Here are some thoughts on a terrific weekend of racing in Flanders.
1. Tom Boonen’s not fooling anyone.
Despite declaring Fabian Cancellara the top favorite for the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix, Boonen’s wins in the E3 Prijs Vlaanderen and Ghent-Wevelgem make his comments hard to believe. Of his two victories, Boonen’s E3 victory (his record-setting fifth) is by far the more impressive of the two, as it came in an event much more akin to the Ronde. At Ghent-Wevelgem, Boonen was much more free to sit in the bunch, make the important selections, and let his team do most of the work for him. At times, there were even questions as to whether Boonen had made the leading group at all. Then again, all of Boonen’s top rivals were present in the finales of both races—the Belgian simply proved himself to be the better sprinter.
2. Filippo Pozatto is back to where he was in 2009 physically—but tactically?
After he won the E3 Prijs in 2009 it was clear to everyone that Pippo was going to be Tom Boonen’s biggest challenger at that year’s Flanders and Roubaix. Unfortunately, word never got to Pozatto that “keeping an eye on Tom Boonen” didn’t mean marking him so closely that he marked himself out of the race as well. For Pozatto that spring, being a “wheel watcher” meant much more than being a fan of Pat Sajak.
This year, if he wants to take his first win in a cobbled Monument, Pozatto will have to start racing to win—as opposed to racing to not be beaten. He’s riding for one of the strongest teams in the race with a lieutenant (Oscar Gatto) that many teams (like RadioShack-Nissan) would love to have complementing their captains. Better still, I suspect that Pozatto’s injury and subsequent (albeit brief) time off the bike means he has more form to gain. Boonen and Cancellara—the latter especially—run the risk of topping-out before the end of the cobbled fortnight. Pozatto might continue to get stronger.
3. It’s only a matter of time before Sep Vanmarcke wins Flanders, Roubaix, or both.
If the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and the E3 Prijs are any indication, the budding rivalry between Vanmarcke and Boonen will be one of the highlights of the next two weeks. A smart, aggressive rider who appears undaunted by the competition, Garmin-Barracuda’s Vanmarcke has twice been the first rider to follow Boonen’s accelerations on the Taaienberg (although just barely on Friday). He’s already been named Garmin’s captain for the cobbles and with an in-form Johan Van Summeren serving as super-domestique, the American team could easily grab its second cobbled Monument in as many years. As for the 23-year-old Vanmarcke, there’s seemingly no limit to what he might achieve. He’s one of the most exiting riders of the season’s still-young spring campaign.
4. Philippe Gilbert’s Flanders is lost and he needs to act quickly if he wishes to contend in the Ardennes.
If you follow me on Twitter (@whityost), you’ve heard me say this before: Philippe Gilbert needs to skip Flanders, fly to Spain, and complete the Tour of the Basque Country if he wishes to have any chance of defending his titles in the Ardennes. Gilbert’s obviously been lacking the race mileage of his peers and could quickly gain some with a week of tough racing in Spain. Better still, he’ll avoid the media scrum of one of the world’s toughest press corps. Lastly, BMC has more than enough talent to spare the spot—especially if Thor Hushovd does indeed return to form. Like many, I am disappointed that we will not see the Belgian drie-kleur on the top step of the Ronde’s podium in Oudenaarde Sunday—especially as the course looked to suit King Phil’s style of racing.
5. If Filippo Pozatto, Sep Vanmarcke, or Tom Boonen wins the Tour of Flanders, he will likely have Oscar Gatto, Johan Van Summeren, or Sylvain Chavanel to thank for it.
History has shown that the world’s most successful one-day riders take the line with at least one teammate capable of winning the event as well. This year, Pozatto, Vanmarcke, and Boonen can rest easily knowing that they each have lieutenants capable of easing some of the pressure by covering late-race moves, putting other teams on the defensive, and ensuring that their captains won’t be isolated when the manure hits the fan. And who knows, should things go their way, we could see one Gatto, Van Summeren, and/or Chavanel on the final podium Sunday.
One final note: I’m heading to Belgium this Thursday and will be staying through Paris-Roubaix. Be sure to follow me on Twitter (@whityost) for updates and insights from the thick of the action.
