2017 was the year of Trump as President, Division, North Korean tensions, sexual harassment, Vegas shooting, Hurricanes, a Solar Eclipse and Canada 150. It was also the year that Philippe Gilbert dominated the Tour of Flanders, Chris Froome won the Tour-Vuelta double, and Peter Sagan done the three-Pete at the World Championships.
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.
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
Gilbert decked out in the stripes of Belgium, wins, and will replace them with the stripes of the World Champion. Photograph: Sirotti
It might seem a little strange to suggest Philippe Gilbert has had a ‘tough’ season when you consider the fact that he won two stages in the Vuelta just a few weeks ago, but by his high standards that were set in 2011 when it felt like he won virtually every race he entered, 2012 had been a struggle for form. Those Vuelta wins hinted at the form returning and when he burst clear with a devastating turn of power in the final two kilometers of Sunday’s world road race championships, it was the Gilbert we know and love, and there was nobody who could match him.
Gilbert will now have the honour of wearing the rainbow stripes for the next twelve months and, like Cavendish this past year, you know he’ll honour it in style. His Vuelta wins coupled with yesterday’s wins suggests we might again see the best of him for next years spring classics and what a sight it would be to the see the rainbow jersey leading the charge at the Paris-Roubaix.
The race was one of chaos in it’s closing stages. Riders were going in all directions as the pace was turned up. It led to all sorts of splits in the main field, but came together nicely for the final lap. Almost everyone who is anyone who could win on such a short but very sharp up-hill finish was still in the field and it was anyone’s guess as to who might win.
My pre-race pick was Peter Sagan, but while he was in that group, he never did feature. Others had Edvald Boasson Hagen, who came second, four seconds behind Gilbert, Aljeandro Valverde, who led the main field home in third a further second back, or Thomas Voeckler, who finished in the 27 man group that contained the likes of Sagan, Oscar Freire and Simon Gerrans.
Gilbert puts on the power and surges clear of the casers. Photograph: Bettini
Gilbert’s attack came right as Italian Vincenzo Nibali sat down from his effort and nobody could respond. Enough power through the pedals to keep the electricity on in my home for a month, Gilbert immediately put fifty yards between himself and the rest. When I seen the 1km to go kite I wondered briefly whether Gilbert had perhaps gone too soon and might the chasing Boasson Hagen, Valverde or Alexandr Kolobnev might bridge the gap, but it was only a brief wonder. Gilbert continued on and the gap continued to grow and only dropped to the four seconds on the line when he sat up and began his celebration.
Gilbert’s victory makes him the 26th World road race champion from Belgium in the events 85 year history, joining the likes of Tom Boonen (2006) — another favorite to win this year and who was in the mix for a long time before finishing 12th — Johan Museeuw (1996), Rudy Dhaenens (1990), Claude Criquielion (1984), Freddy Maertens (1976 and 1981), and Eddy Merckx on a mighty three occasions (1967, 1971, and 1974). I might be from Northern Ireland and now living in Canada and thus have a soft spot for the Irishmen of Nicolas Roche and Dan Martin; the British lads such as Cavendish and the impressive Ian Stannard who really attacked the race yesterday; or the Canadians by way of Ryder Hesjedal who was ruled out of contention when he got caught up in a massive crash (he’s had little luck since winning that Giro all those months ago), but I think everyone in World cycling has a soft spot for the Belgians because of the heritage they bring to the sport.
Belgium is cyclings heartland and while they may no longer dominate the grand tours as they once did, it’s nice to see men like Gilbert and Boonen keep the flame alive in the Spring classics and indeed the World Championships.
Three of the ‘big four’ minus Chris Froome grind to the top of Saturday’s final climb. Photograph: AFP Photo
The Vuelta hit its first rast day today, which was fine by me as I was back into work after a nice weekend in which I, for once, had the free time to sit down and watch both stages. That sort of stuff is becoming all to rare, so when I realised I had a free weekend I jumped on the computer to see what kind of stages lay ahead for my viewing pleasure. I almost got a nasty scare.
I misread the stage schedule at first and thought it said the rest day was on Sunday. I began cursing the race organisers for not putting everyone’s weekend and a rare opportunity to put aside a couple of straight hours to watching the race on TV, only to find out it was my error and that I should curse myself for giving myself such a nasty shock.
Four way battle
Saturday was a ‘high mountain’ stage according to the stage guide which precisely the words a cycling fan loves to watch when they look to see what the stage they’re about to watch has in store. And it didn’t disappoint.
Once again it turned into a battle of Joaquim Rodriguez (in the leaders red jersey) vs. Chris Froome vs. Alberto Contador vs. Alejandro Valverde. They all took a turn to attack at one stage or another but it was Valverde who made the first move before Froome rode across. Froome himself then went clear but had to deal with that classic tactic of Contador wheel sucking, waiting for his moment as opposed to helping a break that had developed. Had the two of them rode on upthe climb there’s a chance we’d be talking about a two-way battle for the GC in this race today, so maybe it’s a good thing Contador almost came to a standstill when Froome slowed to try force him to take a pull.
They were eventually caught by the other two and just when it looked like they might contest the four-way sprint, Contador made his move. It was classic Contador, and baring flipping the finger at the others, he charged off up the mountain. But then it wasn’t classic Contador … he couldn’t sustain it and as Froome cracked from his earlier effort that perhaps highlighted why Contador wouldn’t take a pull at the time, Rodriguez and Valverde charged after the other Spaniard.
