Is it daft to ask when the cycling season really starts? Not really. The start is different for different people, be they spectators or riders. So where’s the ‘real’ beginning?
Tour Down Under – January
The Tour down Under marks the beginning of the WorldTour, which is the season long competition, and so it thus makes sense to equate it with the beginning of the year. However, it’s never really been more then an appetif, especially considering that its successor in the World Tour, Paris-Nice, doesn’t arrive until March. It’s traditionally sprinter friendly route and the fact it’s usually been a publicity exercise for native Australians on good form off their summer or for Lance Armstrong (although 2013 was the exception to the rule) has always made it seem less serious then the traditional season openers as well. The race seems to hit a spot with top riders thanks to the relaxed atmosphere, where they only use one hotel all week, but they’re usually not on much form so the race ends up being more of a carnival to show off new kit then an actual race.
Tour de San Luis – January
In the last couple of years, this Argentinian stage race has been an impressive race, with varied stages and some testing mountain stages and time trials, which has led to it attracting some big names to use it as an early season leg tester. Unfortunately, the TV coverage has been utterly abysmal, with fixed cameras seemingly miles away showing us the backs of riders as they crawl up mountains like ants, or trying to show sprint finishes by using a camera at 200m to go, meaning viewers miss the finish. The race is certainly gaining stature though, but until they sort out the fact viewers can’t actually see it, it won’t be considered the season opener.
Tour of Qatar – February
Qatar has evolved in the last couple of years from a race that was used by sprinters to build some early season form to one for the classics men. Thus, big hitters such as Tom Boonen, who has taken a significant percentage of his career victories at the race, and Fabian Cancellara have turned up to take advantage of the hot weather and experience some flat, crosswind hit roads like the Cobbled classics they intend to target later in the year. However, Qatar is, frankly, a bit dull. Once the wind blows, it breaks up, but nobody ever catches the echelons up and it’s essentially 5 sprint finishes that could be readily interchangeable thanks to the desert scenery. Yes, the big riders come along for the show, but it’s not exactly entertaining.
Tour of Oman – February
I’ll admit, when I first saw the Tour of Oman was happening, I thought it was just going to be another week like the Tour of Qatar. How wrong I was. It turns out Oman is a beautiful, epic country full of climbs, hills, and greenery, unlike its Qatary neighbor. In 2013, it managed to attract 3 Tour de France winners (Evans, Contador, Wiggins) the worlds top ranked rider (Rodriguez) and the two next best complete stage racers (Nibali and Froome), and all were on good enough form to animate the climbing stages and make it an exciting race. Oman should be looking at the top race status pretty soon if it’s as entertaining as this in the future.
The Cobble Classics Opening Weekend: Omloop Het Niewsblad/Kurrne-Brussels-Kurrne – February
For many though, including myself, the season doesn’t really get going until the sport returns to Europe. All the foreign excursions may be nice for globalisation, but in the end, they have to admit that they are effectively warm weather training camps for races such as this. Het Niewsblad is a classic hilly race, and has a great winners roster, whilst Kurrne, which doesn’t actually go through Brussels, has a couple of cobbled sections but is basically a sprinters race. However, it’s still not really the beginning of the season. Why? Because it’s become a weekend more for the ‘B-teams’ to take precedence. The main men are still building towards greater things, and so this weekend isn’t really prestigious enough to be the ‘season opener.’
Paris-Nice – March
The ‘Race to the Sun’ is inductive of the season beginning. In my view, it’s one of two races which show the season have truly begun – more on the second later. That nickname demonstrates why to a degree – as the race heads south (usually not from Paris) towards Nice, it becomes lighter, brighter and the terrain becomes more mountainous and so the big men start to emerge. In essence, its symbolic of the sports move from the dark days of winter into the cold sun of spring. It’s usually hugely entertaining, and it’s a race the top riders target, and combined with the European scenery, its arguable that the previous international races make this even more like a homecoming and the true beginning of the year.
Milan-San Remo – March
Like Paris-Nice, Milan San Remo is about the return of spring, hence its name, La Primavera – quite literally ‘The Spring’. Again, its route is symbolic as it moves from chilly Milan to the sunny Med, usually ending with the winner glowing in the hues of a golden setting sun. It encapsulates European racing thanks to it’s late hills, forces the sprinters into a battle with the classics men and is generally excellent in colour, scenery and excitement.
Tour de France – July
Of course, for casual fans, there is only one race in the season, or indeed in cycling – the Tour. Oddly, it’s nowdays almost the end of the season in an odd way – win the Tour and that’s usually season over, which given there’s still the Worlds, the Vuelta, San Sebastian etc to come is an odd move. But hey, the Tour is only the ‘beginning’ for ‘people who ride bikes’, not for ‘cyclists’, and as we’re all self righteous and pretentious enough to claim, there’s a difference!