One of Cycling's enduring traditions is the annual article, around this time of year, about how Spaniards can't ride the cobbles. Despite a proud history and a raft of national talent arguably second to none, Spain's collective palmares at the Big Three of Cobbled Classics (Flanders - Gent-Wevelgem - Paris-Roubaix) remains a big, fat zero. So naturally, an article listing the failures, near-misses, and regular tragedies is an annual event.
I don't have the time to research such topics, nor the wherewithall to start generalizing about why this is so. Rather than asking why, I prefer to ask, why not? My memory tends to date back a good 72 hours on a clear day... and didn't the Castilla y Leon peloton just scramble up a cobbled climb outside Ávila? So you can't say it's not in their blood. And if being from a warm, sunny, beautiful Latin country is a hindrance, then why have Italians scored a total of 28 wins in this fabled week, dating all the way back to Maurice Garin in 1897? [Yes, I know that Garin became French... in 1901.]
I say it can be done, and here are some guys who can pull it off. As always, I look forward to your assistance.
- Juan Antonio Flecha
The exception... but does it prove the rule? Flecha is known as the "Spanish Flandrian," which sort of suggests there's only one. Still, it's an honor bestowed on him, and with good cause. He scored a solid 2nd at Paris-Roubaix last year, along with 4th two years ago (after disqualifications) and third in 2005. Really, there's noplace left for him but the top step. He had a three-year lock on 12th at de Ronde before fading late last year. He's also been second and seventh at Gent-Wevelgem, and 2nd at Het Volk last year. At 6', 160 pounds, Jan van der Flecha is a protagonist longshot at Flanders and Gent, but a serious contender for the biggest, bestest cobble of them all.
- Óscar Freire
Winner of three straight editions of Brabantse Pijl, a/k/a Fleche Brabanconne, Freire is both well-rounded and durable enough (over a day's terrain if not a season) to compete in the Flemish season. His energies at de Ronde are better suited to helping teammate Flecha, and I can't find any evidence he's been to Paris-Roubaix lately, but he was third at Gent and has some other minor placings in E3 Prijs, etc.
- Pedro Horrillo
Sticking with the Rabobank boys, Horrillo is somewhat intruguing. He has two top-20 finishes at Paris-Roubaix: 19th in '05 and 11th in '06. At 33, his window is closing, and you can pretty much cross off everything other than P-R. But at over 6' and 170 pounds, he has the body type and experience for a run at the Big Cobble this year. As Flecha's domestique, this is highly unlikely ... but he definitely serves as proof that Spaniards can do this race. Now, for some newcomers...
- Jose Joaquin Rojas Gil
Last year, at the ripe old age of 21, Rojas scored 9th at Gent and 26th at Roubaix, a pretty exciting accomplishment for a young kid. The previous year he managed 7th overall at Dreidaagse de Panne. At 5'10, 150 pounds, he doesn't seem ideally suited for the cobbles, but his results sound like those of a power rider, and 150 pounds -- Bernard Hinault's race weight -- doesn't disqualify you from the cobbles. Probably the single most exciting Spanish rider to watch for the northern classics. I expect he's slated to ride them in 2008; CyclingFever has him penned in for Flanders and P-R, and it's not like Caisse d'Epargne has a bunch of other guys fighting for a start in Compiegne.
- Jesus Del Nero
More of a long shot, I'd nonetheless count Saunier Duval's Del Nero as a young Spaniard to watch in Belgium, based on one single result: 11th at the Tour of Flanders last year. That's an amazing ride in the most telling of the Cobbled Classics. You don't bag that result on luck. At 5'10, 160lbs he's got the frame for las Clasicas Nortenas. He's also only 26, and like Rojas, his team is practically allergic to these races, so they'll gladly fork over a starting place any time he asks.
OK, got any other names to add??