Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne - February 28 and March 1
The classics season began in earnest with the double-header of Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne. After the heat of the Middle East and southern Spain, it was back to arm-warmers and gloves as the peloton tackled the cold Belgian cobbles.
Opening the action was Omloop Het Nieuwsblad. The 2015 route had a total of 11 climbs or "hellingen," with course designer and former winner Peter Van Petegem keeping the circular route but tweaking the order of the climbs and adding the Bosgat ascent.
After a tumultuous year, 2014 winner Ian Stannard returned to the race as he searched to get his career back on track after breaking his back at Ghent-Wevelgem and spending three months off his bike. He did that and more with an impressive ride that saw him outsmart the combined talents of Etixx-QuickStep riders Tom Boonen, Niki Terpstra and Stijn Vandenbergh. The Team Sky rider bided his time and allowed the Belgian team to play their cards before out-kicking Terpstra in the final sprint. The win makes him only the ninth rider to defend his title and the first since Peter van Petegem in 1998.
“I think everything aligned right for me to win the race,” said Stannard. “I thought they were going to attack me pretty hard at the end but the group was only 20 seconds behind so they couldn’t really play too much and I could play poker on the back.”
For the full report, results and pictures from Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, click here.
Team Sky's Ian Stannard outfoxed the Etixx-QuickStep trio to take his second consecutive Omloop Het Nieuwsblad in 2015.
Big questions were asked of Etixx-QuickStep after Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, most notably from their team boss Patrick Lefevere, but there would be a chance for redemption at Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne. They went into the race with Boonen, the defending champion and the only rider to win the race three times, and sprinter Mark Cavendish.
Serious competition for Etixx came in the form of Katusha’s Alexander Kristoff - who has enjoyed the best start to a season of his career - and a determined Philippe Gilbert (BMC). As the sprinters' teams fought for control of the peloton in the final kilometres, Gilbert seized his opportunity to go and attacked alone. It was a brave move that ultimately failed but the efforts of chasing down the Belgian caused problems for the lead-out trains. Kristoff was the first of the sprinters to pull the trigger but Cavendish jumped onto his wheel before overtaking him in the final metres, and saving Etixx-QuickStep's pride on the opening weekend of racing in Belgium.
“The team were incredible the whole day,” Cavendish said at the finish. “We talked this morning and Wilfried Peeters didn’t think I could make it but the riders all believed in me. We went full gas on the Oude Kwaremont but there was a headwind so the group was always going to come back. Then it was up to me in the sprint.”
For the full report, results and pictures from Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne, click here
Mark Cavendish (Etixx-QuickStep) wins the 2015 Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne.
Milan-San Remo - March 22
In 2014, An unlucky John Degenkolb punctured near the base of the Cipressa climb just as Team Sky, BMC and Belkin all attempted to split the field on the fast run-in to Sam Remo. It was Katusha who took control and delivered Alexander Kristoff to his first Monument victory.
Degenkolb had luck and patience on his side this year, however, as he bided his time in the front group on the descent off the Poggio and then made his move in the last 50 metres on Via Roma to overtake Kristoff, who had once again been delivered to the front by his team.
“Luca Paolini did great work for me," Kristoff said. "On the Poggio, he was fantastic and he practically brought me all the way to Via Roma. He led me out wonderfully and I gave it my all. Unfortunately, Degenkolb passed me on a slightly uphill finishing straight. Those last 50 metres seemed liked they’d never end. Maybe I went too early…”
The German winner from Giant-Alpecin shed tears on the podium as his first win in a cycling Monument started to sink in.
“It was a really tough race, a beautiful victory,” Degenkolb said. “It’s a race that really suits me, it’s perfect for me and now it’s mine. The team helped me perfectly as far as the Poggio. I was always near the front positions on the descent and then I just gave it my all in the sprint.”
The traditional finish on Via Roma in the centre of San Remo - the first time the finish had been used since 2007 - also delivered enough excitement to secure its place in the race for the foreseeable future, according to race organisers.
For the full report, results and pictures from Milan-San Remo, click here.
