Pro Analysis: What can we learn as we approach the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix from the cobbled races run so far? After Gent-Wevelgem Lee Rodgers analyzes the big guns’ form and ponders the question, could a domestique win in Flanders? And could you really call a two time winner of the Ronde a domestique?
Is it the done thing to call a guy who has won the Tour of Flanders twice a domestique? And is it acceptable to choose as the ‘man of the match’ a fella who didn’t even win the race nor, ultimately, help any of his teammates win?
To the former question I’d have to say no, probably not, never ever, ever. A lion of Flanders classified as a water-carrier? And yet, Stijn Devolder seems to be hell-bent on making it his life’s work to be crowned Belgian’s Greatest Enigma.
Remember when he was 28 and he was crowned as a Lion of Flanders, and then did it all over again, as if to be determined he was no flash in the pan, in 2009? And everyone thought that Belgian had a pretender to Tom’s throne on their hands. And then, poof! Like a Malaysian jumbo he disappeared into the ether, stuttering and fluttering as though the pressure of it all just hit him too hard.
At the 2008 Tour he was QuickStep’s main hombre but promptly fell apart and abandoned almost as soon as the race went uphill. So far out in the wilderness did Stijn wander that he became cycling’s forgotten man for quite some time.
Yet on the evidence presented in Gent Wevelgem and at Dwars Door Vlaanderen, he’s on his way back. That it might be as an uber-domestique is something we might just have to let go, because if he is to have a second dawn at 34 it would be remarkable.
What I wondered as I was watching the race on Sunday, as Devolder put in mammoth turns at the front, sometimes for up to 4km even towards the end of the race, was just who he was riding for.
Did he think his form was so good that he could win? Surely if the trio had got to the finishing straight then he’d not have had much left for a sprint. Or perhaps he was just letting the universe know that he was still alive and kicking? A redemptive ride, so to speak. Or, and this is the last option, he was out there riding for Cancellara.
I figure it was a little of each, but there’s a problem with the last option. See, if it was Boonen that the Belgian champ had been working for, you could then see the point of the move. Devolder gets away, tires out the sprinters’ chasers, Boonen wins sprint.
But the big Swiss doesn’t win that way. In fact, he’s one rider whom I can’t remember getting any real benefit from teammates at the latter end of races he’s won, because he is, essentially, a one-man band, a lone wolf, a rojin, wandering the lands with his tambourine/razor-sharp claws/samurai sword (note to self: don’t take on too many similes at once).
He either wins from small groups or smashes all and sundry. Fact is, if Devolder is aspiring to the lieutenant role, Cancellara just doesn’t need one.
Having said that, it was Devolder who, for me, put in the performance of the day at Gent. He was massive, pounding away on the front like a jackhammer. Relentless. Ultimately doomed, which was a shame, but impressive nonetheless.
Onto John Degenkolb, the eventual winner. To say he was ‘lucky’ would be churlish, for he is a fine rider and is having a really good season so far, with a startling three points classification wins already, at Paris-Nice, the Tour of the Mediterranean and Etoile des Besseges, as well as four stage wins.
However, it cannot be denied that he benefitted from the crash that took down Andre Greipel and Tyler Farrar (not that I’d expect Farrar to have upset anyone’s apple cart), the fact that Boonen got boxed in and Cavendish’s absence.
Still, his team put in the work towards the end of the race and it was a great ride to overtake Sagan, though with two meters more to go Amaud Demarre would have won it. Great sprint by the very promising Frenchman but slightly mistimed.
So many crashes went on that it might be time to install seatbelts on pro bikes. These weren’t little tumbles either, wheels flew off and riders were left scattered all over the world.
For one, everyone thinks they have a chance in these races so everyone is up for it. For another, the speed was very fast over the last 25km, and riding at that speed so close to each other is nerve racking. The adrenalin courses through the veins and the eyes whiz about at a million miles a second in those closing stages, trying to sense where any crash may come from, but when it comes, it just comes and often there’s no way around it if the guy in front goes down.
The other reason though is one brought about by the UCI. The riders now have so much pressure on them due to the new points system brought in by the governing body that they are extra-hyped up. This, inevitably, is going to cause crashes. It may also lead to some duller races, as more guys just want to get to the line with a chance to get points rather than taking risks early on – we shall have to see on that one.
What did we learn from these early classics?
Boonen and Cancellara are looking decent, if not sparkling. Boonen has a very in-form lieutenant in Terpstra, as does Cancellara. It would be something else if it was the two lesser lights who rode into the velodrome in Roubaix to duke it out on that famous track, wouldn’t it?
Peter Sagan is just too good, almost like he doesn’t quite know what to do with it all, but his win at E3 Harelbeke was a sign that he’s getting it, he’s cottoning on to how to put his prodigious talents to their best use.
Team-wise, it’s Boonen’s men and Giant-Shimano that are looking in the best form, with a couple of Sagan’s comrades also firing well. Maybe Cancellara is playing a bit of rope-a-dope, as he has before. And maybe not. One thing I do know, is that Flanders and Roubaix, they’re gonna be exciting. That I can guarantee.
Lee Rodgers leads a double life as a pro racer on the UCI race circuit with the Lapierre Asia Cycling Team, competing in the UCI Asia Tour as well as some European events and the likes of the Tour of Qatar and Oman, rubbing shoulders with the best the WorldTour has to offer, whilst keeping up a day job as a cycling journalist. The highlight of his cycling career so far was winning the Singapore National Champs – road race and ITT – as well as claiming the Green Jersey at the 2.1 Tour de Taiwan in 2012, and naturally, writing for PEZ. His writing appears in several magazines and websites and you can catch up with him regularly on his blog, https://crankpunk.com/