Maxim Iglinskiy’s impressive, yet shocking victory at the 98
th Liège-Bastogne-Liège on Sunday ended a spring classics season that lived up to current expectations: predictably unpredictable.
Last year, the wins by Matt Goss (at Milan-San Remo), Nick Nuyens (Tour of Flanders) and Johan Vansummeren (Paris-Roubaix) came out of left field, while not even Philippe Gilbert believed he could do the Amstel Gold Race-Flèche Wallonne-Liège triple. This year, the upset winners were Simon Gerrans (San Remo), Enrico Gasparotto (Amstel) and Iglinskiy, while Tom Boonen’s sweep through the cobbled classics was just as unexpected as Gilbert’s hat trick in 2011.
Most of the factors that led to the season’s upset results were present at this past weekend’s Liège-Bastogne-Liège—which is arguably the toughest of all the spring classics and usually the most predictable. Not this time. To find out who are the biggest favorites to win La Doyenne (“the Oldest One”) fans generally turn to Europe’s most respected sports newspaper, L’Équipe.
For Sunday’s race, the French publication’s list began with its hottest picks: 5 stars for defending champion Gilbert and Flèche Wallonne winner Joaquim Rodriguez; 4 stars for Olympic road champ Samuel Sanchez; 3 stars for two-time Liège winner Alejandro Valverde, three-time podium finisher Fränk Schleck and Gilbert’s former lieutenant Jelle Vanendert; two stars for Flèche Brabançonne winner Thomas Voeckler, San Remo winner Gerrans and fresh-from-the-Giro del Trentino Damiano Cunego; and, just one star for Amstel winner Enrico Gasparotto and on-form Vincenzo Nibali.
If Europe’s supposedly best-informed journalists selected 11 favorites and didn’t even name Iglinskiy as an outsider then who would have picked the Kazakh? Furthermore, their long shots, Nibali and Gasparotto, ended up in second and third places. What no one—except perhaps the wily Astana Proteam manager Giuseppe Martinelli—really considered was that (1) the Kazakh-financed squad had been racing well all week, and (2) Iglinskiy had been released from the cannon-fodder role he usually plays because veteran team captain and two-time Liège winner Alexander Vinokourov was searching for better form at the Tour of Turkey.
Sunday morning, Vinokourov, 38, called Iglinskiy, 31, at his Liège hotel, telling him it was a race he could win and advising him to be patient. “He told me to stay cool and do my best,” Iglinskiy said at his post-race press conference.
Schlecks suffer in the cold
With heavy rain and hail showers, and strong winds blowing from the southwest, the outward passage from Liège to the border town of Bastogne followed the organizers’ slowest schedule of 38 kph. None of the favored teams bothered to put a rider in the early breakaway, and an indication of how the race would play out only came when Rodriguez’s Katusha teammates increased the tempo to cut the break’s lead from 12 minutes to two by the time the first serious climbs came with 100 of the 257.5km race still to go.
On the ultra-steep Stockeu climb (where Eddy Merckx would usually start the attacks that earned him a record five wins at Liège), it looked like Fränk Schleck was going to have a good day. His brother Andy was sitting on the wheels of RadioShack-Nissan-Trek teammates Chris Horner and Jan Bakelants, making the pace high enough to shed the peloton’s weaker elements, while Maxime Montfort, who comes from this part of Belgium, was taking care of the elder Schleck.
Looks clearly deceived on this occasion, because Horner and the Schleck brothers were all suffering from the cold, wet conditions and faded from view on the windswept plateau before descending to the Ourthe Valley and the crucial climb of La Redoute. Describing the RadioShack team’s effort, Montfort said, “The key point in the race was 10km before La Redoute [when] you have to fight to be in good position. But right then it was raining and so cold it was almost snowing. We were thinking more about getting our rain jackets instead of moving up.”
Team manager Johan Bruyneel confirmed his riders’ physical (and mental) state: “[When] Fränk came back to the car [for his jacket], he was shaking, quite frozen….” As for Horner, he confirmed that he and his team leader were badly placed at that point. “I started at the back on La Redoute [and] if you start at the back on an important climb, you aren’t going to make anything happen. Today, I got too cold, so things went bad there,” Horner said on his team Web site. “It’s difficult to race when you weigh 63 kilos (139 pounds) and it’s this cold.”
With his numb hands unable to use the brake levers safely, Horner abandoned the race, along with his hard-man teammate Jens Voigt and their colleagues Joost Posthuma and Laurent Didier. At the end of the day, Andy Schleck and Bakelants would finish in a 25-man group 5:39 back, while brother Fränk was the best of the team, placing 23rd in a 20-man group with Montfort, 2:11 down.
BMC raced with honor
When the RadioShack team’s challenge disappeared, Gilbert’s BMC Racing squad fulfilled its responsibilities for the race favorite. American workhorse Brook Bookwalter pulled the peloton through the frigid weather (as low as the high-30s Fahrenheit) over the wearing climbs of the Rosier, Maquisard and Mont-Theux before his compatriot Tejay Van Garderen took over. They were riding at a high level and high pace to answer a danger posed by Europcar’s Pierre Rolland and Movistar’s Vasil Kiryienka, both strong climbers, who counterattacked over the Haute-Levée climb, with 85km to go, and quickly caught the morning’s six-man break.
“It was necessary to make the race harder to favor Thomas [Voeckler],” Rolland said, referring to his team leader. Rolland — who won the 2011 Tour de France stage at L’Alpe d’Huez — traveled to the race straight from Italy’s Trentino stage race, where he placed 10th on last Friday’s Pordoi mountaintop finish. The young Frenchman’s efforts on the climbs split the lead group apart and after La Redoute, only Kiryienka, one of Valverde’s teammates, and the Italian Dario Cataldo of Omega-Quick Step, could match him.
Ironically, while Rolland and Kiryienka were making the race hard over La Redoute, 34.5km from the finish, their team leaders were struggling on the climb’s lower slopes. First, Voeckler hit the deck: “It was raining and perhaps I skidded on a manhole cover,” he said. His teammate Cyril Gautier waited for his leader but Voeckler had to go it alone up the Redoute’s double-digit-percentage grades. It was here that Valverde, also suffering from the cold, dropped his chain and changed bikes with teammate Angel Madrazo.
Voeckler made a huge effort to make it back to the small group of leaders, still being led by Van Garderen, but Valverde would not. As for another Spanish favorite, Sanchez of Euskaltel-Euskadi, his day started badly when his best teammate Igor Anton crashed in the streets of Liège and broke his collarbone. Things got worse when Sanchez’s rear derailleur broke at the foot of the Stockeu “wall” and he had to chase for a long time when the race was heating up over the Haute-Levée and Rosier climbs. Showing his resilience (and his downhill skills on the mostly slick descents), Sanchez came through to take an eventual seventh place.
As has happened in each of the five times it has been included in Liège-Bastogne-Liège, the Roche aux Faucons climb saw the decisive moments of the race. In front, Rolland dropped his last companions, while Van Garderen finally pulled over after his marathon effort at the front to let teammate Santambrogio keep setting the pace for Gilbert. The American team’s impressive show left Gilbert in the place he needed to be, but when you are not on your very best form it’s impossible to fake it in a race as long and tough as this one—especially in conditions that were cold and wet one moment, and still cold and windy when the sun came out.
So Gilbert was in the ideal position going up the Faucons climb, which starts on a wide residential street and ends on a narrow rural back road between tall trees. The Belgian champion was able to follow the first attacks by Nibali and Vanendert after they passed Rolland, but he was slow to take up the chase behind Nibali when the Italian accelerated after going over the top a couple of lengths clear. Gilbert got within 30 meters of the Liquigas rider on the downhill, but that was it. Nibali was flying clear with the wind at his back.
“I tried to follow Nibali but I put myself in the red and couldn’t recuperate,” Gilbert said. “From that point on, I knew it would be difficult for me.” Indeed, when the group split in two on the uncategorized climb 2km after the Roche aux Faucons, Gilbert was in the back half.
Ahead, the chase was taken up by the three teams still with two or three riders: Astana, Katusha and Europcar. As a result, the long downhill through Seraing (where the opening road stage of the Tour de France will finish on July 1) resulted in rapid, yet tactical racing, with Rodriguez and Iglinskiy emerging as Nibali’s only challengers.
Battle on Saint-Nicolas
Working together, the little Spanish climber and the solid Kazakh team rider were faster on the crosswind sections before reaching the vicious ascent of Saint-Nicolas—which starts with a 10-percent pitch up a narrow street through this working-class neighborhood and ends with a couple of steep turns before reaching a kilometer of flatter roads high above the city of Liège.
