Lessons from the Tour of Flanders

I have to admit I was surprised when the Tour of Flanders came down to the Sagan/Cancellara duel everyone had anticipated. I’d thought that another two ‘contenders’ might emerge – not individuals, but teams in the shape of the collected force of Omega Pharma Quick Step and the new age methods of Sky, and that they would benefit whilst Sagan and Cancellara spat venom at each other. But no, in the end it was Cancellara and Sagan who battled it out, picking up the reborn Jurgen Roelandts,who only last year had fractured bones in his neck, who took the token podium position as a result of his earlier break. Still, it’s made next weekend a bit of a dull prospect…

Roubaix: Who can beat Cancellara?

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Roubaix and Flanders are elegantly connected in that the former is always the rematch for the latter, but after Cancellara’s display, the question usually asked has changed from ‘who are the favourites now’ to’ who can beat Cancellara?’ Given that his main rival in Flanders, Peter Sagan, lost his bet with his own team management that he would get to ride Roubaix if he won Flanders and so won’t be on the start line at Compiegne (Paris-Roubaix, like many races with Paris in their name, doesn’t actually start in the capital, but rather in Compiegne, 50 miles north), and that the joint record holder, Tom Boonen, won’t be there either, it’s difficult to see who can really be there to challenge him. Again, it’s teams in OPQS and Sky, with the assorted talents of Chavanel, Terpstra, Stannard and Thomas whom you’d expect to throw down the gauntlet, but aside from that, no one looks that interested. BMC look set to face yet another year without a monument unless Taylor Phinney saves some face (luckily for them it appears he’s the most likely candidate on their galactico roster to do so) whilst Pozzato, so potent last year, was barely even seen at Flanders. Expect very short odds on the Swiss maestro come Sunday.

Radioshack Reborn?

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Radioshack are a team who live it seems in a black and white world – they are either doing brilliantly or failing abysmally: there never seems to be any middle ground. This is mainly a media invention when you consider that, since Leopard and the subsequent Radioshack incarnation was born, they have been on the podium of every Monument classic and have a remarkable record in the races, even if it is mostly down to one man:

 Radioshack best result 2011 2012 2013
Milan-Sanremo 2nd 2nd 3rd
Tour of Flanders 2nd 11th 1st
Paris-Roubaix 2nd 13th  NA
Liege-Bastonge-Liege 2nd+3rd 23rd  NA
Tour of Lombardy 1st 9th  NA

Yes, so most of those results are Cancellara’s, although he didn’t win the team’s first Mounment – that honour goes to Oliver Zaugg, now of Saxo-Tinkoff, but otherwise they actually do pretty well in the classics, and for any team without such high expectations, 2011 would have been incredible. There strength was on show on Sunday, even if their still appaling national champions jersey’s weren’t – Hayden Roulston, the New Zealand champion, had to make do with a pathetic black strip and silver fern rather that the all-black he has had in the past. Stijn Devolder, a laughing stock in previous years given he was just one of six riders to retain the Tour of Flanders (2008-09, the others being Romain Gijssels [1931-32], Achiel Buysse [1940-41], Fiorenzo Magni [1949-51 -the only man to win three in a row], Eric Leman [1972-73] and Tom Boonen [2005-06]) but yet was appallingly bad in subsequent editions, placing 25th, 55th and not finishing in 2012, also regained some pride using his fabled calves to string out the bunch and soften them up for the Cancellara after burners. By next week, Radioshack-Leopard could have managed 10 Monument Podium places from 13 starts, with 3 wins – maybe they’re not as bad as we all love to make out.

Sagan’s bottom line

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If you believe the media, then the whole event was marred by Peter Sagan grabbing the bottom of one of the podium girls. Sagan does have previous with this, having worn a charming T-shirt that shall we say implied ladies would have a fun time with parts of his anatomy, and signing the breasts of spectators, and you can see where the criticism will come from, especially considering that the women’s race, won by, surprise surprise, Marianne Vos, received no TV coverage and the like. No doubt the net will be awash with articles asking if cycling has a problem with chauvinism and the like, but Sagan’s 23, and it was pretty obvious it was a joke. Whether that makes me feminist enemy number one or not depends on your views of whether podium girls should even be there in the first place, but they are, and last time I checked, the lady in question wasn’t complaining. Sorting out the pay and coverage gap to women’s professionals, who were ignored in favour of Sagan’s stunt (perhaps that’s a legitimate criticism there), is a more pressing dilemma.

