Not to keep harping on Sep Vanmarcke's win this past weekend, but one topic that arose repeatedly was the subject of age. When it comes to the Cobbled Classics, sure, we've seen young guys excel in Flemish races of up to 200km, and the Omloop being slightly off-season is as likely as any to host an early-career win. But the conventional wisdom is that even the best candidates for cobbled success aren't likely to show up in the monuments til at least age 25. To bridge that extra 60km of distance and all that brings into play, riders need to harden their legs some more. Ride a few Tours de France and other long stage races. Put yourself through the kind of suffering you can't experience before age 23. Then we'll see what you got.
WIth this in mind, let's look and see what the last decade has said about how young is young, using podiums from the Tour of Flanders. For this exercise, only a monument will do. MSR is the least selective 300km race on Earth, and Paris-Roubaix is too selective, or is selective for too many reasons. So Flanders will do. On the flip!
Here are your last ten Flanders podiums: (thanks Italian Wikipedia!)
Andrea Tafi ('02 winner)
- Age on podium: 36
- What was he doing at 23? Bagging a couple low-level stage wins (Lux, Murcia)
Johan Museeuw (Three-time winner)
- Age on '02 podium: 36
- What was he doing at 23? 3rd in Dwars door Vlaanderen, 3rd in Paris-Tours, won stage of Ronde van Belgie, assorted smaller wins. N.b., his first podium at de Ronde came at age 25 (2nd in 1991).
Peter Van Petegem (Double winner)
- Age on '02 podium: 32
- What was he doing at 23? Won Scheldeprijs previous year; 2nd in Veenendaal, NL. By 24 he was 2nd in E3; won Omloop at 25; won de Ronde at 29.
Frank Vandenbroucke ('99, '03 runner-up)
- Age on podium: 28
- What was he doing at 23? Winning a lot, although it's hard to know what to make of any of it. Let's move on.
Stuart O'Grady (3rd '03)
- Age on podium: 29
- What was he doing at 23? Winning stage sprints in Australia, one stage of Bayern Rundfahrt. No RvV results before '03.
Steffen Wesemann ('04 winner)
- Age on podium: 33
- What was he doing at 23? No significant results, but he was second in E3 at 24, second in Omloop at 28, 2nd in Paris-Roubaix at 31.
Leif Hoste (Runner-up '04, '06, '07)
- Age on '04 podium: 26
- What was he doing at 23? Belgian national champ in ITT. 2nd in K-B-K at 25.
Dave Bruylandts ('02 winner)
- Age on podium: 27
- What was he doing at 23? Won Circuito Montanes, stage of Vuelta Castilla y Leon, GP Jef Scherens
Tom Boonen (Twice winner)
- Age on '05 podium: 24
- What was he doing at 23? Serving notice. Won E3 Prijs; Gent-Wevelgem; Scheldeprijs; etc.. He was third in Paris-Roubaix at age 21.
Andreas Klier ('05 Runner-up)
- Age on podium: 29
- What was he doing at 23? Small results; first classics success was Gent-Wevelgem win at age 27.
George Hincapie (Third in '05)
- Age on podium: 32
- What was he doing at 23? Completing his second Tour de France; minor wins in sprints. Gent-Wevelgem win at age 28 was first classics success. 2nd in Paris-Roubaix at age 31.
Alessandro Ballan ('07 winner)
- Age on podium: 27
- What was he doing at 23? Messing around in Italy. He won 1st stage of Driedaagse de Panne (the 200km one with hills) at age 25. At 26, 2nd in E3, 3rd in Paris-Roubaix.
Luca Paolini (3rd in '07)
- Age on podium: 30
- What was he doing at 23? Impressing at Tour de l'Avenir. At age 26, 3rd in Brabantse Pijl and MSR; won Brabantse Pijl at 27.
Stijn Devolder (Double winner)
- Age on '08 podium: 28
- What was he doing at 23? Third in E3; won Vlaamse Pijl at age 21. Won Driedaagse de Panne at age 25.
Nick Nuyens ('08 Runner-up; '11 Winner)
- Age on '08 podium: 27
- What was he doing at 23? Won Paris-Brussels, Ster Elektrotoer. Won U23 Ronde at age 21. Won Omloop at age 24, K-B-K at age 25.
