By Sal Ruibal | Photos by Mark Johnson
One of the positive things about doing anything for a long time is seeing how patterns form. In the small, but very important, universe of the Spring Classics, we are now witnessing a change in the natural order.
For the last decade, the joint ascent of Tom Boonen and Fabian Cancellera was the big story in the early months of the racing calendar. "Tornado Tom" and "Spartacus" always seemed to be the last gladiators in the Coliseum in the big Spring races on both pavé and steep asphalt circuits.
Sports are more easily digestible when the big battles come down to just two heavyweights standing toe-to-toe in the middle of the ring, pummeling each other with mighty blows, the last man standing as the champion—for that week, anyway.
But it is inevitable that muscle and bone will weaken and the fighting spirit will wane. Boonen crashed hard in last week's Gent-Wevelgem race and injured his knee. He says he'll be back in the saddle for Tuesday's start of Three Days of dePanne (which is actually four days of racing over three days) and then race the Tour of Flanders on Sunday. That's a lot of stress on an injured knee.
Cancellara has improved his form and took the E3 Harelbeke with a 35K breakaway, more than a minute faster than Peter Sagan of Cannondale. But he pulled out of Gent-Wevelgem with 69K to go in the weather-shortened race.
With Boonen weakened, Sagan can ride into that gap. He was the wunderkind of the Grand Tours last season, an upstart sprinter who has made many forget the audacious exploits of Mark Cavendish, the "Manx Missile."
Sagan, like most sprinters, is brash, bold and always a threat at the finish of any race. His exuberance at Ghent-Wevelgem—pulling a victory wheelie while crossing the finish line after joining a 61k group breakaway followed an audacious 6k solo sprint—is the natural reaction of the new predator on the block. It is also a signal that the newcomer is not scared of upsetting the order.
With the Ronde van Vlaanderen coming up on Sunday and hopefully a go at Paris-Roubaix next year, Sagan will have two big opportunities to show that he's the new gunslinger. The Ronde van Vlaanderen—Paris-Roubaix double is, in my opinion, the equal of winning Le Tour de France because so much of the Tour is filler and an early mistake has many opportunities to be redeemed.
But the big cobbled Classics demand that power, intelligence, a strong team and the intangible of luck arrive on just one given day.
You can't make good luck, but you can minimize bad luck with experience and a strong mind that won't let the inevitable bobble become a big crash.
A strong team is necessary to deliver the anointed one to the last kilometers with gas in the tank. The Oudenaard finishing loops at RvV are a roller-coaster of pain while the finishing laps in the Roubaix velodrome ask for both strength and cunning combined with split-second timing.
The big guys are hurting and there's blood in the water. Sagan has a great opportunities ahead, but he'll have to avoid getting stepped on by an angry giant.