It was on this climb where the road was exposed to the crosswinds that the race was won and lost. Gilbert fell off the pace in the chase group. The cold and distance got to Rodriguez, who could only watch as Iglinskiy rode away from him up the hill, while Garmin-Barracuda’s Dan Martin climbed past the Katusha man with Rolland on his wheel (they’d both be caught on the run-in to the finish). And Nibali struggled, his body jerking with the effort as he sat in the saddle, unable to get more speed or power into his pedals.
Over the top, with 5.5km to go, Iglinskiy had closed from a 40-second to a 15-second deficit. And his catch of the leader within sight of the one-kilometer-to-go archway was inevitable. After Iglinskiy rode clear to a 21-second victory, Nibali was close to tears following his epic yet finally heartbreaking effort. “I don’t think I made any mistakes,” he told reporters. “I just lacked a little strength in my legs in the finale. There was lots of wind on Saint-Nicolas and I left most of my strength there.”
Over at the Astana team car, where they were celebrating the squad’s second upset win in eight days, with first Gasparotto and now Iglinskiy. Their directeur sportif Guido Bontempi said, “It’s a big surprise for us. We prepared the race from Gasparotto’s perspective, but we gave carte blanche to Iglinskiy, to react according to the circumstances. And that’s what he did….”
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I had a long discussion last week with a friend who takes just a passing interest in bike racing. He was asking me about the state of American cycling now that Lance Armstrong has retired. I told him it was going very well, that Armstrong’s peers Chris Horner and Levi Leipheimer were still contesting stage races at the highest level, that U.S.-registered teams BMC Racing, Garmin-Barracuda and RadioShack-Nissan-Trek were winning the toughest races in the sport’s major league (the UCI WorldTour), and that a new generation of excellent riders was coming through.
There are some exciting prospects in this new generation. At BMC, Tejay Van Garderen is being groomed to take over the Tour de France leadership role of Cadel Evans when the Aussie retires, and Taylor Phinney is the natural successor to his veteran teammate George Hincapie. Over at Garmin, a truly homegrown squad, Peter Stetina is working toward contender status in the grand tours, starting with next month’s Giro d’Italia, and Andrew Talansky is shaping up to match him. And while Armstrong has quit RadioShack as a racer, his team is schooling such talents as U.S. road champion Matt Busche and under-23 standout Lawson Craddock.
My friend hadn’t heard any of these names, except for Leipheimer and Phinney. And that was only because Levi received great coverage in the Colorado media last August for winning the inaugural USA Pro Cycling Challenge, and Taylor is the son of local sports icons and Olympic medalists Davis Phinney and Connie Carpenter Phinney. But if you only read the national press, listened to 99.9-percent of America’s radio stations and only watched network television, you certainly wouldn’t have heard of Leipheimer or Phinney, let alone all those other great American cyclists.
You may be thinking, this is nothing new. Cycling fans have known for decades that cycling is regarded as a second-class sport—or not even a sport—by the majority of couch-potato Americans. And we know that the only sports that register on the radar of U.S. sports editors are (American) football, baseball, basketball, (ice) hockey, golf, tennis and NASCAR.
My friend agreed that, besides cycling, the world’s other major sports—football (soccer), athletics (track and field), cricket and rugby—barely get a mention in the U.S. media. And he too was puzzled that while soccer is a far more popular participant sport in schools across the country than gridiron football, that doesn’t translate into the U.S. being a power player on the global soccer scene except, thankfully, for our women. But, then, there’s no money in women’s soccer, and it only makes the sport pages when there’s a World Cup or Olympic medals at stake.
Again, you’re probably thinking, why is Wilcockson going on about mainstream sports when he knows that cycling will never make it with the American media. The only time it does make the national news is when the words “Tour de France,” “Lance Armstrong,” and “doping” are contained in the same sentence.
Yes, I know all that, and I know how frustrating it is for journalists who discover cycling in all its majesty, beauty and history to come up against the brick wall that is the American-sports-editor establishment. All my above thoughts and feelings crashed together like cymbals this past Monday morning after I picked up our two nationally distributed newspapers, USA Today and The New York Times. Predictably, both of them headlined golf’s Masters tournament and the fairy-tale win by Florida native Bubba Watson. The sports editors were obviously relieved that in a week when Tiger Woods failed to beat par in all four rounds that the win at Augusta didn’t go to that South African guy with the unpronounceable name. Long live Bubba—who made it an even better story by invoking his Christian faith in his victory speech, à la Tim Tebow.
Okay, Bubba’s success was a great story. But I also expected that our national dailies would have some decent coverage of cycling’s biggest one-day classic, Paris-Roubaix, especially because NBC Sports had decided to broadcast it live in HD and repeated the coverage with a three-hour show at primetime. But, no, my hopes were soon dashed. USA Today didn’t even mention Paris-Roubaix, not even the result in tiny agate type. As for the Times, well, they had a paragraph in its sport-summary section under the insulting headline: “Belgian wins French race.”
Let’s admit it, American mainstream sports editors are out of touch. They propagate their views by only covering the sports that they’ve always covered. They may say that it’s too expensive or too difficult for them to put cycling on their pages — and why would anyone be interested in cycling anyway? But Web sites with a shoestring budget manage to cover cycling very well indeed, and virtually every American, like my friend, rides a bike at some point in their lives, so why wouldn’t they want to read about the heroic athletes who compete in one of the most dramatic sports ever invented?
It’s time to take those elitist sports editors out of their ivory towers and plunk them down in a frenzied crowd of fans on Mount Baldy at the Amgen Tour of Colorado, on Independence Pass at the Pro Challenge, or on the Manayunk Wall at the TD Bank Philadelphia International Championship. Better still, give them a VIP package to any of these American events, or ferry them across the Atlantic and wine and dine them at the Tour or Giro — or give them a front-row seat at the worlds or any of the one-day classics. Perhaps even take them to the Forest of Arenberg or the Carrefour de l’Arbre at Paris-Roubaix to see the athletes battling (and crashing) their way over the cobblestones at speeds that only four-wheel drives or trials motorcycles can normally contemplate on such rugged roads.
It was encouraging that NBC Sports (formerly Versus, formerly OLN) devoted its time, energy and resources to broadcast the live feed of Paris-Roubaix, even if it’s a half-century since the European networks first covered the Hell of the North classic. But it’s shameful that our national press virtually ignored one of the world’s truly great sports events, especially in a year when Tom Boonen made the most brilliant performance of his phenomenal career to become only the second man in a century to win at Roubaix four times.
And outside of Boonen’s triumph, there were a dozen other stories to whet sports fans’ appetites, including the amazing debut (and top-15 finish) of Taylor Phinney at age 21, and the record-equaling 17th Paris-Roubaix finish of George Hincapie at 38. You can bet that if Samuel Abt of the Herald-Tribune hadn’t retired and was still writing for the Times that he would have given his unique take on the race, and if Sal Ruibal hadn’t been let go by USA Today he would have seen that the newspaper at least mentioned Paris-Roubaix.
So what can we do? I suggest that everyone who reads this column begins writing letters, sending emails and making phone calls to the sports editors of every newspaper they read (on-line or in-person) to make them aware that cycling is a major sport in this country, not just in the rest of the world. Keep on sending those messages and send this column to your friends to do the same. Don’t take no for an answer.
If we can’t get the media to see cycling as a major sport then riders such as Phinney, Talansky and Van Garderen will continue to be perceived as second-class sports citizens in this country. You know and I know that these guys are far superior athletes to the Bubba Watsons and Tim Tebows of the American sports establishment. Let’s start to help our young pros (and help our sport) gain the recognition they truly deserve!
Follow me on Twitter: @johnwilcockson
Image: Photoreporter Sirotti
Two big events took place this past weekend. Saturday was my daughter Emma’s birthday, and Sunday saw a radical rebirth of the Tour of Flanders. The two events may seem unrelated but, as I’ll show later, there was a significant connection.
Let’s start with Flanders, or the Ronde van Vlaanderen. Classics purists weren’t happy when the promoters moved the finish to Oudenaarde, cut out the iconic Mur de Grammont (the “Muur”), and included instead three loops over the cobbled climbs of the Old Kwaremont and Paterberg. So for the first time in its 100-year history, the Ronde didn’t have a true point-to-point course. It was point-to-spiral.
