As of right now, there are 341 days til the Tour of Flanders. That's a lot of days. So many, in fact, that for the first time in a couple months there are far more bicycle parts on outgoing flights from Zaventem Airport than on incoming ones. Belgium is no longer the place for cyclists or cycling fans to be. It's time, at last, to share the sport of racing bicycles with the rest of the world.
A decent number of those flights are headed to Geneva, where the Tour de Romandie kicks off the grand tour warmup phase of the season, or at least continues it for those who weren't able to make it to Trentino last week. Another large percentage of those outgoing bits of carbon are headed to Nice, which is probably the closest major city to San Lorenzo di Mare (where the Giro d'Italia holds its Grande Partenza May 9) as well as an ideal place to train. Or Monaco, which is the same deal in terms of riding, but without tax consequences. As a certain NFL coach might say, we're on to stage-racing season.
And while I am fully ready to celebrate that fact, I feel the need to look back at what we learned from the Spring Classics -- all of them -- before we desert Belgium until the Tour or of course ENECO!.
Sprinters Are People Too (Or, what's not in a label)
What is remarkable from the pre-Ardennes classics is how alleged sprinters dominated the Monuments. winning all three events (MSR, Flanders, Roubaix). And by remarkable, I mean not at all remarkable.
First, the labels themselves are something we rely on a bit too much. I'm as guilty as the next person. But John Degenkolb and Alexander Kristoff are only sprinters when it comes time to sprint. The rest of the time they are dealing with other elements of the sport, and for both, they have quite a lot of success when it comes to staying upright and rolling powerfully over the cobbles. They are really strong riders. Plenty of other guys we talk about as sprinters simply aren't as strong, and in one case -- Tyler Farrar -- we can see how trying to get stronger for the classics can come at the cost of your top-end sprint speed. For most riders there is a choice to be made, and very rarely does anyone outside Belgium not choose sprinting. For only those elite few, like Kristoff or Degenkolb, or in past years Peter Sagan and even Tom Boonen, is it possible to hone your sprint game while still being among the World's Strongest Men (cycling category).
André Greipel is very nearly in this category, and his incredibly dogged Ronde performance lent credence to the idea that he is more than a sprinter... just a teensy bit less "more" than Kristoff was, this time. Jens Keukeleire made his way up this "more than a sprinter" food chain, though being Belgian he maybe just belongs in the category of "guys who can ride the cobbles and sprint pretty well because of course every Belgian can." It's like commending the Terminator for its steady pursuit of the Connor family. Anyway, Keukeleire finished last in the first group, fifth overall. Borut Bozic ended the race in the Wiggins group, 31 seconds down. He also came in with the chasing peloton in E3.
More importantly, however, the success of these riders speaks to the openness of the races themselves. Yes, they favor a select group of cobbles specialists, the Vanmarckes and Terpstras and Booms and Stybars of course Boonen and Cancellara and so on. But at least in dry weather, which prevailed on all but two days (Gent-Wevelgem and Liège-Bastogne-Liège), the races may or may not select out the fast finishers. Strong riding is strong riding, and if Michael Matthews is on form, the fact that he's a sprinter does not exclude him from nearly winning Brabantse Pijl or Amstel Gold. Sprinters have never been off the list in Flanders or Roubaix, though since relocating the finish to Oudenaarde De Ronde has done its best to intimidate them. Hennie Kuiper has his name on a shower stall in Roubaix, as well as a Flanders title. The Fast Men can win here. Of all the tools in a cyclist's toolbag, nearly every one is relevant to De Ronde.
This is an ongoing lesson for the Ardennes races, or at least the Belgian ones. The more narrowly drawn the race type is, the fewer people you have who can make it exciting.
French Cycling Rising Fast
It was remarkable enough to have two cyclists from the home country on the podium of the Tour de France last summer that we spilled a great many bits in praise of this event. No Frenchman had finished on the podium of Le Tour since Richard Virenque in 1997, and if that made you throw up in your mouth a bit, you might prefer to date the French cycling drought back to Laurent Fignon in 1989. You might be only slightly surprised to find that the collective record of French riders in the Classics is only slightly less putrid since Bernard Hinault retired:
- Flanders: Only one win (Durand 1992), three seconds (most recently Chavanel) and a third since 1956. OK, the race was invented to get away from French cycling. But still. Same with Gent-Wevelgem, where it's one win and one second in the last 36 years.
- MSR: Zero podiums since 1998. No wins since JaJa in 1995 and a general absence of results since Fignon's second win in 1989.
- Paris-Roubaix: Following a period of French dominance through 1993, only one more win (Guesdon, 1997) and one second (Turgot, 2012).
- Amstel Gold: Zero podium places since Hinault's 1981 victory.
- La Flèche Wallonne: Nothing since JaJa's two wins in three years (95 and 97), until this year.
