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The Waiting Game

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John Wilcockson / Yuzuru Sunada

In last Monday’s edition of L’Équipe, the French newspaper that’s regarded as the bible of sports journalism in Europe, its senior cycling editor Philippe Bouvet wrote a scathing column about the previous day’s Liège-Bastogne-Liège classic. It was a column that criticized the motives and tactics of today’s pro racers and their team directors—though he did not call into question the opportunist sprint victory of Orica-GreenEdge’s Australian national champion Simon Gerrans, noting that Gerrans won another monument, Milan-San Remo, two years ago.

In the column, Bouvet first quoted race director Christian Prudhomme (also the Tour de France boss), who said that “the 100th edition of such a beautiful race deserved a better outcome. We didn’t see one attack from a favorite!” Then, after mentioning that the week’s previous two classics also ended in last-minute moves (by BMC Racing’s Philippe Gilbert at the Amstel Gold Race and Movistar’s Alejandro Valverde at La Flèche Wallonne), he wrote, “The truth is that the big leaders have only one bullet to fire, and they all want to fire it at the same time and at the same place, that is to say at the last possible moment.”

In defense of their actions (or lack of action!), one leader, BMC’s Gilbert said, “It’s becoming more and more difficult to make a difference.” The former world champ then said this about the finale in Liège-Bastogne-Liège: “We were all riding flat out and it just wasn’t possible to attack.” Elaborating on the reasons for this, Gilbert added, “At BMC, there are five riders capable of being there until the last hill and there are six or seven teams like ours.”

Bouvet headlined his column: “Gerrans to the millimeter.” Coincidentally, the same day as Bouvet’s column appeared, Sydney Morning Herald sportswriter Rupert Guinness recalled an earlier conversation he’d had with Gerrans in which the Aussie champ said, “I am a calculated rider…very calculated. That stems from not being the most talented guy, not having the biggest engine. I have learned over the years to be very precise and calculated with my tactics in races. And as I have got stronger that has worked to my advantage.”

This combination of equally strong teams neutralizing themselves and strong riders capable of making calculated, last-second bursts may not be wildly attractive but, as Bouvet wrote, “It’s just the reality of cycling today that is played to the millimeter.” But need it be this way?

It’s not possible to please everyone, and many fans have pointed out that they’d much rather see a classic that’s undecided until a final sprint (as happened at both Liège and San Remo this year), rather than an “old fashioned” race as often happens at Paris-Roubaix with a long solo breakaway winner. But I’m sure that even those fans would prefer to see the stars battling things out much earlier in the finale than waiting and waiting and waiting until the finish banner is on the horizon.

In this spring’s top classics, there were several opportunities when riders could have been more enterprising. When Vincenzo Nibali attacked up the Cipressa on the road to San Remo, no one had the intuition (or strength at the end of a long, wet day) to go with the Italian. Yes there was a headwind on the coast road, and the speed was high, but even alone Nibali managed to stay clear until the early slopes of the Poggio, the climb just before the finish. With two or three like-minded strong men, he would have had a strong chance of staying clear over the Poggio and avoiding the big-group finish that resulted in victory for Norwegian sprinter Alexander Kristoff.

There were similar opportunities at Paris-Roubaix, notably when Omega Pharma’s Tom Boonen made an early move that only Sky’s Geraint Thomas contributed to, while others in the breakaway were reluctant to help. And when Cannondale’s Peter Sagan moved clear before the last difficult sectors of cobblestones, no one went with him—instead, the other team leaders waited too long and a dozen men came together before Omega’s Niki Terpstra took advantage of his team’s greater numbers to make his successful solo attack with 6 kilometers left.

Only last month’s Tour of Flanders saw the stalemate broken and we saw a four-man finish sprint. That happened because BMC’s Greg Van Avermaet used his intimate knowledge of the course to make a bold attack on the third-to-last climb (marked by Pharma’s Stijn Vandenbergh). This pair stayed clear until being joined by Trek’s Fabian Cancellara (and Belkin’s Sep Vanmarcke) who dropped the other favorites and chased down the breakaways over the final two hills. The result was the most exciting of this year’s spring classics.

In contrast, no one made the best use of the much tougher terrain at Liège-Bastogne-Liège. Most of the pre-race favorites said the pace was too high because of favorable winds for the last 20 kilometers—which included the challenging climbs at La Roche-aux-Faucons, Saint-Nicolas and Ans.

Normally, the leading teams drive the pace into the Roche-aux-Faucons, but this year it was the unfancied French teams Europcar and AG2R that led the peloton here. That effort allowed AG2R’s specialist Italian climber Domenico Pozzovivo to attack with Trek’s Colombian phenom Julian Arredondo on the steepest section of this climb—and they made the perfect target for a seven-man chase group that formed on the often decisive final ramp. But none of the seven, not even Nibali, Gilbert or Tinkoff’s Roman Kreuziger, was committed enough to make their move stick.

Then, on Saint-Nicolas, the favorites were still reluctant to attack, not wanting to risk losing the race; and it was Pozzovivo who went again, this time with fellow Italian Giampaolo Caruso of Katusha. They dangled off the front for the remaining 5 kilometers, never more than 15 seconds ahead, and they were still in front at the top of the finishing climb—where they were caught by Garmin’s defending champ Dan Martin. The Irishman had played the waiting game to perfection before he bridged to the leaders with an impressive uphill sprint. That he then skidded and fell on the last corner 240 meters from the line was the most dramatic moment of the race. Martin lost his chance to win again, but the effort he made to close the gap was the impetus needed for Gerrans (who sat on Valverde’s wheel up the climb) to be in position to sprint past Caruso for the victory.

So an Australian with Orica completed the improbable sequence of eight different riders from eight different countries and eight different teams winning the eight UCI WorldTour classics of spring 2014. It may not be a coincidence that the major teams that came up short in the classics—Astana, Belkin, Garmin-Sharp, Lampre-Merida, Tinkoff-Saxo and Sky—are also the teams with most of the best candidates to win the upcoming grand tours, including Alberto Contador, Rui Costa, Chris Froome, Chris Horner (when he’s recovered from his recent training crash injuries), Martin, Bauke Mollema and Nibali.

The season of grand tours starts with the upcoming Giro d’Italia, May 9-June 1, so we’ll have to wait until the fall to see if the top teams and their most-talented classics riders have learned any lessons from their sometimes overly cautious approach this past spring.