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Watch out for these 13 riders as cobbles season goes full-speed on Friday

  • By Neal Rogers
  • Published Mar. 21, 2013
  • Updated Mar. 27, 2014 at 6:12 PM EDT
Peter Sagan may not be proven as a classics winner, but he will enter the hilly cobbled races a top favorite. Photo: Graham Watson | www.grahamwatson.com

Proven podium finishers

Peter Sagan (Cannondale): Just 23, Sagan is the classics star of both the moment and the future, though he hasn’t yet registered the big classics win. He stood on the podium at both Ghent-Wevelgem and Amstel Gold Race in 2012, and, so far this year, at Milano-Sanremo and Strade Bianche, the latter won by his teammate Moreno Moser. Arguably the most talented rider in the sport — he climbed with Vincenzo Nibali (Astana) and Joaquim Rodríguez (Katusha) at Tirreno and outsprinted Cavendish and André Greipel (Lotto-Belisol) — Sagan’s range of abilities makes him a contender at any one-day race he enters, though he’ll skip the carnage of Paris-Roubaix to stay fresh for the Ardennes.

Sagan possesses all of the skills to win a classic; however, he’s still young, and prone to making mistakes. At Ghent-Wevelgem last year he marked Cancellara too closely, and was then out-sprinted by Boonen. At Flanders he was out of position when Alessandro Ballan (BMC Racing) made the decisive move early on the Oude Kwaremont, and chased the three leaders alone for several kilometers before being swept up by a chase group, finishing fifth. At Milano-Sanremo last weekend, Sagan was in a perfect position to win, but he launched his sprint too early, opening the door for Gerald Ciolek (MTN-Qhubeka) to ride his wheel to victory. Sagan is unquestionably a rider for the sport’s toughest one-day classics, but he’s still navigating the difference between being there for the win, and actually finishing off the job.

Filippo Pozzato (Lampre-Merida): With Ballan recovering from injuries sustained in a January training crash, Pozzato is Italy’s biggest hope for a major result on the cobblestones. The 31-year-old Sanremo winner (2006) has been knocking at the door for years, with a win at Harelbeke in 2009 followed by second at Roubaix, behind Boonen, and fifth at De Ronde. In 2010, however, Pozzato was widely criticized by several classics favorites, including Boonen, Philippe Gilbert, and Bjorn Leukemans, for his negative racing tactics, earning him the nickname “The Shadow.”

Last year Pozzato finished second at Flanders, behind Boonen and ahead of Ballan, but gave up at Roubaix following a seemingly innocuous crash in the final 40km after Boonen had already flown the coop. This year Pozzato has won Trofeo Laigueglia, from a four-up sprint, and he thought he’d won Roma Maxima, taking second in a bunch sprint, unaware that the winner, Blel Kadri (AgAg2r La Mondial), had soloed across the finish line 37 seconds earlier. Pozzato had been dropped on the final climb at Roma Maxima before his group caught back on with the leaders in the final kilometer, and at Sanremo he wasn’t able to follow the winning move, finishing 33rd, one spot behind Gilbert — still a shadow.

On the cobblestones, Pozzato is in a tough position — not as strong as Cancellara or Boonen, and not as quick as Boonen or Sagan. A classics win from Pozzato wouldn’t come as a major surprise, but it would be an upset.

Sylvain Chavanel (Omega Pharma-Quick Step): The current UCI WorldTour leader is one of the most well rounded riders in cycling, having won the overall GC at several stage races, worn the maillot jaune at the Tour de France, and won one-day races such as Dwars door Vlaanderen and Brabantse Pijl, both in 2008. In 2009 the Frenchman finished in the top 10 at Harelbeke, Dwars door Vlaanderen, Paris-Roubaix, and Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne; however, it was his second-place finish at the 2011 Tour of Flanders that truly showed his potential. It was at that race that Cancellara attempted to break free, 50km from the line, as he had done successfully in 2010. This time, however, Chavanel, riding support for Boonen, was able to sit dutifully on Cancellara’s wheel, and was there when a small chase group brought the pair back on the Kappelmuur, 15km from the line. Chavanel then followed the attack 3km out, finishing second in the three-up sprint to winner Nick Nuyens.

