Gent-Wevelgem was the stand-out race of the 2015 spring classics campaign and a shoe-in for the highlights of 2015 after the storm made a race that was gripping for hours. Yes it was dangerous but hopefully most enjoyed watching for the long range action where for the tactical scenarios kept changing for over two hours rather than the crashes.
Other races provided plenty of action too and right from the start with the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and along the way there have been revelations, confirmations and a fair-share of post-race polemics.
Things started well with the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and the thrilling finish where Ian Stannard’s overwinning against three Etixx-Quick Step riders was impressive and worth reviewing for the tactics deployed to overcome numerical superiority. Just as some are superstitious about the “Curse of the Rainbow Jersey” there is a smaller curse reserved for the Omloop winner which says triumph in February means blank results after. The rational explanation is that being on top form for February means going stale in the coming weeks. It looked set to be different with Stannard as he didn’t have to ride the field off his wheel but it didn’t work out with his best result 26th in the E3 Harelbeke.
As much as we’d later lament the absence of Tom Boonen he wasn’t looking sharp in the Omloop. Once he’d crashed out of Paris-Nice the idea was that Etixx-Quick Step lacked his finishing skills, that he could go with moves and then boss the sprint. But would he have done this? The Boonen of time past yes but in 2015 it wasn’t certain. When he did the Flanders-Roubaix double in 2012 he won two stages and placed second in the Lusail team time trial in Qatar but this year was only 33rd. Hardly a rock solid point to extrapolate an entire classics season from but all the same what if he wouldn’t have lived up to expectations anyway, was it better to be away? While we all want to see him racing he’s finished the spring classics season with his reputation intact thanks to his Paris-Nice exit rather than facing the ire of the Belgian press over a race lost to Geraint Thomas, Alexander Kristoff or John Degenkolb. The other ghost of the classics was Fabian Cancellara perhaps a better bet for results following his seventh place in Sanremo although this broke a long run of podium finishes. A signal of decline or just a statistical quirk coming to an end?
Geraint Thomas, Alexander Kristoff or John Degenkolb were the winners of the cobbled classics and in convincing manner. It’s easy to imagine 2016 as a repeat especially as all three are 28, 27 and 26 respectively. Thomas was also second on the “summit” finish of Paris-Nice. Now don’t confuse it with an Alpine ascent but he finished fifth overall and took the Volta ao Algarve too. It’s possible he could win Paris-Nice and spring classic, a rare combo these days… but so could Michał Kwiatkowski too. Michael Matthews didn’t get the big win but a podium in Sanremo and on the Amstel Gold Race shows him surfing a long peak of form.
If there’s a team mate award then Luca Paolini would be a good pick given he was instrumental in Kristoff’s Milan-Sanremo ride. Giant-Alpecin’s Bart de Backer did a good job with his relay work to set up John Degenkolb’s win in Roubaix and Team Sky’s Luke Rowe was working hard in the late phases of many a race. Ben Hermans finally had his day in the limelight in the Brabantse Pijl. The list of contributions is long and most of this work is often done away from the cameras.
Gent-Wevelgem was the stand out race thanks to the wild conditions. Notionally one of the more boring races thanks to the long run to the line after the cobbled climbs the weather blew the script away. It was survival of the toughest and uneasy viewing at times as riders wrestled with their handlebars in the ferocious crosswinds and others crashed out. As good as it was the worry is that there’s an inflationary trend here where races need something dramatic to hit the ratings jackpots, as if ordinary bike racing isn’t good enough.
Which is more likely to see a sprint finish from a large group: a flat race or a hilly one? Normally you’d say the former but the cobbled classics delivered solo breaks and sprints from small groups, think Thomas winning the E3 alone after a late attack, the same for Luca Paolini in Wevelgem. Degenkolb won in Roubaix from a group of six. Meanwhile over 40 riders hit the Mur de Huy for the win, the Amstel had 17 riders in the front group after the Cauberg and 11 were sprinting for Liège-Bastogne-Liège.
Pavé > Ardennes: maybe we needed some dramatic weather to shake up the Ardennes races? For all their difficulties the riders master the course quite well and their later slot in April encourages milder conditions.
Cannondale-Garmin were probably the most invisible squad. In a way it’s OK, they’re not a big budget team and have tilted resources to the hillier races. The cobbled classics just aren’t for them in the same way Movistar aren’t big on the pavé either. The difference is we’ve been used to Movistar for years while “Garmin” has changed targets having used the pavé with success from Johan Van Summeren. You might remember Jack Bauer’s bike throw as the team’s most memorable performance but don’t forgetmade the podium in the Dwars Door Vlaanderen, relegating Kwiatkowski to fourth place. The squad missed out in the Ardennes with team leader Dan Martin crashing in the Flèche Wallonne and again on the road to Liège and sit last on the UCI World Tour rankings with just 25 points. For comparison Ag2r’s Alexis Vuillermoz alone has 23 points.
