Thursday, 25 February 2016

Why success in the u23 ranks really matters

One of the most often used clichés in pro cycling says that results in the u23 ranks don't necessarily translate to the pros. For example, fan A might say: "Just because rider B won race C, there is no guarantee that he will become a champion at the top level".
Well, that statement is true. There is no guarantee. I believe however that there is an extreme correlation between results in the u23 ranks and success at the pro level. Let me explain you why.

First of all, you won't get a pro contract in professional cycling unless you are very good at a young age (or you have a brother of the calibre of Peter Sagan). Cycling is a sport that takes extreme dedication - and time. You need to train a lot just to be competitive which simply cannot be accomplished if you have to work as a police officer along the way. That is why there is an almost unfair advantage for pro cyclists compared to amateur riders and the reason it is almost mandatory to get a pro contract as a young rider.
Sounds reasoned, doesn't it? But out of the riders who actually get a pro contract, why should there be an advantage for the more successful ones?
This one is easy. Although the public might sometimes forget, cycling is still a team sport. Every leader can only accomplish so much on his own. Almost every one of the top riders in cycling has a strong team these days but there are some exceptions. One if not the most prominent one is Peter Sagan who always struggled to win at Cannondale because his team was to fragile to bring back late attackers. He then had to chase them on his own which tired him out for the final sprint.
So as a neo pro you simply want to get into the strongest team there is, right? Not exactly. The problem with being part of a major player like BMC is that you won't get many chances to ride for your own glory. In the beginning you will have to work for the more seasoned leaders. At least that is the case if you come in with a low standing like Manuel Senni did roughly a year ago. It is much different if you come in with the palmarès of a Stefan Küng or Dylan Teuns. Is it coincidence that those two were some of the best riders in the u23s and only a year later an important part of the BMC racing team with Küng even being selected to ride in the gold medal winning worlds TTT team? I don't think so.

Don't get me wrong. I don't argue the fact that not every winner in the u23 will become a winner at pro level. That is obviously impossible given the fact that there are way to few pro races compared to the amateur races all over the world.
I just want you to think about this article the next time fan A says: "This Vervaeke guy is really a bust. He was amazing in the u23s, but he just doesn't have what it takes to be a pro. On the other hand, this Woods guy came out of nowhere. He only began biking a few years ago. That underlines the fact that results in the u23 ranks don't translate to the pros." Because when you think about it, you will realise that Vervaeke really struggled with injuries during last season and is just now getting healthy. You will realise that Woods was a North American record holder in track running before turning to cycling. And you will realise that these two things take nothing away from the fact that being successful in the u23 ranks is the single best way to launch the career of a cycling champion.

Thursday, 4 February 2016

Why the 4th of February might be remembered in Colombia for more than one reason

I am pretty sure you know Nairo Quintana, the tiny Colombian, who many people think is the embodiment of a so called natural born climber. And who can blame them? In his career he has already once won the Giro d'Italia - possibly the most difficult road race in all of cycling - despite losing more than two and a half minutes in a flat time trial to fellow countryman Rigoberto Uran. He also finished twice on the podium of the Tour de France - for sure the most popular and therefore highest rated race in all of cycling - and you could even make the case that he was outclimbing everyone, including two time race winner Chris Froome, in the final week of competition. Of all the Colombians in this extraordinary generation of talented bike riders, Quintana is the guy that really stands out.

Today is the 4th of February, Quintanas birthday. The funny thing is that it is also the birthday of Miguel Angel Lopez, a young Colombian rider who is in some ways very similar to Quintana, but in other ways very different. Lopez is born in 1994 whereas Quintana is born in 1990 which means that Quintana is four years older than Lopez. Quintana was already a national hero in 2013. At that time, I don't think anybody in Europe had stumbled across the name of Lopez and he wasn't well-known in Colombia either. Yet they raced against each other just a few days ago at the Tour de San Luis and Lopez beat Quintana who was riding in the support of his brother Dayer in a mountain top finish.

