Tag Archives: Greg Van Avermaet

Van Avermaet completes one of the great cobbled campaigns

I didn’t see any of Paris-Roubaix live this year. I was out on the bike instead. I promised myself come Sunday morning that I wouldn’t fall victim to temptation and make an excuse to stay on the sofa watching the Hell of the North. It promised to be a great race as Peter Sagan looked to salvage his spring cake and Greg Van Avermaet looked to ice his. As it turned out it was the later who came through.

By all accounts it was a decent race though I have heard it was far from historic. No Paris-Roubaix is bad but I got the sense when Sagan punctured for a second time, ruling him out of contention, some of the drama went out of the race. Tom Boonen was of course competing in the final race of his career but the four-time winner could only manage 13th. The fairy tale finish was not meant to be.

No shock though at the winner. Van Avermaet has been a level above this spring. Sagan has been unlucky on several occasions, but the Belgian was always able to capitalize. Philippe Gilbert stole his thunder at the Tour of Flanders but didn’t race this one. Still, across the seven cobbled classics this spring Van Avermaet won four of them. He took Omloop Het Niewsblad to kick off the campaign, followed it up a month later with wins at E3 Harelbeke and Gent-Wevelgem, he was second at Flanders and returned to winning ways in Roubaix. Throw in a second place at Strade Bianche too and seventh at Kurrne-Brussles-Kuurne and you see an Olympic Champion on form.

I like to keep a running tally of the spring races from Het Niewsblad to Liège. I use the Formula One points system of 25 points for a win, 18 for 2nd, 15 for 3rd and 12, 10, 8 6, 4, 2 and 1 for 10th. Each race counts equal regardless of its status. There are 13 in total, and we have had 10 thus far. As it stands Van Avermaet is on 142 points with Sagan in second on 76.

To put Van Avermaet’s spring in perspective, Sagan’s great spring last year netted him only 104 points and he had 122 points in 2013. Gilbert’s epic spring in 2011 pulled in 117 points. Boonen’s 2005 was good for 109 points. Fine work Van Avermaet though over the past five seasons (2013-2017) combined, Sagan stands on top with 394 points to Van Avermaet’s 349.

For interests sake I’ve also kept a tally of the great one-day race seasons of all time. There are 12 events in total that include the five monuments, the worlds, Het Niewsblad (Het Volk), E3, Gent, Amstel, Fleche, and San Sebastian. For balance I only included events that were around going back into the 1960s, hence no Strade Bianche, for example. With six of the 12 complete, Van Avermaet is on 118, good for 11th all-time going back to the start of the 1960s. (I should point out I didn’t tally everyone, only the 80 best seasons I could find though I doubt there are any that crack the top ten that I have missed). Van Avermaet is currently one single 4th place this season from moving into second all-time in name, behind those of Eddy Merckx. Currently in that position is the 1978 season of Francesco Moser. Merckx has five seasons better (’70, ’71, ’72, ’73, ’75) with 1972 being the best with a colossal 172 points. To level that Van Avermaet would need 54 points more. Two wins and an 8th place would do it. It’s unlikely given the nature of the races to come, but last years Olympics showed the BMC rider is capable on a hilly course.

So suffice to say Van Avermaet’s 2017 season thus far has been one for the ages. He has been dominant in a way that few before him have matched. It’s been a fine cobbled campaign to watch, a lot of drama, talking points, twists and turns. I only hope the Ardennes classics coming up can rival it in their own way. It’ll take some going though whether I’m lying on the sofa watching it or still getting out on my bike remains to be seen. Likely determined by my moral following a couple of upcoming mountain bike races!

The 2017 season so far: Big names come to the fore

It has been a long time since I last wrote anything on here. It has been a busy winter. And anytime I have gotten some free time I’ve spent it on my bike rather than writing about bikes. On that end I’ve cycled over 1,500km since the turn of the year, way more than in any other winter before, and I am feeling good for it. A lot of it on the turbo trainer, but a mild winter here in Southern Ontario has meant I have gotten out on the road too. I have a couple of races in April and I decided to actually get ready for them. So far so good, though I could use to cut back on some junk food!

