Spring classics hit the rough roads for the next three weeks

The cobbled classics are truly a subcategory of their own, reserved for the strongest, grittiest riders of the pro peloton.

Wins for Rabobank and Team Sky at the late-February Belgian semi-classics Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne may have served as proverbial shots across the bow in the fight for spring-time supremacy, but by taking the win at Dwars door Vlaanderen on Wednesday, Saxo Bank-Sungard showed itself to be ready to challenge its top rivals in the three-week campaign across western Belgium and northern France, that are collectively referred to as the cobbled classics.

Fabian Cancellara capped off an impressive three-week run with a win at Roubaix.
Fabian Cancellara capped off an impressive three-week run with a win at Roubaix.

While the term “spring classics” generally refers to Milan-San Remo, De Ronde van Vlaanderen (“The Tour of Flanders”), Paris-Roubaix, the Amstel Gold Race and Liège-Bastogne-Liège — with Ghent-Wevelgem and La Flèche Wallonne designated as “semi-classics” — the cobbled classics are truly a subcategory of their own, reserved for the strongest, grittiest riders of the pro peloton.

Those who specialize in the cobbled classics are more likely to start events such as Dwars door Vlaanderen, E3 Prijs Vlaanderen-Harelbeke and KBC-Driedaagse De Panne-Koksijde (“Three Days of De Panne”) than the hillier races like Amstel Gold or Liège-Bastogne-Liège, which fall several weeks later on the race calendar.

And while not WorldTour events like Ghent-Wevelgem, races like Dwars door Vlaanderen (“Straight through Flanders”) and E3 Harelbeke, which use many of the same cobbled climbs as the Tour of Flanders, are better predictors of how De Ronde, the most important race in Belgium, will play out.

Upon winning Harelbeke last year Fabian Cancellara claimed he’d “finally taken his classics win in Belgium.” Of course, just a week later he won his first Tour of Flanders, and a week after that he won his second Roubaix, becoming only the tenth rider in history to pull off a Flanders-Roubaix double. Before that Tom Boonen (Quick Step) had last done it, in 2005, the first time he’d won either race.

Though not as stacked with classics talent as top-heavy squads Garmin-Cervélo, Team Sky, Quick Step and HTC-Highroad, Saxo Bank’s Nick Nuyens and Baden Cooke played team tactics to perfection at Dwars door Vlaanderen.

Nuyens and breakaway companion Geraint Thomas (Sky) opened a tenuous lead of 20 seconds following the Paterberg climb with about 20km remaining. Back in the peloton, Cooke followed wheels until the final kilometer, when he came to the front of the hard-charging field, effectively stalling the sprint in the final turn, which helped keep Garmin’s Tyler Farrar, first in the bunch, from just catching the pair at the line. Once the sprint launched Cooke had no choice but to jump, and finished fifth, two spots behind Farrar.

It was an exciting finish to what is developing into the most dynamic classics season in recent memory. At a wet Omloop Het Nieuwsblad in February, Rabobank’s Sebastian Langeveld beat defending champion and breakaway companion Juan Antonio Flecha (Sky) in a two-up photo finish. At Montepaschi Strade Bianche, Philippe Gilbert took a thrilling win ahead of BMC’s Alessandro Ballan after one of the Belgian’s patented final-kilometer attacks. And at Milan-San Remo last weekend, a group of eight riders — including two former winners — came to the line together, each without a teammate, opening the door for super-sprinter Matt Goss (HTC-Highroad) to win ahead of Cancellara and Gilbert.

The Fabian factor

The biggest question concerning the 2011 cobbled classics season is just how dominant Cancellara might be. To put into perspective just how forceful Cancellara’s performances were in 2010, consider this: over three consecutive weekends he won three of the hardest one-day races in pro cycling, each time crossing the finish line alone against the best classics riders in the sport, with each race won by a wider margin than the last.


