Zero to delerious, that’s how I feel. Just the other day I was still snarking about the desert races (and being upbraided by faithful readers), and now, suddenly Classics season is ON. Tomorrow we’ve got Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, and Sunday Kurne-Brussels-Kurne. I don’t want to do too much analysis as the far more capable Whit Yost has broken down the races for you here already.
I’ll just say this. I expect the 2012 Spring Classics season to be one of the most exciting in years. This year we have a perfect storm of talent and motivation. We have Philippe Gilbert thinking about adding Flanders and Roubaix to his palmares, about dominating the Ardennes races, and even about notching a third Omloop Het Nieuwsblad win to bring him level with legends like Peter van Petegem. Every race from now until April (and most of the ones after) Gilbert will be hungry to win. A hungry Gilbert is fun to watch.
We’ve also got Tom Boonen on what appears to be his best form in three years. We have Fabian Cancellara, the one-man wrecking crew, back and looking for revenge after the whole peloton worked against him last season. We have Hushovd, Gilbert’s teammate at BMC, needing to justify his leadership with some big rides. World Champion Mark Cavendish is capable of taking any of the one-day races with a reasonably flat run in to the finish, and guys like Andre Greipel, Heinrich Haussler and Peter Sagan can get in the mix, too.
It’s an awful lot of strong guys in good health and with top motivation.
Again, read Whit’s piece to get the in-depth, to read about the darker horses and to get a good sense for how this weekend’s races will likely play out. Then come back here and make your predictions. This week’s Group Ride asks: Who will win the opening salvos, Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and Kurne-Brussels-Kurne? Who will lay down their markers? And who will go home and cry themselves to sleep having come up short?
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Image: Jon Pierce, Photosport International
What. A. Race. There were so many big moments in yesterday’s Tour of Flanders, it reminded me of a Fourth of July fireworks show. As soon as you think, “That must be it,” another big blast goes off and leaves you breathless.
First of all, Nick Nuyens. This guy has been an increasingly dark horse since some good showings in 2008. That he won the Dwar doors Vlaanderen a week-and-a-half ago might have been an indication of good form, but it took more than form to win yesterday’s Ronde. It took the perfect tactics, riding wheels, getting in the right moves, saving up, and then exploding in the last 200m to absolutely shock everyone.
Padraig: Nick Nuyens rode a terrific race and has given Bjarne Riis the right to walk around with a guilt-free smug grin for the rest of the week. And though he won, because he isn’t a rider I have feelings for one way or another and really did nothing to make the race exciting save for the fact that he won the final sprint (and let’s be honest, it is the most important move of the race), I must admit I feel slightly cheated by the outcome.
For some Nuyens’ win is disappointing. The Ronde is an emotional race, and it wants an emotional winner. Does anyone have any feelings for Nuyens? No. I didn’t think so.
At the finish I wondered, though, if Cancellara had had Riis in his ear, would the outcome have been different? More importantly, did Spartacus have the same thought? For fans, this win for Saxo can only intensify the rivalry with Leopard-Trek. Can there be any doubt who is winning?
Padraig: Spartacus was the man of the day. He may only have gotten third, but he was the carbonated water in my Coke, and a Coke without fizz is just pointless.
And if the Leopards were disappointed with third place, how must Quick Step have felt about 2nd and 4th. It looked as though QS put too much stock in the plan to win with Tom Boonen, completely disregarding, until it was too late, the obvious strength of Sylvain Chavanel on the day.
Padraig: For my part it was a race of surprises. I was surprised to learn that Quick Step director Patrick Lefevre was all-in on Boonen. You’ve got Sylvain Chavanel and you won’t let him do anything more than mark Spartacus? Really? That Philippe Gilbert couldn’t stay away showed how stunningly strong the top riders were. But I think my biggest shock was when Cancellara originally attacked how easily Tomeke seemed to give up when he got caught up in traffic.
The turning point for the Quick Steps seemed to come with about 2k to go with Chavanel off the front with Spartacus and Nuyens. The Frenchman shook hands with the Swiss as if to say, “I’ve been released. We can work together now,” which is just what they did, holding off Boonen, Gilbert, Flecha, Leukemans, et. al. Where Riis got it just right, QS chief Lefevre got it just wrong.
Was anyone else screaming at the TV for Gilbert when he made his own move with 3k left? It was textbook Gilbert, but just as Cancellara’s textbook escape with 40ks left failed to break the chasers’ will, so too was Gilbert reeled in.
