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Rider of the week

He came, he saw, he conquered. Ok, maybe not yet, because the Giro d’Italia always is a hectic and crazy affair, but Alberto Contador is very close of winning the Trofeo Senza Fine for the second time in his career, after the 2008 edition, when he came at the start at the last minute and went on to take a hard fought victory. Although he crashed and lost time (as well as the pink jersey) in stage 13, the Spaniard returned at the top one day later in commanding fashion, after what can be described as a very impressive display of power in the individual time trial between Treviso and Valdobbiadene, where all his rivals where put in a striking distance and let to nurse their ego and thus change their objective, after seeing that Contador is out of reach at the moment.

Not only that the Tinkoff-Saxo rider has a great physical level, he is also rock solid when it comes to his confidence, which allows him to land one psychological blow at a time to his opponents. In that matter, he goes for bonifications at intermediate sprints and at the finish, or starts playing with them on the climbs, attacking before slowing the tempo and going at it again, thus reminding everyone of his 2011 form, when he won the Giro with an incredible ease, by more than six minutes (before being stripped of that victory).

It’s true that the hardest week of the race is yet to come – with Aprica, Cervinia and Sestriere on the menu – but what’s frightening for the likes of Fabio Aru and Astana is that Alberto Contador keeps getting better and stronger. On Madonna di Campiglio, although he said that he wants to win in honor of Marco Pantani, the 32-year-old didn’t feel like chasing when Mikel Landa attacked and preferred to keep his forces, but this won’t happen on the next summit finishes, as he wants to cap off what has been an impressive and dominant ride so far with a stage win.

As it goes at the moment, Contador will have no problem in taking the overall win in Milan, which will make him the main favorite for the upcoming Tour de France, even though Chris Froome, Vincenzo Nibali and Nairo Quintana will be there. Then, later in the season, if he will be victorious also in the Grande Boucle, you can bet on the fact that he’ll line-up at the start of the Vuelta a España, where he’ll be looking for a memorable treble.

Rider of the week

On paper, Peter Sagan didn’t come to the Tour of California with aspirations for the overall classification, as people were talking before the start of a fight between Sergio Henao, Robert Gesink, Ben Hermans and Joe Dombrowski for the glory. At best, he was hunting for a stage victory, but everyone knew it wasn’t going to be an easy task, as Mark Cavendish was the top contender in the flat days. Eventually, after finishing three times in a row second, the Slovak champion found the way to a victory, in Avila Beach, taking advantage of the fact that he knew the last 200 meters to perfection, unlike his opponents.

Later in the week, Santa Clarita saw him finishing again on the podium, before the redesigned course for the individual time trial had Sagan powering to a commanding win, which surprised people because of the huge gaps he created on the 10,6 km-long parcours. Still, the most impressive ride of the Tinkoff-Saxo leader came on Mount Baldy, a tough Hors Categorie ascent, where he was expected to make way for the climbers and lose minutes, thus getting out of contention.

But Sagan – who changed his cadence on the mountains this season – decided to have a defensive approach on Baldy and keep his energy once the attacks began to come, pacing himself all the time, helped by the fact he always had visual contact with some cyclists ahead. Inspite of the fast tempo and riders attacking all over the place, the Slovak kept his composure and came home just 47 seconds behind stage winner Julian Alaphilippe, losing the yellow jersey for just two seconds, with one day remaining until the end of the race.

Then, on Sunday, in what was one of the most thrilling finales a stage race has seen in the past seasons, a finale truly worthy of a big budged Hollywood movie, Peter Sagan finished third at Pasadena for just 1/100 of a second in front of Tyler Farrar, but only after the organizers checked the photo-finish, prolonging his and Julian Alaphilippe’s agony. By winning the US race (for a mere three seconds) and showing he’s more than just a sprinter/Classics-type of rider, the 25-year-old relaunched his season, discovered a new dimension of himself and now has every reason to look with optimism towards the Tour de France, where he can be once again of the top protagonists.