That isn’t to say I haven’t watched my share of cycling though. Indeed I have watched as much this winter and early spring as ever before. Some of the racing has been spectacular and there has been a lot of talking points. There is little point in me going into them all in detail right now, you’ve likely seen them yourself, but I do want to address some. So where to start?

To tell the truth, the early season races in January and February feel much like pre-season training races to me. Yes they are important to those that win them, and they can be fun to watch, but you get the sense many use them to find form. They can be to cycling what spring training games are to Baseball. We don’t remember all the winners and the results don’t have a real baring on the rest of the season. On that end, here in late March already, I won’t go writing about it. In the eyes of many fans, especially those in Belgium, the real season begins at the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad. That was won this year by Van Avermaet with Sagan winning  Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne the next day. Starting as they mean to go on.

And then again, in a way you could also say that this pair of races is the pre-season for the northern classics. Once complete the riders disappear south again to race the Paris-Nice or Tirreno-Adriatico by way of Strade Bianche. The riders go to seek form before returning north later in March. So when does the ‘real’ season begin? I suppose it depends on the rider. Some might say it starts at the top of the calendar, Down Under. Some will say once they return to Belgium via the Middle East. And others will tell you the Race to the Sun, Paris-Nice is the true traditional start to the season.

That Race to the Sun this year was true to its word. Strong winds and hard rain hammered the early stages and it wasn’t until they got down near beautiful Nice that the sun come out. Sergio Henao of Team Sky won it, fending off yet another late Contador charge. Over in Italy at Tirreno Quintana won overall with a little more ease.

And so everyone then turned up in Milan for the first monument of the year: Milan-San Remo. And what a race it was. Lately this race has resulted in a large group sprint and it’s often seen as the sprinters monument, but not so this time. Not when you have Peter Sagan out to rip a race to shreds. Sagan has a decent sprint, and he could have waited, but where’s the drama in that? It was on the Poggio, that final climb in which he made his move. The Poggio is not the toughest climb in the world, but with 290km in the legs, it likely feels like Alpe d’Huez. A huge surge put him clear and only Michal Kwiatkowski and Julian Alaphilippe could react. Neither of them done a lot of work on the front in the run in to San Remo, though nor should they have. It was Sagan who forced the issue, it was his race to win or lose. And so it proved to be, like E3 Harelbeke last year, that Kwiatkowski managed to come around Sagan and take the sprint win. He added this one to his victory at Strade Bianche a two weeks before.

So much then for a Sky team in crisis with a set of riders distracted by the so-called scandal engulfing the team back in the UK. That idea was suggested by the vultures on this story in a bid to further undermime the position of Sir Dave Brailsford. It was kind of put to bed with Kwiaktowski taking two one-day wins, Thomas a stage win and Henao a GC victory in the space of 14 days.

And it was here then, in San Remo, that the peloton split in two. The climbers heading into Spain for the Volta a Catalunya and Pais Vasco, and the strong men going north again to Belgium. It would be a week of racing in which riders from the respective home nations dominated.

In Spain, Valverde was a level above in what became a Spanish sweep of the podium. He finished a minute ahead of fellow countrymen Contador and Marc Soler. On his way to victory, Valverde took three stage wins from seven and was second in another. At 36, Valverde would appear to be in the form of his life.

But if you think it was a good week for the Spaniards, take a look back up at Belgium. In the three classic races up there this past week, they attained seven of the available nine podium places. Yves Lampaert won the Dwars Door Vlaanderen in a race lit up by his team-mate Philippe Gilbert who settled for second. At E3 Harelbeke, Gilbert once again settled for second after igniting a race in which Van Avermaet went on to win. Then this weekend at Gent-Wevelgem, Van Avermaet done the double by putting one on Sagan with a late attack from a reduced group. Indeed it was a triple for the Belgian following his win at Het Nieuwsblad, becoming the second man ever to win these three races in one season.