Special mention should go to three domestiques. First, Chavanel, who was clearly Boonen’s up the road decoy, continued to follow the plan long after Boonen was able to hold up his end of the bargain. Second, Geraint Thomas buried himself over and over to keep Flecha in amongst the leaders, and finally Big George Hincapie performed yeoman’s work towing Alessandro Ballan over cobble and dale. Even if their leaders didn’t come through, they did their jobs to perfection. Hats off.
The only item left on my agenda is a quick assessment of Garmin-Cervelo. They sucked. I suppose Farrar did well to take the bunch sprint from the peloton, but did anyone hear Haussler’s name mentioned all day? And what did Hushovd do in the rainbow jersey? He was there or thereabouts for two-thirds of the race and then faded like a pair of Levis on permanent spin cycle.
I watched the race twice. Once on the Eurosport feed (while tuned in to the Feed Zone on Pavé, and that was excellent) and then again in the afternoon on Versus. It struck me how completely different were the stories the two networks told.
What did you think of this year’s Ronde? What surprised you? And what does it all mean for next week’s tilt in the North of France?
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
Ronde! Ronde! Ronde! Ronde! Say it like that a bunch of times in a row, and it sounds like you’re revving a motorcycle in preparation for a jump over some absurdly large number of buses. Instead, you’re getting ready for, arguably, the most exciting week of bike racing all year, a week that begins with the Ronde van Vlaanderen (The Tour of Flanders) and ends with Paris-Roubaix.
Cobbles! Cobbles! Cobbles! Cobbles! goes the muffler on your vintage Triumph. The crowd’s collective stomach is all tied in knots. That’s a lot of buses, and the landing ramp looks a long, long, long way off. Is that a ring of fire they’ve lit on the end of the ramp?
We’re getting ready to launch the peloton’s hard men over many kilometers paved with bowling balls and bowler hats, narrow, twisting lanes that rise and fall like consumer confidence. Rain makes legends, but so does dust. Regardless, you’ll want the DVD.
The gambling houses stopped taking bets on Fabian Cancellara to win either race at the end of April last year. His current form must have every last rider on the road terrified. If I were Tom Boonen, I’d bring my Gent Wevelgem trophy with me so I had something substantial to hold while Cancellara is getting kisses from podium girls.
Who else could win? Hushovd. Flecha. Haussler. Gilbert. Ballan. Sagan. There, I’ve named a few. The rest is up to you.
Today’s Group Ride is a double dipper: Who will win the Ronde? Who will win in Roubaix? You get no points for guessing Cancellara, but do you really believe he can do the double? Again? If not, who is most likely to dethrone the rampant Swiss? Will anything less than a broken chain deny him his growing legend?
I don’t know about you, but I was excited for the Omloop/K-B-K weekend. Despite all the races that come before those two, in my mind the season really begins on those crappy weathered, Belgian roads. These are minor races, diminished further by the proliferation of warm-weather rides that take place in January and February. They’re not classics, by any stretch, but to me, they are, in fact, classic.
One new race, and the one we’re talking about today, that I find fully worthy of spring classics season is the Montepaschi – Strade Bianchi, or L’Eroica, a rambling race over technical terrain that includes many kilometers over the famed white gravel roads of Tuscany. This is a race that serves up the same kind of riders-spattered-with-mud photographs that we all love from the actual spring classics.
Also interestingly, MSB is a race that almost immediately captured the imaginations of the pro riders themselves. Inaugurated in 2007, MSB draws a very impressive field and boasts some big name former winners, including Fabian Cancellara (2008).
Who will win? Tell us. Win RKP stickers.
Of course, Strade Bianchi is a Saturday race. On Sunday, Paris-Nice rolls out of Houdan, south of Paris for those of us who still like stage races. The Race to the Sun is usually a big event on the calendar, that intersection sort of race where both grand tour riders and strong one day racers mix it up.
Defending champion Alberto Contador has chosen to ride elsewhere, so look for riders like Peter Sagan, looking to cement his status as a big, young star, Fränk Schleck, Luis Leon-Sanchez and Heinrich Haussler to ride strong, but really there a dozen or more potential winners this year. With a longer time trial and some more difficult climbing, the odds are probably more with an experienced stage racer than someone who is simply strong over this sort of terrain.
That’ll make it much harder to predict, but go ahead and try.
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
I’m not sure why, but every time I hear someone mention Paris-Nice, I envision Omar Sharif standing on the deck of a ski chalet wearing a Russian ushanka and imploring some cream-skinned Euro princess to follow him to the Orient. There is, literally, no good reason for this association, so let’s talk about bike racing instead.
Paris-Nice, “the race to the sun,” rolls off the start line on Sunday, (American viewers can catch some of the race on Versus) the 7th. Eight stages will wind their way south from Montfort-l’Amaury (Prologue), south of Paris to the Promenade des Anglais in Nice (Stage 7). For the big pros who hope to compete in the Grand Tours later in the season, Paris-Nice serves as the first coveted win.
