La Fleche Wallonne 2014 Preview

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Turning the Page to the Second Chapter of the Ardennes Classics

The first of three Ardennes Classics went to former World Champ Philippe Gilbert on Sunday after he put the hammer down on his favorite hunting ground, the Cauberg. His uphill strike was so powerful that not even the likes of Alejandro Valverde or Michal Kwiatkowski could reel him in over the final flat 1.8 kilometers of the Amstel Gold Race. Jelle Vanendert made a valiant move past a chasing group for 2nd, and Simon Gerrans outsprinted Valverde and Kwiatkowski for 3rd. A possible bunch sprint was nullified by the power of the big favorites up front: the pack could not survive the impressive climbing skills of Gilbert and Co. on the Cauberg. Anyone who struggled on the Cauberg will have an even harder time on Wednesday, as the peloton takes on the mighty Mur de Huy at La Flèche Wallonne (which I am generally styling as La Fleche Wallonne because accented vowels and easy-to-write, searchable internet text are not great friends).

La Fleche Wallonne Profile

At 199 kilometers, La Fleche Wallonne is shorter than some of the other classics the peloton has taken on this season. That opens it up a bit to riders who don’t specialize as heavily in the overlong spring races. Still, the route is peppered with grueling ascents in rapid succession, including two trips up the Mur de Huy (1.3 km, 9.3% average grade) before the third and final ascent at the end the race. The group that makes it to the bottom of the final climb will be very much reduced by the day’s many challenges. Unlike the Amstel Gold Race, La Fleche Wallonne has no 1.8 kilometer drag after its decisive climb. The Mur is also steeper than the Cauberg. This is a race that goes to explosive climbers, period. Last year’s Top 10 was a who’s who of ascending heavyweights (figuratively, as all of them are, of course, quite light of frame). Daniel Moreno was strongest on the day, with Sergio Henao, Carlos Betancur, and Daniel Martin hot on his heels. Purito, Valverde, and Mollema weren’t far behind. La Fleche Wallonne 2013 was decided in the final moments on the climb to the top of the Mur, and it’s hard to see a different script for 2014, though there will be some other riders playing the roles this time around. Before I name my top names, a note: as usual, I’ll be tweeting plenty of analysis live during the contest, so be sure to follow @VeloHuman for more real-time thoughts on the race!

The Contenders

Philippe Gilbert won the race in 2011 and podiumed in 2012. He seemed to have lost a bit of a form for 2013, but his victories at Brabantse Pijl and Amstel Gold this year have catapulted him back into the conversation. He played his cards just right at Amstel, exploding up the climb and then hanging on over a not insignificant distance. A crucial component in his victory was an attack from teammate Samuel Sanchez, who will join him again at La Fleche Wallonne, making BMC an even tougher opponent for the rest of the pack. Still, with such a brutal climb to close out the race, even Gilbert’s punchy legs will be put on the limit trying to hold off some Grand Tour talent. He will also no longer benefit from the hesitation that he’s gotten from his rivals in the past several month of reduced form; everyone knows Gilbert is back now.

Movistar’s Alejandro Valverde is another past winner of the race, and he will certainly be among the favorites to contend for this year’s La Fleche Wallonne. The bookies’ favorite for Amstel Gold finished 4th on the day after being unable to follow Gilbert on the final climb, though I do wonder if a part of his failure to cover the Belgian’s attack was indecision and hesitation, as he, Simon Gerrans, and Michal Kwiatkowski did not react immediately to the move on the Cauberg. He’ll get a chance at revenge on Wednesday. Without the injury question marks of some of the other big contenders, I imagine Valverde will occupy at least one of the spots on the podium for this race. Mountain goat teammates like Ion Izagirre and Benat Intxausti make his bid for victory a formidable one.

Were it not for the aforementioned health issues confusing things, there are three riders I might favor among Gilbert and Valverde; unfortunately, each comes with unknowns. First and foremost is Joaquim Rodriguez. Katusha has dominated this race in the past two years: Purito won in 2012, and Daniel Moreno won in 2013. Both riders are perfectly suited to the finish on the Mur de Huy, and more than capable of making it there without too much trouble. However, Rodriguez crashed out of yesterday’s Amstel Gold and was immediately taken to the hospital for further examination. Reports indicate that he did not suffer any serious injury, but there was also talk that he was a bit dizzy after going down. None of this inspires confidence. It doesn’t help that he is really targeting Sunday’s Liege-Bastogne-Liege, and next month’s Giro, and will probably be willing to take La Fleche Wallonne easy if he thinks it’s necessary for recovery. Were it not for the question marks, Purito’s form this year and his skillset might have made him my overall favorite, but as it stands, it’s hard to put that kind of confidence in him. His teammate Moreno, winner last year, may be a better choice, with a similar skillset and a proven ability to win the race. Moreno was 9th in Amstel yesterday and 3rd behind Contador and Quintana in the summit finish fourth stage of Tirreno-Adriatico this year, so he’s looking strong to defend his title here in 2014.

2013 Liege-Bastogne-Liege winner Daniel Martin is another would-be favorite with injury question marks. He pulled out of Amstel Gold early with knee pain. He has stated that he does not think it will be a lasting issue, but like Purito, Martin is targeting Liege and the Giro and he has a capable teammate (in Tom-Jelte Slagter) to take up the reigns if he decides to take it easy. Were his health not in question, La Fleche Wallonne’s finish would be ideal for the Irishman, who came in 4th last year (he missed a podium place by about half a centimeter), and probably would have done better had he not been somewhat out of position at the start of the final climb. Should Martin not be up for it, Garmin will turn turn to the hot hand in Slagter. He was disappointing at Amstel Gold, but the young rider might have a bit more left in the tank at the end of the shorter race on Wednesday. Ryder Hesjedal was not long ago one of the better Ardennes riders in the peloton and he’ll be in attendance as well.

AG2R’s Carlos Betancur is the other injury-bitten top rider in the race. He was 3rd here last year and he is on fire in 2014. Unfortunately, he’s also been suffering from a knee issue lately, and it’s very much unclear what his status is for La Fleche Wallonne. He did not contend at Amstel Gold, but he didn’t get dropped off the pace right away either. His tools (perfect for this race) and body of work put him among my top 10 riders in this race, as I think he’s quite capable of winning, but it’s hard to say whether he’ll be able to put all that ability to good use. Romain Bardet will be the other option for AG2R, and the way he’s been climbing this year, he could feature in the finale.

Michal Kwiatkowski of OPQS was 5th in the race last year. Given his blazing form in 2014, I’d imagine we’ll see him in the vanguard on the Mur again this year, but the do-it-all 23-year-old might find the finish line just a bit too steep for his liking. As versatile as he is, he may be looking to Sunday’s Liege-Bastogne-Liege as a prize more suited to his talents. Still, anything is possible for Kwiatkowski. OPQS has another strong card to play in Wout Poels, who has been climbing very well this year and could take a crack at the final ascent himself. Jan Bakelants makes another strong supporter.

Lampre’s three-pronged attack was unable to make much of a mark on the Amstel Gold Race, but I think they’re better suited to La Fleche Wallonne: Diego Ulissi is a star on these finishes, and his biggest weakness so far in his career has been long days in the saddle. Significantly shorter than its Ardennes brethren, La Fleche Wallonne is perfect for Ulissi, and he is targeting this race heavily. He came to the base of the Cauberg with the pack at Amstel Gold, which suggests to me that he is in shape and primed for success in a race more tailored to his talents. Teammate and World Champ Rui Costa could also give things a go. The Mur might be a bit too steep for his liking, but victory in this race requires perfect timing and Costa has one of the sharpest minds for strategy in the entire peloton. Damiano Cunego has a pair of podium performances in La Fleche Wallonne on his resume, but even with his surprise 2014 form I’m not sure he can hang with the best in the bunch anymore, especially not after an anonymous showing in an Amstel Gold Race that suited him better.

