While the Tour de France remains the showpiece of professional cycling, the sport’s most intense period of racing is happening right now. With Milan-San Reno and the first three cobbled classics already in the bag, next up is this Sunday’s Ronde van Vlaanderen and next week’s Paris-Roubaix, followed in the following two weeks by the last three spring classics in the Netherlands and the Belgian Ardennes.
The Ronde (a.k.a. the Tour of Flanders) and Roubaix both crisscross the green fields of Flanders, the first in Belgium and the second on the French side of the border. Each of these rugged events incorporates strategically placed sections of narrow back roads—filled with short, punchy hills in Flanders and nasty sections of loaf-sized pavé in Roubaix’s Hell of the North. These difficulties winnow out the weakest riders and reward the strongest.
Because of their class and experience, true champions nearly always win these brutal two classics, but they couldn’t do it without the help of strong teammates and knowledgeable, well-organized sports directors. Judged on these factors, the Belgian squad Omega Pharma-Quick Step has all the elements needed to succeed—epitomized by its team leader Tom Boonen, who’s won three Rondes and four editions of Paris-Roubaix.
At 32, Boonen is at full maturity as a classics racer, even if his fitness has been somewhat spotty the last few weeks. If he fails to show his best form on the next two Sundays, the Omega team can rely on its in-form French star Sylvain Chavanel (who placed second in the Ronde two years ago) and Dutch champion Niki Terpstra, while the faithful Gert Steegmans will be there to backstop all of them.
Perhaps Omega’s biggest advantage is the collective experience of its management team, which includes general manager Patrick Lefevere, and sports and development manager Rolf Aldag.
Many people say that Lefevere, the team’s white-haired patriarch who first met Boonen and Steegmans when they were 15-year-old development riders, has a magic touch in identifying talent. “I think that's my job. I'm paid for this,” he once told me. “You see some flashes of riders. They're maybe not winning, but you see they have it in the legs, and they're waiting for a lucky day, and then they believe in themselves that they are able to do it.”
Aldag, a lean-faced German, knows everything about winning and losing, especially in the cobblestone classics. In his 15 seasons as a racer, Aldag finished the Tour of Flanders and Paris- Roubaix virtually every year, placing top 10 multiple times; his best place was seventh at Flanders in 2004. He has perfect knowledge of all the cobbled classics, especially the Ronde.
Talking about the challenges of the Tour of Flanders, he says, “It took me really a long time to understand the race. We had Belgian team directors when I was racing, but if you don't have the spirit in the team to understand the race and know what to do as a team, then you just have no chance. But when we started to see the racecourse in the days before the Tour of Flanders, you got a feeling for the distances from one climb to the next, where you can jump on a side path for instance, things like that. You just can't figure that out in the race. You have to know in advance.”
One piece of advice Aldag gives to all his teams is to try to put someone into a break in the first half of the 256-kilometer race, before the highest concentration of hellingen—as the Flemish call their beloved cobbled climbs, “Whenever we've got the chance to jump away we'll do that,” he says. “We're not waiting like the rabbit in front of the snake until they kill us.”
One of the biggest “snakes” waiting to pounce in the critical stages of the Ronde is Boonen himself, who has developed an uncanny sense of knowing when to make or join critical attacks. “The Tour of Flanders is the best of races,” Boonen says. “It's the hardest to ride, and the hardest to win. It never lies. It's physically harder because it's more demanding mentally; you have to stay totally focused over the final 140 kilometers, and you can't make a mistake. You pay dearly for the slightest error.”
Boonen adds, “It's not a secret that Flanders and Roubaix are the two races I really, really like, and when you win one of them it's a reward for a lot of hard work, for a long time, and a lot of things that were going around in your mind. It's not only training that’s important: you have to live for them. I'm thinking about these races for like three months. You always try to predict what's going to happen in the race, and it's just something that's going in your mind all the time.”