Last year, the clear favorite, Alberto Contador, blew up on Stage 7, gifting the race to his Spanish compatriot Luis León Sánchez. It was, to date, really the only sign that Contador is not a robot.
Interestingly, the French anti-doping organization AFLD will NOT be working with the UCI on Paris-Nice this year, after AFLD director Pierre Bordry accused the UCI of favoring Lance Armstrong in 2009. UCI head Pat McQuaid didn’t appreciate the accusation, so the AFLD has been pushed aside. All very mature and professional, as usual.
Historical notes: Sean Kelly is the king of Paris-Nice having won seven straight titles between 1982 and 1988. Also, of note, during the 2003 race, Kazakhstan’s Andrei Kivilev died due to head injury sustained in an accident. His death prompted the UCI to mandate the use of helmets.
So who will win?
Contador, as the mostly undisputed top stage-racer in the world, is favorite, but León Sánchez and his Caisse d’Epargne teammate Alejandro Valverde have to be considered as well. In addition to that crack (not a drug reference) Spanish contingent, Quick Step’s Sylvain Chavanel, Cervelo Test Team’s Heinrich Haussler, Garmin’s Christian Vande Velde, Liquigas’ Roman Kreuziger, HTC Columbia’s Tony Martin, Radio Shack’s Levi Leipheimer, Saxo’s Fränk Schleck are all riders to watch.
Some, like Haussler and maybe Martin, will be looking more for stage wins, but this is a race where a big stage victory can shake up the GC.
So let’s hear it? Who are you picking? Who are you pulling for? And why?
But of course, even before we get to Paris-Nice, we have what will hopefully become one of the legendary classics—Montepaschi Strade Bianche, better known as the Eroica. While most of the talk lately has been about who is ready for Paris-Nice, Garmin-Transitions Ryder Hesjedal, who has twice finished in the top 10 on this event, has cited it as a big priority for his spring.
Previous winner Fabian Cancellara will be back and last week’s winner of Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne, Juan Antonio Flecha, who has indicated Paris-Roubaix is among his goals, will both be lining up.
So who’s your call?
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
If the Group Ride were an actual race, and Padraig was the RKP DS, then I’d be climbing up the stairs of our lavishly appointed bus right now and apologizing for letting the team down on the opening day of the race season (in Belgium). Clearly, I mistimed my attack, launching the Het Nieuwsblad prediction thread only a few short hours before the race rolled out of Ghent, leaving almost no time for you, the peloton, to chase it down. Don’t worry. I’ll round into form as the season goes on.
Having said that, what a great weekend of racing. Juan Antonio Flecha busts one off with 20km to go and makes it to the line, ALONE IN PHOTO, the best way to finish. Heinrich Haussler, that yapping terrier of a rider, broke the tape second, ahead of a sprint won by Tyler Farrar, for third place.
Gee, that’s funny, no Belgians in the top three. How embarrassing.
I wonder if it has anything to do with all those Flemish hardmen spinning their wheels in the South of Spain in advance of the season, instead of in the wind and cold of their native land. Ironic, then, to be beaten by a Spaniard.
Flecha was all class, not only in winning, but also in paying tribute to his fallen friend Frank Vandenbroucke, a cheater, yes, but a cheater with a flare for the dramatic and a heart of fool’s gold.
Of course, Sunday held the survival race-themed, 2010 running of Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne, the weather in Belgium turning from “good” to “hellish” overnight. The storm that tore across the northern lands even had a name, “Xythia,” straight out of the Chronicles of Narnia. 195 riders were on the start list. 26 finished. That’s 13% of the peloton you might call “tough.”
Apparently, temperatures in the 40s with wind gusts to 60kph are too much for the pros. Having commuted in those conditions I can confirm that they’re sub-optimal, but really boys, aren’t you being paid to race?
Bobbie Traksel (WHO?) raced and won for Vacansoleil, the Pro Continental squad’s second big win of the year after Wouter Mol took the GC in the Tour of Qatar. Kinda makes you think the smaller investment sponsorship in a Pro Con team might make more sense than the big money Pro Tour ticket, since, to this point, the top purveyor of European camping vacations has garnered more positive press than most, if not all, of the lower level Pro Tour teams.
RKP props to Thor Hushovd and Sylvain Chavanel who were among the few big names who bothered to finish K-B-K. Will it take a Norwegian and a Frenchman to teach the Belgians what it means to be hard again?
There is, of course, time for redemption. We’ve only just begun. Are you listening Tom Boonen?