Thursday, April 28, 2016

King of Spring 2016

On the right hand side of the site I've been running a league table throughout spring to track the most consistent rider of the one-day spring classics or, as I've come to call it, the King of Spring. The points format mirrors that of Formula One with 25 points for a win, 18 for second, 15 for third and then 12, 10, 8, 6, 4, 2 and 1 down to tenth.

14 World Tour or 1.HC races across spring starting with the Omloop Het Niewsblad and Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne at the end of February, moving to Italy for Strade Bianche and Milan-San Remo, then into Flanders for the cobbled classics of Dwars Door Vlaanderen, E3 Harelbeke, Gent-Wevelgem, Tour of Flanders and Scheldeprijs and rounding out the cobble season with Paris-Roubaix. Then it's into the hillier spring classics as racing transitions from Flanders to the Ardennes with Brabantse Pijl, Amstel Gold (not technically Ardennes), La Flèche Wallonne and finally Liège–Bastogne–Liège. Four Monuments in total though the points structure remains the same for all races regardless of their UCI ranking.

And now we're done. So who won? Well I doubt you'll be surprised but here's a look at the top ten in the table (including each riders biggest results). 83 riders in total scored points, the same as last year when Alexander Kristoff won and one more than 2014 when Niki Terpstra came out on top.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Wout Poels first Monument for Sky in the snow at Liège

Who would have thought that the first man to bring Sky their long awaited Monument victory would be Wout Poels at Liège-Bastogne-Liège? That isn't meant to be a slight on Poels, a fine rider who really shone bright for Chris Froome on Alpe d'Huez last year and who has had a solid start to this season, including a 4th place finish at Flèche Wallonne just a few days ago. So perhaps we shouldn't be surprised, but the money being thrown about on who might do it first must surely have been going on someone like Michal Kwiatkowski. In many ways he was brought in to break the duck.

Still, Kwiatkowski ended up shining brighter on the cobbled classics than the hillier ones in which many felt suited him best and it was Poels who emerged from the sleet and snow and rain on a friged cold day in the Ardennes to out manoeuver his three late breakaway companions to win it on the line.

It was far from an epic race, but held in epic conditions. Not quite Hinault in '80 but snowing nonetheless. The kind we always long for in the spring Monuments and which the riders dread. The challenge for them increases imeasurably as they fight to keep warm, to stay upright and to stop their legs from freezing up when they look to them to respond. The challenge for those of us watching on television increase a little as we fight to see which rider is which as rain capes cover numbers.

Monday, April 18, 2016

Tro Bro Léon to the Ardennes classics

The Tro Bro Léon really should be a bigger race than it is, it has everything the road cycling fan loves about a classics race -- especially following hot on the heels of Paris-Rouabix -- and yet it remains on the fringes of fame, out there on the Brittany coast, lashing around in the wind, the farm tracks and cobbled roads that many don't seem to notice. And maybe in some way that's for the best; it's kind of cool that this funky race flies a little under the radar.

That said I am sure the organisors would love for its appeal to grow and there is no doubt in recent years it has. It was formed in 1984 but only last year did I really learn what it was. Being held the weekend after Paris-Roubaix kind of hurts its hopes for larger appeal; the classics men have had a long spring and Rouabaix kind of wraps all that up. If Tro Bro Léon were held a few weeks before, it would surely attract a more elite field of names.

If you didn't know by now, Tro Bro Léon is a race in the Paris-Roubaix mold but held out in Brittany. The Hell of the West it is known to some or Le Petit Paris-Roubaix. It includes 24 sectors of drit, cobblestones and gravel roads while also hugging the wind swept coast roads of Brittany. There is two prizes up for grabs: The winner of the race gets a trophy, the top Breton finisher gets a live piglet!

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

The Cobbled classics season ends but the Ardennes is still to come

Sunday's Paris-Roubaix brought with it the end to the cobbled classic season, but what a run of races it was. We probably say that every year but I think I watched more intently this year than in any previous season and no time felt wasted. Eight major races in total and I watched them all, and throughout I kept a little league table on the sidebar of this site that I've now updated and completed. More on that below.

From the the Omloop Het Niewsblad and Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne in late February, followed by a slight break in proceedings as riders and teams accessed their form ahead of the quick succession of Flandrian races in late March and early April up to Flanders and Scheldeprijs, before Paris-Roubaix in early April brought us to the climax. There was high drama throughout spring that built to a crescendo for the Monuments of Flanders and Roubaix. New hero's were made, new Monument men crowned and some old hero's said goodbye. And, sadly, there was tragedy with the death of young Belgian rider Antoine Demoitié at Gent-Wevelgem.

Demoitié's death naturally left a shadow over further racing, not to mention the awful terrorist attacks on Belgian soil in the days leading into Flanders, but the riders done their best to keep spirits up and put on a show for the fans throughout, and nobody can say they failed us.

