Category Archives: Monuments

Coverage of the five monument classics: Milan-San Remo, Tour of Flanders, Paris-Roubaix, Liège–Bastogne–Liège, and Il Lombardia.

A ride for the ages

It has to be the image of the cycling season so far. Philippe Gilbert standing solo on the finishing line of the Tour of Flanders in the Belgian champions jersey with his bike held high above his head, victorious. It was everything the locals could want from such a race. And what a race it was. It always is. But we don’t usually get an individual performance quite like that. We don’t usually get such drama from so far out.

The Muur-Kapelmuur is one of the most famous climbs in the Tour of Flanders. In recent years though it hasn’t featured due to its location on a new route, but that changed for 2017. The climb was back in, but early in the race. Too far out from the finish to factor, or so we thought. They hit it with 95km to go, and but for the forlorn hopes up the road, the pack was still together. As they hit it, Gilbert brought his Quickstep team to the front. Rivals, such as Sagan and Van Avermaet hung back. Too early, right? Wrong.

Quickstep hit the climb hard. Teammates Tom Boonen and Gilbert looked at one another and gave a nod. The power went down and the race blew wide open. Over the top a gap had opened, but again it seemed to soon to matter. It would likely come back together or those behind would bridge across. Gilbert, Boonen et al would sit up and save their matches for later. But nobody knew how many matches Gilbert carried. With so long still to go, Gilbert pushed on, urging the group to work. And the group was dangerous. Sep Vanmarcke was there, so was Alexander Kristoff. Luke Rowe, Jasper Stuyven and a cluster of others were also present. Sagan and Van Avermaet were not.

For the next 40km they pressed on, led more often than not by Gilbert. It now seemed as though he was working for a magical Boonen-Flanders send-off. They caught the early break with 67km left and at the time held a 1:10 advantage over the Sagan pack. Still, too early to panic, but very much time to chase. As they hit the Oude Kwaremont for the second time, with 55km left, the gap was down to half a minute. It was now or never, and Gilbert went. It was a powerful effort up the climb; the gap began to stretch and soon the elastic snapped and Gilbert was alone. The impetus of the group that he was with faltered when Vanmarcke brought down Rowe in a crash, and on the Paterberg Sagan and Van Avermaet bridged across. Now it was one man against the rest.

His lead hovering between 50 seconds and a minute. His effort was sustaining but the debate began to rage among fans about whether he could hold on? Given how long he had been on the attack, leading the initial split and then going alone, and given the hard climbs to come, he was certain to blow. Right? Wrong.

I left the sofa for a moment with to put on the kettle with Gilbert still 55 seconds to the good. I was gone half that time but returned to see Boonen standing at the side of the road and Sagan on the attack. If the Quickstep plan had been for Boonen to counter any catch of Gilbert, it ended here. A chain problem forced a bike change and it wasn’t much better. His dream retirement now goes down to his final race at Paris-Roubaix next weekend.

As for Sagan, he had reduced the chasing pack to a handful and still the pursuit across Flanders continued. Over the Kruisberg the gap still held. Gilbert looked mighty.

On the Kwaremont it was time to act once more and Sagan made his next move. A powerful attack…and then he crashed. As sudden as the sentence itself. One second the world champion is powering on the front, leaving rivals in his wake, going in hunt of the Belgian champion, the next, he’s down. The only two who could follow him, Van Avermaet and Oliver Naesen, came down too. Nobody was quite sure how it happened though it later transpired that Sagan clipped a jacket slung over the barrier and in doing so his wheel turned into the foot of the barrier. It was a huge fall and the world champions head hit the cobbled ground hard. He got up, but the race had long since left him behind. It might be easy to blame the fan, but Sagan was riding so close to the barrier in search of a smoother line and these are the risks of riding so close to where a hoard of excited fans stand.

Van Avermaet was up quick and chasing but by now Gilbert looked safe. He turned into the wind for the ride into Oudenaarde but he was able to hold on and walk across the line with his bike above his head in glory.

