The Classics – Unclassicsfied

By David Hunter

Before I start, I need to keep all you geeks right. For the purpose of this article, I have decided what makes a classic! I will try to break each race down, with some expert help from my friends. I’m stopping at Flanders, with the possibility of doing more, at a later date.

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Bettini Photo

Omloop Het Nieuwsblad

The racing season properly starts with Omloop. Most of the peloton have been away racing in sunny conditions in Australia, Argentina, Oman, Qatar, Andalucia and Algarve. They return to the cold of Belgium for the season to properly begin. Around 200km in distance, it isn’t too long, but it is a very demanding race.

We have a mix of climbs, cobbles and cobbled climbs to challenge the riders, before a flat run for home. Famous climbs like the Kruisberg, Taaienberg, Eikenberg, Wolvenberg, Leberg and Molenberg are tackled, with the cobbles of Haaghoek, Paddestraat and Lippenhovestraat providing a cobbled challenge.

Being so early in the season, form is variable. Teams go into the race with multiple plans, but need to keep riders back for the final 60km. It’s a gradual elimination race that really begins on the Taaienberg. It is tackled with around 60km still remaining, so too far out to define the race, but it starts the finale of the race. More climbs and cobbles follow in quick succession and a small group eventually gets away.

The Haaghoek(1:03:12) is a very important section of the race. Poor old Sep Vanmarcke!

A surprise result is almost the norm for Omloop. Despite trying to dominate the race, Etixx haven’t won it since 2005 and it remains the only race missing from Boonen’s palmares. He’ll keep trying till he wins it!

I really wanted to involve some Belgian riders, these races belong to them! First up is Edward Theuns, soon of Trek Factory Racing. He finished 21st in 2014 and 14th in 2015.

“For Omloop it’s not hard to prepare for me, I think most riders look forward to get started with the Flemish races and see how the form and preparations are. The temperature is not a big problem, as long as it is dry, you just dress warmer :-)

I rode 2 times and on both occasions we came with a group of about 30 riders to the Molenberg, so that is a big important one. From there you have to stay in front, because Paddestraat and Lippenhovestraat, is the last hard cobblesection. The race is decided there. Early tactics: save energy and get in front on Molenberg.”

The weather can play havoc with the race, as it usually takes place at the end of February/beginning of March. With most riders spending the previous few weeks in warm conditions, I always think that it must be difficult to handle the cold. Eddie doesn’t have any problems, but he’s Belgian!

“I’m not a guy who likes the cold weather, but you have to handle it.” These are the words of Marcel Sieberg of Lotto Soudal. Most of you will know him from his brilliant work in sprint finishes, but he’s a handy man to have in the Classics. More from him later.

Race Type – Elimination.

Weather – Cold, wrap up!

Critical Point – The 9km stretch with the Molenberg, Paddestratt and Lippenhovestraat.

Who wins – A strong, hardman.

2015 – Vanmarcke went for it on the Haaghoek. Just as he’s about to cause a significant split, he punctures. Just as well for Ian Stannard, who was about to be distanced. Etixx take advantage and get Boonen, Terpstra and Vandenbergh away with Stannard. The make a royal mess of the final 20km, forgetting to attack until it was too late. Stannard stole a most unlikely victory.

Surprise Package – Stig Broeckx.

Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne

This takes place the day after Omloop. That means 200km on Saturday and 200km on Sunday, for a lot of riders. That brings advantages and disadvantages.

“When you finish Omloop, for sure the next day, you are not as fresh as the day before. The problem is also that the smaller teams are different. Some ride Saturday, some Sunday. So they are fresh and you not. Everyone knows that, that’s why the first 2h in Kuurne is the most painful;-)

But I also had some years where I had shit legs Saturday and on Sunday my legs where good! Omloop is really hard and Sunday it’s normally a bigger bunch, so not as hard Saturday.”A very interesting perspective from Marcel Sieberg. With tired riders, some teams like to bring in a few fresher riders for KBK, a tactic employed by Etixx in 2015. The race can be unpredictable, but a sprint usually has a good chance.

The route has climbs and cobbles, but not as difficult as Omloop. The hardest point of the race is Oude Kwaremont, but it is around 70km from the finish.

“To be honest, the Kwaremont is too far from the finish. So yes, it can split and if it’s windy the peloton can be greatly reduced until the finish, as we have seen on numerous occasions. However, if it’s to be a sprint the Kwaremont is too far out and it will regroup eventually before the final.” Wise words from the oracle, Greg Henderson.

