Tag Archives: Spring classics 2013

And you thought Cancellara crushed the opposition at Flanders? Take alook at Eddy Merckx, 1969

Last weekend I followed the Tour of Flanders as the ever powerful Fabian Cancellara taught the new upstart Peter Sagan a lesson in how to win a Monument Classic, and while I watched in admiration as the big man blew the opposition away to win by a mighty 1min 27secs, I couldn’t help but think about what I had recently read about Merckx achieving in the same race 44 years before.

‘Half Man, Half Bike’ by William Fotheringham is the second biography of Merckx that I’ve read in the last five months, though I’m not yet finished Fotheringham’s effort. The first was ‘Eddy Merckx: The Cannibal’ by Daniel Daniel Friebe and if you’re a cycling fan you really should read at least one of these two biographies. Merckx was after all to cycling what Pele was to football, what Wayne Gretzky was to hockey, what Muhammad Ali was to Boxing, and Michael Jordan to basketball. He was in a league of his own during his prime and his story is truly fascinating when look back from the twenty-first century to such a by-gone era. Merckx didn’t just dominate the Grand Tours but he also dominated the spring classics, won World Championships and decimated the hour record. He rode and raced relentlessly all season, every season until his body finally gave up much younger than it might have had he been riding in the last twenty years where the riders are more specialized with their race programmes carefully selected. It’s for that reason that we perhaps don’t see such exploits, but then again sometimes such talents only come along once in a life time.

And that time was 1969, and what a twenty-four year old Eddy Merckx did to the sport on his home turf in Belgium, at the Ronde Van Vlaanderen. All eyes were on the huge young talent who had already amassed a Giro d’Italia GC victory, a World Championship, three Milan-San Remo’s and a Paris-Roubaix on his palmares, desperate to see if he could win their big one.

It was raining heavily in Ghent that day, but this was entirely in the order of things. The Tour of Flanders is not always rained on but it is an event that needs wet and cold to be truly epic and so it was for Merckx’s first victory in de Ronde.

The rain poured, a wind howled out of the west. The race remains legendary. The day’s events hinged on a change in the course direction after a hundred kilometers, when the race reached Torhout after heading west from Ghent: there the gale changed from a headwind into a crosswind, favouring action at the head of the bunch.

The hostilities were started by Frans Verbeeck, who epitomised the Flandrian professionals who lived for and through the April Classics. Merckx then took charge and the bunch split to bits with over 160 kilometers still to race. Only twenty-three riders survived the wind-lashed selection to make it into the front group, including four Italians — Gimondi, Franco Bitossi, Dancelli and Marino Basso.

Merckx made his first move on the Oude Kwaremont, a narrow strip of windswept cobbles running through the fields above the town of Kluisbergen, up a hill that ran parallel with the newer main road. A puncture held him up, but he attacked again on the Kapelmuur — a one-in-four brute out of the town of Geraardsbergen to a hilltop chapel — where Gimondi and his countrymen kept him on the leash. He kept on attacking and with about seventy kilometers remaining — before the race returned into the wind to finish in Gentbrugge, close to the start — he got clear, simply be pressing a little harder on the pedals.

Rather than making an intentional, dramatic attack, he ratcheted up the pressure. The journalist Théo Mathy described the scene: ‘Going through the villate of Tollembeek, after doing his turn at the front of the group, he gained a few bike lengths on the others. He moved across to the side of the road, turned round and assessed the situation. Then he went on. There were 70km left to the finish. It was raining and the gusts of wind were bending the trees. No matter.’

Merckx’s thinking was simple but typical of him: riding back to the finish into the headwind, it would be far easier for the other riders to hang on in his slipstream. That meant they had to be eliminated beforehand. In this version of the course — which has changed several times since then — there were no major climbs in the run-in to the finish. If the lead group remained together, it was by no means certain that he could beat Basso, who was particularly rapid in a sprint.

During the slog to Gentbrugge, the time gaps stretched out to a ridiculous extent. Gimondi came in second, five minutes thirty-six seconds behind. The lead group was eight minutes back. Van Looy, now definitely yesterday’s Emperor, was a quarter of an hour off the pace.