Lotto-Jumbo had a tough time too. Sep Vanmarcke’s career trajectory could be at the tipping point where hope turns to disappointment while the rest of the squad weren’t so visible. Moreno Hofland sustained injuries earlier that probably cost them a morale boosting here or there. But the team almost vanished and sponsorship from a Dutch lottery and the Jumbo supermarket chain is way below the levels seen at Rabobank. The bank fled the sport and Belkin stepped in but much of the funding still came from Rabo honouring its contract; today the modest budget means a more modest squad.
FDJ have focussed around three leaders: Thibaut Pinot, Arnaud Démare and Arthur Vichot. Pinot proved himself in Tirreno-Adriatico but Démare suffered in the cobbled classics while Vichot vanished in the Ardennes forest. Still all three are young and as leaders go Démare and Vichot aren’t exactly threats to Kristoff and Valverde; FDJ themselves say Vichot was aiming for top-15 placings. The team were visible when Séb Chavanel got shunted by the Shimano neutral service car in the Ronde but for a tale of malchance see Paris-Roubaix where the team car punctured and then got smashed after a shunt with a Europcar team vehicle.
You don’t need to speak Slovak to understand that sad puppy look on Peter Sagan for much of the spring classics. He finally got that win in Tirreno-Adriatico but many might remember his 2015 spring for that dignity-robbing image of him having a dump in a ditch. Tinkoff-Saxo had a mini-mutiny as Bjarne Riis was
paid-off let go by Oleg Tinkov but they could have had Julius Caesar or Naponleon in the team car and it’s still hard to see how Sagan could have won a classic. Not along ago he occupied the niche of the-sprinter-who-can-climb all by himself with some added bike handling skills but now it’s a crowded space with Kristoff, Degenkolb, Matthews and probably Julian Alaphilippe too. The Tinkov soap opera can be amusing but there’s a serious aspect: if Saxo Bank quit in Riis’ wake then Oleg Tinkov needs a co-sponsor and fast. No pressure Alberto.
For all the flak Etixx-Quick Step got for “losing” races they still had an incredible run, managing to place a rider on the podium in every single one of the World Tour northern classics, ie everything but Sanremo. Patrick Lefevere stood by his team all the time acting as a human lightning conductor to soak the storm of criticism instead of leaving his riders exposed. One rider he did criticise was Kwiatkowski “who doesn’t win often” but he was the Belgian squad’s biggest success with the win in the Amstel. According to The Cycling Podcast the Pole could be installing Sky satellite TV in time for 2016.
Similarly Mark Cavendish won Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne, another of the “non-cobble club” to win although the Manxman’s spring campaign didn’t deliver the sprint triumph needed to secure a bumper contract renewal.
Etixx-Quick Step need to save some Euros to renew Julian Alaphilippe’s contract. He must be the revelation of the classics campaign although loyal readers will have seem him tipped for 2015. Lotto-Soudal’s Tiesj Benoot is a good second choice. The Frenchman completely slipped by every French pro team to join Etixx-Quick Step despite a silver medal in the 2010 Junior cyclo-cross words and the French U23 CX title aged 19. But he’ll now have race with an invisible rucksack laden with the burden of French hope. Originally down to ride the Giro he’ll do the Vuelta later this year. Looking ahead to 2016 it’ll be crucial for Zdeněk Štybar and Sep Vanmarkce to land a win while some new names could include Edward Theuns, Yves Lampaet, Jens Debusschere, Stefan Küng among others. The stealth revelation has been CCC-Sprandi’s Maciej Paterski.
As well as new names for 2016 we might well see new looking bikes with disc brakes. It’s unlikely to alter the action but the bikes will look different. For years “what the pros ride” at Paris-Roubaix has a been regular report but as bike technology has improved fewer modifications have been need and even stock carbon rims can be used rather than resorting to antique supply of Sigma Pavé rims. The bike industry should have show in the shop window soon.
With stronger brakes some could have stopped at the level crossing. For all the talk of what’s coming in 2016 we’re not yet done with the past… Paris-Roubaix might seem a distant memory but what if the result gets changed? The UCI is still to report back on the level crossing incident and under its own rules riders who crossed when the barrier is down get disqualified. It’s hard to see the UCI’s own report ignoring this but then again it’s easy to see the UCI fudging and finessing this.
As ever shadows fall across the races. Greg Van Avermaet raced with the Belgian Federation trying to ban him while Astana had been racing since February doused in UCI-grade slurry after the governing body told the world something was so wrong with the team it should be completely removed from the sport… only for the Licence Commission to prove its independence and let them ride on.
The Verdict: it is worth trying to rate the whole classics season in one go? Probably not. Unlike a grand tour, there’s no single (yellow) thread to weave all the races together and besides it’s all so much longer, the spring classics begun in wintry February and the season lasts eight weeks, it’s too easy to forget plenty.
Gent-Wevelgem and the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad are memorable highlights. You could definitely sit down to watch both the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix again using hindsight to see where the riders were placed and review team tactics.
Next up the Tour de Romandie with Chris Froome, Nairo Quintana and Vincenzo Nibali and the glorious Giro d’Italia is just a dozen days away.