The Classics Revelations

John Degenkolb and Alexander Kristoff have triumphed in the spring classics. The season continues but in a different gear as the sport progresses to hillier one day races and the summer season of stage races. But who else impressed? Here’s a look at the younger revelations in the spring classics.

Tiesj Benoot

I’d been planning to tip Tiesj Benoot after the cobbled classics season only for him to spoil things with fifth place in the Tour of Flanders. This projected him into the limelight when until then his performances had been reserved for the more discerning observers. Take the E3 Harelbeke were he was 18th: unremarkable if you’d scanned the results. Yet he was on the attack late in the race and even if others were up the road his move on the Tiegemberg showed he could stick to everyone after 200km in a World Tour race. It was this aggressive performance that sealed his place in the Lotto-Soudal team for the Ronde and that fifth place. A first year neo-pro, he’s still completing an economics degree at Ghent University but gets a lot of flexibility to skip class and sit exams at a convenient date. A student of supply and demand his problem is going to be managing expectations from the demanding Belgian media.

Yves Lampaert

Štybar, Terpstra, Vandenbergh were the holy trinity of Etixx-Quick Step’s spring campaign. Guillaume Van Keirsbulk is still very promising but health problems – a problematic esophageal sphincter, acid reflux in plain English – are a concern and as much as he looks like Tom Boonen once hidden behind sunglasses and under a helmet the results don’t match. New signing Yves Lampaert is promising more. The rider with the circumflex eyebrows won the Driedaagse van West-Vlaanderen and a few days after his 24th birthday he initiated the winning move in Paris-Roubaix. He’s no stranger to the French cobbles, placing second to Bob Jungels in the U23 Paris-Roubaix in 2012 while part of the EFC-Omega Pharma-Quick Step team, the anti-chamber to the pro team. But a contract didn’t appear and he joined Topsport Vlaanderen for two years earning some respectable results, enough to make Patrick Lefevere re-sign him. He’s a punchy rider and already drawing comparisons to a young Johan Museeuw.

Edward Theuns Jelle Wallays

Edward Theuns is hoping to imitate Lampaert’s alchemy of turning a spot on the Topsport Vlaanderen team into a golden ticket to ride with Etixx-Quickstep. If not Cofidis will hire him. Teasing aside he’s having an excellent season with a series of sprint wins and strong placings and leads the UCI Europe Tour rankings with 289 points, over 100 more than second placed Manuel Belletti. It’s all good for the 23 year old, the question is what to do next? Team mate Jelle Wallays, 25, said after winning the Dwars door Vlaanderen that he wants a ride with a bigger team but there’s a danger this sounds like he wants a bigger meal ticket rather than the opportunity to progress and win bigger races. For Theuns, perhaps the hotter prospect, and Wallays, any new employer will want to test them to measure their room for progress.

Is Cannondale-Garmin a development team? In other sports with transfer payments it could reap rewards, cashing in on the promise of youth and hope. If so Dylan van Baarle would be a good earner. It’s been a tough start to the year for the team but the Dutchman offers some hope. As Theuns and Wallays celebrate above, that’s him on the right on the picture. In way he’s no revelation, he turned pro last year and won the Tour of Britain overall, a break-through result and he can and should win more in the coming months as he’s more than a classics specialist.

jens debusschere

Jens Debusschere is 25 and seems to straddle the frontier between hope and experience, as if his Belgian champion’s jersey makes his presence inevitable in the latter stages of a cobbled classic. Imagine him in a plain Lotto-Soudal jersey and perhaps more people would be wowing as he’s been a factor in many races. A stage winner in Tirreno-Adriatico, it’s his presence on the toughest days that will count for more.

Luke Rowe

Team Sky have explicitly rejected the development model and few riders are hired on the basis of what they might do in the long term. Luke Rowe is an exception, a promising rider who can and should go on to more. He’s just turned 25. Eighth in Paris-Roubaix was impressive but his contribution to his team has been much greater. It started with ninth place in the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad. “Ninth, so what?” you might say but he won the bunch sprint ahead of Arnaud Démare, Alexander Kristoff and Jens Debusschere. He then played a big part in helping others, notably Geraint Thomas’s E3 Harelbeke win and was the kind of rider Sky would use up but only in the late phase of the race; on a smaller team he’d be protected leader.

Florian Sénéchal quit the EFC-Omega Pharma-Quick Step development team to sign with Cofidis. Too soon? He’s in his second year with Cofidis and still just 21. As a junior he won Paris-Roubaix and last Sunday he was 17th, one place ahead of Bradley Wiggins and making the main group, impressive for such a young rider. He’s a local too. The difficulty for him is branching out, to develop into a broader rider. By all means dream of a win in Roubaix but the strength needed for that can be deployed at other times of the year.