’13-not Boonen’s lucky number

We'll have to wait for 2014 for a rematch of the 2010 Boonen/Cancellara duels
We’ll have to wait for 2014 for a rematch of the 2010 Boonen/Cancellara duels

2013 has been a bit of a deja vu of 2012, except for Fabian Cancellara, read Tom Boonen. Like Cancellara 12 months previously, Boonen crashed out of the race and will miss Paris-Roubaix as a result, meaning he will not have retained any of the cobbled classics he swept up in 2012. Nor will we get the proper showdown we were meant to have between the two rivals. So what next for Boonen?Despite his dislike, he may ride the Tour de France as a leadout man for Cavendish and target a couple of the lumpier days, but with a very hard (supposedly)World’s course later in the year, he doesn’t even have that to look forward to. Paris-Tours and the Eneco Tour look like his best bets for end of year success.

Sky’s  Classics training – A failed experiment?

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Sky have made it an open secret that they want to do better in the classics, and looking at their best results in the 5 monuments, its not entirely surprising:

Sky best result 2010 2011 2012 2013
Milan-Sanremo 18th 30th 25th 6th
Tour of Flanders 13th 10th 19th 17th
Paris-Roubaix 3rd 9th 4th NA
Liege-Bastonge-Liege 12th 5th 20th NA
Tour of Lombardy 19th 19th 3rd NA

Despite having had men like Edvald Boassen Hagen, Juan Antonio Flecha and Simon Gerrans, the team have managed just two podiums out of 17 possible, and even worse, just 7 top 10s – not exactly brilliant when you look at the talent on offer, although when you consider BMC have employed Cadel Evans, Thor Hushovd, Alessandro Ballan, George Hincapie, Greg Van Avermaet and Philippe Gilbert amongst their classics contingent, their  idenitcal return of two podiums looks a bit meagre as well, although they have commanded 13 top 10 finishes out of 17 by comparison:

BMC best result 2010 2011 2012 2013
Milan-Sanremo 22nd 4th 8th 7th
Tour of Flanders 6th 6th 3rd 7th
Paris-Roubaix 29th 6th 3rd NA
Liege-Bastonge-Liege 5th 7th 16th NA
Tour of Lombardy 12th 12th 4th NA
Van Avermaet: Saving face at BMC
Van Avermaet: Saving face at BMC

Still, Sky have seemingly come up an obstacle in the classics that, as much as they claim it is still ‘early days’, will certainly not be as easy to crack as the Grand Tours, where they have decided that team time trialling the  course wins. You just can’t do that in a classic, and their tactics so far seem to have revolved around simply getting lots of men in the last selection, then not being able to do too much. No rider seems to have the punch required to actually win a race, and it’s Ian Stannard who looks most likely, but he needs to get away solo, and he just doesn’t have the acceleration to do so. Nor will Sky be able to send riders off the front hoping others won’t notice – they’ve put themselves in the spotlight by going on about their new ideas.  Sky seem to have no rider who can really make a race – Boassen Hagen should be that man, but he has stagnated at Sky since he was turned into a glorified domestique for Wiggins and needs to leave to get back to being a leader once talked about achieving the kind of results Sagan is now – indeed, Boassen Hagen was once called the new Cannibal. Anyway, quite how training in 25 degrees on a mountain was meant to prepare their team well for classics usually run in temperatures under10 degrees over sharp hills and rugged roads is beyond many, and so unless they win a la Mapei in Roubaix with 3 men on the podium, everyone will raise their eyebrows and pass off their little experiment as a failure.

Lotto v OPQS: a turn up for the form books

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Lotto-Belisol got Roelandts in the podium in a rare turn up for the books in the (fairly benine) battle between the two Belgian superteams. This is odd given that Lotto have changed away from their old classics focus with Peter Van Petegem to instead look at Grand Tours with Greipel and Van den Broeck, so the fact they outnumbered OPQS in the break and got on the podium is something Patrick Lefevre will be desperate to turn around come Sunday.

Routing the Ronde – time to revert to form

This was the second year of the three year experiment that is the new Flanders course that revolves around three ever decreasing loops of the Oude Kwaremont and the Patenberg, and on this evidence, 2014 will be the third and last iteration before reverting back to the proper course before the 100th running of the event.  2013 was the 100th anniversary of the  race, which has lost editions to war, but didn’t match the excitement of any of the previous 96 races. The organisers got away with it in 2012 because Tom Boonen won, but with no Flandrian winner this year the course was exposed as something that, whilst succeeding in it’s aims of making the race more accessible for road side fans, although the race criss-crosses across Flanders so much anyway it’s not hard to see it multiple times on the normal route, and of course for increasing profits by having VIP tents on the two definitive climbs, was rather dull for the viewer, as a pack of 40 odd riders were all so terrified of the course that it has been turned into a mere ‘the last climb decides’ race, where by everyone waits for the last climb which subsequently decides the race. Anyone who saw the 2011 event, which was utterly brilliant and dripping with suspense, tension and surprise, will attest that that course was millennia better then the one currently being utilized, and that a return to the Muur van Gersburgen is very much desired by all.

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