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Bicycle Racing News and Opinion,
Wednesday, January 27, 2021

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2020 Tour de France | 2020 Giro d'Italia

The audiobook version of The Story of the Tour de France, Volume 1 is available.

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World Cyclocross Championships to be run Jan. 30 - 31

Here's the UCI's post:

There is always room for something new, even for the historic discipline of cyclo-cross and in a location as prestigious as Ostend. The Belgian city has its place on the world map as a major hub, a centre of economic and geopolitical activities and for tourism. The tales Ostend tells are both bumpy and glamorous, just like its sandy beaches. The stars of the cyclo-cross circuits are now gearing for another exciting episode with the 72nd edition of the UCI Cyclo-cross World Championships (January 30-31), the tenth to be held in Belgium, and the first in Ostend.

Following the final round of the UCI Cyclo-cross World Cup in Overijse, dozens of cycling champions head north-west. Once they reach the coast, some 100km from the capital city of Brussels, they’ll be able to immerse themselves in the seaside atmosphere of the Belgian “Queen of Beaches”, a place that has welcomed and inspired artists such as the Belgian icon Jacques Brel, the American legend Marvin Gaye and the French diva Catherine Deneuve.

The sight of cyclo-cross virtuosos battling in the sand will be every bit as thrilling. The event’s organisers - the Veldritcomité Hooglede-Gits, headed by Rik Debeaussaert - aim for a “historic weekend” of competitions, with four races and several side events designed to bring the local fans as close as possible to the UCI World Championships despite the strict restrictions enforced to fight the Covid-19 pandemic (https://www.oostende.be/oostende-is-klaar-voor-het-wk-veldrijden).

“We know how much everyone needs to enjoy relaxing moments in these difficult times,” explains press officer Nico Dick on behalf of the organising committee. “The circumstances made things extremely difficult. Financially, it will be an organisation with a loss. But thanks to the support of the Flemish government, the city of Ostend, the UCI and the efforts of the Organising Committee, people will enjoy a high-level competition with magnificent images of the riders on the beach, the waterside, the hippodrome, and so on.”

The course: Van Aert’s delight
Local fans are familiar with these spectacular sights, already previewed in the 2017 Belgian National Cyclo-cross Championships. It was the 100th edition of the event and for Ostend, it was a first that introduced a spectacular circuit with a 135m long, 8m high bridge connecting the beach with the Wellington hippodrome.

Sanne Cant

Sanne Cant winning in Essen in 2017

At that event, Wout van Aert and Sanne Cant dominated the Elite races, Quinten Hermans and Laura Verdonschot claimed the jerseys in the Under 23 ranks and the Junior titles went to Toon Vandebosch and Marthe Truyen. Three years later, these six champions have all been selected to represent Belgium at the UCI Worlds (Van Aert, Cant, Hermans and Verdonschot in the Elite races; Vandenbosch and Truyen in the Under 23 events).

Wout van Aert

Wout van Aert winning in Dendermonde in 2020. Cor Vos photo.

They’ll race over a 2,900m course divided into eight sectors. The surface will be predominantly grass (1,326m), while sand sections represent about a fifth of the course (565m). The main bridge will challenge the riders with a 21% gradient. “It suits me 100%,” Van Aert told Wielerflits ahead of the event.

The three-time Men Elite UCI Cyclo-cross World Champion took his first crown in Belgium (Heusden-Zolder, 2016), before claiming two more rainbow jerseys in Luxembourg (2017) and in the Netherlands (2018). Preparing for Ostend 2021, he highlighted similarities with the course of the Zilvermeercross, held in Mol, where he won ahead of his Belgian compatriot Laurens Sweeck only two weeks before the UCI Worlds.

“The stage for a titanic battle”
Riders from all around the world aiming to challenge the Belgians on their home ground will also be able to familiarise themselves with this unique setting in the week ahead of the UCI World Championships. They’ll enjoy official training sessions from Thursday, while the course will be reserved for the youngsters’ enjoyment on Wednesday afternoon with cyclo-cross initiations.

The organisers, who already welcomed the UCI Cyclo-cross World Championships in Hooglede-Gits in 2007, were expecting “around 40,000 people” on site before they had to exclude spectators from the event. They will now rely on broadcasters around the world to show the best of Ostend, as a seaside destination and a sports city whose beaches also hosted the IAAF (now World Athletics) cross country World Championships in 2001.

“Nobody could have anticipated it a year ago, but it’s the only good solution today,” said Ostend’s Mayor Bart Tommelein when he had to announce that the races would be held behind closed doors. “Ostend will be the stage for a titanic battle for the UCI World title. That’s what we promised and that’s what will happen thanks to the efforts of all parties.”

