What we learned from the 2017 men’s Spring Classics

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It seems just yesterday that the Classics season was getting underway with Omloop Het Nieuwsblad. But here we are, in late April, and the Spring Classics are done for another season.

Before we turn our attention to the next part of the season, let’s take a look back over the men’s races of the 2017 Spring Classics season and the riders, efforts and results that defined it. As ever, we’d love to hear you thoughts in the comments below.

Greg Van Avermaet was the rider of the 2017 Spring Classics.

For a couple years now, the battle between Greg Van Avermaet and Peter Sagan has been one of the most engaging in world cycling. They are very similar riders — both are great on short sharp climbs, and both have a fast finish at the end of long, hard races.

When Van Avermaet beat Sagan in the season’s first Classic, Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, and Sagan won Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne the following day, it looked like the battle between the two would be close all spring. But as the weeks wore on, a clear winner emerged.

In addition to the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, Van Avermaet also won E3 Harelbeke, Gent-Wevelgem and, most impressively of all, Paris-Roubaix — his first Monument.

While most cobbled classics riders skipped the Ardennes, Van Avermaet was keen to stretch out his good form as long as possible. He didn’t achieve the same success in eastern Belgium as he did in the north, but his job was already done by that point.

It’s remarkable to think that, just a few short years ago, Van Avermaet was the guy who couldn’t win anything big; the eternal bridesmaid. How things have changed.

It was a spring to forget for Peter Sagan.

Second-place finishes are as much a part of the Peter Sagan story as his entertaining antics on and off the bike. Which would be frustrating for him were it not for the fact that he also wins a ton of bike races.

Sagan started the year with a string of near-misses, being beaten by Caleb Ewan (Orica-Scott) on three occasions at the Santos Tour Down Under. And while he could shrug those results off — January was too early for him to be at his best — the trend continued once the Classics began.

His second at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad was followed by a second at Milan-San Remo — where he was the strongest in the race — and then third at Gent-Wevelgem. Indeed, Sagan’s only win for the Classics was Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne. But it could have been very different.

The world champion could (should?) have won Milan-San Remo, he arguably threw away his changes of winning Gent-Wevelgem to spite Niki Terpstra and QuickStep Floors, and then he missed his chance of back-to-back wins at the Tour of Flanders with a crash he could have avoided.

It wasn’t the ideal spring for Peter Sagan.

For the vast majority of riders in the peloton, achieving what Sagan did this spring would be career-defining. But for the Slovakian, it was sub-par, as he himself admitted.

Still, the season is young and you can be sure that Sagan will take his fair share of victories as the year unfolds.

Tom Boonen will be sorely missed.

For much of the past decade it was the battle between Fabian Cancellara and Tom Boonen that defined the cobbled classics. The pair racked up six Tours of Flanders and seven Paris-Roubaixs between them. Cancellara’s retirement last year was a huge loss for fans worldwide, and now that Tom Boonen has hung up his wheels, a new era is certainly upon us.

Boonen’s last two races were, fittingly, the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix. He won the former three times and the latter four, and was hoping for one final win as a way of saying goodbye to the sport. And while he didn’t quite get the fairytale finish he was hoping for — an ill-timed mechanical ended his chances of winning Flanders and at Roubaix the team ended up backing Zdenek Stybar — Boonen leaves professional cycling with a palmares very few in the sport have ever achieved.

In addition to his three Flanders and four Roubaix wins, Boonen signs off with three victories at Gent-Wevelgem, five at E3 Harelbeke, a world champion’s jersey, 22 stages(!) at the Tour of Qatar, and many more victories besides — 113 in total.

Boonen truly was one of the kings of spring, and the Classics will be poorer without him.

Philippe Gilbert has shown flashes of his absolute best.

Philippe Gilbert’s 2011 was undoubtedly one of the greatest individual seasons by a pro cyclist in recent memory. He took no fewer than 18 wins, including all three of the Ardennes Classics, Strade Bianche, the Tour of Belgium, the Belgian national title, and a stage at the Tour de France. It was an exceptional year.

While he’s won a bunch of big races since then — including the Road World Championships and the Amstel Gold Race — he hasn’t been at the same level since that final season with Omega Pharma-Lotto. But in 2017, with new team QuickStep Floors, Gilbert looks the best he’s been since his dominant 2011.

He signalled his form early with second at both Dwars Door Vlaanderen and E3 Harelbeke, then won a stage and the overall at Three Days of De Panne. And then he took one of the greatest Tour of Flanders victories in the past few decades, attacking solo from 55km out and holding on for a famous win.

The removal of the Cauberg from the Amstel Gold Race should have worked against the Belgian champion, but in actuality it didn’t. He just got away earlier, then beat Michal Kwiatkowski (Sky) in the sprint.