Debate will rage about whether Sagan could have led a chase that caught Gilbert? We’ll never know. Gilbert was almost a minute ahead when they crashed. He won by 29 seconds and that included the celebration. Van Avermaet must have lost 20-30 seconds in the crash, but how much did Gilbert measure his effort towards the end, using his lead to his advantage rather than pushing on and risking a late blow?

What we do know is that Gilbert’s effort was mighty. He caught his closest rivals napping with that initial move on the Muur and he proved all doubters wrong by bidding out for solo glory so far from home. In winning the Tour of Flanders he joins Eddy Merckx, Moreno argentin and Rik Van Looy in winning Flanders, Liege-Bastogne-Liege, the Tour of Lombardia and the Worlds in their career. This may have been the highlight ride of his fine career.


A Colombian monument win

I didn’t get to see a lot of Il Lombardia as it is now known, or the Tour of Lombardy as I know it. To tell the truth I forgot it was even on. I was watching the Liverpool match on my television that morning and when it ended I was thinking what to do with the day when I remembered.

The race, I thought. How long is left? Have they crossed the crucial climbs? I couldn’t find it on TV and so I was scrambling for a feed on the iPad. The kids were nearby and any use of the iPad was liable to have them circling for a turn themselves. ‘Can I watch some princess songs?’ I was bracing for that, so I stayed subtle and got the race up, always ready to switch to the phone if required.

There was still 40km left. I was okay. The first main selection had been made but the best action was still ahead. Over the next half hour or so I dipped in and out. I refreshed the feed a couple of times. I made a cup of tea. I even fed the children some breakfast. By the time it was nitty-gritty time, I had settled back in and was ready for the climax.

That came when my pre-race prediction, Romain Bardet made his move. The young Frenchman has a big monument win in him and after his second place at the Tour, is having a superb season. Following him was Esteban Chaves, anotherpre-race favourite, with and two Grand Tour podiums in 2016. Rigoberto Uran, an excellent one-day rider on this kind of terrain, also went. Their move looked decisive. Everyone looked to one another. Diego Rosa had team-mate in Fabio Aru with him, but whether Aru sensed a foil or just didn’t have the legs I wasn’t quite sure. Either way Rosa was the one to try to bridge and Aru stood pat.

Rosa put in a huge effort and he did make it across. You had to wonder for his legs though; what else could he muster? Bardet looked strong, Chaves confident, Uran experienced. None though had won a monument before. The gap was going on so one of them soon would. Into the final stretch and the short climb near the finish and against my prediction it was Bardet who cracked. Rosa made a move to try and unsettle the others but it came to nothing. It seemed like a first Colombian monument win was upon us.

Into the three-up sprint it was well poised. Chaves sat quiet; Uran looked strong. Rosa opened the sprint. It made sense. The Italian had done a lot of work, he was the tired one. Throwing it all at the line early to hope one of the two missed his wheel was worth a try. They didn’t though. Uran was onto him, but he couldn’t come round him. Was Rosa about to win this? Two Italian winners of this Italian of races, back-to-back after Vincenzo Nibali in 2015?

Don’t forget Chaves. The little Colombian on the Australian team used Uran’s wheel to come back to the early kicking Rosa. He then had enough left to put himself in the wind and come past both a fading Uran and a diminishing Rosa. The Italian held on very well for second but there was one Colombian too many. Chaves had his monument glory.

That will end the season for many riders of the Chaves/Uran ilk. Anyone who prefers climbs to sprints likely won’t show up and Qatar for the Worlds. It’s a flat course and as much suited to the climbers as this race would be to a sprinter.

And so the five monument winners of 2016 and an eclectic group indeed:

Milan-San Remo: Arnaud Démare
Tour of Flanders: Peter Sagan
Paris-Roubaix: Matthew Hayman
Liège–Bastogne–Liège: Wout Poels
Il Lombardia: Esteban Chaves

Rider of the month: September

Peter Sagan. Coming back from the Olympics and his transition to mountain biking, the Slovak picked up right where he left off. He won the GP Cycliste de Quebec, was second in Montreal, won the European road title, and took two stage wins at the Eneco Tour along with a third place in GC.