The Oude Kwaremont is one of the hardest hills in cycling. 2.5km at 4% doesn’t sound like much, but it’s cobbled and a real killer. It is the defining point of some big races, but Greg is right, it’s too far out in KBK. It does give the non-sprinters hope, but this year, Cavendish, Kristoff and Viviani all made the move! To give you an idea of the effort required, Edward Theuns covered it in 3:53 during KBK, riding in the peloton. His record is 3:35 during DDV. We are looking at a gap of around 15-20 seconds between the leaders and bunch. It’s certainly enough to snap the elastic but with plenty time remaining, the break usually gets caught. The last four editions have seen 3 big sprints, so the finish is vital.

“I really like the final 3km. That long straight before the final left, it’s always a bit crosswind there, so strong teams can always take control. Turn that last corner and you only need Sibi and I, with either Jens or Greipel on the wheel, and we can make it. Having said that…..we haven’t managed to quite win it yet, hahahahah.” Classic Greg!

The long road into the final corner is great news for a team like Lotto. The road is narrow and those with a strong train can take control, but spare a thought for the other teams and sprinters.

“Indeed, it’s a hard sprint and you need a long lead-out. If there is a train keeping a high pace, it’s hard to win some places.” Theuns and Topsport are no slouches, but this is a finish for the sprint teams. Watch as Lotto take control from 2km out(9:05), but they didn’t quite get the result they deserved.

Race Type – Sprinter friendly.

Weather – Cold and windy.

Critical Point – The final 3km.

Who Wins – A sprinter with a good lead-out, but the opportunist is never far away!

2015 – A big break escaped on the Kwaremont, including most of the top sprinters. They never got a big lead and the peloton managed to bring them back, thanks to the work of MTN, Sky, Wanty, IAM, Cofidis and Topsport. In the sprint, Lotto did a great lead out, but Debusschere didn’t have the same kick as Greipel. Kristoff launched a long one, it was too long, and Cavendish took a comprehensive win.

Surprise Package – Sam Bennett.

Strade Bianche
Only a young race, but fast emerging as a favourite. The race features many sections of white roads, or dirt tracks to you and me. The roads are a nightmare, with huge clouds of white smoke being thrown up by the motorbikes.
Of all the sectors, Sante Marie, is where we start to see the selection. It’s 11.5km of rolling terrain, making it a vital part of the race, even though it starts around 50km from the finish. Going uphill is a huge challenge, where you should remain in the saddle. Going downhill is just as hard, as your rear wheel can slide out at any moment. This is a race for the brave, but being an excellent bike handler sure helps.
I decided to go Italian and get some expert help from Manuel Bongiorno of Bardiani.
“The hardest and decisive point in Strade Bianche is Sante Marie: very difficult road and very hard climb (18%). Descending is the most difficult, you must have the max concentration and think always where you go. You stay, all the time, at the limit.
 
A lot of riders love this race, because the route is amazing with very beautiful places. The race is similar to a classic from the north.”
Once the selection has been made, the race usually sees a small group approach the finale together. The race finishes with a 1km climb at around 7%. This means you need to save a lot of energy, making race management hugely important.
To be successful here you must be a punchy climber, but also have superb skill. That really does narrow the list of potential winners and it’s no surprise that Cancellara has won it twice.

The final hill(1:24:45) really is a great way to end the race. It’s not really about who is leading out, but who is the strongest. This year it was Stybar and given his cyclocross background, this race is made for him.
Race Type – Brutal test of climbing, descending and bike handling.
Weather – The weather is usually quite nice. Rain would be a disaster.
Critical Point – Sector 7: Sante Marie.
Who Wins – Puncheur.
2015 – The selection was made on Sante Marie, before eventually coming down to 3: Valverde, GVA and Stybar. It was GVA who put the dig in, on the final climb, distancing Valverde. However, Stybar had enough to beat him with ease.
Surprise Package – Sep Vanmarcke.
Milano-SanRemo
The first monument of the year. It’s the longest race of the year, over 300km, once you include the neutral zone. Arguably, it’s also the most boring race of the year too. That might horrify some of you purists out there, but the truth often hurts. Such a long race, it really doesn’t start to get interesting until the Cipressa(25km to go), before fully coming to life on the Poggio. This climb used to be feared but it seems well within the capabilities of most modern sprinters. The climbing ability of Sagan, Degenkolb and Matthews means that the Poggio is nullified and this is just a long, sprint stage. The Poggio is 3.7km at 3.7%, so not a difficult climb. Coming after 290km of racing is what makes it tough, but not tough enough to drop Sagan and co. These boys are serious climbers and know that they just need to stay close to the front and they’ll get a sprint finish.
A lot of people are pleased with the current state of affairs. I suppose it is only fair that sprinters have a chance of winning a monument and if the route is made more difficult, it will be another race for puncheurs.  I suppose it comes down to personal preference, but I would like to see the route changed, with more climbing introduced.
The one thing that can change things, is the weather. We all remember some horrible days, with snow, ice and heavy rain. In these conditions, the race becomes incredibly difficult. It helped us get a huge shock in 2013, when Gerald Ciolek took a brilliant win.
Andre Greipel has never been successful here, despite many attempts. I turned to Marcel Sieberg to get some advice about the race.
“It depends on the weather ;-) When its cold and rainy the 300km is just too crazy. When it is normal weather, it’s ok. Normally the race goes fast, you have some long stages in a grand tour that take longer. 