All Belgium will hope this form continues next weekend with the big one: The Tour of Flanders. Greg Van Avermaet must go in as a favourite, though Phillipe Gilbert should be right on him. Still, despite his short comings in actual wins of late, it would still take a fool to write off Peter Sagan. It’s a real shame that Michal Kwiatkowski, a man who looks made for any of the five monuments, will be missing from this one. Still, it should be one of the races of the year.

The season is very much underway now!

*****

Last year I ran some awards for the rider of the week and month. I will do that again this year, though only monthly. As such, and being a bit behind, here’s my picks for the first three months:

January: Richie Porte
February: Rui Costa
March: Greg Van Avermaet

Also last year I ran the King of Spring classification. I took 14 major spring classic races from Omloop to  Liège and used the Formula One points format of 25 for a win down to 1 for 10th place with each race counting equal. With seven races now in the books, the standings sit as follows:

1. Greg Van Avermaet – 99 pts
2. Peter Sagan – 76 pts
3. Michal Kwiatkowski – 50 pts
4. Philippe Gilbert – 36 pts
5. Oliver Naesen – 33 pts

Van Avermaet’s revenge in Montreal

It was a 986km round trip to watch 205km of bike racing, but it was worth every metre, as always. This was my fourth year going to the GP Cycliste de Montreal. It has become a bit of a annual tradition (one that I hope to soon include the Quebec race into!) and call me biased, but this race must be one of the finest one-day races on the calendar outside of the five monuments.

It’s just a shame in many ways that it clashes with the final day of the Vuelta, as well as the Tour of Britain. It should be a stand alone event to further boost its prestige and give it more viability to those who maybe haven’t see it, as the great race it is. Not that the field has suffered as a result of the other races, such is the depth of the talent in world cycling. We had the World champion in Peter Sagan and the Olympic champion in Greg Van Avermaet present. And it was that pair who illuminated the racing in Quebec and here.

If Friday was all about Sagan out sprinting Van Avermaet, then Sunday was the Belgians revenge. Both leave Canada deadlocked with a win and second place each and the fans leave entertained.

It was an absolute privilege to watch the finest athletes in the world do their stuff. The crowds were as big as any previous year I had been up there, and why not? A day of action and for free. It was a wonder the entire city hadn’t come up to take a look. In few other sports can you get that close to the athletes. Action that lasted five hours over 17 laps of a 12.1km circuit that included two tough climbs. The total climbing of the 205.7km race was a brutal 3893m.

And it’s the climb of Camillien-Houde at 1.8km and 8% average gradient was were most spend their day. It comes right at the beginning of the lap and tops out 10km from the finish of the lap. so It can prove decisive in late selections but not the race winning move. That is often saved for the shorter 780m, 6% climb of the Cote de Polytechnique that summits 5.6km out. Or for the final kick out of the hairpin up to the finish line on a drag that lasts for 560m but at a tough 4% grade. It’s those climbs repeated, especially the Camillien-Houde, that provide the gradual weeding out process. The slow exhausting of the legs as they climb it 17 times.

You get a good idea of the kind of race it is when you look at the list of past winners. Since I started going in 2013, Sagan, Simon Gerrans, Tim Wellens and today, Van Avermaet. Yes, it’s a proper one-day classic.

And there’s no better way to watch a bike race than this kind of circuit. It’s long enough for the course to have plenty to it but with laps taking about 20 minutes or so, there’s plenty to see. I’m not sure I’d drive that far to watch it if it were a point-to-point race and I would only see them come past the once. With this kind of a course you can see the race develop as it ebbs and flows and takes shape. I like to pick out a rider or two, especially one who might feature come the end, and follow their progress each lap. It’s interesting to see how they read the race, how they position themselves and build towards the crucial moments.