Rider of the week

Given the major race of the week was Lombardy and that Esteban Chaves became the first Colombian to win a Monument, it seems only fair he wins.

Wout Poels first Monument for Sky in the snow at Liège

Who would have thought that the first man to bring Sky their long awaited Monument victory would be Wout Poels at Liège-Bastogne-Liège? That isn’t meant to be a slight on Poels, a fine rider who really shone bright for Chris Froome on Alpe d’Huez last year and who has had a solid start to this season, including a 4th place finish at Flèche Wallonne just a few days ago. So perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised, but the money being thrown about on who might do it first must surely have been going on someone like Michal Kwiatkowski. In many ways he was brought in to break the duck.

Still, Kwiatkowski ended up shining brighter on the cobbled classics than the hillier ones in which many felt suited him best and it was Poels who emerged from the sleet and snow and rain on a friged cold day in the Ardennes to out manoeuver his three late breakaway companions to win it on the line.

It was far from an epic race, but held in epic conditions. Not quite Hinault in ’80 but snowing nonetheless. The kind we always long for in the spring Monuments and which the riders dread. The challenge for them increases imeasurably as they fight to keep warm, to stay upright and to stop their legs from freezing up when they look to them to respond. The challenge for those of us watching on television increase a little as we fight to see which rider is which as rain capes cover numbers.

It soon became clear, rain cape or otherwise, that it wasn’t Chris Froome surging clear of the ever reducing pack to bridge across to Michael Albasini on the new final climb of Rue Naniot, a straight up 600m cobbled climb with an average gradient of 11%, but rather it was Poels. Joining Albasini, Rui Costa and Samuel Sanchez the race finally had a move that could stick, albeit cresting the climb only a handful of seconds to the good, but close enough to the finish to drive on. Costa seemed the most savvy to pull off the win, with his World Championship victory still in our minds, and yet it was Poels who came out of that infamous final corner and began his sprint immediately, catching the other three out and creating the gap that Albasini couldn’t close before the line and denying Orica GreenEdge a Paris-Roubaix / Liège-Bastogne-Liège double.

At last the dam has broken; the floodgates are open for Sky…or at least that’s what they will now hope. We’ll have to wait until October to find out if they can build on this Monument glory. For now though they’ll feel a sense of satisfaction, a boost of confidence for the whole team as the spring classics season comes to an end and racing turns to the summer and the Grand Tours with the Giro only a handful of days away.

Liège-Bastogne-Liège result:

1. Wout Poels (Sky)

2. Michael Albasini (Orica GreenEdge)

3. Rui Costa (Lampre)

4. Samuel Sanchez (BMC)

5. Ilnur Zakarin (Katusha)

6. Warren Barguil (Giant-Alpecin)

16. Alejandro Valverde (Movistar)

in 6h 24′ 29″

@ 4″

@ 9″

@ 11″

@ 12″

Yes, there is Alejandro Valverde, down in the lowly depths of 16th. A position of pride for most entrants, but way below his usual standards in the Ardennes. Indeed the veteran Spaniard won the La Flèche Wallonne for the 4th time (a record, and they should consider naming the race after him now!) earlier in the week and seemed odds on favourite to win his 4th Liège-Bastogne-Liège but will have to settle the one victory this time. Still a look at Valverde’s results in the Ardennes classics (including Amstel Gold followed by Flèche then Liège) since 2013 shows you why he’ll feel he came up a little short with 16th on Sunday:

2nd, 7th, 3rd; 4th, 1st, 2nd; 2nd, 1st, 1st; DNS, 1st, 16th.

