Tag Archives: Tour of Flanders

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.

Monument Man, Peter Sagan

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

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

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

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

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

The stragegy of a genius.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tour of Flanders result:

1. Peter Sagan (Tinkoff)

2. Fabian Cancellara (Trek Factory)

3. Sep Vanmarcke (LottoNL-Jumbo

4. Alexander Kristoff (Katusha)

5. Luke Rowe (Sky)

6. Dylan van Baarle (Cannondale)

7. Imanol Erviti (Movistar)

8. Zdenek Stybar (Etixx – Quick Step)

9. Dimitri Claeys (Wanty – Groupe Gobert)

10. Niki Terpstra (Etixx – Quick Step)

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

in 6h 10′ 42″

@ 25″

@ 27″

@ 48″

all s.t.
@ 55″
@ 59″
@ 1′ 01″

Rider of the week:

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

Rider of the month (March):

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

Ronde Van Vlaanderen preview

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

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

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

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

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

In the race of ‘Vans’ over the ‘Bergs’ it was the ‘Can’ who spoiled the Belgians party, again

It was a Tour of Flanders for the ages. Action packed with cobbled climbs, attacks, suffering and an historic win for Fabian Cancellara who not only won the race on back-to-back years but tied the record for three wins in Belgium’s version of the World Cup final.

Second to Cancellara was BMC rider and Belgian, Greg Van Avermaet, and it was he who truly set the race alight in the closing stages over the toughest climbs. Van Avermaet went clear with 37 kilometres and several cobbled hills left and when he made his move he dragged Omega Pharma Quick Step domestique and outside bet, Stijn Vandenbergh with him.

Now, because Vandenbergh’s team leader Tom Boonen, along with team-mates Zednek Stybar and Niki Terpstra were in the every-shrinking-by-the-berg group behind, Vandenbergh was ordered not to assist Van Avermaet. The thinking was that he would burn himself out working, they would be reeled in and one of the other three would go on the attack.

But it looked to me as though it had the making of a winning move had Vandenbergh been allowed to work. Other moves had been made before from several riders hoping for it to be the decisive one, but this one looked to be sticking. Bringing them back into the fold only opened the door once more for the likes of Peter Sagan and Cancellara. Indeed, OPQS’s thinking was to let Sagan tire himself out chasing — one part of the tactic that appeared to work — but as the result would later show with Vandenbergh finishing forth and the best of his OPQS team, he should have been allowed to work with Van Avermaet.

That’s why for me Van Avermaet was the man of the day, despite Cancellara’s brilliantly timed ride to victory. He powered on the front with Vandenbergh glued to his wheel while the others tried to claw them back. Only once the small group behind were caught by the slightly larger group behind that — finally giving an isolated Sagan some team support — did the gap come drastically down.

Then, on the third and final run up the Oude Kwaremont, Cancellara put the hammer down in a style all his own and he blew the race apart. He dragged Sep Vanmarcke with him, just as he had done at last years Paris-Roubaix and they linked up with Vandenbergh who by this stage had been dropped by the impressive Van Avermaet.

I don’t know about anyone else but I was all but yelling at my dodgy online stream for Van Avermaet to hang on as the three behind chipped away at his lead. He deserved to after the move he made and the way in which he’d ridden it. It wasn’t to be though and soon the lead had become a group of four: The three ‘Van’s’ of Belgium and the Suisse ‘Can’. Behind Sagan was reeling. Dropped on that final climb his legs were showing the exhaustion of doing so much of the chasing and the race was slipping away up the road. A small group formed and tried to close the gap but by now it was too late.

They did get close and it allowed names like my pre-race pick to win, Niki Terpstra, and Milan-San Remo winner, Alexander Kristoff, to spring off the front, but not close enough. Indeed, the time gaps at the finish were only as close as they were because in the final 500 metres the quartet at the front almost came to a stand still as the game of cat and mouse began to see who would lead out the sprint. With little more than 200 metres left Cancellara kicked and Van Avermaet reacted.

On most days Van Avermaet would beat Cancellara in a sprint but after 259 kilometres and after all his previous efforts the Belgian couldn’t draw alongside the reigning champion, two time winner, set to become champion again and three time winner. Cancellara threw the arms up and took a glorious victory in what was a brilliant race.

