The weekly spin: Rating the winners and losers of the 2019 spring classics
It was late in the race, and Julian Alaphilippe, the most successful rider of the spring classics, knew he would not be defending his team’s title at Liège-Bastogne-Liège. Though his Deceuninck–Quick-Step teammates had spent the day keeping him sheltered from the wind and setting pace at the front of the peloton, the inclement weather had adversely affected the Frenchman. It wasn’t his day.
Before the race-shaping climb of La Redoute with 39 kilometers to go, Alaphilippe rode alongside Danish rider Jakob Fuglsang, his rival throughout this spring classics campaign. Alaphilippe had gotten the better of Fuglsang at Strade Bianche and Flèche Wallonne, and had looked poised to do the same in the final kilometer of Amstel Gold Race before their tactical stalemate opened the door for a hard-charging Mathieu van der Poel.
“I don’t have it today,” Alaphilippe told Fuglsang, or something to that effect. “I hope you win.”
On the race’s final climb, the Côte de la Roche-aux-Faucons with 13km to go, Fuglsang went all in. He followed an attack from Mike Woods (EF Education First) and went solo over the top. Even an extremely close call with a pothole — one that surely would have spelled disaster for some riders — wasn’t enough to deny Fuglsang the victory.
And with that, Fuglsang had the win that had eluded him throughout the spring classics — throughout his entire career, for that matter. Even better, it was at a Monument, and ahead of the rider that had denied him victory on several occasions.
It wasn’t enough, however, to dethrone Alaphilippe as the king of the 2019 spring classics. The 26-year-old Frenchman took three big wins, finished second at Brabantse Pijl, and was fourth at Amstel Gold Race. Behind him, van der Poel and Fuglsang are closely locked in the battle for the next-best 2019 classics campaign.
All this led me to rank the biggest winners and losers of this year’s spring classics, which many consider the most exciting period on the race calendar.
For this discussion we’ll consider all one-day WorldTour and UCI 1.HC races held between Omloop Het Nieuwsblad on March 2 and Liège-Bastogne-Liège on April 28. Monuments carry more weight than other WorldTour races, and WorldTour races carry more weight than HC races.
Another thing that carries weight is expectations. So while a results sheet may be objective, the expectations placed on some riders are not, and can lead to a string of so-so results being viewed as, collectively, disappointing.
In particular, former world champion Peter Sagan and current world champion Alejandro Valverde failed to deliver performances expected from them. Sagan did not reach the podium at Flanders, Roubaix, Gent-Wevelgem, or E3, all races he’s won in the past. Valverde failed to reach the top 10 at Flèche Wallonne, a race he’s won five times; he reportedly swallowed a bee, and finished 11th. The following day he crashed on a training ride and bruised his tailbone. His DNF at Liège was the first time he’s abandoned an Ardennes Classic across 39 starts.
KINGS OF THE CLASSICS
Julian Alaphilippe (Deceuninck-Quick-Step)
Stellar results: 1st, Milan-San Remo; 1st, Flèche Wallonne; 1st, Strade Bianche; 2nd, Brabantse Pijl; 4th Amstel Gold Race
Not-stellar results: 16th, Liège-Bastogne-Liège
One Monument victory. Two classics wins. Second at Brabantse Pijl. A near miss at Amstel Gold. Julian Alaphilippe was the rider of reference from Strade Bianche, on March 9, through Flèche Wallonne, on April 24.
Alaphilippe is the complete package — he can climb, he can sprint, and he’s on the best classics team in the sport. And at Strade Bianche and then Milan-San Remo, he looked unbeatable.
But he’s not. Mathieu van der Poel out-sprinted him at Brabantse Pijl, though Alaphilippe was still feeling the effects of a heavy crash at Itzulia Basque Country that knocked him out of the race one day after winning the second stage. Van der Poel beat him again a few days later, at Amstel Gold, and though Alaphilippe rebounded at Flèche Wallonne, he told reporters that he was “totally empty” and “scraping the bottom of the tank” after Liège-Bastogne-Liège. Which is what you’d expect from a rider who took his first win on January 28, in Colombia, and his most recent win atop the Mur de Huy three months later.
