Etixx-QuickStep's house of cards collapses
The whys and wherefores of Etixx-QuickStep’s defeat at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad were parsed and analysed in detail after the race and will no doubt continue to be debated for years to come, particularly if Omloop remains the one cobbled classic missing from Boonen’s palmares when he finally does hang up his wheels.
After the podium ceremonies, Boonen came to the conclusion that Etixx-QuickStep simply ought to have waited for the sprint instead of trying to drop Stannard in the finale. Certainly, it seemed odd that Boonen, by some distance the fastest sprinter of the Etixx trio, was delegated to launch an attack at all. It was strange, too, to see Vandenbergh – perhaps inadvertently – shut down an attack of Terpstra’s.
Most of curious of all was Terpstra’s decision to launch the two-up sprint early despite the fact that Boonen was almost within touching distance behind and, more importantly, the fact that the same approach had backfired so spectacularly for Greg Van Avermaet against Stannard in more or less the same situation last year.
The whole misadventure raises questions about how well Terpstra and Boonen can dovetail their efforts on the cobbles this season. Since signing for QuickStep in 2011, Terpstra has seen off the likes of Sylvain Chavanel and quietly moved up the hierarchy to within a heartbeat of Boonen’s longstanding presidency. After landing Paris-Roubaix last year, Terpstra may feel he has a case for the premiership in his own right.
Or perhaps we are simply reading too much into one, unusual afternoon of racing. QuickStep have a recent history of delivering dissonant displays at Omloop, after all, only to sing resolutely from the same hymn sheet come the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix. And, to borrow from footballing parlance, Stannard seemed almost unplayable in those absurd closing kilometres. Or as one Etixx staff member put it, "Sometimes you just have to say chapeau." (BR)
Cavendish in the frame for Milan-San Remo and Gent-Wevelgem?
When Mark Cavendish claimed his 100th career victory during the 2013 Giro d’Italia, he noted that he had reached a point in his career where, in a manner of speaking, he could no longer win. Victory in bunch sprints was taken as a given, and only his defeats were now considered newsworthy.
The lay of the sprinting land has changed since, of course, thanks to Marcel Kittel’s pre-eminence in the intervening period, but Cavendish’s resurgence in the early months of this season has led to a new phenomenon. If in 2013, a Cavendish win was greeted with a "So what?" these days the reaction is often along the lines of "Yeah but…"
Reservations were expressed about the quality of the riders Cavendish defeated in San Luis, Dubai and Almeria – the chief charge being that Kittel was an absentee – but the Manxman’s disposal of the in-form Alexander Kristoff in the finishing straight in Kuurne was proof that his early run of success is no illusion.
The victory doesn’t make Cavendish the outright favourite for Milan-San Remo. After all, he also won Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne in 2012 only to fall well short in Italy, while Kristoff has beaten him soundly in sprints on the Riviera at each of the past two editions. It does, however, suggest that Cavendish will be very much in the mix on March 22 in San Remo.
His ease in tracking the split on the Kwaremont earlier on, meanwhile, made a compelling case for a protected position on Etixx-QuickStep’s line-up at Gent-Wevelgem a week later. And, lest it be forgotten, Cavendish is also riding to secure a contract for 2016 – though Patrick Lefevere will doubtless be the first to remind him that WorldTour points are a crucial bargaining chip. (BR)
Lefevere and life after Boonen
In fairness to Patrick Lefevere, Cavendish’s contract situation probably isn’t top of his priorities after a weekend that raised more questions than it answered in regards to QuickStep’s telemetry as they hone in on the Classics. However, Lefevere, who seemed surprisingly flustered by his team’s ride in Omloop – first blaming Stannard’s tactics before defending his own riders – needs to settle on his long term plans and build for the future.
Tactics aside, the sight of Boonen being so easily caught and then dispatched by Stannard after the Belgian’s attack will have turned Lefevere’s blood cold. Quite simply, this isn’t the Boonen of old and certainly not the leader who rampaged through the Classics in 2013 with such alarming ease. Age is perhaps catching up with Tomeke. Lefevere can surround his leader with the best domestiques in the world but if Boonen can’t finish the task at hand then what role does he fulfil in the team?
In 2003 and 2004 Lefevere had the luxury of coaching Boonen through the ranks with Johan Museeuw already past his best but ready to hand over the reigns to Belgium’s new star. Boonen is now 34 and finds himself in his predecessor’s shoes but to who can he had the baton of leadership to? Lefevere has yet to find Boonen’s heir.
Terpstra, at 30, is probably no more than a stopgap and with Sep Vanmarcke feeling at home with LottoNL-Jumbo, Lefevere’s options for the future are limited. Peter Sagan is tied to down with massive amounts of roubles at Oleg Tinkov’s Tinkoff-Saxo team, Alexander Kristoff seems settled at Katusha and the new Belgian generation as a whole have failed to provide another true suitor for Lefevere to court.
