Highlights of 2015 – Part I

I’m going to pick five moments from 2015. They are a personal choice. With any list you often omit more than you include but I’ll explain each moment. They’re presented in no particular order.

First up is Gent-Wevelgem, the spring classic that took place in a storm. Only 39 riders made it to the finish, here was a race that merited the abused adjective “epic” and it was even tiring to watch.

What makes a good race? There are a lot of ingredients and suspense is one obvious ingredient. If Gent-Wevelgem was a film the genre would be Hollywood action movie. No explosions or alien invasions but the storm that hit northern France and Belgium was ripping branches of trees and blowing riders off the road into large drainage ditches, as apocalyptic as things get these days.

Gent Wevelgem crosswinds

It saw the race split to pieces with 120km to go as the race tackled Mont Cassel. This meant hostilities started early and there was was no peloton procession across the landscape. Even before Mont Cassel this riders had been blown into the ditch, literally being scooped off the road and some were making representations to officials to cancel the race. The TV pictures had you tilting your head as riders were leaning diagonally into the wind.

There was an element of voyeurism to it all, should we really enjoy watching such dangerous racing? It was wild at times and dangerous but riders were not necessarily crashing more than usual and in time the conditions calmed down. Perhaps some tuned in for the Wacky Races element but this was a sophisticated race with complex team tactics. For a long time Lotto-Jumbo’s Maaten Tjallinigi was up the road allowing Sep Vanmarcke to rest in the chase group, then Jurgen Roelandts went solo with 75km to go fand this allowed team mate and brother in law Jens Debusschere to sit in. At one point Roelandts was riding away and it began to look like he might win. Behind the small chase group had Niki Terpstra and Stijn Vandenbergh of Etixx-Quickstep, obvious chasers but neither could sprint so how hard should they work? All these calculations are hard for us to make from the comfort of a sofa or desk but they had to be done by rain-soaked riders with over 200km in their legs.

With hindsight
Looking back with what we now know is valuable. Obviously Luca Paolini’s win has been tarnished by the news of his A-sample “non-negative” for cocaine during the Tour de France. Yet on the day Paolini’s win was almost a let down as once he got away the others behind could not work out how to react and after a crazy afternoon suddenly the outcome looked fixed. It would be worse for Gent-Wevelgem if the race was a masterclass by Paolini but he was a stealthy figure and the day really wasn’t about the bearded veteran.

Looking at the others the race was in March but we got a glimpse of Etixx-Quickstep’s problems without Tom Boonen, a team packed with strong riders but nobody to clean up in the sprint. It meant Niki Terpstra had to work with Alexander Kristoff in the Tour of Flanders rather than sit on and play “policeman” knowing Boonen could deliver in the sprint. Geraint Thomas had just won the E3 Harelbeke and remember he’d go on to shine in the Tour de France, a remarkable versatility. This shocked some in July but presumably they hadn’t been watching his results in the spring when he won the Volta ao Algarve and placed second to team mate Richie Porte on the Col de la Croix du Chaubouret, the Queen Stage of Paris-Nice. Greg Van Avermaet had a great season, finally converting some runner-up places into wins but his exchange rate is still low. Jens Debusschere is a valuable and underrated rider who can win sprints but this ride showed how he can master the classics and he’d go on to a top-10 in Paris-Roubaix and he should bring more options to Lotto-Soudal in 2016. Finally Sep Vanmarcke who seemed to be the most unlucky rider of the spring classics. He punctured at the worst times and cramped in other times, hopefully it’s not been too hard on him and he returns for 2016.

62 thoughts on “Highlights of 2015 – Part I”

  1. “Greg Van Avermaet had a great season”

    I must have missed that part! A perfect example of when people say the word ‘great’ is overused!

    • Podium at both RVV and Roubaix. 5th in AGR. Won Stage 13 of the Tour. 2nd Overall in Eneco Tour. 5th in Vatenfall. Just his World Tour results alone are pretty good, certainly more than enough for most riders to call a pretty damn good season.