In all, Alaphilippe has won nine races in 2019, and he now leads the UCI Individual Classification. “My season has been unbelievable up until this point,” he said on Sunday. “These past couple of months are something I will always remember and the wins I’ve notched up with the help of my team give me immense joy.”
Mathieu van der Poel (Corendon-Circus)
Stellar results: 1st, Amstel Gold Race; 1st, Dwars door Vlaanderen; 1st, Brabantse Pijl; 1st, GP Denain; 4th, Ronde van Vlaanderen; 4th, Gent-Wevelgem
Not-stellar results: N/A
From a strictly starts-to-results perspective, no rider had a better spring campaign than Mathieu van der Poel. He started seven races, finished six (he was taken out sprinting for the win in the final at Danilith Nokere Koerse), and never finished worse than fourth. It was all the more impressive when considering that he was racing these events for the first time. It was even more impressive than that when considering he was just coming off a long cyclocross campaign that delivered 32 victories in 34 starts, including a world championship.
Though he also won at Dwars door Vlaanderen and Brabantse Pijl, it’s the Amstel Gold Race victory that will stand out as the defining moment of not just van der Poel’s spring campaign, but as the defining moment of the entire 2019 spring classics. Down by a minute with 3km remaining, van der Poel towed a chase group, caught the leaders inside the final kilometer, opened up his sprint with 500 meters to go, and held off all comers to win, on home soil, in the Dutch national champion’s jersey. It was, quite literally, the stuff of legend.
Whether it was van der Poel or Fuglsang who had the better classics campaign is rightly debatable. Van der Poel won more WorldTour races (two, compared to one) and won more races outright (four, compared to one), but Fuglsang had more WorldTour podiums (four, compared to two). Most importantly, when they raced against each other for the win, Van der Poel was the better rider. I put together a Twitter poll posing this very question on Twitter, and after more than 1,000 votes, the consensus, by a margin of 61% to 39%, was that van der Poel had the more impressive spring classics campaign than the winer of Liège-Bastogne-Liège.
Poll: Who had a better spring classics campaign, Jakob Fuglsang (1st, Liège; 2nd, Flèche; 2nd, Strade Bianche; 3rd, Amstel Gold) or Mathieu van der Poel (1st, Amstel; 1st, Dwars Vlaanderen; 1st, Brabantse Pijl; 1st, GP Denain; 4th, Ronde van Vlaanderen; 4th, Gent-Wevelgem)? #LBL
— Neal Rogers (@nealrogers) April 28, 2019
Jakob Fuglsang (Astana)
Stellar results: 1st, Liège-Bastogne-Liège; 2nd, Flèche Wallonne; 2nd, Strade Bianche; 3rd, Amstel Gold Race
Not-stellar results: N/A
In the aftermath of the Amstel Gold Race, it was hard not to feel for Jakob Fuglsang. Just as it had been at Strade Bianche, he’d been up the road with Julian Alaphilippe in what looked to be the winning move. Alaphilippe had proven the faster finisher on Via Santa Caterina, into the hilltop city of Siena, and dusted a field of the best one-day riders in the sport a week later at Milan-San Remo.
In the closing kilometers of Amstel Gold, Fuglsang knew he had to either get rid of Alaphilippe or sit on and force the Frenchman, who was cramping, to take him to the line. Instead, a tactical stalemate allowed the race to come back together inside the final kilometer, and Fuglsang was sprinting for the podium rather than the victory.
A few days later, it was once again Alaphilippe and Fuglsang duking it out for victory atop the Mur de Huy, with Alaphilippe easily taking the win. Three times in seven weeks the Dane and the Frenchman were alone together at the front of a classic, and three times Fuglsang finished on the podium — but not on the top step.
A GC rider who climbs and time trials well, Fuglsang had never won a one-day race in his career for a pretty simple reason; he’s got no real sprint. He’d twice finished in the top 10 at Liège-Bastogne-Liège, but he had never truly contested for the victory. On the Côte de la Roche-aux-Faucons with 13km to go, Fuglsang went solo over the top. He wasn’t waiting around for a sprint, and this time, he wouldn’t have to. “It was the perfect scenario for me,” he said, “because it was a very hard race.”
