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

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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

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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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E3 Harelbeke, Gent-Wevelgem, and Volta a Catalunya Post-race Impressions: Wrapping up the Weekend

VoltaMotoTuning Up at the Highest Level

The last week of March was positively full of WorldTour racing, and each day offered insights into who is on form and who is not in early 2014. Because of the major implications of the one-day races for the upcoming Monuments, and the golden opportunity to view the form of the top GC riders on the planet during their heavyweight bout in the mountains of Catalunya, I decided the races were worth a few minutes spent cataloging some post-race impressions.

Takeaways from E3 Harelbeke and Gent-Wevelgem

Peter Sagan picked up the second major spring classic victory of his career last Friday at E3 Harelbeke, sticking a late attack with Geraint Thomas, Niki Terpstra, and Stijn Vandenbergh and rather easily outsprinting the rest of the escapees to the line. Sep Vanmarcke and Tony Gallopin jumped from the chasing pack for the next placings and then Borut Bozic led the bunch over the line, with Tyler Farrar, Fabian Cancellara (who put in a valiant effort trying to track down the escapees despite being delayed by a crash), Greg van Avermaet and a banged up Tom Boonen following, among others. Two days later in Gent-Wevelgem, the peloton ate up attacks one by one to force a bunch sprint, but not without danger along the way. Crashes wreaked havoc on the peloton all day, downing the likes of Ian Stannard (who fractured a vertebra), Andre Greipel (who broke a collarbone), and Tyler Farrar and slowing Cancellara. Enough stayed upright for a bunch finish. MSR winner Alexander Kristoff jumped first, but Sagan, John Degenkolb, and Arnaud Demare charged past as he faded. Degenkolb took the win with Demare 2nd and Sagan 3rd. Sep Vanmarcke was an impressive 4th. Boonen (despite an injured thumb) pulled in 5th.

Sagan’s strength in the successful E3 move shows that he’s on a very high level in the area of his game he’ll need most in the upcoming Tour of Flanders. Meanwhile, he couldn’t match high octane Degenkolb and Demare in the sprint. I’m beginning to think he has made a conscious decision to angle towards improving his climbing and endurance possibly at the expense of pure sprinting this year; Flanders will be a good indicator of things.

Fellow E3 top finisher Geraint Thomas looked very sharp, certainly back on the level after a messy crash in Paris-Nice. With Stannard out for the foreseeable future, Thomas’s showing is important for Sky’s classics campaign. The climbs and distance of Flanders will be a good opportunity for him to show off his skillset.

Gent-Wevelgem brought John Degenkolb the spring classic he’d been seeking. He burst onto the scene with a dominating Vuelta performance in 2012 and has built on that promise. I look forward to the next stage race that he and Sagan attend together. Arnaud Demare was very close behind him at the line. He will be disappointed at coming so close, but it was a good showing that bodes well for the future.

Despite a lack of success during the weekend, Cancellara showed continued power in his efforts at the front of the peloton in both races. E3 and Gent-Wevelgem are big events but Cancellara has his eyes on the Monumental prizes, and he looks sharp. Rival Tom Boonen took a backseat to Niki Terpstra in Harelbeke but he was quite quick in the Gent-Wevelgem finish. Like Cancellara, he looks ready for Flanders and Paris. Terpstra was doomed to 2nd when the E3 break was unable to drop Sagan, but he did look quite strong. Zdenek Stybar was active during the weekend and will relish the more difficult contests to come.

Sep Vanmarcke was one of the strongest riders in both races. He managed a 5th place in E3 despite running into mechanical issues on the day, and surprised many (including me) with his sprint to 4th on Sunday. It was nice to see him giving the races his all even when victory seemed out of the picture. He has been everywhere in the early season classics, and I think he’s likely to mix it up with Cancellara, Boonen, and Sagan in the next two weeks.

Andre Greipel missed out on a golden opportunity to pick up a big classics victory, and now he’ll miss time for injury to boot. It’s a shame for the German sprinter, who is a true gentleman of the sport, and who obviously has the talent to succeed in one-day races as well as in the Grand Tour sprints he’s known for.