La Flèche Wallonne result:

1. Alejandro Valverde (Movistar)

2. Julian Alaphilippe (Etixx – Quick Step)

3. Dan Martin (Etixx – Quick Step)

4. Wout Poels (Sky)

in 4h 43′ 57″

both s.t.

@ 4″

In other racing news the six stage Tour of Croatia and the four stage Giro del Trentino were taking place this past week. At the former it was Matija Kvasina who won overall but bigger story was Mark Cavendish winning a stage. At the later it was Mikel Landa who looked in very impressive form ahead of the Giro with the overall win to go with a stage win and a 3rd and 6th in the two other road stages.

Rider of the week:

It seems of late I’ve been getting this easy by just going with the guy who won the weeks biggest named race, but come on…this was a Monument and Wout Poels won Sky’s first ever. That has to be worthy of the weekly prize.

Hell of a race at the Hell of the North

What a race it was. And we shouldn’t be surprised really. Not when the name is Paris-Roubaix and 200 bicycles are racing across a 257.5km course in Northern France of which 52.8km feature 27 sectors of tight cobbled and dirt covered farm roads. If they tried to invent this race in 2006 rather than 1896, nobody would go for it. And yet, the drama was unending. Few races are carried live on television from gun to flag for a reason, even the big mountain stages of the Tour de France see the peloton amble over the first two or three cols before starting to make moves with the action unfolding on the final climb. But not Paris-Roubaix; not yesterday.

They say the ones in which the rain falls and the wind blows and the riders come home caked in mud are the best. That is true as a spectacle, but yesterday proved a dry race in the dust can be just as thrilling. We had the sight of 257.5km of attacks, crashes, surges, splits in the field, panic, pursuits, selections, more attacking and finally a sprint for glory in the Roubaix velodrome.

By the time the race reached the Forest of Aranberg with 95.5km still remaining, we had seen numerous failed attacks, one that had thus far succeeded and a crucial crash that split the chasing bunch in two creating three distinct groups on the road. And most crucial of all, Peter Sagan and Fabian Cancellara, two pre-race favourites set to duke this one out after last weeks epic battle at the Tour of Flanders, were in the third group on the road and in real trouble. Especially considering the groups in front contained other contenders, one of whom was the great Tom Boonen. The upshot was, with so long still to race, a mighty pursuit across Northern France

The key to winning at Roubaix, beyond all such attributes of power, experience, control, nerve, timing, bike handling and brute strength — all of which you must contain in abundance — is little bits of luck to avoid the unexpected crashes or mechanical mishaps. Sagan and Cancellara fell foul to the former, both from the crash that split the field early, and for Cancellara in a crash of his own, just as the gap to those in front was beginning to come down, that left him out of contention. That Peter Sagan didn’t come down as well was a major testament to his attribute of bike handling, something we’re so familiar with. But isolated so far from the finish and with the pressure only ramping up as the two groups ahead merged, he would find the gaps too large to close.

So take Mat Hayman then and all those attributes to ride well here that he has built up over fifteen previous attempts, and then consider the element of luck. People think you need it to win here but the reality is that to win Paris-Roubaix you don’t ride your luck, you make it. Hayman got in the early break that succeeded in getting clear and as such he avoided the chaos behind him. At one stage with 80km still on the dial he surged clear of his own breakaway companions to lead alone. It might have seemed like a suicide bid, but perhaps it was his own way of staying trouble free.

He was eventually reeled in by that large group behind which contained four riders from Team Sky: Ian Stannard, Luke Rowe, Gianni Moscon and Salvatore Puccio, but just when it looked like the British team, still in search of a first Monument win, were taking control, two of their riders (Rowe and Moscon) came down on one corner, and Puccio on the next. Rowe managed to regain contact briefly but it left only Stannard as their best hope.

Stannard took that chance on a later sector, taking the setup by Rowe to surge hard and expose the tired legs in the group, reducing it quickly down to less than ten. Then a move by the ever present Sep Vanmarcke reduced it to just four chasers. With Vanmarcke eventually reeled in, we had the Belgian, Stannard, Edvald Boasson Hagen, Hayman, and the mighty Tom Boonen left from 199 starters with hopes of glory.

