Boonen or bust?
This time last year Patrick Lefevere and his team couldn’t put a foot wrong, with Tom Boonen in the form of his life and wins in Dwars Door Vlaanderen, E3 Harelbeke and Gent-Wevelgem. Wins in the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix were just around the corner in an unprecedented classics campaign.
On Sunday, Lefevere cut an exasperated figure on Belgian television having seen his star rider scrape himself off the tarmac and a team short of ideas and morale come away with another poor result.
Even if Boonen is able to recover in time for Flanders it’s highly unlikely that he’ll be in form by the time the race comes around. Roger De Vlaeminck – who would blame Boonen for Cyprus’ austerity measures if he was given enough time on the box – did make the rather salient point earlier this week that Boonen needs racing miles in his legs, and with that, Lefevere has decided to throw his leader into the mix at De Panne. Panic stations? Not quite, but while Cancellara is at home reading the papers with his feet up, his long-term rival is striving to save his spring.
Unleash the 'Machine’
Step forward Sylvain Chavanel. At 33, the Frenchman has become QuickStep’s most reliable performer in one-day races this season with 7th in Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, 4th in Milan-San Remo and 6th in Harelbeke. While those results alone don’t guarantee a successful investment for Flanders and Roubaix they do furnish Lefevere with a plan B and, from a more cynical standpoint, an opportunity to parry the blame should Boonen fail to recover.
Chavanel, it must be remembered, finished second in Flanders two years ago, even edging out Cancellara, but if Lefevere backs him to the hilt, with even Boonen acting as a foil, Flanders is certainly winnable.
Chavanel has thrived with a free role in the past but his legs from Harelbeke and confidence from San Remo make him worthy of leadership. Who knows, we might even see the first French winner of a Monument since Laurent Jalabert won the Tour of Lombardy in 1997.
Sagan so good
After two second places in Milan-San Remo and E3 Harelbeke it looked as though Peter Sagan hadn’t learnt from the mistakes that blighted his 2012 classics. Overestimating his sprint and underestimating Ciolek’s pace in Italy, followed by poor positioning in E3 Harelbeke, cost the Slovak dearly.
However, Cannondale were a team reborn in Gent-Wevelgem, chasing down a risky move in the early chapters of the race and then positioning their leader at the front at all of the key sections. When Cancellara pulled away from Sagan with such ease at Harelbeke it was easy to assume that the Swiss rider simply had better legs but the climb of the Oude Kwaremont only told half the picture as Sagan had expended too much energy up until that point attempting to chase from positions he should never have been in.
A lot of pros mark the climbs of the Classics on their stems but the bergs themselves are the window dressing of the classics – the crucial sections might be 6km away from a climb, or a descent with a tricky narrow right turn. Put Andreas Klier in a good mood and he’ll be able to measure when and where you need to be at the front of the race by simply looking at a house on the side of the road, such is his vast knowledge of the routes.
Sagan has raw talent and while that will be enough to dig him out of a hole in 90 per cent of racing situations, but as Cancellara demonstrated at E3, talent isn’t always enough. If Sagan is to win Flanders, then he needs to plan the race thoroughly and not just rely on his legs.
Flecha’s and Vacansoleil’s final chance
Vacansoleil have been sponsoring a team in the highest echelons of the sport since 2009 but results have been scarce on the ground in major races. Ask yourself how many memorable moments they’ve provided in the sport and you’ll probably come up with Thomas De Gendt’s win on the Stelvio, or Bobbie Traksel’s Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne win, and perhaps even Johnny Hoogerland’s crash in the 2011 Tour. Not exactly a reel of epic highlights is it?
With the team’s latest ticking time bomb, José Rujano, dodging questions, the pressure is on to find a result this spring. De Gendt popped up with a stage win in Catalunya but the main focus at this time of year is on the cobbles of Belgium and France. Unfortunately for Vacansoleil, they only have Juan Antonio Flecha to look to, a 35-year-old who has won two individual races – one of them was the overall in the Circuit Franco-Belge – since the start of 2007. At least the Spaniard looks competitive after an aggressive ride in Gent-Wevelgem, but after Sky lost patience with him last season it’s hard to see how he can deliver the result his new management so sorely needs.
