March 31, 2010 by Irish Peloton
Triple Winners and the Tour of Flanders
The classics season is in full swing and will continue this weekend with the 94th edition of the Tour of Flanders. The winner of the last two editions Stijn Devolder will be in with a chance of winning for the third year in a row, something which has only once before been achieved, by Italian Fiorenzo Magni almost 60 years ago. However Devolder’s Quick Step team mate Tom Boonen will also be looking to win his third edition of the race having won before in 2005 and 2006. Boonen is undoubtedly the leader of the Quick Step team at the classics, but ironically, it is Boonen’s status as leader that has allowed Devolder to win the Tour of Flanders for the last two years. In virtually identical races, 2008 and 2009 saw Devolder attack from about 20km out and solo home while other pre-race favourites were busy marking Boonen. Had Devolder been riding for any other team, Boonen’s Quick Step team mates would have chased down any breaks in an attempt to set Boonen up for his own race winning attack, therefore denying Devolder a victory.
However a third consecutive victory for Devolder is looking highly unlikely having shown appalling form throughout the season so far. Even his directeur sportif has been bemoaning his poor results this year. To illustrate, he has had no top 30 finishes at all this year and his best result in a cobbled race has been 40th in the E3 Prijs Vlaanderen last weekend. To put this into perspective, in the run up to the Tour of Flanders in 2009 he had racked up three top 10 places in the E3 Prijs, Dwars Door Vlaanderen and the time trial stage of the Three Days of De Panne. Further back in 2008, he had placed in the top 10 in two cobbled races and had also won the overall at the Volta ao Algarve. Devolder has said that he is still focused on completing his hat-trick of titles but it’s safe to say his form is dreadfully short of where it has been for the past two years.
But that’s not to say that Boonen won’t again be denied this year by a team mate. Sylvain Chavanel is also in a position to take advantage of Boonen’s status as race favourite and would be more than capable of ‘doing a Devolder’ and soloing home for a win. Chavanel has been solid if unspectacular so far this season. He has taken 20th place (ish) at Het Niuwsblad, Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne, Milan San Remo, Gent-Wevelgem and most stages of Paris-Nice. If a Quick Step rider other than Boonen is going to win this hilly cobbled classic the most likely rider will be Chavanel and not Devolder. But having not won the Tour of Flanders since 2006, Boonen will be hungry to reclaim the prize which he has been denied the last few years. If he does win this coming Sunday, he will become only the second man after Johan Museeuw to have won three editions each of the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix.
Another man who recently joined the club of riders to have won three editions of a monument classic is Oscar Freire. Having had a barren year in 2009 with only 2 victories to his name, his career seemed to be fizzling out. But having kept himself protected and largely anonymous until the peloton got over the Poggio, he stormed to the front on the finishing straight to take Milan San Remo for the third time in his career. Although Freire would not be considered a favourite for the Tour of Flanders he has a string of top 30 finishes to his name. But he he has stated that this year he won’t be riding the Ronde and that he wants to concentrate all his efforts on winning the Amstel Gold Race where he has previously finished 5th and clearly would like to add to his palamarés. A race which the Spaniard has won previously is the World Road Race Championship, on three occasions. To look over the previous winners of the six major one day races (5 Monuments + Worlds), Freire has joined Girardengo, Binda, Coppi, De Vlaeminck, Merckx and Museeuw as being the only men to be triple winners of two of those races.
In a World Championship the road race takes place on a different course every year. The course has a huge role to play in who are the favourites and what may constitute a race winning move on the day. Conversely, the monument classics are run on (almost) identical courses every year. This leads to the same riders being marked at the same crucial points throughout the race year after year. Thus, every year that a rider proves he can win one of these races, trying to repeat that victory the following year becomes increasingly more difficult as riders are then uber-aware of what a previous winner is capable of. This is what makes Devolder’s Tour of Flanders victory last year so remarkable. He had proven in 2008 that he had what it took to attack before the finish and solo home, and yet last year he was allowed follow the exact same route to victory.
Milan San Remo invariably boils down to who is the strongest sprinter on the day who can make it over the Poggio with the front group. Paris-Roubaix is often won by the strongest rider who has a bit of luck on his side. Last year Tom Boonen won solo without even having to formulate a race winning attack. The Belgian champion just powered home while everyone around him fell over. But the Tour of Flanders is a different monster with much more subtle tactics at play. A race winning break can be formed at a plethora of locations. There are six climbs in the last 50km of the race, each one providing ample opportunity to make a race winning move.
Another rider who wants to win the Tour of Flanders is Fabian Cancellara. Continuing the theme of triple victories, the Swiss power demon will be aiming to win his third different monument classic having previously won Paris-Roubaix in 2006 and Milan San Remo in 2008. He has stated that Flanders is a major career goal for him. Looking back on his career so far, having won three World Time Trial titles, worn the yellow jersey in three separate Tours de France, won the Olympic Time Trial title, won 7 Grand Tour stages, won his home stage race the Tour de Suisse and having won the aforementioned monument classics, it seems that what Spartacus wants Spartacus gets. However one race missing from his palmarés thus far is the World Road Race title. At Mendrisio last year he was clearly the strongest rider in the race but he suffered from over confidence and was defeated on the day by the more astute racing of Cadel Evans. Cancellara will have to be more tactically in tune if he is to be successful at the Ronde next Sunday. But, like Boonen, Cancellara also has a team mate who can steel away while his leader is being marked in the bunch by other race favourites. Matti Breschel has already won a cobbled semi-classic this year at the Dwars Door Vlaanderen and came 6th at the Tour of Flanders last year after Cancellara’s chances on the day were scuppered by a broken chain. The Danish champion may benefit from Cancellara’s intentions to go for victory this year.
Other contenders who should also be vying for victory on Sunday are Phillipe Gilbert, Filippo Pozzato, Juan Antonio Flecha, Alessandro Ballan, Thor Hushovd and Nick Nuyens. But each of these favourites also has a team mate who is also capable of challenging for victory, respectively they are, Leif Hoste (and Greg van Avermaet), Sergei Ivanov, Edvald Boasson Hagen, George Hincapie (and Marcus Burghardt), Roger Hammond and Lars Boom. Of all of these race contenders, each of them, except the youngsters Boom and Boassan Hagen and surprisingly the pair from Cervélo, have finished in the top 10 at the Tour of Flanders. Unfortunately last year’s runner up Heinrich Haussler will not be taking part due to a knee injury. Boonen once more is the out and out favourite, he has the hunger and the experience required to win. But with the experience of winning comes the burden of scrutiny, which may well afford plenty of opportunities for lesser riders to make a break for victory in this fascinating cobbled classic.
Unfortunately there are no Irish riders taking part in the Tour of Flanders this year. The cobbles aren’t a speciality of Deignan, Martin or Roche and the An Post-Seán Kelly team won’t be on the start line. But riders like Ronan McLaughlin, Mark Cassidy and Connor McConvey have all been gaining experience with the An Post-Seán Kelly team in cobbled races such as the E3 Prijs Vlaanderen and the Dwars Door Vlaanderen. So perhaps it won’t be too long before Ireland has a contender for the cobbled races.
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