Watch out for these 13 riders as cobbles season goes full-speed on Friday

With historic courses, frenzied fans, and dynamic racing, these men are the ones to watch from Harelbeke to Roubaix

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BOULDER, Colorado (VN) — With the early-March stage races Paris-Nice and Tirreno-Adriatico in the rearview mirror, as well as the first of the spring classics, Milano-Sanremo, the heart of the Belgian racing calendar, the cobbled classics, is now upon us. And with the most frenetic block of racing on the calendar opening this week, 13 men stand out as the protagonists — and antagonists — to watch.

Ten days of racing will take place on the cobbled roads of Belgium and northern France over the 19 days that span Wednesday’s 200-kilometer Dwars door Vlaanderen, won by Oscar Gatto (Vini Fantini-Selle Italia), and Paris-Roubaix, held April 7.

The most prestigious events, of course, are two of the sport’s five one-day monuments — the Ronde van Vlaanderen (Tour of Flanders), on March 31, and Paris-Roubaix, one week later.

Both races exceed 250km (155 miles) in distance, and given the rough surfaces, distance, and propensity for bad weather, both are considered among the most difficult one-day races in professional cycling.

With the exception of GP Scheldeprijs (Grand Prize of the Schelde), held in Antwerp, and Paris-Roubaix, held in northern France, the cobbled classics all unfold on the tightly packed hellingen and pavé of East Flanders, Belgium.

Several of the cobbled hellingen in East Flanders, such as Eikenberg, Steenbeekdries, Knokteberg, Oude Kwaremont, and Paterberg, are used in multiple races, ranging from Dwars door Vlaanderen, E3 Harelbeke, Driedaagse van De Panne (Three Days of De Panne), and the Tour of Flanders.

And while De Panne is a lower-tier stage race, used as preparation for some and as a proving ground for others, Harelbeke and Ghent-Wevelgem are both WorldTour races, though they carry fewer WorldTour points than Flanders and Roubaix.

And though Ghent-Wevelgem often finishes in a bunch sprint, only Scheldeprijs is considered a true sprinter’s race, with recent winners including Marcel Kittel (Argos-Shimano), Mark Cavendish (Omega Pharma-Quick Step), Tyler Farrar (Garmin-Sharp), and Alessandro Petacchi (Lampre-Merida).

All in all, the cobbled classics make up a three-week period for the hardmen of the sport, those who can generate enormous power and withstand extreme punishment, riders such as Fabian Cancellara (RadioShack-Leopard), Peter Sagan (Cannondale), Philippe Gilbert (BMC Racing), and of course, Tom Boonen (Omega Pharma).

In 2012 Boonen had a career run at the cobbled classics, becoming the only rider to ever win Harelbeke, Ghent-Wevelgem, Tour of Flanders, and Paris-Roubaix in the same season. He won Harelbeke for a record-setting fifth time, and he tied the all-time records at the others, winning Ghent-Wevelgem for a third time, Flanders for a third time, and Roubaix for a fourth time. He also became the first rider to complete the Flanders-Roubaix double twice in his career, the first coming in 2005, the first time he’d won either race.

For several reasons, however, it’s unlikely that Boonen will come close to his amazing string of success from last year.

For starters, the Belgian rider’s season has gotten off to a shaky start, due to illness and injury, including a dangerous blood infection, that have sidelined his training and racing since December. Also, Boonen’s main classics rival, Cancellara, crashed out of Flanders last year and was unable to factor in the finale of either that race or Roubaix, where he has won twice, in 2006 and 2010. And lastly, Boonen and Cancellara will face several young new challengers on the cobbled terrain, including Sagan, Taylor Phinney (BMC Racing), and Ian Stannard and Geraint Thomas (Sky).

Over the following pages, we present a list of 13 riders to watch at this year’s cobbled classics, divided into four categories: proven winners, proven podium finishers, classics stars of the future, and pure sprinters. Each will have his chance in East Flanders shore up a cobbles reputation or ascend to the status of proven winner.