Merckx’s status had changed since his world title and his Giro d’Italia win. he was now expected to win everywhere he raced but the paper that sponsored the Tour of Flanders, het Niewsblad, had speculated that maybe Merckx lacked that little something special it takes to win their race. There has always been a strong element of nostalgia to Flemish cycling, best expressed in the fact that ‘the Last of the Flandrians’ is an honorary title that has been bestowed several times, notably on Schotte, and Museeuw.

With this implicit concern about how the present matches up to the past, the question was clear: could the new, Bruxellois, champion match the Flandrian legends of yesteryear? Merckx said to Guillaume Michiels that he could answer his critics if the weather cooperated, and so he did, leaving the strongest cyclists of his generation floundering in his wake.

— Merckx: Half Man, Half Bike by William Fotheringham

It was a master stroke and despite the glory had had achieved before then, it was this one that seems to have cemented his control over the sport. Nobody was in any doubt anymore and no race was safe. A few weeks after that Tour of Flanders win Merckx would add Liège-Bastogne-Liège to his Monument win-list; an achievement of which winning the pair in the same year has not been done by anyone else since (he would do it again in 1975). A few months later he would enter the Tour de France for the first time and win it…by a mere 17mins 54secs!

Merckx would win a staggering 525 professional victories in his career including 54 in one season; he won 34 stages of the Tour de France, spent 96 days in the Yellow jersey, won the general classification, the points classification and the mountains classification in the same Tour (1969), won 28 classics including 7 Milan-San Remo’s and 11 Grand Tours in all including the Giro-Tour double three times. In 1972 alone, at perhaps the peak of his powers, Merckx would finish only 7th at Flanders and in Roubaix, but would otherwise win Milan-San Remo, Liège–Bastogne–Liège, Flèche Wallonne, the Giro di Lombardia, the Hour record (at 49.431km), the Giro d’Italia pink jersey (plus 4 stages), and the Tour de France yellow and green jerseys (plus 6 stages).

And yet for many, it’s that ride in Flanders ’69 that stands out in his glittering career. (It and stage 17 of the Tour that same year, from Luchon to Mourenx in which Merckx attacked over the top of the Tourmalet with 130km still remaining, built a lead of 7mins by the top of the Aubisque and finished the day almost 8mins ahead of 2nd place).

It was moments like this that highlighted the incredible talent of Merckx, but he also had an incredible dedication to his craft that he maximized to the fullest. The kind of work ethic that separates the greats from the good, or even the very good. This extract from the same book reveals it perfectly, allowing his monumental feats to become the legends they are today:

Patrick Sercu tells a story which he believes shows the level of Merckx’s obsession.

‘Liège-Bastogne-Liège was a race which didn’t have a course that suited me, so I rarely rode it. One year I had a call the day before from the team manager, Franco Cribiori, to say that Roger De Vlaeminck, the star of the Brooklyn team, was ill and wouldn’t start. That meant I had to race as I was the No. 2 in the team.

I left Ghent on the Saturday afternoon with my father to drive down: a slow drive as there was no motorway. We were driving down the main road from Brussels to Liège, it was raining and snowing together, the worst possible conditions for riding a bike.

A long way up ahead we spotted a cyclist on the road: we couldn’t work out who would be riding in such weather. It was so bad that there was no one else outside. When we passed the bike rider we saw it was Merckx: he was riding the hundred kilometres from Brussels to Liège, all alone, because he had not won Fleche Wallonne during the week.

He won Liège-Bastogne-Liège the next day five minutes ahead of the second rider: I climbed off after forty kilometres.’

— Merckx: Half Man, Half Bike by William Fotheringham


Sagan’s Spring, episode 4: The humble, sincere apology

Following ‘pinch-gate’ on Sunday’s podium at the Tour of Flanders, Peter Sagan has felt the wrath of the high and mighty from all circles of social media. As a result the Slovakian was quick to take to his own Twitter account to apologise to anyone offended.

