So many positives can be drawn from this weekend but the most striking is the team’s overall consistency demonstrated in Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne over the past two seasons. Two wins, a second place and two thirds – it’s an envious position for any team. Yet, above all, what this weekend illustrated was how much the team has gelled and developed in the last twelve months.
There were subtle changes to line-ups but this weekend they showed that they have men for all occasions, and more worryingly for the likes of Leopard Trek and Quick Step, they seem able to adapt. They have plans B and even C. Flecha is caught? Not to worry, they send Hayman up the road. He’s caught? Well, then they fire off Stannard, and so on and so forth.
Hayman’s emergence as a foil for Juan Antonio Flecha and Edvald Boasson Hagen is another plus. The Australian is the personification of loyalty and team work, shown by the lack of wins he’s had in is long career but the amount of trust shown in him by the likes of Rabobank, Sky and of course, Flecha.
The aggression shown this weekend has been hailed by many as a new string to his bow but those who remember his emergence as a young pro at Rabobank in the late 90s will know differently. Hayman has always had the legs.
The orange army continued their dominant start to the season with a sterling win in Omloop. Their strength in races this season hasn’t reached vice-like proportions, but in Langeveld (26), Boom (25) and Gesink (24), they have a core group all entering the prime of their careers. With Breschel still to come back from injury, the biggest hurdle the team could face is where to position him.
While they came away with little in terms of results, Bob Stapleton’s men did enough to show that even despite the talent they’ve lost in the last few years, they’re still a team that continues to nurture and develop young riders, while at the same time getting the best out of every resource they have.
Lars Bak’s do or die move in Kuurne and John Degenkolb’s eye-catching performance the day before illustrate that HTC know both their limitations but also their strengths. With three wins in Gent-Wevelgem in four years, who would bet against them doing the same thing next month?
Sutton has been flying under the radar for a few years now and his Kuurne win is by the biggest success of his career. Part of Garmin’s inaugural Classics line-up in 2008, the Australian has often been in the shadow of many of his teammates – demonstrated by the fact that the Belgian television crews didn’t know who the Sky rider was when he crossed the line this weekend and raised his hands. Despite this, he has built a solid palmares. While Roubaix and Flanders are still beyond his reach, there’s no doubting his ability to use this weekend as a springboard.
Demonstrated real mental toughness when Flecha bridged the gap. Lesser riders would have accepted second place once the Spaniard made it a two man battle.
Still smarting from their failure to secure a ProTeam licence for 2011, FDJ enjoyed a better weekend than many top-tier squads as Yauheni Hutarovich sprinted to second place in Kuurne. While losing out to Chris Sutton will have been a disappointment, he still took the scalps of André Greipel and Tyler Farrar and confirmed that the form he showed in southern France in recent weeks is transferable to harsher climes.
The previous day, Yoann Offredo gave further notice of his aptitude on the cobblestones with a gritty fourth-place finish in Het Nieuwsblad. He still has the tendency to show his hand too early and too often in the finale, but it’s been quite some time since a young French rider has shown that sort of daring over the border in Belgium. After bubbling under in Qatar, the 24-year-old looks on course to develop further this spring.
The 2009 Paris Roubaix seems like a distant memory but it’s the last time Quick Step won a major spring race. Since then there has been the odd near-miss but the team looked far too reactionary this weekend. Unless Tom Boonen is on top form, they lack the speed of thought to switch tactics, although in Sylvain Chavanel and Gert Steegmans they have the talent.
It may have been an audition for the Classics team but it was still a double of missed opportunities, and while they remain an impressive force on paper, they’re still just that. This weekend was a perfect window for both Hushovd and Farrar to improve their credentials in the team’s pecking order but both came away with little. In fact, Heinrich Haussler, who opted to skip racing for altitude training came away from this weekend as the biggest winner on the team’s roster. Farrar does deserve much credit for the way he fought back in Kuurne but his mistake in the finale cost him.
The German has everything he needs to succeed: strength, speed, a team, and – you’d think – a barrel of motivation after having spent the last two years in Cavendish’s shadow, but his display in Kuurne mirrored that from Scheldeprijs last April. That day Greipel had everything at his disposal and should have won, too. Kuurne was a case of another missed opportunity but at least he’ll have more.
The new Sky? In fact, one member of Sky turned to Cyclingnews last week and said ‘they’re making the same mistakes as we did, aren’t they?’ It might only be February and their biggest stars should still shine later in the year, but they’re winless and seemingly leaderless unless the Schlecks and/or Cancellara turn up.
Where were they? Aside from Manuel Quinziato, a man who has raced a handful of days in the last six month, they were severely left wanting. Team director Mike Sayers told Cyclingnews on Saturday morning that the team would save their legs for the crucial parts of the races and wouldn’t waste energy with long breakaways. Alessandro Ballan and George Hincapie are yet to show their hand but for now it’s back to the drawing board.
The UCI and the riders
‘Use the radios and you’ll lose your insurance,’ was the message seeping through from the corridors of power this weekend. It pushed the AIGCP into an impossible position – strike and the races could be cancelled or bend to the UCI’s will. While the UCI may feel like they’ve won this battle there will be more to come.