There is no question that the preparations of the modern professional rider has changed to a considerable degree. Gone are the days when a pro would show up at an early season race with lycra bursting at the seams and visible work to do.
It's true that the top guns are getting used to winning early in the season. This is not as it used to be anymore, we all want to find sensations early. It's a matter of getting to your season goals in good condition, but not ruling out chances in other important races, you can't leave it all to the Giro or the Tour.
Today, the majority of the world’s best Grand Tour riders are proving their fitness for the battles ahead in all the early season tests, with preparation for the a new season beginning almost as soon as the old has ended.
The 2014 season promises to be one of the best ever with strong fields lining up for both the Giro d’Italia in May and July’s Tour de France. As a result keen watchers of the sport are keeping a close eye on the form of each rider, with particular emphasis placed on head-to-head performances and key climbs.
Of the big names, 2013 Tour de France champion Chris Froome, like Valverde, ticked his first box of the season with a somewhat predictable victory at the Tour of Oman against a strong field. But behind the peerless Team Sky rider was Tejay van Garderen (BMC) and Rigoberto Uran (Omega Pharma-QuickStep).
Supplanting Australian Cadel Evans, who will instead target the Giro’d’Italia, van Garderen is the Tour de France heir apparent at BMC.
With the mantle of Tour leadership settled the team would have been looking for encouraging signs from the 25-year-old, and the American delivered to finish second behind Froome in Oman after a penultimate stage battle on Green Mountain.
"We didn't know Tejay's condition," said Sky sports director Valerio Piva. "But he surprised me today in a very positive way. Arriving second behind Froome is a good start. If you look at the guys who are here, they are also the contenders for the Tour de France and leaders of the big teams.”
Riding under the shadow of Froome and Bradley Wiggins at Team Sky, Uran made the switch to Omega Pharma-QuickStep during the off-season in order to further his own Grand Tour aspirations.
The Colombian finished third behind Froome and Van Garderen in his first stage race for his new team. Despite the good result in an elite field he left somewhat disappointed, but remained optimistic.
"I'm happy about this result and the support I had from the team during the race," said Uran. "I was maybe hoping to do something better, but I also have to say that it's not a bad result for real first race of my season.”
Behind Valverde at the Vuelta a Andalucia was Australian Richie Porte, an invaluable lieutenant to Froome at last year’s Tour. He too showed that his form is building nicely for his season target, the Giro, where he will battle Evans.
“For us it’s good to see where we’re at. I know where I’m at and I’m nowhere near at 100 per cent. So to come away with second this week is a nice indication of what I can do this season,” said Porte.
Perhaps the most important rider to watch is Alberto Contador (Saxo-Tinkoff). The two-time Tour de France winner won a key test on the fourth stage of the Tour of Algarve to finish second to the talented Michal Kwiatkowski (Omega Pharma-QuickStep).
At 23 Kwiatkowski’s future is all in front of him but Contador’s time at the top is running out. The Spaniard needs to prove that he can return to the form seen before his suspension for doping. And the mountain test on Stage 4 showed that he may be on point for a big Tour de France.
“It was a very important week for me in terms of getting in shape through races like these and I felt better for each day,” said Contador.
“At this point of the season in 2013, I also had a high level in the Tour of Oman finishing second and I had two stage wins within reach. But this year I’ve been doing a better job through the winter and I have a good feeling. I’m really happy with this way of working,”
Of course these are not the only riders to watch. Valverde's Movistar team mate Nairo Quintana (2nd at the 2013 Tour) struck first to win January's Tour de San Luis, but it's hard to find much to take much away from his performance there so early in the season. Likewise 2011 Tour de France winner Cadel Evans who performed well if not spectacularly at the Santos Tour Down Under.
Two-time Giro d'Italia winner Vincenzo Nibali (Astana) is yet to show his hand, finishing 12th overall at 1min 51sec behind Froome in Oman. The Italian is keeping his powder dry for later races where he will reveal if he is on target for his first fully focused effort at the Tour.
Of the rest, Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha) comfortably rode to a 4th at the Tour of Oman and Robert Gesink (Belkin) 5th, while 2013 Vuelta a Espana winner Chris Horner (Lampre-Merida), who in his first race back after a long period searching for a team, rode to a solid 8th place at the Algarve.
So what can fans take away from the season so far? As Valverde noted things have changed and all of the key Grand Tour contenders appear to be on target for a big season, barring illness or accident.
Of the cohort Froome is the best placed to replicate his winning 2013 season but the rest are not far behind and have yet to fully show their hands ahead of the two biggest races of the season.