I had questions about Bauke Mollema‘s form coming into Amstel Gold, but his 7th place in that race answered them for me. La Fleche Wallonne puts the spotlight more squarely on the GC climber types, and Mollema has the kind of climbing legs to contend for Grand Tours. He also has a very strong finish and a very aggressive approach, which are key in this race, and they’ve given him back-to-back Top 10s here in the past. I would put Mollema among the best value bets for a podium in this race, just a few steps outside the spotlight but very capable of contending. Talented climbers Lars Petter Nordhaug and Laurens Ten Dam make a fine support squad. Tinkoff-Saxo’s Roman Kreuziger was unable to defend his Amstel Gold title, but like Mollema, he is a Grand Tour climber with a strong finish. Though he did not feature among the contenders, he was among the Top 20 on Sunday, and the vicious Mur de Huy gives him another chance at victory. Teammate Nicolas Roche is building up to the Giro and could also make a move.

Astana again brings their talent-packed squad to the startline; Enrico Gasparotto was their best placed finisher at Amstel, coming in 8th, but Jakob Fuglsang looked strong in a breakaway and Vincenzo Nibali came to the base of the Cauberg with the pack. Nibali was 8th in La Fleche Wallonne in 2012 and he has the uphill ability to land another top result. Fuglsang isn’t well-known for explosiveness but he’s certainly got the climber’s physique. The Mur might be too much for Gasparotto and Iglinskiy but they’ll be valuable teammates as well.

Lotto’s Jelle Vanendert suddenly roared back into relevance with a runner-up performance at Amstel Gold, where he chased heavier favorites up the Cauberg and sailed past many of them on his way to 2nd place. He has a pair of La Fleche Wallonne top 10s to his name as well, so he certainly deserves a look for Wednesday’s race. Teammate Tony Gallopin is another good climber and one-day rider, and Jurgen Van Den Broeck nabbed the final spot in the top 10 in 2012.

Simon Gerrans of Orica-GreenEdge won’t be riding this race (the finish is a bit too steep for him), so they send punchy Ivan Santaromita, 2012 runner-up Michael Albasini, aggressive Pieter Weening and Simon Clark, and Simon and Adam Yates to represent their interests. No favorites among them, but plenty of riders to animate the race. Trek’s Julian Arredondo has had an impressive start to the season and will like the finish. Andy Schleck crashed out of Amstel Gold, but he should make the start with brother Frank, who has shown signs of life in 2014. IAM Cycling’s Mathias Frank is a good climber who will be riding for his own interests for once. Giant-Shimano’s Tom Dumoulin and Warren Barguil will hope to make an impact. Sky’s best bets are probably Mikel Nieve and David Lopez. Europcar’s Pierre Rolland is still looking for success in 2014. Daniel Navarro of Cofidis is a strong climber with a decent supporting cast. They’ll all have their work cut out for them in a race with a finish that tends to weed out long shots, but a number of the contenders are facing injury concerns, which could open doors at La Fleche Wallonne 2014.

VeloHuman Top 10 Favorites

Winner: Philippe Gilbert
Podium: Alejandro Valverde, Daniel Moreno
Other Top Contenders: Joaquim Rodriguez, Diego Ulissi, Bauke Mollema, Vincenzo Nibali, Michal Kwiatkowski, Carlos Betancur, Daniel Martin

Remember to follow @VeloHuman for more race-day thoughts, and come back soon for the Liege-Bastogne-Liege preview!

-Dane Cash

Photo by Max Mayorov.

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Amstel Gold Race 2014 Preview

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A Long and Bumpy Road from Maastricht to Valkenburg

After an exciting appetizer at Brabantse Pijl (won by a resurgent Philippe Gilbert ahead of an impressive Michael Matthews), the week of races known as the Ardennes Classics is here! The Amstel Gold Race kicks off on Sunday. The undulating 250 kilometer jaunt through the Limburg province is perhaps the biggest cycling event in the Netherlands. The course has changed in recent years, its finish moving from the summit of the legendary Cauberg to a flat straightaway about 1.8 kilometers after the top of the climb. The punchy riders will still attempt to get away on the last bump in the road, but with more room to bring back escapees, things are more likely to come together for a sprint among a larger group of survivors now. Still, to make it to this finish at the front of the pack, a rider has to be seriously capable on the steep stuff (like the 1.1 kilometer, 8.8% average Eyserbosweg with 20 km to go), and a great bike handler as well: the journey from starting city Maastricht to the finish line in Valkenburg is notorious for its challenging twists and tight turns, and after 250 kilometers, keeping one’s concentration through the corners is not easy.

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Last year, Roman Kreuziger was allowed to bridge into a break up the road with 20 kilometers remaining. He attacked from the group, and held on for victory. Kreuziger went on to land a number of great results in 2014, including a 5th place in the Tour de France, and looking back, it seems funny that a rider of his caliber was given the chance to ride ahead, but prior to Amstel, he had not picked up the results we’ve come to expect from him since. I don’t think the successful long range attack scenario will be repeated this year. For one, it’s not often that a rider as good as Kreuziger flies under the radar like he did early in 2014. Second, now that it’s happened once, the big favorites will act to stop it from happening again. I think it’s more likely this race comes down to the final kilometers.

The Contenders

Though the new parcours opens Amstel up for a number of different kinds of riders (which makes previews and predictions quite difficult, by the way!), I see three favorites for the race, all of them great climbers, high endurance riders, and very fast finishers. Favored most among the bookmakers is Movistar’s Alejandro Valverde, who has flown through the early season, racking up victories in a number of Continental races, including a Roma Maxima win against some big names. The Ardennes star was 2nd last year, winning the gallop to the line behind the victorious Kreuziger. He’s an excellent climber who won’t struggle with the bumps in the road, he has Grand Tour winning endurance, he’s a quality bike handler, and he packs a powerful sprint. This race is tailormade for his skillset, and he can win it either with a late attack or at the head of a group of fast finishers. Movistar backs his effort with the climb-happy likes of Ion Izagirre and Beñat Intxausti.

OPQS sends a typically powerhouse squad to support the fast-rising Michal Kwiatkowski, who took 4th in the race in 2013. He’s only gotten stronger since then, taking a big win at Strade Bianche earlier in the year and landing 2nd overall in Pais Vasco last week. Perhaps even more relevant than his runner-up in GC in that race was his taking of the points jersey thanks to five top 3 finishes in the race’s six stages. A number of those placings came due to his top-notch sprint. Still, despite his constant displays of amazing talent, Kwiatkowski has yet to actually pull off a WorldTour win, with a resume full of near misses so far in his very young career. The first one is always a challenge, but this race really suits his skillset, and OPQS sends a stellar group of versatile riders to help. Jan Bakelants, Wout Poels, newcomer Julian Alaphilippe, and Pieter Serry are all good on the rolling hills. It’s hard to think of a better teammate to ride tempo than world ITT champ Tony Martin. Zdenek Stybar is a wildcard who, despite not having a resume in this race, is one of the best on a challenging road map. Don’t be surprised to see him break for the line as the kilometers wind down.

The third of my three favorites for Amstel Gold 2014 is the man who won in 2010 and 2011, and came in 6th and 5th in 2012 and 2013: BMC’s Philippe Gilbert. I probably don’t need to point out that he is no longer the rider who won the Ardennes triple in 2011 or the World Championship race in 2012. Still, he’s coming off a great demonstration of form at this week’s Brabantse Pijl, where he outsprinted the extremely quick Michael Matthews only a few minutes after going deep into the red trying to bridge a gap to a late breakaway. Amstel is a race he knows how to win: the Cauberg is perhaps his favorite hunting ground, launching him into the rainbow jersey in 2012. It’s hard to see him not at the front of the race in the home stretch, and then it is just a question of whether he can escape from the pack on the final slope, or outsprint whoever remains at the end. Greg Van Avermaet makes a fine second. Samuel Sanchez (7th in 2012) is another card for BMC to play.

Roman Kreuziger again leads Tinkoff-Saxo. He won’t be allowed up the road the way he was in 2013, but he’s still a great contender to be there at the end. His status as a marked man did not stop him from landing a podium performance in the Clasica San Sebastian last year.

