Thursday, April 22, 2010
By now, I trust you’ve heard that Philippe Gilbert (Omega Pharma) won the Amstel Gold Race last Sunday. Even better, since his victory in the 257k Dutch classic came a scant seven days after Paris-Roubaix, while there were plenty of jittery media types still milling around France and the low countries, there’s a chance the public might still remember his win almost five days later. Achieving that sort of institutional memory would be a real breakthrough for Gilbert, who despite his ample palmares seems to have each successive victory hailed by some parties as his “breakthrough win,” as if he was some starry-eyed neo-pro who just got his first giddy look at the inside of a team bus.
He’s not new though, what with being 27 years old, a seventh year pro, and one of the best classics riders out there. So why does Gilbert constantly seem to play second fiddle come classics season to guys with much thinner records – like, say, Juan Antonio Flecha (Sky)? As we’ve discussed a bit before, the meaning of “classics” has adopted more specific meanings than it should in some circles. For some, the term “classics” (and with it "classics rider") seems to have become synonymous with “cobbled classics.” It’s not. For others, it’s become synonymous with “spring classics.” And it’s not. For another subset, “classics” has become synonymous with both those terms, making an unstated mental mutation into “spring cobbled classics.” And it’s certainly not that. (We won’t get into the people who continually refer to Paris-Roubaix as a Belgian classic, because that’s another issue altogether – one that has more to do with cartography than etymology.) Anyway, it’s my belief that the narrow perception of what constitutes a classic and a great classics rider lies the root of Gilbert’s under-valuation, at least in these United States.
When many observers look at Gilbert’s palmares, they see the two wins in Omloop Het Volk in 2006 and 2008, arguably the second or third of his many “breakthrough wins.” And with that glimpse of cobbled potential, it seems, their eyes glaze over as they slide their index finger down the list that follows, scanning only for two words – Ronde and Roubaix. When those terms don’t appear, Gilbert gets thrown into some patronizing “hopeful” bin for classics greatness – a good rider, to be sure, but no Boonen, no Cancellara. While that latter assessment may still be a fair one – it takes a lot to equal those riders’ records – it misses the defining trait of Gilbert’s career: winning big classics that don’t necessarily fit the extraneous spring or cobbled qualifiers.
In 2008, in addition to wins in Het Volk and Le Samyn, Gilbert bagged Paris-Tours, his first full-scale classic. That win proved he had the legs to go over the 200k semi-classic distance, often cited as his chief limitation until then, and he dutifully followed up by winning Tours again in 2009 and capping that season with his first monument, the Giro d’Lombardia. Prior to those big wins, he also racked up a series of second-tier one-day wins, including a number of French Cup races during his FdJ days. Included in those results are the 2005 Trophee des Grimpeurs, Tour du Haut Var, and the Polynormande, and with them the overall French Cup title for the year. Those races – as well as wins in the GP Fourmies and GP de Wallonie the following year – aren’t mega-classics, but they’re nothing to sneeze at, either. And last year, between his big Tours and Lombardia wins, he added a pair of high-value Italian semi-classics, the Giro del Piemonte and the Coppa Sabatini, to go with his Belgian and French ones.
So what do a bunch of assorted hilly national semi-classics and four full-blown tarmac classic wins mean? Well, despite being a Belgian by birth, and the cobbled expectations Gilbert created for himself with his Het Volk wins, he’s really built in more of the Italian classics rider mold. Think of a Bartoli, a Bettini, a Diluca, or a Rebellin – though hopefully without the negative connotations of the latter two. It’s a less grindy style than the Belgian model, with more of an emphasis on stabbing attacks and perhaps a bit less raw strength. Of course, there are Italians that rode in the Belgian style – think Andrea Tafi, or Gianluca Bartolami – so maybe it’s time we had a Belgian that rode like an Italian.
Like the Italians above, he certainly has it in him to become a classics legend, probably moreso because, not actually being Italian, he won’t be tempted to waste a few good classics-winning years trying desperately to win the Giro d’Italia. And without that distraction, he’s the number one favorite to bring home Belgium’s first Liege win since Frank Vandenbroucke in 1999.
Does Gilbert have a Ronde van Vlaanderen win in him? Probably. But I think you’re likely to see a Liege win or even a sneaky Milan-San Remo win first, and I think Gilbert knows that’s where his true talents lie. And lucky for him, the home fans love him for it, even if he doesn't achieve quite the same status abroad. And that's because, in this country, it’s Roubaix that makes classics riders famous. Or, in the unusual case of the aforementioned Vandenbrouke, it’s a wicked drug habit, mental problems, and an early death that make you famous. But fortunately for Gilbert, he doesn’t live here.
