LEON, Spain (VN) — Every bike race, in its essence, remains the same. It doesn’t matter if it’s the Tour de France, the world championships, or a weekend club criterium. Every start line has its favorites, yet every race starts with no one knowing who’s going to win.
On many occasions, especially at the pro level, the winner seems pre-ordained. Mark Cavendish in the sprints. Tony Martin in the time trials. At last year’s Tour de France, Bradley Wiggins started as the five-star favorite, and then delivered. The pundits said they were predicting his victory months in advance.
Yet as anyone who’s toed up to the line knows, a flat tire, a miscalculation, or a bonk can turn the best-laid plans upside down. Bike racing is controlled chaos. And sometimes, the chaos wins.
That’s what happened over the weekend in Belgium. Luca Paolini (Katusha), a 36-year-old veteran who’s been around the block a few times, won his first race in four years in such impressive manner that it almost seemed like no one else could have won.
That Paolini would win Omloop Het Nieuwsblad on Saturday seemed as likely as a Belgian not winning (they’ve won 54 of the 68 editions). Any one of the nearly 200 riders taking the start line could have won, but 90 percent of them didn’t even come close.
For Paolini, it was a perfect storm. He read the race perfectly, saw Omega Pharma-Quick Step taking control of the race, and saw the others hesitating. When Stijn Vandenbergh jumped, Paolini was on his wheel like a magnet.
It takes brawn, brains and luck to defy the odds. Paolini had all three in spades Saturday.
More than a decade ago, Paolini was one of the peloton’s most unpredictable riders, but the peloton has changed, and Paolini has been trying to find his way.
Once the sidekick to Paolo Bettini at Quick Step in the early 2000s, Paolini was flicked by the Italian teams and found a home at Katusha in 2011. He seemed far past his prime, yet was unbeatable on Saturday.
There in lies the eternal beauty of a bike race. Despite the dominance of captains and a full team at their beck and call, no one knows who will win. On any given road, anyone at the start line theoretically could win. That’s why they race.
Yet the sharp end of professional cycling is so specialized that it’s almost become predictable who will win. There are specialists for every type of terrain. The sprinters, the time trialists, the classics hard men, and the grand tour candidates, each specialty has their three or four top aces who gobble up the vast majority of podiums throughout the year.
The crumbs that remain are fought over by everyone else.
They’re the peloton’s opportunists, the stage-hunters, the escape artists. The French call them baroudeurs. The ones who try to defy the odds. On Saturday, it worked for Paolini. He might try 20 times more before he even comes close again. Yet he will try again. That much is predictable.
The reigning king of unpredictability is Jens Voigt.
The veteran German has made a career out of defying the odds. One of the odds he’s defying now is retirement. At 41, he’s among the oldest in the peloton (Davide Rebellin has him beat by a few months) yet he’s still stubbornly refusing to admit this will be his last season.
When the curtain dropped on the 2013 season, Voigt delivered on a promise he made to his teammates that he would make the first attack of the year. At the People’s Choice criterium in downtown Adelaide ahead of January’s Tour Down Under, he did just that.
When the flag dropped on the 50-lap race, Voigt was hot off the gun, forming the day’s main breakaway with a rider from the local Australian university team on the first lap. Voigt was a total gentleman and let his breakaway mate pick up the mid-race primes.
After being caught as the sprinters set up the inevitable — this time it was predictable and André Greipel won hand’s down — Voigt rode proudly across the line in the middle of the pack.
When asked if he thought he had a chance of holding off the sprinters, Voigt added a wrinkle to his answer: “No, but you never know, do you? That’s why you must try. You must take chances. It does not work a lot of the time, but sometimes it does. When it works, then you’re the smart one.”