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A Brief Post-Mortem on the Shape-Shifting Classics Scene

CYCLING FRANCE PARIS ROUBAIX 119TH EDITION
Petit and Intermarché among the winners
Photo by DAVID PINTENS/BELGA MAG/AFP via Getty Images

Wrapping things up, it was another great spring filled with stars, surprises, shocks and splendor. I love this time of year for all the reasons that were on full display the last month, including a wide array of characters and conditions and racing strategies. The sport’s overall health is going to keep things interesting for a while.

Below are some notes covering the whole “spring” campaign — defined in this instance as the actual season, extended out a bit to catch La Primavera a few days before. Spring hits the Italian Riviera way before where most of us live, so I don’t think that’s unjustifiable.

Home Cookin’

Is anyone talking about the all-Belgian podium sweep at Liège-Bastogne-Liège? The sprint by Quinten Hermans, inserting himself improbably between galacticos Remco Evenepoel and Wout Van Aert on the standings, caused a national excellence not seen in 45 years — the last Belgian sweep of the Belgian monument having happened in 1976. Truly the northern classics are not just for Belgians anymore, until they are.

To put that in a bit more perspective, Belgians swept the podium at Liège four times in a seven year span ending in 1976, and a total of 14 times in the post-war era before Sunday. In other words, it was not terribly rare, until the modern era when it became almost extinct. So yesterday’s result was extra sweet to the home fans. If they couldn’t celebrate a miraculous comeback from hometown boy Philippe Gilbert, LBL winner in 2011, this was probably the next best thing.

108th Liege - Bastogne - Liege 2022 - Men’s Elite Photo by Luc Claessen/Getty Images

Oh and a shout-out to Dylan Teuns, sixth overall and responsible for another Belgian success on home soil earlier in the week, as he held off Alejandro Valverde for the win at La Flèche Wallonne, the first Belgian triumph of any kind there since, again, Gilbert in 2011. FW isn’t a very Belgian style event; it’s more like an Italian classic, à la Strade Bianche or Emilia or several others, where the best climber is best positioned to win in the final km. By contrast, LBL is very Belgian, especially now, in that it favors attackers who can roll over low-altitude features of all type and hope to leave chaos in their wake. So anyway, for all the angst over Quick Step’s travails, the fact is that it was yet another excellent spring campaign across the board for Belgian Cycling.

Remco Becomes Remco

Not to overreact to one day, but I think Remco Evenepoel might finally be onto something big. We have dreamt on his talent, or listened to Belgian fans doing so, from the day he won a World Tour race as a teenager. It’s coming up on three years later and we are still dreaming, or debating whether to keep doing so. Evenepoel has fed the skeptics feasting on tales (or actual examples) of bad bike handling, bad pack positioning, and bad attitudes. Then came the crash at Lombardia, the underwhelming comeback at the Giro d’Italia (where he was set up to fail, really), some wins, some more criticism about his position within the Belgian national team trying to win gold on home soil. I don’t need to rehash the whole Remco story and all the constant chatter.

108th Liege - Bastogne - Liege 2022 - Men’s Elite
The winning move
Photo by Peter de Voecht - Pool/Getty Images

But I do know that Evenepoel has not fully defined who he is as a cyclist. He wins stage races with solo breakaways, often on flatter ground, and further trumps his opponents with time trial excellence. That ability against the watch is his surest skill. In the high mountains, he hangs with the elite climbers, but he doesn’t usually beat them. His profile as a grand tour rider is a resounding “incomplete,” which is not a shock for a guy who grew up in a country with far more terrain below sea level than over 500 meters.

