As we run up to the 2022 Ronde van Vlaanderen, let’s take a moment to honor the passing of a torch that, well, didn’t burn anywhere nearly as brightly as those which came before or after. It’s the Generation X of 21st century Flanders winners, the middle-kid group sandwiched between the legendary Cancellara/Boon... wait, Boonen/Cancellara generation and the current and possibly even more astounding van der Poel/Van Aert club. These are the 21st Century Flanders Tweeners, and they are kinda sorta still around, if you look closely enough. And while we don’t plan to sing songs about their rivalries or dedicate an entire week of blog postings to them, they should be recognized for the greats they were.
What Made Him Great: Mountain biking, as well as some otherworldly talent. The hallmarks of his career, which may yet have some unwritten chapters left, were his incredible diversity of really high level skills, the type which made him a man for practically every kind of race. He could handle his bike like the dirt kid he was growing up. He could climb like a MTBer — too heavy to win a grand tour GC, perhaps, but not much else. And he could finish off a sprint with the top fastmen in the world (which he was for some time). All of that made him a natural for the Ronde van Vlaanderen, and even Paris-Roubaix, which he won in 2018.
With all that going for him, it was even more impressive that his Flanders breakthrough in 2016 came in the form of a tour of pure force, escaping with Kwiatkowski and Vanmarcke and then taking turns riding them off his wheel such that he was able to win in Oudenaarde with nobody else in the photo. While he never won de Ronde again, two years later Sagan became the 28th rider to accomplish the career Cobbled Double, notching wins in both Flanders and Paris-Roubaix, a week after another guy on this list made the grade.
What Kept Him From Being Greater: In a word, Money. Sagan made a lot of it, some €5-6million annually over his last few contracts, more than anyone else in the sport. And because life isn’t fair, and can be downright stupid at times, the commercial value of a rider’s exploits are not maximized by focusing on the Cobbled Classics. Not that the top Belgians are bothered enough by the commercial allure of the Tour de France to forego their beloved home races. But Sagan came up through Italian teams and then became a big enough star in America such that his fate became tied as much to Specialized as to the trade teams employing him. Maybe if he had been left alone by all the monied interests in the sport, he could have threatened to join the Three-Flanders Club, but going to the Tour to win another (yawn) green jersey is what paid the bills.
Of course, it might also be fair to say that he did devote significant attention to the Classics starting in 2013, but the Ronde van Vlaanderen is not kind to even the best riders. He got second in 2013 at the end of a brilliant run through the warm-ups (2nd in E3 and the win at GW) for the simple reason that Cancellara was still around and on form. The following two editions saw him just get lost in the tactical churn of the race, before his breakthrough win. Then he saw a possible comeback win (chasing down Gilbert) and title defense snatched away from him by a spectator’s inattention to his jacket which ended up in Sagan’s front wheel. Like I said, sometimes life is downright stupid at times. But to join the all-timers’ lists, you have to come into the Cobbles early on and stay with them for a long time, long enough for all of the bad luck to go someone else’s way. Sagan rode Flanders just ten times (so far), with one DNF, five top tens, and the rest in the top 20.
What Made Him Great: Brute strength. At 6 feet in height and 170 or so pounds, Kristoff is one of the larger riders in the Flemish classics, at least among the ones we think of as possible winners. Certainly since 2012, when the course honed in on the Kwaremont-Paterberg finale, the question became whether a sprinter could survive the final ascents and get a clean shot at victory. In 2012, with his first real shot at the race, Kristoff hung with the peloton to the end and took 15th. A year later he was up to fourth, winning the sprint out of the bunch behind the Boonen-led escapees. In 2014 he was fifth, again left behind by the top guys. The narrative began to take hold (in my mind anyway?) that maybe he couldn’t quite power his large frame over the final circuit to win.
But in 2015 it all came together. With ace lieutenant Luca Paolini alongside, Kristoff came on strong from Paris-Nice onward, barely missing a win in Milano-Sanremo, then moving up to fourth in E3 (which he previously tended to skip) and finally taking the breakthrough win in Flanders. That day, he wasn’t simply a sprinter who waited until the last 50 meters. He animated the final selection by attacking just after leaving Ronse via the Kruisberg, taking only Niki Terpstra along and distancing favorites Sagan and Van Avermaet in the process. Sure, he then had to take the sprint from Terpstra, who did what he could to avoid the inevitable, but this was Alexander Fucking Kristoff, and yes, he could sprint.
