The presence of the defending champion at a professional road race is likely to be the exception rather than the rule, and taken in this context, Michal Kwiatkowski’s absence from the start list at this year’s Strade Bianche came as little surprise.
Etixx-Quick-Step’s world champion has chosen instead to race at Paris-Nice. The start list for the race to the sun is also missing the name of the reigning champion: Carlos Betancur will begin his European campaign at Tirreno-Adriatico rather than join Kwiatkowski et al in Maurepas, despite it being the scene last year of his biggest victory to date.
Further down the pecking order, the pattern is similar. For the early season races, whose greater purpose is to serve as preparation for the most historic races on the calendar, the prospect of a champion returning to defend a title won in the previous year is slimmer still.
Reigning champions miss races for a host of reasons, often through compulsion, but sometimes through choice. Simon Gerrans (Orica-GreenEDGE) would surely have defended his Australian road race and Tour Down Under titles had he not broken his collar bone in a training crash in December, while perhaps nothing more than a desire for change dissuaded Chris Froome from attempting a third consecutive victory at the Tour of Oman. He began his season instead at the Ruta del Sol, where the outcome for the Sky leader was the same.
The biggest races are not immune to the absence of their reigning champion. A change of focus meant the Giro d’Italia began in Belfast last season without Vincenzo Nibali. Much has been made of the possible implications for the Italian and the Tour de France if the Licence Commission adheres to the UCI’s request and revokes his employer’s ProTeam licence, but Tour owners ASO showed themselves willing to exclude Astana in 2008, preventing Alberto Contador from defending the maillot jaune won in 2007.
Only if the race is considered of sufficient importance to the rider and his team, or if it is closely linked to a greater goal, can we expect the man who finished the previous edition as number one to return. Victory at the 2014 Het Nieuwsblad represented a career high for Ian Stannard and the most significant victory in a one day race for Team Sky; his appearance in Gent last week was almost certain (and next year too).
Similarly, Niki Terpstra was unlikely to miss defending his title at the Tour of Qatar, a race that his Quick-Step team has now won on six occasions, and which last year saw the Dutchman extend an improbable run of Qatar-Roubaix victories begun by team-mate Tom Boonen, who claimed three of his four victories at l’enfer du nord after first winning in the desert.
The trend is regrettable, if unavoidable amid an increasingly crowded calendar, the arbitrary nature of accident and injury, and the more calculated approach of the very best riders, able to target victory at host of different races.
For the spectator, however, the race lacks something when it rolls out without the reigning champion. The thrill of watching a rider defend his title is hard to beat when he remains in contention at the finale, as we discovered again last week. And the rider gains something, too: after winning the race to the sun seven times on the bounce, Sean Kelly is inextricably linked with Paris-Nice.
Kwiatkowski would have been no more than a television spectator when the Strade Bianche rolled out of San Gimignano. His presence might have added a certain frisson, but he is far from alone in moving on from races that will in some way define his career.