The Myth of the Complete Rider

The Myth of the Complete Rider

[We’re going to be posting some work that originally appeared elsewhere as I move my home and office from Southern California to Sonoma County. This story first appeared in Peloton Magazine—Padraig.] 

 

Guidance Counselor for Aspiring Eddy Merckxs

 

Suppose for a dreamy instant that you’re a director sportif contracted to one of the top 10 teams in the world. To your team you’ve signed three great stars of cycling: Andy Schleck, Dennis Menchov and Philippe Gilbert. And suppose for another fantastical moment you get to pick their entire schedules, deciding just which races they’ll try to win.

Your sponsor is Google and you’ve been ordered to focus on big races—Grand Tours and Monuments. Winning Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne means less than second at Milan-San Remo.

So you’ve got a guy who can climb like Edmund Hillary, one that can accelerate away from the field like a Ferrari, and another that can pound into the wind like an America’s Cup yacht. They each want the Tour de France. What’s a smart guy to do?

Keep them away from each other by giving them different schedules, of course.

Cycling fans speak in reverent tones of the “complete” riders. Eddy Merckx, Fausto Coppi and Bernard Hinault raced the full season and could win in any month, on any terrain. Everyone wants to believe that at least once or twice a generation a rider comes along who can kill Milan-San Remo and Paris-Nice, dial back for a few weeks, have a great day at Amstel, storm off the front of the field to win Liege-Bastogne-Liege and then begin the slow build for the dominating Tour victory.

That guy’s name is Eddy Merckx. And so far, they have made him exactly once. (That said, we here at peloton have commissioned a team of Tibetan monks to keep their eye out for another until they begin to scour the planet for the next incarnation of the Dalai Lama.)

Here on Planet Earth
As we mentioned in Issue 1 of peloton, Laurent Fignon was the last rider to win both the Tour de France and a Monument, taking the ’83 and ’84 Tours and Milan-San Remo in ’88 and ’89. Since then, nothin’.

Actually, it’s not as bad as that. There are four guys active in the pro peloton who have won both one of the Monuments and a Grand Tour, though not the Tour. They are Damiano Cunego, Danilo DiLuca, Alejandro Valverde and Alexander Vinokourov. And yes, it’s true that three of those four have served a doping suspension, but let’s not allow a little detail like that disrupt our conversation.

If we reach back to 1990, we can add another four names to this list: Gianni Bugno, Tony Rominger, Evgeni Berzin and Laurent Jalabert (and yes, all four of them are known to have used that little miracle elixir, EPO). So it’s possible to win both a Grand Tour and a Monument in your career, but to do so, one must choose carefully.

What these eight riders share in common is a notable clumping of victories. They each won either the Giro or the Vuelta for their Grand Tour victory. Rominger managed to win both the Giro and the Vuelta. The Monuments they won were Milan-San Remo, Liege-Bastogne-Liege and the Tour of Lombardy—the three hilliest of the Monuments. Of course, there’s always one guy who can’t stick to the script, and that man is Bugno. The Italian is the only man to have won both a Grand Tour and the Tour of Flanders since Eddy Merckx retired.

And that hints at our object lesson today: There are simply some wishes the cycling genie may never grant again. If you want to win a Grand Tour, don’t plan on winning Paris-Roubaix or the Tour of Flanders. You might as well nominate the Unabomber to a seat on the Supreme Court.

New blood
Vinokourov and Di Luca, at 37 and 35 respectively, are bad milk so far as future Grand Tour wins are concerned, and the prospect that either one might take another victory in a Monument is 40-watt-bulb bright.

Back to our question at the beginning: What races would you concentrate on? The season is ripe with opportunity but too many cooks in the kitchen ruins the soufflé, so to speak.

Gilbert
So what would you do with Belgium’s best rider? After two wins at Lombardy, plus a win at the Amstel Gold Race, two stages of the Vuelta a Espana and the Tour of the Piedmont, Gilbert’s name is being mentioned as a rider capable of greatness. His team manager, Marc Sergeant, believes talk of general classification leadership at the Tour de France is premature, but he is willing to consider a Gilbert bid at the Vuelta or Giro d’Italia.

In December, Sergeant told Cyclingnews, “I know that it could be too hard to try at the Tour de France where the riders there are at the highest level and he was certainly talking about the future, not 2011. Let’s say he wins Amstel again and perhaps one day the Tour of Flanders, then he can turn around and say that he’s proved he’s one of the best one-day riders and now he’s going to try and tackle something different but we have to wait and see.”

Pinning any hopes on Gilbert for a GC performance at a Grand Tour is like trusting Hugh Hefner with your daughter—no matter how old she is. Freddy Maertens was the last rider to win a Grand Tour (’77 Vuelta) and the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad (in ’78, but back then it was called the Omloop Het Volk), a race Gilbert has won twice already (‘06 and ‘08). Merckx is the only rider to have won the Omloop and the Tour. Statistically, a Tour win isn’t in the cards for Gilbert, ever.

The sooner Gilbert dedicates his considerable talent to building his career on Classics wins, the greater his career will be. To pursue a GC position at any Grand Tour will simply be a damning distraction, like texting while driving a bridge with no guardrails.

