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2015 Liège–Bastogne–Liège Preview

Liege-Bastogne-Liege 2015

The Spring Classics are ready to draw the curtain on the 2015 season, but not before “La Doyenne” – the last race of the Ardennes triumvirate – gets its time in the spotlight. Created in 1892, which makes it the oldest of the Monuments, Liège–Bastogne–Liège was a race for amateuers until 1894, when Leon Houa got his third win in a row. The next two decades were on and off, with the Classics not being run for 13 years after which it was sometimes open only to amateurs and semi-professionals. World War l was another reason for Liège–Bastogne–Liège being put on hold, before finally resuming in 1919.

Throughout the years, Belgium established itself as the dominant nation of the race, thanks to the victories nabbed by the likes of Fred De Bruyne, Alfons Schepers and Eddy Merckx, who holds the record for the most wins. But in the past four decades, “La Doyenne” became a more open affair to riders outside of Belgium, a consequence of the emergence of some huge cyclists in other countries, all this while the host struggled to find a new star to lay his mark on the race.

Also, thanks to its hilly parcours, the race became one of the Grand Tour contenders’ favorite, alongside the Giro di Lombardia, so the line-up always saw a nice mix of climbers and puncheurs who battled it out on the tough, long, double-digit climbs of Wallonie. This year, they will all fight to join the illustrious roll-call of the race, where we can find the names of such riders as Jacques Anquetil, Eddy Merckx, Roger De Vlaeminck, Bernard Hinault, Moreno Argentin, Michele Bartoli or Paolo Bettini.

The course

The forecast for Sunday says heavy rain, so although the race is 10 kilometers shorther than the 2014 one, it should be much more difficult. The opening half of the Classic isn’t very hard, with just one categorized climb along the way – Côte de La Roche-en-Ardenne (2,8 kilometer-long, 6,8% average gradient). After 107 kilometers, the peloton will reach Bastogne and will prepare to turn back to Liège, and this change of roads will signal the real start of the race. Côte de Saint-Roch, Côte de Wanne and Côte de Stockeu should lead to a selection, with the top favorites keen to send their teams at the front and up the rhythm before the decisive part.

After a leg-sapping 216, 5 kilometers of racing (which will include seven climbs), the pack will hit Côte de La Redoute (2 kilometers, 8,9% average gradient), where is impossible not to have any attacks, considering its strategic importance. A change from last year’s edition comes from the fact that Côte des Forges – which used to play a decisive part in the race’s outcome more than three decades ago – isn’t on the parcourse anymore – and this should give the cyclists some time to catch their breath before they hit the penultimate obstacle of the day, which comes after 16 kilometers from La Redoute.

First introduced in 2008, Côte de la Roche-aux-Faucons – the climb where the race can be won or lost – has played a big role in the outcome of the race, with the contenders choosing it to launch what often ended up being the decisive attack. In the past, Andy Schleck (2009) and Alexandr Vinokourov (2010) made their move on the Côte de la Roche-aux-Faucons (1,5 kilometers, 9,4% average gradient), while Vincenzo Nibali (2012) waited for the descent to attack and build a good gap, before getting caught with 1,2 kilometers before the finish.

If the last 10 kilometers will see a group at the front, then the riders will have one last opportunity to go clear and take a solo win on the Côte de Saint-Nicolas (1,2 kilometers, 8,6% average gradient), the “Italian hill”. After a short descent, the road will rise again in the last 1,5 kilometers, where the average gradient is of 5,5%. There are two scenarios here: either a cyclist has enough power for one more attack, as Daniel Martin did in 2013, catching Joaquim Rodriguez and nabbing the win, or a small group will go together to the line, where the winner will emerge after a sprint, as was the case last year, when Simon Gerrans brought Australia its first success here.

The favorites

On Wednesday, Alejandro Valverde made it back-to-back victories in Flèche Wallonne, controlling the finale and powering away from his opponents. Just like last year, the Spaniard has entered the Ardennes week in top shape and will start Liège–Bastogne–Liège as the outstanding favorite, a win putting him on par with Fred De Bruyne, Leon Houa and Alfred Schepers, the other riders who scored three victories. Valverde has it all: he can climb, accelerate and sprint from the peloton, but there’s one thing he is missing – the willingness to go at the front and be aggressive, thus shaping the race to his own liking. In too many occasions, he lost big wins because he decided to stay in the defensive, and this scenario could repeat on Sunday, if the winner of the 2006 and 2008 “La Doyenne” will not change his tactics.

Katusha was left empty handed after Amstel Gold Race and Flèche Wallonne, two of the team’s most important goals this Spring, and the Russian squad will be keen on making amends for those disappointments in Liège–Bastogne–Liège. In Giampaolo Caruso, Daniel Moreno and Joaquim Rodriguez, Katusha has a strong team, with the latter being the absolute leader, as the parcours suits him and he has a good record here, with two second places, in 2009 and 2013. Although he was below par in the past days, “Purito” Rodriguez shouldn’t be ruled out by this rivals, because he is capable of a big move that can land him the win.

Vincenzo Nibali is aiming at the Tour de France, but his form over the past days has been improving significantly and the rider they nickname “Il Squalo” will start the race as a top favorite, hoping to get a first Monument under his belt after years and years of being in the hunt for one. A very likely scenario for Nibali is to send a teammate at the front somewhere in the last 50 kilometers, before finally attacking from afar, on the Côte de la Roche-aux-Faucons or on the subsequent descent, and then flying solo, as he has to avoid a sprint finish.

For four years now, Philippe Gilbert is dreaming of another “La Doyenne” win, especially as this is his home race and he knows the route as the back of his hand. Unfortunately for the former world champion, he crashed heavily in Flèche Wallonne and was left out of contention, so there’s a big question mark concerning his fitness. Another problem for Gilbert is that he’ll be heavily marked by the other contenders, but on the other hand, this could play into BMC’s advantage, which can try to send Ben Hermans or Samuel Sanchez on to the attack and thus give the slip to the other riders.

