What makes a great season -- or a good one, for that matter -- to Belgian cycling? For newer cycling nations (e.g., the English speaking world, Scandinavia), you just have to make a dent in the Tour. For the Grand Tour countries (and I suppose Switzerland), you need to be able to claim you held serve at home, and maybe grabbed a few more precious wins abroad.
Belgium and the Netherlands are kind of in between. No nation has more of a stake in the sport without a grand tour than these two. Well, OK, the Netherlands has portions of every grand tour, but let's set aside Holland for now, given that true similarities are few. So I ask, what makes Belgian fans, riders, coaches and sponsors happy? A breakdown, in four chapters...
Chapter 1: Win April
What it entails: Dominating the Tour of Flanders, first and foremost. Next would be Paris-Roubaix, an honorary Flandrian classic despite the fact that Carrefour de l'Arbe is technically still in France. Call the Queen of the Classics course a spiritual easement. Anyway, after that a reasonable amount of success in the remaining one-day races such as Gent-Wevelgem (probably about to become a bigger deal), E3 Prijs, Het Volk/Nieuwsblad, Dreidaagse de Panne, and the tuneup events would be appreciated.
Oh, and there's that other Monument that's actually in Belgium, albeit the Wallonian Ardennes. Somehow I doubt expectations remain very high: before this year you'd have to go back to the 2002 edition of Liège-Bastogne-Liège to find a single Belgian in the top ten. But a result would be appreciated. And then there's La Flèche Wallonne, another home race that Belgian cyclists have utterly abandoned in recent years. Consider it the country's favor to the world that they host these international events. Rather nice of them.
How'd it go? On the flip...
[April] How'd it go? Well enough. The two biggest names in Flemish cycling -- Stijn Devolder (Flanders) and Tom Boonen (Roubaix) -- shared the big spoils again. Philippe Gilbert -- the country's one-man Ardennes plan -- got a decent fourth in Liège, which is all you can expect; La Flèche doesn't shake out well for Phil-Gil. After that, it was nearly a total washout: Frederik Willems won de Panne without a stage; Pozzato beat Boonen in E3; Norwegians won G-W and the Omloop. Even the French had more success than the Belgians prior to de Ronde. So while the headlines were good, the finer print is not without some stern warnings.
Chapter 2: Worlds and Other Classics
What it entails: The World Championships are a huge target. I'm not in a position to sample public opinion in the pubs of Kortrijk and Oudenaarde, but the fact that Belgium has won a record 25 rainbow jerseys, and has hauled off more hardware than all but the Italians, should indicate where this ranks. Obviously the prestige is comparable to anything, particularly since unlike the maillot jaune or the Paris-Roubaix Cobble Trophy, you can zip around Belgium all year in the Regenboog jersey. The other two monuments would qualify as big deals, particularly where there are occasional expectations (Milano-Sanremo), and next-tier races like Paris-Tours, Amstel Gold, San Sebastian, Plouay, and Vattenfalls presumably get noticed if there's a Belgian protagonist.
How'd it go? This is where things get interesting, and then only in the last month (MSR: meh). Gilbert's win in the Giro di Lombardia was historic on several fronts. First, he's the first Belgian to win among le foglie morte since Fons de Wolf in 1980. Next, Gilbert becomes the first rider of any stripe to accomplish the Autumn Double (Lombardia and Paris-Tours) since 1963. I carried on about this over the weekend... in the era of specialization, winning two such disparate races is almost beyond belief. Finally, his ambush of the pro peloton in Italy and France has instantly elevated him to mega-star at home and a legitimate hope for Belgian fans who might like to see a Belgian win something at home besides de Ronde. Just last week Gilbert was nominated as Flandrian of the year -- political awkwardness aside (Gilbert is Wallonian) that shows you how his results abroad were valued at home.
The Worlds were largely a washout, except to Silence-Lotto fans who will host the Rainbow for the next year. It's been fallow times since Tom Boonen's win in Madrid; even the U-23 boys haven't won anything since Johan Van Summeren's silver medal in 2003. But this has much to do with geography; they should have a decent chance in Melbourne next year, and maybe better opportunities in Copenhagen (2011) or neighboring Limburg (2012).
Chapter 3: The Grand Tours
What it entails: Like most smaller nations, the Belgians go hunting for secondary results at the Grand Tours: a jersey of some kind, a top ten on GC, a charismatic stage win. I suspect that commerce would come to a complete standstill nationwide if a homeboy were fighting for the maillot jaune in week three of the Tour, and a lesser grand tour overall win would be duly celebrated as well. But there hasn't been much danger of this in a while.
