Blazin' Saddles: In-form Astana keep on winning after Colombian fireworks
From Colombia to Oman – Miguel Angel Lopez and Alexey Lutsenko, with a little help from their friends, keep the wins piling up for Astana, who now have eight victories in as many days across three continents. Felix Lowe runs through all the talking points from a busy weekend in cycling...
On a day of drama and incident on Sunday, Miguel Angel Lopez secured the Tour Colombia 2.1 overall crown despite Nairo Quintana picking himself up the floor to take the queen stage. Lopez's win was part of a stellar Sunday for Astana, with team-mate Alexey Lutsenko continuing the momentum with back-to-back wins in Oman for Astana's eighth scalp in as many days.
Insatiable Astana leading the way with flurry of wins
Perhaps it was Friday's clean podium sweep in the opening stage of the (admittedly little-known) Vuelta Ciclista a la Region de Murcia Costa Calida which set the tone – for since then, nobody has been able to hold Astana at bay.
Pello Bilbao 'beat' Astana team-mates Omae Fraille and Luis Leon Sanchez in San Javier in what could easily have been a team time trial to the uninitiated.
On Saturday, Sanchez held off the world champion Alejandro Valverde to take the win and secure the overall crown in Murcia before the focus shifted to France where Astana new boy Gorka Izagirre snared the Tour de la Provence overall (with its snazzy Mondrian-style throwback of a leader's jersey).
Gorka Izagirre (Astana), winner of the Tour de Provence 2019Getty Images
Meanwhile, down on the Arabian Peninsula, Alexey Lutsenko did what he does best – zipping clear of the pack to solo to glory, winning stage 2 of the Tour of Oman.
But the winning streak was far from over – for a little later, time zones and oceans away in Latin America, Miguel Angel Lopez, denied a stage win on Saturday by Julian Alaphilippe, held on to secure the overall orange leader's jersey in the Tour Colombia 2.1.
Victory for Lopez made it three stage wins and three GC wins in just three days for Astana. More impressively, it was a third victory of the day – each of them coming on a different continent.
The rampant run wasn't over, however. On Monday morning, man of the moment Lutsenko proved the strongest on the ramped finale of stage 3 to Qurayyat to secure back-to-back wins in Oman – an eighth scalp in eight days for Astana – and with it, the leader's red jersey.
It may be too early to make any conclusions, but Astana are making the 2019 their own so far – despite the ubiquitous pressure from Deceuninck-QuickStep, for whom Alaphilippe, Bob Jungels and Alvaro Hodeg all added wins this past week in Colombia.
Time to look at some of the other stories making the headlines from an action-packed weekend of cycling action
Febrile fan can't derail revitalised Quintana
Having been knocked off his bike by an over-zealous fan and then dropped inside the final two kilometres by rivals Lopez and Ivan Sosa, you could say that things were not going Nairo Quintana's way in the queen stage of the Tour Colombia 2.1 on Sunday.
But the experienced Movistar man managed to fight back from his spill – and then benefited from a tactical slow-down once the mind games got the better of Lopez and Sosa.
Quintana had been riding in a select four-man group alongside Lopez, Sosa and Egan Bernal with around 5km to go on the Alto las Palmas when the incident happened. Attempting to run alongside the riders, the fan lost his balance and fell into the group.
Both Quintana and Sosa hit the deck while the others rode on. Bernal then dropped back to pace Sky team-mate Sosa back into contention, with Quintana also recovering in time to zip back into the fold.
He may not have done enough to take the overall title, but the 29-year-old's first professional win in his national Tour did act as a timely reminder of Quintana's class. It's early days – and there are far bigger challenges ahead – but Quintana will take heart from this early season performance. After the horrors of 2018, could this be the year that we see "Nairoman" return to the form of old?
Lopez and Sosa Tom-and-Jerry the Colombia 2.1 finale
Quintana's victory came after a bizarre game of cat-and-mouse between leaders Lopez and Sosa, who almost came to a standstill on the home straight with one kilometre remaining – reopening the door to their countryman while they battled it out for the overall spoils.
With Quintana well over a minute back on GC and overnight leader Alaphilippe well dropped on the final climb, the race was going to be won by either Lopez or Sosa, who were split by just six seconds on GC heading into the stage.
Lopez held the cards, though, needing only to finish alongside his young rival. And instead of killing it off, he started toying with Sosa, which gave Quintana the chance to pounce.
Colombians rule the roost on home soil
Despite the presence of stage 5 winner Alaphilippe, stage 4 winner Jungels and four-time Tour de France champion Chris Froome, as well as Marc Soler, Jan Hirt and Davide Villella, all on the start list, the finale of the Colombia Tour 2.1 was very much a home-grown affair.
The first nine finishers of the top ten of the queen stage were all Colombian, with tenth place Jhonatan Narvaez of Team Sky hailing from neighbouring Ecuador. In fact, 14 out of the top 15 were from the home nation with sixteenth place Frenchman Alaphilippe the first European to cross the line some two minutes in arrears.
Such domination was reflected in the overall standings, which Lopez won ahead of five other countrymen – that man Alaphilippe finishing sixth behind Lopez, Sosa, Dani Martinez, Bernal, Quintana and Rigoberto Uran.
Who needs Froome when you have Bernal?
Last July it was Egan Bernal who frequently nursed Sky teammate Chris Froome back into the fold in the Tour de France – but the tables where turned in this early season race on Bernal's home soil.
It was certainly refreshing to see Froome on domestique duties pulling for Bernal and Sosa while trying to real in a Superman Lopez impersonator..
And it didn't take too long before Froome – looking somewhat above his optimum July weight, and with a banana stuffed down his jersey pocket – was off the back and in the gruppetto, en route to finishing 14-odd minutes in arrears.
Of course, the Tour Colombia 2.1 is hardly a target for Froome this year and it would have been fickle of him not to play second fiddle to his Colombian team-mates Bernal and Sosa, upon whom he may well rely on when going for a record-equalling fifth Tour title later this year.
Ackermann beats Kittel in German showdown
With so many races going on, it wasn't all Colombians and Astana riders who wrote the headlines this weekend. In southern Spain, in the heart of the region responsible for the fruit and baby gem lettuces nobody in the UK will be able to eat post-March 29, the Clasica Almeria proved a showdown between the old and the new of German sprinting.
Ackermann's victory shows just why Bora-Hansgrohe have so much faith in the 25-year-old – indeed, why they're pushing Ackermann and not Sam Bennett for the Giro, despite the Irishman's three stage haul last year.
And even though he was beaten, Kittel's second place was a return to form of sorts for the Katusha-Alpecin sprinter, who will be hoping to put his dire 2018 aside and get back to winning ways.
Degenkolb saves Roubaix U19 race – then wins
With the under-19 edition of Paris-Roubaix facing cancellation because of a €10,000 sponsorship shortfall, John Degenkolb – the 2015 Hell of the North champion – stepped in this weekend to launch a GoFundMe campaign to save the race.
Pledging €2,500 of his own money, Degenkolb's campaign quickly reached the target needed to ensure the running of the race – and then, proving that nice guys do finish first, the 30-year-old German went and won the final stage of the Tour de la Provence on Sunday. What a legend!