On Sunday, he defined himself in a new way that has major ramifications for his career. Going one better than he did two years ago in Lombardia when he was en route to a thrilling finish before his horror crash, Evenepoel finally finished off a monument in dominant fashion, safely and without anyone around to contest his win. Evenepoel is fully ready to win high-stress events exceeding 250km in length, an elite level for anyone of any rider profile. More importantly, he seems like the perfect rider for Lège-Bastogne-Liège as currently constituted. The climbs that determine the order of events are obviously not a problem, and the long run-in to the line played perfectly into his time trialling ability. He won a similar race (albeit shorter) last fall at the Coppa Bernocchi. Obviously, next time he’ll be on the shortest leash possible in the minds of his opponents, but at age 22, he’s got one monument in the bag and looks like a perfect candidate for the next decade’s worth of them.

From here... weeelllll, I could start down Speculation Street and tell you that his season is unfolding very nicely as he readies for a try at the Vuelta a España later this year, with a series of more winnable one-week events on his menu than, say, the Tour de France would be. At 22, he is being shielded from the pressures of three-week racing for now, with last year’s Giro dud cautioning Quick Step management from trying either the Tour or a Giro-Vuelta alternative plan for the time being. For a rider who has come on so suddenly from his debut, it’s startling to see Quick Step slow down his progression in this way. But given the unevenness to his career, it sounds like a smart move. I’m not placing a limit on his future at this time. He has the misfortune of emerging simultaneously with Tadej Pogacar, so the Tour will remain a reach for now. But I’m not saying never.

108th Liege - Bastogne - Liege 2022 - Men’s Elite Photo by Bas Czerwinski/Getty Images

Stars Shining Bright

The other star on the day Sunday was Wout Van Aert, whose third place gave him a pretty special distinction as well: the first rider since 1986 to finish on the podium of both Paris-Roubaix and Liège-Bastogne-Liège in the same year... matching the feat of none other than Mathieu van der Poel’s dad Adrie. This isn’t the craziest pairing of results anymore, for a number of reasons. First, the finish of LBL is no longer tilted heavily toward climbers, so the all-round hardmen that can survive to the top of, say, La Redoute, are now in with a chance, lessening the distance between the skills required to win these two diverse events. Secondly, well, riders are trying to win them both. As Tom Boonen recently mentioned to CyclingWeekly in a profile of the retired classics ace by our friend Anne-Marije Rook, Cycling is more fun now thanks to the drop in specialization that sees riders of various stripes trying their hand at all sorts of races. Whatever caused teams to go the other way in the previous generation, all I can say is that I am glad they got it out of their system.

Anyway, back to Van Aert. It surprised few that he could make it to the finale (minus the winner) with the top climbers, given his victory on Alpe d’Huez last year as well as his overall ability to will his way into any situation that interests him. He is kinda-sorta the successor to Philippe Gilbert, albeit in a larger frame that makes you think he can’t be the successor to Philippe Gilbert, and maybe won’t quite match Phil in places like La Flèche Wallonne. Gilbert is hyper-famous for his winning streaks that seemingly know no course-related limitation, his best being his autumn campaign in 2009 when he won a bunch sprint in the Coppa Sabatini, a two-up sprint in Paris-Tours over Boonen, and climbing classic victories at Lombardia and Gran Piemonte. Gilbert’s accomplishments seemed like a throwback to a lost era when riders even thought about such a program. But in actuality, they were a glimpse of what was possible and a foreshadowing of the current era when riders like Van Aert will give all of these types of events a real shot.

Van Aert’s presence at the end of LBL has a downside too — it doesn’t encourage a lot of cooperation by any group that he is a part of, when you have mostly climbers who can’t generate the pure power sprint a larger rider like Wout can. Hermans did, but he’s another ‘Crosser, not a pure climber like the other riders in the front group such as Dani Martinez or Michael Woods or Enric Mas. So on the one hand Van Aert is a symbol of the increased breadth of competition, and on the other hand he’s the sole reason for the front group refusing to compete as it rolled back into Liège. OK, maybe that’s a slight exaggeration, but I do think having more cobbled classics guys around in LBL is a mixed blessing.