The 2013 cobbled classics

March 20: Dwars door Vlaanderen (Europe Tour, 1.HC), 201km
2012 winner: Niki Terpstra (Omega Pharma-Quick Step)
2013 winner: Oscar Gatto (Vini Fantini-Selle Italia)

March 22: E3 Harelbeke (WorldTour), 211km
2012 winner: Tom Boonen (Omega Pharma-Quick Step)

March 24: Ghent-Wevelgem (WorldTour), 235.5km
2012 winner: Tom Boonen (Omega Pharma-Quick Step)

March 26: Driedaagse van De Panne (Europe Tour, 2.HC), Middelkerke-Zottegem, 199.8km
March 27: Driedaagse van De Panne (Europe Tour, 2.HC), Oudenaarde-Koksijde, 208.9km
March 28: Driedaagse van De Panne (Europe Tour, 2.HC), De Panne-De Panne, 109.7km
March 28: Driedaagse van De Panne (Europe Tour, 2.HC), De Panne-Koksijde-De Panne ITT, 14.75km
2012 overall winner: Sylvain Chavanel (Omega Pharma-Quick Step)

March 31: Ronde van Vlaanderen (WorldTour), 256km
2012 winner: Tom Boonen (Omega Pharma-Quick Step)

April 3: GP Scheldeprijs (Europe Tour, 1.HC), 204km
2012 winner: Marcel Kittel (Argos-Shimano)

April 7: Paris-Roubaix (WorldTour), 257.5km
2012 winner: Tom Boonen (Omega Pharma-Quick Step)

Proven winners

Tom Boonen (Omega Pharma-Quick Step): The 32-year-old Belgian star is the most decorated cobbled classics rider of his generation, and perhaps the best classics rider of all time. Though he’s large by bike-racing standards (6-foot-4, 180 pounds), Boonen can power his frame over the climbs of Flanders, which he’s been riding since he was a teenager. That same build packs a strong finishing kick, and as he proved at last year’s Roubaix, where he soloed off the front for 55km, he’s fully capable of holding his own against the wind in a time trial across the cobblestones.

In 2010 Boonen was outmatched by a superior Fabian Cancellara on both the climbs of Flanders and on the pavé of Roubaix. However, last year the Omega rider won a pair of bunch sprints at Harelbeke and Ghent-Wevelgem and then took advantage of Cancellara’s misfortune to win Flanders and Roubaix. Boonen withdrew from Milano-Sanremo on Sunday, both to preserve himself for the cobblestones and also, he said, to make a statement about the horrible conditions racers faced. Whether or not that decision will help him or hinder him remains to be seen, but with teammates like Stijn Vandenbergh, Niki Terpstra, Sylvain Chavanel, and Mark Cavendish, and Boonen’s innate knowledge of what it takes to win these races, he stands as good a chance as anyone to stand atop a podium in the coming weeks.

Fabian Cancellara (RadioShack-Leopard): In 2010, Cancellara dominated the cobblestones, winning solo at Harelbeke, Flanders, and Roubaix — each time by a larger winning margin than the last. His wins were so forceful, so convincing, that he was half-seriously accused of riding with a motorized bike, and it appeared he might dominate the cobbled classics for the next five years, if not more. But Cancellara’s tactic of winning by brute force hasn’t worked since the 2011 Harelbeke. He finished second at Roubaix that year, the victim of team tactics that saw Thor Hushovd’s Garmin teammate Johan Vansummeren take the solo win. Cancellara finished third in 2011 to Nick Nuyens and Sylvain Chavanel at Flanders, after a long-distance attack failed and Cancellara was brought back on the slopes of the Kappelmuur, the long, iconic climb that is no longer used at De Ronde.

Last year, Cancellara’s attempts to solo away from the field failed at Milano-Sanremo, Harelbeke, and Ghent-Wevelgem before he was carried off the Flanders course on a stretcher with a broken collarbone after nailing a water bottle in the feedzone. His third-place finish at Milano-Sanremo and fourth at Strade Bianche this month show that he’s again a serious contender, though he doesn’t appear to be on the unstoppable form that he carried in 2010. Cancellara will be backed by two-time Flanders winner Stijn Devolder, compatriot Gregory Rast, and Kiwis Hayden Roulston and Jesse Sergent.

