Some notes, thoughts and loose ends on the cobbled classics once the dust has settled.
The sheer entertainment of it all. From the Omloop onwards so many of the race came alive a long way out from the finish line. Prior to this the early season races like the Dubai Tour or the Tour Down Under have their role but for viewers it’s often only worth tuning in for the last 10 minutes. By contrast the cobbled classics – not Sanremo – saw the big names launching moves with 50km to go and in the case of Paris-Roubaix we had big dramas with over 100km to go and Peter Sagan was himself attacking with 77km left. It’s par for the course but seems heightened this year by teams looking isolate and tire Sagan.
Second it’s a period of rituals and habits that are all closely choreographed, for example the recon rides done by teams in the days before a big classic where the media show up to film and photo it and even write it up. There are regular pre-race interviews, teams stay in the same hotel they did last year and even the rain avoids for Paris-Roubaix.
Another annual event is Peter Sagan being isolated. It was a problem ever since he became a force in the classics when riding for the now defunct Liquigas team but now it’s his problem. He’s on a reported €6 million at Bora-Hansgrohe and surely on the most top-heavy team as measured by the ratio of the star rider to the team budget. If Sagan wanted he could personally spend some of this to hire in more help, a million Euros could hire the likes of Daniel Oss and Oliver Naesen and leave change spare. However the likes of Marcus Burghardt and Maciej Bodnar offer precious support, they were just undone by punctures at the wrong moment, some things money can’t buy.
One solution would be to merge Quick Step with Bora-Hansgrohe with Specialized as the matchmaker. Of course it’s not going to be 1+1=2 because there’s a cap on the maximum size of the team of 30 riders but it’s a thought to be entertained given Bora-Hansgrohe are a relatively weak team and Quick Step want a sponsor.
On the subject of Quick Step’s future it seems unthinkable they won’t find a replacement sponsor given the team’s success rate but the longer the uncertainty goes on, the more existing riders will be in contact with rival teams. The more this happens the less certainty a new sponsor has about the roster for the coming year. There are UCI that are supposed to stop teams signing elsewhere but these are easily ignored and circumvented…
…much like the polemic over riding on the pavé or the path. One unsaid thing was that riding on the side of the road is still technical – you can fall as we saw on the Kwaremont and go back to see Sagan on the Koppenberg, he was so close to the barriers he was weaving his upper body around spectators – and also that this narrow space lines out the riders, instead of a bunch across the road it’s single file and this lines out the riders, hampers overtaking and prompts selections. In other words using paths or the soft dirt edges of the cobbles is part of the race whether the UCI can or can’t do anything.
One rider no longer worrying about a contract is Tom Boonen who certainly delivered Quick Step their money’s worth in terms of publicity. His retirement had spectacular coverage in Belgium and included plenty of marketing for his sponsors yet it never felt excessive or forced.
There’s no new Boonen but the rapacious Belgian media have plenty of riders to write about. Greg Van Avermaet and Philippe Gilbert can deliver big wins but both are in their thirties. What can they do next? Within minutes of winning the Ronde van Vlaanderen after a solo 55km breakaway Gilbert was being asked on television whether he can win other Monument classics. Ditto Van Avermaet who can read a long list of races he needs to win in the Belgian press. Does this happen in other sports, does Usain Bolt win the 100m and immediately he’s asked whether he fancies his chances in the 200m and 400m, does a Wimbledon tennis winner face instant questions about whether they can win it again the next year? Cycling does this alot, no sooner did Sagan start stringing together green jerseys and people started asking what he could do next; once Chris Froome wins the Tour de France it’s quickly a question of how many more editions can he win. It’s normal to ponder on these questions but we seem to pose them before a rider has cooled down from a big win.
I wanted to do a piece looking at the revelations of the spring classics but it would have come with more buts than ashtray. For example Oliver Naesen (Ag2r La Mondiale) had a great spring… but he’s already won a World Tour race in the Bretagne Classic (ex GP Plouay), was second in the Eneco Tour last year and generally many were excited to see what he could do this spring. The same with Gianni Moscon (Team Sky) who was impressive in Paris-Roubaix… but he was good last year too, winning the Arctic Race of Norway. The results breakthrough came from Yves Lampaert who finally won a classic with the Dwars Door Vlaanderen, a relatively small win but often a stepping stone for greater things but again no revelation, he was top-10 in the Worlds time trial in Doha last year and a fixture of the Quick Step team. Luke Durbridge went up a level, Arnaud Démare’s sixth place in Roubaix was good for a 25 year old, Jasper Stuyven’s improving but won in Kuurne last year and Dylan Van Baarle’s already won the Tour of Britain and was sixth in De Ronde last year.
Similarly you could do a “flop” piece but this is a bit cruel, it’s not like any riders decided to aim for poor results but there were riders who could have been part of the cast of characters but they faded away. Sep Vanmarcke’s injuries come to mind, another missed season for him. Team Sky were quiet on the cobbles – Ian Stannard’s highest place this spring was 14th – and Lotto-Soudal’s hopes rest on Tim Wellens in the Ardennes after another quiet cobbled campaign but suddenly Tiesj Benoot appeared in today’s Brabantse Pijl. Lotto-Jumbo, Movistar, and Dimension Data didn’t show that much either. It makes you wonder about the point of the World Tour. Of course 18 teams can’t be competitive across all fronts but compulsory attendance just seems punitive with some teams forced to send diminished squads just to make up the numbers.
It’s been said that Philippe Gilbert’s contractual situation is a huge motivational force, that because he’s on one year deal with Quick Step he’s got to prove himself and this has led to the impressive results. It’s plausible but surely he was in the same place a year ago when shopping around for a new team? Only the results were not as impressive. It’s probably a combination of factors, one is he’s simply racing on terrain that suits him, he’s 34 now and maybe he’s lost some of that famous jump, instead he can put out longer power so he’s better suited to big breakaways rather than searing attacks? Another is his contract which provides a reduced salary but big win bonuses, so it’s not so much the need for a contract but the direct results. Elsewhere one interview with L’Equipe implied he’s happy with the team ambiance, he’s a practical joker sometimes and BMC were too serious for him so that’s another hypothesis. Another is just sheer strength of his team, he can go up the road in Three Days of De Panne or De Ronde and the chase behind is blocked by his Quick Step colleagues.
Gilbert is bound to be hot property, only will he move? Certainly some teams were invisible in the cobbled classics, probably the only time UAE-Team Emirates were noticed was when the police spotted Andrea Guardini riding along the autoroute after bailing in Paris-Roubaix. Bahrein-Merida’s Sonny Colbrelli was up there in the results from time to time but maybe they want more. Neither team was expected to shine but they’ve got rich backers and will surely be shopping for new names.
One thing that’s easy to take for granted but should be celebrated is the quality of the TV coverage from solid signals to pacey production, a contrast to the persistent picture break-up seen in, say, the Tour of the Basque Country. The use of cameras in team cars adds something but it feels like the the staff know they’re on TV and it only really comes into its own when a rider wins or crashes out, such a definitive moment finally prompts drama in the car. As ever following the local coverage is even better because they have reporters on motorbikes able to comment on what is happening at the back of the bunch when the TV doesn’t pick this up.
Did you watch Paris-Roubaix from start to finish? A reminder that every Tour de France stage will be live from start to finish too. This is great news but different, it’s one thing to have a race know for its action live on a Sunday but for three weeks? Some thought and selection will need to go into viewing habits.