And there was no doubt that the high tempo of racing from the very start, the early attacks, the hard driving on the cobbles, the effort to avoid the crashing, to close the gaps and to ensure they were part of those left standing, had left us with five extremely tired men.

Paris-Roubaix however brings out the best in its contenders and rather than pace one another along into the velodrome, the five took turns attacking one another in exhaustion. Would the power of Stannard prevail, the know-how of Boonen, the cunning of Vanmarcke, the talent of Boasson Hagen, or the grit of Hayman? Each took several turns, some in desperate hope that their own exhaustion wouldn’t quite be as bad as the rest, but none had the legs to break the others and they came into the Velodrome together with a crowd roaring for Boonen to make it a record breaking five wins here.

But it was Hayman…he who was on the front, on his own, 80km earlier, setting his own tempo and picking his own line while the rest panicked to bring back splits in the field and close gaps to the wheel in front. It perhaps allowed his legs that little extra something when it mattered in the final 20km of attacks and when it really mattered in the final 200 metres when he opened his sprint and Boonene failed to come past him.

Few riders have deserved such a win more than Mat Hayman. Not because it was his sixteenth attempt or because he’s one of the old veterans of the peloton who has worked tirelessly for others down the years, or anything sentimental like that, but because he rode the race perfectly: Leading from the front throughout to avoid trouble, positioning himself to react to the right moves, and displaying all those attributes of power, experience, control, nerve, timing, handling and brute strength in abundance. And when you have all that you reduce the element of luck enough that the dream of winning a race like Paris-Roubaix becomes a reality for a 38 year old Australian; the second oldest in race history.

Paris-Roubaix result:

1. Mathew Hayman (Orica-GreenEdge)

2. Tom Boonen (Etixx – Quick Step)

3. Ian Stannard (Sky)

4. Sep Vanmarcke (LottoNI-Jumbo)

5. Edvald Boasson Hagen (Dimension Data)

6. Henrich Haussler (IAM)

7. Marcel Sieberg (Lotto Soudal)

8. Aleksejs Saramontis (IAM)

9. Imanol Erviti (Movistar)

10. Adrien Petit (Direct Energie)

11. Peter Sagan (Tinkoff)

in 5h 51′ 53″

all s.t.

@ 3″

@ 1′ 00″

all s.t.

@ 1′ 07″

@ 2′ 20″


Rider of the week:

Mat Hayman. Why? Well, if you’re asking that then you need to go watch Sunday’s Paris-Roubaix. In the break for most of the day he survived all the splits, crashes and attacks to go ahead-to-head with Tom Boonen and other cobbled specialists for the win; and he won.
(Honourable mention to Alberto Contador who won the time-trial and GC at Pais Vasco).

Monument Man, Peter Sagan

It’s always right after those moments in which we foolishly begin to question Peter Sagan, like after Michal Kwiatkowski beat him last week at the E3 Harelbeke, and in the lead up to last years World Championships when he had a barron spell of multiple second place finishes, that the Slovakian superstar steps up and reminds us just how brilliant he is.

Yesterday was one of those days. It was a beautiful, powerful, intelligent solo victory. Dawning his rainbow stripes he rode the strongest riders on the planet off his wheel to become the King of Flanders and to become a Monument Man at last.

And it came about after yet another move that seen himself and Kwiatkowski move clear of a narrowing field of strong men and bridge across to what was left of the days early break; a move that now also contained Sep Vanmarcke who himself had earlier bridged. Vanmarke was by now the major Belgian hope after a disasterous day that seen both Greg Van Avermaet and Tiesj Benoot crash out.

The Sagan-Kwiatkowski move set the likes of Fabian Cancellara into a panic, and had the likes of myself in a state of deja-vu and wondering whether Kwiatkowski would attack on the Kwaremont or Paterberg or indeed go for another sprint against Sagan just like at E3?