Lopez' first big season was in 2014 when he really emerged as a coming star in cycling. First in Colombia where he won five races in the first half of the season including the Vuelta de la Juventud Colombia, the Vuelta a Colombia for u23s, with a big solo win on the queen stage to the Alto de Crucero. He then came to Europe and went on to win the Tour de l'Avenir. Despite only winning by a 30 second margin and being attacked by Louis Vervaeke (now Lotto - Soudal) on the final day he always seemed completely in control, supported by a strong Colombian squad including sprint sensation Fernando Gaviria and Rodrigo Contreras (now Etixx - Quick Step). Lopez' season wasn't done yet as he went back to Colombia and won two stages of the Clasica Aguazul on his way to the overall victory.

Lopez signed with Astana for 2015. As he was still mostly unknown in Europe, this move to one of the biggest teams in pro cycling was viewed as a risky decision by Lopez. It was questioned whether Lopez, who didn't speak any English, would be able to cope with the difficulties of being in a team with only a handful of guys from Spain and no fellow South Americans.
His start to his pro career wasn't pretty at all. Lopez struggled with injuries throughout the first half of the season and wasn't able to build any steam. He finally showcased his talents on the second mountain top finish of the Tour of Turkey in which he attacked but was later passed by Pello Bilbao. He then did an impressive Tour de Suisse. Starting the race in a support role for Jakub Fuglsang, he rode away from his captain on the ascent to the Rettenbachgletscher on his way to a seventh place overall. Later in the season he took his first pro victory beating Daniel Moreno in an uphill sprint in the Vuelta a Burgos also taking the leaders jersey. He wasn't able to defend it on the last stage but this was still a very impressive showing.

Lopez and Quintana both won the Tour de l'Avenir at the age of 20 years. Both were relatively unknown at that time although Quintana had finished in the top 10 of a Spanish pro race the year before. Both went pro the following year but with Lopez going to a major team like Astana and Quintana going pro with the relatively small Colombia team, it really can't be compared. It will be interesting to see how Lopez goes this season. At 22 years of age, Quintana won the Vuelta a Murcia, the Route du Sud and one stage in the Critérium du Dauphiné. He also looked very strong in his first grand tour, the Vuelta, which will also be Lopez' first grand tour this season. I would say that Lopez can match those results if not outperform Quintana for the second year in a row.

That does not mean I think Lopez' is as or even more talented than Quintana. That would be a rather ridiculous assessment as Lopez' hasn't really done anything compared to the palmarès of Quintana. Furthermore I think you can't really compare them in terms of their style of riding. Quintana is, as mentioned above, a natural born climber who likes to go from far. Lopez is more of a mountain sprinter who is almost irresistible on the last meters of a mountain top finish. Just watch his stage win in the Vuelta a Burgos from last season in which he easily outkicked Dani Moreno, who is one of the best in that kind of a finish himself.

I am just wondering: When people in Colombia will think back to this time and age in say 50 years, will they think: "Today is the 4th of February, the day Nairo Quintana was born", or will they remember it as the day two of the best climbers in Colombian cycling history saw the light of day for the first time.

Monday, 9 November 2015

Why Jakub Mareczko is (not) the new Andrea Guardini

A comparison between two of the winningest Italian sprinters in recent history

In 2010 a rider called Andrea Guardini had one of the most dominant seasons in the history of the Italian amateur cycling circuit. Despite being up against lots of now professional riders including Giacomo Nizzolo, he clocked up 19 wins all coming in mass sprint finishes. Not surprisingly at all he joined the professional peloton in the following year signing a two-year contract with the Pro-Continental squad Vini Fantini.
It didn't take any time for Guardini to make his mark riding with the pros. In fact, his first stage race, the Tour de Langkawi, was a big success for the Italian as he won five of the ten stages, including the opening stages one and two. With the roads being wide open and none of his rivals ready to match his speed, Guardini was almost unstoppable. With eleven wins in his pro season he was quickly talked up to being the successor of Alessandro Petacchi. Winning his first Giro d'Italia stage in just his second season and doing it going head to head with one of the best sprinters of all time in Mark Cavendish, the future looked bride for Guardini.