Michal Kwiatkowski saved Etixx-Quick Step’s Spring by winning Amstel Gold Race, but things didn’t go as planned a couple of days later, on the Mur de Huy, where he struggled and was off pace, although it is true that the finish didn’t quite suit him. It should be a different affair in Liège–Bastogne–Liège, where the world champion will look to become Poland’s first Monument winner. What works in his favor is that he has many options for the finale, which include an attack on one of the last climbs, as well as waiting for the sprint, the Pole being one of the fastest riders in the race. Another thing worth mentioning is that Michal Kwiatkowski will have a very strong team alongside, which includes Julian Alaphilippe, Maxime Bouet and Zdenek Stybar.

Who else can be in the mix at the 101st edition of Liège–Bastogne–Liège? One name that comes to mind is Sky’s Sergio Henao – 2nd in the Vuelta al Pais Vasco and 7th in Flèche Wallonne – who has a strong chance of notching Colombia’s first win here. Also Lotto-Soudal should be among the protagonists, as it lines up three powerful cyclists – Tony Gallopin, Jelle Vanendert and Tim Wellens – capable of attacking and lighting up the race, and also very dangerous if given some rope, especially as they aren’t the top contenders and have nothing to lose.

On Wednesday, Daniel Martin hit the deck and sustained some injuries which will make his life tough on the arduous climbs of the Ardennes. Because of this, he’ll start as an outsider, just as his Cannondale-Garmin teammate Tom-Jelte Slagter, who can provide an important option to the US squad, which is in desperate need of results after a poor start to the season. In the Giro del Trentino, Domenico Pozzovivo took an impressing win in stage three, that ended in Fierozzo, and this makes him a dangerous cyclist for Liège–Bastogne–Liège, a race he came close to winning last year. Finally, other riders to be watched are Roman Kreuziger, Romain Bardet, Jakob Fuglsang, Bauke Mollema (who has improved on this type of climbs in the past year), Julian Alaphilippe, Rui Costa and Alexis Vuillermoz, although they all need a little bit of luck and also to be underestimate by the peloton in order to succeed.

Race stats

– The first edition took place in 1892 and was won by Leon Houa

– Eddy Merckx holds the record for the most wins: 5, between 1969 and 1975

– The same Merckx has the most podiums: 7

– Belgium leads the nations standings, with 59 victories, followed by Italy (12) and Switzerland (10)

– Seven riders have won both Flèche Wallonne and Liège–Bastogne–Liège in the same season: Moreno Argentin, Philippe Gilbert Ferdi Kubler, Eddy Merckx, Stan Ockers, Davide Rebellin and Alejandro Valverde

– No U23 winner went on to take the victory as a pro

– Four cyclists from outside of Europe nabbed the win: Simon Gerrans (Australia), Tyler Hamilton (U.S.A.), Maxim Iglinskiy (Kazahstan) and Alexandre Vinokourov (Kazahstan)

– Since Bernard Hinault (1980), no other active Tour de France champion has won the Belgian Monument

–Moreno Argentin, in 1987, was the last rainbow jersey wearer to finish first

– Biggest winning margin was recorded in 1893, when Leon Houa came home half an hour ahead of his fellow countryman, Michel Borisowski

– The inaugural edition had 33 riders at the start, with only 17 of them getting to the finish

– Besides Belgium, Italy got to place three cyclists on the podium, at the 2005 edition of Liège–Bastogne–Liège

– The race has been affected by snow in 1919, 1957 and 1980

– Until 1973, ten editions have finished on the Stade Vélodrome de Rocourt, a 40 000-seat arena

– Since 1992, the race ends in Ans, a suburb of Liège

– Longest dry spell without a Belgian victory was between 2000 and 2010

– In 1957, two riders finished were awarded the win: Germain Derycke and Frans Schoubben

– Youngest ever winner is Victor Fastre (18 years and 362 days); oldest one is Alexandr Vinokourov (36 years and 223 days)

– 25 teams (17 World Tour and 8 Pro Continental) will line-up for the 101st edition

– Three of these teams haven’t scored a win this season: Cult Energy, LottoNL-Jumbo and UnitedHealthcare

– Four former winners are at the start of the 2015 race: Philippe Gilbert, Simon Gerrans, Daniel Martin and Alejandro Valverde

– The cyclists who will ride the 2015 edition have won a combined total of 6 Monuments, 3 world titles, 6 Grand Tours and almost 90 Grand Tour stages

– France is the country with the most riders in the race – 31 – followed by Belgium (26) and the Netherlands (21)

– Matej Mohoric (20 years) is the youngest rider who will line-up in Maastricht, while Bjorn Leukemans is the oldest one (37 years)

– Liège–Bastogne–Liège marks 2381 days since the last Italian win in a Monument

– Five winners of the U23 race will race the 101 st edition: Jan Bakelants, Rasmus Guldhammer, Anthony Turgis, Michael Valgren and Tosh Van der Sande

– 12 neo-pros will make their debut in “La Doyenne”: Simone Antonini, Emanuel Buchmann, Clement Chevrier, Floris De Tier, Huub Duyn, Alex Kirsch, Patrick Konrad, Christian Mager, Dylan Teuns, Anthony Turgis, Sjoerd van Ginneken and Louis Vervaeke

Liège–Bastogne–Liège 1980: Hinault, învingător printre fulgi de zăpadă

Mulţi oameni au spus în 1980 că vremea din Liège–Bastogne–Liège a fost cea mai dură din istoria clasicei, comparabilă cu cea de la ediţia din 2010 a Milano-San Remo. 174 de rutieri s-au prezentat la start, însă după ceva mai mult de o oră, peste jumătate dintre concurenţi au abandonat, din cauza unei teribile furtuni de zăpadă care a lovit Ardenii în acel an, pe 20 aprilie, la jumătatea primăverii.

Unul dintre cele mai puternice caractere pe care le-a avut ciclismul vreodată, Bernard Hinault a decis să continue, în ciuda temperaturii extrem de scăzute. Francezul câştigase o dată cursa, în 1977, atunci când îi învinsese pe André Dierickx şi Dietrich Thurau, la doar doi ani după ce îşi făcuse debutul ca profesionist. Acum, cel poreclit “Le Blaireau” spera să obţină o a doua victorie, care l-ar fi transformat în cel mai de succes ciclist din Hexagon în “La Doyenne”.