However, at a time when races are getting more complicated and more expensive to put on, maybe the Belgian organizers were right to get an extra return on investment by setting up massive spectator areas with beer tents on the Kwaremont, where thousands of fans hung out all day, spending money. There, they witnessed the key attacks of the race by Alessandro Ballan and Filippo Pozzato, and then watched on big-screen TVs as their national treasure Tom Boonen out-sprinted the two Italians to win the race.
It was quite a show but, the purists questioned, was it worthy of one of cycling’s five monuments to have the race circle back time after time to climb the Kwaremont and Paterberg? Of course it was, say the organizers, Flanders Classics NV—which owns six of Belgium’s one-day events, including last week’s Ghent-Wevelgem and this week’s Scheldeprijs. There’s an economy of scale in putting on six spring races (along with women’s versions of Ghent-Wevelgem and the Ronde), while concession sales add a healthy revenue stream to the traditional formula of sponsorship from newspapers, banks or local regions, along with possible broadcast rights fees.
Would the purists prefer classic races that struggle to survive—as did Liège-Bastogne-Liège and the Flèche Wallonne before they were rescued by ASO, the well-capitalized promoter of the Tour de France? Would they prefer that more events disappear from the calendar—as a dozen Spanish races have done over the past six years (see item below)? Or would they be open to modifications to races like the ones made by the Tour of Flanders organizers this past weekend?
Four more major Spanish events were in danger of being cancelled this season until the UCI stepped in to give the international federation’s backing to seek new financial support. That was the case with this week’s Tour of the Basque Country, which was in jeopardy because of a $210,000 shortfall in its $1.3 million budget. After the UCI’s intervention, a private Spanish bank, Sabadell Guipuzcoana, signed a two-year sponsorship deal with the Basque organizers and the race went ahead.
A major problem with Spanish events has been the organizers’ traditional reliance on regional governments and their tourism departments to fund their races—and in a country that’s now lurching from one financial crisis to another, and with current unemployment levels at more than 20 percent, there is no extra budget to support sports events. And with no end in sight to the recession in Europe, organizers will have to seek alternative sources of income, including the ones that the Flanders Classics organization has begun to exploit.
Naturally, there’s reluctance from cycling fans to pay to watch races. North American promoters have realized this for some time, and events such as the TD Bank Philadelphia International Championship, Amgen Tour of California and USA Pro Cycling Challenge sell corporate VIP packages that give access to finish-line hospitality compounds. But it’s harder to convince traditionalists in Europe that “admission fees” are a necessary part of race budgets.
There has been an outcry from the cycling community in Britain over the proposal by the London Organising Committee of the Olympic Games (LOCOG) to sell 15,000 tickets to spectators to watch the 2012 Olympic road race on the prime viewing areas of Box Hill—which the field will climb nine times on a 15.5-kilometer circuit at the heart of the 250-kilometer course. Confirmation of LOCOG’s plan is expected later this month, but the days are numbered when we can continue watching bike races for free.
For the Box Hill section of the Olympic race, for example, the organizers have to provide extensive parking areas, crowd barriers, concession areas, public-address systems and Jumbotrons. Should all that be free? Also, the road itself has to be resurfaced—just as the California state parks department is spending $100,000 to fix a privately owned access road to enable the Amgen Tour peloton to climb Mount Diablo next month.
I mentioned earlier my daughter’s birthday because talking to her Saturday night jogged my memory about a road trip we took across Europe in the 1980s. She was a teen and we played a certain tape over and over again on the car radio: the Dire Straits album, “Brothers in Arms.” The track “Money for Nothing” includes one line, “Now that ain’t workin’ that’s the way you do it,” and another “Money for nothin’ and chicks for free.”
Maybe cycling traditionalists believe that paying to watch bike races is “money for nothing,” but if the present system “ain’t working,” then what the Flanders organizers are doing is probably “the way you do it.” I’m not sure about the other line though; perhaps it should be “money for nothing and kicks for free.” After all, if you pay for it or not, pro bike racing remains one of the most thrilling sports around.
SPANISH RACE CRISIS
Financial problems in 2012: Volta a Catalunya, Tour of the Basque Country, GP Miguel Induráin, Clasica San Sebastian, GP Valladolid (women).
Reduced number of racing days in 2012: Mallorca Challenge (from five to four days), Vuelta a Castilla y León (four to three days), Vuelta a Murcia (three to two days), Vuelta a Rioja (two to one day).
Races cancelled in past six years: GP Llodo (cancelled 2012), Subida al Naranco (merged into Vuelta a Asturias 2011), Vuelta a Galicia (converted from pro to amateur race), Subida Urkiola (cancelled 2010), Bicicleta Vasca (combined with Basque Country tour in 2009), Clasica Alcobendas (cancelled 2009), Clasica a Los Puertos (cancelled 2009), Vuelta a Valencia (cancelled 2009), Vuelta a Aragon (cancelled 2007), Montjuich hill climb (cancelled 2007), Trofeo Luis Puig (cancelled 2006), Semana Catalana (combined with Volta a Catalunya in 2006).
I ended my column on the water bottle last week with the words, “If it’s dropped on the road or falls into a wheel … the bidon will still do some damage!” Unfortunately, it was another loose water bottle in a feed zone that did damage at the Tour of Flanders, with pre-race favorite Fabian Cancellara hitting a bidon and crashing out of the race after breaking his clavicle in four places. Perhaps riders can start thinking where they’re throwing empty bottles before they throw them. We want cycling to be safer as well as exciting.
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Before we all (myself included) run away and hand the first three places in Sunday’s Tour of Flanders to Tom Boonen, Fabian Cancellara, and Filippo Pozatto, let’s not forget that there are still 255 kilometers and about 190 other riders standing between these men and a win in one of the sport’s most prestigious monuments.
Here’s a rundown of some wild cards to consider come Sunday:
Peter Sagan – For many, Sagan’s not a wild card—he’s a favorite. But to me, his chances Sunday are bit less certain for one simple reason: his inexperience. The Ronde is a race where knowing the roads and climbs counts for a lot—knowing where to be and when to be there helps on narrow roads that crisscross the Flemish Ardennes. Sagan’s also still more of a sprinter than an attacker. While he’ll certainly be a major threat should a large group hit the line together, I wonder if he can follow the attacks of men like Boonen, Cancellara, and Van Marcke on the Kwaremont and Paterberg.
Vacansoleil – Only two teams boast having a two-time winner of the Tour of Flanders: Omega Pharma-Quick Step and Vacansoleil. Stijn Devolder finally looks as if he’s once again the rider who won the Ronde in 2008 and 2009. His teammate Bjorn Leukemans has finished 8th, 4th, and 7th in the last three editions, while Marco Marcato is proving himself to be a pretty handy cobbler as well. If they ride cohesively Sunday and use their underdog status to their advantage, they could easily pull-off an upset.
Oscar Freire – Freire’s best finish in the Ronde was 24th back in 2004, but the Spaniard finished 2nd at the E3 Prijs and 4th at Ghent-Wevelgem last weekend. His GW result was no surprise—it’s a sprinter’s race and the Freire’s won it before. But the E3 Prijs? That’s not the kind of race where we would expect Freire to perform well as sprinters like Freire often don’t survive the constant pace changes of the E3’s difficult route. That said, Freire’s Katusha squad is surprisingly strong and boasts a talented and experienced lieutenant in Luca Paolini. If he can stay out of trouble and some how survive a dense stretch of bergs between kilometers between kilometers 208 and 242, Freire could pull-off the one of the most surprising wins of his career.
Team Sky – Sky’s seemed to have a lost a bit of swagger since Bradley Wiggins won Paris-Nice and Mark Cavendish and Edvald Boasson Hagen looked as if they could go 1-2 in Milan-San Remo. They now head to the Ronde with Boasson Hagen and the Spanish cobble stalwart, Juan Antonio Flecha. Flecha hasn’t raced since breaking a bone in his hand earlier this month, but still bears watching this weekend—even if he doesn’t have the legs to be his team’s captain, he’ll certainly prove to be a valuable domestique and valuable decoy for his Norwegian teammate.
BMC – After signing Philippe Gilbert and Thor Hushovd this past off-season, BMC had a right to expect big things at the Tour of Flanders. But with Gilbert and Hushovd out of shape (Gilbert) and recovering from illness (Hushovd), the team will likely be turning to Alessandro Ballan, George Hincapie, and Greg Van Avermaet in this year’s Ronde. Of those three, Ballan’s been the most impressive so far and as a former Ronde-winner, will likely be the team’s most protected rider. There’s also the poetic justice to consider: a Ronde victory from one of the team’s “original” classics stars would add an interesting twist to the team’s off-season spending-spree.