      • You countered your own argument there! ‘Pretty good’ and ‘pretty damn good’ aren’t great! And neither is falling in the finale of a race you might have won. A ‘great’ season in my eyes would be Gilbert 2011, Boonen 2012 or 2005, any of Cancellara’s multi monument years, Bettini’s more dominant years or for stage racers Wiggins in 2012. One stage win and a few placings don’t cut it.

        • Surely you should judge by the rider…. though GVA’s season wouldn’t be a great season for Cancellara or Boonen but it was a great season for GVA….

  2. A minor quibble, but I’m not sure the win has been tarnished by the Cocaine positive test. I think riders should be banned for using illegal substances, however not sure if these are not “performance enhancing” whether they would tarnish earlier results.

    On the whole a good choice however – crazy race, and definite highlight for me.

  3. Exceptionally good race and I really thought Roelandts had it at one point. Borderline safety issues but as far as I remember there weren’t any more crashes than usual.

  4. Terpstra on the left, Thomas on the right. Maybe masterclass e` un po troppo, but Paolini won that race on smarts. Personally I was not let down, but found his win capped off a day of racing that was really representative of the best of the sport.

    His positive was disappointing and even more so his reaction to it. I’m not sure it has to tarnish the race or his win, though.

    • Yeah, agreed – his positive doesn’t tarnish the win in my mind at all. What he took in the Tour didn’t change his performance in Gent Wevelgem. Paolini is an unsung journeyman who took on the top teams and won after a long career of working for others.

      One of the best races of the season

      • Funny how time changes perception. I perfectly remember the years when Paolini was leader/co-leader of several teams (for example with Pippo at Liquigas) and was expected to win races, especially classics. It never quite worked out big time, but he almost always won at least one race/year and had of course his GT-stage-wins, his 3. place in the worlds 2004 etc.. The humble, unsung, silent worker bee all his career-hm… Not that anything is/would be wrong with that, but it is funny how public images change.

        • I think Wegelius refers to him in his book as one of the potential superstars coming out of the Italian junior ranks when he got his ride for Mapei also…

          • Yes, you are right. He uses Paolini to highlight the difference between him, a domestique, and Paolini, a groomed, expected (future) star of the sport. Had forgotten about that. It is interesting, that instead of being viewed as not reaching what he set out to do, Paolini now is seen as “the good old humble worker, tirelessly working for others who got all the attention and money”. I think some of his fellow riders of the past see things differently. Shows how you can change/sell every story, if you just make it sound good enough.

        • Right! I completely forgot about his previous wins when I made that comment. My point was though that this was one of his biggest ever wins, and, at least the last couple years, he’s been used as one of Kristoff’s top helpers (in the Tour and during the early parts of 2015).

          It is easy to forget a rider’s past victories.

  5. From what I’ve seen – sadly, that’s the one big race of the year I missed – Gent-Wevelgem looked absolutely awesome.
    Should we enjoy such a race? Yes: riding in those conditions is a test of skill and toughness – and that’s great to watch. (Let’s hope this is what Paolini is remembered for – and let’s hope he’s not banned at all: if it’s not performance-enhancing, it’s no-one’s business.) Is it a bit dangerous? Yes, but many other aspects of cycling are dangerous – rider aren’t shy of dodging in front of trains. If you stop races like this, you kill the sport – and the riders can always give up if they want, as many did.
    Like Richard S, I don’t know why I keep reading about what a great season GVA has had. He’s had the same season as always: lots of podiums. He won a stage at the Tour and the Tour of Belgium (not exactly a top race), but his Classics record remains almost unblemished by victories: Paris-Tours 2011. All these podiums suggest a rider who doesn’t attack often enough: risk a podium and he might just win.
    I think it’s time BMC put both GVA and Gilbert in all the Monuments that they want to ride. Keeping them separate hasn’t brought the results, so why not try having both of them start. And never mind if the riders don’t like it.