Zdenek Stybar (Deceuninck-Quick Step)
Stellar results: 1st, Omloop Het Nieuwsblad; 1st, E3 BinckBank Classic; 4th, Strade Bianche; 8th, Paris-Roubaix
Not-stellar results: 35th, Gent-Wevelgem; 36th, Ronde van Vlaanderen
Zdenek Stybar rode in a variety of roles throughout the spring classics. He rode in support of Julian Alaphilippe at Milan-San Remo, which proved successful, and in support of Elia Viviani at Gent-Wevelgem, which did not. But Stybar also had his own opportunities to shine, and he delivered early, at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, where he soloed to victory, and again at E3 BinckBank Classic, where he out-sprinted Wout van Aert and Greg van Avermaet.
When he wasn’t at the front of the race, Stybar played a key role for Deceuninck-Quick Step, positioned just behind the race-winning moves at Strade Bianche and Paris-Roubaix, where he notched top-10 results behind victorious teammates.
Alberto Bettiol (EF Education First)
Stellar results: 1st, Ronde van Vlaanderen; 4th, E3 BinckBank Classic; 6th, Brabantse Pijl
Not-stellar results: 36th, Milan-San Remo; 51st, Dwars door Vlaanderen; 71st, Amstel Gold Race; 78th, Strade Bianche; DNF, Gent-Wevelgem; DNF, Liège-Bastogne-Liège
Alberto Bettiol had never registered a pro victory before soloing to victory at the Ronde van Vlaanderen, one of the biggest races on the calendar. He’d come close in years past, but his 2018 season with BMC Racing had been an unmitigated disaster, with broken collarbones in April and again in August. Back at EF Education First, Bettiol was one of several leaders for the classics, alongside Sep Vanmarcke and Sebastian Langeveld.
At Milan-San Remo, the 25 year-old Italian was the first to attack on the Poggio; it was the move that Alaphilippe countered and rode to victory, but also the move that put Bettiol into the red. At his next race, the E3 BinckBank Classic, Bettiol made the winning selection, finishing fourth behind Stybar from a group of five. He languished at Gent-Wevelgem and Dwars door Vlaanderen, but showed up to the Ronde van Vlaanderen quietly confident. With Vanmarcke setting him up to attack on the Oude Kwaremont, and Langeveld then running interference behind, Bettiol went clear across the cobbles, held it over the Paterberg, and soloed to the line to take an emphatic victory.
Bettiol took a respectable sixth at Brabantse Pijl before forgettable results at Amstel Gold Race, where teammate Simon Clarke finished second, and a DNF at Liége, where teammate Mike Woods finished fifth. But that’s all beside the point; Bettiol’s career was made at the finish line of the Ronde in Oudenaarde. He’s now a Flanders champion.
Philippe Gilbert (Deceuninck-Quick Step)
Stellar results: 1st, Paris-Roubaix
Not-stellar results: 30th, Amstel Gold Race; 58th, Liège-Bastogne-Liège; 68th, Milan-San Remo; DNF, Ronde van Vlaanderen; DNF, Dwars door Vlaanderen
He only won once, but it was the one he wanted most. After riding in support of Alaphilippe at Milan-San Remo, Stybar at E3 BinckBank Classic, and Viviani at Gent-Wevelgem, Philippe Gilbert was poised to take a leadership role for Ronde van Vlaanderen, which he won in 2017, and Paris-Roubaix, where had never finished in the top 10.
Things got sideways, however, when he fell ill before Dwars door Vlaanderen, which he started but did not finish. Another DNF, at the Tour of Flanders, didn’t bode well for Paris-Roubaix, but from early on at the Queen of the Classics it was clear that Gilbert was the man to beat.
Gilbert and German Nils Politt (Katusha) initiated the winning move through the feed zone with around 66km remaining. Varuous groups came together and came apart, but when Gilbert attacked across the Carrefour de l’Arbre section of cobblestones with 16km remaining, Politt counterattacked on the next section of cobbles at Gruson, and the two men went clear. Gilbert out-sprinted the German in the Roubaix velodrome to take his first victory at the Queen of the Classics, 13 seconds ahead of teammate Yves Lampaert.
At age 36, Gilbert added a Paris-Roubaix victory to his impressive palmares, a fifth Monument victory to add to wins at the Ronde van Vlaanderen, Liège-Bastogne-Liège, and Il Lombardia, which he’s won twice. All that remains is Milan-San Remo.