Leif Hoste – Hoste was the Ronde’s runner-up in 2006 and 2007. That was indeed a long time ago, but something tells me the Accent.jobs-Willems Verandas rider has one more high finish in him. He’s enjoyed a trouble-free build-up; he’ll have the entire team at his disposal; and he’s riding with a chip on his shoulder as his team was (justifiably) left off the list for Paris-Roubaix.
The Weather – The current forecast calls for a mostly cloudy day with only a 20-percent chance of rain and temperatures hovering around 50 degrees. Then again, this is Belgium and we’re still a few days out—things can change quickly.
The Course – Perhaps the biggest wild card of all, the Ronde’s new course will certainly throw a wrinkle into some riders’ plans. Three trips over the Kwaremont and the Paterberg (the last of which comes only 13-kilometers from the line) will certainly make tactics interesting while negating the chances, in my opinion, that we’ll see a large group sprint. Tactics will play a tremendous role and at least one favorite could be caught-off guard by being either too aggressive or too hesitant.
So while you’ll hear a lot about Boonen, Cancellara, (Vanmarcke if you listen to me), and Pozatto over the next few days, don’t forget that wild cards often play a big role in the cobbled classics. Even with a stacked field and a new course, this year might be no different.
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Image: Photoreporter Sirotti
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
Wednesday’s Dwars door Vlaanderen kicked-off the run to the cobbled monuments with a gutsy solo win for Omega Pharma-Quick Step’s Niki Terpstra. Now all eyes turn to the E3 Prijs Vlaanderen and Ghent-Wevelgem, two races who have seen quite a bit of change over the past few years. Traditionally held a week and a day before the Tour of Flanders, the E3 Prijs was considered by most to be the final check-point for riders hoping to win the Ronde. With many of the Ronde’s key climbs included over the E3’s 203-kilometer parcours, it provided both training and reconnaissance for riders hoping to be at their best the following weekend.
Then came Ghent-Wevelgem’s move to the Sunday before the Tour of Flanders, a move that forced teams and riders to choose between the two legendary events (many would start both, only to abandon one or the other at the first feed zone, angering both organizers and fans). The E3’s organizers soon cried foul, worryied that Ghent-Wevelgem’s World Tour status would attract the best competitors. So a deal was struck and the E3 was granted World Tour status for 2012—in exchange for a new date on Friday. Is it the best solution? Probably not. (I personally preferred the traditional Ronde-Ghent-Roubaix “Holy Week” format.) But it appears to have worked this year as the start lists of both events are jam-packed with star power—which also makes it a bit easier for pundits to preview both races simultaneously.
So without further ado, here’s my rundown of favorites for the weekend—with riders ranked according to my confidence in their ability to come through with at least one win.
Tom Boonen – Omega Pharma-Quick Steps’ Tom Boonen is the top favorite for this weekend’s races—both of them—for three simple reasons:
1. His current form is par with that during the best springs of his career.
2. He’s won the E3 Prijs four times and Ghent-Wevelgem twice—including last year’s edition.
3. He rides for the strongest team in both races with Sylvain Chavanel, Dwars-winner Niki Terpstra, and a full complement of able-bodied domestiques at his disposal.
Of course, Boonen might choose to “disguise” his fitness in favor of next weekend’s Monument—then again, he won the E3 and/or the Ronde and Roubaix on two occasions.
Sep Vanmarcke – Of all the riders taking part in this weekend’s races, I’m most excited to see what last year’s E3 Prijs fourth-place finisher, Garmin-Barracuda’s Sep Vanmarcke, can do. Vanmarcke announced himself as a main contender in this year’s cobbled classics by beating none other than Tom Boonen to win the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad. He then finished fifth behind Boonen after make the critical split during the windy Stage 2 of Paris-Nice. In Wednesday’s Dwars door Vlaanderen, the young Belgian laid down an attack on the Oude Kwaremont that blew the peloton apart.
John Degenkolb – I’m going way out on a limb here: Project 1t4i’s Degenkolb took fifth in Milan-San Remo but should be even better this weekend in Belgium. A sprinter who is quickly becoming a classics challenger, I see Degenkolb as Boonen’s top challenger in Sunday’s Ghent-Wevelgem. Even thought Marcel Kittel starts alongside him, I think harder parcours at Ghent will suit Degenkolb more. He has also proven himself over the Flemish bergs and stones, while Kittel is a bit more of a cobbled unknown.
Fabian Cancellara – If cycling were truly an individual sport, Cancellara would easily be a 5-Kite favorite. But as we’ve seen, his lack of a teammate talented enough able to draw some attention away from him has hurt Spartacus’ chances in major races. Daniele Bennati’s the team’s best bet currently, he rode a perfect race in support of Cancellara at L’Eroica (a race which Cancellara won) and finished second to Tom Boonen at Ghent-Wevelgem last year. I suspect we’ll see Cancellara do his best to win his third consecutive E3 Prijs Friday, before spending at least the first half of the race Sunday working for his Italian colleague.
Filippo Pozzato – After sixth-place finishes in both Milan-San Remo and Dwars door Vlaanderen, Farnese Vini’s Filippo Pozzato looks to have rediscovered the form that won him the E3 Prijs in 2009. Pozzato easily followed Vanmarcke’s Kwaremont surge during the Wednesday’s Dwars door Vlaanderen and has the added benefit of an in-form Oscar Gatto serving as his lieutenant. While a win would hardly be a surprise, the Italian might choose a more tranquillo approach to the weekend, hiding his good legs until next Sunday’s Tour of Flanders.
Matti Breschel – After a disastrous 2011, Breschel looks to have regained the form he displayed in 2010 when he won Dwars door Vlaanderen and was arguably the strongest rider in the race at Ghent-Wevelgem. Perhaps more importantly, Breschel’s Rabobank team displayed its ability to control the front of the a Saturday at Milan-San Remo, something the Dane will certainly appreciate this weekend. With Lars Boom, Carlos Barredo, and Mark Renshaw (Sunday only), racing as well, there will certainly be enough men in orange to prevent Breschel from being marked exclusively.
Oscar Freire – Oscar Freire is on the start lists of both events this weekend, but it’s safe to say that his best chance for a win will come Sunday in Ghent-Wevelgem—a race he won in 2008. Freire’s enjoyed a good season so far but fell a bit short in Saturday’s Milan-San Remo. Katusha will likely back Luca Paolini in the E3 Prijs, while the talented young sprinter Denis Galymzianov provides a solid back-up plan on Sunday should Freire falter.
Peter Sagan – Sagan’s also on the list for both races for team Liquigas-Cannondale, but like Freire, the Slovakian a better candidate for Sunday’s Ghent-Wevelgem than Friday’s E3 Prijs. Sagan’s underwhelmed during his cobbled excursions thus far in his career, but could take his first Flemish scalp Sunday should the course not prove too difficult for him. Daniel Oss is another Liquigas rider to watch—he finished fifth in Ghent-Wevelgem in 2010 and ninth in Saturday’s Milan-San Remo. That said, he and Sagan will need to communicate if the team is to be successful—meaning one rider will have to willingly take a backseat to the other.
BMC – Aside from Alessandro Ballan, BMC has done little over the past two weeks to warrant serious consideration as a contender for this weekend’s races. Philippe Gilbert is still recovering from a sickness from Tirreno. Thor Hushovd has adjusted his program after missing both Milan-San Remo and the Volta Catalunya but is clearly racing to train. Even Greg Van Avermaet has Achilles issues. On a positive note: George Hincapie finished with the leading peloton at Milan-San Remo, a good sign for a rider who often flies under the radar until just the right moment. I’d expect to see the team back Ballan in E3 and Big George Sunday in Ghent-Wevelgem. Adam Blythe bears watching Sunday as well, as does Marcus Burghardt. With such a star-studded roster, who’s going to grab the bottles?
Tyler Farrar – Garmin-Barracuda’s Tyler Farrar took third in Ghent-Wevelgem last year behind Boonen and Bennati. Still winless in 2012, at Ghent-Wevelgem he has the undivided support of a strong Garmin-Barracuda squad that includes lead-out specialists Robbie Hunter and Murilo Fischer along with David Millar and Johan Van Summeren to cover breakaways.