Result:

1. Fabian Cancellara (Trek Factory) in 6h 15’18

2. Greg Van Avermaet (BMC)

3. Sep Vanmarcke (Belkin)

4. Stijn Vandenbergh (OPQS) all at s.t.

5. Alexander Kristoff (Katusha) + 8″

6. Niki Terpstra (OPQS) + 18″

7. Tom Boonen (OPQS) + 35″

16. Peter Sagan (Cannondale) + 1’25”

Bergs, Cobbles, Rain, mud, blood and hard men – all this Sunday in Flanders, come one, come all

The Tour of Flanders, or the Ronde van Vlaanderen as the locals know it, is to the Belgians what the Super Bowl is to Americans and the Grand National to the British. A one day festival in which at the centre of the party is a sporting event. The main difference however is that the arena in which the Tour of Flanders takes place is hundreds of kilometres in length and for the real fans wanting to attend, you can, and it’s free.

It is one of those races that every cycling fan should attend before they die, and one I have yet to tick off my long and generally unfulfilled cycling events bucket list. One day though, one day. An April spent travelling to and from the various classics across Belgium sounds like quite the trip.

The locals and those who do travel from abroad will line the route, drink a lot, have a lot of fun, and cheer loud as the race sweeps through the Flandrian countryside. The race starts in Brugge, heads west to the North Sea coast, travels south and then turns inland across the southern part of west Flanders, into east Flanders and the Flemish-Ardennes were the sharp little cobbled bergs will sort the men from the boys and find us a winner.

It’s those famous cobbled climbs — the Koppenberg and later the typically decisive Muur-Kapelmuur among many others — where the selections will be made and the race won and lost. None of the climbs are exceptionally long — most are between 500m and 1000m in length — but they are exceptionally steep and narrow and it doesn’t take much for a slip to force a stoppage in the group and leave some hiking their way to the top. It is why the fighting for position in the bunch is so intense leading into these sections so as not to get caught in a stoppage essentially ending your race, and the physical demands and bike handling skills required for this positioning is something that some riders cannot handle well.

So do not expect a large group to come to the line, except that is for the stragglers who haven’t abandoned and who tootle home together. If it rains — which it so often can in that part of the world — then expect mud, blood and chaos.

The cobbles in the harsh conditions are for the hardest of hard men cyclists only. It is why there has been no winner of this race who has also been a Grand Tour winner since Eddy Merckx. The only previous Tour de France champion lining up in this race is Sir Bradley wiggins and he’s only in there because potential Sky favorite Ian Stannard withdrew through injury.

Because of the cobbles, the bergs, the weather, and as a result, the likelihood of crashes, splits in the pack and mechanical trouble, it’s extremely hard to predict a winner. Of the 200 starting, the majority have a shot at being in the final selections if they play it right and luck goes their way, and if they’re strong, a good portion of those could very well claim the scalp.

That said, history tends to suggest that the strongest names in the sport are often at the fore and often winning and so luck only plays a small part. Strength, power, courage and bike handling skill all come into it. Fabian Cancellara is defending champion and has won it twice, Tom Boonen has won it three times, Stijn Devolder won it back-to-back in 2008 and 2009, and the great Lion of Flanders, Johan Museeuw won it three times, was second three times, and third twice.

Below is a list of ten names from which I think the winner will emerge. The names will seem obvious, but in a race like the the Ronde van Vlaanderen it’s about the only way you can predict.

Fabian Cancellara (Trek Factory): Defending champion and two time winner, Cancellara’s big target for 2014 is probably a shot at the World hour record but results at the spring classics fall right in behind that. He hasn’t had great results so far this year (by his standards) which suggests he’s either saving himself for this weekend, or will come into the weekend desperate to prove he’s still the strong man of the Monument classics.

Peter Sagan (Cannondale): It was Sagan and Cancellara for the win last year when the bg man from Switzerland blew the young Slovak away on the final climb and rode alone to victory. Sagan has yet to win a Monument and the pressure will only grow until he does. Flanders is a race perfectly suited to his ability and being one year older and one year more experienced than last year you have to think this could be the first of what I have to think will be many Monument classic victories.