What Kept Him From Being Greater: That very same sprinting prowess, I think? As a junior and espoir, Kristoff raced around Europe but only once tried the cobbles, in 2009, shortly before turning pro. From there, he was in Belgium plenty, but didn’t attempt De Ronde until 2012. From his palmares, it looks like he would come to Flanders each spring and ride the sprintable races (e.g. Driedaagse and Gent-Wevelgem), then miss Flanders in favor of the Scheldeprijs (no words here), before making a what-the-hell go at Paris-Roubaix. Mind you, he started out with Joker-Bianchi, which couldn’t count on invitations, and then moved over to BMC when they featured a Classics lineup of Alessandro Ballan, George Hincapie, Greg Van Avermaet and some high level support riders. So which came first, the sprinting ability or the pigeonholing thereof by his non-Belgian teams? Probably the former — he won the national road race over Thor Hushovd as a 19-year-old. Anyway, he was 25 when former winner Andrei Tchmiel recognized Kristoff’s talent and hired him away to Katusha, with a boatload of cash and a promise to allow him to pursue the program Kristoff deserved.
What Made Him Great: Pure guts and gall. Or maybe tactical sense. Sometimes these are not really so different, at least in Flanders.
Terpstra came up as a prominent Dutch talent who somehow escaped the Rabobank development system, turning pro with Milram and sniffing around the Classics without making a strong impression. But in 2011 he switched over to Quick Step, perhaps sensing that Tom Boonen, four years his senior, would need a lieutenant and possible stand-in, on a team that liked to surround its star with guys who could steal the win if you focused too much on the captain. He essentially inherited the role vacated by Stijn Devolder, who played it to the tune of dual Flanders wins.
After a crash in Driedaagse stole his Quick Step Ronde debut in 2011, Terpstra was in on Boonen’s winning maneuvers in 2012, was limited by either illness or injury in 2013, then got into the action again in 2014 when he stayed with Boonen while Stijn Vandenbergh went up the road with the winners. By 2015, described above, he was now in a leader’s role (Boonen being on the shelf that spring), and got away from everyone in that false flat between the top of the Kruisberg and the mild Hotond ascent on the way to Kwaremont. By now the big-name riders had settled into a pattern of attacking on the big-name climbs at the end of Flanders, the Oude Kwaremont and Paterberg, and apparently only Terpstra kept a mental note of this stretch of road as a place to launch a surprise assault. Three years later, after an off-year in 2016 for QS and the 2017 dual success that included Terpstra third (having come around the Sagan pileup), it was time to act on that mental note. Terpstra reached the top of the Kruisberg in the 2018 race primed to attack. The favorites Gilbert, Sagan and Van Avermaet had spent the previous few climbs attacking each other, so when Vincenzo Nibali made an audacious jump after the Kruisberg, Terpstra was readiest to respond, taking the wheel of the former Tour de France winner and following until Nibali lost steam, then accelerating around him to never be seen again.
The tactical nuance of this move is just perfect cycling. Terpstra should have been a marked man, after he won Paris-Roubaix in 2014 with a 6km solo attack countering the maneuverings of the big boys, including his illustrious teammate Boonen, at a moment when he knew they would have no interest whatsoever in chasing. Sometimes it’s not about picking your favorite place to jump so much as picking the point at which your rivals are most unprepared to do anything about whatever you have in mind. So although Terpstra’s winning move in Flanders might have been taking a page out of the 2015 move where he followed Kristoff over the same stretch of road, you could also say that he stole a page from his earlier win in Roubaix, going at the exact moment, wherever it might occur, that an attack would crush everyone’s spirits.
What Kept Him From Being Greater: I am going with talent here. He obviously had far more of it than anyone resembling a normal human being, but at the very top, there were just faster guys, be it in the sprints or in the punchy climbs where he rarely set the acceleration. He could match it on his good days. He could outsprint the non-sprinters. When he won, it was often more on pure power, be it a time trial (especially the TTTs) or in shorter events like the 2016 Dwars door het Hageland, where he won by a 1” gap over some Van Aert kid. But in the Ronde van Vlaanderen, his timing and form both needed to be perfect for him to escape without faster company. Quick Step were a perfect match for him, where he could be one of several cards to be played in a race, where the tactical advantages play into his strengths, and his strengths played into the team’s tactical superiority. Niki Terpstra’s career, which is slowly winding down at DirectEnergies, has been every bit as great as it could have been.
