5 Questions for the Cobbled Classics

Before things get underway this weekend, I thought it might be appropriate to share some questions I look forward to having answered in this year’s cobbled classics. The list is by no means exhaustive—there are many more plots and sub-plots to explore. But these are 5 of the biggest stories I’ll be following from Harelbeke to Roubaix.

1. What effects will Ghent-Wevelgem’s calendar move have?

This is something I’ve been wondering about ever since the calendar switch was announced last year. Traditionally, a rider trying to peak for Flanders and Roubaix took part in Dwars Door Vlaanderen, the E3 Prijs Harelbeke, and maybe the 3-Days of DePanne, before participating in the Tour of Flanders, Ghent-Wevelgem, and Paris-Roubaix. It was a fairly seamless preparation: a rider could focus exclusively on the Ronde, then race Ghent-Wevelgem as both a possible consolation prize and good training for that Sunday’s Paris-Roubaix.

Now though, riders and teams are forced to make a choice. Let’s look at Tom Boonen, for example. He rode Dwars Door Vlaanderen Wednesday and was originally slated to participate only in Saturday’s E3 Prijs. This was good for him, but bad for his team as it would have left its biggest star home for one of its country’s biggest races. Now Boonen’s decided to race both the E3 and Ghent-Wevelgem. Could this prove to be too much for him? If he suffers at Flanders will we all wonder if the extra hard day of racing took a bigger toll than he and his team expected?

It will be interesting to see who takes part in which races this weekend, what their results are, and then compare how well they fare next weekend at the Ronde. If we get a week’s worth of fantastic racing, with all of our favorites stars leading the charge, then call it victory for the UCI and the Belgian Federation. On the other hand, if the changes prove to hurt the quality of racing, a few people might have more questions to answer. I’m looking forward to seeing how it all plays out.

2. Will BMC rise to the occasion?

BMC made some of the biggest waves this past off-season, signing proven classics performers George Hincapie, Alessandro Ballan, Marcus Burghardt, and Karsten Kroon. On paper, these moves looked to make BMC a force to be reckoned with in the Northern Classics. So far, not so good though, as BMC’s imports have done little to impress. The Belgian opening weekend was a complete disaster as BMC’s riders were more or less absent from the front in both the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne. L’Eroica was no better—for Hincapie and Co., at least—as Cadel Evans was the team’s best finisher. Tirreno-Adriatico was yet another success for Evans, but offered little indication that BMC would make it’s mark in the next few weeks. And Milan-San Remo? Nada.

We’re now less than two days from the E3 Prijs, the true dress rehearsal for the Tour of Flanders; will Ballan, Hincapie, and Burghardt justify the hype? Burghardt seems to be in the best position for a win, especially in this weekend’s Ghent-Wevelgem—a race he’s won before. If Ballan and Hincapie are indeed biding their time for Flanders and Roubaix they better show something soon. They might be hiding their form in the hope they are given more latitude—and less attention—in the races they covet. But as each day passes, I wonder more and more if they just don’t have it. We’ll have our answer soon.

3. Will Boonen and Pozzato become the DeVlaeminck and Moser of their generation?

If the last two weeks of racing are any indication, Tom Boonen and Filippo Pozzato are well on their way to picking-up right where they left-off at last year’s Paris-Roubaix. The budding rivalry brings to mind the duel waged each spring by Roger DeVlaeminck and Francesco Moser when the two of them combined for seven Paris-Roubaix titles in the 1970’s and early-1980’s.

At ages 29 and 28, respectively, Boonen and Pozzato could easily surpass the impressive run of their legendary compatriots—especially with teams talented and experienced enough to help them do it. Boonen’s already won three, although one can only wonder what would have happened last year had Pozzato been riding behind him instead of Thor Hushovd. After all, DeVlaeminck won all four of his titles before Moser even won his first—the tables could easily turn.

Personally, I would love to see Boonen win a 4th title in his nation’s drie-kleur—although I can say the same for Pozzato and his tricolore. At relatively young ages, we can only wonder just how many races these two can win.

And I didn’t even mention Fabian Cancellara.

4. Who will be this year’s revelation of the cobbled classics?

Last year’s young stars Heinrich Haussler and Edvald Boasson Hagen were expected to take the next step this year, with at least one of them perhaps taking a win in Flanders or Roubaix. Unfortunately, things don’t appear to be working-out as planned. Haussler’s already been ruled-out with a knee injury and now Hagen’s form has been put into question due to inflammation in his achilles tendon. We wouldn’t be so disappointed if it weren’t for their breakout performances last year. Who will be next young riders to rise to the top?

Two days ago I would have mentioned Saxo Bank’s Matti Breschel as a rider capable of scoring a breakout win—but he did that yesterday in Dwars Door Vlaanderen.

Peter Sagan’s another candidate—if he gets a chance to race. It’s hard to believe that the double stage-winner at Paris-Nice didn’t even make the Liquigas team for Milan-San Remo; but with Roman Kreuziger and Vincezo Nibali likely non-starters at the cobbled events, look for this young Slovakian to get a chance to continue his impressive debut season.

Jurgen Roelandts of Omega Pharma-Lotto is only 24; he’s certainly someone who seems ready to step-up and assume more responsibility following solid results so far this spring in major Belgian races. If Philippe Gilbert has an off-day and Roelandts is given a green light, look for him to shine—possibly this Sunday in Ghent-Wevelgem. Paris-Roubaix might be an interesting race for the Belgian as well; he’ll technically be riding in support of Leif Hoste, but as we all know, that’s hardly something for him to worry about.

5. Will Stijn Devolder be forced to defer his Flanders lieutenancy to Sylvain Chavanel? And if he does, will Chavanel become France’s first winner in a cobbled classic since Frederic Guesdon in 1997?

Stijn Devolder’s never been a rider to set the world on fire prior to the Tour of Flanders. That said, his sub-par performances so far this year are cause for alarm. If we couple these lackluster showings with the impressive rides by Chavanel at Paris-Nice and Milan-San Remo, we’ve got more than enough to reason to wonder if a change in Quick Step’s hierarchy might be coming.

I know I keep saying it, but Devolder will have to show something this weekend (he really will) if he hopes to have even the slimmest chance of playing his own card in the Ronde. As for Chavanel, he’s more than earned the right to be Quick Step’s #2 behind Tom Boonen with weeks (years really) of dedicated service to the team. Don’t forget, some wondered if Chavanel might have won the Tour of Flanders last year had Devolder not attacked. And after Boonen was well on his way to the win at Roubaix, Chavanel rode solidly to take 8th place. While Belgians will have their hands full watching Boonen, Gilbert, and Devolder over the coming weeks, French fans will have all of their attention squarely on Monsieur Chavanel’s shoulders. Will this be his year?

And there you have it—5 Big Questions for this year’s cobbled classics. And what about you? What do you hope to learn between now and Paris-Roubaix?

Share your comments below—and thanks for reading!

About Whit

My experiences might easily fit many cycling fans' definitions of “living the dream.” Since getting hooked on the sport watching Lance Armstrong win the 1993 U.S. Pro Championship, I've raced as an amateur on Belgian cobbles, traveled Europe to help build a European pro team, and piloted that team from Malaysia to Mont Ventoux. As a former assistant director sportif with Mercury-Viatel, I've also seen the less dreamy side of the sport – the side rife with broken contracts, infighting, and positive dope tests. These days, I live with my lovely wife in Pennsylvania and share my experiences and views on the sport at Bicycling Magazine, the Embrocation Cycling Journal, and at my own site, Pavé.
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