Sure, Gilbert has four wins for the year and is a long way off the 18 he got six years ago, but at 34 years old and after a few relatively lean years, Gilbert’s resurgence is quite something to behold. What else can he achieve this season?

Michal Kwiatkowski, too, has shown glimpses of his very best.

It’s not unusual to see riders step up their game in a contract year, and with his performance at the Classics, Michal Kwiatkowski has made a strong case for an extension to his tenure at Sky. It’s not like Kwiatkowski was terrible last year — he won E3 Harelbeke — but he wasn’t at his scintillating, world-beating best. He’s been close to that in 2017.

His solo victory at Strade Bianche was demonstrative, riding away from an elite lead group. And then at Milan-San Remo, he played his cards to perfection, beating Sagan with a desperate lunge for the line.

In reality, Kwiatkowski probably should have won the Amstel Gold Race too. He started his sprint too early, into a headwind and was overhauled by Gilbert just before the line. And then he was strongest in the bunch at Liege-Bastogne-Liege (a race he’ll surely win at some stage in the next decade), finishing behind Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) and Dan Martin (QuickStep Floors) who broke clear on the final drag to the line.

On his day, ‘Kwiato’ is a rider that’s capable of doing just about anything. It was great to see him back at his aggressive, tenacious best in the 2017 Classics and we can only hope we’ll see more brilliance from the Pole as the year unfolds.

Alejandro Valverde is simply on another level.

While most riders are starting to slow down as they reach their mid-to-late 30s, Alejandro Valverde only seems to be getting better. He told the press before the Ardennes Classics that he’d had his greatest ever start to a season — a big call, given his previous achievements, but an accurate one. He’d won all three of the stage races he started — including the notoriously tough Volta a Catalunya — and then when he got to the Ardennes, he was simply too good.

At Fleche Wallonne, Valverde rode away from his rivals on the steep slopes of the Mur de Huy to win by a staggering margin. A few days later, at Liege-Bastogne-Liege he again bided his time, then pounced at the right moment to overhaul Dan Martin and take another comfortable victory.

In both his Ardennes wins, Valverde’s intentions were clearly telegraphed — he’s been doing the same thing there for years. But even knowing what he was going to do, the Spaniard’s rivals were simply unable to do anything to stop him.

Valverde told CyclingTips last year that he doesn’t believe anyone questions his performances any more. And while that’s certainly untrue, there’s zero evidence to suggest any sort of recent wrongdoing. Given the history of the sport it’s only natural that people will be sceptical. But in the absence of any proof, why not sit back and enjoy the show?

Remarkably, Valverde already has 11 wins for the year — the most of any rider by a considerable margin. He’ll take a bit of a break now before building towards the Tour de France where he’ll support Nairo Quintana and, no doubt, achieve some good results of his own as well.

A bit of change is (normally) a good thing.

Each year we always see a bit of change when it comes to the climbs of the Classics. This year we saw three notable changes, and all three had an impact in some way.

The Muur van Geraadsbergen, so often a defining climb of the Tour of Flanders, returned in 2017 after a five-year hiatus. While few people expected the Muur to affect the race — given the riders still had 95km to go when they reached the famous chapel at the top — it did actually have an impact.

It was there that Tom Boonen split the peloton, forming the group that his teammate Philippe Gilbert would later attack from and win. Sure, it would be great to have the Muur closer to the finish, but having it back in the race was good, having it affect the race was better, and seeing Boonen lead the charge up there one final time was excellent.

Organisers of the Amstel Gold Race dropped the final ascent of the Cauberg to make the race a little less predictable, and it worked out well. The final kilometres were more dynamic, with no hugely decisive climb for most of the teams to work towards. As it turned out, Kwiatkowski and Gilbert used the “new” final climb of the Bemelerberg to make their move, resulting in a slightly different finale.

Liege-Bastogne-Liege too removed a climb from its closing stages this year, namely the Côte de la Rue Naniot. This short but very steep cobbled climb was only in the race for one year — 2016 — but it had an impact on that particular race. It was there that Valverde was distanced last year, and that the winning move went clear.

And sure, Valverde might have won anyway had the Côte de la Rue Naniot been back this year, such was his strength, but it was a shame to see this particular climb disappear nonetheless.

Who were the star performers for you at this year’s Spring Classics? Who didn’t live up to expectations? And what other storylines defined the past couple months of racing for you? Let us know in the comments below.

