Friday, April 10, 2009


No Returns

A couple of weeks ago, I finished a book called “Over the Edge of the World” by Laurence Bergreen. It documents Ferdinand Magellan’s circumnavigation of the globe, a voyage that started in 1519 and completed its lap in 1522. The book’s title is a nod to the prevailing wisdom at that time that if you sailed far enough, you might just fall off the end of the earth, never to be seen again.

So why the hell am I talking about this on a cycling site? Well, Magellan’s voyage (which notably returned sans Magellan) proved that there was no literal “edge of the world” to sail over into some inescapable void. This year’s Gent-Wevelgem, on the other hand, proved that there are still plenty of figurative places to drop out of existence, never to be seen or heard from again. At least in bike racing.

Gent-Wevelgem, perhaps more than any other classic, seems driven by the wind. Changes in direction relative to those prevailing winds can crack the peloton into desperate, suffering echelons for kilometers. Then suddenly, a single turn is rounded, and the first echelon is blown out to an insurmountable gap by a howling tailwind. The Kemmelberg does its work, and another loop around the hills allows the process to repeat itself, smashing a lead group into even smaller pieces.

Combine that wind-and-hill cycle with the tricky politics of big-split team tactics, and the underlying message of this year’s G-W was clear – miss a single move, get a badly timed flat, and there’s no coming back. Lose the front group, and you’re off the edge of the world. No chasing back on, no teammates dropping back, no bridging, no regrouping. Three key splits occurred throughout the race – one at 20k that broke 36 men free, one after the first descent of the Kemmelberg that split that group in half, and one when the winning two-man break went clear. Each time, anyone who didn’t jump quickly enough or had a bit of hard luck might as well have turned up the side road and ridden straight for Wevelgem and the showers. It may be a "sprinter's classic," but anyone sitting in and waiting for the regroup hasn't been paying attention.

Race Radio

  1. What do Silence-Lotto’s pre-race meetings sound like? Do they have them? As I’ve noted before, they seem to always miss the move that matters, and this G-W was no different. You’d think the local boys would know to keep an eye on the wind and look for the big split, but they managed to place just one rider in the definitive 36-man move. Was it one of their grizzled vets? Cretskens? Hoste? No, it was third year Dutch pro Michiel Elijzen.

  2. We’ve come to expect that sort of thing from Lotto, but Quick.Step? Boonen made the first split as the sole representative, then flatted out of it, leaving the team entirely without representation. It happens, but what I can’t figure out is how Boonen was all by himself just 20k into the race.

  3. Silence-Lotto isn’t the only team with bad timing. Cervelo Test Team knows how to make the moves, but it seems they’re still trying to figure out how to spend their energy once they’re there. Of their strong representation and aggressive riding in the split, Dominique Rollin told, “We had a good gig going, but that actually turned to our disadvantage. When we hit the hills we paid for our efforts early on.” Indeed. Kind of like at the Ronde van Vlaanderen last week, when they were crushing the front of the race on the Oude Kwaremont with 84k to go, but were nowhere to be found on the Bosberg with 12k to go. Maybe we all settle down a bit at Roubaix, eh?

  4. It would be incomplete to talk about the effect of the hills and wind on the G-W outcome but not mention the impacts of the race’s UCI rank and calendar. With one man in the break between them, shouldn’t home teams Lotto and Quick.Step have been able to bring back that first group? Maybe, but those folks and many others have their eyes firmly on Sunday and Paris-Roubaix, and while a chance at a semi-classic win is nice, it’s not that nice. Columbia, on the other hand, turned up to win G-W, and it showed.

  5. Boassen Hagen’s win is a big step for him, and he deserves all the recognition he’s getting for it, but someone has to point out Kuschynski’s riding this week. After grinding out the long break at Flanders, he bounced back to ride a very aggressive G-W, trying several times before cracking the winning move free. Bad luck for him that the guy he finally drew out was a sprinter of Boassen Hagen’s caliber.

  6. Though I wrote above that anyone who missed any of the key splits might as well have fallen in a hole, there was one, single notable bridge. Robbie McEwen (Katusha) wrangled his way from the second group to the first after the split on the Kemmelberg descent, proving that if you leave any rider, even a sprinter, in Belgium for long enough, they come out nails. Chapeau, Robbie.

  7. In the grand tours, we get used to seeing riders flat, surf the bumper for awhile, and then catch back on to the break or the peloton. I find the classics are a refreshing change from that. While I don’t wish it on anyone, it’s reassuring to see an environment where even stars like Cavendish, Boonen, and Cancellara can get screwed by a flat just as badly as us amateurs. And I’m not sure what Cancellara did to deserve the season he’s having, but it must have been bad.

  8. They call G-W a sprinter’s classic, and predictions and prognostications beforehand tend to focus on who among the big fast-twitchers can best get themselves up and over the two ascents of the Monteberg-Kemmelberg combination. Inside tip: in the modern era, that’s pretty much all of them. Though the race does break with some regularity, picking the fastest sprinter is still the safest bet, because when G-W does break it’s a crapshoot.

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Once again, very well said.

I think Boonen's flat might turn-out to be the best thing for him going into Roubaix.
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Great writeup Ryan.

You ax questions in the first three. My guesses:

1. Lotta silence.
2. Hercules had a tougher time with one-headed Cerberus than he did with the nine-headed Hyrda. No reason to think a three-headed bike racing team is not similarly easier to conquer than a team with one leader. See, e.g. T-Mobil, The Ulrich Years.
3. No chance. While it's easy to turn order into disorder, it's nearly impossible to turn disorder into order.
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