Commentary: Why Tony Martin racing the cobbled classics changes everything

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When three-time world time-trial champion Tony Martin announced last month that, for the first time in his career, he will focus on the cobblestone classics this season, the entire pro peloton took notice.

Why? Because Martin’s participation tipped the scales in favor of an Etixx-QuickStep domination, from Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, which kicks off the classics season on Saturday, through Paris-Roubaix, on April 10.

Martin’s participation appears to be a move by team manager Patrick Lefevere to fulfill the team’s destiny — to secure a Spring Classics supremacy that appeared preordained last year, yet ultimately blew sideways, like rain in a Belgian crosswind.

Captained by Tom Boonen, the greatest cobblestone classics rider of his generation, the Etixx-QuickStep squad started the 2015 Spring Classics as the 800-pound gorilla. Along with Boonen, the team boasted specialists Zdenek Stybar, Niki Terpstra, Stijn Vandenbergh, and Matteo Trentin, as well as, for a few select races, Mark Cavendish.

And Etixx started off the 2015 classics season with a pair of early wins, at Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne, with Cavendish, and Strade Bianche, with Stybar.

Yet the team also found new and inventive ways to disappoint, particularly at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, where Team Sky’s Ian Stannard won from a four-man breakaway stacked with three Etixx jerseys — Boonen, Vandenbergh, and Terpstra.

It was a result that left Boonen shaking his head, and Terpstra and Vandenbergh hanging theirs in shame.

Lefevere surely would have thought that tactical blunder to be the low point of his team’s classics season, however the nadir would come a week later, when Boonen crashed out of Paris-Nice, suffering a dislocated shoulder that required surgery.

The team’s star classics rider, seeking a fifth Roubaix win and a fourth Flanders win — either of which would set a new record — was instead forced to sit out the most important events of his race schedule.

Etixx soldiered on, looking to Terpstra, the 2014 Roubaix winner, and Stybar, the three-time world cyclocross champion who, in 2014, finished in the top 10 at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, Strade Bianche, E3 Harelbeke, Ronde van Vlaandren, and Paris-Roubaix.

Terpstra and Stybar raced admirably during the 2015 classics season, even if they didn’t come away with the wins that mattered most.

While French phenom Julien Alaphilippe’s second-place finishes at Flèche Wallonne and Liège-Bastogne-Liége were viewed as pleasant surprises — indicators of things to come — Stybar’s second-place finishes at Roubaix and Harelbeke, and Terpstra’s second-place finishes at Flanders and Omloop, were viewed as disappointments for a team so singularly focused on the cobbled classics.

With or without Boonen, so many second-place finishes could only be viewed as failure.

Tour de France 2015 - stage 4
Tony Martin with former Etixx-QuickStep teammate Michal Kwiatkowski, stage 4 of the 2015 Tour de France. Photo: Cor Vos.

Strengths, and weaknesses

With the news that Martin will be focusing on the cobbled classics, and Boonen healthy, Etixx-QuickStep is, again, poised to dominate the Spring Classics. (German sprinter Marcel Kittel is only scheduled to race Driedaagse De Panne and Scheldeprijs.)

Martin presents a unique skill set for the pavé. Nicknamed the Panzerwagen, after a German tank, he is capable of sustaining incredible power, useful in a domestique role, setting pace at the front of the peloton, or in a breakaway.

Alongside Boonen, the other dominant classics rider of the past decade has been Fabian Cancellara (Trek-Segafredo), who, like Martin, is a multi-time world time-trial champion. The first two of Cancellara’s three wins at Roubaix were solo efforts — late-race time trial demonstrations across the cobblestones. Two of his three Flanders wins were also taken with more than a minute’s lead over the second-place finisher.

Bradley Wiggins, another TT specialist, quickly took to the cobbles, finishing 25th in his Paris-Roubaix debut, in 2009, and ninth in 2014.

As unforgiving as they may be, the rough-and-tumble cobblestones smile upon those riders capable of sustaining raw power. At the Volta ao Algarve, last week, Martin finished just five seconds behind Cancellara in the 18km Stage 3 time trial, demonstrating that the power is there.

Other factors that come into play at the classics are luck, experience, and team strength.

Inexperience will be Martin’s weakness, though at last year’s Tour de France he proved that a cobblestone education is far from essential, soloing to victory on the cobblestone stage (on Trentin’s bike, no less, after a puncture on his), taking the maillot jaune in the process. Seven pavé sectors, during a three-week stage race in July, is not 27 sectors at a Monument in April, but a win across the cobbles is still a win across the cobbles.