Proven podium finishers

Peter Sagan (Cannondale): Just 23, Sagan is the classics star of both the moment and the future, though he hasn’t yet registered the big classics win. He stood on the podium at both Ghent-Wevelgem and Amstel Gold Race in 2012, and, so far this year, at Milano-Sanremo and Strade Bianche, the latter won by his teammate Moreno Moser. Arguably the most talented rider in the sport — he climbed with Vincenzo Nibali (Astana) and Joaquim Rodríguez (Katusha) at Tirreno and outsprinted Cavendish and André Greipel (Lotto-Belisol) — Sagan’s range of abilities makes him a contender at any one-day race he enters, though he’ll skip the carnage of Paris-Roubaix to stay fresh for the Ardennes.

Sagan possesses all of the skills to win a classic; however, he’s still young, and prone to making mistakes. At Ghent-Wevelgem last year he marked Cancellara too closely, and was then out-sprinted by Boonen. At Flanders he was out of position when Alessandro Ballan (BMC Racing) made the decisive move early on the Oude Kwaremont, and chased the three leaders alone for several kilometers before being swept up by a chase group, finishing fifth. At Milano-Sanremo last weekend, Sagan was in a perfect position to win, but he launched his sprint too early, opening the door for Gerald Ciolek (MTN-Qhubeka) to ride his wheel to victory. Sagan is unquestionably a rider for the sport’s toughest one-day classics, but he’s still navigating the difference between being there for the win, and actually finishing off the job.

Filippo Pozzato (Lampre-Merida): With Ballan recovering from injuries sustained in a January training crash, Pozzato is Italy’s biggest hope for a major result on the cobblestones. The 31-year-old Sanremo winner (2006) has been knocking at the door for years, with a win at Harelbeke in 2009 followed by second at Roubaix, behind Boonen, and fifth at De Ronde. In 2010, however, Pozzato was widely criticized by several classics favorites, including Boonen, Philippe Gilbert, and Bjorn Leukemans, for his negative racing tactics, earning him the nickname “The Shadow.”

Last year Pozzato finished second at Flanders, behind Boonen and ahead of Ballan, but gave up at Roubaix following a seemingly innocuous crash in the final 40km after Boonen had already flown the coop. This year Pozzato has won Trofeo Laigueglia, from a four-up sprint, and he thought he’d won Roma Maxima, taking second in a bunch sprint, unaware that the winner, Blel Kadri (AgAg2r La Mondial), had soloed across the finish line 37 seconds earlier. Pozzato had been dropped on the final climb at Roma Maxima before his group caught back on with the leaders in the final kilometer, and at Sanremo he wasn’t able to follow the winning move, finishing 33rd, one spot behind Gilbert — still a shadow.

On the cobblestones, Pozzato is in a tough position — not as strong as Cancellara or Boonen, and not as quick as Boonen or Sagan. A classics win from Pozzato wouldn’t come as a major surprise, but it would be an upset.

Sylvain Chavanel (Omega Pharma-Quick Step): The current UCI WorldTour leader is one of the most well rounded riders in cycling, having won the overall GC at several stage races, worn the maillot jaune at the Tour de France, and won one-day races such as Dwars door Vlaanderen and Brabantse Pijl, both in 2008. In 2009 the Frenchman finished in the top 10 at Harelbeke, Dwars door Vlaanderen, Paris-Roubaix, and Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne; however, it was his second-place finish at the 2011 Tour of Flanders that truly showed his potential. It was at that race that Cancellara attempted to break free, 50km from the line, as he had done successfully in 2010. This time, however, Chavanel, riding support for Boonen, was able to sit dutifully on Cancellara’s wheel, and was there when a small chase group brought the pair back on the Kappelmuur, 15km from the line. Chavanel then followed the attack 3km out, finishing second in the three-up sprint to winner Nick Nuyens.

