Talking points: Tour of Flanders

Cancellara, Shack, Lotto, Sagan, Sky and the new route

Words by Edward Pickering

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Monday April 1, 2013

Since his extraordinary Flanders-Roubaix double in 2010, Fabian Cancellara hasn’t won another Monument. He’s been close – second, third and second in Milan-San Remo, Flanders and Roubaix in 2011, runner-up in San Remo the following year before breaking his collarbone in a Flanders crash, then third in Milan-San Remo this spring.

His defeats came for a variety of reasons. In all three San Remo races, he was instrumental in forcing breaks away, but always got defeated in the sprint. He overreached himself in the 2011 Flanders, then got ganged up on and isolated by Garmin in Paris-Roubaix that year.

In short, his rivals had worked him out. Nobody’s going to beat Cancellara in a battle on equal terms, so they made things unequal enough to play into their favour, by following his wheel, and outsprinting him at the finish, or making the race more tactical than physical. That’s a good thing.

Cancellara should really have tweaked his own tactics. Getting outsmarted in five Monuments out of six (and crashing out of the other) was beginning to make him look one-dimensional.

It turns out that the Swiss rider had more confidence in his methods than I did. His attacks on the Oude Kwaremont and Paterberg were vintage Cancellara. He powered away from everybody except Sagan on the first climb, then dropped Sagan on the second. It was still one-dimensional, but there was a purity and almost frightening intensity in the surges which dismantled his rivals’ ambitions. Cancellara in full cry at the end of a Classic is one of cycling’s most awe-provoking sights – I don’t think I’ve seen anything quite like it in over 25 years of watching the sport.

Cancellara’s a man of extraordinary self-confidence, in the purest sense of the words. His physical strength makes him feel invincible. When I interviewed him at home in Switzerland after his Flanders and Roubaix, I sensed none of the doubt, fragility or cockiness with which other riders deal with, or compensate for, their physical shortcomings.

I sometimes wonder how he’ll cope with the inevitable waning of his physical abilities, but I’ve given up predicting when it will happen.

Lotto-Belisol were the bravest and most positive team yesterday. They knew none of their riders had a chance of matching the firepower of Cancellara and Sagan, but they showed initiative and were rewarded with third place for Jurgen Roelandts.

Lotto put a lot of riders up the road yesterday – even André Greipel was sent on the attack on the Molenberg (either that, or he was going for the longest sprint of his career). Greipel joined up with his team-mate Tosh Van der Sande, who’d been in the early break. Then, as Van der Sande faltered, Mercel Seiberg went on the Rekelberg with 108 kilometres to go.

Seiberg was tailed off on the second climb of the Kwaremont, while Greipel was reeled in after the second time up the Paterberg. Then, with 33 kilometres to go, Jurgen Roelandts went on the attack, countering a dig by Yoann Offredo of FDJ and Sébastian Hinault of IAM. Sébastien Turgot of Europcar also went, and within a few kilometres, this quartet had hoovered up break survivors Maarten Tjallingii of Blanco, Michal Kwiatkowski of Omega and Mirko Selvaggi of Vacansoleil

Hinault and Roelandts worked free of the others going into the final Kwaremont climb, then Roelandts went for it alone on the cobbles. With a 30-second lead over the peloton, he suddenly looked like the smartest rider in the race. Everybody else with an eye on the podium were with Cancellara and Sagan and were about to be dropped, but he’d given himself a head start.

Roelandt’s timing had been perfect. Cancellara and Sagan joined him on the main road at the top of the climb, then he sat in, fought his way up the Paterberg, and was close enough to catch back up with Sagan over the top. He never had a hope of beating Sagan in the sprint for second, but both riders were sufficiently motivated to work together to stay clear of the next group, just a couple of hundred metres behind them.

The arguments over the new course design of the Tour of Flanders have been well-rehearsed. Lionel Birnie outlined his concerns before the race last year in a piece for this site, and I more or less confirmed his fears in my post-race reaction, bashed out in the car on the way back from Oudenaarde.

This is the second year that the route has featured a finishing trio of laps based around the Oude Kwaremont and Paterberg climbs, the first of which adds the Koppenberg into the mix.

