RSS Feed Spring Classics 2014 - 10 Talking Points

Tour of Flanders The Spring Classics have come to an end for 2014 with a slightly disappointing Liege-Bastogne-Liege. However, throughout the last six weeks or so there has been plenty of action and excitement - here we look at some of the main talking points and the consequences for the rest of the season.

1) Omega-Phamra Quickstep's Supreme Strength

Omega-Pharma Quickstep (OPQS) always looks a strong team on paper, and an excellent Classics campaign has merely served to underline that. Indeed, their superb strength in depth was highlighted by the fact that the two biggest names - Mark Cavendish and Tom Boonen - both had relatively disappointing results in the races they targetted.

Nevertheless, the team took ultimate Classics glory with Niki Terpstra's win at Paris-Roubaix (Niki Terpstra) and will have been just as delighted with the excellent performances of Michal Kwiatowski, winning Strade-Bianche and finishing on the podium in Liege-Bastogne-Liege and Fleche Wallonne. There were also several creditable performances from Stijn Vandenbergh.

OPQS are not limited to competing in the Classics though. They will be expecting Cavendish to put up a strong fight for the green jersey in the Tour de France, and will be confident that Tony Martin will continue to dominate almost all time trials that he enters. Throw in an excellent all-rounder, such as World Cyclocross Champion Zdenek Stybar and they continue to be well represented during the winter races!

The one question mark is whether they have a genuine Grand Tour contender, and the team seem to have pinned their hopes on the talented, but raw Rigoberto Uran. Uran can certainly hold his own in the mountains, but it remains to be seen whether he can limit his losses sufficiently in the time trials to challenge for the general classification. With a relatively weak field expected to contest the Giro d'Italia, however, he may find himself going to head to head with fellow Colombian, Nairo Quintana, in an attempt to cement OPQS's position as by far the strongest team in the peloton.

2) The Beginning of the End for Team Sky?

Chris Froome Something doesn't right at Team Sky this season. Of course it is too earlier to claim that they have peaked and are in decline; we all know that they put a huge emphasis on the Tour de France, with less focus on the Classics. Nevertheless, this was a particularly disappointing Spring for the British team.

Honourable mentions have to go to Ian Stannard, for a fine tactical win in Omloop, before suffering a serious back injury. Also to Geraint Thomas, who performed creditibly in the early cobbled classics and one day races, without ever looking like he had the necessary tools to go on and win.

The bigger concerns, however, are the form of Edvald Boasson Hagen and the high number of injuries and illnesses that Sky riders have suffered so far this season. Boasson Hagen was widely tipped a couple of years ago to go on and become a great Classics rider - he seemed to have the endurance, the finish and the bike handling to win several Classics and Monuments, but he seems to have gone backwards in the last twelve months. His regression is very much at odds with the improved performances of other Sky riders, and suggests that perhaps he does not respond as favourably to their methods of training.

Which brings us nicely on to the next point regarding Sky - the amount of injuries the team has suffered. Crashes on the road are often an innevitable and unavoidable part of cycling; however, Sky do seem to be involved in a disproportionately large number. Perhaps this is a consequence of a lot of their riders having a track background, in contrast to many other professional riders coming from MTB, Cyclocross or from junior road racing, as a result their bike handling skills - particularly when fatigued - are not quite at the same standard as riders on some other teams. The rather clumsy attempts at descending in the wet from Bradley Wiggins in last year's Giro d'Italia also suggest that perhaps Sky riders could benefit from a few cyclocross races in the off season.

In addition to the injuries, key riders such as Chris Froome, Peter Kennaugh and Richie Porte have withdrawn from several races due to illness, and Sky have been unable to fill their squad in several races this season. Is this as sign that their very high intensity training - which coach Tim Kerrison has suggested is an attempt to sustain a year round peak - does not offer sufficient recovery, mentally and physically, to allow riders to challenge at the top for more than a season? Time will tell, but the way that the form of Bradley Wiggins tailed away last year, and the average start to this year by Chris Froome certainly raises some questions.

3) Has Peter Sagan plateaued?