Joaquim Rodriguez was 2nd in this race in 2011, but the new finish is less tailored to his uphill ability. He has a quick sprint, but he’ll have to be in pretty select company in the final kilometer to be a favorite, and I’m not sure the Cauberg is long enough to force that sort of selection. Teammate Daniel Moreno may actually be a better option. He followed up his La Fleche Wallonne victory last year with a number of great results that showed his excellent finishing move. This pair works extremely well together, and at least one of them should be fighting for a top result. Alexandr Kolobnev has been among the Top 10 here in the past.

Orica-GreenEdge is another squad with a few excellent options. Simon Gerrans took 3rd here last year and in 2011. He was on fire at the opening of the season in the Tour Down Under, but illness derailed his early spring campaign, leaving him unable to contest the biggest race he’s ever won, Milano-Sanremo. A fine showing in Brabantse Pijl suggests he’s back on the level; he was very active in that race, off the front for a huge chunk of time. Like Valverde and Kwiatkowski, he has the climbing legs to handle the dogfight sure to ensue on the Cauberg, and a very fast sprint to challenge for victory among the survivors. Teammate Michael Matthews will hope to be one of those survivors, and it’s quite possible that the very capable climber, who just nabbed 2nd at Brabantse Pijl, will be there at the end. If he is, he’s one of the very best sprinters on the startlist, fast enough to win the final stage of the Vuelta 2013, a sprinters’ battle royale. He rode well in Pais Vasco, picking up a stage win, and was climbing at a very high level in Paris-Nice. Matching the likes of Valverde and Gilbert up the Cauberg will be a tall order, but I’m not counting him out. Daryl Impey, Simon Clark, Michael Albasini, and Pieter Weening give Orica-GreenEdge a team tailored perfectly for these rolling hills.

Sky’s Ben Swift is the other top-notch sprinter with a decent shot at hanging on over the Cauberg. If either Matthews or Swift are in the lead group in the final kilometer, it’s hard to see anyone outgunning them to the finish line. Swift showed at Milano-Sanremo that extremely long, grueling days of racing are within his power–he took 3rd in that race ahead of some real sprinting class. Then, in the Vuelta a Pais Vasco, he hung on over some very difficult climbs to take victory in the 5th stage ahead of none other than my two biggest favorites for Amstel Gold, Alejandro Valverde and Michael Kwiatkowski. It’s all happening very fast for Swift, who dealt with painful injuries over the past two seasons. Now that he’s suddenly back to winning ways, it’s hard to predict just how much he can do. Amstel will be a great test. Meanwhile, Geraint Thomas is firing on all cylinders this year. Sky has yet another contender in Edvald Boasson Hagen, who, despite lacking experience in the Ardennes Classics, has the all-rounder skillset to be a dangerous player here.

Garmin packs a strong 1-2 punch in Tom-Jelte Slagter and Daniel Martin. Slagter has been on fire in 2014, winning two stages at Paris-Nice and climbing very well in Pais Vasco. He’s an explosive rider who loves the short steep climbs and can finish quickly as well. Dan Martin has started his season later than usual in an attempt to time his peak just right for the Ardennes Classics and the Giro d’Italia. With a flat finish, Amstel is probably worst-suited of the three Ardennes races for Martin, but the Liege-Bastogne-Liege defending champ and 2011 runner-up in Lombardia is made for long, rolling parcours like this one. He looked okay in Catalunya and in this week’s Brabantse Pijl. La Fleche Wallonne and Liege might be a bigger goal, but the Cauberg could see him test his legs. Ryder Hesjedal is here too, and versatile Nathan Haas is coming on strong this year as well. Lampre packs a great 1-2-3 punch in Diego Ulissi, Rui Costa, and a resurgent Damiano Cunego. Ulissi was brilliant in the Tour Down Under, picking up a podium spot, and he has a few good results in smaller Italian races since then. World Champ Rui Costa looked good in Paris-Nice and this is a good parcours for him with plenty of opportunities to attack, but Pais Vasco left some question marks about his form. Damiano Cunego won Amstel Gold back in 2008, but his career has, to put it lightly, taken a bit of a dip since then. However, he has looked great in 2014, nailing a 4th place in Strade Bianche and riding with the big favorites in Pais Vasco; his ITT kept him out of the top 10 of the race but only barely. For the first time in a while, a podium is within his reach here. Astana has a very well-rounded team with several matches to burn and options for many different scenarios. Vincenzo Nibali is still looking for that elusive big one-day win, and he loves to fire off attacks on days like these. His chief lieutenant Jakob Fuglsang has been more aggressive than usual lately and that could help here. Enrico Gasparotto was a pretty surprising winner of this race in 2012. I don’t think he’s still at that level, but the explosive climbs suit him. Maxim Iglinskiy was Astana’s other surprise Ardennes winner in 2012 when he took Liege-Bastogne-Liege. Like Gasparotto, he has not done much since to suggest maintained form, but his skillset at least deserves a mention. Francesco Gavazzi and Borut Bozic present strong sprinting options should a larger group arrive. With so many weapons, I think Astana has a great chance of landing at least one rider in the top 10; I just have no idea which of their riders it will be.

Belkin’s Bauke Mollema would normally be a contender here (back-to-back top 10s in 2012 and 2013) but his form is questionable so far in 2014; still, he’ll like the profile. AG2R’s Carlos Betancur would be among the chief favorites but a nagging knee injury makes him a big question mark for Amstel. If he shows the same formhere he showed in Paris-Nice, he’ll be back among the favorites where he belongs for La Fleche Wallonne; teammate Romain Bardet is another great climber. Lotto’s Tony Gallopin managed to overcome a very late flat to finish on the Brabantse Pijl podium and he’s a good outside bet here, with Jurgen Van Den Broeck starting as well. French national champion Arthur Vichot took a big stage victory for FDJ on the final day of Paris-Nice and landed on the podium there; he can climb and sprint well. Other outsiders include Giant’s Tom Dumoulin and Simon Geschke, Bardiani-CSF’s Sonny Colbrelli and Enrico Battaglin, Wanty – Groupe Gobert’s Bjorn Leukemans (he has been 7th here three times, and has looked sharp in 2014), Trek’s Andy and Frank Schleck, CCC’s Davide Rebellin (winner of this race way back in 2004), Cannondale’s Marco Marcato and Daniello Ratto. Lastly, Europcar sends Thomas Voeckler, but Bryan Coquard is apparently on the startlist as well, and should he somehow make it to the finish line with the lead group, he’s probably the fastest sprinter in the race.

VeloHuman Top 10 Favorites

Winner: Michal Kwiatkowski
Podium: Alejandro Valverde, Philippe Gilbert
Other Top Contenders: Simon Gerrans, Daniel Moreno, Diego Ulissi, Michael Matthews, Ben Swift, Tom-Jelte Slagter, Roman Kreuziger

As usual, I’ll be tweeting plenty of live analysis during the race from the new VeloHuman Twitter account, so if you don’t already, remember to follow @VeloHuman for more! And come back soon for previews of La Fleche Wallonne, Liege-Bastogne-Liege, and the Tour de Romandie!

-Dane Cash

Photo by flowizm.

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Paris-Roubaix 2014 Post-race Impressions: Terpstra Takes the Final Prize of the Cobbled Classics

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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!

-Dane Cash

Photo by Luca Pedroni.

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Paris-Roubaix 2014 Preview

ParisRoubaix2012

Setting the Stage for the Third Monument Classic of the Year

The incomparable Paris-Roubaix runs for the 111th time this Sunday. The legendary race is a celebration of days long past, a relic that offers dangers and challenges unseen elsewhere in most of today’s other major contests. The trip is mostly a flat affair, but the rough cobbles, patches of mud, whirling dust clouds, fanatical spectators, and excessive length provide difficulties that no profile could display. Constant attacks at every juncture force splits and selections and require acute awareness at all times. A moment of lost concentration can also mean going down hard on the unforgiving surface. Experience navigating the difficulties and an extremely high tolerance for the bone-rattling pain of irregular roads are crucial at Paris-Roubaix.