Yet when it came to the nitty-gritty of a Monument classic, with well over 220km in the legs, it was Sagan who forged ahead. After the race the 26 year old, previously without a Monument victory to his name and with questions starting to linger, said that “Nobody wants to work with me, so it’s always better to drop everybody”.

The stragegy of a genius.

Too often Sagan has been criticised for being the strongest rider but too weak with his tactics, but as time has passed he’s begun to figure it out and now with a World Championship and a Monument to his name, won with the head as well as the legs, you fear for the rest.

When he seen Kwiatkowski make that move 30km from the finish he wisely latched on. Sky had riders in abundance in what was left of the main field and so by going on this move he knew they wouldn’t aid in his chase. Cancellara on the other hand was running out of team-mates and after he burned that last match he was on his own to try and bridge across. By then the race was on the Kwaremont and rather than Kwiatkowski dictate terms, it was Sagan who rode away. There was no defined attack as such, but rather the Tinkoff rider pressed on the pedals that little bit harder and the gap began to open. The only man who could follow was Vanmarcke, but he himself was tiring from his earlier effort and when they reached the Paterberg it was the same kind of effort that put the visably struggling Belgian a length behind…then two lenghts…then five…and then he was gone.

By now Cancellara himself was putting in a blistering ride, desperately trying to salvage his race. He blitzed up the Paterberg passing them all to wind up second man on the road in persuit of Sagan. The gap went out to 20secs and hovered there for some 10km. The race was on a knife edge and it was going to break one way or the other. Cancellara is the better man against the clock, but this time-trial was taking place with 250km in the legs and although the time came down briefly, the elastic soon snapped and the time began to crawl up again; the baton was being passed before our eyes.

Sagan’s move on the Paterberg had shades of Cancellara doing the same to Sagan himself on the same climb back in 2013. This time it was Sagan putting on the hurt and it was a symbolic moment in which you could sense the shift in power, though Cancellara was going out in style.

All that was left was for Sagan to indulge us all with his now customary post-finish line one-handed wheelie, looking as though he could do another 100km if required. The cycling version of the motor racing driver who celebrates his victory by doing burnouts and donuts on the track for the fans. Sagan: Always the entertainer, both in his racing and his style.

Only five riders have won the Tour of Flanders while wearing the rainbow jersey: Frenchman Louison Bobet (1955), Belgians Rik Van Looy (1962), Eddy Merckx (1975) and Tom Boonen (2006), and now Peter Sagan in 2016. He’s also just the fifth man, and first non-Belgian, to do the Gent-Wevelgem – Tour of Flanders double in the same year, joining Van Looy (1962), Walter Godefroot (1968), Eric Vanderaerden (1985) and Tom Boonen (2012). Sagan may well be a Slovak, but there must be a little Flemish in him somewhere, and the locals have certainly adopted him as one of their own. The Belgian press this morning were talking more about Sagan’s brilliance than their own nations failure to shine on their biggest stage in what has now become a four year drought. The way Sagan has now found his Monument feet, that drought may not end so easily.

And speaking of 2013 and Cancellara doing to Sagan what Sagan this year did to the rest…Sagan will now look to further emulate Cancellara from that season by going on to do the cobbled double and add the Paris-Roubaix crown to his victory in De Ronde. Cancellara of course will look to Roubaix to bite back with one last hurrah and given how he tried until the end on Sunday, you just know Sagan will have work very hard with his legs and his head once again to shift the old legend.