108th Liege - Bastogne - Liege 2022 - Men’s Elite Photo by Bas Czerwinski/Getty Images

Teams Ups and Downs

The Quick Step disaster-turned-success story has been worked over enough, but it’s worth doing a quick review of the teams who can count this spring as a particular success, or failure. Some ups:

Intermarché-Wanty

Wins: Gent-Wevelgem (Girmay), Scheldeprijs (Kristoff)

Other Results: 4th and 6th Paris-Roubaix (Devriendt, Petit), 2nd Liege (Hermans)

84th Gent-Wevelgem in Flanders Fields 2022 - Men’s Elite Photo by Tim de Waele/Getty Images

Probably the #1 surprise happy story of the entire spring. Sure, Girmay is the headliner, notching a breakthrough win for his country, continent, and racial identity in this very mostly white, European sport. But that spurred on the rest of the team to the rest of the results posted above — barely missing two massive podium places (one is massive enough) plus a second win from a revered veteran. Girmay was someone to keep an eye on, but at just 22 he was more of a future what-if. Or so we thought.

It’s also a huge story for a smaller Pro-Conti team to have this much success. Sure, as a Belgian outfit with a long (if sponsor-varied) history they are as stable as second-level teams come, but this has to be a big boon to other PC teams. Alpecin-Fenix has already shown that you don’t need a World Tour license to make a big impact. Now we have two teams showing an alternate way. I’m an idiot — Intermarché are WT as of last season. Still can’t get used to that I guess. Anyway, maybe the better way of putting things is that small-budget teams can kick ass, under either the WT or PC license. WT matters for Tour invites, so it helps to have an ace like Alpecin-Fenix. But you don’t need INEOS money to put together a solid classics roster.

106th Ronde van Vlaanderen - Tour des Flandres 2022 - Men’s Elite Photo by Tim de Waele/Getty Images

Alpecin-Fenix

Wins: De Panne (Merlier), Dwars door Vlaanderen (van der Poel), Ronde van Vlaanderen (van der Poel)

Other Results: 3rd Milano Sanremo, 4th Amstel Gold Race (both van der Poel)

Not much to say besides the fact that, once again, they took care of business. I guess the Scheldeprijs was a goal for them and Kristoff left them in the dust, but in races people actually care about, it was all good. Or especially good, considering where we expected van der Poel’s fitness to be after a rough winter.

Still, should we take a moment to complain about van der Poel never having won Paris-Roubaix? His strength and sprint make him an ideal candidate to win here, but this is twice in a row where his legs failed him later on, as he sagged back to the third group when the action got fully going late in the race. At 27, he seems all the world like a guy who should do the next “Double” of Flanders and Roubaix, but the classics don’t like following a script. One factor, of course, is that Flanders and Roubaix haven’t been run a week apart since 2019, and van der Poel had yet to make his Roubaix debut then. Next year could be his first actual shot at a proper double. But his Dad Adri won a wide variety of races, including Flanders, while never bettering third in Roubaix. Is there a family curse on the pavé?

Anyway, two wins is light but more than we expected all winter. At his age, he is in line to chase or break lots of records, including Ronde van Vlaanderen wins which he’s already just one short of — I’ll never quite comprehend why nobody has won more than three times there, except that it’s a race marked more by tricksterism than sheer difficulty. Van der Poel isn’t likely to put aside his bigger goals for the Olympics again, though I’m not betting on that and am more just grateful that we have two years off before thinking about all that again. What he can do at the Tour de France, or World Championships, those are his bigger goals to chase now. I like that Boonen gave him a shout-out for his positive racing, he doesn’t get enough credit for livening things up sometimes. Anyway, we are squarely in a golden age of classics cycling, so let’s just keep soaking it all in. Van der Poel is fine and has lots more to accomplish.