Tom Boonen (OPQS): The peoples favorite you can expect to see a lot of flags flying for Boonen. He didn’t finish last year but was working his way back from injury. He has won it three times however though in 2012 it was the first time he had won it since 2006 when he completed back-to-back victories. Boonen’s biggest victory so far this season was at Kuurne–Brussels–Kuurne, but make no mistakes, the Belgian’s season starts Sunday.

Zdenek Štybar (OPQS): He hasn’t won a big classic before but anyone who has seen the 28 year old Czech race knows he’s due a breakout ride. Last year at Paris-Roubiax it looked as though that day had come when he found himself in the final selection of riders only to suffer a crash that ended his hopes. He started this year off by going off road to win the World Cyclo-Cross Championships and will be hoping the bike handling skills and strength required in those conditions will pay off for him at Flanders.

Niki Terpstra (OPQS): The third Omega Pharma Quick Step rider on the list, Terpstra has had a fine start to the 2014 season. He won the Tour of Qatar and Omloop Het Nieuwsblad earlier in the year and in the past ten days was 1st at the Dwars door Vlaanderen (26 March), 2nd at E3 Harelbeke (28 March) and 4th at the Three Days of De Panne (3 April). And the win at Dwars door Vlaanderen could prove the best insight to his form for it is across similar roads to what they’ll be on for Sunday and is an ideal warm up race. The only thing going against him is his team-leader is Tom Boonen who he’ll surely be expected to work for unless Boonen comes apart.

Greg Van Avermaet (BMC): He’s had his fair share of top 10 finishes in these spring classics but has yet to crack the podium of a Monument classic. The closest he came was a 4th in the Tour of Flanders two years ago and a 4th at the Paris-Roubaix last year. Yet with his team-mate Philippe Gilbert not entering the Tour of Flanders, he will be the BMC team’s biggest hope for a result and while he might be an outsider to win the race, expect to see him very much in the mix when the real racing begins.

Edvald Boasson Hagen (Team Sky): When Boasson Hagen broke into the sports big-time in 2008 many felt he would go on to one day dominate the classics, yet it has never really happened. Some feel Team Sky’s dedication to the Grand Tours has held him back, though this year his team do seem more committed to the one-day classics, determined to get a Monument victory under their belts. Ian Stannard won the lesser known Omloop Het Nieuwsblad earlier in the year after Boasson Hagen looked for a while to be in the winning break, but Stannard isn’t here this weekend and expectations to finally get that big result will fall on Boasson Hagen. He’s due that big scalp one of these days and on Sunday you can expect him to be there or there abouts, and at Flanders that’s all you have to be going into the final stages.

Geraint Thomas (Team Sky): The Welshman has never had a big result in a major spring classic race, that is except for the 10th place in the 2011 Tour of Flanders, but his 3rd place at the E3 Harelbecke has shown signs that the form could be there to mix it up this weekend. He may be here primarily to support Boasson Hagen, but should the Norwegian fall short and without Stanndard available, Thomas could be the man looked for to pick up the pieces. A cool wet tough race might suit him nicely.

Alexander Kristoff (Katusha): The hard man Norwegian looks perfect for this kind of race. He proved his ability in a Monument classic by winning this years Milan-San Remo in the driving rain. On top of that he was 4th in last years Tour of Flanders with 8th and 9th place finishes at the Milan-San Remo and Paris-Roubaix respectively. He’ll be the big hope of the Katusha squad though the last man to win the Paris Roubaix and Tour of Flanders in one year was Eddy Merckx in 1975 when ‘Bye Bye Baby’ by the Bay City Rollers was the UK number 1 song.

Jurgen Roelandts (Lotto Belisol): The third Belgian on the list will probably be seen as the most unlikely to win of the three, but he shouldn’t be ruled out either. At 28 Roelandts is hitting his prime and the classic races are his strong suit. He was 3rd in last years Tour of Flanders behind Cancellara and should have the ability to go well again this weekend.

Also, there are three Canadians in the race. Svein Tuft (Orica GreenEdge), Hugo Houle (AG2R La Mondiale) and Antoine Duchesne (Europcar). None are expected to threaten for the win, but then again, nobody is out of it before it starts.

Prediction: Niki Terpstra

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!)