“Was not my intention to disrespect women today on the podium. Just a joke, sorry if someone was disturbed about it,” he said @petosagan. Still, given the apparent seriousness of the crime in the minds of some Sagan followed that apology up with a video posted to his Facebook page in which he stared down the barrel of a camera phone and issued his heart-felt remorse.

“Dear Maya, women and fans, I know I have no excuse. here again my sincere apology…”

The video itself is a classic that may or may not have any relevance to the date in which it was posted: April 1st, but the only thing missing from it was a violin playing in the background. Either that or, given the look on his face, Arabic writing on the wall behind him and two masked men either side of him wielding AK-47’s. “They’re treating me well and say I will be released once all you infidels apologise for ever having wanted to touch the bottom of a podium girl.”

Seriously though, I just hope that’s the last we hear of this whole mind numbing story about nothing. (And there was me thinking the doping subject was robbing us of a focus on the actual racing!)

Sagan’s Spring, episode 3: Sagan grabs onto more than he bargained foras scramble for position on the moral high ground ensues

To read some cycling news outlets this past few days you’d be forgiven for not knowing who won the Tour of Flanders yesterday depending on how a certain image was cropped. Had it cut out the man on the top step and shown only second place man Peter Sagan with his hand reaching out to the bottom of a podium girl, you’d never have known the winner was Fabian Cancellara. Yep, seriously, the brief act of foolishness by Sagan on yesterday’s podium — immature fun as opposed to the sex scandal you’re probably led to believe it was — has sadly taken the attention away from the race itself. And pinch-gate aside, that is Sagan’s biggest crime, for the race itself produced an epic escape by Cancellara to take the win.

When moments like this happen I can’t help but laugh at the sudden scramble for a position on the moral high ground as the finger pointing begins. Did Sagan go over the top? Probably … in fact, of course he did. He shouldn’t have done it and maybe he should be told off even if he did send out a Tweet shortly after to apologise, but he’s a young man who was trying to be funny with no evil intentions. Don’t kid yourself otherwise.

Yet reading some sensationalist comments on various media outlets by cycling fans and scandal-seekers alike, I find myself having to look at the image once again just to remind myself that this whole hoopla is over a pinch to someones rear and not worse. Had the podium girl pinched him in the rear, would the same pitchfork and torch wielding army of the easily-offended be out in force, shocked and dismayed for the treatment of Sagan and his poor arse? If your answer to that is yes then you’re a liar, if your honest answer is no then you’re a hypocrite.

It’s left people questioning the roll of the podium girl at all in the twenty first century, but the last time I checked no podium girl was ever forced into the job. They apply freely and resign when they choose. From what I’ve heard in the past there is a great demand for a position on the podium girls tour and some will use it as a chance to get out and see the world while travelling with the professional cycling cavalcade and getting paid for their work. Work that goes beyond podium appearances as they also travel along the route on the ‘caravan’ that proceeds ahead of a race.

This girl will have dealt with worse in this kind of environment and she’ll be strong enough in such a profession to rise above it. Let’s not insult her as a woman — as those who are kicking up the biggest stink in this whole ‘scandal’ are doing — by thinking she hasn’t the where with all to brush off a little boy like Peter Sagan.

Peter Sagan is a 23 year old man-child. A supreme athlete who has had little else in his young adult life aside from riding bikes, winning races, entertaining us with his celebrations, and it’s unlikely he carries the same politically correct savvy of those currently distressed by the sight of such an image on the Internet. And that’s the bottom line.

He’ll live and learn and we’ll all move on, forgetting it by the time he wheelies over the line for another victory. As the saying goes, today’s newspaper is tomorrow’s chip wrapper.

Sagan’s Spring, episode 2: Sagan put in his place by the powerful vet

The Tour of Flanders was a reminder if ever there was one that at 23, Peter Sagan still has some dues to pay. It was the old vet, Fabian Cancellara, who reminded everyone as to how it was done with a display of power that nobody could match.