Cursa a fost animată pe Côte de Stockeu, cu aproape 100 de kilometri înainte de final, atunci când germanul Rudy Pevenage şi belgianul Ludo Peeters s-au desprins de pluton şi au reuşit să dezvolte un avans ceva mai mare de două minute. Această acţiune a avut darul de a-l înfuria pe pe Hinault – rutier obişnuit să se afle mereu în faţă şi să dicteze ritmul – care a accelerat imediat şi a plecat în urmărirea celor doi.

Alături de ciclistul echipei Renault-Elf-Gitane au venit italianul Silvano Contini şi belgianul Henk Lubberding, însă contribuţia acestora a fost aproape inexistentă, deoarece Hinault a vrut să stea doar el la trenă. Roadele muncii sale s-au văzut după numai 20 de kilometri, când joncţiunea s-a produs. Acest lucru nu l-a oprit pe francezul în vârstă de 25 de ani, care a continuat să meargă în ritmul său, neperturbat de frigul tăios şi de zăpada aşternută pe drumuri.

Orgolios, Bernard Hinault nu s-a gândit nicio clipă la abandon, deşi până la sosire mai erau 80 de kilometri. Parcă imun la durere şi la condiţiile meteo, Hinault s-a desprins de ceilalţi oameni, care nu l-au mai văzut de la un moment dat. Astfel, ciclistul din Hexagon a ajuns primul la final, unde a fost întâmpinat de colegii săi de echipă, ce se aflau la Liège de câteva ore, după ce abandonaseră în prima parte a cursei.

Avansul învingătorului faţă de următorii clasaţi, olandezul Hennie Kuiper (campionul olimpic din 1972) şi belgianul Ronny Claes (aflat la cel mai valoros rezultat din carieră într-un Monument), a fost unul uriaş, 9 minute şi 24 de secunde. În afară de aceştia, doar 18 dintre cei 174 de rutieri plecaţi la drum în dimineaţa zilei de 20 aprilie 1980 au încheiat clasica.

Condiţiile dificile de atunci s-au reflectat şi în media orară, cea mai scăzută din 1971 până în zilele noastre, 34,72 kilometri la oră. Peste toate aceste date, rămâne însă performanţa uluitoare a lui Bernard Hinault, care a intrat în istorie cu una dintre cele mai impresionante evoluţii avute vreodată de un ciclist într-o cursă de o zi, deşi nu fără urmări, în condiţiile în care şi-a pierdut sensibilitatea la două degete ale mâinii drepte, urmare a vremii teribile pe care a înfruntat-o.

Flèche Wallonne Stats

Historical stats

– The first winner of the race – created in 1936 – was Belgium’s Philemon Demeersman

– Moreno Argentin, Marcel Kint, Eddy Merckx and Davide Rebellin share the record for the most wins, 3

– Belgium leads the nations standings, with 38 victories, followed by Italy (18) and France (8)

– Cadel Evans is the last rainbow jersey wearer to take the victory at Flèche Wallonne (2010)

– Lance Armstrong (U.S.A.) and Cadel Evans (Australia) are the only riders from outisde of Europe to win the race

– Bastogne, Binche, Charleroi, Esneux, Huy, Liège, Mons, Spa, Tournai and Verviers have hosted the start of the race, while Charleroi, Huy, Liège, Marcinelle, Mons, Spa and Verviers got to host the finish at some point

– Longest edition took place in bith 1937 and 1938 – 280 kilometers

– In 1961, Willy Vannitsen won the shortest edition – 193 kilometers

– Last Tour de France champion to nab the victory in the Belgian Classic was Bernard Hinault, in 1983

– Two years later, the organisers came up with the idea of the race finishing on the Mur de Huy

– Largest winning margin was recorded in 1950, when Fausto Coppi finished 5:05 ahead of Raymond Impanis

– Last lone breakaway to succeed came in 2003, when Spain’s Igor Astarloa took the victory thanks to an attack launched before the last hill

– Youngest ever winner is Eddy Merckx (21 years and 320 days in 1967), while the oldest one is Pino Cerami (38 years and 21 years in 1960)

– Rik Van Steenbergen holds the record for the biggest time span between the first and the last win: 9 years (1949-1958)

Race stats

– 25 teams (17 World Tour and 8 Pro Continental) will line-up for the 79th edition (Waremme – Huy, 205,5 km)

– Three of these teams haven’t scored a win this season: LottoNL-Jumbo, Roompot and UnitedHealthcare

– Four former winners are at the start of the 2015 race: Philippe Gilbert, Daniel Moreno, Joaquim Rodriguez and Alejandro Valverde

– The cyclists who will ride the 2015 edition have won a combined total of 9 Monuments, 6 world titles (RR+ITT), 7 Grand Tours and almost 90 Grand Tour stages

– France is the country with the most riders in the race – 36 – followed by Belgium (25) and the Italy (24)

– Matej Mohoric (20 years) is the youngest rider who will line-up in Maastricht, while Rinaldo Nocentini is the oldest one (37 years)

Rider of the week

What a difference a year makes! In 2014, Michal Kwiatkowski came 5th in Amstel Gold Race and was left to rue the tactical mistakes he made in the finale, when Samuel Sanchez attacked, paving the way for Philippe Gilbert, who then blew everyone else off his wheel and got to the finish alone. Fast forward a year later, and the young Pole makes a perfect race all day long in the Dutch Classic, staying at the front, watching his opponents and studying every important move, before ending up winning it in one of the most spectacular finishes seen this season.

What was really impressive in Kwiatkowski’s display was seeing him all the time in the first ten riders of the peloton and staying composed throughout the race, just like in Ponferrada, where he took the world title, last Fall. Not even when Philippe Gilbert put on a fierce attack, to which only Michael Matthews could respond, the Pole didn’t panic and after being briefly distanced, he came back in his own rhythm, joining the others and patiently waiting for the sprint. On paper, Michael Matthews and Alejandro Valverde were the favorites there, but they were both overhauled by Kwiatkowski, whose legs were stronger and fresher after 258 arduous kilometers, “sprinkled” with no less than 34 hills.