Also worth remembering: On the rainy cobblestone stage of the 2014 Tour de France, after riding in the day-long breakaway and crashing, Martin still finished 17th, two minutes down on stage winner Lars Boom. It was that performance that led Etixx directors Rolf Aldag and Brian Holm to suggest Martin begin focusing on the classics.

“If we get Tony in there, and he gets his engine started, no one is going to catch him,” Holm told Cycling Weekly in February 2015. “He’ll be something like Cancellara, probably.”

Tony Martin wins solo on stage 4 of the 2015 Tour de France.
Tony Martin wins solo on stage 4 of the 2015 Tour de France. Photo: Cor Vos.

Luck, of course, is an important and unpredictable factor at the classics, although variables such as crashes and punctures can be mitigated, somewhat, under the guidance of veterans like Boonen and Terpstra, on a team directed by former classics specialist Wilfried Peeters.

The classics also involve positioning, explosive attacks, and, sometimes, sprinting from a small group. These are not Martin’s strengths.

However the classics, particularly Roubaix, also reward team depth — strength in numbers. Terpstra wasn’t necessarily the strongest man at the 2014 Paris-Roubaix, but his late-race attack, with Boonen and Stybar sitting in the group of 10, proved to be the winning move, as no other rider readily took up the chase.

In terms of team strength, Martin couldn’t be in a better position. And that comes back to why he’s participating in the first place; on a lesser squad, Martin might not even bother with the Spring Classics. On Ettix-QuickStep, he’ll be another important weapon in the arsenal of the best team in the race.

It’s not hard to imagine Martin winning Roubaix in the same manner Boonen and Cancellara have won, from a long solo attack, or how Terpstra won in 2014 — the right man, on the right team, at the right time.

And with John Degenkolb (Giant-Alpecin) sidelined due to injury, Geraint Thomas (Sky) instead focusing on stage races, and Dimension Data’s Cavendish and Edvald Boasson Hagen absent from Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne — their squad was not invited — Etixx could well steamroll the opposition in 2016.

“I’ll line up for Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and Dwars door Vlaanderen, and if everything will work well I will try to be part of the team that will go to Gent-Wevelgem, Ronde van Vlaanderen, and Paris-Roubaix,” Martin said. “Obviously, I can’t say that I want to win there, but to test myself, to see how I do in these kind of races.”

And that’s just it — Martin doesn’t need to win to impact the race. His presence alone could be the decisive factor.

The experts speak

What do those who know best think of Tony Martin racing the cobbles? We asked, they answered.

Ronde van Vlaanderen 2015 men elite worldcupAlexander Kristoff, Katusha: “I can only be happy that Tony will start in ‘our’ races. The better the riders at the start, the more beautiful the victory can be when you win. It is good for the race, its credibility, its history. Honestly, it was already strange to me that he never started in those races, he really has the perfect body for it. The fact that he won the Tour de France cobbles stage does not mean anything, but it shows his potential. I am convinced that you need some experience to be able to win Ronde van Vlaanderen or Paris-Roubaix. On the other hand, his team has so many victories in those races, they will tell him everything, all the details. But, I am not afraid.”

Paris-Roubaix 2015John Degenkolb, Giant-Alpecin: “Tony Martin will be part of an already strong team with some big engines in there. I don’t expect the team will change its tactics too much. Tony is a strong guy but the peloton consists of more than 200 riders. Furthermore, the cobblestone classics require specific experience. So I don’t expect one rider will affect the dynamics of the race itself a lot. [Quote provided before Degenkolb’s injuries sustained during a training camp in Spain.]

Patrick Lefevere, Etixx-QuickStep team manager: “We look with great interest to Tony Martin riding the cobbles this spring. It goes without saying that we want to take each thing at a time, and not put any pressure on him, but more to see how he will manage these one-day events, how he’ll adapt to the style of racing on that terrain, and to have some questions answered. Basically, we’ll take his classics campaign as a test, and if the results are encouraging, then we will think of changing his approach for the future seasons. I talked to Tony a couple of years ago and said to him that he must give it a go on the cobbles at one point during his career, because he has the engine and the skills for such races. If you look at the list of winners in Paris-Roubaix, you can see a lot of guys with his skills who won there, so Tony has every right to try and see how things will go. After watching him ride so smooth over the cobbles at last year’s Tour de France, where he won the stage to Cambrai, it was the logical step to make him a classics-orientated program for the first part of 2016. This isn’t important only for us in order to get a better picture of what he can do in the northern races, but also for him, because as every human being, he needs new challenges at this point of his career. And what bigger motivation can there be than to ride the cobblestone races?”

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