Perhaps cycling has been blessed and become complacent with Boonen and Cancellara – two of the greatest ever one-day riders – acting as the Rafal Nadal and Roger Federer of their generation.
Lefevere’s biggest challenge is not winning a Classic this season, it is ensuring that his team can win them for the next three to four years. (DB)
Team Sky growing in relevance on the cobbles
Ian Stannard’s one-by-one takedown of the Etixx-QuickStep trio in Saturday’s finale at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad was, by some considerable margin, the performance of the weekend, but as Team Sky have discovered in the past, one Omloop Het Nieuwsblad victory does not a spring make.
Responding to criticism of Team Sky’s Classics showing in 2013, Bernhard Eisel made a cogent point when he noted that unless a team wins the Tour of Flanders or Paris-Roubaix, its cobbled campaign is essentially a failure, and even in these twilight years of the Boonen-Cancellara duopoly, muscling in on their terrain is an inherently difficult task.
That said, Team Sky’s collective showing this weekend suggests that they should finally punch their full weight when it comes to those first two Sundays in April. There were already real signs of improvement on last year, but at Omloop, Team Sky displayed an assurance and a cohesion so often lacking in the past.
Bradley Wiggins and Bernhard Eisel spent a lengthy stint dictating affairs at the head of the peloton, long-time promise Luke Rowe showed something tangible and Stannard’s act in the final reckoning speaks for itself.
Geraint Thomas will also be added to mix for the Tour of Flanders, while Wiggins has made a habit of hitting all of his recent targets, from the Tour of Britain to the Worlds time trial, even if Paris-Roubaix is the biggest ask of all.
At the very least, Team Sky will be very relevant in April – which could not have been said as recently as two years ago. (BR)
Vanmarcke holds his status in defining campaign
Another set of strong performances from Sep Vanmarcke (LottoNL-Jumbo) in Omloop and Kuurne demonstrate that the 26-year-old is on the right track with Flanders and Roubaix just over a month away.
Had it not been for an untimely puncture in the first race of the Belgian opening weekend the final result could may have been very different, and his show of force on several of the climbs, and his pursuit of the winning break were highly impressive displays of form.
The rider’s 140 character summation on Twitter summed up the situation perfectly: "Mixed feelings after this Belgian opening weekend. Great feeling, but not the results that I wanted!"
And in a sense Vanmarcke is in the same position he found himself twelve months ago: powerful, race defining, yet lacking that edge to seal the deal. The opening weekend isn’t always the best barometer for what will happen in a month’s time – a number of teams and riders chose not to race and riders are at different ends of the form spectrum – yet this is certainly a career-defining spell for Vanmarcke.
On the positive side he has the form, a willing team to support him, he knows that Boonen and Cancellara cannot go on forever.
However the task of winning Roubaix and Flanders is huge and only two riders from outside of QuickStep and Cancellara have managed the feat since 2008.
For a rider who has never won at WorldTour level, the test is even greater but Vanmarcke will certainly make the Classics a far more entertaining spectacle for his endeavour at the very least. (DB)
Stannard back to his best?
There was much doubt as to where Ian Stannard’s true form lay coming into this year’s Classics season. He’s had a solid performance at the Tour of Qatar but where he truly stood against his rivals was still up for debate. However, the 27-year-old blew away any doubts with an intelligent victory at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad.
The unpredictable nature of the race makes repeat victors uncommon and to do that after the year Stannard has endured is impressive. His victory over Greg van Avermaet in last year’s race proved that he was much more than the sturdy and reliable workhorse in the Grand Tours. There was an air of anticipation, and excitement, as his potential in the 2014 Classics was discussed. It was cut short though when a crash at Gent-Wevelgem put him out of action with fractured vertebrae. The nature of the injury made any training almost impossible and the road to recovery was long. A broken wrist at the Tour of Britain knocked him back again but he rolled with the punches and has come back fighting this season.
The repeat win at Het Nieuwsblad will rightly return Stannard to the role of Classics favourite. Winning the first race of the spring Classics is not a sure-fire sign that you’re going you’re going to dominating from here to April but it is a great warning shot. Stannard is in a team that boasts Geraint Thomas and Bradley Wiggins and he looked strong the following day at Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne as he worked for Elia Viviani.
If he can continue on this trajectory then we could be seeing him become Team Sky's Classics leader and climb onto the top step of the podium a few more times this spring. Even victory at Paris-Roubaix is well within his reach. (SO)
MTN-Qhubeka's leaders fall flat
MTN-Qhubeka’s foray into the transfer market during the off-season signaled that the South African squad was determined to make the step up to the big time in 2015, but confirmation of their Tour de France invitation apart, they have made a rather underwhelming start to the new campaign.
MTN’s black and white jerseys were very visible over the Belgian opening weekend, chiefly because their supporting riders rose admirably to their task and to the team’s growing status. Their leaders, however, were rather less impressive.