He moved to the front on one of the late climbs of the day and only Sagan could go with him. By the final climb not even Sagan’s raw strength could match that of the Swissman and he rode off alone with 13 kilometers to go to win the historic classic by a staggering 1-27. To open that gap in such a short distance proved how above and beyond the rest Cancellara was. To put it in perspective, Cancellara covered that final 13 kilometers at a mind blowing 49.524 km/h.

Sagan, of course, was the next best in — it would seem that if it isn’t the win, it’s second for him — and that shouldn’t be scoffed at. On top of his seven wins this season, the 23 year old Sagan now has a second place in both the Milan – San Remo and the Tour of Flanders to go with his 4th and 5th place finishes in the same two races respectively, last year.

From here they’ll all make their way to the start line of the Paris-Roubaix this coming Sunday where Cancellara will have taken the roll of pre-race favorite. Paris-Roubaix is such a lottery at times that it’s hard to know who will come out on top, but mechanical issues aside, you can almost guarantee that come the thick of the action both Cancellara and Sagan will be in the mix again as the young man looks to get one over the veteran once again and the veteran looks to remind the rest that he’s still the master.

It’s sure to be epic.

Sagan’s Spring, episode 1: Sagan primed for greatness

If the talent of Peter Sagan wasn’t fully understood before this past couple of weeks, then worry no more. The way the young 23-year old Slovakian cyclist has ripped up the early part of the season has been nothing short of astonishing, leaving the likes of Mark Cavendish to refer to him as a “machine” and others to draw comparisons to the great Eddy Merckx.

That might be getting ahead of ourselves somewhat, though maybe not as much as you might think and it’s something I’ll look into further in a future article. Suffice to say though he’s the finest young talent in cycling today and despite being beaten into second in both Monument Classics so far, it’s the style in which he’s tried to win and how he’s featured in every big race he’s been involved in that’s made him the man of Spring thus far.

At 23 the future sure is bright and Fabian Cancellara aside, he might well be the most feared man in the professional peloton right now. Gerald Ciolek pipping him to the line at the Milan – San Remo a few weeks ago may hint at slight tactical naivety, but even in that loss he showed how good he can be. He attacked on the final climb — The Poggio — and descended away from the field bringing with him just a small selection of riders. The rest made him do the bulk of the work and took turns trying to attack him, letting him bring it back together each time. In the sprint in which he should have been favorite, he was forced to start it earlier than he might otherwise have done, and it cost him on the line.

But he’ll learn from it.

Indeed, at Gent-Wevelgem he got across to the leading break and rather than let them follow his wheel and try attack him ahead of a sprint he was favourite to win, he decided to attack them first, leaving them all for dead with 4km to go, riding alone to a victory that seen him wheelie over the line.

It’s that expression of love for riding the bike as seen in his aggressive style, not to mention his endless collection of entertaining celebrations when he wins, that endears him to cycling fans. In an era in which many athletes across the broad spectrum of sports are too well PR trained, too well paid to the point that the money can become their focus, and too far above the fans to give them the time of day, young Sagan looks like someone naively in love with the sport who enjoys entertaining us. Long may that playful innocence continue and to hell with the pompous few who feel offended by it.

Two days later Sagan was back on his bike in the Tour de Panne, a race he was calling — to the dismay of his rivals, I’d imagine — a “training ride” for the Tour of Flanders. That is, you see, if training rides result in you beating up on your opponents once again? He went on the attack with 20 kilometers to go on the final climb and then won the sprint from a small group of ten that he had dragged clear. A day later he sat up allowing the leaders jersey to pass onto the shoulders of Arnaud Demare as Mark Cavendish took the bunch gallop meaning he could withdraw from the race without doing so as race leader. Alexander Kristoff and Sylvain Chavanel went on to win the split stages on day three with Chavanel taking the overall.

We were heading into the final day of March and Sagan had already notched up seven wins on the season. He was the man to beat for Sunday’s Ronde van Vlaanderen, that much was certain.

Welcome to the classics


Last week we had two great stage races in the Paris – Nice and the Tirreno – Adriatico and while the Paris – Nice especially has plenty of prestige and history around it, to me it feels like the real cycling season is only about to begin with the Milan-San Remo this weekend. That kicks off the one-day spring classics season and over the next month we’re in for a host of great and epic one day races.

