Tag Archives: Spring classics 2017

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.

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