Conclusions after E3 Harelbeke and Gent-Wevelgem
Etixx-Quick Step has a tough life without Tom Boonen, the team resembling to a ship which lost its compass. The squad still has some very strong riders, with the likes of Niki Terpstra and Zdenek Stybar spearheading Etixx for the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix, but something just doesn’t click in the team whenever it comes to the one-day races. Add this to some dodgy decisions from the team car, and you have a big picture where the Belgian team is struggling to find its pace and tactics on the cobbles. Patrick Lefevere said he’s not worried at the moment and asked that the team be judged on April 12th. A fair request, but if his riders fail to put their mark on the Monuments, then 2015 will go down as one of the worst Spring seasons in the history of Etixx and it will take a great display in July for people to forget this.
The horrible weather shaped Sunday’s Gent-Wevelgem and made for one of the best Classics ever seen, a race of heroes and truly one for the ages. Only 39 riders managed to get to the end, and as Jean-Pierre Drucker put it, all would deserve a “Gent-Wevelgem Survivor” T-shirt. But not only Gent-Wevelgem put on a great show, with also E3 Harelbeke being a spectacular race, that had attacks, a crazy chase and a surprising outcome. The great racing we’ve had last week-end raises the bar for De Ronde, but also pinpoints to one thing: it’s very likely that the Tour of Flanders, in the absence of both Fabian Cancellara and Tom Boonen, will have a surprise winner, as was the case in Gent-Wevelgem, where nobody was expecting Luca Paolini to cross the line first.
Speaking of Luca Paolini, the Italian shined on a rainy day and showed in Gent-Wevelgem that age has nothing to do with guts and instinct. With just five kilometers to go, he attacked from the main group and soloed to the finish line, where he became the oldest winner of the race (38 years), thus breaking the record of the legendary Briek Schotte, which was standing from 1955. Just like two years ago, when he took the victory in Giro d’Italia’s stage seven to Marina di Ascea, Paolini put one hand on his hea and and one to his heart, underlining that cycling isn’t only about who was the strongest legs, but also about the ones who give it all and play it perfectly in order to succeed.
For years, Sky has struggled to match its stage racing dominance in the Classics. For a team used to winning big in events like the Tour of France, Paris-Nice, Tour de Romandie or Critérium du Dauphiné, the disappointment caused by the one-day races came as a hard pill to swallow. After five seasons with just two victories – both in Omloop Het Nieuwsblad – Sky reached a turning point in 2015 and it’s slowly transforming itself in one of the dominant teams for the Classics, thanks to Ian Stannard and Geraint Thomas (who’s in the best form of his career). So far, in four cobbled semi-classics, the British outfit took two wins and two podiums, and with Flanders and Roubaix knocking at the door, the morale is high and that big win the team is searching for is not a dream anymore.
Two big favorites for the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix came empty handed from E3 Harelbeke and Gent-Wevelgem: Sep Vanmarcke and Peter Sagan. After the injuries that have hit both Fabian Cancellara and Tom Boonen, the Belgian was hyped to take over the crown as the best pavé rider, but things didn’t go as planned for him, and Vanmarcke, all of the sudden, doesn’t look so strong as he was at the beginning of the Spring. The pressure also seems to add up, with the spotlight being on him for the Monuments, which means every moves he makes will be countered by others and he’ll have little space for pavé. When it comes to Sagan, the Slovak is a bit of an enigma. He should have won E3 Harelbeke easily, but he failed in a spectacular way, reminiscent of last year’s Strade Bianche. Hard to say if Sagan had a hunger-knock or is overtrained (a very plausible hypothesis), but one thing that’s certain is he’ll enter Flanders as an underdog and with many doubts.