To be considered for this category, a rider must have won a WorldTour classic; victories at 1.HC races won’t cut it. (Apologies to Pim Lithgart, Cees Bol, Pascal Ackermann, and Fabio Jakobsen.) An exception was made for Bob Jungels, a former Monument winner who won a 1.HC race and finished on the podium at a WorldTour race.
Alexander Kristoff (UAE-Team Emirates)
Stellar results: 1st, Gent-Wevelgem; 3rd, Ronde van Vlaanderen
Not-stellar results: 12th, Dwars door Vlaanderen; 14th, Milan-San Remo; 21st, E3 BinckBank Classic; 56th, Paris-Roubaix
Hey, was that Alexander Kristoff winning Gent-Wevelgem? That’s pretty cool.
The 31-year-old Norwegian won Milan-San Remo in 2014, and the Tour of Flanders in 2015, but hadn’t been on the podium of a spring classic since the 2016 Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne. His status at UAE Team Emirates also appeared to have been downgraded with the addition of Colombian sprinter Fernando Gaviria. He finished just ahead of Gaviria at Milan-San Remo, but both missed the winning move.
They went their separate ways for De Panne and E3 before reuniting at Gent-Wevelgem, where Gaviria told Kristoff with 10km to go that he didn’t have the legs to contest the sprint after riding in an early breakaway; instead, Kristoff rode in a lead-out position before Gaviria eased up and swept Elia Viviani off Kristoff’s wheel.
Kristoff backed up his victory with a strong showing at the Ronde van Vlaanderen, winning the bunch sprint for third after Alberto Bettiol and Kasper Asgreen (Deceuninck-Quick Step) had slipped up the road.
Bob Jungels (Deceuninck-Quick Step)
Stellar results: 1st, Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne; 3rd, Dwars door Vlaanderen; 5th, E3 BinckBank Classic
Not-stellar results: 16th, Ronde van Vlaanderen
It’s hard to assess whether Bob Jungels had a successful or disappointing classics season. After winning Liège-Bastogne-Liège last year, the Luxembourg national champion decided to focus on the cobblestone classics in 2019. He was off to a good start, soloing to victory at Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne, and he helped set up Stybar’s victory at E3 BinckBank Classic, where he finished fifth. He then went to the line in the winning move at Dwars, finishing third.
But it was at the Tour of Flanders, the most important race on the year for the Belgian Deceuninck-Quick Step team, where Jungels was the appointed team leader, and where he most significantly fell short. After Gilbert was dropped early and Stybar had lost contact with 27km to go, Jungels was unable to respond to Bettiol’s stinging attack across the Oude Kwaremont. He rode in the chase group alongside teammate Yves Lampaert, but it appeared they simply had nothing left to give; they finished last out of that front group, in 16th and 17th place.
Dylan Groenewegen (Jumbo-Visma)
Stellar results: 1st, Driedaagse Brugge-De Panne; 4th, Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne
Not-stellar results: 78th, Milan-San Remo
Yeah, I know. But hey, Driedaagse Brugge-De Panne is now a WorldTour race. So technically, that win carries more weight than winning, say, Brabantse Pijl or Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne. At Milan-San Remo, Groenewegen was one of the first sprinters to come to grief on the Cipressa, and he was beaten to the line by Owain Doull and Niki Terpstra at Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne, but at Driedaagse Brugge-De Panne he was faster than Fernando Gaviria and Elia Viviani, two of the best sprinters in the sport.
To qualify, a rider must have finished on the podium at a WorldTour classic at least once, and on the podium at more than one classic.