Tour of Flanders result:

1. Peter Sagan (Tinkoff)

2. Fabian Cancellara (Trek Factory)

3. Sep Vanmarcke (LottoNL-Jumbo

4. Alexander Kristoff (Katusha)

5. Luke Rowe (Sky)

6. Dylan van Baarle (Cannondale)

7. Imanol Erviti (Movistar)

8. Zdenek Stybar (Etixx – Quick Step)

9. Dimitri Claeys (Wanty – Groupe Gobert)

10. Niki Terpstra (Etixx – Quick Step)

11. Lars Boom (Astana)
12. Geraint Thomas (Sky)
13. Stijn Vandenbergh (Etixx – Quick Step)
14. Alexey Lutsenko (Astana)
15. Tom Boonen (Etixx – Quick Step)

in 6h 10′ 42″

@ 25″

@ 27″

@ 48″

all s.t.
@ 55″
@ 59″
@ 1′ 01″

Rider of the week:

Easy pick this time. Sure there was the Three Days of De Panne, but the Tour of Flanders is the Super Bowl of Belgian cycling and Peter Sagan won it in true legendary style.

Rider of the month (March):

Peter Sagan. Yes Arnaud Demare won the months monument at Milan-San Remo as well as a stage of Paris-Nice, and Michael Matthews won two stages of Paris-Nice, and Nacer Bouhanni won a stage of Paris-Nice and two at the Volta a Catalunya, and Fabian Cancellara won Strade Bianche and a stage of Tirreno-Adriatico, but Sagan superb throughout the month. He finished in the top 10 of every race he competed in except for Milan-San Remo and that was hindered only because a crash got in his way with 300m to go. He was second overall at Tirreno with 2nd, 4th, 7th, 2nd and 10th place finished in each of its five road stages; he was 4th at Strade Bianche, 2nd at E3 and then he won Gent-Wevelgem. It all set up the big win we just seen to start April.

Ronde Van Vlaanderen preview

This weekend is to the Belgian people what Super Bowl Sunday is to the Americans or what FA Cup Final day to the English. Their entire cycling year revolves around the Tour of Flanders and just by winning it you can write your name into legend, regardless of what you do the rest of the season. And especially if you’re a Belgian because winning this race is akin to winning the Tour de France in the eyes of the Flandrians.

It’s an epic race that really needs no introduction here. We’ve all heard the stories. Merckx riding solo for 73km to win by more than five and a half minutes in ’69; Vanderaerden in that storm of ’85 in which only 24 riders finished; or Jesper Sibby falling on the famous Koppenberg and being run over by an officials car in ’87, the same year Claude Criquielion became the only French-speaking Belgian to win the Ronde. Indeed, following that Skibby incident, the Koppenberg was kept off the race route for 15 years, but thankfully is a part of the spectacle once more.

If you’re reading this you’ve probably been following the build up over the past few days, or indeed watching the recent races that by comparison can only be described as warm up events on many of the same roads. You’re probably also wishing right about now that you weren’t reading this, but rather in Belgium, in a pub or cafe perhaps, soaking up the atmosphere and getting ready to go stand at the side of the road and watch the race on one of its famous cobbled climbs.

So, who is going to win? Will it be a Belgian? Will Sagan finally break his Monument duct? Will Cancellara or Boonen go out in style with a 4th win for most ever? The sentimental pick must surely be Boonen and I’d be alright with that, though I also would like to see Sagan finally do it, or even see Michal Kwiatkowski build on last weeks win in an attempt to then go to the Ardennes classics and become the first man to do the Flanders-Liège same-year double since Eddy Merckx in 1975 (and 1969). And he stands a chance for five of the last ten Tour of Flanders winners have won the E3 Harelbeke.

But there are no certainties in bike racing and even fewer in the Tour of Flanders. The only guarantee is that it will make for thrilling viewing so make sure you find a way to tune in, if you’re not one of the lucky ones, like my brother, to be on the side of Muur cheering the race past, and enjoy.

Demare breaks 19 year French Monument drought at San Remo while fighting off towing accusations

Last week I wrote that if Geraint Thomas could win the Milan-San Remo he’d be the first man to win the Paris-Nice and the seasons first Monument in the same year since Laurent Jalabert in 1995. That didn’t happen, but Jalabert’s 1995 success was still significant because that was the last time a Frenchman had won the La Classicissima before Arnaud Démare crossed the line to win on Saturday. Indeed it was the first French Monument win since Jalabert at the Giro d’Lombardia in 1997.

