With the arrival of the bikes and bags and riders and soigneurs in Flanders, fresh off the traditional Italian late-winter escape, another Cobbled Classics season is upon us. From the stones to the giant cartoon paintings to the grey and green pastoral landscapes of Flemish spring, things might seem like they used to be. And we can only hope they will. Surely we are part of the way back to normal? Last year’s cobbled classics were pushed off until the fall, if not canceled outright, and maybe that was OK... it was at least the best we could do.
This time around the races have reverted to their spring rotation... for now. Fans won’t be allowed by the roadside, not beyond the trickle of course neighbors wandering out from their homes. And Paris-Roubaix appears to be hanging by a thread, with the Department du Nord among the COVID hot spots that cannot tolerate a major sporting event. Somehow across the border it’s tolerable? Or maybe the alternative is what’s intolerable? Stay tuned, but for now it looks like we will race.
The season kicks off tomorrow with Driedaagse Brugge-De Panne, now maybe seemingly renamed the Oxyclean Classic Brugge-De Panne? And here’s to races sticking to their no longer accurate names! Sure, Gent-Wevelgem doesn’t touch Gent, the E3 is now the E17, and Paris-Roubaix hasn’t disembarked from Paris since the German army stormed the city in 1939. I remember it well, the Germans wore grey, you wore blue. But I digress. Still, misleading geographic names for the sake of better branding (Deinze-Wevelgem, anyone?) is one thing, outright lying about the schedule is next level. Driedaagse De Panne hasn’t had drie daagse (3 days) of racing in a few years — it’s one day each for the men and women. Maybe in the best of times there will be a full three day supply of ham and cheese croissants and bad coffee for the press hordes, but there still won’t be three days of racing. I can grudgingly accept most of the race changes but I do miss the four-event Driedaagse of recent years, ending in a short, flat time trial for the few remaining riders looking to contest the GC.
From there, things start looking more familiar. E3 Prijs Vlaanderen Harelbeke Saxo Bank Classic GP Tommeke Boonen (am I missing anything?) kicks off Friday with its usual hard selection of Vlaamse Ardennen menu items. Now! Enlarged to include the Kanarieberg! They’re up to 17 official climbs (also adding the Eikenberg and my beloved Oude Kruisberg in Ronse). In my mind the battle rages on between Flanders Classics and the one race of (great) substance they don’t control, the E3 whateveryoucallit. The (appropriately) grimly branded Gent-Wevelgem-In Flanders Fields is its long-time rival and the two have fought over the Flanders Tuneup corner for more than a decade now. GWIFF has tried to overcome its natural disadvantage of covering the flats of West Flanders, packing in circuits of the Kemmel-area climbs, while the E3 organizers in Harelbeke, who themselves can easily ride to the Oude Kwaremont at lunchtime, just keep playing their topographical aces over and over. Both are World Tour now so the riders will show up no matter what.
We will get into courses as the races pop up, but since Brugge-De Panne is tomorrow, I can tell you that its primary feature is neither cobbles nor gradients; it’s wind. The forecast along the coast is set to accommodate this feature, with 15mph speeds predicted for the afternoon. You want echelons? I got your echelons right here! After that, the rains move in, and things should be interesting through the weekend, to say the least.
A Quick Power Poll
What did we learn about the teams heading into the Cobbled Classics season from our time in Italy and the earlier Omloop Weekend? Some of our most conventional views were majorly reinforced, while a few others evolved. Wout and Mathieu have not exactly been infallible, but close to it so that you would assume that, barring misfortune, they will be at the front of any race they truly care about. And with the likelihood of no Paris-Roubaix, that says something about a Tour of Flanders rematch.
But they won’t be without company. Sure, Milano-Sanremo isn’t very predictive of anything except its own roulette-wheel character. You might be inclined to curse the tactical errors of van der Poel or Van Aert, but the fact of the matter is that these things really don’t carry over into Flanders. Sure, you can make your own luck in MSR, as Jasper Stuyven did, but so too can lots of other guys, and apart from the one who does it just right, everyone else loses. In Flanders, nobody makes the finale by accident or tactical quirk. There will be no 20mph tailwind to push the oversized INEOS track guys up the hills and into the pathway of a more open race. Shit is gonna get real somewhere on the slopes of the Vlaamse Ardennen, it always does. Strade Bianche is probably more predictive of cobbled success, or would be if it weren’t five weeks removed from De Ronde.
One note I want to steal from the proper reporters is a sentence I read at Cycling News, where Stephen Farrand lauded Trek DS Luca Guercilena for his patience in developing Stuyven and sticking with the talented Leuvenite through six up (2018) and down (2019) seasons. The Chocolatier (really? Is that like nicknaming an Italian “espresso guy”?) is still just 28, a prime age for a classics rider, notwithstanding the tide of talented kids sweeping the landscape. It’s fun for us fans to continually hype the next big thing, but to do that job properly you can’t forget the last big thing you hyped too quickly. Stuyven was a next big thing starting from his KBK win in 2016. He’s still a big thing. He’s also coming off his worst showing in the Omloop weekend, after years of looking great in February but not getting over the hump in April. If he’s timed his peak a bit later, I mean, it has to be worth a shot?
Van Aert and van der Poel didn’t look terribly well supported in Italy, and both will continue to rely on riders of middling pedigree or excessive youth. Mike Teunissen’s absence at Jumbo Visma is noticeable. Some question marks there for both, though I wouldn’t count their teams out just yet. INEOS and Quick Step both seem thin in the finishing department, although Julian Alaphilippe could make me eat those words, and Quick Step are always the masters of flooding the field with riders you underestimate at your peril. Still, that’s enough for me to put Trek Segafredo in the pole position for the classics, to start. Recency bias blah blah blah, but when you have a tandem of Stuyven and Mads Pedersen both on top form, with capable support riders like Kiel Reijnen, Quinn Simmons and Edward Theuns likely to keep them afloat, that should give them more confidence than the rest. Trek have the highest ceiling, although Deceuninck Quick Step have the highest floor, by a wide margin.
- Trek Segafredo
- Deceuninck Quick Step
- Alpecin Fenix
- Total Direct Energie
- Jumbo Visma
- Bora Hansgrohe
- Team DSM
- EF Education Nippo
That’ll do for now. If you were inclined to do more reading, particularly about how cool things were back in 2010, I wrote a book about the subject. It’s only available in paperback, which is great because you can tear out the chapters you don’t like.