Normaly my job is always to ride in the wind for Andre. That means, from the start we are first to control the break, not too big and not the wrong teams can be in the break. After that I’m just around Andre. It is a race where the guys have to save as much energy as possible, for the finale. So it means when they stop, you stop. When they want to ride more in front, you ride in the wind to the front.

This means you already do so much in the wind before the finale starts. Then all the little hills, on the coast side, are like big climbs because of the distance you have already completed, and because you have already worked alot. Then you have to bring the guys in every important moment into a perfect position. This I do untill the Cipressa. Then the real finale starts and I have done all my work and ride easy to the finish.

I dont think the race is too easy. Its a race which is brutal when the weather is not perfect. The climbs are not really hard but after 300k every bridge hurts! It’s also nice that guys like Sagan can win but also gives a chance to guys like Andre. Untill now the last km of the Poggio is always too hard for him but I’m sure he can make it once;)”

It really is fascinating to hear what Sibi has to say. Riding in the same team as him is Adam Hansen. The Aussie rides in a different role to the German, so I decided to hear what he had to say about MSR.

“It’s not actually a hard race, it’s a race that slowly eats away at your reserves. Your legs are never sore, no part is actually difficult. It’s more when the final comes you have the legs or you don’t. There’s never a moment when you think that last climb was so difficult. Doing the recon you see how easy it all is. You believe you can win. Then add the 300kms before the Poggio and it ain’t an easy climb, no, it’s perfect. It’s always hit or miss who wins. Making the route more difficult would change the race too much and make it more predictable. Making it easier would do the same. There are few classics, real classics, that these guys(sprinters) can win. Just leave it. If it was so easy then you would always get the same winner. We haven’t had the same winner in the last 5 years.”

Some fans, me included, might want the route changed, but it’s clear that the pros love this race.

The most impressive rider in 2015 was Luca Paolini(2:01:34). He nearly led the peloton, all the way up the Poggio, and still had enough for a superb lead-out.

Race Type – Long, long, long! One for the sprinters.

Weather – Can be horrible.

Critical Point – The Poggio.

Who Wins – Sprinter.

2015 – Standard race, coming down to a sprint finish. Degenkolb overcame poor positioning to take advantage of Kristoff going a little early.

Surprise Package – Niccolo Bonifazio.

Dwars door Vlaanderen

After a “holiday” in Italy, the big racing returns to Belgium. This begins a 10 day period that features DDV, E3, Gent-Wevelgem and the Tour of Flanders. Although an important race, DDV is the little brother of the other races, meaning slightly less to the big teams and riders.

Some of the major riders can use this race to get the legs back in gear, as they build up to GW and Flanders, but for many riders, this is a huge race. It features plenty of well known climbs and cobbles: Leberg, Eikenberg, Taaienberg, Kwaremont and Paterberg. This is what makes it a great preparation race for the Tour of Flanders.

As like all Belgian races, this is dictated by Etixx. They might not always win it, but they decide the type of race we get. With a squad full of world beaters, they are always the team to decide which break makes it. The others have to hope to get lucky!

Having a strong team ensures that you start each climb at the very front of the race. The sprint to the bottom of climbs, like the Eikenberg, is something that epitomises the Belgian races. It raises the adrenaline of the riders and it takes a while to get used to. If you constantly start the climbs in a poor position, you will eventually get caught out.

DDV really starts on the Eikenberg, which crests with around 60km remaining. Climbs and cobbles are fairly constant from then on, plus the usual wind and rain. It really is an unpredictable race, where the crucial move can go at anytime, inside the final 60km. It is a fascinating race, from a tactical viewpoint. This year was no exception, with the winning move going away with over 50km to go. Crucially, it had an Etixx rider, a feature of every winning break in Belgian races!

