First though I’d like to talk a bit about the training these guys do. Of course, to say that cycling for a living is ‘hard’ is true but also relative, as working in a factory is hard in another way, as is sitting at a desk all day crunching numbers (and a little of your soul, invariably). There’s a good argument to be made that doing the latter two for a living is actually harder than being paid to ride a bike and though in some ways that may be true, there’s an element to the focus required to train to be race-ready up in the stratosphere that is the ProTour that is akin to the demands made on a fighter pilot or a surgeon.
Sometimes life as a pro rider doesn’t actually look that easy…
I attempted to simulate that focus for a season back in 2012, when I decided that, if only for 10 months of my life, I would eat, sleep and live ‘bike’ – and it damn near drove me insane. When we watch these guys racing on TV, removed as that makes us, it’s easy to forget the intense concentration that they apply to what they do not just on the bike but off it too, and the sacrifices demanded by the bike and this two-wheeled way of life.
It’s the whole package with these guys. They’ve got the DNA, the desire to succeed, the motivation to make that happen, the slight (or in some cases not so slight) loopiness required of any top athlete, and the balls that this sport demands.
Then there is the actual training, the hill repeats, the work behind the motos, the vomit-inducing intervals, that all start weeks and weeks before the first actual race. And then there are the races. We as fans tend to look on events like KBK and Omloop Het Niuewsblad as ‘minor’ classics and indeed, that is what they are known as, but there are no races at these guys’ level where the winner gets handed a gift, nor any race that you can just ‘sit-in’ in without coming in minutes down on the leaders.
All of this came to me as I sat watching Greg Van Avermaet of BMC in the tent at the finish after he’d lost the race to Ian Stannard. You could see what it meant to him not to have claimed victory, and as he sat there with head in hands looking weary, confused and just pretty damn disappointed, you could feel all that work he’d put in, all those revolutions, all that sweat, and for what? Another 2nd?
Teammate Taylor Phinney said later that he was “a little bit heartbroken for Greg. He’s been second a lot in his career and he certainly deserves a big win. They’re going to start coming for him soon.”
But… what if they don’t? Could Van Avermaet – who by the way is the most successful Classics rider of his generation if the criteria is top three finishes – be the Raymond Poulidor of the modern generation? The eternal bridesmaid? I hope not, he seems a decent enough guy and as Phinney says, he deserves a win, but deserving one and actually winning one are two completely different things.
Van Avermaet later acknowledged that he got jumped by Stannard in the final meters and said that his body just had no gas left, but had he not made the rookie mistakes (he’s 28 now and certainly no rookie in terms of experience) of letting the former track rider Stannard first get behind him and then get a jump on him, well, the Belgian would now be sat at home sipping brandy with some kind of furry animal on his lap, stroking an Omloop winner’s trophy.
Well done to Stannard though, take nothing from him, not a bean. He’s surprised me and probably many others by the improvements he’s made that took him from Sky workhorse to a plausible if uncharismatic contender for one or two of the Monuments. He’s only 26 too, so he may get sexier with age and he might get even better on the bike too…
One rider that I’ve been following with interest for some time, Sep Vanmarcke (whom I think may be better suited to winning Classics than Van Avermaet), rode like an over-excited junior at Omloop. He was quite literally all over the place, shooting off like a less old, less portly and less hairy version of Ron Jeremy all over the undulating roads of East Flanders.
Now, he may well have been using this opener for an assault on Paris-Roubaix, but the truth is that he looked impressive enough here to have made the final selection but splurged his resources with such abandon that he was nothing less than flaccid by the time the real action began.
We’ll see. I’d love to see a youngster win in Roubaix, as he almost did last year.
Onto Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne, a race that must have made interesting viewing for Fabian Cancellara, tucked up at home watching the only man who can give him a run for his money at The Biggies win for the third time this season.
Like the Swiss, if there is one thing Boonen knows with a clarity that is a little frightening it is how to train to be at his peak for Flanders and Roubaix, and heck does he look to be doing just that.
“This confirms that I only need to add some small percentages in Paris-Nice to be ready for the classics,” said Boonen later. “I didn’t need to win today, but in hindsight, it’s good for the peace of mind.”
And there you have the difference between the great and the good. Whereas Stannard claimed the biggest win of his career, for Old Tommeke this was just another (minor) notch on a belt that must be hanging by threads by now. We tend to become complacent with greatness when it delivers with such regularity, but it is worth remembering that Boonen has not only made several comebacks from injuries (some extreme) and from suspension, but that he’s also become one of the smartest guys riding today.
Sensing a loss in his sprinting prowess he set to work perfecting his pedal stroke, something he’s put to very efficient use in solo breaks, and yet he can still very effectively apply his masterful command of positioning when he is in a sprint to pull of victory, as we saw on Sunday.
He’s truly world class, that guy, and I for one hope that both he and Cancellara can arrive at Flanders and Roubaix ready to slug it out in top form. We’ve been denied that delight for too long now.
Finally, Belkin. I’ve mentioned Vanmarcke already and he does look feisty, but is it just me or does the Dutch squad just somehow look a little too much like Rabobank Mark II? Very Dutch, pretty good, with some flashes here and there of real power and obviously collectively strong, but you just never fancy them to get a win.
The conclusion of the opening weekend of the Classics season?
Hotdamn, I love the Classics season…
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, http://crankpunk.com/