Peter Sagan It can be easy to forget that Peter Sagan is still only 24 years old, given the impact he has on the sport for several years now. However, this year (at least up to now) is the first time that he doesn't seem to have progressed as a rider. It would be churlish to suggest that a rider as young as Sagan cannot still improve; however, it looks as though from now, his progressed may be measured in small steps, rather than the giant leaps of previous years.

For 99% of riders in the peloton, Sagan's spring campagin would have been a unqualified success. However, the Slovak rider has set such high standards, that their was a sense of underachievement that he only came away with one win - E3 Harelbeke. Podium positions at Strade-Bianche and Gent-Wevelgem have handed Cannondale plenty of World Tour points, but Sagan fell short in all three Monuments that he contested.

In Milan - San Remo and Paris Roubaix he was in a promising position in the closing kilometres, but didn't seem to have the legs to make the most of his normal finishing speed. This raises question marks about his endurance in races over 250km. The timing of his sprint in Milan - San Remo also betrayed a rider who was fatigued and not thinking clearly.

Another problem that Sagan has found several times this Spring, is that he is no longer automatically the faster sprinter that can hang around until the end of the race. His tactics now need to be multi-dimensional as he must drop the likes of John Degenkolb as well as think about his sprint. All this is made more challenging by finding himself in a relatively weak team.

It will be interesting to see how Sagan will develop from here. He is still a strong favourite for the points jersey in almost any stage race that he completes and is undoubtedly one of the most exciting riders around. However, for perhaps the first time in his career, he will have to think hard about how he is going to turn his talent into victories in the most prestigious races.

4) Tactical Triumph for Cancellara

It is impossible to review the Classics season without mentioning Fabian Cancellara - the man to beat in almost all of the cobbled races. This season has been the hardest for Cancellara, having to carry his fearsome reputation like a millstone around the neck. Very few riders were prepared to work with Cancellara to chase down a break, and several times (notably in Gent-Wevelgem) he was left doing huge turns on the front of the peloton trying to single-handedly reel in riders further up the road.

In Paris-Roubaix he was also very heavily marked, with the looking around and uncertainty towards the end allowing Niki Terpstra to solo away to victory. Nevertheless, being the great rider that he is, Cancellara still managed to claim a Monument in the Tour of Flanders. His power on the final climb allowed him to bridge across to the breakway, before winning a four man sprint after a 1km of exciting, tactical riding. This was more reminiscent of his win at Paris-Roubaix last year, when it was brains rather than brawn that claimed the victory.

This will probably be how it will continue for Cancellara in the next couple of years. He is probably the strongest rider in the peloton, but he is so heavily marked and receives so little help from any other riders (some might say including his own team!) that he will increasingly have to rely on tactical nous rather than the brute strength that has defined many of his wins in previous years.

5) Lampre Lacking a Team Ethic

Lampre's squad looked a bit unbalanced coming into the season, with a few too many leaders who perhaps didn't complement each other very well, and so it proved in the Classics.

Vuelta España 2013 winner, Chris Horner, has been forced by injury to follow a similar schedule to last year, presumably hoping that the some low volume of racing will stand him in good stead to peak by the end of the season. However, the other big signing, Rui Costa, was a big disappointment. He crashed out or finished poorly in all of the big Ardennes races that he had targetted, while the likes of Damiano Cunego and Diego Ulissi were also consistently disappointing.

Rui Costa proved last season at Movistar that he doesn't particularly need a team working for him to win big stages and one-day races; nevertheless, you have to question what Lampre hope to achieve from the season with their squad, and whether or not they have the support to achieve that. It looks like a case of too many generals and not enough soldiers.

6) Kristoff spares Katusha's Blushes

Joaquim Rodriguez Katusha's season started with a bang, with unfancied Alexander Kristoff winning impressively in a sprint at Milan - San Remo. It looked as though Katusha had the squad to go on to challenge the dominance of OPQS, but it never materialised. Katusha would have expected more from a squad boasting Daniel Moreno, Joaquim Rodriguez and Alexander Kolobnev. Indeed, those three combined with Kristoff were enough to be competitive in the nearly all the one day races.