Last year Chavanel won the overall at Three Days of De Panne, finished second at Dwars door Vlaanderen, and was 10th at Flanders. Last weekend he finished fourth at Milano-Sanremo after his late-race breakaway with Sky’s Ian Stannard was reeled in following the decent of the Poggio. As a member of a team that includes two of the sport’s biggest stars in Boonen and Cavendish, Chavanel won’t be the team’s marquee rider during the cobbled classics, which is precisely what makes him so dangerous.

Philippe Gilbert (BMC Racing): The world champion has proven himself on the hilly, paved Ardennes classics, but has yet to take the big win on the cobbles. He’s won the early-season Omloop Het Nieuwsblad twice, in 2006 and 2008, and in 2011, his best season yet, he won the Italian gravel road race Strade Bianche. Yet the closest he’s come at the Tour of Flanders is third, which he’s taken twice — in 2009, behind a solo Stijn Devolder, and in 2010, behind a solo Fabian Cancellara. However, there’s a big difference between finishing strongly in the field sprint and vying for the win.

A winner at monuments such as Liège–Bastogne–Liège and Giro di Lombardia, Gilbert would dearly like to win the most important race in his native Belgium wearing the rainbow jersey; the world champ won’t contest Roubaix, so he’ll put all his cards on the table to win Flanders. Gilbert showed very little in his Sanremo performance to indicate he’s on form to fight riders like Cancellara and Sagan, or even Chavanel, for the win. Gilbert attacked over the wet descent of the Cipressa, drawing out riders such as Stannard, Cancellara, and Sagan, but when Stannard accelerated, taking Russian champ Eduard Vorganov (Katusha) and Chavanel with him, Gilbert was unable to follow the counter of his own attack. However, with teammates Taylor Phinney, Thor Hushovd, and Greg Van Avermaet, who took fourth at Flanders last year, BMC Racing should have one of the strongest teams on the bergs of East Flanders.

Thor Hushovd (BMC Racing): After a disastrous 2012 season spent battling what his team described as “post-viral syndrome with secondary myositis (muscle inflammation),” the former world champion is looking to set his career back on track. It’s an uphill battle for the Norwegian, however, who raced less than 35 days last year and skipped both the Tour de France and Olympics. A winner of the U23 Paris-Roubaix in 1998, Hushovd, 35, has publicly stated he wishes nothing more than to win Roubaix before he retires. He’s been close, finishing second in 2010, though it was a full two minutes behind Cancellara. Hushovd was perhaps even closer in 2009, when he crashed while following Boonen’s wheel into the last critical section of pave, Le Carrefour de l’Arbre, essentially throwing away the opportunity to sprint against Boonen for the win. It was a devastating mistake for Hushovd, who finished third, behind Boonen and Pozzato.

Hushovd has won a sprint this year, though it wasn’t against a top-notch field, taking stage 1 of the Tour du Haut Var in February over Tour Down Under winner Tom-Jelte Slagter of Blanco. Though he had a few top-10 stage finishes at Tirreno-Adriatico, Hushovd did not finish Milano-Sanremo, a race where he’s twice been on the podium, in 2005 and 2009.

Classics stars of the future

Taylor Phinney (BMC Racing): A two-time winner of the under-23 Paris-Roubaix, Phinney is the most natural-born cobbles rider to arrive on the sport’s biggest stage since Boonen and Cancellara a decade ago. Like Boonen, Phinney is large (6-foot-5, 185 pounds) and able to withstand the violent beatings delivered on the pavé; like Cancellara, he’s a time trial specialist able to sustain massive power output. In his debut at the 256km Roubaix last year, Phinney finished an impressive 15th after riding in support of Alessandro Ballan and Thor Hushovd.