Other takeaways from the E3 Harelbeke/Gent-Wevelgem weekend: Topsport Vlaanderen’s Tom Van Asbroeck looks primed for a bright future, getting into the Top 10 mix in G-W after already notching some semi-classic success in 2014. Jurgen Roelandts sniped the final Top 10 spot in G-W despite a last minute designation as team leader after Greipel went down. He has looked very strong across the first few weeks of classics season, and now that he won’t be on teammate duty, he could pose a threat in the race he took 3rd in last year, Flanders. Alternativley, Lotto could look to success from Tony Gallopin, who looked sharp on the climbs in Paris-Nice and who was strong at the E3 finish.

Takeaways from the Volta a Catalunya

The heavyweight GC competition may have been the big story in Spain, but first, a quick word on the stagehunters. While John Degenkolb was prepping for his days on the cobbles, teammate Luka Mezgec was absolutely cleaning up the sprints in Catalunya, earning a hat trick of victories against the likes of Leigh Howard and Roberto Ferrari. He’s a versatile rider who can hang on over the climbs (kind of like Degenkolb) and he packs a heck of a punch… He also shares youth with Giant’s other star sprinters: Mezgec, like Degenkolb and Marcel Kittel, is only 25! OPQS youth Julian Alaphillipe (just 21!), a cyclocross transfer, looked strong as well in Catalunya with three top 5 stage finishes.

Now to the GC contenders. Joaquim Rodriguez won the mountainous 3rdstage, taking the race lead, which he successfully defended through to the final podium. Alberto Contador was 2nd on the day, and he defended that position through to the final podium as well. Tejay van Garderen, 4th on stage 3, improved his position by winning a cold, dreary, foggy stage 4, and he hold on for 3rdoverall. Romain Bardet was just behind, both on the stage and in the GC. Nairo Quintana and Chris Froome were strong throughout the race, but could not match their rivals at the top, settling for 5th and 6th, respectively.

There was plenty of insight to be gleaned from the climbers’ battle, but there are also some caveats. Starting with the insight: Purito quickly proved that his time away from racing was not spent on the couch. He was simply too strong on his way up La Molina, and if there were any concerns about his 2014 form heading into the month of the Ardennes classics, I’d say he dispelled them. Contador was among the top climbers on both decisive stages, and active on other days as well. Having just put in a Herculean effort in Tirreno-Adriatico, he still managed to challenge for the overall victory here, and if his performance in Italy did not say it emphatically enough, he is most definitely back. Meanwhile, Froome and Quintana, while among the best riders in the race, were not on the level of Purito and Contador. However, I think it is dangerous to draw too many conclusions from their performances. As was noted in the original preview, Quintana was still taking anti-biotics to stave of illness at the start of the race, and Froome was coming off of back pain that sidelined him for Tirreno-Adriatico and subsequent training. Given the circumstances, Quintana and Froome looked fine in Catalunya and I don’t think either is concerned.

To my mind, Tejay van Garderen made the biggest statement of the race. Despite lurking at the top levels of the sport in the past two years, Tejay had yet to take a WorldTour victory before last week. He remedied that with a beautiful uphill charge through the mist on a stage 4 whose conditions were so bad that the only TV coverage came in the final ten minutes of the race. After last year’s disappointing Tour de France, Tejay looks to be better than ever, and winning a stage with a quick upward burst is even more impressive, as van Garderen is not really known for explosiveness. To stand on the podium in a race without a time trial against such high level competition bodes extremely well for van Garderen. AG2R’s Romain Bardet, who narrowly missed the stage 4 victory behind van Garderen, was vindicated after a series of misfortunes kept him from contending in Paris-Nice with his 4th overall here, on the same time as Nairo Quintana.