Interview with Groupama-FDJ's sports department head Yvon Madiot

The team posted this:

As the 2021 cycling season is about to start for good, some race organizers have already been forced to cancel their event due to the health crisis that is still very much on-going. Although the calendar is experiencing some primary changes, Yvon Madiot, head of the Groupama-FDJ’s sports department, still wants to be optimistic as he takes stock of the situation a few days before the first pro race on French territory.

Yvon, to this day, which cancellations are you aware of for the start of the season? And what are the consequences?

For now, as far as we are concerned, we have to deal with the cancellation of the Tour of Algarve, which is normally postponed in May. We also learned of the outright cancellation of the Circuit de la Sarthe, in April. The latter has especially a consequence on Arnaud Démare’s program. Generally speaking, there is obviously a risk for all the races that lie ahead, and all will depend on the restrictions that will be announced this week. We might have no races at all, or we could be prevented from getting to the races. That being said, we remain confident. Our first races, which are the Grand Prix La Marseillaise and the Etoile de Bessèges, appear to be on track. On another hand, we have the Tour of the Community of Valencia. A race took place in that area last weekend and they just had to relocate the finish outside of the city. It is actually likely that we will witness more of these adjustments regarding finishes, so they would not be located inside the cities. As for the Tour of Algarve, it was supposed to be the return to racing of the Classics riders. This is the only real issue at the moment for us. It’s a shame, for sure, but we can deal with it. It will just change the program of a few riders. Some will not be able to return to racing on the scheduled dates and others will have to change races.

Did you prepare for these potential cancellations?

Yes and no. We still wanted to have last year’s basis in mind, when the program went as planned and the competitions took place almost normally in the second part of the season. We thought that it would be the same for the season restart and that we would get going again with the bubbles, tests, and protocols that proved efficient last year. Of course, we are aware that everything can stop, but we wanted, and still want, to be optimistic. Either way, it would have been impossible to conceive a plan B or a plan C. There aren’t that many races at the start of the season, so we actually don’t even have the chance to do it. However, it is right now that we need to show our adaptability and be ready to respond to the various announcements. We imagined a few scenarios in the case that the competitions will go ahead. We did not, however, in the case of the overall and strict lockdown. It would be very difficult to stop the riders in February. They didn’t race at all, they went in training camps and have committed all winter. It would be the worst thing. We’d rather not consider it, but it’s necessarily in the back of our minds. We don’t have control over those decisions anyway, so we should and need to act as if most of the competition will indeed take place. It would be too dangerous to do the opposite, meaning to think: “Anyway, we’re going to be confined, so what’s the point?”

The desire to compete is stronger than everything else…

We are all driven by competition, including us sports directors. We’re not going to say: “there is no problem”, because that is not true. But we are confident and we are ready to race. It’s pretty much the general watchword. It is always better to be in these conditions, even if you then have to endure a cancellation and get back from scratch. This is our speech to the riders. As we speak, everything is being done to ensure that we are ready for the competitions; physical preparation, logistics, everything is underway. We are confident and we are on the move, but we are also ready to take bad news. The house of cards we have built must not fall apart if a race is called off. We act to be in the best possible condition on D-Day, and we will react if necessary. For that reason, we try to be as close as possible to our riders and explain to them our plan if there should be some early difficulties. From this point of view, we are now less stressed. We also know that the riders can be in good shape for the return to racing even without competing beforehand. We are also able to change our teams quickly thanks to our logistics. We are less worried about the issues that may arise.

Has 2020 helped you in handling such situations?

Certainly. There is less of a panic feeling. Last year, we kept redesigning races programs with the coaches and sports directors; only to learn two days later that another race was cancelled or postponed. Today, we have the outlines in mind, we believe the big races will go ahead, and we are under much less pressure. We also gained the certainty that even without taking part in a particular race, the riders could be competitive straight away thanks to the training methods we developed. That is also why we want to be in this positive approach: because we know that we will be able to manage any change of program, especially thanks to last year’s experience. We realized that we dealt pretty well with the first lockdown, so we are really confident from that point of view. We are pretty sure that if there is a cancellation, we will be able to respond the right way and keep our riders in shape. I’m not worried at all about the physical part of things. We have the hindsight of the past year and the skills to deal with it. The trickier issue to deal with, actually, could be the psychological part. It will be up to us to make sure the riders don’t crack. Perhaps some will endure two consecutive cancellations and have to continue training without racing. We will need to be there to discuss it with them so that the house of cards does not fall apart.

That being said, preparation seems to be in full swing right now.

