Someone is having fun this week.
...while others are, um, putting a brave face on things?
That’s a pretty good summary of the entire month so far for these two squads heading, surprisingly, in opposite directions. INEOS got their second win of the week in a major classic, with Magnus Sheffield following the work of Michal Kwiatkowski, Amstel Gold winner Sunday. More on Sheffield in a moment. But with INEOS, despite the health issues of cobbles leader Tom Pidcock they had been riding well as a team and looking increasingly dangerous as the classics season went on. Now, with the stronger Jumbo-Visma team out of the way, they are striking.
Quick Step, meanwhile, extended their Annus Horribilis today with another non-podium finish today at Brabantse Pijl, and before you can say “Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne!!” I would point out that they have bubkis to show for the main part of the classics, not even so much as a podium. But hey, at least they preserved World Champion Julian Alaphilippe for the Ardennes!
Ugh. The foollish maneuver by the Quick Step vehicle attempting to squeeze through a narrow space at the wrong time caused Bryan Coquard to move off his line, which in turn sent riders down, including Alaphilippe. Weirdly, other riders went down without contact, seemingly slipping out on the wet surface of road paintings. I don’t see any indication that Alaphilippe was badly hurt, and he got up to race some more before packing it in, so they haven’t completely torpedoed their season.
But the highlight of their day was watching Remco Evenepoel hang on to the lead group — the reason why the car was trying to move up past this chasing peloton — and even that ended in frustration as Tim Wellens cut Evenepoel off in the final sprint for minor placings behind Sheffield. I don’t care to relitigate the sprint; it’s enough to say that Quick Step were going for minor placings, and couldn’t even manage that.
American History 101
Today a broad and diverse field of riders lined up in Leuven, Belgium for the start of the Brabantse Pijl classic and... and...
“Oh Say can you seeeee...”
Is that USA music I hear?
“BYY THE DAAWWWWN’S EARLYYY LIIIIIGHT!!!!”
OMG you guys! America is a player in the classics!! You do realize I’ve been waiting for most of the last 40 years for this? How many people can say they remember where they were when George Hincapie watched his alleged teammate Leif H\o/ste escort Tom Boonen to victory with a fairly moronic attack on the Valkenberg, after which the duo were never seen again. [Not that I care to relitigate the 2006 Ronde van Vlaanderen... oh wait, yes I do.]
Anyway, today Sheffield joined past cobbled classics winners like Hincapie (2001 Gent-Wevelgem) and Tyler Farrar (2010 Scheldeprijs) in the American cycling hall of fame. Also there is his contemporary, EF Education’s Neilson Powless, winner of the Clasica San Sebastian last year, and Brandon McNulty of UAE, winner of this year’s Sud Ardeche classic. While their skillsets don’t overlap much, together the trio cover most of the classics, with Powless handling at least some hilly classics duty — although not this year’s Ardennes — while Sheffield will line up for Paris-Roubaix Sunday. [McNulty isn’t around in the Ardennes either. He and Powless are generally more oriented to stage races.] And hoping to join them soon, albeit probably not right away, is almost-21-year-old Quinn Simmons, who rode strongly as a domestique for Trek this spring before falling ill. Simmons was just scratched from Paris-Roubaix, but will be there dueling with Sheffield for years to come.
Sheffield is from Pittsford, New York, outside Rochester, adding to the curious legacy of the Empire State to cycling. You wouldn’t know it from following USA cycling, which seems to exist mostly in Colorado and Utah, but Sheffield is the second native New Yorker, after Queens-bred Hincapie, to win a classic. Even Powless, a member of the Oneida Nation, has some roots in the state, going back probably 10,000 years, though he and his family are most recently from Sacramento.
Sheffield’s win was remarkable for other reasons. He barely missed out on being the race’s youngest-ever winner, yielding that distinction to Belgian Ludo Janssens — who shares Sheffield’s birthday of April 19! — because the 1962 edition that Janssens won at age 19 was run on April 5, eight days further out from his birthday than Sheffield’s win. Sheffield was of course the first American winner, and also the first American to grace the Brabantse Pijl podium. Hincapie appears to have only raced it once, oddly enough given his skills, and has just a since-nullified sixth place to show for it.
Coming up, as I said, is Paris-Roubaix, where nobody named Magnus has ever accomplished any... wait! I take that back. Anyway, Sheffield aims to become the first American and second Magnus to win the Hell of the North. All he has on his record so far is a pack finish in P-R Juniors back in 2019. There is so little to say about Sheffield based on his record, which consists of one year racing juniors with Rally Cycling, then 2020 spent on a trainer, before he jumped straight to INEOS for 2021 and got his apprenticeship kicked into high gear. Without past results on which to formulate our speculation, we are left to speculate about the training. numbers he has posted that led INEOS to promote him so quickly. And we can be sure that those numbers said “possible classics winner right now” before today’s big breakthrough.
Congratulations to Sheffield for his great win. And to USA Cycling...
Non-Monumental Amstel Impressions
Although for the most part I didn’t find Amstel Gold very compelling, I did manage to have some fun Sunday...
Idk, Monument Classics have looong histories.— ednl (@ednl) April 10, 2022
Weeeooooo weeeeoooo— Chris PdC (@CPodiumcafe) April 10, 2022
OPEN UP! MONUMENT POLICE HERE!!
The Monument Police are always super busy this time of year. From Strade Bianche to Gent-Wevelgem to Amstel Gold, they are constantly responding to terminology misuse emergencies. Some of these situations arise from people carelessly tossing these burning notions into a pile of dry or oily twitter forums. Others arise from a deliberate agenda of those who would seek to take ownership of the term entirely. The Monument Police do not have the luxury of sorting one group from another; when they see an unfolding terminology disaster happening, they must leap to action.