Garmin will be pleased with Andrew Talansky’s 7th place, just behind Froome himself. The American was still rounding into form at Tirreno-Adriatico, and it looks like he is progressing nicely ahead of his first big target of the season, the Tour de Romandie. Meanwhile, teammates Dan Martin and Ryder Hesjedal both look to coming along as well (Martin is targeting the Ardennes and the Giro), from the same position of uncertainty.

Warren Barguil was another statement-maker. Two Vuelta wins last year put the young French Giant-Shimano rider on the map, but as both came in breakaways, he had yet to mix it up with the big GC riders. Barguil crossed the line in the stage 4 finish behind Chris Froome, and ended the race 9th overall. According to ProCyclingStats, he’s set to start the Ardennes classics for GSH, and with Tom Dumoulin (winner of the Criterium International ITT) he makes a dangerous duo with the potential for serious long range strikes.

The stars of E3 and Gent-Wevelgem take on the biggest prizes of the classics season in the next two weeks, starting in Flanders on Sunday. Meanwhile, many of the top names from Catalunya will head across Spain to start in the Tour of the Basque country, with Amstel, La Fleche Wallonne, and Liege to follow.

The Tour of Flanders and Tour of the Basque country are the next previews on the docket. As usual, I’ll also be tweeting plenty of analysis of the action; be sure to follow the new @VeloHuman on Twitter!

-Dane Cash

Photo by Mossos.

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Gent-Wevelgem 2014 Preview

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A Cobbled Classic for the Fastest Riders in the Pack

E3 Harelbeke is in the books! Cannondale’s Peter Sagan, facing questions of his form after a disappointing Milano-Sanremo, won a commanding victory over Niki Terpstra and Geraint Thomas, surviving attempts from the peloton to reel in their late attack. Now, it’s on to Gent-Wevelgem, Sunday’s roughly 230 kilometer journey from Deinze to Wevelgem near the Flemish coast. Its trademark Kemmelberg is a steep, challenging obstacle on the way to the finish, but Gent-Wevelgem has been one for the sprinters in recent years (though Peter Sagan used a late attack, and not his elite sprint, to win last year’s edition). As such, the field is full of fast men. Most of the top names are here, and their teams will be focused on bringing them to the line safely.

Peter Sagan, winner here last year, has the climbing legs to make it over the bumps along the way and the kick to outsprint most of the starters to the line. VeloHuman wasn’t really concerned about his form after Milano-Sanremo, but some observers were; he put those concerns to bed with a masterful performance at E3 Harelbeke. It’s hard to see a select group making the final kilometers without Sagan in it, and he has one of the fastest finishes in the race, fast enough to contend with anyone here. If he feels threatened by some of the bigger sprinters, he also has the ability to power away on his own, as he did in 2013.

Omega Pharma might have had a strong bid to challenge Sagan here, but health issues are putting their chances in doubt. Tom Boonen has won this race three times. Like Sagan, he can make it over bumps and can get into late moves, or initiate them himself, but he also has the kick to be in the mix in a bunch finish. However, he injured his thumb in E3 Harelbeke, and that injury could keep him from making an impact at Gent-Wevelgem; keep an eye here or at the new VH Twitter account, @VeloHuman, for updates. He’ll be in my Top 10 for now. Zdenek Stybar is another option, but G-W might not be difficult enough for him to be a true contender. Stijn Vandenbergh looked great in E3, but his finishing kick could leave him lacking here. Pure sprinter Mark Cavendish could have been the guy for OPQS (his 5th place in Sanremo shows he’s capable in 2014 of making it to the line in a tough one day race, and with the elite Belgian squad to deliver him, Gent-Wevelgem could have been within his reach), but a fever will sideline him Sunday. Perhaps they will turn to Nikolas Maes in his stead?

Mark Cavendish’s ever-present sprinting rival Andre Greipel will make the start. The Lotto-Belisol rider mentioned both cramps and a gearing issue as problematic for him in MSR, but whatever the reason, he did not make an impression there. Still, with a strong team to help him overcome the Belgian landscape, he’s a great bet in a sprint finish. Lotto looked very good at E3 Harelbeke, and Gent-Wevelgem could suit their star fast man.