Image: Photoreporter Sirotti
At Pavé, I used to begin each season with a team-by-team rundown of what I considered to be the top-20 teams in the sport, highlighting their goals, expectations, and offering my insights as to their prospects for the new season. But since I’m not sure Padraig has the time or the editorial patience for such an effort, I think I’ll take a bit more of a global approach to looking at the teams and riders you can expect to see building the major storylines of the 2012 season.
Let’s get started with the 2012 Men of the Hour:
Team BMC – After adding Philippe Gilbert and Thor Hushovd to a roster already boasting Cadel Evans, it’s hard not to identify Team BMC as the team to beat in 2012. In the Classics, Gilbert and Hushovd will lead the way supported by “domestiques” such as George Hincapie, Alessandro Ballan, Greg Van Avermaet, Marcus Burghardt, and—in hillier events—Cuddles himself. In July, the team will be reinforced by the addition of Marco Pinotti, a rider whose personality will fit in well with the “American” team following several years with the with HTC-HighRoad. And as if men such as these were not enough, BMC now boasts two of the most talented and sought-after young Americans of the past few seasons in Taylor Phinney and Tejay Van Garderen; both will be looking to make big waves in domestic events such as the Amgen Tour of California and USA Pro Cycling Challenge.
Fabian Cancellara – It says a lot about Radio Shack-Nissan’s Fabian Cancellara that 2011 was considered a “down year” for the Swiss star. After all, it’s gotta be tough for anyone to follow-up a season in which he won the Tour of Flanders, Paris-Roubaix, several grand tour stages, and a World Time Trial Championship. But despite only winning six races (the biggest of which was the E3 Prijs Vlaanderen semi-classic), Cancellara was an overwhelming force in just about every race he entered—even if he didn’t always win. Look for Cancellara’s “mortal” 2011 to be followed by an “immortal” 2012, as less pressure, an improved team, and—perhaps most importantly—better team management will enable the Swiss Champion to dominate once more.
Belgium – Belgian cyclists enjoyed a succesful 2011; look for more of the same in 2012. But while we can expect men like Gilbert, Boonen, Van Avermaet, and Van den Broeck to dominate the headlines, watch for less-heralded (but no less talented) men such Maxime Monfort, Jan Bakelants, Thomas DeGendt, Jens Keukelaire, and Sep Van Maercke to earn their fair share of praise—and victories. Throw-in talented wild cards like 2011 Monument-winners Nick Nuyens and Johan Van Summeren, and there’s little reason to believe we won’t be hearing more of the Brabançonne (the Belgian National Anthem) at podium ceremonies all over the world.
American Stage Races – With the Amgen Tour of California, the Tour of Utah, and the USA Pro Cycling Challenge, the United States now boasts three world-class stage races, events that look certain to attract the world’s best teams and riders for years to come. An even better trend: American athletes are rising to the challenge and not allowing themselves be bullied by their international colleagues. And while 2011 saw two of America’s oldest professionals—Chris Horner and Levi Leipheimer—dividing the palmares among themselves, there’s good reason to believe that 2012 will see the next generation of American stars—riders like Van Garderen and Garmin-Barracuda’s Andrew Talansky—mount their own challenges as well. After all, if the sport is to thrive in the Post-Armstrong era, America needs great events and great riders to make it happen.
Peter Sagan – After a breakout season in 2010, Peter Sagan of Team Liquigas continued his development in 2011, winning more races than the previous year and taking his first grand tour stage (three of them, in fact) to boot. To make matters worse—for the competition, that is—Sagan is still only a few days shy of his 22nd birthday. In 2012, I expect we’ll see further signs of the youngster’s progression as he proves that he can be competitive in longer classics and Monuments. For example, he went into Worlds last October as one of the favorites to win the Rainbow Jersey. But Sagan faded in the end to finish a rather uninspiring 12th—after more than 260 kilometers of racing, he just didn’t seem to be as fresh as his rivals. Look for Sagan to have solved this problem as early as Milan-San Remo—a Monument perfectly suited to his skills. After all, last year’s Vuelta a Espana was the first 3-week stage race of his career. While it might have left him fatigued for Worlds, it served as the perfect base for a strong start to 2012. Riders develop form not only over the course of season but over the course of a career. In Sagan’s case, it’s still very early. Each race makes him stronger—and more prepared—for the next.
