Five riders starting the season under the radar

Andrew Hood takes a look at the results sheets from the year's first races in Australia and discovered five riders who showed big promise for the season.

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GEELONG, Australia (VN) — They didn’t get the wins, but they’ll soon be lighting up a race near you (especially if you live in Europe).

Early season races are just as much about results as they are about setting the tone. And even if there isn’t a victory, leaving a race with a solid showing can provide a huge morale boost and pay off shortly down the road.

Riders and teams don’t roll into the season soft and easy like they used to a decade or so ago. Every race counts, even more so when it’s a WorldTour event. The season’s WorldTour openers — the Santos Tour Down Under and the Cadel Evans Great Ocean Road Race — saw big winners from the usual suspects. Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe), Elia Viviani (Deceuninck-Quick-Step), and Richie Porte (Trek-Segafredo) all left Australia with something in the “W” column.

Even close calls mean something in January, and these early season races are litmus tests for what lies ahead.

Conclusions? Sometimes the results sheet doesn’t reflect the legs, especially in the first race out of the gate.

Michael Woods (EF Education First)

Woods made his WorldTour debut at the Tour Down Under in 2016, riding to a promising fifth. Fast forward three years, and the Canadian has confirmed his racing chops, with a breakout 2018 campaign that included a grand tour stage win, a monument podium, and a world championship podium.

Woods came back to Australia this month looking to build on that momentum and to set himself up for a solid spring. Ironically, he was seventh overall last week despite riding with more confidence and skills than he did in his 2016 debut.

“It’s a sign of good things to come. It’s so early in the season still, so to be performing at this level, I’m pretty happy,” he said. “I would have liked to have done better.”

No brakes! That’s what Woods was yelling to his fellow escapees after dropping the favorites over the top of the Corkscrew climb in stage 3. The breakaway was snuffed, and so too were Woods’ GC chances. He swung for the fences on the final Old Willunga Hill climb but couldn’t count Porte, who won for the sixth year in a row.

“I don’t think my results reflected how I was racing this week,” Woods said. “I don’t think seventh reflects how well my team rode and how I rode this week. In the metrics perspective, when you look back at the results sheet, you’re not super-stoked.”

The takeaway? Woods will be a factor in every race he targets in 2019, especially in the Ardennes.

Luis León Sánchez (Astana)

The veteran Spaniard looks to be in his best shape in years. The Astana captain was at the pointy end of the action in several stages and just missed the final TDU podium. At the Evans road race, a stiff headwind spoiled plans of a late-race, surprise solo flier.

Sánchez, 35, suffered a horror crash in stage 2 of last year’s Tour de France, resulting in surgery on a fractured elbow and other major cuts and scrapes.

“I’m back in good shape after a good winter, and feeling like a pro again,” Sánchez said. “Now I’m heading back to Europe with motivation to win.”

Up next are Spanish races at Murcia, Valencia, Andalucia, and Catalunya. After a stint in the Aussie summer, Sánchez will be one to watch on home roads in the Spanish spring.

Caleb Ewan (Lotto-Soudal)

Ewan leaves Australia with the glass half full. He won an unsanctioned criterium only to see a stage win at the Tour Down Under a few days later taken away from him.

“It was disappointing at the moment, but you can only take something positive out of the situation,” Ewan said. “I was happy with my sprint. I was fast enough to beat those guys. I don’t have my name on the result, but that doesn’t matter.”

Ewan returns to Europe with a criterium win, second at the Evans road race, and a relegated victory — even archrival Elia Viviani said Ewan deserved the win.

With his move to Lotto-Soudal, Ewan is happy with how the team is working together in the sprints. That bodes well for things to come, including Milano-Sanremo, where he hopes to improve on a second-place finish last year.

“This was the first race we had a chance to work out the train,” Ewan said. “We’re feeling good going into the rest of the season.”

Ewan will have pressure to deliver in Europe, but based on the way he raced in Australia, a lack of confidence won’t be a problem.

Wout Poels (Sky)

Poels usually plays second fiddle to Chris Froome, but at certain races like those in Australia, he can ride for himself.

The Dutchman certainly didn’t let the occasion pass by, and he powered onto the podium at the Tour Down Under.

Poels revealed Sky’s aggressive posture in the Willunga finale, attacking hard to try to dislodge both Porte and Daryl Impey (Mitchelton-Scott). Neither worked, but he managed to finish third overall.

“This is the first time I’ve raced at the Tour Down Under, so I hope it sets me up well for Europe,” he said. “I hope to be flying for the Ardennes.”

The road to Liege-Bastogne-Liege goes through Australia for Poels. Up next are the tours at Algarve and Tirreno-Adriatico, two races he could win, before the spring classics. His form-building Down Under should see him firing at full cylinders in Europe. Then it’s back to domestique duty.

Rohan Dennis (Bahrain-Merida)

Former TDU winner Dennis rode to fifth overall without even trying. The world time trial champion has bigger fish to fry this summer in Europe, but a strong outing in Adelaide proved he’s ready for the season. He was fourth up Old Willunga Hill and fifth overall after mostly just following wheels.

“I wanted to start the season off on a good foot, so job done,” he said. “My big goal is to defend my world title, but I will also be there to help [Vincenzo] Nibali at the Tour.”

Dennis, 28, is still working on developing his own GC skills. With his time trial ability among the best in the world, he’s been focusing on improving his climbing and staying power on the longer climbs. A solid winter and strong showing in January bodes well for the rest of the season.

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