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Flanders Friday: Looking for Clues

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Are we learning anything about what’s to come in a couple weeks?

Dylan Groenewegen wins in Paris-Nice
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Was there any news of the Cobbled Classics this week? I didn’t see any. Most of the reporters are in France or Italy, fussing over the events in front of them. You can read Sporza and get your daily update on Wout Van Aert (was his Strade Bianche ok? Will he owe his old team a bunch of money?) but even I have my limits there. No, there’s nothing. Les Amis are scrubbing the horrible pavé in France and that’s about it.

So now is a moment to poke around and see what there is to learn about the individual riders who will contest the great classics around the corner. Does Paris-Nice or Tirreno-Adriatico tell us anything about what’s to come?

Backing up, the two early spring stage races are must-rides for all the classics guys, from Milano-Sanremo hopefuls to the cobbles types, but primarily because people fixing to win something in April need to be riding hard in March, and the races to the Seas and Sun are the places to do just that. But can they get a result that should tell us something? To start with, both races are set up to feature a few bunch sprint events, after which the stages get varied and eventually either a climb or a time trial or both decide the GC. Not really a place for classics specialists to get a break. But there’s overlap between the classics and sprinters set, and at least in France you can get crosswinds that blow the race apart, leaving it to the strongmen to clean up.

In 2017, of the top ten finishers in de Ronde, winner Philippe Gilbert, fifth placed Alexander Kristoff, sixth placed Sacha Modolo and 10th placed Sonny Colbrelli all got plenty of results in PN and TA, not a bad tipoff. In 2016, Zdenek Stybar and Sep Vanmarcke were among the top ten Ronde finishers who got things rolling earlier (along with Peter Sagan and Kristoff — but let’s face it, they were going to show up in both places regardless). In 2015, Sagan, Cancellara and Kristoff all won stuff before Flanders, where Kristoff bagged his biggest triumph. And on it goes.

But it’s hardly definitive. Last year only Mike Teunissen and Matteo Trentin got results in stages that portended good things; for the most part the stars on the cobbles were guys who just put in their work, along with usual suspects Sagan, Van Avermaet, Gilbert, and newcomers Pedersen, Valgren and others just got in their work. Niki Terpstra never gets results before the cobbles. Everyone has their own pathway.

So what are we seeing this week that is of potential interest?

  • Dylan Groenewegen, a former U23 Ronde winner, is off to the best start of his career with four early sprint wins and fourth in Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne. After winning KBK last year and taking fifth in Dwars two years ago, it’s not hard to see him building toward a more impressive result this spring.
  • Magnus Cort Nielsen took a tough Paris-Nice stage yesterday. MCN has improved every year of his still budding career at De Ronde, up to 20th last year, when he was also 14th in Dwars (and 8th in MSR). Some top ten points could very well be around the corner for the Dane.
  • We’ve only had one proper stage of Tirreno, but it was telling enough, as DQS stud Julian Alaphilippe (an Ardennes rider only) barely got past Greg Van Avermaet of CCC. Usual suspect Tiesj Benoot was in the mix too. GVA has never quite mastered De Ronde, and with a couple missed chances already this year in the Omloop and Strade Bianche it’s not clear whether he’s missing a gear, but more likely that his form is coming along at something like his usual pace.

The connection between these events is definitely there. It wasn’t that long ago that Tom Boonen would show up at P-N, win a few stages before getting bored, and go on a Cobbled Monuments rampage which everyone saw coming from 500 miles away. Now, Boonen was a unique specimen, a cobbles master who could also sprint early in his career (when frankly there wasn’t the most competition), and I guess we could wonder if there were other unique factors in the bad old days that made dominance easier to come by. [Not an accusation; just saying, those were different times.]

But now, we have a like-kind rider in Peter Sagan, of course, a guy who tends to go to Tirreno and clean up, right before launching another assault on the cobbles. Oddly, for all the years Sagan has won stages at the Due Mare, in the two seasons where he won a monument (2016 and ‘18) he’s been shut out from winning any Tirreno stages. Probably a coincidence since he’s about the same rider year in and year out. But with nothing more than a TDU stage on his palmares for this year, you could argue that things are looking up for his Flanders campaign.

Anyway, keep an eye out in the next week for more riders who look to be building something toward Flanders.