Menchov
As a former winner of the Vuelta (’05 and ’07) and the Giro (’09), Menchov has proven himself to be an exceptional rider. However, he is a 33-year-old exceptional rider, which is a bit like noticing that the date on the milk is … today. It’s unfortunate, but no one scores their first Tour de France win at 33.

Seven of the last eight riders to score both a Monument and a Grand Tour pulled a double, winning both in the same year on at least one occasion. And generally, they pull it off in one long streak of great form, either by taking Liege-Bastogne-Liege ahead of the Giro or the Tour of Lombardy after winning the Vuelta.

Considering that Menchov has the sprint of a Mini Cooper S—which is to say he has great acceleration compared to a family sedan, but can’t compete with a Lamborghini Gallardo like Mark Cavendish—he’d do well to set his sights not on Milan-San Remo but on Liege or Lombardy if he wants that Monument to add to his palmares.

Unfortunately, history isn’t on Menchov’s side. Nearly every victory he has ever scored has come either as a stage win or the general classification of a stage race. His only win in a one-day race was at the Clásica a los Puertos de Guadarrama in Spain. His best finish in a Classic was sixth at the Classica San Sebastian. Between now and retirement his own history suggests he best chances for victory come in stage race stages.

Schleck
Schleck’s second place at the Tour in 2010 is the best performance by a former Liege-Bastogne-Liege winner since Bernard Hinault’s wins in the two events in 1980. Based on statistics from the past 30 years, the odds of him winning the Tour are slimmer than a super model. However, his obvious rise as an exceptional Grand Tour rider with three second places to his credit (two Tour and one Giro) combined with the fact that he will arrive at the 2011 Tour de France only 26 years old and potentially lacking last year’s adversary would indicate that a Tour victory for Schleck the younger is nearly as inevitable as more rehab time for Lindsay Lohan.

The smart director would keep Schleck focused on the shorter stage races such as Paris-Nice, and Vuelta Ciclista al Pais Vasco before heading to the Ardennes Classics where he would work for Gilbert. A traditional buildup to the Tour involving the Critérium du Dauphiné and the Tour de Suisse should prepare him for his date with destiny.

Schleck seems likely to become the first rider since Laurent Fignon to take both a Monument and the Tour de France. However, as his über-smart team director, you would steer him from any dreams of taking a Monument during the ’11 season. The last time that happened was in 1981, the year that Bernard Hinault took his third Tour victory and his one (and only!) victory in Paris-Roubaix; he also won the Amstel Gold Race. Even Hinault took no Monument victories in ’78, the year of his first Tour win. He did, however, take the Vuelta a Espana (his first Grand Tour entry) as well that year.

Schleck is a rare rider, perhaps not the enfant terrible that Merckx and Hinault were, but eight years from now, we may look back on his career with praise for the fact that he tried to do more than tackle stage races.

Lies, Damn Lies and Statistics
Statistics are details as meaningless as the threads in a carpet. On their own, these raw facts mean more to the riders who were in the races than they do to any of the team directors or sponsors … or us. But woven together, a story emerges and we can begin to see possibilities, dead ends.

In meteorology, forecasters speak of annual storms, five-year storms and even 10, 25 and 50-year storms. Eddy Merckx was a 100-year storm. Lance Armstrong was perhaps a 20-year storm. Peter Van Petegem? The blizzard of ’03, statistically speaking.

With his combination of success in one-day races and Grand Tours, and poised to do more thanks to his youth, Andy Schleck is a rare rider, one who comes along only every 20 years or so. The beauty to a rider like Schleck is that he could keep us guessing, wondering just where he’ll strike next. Lombardy? The Vuelta? Of course the Tour. Schleck has the potential to dream of more than Grand Tours, and that makes him exciting.

But what of Gilbert? What if he chooses to focus on one-day races? What separates Gilbert from other one-day riders is the very fact that he has won one of the hilliest of the Classics—the Tour of Lombardy—as well as one of the cobbled Classics—the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad—and one of the flattest—Paris-Tours. He is already the most diverse one-day rider of his generation. With a win at Amstel Gold on the books, Liege-Bastogne-Liege is in reach. Similarly, he has proven his potential for both Flanders and Roubaix with his win in the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad. He could be the first rider since Roger De Vlaeminck to win all the Monuments. And in that, he would be truly rare. Only three riders have won all the Monuments: Eddy Merckx, Rik Van Looy and Roger De Vlaeminck.

And if you were Gilbert’s director sportif, what you’d do is give him Rik Van Looy’s biography. You’d tell him he was the second coming of the Emperor, a man poised to win all of the Classics, a 50-year-storm.

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4 comments

  1. Michael

    Well, you sure nailed it for Menchov and Gilbert, but Schleck auto-destructed. He never seemed to get around himself and his own obstacles, and then of course had the accident, one that seemed to at least in part stem from his inability to teach/force himself to ride a TT bike. Menchov, well, I’d leave him in the murk of uncertainty on a number of things, but you wrote this just prior to Gilbert’s magical season. Even though he hasn’t equalled that again (who could?), he is still a force in any race he targets.

  2. Mike

    Nice analysis and editorial. Unrelated to your write up, I am not really surprised as riders prepared differently back then but always admire that Fignon also was on the podium at Paris-Roubaix.

  3. PedalRon

    Ouch, the ugliness of doping in normally something not so present around here. But…DiLuca, Menchov, Schleck, Vino…yikes.

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