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I think I’ve mentioned this before but the spark that inspired me to become a cyclist and pin on a racing number was catching a segment about Paris-Roubaix on ABC’s Wide World of Sports when I was a kid back in the ‘80s. Up until that moment, the act of riding bikes was nothing more than a means of transportation so I could secretly buy candy but when I saw the peloton going all out on brutally treacherous roads, I was instantly hooked.
As an old cyclist here in 2023, it brings me immense joy to say the pro ranks are as exciting and loaded with talent as they have ever been. With such an impressive mix of young and experienced riders among the men’s and women’s field, now is the perfect time to jump into the pack and start picking some new favorite riders. Just how talented is this latest crop? Many of these young riders have skipped over the U23 category to dive right into the deep end of the pro peloton.
Who To Watch
For decades, no team dominated the Spring Classics like the many variations of the Quick-Step squad. Over the past few years, Team Jumbo-Visma has been methodically building a juggernaut that can not only dominate the one day races of spring but summer Grand Tours as well and they have the jerseys to prove it.
Last year, Denmark’s Jonas Vingegaard took home the Yellow and Polka Dot while his teammate Wout van Aert brought the Green Jersey back to Belgium. Between the two of them, they won five of the Tour’s 21 Stages. For most teams, that would be more than enough for one season but the chalked up wins and podium finishes across the racing calendar and that’s what makes Jumbo-Visma so exciting- they don’t follow the traditional captain and lieutenant model. Rather, they tend to operate with the attitude that it doesn’t matter who wins as long as it’s Jumbo-Visma, which was evident over opening weekend at Omloop and Kuurne and to a lesser extent at Strade Bianche. Both Jonas and Wout skipped the race but teammates Tiesj Benoot and Attila Valter held down the fort by capturing third and fifth place. Toss Slovenian ski jumper-turned-cyclist Primož Roglič into the mix and you have a team that’s going to be hard beat at any race they line up at.
The roots of Quick-Step Classics dominance can be traced back to the ‘90s. However, in recent years, their floor has been slowly sinking. They’re not washed up by any means but the team known as the Wolf Pack hasn’t exactly been mopping the field.
That being said, Julian Alaphilippe, Kasper Asgreen, and new addition Remco Evenenpoel have the power to light up any race but as Quick-Step seems to be in transition from a Classics focused squad to contending for the GC in stage races (to bolster their signing of Evenepoel) luck could be more of a factor rather than sheer dominance.
Team Bahrain Victorious
Last year at Milan-San Remo, Matej Mahorić etched his name into Classics lore when he attacked on the Poggio descent and used that lead to hold off the field by a mere two seconds. Aiding Mahorić’s descent was a dropper seat post that you’d normally see on mountain bikes. The dropper post was back for Strade Bianche but didn’t play a factor as Mahorič finished 6th. Keep an eye out for it to appear on his and (possibly) other riders’ bikes at upcoming races.
2022 was a year of firsts for Biniam Girmay. He became the first Black African to win a Classic (Gent-Wevelgem) and a Grand Tour Stage (Giro d’Italia). Still just 22-years-old, 2023 could prove to be a continuation of last year’s breakout season. His Classics campaign was brief to avoid overwork and his time at the Giro was cut short due to a freak accident with a champagne cork. Another Intermarché name to keep an eye on for two reasons is Taco van der Hoorn. 1. His name is Taco. 2. Each year he’s getting a little closer to a big Classics win.
Wrapping up the men is Ineos. Through the 2010s, Ineos was arguably the Quick-Step of Grand Tours. Like Quick-Step, their luster has also been diminished by Jumbo-Visma but 23-year-old Tom Pidcock could change all that. Last summer, he became the youngest rider to ever win atop l’Alpe D’Huez and soloed to victory at this year’s Strade Bianche. That being said, at the Cyclocross World Championships last month, the on-course aerial drone was given the nickname “Pidcock” by the Belgian press because it was small and trying to keep up with Mathieu van der Poel and Wout van Aert.
On the women’s side of the field, things are really getting exciting as the addition of more races on the calendar is leading to more opportunities for riders of different skill sets as courses are no longer catch-alls that favor the all-rounder.
Say hello to the Jumbo-Visma of the women’s peloton. At Strade Bianche, SD Works finished one two as Demi Vollering and Lotte Kopecky unintentionally (and legitimately) battled to a sprint finish.
Normally when teammates take the top two spots, the final outcome is decided before the team even steps off the bus by designating a team leader that all the others will be working for. Or, if that fails, a friendly game of Rock, Paper, Scissors can settle things on the road before teammates cross the line arm in arm. Over the weekend though, the pointy end of the women’s field had splintered over the final kilometers, Kopecky attacked out of the group and caught her teammate Vollering who had attacked a few kilometers prior. Together they reeled in Kirsten Faulkner who jumped 32k from the finish on what would become a solo breakaway. So, what would have normally been a moment of triumph for Kopecky turned into a battle among teammates.
Team Jayco AlUla
Rounding out the Strade Bianche women’s podium was American rider Kristen Faulkner. The Homer, Alaska native and record setting Ivy League competitive rower didn’t get her start in cycling until 2017 but a diesel motor is a diesel motor. By 2021, she made her debut on the UCI Women’s Tour and finished third in the Tour of Norway.
