Which is the best race to ride yourself into form for Milan San Remo? Is it Paris-Nice? Or is it Tirreno-Adriatico?
While the respective race organisers ASO and RCS try to tempt the major G.C. riders to their races, the classics stars are also faced with a choice of how best to prepare for the first monument classic of the season.
Take a look at the results of Milan San Remo for the last few years and it’s easy to jump to the conclusion that Paris-Nice provides the better preparation. Last year’s winner Alexander Kristoff was present at the French race as were the winners of the 2012 and 2011 editions, Simon Gerrans and Matt Goss.
But dig a bit deeper into the results lists and a different picture emerges. The following bar chart shows the breakdown of which race was preferred by the podium finishers in Milan San Remo for the past 10 years:
Even though three of the last four winners have ridden Paris-Nice, this chart shows that Tirreno-Adriatico has been the overwhelming choice of the top contenders in Milan San Remo for the last decade. The ‘one’ in the ‘Neither’ column was Ben Swift who finished third last year having taken the unorthodox decision to ride the single day Nokere Koerse in Belgium while all of his closest rivals were in France or Italy.
Let’s dig deeper still and extend the data to include the top 10 finishers for the last 10 years:
The four riders, along with Swift, who didn’t ride either during this period were Juan Jose Lobato (2104), Ian Stannard (2013), Bernard Eisel (2013) and Robbie Hunter (2007). In recent years the lean towards Tirreno Adriatico has actually been even heavier as no top 10 in Milan San Remo has had more than two riders from Paris-Nice since 2008.
So it’s good news for all the pre-race favourites this weekend who chose Tirreno-Adriatico thereby foregoing a couple of extra days rest.
But it’s bad news for Mark Cavendish, who abandoned Tirreno-Adriatico before its conclusion this week. No rider has abandoned this race (or indeed Paris-Nice) and gone on to win Milan San Remo in the past 10 years. Just one rider has abandoned Tirreno-Adriatico and finished on the podium (Thor Hushovd 2009) and just one abandoned Paris-Nice before finishing on the podium a week later (Tom Boonen 2007).
The following is a list of the top 20 bookies favourites and in which race they chose to hone their form before this weekend (interestingly, more chose to ride Paris-Nice):
Paris-Nice: Alexander Kristoff, John Degenkolb, Michael Matthews, Nacer Bouhanni, Philippe Gilbert, Michal Kwiatkowski, Andre Greipel, Ben Swift, Arnaud Demare, Heinrich Haussler
Tirreno-Adriatico: Peter Sagan, Mark Cavendish, Fabian Cancellara, Greg van Avermaet, Zdenek Stybar, Filippo Pozzato, Vincenzo Nibali, Sam Bennett
Neither: Juan Jose Lobato, Alejandro Valverde
Norwegian, Swiss, Dutch, Australian and Irish -the nationalities of the five winners of the 2014 monument classics were unusually diverse. It was only the fifth time that all five races were won by riders from different countries. Notably the winners didn’t include any Belgians, French, Italians or Spaniards. This is not quite a first in cycling history, but it almost is.
Labelled ‘La Doyenne’ for good reason, the first ever monument classic that took place was Liége-Bastogne-Liége in 1892. Only one year has passed since then where none of the five took place, 1895. The following year after that barren Spring, Paris-Roubaix arrived, soon followed thereafter by the Tour of Lombardy and then Milan San Remo. In 1913, the Tour of Flanders completed what we now hold dear as the set of five biggest one day races and not a year has passed since then, despite the two World Wars, where at least one of them hasn’t taken place.
In the 122 years following the first monument classic, in only one of those years were none of the races won by anyone from Belgium, France, Italy or Spain. That year was 1896, when the only one of the five which took place was Paris-Roubaix, its first edition won by the German Josef Fischer.
And then came last year, the first time since 1896 that such an abomination has befallen cycling’s five one-day majors.
The following is a graph of the victories and podium places of riders from four of the traditional cycling nations in the five monument classics:
The blue line at the top illustrates the number of podium places bagged by riders from the four countries since 1892 and the red line at the bottom illustrates the number of wins. It’s logical that the more podium places these countries achieve, the more wins they are likely to achieve. This is evident in the graph because the two plots are strikingly similar.
There are some interesting historical pieces of data which are shown in the graph and are worth explaining. In 1949 and 1957 the number of wins reaches as high as six. How can there be six winners of five races? Well, in those two years, one of the races resulted in a shared victory. In 1949, Paris-Roubaix was shared between Serse Coppi and André Mahé after some confusion about the finishing laps. Helped by some threats to the race organisers by Serse’s brother Fausto, they agreed to award both riders the victory. In the 1957 Liége-Bastogne-Liége, after an argument about an illegal traversal of a closed railway crossing, the win was eventually shared between Germain Derijcke and Frans Schoubben. In 1949, the Paris-Roubaix incident is also reflected in the overall podium total of the five races reaching a value of 16.
It’s also worth pointing out the three obvious troughs in the podium total. Two of them coincide with the World Wars between 1914 and 1919 and between 1939 and 1945. During these two periods there were some years where only one or two of the races actually took place, consequently this obviously limited the number of podium places that were achievable.
The third notable trough in the podium total occurs between the years 1983 and 1988. This trough is thanks largely to the success of Sean Kelly and the proliferation of a number of talented Dutch riders such as Jan Raas, Hennie Kuiper and Adri Van Der Poel.
It’s also worth mentioning the inclusion of Spanish results in this graph. The reason for including Spain is that in recent years, its riders have consistently contributed to making it the most successful cycling nation. Although much of the Spanish success has come in stage races, in the last decade, Spanish riders have consistently achieved podium places in the monuments. It’s also natural to place Spain alongside Italy and France as they are the three home nations of the Grand Tours. While Belgium is not part of this triumvirate, it is included due to its historical ability to produce classics winning monsters, not to mention the fact that two of the monuments in question take place in Belgium.
Despite Spain’s recent successes, there have actually only been nine Spaniards who have ever finished on the podium of a monument (Miguel Poblet, Oscar Freire, Juan Antonio Flecha, Iban Mayo, David Etxeberria, Alejandro Valverde, Pablo Lastras, Joaquim Rodriguez and Samuel Sanchez). And before the turn of the century, only Poblet had managed it.So if we were to remove Spanish riders from the data it doesn’t change the conclusion much, in both 2013 and 2014 there have been no Belgian, Italian or French winners of a monument. The last time this happened even once was also 1896.
Whatever way we slice it, it’s bad news for the traditional cycling nations. The Spanish riders who have delivered success in recent years are all in their mid-thirties. The last time a French rider won a monument classic was in 1997, thanks to Laurent Jalabert and Belgium’s old reliables Phillipe Gilbert and Tom Boonen seem to be fading from the very top end of the sport.
The fourth trough in the graph is of course, the period we are in right now. The major favourites for next year’s monument classics include Mark Cavendish, Alexander Kristoff, John Degenkolb, Fabian Cancellara, Peter Sagan, Zdenek Stybar, Michal Kwiatkowski, Daniel Martin and Simon Gerrans – none of whom belong to the graph above.
The traditional nations still have the aging Spaniards as well as the likes of Vincenzo Nibali, Arnaud Demare, Greg van Avermaet and Sep Vanmarcke. But as the peloton grows evermore diverse, it’s hard to see a way out of this current monumental trough that these countries find themselves in currently.