Matt Brammeier showed his aptitude for Classics fare when he drove the early break at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad deep into the Flemish countryside, alleviating the pressure on his leaders behind, but they were conspicuous by their absence in the finale.
Edvald Boasson Hagen did at least track Tom Boonen’s initial acceleration on the Taaienberg, but he later punctured and was never seen again. Tyler Farrar also punctured, while Gerald Ciolek never registered at the business end of the race to begin with.
At Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne, MTN missed what appeared to be the decisive selection on the Kwaremont, only for a strong delegation – including Tyler Farrar – to spend over an hour at the head of the peloton pegging them back. But to what end? Theo Bos abandoned and their highest finisher in the bunch sprint was Kristian Sbaragli in eighth. For the record, the three podium finishers – Cavendish, Kristoff and Elia Viviani – had all been part of the 19-man move that MTN had so vigorously pursued. They can only improve from here. (BR)
Van Avermaet able to put off-road issues aside
It was a turbulent set of races for BMC Racing and their Classics leader, with their first duty the issuing of a press release in which they rebutted suggestions in the Belgian press that Van Avermaet doped in 2011.
That the rider was backed by BMC is of little surprise but the news that he will have to answer questions in front of his national federation due to a relationship with a doctor at the centre of a doping investigation hardly helps both his preparation for the Classics or that of his team.
Out on the road Van Avermaet rode as well as could be expected under the distracting circumstances. He wasn’t able to hold the strongest riders when the race split in Omloop but his work with Sep Vanmarcke on the run-in to the finish at least suggested that his form is building.
However, for Van Avermaet the question has always been about temperament and mental fortitude in the key moments of major races. Twice second in significant races last year, he apparently now has the needed confidence to land his first spring Classics but his team have made it abundantly clear that the Belgian must step-up this season and deliver.
BMC came into this weekend’s racing without three key riders in Daniel Oss, Manuel Quinziato and Silvan Dillier. When they return to full-strength BMC should be able to play a more dominant role in races.
Philippe Gilbert’s cameo in Kuurne deserves mention - yet for Van Avermaet, the time to step up is now. (DB)
Bouhanni and Démare need a result at Paris-Nice
Fifteen racing days into life at Cofidis, it’s fair to say that there are a few kinks still to be smoothed out in Nacer Bouhanni’s new lead-out train.
The Frenchman announced his arrival at sprinting’s top table with five Grand Tour stage wins last year, but he has yet to register a victory in 2015. Indeed, he has yet to truly come close.
There was more frustration for Bouhanni at Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne. After starting his sprints from too far back on occasion in Qatar, Cofidis perhaps over-compensated by dropping Bouhanni off in third wheel with 500 metres left on Sunday. The Frenchman’s hopes were then definitively ended when he almost came a cropper in contact with Tom Van Asbroeck (LottoNL-Jumbo) and was forced to sit up, coming home in 18th place.
Bouhanni has designs on Milan-San Remo and Gent-Wevelgem – races he was never able to ride at FDJ – and his displays last autumn certainly suggested a future Classics winner in the making. But Bouhanni has been signed by Cofidis for results in the here and now as well as for his promise. Before facing into his first tilt at Milan-San Remo, the youngster could do with a morale-boosting stage win at Paris-Nice.
In a similar situation, though with perhaps a little less expectation on his shoulders, is Bouhanni’s old internal rival at FDJ, Arnaud Démare, who also endured frustration this weekend when a puncture hampered his progress at Omloop and he had to settle for 10th place. Like Bouhanni, Démare has the Classics in mind – Paris-Roubaix in particular, as well as Gent-Wevelgem and Milan-San Remo – and he, too, is yet to get off the mark in 2015.
The pair raced against each other in both Qatar and Oman, though their much-anticipated head-to-head sprint battle never materialised as they each struggled to make a telling impact in bunch finishes. Where better for a rematch than on home roads at Paris-Nice next week? (BR)
Kristoff a Classics favourite throughout
The Katusha sprinter may have missed out on a victory over the weekend but he leaves the first spree of Belgian racing as one of the favourites for spring Classic victory.
Having secured three stage win in Qatar last month and declared that he had never started the season so strongly, many a pundit had Kristoff down as the man to beat in the Opening weekend. However Omloop has never been a happy hunting ground for the 27-year-old but his display in Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne provided further evidence that a defence of his Milan-San Remo crown is very possible.
Unlike Cavendish, Kristoff wasn’t afforded a rest-day for Omloop and again, unlike Cavendish, the Norwegian swung through and took a number of turns when QuickStep pulled the field apart in Kuurne.
That’s not to diminish Cavendish’s result but Kristoff will look back at this weekend with a certain degree of satisfaction - firstly with his own rides but also those of his teammates, who continue to come on leaps and bounds as they unite behind a rider who has won 18 of their last 29 victories.
There is still work to be done as the sprinter’s leadout train develop and improve but the signing of Jacopo Guarnieri has already proved a successful one. From San Remo right through until Flanders, Kristoff could play a race-defining role throughout. (DB)