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They’re back! After ten months of waiting it’s Spring Classics time again. The steady build-up to the Monumental Classics of the Ronde Van Vlaanderen and Paris-Roubaix began in earnest at the weekend, with the traditional opening races Omloop Het Nieuwsblad (a WorldTour race for the first time) and Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne. As ever these races threw up much to discuss so in this post Daniel Ostanek takes a look at the biggest talking points from Belgian opening weekend.
A new era, a new rivalry
The weekend marked the start of the first Classics campaign since the retirement of three-time Flanders and Roubaix winner Fabian Cancellara. With his main rival Tom Boonen also set to retire after this year’s edition of Paris-Roubaix (and sidelined at the weekend with a DNF and a DNS), the next major Cobbled Classics rivalry already seems primed to fill the limelight for years to come.
We’ve seen them do battle at the Tour de France, Tirreno-Adriatico, Strade Bianche and more Classics besides, but after a false start last season, Greg Van Avermaet (BMC) and Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe) look ready to take up the mantle in 2017.
Not that the duo are alone, of course. On Saturday we saw Sep Vanmarcke (Cannondale-Drapac) ride away with Sagan and Van Avermaet on the Wolvenberg with 36km left to run. The trio of cobbled stars never looked in danger of being challenged, but in addition it looked a big ask for Vanmarcke to outfox two sprinters in the finale. After a token effort to launch his sprint early, Vanmarcke was soon overpowered by the duo, who then replicated their 2016 result, with Sagan taking second behind Van Avermaet once again.
It would take less than 24 hours for the World Champion to take his revenge though. At Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne, Jesper Stuyven (Trek-Segafredo) launched what would turn out to be the winning move with 29km remaining. Three kilometres later Sagan joined him, accompanied by three others. Meanwhile BMC and Van Avermaet missed out altogether. At the finish Sagan inevitably won the sprint while the Belgian trailed in seventh place, six seconds later, leaving the score at 1-1.
The rivalry will resume at Saturday’s Strade Bianche, and later at Tirreno-Adriatico.
Young guns show glimpses
Aside from the big two and their third wheel Vanmarcke, the rest of ‘The Next Generation’ also showed their faces over the weekend. With Cancellara gone, Trek-Segafredo have added 2015 Paris-Roubaix winner John Degenkolb to replace him, but with him absent at the weekend two other riders took the lead.
Twenty-four-year-old Jesper Stuyven already signalling his potential last spring with victory at Kuurne and a fifth place at E3 Harelbeke. Later in the season his support job for Cancellara took precedent, but he’s back with a bang and looks primed to step up and challenge in the Monuments. After launching the decisive attack of Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne, Stuyven eventually lost out to Sagan in the sprint, but all signs point to him being a major Monuments challenger in the future.
As something of a Swiss army knife, Italian Fabio Felline (Trek-Segafredo) has shown his prowess sprinting, time trialing and even climbing high mountains (as we saw on the Alto de Aitana at last year’s Vuelta a Espana). Now the 26-year-old seemingly has another string to his bow as at Het Nieuwsblad, his first cobbled race since his rookie year (when he finished 10th at E3 Harelbeke), Felline ended up best of the rest behind the big three.
Over at Lotto Soudal, Tiesj Benoot’s rise continues. Still only 22, the Belgian shot to fame in his rookie season two years ago, with a slew of strong Spring results culminating in a fifth place at Flanders. After a run of top-tens in early season Spanish races and the Volta ao Algarve, Benoot was called up to replace the injured Jens Debusschere on Sunday. Some 200km later he had nabbed fourth place in the sprint, and will form part of Lotto’s four-pronged assault on the Monuments along with Debusschere, André Greipel and Jurgen Roelandts.
Another man staking his claim for an elevated role in a strong Classics team was Welshman Luke Rowe of Team Sky. With Ian Stannard and Geraint Thomas ahead of him in the pecking order, the 26-year-old’s sixth place at Omloop and third at Kuurne look like signals of intent for April. Rowe will be looking to improve upon career-bests of fifth and eighth at Flanders and Roubaix respectively.
Will the Classics curse be broken?
Jan Raas 1983, Edwig Van Hooydonck 1989, Franco Ballerini 1995, Andrei Tchmil 2000, Tom Boonen 2009. These are the only riders of the last 40 years who have triumphed on ‘opening weekend’ and then gone on to succeed at Flanders or Roubaix later that same spring.
With two superstars of the pavé in Sagan and Van Avermaet taking the wins this time around, it looks unwise to bet against a repeat of this rare double come April. History — if nothing else — favours Sagan though, as Ballerini was the only rider to win Omloop Het Nieuwsblad before tasting success at the Monuments. The Italian won Paris-Roubaix by almost two minutes, kicking off a run of five wins in six years by the all-conquering Mapei team.
UCI rules are optional?
As ever, the UCI is never far from controversy, whether it’s disc brakes, motors, rider safety or doping. The weekend saw the return of a Classics staple though – the issue of riders eschewing the cobbled roads to zip along smooth bike paths.
Both of the weekend’s races saw this happen on multiple occasions, most prominently when the lead trio of Sagan, Van Avermaet and Vanmarcke did so towards the end of Omloop Het Nieuwsblad. The same pavé sector was later blocked by a UCI commissaire motorbike.
Per the UCI regulations (1.2.064 bis, to be precise), “It is strictly prohibited to use sidewalks/pavements, paths or cycle paths that do not form part of the course if a dangerous situation is created … or if such action procures a significant advantage over other riders.” Per the UCI, a 200CHF (AU$260; US$200) fine and elimination are recommended as a penalty for breaking this regulation.
— Edward Theuns (@EdwardTheuns) February 25, 2017
Despite warnings pre-race about the penalties, it now seems as though any punishment will be restricted to fines. UCI commissaire Guy Dobbelaere told Sporza that “excluding them [Sagan, Van Avermaet, Vanmarcke] would be too heavy.” He added that “exclusion could be an option when they put others in danger. I believe that was not the case” and that a report had been prepared and sent to the UCI Disciplinary Committee.
Ultimately the strongest riders won on the day, but some system is certainly needed in order to prevent this issue from plaguing every Cobbled Classic, as it always seems to do. Using roads not included in the roadbook goes against the spirit of the race, and disadvantages those who don’t make the jump to the smoother road.
Prevention, rather than retroactive punishment, should be the name of the game.
What else did you take away from the Belgian opening weekend? And what are you looking forward to this Spring Classics season?