We had the good early form of Greg Van Avermaet (winning at Omloop), followed by an injury at Flanders; the continued rise of young Belgian hopeful Tiesj Benoot before he himself crashed out of the Flandrian epic; the attempt by Fabian Cancellara to go out in style with one last big win but which fell short, though through no shortage of panache; wins for two other new Belgian hopefuls: Jesper Stuyven (Kuurne) and Jens Debusschere (Dwars Door); Michal Kwiatkowski out dueling Peter Sagan in a two-up sprint (E3); Sagan bouncing back (Gent-Wevelgem) to round into perfrect form for his first Monument win in brilliant style (Ronde Van Vlaanderen); Tom Boonen coming oh-so-close to making it five Paris-Rouabix wins only to be beaten on the line by the popular veteran Mat Hayman.

Monday, April 11, 2016

Hell of a race at the Hell of the North

What a race it was. And we shouldn't be surprised really. Not when the name is Paris-Roubaix and 200 bicycles are racing across a 257.5km course in Northern France of which 52.8km feature 27 sectors of tight cobbled and dirt covered farm roads. If they tried to invent this race in 2006 rather than 1896, nobody would go for it. And yet, the drama was unending. Few races are carried live on television from gun to flag for a reason, even the big mountain stages of the Tour de France see the peloton amble over the first two or three cols before starting to make moves with the action unfolding on the final climb. But not Paris-Roubaix; not yesterday.

They say the ones in which the rain falls and the wind blows and the riders come home caked in mud are the best. That is true as a spectacle, but yesterday proved a dry race in the dust can be just as thrilling. We had the sight of 257.5km of attacks, crashes, surges, splits in the field, panic, pursuits, selections, more attacking and finally a sprint for glory in the Roubaix velodrome.

By the time the race reached the Forest of Aranberg with 95.5km still remaining, we had seen numerous failed attacks, one that had thus far succeeded and a crucial crash that split the chasing bunch in two creating three distinct groups on the road. And most crucial of all, Peter Sagan and Fabian Cancellara, two pre-race favourites set to duke this one out after last weeks epic battle at the Tour of Flanders, were in the third group on the road and in real trouble. Especially considering the groups in front contained other contenders, one of whom was the great Tom Boonen. The upshot was, with so long still to race, a mighty pursuit across Northern France

The key to winning at Roubaix, beyond all such attributes of power, experience, control, nerve, timing, bike handling and brute strength -- all of which you must contain in abundance -- is little bits of luck to avoid the unexpected crashes or mechanical mishaps. Sagan and Cancellara fell foul to the former, both from the crash that split the field early, and for Cancellara in a crash of his own, just as the gap to those in front was beginning to come down, that left him out of contention. That Peter Sagan didn't come down as well was a major testament to his attribute of bike handling, something we're so familiar with. But isolated so far from the finish and with the pressure only ramping up as the two groups ahead merged, he would find the gaps too large to close.

Monday, April 4, 2016

Monument Man, Peter Sagan

It's always right after those moments in which we foolishly begin to question Peter Sagan, like after Michal Kwiatkowski beat him last week at the E3 Harelbeke, and in the lead up to last years World Championships when he had a barron spell of multiple second place finishes, that the Slovakian superstar steps up and reminds us just how brilliant he is.

Yesterday was one of those days. It was a beautiful, powerful, intelligent solo victory. Dawning his rainbow stripes he rode the strongest riders on the planet off his wheel to become the King of Flanders and to become a Monument Man at last.

And it came about after yet another move that seen himself and Kwiatkowski move clear of a narrowing field of strong men and bridge across to what was left of the days early break; a move that now also contained Sep Vanmarcke who himself had earlier bridged. Vanmarke was by now the major Belgian hope after a disasterous day that seen both Greg Van Avermaet and Tiesj Benoot crash out.

The Sagan-Kwiatkowski move set the likes of Fabian Cancellara into a panic, and had the likes of myself in a state of deja-vu and wondering whether Kwiatkowski would attack on the Kwaremont or Paterberg or indeed go for another sprint against Sagan just like at E3?

Yet when it came to the nitty-gritty of a Monument classic, with well over 220km in the legs, it was Sagan who forged ahead. After the race the 26 year old, previously without a Monument victory to his name and with questions starting to linger, said that "Nobody wants to work with me, so it's always better to drop everybody".

The stragegy of a genius.

Friday, April 1, 2016

Ronde Van Vlaanderen preview

This weekend is to the Belgian people what Super Bowl Sunday is to the Americans or what FA Cup Final day to the English. Their entire cycling year revolves around the Tour of Flanders and just by winning it you can write your name into legend, regardless of what you do the rest of the season. And especially if you're a Belgian because winning this race is akin to winning the Tour de France in the eyes of the Flandrians.

It's an epic race that really needs no introduction here. We've all heard the stories. Merckx riding solo for 73km to win by more than five and a half minutes in '69; Vanderaerden in that storm of '85 in which only 24 riders finished; or Jesper Sibby falling on the famous Koppenberg and being run over by an officials car in '87, the same year Claude Criquielion became the only French-speaking Belgian to win the Ronde. Indeed, following that Skibby incident, the Koppenberg was kept off the race route for 15 years, but thankfully is a part of the spectacle once more.

If you're reading this you've probably been following the build up over the past few days, or indeed watching the recent races that by comparison can only be described as warm up events on many of the same roads. You're probably also wishing right about now that you weren't reading this, but rather in Belgium, in a pub or cafe perhaps, soaking up the atmosphere and getting ready to go stand at the side of the road and watch the race on one of its famous cobbled climbs.