When Belgian rider Gilles Devillers of the Crelan-Euphony team crossed the finish line of Liège-Bastogne-Liège on Sunday afternoon, almost 17 minutes after winner Daniel Martin of Garmin-Sharp, the 2013 spring classics officially came to an end.
Martin was the final victor in a season of classics and semi-classics that stretched from the 68th Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, held February 23, to the 99th Liège-Bastogne-Liège, the oldest of the spring classics, held April 21.
As with every year, the spring classics were a collective rollercoaster of highs and lows, victories and defeats, winners and losers.
Cold weather forced the cancellation of one race, Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne, and disrupted two others, Milano-Sanremo and Ghent-Wevelgem, requiring course changes. In the end, however, no one disputed the winners of these races, or any others. Instead, this year’s classics campaign brought validation for one veteran gladiator of the cobblestones, confirmation for a handful of riders who all notched their first classics wins, and disappointment for others unable to repeat past successes.
Fabian Cancellara (RadioShack): In 2010, the Swiss superstar had an unbelievable run at the cobbled classics, winning E3 Harelbeke, the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix. In 2012, Cancellara crashed at Flanders and broke his collarbone, returned to wear the maillot jaune for one week at the Tour de France, and then crashed again out of the race-winning move during the Olympic road race.
How Cancellara, 32, might rebound for this year’s classics run was a mystery until early March, when he placed fourth at Strade Bianche. He followed up with a third at Milano-Sanremo, behind Gerard Ciolek and Peter Sagan, and came into the cobbled classics as perhaps the biggest favorite. At E3 Harelbeke, Cancellara attacked on the 2.2-kilometer Oude Kwaremont, dropping the entire field to solo to victory. His warning shot for De Ronde had been fired; the question was whether or not any rider, or team, would be able to stop him from doing it again.
The answer, as it turned out, was no.
Cancellara’s success was buoyed, somewhat, by the misfortune of last year’s cobbles king, Tom Boonen (Omega Pharma-Quick Step), whose middling early-season form was further hampered by a crash at Ghent-Wevelgem, and then put to rest after an early crash at De Ronde left him with contusions and a fractured rib. It was a near exact role-reversal of one year earlier, and Cancellara truly only had Sagan to contend with in the finale. This time around the young Slovakian was able to mark Cancellara across the Kwaremont, but the effort took its toll, and the final climb of the Tour of Flanders, the short but steep Paterberg, proved to be one berg too many for Sagan; Cancellara accelerated away and never looked back, again winning alone.
Success at Paris-Roubaix would not come so easy. Cancellara, a two-time Roubaix winner heading into the race and clearly the strongest man to take the start, was heavily marked. But the Swiss veteran played his cards wisely, allowing a small group to creep up the road late in the race, forcing others to chase, and leaving riders and their directors to question if perhaps the RadioShack leader was having a bad day.
He was not.
Inside the final 35km, Cancellara put on a demonstration of raw power, closing gaps and bridging across to the front of the race with only Zdenek Stybar (Omega Pharma) able to hold his wheel. At the front, breakaway remnants Sep Vanmarcke (Blanco) and Stijn Vandenbergh (Omega Pharma) made it a four-man race for the win, but both Omega riders ran afoul of Lady Luck on the critical cobbled sector Carrefour de l’Arbre, colliding with spectators and losing contact with the leaders. Cancellara was unable to dispose of a stubborn and resilient Vanmarcke, and instead resigned himself to play his hand in the Roubaix velodrome, where he went high on the banking and forced the young Belgian to lead out the sprint. The Swiss star edged out the former Omloop Het Nieuwsblad winner, but just barely, collapsing on the ground after taking his third Roubaix title and seventh career monument win. There was nothing left to question — the rider known as “Spartacus” was back, and he had reclaimed his cobbled classics throne.
