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All Good Things Must Come to an End (and a Patrick Verhoest Gallery!)

Boonen’s Last Charge
Tim de Waele

Reflections on the Classics Season as we wait for the last Bahrain-Merida (Bah-Meh) riders to make it to Roubaix…

You’d think at Casa Fontecchio the end of the Classics Season would be an occasion for gnashing of teeth and rending of what’s left of my hair (actually my teeth are probably in worse shape), and you’d be WRONG! No, you see, I grew up in New England, where seasons always ended, which goes part-and-parcel with the idea that they will begin again. That’s the essence of hope right there. It also begs the question why I moved to Seattle, where seasons may or may not end and hope is $4.25 short of buying you a cup of coffee. The reason is, I liked the music and I watched Singles a lot, and everyone seemed pretty happy there. Swish!

Anyway, I do like that the Cobbled Classics eventually end and something else can begin, like the Other Classics and the Giro d’Italia and I’m getting excited all over again. Also, when is the last time there was so little left to prove after Paris-Roubaix? I’ll tell you when: the last time I was in Belgium.

Boonen Cancellara Chat chris graythen

Then, it was a charismatic (cough) Swiss star in his prime, Fabo Tony Spartacus Cancellara in full flight, rockin and shockin stompin all MCs. Among the “stomped” was a guy whose name you can find in the word, who was then and is now a common thread in the season-within-a-seasonal narrative, but even the great Boonen was no match for Cancellara that year. If there had been another eleven cobbled classics I don’t think that would have changed, except for the part where they eventually get hospitalized for exhaustion.

This year too I don’t know how any further racing could flip the script. If the race was significant and involved cobblestones, a Belgian was winning it. Period, end of discussion. And frankly I think we should all be a little bit happy for them. You know how when you go to someone’s house for dinner and it feels really nice to have them cook a meal for you, something special that shows off their acumen and skill and also tastes good? But then they serve it to everyone and there’s none left for them so they just make a ham sandwich and everyone starts to kind of feel like shit? Or they would, if this were a thing that actually happened? Thankfully it isn’t but that’s how things were looking on the cobbles. The Heroes of the Cobbles, of late, were all foreign guys like Sagan, Kristoff, Hayman, Degenkolb, Terpstra – and when a Dutchman wins, that’s like when the host spills red wine on his new white silk shirt and is in a poorly-concealed funk for the rest of the night. It stopped being fun for anyone, and wasn’t going to be again until the hosts had a say in things.

This year was more like when the host invited you over, cooked a great meal, and served it to everyone— a beautiful handmade pasta, only everyone they invited over was gluten-intolerant and they all just nibbled on the salad while the host devoured the main course. Belgian cycling, if you think of it as an extended family, blew off the guests and ate the entire meal:

  • From Dwars door Vlaanderen to Paris-Roubaix, there were only Belgian winners, minus the Scheldeprijs, which I was in Belgium for but don’t think anyone watched. We were in a hot tub sipping trappist ale 15 meters from a large TV showing a brilliant Sporza cable feed and couldn’t be bothered to get out of the hot tub and put down our trappist ales long enough to watch what everyone knew was going to happen. This includes Broerie, who displayed no pangs of nationality-based urging to watch. So yeah, as far as anyone is really concerned, all the races were won by Belgians.
  • All the races were also won by Belgian teams – two in particular, being the Quick Step Team and the Belgian Mega Cobbles team (BMC), who might win the top spot in Andrew’s next power poll. They were so strong and powerful, they even took time to give lots of shout-outs to the country of Switzerland, for reasons I don’t understand. I guess that’s another part of being a great host, singling out one guest for special attention. Anyway, back at the service course in the Greater De Pinte Metropolitan Region, just north of the giant dripping statue, there was much rejoicing.
Van Avermaet at Paris-Roubaix
Tim de Waele
  • But while BMC had the last laugh, with Gent-Wevelgem and Paris-Roubaix going to Greg Van Avermaet, they at least had to spend a few minutes doing the opposite of laughing when they realized the biggest prize of all went to a guy they paid millions of Euros to talk about how he used to win a lot (back when he was on another team) and might someday win again (if only he could switch to another team). That was castoff Philippe Gilbert, now at Quick Step and picking up where he left off in his Lotto years, only better if you want to talk about just the Tour of Flanders, where he’d only been on the podium once before.
  • Gilbert also became the latest person to make Driedaagse De Panne seem like the ultimate Ronde preview, joining Alexander Kristoff two years ago (and Ballan in ‘07) in winning there before taking the big prize a few days later. Driedaagse is a bit more popular with Belgians (IIRC) than the Scheldeprijs, since it tends to rely on the Vlaamse Ardennen to play a hand in the result. It’s been a pretty nice race for a few years, so of course it has to be ruined by Flanders Classics, who don’t own it and want to move Brabantse Pijl into that spot, where that race will feature guys who either aren’t part of the cobbled races or who are and don’t give a shit about Brabantse Pijl. Because at Flanders Classics, there are always more solutions, even when we’ve run out of problems.
Gilbert at Flanders
Tim de Waele
  • Even the troubling specter of Dutch riders on the Flanders and Roubaix podiums could do little to disrupt the national mood in Belgium. The Flanders Podium of Gilbert, Van Avermaet and Terpstra gave us three guys who were either Belgian or getting paid by Belgians, and Sunday’s podium of Van Avermaet, Zdenek Stybar and Sebastian Langeveld gave us a trio of Belgians, honorary Belgians, and Dutch guys who spent the last hour ensuring a Belgian success. Useful Dutchmen are always a welcomed sight, something Van Avermaet and Stybar seemed to know when they nearly dropped an exhausted Langeveld, then helpfully waited for him to rejoin so he could take another dozen pulls before being left for dead on the first embankment of the old concrete Roubaix Velodrome. It’s fine to invite a couple foreigners to Everyone on the Podium Gets a Cobble Day, as long as a Belgian can say “mine’s bigger.”
  • The final tally: Quick Step wins Dwars, Scheldeprijs, Driedaagse and Flanders, while BMC get E3, Gent-Wevelgem and Roubaix (and the Omloop, if you want to be that way). Sagan, Kristoff, Trek, Sky, Cannondale and everyone else go home to lick their wounds. Not since 2005 has the dominance been so complete, when Nick Nuyens won the Omloop, Nico Eeckhoudt got Dwars, Nico Mattan got Gent-Wevelgem (suspiciously, but still) and Tom Boonen won everything else.