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51.1 total kilometers of cobbles lie along the 256 kilometer road from Compiegne to Roubaix. Some of those sections are in better shape in others, and each is given a rating (between one and five). The more difficult sections are often the site of attacks, with the race’s three five-star cobbled sections quite likely to force selection. First among them, the wooded Arenberg Trench greets the peloton (or what remains by that point) after 161 kilometers. The 2.4 kilometer stretch is extremely rough, and after what might constitute a whole day’s racing in a stage race, the abuse of riding over uneven stones takes its toll. The Mons-en-Pévèle is the next five-star section, 3 kilometers long with some sharp turns and generally a lot of mud, beginning around kilometer 208. Tom Boonen’s awesome long-distance strike in 2012 was launched just before this section was reached; even if it doesn’t launch the winning attack this year, it will still be sure to jettison a few riders from the pack. A few more easily rated sections follow the muddy stretch before the five-star Le Carrefour de l’Arbre is reached, the legendary 2.1 kilometers of uneven pave that must be overcome only 17 km before the finish line. It’s hard to drop anyone after this point, so if the race isn’t split up by the time the riders reach the Carrefour, expect fireworks from the riders hoping to avoid a sprint in the iconic Roubaix velodrome.

Contenders for the Cobblestone Trophy

Trek’s Fabian Cancellara comes into Sunday’s race looking to pick up his fourth cobblestone trophy (which is literally a cobblestone), and he enters the race as a big favorite thanks to both his resume in the classics generally and recent displays of current form. The four-time ITT world champion has one of the biggest engine’s in the sport, making it nearly impossible to drop him. Holding his wheel is an immense struggle on this terrain. But any riders capable of hanging on then must beat him in a sprint, which he has shown quite an aptitude in recently. He won last year’s edition by outsprinting Sep Vanmarcke after the two of them bridged a gap to Zdenek Stybar and Stijn Vandenbergh up the road, watched both of those riders run into spectators, and then continued on by themselves. This year, the sprinting ability that won him last year’s P-R carried him to 2nd place in Milano-Sanremo in March, and it put him atop the podium of his third Tour of Flanders last week when he made it into the winning attack and won a sprint to the line. Defeating Fabian Cancellara will be a very tall order for the other contenders in this race: he has the perfect combination of current form, ability, and experience to win this race. Stijn Devolder is still uncertain for this race after a crash filled Flanders, but if he’s here, he’s a great second.

Tom Boonen has won Paris-Roubaix even more times than Cancellara; his 2012 victory after more than 50 kilometers riding solo is the stuff of legend. Various maladies kept him from contesting in 2013, but numerous results this year have shown that he has recaptured some form. Still, he has not quite returned to the level of two years past, and injury and personal misfortunes have made 2014 a difficult year; he was unable to hang with Cancellara in the Ronde. Paris-Roubaix is a different race, without the climbs of Flanders, and it may suit Boonen a bit more against the seemingly unstoppable Cancellara. What’s more, while his ability to put up sustained power numbers might be somewhat reduced, he still looks quite handy in a sprint, and he learned years ago that the best tactic against Cancellara is to remain glued on that wheel and hope for a sprint. He will also have plenty of help from star-studded Omega Pharma-Quick Step. Niki Terpstra has been a very active and very successful rider this spring, following up a 2nd place at E3 Harelbeke with a 6th place at the Tour of Flanders. He was 3rd in last year’s Paris-Roubaix, the next rider to cross the line after the Cancellara/Vanmarcke duo. 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. Zdenek Stybar was strong enough to still manage an 8th place despite running into a spectator last year. He hasn’t made as big an impression on this classics season as I initially expected, but he does have plenty of form and the bike handling skills of a cyclocross world champion. He also has a quick finish. 29 year-old teammate Stijn Vandernbergh was the other major spectator casualty of 2013, but he enters this year’s edition again on stellar form, having come in 4th in both the Ronde and E3 Harelbeke. He does not have the fastest sprint but he’s very aggressive and at the very least, he’s almost certain to try something on the tough cobbled sections.

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The top challenger taking on favorite Cancellara and super-team OPQS is last year’s runner-up Sep Vanmarcke. Just 25, the Belkin rider has already been on the podiums of Gent-Wevelgem, the Tour of Flanders, and obviously Paris-Roubaix, each time showing good cycling acumen for planning the successful attacks and the engine to make them. Unfortunately, on all three of those occassions, his fellow attackers outsprinted him to the finish line. In 2014, he has been in the top 5 of all three WorldTour cobbled races, as well as other big spring contests Kuurne-Bruxelles-Kuurne and Omloop Het Nieuwsblad. His biggest challenge will be creating a real gap between other contenders, as a sprint finish simply will not do for him. I think he is one of the very few riders with a chance at getting ahead of Cancellara, and he will certainly give that venture a shot on Sunday. It’s a big ask, but one thing is for sure: he is an excellent bet to be on at least one of the three steps on the podium. Lars Boom is a very high quality support rider.

Paris-Roubaix is a truly unique bike race, unlike any other in the grueling tests through which it parts participants. It is also unlike most of the other bike races that Peter Sagan, versatile as he is, has won in his life. Sagan did not ride this race last year. His 2011 attempt landed him 86th. The long, brutal days have challenged Sagan in his young career, and the flat parcours gives him fewer opportunities to gap the bigger riders. Still, counting out Peter Sagan is always a mistake. He already has a pair of fine wins on the WorldTour level, in Tirreno-Adriatico and at E3 Harelbeke, thanks to his good form in 2014. Winning a Monument is his central goal right now, and I think he will give this race 100%. He obviously has the sprint to beat most challengers if he makes it to the finish, and he’s an expert bike handler for the difficult cobbled stretches. Whether he can survive the carnage of attacks is the real question. I don’t think he will match Cancellara in Paris-Roubaix, but I don’t think it’s an impossible ask either.

Milano-Sanremo winner Alexander Kristoff added to his remarkable track record in recent Monuments last weekend when he came in 5th in the Ronde, rolling across the line by himself after a failed but spirited attempt to bridge to Cancellara’s group. The Katusha rider has a special talent for sprinting after hard days in the saddle, and few are harder than Paris-Roubaix. Furthermore, P-R doesn’t have the climbers of Flanders, which will play into his hands, as he is not an expert climber. 9th in 2013, Kristoff looks even better this year and more likely to hang on during the attacks or even make his own attempts to bridge if necessary. Of the favorites, he has one of the fastest sprints. If he’s there at the finish, it’s hard to see him not winning the cobblestone trophy.  As usual, Luca Paolini makes a great second. Giant-Shimano’s John Degenkolb is the other big name sprinter who might be considered to at least have a shot at being there in the finish. He held on as long as he could in Flanders but was ultimately dropped on the final climbs on the race. It won’t be much easier in Paris-Roubaix, but the Gent-Wevelgem winner is on awesome form and on a good day and with some luck, making the final selection is not out of the question. If he can hold the right wheel to the end of the race, he’s one of the fastest finishers on the start list.

BMC sends a powerful duo to the race in Taylor Phinney and Flanders runner-up Greg Van Avermaet. Phinney attacked early in 2013 but was unable to hold an advantage. He was twice winner of the U-23 edition of the race. The track star turned time trial specialist has a giant engine and he is handy in a sprint finish. He excels on the long flat days. Last week in Flanders he did an excellent job staying up the road for quite a while to keep the pressure of Greg Van Avermaet; Paris-Roubaix is definitely his style, and BMC will look to set him up for a strike more aimed at overall success here. Said teammate Van Avermaet is an excellent option as well, having ridden to 4th here in 2013. He looks in great shape in 2014, placing highly in a number of races even if he hasn’t managed to come up with the victories he has sought. Fewer hills give him fewer opportunities to show off his quality climbing abilities, but this is a race that rewards aggressive riders, and Van Avermaet fits that bill. In years past, Thor Hushovd challenged for the win here a few times, coming as close as 2nd place in 2010; he’s a bit past those golden years now, but the tough former World Champ deserves a namecheck at least. BMC has the talent to challenge the big favorites in this race.