113th Milano-Sanremo 2022
bellissimo!
Photo by Tim de Waele/Getty Images

Bahrain Victorious

Wins: Milano Sanremo (Mohorič), La Flèche Wallonne (Teuns)

Other Results: 5th Paris-Roubaix (Mohorič), 6th Ronde van Vlaanderen (Teuns), 6th Liege (Teuns)

Incredible turn of events, after losing the defending Roubaix winner Colbrelli to a frightening heart ailment. I had them as a D-rated squad coming in, but then Mohorič decided to be completely awesome at a bunch of races where he had never done much before. He even changed the tech conversation with his dropper-post-aided Poggio descent and animated Paris-Roubaix in tribute to his fallen teammate, getting fifth for his quite extensive troubles.

CYCLING FRANCE PARIS ROUBAIX 119TH EDITION Photo by JASPER JACOBS/BELGA MAG/AFP via Getty Images

INEOS

Wins: Brabantse Pijl (Sheffield), Amstel Gold Race (Kiwatkowski), Paris-Roubaix (van Baarle)

Other Results: 3rd Dwars door Vlaanderen (Pidcock), 2nd Ronde van Vlaanderen (van Baarle), 4th Liège (Martinez)

Arguably the most successful team of all, with three wins, two podiums, and another result at Liege worth filing away for the future. Van Baarle is the biggest story, particularly after this:

Telling friends before Paris-Roubaix where his victory party would be taking place, that’s a flex. He got on a borderline-Cancellaresque run of form.

Honorable Mentions: Groupama — Küng 3rd in both PR and E3, with several top tens, and Madouas 3rd in flanders. Big results in the monuments. Total Energies — Turgis 2nd in MSR, van Gestel 3d in GW.

119th Paris-Roubaix 2022 - Men’s Elite
Kung was hard AF
Photo by Bernard Papon - Pool/Getty Images

And some downs...

Quick Step Alpha Vinyl

I promised not to rehash their spring season anymore. It was bad, until suddenly, at the last minute, it wasn’t (although even then...)

Jumbo Visma

Wins: E3 Prijs (Van Aert)

Other Results: 2nd E3 and Gent-Wevelgem (LaPorte), 2nd Dwars door Vlaanderen and 3rd Amstel Gold (Benoot), 2nd Paris-Roubaix and 3rd Liège (Van Aert)

Down? From expectations, yes. And it mostly falls to Van Aert’s having gotten COVID in the week before Flanders. If healthy, it’s almost impossible to picture him off the Flanders podium. Their near-misses reflect both the inherent strength in the team and the weakness of their work in the final 10 days, where they should have had more numbers up front to help Wout. Anyway, if you think about how we viewed this team coming in, for them to win just E3, that’s a big miss. Seeing them taco-ing two different wheels in the Trouée d’Arenberg kind of summed up their spring.

106th Ronde van Vlaanderen - Tour des Flandres 2022 - Men’s Elite
It was cool...
Photo by Tim de Waele/Getty Images

UAE

Wins: only if you count Strade Bianche, won by Pogačar, as a spring race

Other Results: 5th Milano Sanremo, 4th Ronde van Vlaanderen, 12th Fleche Wallonne (Pogačar), 9th Amstel and Liege (Hirschi)

Again, expectations. Of course, the most likely win was LBL, where Pogs had to forego his title defense. Like Jumbo, it’s not like they’re a bunch jabronis now; shit just happened to them that they couldn’t control. Even Hirschi probably feels like his late-starting spring didn’t represent the best he can do. Silver lining is that for Pogačar to have competed in these races gives him a real base from which to build on over the next decade. He will bag some additional monuments before he’s done.

Trek

Wins: [crickets]

Other Results: 6th Milano Sanremo (Pedersen), 4th Gent-Wevelgem (Stuyven), 7th Paris-Roubaix (Stuyven), 8th Ronde van Vlaanderen (Pedersen)

Still barely a year removed from Stuyven’s MSR win, you can’t give up on them. But that’s two cobbles campaigns in a row where things fell apart all too easily.