For many years, Boonen raced alongside two-time Ronde champion Stijn Devolder, who’s now the first lieutenant for another of the top favorites for the last two cobbled classics, Fabian Cancellara of RadioShack-Leopard-Trek. Devolder has known Boonen since he was a teenager, and his presence in the “enemy” camp could make all the difference to Cancellara’s performance in the Ronde. The 33-year-old Belgian says long, hard training was the key to his own two Flanders victories. “Good things you don't have to change,” he says. “Before my Ronde win in 2009 I went to do the whole course with Dirk Demol [who’s now the RadioShack team director], and the day after that I went five hours again on the same roads on my own, to go see the final. I knew exactly what I had to do, every single meter of the course. There were no surprises for me.”
Devolder and Demol’s presence on the RadioShack team’s race radios should give Cancellara the confidence he needs to overcome any reticence he has since crashing out of the last year’s Ronde—where he’ll be shooting for his second win (following his dominant solo victory three years ago). And a good showing in Flanders would help the big Swiss shoot for his third Roubaix success next week. Certainly, like Boonen, Cancellara knows all there is to know about the technique of racing the cobblestones.
“It's important to find the feeling with the pavé,” he says, “because the pavé in Paris-Roubaix is completely different to the pavé in Flanders.” And if he follows his normal practice before his two favorite races, Cancellara will motivate himself with film clips from his past triumphs. And because the Flanders crash deprived him of challenging Boonen last year, he will no doubt be studying the Ronde’s new finale which was changed last year.
Cancellara will certainly enjoy the three trips up the Oude-Kwaremont, the cobbled hill where he attacked to win this year’s and two past editions of the GP E3-Harelbeke, which comes with 70 kilometers, 37 kilometers and 17 kilometers before the Ronde’s race finish in Oudenaarde. That same climb could again be the undoing of the third big race favorite, Peter Sagan of Cannondale, who vainly tried to join the winning move on the Oude-Kwaremont last year, and also failed to follow Cancellara’s solo attack there in the recent GP E3.
Sagan did win the much shorter Ghent-Wevelgem last weekend, and the Slovak will be hoping that his strongest teammate there, Maciek Bodnar of Poland, will again be with him in the critical stages of the Ronde. But his Italian sports director Stefano Zanatta knows that Sagan still lacks the self-knowledge of pacing himself over a race as long and complicated as the six-hour Tour of Flanders. Sagan, only 23, did finish a weary fifth at last year’s Ronde, and he did finish second in the 2008 under-23 edition of Paris-Roubaix, but it’s hard to see him winning either classic quite yet.
Another team that rivals the collective knowledge of an Omega or RadioShack squad is Team Sky, which is being directed by past cobbled classics winners Servais Knaven and Kurt-Asle Arvesen, and has excellent challengers in Edvald Boasson Hagen, Bernhard Eisel, Ian Stannard and Geraint Thomas. The BMC Racing team also has strong oversight from Italian sports director Fabio Baldato, a former Roubaix runner-up, and its Australian performance director Allan Peiper, who lives on the Ronde route, but their team leaders Thor Hushovd, Daniel Oss, Greg Van Avermaet are currently a level below the Boonen-Cancellara-Sagan triumvirate.
Finally, three teams whose strength lies in their riders rather than staff are Garmin-Sharp, whose veteran Belgium residents Andreas Klier and Johan Van Summeren have the boundless experience of these races that can help their talented teammates Tyler Farrar and Martyn Maaskant; Lampre-Merida, led by last year’s Ronde runner-up Filippo Pozzato; and Orica-GreenEdge, which is led by Aussie Matt Goss and Dutchman Sebastian Langeveld, and whose guiding light is former Roubaix winner Stuart O’Grady.
In talking about that race, but applicable to both of these upcoming cobbled classics, O’Grady says. “Experience is priceless in Paris-Roubaix. There's probably only 10 guys in the peloton thinking they can win. A lot of guys are just happy to finish, a lot of guys are happy to get to the first feed zone. And if it's raining, a lot of guys will have already lost the race before the start. The harder the race, the better for us.”
Let battle commence…
You can follow john at twitter.com/johnwilcockson