King of the Classics gives his point of view on today's riders, picks winners through Liège


Sean Kelly knows a thing or two about the classics.

With no less than nine victories in the monuments of the sport, including three wins at the Tour of Lombardy and two each at Paris-Roubaix, Liège-Bastogne-Liège and Milan-San Remo — not to mention other victories in races like Ghent-Wevelgem and Paris-Tours that he doesn’t really count because they are only semi-classics — the teak-tough Irishman is not known as the ‘King of the Classics’ for nothing.

Now 55, Kelly still looks like a guy you wouldn’t want to rub shoulders with on a section of cobbles and is very much up to date with the current crop of riders thanks to his television commentary role at Eurosport each year.

Having watched Milan-San Remo from a studio in London, Kelly admits he was slightly surprised by the winner, Simon Gerrans (GreenEdge). “For a rider like that, who is an outsider really, to win Milan-San Remo was a great ride,” he says. “If you went through the list, you could probably pick out 10 riders. After that, you could pick out another 10 and Simon Gerrans would probably have come into that bracket. Gerrans is that type of rider though. When he’s in good shape and he gets things right, he can be really good. And on the Poggio he was really good. When Nibali attacked he reacted immediately and that is the way to do it.”

Big Swiss backed into a corner; Cav down and out

Although many people will say that Fabian Cancellara (RadioShack-Nissan) threw the race away by riding too hard on the front of the break in the final kilometers, Kelly says he simply had no choice and that Gerrans played his hand perfectly.

“I think Cancellara was always making the calculation, glancing over his shoulder, and knew he had to keep it going or they would have been swallowed up in the last 500 meters,” said Kelly. “For Gerrans, it was a perfect situation because we know Cancellara will always ride and that’s exactly what he did. The way he can ride in the final kilometers… he can hold off a group from behind. He kept it rolling all the time and I think he was hoping that he would be able to take the sprint. If they had another five seconds advantage he could have slowed down a little in the last 500 meters and if you give Cancellara 10 seconds of recovery time before the sprint, he’s so strong that he would be difficult to beat. I think Gerrans did a perfect job. He followed Cancellara. I think he took one turn from the bottom of the Poggio to the finish and that’s the way to do it.”

The fact that world champion Mark Cavendish (Sky) wasn’t involved in the final sprint, having been dropped on an earlier climb, also surprised Kelly, although he has his own theory as to what went wrong.

“I think the reason Cavendish wasn’t good is the way that he finished Tirreno-Adriatico,” said Kelly. “I don’t think he finished the stage on the Monday and didn’t ride the final time trial. So he had Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday, four days, waiting for Milan-San Remo and that’s a recipe for disaster. I know myself… you’re staying in a hotel, the pasta is really good and you can eat too much of it and get totally blocked. That can be a problem. It happened in my time as well. You ride Tirreno-Adriatico for a number of days and you have a huge appetite after it. You’re doing very little training because you’re just ticking over, but the food intake, that’s where you can slip up and I think that’s where Cavendish slipped up. He didn’t get it out of his system. It wasn’t because the hill was too steep. It wasn’t because it was too fast. It was just that his legs were blocked.”

Although his best chance of classic victory this year appears to have passed him by, Kelly reckons we could well see the Manx missile win some of the other classics in the future.

“Milan-San Remo suits a rider like Cavendish perfectly,” he said. “San Remo is one where, if you’re a good sprinter and you can get yourself over the climbs in a good position, it’s the one that’s easier to win compared to Flanders and Roubaix. The other ones… well, now the pressure is on because he didn’t get a result. He will be very disappointed and will be trying to make up for it and hopefully we will see him really going for it in Flanders because he is capable of doing it. But you need to get up there, get into the finale and get a bit of experience, know where to position yourself on the climbs, all of that. That’s something you only learn by going out there and doing it. Flanders, it’s one where you need a lot of experience. You have to know the roads so well. He’s not a proven rider in Roubaix, and Flanders, it’s going to be a big one as well.”

The Irishman smiles at mentions of races such as Ghent-Wevelgem, where Cavendish might have redeemed himself, but came up short. “Ghent-Wevelgem is second category,” he said. “For Cavendish, it’s the big ones like San Remo, Flanders, Roubaix and Liege-Bastogne-Liege, they’re the ones you want to win as world champion, as one of the best riders in the world.”

So who does Kelly see as the rider for the 2012 classics season? He flashes a grin, folds his arms, sits back and says simply, “Cancellara will kick arse in the Tour of Flanders and Roubaix.”

Once more he recalls the final kilometers of Milan-San Remo: “You could see it in San Remo. When you’re in the finale there, doing 60kph… you can get in behind Cancellara, in the slipstream, and it’s like sitting behind a nice-sized car, because he’s a big guy.”

Kelly hunches down, pulls his elbows in as if he is following the big Swiss time trial specialist and then sits up abruptly, throwing his hand in the air as if he’s just been dropped.

“But if he gets you on the cobbles in Roubaix, or in Flanders, there’s very little advantage sitting behind a guy on the cobbles,” he said. “That’s where he will really demonstrate his power. I think he’s on the road again to winning some of those big races. But he’ll have to be careful tactically. Other teams are going to try to make him do a lot of work and that’s the only way they are going to beat him. He needs a strong team. You could see last year in Roubaix, after Arenberg, it came together, there were 60 riders there and then the attacking started.

“Cancellara didn’t have anybody with him capable of going with those attacks. He should have had somebody, at least one rider, capable of going, or two. Get them up the road, leave them there for later and when you need them, call them back. When he needed them behind, there was nobody there either. I think this year he probably has a better team than last year and he’ll definitely need them if teams use that tactic of putting riders up the road in Flanders and Roubaix.”