I followed both those stage races last week though I didn’t get seeing too much of it. The Paris – Nice was one in fine style by Australian, Richie Porte, and of course because he rides for Sky the usual we-need-another-Postal-team-asap crew came out to find reason to scoff at the result. Their scepticism and cynicism is completely understandable given what cycling fans have been put through in recent years but the whole thing is getting old and with no evidence with which to hold against Sky except that some doctor was employed by the team who used to administer drugs to another team in the past, it really ought to be let go.

This was all okay for a few months in the winter when there was no present day cycling to talk about, but now that the 2013 season is here and underway, I could really do with browsing for cycling news on the web and on twitter without having to read from some droning non-stop with insinuations either about riders today or stories, theories and speculation about drugs in the sport twenty-odd years ago.

This winter allowed me the chance to air my own grievances around the whole Armstrong saga, to read a couple of books on the subject, and then bury it in the memory bank before looking ahead to a year of good racing. In order not to hear about it every day when I wanted to be hearing about how the latest race was won, I completed an almighty purge of my Twitter following list.

The conclusion to what I like to call ‘The Winter of a History of PEDs in Cycling’ was that it was an ugly past but one in which it seemed the sinister game of doping was just a part of the game. It was sad and I encourage any past rider to come clean, but I’ve had enough with the digging. I was left sure that cycling tests more often and for more drugs than any other sport on the planet and given the stance of fans, sponsors, media and even now many young pros in the peloton, it’s seen as more unacceptable a practice than in any other sport. Will cheats still try to cheat when money is involved? Of course they will, but I’ve come to terms with the fact that while I’ll sometimes remain suspicious about some and about some performances, I feel the sport is trying to catch them, and has enough in place that if you cheat, there’s a good chance you’ll be caught eventually. If you don’t, well, that’s unfortunate for us, but it’s a bi-product of cheating … some will get away with it; I just know they’re being well tested.

So enough about that garbage. I swore to steer clear from the subject until which times as a new positive test broke that represented a case in the present day world, yet I’ve just dedicated a paragraph to the subject. But I had to say something.

One we move.

While Porte was winning the Paris-Nice in style, over in Italy Vincenzo Nibali was kicking ass in the Tirreno – Adriatico while some riders pushed their bikes up climbs. Yes, there was an image from that event during one stage in which some of the climbs reached a 30% gradient that those who couldn’t go any slower while zig-zagging up the climb came to a stop and walked it. Such a sight in the modern day professional peloton is surreal. It’s hard to look away from such an image of these super-skinny, well-tanned, finely-tuned athletes pushing their bikes on a climb and not think to yourself: I know how that feels.

Nibali stole the lead from another Sky man, Chris Froome, late in the race and held on to the finish to win it. An early season psychological blow ahead of the Tour de France? Maybe it’s still a bit early, but it was interesting to see how it played out.

One man who really stood out was Peter Sagan. Last year phenom took two stage wins in the week long tour and on that big stage with those killer climbs his immense power kept him with the front men as he won the stage dropping the likes of Froome, Alberto Contador and Cadel Evans with only Nibali and Joaquim Rodriguez able to stick with him until the final three man sprint for the line.

Sagan could be a treat to watch this year. He’s clearly in peak form right now which is perfect for a man of his style ahead of these Spring classic races. There’s no reason to believe he can’t do a Philippe Gilbert 2011 or a Tom Boonen 2012 and win a handful of them. Meanwhile his ability to show he can climb reminds us that if he dedicated himself to it, honed his time-trialing a little more and his long-climbing, he could one day become a contender for a Grand Tour. That might be a ways off yet, but he’ll be great to watch this year and beyond.

So, enjoy Sunday’s Milan – San Remo if you have access to a TV showing it, or if like me, you’ll try and find a way to stream it on the web. Either way it’s sure to be an epic race and if you’re looking for one of my ever unreliable predictions, I’ll look past Sagan and give you Mark Cavendish.