This week in the minutiae of the classics...
I know everyone is saying it’s Omloop/KBK Weekend, and of course it is. Everybody likes to start geeking out on the Cobbles as of Saturday morning. But there’s geeking out on the cobbles, and then there’s looking past the Omloop because it’s Le Samyn Tuesday coming up!
Le Samyn happens just south of Ronse in the quiet, lovely spaces of northern Wallonia, where the languages meet but really you’re still more or less in the Flemish Ardennes. It’s the third act of the early-season trilogy of cobbled races, separate from Nokere Koerse, Driedaagse De Panne and the Ham Sandwich. You can draw conclusions from Saturday’s results, but personally I’d give it til Tuesday before we can say that things are really shaping up. Le Samyn went to Niki Terpstra last year, so as far as anyone is concerned, if you want to restrict yourself to the single freshest data point, it’s the best predictor of Ronde van Vlaanderen success we have.
OK, on to more immediate matters...
Maybe you caught wind of the E3 Poster hoopla as of Monday? E3 Prijs Vlaanderen/Harelbeke launched its latest publicity campaign and it’s ... a whopper. First, a little history. E3 has long been one of the few big holdouts from the Flanders Classics umbrella of race promotion, so in addition to its World Tour status, E3 has had to work hard to get attention in among the flood of spring Belgian races. They’ve pulled out all the stops, and not always to the benefit of the race (unless you buy into the old adage that all news is good news). Let’s walk throuth a few of their more recent notable efforts.
This poster got everyone’s attention that the race’s marketing people were maybe not focused on things like not pissing people off. It was a spoof of Peter Sagan’s indiscretion, when he inappropriately touched a podium gal in 2013 — an incident almost nobody thought was funny for all of the year or so after it happened.
If people were shocked by this poster, it’s maybe because they didn’t remember this from 2011:
Yeah. So anyway, E3 has tried a few other avenues besides female sexuality to get people to watch the race. Namely, silliness.
And now fast forward to Monday, when the race not only unveiled its poster, featuring a rather elaborate looking frog... it added a video of how the poster was made. And that’s when it got interesting.
The poster design was inspired by the very entertaining art form practiced by a number of people, the best-known of which I think is Johannes Stoetter. Here’s a sampling from Stoetter.
Honestly, this is E3 going way out on a limb and it’s awesome. Not that I am without misgivings, particularly when I think about what would happen if you were a marketing guy in the US and you started a meeting with “I have an idea! First, two of our employees take off all their clothes...” But America is just slightly to the left of the Taliban in its attitude toward female nudity, whereas I suspect we can count on the Gallic sensibilities making this exercise OK. Anyway, it’s a leap from cheap gags to real art, or at least the regeneration of it...
Is there anything stranger than the fact that Quick Step haven’t won at the Omloop since Nick Nuyens took the 2005 edition? Since the disastrous 2011 season, when Boonen crashed out and the team capped out at a meager six wins, they have won between 54 and 73 races every year. Last year they won Le Samyn, Nokere Koerse, Handzame, Driedaagse De Panne, Dwars Door Vlaanderen, E3, and De Ronde. That’s everything except Paris-Roubaix (last won by the Wolfpack in 2014), Gent-Wevelgem (last taken in 2012), K-B-K (most recently in 2014)... and the Omloop, last taken 14 years ago. Since that victory, the teams that have won the Omloop, one of the signature races of Belgium with a long and storied history, include Liquigas, FDJ, Cervelo Test Team, Rabobank, Katusha, Garmin (Slipstream), and Sky.
One way to explain this is simply the calendar, that Quick Step are all hot for the major events a month from now and don’t necessarily put their best foot forward in February. But they are also the deepest team in the sport and should be able to score a win at home every single month of the year, and twice in April.
Have they been snake-bit? Vanmarcke’s 2012 win at the line over Boonen was a shocking development after at textbook execution of team strategy. A year later it was Stijn Vandenbergh’s turn to get beaten at the line, albeit rather predictably by Luca Paolini, and in 2015 Terpstra got taken by Ian Stannard, again not necessarily an upset (Stannard was just a beast that day). Boonen had chances in 2007 and 09, but this wasn’t Boonen the World’s Fastest Man anymore; rather it was Tornado Tom in his turbulent middle years, which was a drag on the team after two seasons of counting on him to completely dominate everywhere.
In 2009 and 2014 Boonen won the next day in Kuurne, which pretty well excuses his bunch sprint disappointment in 2009 at the Omloop and his uneventful day in 2014. But for the last five or so seasons Club Lefevre have relied more on an array of threatening riders than another Boonen Show, and they’ve often worked their team tactics to perfection. It’s in this period that their fallow time in the Omloop stands out as odd.
Is it possible they spend the day just seeing what they have, this being the first of the cobbled races, rather than formulating a sound plan? I think the early calendar date means they are below full strength. But the other factor worth mentioning is how much their rivals care about the race. The Flemish races have been growing steadily in international prominence for the last 15 years. A quick glance at tomorrow’s startlist suggests that the following teams are bringing multiple big-name riders looking for a result: Di-Data, Lotto, AG2R, Bahrain-Merida, CCC, EF Education First, Sky, Trek, Jumbo-Visma, Katusha, Direct Energie... I mean, this is my ungenerous list. Even Movistar, whom you could usually count on to field a team built around Spaniards drawing the short straw, have picked up Jurgen Roelands to give them at least a veneer of respectability. The competition has gone crazy, and the urge to make a splash on opening day has just caught up with the Steppers.
So don’t be shocked if Club Lef stick to the patient game and use the Omloop for what it is: a race that starts five weeks and a day before the biggest target of the year.