February 26: Omloop Het Nieuwsblad (Belgium)
2011 winner: Sebastian Langeveld, Rabobank

February 27: Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne (Belgium)
2011 winner: Chris Sutton, Team Sky

March 5: Montepaschi Strade Bianche (Italy)
2011 winner: Philippe Gilbert, Omega Pharma-Lotto

March 19: Milan-San Remo (Italy)
2011 winner: Matthew Goss, HTC-Highroad

March 23: Dwars door Vlaanderen (Belgium)
2011 winner: Nick Nuyens, Saxo Bank-Sungard

March 26: E3 Prijs Vlaanderen-Harelbeke (Belgium)
2010 winner: Fabian Cancellara
2011 favorites: Fabian Cancellara, Thor Hushovd, Lars Boom, Heinrich Haussler, Nick Nuyens, Svein Tuft

March 27: Ghent-Wevelgem (Belgium)
2010 winner: Bernard Eisel
2011 favorites: Matthew Goss, Tyler Farrar, Tom Boonen, Philippe Gilbert, Mark Cavendish

March 29-31: KBC-Driedaagse De Panne-Koksijde (Belgium)
2010 winner: David Millar
2011 favorites: Philippe Gilbert, Peter Sagan, Alessandro Ballan, Leif Hoste, Stijn Devolder

April 3: De Ronde van Vlaanderen (Belgium)
2010 winner: Fabian Cancellara
2011 favorites: Fabian Cancellara, Tom Boonen, Heinrich Haussler, Philippe Gilbert, Nick Nuyens, Juan Antonio Flecha, George Hincapie

April 6: Scheldeprijs (Belgium)
2010 winner: Tyler Farrar
2011 favorites: Tyler Farrar, Matthew Goss, Robbie McEwen, Alessandro Petacchi

April 10: Paris-Roubaix (France)
2010 winner: Fabian Cancellara
2011 favorites: Fabian Cancellara, Tom Boonen, Thor Hushovd, Filippo Pozzato, Juan Antonio Flecha, Philippe Gilbert

April 17: Amstel Gold Race (The Netherlands)
2010 winner: Philippe Gilbert
2011 favorites: Philippe Gilbert, Cadel Evans, Ryder Hesjedal, Alberto Contador, Joaquim Rodriguez, Damiano Cunego, Michele Scarponi

April 20: La Flèche Wallonne (Belgium)
2010 winner: Cadel Evans
2011 favorites: Cadel Evans, Alberto Contador, Joaquim Rodriguez, Vincenzo Nibali

April 24: Liège-Bastogne-Liège (Belgium)
2010 winner: Alexandre Vinokourov
2011 favorites: Philippe Gilbert, Cadel Evans, Andy Schleck, Alexandre Vinokourov, Chris Horner, Ryder Hesjedal

At the E3 Prijs Vlaanderen-Harelbeke, after attacking on the Paterberg climb with 42km to go, Cancellara jumped away from Boonen and Flecha in the final kilometer, besting Boonen, a four-time Harelbeke winner, by three seconds.

At Flanders, Cancellara first attacked on the Molenberg with 45km remaining, drawing out only Boonen; he then attacked Boonen on the decisive Kappelmuur with 15km remaining, gaining time all the way to the line to win by 1:15 over the two-time Flanders champion.

And at Paris-Roubaix Cancellara attacked a group of eight others with 50km remaining, winning by exactly two minutes — the margin would have been larger had he not savored his victory lap around the Roubaix velodrome.

Whether or not Cancellara has the form he had a year ago remains to be seen. The three-time world time-trial champ won the prologue-length TT at Tirreno-Adriatico, and finished a close second to Goss in a mad sprint for the line at Milan-San Remo. At Dwars Van Vlaanderen Cancellara’s surge at the front, following the Paterberg climb, split the chase group, and sprung the decisive Nuyens/Thomas breakaway. But Spartacus eventually trickled in at 35th place, a few seconds behind the bunch; on Twitter he wrote that he was “still tired from San Remo.”

Even if Cancellara is as strong as he was in 2010, two important factors could work against a repeat domination. The Swiss rider no longer has 2010 Dwars Van Vlaanderen winner Matti Breschel as a teammate. (Breschel, now with Rabobank, had surgery Tuesday on his knee and will not compete in this year’s spring classics.)

And with Garmin-Cervélo, Team Sky, Quick Step and Omega Pharma-Lotto all making key additions to their classics rosters, Cancellara could find himself both marked and outnumbered — although at a race as physically demanding as the Tour of Flanders, the hilly, bumpy course makes tactics increasingly difficult in the final 50km. If Cancellara brings the same form to the cobbles as last year, there may be little any combination of riders can do to combat the Swiss rider’s superior strength.

One thing is certain — there will be no repeat Boonen/Cancellara opening salvo at Harelbeke in 2011. Because of its move last year, from the Wednesday between the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix to the Sunday preceding Flanders, Ghent-Wevelgem and the E3 Prijs Vlaanderen-Harelbeke now share the spotlight in the lead-up to the cobbled classics. (Scheldeprijs has replaced Ghent-Wevelgem in the mid-week spot.)

