I'm calling 2013 a better than average spring classics season so far. It's showed that despite attempts to modernize pro cycling (whatever that means) 'old time cycling' is still alive and well.
It was a 'spring' (I use the term loosely), when well laid plans were laid waste by cycling's gods of tradition. Somewhere up there, Henri Desgrange, Karel Van Wijendale and a bunch of old-school scammers who built the sport were pulling levers behind the scene, unleashing the cold and precipitation that reminded us all that the spring classics remain timeless tests of hardness, resistant to the progressive forces of modernization that conspire to take all the unpredictability out of the proceedings.
After a few warm up races in a Disneyesque, warm desert moonscape - with riders enjoying luxury hotels before sub-baked races over pristine and empty roads - tradition kicked modernization's behind. The weather back in cycling's homeland provided a cold reality slap to a carbon equipped, electronically controlled, scientifically prepared peloton - reminding us that 'the stuff' doesn't change the essence of the sport: It's still man-to-man warfare in the harshest conditions.
Here's Flahute's thoughts on what we've all enjoyed so for.
1. A horse of a different color: It kicked off with a son of a Moser riding into the Palio. Another winning horse, sired from champion stock. The symbolism was there to kick it off in perhaps the most gladatorial, tradtional setting in cycling. Un vero Moser, the Italian headlines said. Certo!
The Strade Bianche race may not have the century old origins of the other classics. But it's got all the essential, classic ingredients that some much older events have forsaken to their eventual detriment: Old rough roads, selective parcours, classical terrain, and an classically old-world finish venue.
|Milan San Remo 1910.|
Well, I submit that what we saw on the road to the Turchino was the essence of cycling. A common thread that's connected champions across the centuries: Battling against impossible weather.
There's no energy drink, no electronic gadget, no carbon fiber gear that makes the cold and wet any more bearable. Our modern clothing helps... but just a little.
For the many heroes who just got on with the job that day, they treated a jaded, drug-news weary fan base to a 1910 throwback when a blizzard saw only four of the seventy starters reach the finish in San Remo. And to the one even further back, in 1908: The 'coming out party' of the original 'Lion of Flanders', Cyrille van Hauwaert, who bulldogged an iron bike through a snowstorm to win the Classicissima.
|MSR 2013. Some things thankfully remain the same.|
Over a century later, and the scenario was the same.
The great cycling races, getting dumped on by mother nature. They're the ones that get remembered. Monte Bondone 1956. Liege in 1957, and 1980. Tre Cime Lavaredo 1968. Gavia 1988. All dates and places still written about, talked about, remembered and replayed in close to the same reverential manner as people - most of whom admittedly long gone now - would speak of Borodino 1812, Waterloo 1815 or Verdun 1916. Battles all.
Those battles that were bicycle races stick in the memory for generations, immortalizing those that completed them. Providing the fuel for years and years of tales handed down in cafes, clubhouses and training rides.
|Merckx battled both snow and |
steeps on the Tre Cime Lavaredo, 1968 Giro d'Italia
Those races are never won without great demonstrations of heroism, will and character. They're not simply won by 'talent' or preparation. Or boring linear tests of speed or strength. First and foremost they remain timeless tests of will, character and fortitude. Of endurance. Ernest Shackleton style endurance.
I'm a little surprised that of all people, Tommeke didn't seem to get that on the Turchino.
Go directly to Hotel Doha. Do not pass Go. Do not collect 200 euros.
3. De Ronde van Oudenaarde? The Ronde on Easter Sunday ought to be more than a watt-contest the 3rd time up Paterberg. The race seemed to have taken on the rhythm of a Criterium. A lot of waiting.
It may have been a great end for sure, but it wasn't De Ronde. Too many together too close to the finish for one think. A lot of 'waiting.' Looked that way anyhow. No Stijn DeVolder style escape. Not that it wasn't hard mind ye, just that it was different. Like an NBA basketball game, it felt like you only needed to see the finale.
The highly intelligent and serious folks at Flanders Classics ought to configure a route that dispenses with the finish over three loops, and takes in the Muur... if not for the finale, then at least at some point. One big loop again. Lots of bergs. A Ronde van Vlaanderen.
In fairness, some of their changes have made the race more spectator friendly... And Oudenaarde is the heart of Flanders, so finish it there.
Just give us back De Muur. Please.
Defining image: A suffering Sagan doing the 'paperboy' up that killer 25%+ climb in the penultimate stage, trying to stick with the flyweights.
You know what that's like. You've all been there.
Just when you figured the kid was licking his voracious chops, and about to win San Remo a-la-Eddy 1966, and kicking off all kinds of predictable, inevitable and droll "The next Merckx"comparisons... or cannibal prefixes...
He fumbled the ball.
But then he storms right back to win Gent-Wevelgem, riding away in a finale show of strength that proves this kid is a lot more than a sprinter. And the big favorite for De Ronde. Pressure.
The problem with Political Correctness - and those who promote it - is that all sense of perspective, not to mention any sense of humor -gets tossed out the window.