Team Sky also sends a good squad, with Edvald Boasson Hagen and Bradley Wiggins the featured riders for the contest. Boasson Hagen has been riding very well lately, mostly in support, and his time trialing skills and top-notch finishing kick could land him in a great position in Paris-Roubaix. Meanwhile, Bradley Wiggins decided that he would ride the cobbles of Paris-Roubaix this year, and though he does not really have a history of success in this race, he looked pretty good at last week’s Ronde van Vlaanderen. He’s not among the favorites, but he has shown an exceptional ability to succeed when he sets his mind to goals most would deem overly ambitious. Moreover, this is a race that can be won by an elite time trialist, and Bradley Wiggins is among the best in recent memory in that discipline. Geraint Thomas is supposedly riding this race in support of his teammates, but if for some reason he finds himself in position to make a move, he’s a very tough rider built for the days like these; his biggest knock is his propensity to crash, and Paris-Roubaix is nothing if not treacherous.

Back in 2009, Filippo Pozzato managed to finish 2nd to Tom Boonen in Paris-Roubaix. He was also the victor at E3 that year, and 5th in Flanders. Things haven’t really gone the way the Lampre rider would have hoped in recent years, and he is yet to have much success this year, but he did finish with Degenkolb, Sagan, and Stybar in the small group chasing the attackers up the road in Flanders last week. Teammate Sacha Modolo seems unlikely to be there after such a tough day, but he’s one of best sprinters in the race if that somehow happens.

Longer shots looking to animate the race include Wanty Groupe – Gobert’s Bjorn Leukemans (9th in De Ronde this year, and 4th at P-R in 2007), Garmin’s Sebastian Langeveld (10th in De Ronde this year, and 7th at P-R in 2013) and Johan Vansummeren (involved in a serious crash with a spectator, he had a rough Flanders this year, but he did win Paris-Roubaix in 2011 and has a host of other top 10s to his name), and AG2R’s Sebastien Turgot (a surprise 2nd place here in 2012) and Damien Gaudin. Long shots to somehow hang with the proven hardmen and sprint it out include FDJ’s Arnaud Demare (who looks very fast this season but who has not been able to survive the tough days to make it to the finish), Garmin’s Tyler Farrar, Movistar’s JJ Lobato, IAM’s Heinrich Haussler, and Tinkoff-Saxo’s Daniele Bennati.

No exhaustive preview can account for every possibility in a crazy race like Paris-Roubaix. A puncture or crash could instantly ruin the hopes of any of the big favorites and open the contest for new contenders. Still, through all the uncertainty, this race has been dominated by a select group of riders in the past several years; as difficult as it is to win Paris-Roubaix, and as large a role as chance can play over miles and miles of cobbles, seven of the last nine editions have seen either Tom Boonen or Fabian Cancellara victorious. Sunday will offer a great showdown between both of these heavyweights, and also between the now old guard they represent and the rising stars of Vanmarcke, Sagan, Kristoff and others.

VeloHuman Top 10 Favorites

Winner: Fabian Cancellara
Podium: Sep Vanmarcke, Tom Boonen
Other Top Contenders: Alexander Kristoff, Zdenek Stybar, Niki Terpstra, Taylor Phinney, Peter Sagan, Greg Van Avermaet, Edvald Boasson Hagen

VeloHuman recently joined the Twitterverse! Follow @VeloHuman for more analysis and commentary during the race, and be sure to come back soon for post-race thoughts and previews of Amstel Gold, La Fleche Wallonne, and the fourth monument of the year, Liege-Bastogne-Liege.

-Dane Cash

Photos by Olivier Moindroit and Christophe Duhem.

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Ronde van Vlaanderen 2014 Post-race Impressions: Cancellara in a Class of His Own

Koppenberg

Quickly Summing Up the Action at the 2014 Tour of Flanders

Pais Vasco kicked off today in Ordizia (check out the VeloHuman preview!), which means that De Ronde 2014 is now history. Sunday’s battle on the cobbles of East Flanders made for an incredibly exciting contest, with action enough for several races throughout the long day on the road. At times, it looked like anyone’s game, with constant crashes and daring attacks providing plenty of uncertainty to keep things interesting. Riders were dropping like flies with each climb. As the front of the pack approached the last few hillingen with two-time winner Fabian Cancellara among them, an air of inevitability started to creep in. The other contenders sensed it and did what they could, with Greg Van Avermaet and Stijn Vandenbergh going off the nose a bit over 30 km out. When Spartacus jumped from the chasers on the brutal Oude Kwaremont on his way to track them down, only Sep Vanmarcke could follow up the bone-rattling cobbles; fellow pre-race favorites Peter Sagan and Tom Boonen were unable to hang on.

From there, it was a matter of Cancellara and Vanmarcke catching the men in front, which they did, and the foursome hanging on ahead of the pack. Their bid was successful, leading to a four man sprint for the 94th Tour of Flanders. A game of cat and mouse ensued, with each rider jockeying for the best position and trying to plan the perfect time to turn on the ignition, but even with 3-to-1 odds, the Belgian trio could not match Cancellara in the final gallop. Spartacus delivered again Sunday to pick up his 3rd win in the Monument Classic, with Greg Van Avermaet 2nd and Sep Vanmarcke a disappointed 3rd.

Lessons Learned Along the Road to Oudenaarde

Fabian Cancellara‘s 3rd Ronde van Vlaanderen victory is his seventh Monument. That ties him with Tom Boonen, and it does not look like Spartacus is slowing yet. He has shined on the two biggest stages of the year, outclassing some of the best sprinters in the world on his way to a 2nd place in Milano-Sanremo and then using his sprint again even more effectively to take De Ronde. Though the Trek rider just turned 33 this March, both his finishing kick and his powerful engine seem to be as strong as ever. He has said that he may retire within the next few years, but given his current form, he’s likely to fill those years with more success, especially in the most beloved one-day races on the calendar, which also happen to be the most grueling—and therefore suit him perfectly. This Sunday’s Paris-Roubaix will be the perfect place for the strongest of strongmen to take yet another major victory. He enters as the big favorite after this dominant show.

Perhaps the second biggest story of the Ronde van Vlaanderen was Peter Sagan‘s inability to match Cancellara on the Oude Kwaremont. Despite showing strong form in several big races so far this season, Sagan had no answer for Spartacus on the brutal final hillingen. It would be hard and probably incorrect to pinpoint any one reason why his ability to nab races like Gent-Wevelgem and E3 Harelbeke has not translated into a Monument yet. A few factors come to mind. First, he does seem sapped of power when the odometer gets over 240 kilometers, as it does in these races. His Milano-Sanremo 2014 sprint was far less impressive than it usually is, and his uphill burst seemed drastically reduced when Cancellara turned on the afterburners in this weekend’s Tour of Flanders. Sagan’s team support, or lack thereof, may be another major factor—Sagan does not have Cancellara’s ability to carry on over tens of kilometers alone, and while it can’t be said that Cannondale does not surround the young Slovakian with talent, he is too often left without assistance at key moments in a race. Whatever has held him back, I don’t think it necessarily counts him out for this Sunday’s Paris-Roubaix, even if it seems to suit him less than other races. The truth of the matter is that any rider can have an off-day when he least wants to, and it’s always possible that Sagan just hasn’t gotten his best days to line up with the biggest races yet.

Sep Vanmarcke impressed me more than most other riders in the race with his ability to jump up the Oude Kwaremont behind Cancellara. It is a serious climb, meaning that even if he has yet to win a big race this season, Vanmarcke is on serious form. In my mind, Vanmarcke is right with four-time winner Tom Boonen as top challengers to Cancellara in Paris-Roubaix. Without the uphill mileage of the Ronde, the Hell of the North may be a better shot for Vanmarcke. He’s perfected the art of holding Cancellara’s wheel, and, learning from the best, one day soon he might just time his own attack perfectly.