On Sunday, Michal Kwiatkowski became just the fourth World Champion to triumph in Amstel Gold Race, following in the footsteps of Eddy Merckx, Jan Raas and Bernard Hinault. Now, with Liège–Bastogne–Liège just around the corner, he could reach another important milestone, by becoming the first rainbow jersey wearer since Moreno Argentin, in 1987, to notch the the win in the oldest Monument. Considering the top performance he’s had last week and his incredible level of consistency, a victory in “La Doyenne” looks very likely.

Lucky Room 11

As a pro, Yvo Molenaers won the Tour of Luxembourg, as well as stages in Paris-Nice and the Tour de Suisse. Then, after retiring, Molenaers (who is also Valerio Piva’s father-in-law) opened the Hotel Malpertuus, in the Belgian town of Riemst, not far of Liège. With time, one of the hotel’s rooms – Room 11, to be precisely – became a talisman for the riders, many of the ones who have slept there going on to take a big win soon afterwards.

Thanks to Emile Molenaers, Yvo’s son, I got to make a list of the cyclists who stayed in the famous Room 11 and their victories.

Year Race Won Winner Team
1990 Flèche Wallonne Moreno Argentin Ariostea
1991 Flèche Wallonne+ Liège–Bastogne–Liège Moreno Argentin Ariostea
1993 Amstel Gold Race Rolf Järmann Ariostea
1994 Amstel Gold Race Johan Museeuw GB-MG
1997 Liège–Bastogne–Liège Michele Bartoli MG-Technogym
2002 Amstel Gold Race Michele Bartoli Fassa Bortolo
2002 World Championships Mario Cipollini Italia
2008 Flèche Wallonne Kim Kirchen Team Columbia
2010 Eneco Tour Tony Martin HTC-Columbia
2012 Flèche Wallonne Joaquim Rodriguez Katusha
2013 Flèche Wallonne Daniel Moreno Katusha

Amstel Gold Race Stats

Historical stats

– The first edition took place in 1966 and was won  by the French rider Jean Stablinski

– Jan Raas has the most triumphs, 5, between 1977 and 1982

– Together with Michael Boogerd, Jan Raas shares the record for the most podiums, 7

– The nations standings is led by the Netherlands, who nabbed 17 victories so far

– Bernard Hinault is the last rainbow jersey wearer to win Amstel Gold Race, in 1981

– Since Bjarne Riis, in 1997, no other Tour de France champion has finished first in the Dutch Classic

– Only cyclists from outside of Europe to take the victory are Phil Anderson (Australia) and Alexandr Vinokourov (Kazahstan)

– Largest winning margin was recorded in 1976, when Freddy Maertens finished 4 minutes and 29 seconds ahead of Jan Raas

– The inaugural edition was the longest one – 302 kilometers; 1976, 1977 and 1978 are the years in which the shortest edition was recorded, just 230 kilometers

– Davide Rebellin has the most starts: 17 (including the one in 2015)

– Gerrie Knetemann is the youngest ever winner (23 days and 44 days in 1974), while Joop Zoetemelk is the oldest (40 years and 153 days in 1987)

– Same Gerrie Knetemann holds the record for the biggest time span between the first and the last win: 11 years (1974-1985)

– Last cyclist to win here after taking the victory in a cobbled Monuments was Jan Raas (1982)

– Maarten den Bakker is the rider with the most races completed, 15

– Cauberg – the iconic climb of Amstel Gold Race – is 900 meters long and has a 7% average gradient

– Since 2013, the finish – which comes 1800 after the Cauberg, at Berg en Terblijt – mirrors the one of the 2012 World Championships

Race stats

– 25 teams (17 World Tour and 8 Pro Continental) will take part in the 50th edition (258 kilometers) of the race

– Five of these teams haven’t scored a win this season: Bardiani, Cult Energy, LottoNL-Jumbo, Nippo-Vini Fantini and Roompot

– There are seven former winners at the start: Damiano Cunego, Enrico Gasparotto, Philippe Gilbert, Roman Kreuziger, Davide Rebellin, Frank Schleck and Stefan Schumacher

– The cyclists who will ride the 2015 edition have won a combined total of 15 Monuments, 6 world titles (RR+ITT), 5 Grand Tours and more than 90 Grand Tour stages

– Italy is the country with the most riders in the race – 34 – followed by Belgium (30) and the Netherlands (28)

– Matej Mohoric (20 years) is the young cyclist who will line-up in Maastricht, while Davide Rebellin is the oldest one (43 years)

World Tour standings after Paris-Roubaix

Individual

1 – Richie Porte – 303 points

2 – Alexander Kristoff – 237 points

3 – John Degenkolb – 232 points

4 – Geraint Thomas – 184 points

5 – Nairo Quintana – 168 points

6 – Zdenek Stybar – 152 points

7 – Greg Van Avermaet – 148 points

8 – Niki Terpstra – 140 points

9 – Domenico Pozzovivo – 136 points

10 – Peter Sagan – 136 points

Teams

1 – Sky – 629 points

2 – Etixx-Quick Step – 590 points

3 – Katusha – 527 points

4 – Movistar – 423 points

5 – BMC – 380 points

6 – Giant-Alpecin – 302 points

7 – Tinkoff-Saxo – 278 points

8 – Orica-GreenEdge – 236 points

9 – Astana – 221 points

10 – Lampre-Merida – 217 points

Nations

1 – Australia – 588 points

2 – Spain – 457 points

3 – Netherlands – 435 points

4 – Colombia – 428 points

5 – Italy – 359 points

6 – Belgium – 346 points

7 – Great Britain – 266 points

8 – Germany – 241 points

9 – Norway – 237 points

10 – Czech Republic – 156 points

Conclusions after the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix

With Fabian Cancellara and Tom Boonen absent, a new rivalry seemed to emerge in the Spring Classics, one which has John Degenkolb and Alexander Kristoff as protagonists. The German rider showed his potential since making his debut in the Monuments, netting a 5th place in Milan-Sanremo and a 19th place in Paris-Roubaix. A couple of years later, he took the wins in both, helped not only by a very strong team, but also by a great tactic, a courageous one that led to him attacking and taking his faith in his own hands. As for Kristoff, he too has two wins in the Monuments and the past month showed that he’s one of the strongest cyclists around and has the potential, just like Degenkolb, to be one of the dominant riders of the following years in the first three Monuments of the Spring.

