Classics month started with a bang on Sunday as Katusha’s Alexander Kristoff took victory in the year’s second monument, the Tour of Flanders.
The Norwegian held off Etixx-Quick-Step‘s Paris-Roubaix winner Niki Terpstra over the final 30km as the pair shot off the front, leaving the weary riders behind them unable to bridge a gap that never exceeded thirty seconds.
It was Kristoff’s second monument win, after last year’s Milan-San Remo victory, but one that showed he has more tricks in his repertoire than many of us imagined. Here are a few other things we learned over the course of the 264km pootle in Flanders.
Stay well away from the service cars
It was a day to forget for the chaps in the Shimano neutral service cars, who got a bit more involved in the race action than they, or their employers, would have liked. Indeed, two of the race’s biggest incidents involved the blue cars that are supposed to be there to provide support, but in fact were just a hindrance and downright dangerous.
Having slogged away in the breakaway, doing everything that was asked of him, Trek Factory Racing’s Jesse Sergent was blindsided by one of the Shimano cars.
With the vehicles supposedly driven by people well versed in cycle racing, it was mind boggling as to why the car decided to speed past the breakaway on a corner rather than hang back and pass them on one of the long straights that punctuated the route.
The collision left Sergent with a broken collarbone, almost certainly ruling him out of the rest of the Classics season, and further depleted Trek’s roster for the April races.
While this incident was bad enough, we saw another lapse of concentration from a Shimano driver as they ploughed into the back of the FDJ team car, which had slowed to assist Sebastian Chavanel. As the team mechanic opened his door to get out and assist the Frenchman, the car was rear-ended by the service car, causing the open door to knock Chavanel from his bike.
Luckily the rider didn’t suffer any broken bones, but his, and the Shimano driver’s, race was over as he nursed his bruises, leaving the normally vociferous FDJ boss Marc Madiot lost for words.
Shimano apologised for both incidents and promised to “deeply” investigate what went on.
Kristoff is more than just a sprinter
It was quite a strange feeling to watch Kristoff power away from the bunch with 30km to go and cross the finish line once. The Norwegian is the kind of racer that you know has all the qualities to win any race he enters but, despite backing him with my own hard-earned money, it’s always a bit of a surprise to see him doing so well in the Classics.
Be it Milan-San Remo, which he won in 2014 and came second this year, or March’s cobbled semi-Classics, in which he recorded three top-10 finishes and an 11th place in the fourth, Kristoff is always in the hunt.
He’s been a virtually unstoppable force this season; recording a top-10 finish in 20 of his 28 racing days this season, with nine of those see him standing on the top step of the podium. Kristoff is just as at home in a bunch sprint at the Tour of Qatar as he is in a reduced bunch in a cobbled Classic.
But by sensing an opportunity to break away from the chasers 30km from home in Flanders, Kristoff showed his tactical nous. With only Terpstra for company, Kristoff was confident the race was his to lose, as he knew he had the edge over the Etixx rider in the final sprint.
Then, in the final kilometre, Kristoff’s tactics paid off. As Terpstra refused to do any of the work at the front in order to spring a surprise attack for the line, Kristoff simply slowed the pace and outsprinted the Dutchman when he made his move.
In many ways the Katusha rider is having the season that Tinkoff-Saxo’s Peter Sagan was dreaming of.
Etixx got their tactics wrong again
Apart from Mark Cavendish’s win at Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne, Etixx-Quick-Step have played the bridesmaid in all of the cobbled Classics. Second, third and fourth in Omloop Het Nieuwsblad; second and third at E3 Harelbeke; second and fourth in Ghent-Wevelgem; and now second again in the Tour of Flanders.
Time and time again, Etixx riders get themselves in strong positions, only to fail to deliver at the business end of the race.
It was surprising to see Kristoff playing all of his cards so early, given that he would back himself to out-sprint a bigger bunch at the finish. But it was more surprising that Terpstra was so keen to go with him and work to make the breakaway succeed, despite knowing he wouldn’t be able to shake the Katusha man.
Behind him, Zdenek Stybar did his best to stifle his Etixx teammate’s chances even further by marking any move that tried to close the gap to the pair up the road.
In doing so it made the result pretty inevitable – in a head-to-head battle Terpstra wouldn’t have been able to distance himself enough from Kristoff to take the win, but with other bodies around to mix things up he could have outfoxed everyone and ridden to victory.
With just two cobbled races left, Etixx-Quick-Step will surely be hoping it can end Marcel Kittel’s stranglehold on the Scheldeprijs on Wednesday. Then, in Sunday’s Paris-Roubaix, the Belgian team will again have plenty of cards to play, but will those cards be aces?
Andre Greipel is the ultimate team player
German sprinter Andre Greipel has big things on his mind this year, with stage wins at the Giro d’Italia and Tour de France in his sights, but the hulking Lotto Soudal rider put in a rider-of-the-day performance in Flanders on Sunday for his team.
Lotto (the red ones) were everywhere as the race progressed: Lars Bak was in the break, and Jurgen Roelandts and Jens Dubusschere were hovering around any moves in the bunch, but Greipel was the man who made it all happen.
Riding towards the front of the peloton as the break’s lead was slowly whittled down, Greipel kept his eyes on proceedings and every now and again burst up the road to liven up proceedings.
His key move, however, was just before the beastly Koppenberg. Knowing he’d likely be sucked up into the bunch if he rode with them up the cobbled climb, which hits a 22 per cent gradient, Greipel shot off the front and gained enough time on the peloton to ensure that he only got caught right at the brow of the hill.
This move kept him in the front group as many riders, including Bradley Wiggins, were dropped. From here the German continued to try and shake things up and his relentless hard work ensured top-10 finishes for teammates Tiesj Benoot and Roelandts.
Hard work does not always pay off
Team Sky found themselves in a familiar racing position on Sunday, but one they normally only find themselves in during stage races. The boys in black rode on the front of the peloton for virtually the whole race until it splintered on the Koppenberg.
Bernie Eisel, Luke Rowe, Ian Stannard and co all buried themselves in pursuit of the seven breakaway riders in an attempt to keep Geraint Thomas in with a chance of the win. Even Wiggins spent a large part of the race working for his teammate, despite nursing a few niggles from an earlier crash.
After his win at E3 last Friday, Thomas talked about the need to have numbers in the final stages, but unfortunately for Sky that number was one. The Welshman found himself bereft of teammates as the decisive breaks were made, leaving him struggling to bring them back.
His Harelbeke win means Thomas is now a marked man, and no-one seemed willing to help him close the gap on Kristoff and Terpstra, leaving the Sky man to burn himself out well before the finish. If Wiggins is to have a chance of winning in Roubaix next Sunday, he’ll need the likes of Thomas, Stannard and Rowe to last the course and help him in the crucial final kilometres.