What more can I say about Greg Van Avermaet that hasn’t already been said? It’s hard not to root for the 28-year old, a constant fixture in the spring classics. The BMC rider has shown in Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and on Sunday in Flanders that he is in great shape in 2014, and with such a high probability of a good placing in almost every race he takes on, it seems likely that one of these days, he might win the final sprint to the line or solo away and stay out until the finish line. Better tactics (not wasting energy trying to drop Stijn Vandenbergh) will help as well.

Tom Boonen was unable to hang with the lead group on Sunday, but he did manage to end up a respectable 7th. His thumb seems to still be affecting him; I’d say he ran a decent race given his injury, and hopefully, he will continue to heal and challenge for Paris-Roubaix. OPQS as a whole will (and should) be very disappointed with the way things turned out. Their best placed rider Stijn Vandenbergh did not come close in the sprint. Niki Terpstra tried to pick up Boonen’s slack with an attempt to bridge to the final foursome, but was unsuccessful. Zdenek Stybar was among the big group of chasers but did not manage to make waves. They will look to bounce back in Paris-Roubaix. With last year’s 3rd place finisher (Terpstra) and 6th place finisher (Stybar, who might have been on the podium himself if not for a spectator crash) lining up alongside Tom Boonen (another week removed from his thumb injury) in a race he has dominated, they are set up nicely.

Milano-Sanremo winner Alexander Kristoff forced himself further into the Paris-Roubaix conversation with a 5th place in the Ronde van Vlaanderen. It would have been something if the Katusha hardman had won the bunch sprint behind the leading group as he did last year, but his 2014 performance, while landing him a 5th instead of 4th, was arguably more impressive, as it involved him jumping into an attempt to bridge with only one other rider (Niki Terpstra) and then going it alone for the closing minutes of the race. The fact that he was able to be up there when Sagan and John Degenkolb had fallen away speaks volumes about Kristoff’s talent. His abilities shine brightest on the toughest days. Paris-Roubaix is one such day, and Kristoff will look to improve on his 2013 result, 9th place, in this edition. Without climbs but with all the brutality of a cobbled Monument Classics, P-R could be a great stage for Kristoff.

Cancellara’s dominance, the rise of Kristoff and Vanmarcke, and the continued disappointment for Sagan may be the biggest takeaways from the 2014 Ronde, but in my mind they come with a major caveat. On the harsh cobbles of the spring classics, races can change in an instant (Cancellara knows this better than anyone thanks to his 2012 crash). Any rider can have a great day or a terrible day, and the conditions of the Monuments tend to push this fact to its extremes. In short, Fabian Cancellara was the most dominant rider on Sunday and he’ll enter Paris-Roubaix the favorite, but when the gears start turning and the adrenaline gets pumping, it only takes one perfectly-timed move by one in-form challenger to shake things up. As usual, VeloHuman will be previewing the excitement to come, and tweeting more thoughts @VeloHuman on Twitter (be sure to follow!).

-Dane Cash

Photo by Mark Blacknell. Video courtesy of CyclingHub.

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Vuelta Ciclista al Pais Vasco 2014 Preview

PaisVasco

GC Stars Take on The Tour of the Basque Country

Fabian Cancellara has just won a thrilling Tour of Flanders sticking a late move with Greg Van Avermaet, Sep Vanmarcke, and Stijn Vandenbergh and outgunning all three Belgians at the line. Check back soon for a post-race impressions on De Ronde, and remember to follow @VeloHuman on Twitter for more. The cobbled experts remain in Northern Europe through the week waiting for the Hell of the North to kick off. Meanwhile, many of the pro peloton’s top GC riders are on again in Spain, lining up for the Tour of the Basque Country. The often rainy, rarely flat journey through the region, a spectacle notable enough to be mentioned in Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, draws an impressive start list to match its always-exciting parcours. In fact, every winner since 2007 also has at least one Grand Tour win or 2nd place in a Grand Tour on his palmares. Last year’s victor, Nairo Quintana, went on to take 2nd overall in the 2013 Tour de France. He is not returning to defend his title, but Alberto Contador, Quintana’s Grand Tour winning teammate Alejandro Valverde, and many other heavy hitters will line up to take on the ups and downs of Pais Vasco.

Profs

Stages 4 and 6 will be crucial GC battlegrounds at the 2014 Tour of the Basque Country

Though a stage or two might go to a sprinter, none of the stages in the Tour of the Basque country could be considered “flat.” The very 1st stage might create time gaps if a punchy climber launches on one of the many sharp Category 2 ascents on the day, including a one starting within 10 kilometers of the finish. The 4th and 6th stages could be most decisive: Stage 4 finishes with a climb of Arrate (though it ends on a short downhill), where Nairo Quintana climbed to the stage victory in 2013. Anyone with ambitions of winning this race, however, will have to keep it together through the 6th and final stage, a 25.9 kilometer time trial with a pair of serious climbs along the way. And throughout the week, you can expect rainy weather to force all the contenders to adapt.

All-Rounder Roundup

After his dominant victory at Tirreno-Adriatico and strong showing for 2nd place at Catalunya, the GC conversation at Pais Vasco has to start with two-time winner of this race, Alberto Contador. Tinkoff-Saxo’s star is back with a vengeance in 2014, and this is an event in which he has a great history of success. While the race lacks an interminable uphill slog to a summit finish that one might see in a Grand Tour, there are plenty of climbing miles for Alberto to wear down lesser challengers. Moreover, the stage 6 time trial will favor Contador’s high endurance game over the purer climbers who struggle against the clock. Tinkoff-Saxo does not send their top rider to Pais Vasco alone, however; Roman Kreuziger joins Contador for this race as he joined him at Tirreno-Adriatico, where he finished on the podium. As an Ardennes-winner with the ability to jump ahead on the short steep climbs (of which there are many in this race), Roman Kreuziger is a danger man. He also has a great time trial. Tinkoff-Saxo’s one-two punch will put other teams under a ton of pressure.

Movistar’s Alejandro Valverde has not raced the Basque Country often in recent years, but he had a great deal of success earlier in his career, coming in 2nd in 2006 and nabbing several stage wins across multiple editions. A two time Liege-Bastogne-Liege winner, and also a winner of the Basque Country’s most famous one day race, the Clasica de San Sebastian, Valverde has some experience finding the perfect launching pad among a succession of climbs. He can also hold his own against the clock, especially in the mountains. Most importantly, he’s on fire in 2014, having already won a slew of lower level victories. As usual, Movistar sends plenty of support. Basque Country native Benat Intxausti was 8th here in 2013 and 2nd in 2010. He packs both excellent climbing ability and a strong time trial. Young Jon Izagirre, another rider from El Pais Vasco and a former Euskaltel squad member to boot, will also look to use his combined climbing and trialing ability to make a showing in this race. With several strong options, Movistar will likely be very active this week.

World Champion Rui Costa is an excellent all-rounder who will love the stage profiles; only a few singularly grueling climbs, many small but difficult ascents thrown in, and a hilly time trial to finish (Costa is strong against the clock when there is climbing involved). Costa will look for every opportunity to jump off the front when the rest of the peloton grinds to a halt going uphill, not only because every second will count in this race (though there are no bonus seconds at the line), but also because he’s still looking for his first win in the rainbow jersey in 2014. Teammate Damiano Cunego has had many strong results in Pais Vasco, with numerous top 10s in the past few years.

BMC’s Tejay van Garderen is coming off an excellent trip to Catalunya, where he climbed his way to his first WorldTour victory on stage 4, and 3rd place overall. He must be ecstatic to have landed such fine results in a race without a time trial. In Pais Vasco, the American all-rounder will be salivating at the final day’s test against the clock, which will suit his engine. In addition, his Catalunya victory seems to show an improved ability to explode uphill, which will help van Garderen in the days prior to the final chrono. BMC will be backing him up with quite a supporting cast. Cadel Evans makes the trip to prepare for the Giro. Samuel Sanchez, who has a great history of success in this race, winning in 2012, will look to put together a result for his new team. He was still a bit off his game in Catalunya but the Tour of the Basque Country suits him and I believe he will be motivated to step up.

