Cycling: Storylines of the Spring So Far Heading into Giro D'Italia
Quite unbelievably, we are at the point in the year already when the Giro d'Italia rolls off this weekend.
The year's first grand tour begins with three stages in Ireland before heading up from southern Italy and concluding in Trieste on June 1.
With riders such as sprint sensation Marcel Kittel (Giant-Shimano), climbing phenom Nairo Quintana (Movistar) and veterans like Cadel Evans (BMC) and Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha) all looking to make their mark, the Giro should make for fascinating viewing.
Before the three-week Irish/Italian journey begins, now seems as good a time as any to reflect on the spring so far.
Between typically entertaining Classics racing and some noteworthy goings-on at Europe's first stage races of the season, there has been plenty to whet the appetite for what is to come (not to mention enjoy in its own right).
Whether you are looking for a catch-up of things missed ahead of the Giro or a reminder of the notable events of March, April and early May, here are some significant storylines of the spring so far.
Resurgent Contador Serves Notice of Summer Intent
You write an athlete as talented and successful as Alberto Contador off at your peril. Yet even for the most ardent of his supporters, the Spaniard's struggle to recapture his best form in 2013 gave pause for thought.
Fourth in the Tour de France and respectable placings in other stage races are not to be sniffed at. Still, his lacklustre showings (by his high standards) were of some concern, at least compared to those by rivals and ascendant general classification competitors like Vincenzo Nibali and Chris Froome.
Contador's past exploits, even the 2012 Vuelta a Espana victory which followed the conclusion of his contested drugs ban, were looking a long time ago as Froome and Sky comprehensively secured victory at the Tour.
He has evidently worked hard to get back towards where he wants to be, though, with excellent early 2014 performances going some way to banishing doubts over Contador's ability to still compete with cycling's best.
The Tinkoff-Saxo man won Tirreno-Adriatico in some style in March, recording two highly-impressive stage wins.
After beating the considerable climbing talent of Nairo Quintana and Daniel Moreno (Katusha) in Stage Four, a day later the 31-year-old broke free of his main GC rivals to negotiate the ridiculously steep Muro di Guardiagrele ahead of everyone else.
Contador took second in Volta a Catalunya a couple of weeks later before tasting victory again at the Tour of the Basque Country.
El Pistolero is firing again, how true his aim is will be substantially tested come July.
An Up-and-Down Spring for Sky
Spring has not gone quite as planned for Froome and his Team Sky team-mates.
Ian Stannard's own fortunes perhaps exemplified this best. He recorded a terrific victory at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad in early March, but weeks later fractured a bone in a crash at Gent-Wevelgem, ending his Classics campaign.
Issues with injury and ill-health disrupted the first half of Froome's spring, while Richie Porte's plans to lead Sky at the Giro d'Italia were changed altogether after gastroenteritis scuppered his intended preparations at various stage races.
Although Grand Tour plans were hit, Sky did—save for Stannard's woes—enjoy commendable showings at the Monuments.
Ben Swift put in arguably the best performance of his career to date at Milan-Sanremo, finishing third ahead of more touted favourites like Mark Cavendish (Omega Pharma—Quick Step), Peter Sagan (Cannondale) and BMC's Philippe Gilbert (the 26-year-old also won a stage at the Tour of the Basque Country and impressed at Settimana Internazionale Coppi e Bartali, the overall being taken there by fellow Sky man Peter Kennaugh).
Swift now is looking forward to making a mark at the Giro this month.
Geraint Thomas took eighth at the prestigious Tour of Flanders, before a week later, he and Sir Bradley Wiggins were among a leading group of 10 heading into the final few kilometers of Paris-Roubaix.
Wiggins was the first Tour de France winner to have a serious crack at the 'Hell of the North' since Greg LeMond over 20 years earlier. He and Thomas were hanging with specialists like Tom Boonen and Fabian Cancellara, before Niki Terpstra got the jump on them all with his solo attack.
Yet while a Monument continues to elude a rider in Sky colours, their aptitude for races of a week or longer is not in question.
After all he and his team's recent issues, a fit, reinvigorated Froome was back to claim his second successive Tour de Romandie victory last week.
Boding well for his tilt at the Tour as defending champion was his decisive bettering of 2013 Giro winner Nibali in the mountains, and an even more dominant time trial victory to seal the whole thing.