Trek Bicycles: American manufacturer Trek started off the classics with a surprise win at Milano-Sanremo under MTN-Qhubeka’s Gerard Ciolek, piloting its flagship race model, the Madone 6.5. Five days later Fabian Cancellara took victory at E3 Harelbeke aboard Trek’s cobble-smoothing endurance frame, the Domane 6.9, unique for its IsoSpeed top-tube-to-seatstay decoupler. Cancellara rode the Domane to victory again at De Ronde and Paris-Roubaix, bringing Trek’s tally to three victories at the sport’s one-day monuments in a three-week span.
First-time classics winners: The list of riders to take their first classic or semi-classic win in 2013 is staggering. Starting things off was Cannondale’s 22-year-old Moreno Moser, at Strade Bianche. Next was journeyman Gerald Ciolek, whose career has taken him to stints with T-Mobile, Columbia, Milram and Quick Step, with a massive win for upstart South African Pro Continental team MTN-Qhubeka at Milano-Sanremo. No stranger to field sprints, Oscar Gatto (Vini Fantini-Selle Italia) took the flowers at the Tour of Flanders warm-up, Dwars door Vlaanderen, when the lead group caught the soloing Frenchman Thomas Voeckler (Europcar) on the finish line. Though it wasn’t the win at Sanremo or Flanders that he’d so desired, Peter Sagan finally took his first major one-day win at Ghent-Wevelgem, attacking a lead group of 11 riders to wheelie across the finish line alone. After Cancellara’s reign across the cobbles had finished, the three races that make up the Ardennes week delivered three first-time classics winners — Saxo-Tinkoff’s Roman Kreuziger, at Amstel Gold Race; Katusha’s Daniel Moreno, at Flèche Wallonne; and Garmin-Sharp’s Daniel Martin, at Liège-Bastogne-Liège.
Peter Sagan (Cannondale): With wins at Ghent-Wevelgem and Brabantse Pijl (Brabant Arrow), and second-place finishes at Strade Bianche, Milano-Sanremo, E3 Harelbeke, Ronde van Vlaanderen — and a stage win at Three Days of De Panne — Sagan proved that, at just 22, he’s the most well-rounded classics rider in the sport. He didn’t help his cause with his immature and inappropriate behavior on the podium in Oudenaarde after De Ronde, and his average showings at Amstel Gold and Flèche Wallonne demonstrated why it’s so difficult to peak from early March through mid-April, but Sagan can only be satisfied with a spring campaign that includes two wins and four second-place finishes.
Colombian climbers: After an early attack that caught the favorites by surprise, AG2R La Mondiale’s 23-year-old revelation Carlos Betancur nearly pulled off the surprise win at Flèche Wallonne, passed inside the final 200 meters to finish third, behind Moreno and Colombian compatriot Sergio Henao (Sky). Betancur went on to take an impressive fourth place at Liège, while Henao took sixth at Amstel Gold Race and 16th at Liège.
Katusha: Luca Paolini with the win at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad. Dani Moreno at Flèche Wallonne. Alexander Kristoff with a stage win, and second overall, at Three Days of De Panne. Joaquim Rodriguez with a close second at Liège-Bastogne-Liège. For a team that wasn’t originally included as one the UCI’s 18 ProTeams, Katusha proved to be one of the deepest teams of the spring classics.
Omega Pharma-Quick Step: No UCI ProTeam — not even Belgian classics powerhouse Omega Pharma — could ask to repeat Boonen’s storybook spring classics run of 2012, when “Tornado Tom” sprinted to wins at Harelbeke, Ghent-Wevelgem and De Ronde, and then soloed to victory at Paris-Roubaix.
But with a squad that also boasts Sylvain Chavanel, Niki Terpstra, Zdenek Stybar, Stijn Vandenbergh, Gert Steegmans, Michal Kwiatkowski, and a certain sprinter named Mark Cavendish, the team was loaded with options, which it would need, as Boonen’s form was questionable at best. A staph infection in January that required surgery left Boonen weakened and without proper training, and though he looked to be coming around at Harelbeke, a crash at Ghent-Wevelgem set him back, and a crash at De Ronde knocked him down for good.