The 2017 Spring Classics in summary

by Neal Rogers

Kings of the Classics    Perfection  So close!  There’s always next year
Greg Van Avermaet (Belgium), BMC Racing 1st, Paris-Roubaix; 1st, Gent-Wevelgem; 1st, E3 Harelbeke; 1st, Omloop Het Nieuwsblad 2nd, Ronde van Vlaanderen; 2nd, Strade Bianche 11th, Liège-Bastogne-Liège; 12th, Amstel Gold Race
Philippe Gilbert (Belgium), Quick-Step Floors 1st, Ronde van Vlaanderen; 1st, Amstel Gold Race; 1st overall + stage win, Driedaagse De Panne-Koksijde 2nd, E3 Harelbeke; 2nd, Dwars Door Vlaanderen 13th, Omloop Het Nieuwsblad; 29th, Milan-San Remo
Alejandro Valverde (Spain), Movistar 1st, Liège-Bastogne-Liège; 1st, Flèche Wallonne  N/A 19th, Amstel Gold Race
Michal Kwiatkowski (Poland), Team Sky 1st, Milan-San Remo; 1st, Strade Bianche 2nd, Amstel Gold Race; 3rd, Liège-Bastogne-Liège 7th, Flèche Wallonne
 Well, that was frustrating  Perfection   So close!   There’s always next year
  Peter Sagan (Slovakia), Bora-Hansgrohe  1st, Kuurne-Bruxelles-Kuurne 2nd, Milan-San Remo; 2nd, Omloop Het Nieuwsblad; 3rd, Gent-Wevelgem 27th, Ronde van Vlaanderen; 38th, Paris-Roubaix; 108th, E3 Harelbeke
Zdenek Stybar (Czech Republic), Quick-Step Floors  N/A 2nd, Paris-Roubaix; 4th, Strade Bianche 53rd, E3 Harelbeke; 67th, Ronde van Vlaanderen; DNF, Amstel Gold Race
Niki Terpstra (Netherlands), Quick-Step Floors  N/A 3rd, Ronde van Vlaanderen; 4th, Gent-Wevelgem; DNF, Paris-Roubaix
Dan Martin (Ireland), Quick-Step Floors  N/A 2nd, Liège-Bastogne-Liège; 2nd, Flèche Wallonne DNF, Amstel Gold Race
Alexander Kristoff (Norway), Katusha-Alpecin N/A 4th, Milan-San Remo; 5th, Ronde van Vlaanderen 27th, E3 Harelbeke; 73rd, Gent-Wevelgem; DNF, Paris-Roubaix
John Degenkolb (Germany), Trek-Segafredo  N/A 5th, Gent-Wevelgem; 7th, Milan-San Remo; 7th, Ronde van Vlaanderen  10th, Paris-Roubaix
Michael Matthews (Australia), Team Sunweb  N/A 4th, Liège-Bastogne-Liège; 8th, Gent-Wevelgem 10th, Amstel Gold Race; 12th, Milan-San Remo
Sep Vanmarcke (Belgium), Cannondale-Drapac  N/A 3rd, Omloop Het Nieuwsblad 23rd, E3 Harelbeke; 28th, Dwars door Vlaanderen; DNF, Ronde van Vlaanderen; DNF, Strade Bianche
Hope springs eternal  Perfection So close!   There’s always next year
Oliver Naesen (Belgium), AG2R La Mondiale N/A 3rd, E3 Harelbeke; 6th, Dwars door Vlaanderen; 7th, Omloop Het Nieuwsblad; 8th, Kuurne-Bruxelles-Kuurne 13th, Amstel Gold Race; 22nd, Gent-Wevelgem; 23rd, Ronde van Vlaanderen; 31st, Paris-Roubaix
Jasper Stuyven (Belgium), Trek-Segafredo  N/A 2nd, Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne; 4th, Paris-Roubaix; 8th, Omloop Het Nieuwsblad 39th, Milan-San Remo; 46th, Gent-Wevelgem; 51st, Ronde van Vlaanderen; DNF, E3 Harelbeke
Luke Durbridge (Australia), Orica-Scott  N/A 4th, E3 Harelbeke; 4th Dwars door Vlaanderen; 6th, Strade Bianche 12th, Ronde van Vlaanderen; 40th, Omloop Het Nieuwsblad; DNF, Paris-Roubaix
Tim Wellens (Belgium), Lotto-Soudal  N/A 3rd, Strade Bianche; 4th, Brabantse Pijl 18th, Milan-San Remo; 35th, Liège-Bastogne-Liège; 42nd, Amstel Gold Race
Julian Alaphilippe (France), Quick-Step Floors  N/A 3rd, Milan-San Remo N/A (injured for Ardennes Classics)
 That’s all, folks…  Perfection  So close! There’s always next year
 Tom Boonen (Belgium), Quick-Step Floors No storybook ending  6th, Gent-Wevelgem; 8th, E3 Harelbeke  Nope

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