However Ghent-Wevelgem is a UCI WorldTour event, meaning all UCI ProTeams are obligated to attend. E3 Prijs Vlaanderen-Harelbeke, is part of the UCI Europe Tour. Boonen will race Ghent-Wevelgem, but not E3-Harelbeke. Like Quick Step, Leopard-Trek is sending squads to both races, however Cancellara is racing only at Harelbeke. In his absence, the team will look to Italian Daniele Bennati should it finish in a bunch sprint.

“Two-hundred riders start (Ghent-Wevelgem), and everyone has a chance and a willingness to make it to the line first,” said Leopard director Torsten Schmidt. “Of course, there are a handful of teams who bring stronger squads on paper, but we go into this race, into any race, with a high level of respect for all the other teams that start with us. Anything can happen on a race day.”

Schmidt said it was too early to speculate about possible Ghent-Wevelgem situations and tactics with Harelbeke ahead of it by a day.

“There are so many unknown factors,” he said. “We’ll know more after Saturday.”

The same could be said about after Sunday — after Ghent-Wevelgem; the predictions for the major cobbled classics will be much clearer.

Race notes:

  • The weather forecast for the weekend’s racing is dry and partly cloudy, with temperatures in the low 50s.
  • North American Pro Continental teams UnitedHealthcare and SpiderTech-C10 are racing in Belgium over the next two weeks. SpiderTech is racing E3 Prijs Harelbeke, led by Martin Gilbert, Keven Lacombe and Svein Tuft; UnitedHealthcare is racing Three Days of De Panne, led by Boy van Poppel, Hilton Clarke, Karl Menzies and Andrew Pinfold.


Five-star favorites
Garmin-Cervélo (USA): Thor Hushovd (Nor), Heinrich Haussler (Aus), Tyler Farrar (USA), Johan Van Summeren (B), Roger Hammond (GB), Andreas Klier (G), Sep Vanmarcke (B)
Team Sky (GB): Juan Antonio Flecha (Sp), Geraint Thomas (GB), Matthew Hayman (Aus), Edvald Boasson Hagen (Nor), Greg Henderson (NZ), Chris Sutton (Aus), Kurt Asle Arveson (Nor)
HTC-Highroad (USA): Matt Goss (Aus), Mark Cavendish (GB), Bernard Eisel (Aut), Hayden Roulston (NZ)
Leopard-Trek (Lux): Fabian Cancellara (Swi), Stuart O’Grady (Aus), Daniele Bennati (I), Wouter Weylandt (B)
Quick Step (B): Tom Boonen (B), Sylvain Chavanel (F), Gert Steegmans (B), Gerald Ciolek (G)
Omega Pharma-Lotto (B): Philippe Gilbert (B), Jürgen Roelandts (B), Andre Greipel (G), Adam Hansen (Aus)
BMC Racing (USA): George Hincapie (USA), Alessandro Ballan (I), Greg Van Avermaet (B), Marcus Burghardt (G), Manuel Quinziato (I)

Four-star favorites
Katusha (Rus): Leif Hoste (B), Filippo Pozzato (I), Serguei Ivanov (Rus)
Saxo Bank-Sungard (Den): Nick Nuyens (B), Baden Cooke (Aus), J.J. Haedo (Arg)
Rabobank (Ned): Lars Boom (Ned), Oscar Freire (Sp), Thomas Leezer (Ned), Graeme Brown (Aus)
Vacansoleil-DCM (B): Stijn Devolder (B), Bjorn Leukemans (B), Marco Marcato (I)
Française des Jeux (F): Dominique Rollin (Can), Yoann Offredo (F), Yauheni Hutarovich (Blr)

Three-star favorites
RadioShack (USA): Robbie McEwen (Aus), Robbie Hunter (RSA), Gregory Rast (Sui)
Lampre-ISD (I): Alessandro Petacchi (I)
Liquigas-Cannondale (I): Peter Sagan (Slo), Daniel Oss (I)

Notable absences
Matti Breschel (Den), Rabobank (knee surgery)
Martijn Maaskant (Ned), Garmin-Cervélo (broken ribs)
David Millar (GB), Garmin-Cervélo (illness)

Filippo Pozatto (I), Katusha (illness)
Taylor Phinney (USA), BMC Racing (knee injury)
Oscar Freire (Sp), Rabobank (respiratory infection)
Edvald Boasson Hagen (Nor), Team Sky (Achilles’ tendonitis)
Manuel Quinziato (I), BMC Racing (illness)