The Classics of 2012 wheren’t to wheel out the old cliche, a vintage year, especially in the context of the excellent 2011 season that saw, especially in the Spring, a remarkable variety and surprise injected into the events. 2011 was also a year where 4 riders who had never won a Monument before took their first (Matt Goss, Nick Nuyens, Johan Van Summeren and Oliver Zaugg), and interestingly, the same statistic was repeated again this year, with all the winners but Tom Boonen first time winners of a monument, with Simon Gerrans, Maxim Iglinsky and Joaquim Rodriguez the benefactors this time round.
What was weird this year though was that not one winner of the race the previous year was able to even get on the podium of the same race this time around. Matt Goss was 15th at Milan San-Remo, Nick Nuyens was unable to start the Tour of Flanders due to a hip injury, Johan Van Summeren was 9th at Paris-Roubaix, Phillipe Gilbert managed only 16th at Liege and Oliver Zaugg took 8thin Lombardy. Thus 2012 was a pretty poor year for defending champions, although it reverted back to leaders rather then the domestigue de luxes taking the victories as it was argued had happened in 2011. In fact, surprises were really not that common in 2012, which is perhaps why it seemed like a bit of a dull year for the classics. Of the 13 major classics, 6 were won by a former winner, of which 5 were for more then the second time of asking. In essence, this meant 2012 had a overly familiar feel that warped perceptions of how the racing had been.
It is perhaps arguable that some of the classics have become too formulaic. Amstel Gold and Fleche Wallone have simply become sprint finishes up their respective super steep finishes, which is entertaining enough, but given the Grand Tour’s new penchant for the super steep, they are quickly seeming a bit blase. We could otherwise argue that the reason the races didn’t seem as good was due to the lack of the ‘riders making the race’, by which I mean there was no real ‘duels’ as in previous years, which always saw Cancellara battling Boonen or Gilbert against the Schlecks and Valverde. The cobbled classics were arguably made trickier for Boonen by the fact every one was gunning for him once Cancellara broke his collarbone, but he was still clearly the strongest, whilst the races in the Ardennes concentrated more on the fact Gilbert didn’t win them then the riders who did. Similarly, by the time we got to Autumn, we were still trying to get Gilbert to win rather then actually just watching the races.
So all in all, 2012 was a reasonable if not fantastic classics year, characterised by a return to prominence for Tom Boonen and a fall from glory for Philippe Gilbert, although the latter redeemed his season with the ‘6th Monument’ – the world championships. Here, I rank them 10 through to 1 for which was the most entertaining…I’m guessing most won’t agree, but isn’t that the point of these lists?
Strade Bianche: Fabian Cancellara (RadioShack-Nissan)
Milan-San Remo: Simon Gerrans (Orica-GreenEdge)
Omloop Het Niewsblad: Sep Vanmarke (Garmin-Sharp)
E3 Harelbeke: Tom Boonen (OPQS)
Ghent-Whevelgem: Tom Boonen (OPQS)
Tour of Flanders: Tom Boonen (OPQS)
Paris-Roubaix: Tom Boonen (OPQS)
Amstel Gold Race: Enrico Gasparotto (Astana)
Fleche Wallone: Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha)
Liege-Bastonge-Liege: Maxim Iglinsky (Astana)
Classica San Sebastian: Luis Leon Sanchez (Rabobank)
Paris-Tours: Marco Marcarto (Vacansoleil)
Tour of Lombardy: Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha)
10. Tour of Flanders
The big story at Flanders was the change of route to a course of loops, climbing the Koppenburg three times on an even shrinking loop designed to make the VIP stretch more lucrative. This and the removal of the Muur had led to accusations the race had lost its soul, with mock funerals taking place, and indeed, this years edition was a travesty compared to the 2011 edition, which was so good it has even been tentatively put forward as one of the greatest races ever run. That said, the course did it’s job – it whittled the riders down to just three, Boonen, Pozzato and Ballan, who sprinted it out for the win, but the problem was that they just rode up the climbs faster – there were no attacks, no daring raids like in previous years, and due to the loops, everyone simply sat in tense agony until they got dropped. It was ok, but not great – though on the same course next year, the organisers will be hoping the riders are more adventurous.
9. Strade Bianche
This races hasn’t even run for a decade, and yet it already feels like its been around forever, partially because of its old time feel thanks to the white gravel roads, but also due to the illustrious winners roster it has built, with Cancellara and Gilbert on the roster, and 4 riders who have won a Monument. This year, Cancellara went again, and showed a clean pair of heels to Maxim Iglinsky on the narrow, twisting finish of the race that had seen the major classics contenders rise to the fore early in the year. Unfortunately for Cancellara, it was his only Classic of the year.