Cancellara in cruise control
Retiring from Gent-Wevelgem was purely tactical and a sign that Cancellara now has his attention completely trained on securing his second Tour of Flanders crown. After a disappointing 2012, it was perhaps easy to write off the Swiss rider. With his time trialling crown already on the head of Tony Martin it seemed only a matter of time before the one-day reputation also started to fade. Sagan, Moser, even Ciolek to a small degree, suggested that a new generation were taking over.
However, Cancellara has rebounded this season and arguably put in his best performance for two years with his win at E3 Harelbeke. It’s also arguable that the rest of the field and especially Boonen and Quickstep have taken a step back this season rather than Cancellara improving by any great margin, but he’s now the rider to beat for both upcoming Monuments and holds a slight advantage over Sagan.
Two years ago Garmin’s management talked about becoming the world number team and with a raft of reinforcements from Cervélo the project looked feasible. Heinrich Haussler, Thor Hushovd, Andreas Klier, Brett Lancaster, Daniel Lloyd, Roger Hammond and Gabriel Rasch all moved from a bankrupt squad and the Classics juggernaut took shape. It was Johan Vansummeren who saved the team’s blushes that year and Sep Vanmarcke repeated the trick last time, but the team are desperately short of options with Vansummeren their lone finisher at Gent-Wevelgem. Only Klier, set to retire this spring remains from the class of Cervélo, while Martijn Maaskant and Tyler Farrar look short of fitness and confidence while the signings of Sebastien Rosseler and Nick Nuyens look like wasted money. Ramunas Navardauskas, who has been thought of highly since turning professional, could be their best hope.
Top ten finishes in Milan-San Remo, Dwars Door Vlaanderen, E3 Harelbeke and Gent-Wevelgem show Sky’s level of consistency in one-day races but with just one podium to show for their efforts, they’re yet to transform their stage racing dominance to the classics arena. Experience on the road doesn’t seem to be the issue with Mat Hayman and Bernhard Eisel both veterans and with Servais Knaven and Kurt Asle Arvesen in the car the team should be producing more for their efforts. Rod Ellingworth made that clear to his riders after E3 when he told Cyclingnews that merely being up there wasn’t good enough, but part of the issue lies in the fact that the team can’t decide on who their best rider is. It’s almost unforgivable given their budget that Astana can outthink and outrank them with podium places for Borut Bozic at Dwars Door Vlaanderen and Gent-Wevelgem. That old British mentality of simply ‘getting stuck in’ and ‘having a go’ rarely wins races.
It’s hard to fault Sky’s tactics in Gent-Wevelgem, they simply had the wrong rider in the break, but a genuine question needs to be asked as to why Boasson Hagen cannot perform in the spring classics. Four years ago he romped away to a win in Wevelgem and it was supposed to set the tone for the coming years with any number of commentators and former riders within reach of a microphone or keyboard likening him to the Cannibal.
Boasson Hagen remains a supreme talent on the bike but whether he’s racing too much or he’s simply not had the rub of green needs to be addressed.
BMC moving closer
Third places in E3 and Gent-Wevelgem represent a consistent return for the American team and a step in the right direction ahead of Flanders. The fact that it was Oss and Van Avermaet who netted the podiums, while Gilbert and Hushovd looked undercooked shouldn’t be of major concern as the team have depth and options. Gilbert looks to be improving with every race and although he has the rainbow bands across his chest he won’t be under the microscope as much as Cancellara and Sagan come the morning of Flanders. Hushovd’s position looks more precarious, given that he was signed to co-lead in the Classics and his best result in two seasons is 14th place in the 2012 Paris-Roubaix.