    • I have to say I don’t understand BMC’s ‘one or the other’ scheme with Gilbert and GVA either. Surely having both of them significantly strengthens the team. Gilbert can go away in the last few KM as he likes, and seemingly GVA doesn’t, and GVA can have a go at a sprint/spring off the front at the last if Phil Gil is caught. Or vice versa. They would appear a pretty perfect double act. Plus, Gilbert deserves a go at Flanders again having podiumed there twice.

      • For starters, on a personal level the pair are not the best of friends. And each of them think they should be team leader in their choice races. GVA demanded – and got – the uncontested leadership on the pave starting last year, with no pesky Gilbert to contend with. BMC want to keep GVA sweet through to P-R, and have Gilbert focus on the Ardennes. Now you can say that BMC should throw them both into it and tell them to sort it out if you like. But this is the issue at the root of it, I think.

        • ‘Now you can say that BMC should throw them both into it and tell them to sort it out’ – That’s precisely what I was saying. Can’t believe the way teams kow-tow to some riders. You’re adults; this is your job; no-one cares if you’re not pals.

        • I would have said to GVA something along the lines of ‘show us you deserve it, we’ve got a multiple monument winner over here.’

          • Playing devil’s advocate here: who’s last Monument was when…? 2011.

            There aint a lot of room for sentiment in cycling.

            Riding in BMC kit, he had a low-key few years after moving from Lotto to BMC.

            BMC might argue that stopping Gilbert from riding the pave at all in 2014, helped him focus on the hilly races and win AGR after the 3-year gap

    • Yeah, but GvA was always stalking the podium for what we imagine to be his peak races, AND THEN won a stage at Le Tour. That’s pretty remarkable.

      • Depends if you’re impressed by losing: those podium places mean nothing – except a contract renewal in the hope that you might finally win something. As Gilbert said recently (mostly aimed at Valverde’s tactics, seemingly), ‘it’s all about winning’.

    • With respect to GVA I think his problem is the exact opposite of what you describe. He either attacks recklessly, or impulsively follows (reckless) attacks.

      Admittedly there is some logic to this approach, because his chances of winning against even moderately competent sprinters is slim, but he needs to keep his powder dry a bit more often so that he’s not already spent when the real race winning moment arrives.

      • Yes, that’s true: he used to be a bit of a ‘hang on and do nothing, no matter what’ type of rider, but his approach is now as you say – he seems to have no idea when is a good time to attack.

  6. Good choice. An amazing race.

    I thought Thomas’ ride was outstanding. To get literally blown off the rode and still finish on the podium was testament to his character and resilience. You make a good point about his versatility, too – his showing in the Tour was very impressive. And seemingly a nice guy to boot. One of my favourite riders at the moment.

    • +1. I really liked watching Thomas this Spring. At both Gent-Wevelgem and the E3, he looked really impressive. Few riders these days are strong enough riders to have the ‘choice’ to either be a top Classics rider or a top stage racer. I’m looking forward to watching him next year, though I would have preferred to see him battle it out in the one day races over the tours.

      • Agreed. I still see Thomas as a versatile Classics rider that can also perform in stage races, but I’m not sure he’s quite ready to lead Sky at a Grand Tour. Yes, he hung with the GC contenders surprisingly far into this year’s Tour, but I think there’s still a pretty big gap between him and the likes of Froome and Quintana in the high mountains. I’d love to see him given a chance at the Giro or Vuelta – with the right field and route, who knows how he could do – but I’m assuming Froome will want him alongside him at next year’s Tour.

        I suspect his main problem in realising any GC ambitions in the Tour will be time – he’s 29 and only a year younger than Froome (almost to the day), so it’s not like he can just bide his time for a chance…

        • Yes, I don’t see him ever being a good enough climber to win a grand tour – although it’s possible in a favourable Giro or Vuelta, they do tend to be highly mountainous these days. I think he’d be better focusing on one day racing.