- Liège-Bastogne-Liège: Four seconds and two thirds since Hinault's epic 1980 win, until yesterday.
Appalling. So, not to go overboard, but the performance of Julian Alaphilippe combined with a lot of other notable rides suggests that France is roughly level with all the non-Belgian countries again when it comes to the classics. Arnaud Demare was second in Gent-Wevelgem last year, and while he was off his game this year (can't recall why he pulled out of Paris-Nice) and unable to build on his 12th in Paris-Roubaix from 2014, he was still able to hang around in Flanders (23rd). Still only 23, Demare's classics class seems readily apparent. Alaphilippe's seventh in Amstel was second-best for a Frenchman, nipped by Tony Gallopin's sixth place. Romain Bardet got sixth, after Alaphilippe, in L-B-L. Alex Vuillermoz did the same in La Flèche. Bardet, sixth in Le Tour last year, is 24, Vuillermoz 26. Alaphilippe 22 (!). Gallopin, the well-traveled veteran, still only 26. Thibaut Pinot and Nacer Bouhanni, who will be heard from shortly, are both 24. Bryan Coquard 23. Warren Barguil, still coming along, at 24.
The French will always hold back in spring if needed for summer, so the fact that they are showing up in droves in April is even more promising than it appears on its face. Combined with the stage racing and sprinting talent emerging and there is unmistakable evidence of a long-overdue French cycling wave building up. The proof will be in the puddin, of course.
Dutch Cycling Doldrums
The flip side, in many ways, is Dutch cycling. As the kid brother of Belgian cycling when it comes to the classics, it might be easy to excuse the lack of results and focus on all the horrible things happening to Belgians, but their two biggest stars crashed their way out of contention, or crashed out entirely, they dominated Brabantse Pijl, and they salvaged podiums in both Flanders and Roubaix -- results a lot of nations would kill for. So we can just call Belgium's spring a bit off and a lot unlucky.
The Netherlands? After Niki Terpstra, who is in the conversation for best of his trade, there is never seemingly enough going on. Terpstra was a fitting second in Flanders, and in the misery of Gent-Wevelgem too, but didn't have that extra gear that propelled him to glory last year. Dylan van Baarle got third in Dwars Door Vlaanderen, and that was it for podium finishes.
Lars Boom clawed his way back to 6th and 4th in the two Monuments on his plate, which is very respectable, but also seems to represent his ceiling in the sport, with no Boonen or Cancellara blocking him this year, and with so much young talent coming up to take his place. Boom is still 29, young for a cobbles hardman, so maybe one year it will all fall into place and he will score that long-sought major win. But 29 is also old for a rider still seeking his first classics win.
Where van Baarle is headed is the only interesting question left to be answered. At 22, he may have a serious future on the cobbles, but these things take time. [He was 37th in Flanders.] Maurits Lammertink of Roompot was the only rider putting up much resistance in the home race, Amstel Gold, taking 21st just ahead of Tom Dumoulin and Tom-Jelte Slagter. Slagter and Wilco Kelderman snuck into the top ten at La Flèche, but only Peter Weening could crack the top 20 at LBL. The nation's former signature team, now morphed into LottoNL-Jumbo, managed only Kelderman's lone result, 10th in a race that is itself a bit hard to get excited about, with nothing else to show along the way.
Dumoulin is an interesting rider, and at 24 there is still time for him to figure out the classics. As far as Dutch riders to get excited about he might be tops. Moreno Hofland has some class, though his form was lost in Paris-Nice. Robert Gesink is still trying to restart his career. Bauke Mollema hasn't been seen much lately, though that may change in the grand tours. Bottom line, there isn't much to get excited about in classics season right now, apart from LottoNL having Sep Vanmarcke, another Belgian star, around.
A Poll of No Consequence
Here are my top five courses for causing awesome spring classics racing:
1. Amstel Gold Race
2. E3 Prijs Harelbeke
4. Ronde van Vlaanderen
5. Brabantse Pijl
Hats off to AGR and its organizers for turning away from the old Cauberg summit finish and going with something that's been reliably fun. OK, they were forced off this position when the Worlds race showed everyone what a better idea it is to have the line a bit up the road, but at least they were watching. What would La Flèche be like if the finish were halfway up, or somewhere down the other side? Isn't it time to maybe find out? Paris-Roubaix can't stop being awesome regardless of how they lay out the course. Flanders is a mixed bag but usually something good happens... though it hasn't overshadowed its own warmup event, E3, in a couple years. Brabantse Pijl edges out the somewhat predictable LBL for the fifth spot. I like LBL, but you simply don't get the variety of rider types there that you see in Brabantse Pijl or even more so Amstel Gold. And as a result, you don't get the variety of racing. It's still a great test; it's just not fascinating.
[FYI, it's 187 days to KoppenbergCross.]