Alexis Gougeard

When Sénéchal won the junior Paris-Roubaix in 2011, second place went to Alexis Gougeard. This year’s been visible in many an early breakaway, going clear in the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and Gent-Wevelgem. Is he the replacement to Jacky Durand? Let’s hope not. Durand won the Tour of Flanders by surprise in 1992 but his name rhymed with futile breakaways, some of which would pay off but most did not: entertaining but often a waste of energy. Gougeard could go better and win without needing a lucky break. He hasn’t got big wins yet but the second year neo-pro won the Classique Loire Atlantique this year for the second year in a row and he’s been a force in the tougher races. Take his Paris-Roubaix breakaway, a brave move but he was also in the earlier abortive breakaway too. So when others were reeled in he, Rambo style, took on the bunch and rode clear again. If anything he could be a Gallic version of Fabian Cancellara… Spartacus meets Obélix.

Niccolo Bonifazio

After weeks of mud, cobbles and brick buildings the floral beauty of Sanremo seems a lot longer ago than three weeks. Cast your mind back because Niccolò Bonifazio had an excellent race, finishing fifth in his first go. He rode the Tour Down Under then got on the podium of the Italian opener the Costa degli Etruschi, then won the hilly GP Lugano, he’s a sprinter but copes well with the climbs and making it Sanremo with the best bodes well. Sadly his record after Sanremo wasn’t so promising: DNF in the E3 Harelbeke, DNF in Gent-Wevelgem, DNF in the Tour of Flanders and DNF in Paris-Roubaix. This is more than statistical, it sounds like Lampre-Merida were throwing him in to deep.

Finally some quick mentions:

  • Stefan Küng, 21, of BMC Racing. He didn’t race many cobbled classics but was second to Bradley Wiggins in the time trial stage at Three Days of De Panne and he won the Volta Limburg, all on top of his recent track pursuit world champion title
  • Katusha’s neo-pro and reigning World U-23 champion Sven Erik Bystrøm, 23, helped Alexander Kristoff to a stage in De Panne
  • Orica-Greenedge’s Magnus Cort Nielsen, 22, was with the best briefly on the Strade Bianche.
  • Lotto-Soudal’s Sean De Bie‘s part of one of many Belgian cycling dynasties, the 23 year old is the nephew of cyclo-cross champion Danny de Bie, the man who made a career out of jumping the barriers when others ran

The next Boonen? For several young Belgian riders the comparison is inevitable. It’s daunting, even matching a fraction of Tommeke‘s wins is going to be difficult. Indeed combine every name above and it’s probable the sum total of their career wins might not stand comparison to Boonen’s palmarès. Yet there are short cuts to being Tom: Boonen is celebrated for his personality and character too, he’ll sign autographs until his pen runs out of ink. Popularity and respect has come about as much via his conduct off the bike as it has through results.

Conclusion: it’s been a joy to watch the established names in the cobbled classics, even if we kept citing the absence of Tom Boonen and Fabian Cancellara. The 2015 Gent-Wevelgem will go down in legend. John Degenkolb has only recently turned 26 while Alexander Kristoff is 27 so they’ve got time on their side too and there are young riders who are already very visible, think Peter Sagan or Arnaud Démare. Yet it’s worth scanning the horizon for some new names, to see who emerged from the dust or rain. For all the talk of globalisation, most of the names are Belgian or French along with the odd Swiss or Scandinavian. These races are all about experience and those making the front group today have a good chance of doing better in the future.

29 thoughts on “The Classics Revelations”

  1. Really enjoyable write up of a really enjoyable spring classics season, the future looks bright for sure.

    I thought Luke Rowe was the invisible man in the PR which is a handy talent to nurture, a great result considering he would have of had to do a fair bit of work for the team along the way.

    There is a LOT of Sagan bashing going on, I have a son of the same age and I wonder about the pressures on such a young talent form a team like Tinkovs

    Keep up the great work

  2. I think 2015 will be the year we accepted that the Boonen-Cancellara domination is over. Sad to say, but we have a great new cast to tide us over.

  3. I believe you mean ‘antechamber’ rather than ‘anti chamber’ in the paragraph about Lampaert.
    Unless of course you meant to use the french ‘antichambre’. 😉

  4. Luke Rowe’s great one day form this year actually started earlier than Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, he was 4th in the Cadel Evans Great Ocean Road Race, one position ahead of Cadel.

  5. A slightly more obscure pick but definitely a rider to keep an eye on is 25 year-old Scott Thwaites of Bora-Argon 18. He’s been operating under the radar, but has been making front groups for this spring He had 3 punctures in P-R so was somewhat down the field as a result.

    Here’s his 2015 palmarès:

    5th Ronde van Drenthe,
    5th Dwars door Drenthe
    3rd Nokere, Belgium
    17th Gent-Wevelgem

    Add this to his 3rd at the 2014 Commonwealth games RR (ahead of Rowe, Kennaugh, Millar et al), and you’ve got some fairly strong evidence of potential talent. I have to declare massive bias, though, as he’s from Leeds and trains on the same roads as me 😉

  6. I think that Luke Rowe’s performances for Sky starts a dilemma for their tour team. Before Flanders & Roubaix I thought Ian Stannard was permanently pencilled in to do the ‘donkey work’ & help out on the cobbles and the TTT. After Rowe’s great performances in all of the classics and not just H-N, it appears he will be pushing hard for that last spot.