It’s not easy to do when there are so many riders in a pack in team jerseys. I often think that for these kind of races the team leaders should wear different jerseys. The winner of a grand tour should wear that race winning jersey throughout the season, much like the world champion does. Speaking of whom, the one jersey you can pick out with ease is the rainbow stripes and this year it was on the back of the brilliant Peter Sagan.

He had won on Friday and was an obvious favourite for Montreal, so it was fascinating to watch him each lap to see how he went about it. Sagan spent a lot of time in the final third of the pack. I remember a few years ago when he won he would enter the main climb near the front and drift to the back thus saving energy on others. I seen no evidence of this time, though granted I spent a lot of my day up near the top of the hill. At one stage on the descent Sagan came past behind one of the team-cars near the back of the cavalcade. I’m not sure if he had a mechanical issue, but it was still a long way out and by the next race he was back in the field.

When Geraint Thomas forced the pace on the climb with about four laps to go, his move that split the field. The surge also reeled in the final four men of what had been six-man day-long break that included two Canadian riders. Sagan missed the move, but he didn’t panic and remained further back in the bunch while his team worked on the chase. There’s a coolness about the way Sagan races. Almost an understanding that the race will come to him. Had the Thomas move gotten away, you feel the laid-back Sagan might have shrugged his shoulders and said, well there’s always the next race. The was no panic and a lap later he was back in the mix.

Only with the crucial moves made in the final two laps did Sagan turn up. I’d like to have picked out Van Avermaet too, but wearing the BMC jersey like his team-mates it wasn’t always easy. Before I’d have through it too hilly for Van Avermaet, but his climbing has improved, highlighted by his Olympic win on a hilly circuit in Rio.

Late on Rui Costa attacked hard, on the final run up Camillien-Houde. He held a lead going into the final kilometre but it was a small group that got clear on the Cote de Polytechnique that brought him back. The group contained Sagan and Van Avermaet.

By then I was sitting up in a grandstand just 30m from the finish line. As I watched the chase blitz past on the opposite side of the road and under the red kite, I turned to the big screen to see what would come back up the road. Costa got swept up as they swung out of the final hairpin and made the drive for the line. It seemed made for Sagan. Having watched him all day I was desperate to see him pull it off, but it also had become clear that he had led the chase a little too much. He once again tried to close down a late move in the final straight and this allowed Van Avermaet to get onto his wheel. Into a heavy wind Sagan was in trouble and the Olympic champion cane around the world champion late to take the win.

So both took a turn beating the other and I was just glad to have been there for the Montreal race to see it come together. Safe to assume I’ll be back again next year, and I hope those two are also.

Result:

1. Greg Van Avermaet (BMC) in 5h27’04”

2. Peter Sagan (Tinkoff)

3. Diego Ulissi (Lampre-Merida)

4. Michael Matthews (Orica-BikeExchange)

5. Nathan Haas (Dimension Data)

6. Gianni Moscon (Sky) all s.t.

Top Canadian finisher: Ryder Hesjedal, 19th (Trek-Segafredo)

King of the Mountains: Ben Perry (Canada)

Quintana wraps up the Vuelta

Saturday’s stage was a giant with potential for mayhem. It contained several hills leading into a final 22km climb with a summit finish. As it turns out Quintana responded to everything Froome threw at him and rode into Madrid yesterday as the worthy winner of this race. The only major shakeup was the bad day for Alberto Contador and a great ride by Esteban Chaves that allowed the Colombian to join his national compatriot Quintana on the podium.

Could Froome have won this Vuelta had he not been part of the Olympics after his Tour win? I think so. People will say Quintana won this Vuelta last week when himself and Contador forced the split that caught Froome out. Which regards to the race itself is true. But I also think it was when Froome attended the Olympics. That isn’t to say this was a mistake – he did win a silver medal after all – but there’s no doubt he showed up in less than top form. Froome was not himself in the early going. It also perhaps limited his ability to shake Quintana from his wheel in the later stages.