John Degenkolb takes the 2015 Milan-San Remo win ahead of Alexander Kristoff and Michael Matthews. (Bettini Photo)
Gent-Wevelgem - March 29
Luca Paolini (Katusha) took a solo win at Gent-Wevelgem on Sunday after rain and strong winds turned the race into a battle of survival, and a battle of the strongest Classic riders in the peloton. The Italian veteran escaped from a breakaway just five kilometres from the finish and took the win 11 seconds ahead of chasers Niki Terpstra (Etixx-QuickStep) and Geraint Thomas (Team Sky).
Paolini had to fight to get back on after the second climb of the Kemmelberg but then outwitted his rivals to take the biggest win of his long career.
“This is a surprise but I’m so happy to have won,” Paolini said. “I don’t think I was the strongest but I played my cards. I knew they’d be waiting for the sprint and so I tried to get away with five kilometres to go.
“It was a very difficult day out there. I crashed twice and changed my bike. But I knew the route and know were to stay up front. After my bad luck I was lucky. It was so bad that we weren’t sure if we could carry on. But we're up in the north and this is real cycling. The strongest survived today.”
Photo: Tim De Waele/TDW Sport
Tour of Flanders - April 5
Alexander Kristoff (Katusha) took a convincing sprint finish to win the 2015 Tour of Flanders ahead of breakaway companion Niki Terpstra (Etixx-QuickStep) while Greg Van Avermaet (BMC Racing) led home the remnants of the chasers and was forced to settle for third.
Kristoff and Terpstra jumped clear after the ascent of the Kruisberg, with the Dutch rider first to open up a gap on the rest of the race favourites.
Despite never holding more than a thirty second lead and a late counter attack from Van Avermaet and Peter Sagan (Tinkoff-Saxo), the leading duo survived until the finish. Coming into the final kilometre Terpstra sat back and forced Kristoff to the front but the 2014 Milan-San Remo winner held his nerve and comprehensively took the sprint to secure the second Monument of his career.
"I'm really happy to win, it's a really good feeling," Kristoff said. "My family is here today, and it was a big dream and my big goal this season and I managed to do it.
"At the end, I came with Niki, and he didn't really want to work with me, but I understand that. In the end I could still beat him."
Kristoff is the first Norwegian to win the Tour of Flanders but coming into the race he was among the red-hot favourites having enjoyed an incredible start to the season already. His performance matched that of his Katusha team – measured, calculating and almost faultless.
Paris Roubaix - April 12
The German rider latched onto a dangerous move initiated by Van Avermaet and Yves Lampaert (Etixx-QuickStep), and even after the lead group swelled to seven riders he had more than enough to take his second Monument of the season after winning Milan-San Remo last month.
"This is the race I’ve always dreamt of winning," Degenkolb said before hugging his teammates at the finish.
In a race that ebbed and flowed with different dynamics and groups coming into play with each sector of cobbles, Degenkolb stood out, not just for his expected strong finish – he was second on the velodrome last year – but for his aggression and precision at key points in the race.
When Van Avermaet and Lampaert created a small buffer on the elite contenders inside the final 12 kilometres Degenkolb’s teammate Bert De Backer jumped clear. It created an opportunity for Degenkolb to follow just moments later and he quickly linked up with his teammate before forging clear and joining Van Avermaet and Lampaert.
When the Etixx rider understandably refused to work Degenkolb didn't to panic. He and Van Avermaet continued to share the work as a move that included Stybar, Lars Boom and Jens Keukeleire joined up to form the final winning break inside the final few kilometres.
Coming into the velodrome it was Etixx who hit the front with Stybar in second wheel and Degenkolb riding in his slipstream. When the Milan-San Remo winner opened his sprint on the final banking there was little challenge from the rest of the break. Stybar hung on for second with Van Avermaet claimed yet another podium in a spring Monument.
Amstel Gold Race - April 19
The Dutch Classic Amstel Gold Race has a character all of its own with twisty and narrow roads, short and steep climbs, and crazed orange-clad fans. The first of three Ardennes Classics is a race to watch and one for the riders to add to their palmarès.
The relatively new Classic (this year celebrated its 48th edition) started in Maastricht and ended with three circuits on the Cauberg. The first two times up the 1.5-kilometre climb typically splits the race into select groups, while the final ascent decides the race winner.
