Takeaways from the Queen of the Classics
Niki Terpstra‘s beautiful solo move to bring the Netherlands its first Monument in a decade was a thrilling end to a thrilling cobbled classics season. Familiar faces were present throughout the season, ensuring that every race was a showdown between the most talented cobbled riders in the sport, but new blood had its day as well: each of the four biggest races went to a different victor, two of whom (John Degenkolb at Gent-Wevelgem and Terpstra at Paris-Roubaix) had never won a one-day classic on this level before. This P-R post-race will be somewhat different from what I usually produce for recaps: for most of the big riders in the race, Paris-Roubaix was the finale of a season, and now it’s time for a break, providing less cause to analyze this race in terms of what it means for the near future. Next week’s Ardennes Classics will draw a very different crowd. In other words, I’m looking at Paris-Roubaix and looking back on the cobbled classics to draw some final conclusions from those races.
29-year-old Terpstra has been among the top classics riders in recent years, landing several high placings in the big races, but he has always functioned as more of a top lieutenant on super-team OPQS than as a player himself. He is a great teammate and a workhorse rider. However, when given more chances to make his own moves in the past few seasons, he has delivered, and steadily improved his results. He got an opportunity this week and now owns a Paris-Roubaix title, the grandest accomplishment of them all. Perhaps he was a surprise winner to some, but Terpstra stood on the podium of this race last year and has been hot all year, winning Dwars door Vlaanderen, coming in 2nd at E3, and landing a top 10 in Flanders. In my preview, I noted: “Terpstra is a keen opportunist and an excellent soloist, and as one of a number of options on his team, he could benefit if the pack hesitates to follow.” I’d say he made good on that promise with his brilliant solo move ahead of a star-studded group in Sunday’s final kilometers. He’s only a few weeks shy of 30, but he appears to still be improving as a rider.
His team as a whole played their cards perfectly, finally delivering a victory. They’ve had the best squad (by a fair margin) in every race they’ve started this cobbled classics season, but at E3, Gent-Wevelgem, and De Ronde, they were only able land several riders in the Top 10s, never actually taking that final step to victory. When Tom Boonen jumped ahead very early on Sunday and stayed out front for tens of kilometers, it looked like a suicide move that was certain to leave him with nothing for the finish. OPQS, it turned out, was playing a clever game. With such firepower up front, the other big names were forced to exhaust themselves chasing, and no one could make a successful move past the breakers. When Boonen’s group was eventually reeled in and then the final select group started to form, Boonen himself may have been running low, but teammates Niki Terpstra and Zdenek Stybar had full tanks of high octane fuel. The former jumped, the group hesitated, and then it was too late for any of the tired riders to bring him back. Stybar and Boonen finished 5th and 10th, respectively; this time, OPQS can truly celebrate the triple top 10 performance, because one of those top 10ers actually won the race. With Stybar and Terpstra both hitting their stride and riders like Guillaume Van Keirsbulck in the wings, OPQS is in good hands for the near future even as Tom Boonen’s career enters its twilight years.
Fabian Cancellara found himself on yet another Monument podium. He’ll be disappointed he did not win the race, but OPQS played Sunday’s affair just right and Cancellara’s team (lessened by the absence of Stijn Devolder) was not up for the challenge. At the start of the day, I would have said that 3rd overall was a less-than-stellar finish for the big favorite, but in the way the race played out, I felt that a podium finish (which required him to outsprint Zdenek Stybar, Sep Vanmarcke, and Peter Sagan in the velodrome) was actually quite a result given the makeup of the group in the final kilometers. Spartacus has now been on the podium of all three Monuments run so far this year, and he’s been on the podium of every one of the last 12 he’s raced. At 33, he is still showing an unbelievable ability to deliver big results in the biggest races, and he seems to have improved his sprint even as his soloing ability has maybe started to see a slight decline. Fellow pre-race favorite Sep Vanmarcke found himself in a very similar boat; there was very little he could do to get ahead of the pack with Boonen out front all day, and he was a tired, marked man in the finale. He was unable to get the victory he wanted this year, but he was among the best riders in every race he started, showing the kind of consistency that almost guarantees that he will one day be standing on the top of a major podium.
