Bad luck, new powers challenge Belgian classics dominance

It was Black Monday in Belgium after the home country went winless in the classics for the first time in 95 years

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BRUSSELS (VN) — Monday was even worse than usual in Belgium as cycling fans woke up hung over for all the wrong reasons.

After two magical seasons of dominating the classics, Belgium ran off the rails this year, failing to win any of the major races for the first time in nearly a century.

Tom Boonen (Omega Pharma-Quick Step), who ruled the northern classics in 2012, crashed out without making a dent this year on the pavé, while Philippe Gilbert (BMC Racing), who was all but unbeatable across the Ardennes in 2011, could only muster second in Brabantse Pijl and failed to win in the rainbow jersey.

Belgian fans partied nonetheless, but they had little to celebrate this year.

“You cannot have every year like 2012,” Omega Pharma boss Patrick Lefevere told VeloNews. “This is a spring classics season to forget as soon as possible.”

That lament was heard across all of Belgium as the dust settled Monday after a wild and thrilling spring classics season.

Numbers don’t lie. The Dutch statistics outfit InfoStrada Sports, which monitors records for the International Olympic Committee and other clients, revealed the grim harvest in a posting on Twitter on Sunday evening: “This is the first time in 95 years (1918) no Belgian rider wins any of the spring classics (currently 1.HC or higher).”

For Belgium, where the classics outrank even the Tour de France, that’s about as bad as it gets.

The Belgian press didn’t hold any punches. A day after Gilbert fell short of winning Liège–Bastogne–Liège, readers of the daily Het Nieuwsblad woke up to the headline, “Nothing for the Belgians — Gilbert fails to save day.”

That’s in sharp contrast to the past two seasons, when Belgians were the toast of the classics.

In 2011, Gilbert was untouchable in April, barnstorming across the Ardennes by sweeping Brabantse Pilj, Amstel Gold Race, Flèche Wallonne, and Liège.

Last year, it was Boonen’s turn, winning the “fab four,” taking home E3 Prijs Vlaanderen, Ghent-Wevelgem, Ronde van Vlanderen, and Paris-Roubaix.

This year, the Belgians were consistently chewing the dust of others.

Omega Pharma, the traditional powerhouse of the classics, was missing the services of Boonen, who licked his wounds on the beach, after the first 20 kilometers of the Tour of Flanders. Nevertheless, Lefevere’s team had two riders in the Paris-Roubaix finale before collisions with fans in the Carrefour de l’Arbre took out Stijn Vandenbergh and Zdenek Stybar, the Czech who makes his home in the northern Belgian town of Essen.

“We were also unlucky. You have to remember we had two leading riders in Paris-Roubaix both crash,” Lefevere said. “With Tom in 2012, and Gilbert in 2011, that was once in a lifetime.”

Lotto-Belisol, hampered by injuries to some its top riders, saved its classics with third at Flanders by Jurgen Roelandts. The smaller teams, such as Accent Jobs-Wanty and Topsort Vlaanderen-Baloise, which typically light up the breakaways and occasionally score big-time podiums, were also quiet. Crelan-Euphony (formerly Landbouwkrediet) had no riders finish in Liège on Sunday.

“The Belgians didn’t win this year, but we were close,” said Lotto boss Mark Sergeant. “That’s bike racing. There were 30 guys who could have won Liège. It’s not mathematics.”

Belgians on foreign teams also failed to register, with 2011 Paris-Roubaix winner Johan Vansummeren (Garmin-Sharp) missing winning form on the cobbles and his 2011 Flanders-winning teammate Nick Nuyens continuing to battle the effects of a hip fracture.

The U.S.-registered BMC Racing squad has a Belgian core, with Gilbert, Greg Van Avermaet and sport director John Lelangue. Van Avermaet’s third at Ghent-Wevelgem and fourth at Paris-Roubaix were the team’s classics highlights.

Gilbert admitted he was a few percentage points off his top form and failed to realize his dream of winning Liège in the rainbow jersey, a feat last achieved by Moreno Argentin in 1987.

“We prepared the classics well and we were protagonists in all the races,” Lelangue said Sunday. “All we lacked was a bit of luck to get the big win.”

What happened to the Belgians?

So, what happened? The Belgians have historically dominated the spring classics, but it appears bad luck and an ever-improving international peloton are catching up to the home country.

Italy is the non-Belgian nation that’s most consistently performed on the roads of Flanders and Wallonie over the past three decades, but the emergence of new stars will put even more pressure on the Belgians in the coming years.