PC is fascism in disguise jongens. Someday the great unwashed will wake up and realize it after it's too late. It's the same logic that sees stupid people try to ban dodgeball from the playground, and suspend a 5 year old from school for pointing his finger like a gun. But I digress...
The kid in green bounces back to out drag race Phil Gil to win Fleche Brabanconne. And boyishly gives flowers to Maja this time - instead of a pinch.
Amstel Gold tomorrow? Well, it's his to lose. I'd say it's 50/50 that he might just do that. Because he's human.
As much as I think their whole scientific approach is a soul-deadening pax on road cycling, have no doubt - team SKY will be an over-financed disproportionate force in future spring classics.
Ian Stannard and Geraint Thomas are two of the most underrated riders in world cycling. Stannard was just magnificent in San Remo - the moral winner in my book - what a ballsy ride! You can see a lot of Sean Yates in that big lad.
5. Spartacus' greatest: On to Paris Roubaix 2013 -- Spartacus greatest win.
After chasing back to the front, he was on the ropes. But he cannily pulled off a 'rope-a-dope' finale with Sepp Vanmarcke that Muhammad Ali himself couldn't have done any better. It was close though, and Cancellara needed all the tools in his swiss army knife to pull this one out of the bag.
He bluffed with an attack. Then amazingly still got the Belgian kid to take some pulls. And cajoled him into leading out the sprint on the track. As Henri Desgranges would have said, Cancellara won that coveted third stone for his sauna with la tete et les jambes.
Watching it, all I could think of was to compare it to the 2nd Paris Roubaix victory of Rik Van Steenbergen: A similar 2-up sprint over Fausto Coppi, way back in 1952.
In both cases, a big powerful champion found himself stranded behind the lead group, yet chased back solo... and once at the front, despite being on the ropes, dug super deep to pull out a second victory in Roubaix. Back in 1952, Rik I was closer to the end of his career. Some in the media were ready to say he was finished - just like some were writing off Cancellara after Sagan and Moser beat him in Strade Bianche this year. He missed the move and was stuck well behind Coppi and Kubler, and... well let him tell the story*:
"I don't know what happened but suddenly I told myself that if I didn't try to chase him, if I let myself be caught, they'd all say that Coppi had me beaten, that I wasn't as good as him. He beat me in the 1950 Paris Roubaix. He dominated the Fleche Wallone two years earlier, and all our last clashes had clearly been in his favour. People were beginning to say that he was much better than I. I realized in a flash that this final stretch of Paris Roubaix was my last chance to confound the critics and show them that I was in fact better than Coppi."
"It was sheer madness, like a piece of bluff in poker, to think that I could catch up to the four leaders all by myself - they were well ahead and pedalling at over 40 km/hr (25 mph). It was ridiculous. I was all alone, but I really wanted to do something. I told myslelf it would be better to die on the road than to admit that Coppi was the better man and slip back into the anonymity of the pack. I felt slightly better after I'd been chasing them for ten minutes when I saw four Belgian journalists waiting by the roadside taking a time check - they looked stupified at my comeback. A bit later I saw press and official cars ahead, and I knew the leaders would be just out in front. Another 200 or 300 meters and I passed Baldassari who had been dropped by them, and then Jacques Dupont punctured. That only left Coppi and Kubler. A couple of kilometers further on - I'd been chasing for about ten kilometers - I caught Fausto and Ferdi. A bit further on Kubler, who was completely done in, gave up, and I was alone with Fausto Coppi. "
"He looked daggers at me. A look full of resentment.. The same look he gave me in Copenhagen in the 1949 World Championship when he realized he could not shake me off. So a 'fight to the death' began between us, over the last few kilometers of hell. Coppi tried to break away several times. I suddenly felt terribly weak. Staging that comeback all alone had really knocked me out, and I was terribly afraid that I'd have to quit. But I clung grimly to his rear wheel and he could not gain so much as a meter. Before we raced into the velodrome, Coppi had already given up any idea of winning. He knew that when it came to the sprint I was bound to beat him, and in fact I had no difficulty in streaking three lengths ahead of him in the home straight."
"That was definitely one of the greatest wins in my career. And it gave me and my manager Antonin Magne more pleasure than any of the others. I collapsed onto the track. I was 'dead', unrecognizable. Magne promptly sent for a bottle of milk. I swallowed it down in one go and then was sick on the track before doing my lap of honour. I was in a pitiful state, but I'd done what really mattered -- I'd won Paris Roubaix for the second time, and more important, I'd caught Coppi and beaten him."
6. The top performance of the classics? No doubt so far: The cobble goes to Belgian impressionist Jonathan Bockstael, whose version of Spartacus Ronde-winning press conference is simply hilarious.
He was also on Belgium's Een TV's Cafe Corsari just after Paris Roubaix, with another funny parody spoofing a supposed 'deal' between Fabian and Sepp in the finale of Paris Roubaix.
Check out this older clip of him in the supporterscafe of the late Frank Vandenbroucke, doing - among others - VDB himself, Tom Boonen, Patrick Lefevere, Michel Wuyts, and some football players. Funny stuff.
Enjoy Amstel Gold tomorrow cafesupporters. And get out for a ride!