KUURNE, Belgium (VN) — Whatever might have been revealed by early season races, races under a summer sun in Australia and across the desert in Dubai and Qatar, may as well be forgotten. The “hellingen en kasseien” — slopes and cobbles — of northern Europe have a truth all their own.
For those who chase success in the classics, there is no substitute for the real thing. So this weekend’s back-to-back tests on the cobbles and climbs of the Flemish Ardennes, Saturday’s Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and Sunday’s Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne, may have provided the first real glimpse of what to expect when the pro peloton returns to Belgium for their big brothers — Gent-Wevelgem, E3 Harelbeke, the Tour of Flanders, and Paris-Roubaix — in just a few weeks’ time.
So what did we learn in cycling’s return to the cobbles?
Boonen is back
Tom Boonen (Omega Pharma-Quick Step) was unstoppable in 2012 during the four cobbled classics, but his 2013 classics campaign all but evaporated before it even began. The Belgian was hospitalized with a life-threatening infection in his arm in January, crashed out of Gent-Wevelgem in March, then fell again in Flanders, sustaining injuries that put a definitive end to his spring aspirations.
Finally healthy, Boonen appeared to be very much on form in last month’s Tour of Qatar, where he took two individual stage wins on his way to second place overall. Though a clear favorite in Saturday’s Omloop, he was never a factor in the race, crossing the line almost four minutes out of contention.
The 33-year-old seemed unable to adapt from the summerlike conditions of the Middle East to the chilly damp of the early northern European spring. Boonen told reporters on Sunday that the Omloop had been perhaps his coldest day ever on a bike — so cold, in fact, that he vomited during the race and spent some 30 minutes shivering in the team bus afterward.
Omloop winner Ian Stannard (Team Sky), a rider who is known for performing well in the worst conditions, apparently adapted better. Stannard finished just two spots and a handful of seconds behind Boonen in the general classification in Qatar before making his European debut. On Saturday even he acknowledged the physical and psychological adaptations a rider has to make when racing in the cold and wet.
“It’s tough, you know? I think everyone wakes up and they see it’s raining and it’s a bit of a downer on morale, I guess,” Stannard told VeloNews. “But you’ve just got to get on with it. It certainly makes it more tricky racing, and you’ve really got to be in the front and aware. It’s really easy to mess up on the cobbles when they’re wet.”
But on Sunday, under clear skies and milder conditions, Boonen appeared much more his old self. He was among the prime players in a cooperative move, largely driven by his Omega Pharma squad and a trio of Belkin riders, that led a group of 10 out of the peloton and into control of the race with about 70 kilometers to go.
The peloton had already begun to buckle under the pressure of Belkin’s increasing tempo through the rapid succession of hills that began just after the midpoint of the race when Omega Pharma’s Stijn Vandenbergh accelerated up the Oude Kwaremont climb and the bunch fractured for good.
“We planned a big acceleration on the climbs. We were the strongest, but I say every time, we need some more guys in the break,” said Omega Pharma sport director Wilfried Peeters. “And then you need some teams to help us, alone it’s not possible. Only with five (guys) it’s not possible. And today was with Belkin so we had a lot of chance to win the race.”
The tactic worked. With two major teams cooperating up front, the rest of the peloton was slow to respond. By the time Sky took up the chase in earnest, the gap had reached a minute, and despite Lotto-Belisol and Katusha throwing men into the effort, the peloton failed to reel in the leaders.
Boonen was the prime beneficiary, overcoming what he called “a big chaos” in the final kilometers to take his third career win in Kuurne, closing the door on any lingering questions about his preparation for the classics.
“This confirms that I only need to add some small percentages in Paris-Nice to be ready for the classics,” said Boonen today. “I didn’t need to win today, but in hindsight, it’s good for the peace of mind.”
Sky answers doubters, but questions persist
Even as Boonen celebrated, new questions surfaced about Team Sky’s seriousness as contenders come April. Though they used a used a combination of tactical savvy and plain old superior strength to deliver leader Ian Stannard to a win in miserable conditions on Saturday, on Sunday, the team missed the winning move entirely.
After the race Sky sport director Servais Knaven told VeloNews that prognosticators should not read too much into Sunday’s results. If his team had failed, he said, it was neither a failure of tactics or preparation, but simply the luck of the dynamics of an active and fast-changing race.
“It is just about being there,” said Knaven. “If you are not there — well, it can happen, because you have to brake at a certain moment or just don’t have the legs and you cannot be all in the first position. It’s always a fight and sometimes you’re there and sometimes you’re not. Tom Boonen is always in first position on the Taaienberg and yesterday he wasn’t.
“It’s not like I have a paper and say, ‘Okay, now you go.’ It’s a fight like a bunch sprint going towards the bottom of a climb, and it’s not that if you’re not there you’re not good or have bad tactics. That’s bike racing. One day you’re there and one day you’re not, and of course some people are there nine out of 10 times and others are six out of 10. I can’t explain that.”
And, indeed, Sky rode not only a smart tactical race on Saturday, but a lucky one as well. The team took shots wherever it could, but also managed to insert riders into nearly every move that mattered. Sky looked a far cry from the squad that could summon neither luck nor coordination during last year’s classics campaign, and with headliners Stannard and Edvald Boasson Hagen on very good form, the team has to fall on the list of serious hopefuls for classics wins this year.
What we don’t know looms large
With Omega Pharma and Sky the big winners of the weekend, what else have we learned?
Belkin, for one, is aiming straight for the heart of the classics. The team, still in its “Blanco” incarnation, missed a major win in Paris-Roubaix last year by mere inches, when Sep Vanmarcke finished second to Fabian Cancellara in a tactical sprint on the track in Roubaix. As Belkin, it seems poised to do even better this year.
Belkin may have had a chance on Saturday had Lars Boom not punctured out of a late breakaway, and the team rode nearly perfectly on Sunday, very nearly setting up Moreno Hofland to steal the win in the race’s final moments. With a deep squad and serious aspirations, Belkin is one to take seriously.
So is BMC. Though the team suffered a scare when Thor Hushovd fell hard on Saturday, they nonetheless managed to insert Greg Van Avermaet into the winning break. (Though initial reports were that Hushovd had fractured his arm, the team later reported X-rays had confirmed nothing was broken.)
Van Avermaet may have made a tactical error late in Saturday’s race, allowing Stannard to dictate the dynamics of the race’s final kilometer, but he told reporters later he believed the weather conditions had favored the Briton anyway.
“(Stannard) surprised me and took two meters,” said Van Avermaet. “My body didn’t react anymore as I thought it would react. It is a disappointment because I thought I would be the strongest in the sprint.”
On Sunday, BMC was largely absent from the front of the race and, worse, lost American Taylor Phinney to a hard crash early on. Still, the squad surely leaves Belgium confident of its chances in the weeks ahead.
Finally, then, were the two glaring absences: Trek Factory Racing and Cannondale. Neither team sent their classics leaders, Fabian Cancellara and Peter Sagan, to Belgium this weekend.
More than one rider suggested that the best preparation for the cobbled classics was to race on those same cobbles now. But many of those same riders pointed out how little it is possible to predict when it comes to the cobbles.
Cancellara’s absence from Omloop last year — Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne was canceled due to snow — hardly hampered him in the classics. Likewise, Omega Pharma’s presence did nothing to help its futile 2013 classics campaign.
Maybe the only real lesson is one we’ve known all along: The cobbles, as always, will be sure to surprise us.