Luck played its part, with crashes hampering both Rodriguez and Moreno. However, Katusha also frequently failed to utilise their strength in depth. For example, they never really looked to trouble the top riders before the final climbs at Amstel Gold Race and Fleche Wallonne. Perhaps a little more teamwork and co-operation could have seen them build on the excellent start handed to them by Kristoff.

7) Belkin Lack a Finisher

Perhaps this is something that we already knew, but it was confirmed during the Classics season that, while Belkin have a squad with several very strong riders, they lack anyone that can actually win a race.

The season started badly for the team, with the news that Robert Gesink was not going to compete during the Classics due to anxiety surrounding a heart condition. As a result, the team was looking increasingly to Bauke Mollema and Sep Vanmarcke to get them a much needed win.

Ultimately though, it was the same old story, with a lot of strong rides and top ten positions (notably Vanmarcke at the Tour of Flanders), but they never really looked like winning a race. Throw in the likes of Laurens ten Dam and Lars Petter Nordhaug and Belkin have very good cyclists that can compete in both one day and stage races. The problem is, that they don't really look like winning anything that matters. Perhaps this is a little harsh on Sep Vanmarcke, who has twice come within better tactical decisions from claiming a Monument, but you never got the feeling that he would actually get over the line first.

Perhaps Belkin are content with lots of good finishes and racking up the World Tour points, but it is frustrating to see a team fall just short so consistently.

8) Valverde Looking Good

Alejandro Valverde This was a typical classics campaign for Alejandro Valverde - the results were very impressive: 1st at Fleche-Wallonne, 2nd at Liege-Bastogne-Liege, 3rd at Strade-Bianche and 4th in the Amstel Gold Race.

Because he is so supremely talented, Valverde draws a lot of criticism for his tactics and for not winning as many races as he should do. Perhaps it is often overlooked that he sometimes just doesn't have the legs though, and what seems like tactical stupidity (prime example being the 2013 World Championships) is actually just a rider that doesn't have anything more to give.

Overall though, combined with strong performances in the Tour of the Basque Country and the Vuelta a Andalucia, it looks as though Valverde may be building towards something special this year. With the imperious form that Alberto Contador has shown so far in 2014, it looks like the Spanish Armada are in a strong position to claim victory in the Tour and Vuelta later this year.

9) Where does Andy Schleck go from here?

It isn't really news, but it has been another disastrous spring for Andy Schleck. He has cited a long standing knee problem as the reason for pulling out of almost every race that he entered, but there are serious question marks now as to whether or not he will ever come close again to the level that he achieved in retrospectively winning the Tour de France four years ago.

Sceptics - of whom there are many, and often with good reason given cycling's recent past - will point to Franck Schleck's doping ban as a factor in the dramatic drop off in Andy's level of performance. However, he seems to suffer from a lack of motivation at times, which may provide a different explanation for his poor performances.

As it stands now though, Schleck is in now position to be competitive in a Grand Tour, and with no results to speak of for nearly three years, it may not be long before he finds himself facing a tough fight to get a new contract.

10) How can the Classics be improved?

While there were undoubtedly some very entertaining races - Tour of Flanders and Strade-Bianche among the best - there were also quite a few races that lacked much action.

The three main Ardennes races all finished with large groups sprinting up the final climb, which makes for a very entertaining couple of minutes, but is probably not a great reward for spending two hours following the race in front of the television. Milan - San Remo and the other sprinter's one day races predictably finished in a sprint - with breakaways and long-range attacks not getting much of a look-in.

So what can be done to make the races more exciting, or does anything need to be done? For me, the biggest change that could be easily implemented would be to ban race radios. Team directors are against this for obvious reasons, but it consistently results in more exciting racing, as demonstrated at Omloop this year. Aside from that, having smaller teams could give breakaways more of a chance of success and would encourage more co-operation between teams, increasing the tactical nuances involved.

Finally, the routes can be modified - particularly in the Ardennes races. There is simply too much flat between the last few climbs, making a solo attack or two man breakaway almost impossible to succeed. It is no coincidence that the most exciting racing occured at the Tour of Flanders, where Oude Kwaremont presented a great springboard, giving riders a real chance to stay away until the finish.

Let us know what you have made of the season so far, and what your predictions are for the big races in the months to come!