Friday, April 16, 2010


From Pave to Pavement

I’ve never really been a “season” person. You know – some people are “winter people,” full of talk about snow and brisk air and the smell of wood smoke, and others are “summer people,” constantly pining for warmth, long days, and short sleeves. Not me. By the time the end of any given season is near, I’m ready for it to be over – tired of freezing, tired of sweating, or tired of being in between the two. I’m not sure what that says about me, or my ability to dress properly for the conditions, but that’s how it is.

And as it is with the calendar year, so it is with the cycling year. I love the cobbled classics with all my heart, but after the crescendo of the Ronde and Paris-Roubaix, it’s time for something else. Something a little less bleak. Something to appeal to the other parts of our psyche and that, when it’s done its turn in the limelight, will leave us yearning for the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad again come February. After all, even Christmas would lose its appeal if we had it all year round. So, I don’t mourn the yearly passing of the cobbles.

That said, we can’t just leap straight from the cold, flattish, and brutal affairs we’ve just witnessed to warm Italian sunshine, rolled-up jersey sleeves, and grand tour stages barreling up winding mountain roads. That would be far too jarring a change for any normal person, and perhaps more so for those with fragile cyclist sensibilities. So to ease us gently into the days to come, professional cycling, too, has its transitional period – its own weeklong spring – the Ardennes classics.

The grand tour riders start to pop out at the Amstel Gold Race like the first buds on barren trees, lending a bit of fresh foliage to the last damp remnants of the cobbled classics squads and creating hybrid lineups that likely won’t been seen again until this time next year. Rabobank, for instance, adds the willowy Robert Gesink and Laurens Ten Dam to tiring Flanders mainstays Boom, Langeveld, Nuyens, and Tankink. While some team’s grand tour squads will just be showing their first green shoots at Amstel, Saxo Bank will almost be in full bloom, replacing its entire cobbled roster with a fresh one that contains at least half of their likely Tour de France lineup, complete with two Schlecks, a Voigt, and a Fuglsang. As the week wears on into Wednesday’s Flèche Wallonne and the next Sunday’s Liege-Bastogne-Liege, the last dried out husks of the cobbled specialists will fall away, replaced with riders more suited to the longer côtes of Wallonia than the sharp cobbled bergs of Flanders. And once that’s done, there we’ll be, staring squarely at the first grand tour of the season. Though they’ve already ridden myriad weeklong stage races since January, the GC riders’ appearance in Belgium is as sure a sign of the approaching Giro d’Italia as the replacement of Nemesis rims with deep section carbon.

All of that isn’t to say that the coming Ardennes classics – in which we’re including the Amstel Gold for convenience sake – are simply some temporal bridge to be crossed between Roubaix and the Giro d’Italia. Far from it.

For whatever reasons, the Ardennes classics just don’t get the respect the cobbled ones do in the United States. Maybe it’s because the cobblestones deal out much more obvious and dramatic punishment than their more evenly tarmac-ed brethren to the east. Maybe it’s because of the extent to which the fetishized Flemish cycling culture seems to dominate one-day racing, or it could be some lingering cross-cultural confusion over why they speak French in Liege, even though it’s only a half-hour drive from Maastricht and in the same country as Gent. Or maybe it’s because, as we discussed above, the Ardennes classics draw so many of those faces we hear about all through July. And with so many familiar players, maybe the Ardennes just don’t feel as special or different as the cobbled races, so they don’t attract quite the same cult following. Don’t get me wrong, they’re not totally off the radar here – I’m sure there are Americans who have made special pilgrimages to visit the Ardennes classics. But I also bet those who do have already been to see the Ronde or Roubaix.

Not getting respect and not deserving it are two different things, though. A look at the saw-tooth profile of Amstel’s 31 climbs, one drive up Flèche Wallonne’s iconic Muur de Huy, or a read down the list of men who have won the 95 editions of Liege will show that, though the roads may not be quite so endearingly crappy as those in Flanders, the Ardennes hold their own unique spot in cycling history, present their own unique challenges, and create their own champions. And they are very, very hard. So, classics lovers, I say, rather than lamenting the passing of early spring cobbles, look forward to this week's soft transition to the pursuits of summer.


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Two things, not necessarily connected:

1. I love Fleche Wallone. I trace it to Bartoli's win in the snow there in '99, or more specifically, a great VeloNews writeup of the race. So even though I think Amstel and LBL are awesome races, for some reason in this case it's the mid-week race that gets me going more than the weekend biggies.

2. Where's Kim Kirchen? Would normally expect him to be coming out of hibernation about now to challenge his fellow Luxembourgers.

I find it easier to relate to the guys who tend to do well in the cobbled classics. For the rest of the year, we'll hear grand tour commentary about Boonen being in the laughing group, Cancellara doing "surprisingly well getting over the top of Alpe d'Huez within 5 minutes of the leaders" and Tyler Farrar "just hoping to make it in before the time cutoff." On the other side of the coin, you really see the struggle at the cobbled classics; nothing a rider can do would make it look easy. They're on crappy roads, the weather is suboptimal, and their gear gives the impression of some of the cheap gear we train on. They *hurt* and work hard and suffer and it's obvious, even when they are winning, and the cobbled classics almost always boil down to a test of strength and toughness, like most hard group rides. I can relate to that more than to some guy who is "dancing on the pedals in a most immodest way" as he flies up an 18% grade shelling 179 other guys.
ahhhh, the cobbles vs. the hills and the big guys vs. the skinny guys. you gotta love March and April nice pick up on the Nutella pic as well...I saw that feature and had to laugh as I'd love to have that kind large a supply of it...nutella and peanut butter is the riding fuel of champions.
Service Course stations are like a cyclist's heaven. Look how many 7900 Cranksets they had!!!

If only I was PRO~
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