Wednesday, April 30, 2008
Probably 10 years ago or so, VeloNews published a photo from the Ronde Van Vlaanderen/Tour of Flanders as it passed through the Flemish town of Gistel. Someone there had strung every Johan Museeuw jersey you could imagine along a clothesline at the side of the road. I mean everything – ADR, Lotto, GB-MG, Mapei, rainbow stripes, the works. The caption was simply “Flaundry.” For some reason, the term stuck with me, and with the spring classics now behind us, it seemed like a good title for a post to wash away some last thoughts from a great three weeks before hanging them out to dry.
The Liege-Tour Fallacy
This time of year, the media (and sometimes the riders) seem to delight in trying to divine Tour de France predictions from the results of Liege-Bastogne-Liege. Take, for example, this little product from AFP, which casts Valverde’s Liege win as a warning shot to fellow Tour contenders like Cadel Evans (Silence-Lotto) and Damiano Cunego (Lampre). I suppose they do it because Liege is often the first time the Tour heavy hitters emerge in concert from their hideouts after studiously avoiding each other for three months. In fact, that has to be it, because there’s virtually no other reason to think that Liege has any bearing on readiness to win the Tour de France.
So what does a one-day race in late April tell us about a 23 day race in July? Not a damn thing, other than some of the same people ride both races. Just look at the history. For starters, only one single man has won both Liege-Bastogne-Liege and the Tour de France in the same year, though he did do it three times. Any guesses? Right – Eddy Merckx pulled off that particular double in 1969, 1971, and 1972. And if we know anything, it’s that Merckx’s results really can’t be extrapolated or applied to anyone else. They are what they are, and have absolutely nothing to do with the rest of us.
Looking further, only three other men can boast victories in both races, though at least one won’t be boasting, because he’s dead. Frenchman Jacques Anquetil (1934-1987), the first man to win the Tour five times (1957, 1961-1964) notched his single Liege win in 1966. The first to do the double was the Swiss Ferdi Kübler, most famous these days for the iconic picture of him freaking out with frame pump in hand. He won the Tour de France in 1950 and followed up with Liege wins in 1951 and 1952. The last to do it, of course, is Bernard Hinault, the Badger, who won Liege in 1977, won it again in a snowstorm in 1980, and took his five Tour de France titles in 1978, 1979, 1981, 1982, and 1985.
So what does all of that mean? It means that nobody has won the Tour and Liege in the same year since 1972 – before any of the current contenders were even born, and in a far different era of professional cycling. It also means that the last Tour win by a winner of any edition of Liege-Bastogne-Liege was in 1985 – 23 years ago. And that looking to Liege to predict Tour victories would mean comparing the 2008 Tour contenders to Hinault and Merckx, which they ain’t.
Of course, if a Tour contender is way off the back or 10 kilos overweight at Liege, it’s not the best sign for his season. But none of them were too far off each other this year – Valverde won, slightly in front of a couple of Schlecks, and a little bit more ahead of Evans and Cunego. Given the margin of victory, that the Tour is two months away, that the Côte de La Redoute is not exactly the Alpe d’Huez, and that the Tour is roughly 22 days longer than Liege, I hardly think Valverde’s classic win tells us much at all about his Tour chances. Certainly, there are numerous winners of one of these races that have been contenders in the other (Armstrong, Lemond, and Hamilton to name a few), but you could say the same for a lot of other races and probably come up with much better correlations. Even then, it’s a dubious practice, especially when people can rip a true Tour prep race like the Dauphine Libere to pieces, and then completely tank at the real Tour.
In the end, looking at the 100+ year histories of Liege-Bastogne-Liege and the Tour de France, you could just as well argue that winning one will almost certainly doom your chances to win the other.
As we pointed out earlier, there are now several classics winners from Spain, that sun-scorched land where the week-long stage race seems to be king. Alejandro Valverde (Caisse d’Epargne) has since added another Liege victory to his 2006 title, which he preceeded with a Fleche Wallonne win. Oscar Freire (Rabobank) had a great spring as well, putting in an impressive ride in support of Juan Antonio Flecha at Flanders before winning Gent-Wevelgem three days later. That was the first Spanish win in the big three cobbled classics, and Freire followed that performance up by persevering in his campaign not just through Roubaix, but through Amstel Gold and Fleche Wallonne as well. That’s a boatload of punishment for anyone.
But the real revelation isn’t the pair of Spanish winners. Igor Astarloa took the “first Spaniard” title quite awhile ago by winning the 2003 Fleche, and we’ve certainly known Valverde had the legs for a couple of years now. The real story is in the number of other Spaniards playing a role up north. This year, behind the raised hands of Valverde, you had the tireless prep work of Joachim Rodriguez (Caisse d’Epargne), who could well have the legs to take a classic himself. Flecha has made the hopefuls list for every cobbled classic and, together with Freire, has formed half of an odd leading duo for a Dutch team. And Quick.Step, that most Belgian of outfits, hired Carlos Barredo to help out Boonen at Flanders and Roubaix. That’s a pretty big endorsement.
Then there’s Euskaltel-Euskadi’s Juan Jose Oroz, who, though tough to spot, may have the most impressive classics record of the past 12 months. Peter at Bobke Strut can show you why.
The Youth Movement
For awhile there in the early half of the 2000’s, the spring classics were starting to look disturbingly like cycling’s geriatric ward. The names garnering all the press were all the trailing end of a generation that had steamrolled the north for the last decade. You had Peter Van Petegem (then Lotto-Domo) pulling off the fabled Flanders-Roubaix double in 2003 at the age of 33, and Davide Rebellin sweeping the Ardennes week at the age of 32. Museeuw was still hanging around, as were Mapei alums Michele Bartoli, Gianluca Bartolami, and Andrea Tafi. Suddenly, it seemed that becoming the next Gilbert Duclos-Lasalle and winning Roubaix at 40 was everyone’s career goal.
Now, just a few years later, only Rebellin remains active of those mentioned above, and he’s competitive at that. But though he won Paris-Nice and was in the mix in his beloved Ardennes this past week, his 36 years may finally be costing him the punch to win the single day races. Indeed, Rebellin, George Hincapie (High Road), Stefan Wesemann (Collstrop), and a few others are the last of that late 1990s-early 2000s era of riders holding on, and they’re giving way, if unwillingly, to the new generation. With the exception of Freire’s Gent-Wevelgem win (he’s 32), all of the major spring classics were won by riders 30 years old or younger: Stijn Devolder (Ronde Van Vlaanderen, 28), Tom Boonen (Paris-Roubaix, 27), Damiano Cunego (Amstel Gold, 26), Kim Kirchen (Fleche Wallonne, 30), and Alejandro Valverde (Liege-Bastogne-Liege, 28).
The Rinse Cycle
Did you feel it? Because the lack of doping news in the past three weeks was almost conspicuous in its absence.
In the time between the Ronde Van Vlaanderen depart in Bruges through the Liege finale in Ans, there was nary a doping story to be found, cycling-wise. Even better, none of the doping news that was floating about originated with this year's classics. Sure Björn Leukemans’s (formerly Silence-Lotto) testosterone suspension was upheld in Belgium, the Floyd Landis (formerly Phonak) case dragged on well into its second year, Liquigas signed Ivan Basso, and Phil and Paul knocked out the occasional Astana exclusion gripe on the Versus coverage. But really, it was pretty quiet.
I point this out apropos of nothing. I’m not saying the sport itself is cleaner, that the classics are any cleaner than the grand tours, that the drugs or the testing have improved, or that the public has lost interest in cycling’s dirty (f)laundry. I’m just saying that for three weeks, I enjoyed the focus on the racing.