The team wasn’t without stellar performances, however. Chavanel finished fourth at Sanremo, sixth at Harelbeke, and won the overall at Three Days of De Panne — where Cavendish won a stage. However the star sprinter was left alone in the finale at Scheldeprijs, finishing second to Marcel Kittel and prompting team manager Patrick Lefevere to call out the team’s support in the closing kilometer, telling Belgian TV network Sporza, “I’m not happy. The train is just not there. I have not seen men with balls. There are a few who could be better, but for fear. ‘Fear of failure’ I call it.”
The team reacted with a strong showing at Paris-Roubaix, landing two riders in the front group of four alongside Fabian Cancellara, until it all unraveled on the critical cobbled sector Carrefour de l’Arbre, where first Vandenbergh and then Stybar collided with spectators and lost contact with the leaders. That Terpstra was still able to win a bunch sprint for third shows just how close Omega Pharma was to taking victory at Roubaix even without its four-time Roubaix winner — and how different its classics season might have been.
Sky: Bad luck and bad racing made for a lackluster showing from the sport’s top stage-racing squad this spring. Heading into the cobbled classics the British team had several cards to play, including Geraint Thomas, Ian Stannard, Edvald Boasson Hagen, Bernhard Eisel, and Mathew Hayman. Thomas went down in late-race crashes at both Sanremo and the Tour of Flanders, and a fourth at Harelbeke was his top result. Stannard was active at Sanremo and Dwars door Vlaanderen, registering top-10 finishes at both. Hayman managed to make the podium at Dwars door Vlaanderen, but rode in a support role at De Ronde and Roubaix, while Eisel, a former Ghent-Wevelgem winner, finished 10th at Sanremo, seventh at Wevelgem, and 12th at Roubaix.
The team fared only a little better during the Ardennes, with Henao’s second-place at Flèche Wallonne a bright spot, while grand tour contender Chris Froome finished an unremarkable 36th at Liège.
BMC Racing: At this point, it’s fair to question BMC Racing’s tactical acumen at spring classics — as well as what’s happened to the Philippe Gilbert of 2011. Though losing last year’s Ronde-Roubaix podium finisher Alessandro Ballan was a serious blow to BMC’s cobbled classics campaign, with Gilbert, Thor Hushovd, Taylor Phinney, Greg Van Avermaet, Daniel Oss, Manuel Quinziato, and Marcus Burghardt, the team appeared poised to win any race, from Flanders to Roubaix to Amstel to Liège. Instead, both Hushovd and Gilbert were shadows of their former selves, and the team won nothing, forced to look to Gilbert’s runner-up spot at Brabantse Pijl, and third-place finishes at Ghent-Wevelgem (Van Avermaet) and Harelbeke (Oss), as its highlights.
Following an astounding seventh at Sanremo, Phinney was overexcited at Roubaix, jumping into an early move and losing contact late in the race, finishing 23rd. Hushovd was a DNF at Milano-Sanremo, E3 Harelbeke and the Tour of Flanders, and finished 35th at Roubaix. Just two years after sweeping the Ardennes, Gilbert was fifth at Amstel, 15th at Flèche and seventh at Liège.
After Liège, the world champion said he was “lacking the strength” in his legs to respond, adding, “I was hoping for a miracle today, but I was missing a few percentage points, and that makes all the difference.”
For a big-budget team like BMC, those few percentage points in Gilbert’s performance have also made a significant difference, and aren’t easily explained.
BMC, however, wasn’t without a solid classics presence in Van Avermaet, who was sixth at Strade Bianche, third at Ghent-Wevelgem, seventh at De Ronde, fourth at Roubaix, sixth at Brabantse Pijl, and 16th at Amstel Gold Race.