“Always a bridesmaid, never a bride” – is an idiom that seems to apply to two of the most strongest Classics rider in the peloton, Greg Van Avermaet and Sep Vanmarcke. At the beginning of every season, both are among the favorites to land a big win, but this doesn’t come, so Van Avermaet and Vanmarcke are left thinking of what went wrong. With Tom Boonen close to retiring from the peloton, his countrymen are seen by many as the riders who should replace the Belgian legend, but the task is tougher than expected. This is why, at the moment, is back at the old drawing board for Greg Van Avermaet and Sep Vanmarcke, whose winter will again revolve around the cobbled races. For them to succeed, it will be important not to put too much pressure on them, because this, combined with the failures they endured in the past two years, could finally get to them and create a mental block which will be very difficult to overcome.

For Peter Sagan, 2015 marked another disappointing Spring campaign, as he failed to win the Monument he desires so much. Sagan has had a below par display in all the important races – Milan-Sanremo, E3 Harelbeke, Gent-Wevelgem, the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix – his best result being a 4th place he got in De Ronde, but even that came after a poor finale. What was even more striking than seeing the Slovak without any energy left in the key moments of the races was that he lacked the killer instinct that became his trademark in the previous seasons. At 25, Sagan is still young, but has many things to improve, from his physical attributes to the tactics he should deploy in the big races, because he is still far from fulfilling his potential. Until then, he needs an excellent Tour de France – with stage wins and another green jersey – in order to save this season.

A couple of weeks ago, Patrick Lefevere asked for patience, saying that his team should be judged only after April 12th. Now the time has come and all that Etixx-Quick Step has after these past two months is the victory of Mark Cavendish in Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne, a race many have already forgot. In the Monuments, the Belgian outfit scored two second places – with Niki Terpstra and Zdenek Stybar – but the general impression is that it missed on the wins because of its poor and sometimes awkward tactics, especially as it had the most powerful squad. Failing to win the Ronde will be a cause for inquest in the Etixx-Quick Step team and people shouldn’t be surprised if decisions will be taken concerning some of the riders in the near future.

Paris-Roubaix was Bradley Wiggins’ swan song, but it just wasn’t made to be for the time trial world champion, who had hoped to go out with a bang in his final race for Sky. The “Hell of the North” has a special place in his heart since he was a child, so his wish was to win it and get a place among the honor book, but all that the 34-year-old Brit could do was to attack with 30 kilometers remaining, a move that didn’t have a future, as the others bridged up to him. Then, in the later part of the race, Wiggins ran out of steam – which was kind of surprising considering the way he prepared to peak for this Classic – and he eventually had to settle with 18th place, half a minute behind the winner.

Many were intrigued by the fact that the “sprinters” are laying their mark on the Classics, but they’re wrong, because both John Degenkolb and Alexander Kristoff have done more than just sit in the pack and wait for the finish. The German and the Norwegian came at the forefront, attacked and shaped the race according to their view and plans. This is what the other contenders didn’t do. Every time they had the opportunity, they looked like they were scared of this and even after accelerating and getting a gap, they slowed down and allowed the others to come back and neutralize the race. Actually, there’s a feeling that there are just a few hard men left in the peloton for the Classics, and two of them are Kristoff and Degenkolb. This should give food for thought to the others.

The Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix are races for experienced cyclists, and we can see that looking over the riders who finished on the podium. Still, there are some young ones who have impressed and delivered some outstanding results, despite not being their team’s prime picks for these Classics. Who are they? Tiesj Benoot, Alexis Gougeard, Yves Lampaert, Florian Senechal, Jens Debusschere and Luke Rowe, all cyclists that made themselves noticed during the past two week-ends and found the consistency that has helped them elevate in the eyes of the teams and other riders, making the 2015 Spring campaign a turning point in their career. All these are reasons to watch them in the future, as they are coming strong from behind and could play a major role from now on in De Ronde and Roubaix.

Rider of the week

He’s not the leader of the World Tour ranking, he’s not even the cyclist with the most wins in 2015, but without any doubt, John Degenkolb is the best rider of this Spring up until this point. After taking his first ever Monument victory in Milan-Sanremo, three weeks ago, he made one of the rarest doubles in cycling history, winning Paris-Roubaix, and thus becoming only the third cyclist to do that in one season, after Cyrille Van Hauwaert (1908) and Sean Kelly (1986).

As in Sanremo, the leader of Giant-Shimano played once again to perfection the role of the “invisible man”, staying all the time with the other contenders and following all the key moves, but without coming at the front, up until the point he decided time has come to make his own move. Finally, Degenkolb launched an attack with less than 15 kilometers to go, joined his teammate Bert De Backer, and then went on his own after Greg Van Avermaet and Yves Lampaert, who were leading the race. With the two Belgians reluctant to share the work and just clunging on to his wheel, the German pulled by himself, just as Alexander Kristoff did last week, at the Tour of Flanders.

Eventually, in the closing kilometers of the race, before the last cobbled sector, the three were caught by a four-man group that included another fast man, Zdenek Stybar. This worked out in Degenkolb’s favor, because Etixx-Quick Step’s Yves Lampaert came at the front to work for his teammate, while the German got to keep the remaining energy he had and look for the best position in the sprint.

On the André-Pétrieux velodrome, the Milan-Sanremo winner waited for the Czech champion to open his sprint with half a lap going, before accelerating and roaring across the line victorious to add his second Monument in less than a month, a success he scored because he was prepared to risk it all and even fail, as long as he was at peace with himself for giving it everything. To put it short, he was the strongest, the bravest and the smartest rider in a race during which he had a flawless performance.