If the organisers persevere with this race structure, I have a prediction: there will be more multiple winners than there used to be. The Tour of Flanders is unusual among the Classics and big races in that nobody has ever won it more than three times. While Eddy Merckx won Milan-San Remo seven times and Liège-Bastogne-Liège five times, Fausto Coppi won the Tour of Lombardy five times, and Tom Boonen and Roger De Vlaeminck won Paris-Roubaix four times, nobody’s ever managed to win a fourth Ronde.

This is partly because the Tour of Flanders has always been a difficult race to win – it took more than physical strength to triumph, and the unique nature of the Flemish roads and climbs meant that the tactics were not only crucial, but also changed every year, depending on conditions.

The old run-in, over TenBosse, the Muur van Geraardsbergen and Bosberg, was challenging enough for selections, but straightforward enough that tactics could negate brute strength. The final stretch to Ninove was rolling and prone to crosswinds, with some horribly grippy drags.

Now, the race has lost the complexity that made it such a tricky race to master, and the strongest rider wins. Boonen last year, Cancellara this year, probably Sagan in 2014. The finishing circuits are so hard that they’ve crushed the nuance out of the tactics, while the run-in to Oudenaarde is flatter, better-surfaced, and seems to have a permanent headwind.

The route needs to be tweaked. The hardness of the final climbs has a chilling effect on the rest of the race – little of real significance happened before about 35 kilometres to go in yesterday’s race, when Jurgen Roelandts went away from the peloton into the final lap.

The Tour of Flanders isn’t Milan-San Remo. That race is a slow and steady build-up of intensity, a crescendo to a fortissimo climax. Yesterday’s race had none of the build-up – it was just a lot of waiting, followed by two short bursts of fireworks, before and after which we knew exactly what was going to happen.

Slovak prodigy Peter Sagan rode a good Tour of Flanders, but learned that the Ronde is a different proposition to Ghent-Wevelgem, which he won last week.

He did everything correct in the race – he was vigilant throughout, then followed Cancellara’s initial attack on the Kwaremont. That he couldn’t follow on the Paterberg showed that he’s not yet the finished product, but he looks like a future winner of the race, perhaps even as soon as next year.

The debate over his behaviour on the podium has raged for 24 hours now, with a full range of opinions. I don’t think I’m being too controversial in saying it’s not OK to grope members of the opposite, or indeed same, sex, either in front of the world’s press, or anywhere else, without their express permission. Nor that 23 is old enough to know that. (I’ve also always been mystified by the idea of podium girls, although this is a separate issue.)

Sagan won’t do it again, but hopefully that will be because he realises what’s appropriate and what’s not, both publicly and privately, not just because he’s got into trouble.

RadioShack haven’t looked strong this season, resembling more and more a one-man team.

However, they out-Skyed Sky yesterday, putting a string of domestiques on the front of the peloton for virtually the entire race. Rast, Popovych, Roulston and Devolder did monstrous turns to set up Cancellara’s win. It wasn’t a subtle tactic, but it was effective.

His team was perceived to be Cancellara’s weakness, and he was expected to be isolated in the final hour. Now, the cycling world is wondering how Shack and Cancellara can be stopped in Paris-Roubaix.

Has the experiment been a success or a failure? Were the Sky Classics team right to train in Tenerife rather than follow a traditional build-up at Tirreno-Adriatico or Paris-Nice, along with other races?

So far, it looks like a qualified failure. Sky were a factor in E3 and Ghent-Wevelgem, but Flanders was a disaster. Thomas crashed at a crucial moment (just as he did in Milan-San Remo). Hayman and Eisel were ill. Stannard didn’t have the legs he had in Milan-San Remo and he was caught on the wrong side of the crash on the Koppenberg. Boasson Hagen tried and failed to follow Cancellara and Sagan on the Kwaremont, although in his favour he was the last to be dropped. They didn’t even get anybody into the top 10.

There’s still Paris-Roubaix to go, but worryingly for Sky, their best race was San Remo, then E3, then Ghent-Wevelgem, then Flanders. That looks like a downward trajectory.

But is the problem fitness or race-craft? Going to Tenerife for altitude training gets riders into great shape, and that works in the more logical tactical world of stage races. But the Classics demand more than fitness. If all that form is used up taking too much wind at the wrong time in a race, as Boasson Hagen appeared to be doing yesterday, then it’s wasted.

Their best tactic might be to sign Fabian Cancellara at the end of the season.

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