Last year Chavanel won the overall at Three Days of De Panne, finished second at Dwars door Vlaanderen, and was 10th at Flanders. Last weekend he finished fourth at Milano-Sanremo after his late-race breakaway with Sky’s Ian Stannard was reeled in following the decent of the Poggio. As a member of a team that includes two of the sport’s biggest stars in Boonen and Cavendish, Chavanel won’t be the team’s marquee rider during the cobbled classics, which is precisely what makes him so dangerous.

Philippe Gilbert (BMC Racing): The world champion has proven himself on the hilly, paved Ardennes classics, but has yet to take the big win on the cobbles. He’s won the early-season Omloop Het Nieuwsblad twice, in 2006 and 2008, and in 2011, his best season yet, he won the Italian gravel road race Strade Bianche. Yet the closest he’s come at the Tour of Flanders is third, which he’s taken twice — in 2009, behind a solo Stijn Devolder, and in 2010, behind a solo Fabian Cancellara. However, there’s a big difference between finishing strongly in the field sprint and vying for the win.

A winner at monuments such as Liège–Bastogne–Liège and Giro di Lombardia, Gilbert would dearly like to win the most important race in his native Belgium wearing the rainbow jersey; the world champ won’t contest Roubaix, so he’ll put all his cards on the table to win Flanders. Gilbert showed very little in his Sanremo performance to indicate he’s on form to fight riders like Cancellara and Sagan, or even Chavanel, for the win. Gilbert attacked over the wet descent of the Cipressa, drawing out riders such as Stannard, Cancellara, and Sagan, but when Stannard accelerated, taking Russian champ Eduard Vorganov (Katusha) and Chavanel with him, Gilbert was unable to follow the counter of his own attack. However, with teammates Taylor Phinney, Thor Hushovd, and Greg Van Avermaet, who took fourth at Flanders last year, BMC Racing should have one of the strongest teams on the bergs of East Flanders.

Thor Hushovd (BMC Racing): After a disastrous 2012 season spent battling what his team described as “post-viral syndrome with secondary myositis (muscle inflammation),” the former world champion is looking to set his career back on track. It’s an uphill battle for the Norwegian, however, who raced less than 35 days last year and skipped both the Tour de France and Olympics. A winner of the U23 Paris-Roubaix in 1998, Hushovd, 35, has publicly stated he wishes nothing more than to win Roubaix before he retires. He’s been close, finishing second in 2010, though it was a full two minutes behind Cancellara. Hushovd was perhaps even closer in 2009, when he crashed while following Boonen’s wheel into the last critical section of pave, Le Carrefour de l’Arbre, essentially throwing away the opportunity to sprint against Boonen for the win. It was a devastating mistake for Hushovd, who finished third, behind Boonen and Pozzato.

Hushovd has won a sprint this year, though it wasn’t against a top-notch field, taking stage 1 of the Tour du Haut Var in February over Tour Down Under winner Tom-Jelte Slagter of Blanco. Though he had a few top-10 stage finishes at Tirreno-Adriatico, Hushovd did not finish Milano-Sanremo, a race where he’s twice been on the podium, in 2005 and 2009.

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Neal Rogers

Neal Rogers

Neal Rogers is editor in chief of Velo magazine and VeloNews.com. An interest in all things rock 'n' roll led him into music journalism while attending UC Santa Cruz, on the central coast of California. After several post-grad years spent waiting tables, surfing, and mountain biking, he moved to San Francisco, working as a bike messenger, and at a software startup. He moved to Boulder, Colorado, in 2001, taking an editorial internship at VeloNews. He never left. When not traveling the world covering races, he can be found riding his bike, skiing, or attending a concert.

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