Talking points: E3 Prijs and Ghent-Wevelgem

Sagan, Cancellara, Omega Pharma, Sky and how the weather’s making the racing more exciting

Words by Edward Pickering

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Monday March 25, 2013

Peter Sagan’s biggest asset, his huge strength, is also his biggest weakness. His ability to outpower his rivals means that he’s seldom had to engage tactical thinking. Tactics are what you need when you’re not the strongest rider.

Sagan has bludgeoned his way through the cycling world like Polyphemus through Homer’s dozen soldiers: a powerful manifestation of primal brawn, a raging, destructive demonstration of id.

Winning has come too easily to him in smaller races. But in the Classics and major one-day races, he’s been too one-dimensional – often the strongest, never the wisest. His run of top fives in major one-day races stretches back to the beginning of 2012: fourth in Milan-San Remo, second in Ghent-Wevelgem, fifth in the Tour of Flanders, third in Amstel Gold. Then, this year, second in Milan-San Remo and E3.

But in winning Ghent-Wevelgem, he finally harnessed his strength effectively. Away in a dozen-strong group with three decent sprinters – Borut Bozic, Greg Van Avermaet and Heinrich Haussler – he instead attacked alone with four kilometres to go. It was still a phenomenally powerful attack – with a block headwind, it had to be – but the timing was superb. His rivals tried to follow, but couldn’t match the speed to which he had accelerated, then started playing games with each other, handing the win to Sagan.

That was smart enough, but note also that Sagan had been alert enough to make it into the group in the first place, and that he was the only rider with a team-mate. In Ghent-Wevelgem, the strongest, cleverest rider won.

Although the winners of the WorldTour one-day races have been a mix of unsurprising (Cancellara in E3, Sagan in Ghent-Wevelgem), and surprising (Ciolek in Milan-San Remo), the races themselves have been anarchic and unpredictable.

In a large part, this is down to the freezing weather. The peloton’s been more brittle and fragile, with a lot fewer riders making it into the final third of the races at the front and making it difficult for any one team to control affairs. Sprinters who can usually rely on six or seven team-mates to chase down breaks only have one or two men at their disposal, edging the balance of power towards aggressive riders and breakaways.

The winning break in Ghent-Wevelgem went almost apologetically. Heinrich Haussler attacked, on an innocuous piece of flat road just before the town of Loker, halfway between the Monteberg and the Baneberg climbs. There wasn’t even a counter-attack – Maciej Bodnar, Peter Sagan and Greg Va Avermaet each did turns attempting to bring him back, somebody let a wheel go behind, and that was that. Nine men joined up with three previous escapees, the lead went out to 90 seconds, and by the time Omega Pharma decided they actually didn’t want the break to go away after all, it was too late.

It’s fair to say that while Sagan won Ghent-Wevelgem, Omega Pharma lost it. The decision not to chase, taken because Stijn Vandenbergh was up at the front, was overturned when Omega started working to bring Mark Cavendish back into contention. With Boonen having crashed out, the team’s plan should have been to work for a sprint, and that meant not letting a strong group up the road. They could really have done with Vandenbergh helping with the pace-making, too.

For the final 40 kilometres, Omega had assistance from Blanco, Lotto and Katusha, but none of these teams, with the exception of Lotto, whose Jens Debusschere had punctured out of the escape group, should have let the break go in the first place, especially when the most dangerous rider in the race was up there, with a team-mate.

I’ve spent the last 18 months suspecting that Fabian Cancellara was a spent force in the Classics.

We’ll leave out the fact that E3’s technically a semi-classic, rather than the real thing, because Cancellara showed that when he’s allowed space to express himself, he’s still one of the most impressive riders in the world. His attack on the Oude Kwaremont was brave and masterfully-timed, and he did enough damage with it that the riders behind couldn’t organise a coherent chase until it was too late.

Cancellara’s rivals have worked him out in the last couple of years. Stick to his wheel when he attacks (no mean feat), and he’s vulnerable in a sprint finish. In turn, Cancellara worked out how to neutralise that threat in E3, by attacking on the steepest part of the Kwaremont, under the trees just before the village. The momentum of his attack carried him onto the flat section through Kwaremont village faster than his rivals. Then he took one look back, saw that nobody was with him, flicked himself into a higher gear, and started drawing away fast.

Once he was on his own, he made it look easy. Without the annoyance of other riders sitting on his wheel, he simply rode as fast as he could to the finish, while his pursuers hardly made an impression on his lead.

Looking ahead to the Tour of Flanders, It should be noted that the only rider to try and follow Cancellara on the Kwaremont was Peter Sagan. He couldn’t do it. With Boonen off form, it’s clear who the favourite is.

We’re less than halfway through the Classics season, and Sky have been good, but not great.

That’s better than “shit”, which is David Brailsford’s assessment of their 2012 Classics campaign, but their Classics achievements are lagging behind their invincible-looking stage race squad.

Sky’s riders are obviously in good shape – the winter training programme that Tim Kerrison worked out with the riders delivered a fit squad. Their results have been good – Geraint Thomas was fourth in Het Nieuwsblad and E3, Ian Stannard was a major protagonist, and came sixth, in Milan-San Remo, and Bernhard Eisel was seventh in Ghent-Wevelgem.

Their main problem is that by necessity, they’ve had to go for strength in depth, hiring a lot of good riders, instead of building the team around a major star. Cannondale, Omega Pharma and RadioShack have the luxury of Peter Sagan, Tom Boonen and Fabian Cancellara in their ranks. Sky’s strongest-looking rider is Thomas, but he’s not quite got the killer edge of these three riders. It’s meant that they are able to get numbers up at the front right through to the crucial phase of the races, but once the selection is made, their riders have been isolated and up against stronger sprinters, or stronger riders.

Cancellara and Sagan are clearly in great shape at the moment. Sky’s challenge is to beat them somehow. They won’t beat them in a head-to-head finish, but they should have a look at the tactics Garmin employed in the 2011 Paris-Roubaix, when the American team suffocated Cancellara out of the race, through strength in numbers.

Out of the nine podium places in the three WorldTour one-day races so far, Cannondale have achieved three, RadioShack and BMC two, with MTN and Astana taking one apiece.

Omega Pharma and Sky are noticeable by their absence.

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