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A Classic Run

In a middlin’ spring season, one name stands out

Serry and Jungels at La Flèche
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The spring classics are a wrap! Before letting them go, I wanted to pause long enough for posterity. What was it we’ll remember in ten years? That’s easy... Quick Step. But that might not be all.

We saw a few quasi-historic results. We saw some people we wanted to get excited about do exciting things. Let’s run through them.

Sagan alone on the Pavé
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A Bit of History in the Making

Peter Sagan and Niki Terpstra both completed their career Flanders-Roubaix double, entering... not Nirvana, but at least the Sotapanna stream. The pair became the 11th and 12th riders since 1980 to notch wins in both Monuments, an illustrious list apart from maybe some EPO-soaked entries. Suffice to say, winning two fairly different monuments tends to say really good things about riders.

In Terpstra’s case, he was just the strongest rider in the field when he took the victory in Oudenaarde. Sure, his team played a role in that win and in his prior wins in E3 and Le Samyn, but at Flanders he rode away from everyone who still harbored ambitions of winning as the race passed through Ronse, and there was nothing anyone could do to stop him. This is probably all there is for Terpstra; any race including more vertical than Flanders is probably starting to slip from his grasp. But his pure strength and audacity will keep him in points until he hangs up his bike.

For Sagan, the Paris-Roubaix victory is a coronation, and a truly unique won. Sagan is of course an incredibly decorated rider at this point, but in Roubaix he became the first rider in the Rainbow Jersey to raise his arms in triumph in the velodrome since Bernard Hinault in 1981. This is not an aberration; Paris-Roubaix is something of an aberration, whereas the Worlds tend to be inclusive and reward either well-heeled types or random sprinters. [Romāns Vainšteins, we hardly knew ye.] So the Venn diagram of these two titles doesn’t intersect much to begin with, let alone at the same time. Sagan adds this ultimate warrior status to his magic rainbow run, his long history of sprint wins, his general mastery of the cobbles, and his domination of the Tour de France points competition, to the point they threw him out of the race the second he was caught writing on a desk or talking during pre-race introductions or whatever. Unlike Terpstra, there’s no telling what Sagan will do next.

Stepping Into the Record Books

If you are sick of hearing about Quick Step, well, I have good news for you! Wait, not good, what was the word... oh, yeah, you should probably keep scrolling. Since we are all a bit ready to turn the page, I promise to keep this brief.

Obviously Quick Step bossed the sport around pretty brutally, no quarter given, for the last month or so. 27 wins in mid-April is a metric fuck-ton of success (I’m told; we Americans still use English fuck-tons). Their string of wins is as follows:

  • Le Samyn
  • Dwars door West Vlaanderen
  • Nokere Koerse
  • Ham Sandwich
  • Driedaagse De Panne
  • E3 Harelbeke
  • Dwars door Vlaanderen
  • Ronde van Vlaanderen
  • Scheldeprijs
  • La Flèche Wallonne
  • Liège-Bastogne-Liège

It might be faster to list the misses: Gent-Wevelgem, Paris-Roubaix, Brabantse Pijl, and by the way, Milano-Sanremo, last won by Club Lef in 2006 thanks to Filippo Pozzato. Still pretty damn impressive.

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How impressive? I’ve done a bit of half-assed internet research and determined that it’s probably the best run for any team like ever. Included in this determination is the resignation that anyone before 1996 was totally doped, or if you go back before 1990, then we are talking teams where half the guys still smoked cigarettes. In that time frame only two franchises enter the conversation to get compared to Quick Step.

The first is Team HTC-High Road, who topped out at a grotesque 85 victories in a single year in 2008. From then until their demise after 2011, they dominated the win charts. But being American in its home base meant that their palmares inevitably contained a great many empty calories, rather than iconic classic victories. In their history they were quite decorated, but no season included a run of success in the spring classics worth discussing.

The better, and really only, case to be made involves the Mapei Squad. That legendary outfit... well, they succeeded in an era of doping that would put the Sochi Olympics to shame. But if you want to suspend such concerns for a moment, here are some of their win totals in their dramatic run of success.

1995: Omloop Het Volk, E3 Prijs, Ronde van Vlaanderen, Paris-Roubaix

1996: Roma Maxima (the sixth monument), Omloop, E3, Brabantse Pijl, Paris-Roubaix, Scheldeprijs

1998: Roma Maxima (!), Dwars, Driedaagse, E3, Brabantse Pijl, Ronde, Gent-Wevelgem, Paris-Roubaix. A clean sweep!

1999: Dwars, Brabantse Pijl, Gent-Wevelgem, Paris-Roubaix, La Fleche Wallonne

2000: Omloop, Brabantse Pijl, Driedaagse de Panne, Paris-Roubaix, Liege-Bastogne-Liege

2002: Roma... OK, Brabantse Pijl, Flanders, L-B-L

I’d put Quick Step’s present run up against any single entry by Mapei. I may be missing a few of their minor wins, but whatever, these are the races that really count. Quick Step missed a cobbles sweep at Gent-Wevelgem and Paris-Roubaix, but then doubled back with the Flèche and LBL wins. Mapei never won more than two of the three spring monuments, if that’s your measuring stick, and never won more than one of the Ardennes events in a season. Their 1998 sweep of the cobbles was great, but I think there’s something to be said for applying your advantages to a more varied set of classics.

