John Wilcockson / Yuzuru Sunada
Watching Taylor Phinney last weekend bashing his pedals up and over the Molenberg cobblestones made me start thinking. Yes, the young American was leading the pack, but he was also working hard for his BMC Racing team leader Greg Van Avermaet, closing down a breakaway led by Dutch threat Lars Boom of Team Belkin. And Phinney’s effort did help Van Avermaet get into the winning break and finish second to Team Sky’s big Brit Ian Stannard in Belgium’s Omloop Het Nieuwsblad. But why, after years of trying, are Americans still coming up empty-handed in Europe’s major classics?
Het Nieuwsblad (formerly the Omloop Het Volk) isn’t one of the five monuments, but cobbled climbs such as the Molenberg and last Saturday’s frigid, wet and windy conditions are intrinsic elements of the Ronde van Vlaanderen (a.k.a. Tour of Flanders), which is a monument. And if Phinney does develop into the classics specialist that he plans to be, then winning a Het Nieuwsblad or one of the other Belgian cobbled semi-classics would be a great steppingstone to winning a first super-classic.
The five monuments—Milan-San Remo, Flanders, Paris-Roubaix, Liège-Bastogne-Liège and Il Lombardia (a.k.a. the Tour of Lombardy)—have each been around for more than a century, and Americans have featured in those classics’ starting lineups since the early-1980s; but the only one to cross the line in first pace was Tyler Hamilton at Liège in 2003. Hamilton’s name remains in the record books, but there has to be a big asterisk attached to it.
In his 2012 book “The Secret Race,” written with author Daniel Coyle, Hamilton writes this about the 2003 Liège classic: “I’d done it every year since 1997. This, however, would be the first time I’d be doing it with the help of a BB [blood bag].” And in reference to the Spanish doctor who helped him with his blood doping, Hamilton says: “Standing on the podium brought a terrifying clarity. You realized that your career depended entirely on information you got from some random doctor in Spain…. So while you smiled on the surface, underneath you squirmed.”
If we don’t include Hamilton among the Americans who have earned podium spots at the monuments, the list is pretty thin:
Greg LeMond: 2nd at 1986 Milan-San Remo; 3rd at 1994 Liège-Bastogne-Liège; 2nd at 1983 Tour of Lombardy
Lance Armstrong: 2nd at 1994 and 1996 Liège-Bastogne-Liège
Fred Rodriguez: 2nd at 2002 Milan-San Remo
George Hincapie: 3rd at 2006 Tour of Flanders; 2nd at 2005 Paris-Roubaix
If we want to stretch the list to North Americans, we can add one other name, Canadian Steve Bauer, who came within a centimeter of winning the 1990 Paris-Roubaix in a photo finish with Belgian Eddy Planckaert.
As for riders from other English-speaking countries, we can add: —Britain’s Tom Simpson (who won at San Remo, Flanders and Lombardy in the 1960s), Barry Hoban (third at Roubaix and Liège in the ’70s), Robert Millar (third at Liège in 1988), Roger Hammond (third at Roubaix in 2004) and Mark Cavendish (who won at San Remo in 2009);
—Ireland’s Sean Kelly (who won all the monuments except Flanders, where he placed second three times, in the 1980s), Stephen Roche (second at Liège in 1987) and Daniel Martin (second at Lombardy in 2011 and first at Liège in 2013);
—Australia’s Phil Anderson (twice second at Flanders, and second and twice third at Liège in the ’80s), Stuart O’Grady (third at Flanders and first at Roubaix in the 2000s), Matt Goss (first at San Remo in 2011) and Simon Gerrans (first at San Remo in 2012).
That’s five Brits (including two winners), four Australians (three winners), three Irishman (one winner) and one Canadian who have graced the podiums of classic monuments, whereas the United States—which has more people than those other four countries combined—is stuck on four podium finishers (and no winners).
We could go back to analyze what went wrong—and this discussion wouldn’t be taking place if LeMond had timed his Lombardy sprint slightly better 30 years ago and overtaken Kelly. But here we are, still looking for the American who can be a consistent classics contender with a chance to win at least one monument.
Right now, Phinney, still only 23, is our best bet. At last year’s San Remo, he showed tremendous character in not only surviving the blizzard that interrupted the race but he also had the power at the end of a long day to be the only man strong enough to make a solo bridge from the chase group over the final 3 kilometers to join the six leaders just as they began to sprint for the line. And in 2012, he came in 15th at his first Paris-Roubaix (despite riding the race as a domestique) and placed fourth at the Olympic Games road race in London.
Before turning pro in 2011, Phinney twice won the under-23s’ version of Paris-Roubaix. He says those successes can help him conceive of one day winning the pro classic, the third of the season’s monuments, perhaps in the style of another tall, powerful rider, Switzerland’s Fabian Cancellara. The last time I asked Phinney about this comparison, he said that Cancellara “is the just kind of rider I’d indeed like to be, and I think can be, in the next couple of years. He’s been a role model for quite a long time.”
If Phinney does indeed follow in Cancellara’s wheelmarks, he can be a candidate to win not only Paris-Roubaix, but also Milan-San Remo and the Tour of Flanders. The American will likely be starting all three of those monuments this spring, and given the form he showed last weekend and the fitness he will likely hone at the weeklong Paris-Nice, starting this Sunday, Phinney might even be on the podium at San Remo. And given his young age, with a career that should continue for at least another decade, he can spearhead a new generation of American classics riders. A generation that can bring the U.S. its first, truly legitimate winner of a monumental classic.