Froome has said next year he will target both the Tour and the Vuelta with his Team Sky boss Dave Brailsford saying he believes the double is possible. From what I’ve seen I tend to agree, but Quintana will also believe it possible himself with the confidence gained from this victory.

Final classification:

1. Nairo Quintana (Movistar) in 83h31’28”

2. Chris Froome (Sky) @ 1’23”

3. Esteban Chaves (Orica-BikeExchange) @ 4’08”

4. Alberto Contador (Tinkoff) @ 4’21”

5. Andrew Talansky (Cannondale-Drapac) @ 7’43”

6. Simon Yates (Orica-BikeExchange) @ 8’33”

Tour of Britain musings

What with the Vuelta being on and then me being up in Montreal, I seen none of the Tour of Britain. That said, everything I’ve read and heard, it sounds like some brilliant racing. Steve Cummings of Dimension Data took the GC win by 26sec over Rohan Dennis and 38sec ahead of Tom Dumoulin. Both are time-trial specialists, but who could not overhaul the defecit to the Englishman after his time gains on a brilliant stage two ride. It wasn’t until stage six when Cummings finally took the race lead and from there he held it into London.

Rider of the week

I couldn’t split Sagan and Van Avermaet given both took a win and a second place in Canada. I couldn’t quite go for Froome despite his time-trial win and gritty effort to pull back his loses on Quintana. And I didn’t go for Quintana because he won the week before in what was his best week of the Vuelta. As a result it’s Steve Cummings and his brilliant Tour of Britain win.

Two Olympic road races blighted by crashes but thrillers nonetheless in Rio

If the two road races in Rio were not a good advertisement for road cycling to the world, then I don’t know what is. Especially the men’s race which many are calling the race of the season; a race expected to be contested by the climbers but which was won by a man of the cobbles in Greg Van Avermaet. The woman’s race ended in dramatic fashion itself when American Mara Abbott was caught within metres of the line by a group of three from which Anna Van Der Breggen of the Netherlands took the gold medal.

It was a brutal course that incorporated its own sectors of cobbles but also some savage hills but because of what was at stake as well as the reduced team sizes and a ban on race radios, the action came thick and fast and it was hard for the climbing type to control it. UCI, World Tour, Tour de France etc., take note! They didn’t know when to react and when to let a move go and come the finish I was left wondering whether Peter Sagan might have regretted his decision to skip it?

But Sagan or not, perhaps nobody was beating Van Avermaet on a day like this. He could soak up the cobble sections, conserve on some of the earlier climbs and then get in moves that other climbers might not have been given the freedom for.

That said there was a little bit of luck too, but you make your own luck and you have to be in a position to capatilise when the opportunity arises. For a short time near the end it looked as though Vincenzo Nibali might win out in a race he had been targeting since the Giro, but on a tricky descent near the finish as he tried to split up his lead group, he crashed along with fellow escapee Sergio Henao, leaving Rafal Majka on his own to try and hold off a chasing pack. It looked like the perfect opportunity for Poland to seel a superb days racing that had seen Michal Kwiatkowski go up the road for the majority of the day, giving Majka the chance to rest while the rest led the chase. Majka couldn’t hang on however and was swept up on the road back into Rio by Van Avermaet and Jakob Fuglsang of Denmark leaving Van Avermaet as the strongest in a sprint along the Copa Cabana. Fuglsang settled for silver while Majka still took bronze.

The woman’s race had a similar finish, yet even more dramatic. The pair of Abbott and Annemiek Van Vleuten crested the final climb together and when Van Vleuten accelerated on that tricky descent, made more so by falling rain, it looked like the move to win. That was until a horrific crash seen her flip over her bars and onto a curb, knocking herself unconscious. She would be rushed to hospital with three small fractures to her spine, but would ultimately be ok. The upshot to the race itself was that Abbott was now on her own with a chasing group of three behind, so someone would miss a medal. For a while it looked like the American might hold them off, right into the final 500m in fact, when she finally blew and got swept up with 200m left. Chasing her down had been Elisa Longo Borghini of Italy, who must have realised she was the weakest of the three in the sprint and so by not pushing after Abbott would have missed a medal entirely. As it was her chase got her onto the podium for bronze as Van Der Breggen took the gold medal for the Netherlands ahead of Emma Johannsson of Sweden.

