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GHENT, Belgium (VN) — Why do we love the northern classics? Because they’re the only races of the year that are entirely unpredictable.
Unpredictability is a cherished commodity in bike racing today. With the integration of power meters into the peloton nearly two decades ago, cycling’s version of big data has turned racing into a numbers game.
The Tour de France and its major climbs have largely been reduced to mathematical equations. Tactics, skill, and unforeseen variables still count, but power-to-weight ratios, VAM, and watts are the new calculus of modern stage racing.
[pullquote attrib=”Niki Terpstra, holding up a results sheet”]“This is my power meter.”[/pullquote]
In delightful contrast, the cobblestoned classics have stoutly resisted modernity. Teams and riders lean on their power meters, especially in training and post-race evaluation, but the brutal one-day races of the Flemish classics remain a bastion of brute strength and tactical guile.
When asked if he monitored his power meter as he rode away from the bunch at E3 Harelbeke, Niki Terpstra (Quick-Step) just shook his head.
“This is my power meter,” he said, holding up the results sheet. “I know that if I go 50kph, they will catch me. I know if I am going 39kph, I need to speed up.
“You cannot race the classics with a power meter,” Terpstra continued. “It is not like a time trial, where you can break up the course. You have to fight with every inch. If you race it like a TT, you can lose it. If the pack sees you, and they are close, they will catch you. It’s like blood in the water.”
Teams have tried to apply data to classics racing with mixed results. Team Sky, which has all but turned the technology into a tactical weapon in the Tour de France, continues to struggle for major results in the cobblestone classics. Why? There is no singular reason Sky isn’t dominating the classics in the same way, but part of it is because its science that works so well on the cols of high France does not translate to the cobbles of Belgium and France.
Sky’s Geraint Thomas, who flew into France to race Paris-Roubaix following a training camp at altitude at Tenerife, said he does not rely on power meters in the classics as much as he does during grand tours.
“Maybe if you were on your own, it’s a way of controlling your effort a bit,” Thomas said. “Like in a time trial to measure it and not empty the tank. It’s more afterward to see how hard it’s been. Most of the time you can’t even see it [the power meter]. Classics is a lot more top-end. You just go full-gas over the cobbles, there’s no pacing to it.”
Make no mistake; teams and riders use power meters during the cobblestone classics just like they at every race. As Thomas said, teams dump the data to see how hard the efforts were. And they can use those numbers to help formulate training programs. What’s different is that power meters’ have a much less tangible impact on race dynamics.
[pullquote attrib=”Geraint Thomas”]”You just go full-gas over the cobbles, there’s no pacing to it.”[/pullquote]
In stage racing, whether it’s climbing a mountain or pacing a time trial, power meters are the metronome that riders lean on to maintain their winning pace. If a rider attacks on a climb, his rivals need only to glance down at their power meters to see their threshold. Everyone knows just how hard everyone else can go on a climb.
The unpredictable dynamism of the cobblestone classics makes it harder to gauge and calculate efforts. Racing chaotic Roubaix across 19th-century cobblestones is nothing like a sustained, paced, 20-minute effort in the Alps. The Belgian classics are a series of surges and accelerations that are anything but static.
“I don’t use my power meter to race in the classics,” said Greg Van Avermaet (BMC Racing). “We have them, and we use them a lot for training, but in the race not so much. It’s different than when you are in a normal road race. And they’re hard to look at it.”
As Van Avermaet said, it’s not so easy to check your power numbers when bounding over the pavé of northern France.
Teams do not stop their riders from using power meters but they encourage them to race more on instinct and sensation than what their digital screen is blinking to them.
“I still like that they race with their own sensations and feeling,” said Trek-Segafredo sport director Dirk Demol. “It’s interesting to see the data after the race. That is very handy. But during the race, I am in favor that they put a little piece of tape over it.”
Demol explained that riders have become too dependent on their power meters and sometimes that slows them down.
“When you have a good day, you can do an effort for two minutes at 500w, but if you have good day, maybe you can push 520w. But they see the number 500w, and they stop. They trust too blindly those numbers,” Demol said. “That’s a minute more if you’re a good day. If you’re on a bad day, you cannot do that top power and you blow up.”
[pullquote attrib=”Dirk Demol”]”During the race, I am in favor that they put a little piece of tape over it.”[/pullquote]
There are scenarios were power meters would be useful, more so at Paris-Roubaix than perhaps any other race. The finale of the “Hell of the North” is essentially a two-hour time trial over the worst roads in Europe. Even after bumping along at 60kph, there is enough asphalt and smooth sections where a power meter could provide critical information, especially for a rider alone at the front.
Most classics riders seem to begrudge power meters as an unwelcome intruder. Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe) races on instinct and doesn’t really know how well he is going to perform until he is deep into a race.
“I am not living with the hope. I don’t like to hope,” Sagan said. “With the feeling, I don’t know. I don’t feel bad, but I don’t feel really amazing.”
Sport director Andreas Klier at EF Education First-Drapac says today’s classics are raced with a unique mix of modern technology, material, and equipment that are unable to change the essence of the races.
“Old-school has gone away,” Klier said. “That word doesn’t pop up much anymore. I can imagine a few guys might be checking their power meters when they climb the Paterberg, but not so many. In the classics, you don’t have time for that. A power meter won’t help you if you don’t have the legs. It’s full-gas in the classics. That’s why we all like them I suppose.”