The first big block of racing is behind our WorldTour peloton, with the exciting finale of Liège - Bastogne - Liège a fitting summary of the early action in 2013. The emergence of Dan Martin (Garmin-Sharp) is just one story of the understudies being called up to the spotlight as team headliners either take a slower approach to the season or fail to find their previous form. Cyclingnews counts out the top conclusions from the first part of the season.
Katusha rides with a chip on their shoulders
After the UCI denied its WorldTour license, and the Russian team had to appeal the decision to the Court of Arbitration for Sport to get it reversed, Katusha came out swinging in 2013, eager to prove its worth in the Tour. Joaquim Rodriguez opened the team's account in Oman, winning the queen stage on Green Mountain and taking fourth overall. Luca Paolini followed that up with a cagey win in Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, easily out-smarting and out-sprinting Omega Pharma-Quickstep's Stijn Vandenbergh. With Daniel Moreno capping off the spring campaign with a win in Flèche Wallonne, Katusha can confidently state that they have demonstrated their merit in the sport's top tier.
Sagan is the most consistent performer
With eight wins and six second places to his name so far this season, Peter Sagan (Cannondale) has been head and shoulders above the rest of the field in terms of both the quality of his victories and the regularity with which they occurred. From his first two stage wins in Tour of Oman, to his pair in Tirreno-Adriatico, it was clear he would pull off something special in the Classics. But after his near miss in Milan-Sanremo, who could have predicted the fireworks that were to come? Although Fabian Cancellara (Radioshack) soloed away in the E3 Harelbeke, Sagan mopped up second place with ease. His win in Gent-Wevelgem was nearly a given, and he showed the kind of tenacity in the Tour of Flanders that signaled to the peloton he will keep them worried for many years to come. His final win came in Brabantse Pijl, with the Ardennes Classics just a denouement to an enormously successful spring.
Second stringers grabbing the spotlight
Last season the big early season races went to, by and large, the biggest name riders. Bradley Wiggins won Paris-Nice, Simon Gerrans took Milan-Sanremo after making himself a favorite by claiming Tour Down Under, Tom Boonen swept the Classics with only Enrico Gasparotto and Maxim Iglinskiy showing some different colours atop the podium. This year, Tom Jelte Slagter (Blanco) surprised in Tour Down Under, Richie Porte upgraded his 2012 Volta ao Algarve win in Paris-Nice, Nairo Quintana stepped out from the shadow of his Movistar teammate Alejandro Valverde to win Pais Vasco, Roman Kreuziger did the same in Amstel Gold Race, and Dan Martin profited from the selfless teamwork of his more senior Garmin-Sharp mate Ryder Hesjedal to win Liege-Bastogne-Liege. Is this signaling a changing of the guard?
Where art thou Wiggo?
See above: where have these team leaders been? Bradley Wiggins has been carefully controlling his race schedule, leaving the major stage races up to Porte and Chris Froome and only dipping his toe into Giro del Trentino, Volta a Catalunya and Tour of Oman, with a couple digs in the Trofeo Mallorca as a warm-up. A mechanical in Trentino left him unable to fight for the overall victory, and left the rest wondering where exactly his form lies. He will skip Romandie, which he won last year, in favor of a bid for the overall Giro d'Italia title. But while Sir Bradley went into his successful 2012 Tour de France with a case full of race trophies from the early season, he will head into the Giro with zero individual victories to his name. Time will tell if the focus on training over racing has paid off when the Giro d'Italia ends in Brescia.
Colombians to the top
Colombia's cycling renaissance has been building for some time: those who witnessed the Continental teams sweep into the USA and attack each and every climb in the Tour of Utah and USA Pro Cycling Challenge were not surprised to see some of the riders coming out of those programs rise to the top of the WorldTour. Sergio Henao was recruited to Sky from the Gobernacion de Antioquia - Indeportes Antioquia team largely due to those US performances. While 2012 was a building year for Henao, this year he showed he's gotten the hang of Europe - netting wins in Algarve and Pais Vasco before taking second in Fleche Wallonne. Similarly, Nairo Quintana, a product of the Colombia es Pasion program, upped his game with the overall victory in Pais Vasco. Carlos Betancur (AG2R) is another exciting Colombian talent with great results this year: a third in Flèche Wallonne and fourth in Liege signals good things to come.
Most exciting team debut: MTN-Qhubeka
The past few seasons have seen the emergence of huge new super teams: in 2010 it was Team Sky, in 2011 Leopard Trek, in 2012 it was Orica-GreenEdge, but in 2013 there were no new organisations applying to the WorldTour. With no debutantes, the early season seemed to lack a little bit of excitement, until the black and yellow colours of MTN-Qhubeka on the back of Gerald Ciolek flashed past Peter Sagan to win Milan-Sanremo. The fact that the Pro Continental team is Africa's first team of that level, and that it is competing in Europe and winning against much more established organisations is a heartwarming story in itself. But add the rags-to-riches type of tale of black Africans like Songezo Jim - who didn't even know how to ride a bike until a teenager - and the team's charitable mission (mobilising kids on bikes) and it is just the kind of balm the sport needed after the whole USADA/Lance Armstrong report.
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