Oliver Naesen (Ag2r La Mondiale)
Stellar results: 2nd, Milan-San Remo; 3rd, Gent-Wevelgem; 7th, Ronde van Vlaanderen; 8th, E3 BinckBank Classic
Not-stellar results: 13th, Paris-Roubaix; 19th, Dwars door Vlaanderen; 28th, Amstel Gold Race
Wout Van Aert (Jumbo-Visma)
Stellar results: 2nd, E3 BinckBank Classic; 3rd, Strade Bianche; 6th, Milan-San Remo
Not-stellar results: 14th, Ronde van Vlaanderen; 22nd, Paris-Roubaix; 29th, Gent-Wevelgem; 58th, Amstel Gold Race
Greg Van Avermaet (CCC)
Stellar results: 2nd, Omloop Het Nieuwsblad; 3rd, E3 BinckBank Classic; 6th, Strade Bianche; 10th, Ronde van Vlaanderen
Not-stellar results: 12th, Paris-Roubaix; 20th, Gent-Wevelgem; 42nd, Milan-San Remo
Tim Wellens (Lotto-Soudal)
Stellar results: 3rd, Omloop Het Nieuwsblad; 3rd, Brabantse Pijl
Not-stellar results: 11th, Liège-Bastogne-Liège; 17th, Flèche Wallonne; DNF, Amstel Gold Race
WITHIN STRIKING DISTANCE
To qualify, a rider must have finished on the podium at a WorldTour classic at least once, and in the top 10 of a classic on at least three occasions.
Nils Politt (Katusha-Alpecin)
Stellar results: 2nd, Paris-Roubaix; 5th, Ronde van Vlaanderen; 6th, E3 BinckBank Classic
Not-stellar results: 21st, Dwars door Vlaanderen; 27th, Milan-San Remo
Simon Clarke (EF Education First)
Stellar results: 2nd, Amstel Gold Race; 8th, Strade Bianche; 9th, Milan-San Remo
Not-stellar results: 40th, Liège-Bastogne-Liège; 61st, Brabantse Pijl
Max Schachmann (Bora-Hansgrohe)
Stellar results: 3rd, Liège-Bastogne-Liège; 5th, Amstel Gold Race; 5th, Flèche Wallonne
Not-stellar results: 29th, Strade Bianche
Yves Lampaert (Deceuninck-Quick Step)
Stellar results: 3rd, Paris-Roubaix; 5th, Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne; 7th, Omloop Het Nieuwsblad; 8th, Dwars door Vlaanderen
Not-stellar results: 17th, Ronde van Vlaanderen
BETTER LUCK NEXT YEAR, MONUMENT WINNER
The weight of expectations is strong among former Monument winners, and these riders just didn’t live up to them this year. Podium finishes are great, and top-10 finishes are nice, but these riders — which include three world champions and a winner of all three Grand Tours — are paid to win.
John Degenkolb (Trek-Segafredo)
Good result: 2nd, Gent-Wevelgem
Disappointing results: 22nd, E3 BinckBank Classic; 28th, Paris-Roubaix; 29th, Ronde van Vlaanderen; 84th, Milan-San Remo
Michal Kwiatkowski (Team Sky)
Good result: 3rd, Milan-San Remo
Disappointing results: 11th, Amstel Gold Race; 12th, Liège-Bastogne-Liège; 16th, Flèche Wallonne
Niki Terpstra (Direct Energie)
Good result: 3rd, Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne
Disappointing results: 15th, E3 BinckBank Classic; 23rd, Gent-Wevelgem; 60th, Dwars door Vlaanderen; DNF, Ronde van Vlaanderen
Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe)
Decent results: 4th, Milan-San Remo; 5th, Paris-Roubaix
Disappointing results: 11th, Ronde van Vlaanderen; 17th, E3 BinckBank Classic; 32nd, Gent-Wevelgem; DNF, Amstel Gold Race; DNF, Flèche Wallonne
Alejandro Valverde (Movistar)
Decent results: 7th, Milan-San Remo; 8th, Ronde van Vlaanderen
Disappointing results: 11th, Flèche Wallonne; 66th, Amstel Gold Race; DNF, Liège-Bastogne-Liège
Vincenzo Nibali (Bahrain-Merida)
Decent results: 8th, Milan-San Remo; 8th, Liège-Bastogne-Liège
Disappointing results: 31st, Strade Bianche
Arnaud Démare (Groupama-FDJ)
Decent results: N/A
Disappointing results: 17th, Paris-Roubaix; 28th, Ronde van Vlaanderen; 32nd, Milan-San Remo; 34th, E3 BinckBank Classic; 67th, Gent-Wevelgem; 69th, Dwars door Vlaanderen
Dan Martin (UAE-Team Emirates)
Decent results: N/A
Disappointing results: DNF, Flèche Wallonne; DNF, Liège-Bastogne-Liège