They caught him on the final turn and it was Valverde who kicked across the line in first. A fantastic win on a finish full of high drama and despite Froome trailing in 15 seconds behind, it left the GC wide open with Rodriguez still in red, Froome 33 seconds back, with Contador at 40 seconds and Valverde at 50.
At long last Philippe Gilbert
Sunday’s stage was generally a day off for the biggest names. Or it should have been. There was a 3rd category climb near the finish and a little hill up to the line, but nothing that should have troubled a big name nor enough for one of them to make a move. But the later didn’t apply and as is proving to be the case in this Tour, unpredictability reigned.
They hit the third category climb altogether and with a bunch sprint not entirely out of the question but then Contador of all men made the attack and it kissed goodbye to half the field as the hurt was put on. They eventually rode across to him and then, of all people, the red jersey of Rodriguez made a move. It wasn’t the kind of attacks we expected in a relatively short, though very steep climb, but someone like Rodriguez must realize all too well what he could lose in the upcoming time-trial and so is taking every chance he can to nibble back time on any climb and especially on the line where time bonus’ are up for grabs. It’s a very similar tactic to the one he employed against Ryder Hesjedal in the Giro and even then it wasn’t enough come that final time-trial.
He was joined by a surging Philippe Gilbert, who after dominating the road scene in 2011 was still riding without a race in 2012. It had been an awful year for the Belgian after signing a big contract with the BMC team this past winter, but the minute you seen him power across to Rodriguez you felt this would be his best chance yet for a stage win. I’d love to have seen the power data he was putting through the pedals over the top of that climb and onto the wheel of Rodriguez, but I dare say it would have been enough watts to keep my home lit for the week.
The two of them pressed one; one after a stage win, one after time. It was the perfect mix and when it came down to it Rodriguez was never going to out sprint Gilbert. The Belgian finally had his stage win and the Spaniard gained a dozen seconds plus a time-bonus.
The upshot of it all was that heading into the rest day after a week of brilliant racing, Rodriguez was still in Red with a healthy 53 second gap over Froome. Tuesday is a rare flat stage which should prove effectively to be a second rest day for the big names before Wednesday’s time-trial. It’s doubtful that 53 seconds will be enough for Rodriguez, but it’s enough that he shouldn’t lose his race lead by too much and it’ll more than allow him to attack to win it back when the mountains roll around again. Unlike at the Giro, this time-trial comes with lots of racing still to come.
General classification after stage 9
1. Joaquim Rodriguez (Spa) Katusha Team in 34-44-55
2. Chris Froome (GBr) Sky Procycling at 53 sec
3. Alberto Contador (Spa) Saxo Bank – Tinkoff Bank at 1-00
4. Alejandro Valverde (Spa) Movistar Team at 1-07
5. Robert Gesink (Ned) Rabobank Cycling Team at 2-01
6. Daniel Moreno (Spa) Katusha Team at 2-08
7. Nicolas Roche (Irl) AG2R La Mondiale at 2-34
I had hoped to get this site up and live around the turn of the new year but unfortunately time, among other things, conspired against me and so we find ourselves into the middle of the first month of the new year, but before the year of twenty-hundred and eleven disappears too far into our rear view, let’s hand out some awards for the year that was…
Awards and Gongs
Cyclist of the Year: PHILIPPE GILBERT
Philippe Gilbert. Was there ever anyone who truly came close? The Belgian dominated the spring classic’s season before taking a stage win in the Tour de France. He even rode high up the overall well into the big mountains before finally succumbing to the little men. There’s a belief that if Gilbert trained for it he could win a Grand Tour and while that would be something to see, it’s still fun to enjoy the aggressive riding style he current entertains us with.
Canadian rider of the year: RYDER HESJEDAL
A fitting name for the title! Not quite at the level of 2010 but still Canada’s biggest hope.
Sprinter: MARK CAVENDISH
Climber: DAVID MONCOUTIE
David Moncoutie for winning his forth mountains classification title in the Vuelta a Espana.
Time-trialist: CADEL EVANS
Cadel Evans to overcome the Schleck’s and secure the Tour de France crown.
Classics rider: PHILIPPE GILBERT
He dominated the spring. He appeared unbeatable.
Breakthrough young rider: PIERRE ROLLAND
An award with such past winners (if I’d been doing this in the past) as Richard Virenque, Jan Ullrich, Ivan Basso, Alberto Contador and Riccardo Ricco, goes to Pierre Rolland. He won a-top of Alpe d’Huez and scooped the young riders prize at Le Tour. The French are all hoping he’s for real and we’re all hoping that unlikely those I just named when they broke in, that this kid represents a new generation.
Hard-man: JOHNNY HOOGERLAND
It’s an award that should be named the Jens Voigt prize, but not even Jens could win it, and how could anyone else other than Johnny Hoogerland for being knocked off the road by a car and into a barbed wire fence. It was a horrific crash and the injuries only confirmed it. How he got up and continued I will never know.
MOMENT OF THE YEAR
VOECKLER’S ATTEMPT TO DEFEND YELLOW
The grimmace on the face of Thomas Voeckler as he fought tooth and nail to hang onto his Yellow Jersey. When people say ‘the yellow jersey brings that little bit extra out of you and makes you go that little bit further’ I consider it a bit of a cliche, but men like Voeckler put weight behind such cliches.