  7. Scott Thwaites is certainly worth a shout out… as well as the above mentioned results he also finished OHN, K-B-K, Ronde van Vlaanderen and Paris Roubaix which is an achievement in itself and he was often in the right moves in all of those races. He obviously likes the poor weather and is a very reliable rider, but his legs just seem to fail him in the final run ins at the moment. A few more years and he could certainly be flirting with the top tens.

  8. I know I spoke about it in another post, but I would like to point out the wins this Wallays gathered in the last 6 months: Paris-Tours and Dwars door Vlaanderen. Many confirmed classic riders would be more than satisified with those 2 wins. The most impressive to me is that this guy does not appear in classics’ finals. He probably does not have the strength to do so. I don’t know if it is just luck and if this will occur again in the future, but at only 25 he succeeded in winning two great races anyway.

    In this aspect, he reminds me of jacky durand (cited above in this again excellent piece, by the way).

  9. Looking forward to Taylor Phinney coming back and coming back with some form to bridge up to this group. I think he’s got the right talent for it, but his injury from last year’s natz is truly setting him back. With him in the mix, maybe your globalization comment will become out dated.

    • We can only hope TP will be back on the cobbles.

      I see little evidence during P-R ( or any other Belgian classics race) for flying the stars and stripes, as I viewed a few times Sunday. Unfortunately, we in the new world seem to value the stage races over the flat classics.

      Doubt that will change.

  10. slightly older but no less impressive was Greenedge’s Jens Keukeleire- finishing in the first group on sunday, as well as a decent performance on stage 5 of the tour last year.

  11. Benoot is a real talent. We were discussing the Belgian press reaction on the club ride on Sunday morning and somebody summed it up with “He needs a podium today or he’s just another wasted talent”

    Sergent seems happy to bring him on slowly though and let him complete his studies first, with a minimum of pressure or expectation. You see him on the (Roads to Ride endorsed!) Scheldepad quite a lot too for motor pacing or on a TT bike, not for him the lure of Overpoortstraat on a Thursday night.

    Incidentally, there was a decent looking group recovery ride in Gent on the morning after Flanders… Iljo Keisse, Benoot, Farrar, a couple of other MTNs and two Topsport riders.

    • I agree with that, Benoot looks like a real talent. It is mostly how consistent he was in the races, more than its 5th place in de Ronde. We will see what happens with him when he finishes his studies.
      A visit to wikipedia revealed good placings in U23 both in Liège and in Vuelta a la Comunidad de Madrid (which is far from flat). This kind of more hilly races may suit him as well (à la Devolder)?

      • Word in the press here was that both he and the team see his future more in the Ardennes classics, with Fleche Walloon being his preferred race. With him, De Gendt and VDB Lotto have a decent squad for the next 2 weeks!

        I think Keisse called him “The new new Museeuw” last week in a sly dig at the Flemish press.

        • And tim wellens. Second last week in Aia (what a good name for a village put on a hill to which you can access using a 28% sloped “road”).

  12. There were certainly some interesting performances over the recent classics season. There should however always a word of caution on the tin. As we have seen many times in the past, riders predicted for greatness, fall before achieving the results that had been predicted. TBH and Sagan are only the latest two examples, although there is still time for them both to begin performing at something like the levels predicted several years ago.

    I would agree with the general thrust of Inrngs presentation. We are witnessing the slow fall and decline of the previous ‘classics champions’, although that is not to say they won’t spring a few surprises before old father time eventually consigns them to the place all cyclists end up.

    The freshness and enthusiasm of the new faces is certainly encouraging, and if they are riding on bread and water, we have much to be thankful for.

  13. This is my favourite part of the season by far and your blog is my first stop every morning. Thanks for the great piece – it has been fab watching these young guys perform this spring and you have brought them all together nicely. Thanks for your continued excellent writing. Chapeau Inrng!

  14. My pro cycling interest-o-meter goes like this

    Jan/Feb- Meh
    March April- Off the charts
    May- Giro baby!
    June- switch off whilst people argue about TDF form
    July- If the tours good, i’m in if not i’ll dip in and out
    August/September- I’d really love to enjoy the Vuelta, but I can’t bring myself to bother.
    October- WORLDS!
    Nov/Dec- CROSS! SIX DAYS!

    • Ha – for me it’s similar, but:

      Jan/Feb- Oooh, cycling again, obsessive reviewing of tiny/odd/hot races
      March April- Off the charts
      May- Giro baby!
      June- switch off whilst people argue about TDF form
      July- Le Tour, standard.
      August/September- I’d really love to enjoy the Vuelta, but I can’t bring myself to bother.
      October- WORLDS! LOMBARDIA!
      Nov/Dec- FOOTBALL!

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