Katusha’s Alexander Kristoff was not in the least bit troubled by the rigors of Milano-Sanremo, and he showed an impressive kick after a hard-fought day in that race, taking a commanding victory ahead of some top talent. Clearly at the top level right now, Kristoff will look to deliver again in Gent-Wevelgem. He has a knack for winning bunch sprints in the cobbled classics, even if those sprints are contesting 4th place behind the day’s last surviving attackers. This race offers a great opportunity for sprinters like Kristoff to actually contest the victory. Luca Paolini is a fine second. Another rider who has made a career out of a impressive kicks following long days is Giant-Shimano’s John Degenkolb, who was robbed of his chance at Milano-Sanremo glory by an untimely puncture in the closing kilometers. He will take on Gent-Wevelgem looking for some shred of vindication. He managed to make it into the Top 10 of last year’s Tour of Flanders and the 2012 edition of E3, so he has shown at least some ability on cobbled Belgian roads. On the fine form he’s showing this year, with the added fuel of a chip on the shoulder, Degenkolb should challenge for victory here.

FDJ’s Arnaud Demare was unable to hang on in Milano-Sanremo but this race should be more manageable, and he looks good this year. Lampre’s Sacha Modolo was a well-placed finisher in MSR and might be an even better bet here, with Filippo Pozzato (who has notched a few top 10s here) another strong option for the team, especially if some of the top sprinters are weeded out. Orica-Greenedge sends Matt Goss, desperate to show he still has what it takes. Garmin-Sharp’s Tyler Farrar looked great in Dwars door Vlaanderen and E3 Harelbeke, and he has a very strong supporting cast to deliver him here. Belkin’s Moreno Hofland has looked great in several races this year, and he, too, has a very strong supporting cast. Other contenders looking for a sprint finish, reduced or otherwise, include Astana’s Borut Bozic and Francesco Gavazzi, MTN’s Gerald Ciolek, Europcar’s Bryan Coquard, Tinkoff-Saxo’s triple option of Matti BreschelDaniele Bennati, and Michael Morkov, Movistar’s JJ Lobato, IAM’s Matteo Pelucchi and Heinrich Haussler, Sky’s Edvald Boasson Hagen (winner in 2009) and Bernie Eisel (winner in 2010), NetApp’s Sam Bennett, WGG’s Jean-Pierre Drucker, AG2R’s Davide Appolonio, and BMC’s Thor Hushovd.

Trek’s Fabian Cancellara could try to animate the race with a solo move. A crash with around 40 km to go in E3 made it all the more difficult for Cancellara to get to the front of affairs, but his 8th place there showed good cobbled form. Unfortunately for Cancellara, the G-W parcours favors him less. Still, he’s shown a good finishing kick so far in 2014 should he need to use it. Belkin’s Sep Vanmarcke, also on blazing form this spring (hampered in that race by a number of mechanical issues, he still nabbed 5th at E3 Harelbeke), will look for getaway opportunities as well. Teammate Lars Boom is sure to do the same; watch out for fireworks from Belkin. The parcours will make victory from a late attack difficult, but Sky’s Ian Stannard and Geraint Thomas (looking great right now), Garmin’s Sebastian Langeveld, BMC’s Greg van Avermaet and Taylor Phinney, Lotto Belisol’s Jurgen Roelandts and Tony Gallopin, IAM’s Sylvain Chavanel, Omega Pharma’s Zdenek Stybar, OGE’s Jens Keukeleire, and WGG’s Bjorn Leukemans are other candidates to go for a long one.

VeloHuman Top 10 Favorites

Winner: Peter Sagan
Podium: Alexander Kristoff, Andre Greipel
Other Top Contenders: John Degenkolb, Arnaud Demare, Borut Bozic, Sacha Modolo, Fabian Cancellara, Tom Boonen, Tyler Farrar

VeloHuman has just joined the Twitterverse! Follow @VeloHuman for more news and views on the pro peloton.

-Dane Cash

Photo by Vlaam.

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