Questioning Tom Boonen

One of the strongest teams this year has been the Omega Pharma-Quick Step squad, winning 22 races with nine different riders thus far. With such strength and depth, surely they will be hard to beat in any classic, but Kelly still had questions surrounding Tom Boonen before the Belgian’s two-win weekend at E3 Harelbeke and Ghent-Wevelgem.

“I think the question mark there is Tom Boonen,” said Kelly. “Again at San Remo, I think on the Poggio he was suffering a bit, a bit off the pace, not really to the fore. I don’t know if it’s that 260km distance. It’s ok winning Qatar, winning stages of San Luis or the semi-classics. Chavanel has come on a long way in the past two years. He has made big steps forward at Flanders and Roubaix but the question remains whether Boonen is able to do it again.

“I noticed in Paris-Nice that Boonen was there in the finale of a stage and had the perfect opportunity, where it finished with a 3km climb and Boonen was riding on the front for 5km before they got to the climb. I don’t know what the tactic was there. There was no reason for it. Leipheimer was third in the GC, there was a bunch of 100 riders or more coming to the finish so why didn’t he use it as preparation for Milan-San Remo? Why didn’t Boonen use that? I even said it in the television commentary, I said he should be using it as preparation for Milan-San Remo. It was like the Poggio. He should just go for those hills, get in there and try and stay with those guys. That is the best preparation. But he was doing other things, riding on the front at the bottom. Then, when it started to kick up, after 500m he was going out the rear door.”

Gilbert will be back; GreenEdge has arrived

One team that could throw a spanner in the works is BMC Racing with Philippe Gilbert and Thor Hushovd. Having won almost every classic worth winning last year, Gilbert has been a lot quieter this season and has yet to show his hand; some have suggested that his tough times are a rouse ahead of his first major goal at Flanders. Gilbert was dropped early at Harelbeke and did not factor at Ghent-Wevelgem. Gilbert told Het Nieuwsblad this week that he would not be ready for Flanders.

“The big question is whether Gilbert will be mentally able to handle the pressure this year,” says Kelly. “At the moment he is off the pace of last year. The press in Belgium are so demanding. Immediately they start asking questions. I think, physically, Gilbert will be able to do it unless he’s really made nervous; that’s something he’ll have to be careful of. He’ll have to take his time, make sure he doesn’t get too stressed out over things or get worried about the media pressure. He’s capable of getting it together for the Ardennes classics. He’s well able to do it.”

Kelly believes Gilbert’s new team will back him up when needed.

“BMC should be good for him. Definitely they have riders capable of doing more in the classics,” he said. “I think Thor Hushovd is a guy that seems to struggle in San Remo, goes forward to the semi-classics and struggles in them and then,” Kelly clicks his fingers, “he comes right. At Flanders we see him a bit more and then at Roubaix… he’s there. He’s that sort of guy. He’s done it that way in the past and I wouldn’t be surprised if he just appears at Flanders and Roubaix again. That should suit Gilbert, because Hushovd should be there in the very final with him and going forward, into the Ardennes, he should be up there with him too.”

With one classic victory already behind them, GreenEdge is another team Kelly reckons we haven’t seen the last of this year.

“In Paris-Nice they seemed to be struggling a bit and they’ve really pulled it together. This classic campaign is made for them already, winning Milan-San Remo. I think they’re capable of doing other things now. When you win one, everybody is a little bit more relaxed and that’s the time you can win more. They have riders capable of wining other races and in both the cobbled classics and the Ardennes classics.”

Young stars

Apart from the usual suspects, Kelly has also noticed a few young successors to the throne that could also feature.

“I think Sep Vanmarcke is a rider we could see at the Tour of Flanders,” Kelly says of Garmin-Barracuda’s 23-year-old winner of Omloop Het Niewsblaad. “He’s that style of rider. The short hills he can get up. The longer hills I don’t think he’s able to do at the moment, but he is young and again, it’s all about experience. Because he’s from Belgium, he knows the roads so well and all of that is a huge factor in Flanders and we will probably see him in Roubaix too.

“I think the other guy that we will see is John Degenkolb of [Project]1t4i. I was really surprised to see him getting over the Poggio and getting up in the finale even if he has been third in the under-23 Tour of Flanders. We’ve seen guys win U23 classics, but to be able to manage the distance with the pros is another thing. When you get to the bottom of the Poggio, you’ve 275km done; that’s around 80km more than the U23 Paris-Roubaix. That’s a huge performance. He paid a bit in the end. He got beaten in the sprint by Sagan because he went so deep on the Poggio that it knocked the sprint out of him, but Degenkolb has made a big step in San Remo. He could make another big step forward in Flanders.”

And what of his compatriots in the pro peloton? Can Kelly see an Irish classics winner this year, the first since his final classic win in San Remo in 1992?

“Dan Martin is capable of winning a race like Flèche Wallone,” he said of the Garmin climber. “If he gets into his best shape and the circumstance is right, he can win it. The weather has to be right too. You don’t want a horrible, cold, wet day because he’s not built for that, but it’s definitely within his grasp.”

Kelly’s picks for the 2012 spring classics

Sean Kelly, a nine-time winner of the sport’s monuments, gives his picks for the upcoming spring classics season.

Tour of Flanders
“The way the race is going I would see somebody else winning, maybe not one of the big favorites. Sylvain Chavanel. Why not?”

Paris-Roubaix
“I think it’s very difficult to go past Cancellara. I think Hushovd will be there, hanging onto his wheel.”

La Flèche Wallone
“I’m thinking Valverde would be one you could see wining that, but so is Cadel Evans… Valverde, Evans, Cunego.”

Liège-Bastogne-Liège
“I will go for Philippe Gilbert.”