What Made Him Great: The consummate Belgian, and I don’t mean Flandrien, I mean Belgian. Hailing from Verviers, in Wallonia, Gilbert’s home turf is the terrain of Liège-Bastogne-Liège and Amstel Gold. He grew up closer to Germany and Luxembourg than the Flemish Ardennes. But these distances are still pretty minor, and it follows (I guess) that the variance in the character of Belgian cyclists on both sides of the linguistic border isn’t that great. Because Gilbert, like all of the celebrated Ronde winners with Flemish names, is an attacker.
He came up in 2002 as a known entity, a 20-year-old stagiare on the FDJ squad whose last major amateur race was when he took fourth at the U23 Ronde van Vlaanderen, amidst guys like Nuyens, Vansummeren, Steegmans and a dozen other future notable pros. He could sprint with the fastmen (although not quite as fast), he could get over the punchy climbs, and he could win by launching long, audacious attacks, starting with the Polynormande classic in 2005, then more notably at the Omloop Het Volk — twice, both from long distance, and his 2008 win made him history’s last winner of Het Volk, shortly before they changed the name. [I so wish he had won again, to go down as the only winner of Het Volk and Het Nieuwsblad. I don’t ask for much...]
There is hardly enough space to cover Gilbert’s growth into the most decorated classics rider of his era, where he dominated the climbers’ spring classics including the quadruple Brabantse-Amstel-Fleche-Liège in 2011 as well as other famous spots on the calendar. And my favorite heater was the close to his 2009 season where he won Coppa Sabatini, Paris-Tours, Piemonte and Lombardia in a span of ten days, beating the stars of the climbing classics, the Tour de France, the sprints and the cobbles along the way. I don’t think the Paris-Tours/Lombardia Double will ever be matched. Hardly anyone even thinks to ride both races.
Gilbert is not the great classics winner of all time or even his era. He was the greatest rider in the world when he got on one of his legendary hot streaks, of which there were several, and they were phenomenal. And when he showed up at the Ronde van Vlaanderen in 2017, returning to the race for the first time since 2012 and looking to improve on his pair of third place finishes, he was about to go on another massive heater. He had just joined Quick Step from BMC, and the team was evolving from Boonen’s guys (it was his last spring campaign) to something new. Gilbert took the sprint at Dwars for second behind his teammate Lampaert’s solo win, then got pipped for the win at E3 by Kristoff. He took charge of Driedaagse with an opening stage win and sealed the overall victory. That was his run-up to De Ronde.
There, he took the reins as only a true champion would, taking off from the Oude Kwaremont on the second ascent, 55km from the line, and nobody dared to join him in this, his latest audacious move. It stuck, and I can’t say it was all that shocking, even if it looked for a bit like the Sagan chase group might get back in, prior to the jacket nonsense. Gilbert capped off his pursuit of De Ronde the same way he opened it back in 2006 at the Omloop.
That Flanders win gave Gilbert wins in three of the five monuments, and two years later he became the eighth rider in history to notch a win in four of the five, all but Milano-Sanremo, taking Paris-Roubaix from Nils Politt in a two-man sprint, in just his third attempt at the race.
What Kept Him From Being Greater: He just had so many options, and the Ronde van Vlaanderen wasn’t his ideal one. In his prime years at BMC, the team had plenty of cobbles guys, including his former understudy at Lotto Van Avermaet, to handle those events, so BMC happily steered him toward the Ardennes. He probably could have won more times in Flanders, since the revised course suited him more than the old version where he scored two podiums but watched Boonen and Cancellara steal the show. It just seemed like he had a better chance in the Ardennes, and he and BMC played it safe.
So there you go. Maybe it’s too easy to call all these guys great because we tend to lionize whoever wins the Ronde van Vlaanderen. But looking at who they are, how they won, and what sort of careers they have had (so far! I mean this!), I think there is a great case that the cobbled classics were in good hands in the post-Fab/Tom, pre-Wout/Matti years. I love greatness and appreciate that the new generation is among the most impressive talent waves to ever wash over the sport, but the drama of those in-between battles was incredibly fun, as the Ronde van Vlaanderen should be.