Missing from all this is, of course, Lizzie Armistead. She finished 5th, but her head was clearly not in the race. It’s been a turbulent few weeks for the reigning world champion when it emerged she had missed three random doping tests that would normally result in a ban, but had one of them struck off in an appeal to the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) because the tester had not been able to reach her in her hotel room when the hotel refused to give the tester her room number. It seemed fair enough but the fact that she had even gotten to two missed tests was a worry.

Naturally it put her under a lot of heat, within the press, on social media and even amongst some of her fellow competitors. Armistead later released a letter explaining her position on the matter and it did seem to clear things up a little but there is no doubt going forward she will need to be far more cautious and certainly better with his administration. There is also no doubt that it had an affect on her mental state. She denied this after the race and said that once on the bike it wasn’t in her head, and while this is true there is no doubt the whole saga had an affect on her preparation…so much so that in itself it might have been the 20sec difference that she found herself away from a gold medal come the finish.

Next up will come the individual time-trials were certain riders like Chris Froome who must have fancied his chances in this race only to miss one of the decisive moves, will look to redeem himself and repeat what Bradley Wiggins achieved in 2012 when he added the Olympic time-trial to his Tour de France victory. Speaking of Wiggins, a little later in the week the track cycling begins and Wiggins will look to bookend his fabulous career with another gold in the velodrome.

Rider of the week:

Danny Van Poppel won two stages of the Vuelta a Burgos while Alberto Contador took the overall win, and Lachlan Morton won two stages and the overall classification of the Tour of Utah, but how can you not go for Greg Van Avermaet for completely upsetting the odds and spoiling a course supposed to be built for climbers by winning Olympic gold for Belgium?

Cancelled stages and dramatic results

The Paris-Nice and Tirenno-Adriatico are two races in two countries over a similar length that bring out the same kind of contender. In one aspect you have the Grand Tour favourites who use one of the two as a preparation race for their form ahead of the Giro or Tour, and on the other you have single day classics men who use it as a late conditioner ahead of Milan San-Remo. Often we look at who is racing which and then check to see which of the two the last five San-Remo winners, or Tour of Flanders winners, rode in.

In the case of Milan-San Remo, four of the last five winners came out of Paris-Nice whereas at Flanders, four of the last six winners came from Tirreno-Adriatico. To be fair the Tour of Flanders likely comes a little far out for either of these events to have any real baring on its outcome, but I bring it up because of how Tirreno-Adriatico played out this year.

In a big upset to the form guide, the winner of Tirreno-Adriatico was Greg Van Avermaet, a man that nobody would have expected to win the overall of, but who came good thanks to the cancellation of the queen state that would have seen the climbers shine. That isn’t to suggest he’s now the likely winner of either upcoming Monument, though he remains a contender and many feel that with the cancellation of that mountain stage it was the ideal preparation race for Milan-San Remo. If he does pull it off, he’ll become the first man since Fabian Cancellara in 2008 to win MSR after winning Tirreno but more dramatically should he win the Tour of Flanders he’ll be the first man since Roger De Vlaeminck in 1977 to do the Tirreno/Flanders double.