Paris-Nice winner Carlos Betancur heads up the suddenly world-beating AG2R team. Minor injury put his participation in question until the last minute, but he seems set to start. He was 7th last year, and on stellar form in 2014, he’s a great bet to pick up time charging ahead on the early stages of this race; the biggest challenge for Betancur will be the final stage, as he generally struggles against the clock. Teammate Jean-Christophe Peraud may actually be the better overall bet, coming off basically the first big victory of his very long career in the Criterium International last week. He is good against the clock, especially in this kind of ITT, and with his 4th place at Tirreno-Adriatico he showed an impressive ability to contend with the top GC guys right now. Versatile Christophe Riblon is yet another option for AG2R.

Early season star Michal Kwiatkowski had a very disappointing Tirreno-Adriatico, and his only race since was a DNF at Milano-Sanremo. He was on blazing form in February and March, but it is unclear if he has still kept that top-shelf shape into April. If so, he is very dangerous here, with so many short climbs that suit him much better than the grueling T-A stage that sunk his hopes in that race. If he can limit his losses uphill, especially on Stage 4, he will be a strong contender to win the final time trial outright, making him a good bet for the overall at Pais Vasco 2014.

Belkin’s dynamic duo of Bauke Mollema and Robert Gesink (3rd here in 2011) will hope that Pais Vasco goes better for them than Tirreno-Adriatico did (Mollema was well of the pace and Gesink abandoned T-A with a health issue). Both have looked good in other races this season, and I think the Pais Vasco parcours will be good for them. Simon Spilak leads the Katusha charge; 4th in 2013, he’s looked alright so far in 2014 with results that include a Top 10 in Paris-Nice. He can do a decent time trial when there are hills involved. FDJ sends Thibaut Pinot, who looked to be rounding into form at Catalunya after struggling to get his season started. Garmin-Sharp’s Ryder Hesjedal also looked to be getting back into shape at Catalunya after not participating in many races so far in 2014. He was 6th at the Gran Premio Miguel Indurain this week, so he seems to be continuing to improve. Andy and Frank Schleck headline Trek Factory Racing. Frank has looked decent so far this year, but teammate Robert Kiserlovski might be their most on-form rider here after his 7th in Tirreno-Adriatico and 10th in Catalunya.

Orica-GreenEdge’s Pieter Weening showed in last year’s Tour de Pologne that a hilly time trial suits him; he was 6th in Pais Vasco in 2013. Adam and Simon Yates are also along for OGE; keep an eye out for the highly touted young duo. Giant-Shimano’s pair of Warren Barguil and Tom Dumoulin could make waves here. Barguil will love the constant opportunities to jump up the road on a climb, and Dumoulin is a serious time trialing talent. Astana sends Mikel Landa, Janez Brajkovic, and Tanel Kangert (who is great against the clock). Lotto’s Jurgen Van Den Broeck will hope that this is the race that puts him on track in 2014. Caja Rural’s David Arroyo abandoned Catalunya in the final day but had been climbing at a high level before then; teammate Luis Leon Sanchez is a time trialing talent who has had plenty of success racing bikes in El Pais Vasco. Pierre Rolland has not gotten it going yet in 2014, but the two-time Tour de France Top 10er at least deserves a mention. And lastly: in a rare occurrence, Sky does not really have a top contender in this race, with their various stars racing, training, or recovering elsewhere; Mikel Nieve and Peter Kennaugh are their best bets here.

Stagehunters

The dearth of flat stages has kept the start list light on sprinting talent. Orica-GreenEdge’s Michael Matthews and Sky’s Ben Swift will be happy to pick up whatever sprint finishes they can. Barring any late additions to the startlist Michael Morkov and Daniele Ratto comprise basically the rest of the list of riders to watch in a bunch gallop.

As with many races with this kind of parcours, most stages will see the GC contenders on their toes and alert for opportunities to strike; some of them, riders like Valverde, Costa, and Kwiatkowski will be looking to pick up multiple stage wins as well as fight for the General Classification. Holding off these big names will be a challenge for the stagehunters here, but the list of punchy fast-finishers among them is an impressive one: Orica Green-Edge’s Simon Gerrans (who won a stage last year), and BMC’s Philippe Gilbert headline the group. A number of the stars of Paris-Nice make the start as well. Garmin’s Tom-Jelte Slagter will love his chances to pick up more stage victories here. The same could be said for FDJ’s Arthur Vichot. Europcar’s Cyril Gautier will look for his first WorldTour win after a fine start to 2014. Jan Bakelants and Pieter Serry of OPQS also like to jump on the late bumps in the road and both have fast finishes. Astana’s Maxim Iglinskiy and Enrico Gasparotto could be active as well.

Amets Txurruka deserves a mention all to himself: he will almost certainly be up the road going for the long breakaway victory on multiple days of this race. He was King of the Mountains last year.

VeloHuman Favorites

Winner: Alberto Contador
Podium: Tejay van Garderen, Alejandro Valverde
Top 10: Rui Costa, Michal Kwiatkowksi, Roman Kreuziger, Jean-Christophe Peraud, Robert Gesink, Bauke Mollema, Carlos Betancur

Be sure to follow me @VeloHuman on Twitter for more live analysis during the race, and come back soon for more classics coverage: the Paris-Roubaix preview is up next!

-Dane Cash

Photo by brassynn.

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Ronde van Vlaanderen 2014 Preview

UptheRoad

The Lay of the Land at the 98th Tour of Flanders

The crown jewel of the Flanders classics is finally here. Weeks of racing on the cobbles of Northern Europe have offered insights into who has the most in the tank right now, but on Sunday we get to see the big show, De Ronde van Vlaanderen. It is a 259 kilometer journey from Bruges to the finish line. The first 90 kilometers or so are relatively flat and the road does not meander much on its way to the first visit of finishing city Oudenaard, but then, the parcours turns hostile, winding sharply in a number of loops through East Flanders and greeting the riders with a constant barrage of steep, often cobbled climbs. The 2.2 kilometer, 4.2% average grade Oude Kwaremont (with a half kilometer at over 10%) must be ascended three times, twice with the Paterberg (roughly 380 meters, 13%) immediately following. The second ascent of this Oude Kwaremont/Paterberg double comes with only 15 km to go, after a battery of other climbs that includes the Koppenberg, Taaienberg, and Kruisberg. Any of the aforementioned bumps in the road could be a launching pad for a rider with the legs to fly solo on the way to a Monumental victory. Weather sometimes further complicates things in this race; the forecast for Sunday show clouds with a slight chance of rain at the moment. The wind will likely factor as well.

As the riders take on these grueling challenges, I’ll be tweeting live analysis of the race at the new @VeloHuman on Twitter. Be sure to follow!

RVVProfile

The Riders to Watch

Last year’s winner Fabian Cancellara enters the race as a slight favorite among the bookmakers. Cancellara has shown strong legs in the early goings this season, but you might not know it from the results of the past few weeks in Belgium. Caught behind crashes in both E3 and Gent-Wevelgem, he has not been able to put his world-beating power on display at the very front of the race; he has, however, shown off strong form trying to recover. Meanwhile, his Milano-Sanremo sprint for 2nd against a very talented field shows a great deal of strength at the level of his game as well. Cancellara builds his season around the seven days between this and next Sunday, and it will be hard to match him on the road. He also has a two-time winner of this race in teammate Stijn Devolder, a rider capable of pulling for his team leader or launching attacks if necessary (don’t count out Devolder as a contender—he is only a few years removed from back-to-back victories and looks good this season).