So yeah, back to my original point, it was time for this show to close while everyone still had tingling sensations in their extremities. (No, I’m not sure what that meant either.) It’s time to call it good, absorb the basic lesson, and move on to … a world without Tom Boonen (insert burst of uncontrollable sobbing sounds).

I saw a thread somewhere (OK, twitter) about how he shouldn’t retire since he’s been pretty strong this spring, because that’s totally how people manage watershed moments in their life: based on whatever just happened in the most recent five minutes. Expecting this of Boonen would be like a couple getting pregnant, carrying the baby to full term, buying a house in a good school district, painting the baby’s room and decorating it with non-threatening stuffed images of ruthless carnivores, and then giving the kid up for adoption because the night before the birth they went out to the movies and had a really good time!

Here’s a list of things Boonen has said he needs more of:

  • Time at home with his kids and wife.

Here’s another list, this one of things he doesn’t need more of:

  • Time in hotels with sweaty athletes, managers, groupies, soigneurs and mechanics;
  • Money;
  • Long winter trips to Qatar;
  • Cycling victories;
  • Being gone most of the day and exhausted at night;
  • Dragging John Degenkolb over the cobbles;
  • An occupation that at any moment could deprive him of the ability to enjoy the things on the other list; and
  • Opportunities to entertain cycling fans with his biking ability.

So if you read those lists and think he should continue with his cycling career, you’re either not that good at reading or kind of an asshole. Or you’re in love with him (coughMegabethcough). No matter what, if you love somebody, if you sports-love someone, if you love somebody, someone… set them free.

Bye Tom
Tim de Waele

Final thoughts about being on hand for the classics…

  • Flanders Classics, for all the shit I give them, are forward thinking, creating a stadium across 3km of road which can accommodate (and monetize) what will probably be an endlessly growing crowd of Ronde-worshippers. Paris-Roubaix, on the other hand, are going with the flow of a few decades and hoping nothing changes. The Arenberg Forest was a lot more crowded yesterday than it was seven years ago, and the only change I detected was the removal of fans from the west side of the road, making the experience on the east side even worse. [And probably saving lives, given how fast the team cars go by just inches from spectators.] Paris-Roubaix works OK I guess; Jens’ car parked on the street with little trouble and they got into the grandstands, even with Jimbo and Drew. Also it was fun to ride the A3, listening to the race on French radio and speeding up the freeway under bridges with riders on them, or by fields where you could see groups hammering on the cobbles on the other side. But if the crowds grow more at P-R, it could become problematic and I don’t know what the race would do about it.
  • The days of bad weather in April seem to be gone, though as someone who works for an agency that has a perspective on climate change, I can tell you that local weather phenomena can’t be definitively declared evidence of climate change. Anyway, my point is that the races are happening in the sun, and I don’t feel at all bad about it. Yes, the gladiatorial aspect of some of the mud fests was a spectacle, but should we really wish that on people? On the spectators too? And the frites vendors? Should we hope for dangerously slippery conditions, when the races are already dangerous and slippery enough? I can let that one go too.
  • So which race did you enjoy more, Flanders or Roubaix? I was there, so I didn’t see either, though getting back to the Flanders Classics stadium setup I was able to follow along as that drama unfolded, just by hanging around at the Paterberg. I’ve been more pro-Roubaix for a couple years, but for me this one swung back to Flanders. But I’ll not elaborate now, so as not to put a thumb on the scale. We can chat in comments.