Rider of the week

From Tatarstan to Romandie. It’s not the name of the James Bond latest installment, but a title that bodes well with Ilnur Zakarin’s career. A talented rider who showed glimpses of his potential since he was a 17-year-old who won the European ITT Championships in Sofia – where he defeated Poland’s Michal Kwiatkowski – Zakarin has had a hard time two seasons later, when he was banned after testing positive for the anabolic steroid methandienone. After serving his time, the rider born in Naberezhnye Chelny (the second largest city of the Republic of Tatarstan) signed with Itera-Katusha and began his road back to the pro ranks.

In 2012, Zakarin clocked four wins, the most impressive of these coming in Girobio’s stage five, which finished in Gaiole in Chianti. Eventually, after a solid display, he was 9th in the GC, a result which brought him a contract with RusVelo, Russia’s second-tier team. During his two-year spell with RusVelo, Ilnur Zakarin continued to improve and his progress landed him two important successes: the ITT national title (2013) and the overall victory at the Tour d’Azerbaidjan (2014).

These results caught up Katusha’s attention, which decided it’s about time for Zakarin to make his World Tour debut, a couple of years later after riding for the team as a stagiaire. The season has started with a strong result for the 25-year-old, who came 10th in the Tour de San Luis, which was followed just a couple of months later by a 9th place in the difficult Vuelta al Pais Vasco. That was the moment when people began to take notice of Zakarin and follow him more closely.

Inspite of that, and the fact that he said his biggest goal of the year was the Tour de Romandie, nobody was rating him as one of the favorites for the Swiss race, where the pundits where expecting a showdown between Chris Froome, Nairo Quintana and Vincenzo Nibali, the Tour de France favorites. But stage by stage, Zakarin began to feel better and better, and eventually started to make amends once the decisive stages loomed at the horizon. So, after finishing second in the queen-stage to Champex-Lac, he put on a monster display in the individual time trial that concluded the Tour de Romandie. There, despite of a bike change due to a mechanical, the Russian rider managed to hang on to the yellow jersey and won the event ahead of his teammate, Simon Spilak.

Now, after becoming just the second Russian cyclist to emerge victorious in the Tour de Romandie (first was Pavel Tonkov, in 1997), Ilnur Zakarin is prepared to make his debut in a Grand Tour, the Giro d’Italia. There, he’s not going to start as one of the main contenders, but what’s sure is that people will keep a close eye on him after his recent success, so he’ll need to show that the Tour de Romandie win wasn’t just a one-hit wonder.

Rider of the week

When he wants, Alejandro Valverde can be one of the most exciting cyclists in the world. Problem is he doesn’t choose that path too often, opting instead to have a defensive approach in the key moments, which lead to to many missed opportunities throughout the years in one day-races, including the World Championships. On the other hand, the same tactic has helped the Spaniard establish himself as one of the best Classics riders of his generation, with some impressive results in his CV, especially in the Ardennes.

Actually, Valverde’s love affair with those Classics has started exactly a decade ago, when he had the opportunity to ride all three races and his best result was a 13th place in Amstel Gold Race. Once he got the taste of it, the one they call “El Bala” came back every single year and it didn’t take much to pull his first win, in the 2006 Flèche Wallonne, which was followed just a couple of days afterwards by Liège–Bastogne–Liège, a double that has helped him join the elite group of riders – Ferdi Kübler, Stan Ockers, Eddy Merckx, Moreno Argentin, Davide Rebellin, Philippe Gilbert – who won both races in the same season.

In 2015, he came at the start of the Ardennes week as one of the favorites, but people didn’t rate Alejandro Valverde as one of the main favorites, not even when he finished second in Amstel Gold Race. Things changed after Flèche Wallonne, where he controlled everyone on the steep gradients of the Mur de Huy, before unleashing a powerful sprint, which allowed him nab his third win there and equal the record held by such cyclists as Eddy Merckx and Moreno Argentin, real legends of the Ardennes.