Stijn Devolder, Bjorn Leukemans, and Marco Marcato – Vacansoleil brings three riders capable of bringing home the team’s first win in a major cobbled classic. Devolder’s the biggest wild card here—he spent the last two season dodging criticism after back-to-back Ronde wins in 2008 and 2009. Leukemans has become one of the most quietly consistent cobbled specialists in the sport without a victory—could he be this year’s Nick Nuyens? As for Marcato, he’s an aggressive rider who can handle himself in the hills and in small group sprints. Look for him to stick his nose out in front at least once over the course of the weekend.
Andre Greipel – Lotto-Belisol took a big hit with the crash of Jurgen Roelandts in the Tour Down Under as he was their best for hillier cobbled races—he finished second in the E3 Prijs last year. On Sunday, Andre Greipel is the team’s best chance to score an important home victory at Ghent-Wevelgem. He’ll have the team entirely at his disposal—they should find plenty of help from other squads hoping for a bunch kick as well.
Matthew Goss – Before he won grand tour stages and Milan-San Remo, GreenEdge’s Matt Goss was considered a star-to-be for the cobbled classics. That said, not much has come of it since his third-place finish at Ghent-Wevelgem in 2009. Assuming he’s timed his peak a bit later than last year, Goss could continue GreenEdge’s World Tour run with a win Sunday.
Edvald Boasson Hagen – Team Sky’s EBH was the last to win Ghent-Wevelgem on a Wednesday—back in 2008. At Tirreno he appeared to be at his best once again, but the Norwegian rode an anonymous Milan-San Remo. Assuming he’s over whatever caused his early exit from Tirreno and flat performance Saturday, he could be one of the best this weekend—especially on Sunday.
Juan Antonio Flecha – If the start list is accurate and he’s only riding Ghent-Wevelgem, don’t expect to see Flecha as a major protagonist Sunday—especially with both Mark Cavendish and Edvald Boasson Hagen lining up beside him. It’s more likely that Flecha’s using the weekend more for training purposes—he knows these roads like the back of his hand and would certainly trade a weekend of teamwork for the sake of their unquestioned support at the Ronde and Roubaix.
Arnaud Demare – The current U23 road race champion from FDJ makes the first World Tour starts of his career this weekend. A talented sprinter, he’s hoping for a high finish in Ghent-Wevelgem.
Lloyd Mondory – Another Frenchman, Ag2r’s Mondory has been steadily proving himself to be a skilled rider in cobbled races. He made Wednesday’s select chase group and has a good chance to at least repeat his fifth-place finish in last year’s Ghent-Wevelgem.
Jose Joaquin Rojas – Aside from Flecha, it’s been a long time since we’ve Spaniards to watch in a cobbled classic. That said, Movistar’s Rojas possesses a powerful sprint and the ability to make important selections in tough races. Ghent-Wevelgem is just his cup of tea.
Kris Boeckmans – With seven top-10 finishes so far in 2012, Vacansoleil’s Kris Boeckmans could finish in the top-10 Sunday at Ghent-Wevelgem. Without Leukemans and Devolder taking the start and teams with more favored sprinters doing the lion’s share of the work, he should have a relatively easy ride to the finish—if such a thing is possible in a race like Ghent-Wevelgem.
Oscar Gatto – He’ll likely spend most of the weekend working for Pozatto, but Farnese Vini’s Oscar Gatto is just the type of rider to make Friday’s winning breakaway—and finish third.
Jens Keukelaire – Those who were watching Dwars door Vlaanderen might have witnessed the transformation of GreenEdge’s Jens Keukelaire from a field sprinter to a classics rider. Let’s see if this weekend proves it was no fluke.
The usual protagonists will all be present and accounted for, but this weekend will continue the anointing of two new heroes as Garmin’s Sep Vanmarcke wins the E3 Prijs and Project 1t4i’s John Degenkolb wins Ghent-Wevelgem.
Enjoy the races!
Follow me on Twitter: @whityost
Image: Photoreporter Sirotti
It’s hard to imagine, but the spring classics are finally upon us with Saturday’s running of Milan-San Remo, the first monument of the season. Much has been written about the type of rider perfectly suited to the year’s longest one-day event. Is Milan-San Remo a race for sprinters or attackers? Will the Cipressa and Poggio succeed in shattering the field, or will they simply prime the legs of the strongmen before an all-out bunch sprint?
In the end, La Classicissima is perhaps one of the sport’s biggest crapshoots as crashes, weather, and bad luck all play a role in destroying or elevating the chances of many pre-race favorites. Here’s a rundown of who to watch this Saturday:
Peter Sagan – Similar to last year’s edition, I expect we’ll see a select group hit the line together in San Remo Saturday. That makes a sprinter able to handle the Cipressa, the Poggio, and their descents while possessing a better finishing kick than his rivals—such as Liquigas’ Peter Sagan—the top favorite for Saturday. Sagan’s progressed steadily since his first season as a professional (2010), a season when he was head-scratchingly left off his team’s roster for Milan-San Remo after two stage wins in Paris-Nice. Taking the line for the first time last season, Sagan finished 17th, I suspect due to Milan-San Remo’s whopping 290-kilometers of distance.
The Slovakian returns this year with a grand tour in his legs (an important detail not to be discounted) and a tough week of racing in Tirreno-Adriatico. His stage win in Chieti showed his ability to survive selective courses and he has the added benefit of riding alongside Vincenzo Nibali, a trendy race favorite himself his overall victory in Tirreno. Look for Sagan to win the race in a fashion similar to Goss last year. He’ll take a backseat to Nibali for much of the finale, calmly following wheels and taking risks on the descent of the Poggio to keep himself in contention. If all goes as planned, the youngster will take his first classic at the tender age of 22.
Fabian Cancellara – Cancellara won Milan-San Remo in 2008 and finished second last year after making the lead group, but coming up short in the sprint. Interestingly, Cancellara’s 2008 victory came two weeks after he won L’Eroica and days after his time trial win (and overall title) at Tirreno-Adriatico. Sound familiar? After his impressive victory in L’Eroica two weeks ago and a near perfect build-up at Tirreno, only a true field sprint finish could definitively prevent Spartacus from taking his second victory in La Classicissima. Then again, given the form he’s displayed, even that might not defeat him.
Edvald Boasson Hagen – After his Stage 3 victory in Tirreno, EBH looked to have the form of a 5-Kite Favorite. Assuming a small but select group escapes on the Poggio, the Norwegian is—to me—Team Sky’s best bet for the win Saturday as he’s a better climber than Cavendish. But like many in the peloton, Boasson Hagen abandoned the race early, feeling the effects of a crash and wanting to be fully rested for Saturday. Such decisions are common, but it’s enough to cast a bit of doubt over the Norwegian’s chances, knocking him down a rung from the likes of Sagan and Cancellara.
Mark Cavendish – Team Sky’s Mark Cavendish has spent much of the still-young season either winning or sick. After taking his fourth win of the year in Stage 2 of Tirreno-Adriatico, the World Champion abandoned the race a few days later, trying to keep himself fresh while avoiding the effects of a cold that has laid low many of the sport’s biggest names. For Cavendish, the question at Milan-San Remo remains whether or not he will make it over the Cipressa and the Poggio with the front group. If he does, there’s little reason to believe his powerful team won’t deliver the Manxman his second victory in the season’s first monument.
Oscar Freire – Oscar Freire has won Milan-San Remo three times—a fourth would tie him with Gino Bartali and Erik Zabel for third on the all-time behind Eddy Merckx (7 wins) and Costante Girardengo (6 wins). Freire has a knack for winning races when no one really expects him to, forcing everyone to utter “Oh yeah, Freire,” after seemingly coming out of nowhere to take a major victory. Freire’s won two races for Katusha so far this season and enjoyed a quiet Tirreno-Adriatico where he finished second behind Mark Cavendish on Stage 2. If a large group hits the Lungomare Italo Calvino in the lead, expect to see the Spaniard on the podium Saturday.
Tom Boonen – Every year it seems that Omega Pharma – Quick Step’s Tom Boonen comes to Milan-San Remo in top form only to find himself thwarted by riders more suited to the race’s crapshoot of a finale. Tommeke’s finished second and third here previously, but often lacks the acceleration to cover winning breakaways or the power to emerge victorious in the final sprint. After a terrific start to the season including a stage win in last week’s Paris-Nice, the Belgian appears as ready as he’ll ever be to take what would be his third of the five Monuments. Unfortunately, the Belgian’s chances have already been dealt a blow thanks to the withdrawals of Sylvain Chavanel and Dries Devenyns.