How'd it go? Another forgettable year. The highlight of the season was Kevin Seeldraeyers' Giro d'Italia, winning the Young Rider comp and taking 14th overall. Gilbert won the penultimate stage (yawn). Jurgen van den Broeck was the top Tour finisher, a respectable (for now) 15th, and Tom Boonen can't be faulted for his nondescript performance after receiving a last-second invitation, with little time to prepare. The Vuelta was just a tune-up for the worlds for the most part, though Francis de Greef, seen hanging around many of the big climbs, managed an improbable double by finishing 21st on GC at both the Giro and the Vuelta.
The current state of Belgian cycling is so bereft of grand tour contenders that the real game is in seeing whether any of the kids is developing. Well, Seeldraeyers' rise is notable (7th in Paris-Nice too), given his relative youth (23), and de Greef at 24 is also to be watched after a couple seasons of nice results. But van den Broeck and Maxime Monfort, the other two young hopefuls, both seem to have plateaued out at age 26: the former a climbing sensation who can't rock the crono, while the latter is a national champ time trialist who drops off on the cat-1 and hors categoire stuff. Both are very respectable, but long-term Monfort looks more like a stage-hunter and vdB a potential KOM winner.
Chapter 4: Trade Teams
What it entails: Most sports are based around a series of hometown teams which develop local followings regardless of who's wearing the shirt. Cycling isn't quite that way, but since Quick Step and Silence-Lotto have been Belgium's two teams for a while, I will assume the squads themselves engender a lot of interest. So wins by foreigners in the QS or SIL kits surely count for something.
How'd it go? If this assumption is right, then the last month has turned Belgian fans' world upside down. For years -- and I mean years -- Quick Step has owned the sport in April and relinquished it for the rest of the season, an opening that the Lotto boys have found ever new and interesting ways to squander. Leif Hoste will be best known for a couple near-misses at de Ronde and a lot of arm-waving. If anyone has had an Ardennes presence the last decade, it's been Quick Step's Italian outfit and not the supposedly versatile Lotto squad. Silence has fielded a Tour team, but they too are best remembered for inept support work and Cadel Evans' own heartbreaks -- two very closely and publicly related factors. So Evans stopped contending for a Tour this year, only to steal a Vuelta podium as he and Gilbert slowly and quietly gelled into the deadliest two-man wrecking crew seen in cycling since... Quick Step's spring campaign. Now, winning April and October still makes for a long, quiet mid-season. But take those two runs together and fans might feel like they have a reason to watch all year.
I suspect Evans is giving serious thought to changing his campaign for 2010. Maybe his managers will talk him into a bunch of nonsense (e.g., not racing all spring and focusing entirely on the Tour?), but after what he and Gilbert accomplished at the end of their first season together, I wouldn't be surprised if Cadel relished a more entertaining defense of the rainbow along the same lines as what we just saw. It would require him to reduce his focus on the Tour, possibly even trading the Tour out for a shot at winning the Giro. I dunno. But Silence-Lotto will be as much of a force as these two make them. And Belgian Cycling could sure use a second team after April.
Sportswriters sometimes start writing about an event before it's quite over, for good reason: if things wind up where it looks like they're going, you've cut down on the lag time, and if things change, you're no worse off than if you had sat there doing nothing. If I had started writing this story in my head in August (which of course I did), you'd have seen words like "depressing" and "pointless" and "envious of the Netherlands" sprinkled around each section other than the first one. That late-season rampage... it's tempting to discount it a bit, since the competition starts going home when the Tour hits Paris. But Gilbert and Evans not only transformed the scene rather dramatically; they did so by cashing in on talent that was long there, waiting to come out. Evans rode smartly and used his time trialing skills to win the Worlds, while Gilbert's incendiary form enabled him to call on his full package of skills: aggression, explosiveness, climbing and sprinting. As long as Evans is at Silence-Lotto, his success is good for the team generally and Gilbert in particular. And what's good for Gilbert is VERY good for Belgian cycling, at least at the classics, and all season long.
Still, three stars make for something less than a constellation. Should anything happen to Boonen or Devolder -- flu, crashes, off-bike distractions -- they leave a massive vacuum to be filled, and scant hope of barring a foreigner from doing so. Gilbert too is only one man, and while a string of Evans wins would be cheered, I don't know how much it counts toward an argument for Belgian cycling. The next wave of classics kids, guys like Wouter Weylandt and Greg Van Avermaet, hasn't developed beyond B-list success, and might not ever. It's still early for them, and when I have time I'll look over the younger set in the unending pipeline of young Belgian pros. The best thing I can say about the future is that the success of Boonen, Devolder and Gilbert might at least distract people from asking whether so-and-so is the next Merckx. There is no next Merckx, but in the age of specialization there are some useful benchmarks being set by the Belgian stars of today.