After that success, it became clear that Valverde will be the man to beat in Sunday’s Liège–Bastogne–Liège, so people were expecting an aggressive ride from his rivals in order to put the 35-year-old Spaniard under pressure, with the hope that he’ll eventually crack. As this didn’t happen, it wasn’t difficult for the Movistar cyclist to manage the race, especially in the last kilometers, cover the attacks and eventually claim his third victory in “La Doyenne”, which helped him achieve the prestigious Flèche Wallonne – Liège–Bastogne–Liège double for the second time in his career, a performance only Kubler has accomplished in the past.

Rider of the week

What a difference a year makes! In 2014, Michal Kwiatkowski came 5th in Amstel Gold Race and was left to rue the tactical mistakes he made in the finale, when Samuel Sanchez attacked, paving the way for Philippe Gilbert, who then blew everyone else off his wheel and got to the finish alone. Fast forward a year later, and the young Pole makes a perfect race all day long in the Dutch Classic, staying at the front, watching his opponents and studying every important move, before ending up winning it in one of the most spectacular finishes seen this season.

What was really impressive in Kwiatkowski’s display was seeing him all the time in the first ten riders of the peloton and staying composed throughout the race, just like in Ponferrada, where he took the world title, last Fall. Not even when Philippe Gilbert put on a fierce attack, to which only Michael Matthews could respond, the Pole didn’t panic and after being briefly distanced, he came back in his own rhythm, joining the others and patiently waiting for the sprint. On paper, Michael Matthews and Alejandro Valverde were the favorites there, but they were both overhauled by Kwiatkowski, whose legs were stronger and fresher after 258 arduous kilometers, “sprinkled” with no less than 34 hills.

On Sunday, Michal Kwiatkowski became just the fourth World Champion to triumph in Amstel Gold Race, following in the footsteps of Eddy Merckx, Jan Raas and Bernard Hinault. Now, with Liège–Bastogne–Liège just around the corner, he could reach another important milestone, by becoming the first rainbow jersey wearer since Moreno Argentin, in 1987, to notch the the win in the oldest Monument. Considering the top performance he’s had last week and his incredible level of consistency, a victory in “La Doyenne” looks very likely.

Rider of the week

He’s not the leader of the World Tour ranking, he’s not even the cyclist with the most wins in 2015, but without any doubt, John Degenkolb is the best rider of this Spring up until this point. After taking his first ever Monument victory in Milan-Sanremo, three weeks ago, he made one of the rarest doubles in cycling history, winning Paris-Roubaix, and thus becoming only the third cyclist to do that in one season, after Cyrille Van Hauwaert (1908) and Sean Kelly (1986).

As in Sanremo, the leader of Giant-Shimano played once again to perfection the role of the “invisible man”, staying all the time with the other contenders and following all the key moves, but without coming at the front, up until the point he decided time has come to make his own move. Finally, Degenkolb launched an attack with less than 15 kilometers to go, joined his teammate Bert De Backer, and then went on his own after Greg Van Avermaet and Yves Lampaert, who were leading the race. With the two Belgians reluctant to share the work and just clunging on to his wheel, the German pulled by himself, just as Alexander Kristoff did last week, at the Tour of Flanders.

Eventually, in the closing kilometers of the race, before the last cobbled sector, the three were caught by a four-man group that included another fast man, Zdenek Stybar. This worked out in Degenkolb’s favor, because Etixx-Quick Step’s Yves Lampaert came at the front to work for his teammate, while the German got to keep the remaining energy he had and look for the best position in the sprint.

On the André-Pétrieux velodrome, the Milan-Sanremo winner waited for the Czech champion to open his sprint with half a lap going, before accelerating and roaring across the line victorious to add his second Monument in less than a month, a success he scored because he was prepared to risk it all and even fail, as long as he was at peace with himself for giving it everything. To put it short, he was the strongest, the bravest and the smartest rider in a race during which he had a flawless performance.

