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Ten conclusions from the cobbled Classics

By:
Daniel Benson
Published:
April 10, 2012, 21:30 BST,
Updated:
April 11, 2012, 2:51 BST
Race:
Paris - Roubaix
Paris-Roubaix champion Tom Boonen and third-place finisher Alessandro Ballan on the podium.

Paris-Roubaix champion Tom Boonen and third-place finisher Alessandro Ballan on the podium.

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We've reached the end of one of the most important parts of the cycling season, and  the last of the cobbled Classics and semi-Classics are behind us. What conclusions can be drawn from the performances so far this spring? Cyclingnews' managing editor Daniel Benson gives his analysis.

1 - OPQS rules: A purple patch of form is nothing new in sport but Omega Pharma-Quickstep’s dominance has been earth shattering and needless to say, ruthless. Wins in Dwars Door Vlaanderen, E3 Prijs Vlaanderen-Harelbeke, Gent-Wevelgem, the Driedaagse De Panne-Koksijde, Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix, with two runners-up spots in Dwars and Omloop Het Nieuwsblad thrown in for good measure, mark them as the team of the spring.

At the start of the season Patrick Lefevere and certainly Wilfried Peeters, would have bitten your hand off for just one Monument, but they can look back at a campaign that steamrollered the opposition from beginning to end. But this isn’t the best Classics team of all time; it’s not even the best line-up Lefevere has managed, making their results all the more impressive and surprising. Therefore, the question is whether Omega really are that good or as Roger de Vlaeminck ponders, if the opposition are really that bad?

2 - Pozzato falls short: One man who could have dented Omega’s dominance was Filippo Pozzato. The Italian was the strongest rider on the hills of Flanders, almost doing enough to drop Boonen before the flat run in. However, it wasn’t to be and his second place in Flanders will be of little consolation for the Italian.

We’ve said on these pages before that Pippo is a rider who does a lot of things well but not one thing exceptionally and such a skill set means he has to be even more clinical than most when finishing off races. His choice not to attack the three-man move in Flanders and to wait for the sprint was certainly understandable, but his decision to not chase Boonen immediately in Roubaix was poor. Overall this was a good campaign for the Italian, who can take a lot of credit for the way he’s bounced back after his two final years at Katusha were nothing but a disappointment.

3 - Boonen is back and better than ever: Take a bow, Tom Boonen, the first man in the history of the sport to win the Flanders-Roubaix double twice, and in the space of three weeks claim Flanders, Roubaix, Gent-Wevelgem and E3 Prijs. It was an incredible run of form, especially for a man written off after failing to win a Monument since 2009.

4 - But what if? We’ll never know how Flanders and Roubaix would have panned out had Cancellara not crashed and broken his collarbone in an innocuous stretch of road in Belgium. Until that point he’d been built up as the favourite, as strong if not stronger than 2011, and with a more robust team around him he had every reason to trouble Boonen. The heavyweight contest between him and Boonen failed to materialize and the path was clear for the Belgian to strut his stuff. The RadioShack leader now trails Boonen 7-4 in Monuments but while Boonen has won this year’s battle(s) the war is far from over. Cancellara has ruled since 2010 and this year’s run only serves to make 2013 just that bit more exciting.

5 - The lost passport: It’s been almost two years since the last biological passport case was opened but back in December the UCI told Cyclingnews that new cases were weeks, if not days away. Several months on and there are no new cases. Coupled with the fact that there were no blood tests during several major US races last year and it creates unease that will simmer away.

If there are no new cases is it because the peloton is clean, or is it because the UCI can’t afford to test sufficiently? Perhaps the answer lies somewhere in the middle. Perhaps. It’s a scary question and one that will not be answered in the short term. In two years the passport has lost its leader – Anne Gripper – and its most vocal (vocal doesn’t mean best by the way) expert on the panel has quit. While we’re not saying that the results from this spring are not credible, they’d sit a lot easier if we at least knew the current strength of the anti-doping programme.

6 - Wither Stijn: Just exactly where does a two-time Tour of Flanders winner like Stijn Devolder goes from here? Out of contract at the end of the season and without a result in three years, his stock has fallen in the extreme. It’s unlikely Vacansoleil will be in a rush to offer the Belgian a new contract but that may not spell the end for the 32-year-old. Flanders is a race that captures the love of a nation and with two wins to his name Devolder will probably find another home for next season, albeit a slightly smaller one.

7 -  A tale of two Hausslers: If Devolder’s demise was to be expected, it’s a different tale with Heinrich Haussler. The Australian is fully fit after a difficult two-year period of injury and rehabilitation and his fourth place in Omloop Het Nieuwsblad promised much. However it was a spring to forget for the likeable Garmin rider. Claiming it was due to his participation in nationals seems somewhat questionable, as it’s not affected Matt Goss or Simon Gerrans.

Haussler’s superb 2009 Classics season now appears to be the exception rather than the rule. Having signed a lucrative contract at the height of his Cervelo days, he’ll be a free agent at the end of the season. Garmin will surely make a bid to keep him, but his price tag has dropped, opening him up for a number of suitors willing to give him a chance.

8 - The next generation:  With Boonen, Pozzato and Ballan all over the age of 30 there were a number of strong performances from a younger guard. Turgot’s (27) ride in Paris-Roubaix was the most impressive but Chainel (28), Sagan (22), Boasson Hagen (24), Degenkolb (23), Ghyselinck (24) and Vanmarcke (23) are part of a new generation that will at some point assume the mantle from the current crop of big-hitters.

9 - Ballan rescues BMC's spring: In light of Boonen’s strength, BMC must be satisfied with their haul of two third places from Flanders and Roubaix, respectively. With their two major signings, Hushovd and Gilbert, suffering with injury and illness, Ballan’s two rides are even more impressive. Greg Van Avermaet’s fourth in Flanders and Phinney’s ride in Roubaix suggest that there’s more to the team than their Galácticos.

10 - Boasson Hagen's blues:  The spring was hardly a failure for Boasson Hagen, finishing in the top 20 on three occasions but his implosion in Paris-Roubaix made for horrible viewing. At the start of the race we asked one of the Norwegian’s former directors why the rider had failed to deliver in the major classics. There was a shrug of the shoulders, a few mutters surrounding hierarchy at Sky, but the one insight was whether the 24-year-old could bring it all together when it really mattered. Perhaps that’s somewhat unfair, after all Boasson Hagen has won stages in two Grand Tours. But his Classics career has stalled. In 2009 when he won Gent-Wevelgem the landscape looked conquerable in all directions. At 24, it still is, but he needs to get moving soon.

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