Vincenzo Nibali had hoped to ensure that no such outcome would come to fruition. The Italian won’t be anywhere near Flanders (though we know he can ride the cobbles and I’d love to see him give it a crack, but alas) but had been one of the favourites to win at Tirreno before his targeted stage was removed. The whole episode resulted in a sideshow of complaints and criticism that completely took the shine of the stages that remained and left many debating cycling’s extreme weather protocol rather than Van Avermaets big win. Nibali felt it should have been raced, and his coach Paolo Slongo went as far as to drive the mountain to prove the snow that seen the stage cancelled was no longer there. He then opined that Nibali might skip the Giro if such quick cancellation of stages due to snow became the norm, focusing his training for a run at the Tour instead. Irishman Matt Brammeier then read too much into it and associated Slongo’s remarks as Nibali’s and went off on a rant at the three Grand Tours winner on Twitter. It was all a bit silly.

It’s a fine balancing act when it comes to cancelling stages. Nobody wants the riders to risk their own safety, but then again so much of the sport is about racing through the extremes. Nibali himself won an epic stage in the Giro just a few years ago coming through a blizzard in the pink jersey. Clearly he felt up for more of the same. Cancelling the stage too early is a risk because conditions could easily improve, but likewise you cannot simply move the finish of stage of a race this big so easily. In a way I feel for the organiser: Had they went ahead and it turned into a blizzard, they’d have been criticised by some. As it was, Slongo showed the finish to be OK, and they were criticised by some. I think in general though the riders were happy enough to stay in bed, and who can blame them?

They cancelled a stage of the Paris-Nice too, though in a different manor. They at least started the days racing before deciding that the amount of snow on the road was too much, but by then it had already gotten dangerous for those on the road, hence the each-way-you-lose scenario facing organiser’s. That stage however was much less dramatic to the overall outcome by comparison to Tirreno, though perhaps Alberto Contador might disagree. He finished second to Geraint Thomas by just four seconds in what had been a thrilling duel between himself and the Welshman over the final couple of days. Thomas once again proving his metal in these week long races (to go with his overall win at the Volta ao Algarve). Unlike the Tirreno-Adriatico winner, Thomas is in transition away from the single-day classics, and in doing so has really begun to prove himself to be the ideal week-long stage race winner come GC Super Domestique replacement for Richie Porte at Team Sky, and we saw what he could do at last years Tour without this depth of climbing preparation. That said it won’t be all stage races and this coming week he will attempt to become the first man to do the Paris-Nice – Milan-San Remo double since Laurent Jalabert in 1995. Without getting into the murky waters of how, Jalabert went on to finish 4th in that same years Tour de France, just a few minutes behind his own team-leader of the time, Alex Zülle.

Rider of the week:

And so to rider of the week of 7-13 March and I’m going to go with Thomas over Van Avermaet, if only because the cancelled stage wasn’t as crucial to the overall outcome at Paris-Nice and Thomas, who didn’ win a stage unlike Van Avermaet, fought a brilliant fight on the hills to keep Alberto Contador at bay.

Cobbled/Single Day/Flandrian classics campaigns begin the season for real

Up until this past weekend the vast majority of the racing in the early 2016 season has been under sun drenched skies in warm climates. What the Belgians might refer to as the pre-season, what I might call the tune-up racing where the big names are racing for fitness and form. Maybe that’s a little unfair to some of the races, but that’s January and February of a new season for you. Until this weekend that was, when the racing arrived in Belgium and kicked off the cobbled classics campaign. Now the racing is for keeps.

And it’s funny though, because after the two opening races this weekend — the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne — the riders will head south again to training camps, the Paris-Nice, Tirreno-Adriatico, and Milan-San Remo before they turn up in Belgium again almost a full month later for the Dwars Door Vlaanderen and eventually the Tour of Flanders. So in many ways these two races are pre-season races in the cobbled classics season; a chance for riders and team management to access form and build a strategy for when they arrive back again in a months time.

Still, the two races do in way mark the real beginning of the European season and what follows on at Paris-Nice, Tirenno and San Remo is only the continuation of the schedule. The Belgian newspaper Het Nieuwsblad released their cycling season guide on the weekend and many fans really begin to sit up and take note of results. As I said, they’re racing for results now and not just fitness.