Only the second German to win Paris-Roubaix, after Josef Fischer in 1896 (the inaugural edition of the Monument), John Degenkolb is one of the main reasons why cycling is on the rise again in his country (the effects of this progress will be soon seen). Just 26-year-old and in his fifth pro season, Degenkolb is already one of the top riders of the peloton and if things will go like this in the following years, he has every chance of becoming a legend. The first step has been made last Sunday, thanks to the win he got in Paris-Roubaix, a race of which the German said four years ago, right before making his debut, that is the one he loves the most, because heroes are born there.

 

Rider of the week

Two weeks ago, Alexander Kristoff was left disappointed after missing on a second consecutive win in Milan-Sanremo, despite the fact that Luca Paolini came up with an excellent lead-out in the finale and he looked to be strongest sprinter. Then, at both E3 Harelbeke and Gent-Wevelgem he didn’t get to fight for the victory, but made up for that a couple of days later, when he won the GC as well as three stages in De Panne, in what was one of the most impressive performances seen this year.

That display made him one of the top favorites for the Tour of Flanders, although many were wondering if can keep his rhythm and fresh legs for one of the toughest tests of the season. After playing it cool for about 240 kilometers, the 27-year-old rider made his move as soon as Niki Terpstra had attacked after the Kruisberg climb. Coming into the Dutchman’s wheel, Kristoff worked with him and did some strong pulls at the front, in order to keep the gap growing before the Oude Kwaremont and Paterberg.

Everyone was waiting for Terpstra to accelerate on one of these hills, but it didn’t happen, maybe because Etixx-Quick Step’s cyclist just didn’t have the legs or because he felt that his effort would net help dispatch Kristoff. Then, in the last five kilometers, when there was a gap of 28 seconds between the two of them and the chasers (Peter Sagan and Greg Van Avermaet), the Paris-Roubaix champion decided not to help his opponent anymore, being aware that the Katusha rider will outsprint him at the finish.

Having no other option, Alexander Kristoff stayed at the front and did all the work, ensuring they will keep a gap that was becoming slimmer and slimmer. With 200 meters to go, Terpstra launched his sprint, but had no chance against a powerful Kristoff, who was calm all the way, knowing he has the upper hand. This landed him the victory and assured the Katusha leader a place in the history books, as the first ever Norwegian winner of the Tour of Flanders, after a race in which he did everything: got the corner kick, sent the ball into the box and scored a goal with his head.

Now he’ll take a rest and then prepare for Paris-Roubaix, the last Spring Monument which suits him. Although he doesn’t have a great record there, with three abandons, a 9th and a 57rd place in five starts, is difficult to bet against him for the “Hell of the North”.

Rider of the week

It has been a great week-end for Sky’s Geraint Thomas, who is enjoying his best ever Classics campaign. On Friday, the Welsh rider took an emphatic win in the 58th edition of E3 Harelbeke, after an impressive display all day long and a perfect timed attack with just 4 km to go. After going at the forefront on the legendary Oude Kwaremont, where he was quickly followed by Zdenek Stybar and Peter Sagan, Thomas was the main powerhouse of that group, his hard work being the reason for him and the other two cyclists staying at the front.

Knowing that he’s the weakest in a sprint, the 28-year-old attacked with just four kilometers left and dispatched Sagan – who popped and couldn’t follow – and Stybar, who waited too much before deciding to go after him. There was nothing more to do for the Czech, considering Geraint Thomas was rolling at around 50km/h in those last kilometers of the race as he swept into Harelbeke, where he became the first ever British cyclist to win the Belgian semi-classic.

After that victory, Thomas said that the result gave him the much need confidence for the rest of the Classics, and this was obvious two days later in Gent-Wevelgem, where he has the most powerful rider in the race, although this didn’t land him another win, but a third place, behind Luca Paolini and Niki Terpstra. The result was equally impressive, as Thomas survived a crash before getting at the front and taking the last place on the podium, which helped him climb to second in the World Tour standings.