Juan Antonio Flecha (Third in '08)
- Age on podium: 30
- What was he doing at 23? Minor wins in Portugal; riding Vuelta. Third in Paris-Roubaix at age 27.
Heinrich Haussler ('09 Runner-Up)
- Age on podium: 25
- What was he doing at 23? Sprinting for minor wins (Dauphine, Murcia, Franco-Belge, etc.).
Philippe Gilbert (Third in '09, '10)
- Age on '09 podium: 26
- What was he doing at 23? Won Omloop, Dauphine stage, other minor wins.
Fabian Cancellara ('10 winner)
- Age on podium: 29
- What was he doing at 23? Winning time trials. Won Paris-Roubaix at age 25.
Sylvain Chavanel ('11 Runner-Up)
- Age on podium: 31
- What was he doing at 23? Won Tour du Haut Var, other French races. Won Dwars door Vlaanderen and Brabantse Pijl at age 27.
On the grading curve of Flanders age-class success, the results skew toward older guys. Only Haussler, Boonen, VDB, Hoste, Museeuw and Gilbert ascended the podium before the universally(-ish) recognized prime age of 27+. The other 14 guys made no RvV podium appearances til their prime years, with Tafi and Museeuw showing that old guys can get it done (36). Let's separate these guys out a bit.
Haussler, Boonen, VDB and Museeuw all defied conventional wisdom and won or came close at or before age 25. Haussler's appearance, while speaking of real potential, doesn't come with a lengthy classics resume (yet), so he's an outlier. Boonen and Museeuw were outright Classics
protoges prodigies from the get-go, and their subsequent careers have borne out the message that these guys were wired for the classics. VDB too, perhaps even more so, though we'll never know for sure, thanks to his extensive doping.
A step below these guys, in terms of early excellence, would be the guys who arrived at a more realistic, if early, point in their careers. There was nothing shocking about Ballan (27), Hoste (26), Gilbert (26), Devolder (28) or Nuyens (26) getting results when they did. Each of these riders comes with a long enough resume on the cobbles to say rather definitively that there are no flukes in this list; there are, instead, three solid champions, one champion in waiting, and near-champion by a tire width here or there.
You could also add Cancellara to this second grouping, but he's in a class by himself. More likely, he belongs in the Boonen/Museeuw class, having won Paris-Roubaix at age 25. Once he broadened his skillset enough to win Flanders, he became the dominant champion of the past couple years, with more to come. Peter Van Petegem can sidle up next to Cancellara, while we're at it, as another rider who did the double and didn't get an especially early start. Call these two the slightly slower baking uber-champions.
The next category consists of riders who have made a convincing case that they know how to handle the cobbles, but not quite at the major winner level. That would be Hincapie, Chavanel, Flecha, Paolini, and Klier. Nobody disputes their presence among the favorites for the classics in their prime, which in Chavanel's case is definitely still going on, and maybe Flecha's too. Dave Bruylandts would get a mention but he's a convicted doper.
Lastly, there are the late-bloomers, the guys who plugged along just off the podium for fricking ever before finally having their day. Tafi is their spiritual leader, but I'll add Wesemann and O'Grady to this grouping as well. The latter was occupied with sprinting, not sure what took the others so long.
So what does this mean? For guys like Vanmarcke -- and Edvald Boasson Hagen, Taylor Phinney, and near-prime guys like Boom, Breschel, Van Avermaet, Thomas, etc. -- it means that success on the big stage really is more likely to take place after your 25th birthday. Also, looking at this list, which is pretty packed with legends of the modern peloton, guys who won early and often... it is quite unbelievable to see what Tom Boonen was doing at the start of his career. As special as these other guys were, Boonen broke all the conventional rules about when it's time to start winning. Even if he's not at the same level, or maybe it's the competition which has changed, people just tuning in now should enjoy those glimpses of Tommeke while he's still in his productive years. As great as Vanmarcke or Boasson Hagen may turn out to be, nobody has burst on to the cobbled stage in recent decades like Boonen did.