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Spring Training: The Classics

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Feb 25, 2015 – If you pick up the sports section of mainstream American newspapers at this time of year, perhaps The New York Times, there’ll likely be several pages devoted to major league baseball—even though the season doesn’t start until April. Right now, it’s all about spring training. And the coverage will increase through the 162-game regular season, culminating in the World Series next fall.

Images: Yuzuru Sunada/Kare Dehlie Thorstad

In a broad sense, professional cycling has many commonalities with baseball—the athletes report to warm-weather training camps in the winter, they each have long demanding seasons, and the final major events take place in late-October. And, right now, if you turn to the sports pages of European newspapers—especially those in Belgium and Spain—there are pages devoted to cycling’s equivalent of spring training: the early-season classics and stage races.

There have of course been events taking place around the world since January, but races such as this month’s Tour of Qatar, Tour of Oman, Ruta del Sol and Tour du Haut-Var are considered preparation races by those whose season goals are the spring classics or the summer’s grand tours. They may have been preparation races, but they have given us significant insights into what may happen when the season’s major events come along.

This week, I will look at how February’s races have had a bearing on the one-day classics—which open this weekend with the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad (ex-Omloop Het Volk), which is celebrating its 70th edition on Saturday. Next week, I’ll analyze how this month’s races have provided insights into the likely status of stage racers in the coming months.

CLASSICS RIDERS

By far the most significant day or racing for classics riders this past month was the second stage of the Tour of Qatar, a 194-kilometer loop across the Arabian Desert between the fishing ports of Al Wakrah and Al Khor. Strong southerly winds saw the peloton cover an extravagant 108 kilometers in the first two hours, and when the race turned to the east, crosswinds blowing sand from the desert split the peloton into multiple echelons. The classics-style racing, and the pace inflicted by Belgium’s Etixx-Quick Step team, left just 15 men in contention for the eventual sprint into a headwind taken by Team Katusha’s Alexander Kristoff.

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“It was one of the hardest days I’ve known at Qatar,” said four-time Qatar race winner Tom Boonen of Etixx-Quick Step. “It was not so much the wind, but the sand”—that peppered the racers, forcing them to close their mouths and make breathing difficult. Team Katusha sports director Torsten Schmidt said, “This was maybe the hardest stage I have ever seen here in Qatar. A very strong wind, high pace, permanent echelons and fighting for the position in the front made this stage a real struggle. The peloton split in groups many times….”.

It was just the type of racing beloved by Schmidt’s classics leader Kristoff, who said, “Of course, in the final I was a little bit tired, but I think everyone in the group was in same condition…. The windy conditions today suited me very well. In Norway I live at the coast. We even have more wind there!”

Another rider in the Qatar breakaway group, Australian national champion Heinrich Haussler of IAM Cycling, added: “When you are good here, you are good in the classics.” The next big goal for Haussler and Kristoff is Milan-San Remo, where the Norwegian won last year and Haussler was runner-up to Mark Cavendish in 2009.

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While Qatar and Flanders have completely different environments, the “spring training” the classics men experienced in the desert will be of immeasurable help in the northern European races starting this week. In fact, this first classic could evolve in similar fashion to that second stage on the Gulf.

The Omloop Het Nieuwsblad covers 200 kilometers on a multi-loop course through Flanders, starting and finishing in Ghent. There won’t be any sandstorms in Belgium, but dry weather is predicted Saturday with temperatures in the 40s (Fahrenheit, not 40s Celsius!), and similar southerly winds are in the forecast. That means that after the 11th and final climb, the Molenberg, and the last three of 10 sections of cobblestones, the leaders will have a favorable wind carrying them to the finish 20 kilometers away.

It’s likely that lead group on Saturday will include most of the 15 riders who emerged from the sandstorm echelons in Qatar, notably Greg Van Avermaet and Marcus Burghardt of BMC Racing, Boonen, Niki Terpstra and Nikolas Maes of Etixx-Quick Step, Ian Stannard and Luke Rowe of Team Sky, Haussler and Kristoff. Two others who were up front in Qatar, Peter Sagan of Tinkoff-Saxo and Adam Blythe of Orica-GreenEdge, won’t be in Belgium Saturday because their teams are not on the start line—only 10 of the 17 UCI WorldTeams are competing because this is not a WorldTour event (the first “real” classic of the year is Milan-San Remo on March 22).

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The value of early-season preparation races was affirmed by the ebullient Frenchman Yoann Offredo of FDJ.fr, who said after that unforgettable Qatari stage (he finished in a group 15 seconds behind the leaders): “Today was a metaphor for the classics—a nervous day where the weather conditions are an important given, where you have to be focused all the time or you can lose everything in [misjudging] a turn….”

Also in that chase group with Offredo in Qatar was BMC Racing’s Philippe Gilbert, whose most recent preparation race was the two-day Tour du Haut-Var in the South of France last weekend. Gilbert finished respectively third and second on the two stages, with the opening one being invaluable in preparing for the colder climes of northern Europe. “That was a very hard day,” said Gilbert’s BMC directeur sportif Yvon Ledanois. “Very cold, with wind and raining the entire time.” That same day, French star Sylvain Chavanel of IAM Cycling was experiencing similar weather in southern Spain’s Ruta del Sol. “With the cold and rain, the stage lasted almost six hours,” he said, “so obviously I hope that it will be good preparation for what we expect to face in the coming days.”

Chavanel will likely be assisting teammate Haussler at Het Nieuwsblad, while Gilbert will be riding for fellow Belgian and BMC teammate Van Avermaet—who was second here last year behind Team Sky’s Stannard. There might be a similar result Saturday, especially as Stannard has a strong team at his command, including a revitalized Brad Wiggins, whose final major target of his road career comes in some six weeks’ time at Paris-Roubaix.

That’s the same week the Major League Baseball season gets underway—when all that spring training suddenly becomes serious.

You can follow John at twitter.com/johnwilcockson