Tadej Pogacar on Mont Ventoux.

Five storylines to follow in men’s racing in 2022

Who is the fastest finisher in the peloton? What can't Tadej Pogacar do?

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As we look toward a new cycling season, we here at CyclingTips have been thinking about all the intriguing storylines that seem set to captivate our attention in 2022, the question marks posed by the sport that will keep us glued to our various viewing devices as soon as the racing picks up in earnest.

Race cancellations may push that specific date back for plenty of big names in the peloton, of course, and the effects of a global pandemic on the racing season will be a major storyline from day one, but seeing as we aren’t experts and don’t really know what those effects will be, we’re focusing our efforts on other big storylines – and there are quite a few that have our attention.

Assuming you’ve already read Abby’s analysis of the storylines that will define the women’s racing season, here are five of the storylines we’ll be following on the men’s side of the sport in 2022.

Who is the fastest finisher in the peloton?

It has generally been the case over the past decade or even two that only a handful of very easily identifiable sprinters were in the top tier of the discipline, but things are different right now. In June of 2021, Sam Bennett was taken out of the the Deceuninck-QuickStep Tour de France lineup. In the absence of Bennett, who had been arguably he best sprinter in cycling over the prior 12 months, and also Caleb Ewan (Lotto Soudal), who crashed out of the Tour early, Mark Cavendish found himself back atop the pecking order of fast finishers, winning a remarkable four stages.

33. Mark Cavendish wins stage 10 of the Tour de France.

So where does that leave us for 2022? Who knows? That’s the fun of it. For now, it’s entirely unclear whether the 36-year-old Cavendish can keep it up with competition in his own team in the form of Fabio Jakobsen. It’s also unclear whether Bennett can get back to the form that propelled him to two Tour stage wins and a bevy of other nice victories in 2020 and 2021. And what about Ewan? At 27, he should be in his physical prime.

Then there’s Dylan Groenwegen (BikeExchange Jayco), who was in the running for the title of cycling’s best sprinter before his suspension and now finds himself in a new team. And what about Fernando Gaviria (UAE Team Emirates), who seemed so promising only a few short years ago before one issue after another derailed his efforts? Or will someone else step into the fray?

The long and short of it is that unlike in recent years when there was a clear top three and even a clear top sprinter at the start of the season, it would hardly be a surprise in 2022 to see the fortunes of some of the aforementioned speedsters rise while others fall, even dramatically. Tracking the proverbial “power rankings” of cycling’s sprint elite will be a great way to enjoy the flat stages of the various races that lead up to the Tour, whose sprint stages tend to be the most hotly contested on the calendar.

Can Egan Bernal re-join the ranks of the Tour de France contenders?

After his impressive showing at the Giro d’Italia in 2021, Egan Bernal (Ineos Grenadiers) is set to return to the Tour in 2022, three years after he took Colombia’s first ever win there. He will still be only 25 years old by the time the French Grand Tour rolls around and he proved last year that his climbing legs remain elite, but is he any match for the powerhouse that is Tadej Pogacar right now? And how about Primož Roglič, who emerged as the second best Tour racer in the sport while Bernal was dealing with his frustrating back issues?

Egan Bernal on stage 19 of the Giro d’Italia.

It’s really hard to say how a healthy Bernal might match up with his big rivals this season, considering the lack of data. It’s impossible to know how healthy Bernal has been during the occasions he has had to battle Pogačar and Roglič, and it’s a pretty small number of occasions to boot. Pogačar was miles better at Tirreno-Adriatico last year, but Bernal said at the time that he was still working through back pain, and while Roglič was way better in the Vuelta, gauging form in a second Grand Tour appearance of a rider’s season is really hard.

At the moment, Bernal’s Tour odds are behind even those of Jonas Vingegaard with the bookies, but it really wouldn’t be all that surprising to see him battling for yellow in July. In the meantime, we’ll be paying close attention to every stage race that features that Colombian star. Pogačar may seem like the clear favorite for the Tour in January, but perceptions could change if Bernal proves that he has returned to the form that saw him win the Tour in 2019. Adding to the intrigue are the ever-present questions at the Ineos Grenadiers about which riders deserve leadership status. Geraint Thomas continues to eye Grand Tour results, while Richard Carapaz and Adam Yates will also be worth watching.

Will DSM figure things out?

Something has to give over at DSM. A handful of early departures spread out over the course of a few years would not a problem make, but at this point, the team’s image has taken a pretty serious hit following previous splits with the likes of Marcel Kittel, Tom Dumoulin, Michael Matthews and more recent rifts with Ilan van Wilder and Tiesj Benoot. Couple that steady stream of juicy news items with the team’s serious lack of results in 2021 and you’ve got people asking questions about the wisdom of signing with the organization.