          • Geraint makes a noise about his GT ambitions every time his contract comes up for renewal. It’s happened almost every year since 2010 when he wore White Jersey (which he picked up over the Cobbles) at the Tour. Anyone who takes it seriously is being played (although feel free to quote me on this if he does Win a GT).

          • ^Hammerling: not accurate. Besides this time its verified and validated by the team as his major focus for next year at the expense of his Classics campaign.

  7. Just a general comment / question, but the extreme weather protocol ; at what point does this actually kick in ?
    Gent-Wevelgem saw 50mph wind gusts, Abu Dhabi Tour +50C temperatures, and the riders themselves had to neutralise a stage of the Tour of Oman due to high heat also.
    When is extreme not extreme ?

  8. I don’t see Paolini’s win as a let down, quite the opposite. A perfect example of conserving energy and if I remember rightly, he got dropped a couple of times. Natural or a bluff?!

    • At the time I thought of Paolini’s win as maybe especially popular, as a day in the “sun” for the superdomestique, even if it may have been slightly flukey. As to the positive finding, of course it’s best to treat personal problems as such, and differently from competition-related stuff, but surely cocaine still needs to be banned/punished somehow…

      • Why does it need to be punished?
        Because society has deemed this drug unacceptable?
        Isn’t it his own choice what to put in his body?
        Whichever of those you believe, it’s nothing to do with cycling.
        Would you punish some one for taking LSD then?

        • Didn’t Pot Belge include cocaine? Not saying that Paolini was using it in that way, but I can see the argument for it resulting in a sporting punishment/ban if it could potentially be used to affect performance…

          • Boonen was suspended, and missed the Tour twice because of it. Cocaine is a stimulant after all, even if there are more performance enhancing alternatives available these days. I recall reading that it can be a masking agent for other subjects too – however, I don’t want to google for “cocaine + masking agent” on a work computer!

          • What Nick says. Its a banned substance as per the WADA Code as it is judged by their medical experts to have a beneficial effect on performance . As an athlete, just don’t. Its not worth it. You ignore that in the Code – what else you prepared to ignore?

          • True enough, perhaps, but anything more than a 3-6 month ban would seem absurdly high.
            As for Boonen, he was never sanctioned by any official body – not the UCI, WADA or the Belgian courts. The second time (the first having been kept quiet), he wasn’t allowed – by ASO – to race the Tour; the third time, he was allowed to race in the Tour.

          • Because coke only attracts an official ban if the positive is in-competion (which may be the compromise you seek). And therefore no official body was in a place to punish him. Whereas his team was and did.

          • You can get away with an in-competition positive for cocaine if you can prove that you didn’t take it specifically for performance enhancing purposes.

          • The urine test for cocaine is actually for it’s metabolite benzoylecgonine. Problem is, is that the metabolite is present for 10-12 days after use, due to the sensitivity of the test. Paolini could have been partying the week before the Tour started and still popped a positive. No sporting benefit by this point, only a bad outcome. It’s to bad the guy is quite a character and fun to watch race.

  9. A great race the hostilities were amazing you literally could not take your eyes off of the Screen, Thomas was superclass as well!

    What was the race where the telly moto cruelly stayed behind Sep Van Marcke as he battled to get back in contention and then the pace went back up just as he bridged when he went BANG big style that was compulsive viewing, my favourite moment this year after seeing Froome attack after the cobbles lol

  10. As a follow on from the piece.
    Could Debusschere replace Boonen for Etixx when the time comes?
    Lotto to Etixx could be a but dodgey I guess.

  11. Was this also the race with the avenue of protesting tractors also? (To be fair the farmers were protesting, not the tractors). I loved that bit too…

  12. Now that Boonen is in the twilight of his career, he is no longer a certainty for the sprint win out of the breakaway bunch. It might be more interesting to watch next year’s spring classics if GVA and Gilbert were broken up into separate teams–perhaps Gilbert to Etixx and GVA staying on at BMC. Their mutual rivalry can unleashed with no holds barred. Undoubtedly, GVA would come in second as usual!

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