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Cobbled conclusions: Cancellara finds glory, Omega Pharma struggles

Sagan, Stybar meet expectations

It’s a little late to refer to Peter Sagan (Cannondale) as any sort of revelation or unrecognized talent, but this spring he took a leap forward as a cobbled classics contender.

His fifth place at the Ronde last year, second in the field sprint behind the winning three-man break, showed his ability to navigate the big Flemish races and demonstrated his immunity to the 200km barrier that limits many younger riders. This year, though, the 23-year-old showed he was capable of truly contesting the final of a monument.

While he didn’t quite have a Ronde in him yet — and may not for several years — Sagan did still achieve another career breakthrough this month when he took his first major classic at Ghent-Wevelgem. It isn’t a bad starting point. In 2004, 23-year-old Tom Boonen, heralded as a king in the making much like Sagan, won Ghent in miserable cold, wind, and rain. He won his first Ronde the following year and followed it up with his first Roubaix a week later. So far, Peter Sagan seems to be right on schedule.

Like Sagan, Stybar can hardly be heralded as an unknown. As the latest transfer from the world of cyclocross, where he was a two-time elite world champion, Stybar’s arrival at Omega Pharma came with the usual expectations: that the bike handling skills and resistance to bad weather required of a top cyclocross racer would make him a natural on jarring, slippery cobblestones.

It’s an assumption forged from a thin premise, reinforced by standouts like Roger DeVlaeminck and Adri van der Poel during less specialized eras of both disciplines. Yes, being able to lay the power down over uneven surfaces and keep things upright at the edge of traction are key skills in the mud or on the cobblestones. Beyond that, there aren’t a lot of similarities between the classics and ‘cross. Pro cyclocross races have fields of around 40 riders with perhaps 10 or 15 true front-runners, and they last one hour. A classic like the Ronde or Roubaix runs 260 or so tactical and mostly paved kilometers, with 200 riders trying to stuff themselves into every key selection point. And after about five hours, the real race for the win begins.

The road transitions of modern cyclocross’ finest emphasize the reality of the divide. The great Sven Nys’ several forays into the spring classics during his Rabobank years ended with little fanfare. Lars Boom, a world ‘cross champion at the junior, under-23, and elite levels, has top-10 finishes in Harelbeke, Ghent, and Roubaix to his credit, but has shown more affinity for week-long stage races and time trials (a discipline in which he is also a former U23 world champion).

Stybar, on the other hand, made every attempt to reinforce the expectations in his second year of committed road racing. The 27-year-old integrated into Omega Pharma’s stacked classics lineup and did yeoman’s work for Cavendish and Boonen throughout the spring. With Boonen absent at Roubaix, he seized his chance, and not only handled the cobbles as a good ‘cross rider should, but also did what was fast becoming unthinkable: he hung onto Cancellara’s vicious, final-hour accelerations. Twice. All on his first trip through the “Hell of the North.”

Next spring, Stybar will again face expectations, but they’ll be those placed on a true classics contender, not those of a moonlighting cyclocrosser.

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