A Note About Hesjedal
At Amstel, I was glad to see Ryder Hesjedal (Garmin-Transitions) time his charge up the Cauberg to get a solid second place behind an untouchable Gilbert. Hesjedal has been inching up the results sheets in the hilly one-days for the last few years -- most notably at the Montepaschi race in Italy -- and it was about time he scored a big result.
I don’t pretend to know Hesjedal, but I’ve encountered him at several points in his career. The first several times were when I covered the Snowshoe, West Virginia leg of the NORBA National Series (2001-2005), when Hesjedal was a very young, very talented, and mildly cocky mountain bike pro with Subaru-Gary Fisher. To be fair, it always seemed to me that he picked up a good bit of that last trait from his British Columbia training partner Roland Green, then with Trek-VW and a master of the cocky genre, and with whom Hesjedal was dominating both the national cross-country and short track series.
Hesjedal’s last appearance at Snowshoe was in 2003, when he won a characteristically slimy edition of the cross-country race; the next time I saw him was in 2004 in the lobby of a Flanders hotel. He’d recently made the jump to the road with Discovery Channel, and was being put through the wringer in his first shot at the cobbled classics. Talking to then-VeloNews editor Kip Mikler and me, he looked shell-shocked, exhausted, and far more humble. Since then, he’s gone from Discovery to Phonak to Garmin, where he seems to be benefiting from the team’s different management style as well as a few more years of living the Euro road life.
Amstel Gold Broomwagon
- Who put a firecracker up Bert De Waele’s (Landboukredeit) arse? He’s a solid, experienced Flandrian, no doubt, but I don’t think there’s a pundit around who would have picked him to be charging up the Cauberg in the top 5.
- Omega Pharma finally got its first season win, and a race like Amstel isn't a bad way to kick things off -- it's just a few months too late in the calendar for comfort. Make no mistake, Omega will still be signing a dedicated field sprinter over the winter to avoid repeating their painful spring next year.
- I still believe that anyone who finishes Amstel Gold should get an orienteering medal. But along with all the criss-crosses and corners every 2 kilometers, the Amstel Gold course also has some pretty hair-raising moments. At one point driving that course a few years back, we were flying down a rain-slick, 7-foot-wide road, the hood of the rented Ford Focus angled down at what seemed like 45 degrees, when we came into a surprise hairpin and found ourselves staring directly at a Virgin Mary shrine built into the stone wall of the house we were about to drive through. I am not Catholic, or even a church-going man, but I’m pretty sure I saw God there for a second. As I said before, there may not be cobbles, but these classics have their own challenges.
- One thing that really struck me watching the Amstel feed – no offense to the Dutch, but the Belgians and French produce much more informative cycling programming. I’m not talking about commentary – I’m talking about putting graphics on the screen identifying groups, gaps, riders in the break, and kilometers remaining. Granted, the tail end of this year’s Amstel got a bit hairy with groups and attacks going left and right, and I’m sure it was all a lot more clear if you spoke Dutch, but they’re still noticeably behind their neighbors in tracking the action on-screen.
Something About Fleche Wallonne
At this point, you probably also know that Cadel Evans (BMC) won Wednesday’s Fleche Wallonne semi-classic. If you don’t already know that, you’re probably one of those people studiously avoiding the results until Versus shows you some cut-up version of the race this Sunday, and you’re probably cursing me for giving it away without putting some goofy, internet-nerd “spoiler” tag on this post. Then again, if you’re one of those people, I’ve probably already offended your delicate sensibilities with something I’ve said here in the past, and you’re still here, so I’m really not too worried about it. Anyway, onward…
What can you say about Fleche, except that once again it came down to a climbers’ bunch sprint up the Mur de Huy? I suppose you could note that the organizer, ASO, tried to avoid just that scenario by moving the second of three ascents of the Mur to just 30 kilometers from the final, deciding ascent of that hill. And then you could argue that the change didn’t really work out, or you could say that it did, depending on your mood.
ASO rejiggered the course in hopes that the narrowed distance and recovery time between the second and third ascents of the Mur would encourage a breakway to go and liven up the finale a bit. To their credit, a break did go, with Frank Schleck (Saxo Bank), David Loosli (Lampre), Bram Tankink (Rabobank), and Roman Kreuziger (Liquigas) having a bit of an adventure until they were caught inside 5k or so to the finish. After that, it was the usual run-in and scrap on the Mur. So is that a success or a failure of ASO's course change? I think it'll take a few more years with the current setup to really know.
