Sometimes – usually in years when there’s a clear blue sky in Flanders or it’s downright balmy at Roubaix – it can be hard to explain to people where the spring classics get their fearsome reputation. Other times, like last weekend, it’s fairly apparent how these races have become known as the crucible that forges cycling’s hardest men. Of professional cycling’s many and varied “season openers,” the start of the northern classics season is perhaps the most anticipated by fans. With always-questionable weather and courses that traverse some of the sport’s holiest ground, the early Belgian classics provide a more vivid, bracing awakening from the off-season than do the multitude of warm-weather events that now precede them on the calendar. So for those who like to expunge the depths of winter by plunging into a frozen pond instead of by easing into a warm bath, last weekend marked the true start to the cycling season.
While the home fans were likely disheartened by the lack of a Belgian winner, this year’s Omloop Het Nieuwsblad/Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne weekend didn’t disappoint viewers looking forward to some classic classics racing. Tough weather, fate, and the traditional fierceness of the competition ultimately produced winners who for years have hidden in plain sight. Both riders have been a steady presence up north for the better part of a decade but seldom topped the favorites lists, though for decidedly different reasons.
On Saturday, under cold but clear conditions, Juan Antonio Flecha (Sky) finally tasted victory at Het Nieuwsblad after netting the second spot in 2007 (when the race was still known as Het Volk) and a third last year. You have to wonder if Flecha felt a little dizzy at he scaled that last steep pitch to the top step of the podium, as he’s not exactly familiar with the altitude. One of a count-them-on-one-hand cadre of Spanish classics specialists, Flecha has consistently been near the front of the big classics for the past five years, scoring a second in Gent-Wevelgem, third at Flanders, and second, third, fourth, and sixth at Paris-Roubaix. Those are extraordinary results for any classics rider, much less a Spanish one, and they’ve been more than enough to get his name chalked on the bookies’ boards with some pretty decent odds. But even though it’s long been apparent that Flecha has the legs to contend, observers had started to wonder if he had the head to win a classic rather than just place or show.
With his win at Het Nieuwsblad, Flecha looks to finally have matched his own strengths with a sense of timing. Though he’s a big, powerful rider with extraordinary force, he’s never going to scalp Tom Boonen (Quick.Step) or Thor Hushovd (Cervelo) in a sprint on the Roubaix velodrome, or win a small-group jumping contest from Nick Nuyens (Rabobank) or Philippe Gilbert (Omega Pharma-Lotto) on the run-in to Meerbeke. If Flecha was going to bag a big win, he’d have to start his move far enough out to be able to grind away from riders with more punch, and in separating himself from Gilbert, Frederic Guesdon (FdJ), Roy Curvers (Skil-Shimano), and Jurgen Roelandts (Omega Pharma) some 20 kilometers from Gent, he finally got the formula right.
Waiting for the inevitable group-of-five shenanigans to begin in the final kilometers would have sunk Flecha, since despite his strength he doesn’t fare well when winning requires repeated jumps. That scenario would play more to Gilbert’s strong suits, even moreso when Gilbert had teammate Roelandts in the group to help soften things up and close down gaps. So instead of waiting for hesitation to deal him his losing hand, Flecha mustered a single, committed acceleration to create the gap, then relied on his greatest asset – force – to drive at a steady, relentless pace that the chasers simply couldn’t match.
Now, with this season's cobbled classics in the books, we’ll need to wait a month to see if Flecha is able to apply his lessons learned when Boonen, Hushovd, Pozzato, et. al. reach top form for Flanders, Gent-Wevelgem, and Roubaix. It’s one thing to pull of that sort of move in the early season over just Gilbert, an aging Guesdon, and the others; it’s another to pull it over on a royal breakaway as you’re rolling up to the Bosberg full-tilt.
Like Flecha, Sunday’s Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne winner Bobbie Traksel (Vacansoleil) wasn’t many people’s top pick, if he was anyone’s pick at all. But unlike Flecha, it’s been a long time since Traksel’s even been considered at the bookie tables. Rabobank signed him to his first pro contract in 2001 at least partly on the strength of a win at the U23 Ronde van Vlaanderen. Traksel rewarded that faith the next year with a win at Veenendaal-Veenendaal, the Netherlands’ biggest home classic outside of the Amstel Gold Race. But after a quiet 2003 and 2004, Traksel was no longer looking like the Dutch heir to Michael Boogerd and Eric Dekker at Rabobank, and he moved across the border to the second division Mr. Bookmaker team in Belgium. He’s remained solidly in the second division from there, riding for various teams directed by Hilaire Van der Schueren -- Palmans in 2007 and the more anonymous P3Transfer-Batavus in 2008 -- and a stage victory and subsequent overall win in the 2008 Dreidaagse van DePanne ensured his place when Van der Schueren created the more fancied Vacansoleil squad in 2009.
While he hasn’t thus far turned out a classics star, Traksel has always been a classics specialist, appearing continuously in the results sheets of the biggest races, always battling, and doing the job in relative anonymity – the definition of the workingman’s pro. He’s been the guy in the early break who’s getting caught just as the TV coverage comes on. He’s been one of those four nameless teammates driving in a steady rotation at the front of the peloton. He’s been the guy getting spit out the back when he’s done with his work.