ContendersLargeCropped2Cannondale’s Peter Sagan occupied the next step on the podium of the 2013 Ronde. The Slovakian has not let up in 2014, winning E3 Harelbeke and taking 3rd in the less selective Gent-Wevelgem. I’ve been suggesting in past previews and post-race analyses that he may be focusing more seriously on his climbing and soloing abilities this year, possibly at the expense of his sprint. After this weekend, there won’t be any more guesswork on that front. Perhaps the biggest hurdle standing in the way of his bid for victory will be the distance; the one-day races Sagan has won in the recent past have been shorter contests, and in the seemingly interminable Monuments like Sunday’s Tour of Flanders, he has had trouble maintaining the level of energy that rival Cancellara seems to be able to muster. In short, it will be very difficult to match Spartacus in this grueling contest. However, this is a major goal of Peter Sagan’s season and he has another year of experience under his belt to help him in 2014. Knowing when to attempt the decisive attack and when to find a wheel is crucial in this race. I believe Sagan will also benefit from a larger group of contenders helping track down a late Cancellara solo move. His teammate Oscar Gatto is a very strong rider on these roads who is having a good early season to boot. He will be a valuable lieutenant against so many teams stacked with talent.

Tom Boonen missed the 2013 edition of this race (which he has won three times), but he is back and looking strong at the head of the Omega Pharma-Quick Step attack this year. He has been able to stay near the front of the races he has targetted this season, and victories in Qatar and Kuurne-Bruxelles-Kuurne and a strong showing at Gent-Wevelgem are evidence of his still impressive finishing kick. His classics campaign has not been without its misfortunes, however; tragedy has struck his personal life, and he sustained a painful thumb injury at E3 Harelbeke. He is, with Cancellara and Sagan, in the top tier of bookmakers’ favorites for this race, but OPQS will have a host of options should Boonen not be up to the challenge. Teammate Niki Terpstra is on fire this spring, winning Dwars door Vlaanderen and coming in 2nd in E3 Harelbeke after showing strong legs at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and February’s Tour of Qatar (which he won). With form like this, he is a serious threat to go long. Zdenek Stybar is the team’s wild card. The winner of 2013′s Eneco Tour and 6th place finisher in Paris-Roubaix is not far removed from winning the 2013-2014 cyclocross world championship race, and he looked very capable on the climbs of Paris-Nice and the brutal Milano-Sanremo in March. Stybar has shown a remarkable ability to make it up and over the short, steep bumps in the road, and I think this skill will set him up nicely in the Ronde. Teammate Stijn Vandenbergh has also been very active this spring, while Guillaume van Keirsbulck has just won the Three Days of De Panne.

Belkin’s Sep Vanmarcke occupies a role on the fringe on the top tier favorites, as the main challenger to the established trio of Cancellara, Sagan, and Boonen. He has been in the top 5 of all four Belgian races he has undertaken in 2014, showing plenty of power and a strong finish. He has been knocking on the door for a few years now, though he is yet to nab a win at this level. 2014 seems as good a year as any. In 2013, the 25-year-old Belgian stood on the podium of Paris-Roubaix, a position he earned by hanging with Cancellara himself (alone among all the other riders in that race); he clearly has a wealth of talent. Still, the Ronde offers some serious uphill challenges, and it is the one major Belgian classic race that Vanmarcke does not have a big result in as of yet. It will be interesting to see if he can up his game a notch to handle cobbled climb after cobbled climb. He will be supported by a deep squad that includes Lars Boom.

Jurgen Roelandts was the third man on the podium in 2013, and he returns to the Ronde in 2014 looking sharp early this year. He has spent much of his time on the road as Andre Greipel’s top lieutenant, but he has shown strong form when given the opportunity. In last week’s Gent-Wevelgem, he took up the reins for Lotto when Greipel went down in the final kilometers, and still managed a respectable 10th. Meanwhile, teammate Tony Gallopin, winner of the 2013 Clasica de San Sebastian, has put together several fine performances so far this year. A true all-rounder, he will hope to put pressure on his opponents on the race’s many inclines. With Roelandts and Gallopin at the helm, Lotto-Belisol is not a team to be underestimated. Team Sky is another dangerous squad with multiple versatile options. Ian Stannard will be sidelined for a while with a serious back injury, but Geraint Thomas was 3rd at E3 Harelbeke and on track for a podium finish in the recent Paris-Nice before crashing out of that race. He is riding at a very high level right now, and has the toughness to hold on when the other contenders start to fall off the pace. Meanwhile, teammate Edvald Boasson Hagen looked very strong in this year’s Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and has continued to show form in support of his teammates in the run-up to De Ronde. His sprint is a known commodity, and he’s a danger man should he be at the front of the race as it nears its conclusion. Even Bradley Wiggins is here, filling in for the injured Stannard.

BMC’s Greg van Avermaet has notched three top 10s in this race, two in the past two years. He came so close to winning Omloop Het Nieuwsblad in early March, and has looked decent in the past few cobbled races. He certainly possesses the right array of skills, mixing capable climbing legs with a knack for going solo and a strong finish, but whether all of his combined strengths will shine bright enough to beat out the serious competition in this race is the big unknown. A top 10 is always within his reach; the win always seems just out of it. Perhaps 2014 is the year it all comes together? Meanwhile, BMC also sends Taylor Phinney, recovering from an ailment but maybe a factor with a late attack, and Thor Hushovd, should the bunch somehow stay intact to the line.

Gent-Wevelgem winner John Degenkolb of Giant-Shimano will also hope he can hang on while riders try to blow up the race on the likes of the Koppenberg and Oude Kwaremont. However, I don’t think he’s purely reliant on a bunch sprint finish for victory. Degenkolb has been known to attack out of the bunch in tough races, and his form has looked sharper than ever this spring. With every race, Degenkolb seems to grow more confident in his ability to handle the difficult days. Unfortunately for him, his opponents will do everything in their power to avoid a situation in which they may be forced to face him in a sprint, meaning that Degenkolb will be fighting for his life on Sunday. FDJ’s Arnaud Demare was 2nd at G-W, and he’ll be hoping he can keep pace this Sunday as well. He is a tough competitor. Among the toughest fastmen on the road will be Katusha’s Alexander Kristoff, who finished 4th in 2013. These climbs could be a bit beyond his skillset, but the long day in the saddle and the relatively flat closing kilometers play in the favor of the of Milano-Sanremo winner. Teammate Luca Paolini has looked great in support of Kristoff so far this year, and he may look for opportunities to get up the road in Flanders.

IAM Cycling sends a pair of former Ronde runners-up in Sylvain Chavanel, who will look to strike from afar, and Heinrich Haussler, who will hope to outpace opponents at the line. Lampre’s Filippo Pozzato was runner-up just two years ago, and he has been in the Top 10 two more times in the past. He has not shown much this year but his 2013 GP Ouest France victory came as a surprise after a while off his best form, and this is a race he has a history in. Teammate Sacha Modolo will struggle mightily to hang on when attacks are launching left and right, but should it come to a mass gallop, he has been flying in the sprints this year.

The list of outsiders with a chance at victory from a small group or long attack also includes Daryl Impey and Jens Keukeleire of Orica-GreenEdge, Garmin’s Sebastian Langeveld and Johan Vansummeren, and Wanty – Groupe Gobert’s Bjorn Leukemans (4th in 2010).

Movistar’s JJ Lobato and Francisco Ventoso, Garmin’s Tyler Farrar, Astana’s Borut Bozic and Francesco Gavazzi, MTN Qhubeka’s Gerald Ciolek, Tinkoff-Saxo’s dangerous duo of Matti Breschel and Daniele Bennati, Topsport Vlaanderen’s on-form up-and-comer Tom Van Asbroeck, Wanty – Groupe Gobert’s Jean-Pierre Drucker, and NetApp’s Sam Bennett comprise a list of other outsiders looking for an opportunity to use their sprinting abilities should a larger group somehow remain intact at the finish.

VeloHuman Top 10 Favorites

Winner: Peter Sagan
Podium: Fabian Cancellara, Tom Boonen
Other Top Contenders: Zdenek Stybar, Sep Vanmarcke, Geraint Thomas, Jurgen Roelandts, John Degenkolb, Greg van Avermaet, Niki Terpstra

Follow @VeloHuman on Twitter for more analysis during the race! And come back soon to check out previews of the Vuelta Ciclista al Pais Vasco and next week’s Paris-Roubaix, as well as post-race analysis of what promises to be a thrilling Tour of Flanders.

-Dane Cash

Photos by visitflanders.

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