And yet like with the Tirreno-Adriatico and the cancelled stage, it was a race in which the outcome was once again steeped in controversy with the major talking point far removed from the result itself. Not because snow cancellations sparked a row on Twitter, but because two Italian riders accused Démare of holding onto his team-car on the second to last climb after being held up by a crash. The upshot has been 24 hours worth of Strava analysis and finger pointing without any serious evidence, that has surely taken some of the gleam off the result.

At the end of the day, without video or photographic evidence, and without his power files, something some have called for him to release but which he is under no obligation to do, we’ll never know for sure what happened. Proving ones innocence is something we’re all too familiar with in cycling, but history has shown that it only tends to lead to more questions and speculation from conspiracy theorists; Demare need only ask Chris Froome about that. And besides, Demare releasing his power files to ensure he took no tow on his way to victory would only see the same demands being put on everyone who won every subsequent race from now until every helmet is fitted with a camera!

What I would like is to see some further clarification from the two Italian riders on their post-race accusations to see if they stood by them in the cold light of day.

Scandals and sideshows, be they warranted or not, seem forever likely to linger over bike racing. Froome can tell you about the sideshows; the motorised doping scandal that completely overshadowed a brilliant Cyclo-cross World Championships tells you all you need know about continued scandals. Last weeks Tirreno Adriatico had a sideshow scandal of its own when a stage was cancelled due to snow Matt Brammieier took to Twitter to rant at Vincenzo Nibali. It stole the headlines away from Greg Van Avermaet’s overall win.

One quick Google search for ‘Milan San Remo’ brings up the headline: ‘Demare hits back at Milan-San Remo tow allegations’. There’s several others like it and lost in the middle one called: ‘How the Race was won’. I haven’t read it yet but I assume it isn’t telling us it was won when Démare held onto his team car and accompanied with a grainy picture showing him riding alongside the car as was the case in one Italian outlet before someone pointed out that this wasn’t the climb in question but rather one hundred or more kilometres further down the road.

This isn’t to blame all the media. Here I am devoting several paragraphs to it also, but just a lament on how continually cycling puts itself, or more aptly, put’s itself, behind the eight ball of scandal. And so I’ll drop that story line now, at least until someone shows me some hard evidence that Démare did indeed cheat, at which time we can hand the win to a Brit! No, not Geraint Thomas in his failed bid for the Paris-Nice/San Remo double, but Ben Swift. His second top three in as many editions.

Swift must be frustrated at two close calls with Monument glory, whereas Démare will be feeling on top of the world despite all the noise. To go from crashing out of the lead pack, to chasing them, catching them, climbing with them on the Pogio, and then out sprinting them is one fine effort. He’ll also feel a little fortunate too. The two favoured sprinters in the pack ran into trouble of their own. Fernando Gaviria crashed inside the final 300 metres, a crash that should have brought down Peter Sagan and Fabian Cancellara but for some superb bike handling by the pair, but disrupting their speed enough to rule them out; and Nacer Bouhanni who’s chain jumped right as he was beginning his sprint. That isn’t to say any of them would have beaten Demare…the sprint in Milan-San Remo is a funny one, coming after 300km of racing and thus not always favoured to the fastest man on paper. And besides, mechanicals and crashes are all part of racing (the later of which Démare knew all too well) but in the end the best man gets in the position to avoid this and he wins, and on Saturday it was a Frenchman at long last.

Milan – San Remo result:

1. Arnaud Demare (FDJ)

2. Ben Swift (Sky)

3. Jurgen Roelandts (Lotto Soudal)

4. Nacer Bouhanni (Cofidis)

5. Greg Van Avermaet (BMC)

6. Alexander Kristoff (Katusha)

in 6h 54′ 45″

all s.t.

Rider of the week:

Assuming all is cosher with his chase back on following the crash and then sprint to victory, it’s hard to look beyond Démare.