The King is dead…is there anyone else?

Seán Kelly was known as the man for all seasons because he was as competitive at Paris-Nice in March as he was at the Tour of Lombardy in October. He seemed to be at peak or near-peak form right throughout the year. While this is a reputation that has stayed with Kelly, he was by no means unique in this regard. In the eighties the modern idea of preparing for a season and basing an entire training regime around one or two races was quite alien. Plenty of riders were highly competitive right throughout the season. What is actually more impressive about ‘King Kelly’ was his ability to challenge in such a wide variety of races.

A mudcaked Sean Kelly in Paris Roubaix. Just one of the variety of races that Kelly was capable of winning.

A mudcaked Sean Kelly in Paris Roubaix. Just one of the variety of races that Kelly was capable of winning.

There is no other rider (besides Eddy Merckx obviously) who can claim to have won completely different prizes such as a Grand Tour, the Green Jersey in the Tour de France, Milan San Remo, Paris-Roubaix and the Tour of Lombardy. Kelly was in fact the last rider in the peloton who could honestly claim to be competitive in all of cycling’s monument classics. He won Milan San Remo, Paris-Roubaix, Liége-Bastogne-Liége and the Tour of Lombardy all more than once. Although he was never victorious in the Tour of Flanders he did finish second an agonizing three times. In total he won 9 monument classics, he was 27 years old before he won his first and he took his last at Milan San Remo in 1992 at the ripe age of 35.

It takes a very special rider to be able to challenge in all of the monument classics. Milan San Remo is historically a sprinter’s race (it must be if Cipollini was able to win it) and more often than not does end up in a bunch gallop. However, there’s also room here for rider’s who are capable of riding away from the peloton with 1 or 2 kilometres to go. Then there’s the two cobbled classics, Paris – Roubaix and the Tour of Flanders. In an interview with Shane Stokes a couple of years back, Kelly himself described the kind of rider needed to win these races: “these are the ones for the strong guys, the big roulers with a little bit of extra weight. The sort of guys who can’t get up the big climbs but who can really power along on the cobbles”. Although Paris-Roubaix is pretty much pan flat and Flanders is somewhat hilly, it takes the same type of rider to win both. Proven by the fact that Tom Boonen and Johan Museeuw have won these races 11 times between them but neither have one any of the other monuments. Finally then it’s the hilly races of Liége-Bastogne-Liége and the Tour of Lombardy which Kelly has said “it is more a question of a rider who is an all-rounder. In other words, the guy who can do well in Paris-Nice, who can do well in Pays Basques and those sort of races.”

Of the five monument classics there seems to be three distinct categories of race to be won, sprints, cobbles and hills. So who, since Kelly, has even come close to challenging in all three categories. There was Andrea Tafi and Andrea Tchmil in the mid-nineties. Tafi won one edition each of Flanders, Roubaix and Lombardy but never featured in Milan San Remo. Tchmil was somewhat the opposite in that he too also won a Tour of Flanders and a Paris-Roubaix but never featured in either of the hilly races, instead taking victory in Milan San Remo. Then there’s Michele Bartoli who won Flanders, L-B-L twice and Lombardy twice but, like Tafi, never won Milan San Remo. Finally, in more recent years there’s been Paolo Bettini who comes closest to ticking all three boxes. He won four editions of the two hilly races, a Milan San Remo and once finished 7th in the Tour of Flanders.

Paolo Bettini winning Milan San Remo wearing the leader's jersey of the now defunct World Cup.

Paolo Bettini winning Milan San Remo wearing the leader's jersey of the now defunct World Cup.

So no rider since Kelly has won a monument classic in all three of the categories. Is there anyone in the current peloton capable of doing so? Currently racing, there are only two riders who’ve won more than one of the five monuments. Tom Boonen (ToF ’05, ’06 and P-R ’05, ’08, ’09) and Fabian Cancellara (MSR ’08 and P-R ’06). Perhaps it’s the lack of a year long one-day racing competition like the old World Cup that has contributed to the demise of all round classics specialists. Or perhaps it’s the current trend in the peloton for riders to focus on very specific races which makes it very difficult for one man to be competitive in all of them.

But there must be somebody out there who’s willing to break the mold. Edvald Boassan Hagen has been tipped for greatness. The only classic he’s won so far has been Ghent-Wevelgem, but he’s only 23 and he’s already won one-day races, time trials and week long stage races. Then there’s Cancellara himself who’s already got two boxes ticked with Milan San Remo and Paris-Roubaix but how about the hilly classics? Well he proved this year that he’s capable of going uphill with the best of them at the Tour de Suisse and at the recent World Championships it must have been hard for him to stomach how a rider in such form and looking that strong failed to take the victory (the lack of a team didn’t help). The abilities needed to win on that course in Mendrisio would be comparable to those required for either Liége-Bastogne-Liége or the Tour of Lombardy. He’s also stated his desire to win all five before he retires.

What of the other men who showed their strength at the early season classics this year, Heinrich Haussler and Fillipo Pozzato? Pozzato has won an edition of Milan San Remo, finished 2nd in Paris-Roubaix and 5th in the Tour of Flanders but has never applied himself to the hilly races, his best result coming in Lombardy where he once took 19th. Haussler is a similar story, missing out on Milan San Remo by the slimmest of margins earlier this year, he also took 2nd in Flanders this year and finished 7th in Paris-Roubaix. But he has never even attempted the other two races. Although he did take a medium mountain stage victory in the Tour this year, but that was when the peloton had thrown their toys out of the pram due to the race radio ban so maybe we shouldn’t read too much into this for his hilly credentials.

Finally, the man in the current peloton who by far has the most potential to win all five of cycling’s monuments…Phillipe Gilbert. He’s just won his first monument by taking the Tour of Lombardy two weeks ago and that surely will be the first of many. He’s finished 3rd in both Milan San Remo and the Tour of Flanders and has also finished 4th in Liége-Bastogne-Liége. He meets all the criteria for potential and has started to come good now on filling that potential. He’s still only 27 years old and the way in which he dominated the late season races, taking 4 wins in a row over an 8-day period, was utterly impressive. Seán Kelly won the Tour of Lombardy in 1983, his first monument classic, at the age of 27. Phillipe Gilbert has just done exactly the same. It takes a special rider to juggle all of the attributes needed to win all of the major one day races but Gilbert is doing a better job than most.

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