Jakobsen, provides an extra incentive for them to get results throughout the year if they want to be selected for the Tour de France. In contrast, Sam Bennett at Bora-Hansgrohe has been guaranteed a Tour de France spot before the season even began, reducing the urgency for him to start hot out of the blocks.