Vincenzo Nibali – Tirreno-winner Vincenzo Nibali would love to add Milan-San Remo to his resume. But with several teams hoping to see the race come down to a sprint and a finale that’s not quite hard enough to sufficiently kill their chances, Nibali might be relegated to the traditional role of “Italian grand tour favorite who attacks on the Cipressa and is caught at the base of the Poggio”. Then again, Nibali could combine his impressive descending skills on the Poggio with the pack’s fear of dragging Peter Sagan back into the lead to give the race its first Italian winner since Pippo Pozzato in 2006.
Alessandro Ballan – Thanks to a roster decimated by illness and injury, Ballan will likely be Team BMC’s best bet on Saturday. Still out to prove that the big wins he enjoyed earlier in his career were no fluke, Ballan finished fourth last year after making the final selection. And with Gilbert, Hushovd, and Van Avermaet bound to heal sometime soon, there might never be a better chance for Ballan to lead his squad in a major spring classic.
Matti Breschel – Rabobank’s Breschel seems to have overcome the injury troubles that dogged him throughout 2011. Critics will point out that he was dropped from the winning breakaway in the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad three weeks. But to me, his performance serve as proof that the Dane’s form is headed in the right direction. With a relatively trouble-free Tirreno in his legs, Breschel should perform well in San Remo.
Daniele Bennati – Bennati’s fine start to the season has been overshadowed by Fabian Cancellara’s exploits as of late. After setting-up Spartacus with a late-race move in L’Eroica, the Italian held on to finish 11th in Siena. At Tirreno-Adriatico, he seemed to have grown stronger as the race progressed: he finished second behind Cancellara in the event’s final time trial. Bennati’s biggest obstacle Saturday is certainly his teammate; he’ll rightfully be expected to defer to his Swiss teammate should they both find themselves in the final selection.
Heinrich Haussler – In 2009, Garmin-Barracuda’s Haussler narrowly missed winning Milan-San Remo when he was caught at the line by Mark Cavendish. Haussler has since fallen short of living up to that season, but says he’s back on track and ready to contend this spring. Saturday will be our first chance to see if he means it.
Andre Greipel – Lotto-Belisol’s Greipel is one of the world’s best field sprinters, but there are questions as to whether he can make it over the Cipressa and Poggio with the favorites. If he does, he’s not to be discounted. After all, if Cipollini and Petacchi can do it, why can’t he?
Matthew Goss – GreenEdge’s Goss has done little to show that he has the form necessary to defend his 2011 title. Then again, it’s early in the season and many riders have purposely remained under the radar so as to avoid racing on Saturday with a target on their backs. If Goss has truly recovered from the illness that cut short his Tirreno, a step on the podium is within his grasp—which one remains to be seen.
I went against my gut last year and didn’t pick Matthew Goss. I won’t make the same mistake twice. Sagan takes the win over EBH and Ballan. And then it’s on to Flanders!
Share your picks and favorites below.
Image: Photoreporter Sirotti
Here are my thoughts on a terrific weekend of racing:
1. After their Belgian victories this past weekend, it’s clear to me that Garmin-Barracuda and Team Sky are two of the best squads in the world—because they understand how to ride as a team.
Heading into the race’s critical phase during Saturday’s Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, Garmin sent it’s team to the front, upping the pace and positioning themselves to follow whatever attacks might come. Eventual-winner Sep Vanmarcke was therefore perfectly placed to follow Tom Boonen’s acceleration on the Taaienberg (and to avoid Lars Boom’s somersault).
Sunday, Team Sky kept their fatigued and vomiting world champion out of harm’s way throughout the day, ensuring that he was at or near the front on every climb and safely guiding him through the last 50-kilometers. In the finale, Chris Sutton—the race’s defending champion—and former Ghent-Wevelgem champion Bernhard Eisel escorted Cavendish to the line.
In an era dominated by super-teams, Garmin and Sky appear to have a successful formula—especially Garmin, a team that has achieved much success with surprisingly few superstars on its roster. It was an impressive display and most likely served noticed to the rest of the peloton.
2. On the other hand, Team BMC appears to be lacking chemistry at a critical point it’s season. Thor Hushovd was situated right where he needed to be when Boonen attacked Saturday, only to find himself isolated once the move was established—a situation that went from bad to worse once the Norwegian was dropped on the Paddestraat. For a team with so many superstars, management must have been shaking their heads after such a lackluster showing.
3. As for Thor, it is easy to criticize the former world champion for getting dropped, but one must remember: it’s still early in the season (as Thor himself admitted before the race) and at least he made it there in the first place.
4. And Rabobank’s Matti Breschel? It was great see him back at the front of a major cobbled classic—even if he didn’t stay there for long. Give him a few weeks and he’ll be fine.
5. Speaking of poor positioning, BMC’s Philippe Gilbert attributed his mundane showing (31st) to a lack of fitness and poor peloton placement heading into the Taaienberg. But while Gilbert’s result was a disappointment to his fans, it should help him later in the season. I wonder if Gilbert watched how heavily marked Cancellara was during last year’s classics and is making his best effort to avoid the same thing happening to him this spring—at least in Flanders. (Everyone was marking Gilbert in the Ardennes—clearly it made no difference.) Gilbert’s known for the timing of his efforts. Perhaps he saw no need to show his hand too soon?
6. Back to the winner: Saturday’s victory confirms the promise Vanmarcke showed back in 2010 when the youngster—then riding for Topsport-Vlaanderen—finished second in Ghent-Wevelgem. While I questioned Vanmarcke’s aggressive riding during the race Saturday—especially with Boonen and Flecha both having teammates—I now see the wisdom of his tactics. His acceleration on the Paddestraat disposed of Hushovd and Breschel; a second surge would later drop both Hayman and Devenyns. Not many riders would choose to isolate themselves against Boonen and Juan Antonio Flecha, but Vanmarcke was smart to realize that a 1:3 chance is better than a 1:7 chance.
I said before the race that the Omloop tends to announce the arrival of new classics champions. Consider Vanmarcke the best candidate to become Belgium’s next Ronde-Roubaix champion.
7. Vanmarcke’s performance also underscored Tom Boonen’s tactical ineptitude (sorry Tommeke, I want more than ever to see you return to form, but you really blew it Saturday). Yes, Boonen was given the unwelcome title of “pre-race favorite” by many pundits (myself included), but it was certainly not a new position to be in for the Omega Pharma-Quick Step rider. And while his sharp attack on the Taaienberg was devastatingly effective (and predictable), his actions in the remaining 59 kilometers were confusing and at some points, head-scratchingly immature.
To me it’s apparent that Boonen suffers in races without radios, as the lack of accurate time splits and information regarding what’s happening behind him probably led him to do more than was necessary to see to it that the break stayed clear. Boonen became a professional at a time when radio use was already more or less widespread among the sport’s best teams. After more than 10 years of riding with them, I’m beginning to wonder if riding without them leaves Boonen feeling insecure and under-informed, hence his bull in a china shop tactics. The last “major” race Boonen won was last year’s Ghent-Wevelgem, a race run with radios.
8. As for Sunday, Cavendish took his third of the season despite battling sickness. The question now turns to whether the Manxman can forge himself into a contender for Belgium’s biggest sprint prize: Ghent-Wevelgem. A new, longer, and hillier course will attempt to thwart him, but given the depth of Team Sky, it’s hard to discount Cav’s chances. What do you think?
9. For the second year in a row in Kuurne, Saur-Sojasun’s Jimmy Engoulvent tried at a late-race move. Next year, he might want to try a different tactic.
10. Last but not least, where was GreenEdge this weekend? After more than a year of hype surrounding the formation of the squad, the men in green and black were conspicuously absent from the first important weekend of the season. The team’s best result was 12th in Kuurne. It all goes to show that it takes more than money to build a successful World Tour squad. Like many team’s before them, GreenEdge might find that their first season is filled with more growing pains than victories.
In other news:
11. Like Garmin and Sky, Liquigas-Cannondale deserves mention in any conversation about the best teams in the sport. The team won its ninth race of the season Sunday, as Eros Capecchi defeated Damiano Cunego and Enrico Battaglin to win the GP Lugano.
12. And speaking of Lugano, Battaglin is a rider I missed when compiling my list of Up-and-Comers a few weeks ago. Keep an eye on him—and look for him to be joining a World Tour squad soon. Maybe he can join Moreno Moser at Liquigas?
13. One final question: Michael Matthews won Rabobank’s first race of the year at the Clasica de Almeria in Spain, but why wasn’t he racing in Belgium? Matthews, Taylor Phinney, and John Degenkolb traded blows as U23’s in 2010—why isn’t the Aussie on the same career trajectory as the other two? He certainly possesses similar talent.