It’s something nice when things come good for a guy like that – a guy who just keeps plugging away – and maybe it’s that doggedness that let him persevere in the three-man break with Rick Flens (Rabobank) and Ian Stannard (Sky) through miserable conditions that cut the peloton down to just 26 finishers. Riding through a storm so fierce that it killed several people in northern France and earned itself a name, Xynthia, the peloton was split in two within an hour, with 50 riders, including a number of favorites, climbing off a the first feed zone. Once the race hit the hills, it was Traksel who made the selection, attacking with teammate Arnaud Van Groen, whom he later dropped. Fens and Stannard bridged up on the Oude Kwaremont – which is still damn early in that race – and the three fought off respectable chases from Hushovd and Dominique Rollin of Cervelo and Hayden Roulston of HTC-Columbia. Not rattled by the chance of tasting big success for the first time in years, Traksel stayed calm in the finale, jumped at the right moment, and stepped back out of anonymity.
On a final note, Rabobank has long been the classics squad that, while undeniably talented, couldn't quite seem to close the deal, at least not as often as they should have over their long history -- a few Amstel Golds with Dekker and Boogerd, a couple Nokere Koerse with Graeme Brown, and Gent-Wevelgem and a few Brabantse Pijl with Oscar Freire being the most notable. With Rabo alumni taking home both wins in fine stye this weekend, we have to wonder -- is the squad's short classics win column simply (bad) luck of the draw on race day, or is there something wrong in the car or the office?
- Omloop Het Niewsblad, former Het Volk, holds a special place in my heart, as it was the first European race I ever covered. I freely admit that I was a little blown over at the time, but was saved by Marcel Slagman, then of the Dutch magazine Wieler Revue, who gave me an insiders’ lesson in covering the classics and a hell of a tour of the Flemish hill zone. Seems he’s with Wieler Magazine now, applying the same skills and hopefully continuing to assist the neophytes as they wander past.
- Tyler Farrar (Garmin) finished a great third place in Het Nieuwsblad, bringing the field sprint home behind Flecha and late escape Heinrich Haussler (Cervelo). Farrar, of course, is no revelation at this point, but it’s still great to see Garmin getting its biggest results with home-grown talent versus hired guns.
- Though they’ve publically declared their primary goal to be winning the Tour de France with a British rider within a few years, Team Sky has nonetheless recruited what might be, on a rider-by-rider basis, a much better classics team. Given their talent, well publicized budget, and somewhat embarrassing missteps at the Tours of Qatar and Oman, no doubt the pressure was on Flecha to get a big result early to clap some of the wagging jaws in the press and peloton firmly shut. That mission’s obviously been accomplished with his Het Nieuwsblad win, and reinforced by Stannard’s ride at Kuurne. But how much of those performances was due to the team versus individual grit? Has Sky been transformative for Flecha? Is he really getting better support? Or did he just need a change of scenery from Rabobank to anywhere else? Sky will obviously remain one of the major stories throughout the season, with Flecha and Edvald Boassen-Hagen both looking to figure prominently in the plotline of next several months.
- You have to love Frederic Guesdon. Well, maybe you don't have to love him, but you have to respect him. After winning Paris-Roubaix in 1997, only to have many dismiss it as a fluke, he managed to stay motivated through some lean years of scattered small stage wins before netting the 2006 Paris-Tours for his persistence. Now, at 38 years old and in his 15th year as a professional, he's back again and making the late break at Het Nieuwsblad.
- Like many, I’m excited for March and April. People will continue to speak of Quick.Step and Omega Pharma-Lotto as the heavy hitters for the classics, and rightfully so. But the truth is, there are more guys capable of a big win than any time in the last decade, and they’re more spread among the teams, ProTour and Pro Continental alike. There’s Boonen, Chavanel, and Devolder at Quick.Step, of course, and Hoste, Roelandts and Gilbert at Omega. Haussler, Klier, and Hushovd at Cervelo. Steegmans and Rosseler at RadioShack. Pozzato at Katusha. Nuyens and Boom at Rabobank. Kroon, Hincapie, Ballan, and Burghardt at BMC. Flecha and Boasson-Hagen at Sky. And others I’ve forgotten, but you get the point.
- How big a role could fate play in contests of strength and skill amongst highly trained athletes? In road cycling, plenty. Consider that Kuurne featured a course 20 kilometers shorter than intended due to a downed tree on the Cote de Trieu, and was subdivided not once, but twice by trains. Keeps things interesting, no? At least the trains in Flanders tend to be relatively short and quick, not like the 500 car coal trains that lumber through parts of Virginia.
- Speaking of Virginia, the Service Course spent Sunday at the North American Handmade Bicycle Show in Richmond. It was a very successful event by all accounts, mine included, and based on what I saw, there should be thousands upon thousands of photos available on the Internet within a matter of days in case you missed it. Since the photographic angle will be well covered, I’ll give a more text-based assessment a bit later in the week.