Only the second German to win Paris-Roubaix, after Josef Fischer in 1896 (the inaugural edition of the Monument), John Degenkolb is one of the main reasons why cycling is on the rise again in his country (the effects of this progress will be soon seen). Just 26-year-old and in his fifth pro season, Degenkolb is already one of the top riders of the peloton and if things will go like this in the following years, he has every chance of becoming a legend. The first step has been made last Sunday, thanks to the win he got in Paris-Roubaix, a race of which the German said four years ago, right before making his debut, that is the one he loves the most, because heroes are born there.

 

2015 Paris-Roubaix Preview

Paris-Roubaix 2015

The dust is ready to settle on the 2015 cobbled Classics, but not before the Queen takes part in the last ball, the most awaited one. Who’s this Queen? Easy answer, one that everyone knows, thanks to the many attributes itpossesses: the Queen of the Classics is the famous and infamous Paris-Roubaix, a race with a unique identity, that was born to become a legend more than one century ago. In its first years, the cobbles were everywhere and in a perfect condition, so Paris-Roubaix wasn’t known as the most toughest Classics of them all, although the cyclists still had a hard life while riding a race for which they needed more than nine hours to complete.

After World War l, when the North of France was living a nightmare after being left in ruins, Paris-Roubaix got its nickname of “L’Enfer du Nord” after the journalists of L’Auto, accompanied by Eugène Christophe came from Paris to see if the course can host the Classic in 1919, thus wanting to put an end to a four-year hiatus. This nickname sticked over the decades, because it sums up the race perfectly: Paris-Roubaix really turned into hell for the ones that came at the start, without making any distinction between the contenders who wanted to tame the cobbles and win, and the faithful “lieutenants”, whose only desire was to get over this ordeal and finish safe.

Many are saying that Paris-Roubaix is a lottery, but it isn’t quite like that. It’s more a thing of precision and attention: to know how to prepare the bike, where the tricky stones are, how to take the corners and get out of them, and how to make sure you always choose to ride over the smoothest roads so that you don’t puncture. During the 253 kilometer-long race in Northern France, if you are gunning for the win, you need to forget about the stress and the tension, have a strong psyhique, stay out of trouble, find that perfect chemistry with the bike and the cobbles, get over the patches of slippy, sandy mud, and just have that perfect day you dream of, without one single error.

This is how Octave Lapize, Henri Pélissier, Rik Van Looy, Roger De Vlaeminck, Eddy Merckx, Francesco Moser, Bernard Hinault, Sean Kelly, Marc Madiot, Gilbert Duclos-Lassalle, Franco Ballerini, Johan Museeuw, Tom Boonen and Fabian Cancellara did it, entering the hall of fame thanks to their wins, but also to the memorable moments that built those victories in a race that creates mix emotions, a race for hard men and heroes.

The course

There’s a dry and warm forecast for this week-end in Northern France, which means we will see a dusty and fast Paris-Roubaix (253 kilometers, 52,7 kilometers of cobbles). On Sunday, 200 riders will line-up in Compiègne and they’ll have a quiet time for the first 100 kilometers, until they hit the first of the 27 cobbled sectors, Troisvilles. There, not far of Cambrai – a town which hosted two stage finishes in the Tour de France – the peloton will clatter over the first pavés of the day, and knots will start to form in stomachs and muscles.

The Quiévy (longest one in the race, alongside Hornaing – 3700 meters), Saint-Python and Verchain-Maugré sectors follow shortly afterwards, and will also feature on stage four of this year’s Tour de France, on July 7th, when they are expected to create some significant gaps between the yellow jersey contenders. Then, the pack will pass over the four-star Haveluy cobbled road, or the “Bernard Hinault sector”, which is sometimes used in the Quatre Jours de Dunkerque, at the beginning of May.

The first true picture emerges at kilometer 158, as the cyclists will tackle the first five-star sector: the Trouée d’Arenberg, a brutal place were dreams are broken to pieces. It was first used in 1968, after a tip that Albert Bouvet got from former world champion Jean Stablinski, who worked in the coal mines below Arenberg as a teenager. The road is 2400 meters long and is one of the most difficult on the course, dropping slightly at first, then rising. The cobbles are extremely difficult to ride because of their irregularity and pose a real threat to riders, who can crash at any moment, giving that there will be a huge fight for the best positions at around 60 km/h. Johan Museeuw and Philippe Gaumont are just some of the big riders that fell heavily here in the past and had to abandon.

Another thing worth mentioning is that Arenberg isn’t a wide road, so if a cyclist punctures, he has to hope there will be a teammate or a soigneur around, because the cars are way behind in the long caravan, and until his sports director helps him with that much needed change, the race can be lost. And as if this wasn’t enough, when the riders exit the forest there’s a strong crosswind coming from the left, which can create some big gaps between the first group and the chasers. These are the reasons for which everyone knows – from riders to fans and journalists – that you can’t win the race in the infamous Arenberg, but you can surely lose it there.

There won’t be time for respite after Arenberg, because the cyclists will soon hit the three-star Wallers-Hélesmes “Pont Gibus” sector (1600 meters), named after double winner Gilbert Duclos-Lassalle, followed soon afterwards by another important obstacle, Hornaing (3700 meters), first used in 1983, when Hennie Huiper won, after one of the most thrilling editions ever. The “fun” will continue with Warlaing-Brillon (2400 meters), Tilloy-Sars-et-Rosières (2400 meters), Beuvry-la-Forêt-Orchies (1400 meters), Orchies (1700 m) and Auchy-lez-Orchies-Bersée (2700 meters), all these coming in the space of just 23 kilometers.

Next key point is Mons-en-Pévèle (3000 meters), a five-star sector where the riders are expected to come in full throttle and force a big selection, especially as the last 2000 meters aren’t in the best condition. If things go according to plan, then the winner will come from the first group that emerges after Mons-en-Pévèle. The next cobbled roads shouldn’t be so difficult, that is until the riders hit Camphin-en-Pévèle (1800 meters), which will provide the warm-up for Carrefour de l’Arbre. After making the recon of the parcours, Thierry Gouvenou said that this last five-star sector is much harder then in the past and that in terms of difficulty, it’ll be right up there with the Arenberg Forest.