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Image courtesy Slipstream Sports
In the eyes of most fans, the season officially begins this Saturday with the 67th edition of the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad—to be followed Sunday by the 65th running of Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne.
In Saturday’s 200-kilometer “Omloop”, expect to see the leading breakaway form with about 20-kilometers remaining—just after a difficult stretch including the race’s third passage over the Haaghoek’s cobbles, climbs of the LeBerg and the Molenberg, and the cobbles of the Paddestraat, the Lippenhovestraat, and the Lange Munte. In all, that’s two climbs and about 8.5-kilometers of pave jammed into one 20-kilometer section of race.
On Sunday, while many will try to shake things up over the course of the 195-kilometer semi-classic, look for things to come back together for a field sprint. And should a breakaway succeed, expect the weather and a perhaps a handful of smaller teams (Professional Continental squads with nothing to lose) to have played a role..
When it comes to picking the favorites for the weekend, several things must be considered. First, many riders bring two captains—one for Saturday and another (usually a sprinter) for Sunday. Second, of the riders taking part in both races, one must consider in which of the two races the rider is more likely to play a major role. Going deep to win the race Saturday indicates a possibly lesser showing (or non-start) on Sunday—and vice versa. Lastly, it’s also a bit early to have a good idea of which riders are strongest; for many contenders, this is only their second racing weekend of the season.
Luckily, several teams have chosen not to make the trip (RadioShack-Nissan and Liquigas, for example). They’ve decided to make their cobbled debuts later in the spring—this narrows things down a bit.
So let’s take a look at the men to watch this weekend. Riders have been listed with their favored race in parentheses. (Disclaimer: Riders have been included according to the start lists available as of Thursday, 2/23—there can and will be changes.)
Tom Boonen (Omloop/Kuurne) – Omega Pharma-Quick Step’s Tom Boonen has won just about every important race on the Belgian calendar—except the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad. The race’s early date might have something to do with it. After all, Boonen’s a rider accustomed to peaking for races in late-March and early-April; going “too deep” to win the Omloop might be something he’s been less than willing to do—in the past. This year, I suspect that Boonen wants to get a head start on the criticism that has dogged him throughout past two seasons. He’s in terrific shape, he rides for one of the strongest teams in the race, and his confidence is brimming after a fantastic first month of racing—he’s the man to beat Saturday.
Juan Antonio Flecha (Omloop) – Flecha’s finished third, first, and second in the last three editions of the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad. And as his third-place finish in the Tour of Qatar indicates, there’s little reason to believe he won’t put in another podium performance Saturday. Even better for Flecha, Edvald Boasson Hagen won’t be racing due to the flu. The Norwegian’s presence certainly would have prevented other teams from marking Flecha exclusively, but Flecha’s not the kind of rider—and the Omloop is not the kind of race—where that would have made a tremendous difference. If anything, Flecha will ride with more confidence—and perhaps aggression—knowing that he has his team’s unanimous support.
Andre Greipel (Kuurne) – Greipel is the top favorite for Sunday’s Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne, an event much more suited to his talents than Saturday’s Omloop. In 2011, Greipel finished third in Kuurne and fourth in Ghent-Wevelgem, so he clearly knows what it takes to win on tight Belgian roads. Better yet, he’ll have the undivided support of his Lotto-Belisol team as Jurgen Roelandts is out until early summer following a nasty crash at the Tour Down Under.
Greg Van Avermaet (Omloop/Kuurne) – Of the all-stars lining up for Team BMC this weekend, Greg Van Avermaet’s the rider most likely to emerge victorious. Van Avermaet’s best Omloop finish was fourth in 2009, but he’s at the top of his game following a terrific 2011. Perhaps a bit miffed that his team signed not one but two classics superstars, Van Avermaet knows he needs to take advantage of his opportunities when they arise—Saturday’s one of them. And should things not go his way in the Omloop, he’s also a more than capable sprinter with the talent to contend Sunday as well.
Mark Cavendish (Kuurne) – If he starts the race, Cavendish is a favorite to take the win Sunday in Kuurne. He’s without question one of the two or three best pure sprinters in the world, and he leads a Team Sky squad that’s powerful and experienced—as evidenced by their Kuurne victory last season. That said, Cavendish came out of the Tour of Qatar fatigued and battered following a bout with the flu and crash—there might be some cobwebs. Cold weather won’t help either.
Matti Breschel (Omloop) – After a dominant cobbled campaign in 2009, Denmark’s Matti Breschel missed last year’s races due to injury. He returns this year, fresh and ready to lead his Rabobank squad in what he hopes will be his team’s second consecutive Omloop victory. Breschel’s showed himself to be coming along quite nicely in early races, and is clearly his team’s best bet for Saturday.
Philippe Gilbert/Thor Hushovd (Omloop)– These two former winners have had quiet seasons thus far. And while they could easily prove me wrong, I suspect both are looking further ahead into the spring. The Omloop is a race many riders have used to announce themselves as major cobbled contenders. Thus, several riders have won it once or twice and then gone on to bigger and better victories. Gilbert and Thor have both had their turns at the Omloop (Gilbert twice). While their fans would love to see them on the podium’s top step Saturday, they would happily trade a victory now for a more important one later. Then again, Gilbert is the reigning Champion—a victory would be a fantastic way to open the Belgian year.
Heinrich Haussler/Tyler Farrar (Omloop/Kuurne) – The top of the Garmin-Barracuda food chain is a bit clearer now that Thor Hushovd has departed for BMC. Or is it? With Haussler, Johan Van Summeren, Martijn Maaskant, Ramunas Navardauskas (more on him later), and Sep Vanmarcke all taking the start Saturday, Garmin has at least five riders (I didn’t even mention Andreas Klier) that could play a crucial role. Then again, that’s just the way Vaughters likes it. After all, it’s easy to mark a rider out of race when he is his team’s undisputed captain; the more cards you have to play, the better your chances of winning. As for Sunday, Farrar will lead the way after a day off Saturday, which makes sense in a race that more often than not ends in a bunch sprint.
John Degenkolb (Omloop & Kuurne) – While Marcel Kittel’s been winning races, Project 1T4i’s John Degenkolb has been slowly riding his way into shape—and he’s just the type of rider to watch in both events this weekend. Last year, Degenkolb finished 12th in the Omloop—the last man in the first wave of riders to finish the race in what amounted to horrible conditions. While Degenkolb won the majority of his races as a sprinter, it’s clear to everyone that he’s more destined for the cobbled classics. He’ll have his first shot to lead a team in one Saturday. As I said earlier, the Omloop is a race that often announces the arrival of new champions—is Degenkolb next?
Yauheni Hutarovich (Kuurne) – FDJ-Big Mat’s Yauheni Hutarovich is often overlooked in most race previews, but somehow he always comes through with a result—in certain kinds races, at least. Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne is one of them: hard, fast, cold, and likely to end in a group sprint. The Belarusian finished second in Kuurne last year. Expect to see him among the first five Sunday.
Taylor Phinney (Kuurne) – A field sprinter with the power and stamina to survive a long, hard cobble event, Phinney’s getting his first taste of riding the classics with the big boys this weekend—he’ll be on the starting line both days. Assuming he comes through the Omloop with something left in the tank, he has to be considered a contender in Kuurne on Sunday.
Sebastian Langeveld(Omloop) – GreenEdge’s Sebastian Langeveld won last year’s Omloop, but looks to be a bit more of a long shot this year after an unlucky spring filled with sickness and crashes. Still, experience counts for a lot in the cobbled classics, and Langeveld has several seasons of fine Flemish results on his resume.
Denis Galymzyanov (Kuurne) – Katusha’s Denis Galymzyanov took the biggest win of his career at last year’s Paris-Brussels, a race somewhat similar to Sunday’s Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne. If he wins Sunday, it shouldn’t be much of a surprise as he possesses a powerful finishing kick and feels at home on Belgian roads.
Greg Henderson/Chris Sutton (Kuurne) – These two former teammates might find themselves in a position to win Sunday’s race should their captains falter. Sutton won the race last year, but will need a bad day (or a non-start) from Cavendish to be given an opportunity to repeat his 2011 victory. As for Henderson, his move to Lotto-Belisol is one of the big reasons why Greipel’s won so many races so far this season. He’s an able-bodied Plan B should Greipel find himself missing a step Sunday.
