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He’s one of the most successful riders of all time with numerous wins to his credit, including two editions each of Paris-Roubaix, Milan-San Remo and Liège-Bastogne-Liège and three of the Tour of Lombardy.
Sean Kelly has huge experience of taking the top one day races, and CyclingTips spoke to him about what is needed to challenge for the Classics, his views on Geraint Thomas’ and Bradley Wiggins’ prospects in Flanders and Roubaix and also his opinions on the other challengers for the cobblestone races.
“First of all you have to be that style of rider, which means you have to be powerful,” said Kelly, talking about the top Classic riders’ requirements. “A lot of the time it is the sprinters who are quite good in that discipline. You have to be a bit…call it kamikaze, call it a bit crazy, because the cobbled Classics are always hectic. There is a lot of movement and a lot of crashes.”
Sunday’s Tour of Flanders, or Ronde van Vlaanderen as it is known in Belgium and elsewhere, is a race dotted with numerous steep climbs, many of which are cobbled. Paris-Roubaix also features numerous cobblestone sections but is much flatter. Does Kelly consider the requirements for contending for each race to be different?
“No, I don’t think there is a great difference,” he said. “There is still the cobbles. It is the same type of rider, that big powerful heavy rider.
“In Roubaix, maybe the bigger riders succeed a little bit more. It is all about heavy, powerful riders, and a lot of the time, that means the sprinters, of course.”
Physical requirements are one thing; the psychological aspect is another. Is there a particular Flandrian mindset that the winners of such races possess?
“There is a mentality where the beginning of season is the most important time of the year,” he said. “If you can do well in the Classics for a lot of those riders…especially the cobbled Classics, then that is the opportunity to make a good year for a rider.
“If you can win one of those, then your season is made. You have a good year. Of course there are some Classics later in the year, at the end of the season. But not that many. You have Paris-Tours, for example, but otherwise the opportunity is not there [for some of these riders]. So that makes it for stressful for the teams. The pressure is huge.”
Kelly was strong in stage races, netting fourth overall in the Tour de France, winning the 1988 Vuelta a España and taking a record seven consecutive editions of Paris-Nice. But his successes in the 1984 and 1986 Paris-Roubaix were also important highlights of his career. What capabilities did he draw on to win those editions?
“I developed into a Classics rider..it took me a long time,” he answered. “My first Classic, I think I was 26. Lombardy. I was only then getting to be able to manage the distance of 250, 260 kilometres. Then the cobbled Classics – same distance, but much more difficult, much more technical.
“The technical part is very important. Bike handling, where to be in the bunch, all of that.
“The [necessary] experience is something you don’t just gain in one or two seasons. It takes a lot of years to get that experience, and that is something that too me a long time. First of all, it took me time to build stamina, but in doing that at the same time I was also building that experience. It took me over 26 years before I won my first Paris-Roubaix.”
“You have ten riders – if not more – who can win on Sunday
We’ve talked about the requirements the riders need to contend, to win, but now the meat on the bones; who can take this year’s Flanders and Roubaix?
Let’s start with those who can’t; Tom Boonen and Fabian Cancellara. Each are multiple winners, each would have been major favourites if they were at the start. Each have been injured, however, and while there is a slim chance that Boonen might return for Paris-Roubaix, the lingering effects of his shoulder problem plus his lack of racing mean that he will be well short of sharpness.
How does their absence modify the dynamic of the race?
“Well, it changes a lot because the two teams, Etixx and Trek, are going to ride a totally different race,” said Kelly. “With the two leaders, they would be controlling the race for those guys until the end. There are a lot of teams now who will say, ‘okay guys, we have got an opportunity to win here.’
“Immediately you have ten riders – if not more – who can win on Sunday. You have to be really careful in the early part of the race because a group can go away with over 100 kilometres to the finish and you might never see it again.
“All the teams are going to be saying, ‘we have to be very careful here because who is going to be doing the chasing in the end?’ The teams who have lost their big leaders are not going to do it and it could be a really difficult race.
“It could make for a much more spectacular race as well. It could be very, very open, a very aggressive race. That is very possible because now the teams are going to be more aggressive and they will want to be present in the breakaways.”
Kelly states that if a move goes clear with a strong representative from Etixx-QuickStep, from the BMC Racing Team and from Trek, the move will be a very dangerous one. Ditto if a Sky riders is involved. As a result there will be an impetus to get up a road, but also an opposing impetus behind to try to stop that happening.
Thomas in a good place, but questions over Wiggins
One of those who is being spoken about as a favourite for Flanders is the E3 Harekbeke winner Geraint Thomas. His Sky team-mate Bradley Wiggins is also regarded as a contender, but more for Roubaix. Kelly rates one of those but isn’t convinced about the other.
“Thomas can definitely win Flanders,” he said. “He is in there in the top ten. He is one of the top ten; maybe one of the ones who is higher in the top ten ranking as we can see form his performances that he is riding really, really well.
