No dominators: Spring classics 2014 were waged on parity

Simon Gerrans’ victory in Liège-Bastogne-Liège capped a spring classics season that was wide open and unpredictable in the peloton

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Simon Gerrans’ narrow victory in Sunday’s Liège-Bastogne-Liège was a fitting end to a palpitating and unpredictable 2014 spring classics season that saw parity across the peloton.

No single rider could dominate the cobblestones of the northern classics or the hills of the Ardennes. From Alexander Kristoff’s (Katusha) victory at Milano-Sanremo on March 23 to Gerrans’ knockout punch at Liège, no one team had a stranglehold on the classics.

This year’s classics were wide-open, wild races that, with a few exceptions, came down to the final pedal strokes to crown the winner. Seemingly gone are the days of the daring, long-distance solo attacks.

Only Vincenzo Nibali (Astana) at Milano-Sanremo, and Tom Boonen (Omega Pharma-Quick Step) at Paris-Roubaix, even dared to try. Cycling today seems ever increasingly about control and measuring efforts, and this year’s spring classics proved that one more time.

No one swept the Ardennes treble, and no one pulled the Flanders-Roubaix double. Why? There are a few reasons, but perhaps the most important is the greatly diminished effects of PEDs over the past half-decade, via increased testing and a change of generation within the peloton.

While the scourge of doping will never be eliminated, there’s a tenuous consensus that the peloton is cleaner than it’s been in decades.

And a cleaner peloton means more equal, and ultimately more controlled, racing.

As everyone’s witnessed over the past few years, attacks are coming later in races, be it one-day classics or the big mountaintop finales in the grand tours. The ability to put in huge digs, one after another, is a thing of the past, producing a chilling effect on aggression.

Riders are wary of putting in major accelerations that can pay a heavy price. As cycling becomes more and more science-based, everyone knows their limits, and riders are loath to go into the red too soon, or too far away, from the finish-line, simply because they know they will run out of gas.

One quick glance at their power meter informs a rider how close he is to his limit. Some have argued cleaner racing makes for a more boring spectacle; there is no denying the classics of today are dramatically different than those of the go-go 1990s and 2000s, when EPO and blood doping ran amok.

In a cleaner peloton, riders need to be more judicious in their efforts, and fewer are willing, or capable, of making high-risk, long-distance attacks. The victories, however, are as credible as the racing, and there’s nothing boring about that.

Though doping has significantly decreased, the overall performance has also improved with better training, bikes, and recovery. The idea of marginal gains has taken hold across all the top teams. There is generally a higher level across the peloton, with the difference between a team captain and a worker now narrower than ever. Some super teams, such as Omega Pharma-Quick Step or BMC Racing, have riders working in support when they’d be outright captains on other squads.

With the average level of the peloton improving, speeds are also ramping up. Though sometimes the average speed can be low, it’s very high when it counts during the decisive moments of a race, meaning that it’s increasingly more difficult for individuals or small groups to collectively break the will of the pack.

There are examples. Paris-Roubaix winner Niki Terpstra (Omega Pharma-Quick Step) had  lost contact with the lead group inside the final 15km before he caught on, benefitted from team tactics, and attacked with 6km to go. Gerrans, Sunday’s Liège winner, admitted that he was almost dropped before the final climb, saying, “With the Redoute, Sprimonte and Forges (climbs) quite close together, I was really feeling the effects of that hard section of the race. I actually said to my teammates, ‘I’m not feeling too good at the moment,’ but they stuck by me and supported me, and that really gave me the confidence to give it everything coming into the final.”

There are exceptions, such as in Paris-Roubaix, where the punishing roads force a selection, but in even the longer distances of the monuments, at more than 250km, there have been very large groups until late in the races.

Weather has also played a role this spring. This year’s classics saw generally mild spring weather, meaning that the peloton was not fighting through biting winds, brutally cold temperatures, or rain and mud of other years. Riders who might crack in adverse conditions were still floating in the pack until late in the game, which also contributed to an uptick in crashes, especially across the northern classics.

More teams are also taking the classics more seriously than ever before. The classics are no longer the domain of a few hard-nosed Belgians and Dutch riders. This year’s classics winners came from such diverse nations as Norway, Spain, Germany, and Australia, with Gerrans (Orica-GreenEdge) making history as the first Aussie to win at Liège.

Even Team Sky, arguably the grand tour team of reference, made a hard push in the classics again this season, picking up a win at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and a podium at E3 Harelbeke. Almost all the major teams make the classics a priority, with eight teams bringing home wins in the 11 major one-day races from Sanremo through Liège.

The ever-desperate chase for World Tour points also has a major influence on how races have unfolded.

Riders such as Nibali have complained that teams are content to race for placings, and the valued World Tour points that come with a top-10 placing, rather than risk breaking open the race with more aggressive tactics that might not pay dividends. Although there wasn’t a real battle for World Tour licenses in 2014, there likely will be for 2015, and teams are shoring up their UCI points when they can, which means sacrificing risk in favor of a guarantee of a high placing.

Looking at 11 major one-day races, starting with Sanremo, from Dwars door Vlaanderen to Paris-Roubaix in the northern classics, and from Brabantse Pijl to Liège across the hillier races, a few other themes stand out.

First, there was no single rider or team that stood head and shoulders above the field. The classics are naturally divided between the cobble-eaters of the northern classics, and the climbers over the Ardennes. Across either terrain, however, no one was able to ride away from the field.

On the cobbles, Omega Pharma-Quick Step brought home two wins, both with Niki Terpstra, who uncorked well-timed solo moves late in the race to win Dwars and Paris-Roubaix. Team numbers were a huge factor, especially in Roubaix, when Terpstra had Boonen and Zdenek Stybar lurking behind in the chasing group of 10 riders.

Giant-Shimano proved efficient in the sprints, winning Gent-Wevelgem with John Degenkolb, and Scheldeprijs with Marcel Kittel. In the hilly Ardennes-styled races, BMC also won twice with Philippe Gilbert, first at Brabantse Pijl, and then a few days later at the Amstel Gold Race.

Big favorites, such as Boonen and Sep Vanmarcke (Belkin) came up empty, though Boonen won Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne in early March before he was scarred with personal tragedy. Vanmarcke was perhaps the strongest across the cobbles, riding into the top-5 in all of his major targets, but could only muster one podium, with third at Flanders. In the Ardennes, the hopes of Liège favorite Joaquim Rodríguez (Katusha) were derailed when he crashed heavily at the Amstel Gold Race.

Peter Sagan (Cannondale) had to settle for just one win, at E3 Harelbeke, while Fabian Cancellara (Trek Factory Racing) kept his monuments podium streak alive, with second at Sanremo, a beautiful victory at Ronde van Vlaanderen (Tour of Flanders), and third at Roubaix, arguably the best performance across the classics.

Gilbert looked to be back on form, winning Brabantse Pijl and Amstel Gold Race, but he fell flat at Liège, the race he wanted most to win. The same went for Alejandro Valverde (Movistar), who soared to victory at Flèche Wallonne, only to get blitzed by Gerrans.

The 2014 classics season was one of parity. With the exception of Terpstra’s late, well-timed attacks at both Dwars and Roubaix, no one was able to escape the clutches of the peloton.

At the start line, from Milan to Liège, no one knew who was going to win, and in most cases, no one knew who was going to win until the peloton roared under the red kite. There were no demonstrative displays of power, but no one can argue these classics were boring.

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