Romain Bardet celebrates victory atop the Pico Villuercas on stage 14 of the Vuelta a España.

Across the peloton, it’s well known now that DSM’s rigid, regimented way of doing things can make it hard place to work, and now, it’s difficult to see the upside too. Long gone are the days that saw riders like Kittel and Dumoulin racking up impressive results. DSM was one of the least successful teams in the top tier of professional cycling last year.

As such, recruiting new talents to turn things around may be getting harder. If the team can’t show that its method works, it will be harder to sign talented riders who are wary of the culture fit, and without talented riders, it will be hard to show that the method works. The way things stand at the moment, there are two obvious paths forward for DSM that could avoid that vicious cycle. DSM can either overhaul its culture (which doesn’t seem all that likely right now) or prove once more that at least it can produce results.

Over the course of the season, keep an eye on how the Dutch team is doing. Iwan Spekenbrink will be relying on the likes of Romain Bardet and Søren Kragh Andersen to turn things around. If that doesn’t work, the transfer period will be an interesting one indeed.

What can’t Tadej Pogacar do?

Thus far in his very young career, Tadej Pogacar has been nothing short of sensational, winning back-to-back Tours de France and, lest we forget, two Monuments already. Now, the question becomes whether he will keep that up or become another young talent whose star burned brightly but briefly. At least to those of us on the outside, he has seemed impervious to the challenges and pressures of being so good, so young. Still, for someone so young, it wouldn’t really be all that shocking to see Pogacar falter in his bid for a third straight Tour title – but it wouldn’t be surprising at all to see him win it either. Then again, what if he continues to live up to every challenge thrown his way and then some?

Tadej Pogacar wins Il Lombardia.

Fresh off of one of the finest seasons cycling has seen in years, Pogačar enters this year with an eye not only on continued success in the Tour, Liège-Bastogne-Liège, and Il Lombardia – but also with an avowed interest in racing the Tour of Flanders and the Vuelta a España later in the year. Given what we’ve seen so far from the all-rounder, would it really be all that surprising to see him mixing it up on the Oude Kwaremont or hunting a second Grand Tour win in the same season?

Only time will tell, but Pogačar, unlike so many others who have targeted the Tour with a laser focus in the past few years, is committed to giving us reasons to watch the sport from February through to October. Tracking his buildup to the Tour and a showdown with the likes of Roglič, Vingegaard, and Bernal will remain as thrilling as ever. Watching him in one-day races will be a pretty nice bonus. What’s more, his team made significant investments via the transfer market over the offseason, and following how well UAE Team Emirates can leverage the rest of its talented roster around Pogačar will be yet another reason to watch.

How will Mathieu van der Poel’s back issues affect the Classics?

Somehow, the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and its unofficial heralding of a new Classics season is just a month and a half away. It’s not the best time to find yourself forced to take a break to deal with lingering health issues, but that’s exactly where Mathieu van der Poel finds himself this January. Facing problems with a disc in a his back, Van der Poel has called time on his cyclocross campaign to take what his team doctor Guy De Schutter calls “a complete rest.”

Van der Poel gave it everything on the final ascent of the Oude Kwaremont at the Tour of Flanders, shelling Van Aert and forcing Asgreen to chase hard after being distanced.

Whether Van der Poel will be back in time for the Classics, and even if he is, whether he can actually be a contender, remain to be seen. Expect the Dutch and Flemish media to be laser-focused on his status over the next few weeks as the one-day races ramp up. Van der Poel, who won the Tour of Flanders in 2020 and finished second there in 2021, is an electrifying talent whose presence in headlines draws eyeballs like few others in the peloton. His presence on the road also changes the way events are raced.

In the run-up to countless races in 2021, the conversation around the sport was how this or that battle among Van der Poel, Wout van Aert, and Deceuninck-QuickStep might play out. Deceuninck-QuickStep probably came away the most successful from the 2021 Classics campaign, but Van der Poel made an impact on every race he was in, forcing rivals to make calculations about the prudence of working together with someone whose ability to put down a massive attack is nearly unrivaled in the sport.

Will Van Aert or QuickStep-Alpha Vinyl dominate the spring races should Van der Poel not be fit to compete? Will Van Aert and the likes of Kasper Asgreen and Julian Alaphilippe find themselves missing a potential attacking companion whose big turns could be the difference maker late in a race? We’ll see, but first, all eyes will be on Van der Poel’s attempt to recover in time to make a run at his 2022 goals.

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