Although this year’s classics season didn’t see one clear dominator, at least not in terms of winners, Fabian Cancellara and Peter Sagan ruled the northern classics.

The Swiss superstar on RadioShack-Leopard was the only repeat winner of the major one-day races, pulling off the Flanders-Roubaix double for the second time of his career to reassert himself as king of the cobbles.

Sagan, meanwhile, erased all doubt he’s going to be the force for the future, winning or finishing second in every major one-day race he started all spring until arriving at Amstel Gold Race in The Netherlands’ Limburg region.

With those two hogging the podiums on the cobblestones, the Belgians also withered in the Ardennes. The Spaniards reasserted their dominance, with Daniel Moreno (Katusha) winning Flèche Wallonne and Joaquim Rodríguez (Katusha) and Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) taking second and third in Liège.

The rebirth of the Colombians, heralded by Sky’s Sergio Henao (second at Flèche) and Ag2r La Mondiale’s Carlos Betancur (third at Flèche, fourth at Liège), will only mean hard plowing in the hills for the Belgians in the coming years. Nairo Quintana (Movistar), hampered by allergies in his Ardennes debut, is sure to be a factor in the future as well.

Focus from outside teams on the classics

While the Belgians, and to a lesser degree the Dutch, peg everything on the classics, many “foreign” teams have largely left the classics to the cobble-eaters and focused on winning the grand tours.

That’s changing as teams such as Sky, Garmin, and Orica-GreenEdge, among others, put equal focus on the spring classics.

The U.S.-registered Garmin squad has managed to pull off some big rides, with Vansummeren’s victory in Roubaix in 2011 and Daniel Martin riding away with a stunning Liège victory on Sunday.

Curiously, it was input from veteran Belgians that helped Garmin turn the corner. Peter Van Petegem, working as a hired gun, was in the lead car at Paris-Roubaix in 2011 behind Vansummeren, while Eric Van Lancker, winner of the 1990 Liège-Bastogne-Liège, orchestrated Garmin’s perfect tactical show on Sunday.

While Sky’s renewed focus on the classics this year was largely a flop, the team is loaded with young talent, such as Henao, Geraint Thomas, Ian Stannard, Edvald Boasson Hagen, and Urán, so it’s only a matter of time before the British squad get it right.

Already anchored by Milano-Sanremo champions Matthew Goss and Simon Gerrans, Orica, which has focused on sprints and one-day racing, seems destined to become a major force in the classics.

Renewed Belgian focus on grand tours

Another twist is that a handful of young Belgian riders are starting to take renewed focus on grand tours.

The last Belgian grand tour winner was Johan De Muynck, who won the 1978 Giro d’Italia, but riders such as Jurgen Van den Broeck (Lotto-Belisol), fourth in the 2012 Tour, and Thomas de Gendt (Vacansoleil-DCM), third in the Giro with an epic win up the Passo dello Stelvio, are making inroads into stage racing.

Hugo Coorevits, the veteran cycling writer for Het Nieuwsblad, said it’s too early to jump to conclusions on a classics trend, however.

“Belgians didn’t win this year, but the fans know why. Boonen was injured and Gilbert is not the same Gilbert as 2011,” Coorevits said. “It’s not the end of the world. That’s cycling. Others were stronger this year. But if it happens again next year …”

Coorevits pointed out such results as third at Flanders by Roelandts and second by Sep Vanmarcke (Blanco) at Paris-Roubaix as positives.

The Belgians will inevitably be back, but many of the classics powerhouse’s top riders are getting long in the tooth. Boonen is 32, Stijn Devolder 33, and Gilbert, though still young at 30, seems to have peaked in 2011.

Could the sun be setting on the “Pax Flanderen” in the classics?

There are a few young riders coming up. In addition to Vanmarcke, there’s the ever-versatile Van Avermaet, still only 27, who seems destined to win at least one monument. Grand tour riders like Van den Broeck and De Gendt have been active at Liège–Bastogne–Liège and can hope for success in the Ardennes in the coming years as well. But, Coorevits said, the next generation of Belgian riders is lacking a true captain, a man like Boonen, to carry the mantle.

“We’ve been lucky to have two killers at the same time with Gilbert and Boonen,” Coorevits said. “The other boys are good, but we’re missing the next Messi to take over.”

With almost 10 months to regain their footing before all eyes return to the Flemish and Walloon Ardennes, the teams, fans, and sporting press of Belgium will be looking for answers and their next star.

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