Continental Race Report: Opening classics from correspondent Joe Bishop

Continental Race Report: Opening classic

Joe Bishop

Winter is winding down and spring is approaching, which means it’s time to take off your mudguards and put on your shorts. It also means something else – something much bigger: the Spring Classics! Every season, these gruelling yet fascinating one-day races take place. They are much different from the Grand Tours we watch in the summer; known for horrible weather, short and sharp climbs, crashes, unpredictable race tactics, and of course the aspects of the classics that makes them so unique from anything else; cobbles!

This weekend saw the first big action of the Spring Classics campaign, with two sensational – albeit very different races. On Saturday was Omloop Het Niewsblad, followed by Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne. Omloop has been won for the past two years by British classics star Ian Stannard. The most memorable of those two victories without a doubt being the second; somehow Stannard managed to outwit three riders all from the same team (Etixx Quickstep) in the closing kilometres. The race took place over a 200 km course. This course includes many short and steep killer climbs, as well as a few cobbled sections. Unlike its counterpart Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne, the winner often comes from a breakaway, and consequently the race favours a well-rounded rider, not just a pure sprinter – roll on Peter Sagan!

Before the men’s race took place though, it was the turn of the women. Lizzie Armistead emerged triumphant and in doing so took her first win in her rainbow jersey, and quite possibly the only British win of the weekend. Unfortunately, in the men’s race, Stannard did not return to defend his title, and instead Team Sky was lead by Welshman Luke Rowe, who presented Britain’s best chance of success in the race. It wasn’t going to be easy for him though, with a star-studded line-up on the start line. World champion Peter Sagan was looking forward to showing off his rainbow stripes. He was joined by the nearly-man of the Spring Classics: Greg Van Avermaet (BMC). Classics legend Tom Boonen (Etixx) also raced, though in recent years, it has been feared that he is getting too old to be considered a favourite in these big races, and if this be the case, then the title of Belgian fan-favourite could fall onto the young shoulders of Tiesj Benoot (Lotto Soudal).

Luckily for the riders (although perhaps unluckily for the viewers) the sun was shining at the start in Gent, but the temperature was still very low – only 4 degrees. Despite this, the racing was as hot as ever. An early break of twelve riders went away, including Brit Kristian House (One Procycling), who you might recognise from ITV 4’s coverage of the Tour of Britain. The peloton however, was not worried, and set a steady pace. There were a few crashes early on, and it was clear that the riders were nervous, but none of the main favourites were brought down and the race continued as usual.

It properly got started on the climb of the Taaienberg: 0.8 km at 7% with a maximum gradient of 18%, and to add to the killer gradients was the fact that the climb was cobbled. It was these cobbles that Luke Rowe used to his advantage, as he powered away from the pack. His acceleration was so violent, that only Van Avermaet (BMC) and Benoot (Lotto Soudal) could follow. Over the top of the climb, Peter Sagan went clear and managed to bridge the gap

Etixx Quickstep did not panic though, and they set about riding a hard but steady tempo at the front of the peloton. A crash with just over 30 km to go however all but ended their chances, with key riders Terpstra and Martin both going down. Up ahead, the escapees worked well together and manage to catch the day’s earlier break, of which only one rider managed to hold on: Alexis Gougeard (AG2R). Sagan drove the pace hard on the front, maintaining the gap between his group and the peloton. It seemed as though they may have misjudged it though, as the gap came down to only 15 seconds with 2.5 km to go. The group managed to stay away however, due to some incredible turns on the front from all the riders.

Frenchman Gougeard lead out the sprint to the line. Van Avermaet went first, meanwhile Sagan held back, looking to see whether Benoot or Rowe would react, but these precious seconds when Sagan was not sprinting gave Van Avermaet enough of a lead to hold on and win. Sagan came over the line in second, Benoot won the sprint for third, and Rowe had to settle for fourth. The peloton finished a further nine seconds back. Van Avermaet was understandably overjoyed at the finish, but remained quiet and humble, making a change from the showboating manner of Sagan. Indeed, some might argue that it was Sagan’s arrogance that lost him this race; he worked harder than he should have in the group, and therefore didn’t have enough for the sprint.

It was not over for Sagan yet though, with Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne taking place on Sunday. Unlike Omloop, K-B-K more often then not, ends in a sprint finish. Past winners include Mark Cavendish and Tom Boonen. Sadly, Cavendish’s Dimension Data team was not on the start line, but Tom Boonen was. He was joined by Sagan (Tinkoff), Elia Viviani (Sky), Andre Greipel (Lotto Soudal), Alexander Kristoff (Katusha), Caleb Ewan (Orica Greenedge), and the winner of Saturday’s race, Greg Van Avermaet (BMC).

Much like Omloop, the day began with sunny and dry conditions, but the riders still had to cope with a typically brutal Flandrien wind. An early breakaway went clear, containing another British rider from One Procycling: Yanto Barker. The first big test for the peloton came in the shape of the Oude Kwaremont climb. This is 2.2 km at an average of 4.4%, with a max gradient of 11% – and of course, it’s cobbled. Peter Sagan attacked, and only Jasper Stuyven (Trek) could follow, but they were quickly brought back by a fast moving peloton. So fast in fact, that only thirty riders could hold the pace. Eventually however it all came back together.

But it wasn’t like that for long. As a result of the crosswinds, a large group managed to ride away and quickly built a lead of over forty seconds. The group included Van Avermaet, Boonen, Sagan and Stuyven. Unfortunately for Sagan, luck was not on his side, as he suffered a mechanical, consequently causing him to ditch any hopes he had of claiming victory. Meanwhile, the leaders reached the final finishing circuit in Kuurne with their lead still in tact. The peloton were starting to close in however, as Lotto Soudal tried to set up their man Andre Greipel for the win. Sensing danger, Jasper Stuyven decided it was now or never, and launched a searing attack, which no one could follow. The 23 year-old Belgian was clearly in good form following his breakthrough season last year in which he won a stage of La Vuelta A Espana.

His pursuers were inevitably caught by the determined peloton, but there was no stopping Stuyven, who time-trialled splendidly to what is possibly his biggest win as a professional. Kristoff (Katusha) won the bunch sprint for second, with Bouhanni (Cofidis) taking third. Peter Sagan, recovered brilliantly from his mechanical to finish seventh, whilst British sprinter Scott Thwaites (One Procycling) finished just inside the top-ten.

The Spring Classic season is not over, with the legendary Paris – Roubaix still to come. The nest big race though is back on the smooth roads of France in Paris-Nice. This early-season Tour De France preparation race rarely disappoints, and a number of riders have already added their name to the start list, including Richie Porte (BMC).