Just 22, Phinney has not yet come close to realizing his potential, though over the past 12 months the two-time world pursuit champion has proven he can do much more than simply lay down the power against the clock or cobblestones — evidenced by his fourth-place finish in the Olympic road race, and seventh at Milano-Sanremo last weekend after a bold chase down the Poggio and into the finish. Nearly catching the six leaders on the line, it was the best finish of any BMC Racing rider, which should earn him a spot as a protected rider for the cobbled classics. Though he’s likely to struggle a bit on the climbs of Flanders, when it comes to flatter races, and particularly Roubaix, the sky is the limit for Phinney.

Geraint Thomas (Sky): The 26-year-old from Wales is a world champion and gold medalist on the track, yet seems at home on the cobblestones, having won the junior Paris-Roubaix in 2004. He showed his class on the pavé in stage 3 of the 2010 Tour de France, which used seven sections of Roubaix cobbles, finishing second on the stage behind Thor Hushovd and riding into the best young rider’s jersey. In 2011 Thomas finished second at Dwars door Vlaanderen behind winner Nick Nuyens, and then finished 10th in a wild Tour of Flanders finale also won by Nuyens.

Thomas spent 2012 focusing on his Olympic track objectives, winning gold in the team pursuit. So far this year he’s finished third overall at the Tour Down Under and fourth, just off the podium, at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad. An untimely crash at Milano-Sanremo, at the base of the Cipressa climb, took him out of the running, but with support from Stannard, Mat Hayman, Bernie Eisel, and Edvald Boasson Hagen, Thomas will no doubt be a rider to watch on the cobbles.

John Degenkolb (Argos-Shimano): Like Sagan, Degenkolb, 24, is a rider for the one-day classics, finishing in the top six last year at Milano-Sanremo, Harelbeke, Paris-Tours, and the road world championship. There’s a big difference between finishing in the top six and winning, however, and Degenkolb — a sprinter who took five Vuelta stages last year — still needs to learn what it takes to be there for the win at the end of 250km of difficult racing.

Ian Stannard (Sky): Just 25, the 6-foot-2, 180-pound Stannard is a natural classics rider, and has already finished in the top 10 this year at both Milano-Sanremo and Dwars door Vlaanderen after late-race attacks in both races. In 2010 Stannard finished third as a neo-pro in freezing conditions in Kuurne–Brussels–Kuurne, and at the 2011 Ghent-Wevelgem he was part of a four-man breakaway, along with Sagan and Chavanel, that was caught 500 meters from the line.

Last weekend Stannard put in an impressive performance in freezing conditions at Milano-Sanremo, riding on the front in support of Geraint Thomas, then attacking with Chavanel after Thomas crashed on the lead-in to the Cipressa. Stannard led Chavanel over the Poggio, only to be caught on the descent by a chase group of five riders; he finished sixth in the bunch sprint. He was on the attack again at Dwars door Vlaanderen with 7km remaining on Wednesday, and though it was a significant effort, it opened the door for Thomas Voeckler (Europcar) to counterattack; Stannard again was forced to chase in the closing kilometers, and finished ninth in the bunch sprint. Stannard has got the heart of a classics rider, though he still needs to work on his race acumen a bit; he’ll be helped when Thomas is in the thick of things late in the race.

Pure sprinters

Mark Cavendish (Omega Pharma-Quick Step): Though he’s a three-time winner at Scheldeprijs, Cavendish has never won Ghent-Wevelgem; riding for a Belgian team, he’ll aim to win both this year. His ninth-place finish at Milano-Sanremo, which followed four stage wins and the overall victory at the Tour of Qatar, shows that the Manxman is on form again in 2013. Don’t expect him to take the start at Harelbeke, Flanders, or Roubaix, however, as Cavendish will steer clear of the crashes and chaos of the cobbles in order to stay healthy for his main objective come July.

Marcel Kittel (Argos-Shimano): The winner at a wet and wild Scheldeprijs last year, Kittel has won two sprints this year, one at the Tour of Oman and one at Paris-Nice. A poor climber, the 6-foot-3, 190-pound Kittel won’t bother with the hellingen of Flanders and will only start the semi-classic around Antwerp, opting to skip Roubaix for the second year running.

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