“If I was looking after Thomas, if I was his directeur sportif, a little bit of a concern I would have is to keep him out of danger, keep him upright,” he added, likely thinking of his crashes in Paris-Nice and Gent-Wevelgem. “That is the difficult one.”
As for his team-mate, Kelly believes an inconsistent buildup could point towards shortcomings. Accepted, Wiggins won the time trial in the Three Days of De Panne, but other than that he has been largely absent from the results, and indeed from the start list in some races.
“Looking at Wiggins’ performances, I would be doubting Wiggins for Roubaix,” said Kelly, speaking the evening before the De Panne time trial win. “In the beginning of the year when he announced in January, at that time I said, ‘yes, it is possible.’
“You have to take your hat off the guy for last year’s performance. I had never expected him to be in the top ten in a Paris-Roubaix, although he was talking it up last year.
“But I am a little bit concerned at the way his preparation and his race preparation has been going, although he has been saying that he has been doing the work in training. He has been saying that he has been doing sessions that replicate Roubaix. But I don’t think you can actually replication Roubaix, you have to do the races.
“Sunday [Flanders] now will be the real indicator to see if he can be in the final of a Roubaix.”
Form aside, there is also another factor too. “He needs good weather for Roubaix,” said Kelly, thinking perhaps of the 2013 Giro d’Italia. “If it is wet conditions, I don’t think Wiggins is prepared to take that risk.
“You have to take 100 percent risk in Roubaix in wet conditions.”
His Sky team has won two editions of the Tour de France with Wiggins and Chris Froome, and also clocked up numerous other successes. However it is yet to take a major Classic.
Why does Kelly believe it has taken them so long to achieve this particular target?
“They haven’t invested in a rider who is a natural Classic rider,” he answered. “They have been investing in a Tour de France winner. Even with a budget like Sky, there is not only the need to invest in a rider, you have to invest in many riders back up for the Classics as well.
“You have to have three or four riders who are capable of supporting him. But Sky, of course, were concentrating on the Tour.”
He does however see signs that this has been chasing. He points two the two who have taken big wins this spring, regarding their performances as confirmation that they are in the right position.
“I think Geraint Thomas is getting real close now. Stannard as well. He has been close but accidents have taken him out of the equation in the past. It has done it again this year. He had an accident two weeks ago which hampered him a bit.
“He had the form, but sometimes you get an accident and ten days, a week you can be suffering. But maybe he will return okay in Flanders or Roubaix.”
“This could be a big turning point for Sagan…but it’s not looking good”
Prompted to list the other contenders he anticipates being in the running, Kelly points to a handful of names. He sees Greg Van Avermaet and his BMC Racing Team as likely major shapers of the outcome in both events.
“You have to include Sagan too,” he continued. “Degenkolb is definitely [a rider] for both. He is one who is very much in there. You have Kristoff who is going to be there. Boom is another rider, a very aggressive one who can read the race quite well.”
Boom won the cobblestone stage in last year’s Tour de France, proving his ability on the pave. Kelly bases his assessment on this, but suggests that the rider needs to get clear early on to be able to really contend with the likes of Thomas and Degenkolb.
Sagan is a different prospect; he has a very fast finish and could win out of a small group. The issue is getting there, though.
Kelly has concerns about the Slovakian rider’s chances.
“It is not looking good,” he said, words which Sagan’s Tinkoff-Saxo team owner Oleg Tinkov will hope are not accurate. “We have seen that in the last number of races where normally he should be very much to the fore.
“It’s not looking good at all. It is going to be a difficult one unless he has maybe been taking it easy. But I don’t think that is the case. You have to give a test, a trial run, and he hasn’t been able to do that.”
Sometimes a rider can hit form at exactly the right time and Kelly acknowledges that this is a possibility. However he is of the clear view that if Sagan has it, he needs to step up.
“It is definitely question time for him. Last year we were expecting him to do it but he wasn’t able to really finish it off,” he said.
“With him moving to a new team this year, we thought it would be definitely the year but he is struggling. The press are also asking questions and that is also going to work on his mind. It is a really difficult times. He needs to get a result in the next Classics.”
Some have wondered if pressure has got to him. He is facing that from two angles; firstly, the demand for results, and secondly because of the recent turmoil in the squad, with Tinkov and former team owner Bjarne Riis falling out and Riis consequently losing his position as general manager.
“The pressure within the team is there in the background, but Sagan already he knew that last year when he signed a big contract. He knew what the expectation was for the Classics, the beginning of the season. He knew he has to do results.
“However that was before we ever had this problem with Riis, Tinkov. The situation now is not helping it at all. So the big pressure is there.
“I think this could be the real turning point for Sagan, if he can do it this time.
“But if he doesn’t do it now, then that doubt will be in his mind going on.”