[And yes, I know @ednl very well knows his monuments from his AGRs... but that won’t stop me from having my bit of fun here.]
To recap: the Monuments of Cycling are the five races we all know and love as Monuments, and there is no firm threshold for considering new members, except to say that the idea in general is heavily disfavored. Most observers both inside and outside the sport, when asked what makes a Monument a Monument, would cite to the difficulty and traditions of the agreed-upon five Monuments, two of which happen the next two Sundays.
Not listed among the Monument criteria are such things as pretty scenery and “wow, that race that just finished two minutes ago was awesome!” For people who think Strade Bianche looks great, sure, pretty much every race in Italy does. Go watch the Giro dell’Emilia, which nobody thinks is a Monument because it doesn’t happen in March when we are all starved for a good classic race. It’s bloody gorgeous. It’s only 195km long. Strade Bianche? 184km. As to great action, lots of races have that, some of the time, though Monuments have that a bit more often.
Which brings me back to Amstel. This year’s edition was nothing special, and for that I blame its un-Monumental characteristics. It’s actually a pretty beefy 254km these days, on par with Liège-Bastogne-Liège, but with about 3400 meters’ worth of climbing and some nice flowy roads in between, it falls short of Liège’s 4500 meters of longer, more grueling ascents and is thus just not quite as hard. Moreover, the finale of Amstel is a nice gentle run-in, while at Liège... well, it used to be hard anyway.
Anyway, the finale of Amstel consisted of everyone against Mathieu van der Poel, who says he didn’t have the legs to chase every single attack, which is why winner Michal Kwiatkowski got away successfully over the Cauberg and Benoit Cosnefroy bridged, without the burden of van der Poel chasing everyone down. But for the want of a teammate, his brute strength would have set him up nicely to win again, but there were enough other protagonists around and they weren’t all too shattered by the length and difficulty of the race to try something. Sunday? We shall see. Stopping the strongest rider in Paris-Roubaix is a thankless task.
Riders To Watch?
One rider I am impressed by is Marc Hirschi. Coming off hip surgery, the Swiss classics threat returned to action right about when van der Poel did, winning Per Sempre Alfredo the same weekend as van der Poel came back to nearly take Milano-Sanremo. He then went to the Settimana Coppi e Bartali, taking third overall, plus a couple other days in the saddle, and presto! He’s a top-10 finisher out of the lead group at Amstel Gold.
Hirschi struggled with his health in 2021 and couldn’t reproduce his amazing 2020 season after jumping to UAE last year, but going 1-2 in La Flèche and Liège that previous season, however odd it all was, was still a sign of the kind of talent Hirschi brings. He’s also bringing that talent to an incredibly loaded squad captained by Pogacar and also featuring red-hot Juan Ayuso. So whether he gets his chance is another matter.
Dani Martinez’ win in the Itzulia Basque Country Tour was a major step forward for the Colombian rider, taking his first big win in an INEOS jersey, after nothing of great consequence last season and just a time trial national championship this year. But it hardly came out of nowhere: Martinez was third in his two other races of consequence this year, the Volta ao Algarve and Paris-Nice. While Martinez has raced the classics before, it appears as though he is heavily focused on stage race results, after finishing fifth in last year’s Giro d’Italia while in the service of teammate Egan Bernal.
His deft and aggressive win in the Basque Country was no small thing, given INEOS’ void in its Tour de France squad. Bernal’s absence as he continues his remarkable but still gradual recovery from his devastating injuries in a training crash means that INEOS has lots of firepower to direct somewhere but no clear captain to justify deploying it. Up steps Martinez, who should be a clear favorite for leadership of Tao Geoghegan Hart, who hasn’t racked up many results since his 2020 Giro d’Italia title. Is he INEOS’ Tour leader now? Carapaz is still slated to race the Giro, and Adam Yates is a shaky investment for the team, at best (though as an alternate, that’s another story). Anyone who bet their FSA DS team on Martinez getting more chances to win (hi!) is on the edge of their seat now.
So what do we do with Remco? The Quick Step leader managed to increase his unpopularity today, if only slightly, with another near miss and pouty demeanor around the finish, after having been swept sideways in the battle for podium spots at Brabantse Pijl. Evenepoel seems to have geared up for a strong sprint, only for Wellens to sweep sharply to his left, forcing Benoit Cosnefroy toward the barriers, who in turn pushed Evenepoel so close to them that the Belgian had to jam on his brakes. Wellens was punished but that was small consolation to Evenepoel, who thought he had a podium spot in hand. And was probably right about that.
All day he looked like an unlikely winner, constantly leaving a gap on the cobbled climbs before scrambling back. Not unlike last week, where he was constantly leaving a gap in the Pais Vasco climbs, only to scramble back to the likes of Martinez and Jonas Vingegaard, before the elastic finally broke. Next, the 22-year-old is off to the Ardennes to support Alaphilippe (if he’s OK) or try his own hand at La Flèche and Liège, hoping for a result that tells him he can win somewhere big.
Right now the results are telling him that he’s just good enough to lose in a variety of races. He has two minor stages to his name this season, one an ITT, following a 2021 that was really only highlighted by wins below the World Tour level and some what-ifs. To his FSA DS owners (hi) he is still a guy who scores lots of points, and he’s still full of unrealized potential. But until he breaks through again on the bigger stage — which he did in his first two seasons as a 19 and 20 year old! — then we are left wondering if his fate is to be the almost guy.