The preparation never was determined by the fear of such or such cancellation. We have to be prepared, no matter the size, location or level of the race we get ready for. We have set up tailor-made training camps. This year even more than usual. We adjust our camps according to the qualities of our riders. We have also adjusted in terms of numbers this time. We didn’t want to end up with a hundred persons in a camp, despite the convenience and the benefits it brings. Not only would it have been difficult to find hotels large enough, but first and foremost, it would have been tricky to manage. Although the risk would have been very slight, now is not the time to take it. That is why we suggested these customizable camps. For us, it was the safest thing to do from a health point of view, for our riders, for the staff and for all of our employees. Therefore, the groups are way smaller but we have still kept the same screening policy, the same protocol. We reproduce the “racing bubble” in our camps, and the smaller the bubble, the easier it is to handle. If one person were to get sick, we wouldn’t have to isolate another 80. We thus limit mixing too many people. Logistically, it was obviously a bit more difficult than usual to organize, in particular to provide vehicles everywhere on different dates, but that’s also the price to best ensure our riders safety.

Race cancellations obviously affect the teams, but they primarily affect the organizers themselves don’t they?

Of course, and we think of them a lot. It’s not easy to organize a cycling race in normal times, as a lot of things come into play. So if in addition to that come significant health restrictions, we can only imagine the difficulties they may face. I am thinking of those who have provided a huge amount of work but who are forced to give up three weeks before the event, like in Algarve. They committed a lot for it, the organizers surely had some restless nights, so it must be heartbreaking to see it all vanish. It should be remembered that very often, the organizers are volunteers, especially in the “small” races. They take responsibilities just for the fun and love of cycling. We need to keep in mind that these people work a lot for little return, or none in such times. We spare a big thought for them. One thing is for sure however. Given the situation today, an organizer who will manage to maintain his race will be pretty much guaranteed to have a very high level field at the start.

One year ago: Matthew Holmes' fairy tale win in Australia

Holmes’ Lotto Soudal team posted this:

Exactly one year ago Lotto Soudal rider Matthew Holmes took his maiden professional victory in what was his first ever WorldTour race. On 26 January 2020, the now 27-year-old Brit conquered Willunga Hill and won the queen stage of the Santos Tour Down Under. A fairy tale beginning to his stay at Lotto Soudal, although Holmes wasn’t all too sure of being suited to racing at the highest level a few days into the Australian stage race. Matthew takes you back to that wonderful day and looks ahead to the upcoming season.

Matthew Holmes

Matthew Holme wins atop Willunga Hill in 2020. Sirotti photo

Matthew Holmes: “Winning the queen stage of the Tour Down Under was something really special. During the first days of racing, I was really struggling and I wasn’t as good as I had hoped. I even thought of giving up on it. The day before the final stage, I went out to eat a little something together with my parents, when I told them that I doubted if I was good enough for WorldTour level. It really was a coincidence that they were both there, as they had planned the trip to Australia even before I signed with Lotto Soudal.”

“The final stage to Willunga Hill wasn’t something for Caleb Ewan, so we tried to go on the offensive. I felt quite good and I got in a big breakaway quite easily. We had to climb Willunga Hill twice and during the first ascent, I still thought I was going to get dropped. During the second time up the climb, I suddenly realised I was the strongest of the breakaway. At that moment, I knew that if we could stay away, I would have a chance of winning the stage. I knew Richie Porte would be catching us quickly and luckily, I got over the most difficult part of the climb before he caught me. When I was told Richie was coming, I was quite sure I was going to win as I could get on his wheel and I knew he didn’t have anything left for the sprint as he closed down a big gap before. It was just a really good day when I was in the right place at the right time. And to have my parents at the finish line, was another big highlight of course”, says Matthew Holmes.

It was a perfect start to his first season at the Lotto Soudal WorldTeam, but Holmes kept both feet solid on the ground and continued to work hard for the races to come.

“Apart from boosting my confidence, winning the queen stage at the Tour Down Under didn’t change much. I obviously made a name for myself straight away, but I kept on training just as hard and I tried my best in every single race. The 2020 season has been quite perfect for me. Although the racing calendar was heavily reduced, it was still more than I had ever done before when I raced in Britain. In a way, that worked out really well and it was a good introduction to the harder races. I only regret not having won the Giro stage (Holmes finished 3rd in the eighth stage of the 2020 Giro d’Italia) but still I won a race, so I have to be satisfied with that. I got my first taste of riding a Grand Tour and I really look forward to going for that stage win this season.”

Unfortunately, Holmes could not travel to Spain to join his Lotto Soudal teammates at the January training camp but this hasn’t prevented him from training hard and staying motivated for the upcoming season.

“At the moment, Britain is again in full lockdown and sadly, the Spanish government decided that British people are not allowed to enter Spain. Luckily, I am able to train outside, but the weather conditions are quite harsh with a lot of snow and ice. I am also training hard, but it is obviously not the same compared to being able to train under the Spanish sun. The only positive thing is that there’s some time to work on the house we bought last year”, concludes Matthew Holmes with a wink.

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