John Wilcockson / Yuzuru Sunada
It’s probably never happened before. This year’s first seven UCI WorldTour classics have been won by seven different riders, from seven different countries and seven different teams. So if this remarkable sequence continues, this Sunday’s 100th edition of Liège-Bastogne-Liège will be won by someone from a big team that’s missed out on winning a spring classic this season. Who will be this No.8?
2014 SPRING CLASSICS
March 23: Milan-San Remo / Alexander Kristoff / Norway / Team Katusha
March 28: E3 Harelbeke / Peter Sagan / Slovakia / Cannondale
March 30: Ghent-Wevelgem / John Degenkolb / Germany / Giant-Shimano
April 6: Tour of Flanders / Fabian Cancellara / Switzerland / Trek Factory Racing
April 13: Paris-Roubaix / Niki Terpstra / Netherlands / Omega-Quick Step
April 20: Amstel Gold Race / Philippe Gilbert / Belgium / BMC Racing
April 23: Flèche Wallonne / Alejandro Valverde / Spain / Movistar
April 30: Liège-Bastogne-Liège
Perhaps it’ll be a rider from one of these, yes, seven teams: Astana, Belkin, Garmin-Sharp, Lampre-Merida, Orica-GreenEdge, Tinkoff-Saxo or Sky. If that’s the case, the men most likely to succeed are Astana’s Vincenzo Nibali (Italy), Garmin’s defending champ Dan Martin (Ireland), Lampre’s world champ Rui Costa (Portugal), Orica’s Simon Gerrans (Australia), Tinkoff’s Roman Kreuziger (Czech Republic) or Team Sky’s Chris Froome (Great Britain). The odd team out here is Belkin, whose most likely challenger is Bauke Mollema—but he’s Dutch, the same as Paris-Roubaix winner Niki Terpstra.
Unlikely streaks aside, the most important fact to take from this spring’s one-day classics is the diversity of modern-day pro racing. No one team, or small group of teams, can dominate anymore. And that means exciting racing—something we’ve seen plenty of in the past five weeks. That’s great news for the fans, and great news for the sport. So let’s take a quick look at the highlights….
Milan-San Remo: On a day of steady rain and headwinds on the second half of the classicisima, only Nibali tried to break the deadlock with his solo attack over the Cipressa. Top favorite Fabian Cancellara of Trek Factory Racing put his hopes into the finishing sprint, but sprinter Alexander Kristoff, who’d been positioned perfectly by his Katusha teammates, launched his effort to perfection to take the win.
E3-Harelbeke: This mini-Tour of Flanders would play out in similar fashion to its big brother the following week, coming down to a four-man sprint. The strongest performances came from Sky’s Geraint Thomas, who instigated the winning move on the Oude Kwaremont, and Cannondale’s Peter Sagan, whose acceleration on the last stretch of cobblestones drew out Thomas with Omega Pharma’s Niki Terpstra and Stijn Vandenbergh. Sagan easily took the eventual sprint from Terpstra and Thomas.
Ghent-Wevelgem: On a calm, warm day, there were no crosswinds to split the peloton, and even the climbs around the French-Belgian border only sifted the field to around 80 riders. A last half-hour break headed by Trek’s Stijn Devolder raised expectations, but the race ended in a chaotic mass sprint that was easily taken by Giant’s John Degenkolb ahead of French prospect Arnaud Démare of FDJ and Sagan.
Tour of Flanders: A day of constant attacks made an exciting spectacle for the fans, and it was fitting that on the Kruisberg, the third to last of 17 climbs, 27 kilometers from the finish, local man Greg Van Avermaet of BMC made the decisive attack. He was shadowed by Omega Pharma’s Vandenbergh, who was expecting his team leader Tom Boonen to come across on the Oude Kwaremont—but neither the three-time winner nor co-favorite Sagan could follow Cancellara here. Belkin’s Sep Vanmarcke did latch on to the Swiss superstar’s wheel and they caught the two leaders just after the final hill. In the tailwind finish, Cancellara confidently waited until the final moment to sprint home the winner ahead of Van Avermaet and Vanmarcke.
Paris-Roubaix: On a day of high speeds and strong headwinds, there were some heroic breakaways by Omega’s Boonen (with Sky’s Thomas), Cannondale’s Sagan and Belkin’s Vanmarcke, but the headwind eventually stymied their efforts and 11 men came together for a tactical finale—which was won by Omega Pharma’s three remaining riders. When Terpstra jumped clear with 6 kilometers to go, none of the opposition had the strength left to chase, knowing that his teammates Zdenek Stybar or Boonen were ready to counter. A celebrating Terpstra crossed the line 20 seconds ahead of Degenkolb and Cancellara.
Amstel Gold Race: BMC planned and executed brilliant tactics, using Van Avermaet to chase down and then attack the early breakaway and Samuel Sanchez to lead-out the charge on the Cauberg, which drew out strong men Gerrans and Valverde. Gilbert then made an unbeatable counterattack. A tailwind over the remaining 2 kilometers helped him score his impressive solo victory.
La Flèche Wallonne: With its ultra-steep Mur de Huy finish, the Flèche was again a 200-kilometer midweek race that was played out in the final 200 (uphill) meters; and as he did eight years ago Valverde timed his sprint perfectly. Second-best Martin was impressive working his way through the frontrunners on the steepest stretches of the 1.3-kilometer wall before launching the attack that drew out Valverde.
So what can we expect from the venerable Liège-Bastogne-Liège this Sunday? The hilliest of the spring classics features long climbs that favor men who also excel in the grand tours. And of the riders I mentioned above as potential winners, Nibali, Martin, Costa, Kreuziger and Froome all have excellent stage-race pedigree. Sunday’s weather forecast calls for afternoon rain shows, temperatures in the high-50s and a southerly breeze, which will favor the hard men, and a favorable wind in the finale will encourage breakaways.
The last 45 kilometers includes four challenging climbs—La Redoute, Les Forges, La Roche-aux-Faucons and Saint-Nicolas—ending with the 1-kilometer slog up to the finish in the Liège suburb of Ans. Last year, Martin timed his attack on the last climb to perfection to overtake the attacking Joaquim Rodriguez, but the Irishman also has a useful sprint from a small group, and this could be decisive should the likes of Nibali, Costa, Kreuziger and Froome also be in at the kill. And should any of these men win, the classics will end in a perfect eight for eight for eight.