Carrefour de l’Arbre (2100 meters) – the site of the Battle of Bouvines eight centuries ago – was first used in 1958 and is the last chance of a big attack. Marc Madiot, Tom Boonen and Fabian Cancellara are just three of the cyclists who powered away there in the past and got a gap that was enough for them to land the win. On the other hand, Carrefour de l’Arbre is also one of the most dangerous sectors of the race, with some important riders – Thor Hushovd, Leif Hoste, Stijn Vandenbergh – crashing here in the previous editions, because of the sharp cobbles or the fans that put up for an insane atmosphere.

Three more sectors remain from that point on, with the last being the one in Roubaix, which has two names: “Road of the Giants”, because it leads the way to the velodrome, and “Charles Crupelandt”, after the two-time winner of the race. If more riders are together at the front once the André-Pétrieux velodrome – a place of cheers and teers – looms at the horizon, than the finale will be very thrilling and a surprise can occur, as it often happened when the victory was decided in a sprint after one and a half laps.

The favorites

Alexander Kristoff has a record of five starts and just two finishes in Paris-Roubaix, a 9th place in 2013 being his best result. In addition to that, he said after his Flanders win that the cobbled climbs suit him much better than the cobbled stretches of the North. Inspite of these facts, who is ready to bet against him on Sunday, especially after winning also Scheldeprijs a couple of days ago? Is not that the Norwegian has a great form, but he looks so strong that it give the shivers to his rivals, who don’t seem to have any real chance of leaving him behind. Precisely for this reason, it will be important for Kristoff to have a teammate alongside in the closing moments of the race, so that he won’t get outsmarted in a tactical move. A victory will help him achieve legendary status, as he will become the 11th cyclist to take both Flanders and Roubaix in the same year.

John Degenkolb had some problems in De Ronde, but things should change in his favor in the last cobbled Monument, where he comes well-rested, after deciding to skip Scheldeprijs on Wednesday. As he proved in Milan-Sanremo, Degenkolb excels over long distances and he shouldn’t have any problem in making the selection in the key moments of the course, even more now that Fabian Cancellara and Tom Boonen, two riders capable of a decisive attack, are missing the race. Besides that, he also has a big and impressive engine, which can allow him, at some point, to launch a counter attack, if he needs to cover a move made by one or more of his opponents. Germany awaits a Paris-Roubaix win for 119 years, and Giant-Alpecin’s cyclist – who was second one year ago – has a big chance of putting an end to this dry streak.

Sky made a big mistake in the Tour of Flanders, coming at the forefront too early and trying to control the race as it usually does in the Grand Tours, but the result was different and Geraint Thomas was left all by himself on the final hills. Another problem was that the Welsh rider missed some extra watts and didn’t have the legs to follow the attacks, which showed another minus of Sky: the lack of a Plan B. It shouldn’t surprise anyone if Sky will play more cards now, with Bradley Wiggins being an important one, as he can go to the attack with 30-40 kilometers to go and use his time trial skills to get clear. In the past weeks, the 34-year-old Brit has said in more than one occasion that a victory in Paris Roubaix – one if his childhood’s dreams – would mean more for him at this point than the yellow jersey he has won three years ago in the Tour de France, so the motivation is there for his last race with Sky. If the race doesn’t pans out in his favor and the world time trial champion will be reeled in, then Geraint Thomas or Ian Stannard (if he is fully recovered) will have their chance.

Paris-Roubaix is Etixx-Quick Step’s last chance of saving a disappointing Spring campaign that left the team with a bitter taste and with just a win, in Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne. Niki Terpstra, Zdenek Stybar and Stijn Vandenbergh all have a strong shot at winning the “Hell of the North”, with the defending champion coming here in a great shape and with a huge hunger, after he was beaten by Alexander Kristoff in the Tour of Flanders. Once again, Terpstra can put in a crafty attack earlier than expected and solo to the win, but for this to happen, he needs to have a teammate in the main group. On the other hand, Zdenek Stybar also wants to try his luck after he had to stay in the pack last week-end and get his first career win in a Monument. The Czech champion is better than Terpstra in a sprint, but after Flanders there isn’t any clear indication that he’s just as strong as his Dutch teammate. Summing it up, it remains to be seen what will be the consensus in the Etixx-Quick Step squad and if the sports director will manage the ego of his riders and lead them to a much-desired victory.

Greg Van Avermaet was one of the strongest cyclists in the Tour of Flanders, but he was left to rue the missed opportunity, after BMC made a tactical mistake when Terpstra and Kristoff got clear immediately after the Kruisberg. With every chance that slips from his hands, Van Avermaet loses some of his confidence, so he needs to act fast and get the most out of the next Monuments. It’s very likely to see the Belgian going on to the attack again and hoping to break clear of the other favorites or at least force a serious selection, that will not include the sprinters. Although Roubaix suits him less than Flanders, Greg Van Avermaet is still one of the most consistent men on the cobbles in recent years and will go all in on Sunday, hoping to finally convert an opportunity into a win.

Sep Vanmarcke came just 5th in Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, but everyone was very impressed with his display and how strong he looked, so the general consensus among the pundits was that he will be the man to beat in both Flanders and Roubaix. But soon afterwards, something changed and the Belgian cyclist failed to win a one-day race from the three he rode (E3 Harelbeke, Gent-Wevelgem, Tour of Flanders) in the previous weeks. The most worrisome part for Vanmarcke was what happened in De Ronde, where he was left behind before the crucial hills of the race, because he had an empty tank and couldn’t follow, despite the fact that he desperately tried to close the gap on the main group. Although he got a lot of criticism from the Belgian media, the LottoNL-Jumbo rider left behind the 53rd place in the Tour of Flanders and now looks forward with optimism and confidence to Paris-Roubaix, where he’ll have a point to prove. The team that will support him isn’t as strong as Sep Vanmarcke would have liked to, but if he regains his early March form, then anything is possible for the rider who came second in the 2013 edition.

