The Take Out - Tour of Flanders
ASO have decided to include cobblestones in this year’s Tour De France; and yes, that is the equivalent of hiring a live tiger to be the main attraction at your son’s 15th birthday party. It seems cool and fun at first, but after contemplation, you realise that it’s probably a bad idea, as nobody here has any experience handling tigers, and numerous people are going to get hurt. By nature, grand tour riders are not built for the cobbles, most have ridden across real cobbles sparsely, and there will be crashes without fail. Nevertheless, they’ve gone ahead with it anyway (like you probably will with the tiger), and that means various GC men have planned their spring racing program around one or two cobbled classics.
Vincenzo Nibali is one rider who made an appearance at Flanders, with a surprising admission beforehand, “This Sunday will be a test for me to see if maybe in the future, next year or further on, I can do a more specific programme based around the Tour of Flanders”.
Nibali is one of the uber-versatile group of riders like Alejandro Valverde, Peter Sagan and Michal Kwiatkowski that can reasonably say they have a chance of winning most races they line up at; but there’s generally been a line of demarcation that splits Belgium in half. While those that come out to play in July might race a few Ardennes classics, it’s almost unheard of for them to be trying to win Flanders or Roubaix.
Bernard Hinault famously raced Paris-Roubaix for the first time in 1981, won it to prove he could, and returned only once more; he said of the race, “Paris-Roubaix is bulls**t”. But there hasn't been many GC guys since to attempt it, let alone have any success. After realising he was being usurped by Chris Froome at Team Sky, Bradley Wiggins transitioned into doing the cobbled classics. Such is the difficulty of transitioning between the styles of racing, a single top ten placing in Roubaix and a personal best of thirty-second in Flanders across two cobbled campaigns was enough for Wiggins to term the move a success. Hence, ears pricked up when Nibali said he would race at Flanders, and the admission he might build his whole program around the race is stunning.
Historical precedent might shake its head at Nibali, but he has an odd mix of attributes that it might just be crazy enough to work. He has generally been a rider that thrives in the Ardennes; behind maybe Valverde, he has the best one-day racing pedigree of the modern generation’s GC contenders. The Italian is about as canny as it gets in the peloton, and he’s one of the best bike handlers in the world. While success on the cobbles might also require near-superhuman strength, a base of two grand tours a year and constant success in the longest races on the calendar (Milan - San Remo, Road World Champs, Il Lombardia etc) show he’s generally up for it at the end of a tough race. Street smarts, bike handling, and a penchant for long days in the saddle are a good starting point for anyone looking to challenge at Flanders.
It’s little wonder he did reasonably well there this weekend then, finishing 1’18” behind Niki Terpstra in 24th place. He was well positioned most of the day and made most of the race changing breaks; the cobbled classics are races that require luck, but you don’t end up at the front by accident. Hanging with Sagan, Van Avermaet, Gilbert et al until the final trip up the Kwaremont, he showed that a Flanders-specific program in the future isn’t a ridiculous idea.
While he was the one that kicked off the race winning move that involved Niki Terpstra, it certainly showed his tactical naivety in the moment. Attacking alone at that point in the race didn’t make a whole lot of sense, and he certainly shouldn’t have dropped back when he did - if Quickstep are controlling the group behind, and they're letting one of their main riders go up the road, then you sure as hell need to stay with that man, cause he’s not coming back (of course this is assuming that he was even capable of holding Terpstra’s wheel at this point).
Learning which teams and riders to be wary of in a whole different set of races, and where are the best points to attack in Flanders the sort of thing that will only come with experience. That’s sort of the problem; he clearly could do well if he built his program around this period of racing. But it would be a real leap of faith to give up all his future grand tour success to schedule a year’s program centred around making it here. It would be like when Jana Pittman gave up being slightly above average in hurdles, just to try and become slightly above average in bobsled.
As promising (and impressive) as his ride this weekend was, is the risk worth the gain?
See you back at the social club,