Oh, and this point shouldn’t be lost: Quick Step won LBL with tactics from the cobbles: launch a sneakily dangerous attack, sow confusion and chaos behind, drink champagne. The cobblification of the Ardennes races is something I think I can get behind.

Anyway, congrats Quick Step and enjoy your off-season! [What? But Jungels! Mas! Schachmann!!!] Yeah, OK. See you in the Alps.

Van Aert in France
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Youth Served, Part N+1

Then there are the young riders. Every year new guys come into the sport, or increase their profile, to the point where we start talking about a new generation of stars, though it happens every year and technically generations are more like 15-20 years apart, so it’s all kind of a blur. Plus Peter Sagan is still only 28. So don’t get too excited about a “changing of the guard” just yet.

Do get excited, however, about a stiffening of the competition. If this year showed us anything, it’s that things can get a tad repetitive if one team is so much stronger than anyone else (in case you hadn’t noticed that during any of Quick Step’s other dominant seasons). A single individual might break through like Sagan but that’s mostly it. But as the younger riders come of age, and hopefully don’t all sign for Quick Step, it all gets better. Fields get deeper, contenders are harder to narrow down, teams have the strength to parry Lefevre’s moves, and so on. At least, that’s the hope.

Here are some riders to hang your hopes on. Again, as long as they don’t just sign with Quick Step.

Wout Van Aert: It’s barely worth mentioning again how great he was in races from his brilliant Strade Bianche to his I-can’t-believe-he’s-with-the-lead-group performances in Flanders and Roubaix. Not a shock, really, except for the distances and overall effort required, but Van Aert has shown that he’s the ultimate grinder over 60-minute increments, so what’s another four hours of hiding in the pack to add to that? Everyone wants his signature, so there’s only like a 70 percent chance he picks Big Blue. Oh, and when are these Olympics that Mathieu van der Poel is stalling his road career for? Can they be yesterday please?

Herald Sun Jayco Tour Photo by Con Chronis/Getty Images

Mads Pedersen: Michael Valgren’s performance might not be the big headline in Danish cycling circles, since he’s in his prime and was a known quantity. No, it’s Pedersen who got people really, really excited about his future after riding away from everyone other than Terpstra in de Ronde. Pedersen made his debut as a teenager in 2015 at Driedaagse de Panne, Nokere Koers and Ham Sandwich, and by age 20 he was getting some decent results (8th in Driedaagse, 15th in Dwars). Last year was his apprenticeship. This year, he was level with his teammate Jasper Stuyven, and a star was born. Maybe some of our Scandinavian experts can talk about whether he’s the type of rider you want to bring to the line in Oudenaarde for a four-up sprint, or not. [He was last of the four coming into the finish at Dwars, so that’s one data point.] But in Flanders he made sure that didn’t matter. Oh, and he’s 18 months younger than Tiesj Benoot.

Tiesj Benoot: Sometimes progress is incremental. The young Gentenaar probably isn’t going to win de Ronde until he is strong enough to blow up the field and/or adds a threatening teammate or three, but he was consistently at the front of races, showed a feistiness befitting of a classics star, and shed the can’t-win label with his Strade Bianche tour de force. Lack of a fast finish means he could be the next Terpstra maybe? But if that all sounds too measured, recall that he was third in Brabantse Pijl and hanging around the front of LBL, a race that might be changing to a flat finish in Liège next year. Benoot will be a valuable asset for some time to come.

Mike Teunissen: Not sure where the age cutoff is for this column, but I remember the now-25-year-old Teunissen from his win in the 2013 CX worlds U23 race, so I just feel like sneaking him in here. Did we see this coming? Teunissen isn’t exactly a big winner (yet) but is developing into something of a Dwars door Vlaanderen specialist (9th, 16th, 2nd this year). In other words, at about the 200km mark he’s still very relevant to the race, if maybe not for much longer. But even there, he made the leap to the Van Aert-Phinney-Stybar-Naesen group in Paris-Roubaix (11th), which could be his ultimate destiny. His career is coming along really nicely, and it’s still early enough to dream big.

Timo Roosen: Another rider from the we-weren’t-exactly-expecting-you file, but the 25-year-old has arrived anyway. Along with Teunissen, the old Rabo Development team is going to end up with quite the legacy after all. Roosen was thrust into leadership at the last moment for the classics, generally working for Dylan Groenewegen in sprints, but handled it well enough that we can picture him as a secondary choice in all but the monuments starting next spring.

Fabio Jakobsen wins Scheldeprijs
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Fabio Jakobsen: Yeah, Quick Step. But the Dutch sprinter has a Scheldeprijs to his name before his 22nd birthday. How many people can say that?

Christophe Laporte: Another from the 25-year-old class, Laporte is more of a Gent-Wevelgem type — grinding and sprinting — but his Tro Bro win is a nice result and his fourth in G-W puts him in the top class there.

Max Schachmann: More Quick Step? Sheesh. Still, it’s not often you see a rider from the climbing world who’s yet to harden his legs at a grand tour, but is still taking top-10 in La Flèche and playing an important role in LBL.

OK, this column needs to end, so feel free to take more names to the comments. In all, it wasn’t a season of truly memorable competition, stuff we’ll get tingly about ten years from now, but there were plenty of inspiring performances that make some of us (OK me) get tingly about the next round of cobbles.