Peter Sagan’s form has been a mystery so far this season – although Stuart O’Grady had some interesting things to say when questioned about the Slovak’s lack of results – so a win here would be a much needed lift for Tinkoff-Saxo’s rider. The 25-year-old is finding for the first time in his career what winning is hard to do, but yet he remains one of the favorites. Endurance seems to be one of Sagan’s big problems at the moment, with the three-time winner of the Tour de France green jersey coming up empty in the final kilometers of the Monuments, as well as not being able to take the best decisions in the flashiest of seconds. Another issue for him is that he struggles a bit more on the cobbled stretches, feeling insecure about his positioning and amount of power he has to use. On the other hand, not being one of the top contenders will allow him to play the race more defensively, which can help him, with a little bit of luck, save his first half of the season.

Who are the outsiders for this race? One name that quickly comes to mind is that of André Greipel, who was outstanding in the Tour of Flanders, where he put the hammer down on the hills in more than one occasion. Greipel really wants a good result in Paris-Roubaix and has a strong chance of getting it, considering his excellent form. More than that, his team is prepared to put on an aggressive display once again, which means Jurgen Roelandts and Tiesj Benoot will try to be among the proeminent figures in the “Hell of the North”. Another good bet is Astana’s Lars Boom, 6th in the Tour of Flanders. The Dutchman wasn’t very visible at the front last Sunday, but still got a top 10 finish and now has the confidence he needs that he can do a great race on Sunday.

Beside the riders mentioned above, Filippo Pozzato and Sylvain Chavanel are two other men with a good shot in Paris-Roubaix, although both seemed to lack some power in the closing kilometers of Flanders. There’s also the possibility that some of the teams without a top contender, but also the ones who will want to enjoy a free ride, will send their riders at the front, most likely in the second half of the race, somewhere after Arenberg and before Mons-en-Pévèle. If this will be the scenario, look to cyclists like Bjorn Leukemans, Dylan van Baarle, Daniel Oss, Jasper Stuyven, Mathieu Ladagnous, Luca Paolini, Florian Senechal (who knows the cobbles like the back of his hand, as he comes from a small village to the east of Cambrai), Yoann Offredo, Damien Gaudin, Jelle Wallays and Jens Keukeleire.

Race stats

– The first edition took place in 1896 and was won by Germany’s Josef Fischer

– Paris-Roubaix was the first Classic to be shown live on TV, in 1960

– Two Belgians – Tom Boonen and Roger De Vlaeminck – share the record for the most wins, 4

– Roger De Vlaeminck is also the rider with the most podium finishes, 9

– Belgium leads the nation standings, with 55 triumphs in 112 editions

– Frédéric Guesdon holds the record for the most starts, 17

– Raymond Impanis and Servais Knaven have the most races completed, 16 each

– Ten riders have won the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix in the same year: Tom Boonen, Fabian Cancellara, Fred De Bruyne, Roger De Vlaeminck, Romain Gijssels, Raymond Impanis, Gaston Rebry, Heiri Suter, Rik Van Looy and Peter Van Petegem

– The longest edition never exceeded 280 kilometers, while the shortest one had 244 kilometers

– Marc Madiot is the only cyclist who has won Paris-Roubaix in the U23 ranks and subsequently as a pro

– In 1949, the victory was awarded to two riders: Serse Coppi and André Mahé

– Australia’s Stuart O’Grady is the only cyclist from outside of Europe who nabbed the win in Paris-Roubaix (2007)

– The longest successful breakaway was recorded in 1988, when Dirk Demol won after being for 222 kilometers at the front

– Last rainbow jersey wearer to emerge victorious is Bernard Hinault (1981)

– Five riders have won Paris-Roubaix after taking the victory in the Tour de France: Louison Bobet, Fausto Coppi, Felice Gimondi, Bernard Hinault and Eddy Merckx

– In 1936 – when Georges Speicher was victorious – the race ended on a hippodrome

– Between 1986 and 1988, Paris-Roubaix finished in the town, because the velodrome was undergoing some repairs

– First year in which riders were allowed to get a spare wheel from their teammates was 1965

– Youngest ever winner is Albert Champion (20 years and 362 days in 1899); oldest one is Gilbert Duclos-Lasalle (38 years and 299 days in 1993)

– Last French success was brought by Frédéric Guesdon, in 1997

– In 1990, Eddy Planckaert and Steve Bauer sprinted for the victory and the Belgian won for just 1 cm

– Biggest winning margin dates from 1898, when Maurice Garin finished 28 minutes ahead of Auguste Stephan

– 1968 was the first year in which the start was given from Compiègne

– First time when the champion received a cobblestone trophy was in 1977

– Highest average speed – 45,130 km/h – was recorded in 1964, while the lowest one was in 1922 – 22,857 km/h

– 25 teams (17 World Tour and 8 Pro Continental) will line-up in Compiègne for the 2015 edition

– Two of these teams are winless this season: LottoNL-Jumbo and UnitedHealthcare

– Belgium has the most cyclists (39), followed by France (31) and Germany (20)

– Two former champions are at the start of this year’s race: Niki Terpstra and Johan Vansummeren

– Three U23 winners (Koen De Kort, Damien Gaudin, Ramon Sinkeldam) and five Junior winners (Andrew Fenn, Florian Senechal, Jasper Stuyven, Geraint Thomas, Guillaume Van Keirsbulck) will be in the race

– Three sectors will feature in stage four of the 102nd Tour de France: Quiévy, Saint-Python, and Verchain-Maugré

– Alexander Kristoff can become the first ever rider to win the Three Days of De Panne, the Tour of Flanders, Scheldeprijs and Paris-Roubaix in the same season

– Quentin Jauregui (20 years) is the youngest rider at the startline, while Matteo Tosatto (40 years) is the oldest one

– Paris-Roubaix 2015 marks 2367 days since the last Italian win in a Monument

– 18 neo-pros will make their debut in Paris-Roubaix: Shane Archbold, Simone Antonini, Maxat Ayazbayev, Tiesj Benoot, Magnus Cort, Tom Devriendt, Quentin Jauregui, Stefan Küng, Kevin Ledanois, Daniel McLay, Julien Morice, Oliver Naesen, Luka Pibernik, Tanner Putt, Marc Sarreau, Kristoffer Skjerping, Ruben Zepuntke and Federico Zurlo

– There are 6 071 040 cobblestones on this year’s parcours

 

 

 

 

 

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