Cold weather: Unusually cold and wintry conditions in Western Europe resulted in the cancellation of Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne, the redirection of the routes of Milano-Sanremo and Ghent-Wevelgem due to conditions, and near-freezing temperatures at Harelbeke and Dwars door Vlaanderen.
The peloton faced sleet and snow during Milano-Sanremo on March 17, forcing organizers to neutralize the race and reroute the course around the climbs of the Passo del Turchino and Le Manie, trimming 53km from the original 298km route. Riders piled into team buses and warmed up as the race caravan detoured to the coast, however several riders abandoned the race rather than restart. A six-man breakaway resumed with the 7:10 advantage it held when the race was halted, and it was later caught with 30km remaining.
Race organizers cut 47km out of the 238km Ghent-Wevelgem course due to brutal cold and wind that barraged Belgium and took its toll on a weather-weary peloton. The race kept its start in Deinze, but only as a matter of show: Riders signed in, then boarded team buses shortly after, and were driven 47km to Gistel, allowing the race to maintain its anticipated arrival times.
“We all know that in these weather conditions, a race from 190km is the same as the race of 240km,” race president Luc Gheysens told VeloNews. “We would like a race with respect to the riders, who already had a horrible Sanremo, a tough [Dwars door Vlaanderen], and a very tough Harelbeke.”
Former classics winners: Last year’s classics king Boonen was off-form, and then off his bike, both at Ghent-Wevelgem and the Tour of Flanders. Philippe Gilbert struggled through a second consecutive classics season unable to match his amazing run of 2011, when he won Amstel, Flèche, and Liège. Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) was good, but not good enough, riding onto the podium at Amstel Gold and Liège, and seventh at Flèche. Andy Schleck, a former Liège-Bastogne-Liège winner, struggled to be anything other than pack fodder, with a DNF at Amstel, 86th at Flèche, and 41st at Liège, just 1:20 off the winning time — perhaps his best result since he broke his sacrum in June of 2012.
Belgium: For the first time in nearly a century, Belgium — the host nation to the majority of the spring classics — was shut out from a victory. Vanmarcke came closest to securing a major win, just missing out in a two-man sprint against Cancellara at Paris-Roubaix. World champion Gilbert came a close second to Sagan at Brabantse Pijl, while his BMC teammate Van Avermaet was sixth at Strade Bianche, third at Ghent-Wevelgem, seventh at Tour of Flanders, fourth at Roubaix, sixth at Brabantse Pijl and 16th at Amstel Gold Race.
Winners of the 2013 spring classics and semi-classics:
Omloop Het Nieuwsblad (February 23, Belgium): Luca Paolini (ITA), Katusha
Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne (February 24, Belgium): Cancelled due to weather
Strade Bianche (March 2, Italy): Moreno Moser (ITA), Cannondale
Milano-Sanremo (March 17, Italy): Gerald Ciolek (GER), MTN-Qhubeka
Dwars door Vlaanderen (March 20, Belgium): Oscar Gatto (ITA), Vini Fantini-Selle Italia
E3 Prijs Harelbeke (March 22, Belgium): Fabian Cancellara (SUI), RadioShack-Leopard
Gent-Wevelgem (March 24, Belgium): Peter Sagan (SVK), Cannondale
Ronde van Vlaanderen (March 31, Belgium): Fabian Cancellara (SUI), RadioShack-Leopard
GP Scheldeprijs (April 3, Belgium): Marcel Kittel (GER), Argos-Shimano
Paris-Roubaix (April 7, France): Fabian Cancellara (SUI), RadioShack-Leopard
Brabantse Pijl (April 10, Belgium): Peter Sagan (SVK), Cannondale
Amstel Gold Race (April 14, The Netherlands): Roman Kreuziger (CZE), Saxo-Tinkoff
Flèche Wallonne (April 17, Belgium): Daniel Moreno (ESP), Katusha
Liège-Bastogne-Liège (April 21, Belgium): Daniel Martin (IRL), Garmin-Sharp