Terpstra Leads Strong Showings from Deep Omega Pharma-Quick Step Team
The aforementioned Terpstra's brilliant Paris-Roubaix alone would have been something for Omega Pharma-Quick Step to be proud of.
While the presence of team-mates Boonen and Zdenek Stybar in the leading group aided his escape, the Dutchman still timed it to perfection as the other contenders debated their next move.
Powering ahead over the last of the race's demanding cobbles was wise with—in addition to the riders previously mentioned—others like the speedy Giant-Shimano sprinter John Degenkolb and Cannondale's dangerous main-man Peter Sagan also in the hunt.
Terpstra was understandably jubilant upon crossing the finish line first in the Roubaix velodrome after his extraordinary effort (as displayed by his exhausted look in the picture above). Yet though this has been the undoubted highlight of OPQS' spring, the depth of this team when it comes to the multitude of races this time of year has been there for all to see.
Boonen took his third Kuurne–Brussels–Kuurne, while Michal Kwiatkowski stole the beautiful Strade Bianche from the grasp of Sagan. Terpstra laid the foundations for his Paris-Roubaix success with a first at Dwars door Vlaanderen.
In addition to fine showings from Tony Martin and Wout Poels out in the Basque Country, Mark Cavendish and his re-engineered sprint train has been coming along nicely too.
The former World Champion won twice before heading to the Tour of Turkey last week where he claimed four of eight stages, ably supported by previous stalwarts like Gert Steegmans, as well as reunited ex-HTC henchman Mark Renshaw, and former rival Alessandro Petacchi.
Cavendish's superb final stage sprint was perhaps the most impressive, bouncing back to beat Cannondale's Elia Viviani after the Italian twice got the better of him following his previous win.
A work in progress for sure, Cavendish and co will be aiming to be firing on all cyclinders by the time he crosses paths with fellow spring kings Marcel Kittel and Andre Greipel in July.
Orica-GreenEDGE Go from Strength to Strength
Australian outfit Orica-GreenEDGE have also shone in recent weeks.
Joining fellow Brit Cavendish in enjoying a tremendous Tour of Turkey was neo-pro Adam Yates. The 21-year-old (who joined the team with his twin brother Simon this year) took the overall classification by five seconds ahead of Cofidis' Rein Taaramae, a narrow mountains win on Stage Six ultimately proving the difference.
Though not the strongest field Yates will ever race against, it was nonetheless an eye-catching week's work from youngster as he establishes himself in the professional peloton.
The same week also saw Michael Albasini excel in his native Switzerland by adding three stages of the Tour de Romandie to his palmares.
Orica's undoubted highlight of the last month, though, came in Belgium, where Simon Gerrans won Liege-Bastogne-Liege.
The Australian national champion and 2014 Tour Down Under winner benefited from a costly tumble from defending champion Dan Martin on the final turn. Even so, Gerrans chose his moment to accelerate just right, getting the better of the in-form Movistar man Alejandro Valverde (fresh off Fleche Wallonne success) and OPQS' Kwiatkowski.
A Tour de France stage winner and a former Milan-Sanremo champion, Gerrans has been one of the standout riders on a team looking like going from strength to strength.
Cancellara and Other Notable Spring Winners
Fabian Cancellara's third Tour of Flanders win underlined the Trek Factory Racing rider's continued excellence.
CyclingNews.com suggested it was "arguably his most complete performance." It has some tough competition given the Swiss' glittering list of successes, but the crucial attack on the Kwaremont followed by the canny, culminating sprint to beat his fellow escapees certainly puts it up there.
Seven years Cancellara's junior, Katusha's Alexander Kristoff has some way to get to get anywhere near matching the older man's achievements.
The nearly man of so many top-tier events in recent times got one victory closer in March, though, when he beat Cancellara to the punch in Milan-Sanremo.
Elsewhere in the spring's big one-day events, Belgian Philippe Gilbert harked back to his glorious 2011 with his second win in Brabantse Pijl and his third in the Amstel Gold Race.
His BMC team-mate Cadel Evans boosted his Giro preparations at Giro Del Trentino, with Katusha's Spanish climber Joaqium Rodriguez doing similar at Volta a Catalunya. French team AG2R La Mondiale enjoyed their own home success in Paris-Nice after Carlos Betancur staved off reigning World Champion Rui Costa.
With so much to cover, incidents and events involving individuals and teams on the men's World Tour have not been mentioned. But with plenty of great racing coming up, several will have their opportunity to grab the headlines soon enough.