We can see the crucial move go, just after the Taaienberg(40:40).

Again I called upon the expert help of Eddie Theuns, 2nd here in 2015. I had to start by asking about his blocking move on the Taaienberg.

“It was an obvious move… It was good for Jelle, but also for me, because the easiest way to ride up that hill is in first position.”

Theuns looked immense throughout the whole race, following Kwiatkowski with ease.

“I had the best feeling, in race, of the whole season. I never really felt suffering.”

Due to the crash of Lars Boom, the cameras missed the lead group climb the Paterberg. I asked Eddie what happened.

“I tried to go first on Paterberg, but Kwia blocked me, so I just stayed in the wheel. I had the feeling I could go a little faster, but following was the smartest. Just before the top, Kwia slipped a bit on the cobbles, so I passed him there.”

Race Type – Cobbles & Hills.

Weather – Cold, can often be wet too.

Critical Point – Oude Kwaremont/Paterberg.

Who Wins – Puncheur who can handle the cobbles.

2015 – Wallays got away fairly early before launching a solo attack. He was joined by Kwiatkowski, Van Baarle and Theuns.  The crucial move going after the Taaienberg, on the flat open roads. The 4 men stayed away, despite the best efforts of Tiesj Benoot. Near the end, Wallays attacked, whilst Kwiatkowski and Van Baarle watched each other. Theuns won the sprint for 2nd, making it an incredible day for Topsport.

Surprise Package – Jelle Wallays.

E3 Harelbeke

A race named after a motorway sounds incredibly boring, but names can be deceiving! The route features less climbs but is still very demanding. The order of the climbs is slightly different, as they tackle the Paterberg before Oude Kwaremont. The Kwaremont starts with under 40km remaining, making it more important than in other races. By the time they reach it, the peloton is usually down to 30/40, thanks to the Paterberg. I asked Tiesj Benoot if this made the race harder.

“It’s difficult to say, the level is just higher.” He rightly points out that E3 is just a harder race than DDV, thanks to all the big names.

The Kwaremont(52:00) is one of my favourite climbs in cycling. The opening half is very tough and only a handful of riders can get away from the peloton here. As the hill starts to flatten out, it does allow others to get across the gap. A rider like Peter Sagan never seems to like the start of the hill, but can close the gap before they hit the main road. Once on the undulating road, teams all start to look at each other and hope to see some carrying extra numbers. These riders are crucially to bring back any break.

Time after time, these races come down to Etixx v Sky v BMC v Lotto v Cancellara v Vanmarcke v Sagan! The tactics in the chase can be fascinating and it really requires a team to take the group by the scruff of the neck. Sometimes the break wins the game, other years the peloton catches them. Imagine a big game of “chase”.

It was no coincidence that the break included an Etixx rider and it stayed away! It’s the Golden Rule of the Belgian Classics;)

E3 always gives the cobble riders a great chance of victory. Get away on the Kwaremont and you have a good chance of success. It does depend on the size of group behind you, but you can count on team tactics stopping the break from working.

Race Type – Cobbles and Hills.

Weather – Still a bit cold, but can be quite a nice day out!

Critical Point – Oude Kwaremont.

Who Wins – A cobble star with a big engine.

2015 – Thomas and Stybar escaped midway up Oude Kwaremont, they were joined by Sagan, near the end. BMC had plenty numbers behind, but GVA crashed just as they were gaining ground. Again, Benoot was left to chase the lead group, just like DDV. The 3 stayed away, with Thomas the strongest.

Surprise Package – Tiesj Benoot.

Gent-Wevelgem

The sprinter’s classic! After a very busy week, with DDV and E3, we approach the “big” races. First thing to notice is the increase in distance, now around the 250km mark. Just 25km longer than E3, but a huge difference. We are now looking at riders with big engines, as well as power and skill.

The route offers a break from the Taaienberg/Kwaremont/Paterberg Trinity. It is a relatively straightforward parcour, but does feature the Kemmelberg. The cobbles are very difficult to contend with, although the atmosphere does drive the riders on. With the band playing, some riders find that little bit extra, and they need it! The Kemmelberg is a demanding challenge.

“Actually, Kemmelberg is not too hard. It’s pretty short and not too steep. Kwaremont is much longer so harder for me and Paterberg is steeper. I think the Kemmelberg suits me better than Kwaremont, for now, I’m explosive, so the shorter climbs are my strength.” I think most of the peloton would agree with Edward Theuns. This route certainly is a little easier.

Once over it, we have under 40km remaining. On a normal day, plenty time to bring the break back and set up a sprint finish, but with bad weather comes unpredictability.