Both Schleck and Kreuziger are legitimate threats in a race like Fleche, so even though that particular move didn’t work out, it showed that some candidates and teams were willing to take a chance on the long move. Sure, Astana’s underrated Ardennes squad shut the break down pretty handily, but if the representation had been a bit different, who knows? Add in Alberto Contador (Astana) or Evans, swap Tankink for teammate Robert Gesink, or add some of Katusha’s considerable horsepower, and it could have been game over. I think ASO will give the new layout another try next year, and now that the teams have had a look, I’ll be expecting a few more shenanigans on the penultimate ascent of the Mur.
For what it’s worth, John Wilcockson, who would know, postulates that it’s not the course that creates the seemingly inevitable slo-mo sprint up the Mur, it’s the race length. At 200k and with contenders peaking for the 60k longer Liege-Bastogne-Liege, Fleche just isn’t long enough to be selective. Look at how the monuments play out and you’ll see the logic – most of the action up to the 200 kilometer mark is just softening the legs; the real action doesn’t come until the last 50 kilometers or so. Unfortunately, as Wilcockson also notes, the UCI has capped the length of lesser classics, including races like Gent-Wevelgem and Fleche, so organizers are left to either tinker with the course or embrace the sprint.
Fleche Wallonne Broomwagon
- You know why I’m glad Evans won Fleche? So we won’t have to hear him whine about being boxed in on the Mur again. Was that 2008 that he was complaining that someone ever-so-slightly moved over on him? I’ll let bygones be bygones, though, and hope that the confidence that comes with the rainbow stripes will let Evans be a little less vocal about the slings and arrows of his outrageous fortunes this year.
- I do pick on Evans fairly frequently, but it’s nice to see someone winning big races in the World Champion's stripes. We certainly didn’t get a lot of that with Alessandro Ballan last year, and if Evans finds his legs for the Giro d’Italia it will be the first time in a long time we’ve seen the rainbow at the front in a grand tour. Who was the last? Gianni Bugno in 1991 and 1992?
- Though it’s been talked about much less that Omega Pharma’s pre-Amstel win drought, Evans’ BMC team really, really needed that win. With George Hincapie putting in a pretty anonymous cobbled classics season, Ballan radically underperforming and then being suspended due to an Italian doping investigation, and few wins of note, BMC's threatening classics lineup was shaping up as a bit of a paper tiger. The Fleche win doesn’t supplant all that, but it helps, and it’ll help morale ahead of both Liege and the Giro.
- Despite the win, it was still a mixed day for BMC, with Ardennes asset Karsten Kroon getting caught up in a crash and suffering multiple facial fractures. Ouch. Best wishes for a speedy recovery.
- I can’t look at the map of Fleche Wallone without thinking back to a conversation with a fellow cycling writer, when we were discussing how nice it was that the Ronde van Vlaanderen started in the lovely main square in Brugge. To provide contrast, he added, “But have you been to Charleroi? Charleroi is a shithole!” I don’t know if that’s true or not – the year I was at Fleche I was also covering the women’s race, which starts and finishes in Huy, so I didn’t get to experience whatever pleasures or horrors Charleroi may offer. But I’d be lying if I said my image of it wasn’t pre-tarnished.
- With their performances at Amstel and Fleche, Katusha is emerging as the squad to watch for Liege. Joaquin Rodriguez’s second place to Evans at Fleche is obviously the most notable result, and he deserves to be on the favorites list for Liege. But the Russian duo of Sergei Ivanov and Alexandr Kolobnev are proving to be two of the strongest setup men in the business, and if the Kim Kirchen of old decides to show up, Katusha will have a lot of horsepower at its disposal. Rodriguez will be a marked man, but if the favorites don’t pay close attention to him in the last 20 kilometers or start looking at each other, Kolobnev could wander off with Liege.
- Through Amstel and Fleche, a couple of big favorites for Liege have yet to really materialize. The Schlecks were present and visible in both races, but not outstanding, and the Valverde we saw at Fleche wasn’t anything to write home about (though he did just have to drive from Spain to Belgium). That doesn’t mean they won’t rate at Liege, just that the others won’t be shaking in their boots. In fact, though it feels pretty remedial to point it out, the results sheet from Fleche could well tell the tale of this year’s Liege, with this week’s winners Evans and Gilbert, the Schlecks, and possibly Damiano Cunego (Lampre) again battling it out with the Spanish armada of Rodriguez, Contador, and Igor Anton (Euskaltel).
- Yes, the cycling writer’s union requires than any collection of Spanish riders numbering greater than two must be referred to as “the Spanish Armada.” And much to Team Sky"s and Rabobank's chagrin, it doesn't look like they're going to be sunk by the British and the Dutch anytime soon.
- I hadn’t noticed earlier, but it looks like ASO finally overhauled some of its race’s logos this year. It’s probably about time. Some things in cycling are timeless, but the jaunty brushstroke look of the previous Fleche and Liege logos wasn’t among those things. Remarkably, the Tour de France logo seems to be a holdout.