8. Classica San Sebastian
With Gilbert out of the picture, San Sebastian was more up for grabs then last year, where it was almost too obvious he would win. And so it was up to Luis Leon Sanchez to slink away from the pack and time trial to the finish in the usual beautiful setting, dulled this year by cloud, after an hour where Sky and co had tried furiously to make a coherent break stick. It was exciting racing, although the surprise was the group sprint for second, indicative perhaps of a new found concern to attack this year by the peloton – after all, why risk everything for 2nd if you can guarentee 5th, especially in an era where points, not results and prestige, are seemingly more important.
7. Omloop Het Niewsblad
The opening cobbled classic of the year was a neat taster of the results to come, as Tom Boonen tried his attacks out on the field. However he didn’t reckon on Sep Vanmarke, who looked many times to be putting Boonen into a quite serious amount of pain, and then managed to out sprint his compatriot at the finish. Cue everyone sighing as Boonen yet again failed to complete his Belgian classics collection (Het Niewsblad is the only one he hasn’t won) and betting he’d probably be repeating his not so great 2011.
…except by the time he got to Paris-Roubaix, Boonen was on the way to emulating his miraculous 2005. He’d won E3, Ghent and Flanders, and could pull off various records by taking Roubaix, although of course everyone was now out to get him. Not that it mattered. In hindsight, it was always going to be Boonen who won, but it was the style in which he did it that was most impressive. Realisitcally, Boonen could have just marked moves and finished it off in the velodrome, but instead, he launched an attack from near on 55km out, further then even Cancellara had tried in the previous two years. It was ridiculously good, and a fitting way to collect his 4th cobblestone. Again, the race was, well, poor compared to 2011, and the hope will surely be that their will be a muddy edition in the near future to give it some oomph.
5. Amstel Gold Race
What turned out to be Rabobanks final appearance at the Amstel Gold Race was almost won by one of their old riders, Oscar Freire, who took off on a descent to try and see if he could get up the Cauberg in what was a clear attempt to do a dry run for the world championships, which finished on the same course. The pre race talk had been about Gilbert, but it was his future heir who was the man who looked to have wrapped up the win when Peter Sagan warped up the hill only to crack on the last few metres and be passed by Enrico Gasparotto, who took an unexpected win for Astana. Freire even managed to hang on for 4th as Jelle Vanendert pipped Sagan for 2nd, with pre race favourite Gilbert looking exhausted to ‘only’ manage 5th. Many stories spanning the year in their breadth intertwined to make Amstel one of the races of the year.
4. Tour of Lombardy
Run under what appeared to be an apocalyptic rain storm, the Tour of Lombardy was made incredibly atmospheric in its new September slot which made it less Race of the Falling Leaves and more Race of the Falling Riders – BMC and new world champion Gilbert crashed out un masse, as did half the peloton, who were clearly unwilling to freeze and skid on the treacherous roads. The new slot didn’t lead to a better field as it as meant to, although Contador was very aggressive throughout, as was the Sky Colombians, but the Muro di Soramo and its 14% average (yes, average) slopes made 2km of compulsive viewing, as did the late flurry of attacks that left Joaquim Rodriguez to kick away to the win and the world number one ranking, all in a magical grunge cast by the heavy cloud and reflections of motorbike lights.
Liege was Vincenzo Nibali’s second attempt at Monument success of the year, and the cruellest. His attack on the climb and subsequent descent of La Roche aux Faucons looked to have given him a slim winning margin, but then cruelly the chase started to come back to him, before Iglinsky broke free and began clawing his way up to him in an awful slow motion sprint. Iglinksy caught Nibali and passed him in one movement, and suddenly we had a three way chase, with Nibali trying to catch Iglinsky and the select pack trying to haul themselves back to both. In the end, no one caught anyone, and Iglisnky triumphed ahead of an exhausted Nibali.
2. Milan San-Remo
Milan San-Remo was only bested by the Tour of Flanders last year, and was almost as entertaining this year. The late afternoon sun gave everything a marvelous instagram esque feel, and when Cancellara attacked, it just felt right somehow. He towed Nibali and Gerrans up with him, with the latter winning the sprint and generating trememdous controversy for *horror* daring to win, as apparently he should have taken more turns. As easy as it is for the internet community to lambast someone for not taking as turn, as I;m sure they’d all be able to come past a hammering Cancellara, Gerrans was the canniest rider of the day, and became Australia’s second winner only a year after the first.
Paris Tours is in an odd slot in the calender were everything has calmed down, and domestiques get a chance. This makes it one of the more thrilling races of the year, and this edition was no exception. From the furious pace to the late flurry of attacks on the climbs inserted to quell the sprinters, the race never let off. Even when the sprint clearly wasn’t going to happen, the man expected to win it if it had, John Deglenkob, attacked and dropped the peloton to catch the break, and almost managed. In fact, his almost doing so ruined the race for OPQS’s Terpstra, who opened his effort to early as a result, before Marcarto and De Vreese had an argument when Marcarto closed the door on his Belgian rival. And this was all after the break looked like beign caught before a crash in the peloton saw the gap increase again. The race had everything, and so in my opinion, deserves to be race of the year.