Before E3 Harelbeke, people were talking of Ian Stannard and Bradley Wiggins as Sky’s main riders for the cobbled Classics, but Geraint Thomas’ huge results add a new dimension to the team’s plans for Flanders and Roubaix. Of course, Thomas will now have to ride with the favorite tag on his back, but at the rate he’s going, barring crashes or misfortunes, next Sunday he has a huge chance of becoming Britain’s second De Ronde winner, after Tom Simpson, in 1961.

Rider of the week

Three years ago, John Degenkolb made his debut in Milan-Sanremo, and Erik Zabel – a four-time winner of the race – tipped him for greatness, after the young rider finished 5th. In comparison with Peter Sagan, the German wasn’t overhyped and overwhelmed by the fans, media and pundits, instead enjoying some peace and quiet during his first years in the pro peloton, which helped him have a nice and steady development, in a team that made a name for itself of the way it nurtures young talents.

During these seasons, John Degenkolb emerged as one of the fastest men in the bunch and scored 35 wins (10 of these coming in the Grand Tours), but more important, he showed he is much more than a sprinter, his victories in Paris-Tours, Vattenfall Cyclassics and Gent-Wevelgem underlining his huge potential for the Classics, races in which the Germans were searching for a leader, after years and years of disappointments.

In 2015, Giant-Alpecin’s rider was one of the cyclists expected to make the transition from contender to winner of a Classic, but after a good start at the Dubai Tour, things didn’t go as he had hoped in Paris-Nice. Degenkolb failed to get a stage win in the French race, and because of that he was kind of flying under the radar at the start of “La Primavera”, as everyone was talking of Alexander Kristoff, Michael Matthews, Fabian Cancellara and Peter Sagan.

This didn’t bother the German, who came in Milan-Sanremo determined to leave his mark on the race and to shrug off the disappointment of last year, when he punctured just as the peloton was beginning to ride up the Poggio. This time, Degenkolb had a smooth race, at the end of which he showed not only that he’s one of the strongest Classics guys out there, but also one of the most intelligent, as he let Alexander Kristoff accelerate and then timed his sprint to perfection, surpassing the 2014 winner in the last 50 meters.

Without any doubt, the 106th Milan-Sanremo is the first of many Monuments wins in John Degenkolb’s career, the 26-year-old looking poised to be one of the main protagonists for many more seasons from now on. For the moment, he savours his huge victory, one thanks to which he has sent a warning message to his rivals, pointing out that he’s ready for the next two big appointments: the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix.

Rider of the week

Richie Porte wrapped up his second Paris-Nice title in the space of three years after taking the victory in the Col d’Eze individual time trial with an impressive display over the 9,6 kilometers of the stage. The 30-year-old Aussie – winner of the ITT nationals and one stage a piece in the Tour Down Under and the Volta ao Algarve – came at the start as the five star favorite for the overall and he didn’t disappoint during the one-week French race, winning two stages and showing he is head and shoulders above all the other riders who were hoping to go home with the yellow jersey.

Rather surprising considering his results this year, many were doubting Porte’s ability of winning the race, but he silenced his critics with the first opportunity he had, Croix de Chauboret, where he rode away from his rivals with aremarkable ease and took a comfortable win. This was followed just a couple of days later by the fine ride he had in the Col d’Eze ITT, where be blew his opponents to pieces, giving them no chance to lay their claim on the first place in the GC for which he was going for, and putting half a minute between him and his closest rivals.

After his admirable performance, Porte became a two-time winner of the “Race to the Sun”, which makes him one of the most successful cyclists in the event’s history, putting the rider from Down Under on level terms with Maurice Archambaud, Fred de Bruyne, Alberto Contador, Raymond Impanis, Miguel Indurain, Raymond Poulidor, Toni Rominger and Alexander Vinokourov. More important, Richie Porte’s ride in France capped one of the best starts to the season in his career and put him on track for the next goals he has for this Spring.

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