Racing was spread across the globe this weekend, with action in Australia, the Middle East, and Europe. As many of the road riders banked the first few kilometres of their seasons, the cyclo-cross pack moved one step closer to the end of theirs.
Orica-Scott and Team Sky dominated proceedings at the Herald Sun Tour, while Marcel Kittel proved at the Dubai Tour that he is the sprinter to beat this season.
In Europe, Nairo Quintana got his season off to a winning start at the Volta a la Comunitat Valenciana, and the French shared out the success at Etoile de Besseges. Diego Ulissi gave UAE Abu Dhabi a win at GP Costa degli Etruschi, and Sophie de Boer and Mathieu van der Poel were victorious at the penultimate round of the cyclo-cross Superprestige in Hoogstraten.
Nairo Quintana (Movistar) has set himself big ambitions for the 2017 season, with both the Giro d’Italia and the Tour de France on his hit list, and the Colombian laid down an early marker with a strong showing to take a stage win and the overall classification in Valencia.
Quintana has, more often than not, chosen to start his season in South America, and his trip to Valencia is his earliest European appearance since 2012 - his first season at WorldTour level.
Having put himself within striking distance of the race lead on stage 2, Quintana was ready to fulfil his promise with a stinging attack on the brutal Mas de la Costa climb on stage 4 on Saturday. At first, only Dimension Data’s Merhawi Kudus was able to stick with him, but he too was distanced. The Movistar rider went on to win the day by some 40 seconds, all but securing overall victory.
The final stage was one for the sprinters and, with organisers cutting it to just 35 kilometres due to high winds, it was a fast and furious day. Iljo Keisse (Quick-Step Floors) animated the day by attacking in the opening kilometre and almost making it to the finish before being caught by the peloton in the final kilometre. A chaotic sprint ensued, and Bryan Coquard (Direct Energie) finally struck gold after a few false starts earlier in the week.
After winds battered the race for two days and forced the cancellation of stage 4 to Hatta Dam, the Dubai Tour wrapped up as it began on Saturday - with a sprint victory for Marcel Kittel.
The Quick-Step Floors sprint train malfunctioned when Fabio Sabatini’s chain fell off as the peloton approached the finish, and his disappearance meant that Kittel had to come from much further back, but it was no bother for the quick German, who bested Elia Viviani (Team Sky) in the run to the line. Mark Cavendish (Dimension Data) appeared to be mounting a serious challenge to Kittel, but a mechanical issue put paid to that.
Kittel wrapped up the overall title for a second year in a row, taking the Quick-Step Floors victory tally into double figures with the 2017 season barely a month old.
The stage 4 finale around Kinglake was animated by a breakaway that stayed away to the line. Ian Stannard's relaxed celebration almost saw him nipped on the line but he did just enough to net Team Sky's third win of the race.
In the battle for the overall, Chris Froome was aggressive and attacked several times but couldn't crack Howson. He finished the race in sixth place, with Sky teammate Kenny Elissonde third overall. Jai Hindley held on to his second place overall and best young rider classification.
Saturday's stage 3 into Mitchelton Winery was the only day of the race for the sprinters, and UnitedHealthcare's Travis McCabe took out the win. The American timed his sprint to perfection to come off Mitch Docker's wheel in a reduced sprint as two late crashes saw numerous riders hit the deck.
Lilian Calmejane (Direct Energie) edged out Tony Gallopin (Lotto Soudal) to take the overall title at the Etoile de Besseges by just five seconds. Gallopin mounted a late attack on the race lead with victory in the final day time trial, but Calmejane’s second place, 13 seconds back, was enough to secure the general classification - the first GC victory of the 24-year-old's career.
A day earlier, Arnaud Demare (FDJ) added a second victory to his tally on stage 4, surging clear in the final metres to beat Alexander Kristoff and Christophe Laporte. The sprint finish nearly didn’t happen, with a seven-man group almost making it to the finish, only to be caught in the final kilometre.
Diego Ulissi added a second victory to UAE Abu Dhabi’s fledgling palmarès with a solo win at the GP Costa degli Etruschi on Sunday. In wintry conditions, Ulissi struck out with just under 15 kilometres to go and held off the chasers to win by 14 seconds.
Manuel Belletti (Wilier Triestina) led the following group of 13 riders across the line, with Franco Gavazzi (Androni Giocattoli) just behind him.
The duel between Mathieu van der Poel and Wout Van Aert looks set to continue right until the final race of the season. After losing out at the World Championships a couple of weeks ago, Van der Poel has dominated and on Sunday he won for the second week running, beating Van Aert in convincing style. Kevin Pauwels joined them on the podium in third place.
With just one lap separating the pair in the overall Superprestige standings, it looks set to go down to the wire in the final round in Middelkerke next week.
Sophie de Boer stormed to a commanding victory in the women’s race, beating Kona Factory’s Helen Wyman by 18 seconds. New world champion and Superprestige leader Sanne Cant struggled through illness to take fourth place, with her rival for the title Ellen Van Loy finishing just ahead of her in third place.
Cant will be hoping that she can shake the illness over the next week to give her a shot of notching up a win in the rainbow stripes and securing the Superprestige title.