That is the classics men, of course. The little skinny men we will see soar in the summer won’t be anywhere near a Belgian or northern French road anytime soon if they can help it. The Cobbled/Berg/Muur season — let’s call it the single day classic season — belongs to a different kind of rider and it’s the coming six to eight weeks in which their entire seasons are built upon.

Someone like Tom Boonen, in the last chance saloon of his career will see this spring as make or break. Even Peter Sagan. While the world champion will win races across the entire season, there is no doubt that his season will be judged upon what he does in monument races like Milan-San Remo, Flanders and Paris-Roubaix. The time is nigh for the 26-year old to finally step up and win one of those three big races this spring. Failure to do so will see questions really begin to mount regardless of what else he wins the rest of the year.

Anyway…the cobbled/single day/Flandrian classics season is underway and it was perennial second place man Greg Van Avermaet who drew first blood ahead of the other perennial second place man, Sagan. The big Belgian beat the Slovak in a five up sprint from a group that had been away for a while but had held the chasing peloton at bay. Young Belgian phenom, Tiesj Benoot  — of whom much is expected this spring and for many springs to come — was third ahead of Luke Rowe and Alexis Gougeard.

As the run in to the finish approached it became clear that all five seemed content to duke it out in a sprint. Gougeard looked spent while the rest clearly fancied their chances with perhaps Rowe and Benoot lacking the legs to make a late attack. And so Sagan v Van Avermaet always seemed the likely duel to the line with the Belgian proving too powerful on the day. Early days for Sagan to worry about being nipped and he still showed some good form.

Flanders will remain his ultimate target as it will for Van Avermaet, though in a statistical anomaly that some call the curse of the Omloop, nobody who has won here has gone on to win at Flanders. Indeed, the win in Gent has often led to a poor season results wise for the victor, but curses — if you believe in such nonsense — are made to be broken and I get the feeling Van Avermaet won’t let it hang over him too heavily. He’ll be glad of snapping his second place curse more-so and in doing so might yet prove to be the ideal successor to Tom Boonen…at least until Benoot is ready!

As for Sunday’s race, Jasper Stuyven won the Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne by 17 seconds ahead of pre-race favourite Alexander Kristoff. A fine solo win the young Belgian who attacked alone with about 14km to go after several moves by others, and splits in the main field, failed to result in a winning move. It was Stuyven`s first major one-day race win.

Rider of the week

Jasper Stuyven for that solo victory ala his team-mate Fabian Cancellara at Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne.

The eternal seconds battle for the win

Stage 13: Muret > Rodez, 198.5km

Greg Van Avermaet and Peter Sagan have become known lately in cycling circles as men who often finish second, so when both moved clear of the pack on the final hill of the avenue de Saint-Pierre in Rodez this afternoon, to contest the victory, it was the creation of a paradox. Two perennial second place men going for the win. I suppose you could say that with Van Avermaet crossing the line first, it was Sagan who pipped him for the second place win! Of course, Sagan won’t see the humour in that.

The second place finish for Sagan did allow him to retain his Green jersey lead having lost it unofficially on the road when André Greipel pipped him in the intermediate sprint. The only other real moment of note in the stage was the heavy crash of last years runner up, Jean-Christophe Péraud, who managed to get back up again with his skin ripped to pieces and chase his way back into the peloton.

The hill at the finish was noteworthy enough that the top contenders all got near the front with Chris Froome leading home the top nine overall in positions 6 through 14, though not all in GC order.

Result: Classement:
1. Van Avermaet (BMC) in 4h 43′ 42″

2. Sagan (TSC) s.t.

3. Bakelants (ALM) +3″

4. Degenklob (TGA) +7″

5. Martens (TLJ)

6. Froome (SKY) all s.t.

1. Froome (SKY) in 51h 34′ 21″

2. Van Garderen (BMC) +2′ 52″

3. Quintana (MOV) +3′ 09″

4. Valverde (MOV) +3′ 58″

5. Thomas (SKY) +4′ 03″

6. Contador (TSC) +4′ 04″