With another year of miles in her legs and experience on the road, Faulkner’s raw potential could really be tapped in 2023.
Fenix Cycling Team
Like her compatriot Matheiu van der Poel, 20-year-old Dutch cyclist Puck Pieterse has been dominating the cyclocross scene for the past several years. After winning the Dutch National Championship and taking the silver at the Cyclocross World Championships, Pieterse jumped over to the road circuit and made an immediate splash by finishing 6th at the Strade Bianche. While the distance of the Classics may present a challenge, her CX skills will certainly pay dividends should course conditions take a turn for the worse. How good is Pieterse on a cross bike? She’s one of the rare riders (men or women) who can bunny hop race barriers.
Oh, you thought we were done with Jumbo-Visma? Not a chance. SoCal Native Coryn Labecki holds the distinction of being the first American woman to win a Classic with a 2017 victory at the Tour of Flanders for Women. While the women’s roster is just as deep as the men’s squad, the team is still getting its footing when it comes to piling up wins. All-time legend Marianne Vos is currently recovering from surgery and the younger riders have yet to prove themselves in the peloton.
What and How to Watch
Clear your calendar. These are the races you need to watch. While you can find streams with a little bit of effort, Global Cycling Network’s $8.99 monthly fee for top tier race coverage is tailor made for Classics season.
Paris-Nice - March 5-12
While not a Spring Classic by any means, the stage race is setting up a rare preview of the Tour de France as the previous two winners Jona Vingegaard and Tadej Progaćar set to test each other in the “Race to the Sun.” I can’t remember the last time the top two TdF favorites found themselves in the same field in an early season stage race and it will be interesting to see how it plays out.
Milan-San Remo - March 18
The first Monument of the season brings some big questions: Will Matej Mahorič drop that seat post to defend his title? Will others bite his winning move with droppers of their own? We’ll soon find out. Previous winners: Mahorič, Jasper Stuyven, Wout van Aert.
E3 Saxo Bank Classic - March 24
Welcome to the start of “Beligan Holy Week.” Nicknamed the mini-tour of Flanders, E3 is considered a key indicator for who will prevail at (the big) Flanders. And this is the best part of Classic season. There are so many races, we’re treated to weekday rumbles. Previous winners: Wout van Aert, Kasper Asgreen, Zdenêk Stybar.
Gent-Wevelgem - March 26
The peloton kicks off a week in Belgium with a deceptively steep race with sections of decisive cobblestones. Previous men’s winners: Biniam Girmay, Wout van Aert, Mads Pedersen. Previous women’s winners: Marianne Vos (x2), Kirsten Wild.
Dwars Door Vlaanderen - March 29
The best reason for waking up during the wee hours of a Wednesday. This race is punctuated by 13 sections of cobbles that get as steep as 16%. Previous men’s winners: Mathieu van der Poel (x2), Dylan van Baarle. Previous women’s winners: Chiara Consonni, Annemiek van Vleuten, Ellen van Djik.
Tour of Flanders - April 2
Belgium’s biggest race got its start back in 1913 is ground zero for Belgium’s reputation for churning out the hardiest cyclists in the world thanks to 19 sections of legendary cobblestones that are headlined by the 22% Koppenberg that can make or break a race in an instant. Previous men’s winners: Mathieu van der Poel (x2), Kasper Asgreen. Previous women’s winners: Lotte Kopecky, Annemiek van Vleuten, Chantal van den Broek-Blaak.
Paris-Roubaix - April 8 (women’s) and 9 (men’s)
The Queen of the Classics. The Hell of the North. Whichever name you prefer, Paris Roubaix is my Super Bowl Sunday. From the start to the iconic velodrome finish, Paris-Roubaix is a remarkable race that only gets better as the weather gets worse. Previous men’s winners: Dylan van Baarle, Sonny Colbreili, Philippe Gilbert. Previous women’s winners: Elisa Longo Borghini, Lizzie Deignam.
Amstel Gold - April 16
Compared to Paris-Roubaix, this race is nearly a casual spin across the Netherlands but 30 short climbs and typical wind swept conditions that force the field to ride in echelons keep the race punchy and can play deciding factors in the final kilometers. Previous men’s winners Michal Kwiatkowski, Wout van Aert, Mathieu van der Poel. Previous women’s winners: Mata Cavalli, Marianne Vos, Katarzyna Niewiadoma.
Flèche Wallonne - April 19
The annual party in the Ardennes kicks off with the mid-week “Walloon Arrow.” One interesting detail about Flèche Wallonne is that it’s taken place every year since 1936 with the exception of 1940. Previous men’s winners: Dylan Teuns, Julian Alaphilippe, Mark Hirschi Previous women’s winners: Marta Cavalli, Anna van der Breggen (x2)
Liège-Bastogne-Liège - April 23
Known as “The Old Lady” for being the oldest Monument, LBL closes out the Classics season with some serious fireworks. Previous men’s winners: Remco Evenepoel, Tadej Pogaćar, Primož Roglič. Previous women’s winners: Annemiek van Vleuten, Demi Vollering, Lizzie Deignan