1 The return of El Pistolero
Up until now, Alberto Contador has started four stage races this year and hasn't been off the final podium once – 2nd at the Volta ao Algarve, 1st at Tirreno-Adriatico, 2nd at the Volta a Catalunya, 1st at the Tour of the Basque Country, and stage wins in all but the freezing cold of la Volta. It's been very impressive stuff from the Tinkoff-Saxo leader and bodes well for his Tour de France ambitions.
Interestingly, he seems to have gone back to his climbing style of old with lots of out the saddle and given up on the seated twiddling, and it's certainly working for him. His win at Tirreno illustrated just why he's been the dominant figure of stage racing pre-Sky – if you give him one chance, hesitate and he's gone. The final time trial was slightly disappointing in Italy but you can't say that about the Basque Country TT. That was a great ride to secure the win and he looked much more comfortable on his TT bike than he did last year. I suspect a lot of work has been done this winter on the aspects Contador wasn't happy with, he certainly hasn't lost the tactical nous and the necessary aggression to test his rivals. It remains to be seen how he competes with Chris Froome but AC has definitely stepped back up to the level he enjoyed before.
2 Movistar decide the plays
With the absence of the Sky at the pointy end of the racing it's been Movistar deciding who does what, where and how fast . The Spaniards have been perfecting their tactics and setting the tempo for Alejandro Valverde just as he likes it, and more often than not the result has been as expected.
3 Grey Skies and why Brailsford takes control
What's happened to the all-conquering Sky team? All started well enough at Oman with Chris Froome defending his title in fine style but since then it's gone a bit pear-shaped. Illness for Ritchie Porte, bad back for Froome and no-one really good enough to step up and take over the number one role as soon as the hills appear. Nieve has tried but while he has been good enough to make the first group on the mountain top finishes, he's been hanging on and then his time trialling has been decidedly average.
When you realise that the last time they put anybody on the final GC podium was at Ruta del Sol, where Porte was beaten by Valverde, it's been a bit of a shambles so far. This is the team which has dominated stage racing for the last few years and not being competitive will hurt. There have been a few rays of sunshine, such as at Paris-Nice with Geraint Thomas until he crashed, Peter Kennaugh's win at Coppi e Bartali and Ben Swift taking an excellent sprint victory at Catalunya, but it's below par for the investment and the talent they have.
I'm not surprised Dave Brailsford has decided the professional team needs all his time and focus because the others have caught up and are doing it better at the moment. Whether that state of play continues once Froome and Porte return at the Tour de Romandie and the Dauphiné remains to be seen but until normal service is resumed I imagine personal assessments and uncomfortable questions will be the order of the day. They were in a stressy pickle last year trying to decide who'd be the chosen leader that wins the race. Now when they can't find anyone, those times must look like the good old days. Strangely, in a reversal of fortunes, the oft-criticised Classics squad have been performing well, so that just goes to show figuring it all out isn't easy or predictable.
Shhhh, here come the climbers. A nation awaits and so do the rest of us who want to see something different to a high speed line-out and then one decent attack on the big mountain top finishes. Hopefully this'll be the year that Ag2r sort out Carlos Betancur's positioning because if he can win Paris Nice when it isn't that hilly then he can certainly be a factor in the bigger Tours. Nairo Qunitana looks to be progressing nicely towards his objective of the season at the Giro d'Italia but did you notice the young Trek rider who beat him twice at Tour de San Luis? Julian Arredondo might just be a name which becomes more familiar.
Rigoberto Uran has been quietly solid and as per usual for a GC rider at Quickstep , left to his own devices but he doesn't seem to mind that. If I was really bad I'd say not as quiet as his previous partner in crime Sergio Henao but that sorry affair will hopefully get sorted out as soon as possible. Seriously though the climbers, the Colombians are coming .
5 BMC and the great white hope
Slowly but surely BMC are building Tejay van Garderen to assume the mantle of sole leadership at the Tour de France. He's one of those riders you don't really notice, and while he's not been as spectacular as say Valverde or Contador, he's not been far off their level and looks to be progressing nicely. If he can win in the murky conditions of this years Catalunya, he has the inner strength and capacities to move beyond being an outside bet at the Grand Tours to become a real contender.
In the same way as the French need Thibaut Pinot for some TdF glory then the Americans need someone to forget about Lance Armstrong and be their great white hope. That someone looks more and more likely to be Tejay.
Robert Millar was one of the last pure climbers of the Tour de France, winning several stages in the mountain stages and finishing fourth overall in 1984. He is also the only English speaker to have ever won the prestigious polka-dot jersey climber's competition jersey.
Millar retired in 1995 but has continued to follow the sport closely. He was often critical of the media and quickly cuts through the excuses and spin to understand why and how riders win and lose.
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