Four years after Guardinis dominant showing in Italy, a rider called Jakub Mareczko bursted onto the scene. After a relatively slow start to the season during which he was beaten multiple times by Nicolas Marini, Mareczko started to get the better of his rival and at the end of 2014 he had 13 wins to his name, the most amount of wins any Italian amateur had achieved since Guardini. Guardinis former team now called Southeast took the chance to sign the talented sprinter as a neo pro starting in 2015.
Mareczkos first pro race this year was the Vuelta a Tachira in Venezuela and just like Guardini in Langkawi four years ago, the young sprinter was just one level ahead of the competition and took two of the first four stages. He later in the year followed it up with wins in the Vuelta a Venezuela and the Tour of Hainan (beating Giro d'Italia stage winner Sacha Modolo) before going on an absolute rampage at the Tour of Taihu Lake winning every single stage that was decided in a mass sprint (seven out of nine) and every jersey of the Chinese event (overall, points and youth). He finished his first pro season with 13 wins matching his total of his last amateur season.

So Guardini and Mareczko both dominated one year in Italy before racking up victories in smaller Asian races. But how similar are they as riders? And would it even be a good thing for Mareczko to be considered the new Guardini?
Lets first take a look at their build. Guardini is listed by as 1,75 m (though I think he might even be a little smaller than this) and 66 kg while Mareczko is listed as 1,69 m and 68 kg. Looking at this numbers it seems that Mareczko has a more compact body but this differential may be caused by the fact that Mareczko who has just turned pro this year still has some "unnecessary" muscles he needs to get rid of to lose some more weight.
Even if this assumption is incorrect and Guardini is the lighter of the two, he hasn't been able to use it to his advantage in climbs. In fact, both Guardini and Mareczko are considered terrible climbers which leads to the question if it is just a funny coincidence that both of them are from Italy. Why isn't there a French Guardini or a Belgian Guardini?

I believe it is a product of the Italian system and let me explain you why. In Italy there are basically two types of races one being the pan flat races like the Circuito del Porto (the only UCI race Mareczko won as an amateur) which are raced at an unbelievable speed and result in mass sprint finishes. Non-climbers like Guardini and Mareczko thrive in these races but once they race in Belgium for example, they really struggle because all of a sudden there are hills and cobbles and wind and they get dropped on the first incline. The problem is that being fast is enough to win lots of races in Italy. As a direct result not every big Italian sprinter makes it with the pros (see for example Filippo Fortin who was also big time as an amateur).
Another point that is closely related to this is that after both the first wins of Guardini and Mareczko as pros, people have said that they "came out of nowhere". With the introduction I have given you it is easy to see that this is not the case. In fact, the competition they faced in Italy as an amateur could have been superior to the competition in .2 races like the Vuelta a Venezuela. But because these amateur races can not be looked up on sites like fans don't realise they even exist. So they don't really "came out of nowhere" but it looked this way because they hadn't shown anything in a race outside of Italy before turning pro.

So Guardini and Mareczko are both very fast and can't climb. Since Guardini has been a pro for some time now there remains the question weather he has delivered on his promise. I say no although I might get a lot of hate for this. Yes, he won 35 races in his five years as a pro which is an amount most sprinters would dream about. But 18 of these victories came at the Tour de Langkawi and only two were at World Tour events (besides one stage of the Giro d'Italia in 2012 he also won one stage of the Eneco Tour in 2014). I think the main thing that is holding Guardini back is his Astana team which is more focused on the general classification than on sprints and often leaves him alone or at least without legit help in the biggest mass sprints.
It is impossible to say weather Mareczko will take a different path. I think it is a good sign that he has decided to stay with Southeast at least until the end of 2017. The team will take part in big races like the Giro d'Italia and Mareczko will be their protected sprinter.
Besides Guardini is not the only sprinter he reminds me of as he has a sprinting style very similar to that of the great Mark Cavendish (I suggest you look it up on Youtube). But that would be a really unfair comparison for anybody.