Nowadays Cycling is neatly compartmentalized into a few groupings. There's the guys who race the Tour (climbers who can time-trial), as well as the guys who race the Giro (like Tour riders only Italian), and guys who race the Vuelta (Spaniards, and guys from the previous two categories who didn't win). There are the sprinters, a totally different breed, in the sense that they're willing to do rather strange things at 45mph. And then there are the sport's Great Gladiators, celebrated here at the Podium Cafe continually from about three hours after the Vuelta hits Madrid until the end of Liege-Bastogne-Liege: the Stars of the Classics. One thing that separates the Tour from the rest of the non-Classics calendar is that this subset of riders are here, looking to make trouble. Whatever peak came and went during Flanders/Roubaix week is far enough behind them for a second peak to form, and the Tour "is what it is" where money and exposure are concerned. All of this is gravy to ASO: the media won't dismiss a long, hot, gently rolling stage as a boring nonentity if it's won by one of the Lions of April.
This year's Tour has a handful of very notable names in the peloton, each of whom could be called "Classics stars." There's Oscar Freire, Tom Boonen, Greg Van Avermaet and Thor Hushovd, representing the sprinters' wing of the Classics Pantheon. There are the Gods of the Cobbles, guys (in addition to the above) who have trophies from the sport's most demanding one-day events, like Stijn Devolder, Alessandro Ballan, Fabian Cancellara, Stuart O'Grady, as well as wanna-be's like Filippo Pozzato, Heinrich Haussler, Juan Antonio Flecha, Martyn Maaskant, George Hincapie, and Sylvain Chavanel. This list could be longer, but you get the picture.
The question is, what exactly can the Classics guys hope to do in France? The options are a bit muddled, to say the least. Sure, anyone can win a flat stage with a late attack, either against a small break (assuming you can get in one) or the field (assuming they're asleep). As mentioned, a handful of these guys double as Tour sprinters, and tend to slake their thirst now and again. These Hammerheads of the North might also stay away on a long climbing stage, provided the heads of state are holding back for whatever reason. Best bet, though, is a transitional stage, one with enough climbs to dissuade the sprinters' teams from chasing them down and to spit out any break companion who doesn't merit inclusion in an elite escape, without interesting the GC crowd. Some years the Tour has a lot of these. This year I count maybe 2-4, starting with tomorrow's stage from Girona to Barcelona. [See also stages 12 and 13 in the Vosges region, and stage 19 in the Rhône Valley.]
Recent history gives us a few examples of how classics-studliness can come into play at the Tour:
- 2008: Marcus Burgardt won stage 18 after teaming with Carlos Barredo for a two-man escape over a significantly hilly transitional stage. Did it hurt that the previous stage went up Alpe d'Huez? No, it did not. The next day Sylvain Chavanel repeated the result, busting a cap on break companion Jeremy Roy in the final sprint. This too was a hilly effort, and the next day featured the penultimate time trial. Translation: a good place to try an escape is on days when everyone on the planet knows the big teams won't chase you.
- 2007: Setting aside Cancellara's prologue win (Cancellara's chrono-freak identity is kind of a category unto itself), the Swiss Bear also stole stage 3 in a style befitting a Classician -- stomping away in yellow from a stunned field of sprinters with 500 meters to go. If you don't think cycling is cool, watch this. Apart from Boonen and Hushovd winning sprints, Filippo Pozzato stole an endlessly undulating stage 6 by slipping away from a tired, vastly reduced field of mostly GC guys, and Oscar Freire. Both of these were uber-cagey, classics-style maneuvers.
- 2006: Not a great year for the Classics Stars; the best I can offer is Jens Voigt winning one of my favorite sprints ever. After towing Oscar Pereiro back into the race with a gift-breakaway of nearly 30 minutes, Voigt spent the last 500 meters of stage 13 lecturing the wheel-sucking Pereiro on the etiquette of sprinting from an escape. It's a testament to Pereiro's complete helplessness in a sprint, or just the supernatural force of Jens!, that he could win a sprint while berating another rider, but there you have it. History will remember this stage's impact on the race, but I prefer to remember it as a typical Jens! moment.
- 2005: For all his frustration on the flat cobbled roads of Flanders and the Départment du Nord, perhaps it's fitting that one of George Hincapie's greatest wins came high up in the Pyrenées, as Hincapie took the Queen Stage from a stunned and still whining Oscar Pereiro after a long five-man escape that slowly winnowed down to the final two.
- 2004: Stuart O'Grady, in the process of graduating from "sprinter" to Captain HTFU, won from a five-rider escape on a day remembered for lousy weather (hello, classics guys!) in northern/central France. Stage 7 was won by Pozzato on a flat course, on an attack from a late four-man break. Two more efforts straight from the Flanders 101 manual.
So, most of the wins by Classics stars come on stages that are hilly enough to eliminate the field. A few more come from late attacks -- very typical of the single-day races -- along with the odd miserable day when only someone who relishes the idea of Belgium in spring would see the joy in racing. Predicting when one of these guys will deliver is nearly impossible, but starting tomorrow in Catalunya I would recommend keeping an eye out for just such a pleasant surprise.