John Degenkolb won Gent-Wevelgem’s sprint finish, but that race is much friendlier to sprinters than the brutal 260 kilometers of Paris-Roubaix. By making it to the Roubaix velodrome with the star-studded group of chasers just behind victorious Terpstra, he showed an amazing level of endurance that suggests he is capable of hanging on to win even the longest and most grueling of races. After such a long day, he still had enough energy to win the sprint for 2nd on one of the biggest stages in the sport. At only 25, Degenkolb is primed to take on Milano-Sanremo winner and fellow 2014 breakout star Alexander Kristoff in classics sprint finishes for years to come. Kristoff, by the way, had some horrible luck on Sunday, leaving the race in an ambulance after punctures and crashes ended his bid for victory. FDJ’s Arnaud Demare was another hardman-sprinter-with-a-bright-future who hit misfortunate after misfortune in the race. He punctured several times, but still made it in amongst the top 15, coming across the line in 12th place. After a great showing in Gent-Wevelgem, where he just missed out on victory behind John Degenkolb, the 22-year old looks poised for success in the spring’s biggest events in the coming years.
Peter Sagan‘s race was a mixed bag. Many did not expect him to make it to the final kilometers with the likes of Cancellara; he did, after riding an aggressive race that saw him bridge the gap to Boonen’s lead group and then hang on with the favorites before Terpstra’s decisive jump. Still, he seemed exhausted as the pack neared the velodrome. He was unable to put up much of a fight in the race for 2nd, rolling across the line 6th. It will be disappointing for him to have come close again, but I think it’s a positive sign: he’s been 2nd in Milano-Sanremo and the Ronde, but he had yet to make an impression on Paris-Roubaix, and he made a statement that this is a race he can contest as well when he hung with the big names on Sunday. Another spring without a Monument for Sagan, but he did add another classics win to his palmares at E3 Harelbeke and further experience in the long, brutal events for which he is so often named the favorite of the future.
Sky landed a pair of riders among the top 10 finishers in Geraint Thomas and former Tour winner Bradley Wiggins. Many did not give Wiggins a chance in the slightest in this race; his performance, hanging with the biggest names in one-day racing, impressed me a great deal. There is still a lot left in his tank and I’m excited to see him in more races this year. Meanwhile, Geraint Thomas landed yet another good result, his third classics top 10 after a podium place in E3 and an 8th place in Flanders. Thomas made the most spirited attempt to chase Terpstra in the finale, but he did not get much help and was forced to resign himself to finishing with the group. Still, he has displayed an incredible array of talents this season; he has talked about the difficult choice between focusing on stage races vs. one-day events, and I think he could have a bright future in either one. Teammate Edvald Boasson Hagen crashed at an inopportune time in this race but didn’t seem strong on the day anyway—he was a good teammate this classics season, but for someone with such immense talent, his rather anonymous showings have been pretty disappointing. With a well-rounded combination of sprinting, climbing, and time trialing ability rivaled by few others in the sport, I wonder if he might be better off shifting his focus a bit later into the season, hunting points jerseys and circuit races like the Grand Prixes de Quebec and Montreal; Gent-Wevelgem remains really the only big classic race in which he has found success in his career.
As a last note, Team BMC had a rash of misfortune late in the race. After Thor Hushovd put an admirable turn in at the front of affairs, things eventually started coming back together, and BMC began gathering its strength for Greg Van Avermaet and Taylor Phinney. Unfortunately, Van Avermaet crashed in a nasty corner and Phinney flatted on Le Carrefour. Bad luck is pretty much the name of the game in Paris-Roubaix, but it is a shame that we did not get a chance to see either rider in the finale, as late attacks are their forte.
As the door closes on the cobbled classics, it opens on my favorite week of the season, with the Amstel Gold Race, La Fleche Wallonne, and Liege-Bastogne-Liege running one after another in the span of just one week. VeloHuman will be previewing all of them, with plenty of analysis on Twitter as well. Follow @VeloHuman for more, and check back here soon for the Amstel Gold Preview!
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