“I never ridden GW before, but I think the course is fit for a bunch sprint. Maybe not 180 guys,… but a peloton of 80-100 guys.” Maybe, Edward Theuns, will be back in 2016 with Trek!

2015 was an historic year, with the worst conditions known to man. 90km/h gusts and stinking rain, delivered the race of the year, and the camera shot of the decade!

“It was just amazing. You couldn’t hold your line and it pushed you to the side. It was too crazy…I was 3 or 4 times in the grass and that for me was clear, it was just too crazy.” If Marcel Sieberg can’t go in a straight line, you know it’s hard. Many riders did think that this section of the race should have been neutralised.

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“The wind was incredible… I never saw this before. There were moments I was riding on a straight road and was scared to slide away because of the wind. I remember a part with a headwind, we were riding at 22km/h,” said Edward Theuns. We did see parts of the route, where it seemed faster to get off and walk!

Bad weather really is the only obstacle to the sprinters and they feel cheated when it doesn’t go their way. Like in all the Belgian races, most of the peloton are actually praying for rain.

More often than not we’ll get a sprint and Greipel, Cavendish, Degenkolb, Sagan and co, all fight it out for the win. In the rain, Etixx hold the cards. The sprinters are no match for the rain and wind of the Belgian countryside!

I would recommend watching the whole thing again!

Race Type – The sprinters’ classic.

Weather – Ahahahaha.

Critical Point – Last time up the Kemmelberg.

Winner – Usually a sprinter who can cope with cobbles.

2015 – The best race of the year. Hurricane strength wind, left the peloton in pieces. Jurgen Roelandts attempted a solo bid from 75km out, he was only caught with 18km to go. The crucial selection included two Etixx riders, so it stayed away. Despite being dropped on a few occasions, Luca Paolini, took advantage of Terpstra and Thomas staring at each other, to sneak away for a brilliant win.

Surprise Package – Daniel Oss.

The Tour of Flanders

Monument number 2. All the preparation races are out of the way, that’s not meant to disrespect Omloop, DDV, E3 and Gent-Wevelgem, but this is the big one. At around 270km, it’s a long one. The distance makes it hard for most of the peloton to win, you need a big engine and experience.

The real finale begins with around 50km(2:47:00) to go. The closing climbs are well known to all: Taaienberg, Kruisberg, Kwaremont, Koppenberg and Paterberg. We all now most of these climbs from Omloop, DDV and E3, but it’s a bit different in Flanders. To stop the riders taking the gutter, the crash hoardings are moved in, forcing the riders onto the cobbles. This and the extra distance, makes it so much harder.

Having teammates is always a bonus, but this is survival of the fittest. To win this race, you need to be brilliant on the cobbles but also have an engine the size of a house. It helps to have a fast finish! This is the one they all want to win, which usually ensures some crazy racing. Expect plenty of crashes and just as many attacks. It really is a must see, especially if you can get over to see it in person.

Race Type – Monument. A cobbled brut of a race.

Weather – Usually good as it’s in April.

Critical Point – Too many! Last time up Kwaremont/Paterberg usually sorts them all out.

Winner – Cobbled expert.

2015 – The closing stages were animated by Andre Greipel. The Gorila was flying and doing a brilliant job for his teammates. Just at the top of the Kruisberg, Terpstra attacked. He was quickly followed by Kristoff.

“Actually, I attacked on top of the Kruisberg, when we came onto the asphalt. Immediately after this, Terpstra and Kristoff went.”

The big races are often decided by small moments. Tiesj Benoot found this out the hard way, just missing the crucial selection. Like on so many occasions, the strongest riders wait until after the climbs. At that point, most riders are deep in the red zone. The best riders like to attack at that very point.

With 28km remaining and plenty of climbing left, most thought it was too early. Most were wrong! Terpstra and Kristoff were not to be seen again. Kristoff must have known the Golden Rule! Another Classic, where Etixx made the crucial breakaway. Terpstra knew that he needed to shake Kristoff, but he couldn’t drop him on the Kwaremont or the Paterberg. The Norwegian was simply too strong and took an incredible win.

Surprise Package – Tiesj Benoot.

What Lies Ahead?

  1. If you want to win a classic, you need to follow the moves of Etixx in the final 30km, or join their team.
  2. Sep Vanmarcke needs some luck, I’d recommend some lucky white heather.
  3. Watch out for Daniel Oss. Getting better every year, like a fine wine.
  4. Tiesj Benoot is going to win a big one.
  5. Will Vandenbergh ever win!?

David Hunter

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