Ramunas Navadauskas (Omloop) – If you’re in the UK, go ahead and drop a fiver on Navadauskas. His U23 resume is filled with impressive results in amateur classics, he is an accomplished sprinter/time trialist, and he rides for a team with enough depth to put him in the perfect strategic situation to take a win (a place similar to where Van Summeren found himself in last year’s Paris-Roubaix). Say what you like about Jonathan Vaughters, but he certainly knows how to spot talent. Navardauskas could prove to be one his best finds yet.
Luca Paolini (Omloop) – The 41st Law of Cosmic Reality states: thou shalt not discount the chances of Luca Paolini in any race he enters. Trust me.
Daniele Colli (Kuurne) – The Italian from Team Type 1 – Sanofi recently finished second to Elia Viviani at the Reggio Calabria two-day in Italy. A sprinter who has only one professional victory on his rather long resume, Colli’s not likely to win, but could certainly squeak his way into the top-5.
Niko Eeckhout (Kuurne) – The 42nd Law of Cosmic Reality states: An Post’s Niko Eeckhout must be mentioned as a contender in any Belgian semi-classic he enters. After all, his nickname is “Rambo.”
So there you have it—my list of contenders for the season’s first big weekend. Share your picks and predictions below.
And look for me on Twitter during the race Saturday: @whityost.
Many fans couldn’t care less about the first four weeks of the professional cycling season. Part of me can’t blame them. I mean seriously—Argentina? Qatar? Oman? And of these early races, only a few feature terrain that puts the majority of the peloton into the red zone. In most cases, crosswinds and cold weather do more damage than the actual racing does. Even Southern Europe was not immune, as record low temperatures turned most races into leg-warmer contests where the rider able to stay the warmest the longest often found himself on the top step of the podium. You’re forgiven for not caring.
On the other hand, the first weeks of the season offer our first glimpses of new riders and teams, many of whom are eager to impress following seasons that fell short of expectations. These early tests also offer pundits a chance to determine which riders are starting the year in good shape, making them possible contenders for the season’s first major rendezvous in Belgium, France, and Italy.
So whether you weren’t paying attention either by choice or by accident (and before the “real” season begins this Saturday with the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad), here’s a quick rundown of what you missed, packaged together in a little game I like to call Win, Lose, or Draw (no Dom DeLuise required).
Omega Pharma-Quick Step (Win) – Belgium’s Omega Pharma-Quick Step has enjoyed a terrific start to the season—one that calls to mind the exploits of HTC-Columbia/High Road. At this point in the season it’s usually one or two riders that have won the bulk of any one team’s race victories; in Omega Pharma’s case, six riders have shared the spoils (Chicchi, Boonen, Fenn, Leipheimer, Ciolek, and Velits), with two more (Martin and Trentin) just missing wins themselves. If the team continues its torrid pace once the “real” racing begins in earnest, they could easily end the season as the year’s top-ranked squad.
Lotto-Belisol (Lose) – Andre Greipel has already won five races for the restructured Belgian squad and Tour-hope Jurgen Van den Broeck looked strong in Qatar; but the team also lost Jurgen Roelandts after a crash in Stage 1 of the Tour Down Under. Roelandts was the team’s best hope for the cobbled classics, an important block of races for any Belgian team—especially one trying to keep up with Omega Pharma-Quick Step’s early season success. Without Roelandts, Greipel might need to ride himself into contention for the flatter classics—Milan-San Remo comes to mind, but Ghent-Wevelgem and the Grote Scheldeprijs might be better bets for the German speedster.
BMC (Draw) – BMC made the biggest splash this past off-season, but they’re winless so far in 2012. That said, with men like Gilbert, Evans, Hushovd, and Van Avermaet on the roster, there’s hardly good reason to worry. This weekend’s Omloop will be our first opportunity to see some of the squad’s biggest names racing au bloc. And with two former winners and several other possible contenders on the roster, don’t count them out.
Tom Boonen (Win) – Omega Pharma’s most successful rider thus far has been Tom Boonen, a welcome sight considering the Belgian’s frustrating past two seasons. Boonen’s sprint speed appears to have returned, but perhaps more importantly, so has his confidence. Here’s a an interesting bit of trivia for those hoping to see Tommeke add another Flanders or Roubaix to his resume: each year that Boonen won the overall title at the Tour of Qatar, he took one of the two cobbled monuments as well.
Southern European Races (Lose) – There was a time when Mallorca, Southern France, and Italy were three of the sport’s most weather-friendly early season locales. But not this year as frigid temperatures and snow forced the abbreviation or cancellation of reventsaces in all three countries. But don’t get your hopes up for an “epic” weekend of racing in Belgium—the forecast calls for dry, sunny conditions. Go figure.
Mark Cavendish (Draw) – Two stage wins in Oman plus a bout of sickness and a crash amount to a draw for the reigning world champ. On the bright side, Cav’s wins indicate that his Team Sky lead-out train is coming along quite nicely.
Jonathan Tiernan-Locke (Win) – Easily the season’s biggest surprise has been Endura Racing’s Tiernan-Locke, the winner of both the Tour Mediterranean and the Tour du Haut. The British rider won each event’s “queen” stage and in doing so, the overall titles as well. Thanks to his victories, Tiernan-Locke has apparently attracted the attention of several World Tour squads. Look for him to finish the season in a new uniform.
Greenedge (Lose) – Australia’s Greenedge Cycling team won its first two important goals of the season—the Australian Road Race Championship and the Tour Down Under—but have since fallen flat in their inaugural World Tour season. With so many flat races on the schedule (and shortened ones at that), you have to think that a roster with such an impressive set of speedsters would have produced more results. But let’s be fair: many upstart World Tour squads (especially those created out of thin air) have often struggled to find consistent results during their first seasons (Team Sky and Slipstream come to mind) but have gone on to win several major races.
Alberto Contador (Draw) – For Alberto Contador’s fans, his two-year retroactive suspension counts as a loss. To proponents of a cleaner sport though, it’s a clear win. But at the end of the day, Contador’s suspension and the loss of his titles dating all the way back to the 2010 Tour de France amount to nothing more than a draw. First of all, Contador’s reputation seems to have survived the court of public opinion. Second, he’ll be back and racing in time to win his second Vuelta a Espana—which just about everyone expects him to do easily. Even his sponsor still supports him—a smart move considering he’s still likely to command a tremendous salary in spite of his suspension.
Elia Viviani (Win) – I identified Viviani as one of several young Italian sprinters to watch as part of my Season Preview a few weeks ago. So far, the Liquigas-Cannondale rider has lived-up to my expectations. Viviani’s already won five races, and until the win by his teammate Moreno Moser (yes, he’s Francseco’s nephew) in Sunday’s Trofeo Laigueglia, he was undefeated on home soil. If he manages to take a stage or two in next month’s Tirreno-Adriatico, look for Viviani’s name on the list of contenders for Milan-Sam Remo.
Rabobank (Lose) – Last year, Rabobank had already won nine races by this point in the season. This year, they’ve won nothing. Worse still, Oscar Freire—the man they let go to make room for Mark Renshaw—has already won two races for Katusha. Luckily, Matti Breschel seems to be healed and ready to contend this weekend in the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, a race Rabobank won last year as well. Too bad the winner (Sebastian Langeveld) now rides for someone else (GreenEdge).
Alejandro Valverde (Draw) – Similar to Contador, Valverde’s status depends entirely on your perspective. For many, the Spaniard’s return to racing leaves a black eye on the sport and its ability to fairly mete out justice. For others, it simply marks the return of one of the sport’s most talented and exciting riders, someone capable of challenging Philippe Gilbert in the Ardennes. And while he’s already won two races, he’s still a long way from redemption.
French Youth Movement (Win) – It was also good month for young Frenchman as Europcar’s Pierre Rolland, Saur-Sojasun’s Jerome Coppel, and FDJ-Big Mat’s Arnaud Demare and Nacer Bouhanni took wins. While Rolland and Coppel have bright futures as stage racers, Demare (the reigning U23 World Road Race Champion) and Bouhanni give the nation two young sprinters to root for at Paris-Nice.
Saxo Bank (Lose) – We’ll know for sure sometime in March, but if the team’s hearing before the sport’s Licensing Commission on February 27 doesn’t go well, they could find themselves on the outside looking in at the rest of the World Tour. Bjarne Riis has struggled in the past to find sponsors to support his program; a demotion certainly won’t make life any easier.
Share your early season Win, Lose, or Draw contestants below!
Follow me on Twitter: @whityost
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International