This year, world champion Michal Kwiatkowski (Etixx-QuickStep) claimed the Amstel Gold Race with a powerful sprint finish after the steep slopes of the Cauberg wasn't enough to separate the pre-race favourites. He won the race ahead of Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) and Michael Matthews (Orica-GreenEdge).
Defending champion Philippe Gilbert (BMC) and Matthews had distanced themselves from the peloton on the Cauberg, however, Kwiatkowski along with a series of other race favourites worked their way back into the fold on the 1.8km stretch to the finish line.
Matthews and Greg Van Avermaet (BMC) started their sprints early, allowing Kwiatkowski the time he needed to wind up his sprint and push through to the finish line, winning the race by a bike length over Valverde and Matthews.
To read the full race report, view photos and full results, please click here.
Watch the 2015 Amstel Gold Race highlights below.
La Flèche Wallonne - April 22
Belgium's la Flèche Wallonne is a mid-week race with a comparatively short distance of 200 kilometres, but that does not change the importance of this race that always ends with spectacular explosions on the famed Mur de Huy. The climb is a 1,300-metre, leg-snapping ascent that averages 9.3 percent gradient and boasts a maximum of 25 percent.
The second of three Ardennes Classics starts at a leisurely pace in the Walloon city of Charleroi, but it ends with two circuits around the city of Huy. The riders scale the Mur de Huy the first time to start the smaller circuit that ends with Huy. From there it is all about positioning for the final larger circuit: Côte de Peu d'Eau, Côte de Haut-Bois, Côte de Thon, Côte de Bonneville, Côte de Bohissau, Côte de Ahin and Mur de Huy.
Riders need to be in the front 15 for the Mur de Huy if they want to stay in contention. Whoever wants to win needs to wait to the last three-hundred metres to light his dynamite. A well-timed blast will produce a victory, but an early move will mean you are gasping for breath on the fan-lined Mur.
What happened in 2014?
Valverde, who won this race in 2006, sat on the front of the peloton unfazed by the little digs off the front happening around him. Kwiatkowski made the first move of the favourites, passing Bauke Mollema (Belkin), who had been marshalling things on the front. Martin managed to stage a great recovery after being hampered by a crash at the foot of the Mur de Huy. The Garmin rider briefly looked like he might have the legs to make it to the line, but nobody was able to get close to Valverde.
Liège-Bastogne-Liège - April 26
Liège-Bastogne-Liège ends the run of Northern Classics that started with the Tour of Flanders and settles the week-long Ardennes Classics supremacy battle. It packs numerous côtes on the out-and-back run from the suburb of Ans, just south of Liège.
On the return journey to Ans, the favourites will start to move forward in the pack. One of the toughest battles will be waged on the 2.1-kilometre La Redoute, coming at kilometre 226 and 35 kilometres from the finish. La Redoute will be an indicator of how the race will continue to unfold over the three following côtes of Sprimont (-29km), Roche aux Faucons (-19.5km) and Saint-Nicolas (-5.5km).
The finish to Ans is not considered one of the official climbs, but it rises steadily over the final two kilometres. La Doyenne ('The Grand Old Lady') is the fourth of cycling's five Monuments. The fifth Monument, Il Lombardia, comes almost six months later.
The race has been won by some all time greats of the sport, with Bernard Hinault’s victory in 1980, when it snowed throughout, standing out. Liege-Bastogne-Liege is a thorough test of stamina and tactical prowess, and victory here is a highlight of any cyclist’s career.
What happened in 2014?
Orica-GreenEdge rider Simon Gerrans won the race last year while wearing the Australian champion's jersey. Gerrans out-kicked Alejandro Valverde and Michal Kwiatkowski with a perfectly timed attack in the final meters.
Gerrans kept his nose out of the wind for much of the day, not panicking when the other favourites sent numerous attacks off the front. Gerrans only made himself known after the final corner when he jumped onto the front to start his sprint. Once he was there nobody could touch him, not even the in-form Valverde.
Defending champion Daniel Martin (Garmin-Sharp) looked perfectly poised to win his second title in Ans after he chased down Caruso and Domenico Pozzovivo (AG2R-La Mondiale) on the final climb. He was in the wheel of Caruso going into the final corner when his back wheel greased out from under him and sent him tumbling to the ground.