Dan & Tony Martin – No, they’re not related, but these two men took their careers to the next level in 2011. Dan confirmed the promise he showed in 2009 and 2010 by winning his first grand tour stage and finishing 13th overall at the Vuelta before taking second at the Tour of Lombardy. After such an impressive late season run, look for the 25-year-old Irishman to be a protected rider at Garmin-Barracuda for the Ardennes Classics and to earn a ride in what will be his (long overdue) first Tour de France.
As for Tony, he was arguably one of the best two or three non-Gilbert riders of 2011, winning three stage races (including Paris-Nice and the new Tour of Beijing), stages in the Tour de France and the Vuelta Espana, and perhaps most importantly, a World Time Trial Championship (at the expense of Fabian Cancellara). Only 26-years old, the German now rides for Omega Pharma-Quick Step and is certainly licking his lips at a Tour de France that emphasizes time trialing. While a yellow jersey in Paris might be a bit out of his reach (he has yet to prove himself able to hang with the best of the best in the mountains), a place on the final podium is certainly within his grasp—especially with a relatively flat, 52-kilometer time trial on the penultimate day.
Johan Bruyneel – Other than BMC’s incredible shopping spree, the biggest news this past off-season was the merger of Team Radio Shack and Leopard-Trek, a move that marked a distinct consolidation of power at the top of the sport’s highest tier.
Team general manager Johan Bruyneel’s first task will be developing an early season program that gets Cancellara to peak fitness, while still leaving everyone else guessing as to his form. Last year, Spartacus showed his cards too soon in winning the E3 Prijs Vlaanderen a week before the Tour of Flanders. An expert in the cloak and dagger game of form-building, Bruyneel needs to make sure the same mistake doesn’t happen this spring. Next up: the Tour and the daunting task of picking the nine riders to represent the team. Assuming both Schlecks are automatic invites, that leaves about ten qualified men fighting for the remaining seven spots. Bruyneel will need to delicately balance the condition and the egos of his riders, choosing the right mix for the difficult job of delivering Andy Schleck to Paris in the yellow jersey (which is Bruyneel’s real task). Reclaiming the cobbled classics for Cancellara is one thing; winning a Tour with Andy Schleck is an entirely different proposition. If Bruyneel proves he’s up to it, he’ll forever be known as one of the sport’s greatest director’s.
Team Sky – Were I still putting together a team-by-team ranking of the best squads in the sport, the top-3 would likely be BMC, Radio Shack-Nissan, and Team Sky. After a rather lackluster debut season, Sky started to put it all together last year, winning 32 races, including two stages at the Tour de France, one at the Vuelta Espana, and the overall title at the Criterium du Dauphine. Perhaps more impressively, Sky placed two riders—Chris Froome and Bradley Wiggins—on the final podium at the Vuelta an impressive performance given the difficulty of the route. Even better, Sky boasts talented youngsters like Rigoberto Uran, Gerraint Thomas, Ben Swift, and Edvald Boassen Hagen, giving management the makings of the super-team that will be a force in every race it enters for years to come.
But as if last year’s deeply talented roster wasn’t enough, Sky added Mark Cavendish (along with his former HTC mates Bernhard Eisel and Danny Pate) and Richie Porte to the fold. Look for Cavendish to add to Sky’s stage tally at the Tour while preparing himself for a chance at a gold medal in London. As for Porte, his addition will make Team Sky one of the top favorites for the new, trade team-only, World Team Time Trial Championship to be held this coming September.
Alberto Contador – If he races in 2012 (and that’s a big “if”), there is little reason to believe Alberto Contador won’t dominate the 2012 Tour de France. Yes, Cadel Evans is confident after winning in 2011 and motivated by a 2012 parcours that suits his talents. And yes, “Frandy” Schleck will benefit from the wisdom and tactical nous of Johan Bruyneel. And of course, we can’t expect that so many contenders will crash-out during the Tour’s first week. But like it or not, Contador is still—without a doubt—the best grand tour rider on the planet. The fact that he still managed to finish in the Tour’s top-10 so soon after winning what was quite possibly the toughest grand tour ever speaks to the level of his talent. Only the pending CAS decision stands in his way. Then again, we said that last year, didn’t we?
Those are my picks for 2012’s “Men of the Hour”. Share your own picks and comments below.
Coming Soon: 2012’s Up-and-Comers.
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International