It’s no secret that we here at Pavé have a special place in our hearts for classics hardmen. How did those whose careers are defined on the pavé, hellingen, and April rain fare in this year’s Tour de France?
Winnaars / Winners
1. Philippe Gilbert – After setting our hearts a-fluttering all spring, Gilbert didn’t disappoint with his Stage 1 win. Its predictability took nothing away from its beauty and power, and netted him the maillot jaune until his entire Omega Pharma Lotto squad spontaneously combusted in the TTT. Still, he soldiered on, attacking in the finale of several stages and even fighting for the Green Jersey all of the first week. The only disappointment, if it can be called that, is his failure to win on Stage 4, which many said was tailor-made for Gilbert and happened on his birthday.
2. Jelle Vanendert – The breakthrough performance of the OPL squad perhaps belongs to Vanendert more so than to Gilbert. Until his stage win and Polka-dot defense, Vanendert was known more as the loyal super-domestique to Gilbert’s campaign in the Ardennes. And now, a Sporza poll in Belgium rated Vanendert’s stage win as the favorite moment of the Tour, winning 43% of the vote. It will be interesting to see how the future Lotto-sans-OmegaPharma squad will look like, given that they have signed Vanendert and compatriot Jurgen Van Den Broeck – will this classics team begin eyeing Grand Tour General Classification success?
3. Johnny Hoogerland – Hoogerland may not have won a stage, nor a leader’s jersey in the end, but we tip our starched Zuid-Bevelander hats to his indefatigable spirit. Even after crashing onto a barbed wire fence, he re-mounted his bike after a change of bibshorts, and was awarded the Polka-dot jersey at the end of the stage. His heroics earned him great fame and a legion of fans, and we hope that we will fully recover so that he can animate next year’s Classics season.
4. Cadel Evans – That’s right: we consider Evans a classics man. And no, we didn’t just make this up after this year’s stirring GC victory. Even back in the days, Evans was a convincing challenger in classics such as Liege-Bastogne-Liege, and of course Fleche Wallonne (which he won in 2010). Add to this leading attacks in the Giro di Lombardia, and that surprise win at the Worlds, and we think Evans is a legitimate classics contender with good attendance record. If anything else, his commanding win on Stage 4 – at the cost of Gilbert, Contador, and even Thor Hushovd – shows a man who knows about placement in a hectic finale, and how to time a good bike throw. The question is of course whether he will continue his narrow focus in the future, at the cost of his form in the spring classics season.
5. Thor Hushovd – Hushovd may not have netted a prestigious spring classics win yet, but surely his stint in yellow and commanding stage win proves that he’s one of the few versatile riders who can contend and win all year long. His Tour was a phenomenal success, as he admirably sold both his strength on powerclimbs (in defense of his yellow jersey) and his tactical savvy and one-day experience (with wins on Stages 13 and 16) to potential team interests for 2012. How will thing play out next year after what had been a disappointing spring for the defending world champ? Plenty of squads are eager to hire him, and after this Tour, he has the luxury of choice.
6. Sammy Sanchez – Like many Euskal riders before him, Sanchez started as an Ardennes specialist before becoming the GT contender we know him to be today. He has had a few near-wins, notably in this year’s Fleche Wallonne where he finished 3rd. Formerly considered an excellent uphill puncher, recent races has seen him completely screw up the finale of races that he should have won – like this year’s Paris-Nice. Conversely, his climbing in the high mountains have improved significantly. Sanchez had his best TdF ever, with one stage win in Luz Ardiden and overall win of the climbers jersey overshadowing his meltdown on the Galibier. We may not see as much of his aggression in the classics in the future if he decides to narrow his focus. And by all measure, Spanish cycling fans are known to have little appreciation of one-day classics.
7. Marcus Burghardt – Eyebrows were raised when BMC brought a squad of rolleurs to support Cadel Evans’ GC hopes – they seemed to be engineering another collapse in the high mountains. However, through committed teamwork, BMC’s trick worked, and Evans credits Burghardt’s classics savvy with helping him through the chaotic first week and a half. The palmares of a committed domestique all live on their teammates’ scorecards – Burghardt supported Evans to a Stage 4 victory, time in the Polka Dot jersey, and a Tour in which he only spent one day outside of the top 3 of the GC. Considering the trend of building classics-like stages into Grand Tours, other GC contenders should take note, and bring more riders like Burghardt.
Verliezers / Losers
1. Tom Boonen – Boonen came to the start line of the TdF with a lot of expectations on his still-young shoulders. He did win Gent-Wevelgem, but given how brightly his star had shone for as long as we could remember, a spring classic season without a classic win is a failure (few riders can win Gent-Wevelgem and have a season still be called a failure). Perhaps it was also the size of his contract, inviting snarky comments from the ever-reliable Patrick Lefevere. Boonen himself has said that he prefers to not engage in field sprints anymore, so one has to wonder his strategy for the Tour de France. Is it long-distance stage-hunting? Who in their right mind would let Boonen keep a one-minute advantage in the last 30 km of a stage? In the end we never did find out what his strategy really was, as he crashed out with severe concussion in the first week. But regardless, this TdF was a big bust for Boonen, who hasn’t finished a single edition since 2007 when he won Green.
2. Sylvain Chavanel – For years the darling of French hope, last year’s edition was a banner year for Chavanel: Two stage wins and two stays in yellow. This season’s classics season was also a breakthrough season for him, with a near-win in de Ronde even having been out all day in long breaks and (moto)pacing behind a ridiculously strong (and strongly marked) Fabian Cancellara. Chavanel’s 2011 Tour was disrupted by an early-Tour crash – though he didn’t abandon the race, he spent several promising stages in anonymity. His Bastille Day attack, and his pursuit of Edvald Boasson Hagen on Stage 17 both looked a bit lacking. The good news for fans of Chavanel is that his form appears to be on the rise again, and he’s confident that he will ride strongly in the upcoming Clasica San Sebastian.
3. Alberto Contador – Like Evans, Contador has definitely made his mark in the spring classics, including a near-win in Fleche Wallonne in 2010 (when he was trounced by a patient Evans), and tactical support of then-teammate Alexandre Vinokourov in Liege in 2010. The defending TdF champ left with no stage wins and a mere 5th place on the GC. Given that he has claimed exhaustion to be the main reason of his sub-par performance – this is the first GT that he didn’t enter and win since 2007 – his attendance record may drop sharply in the future.
4. Fabian Cancellara – We’re a bit confused by Cancellara’s Tour de France, which was spent in relative anonymity. Unlike in previous years, this year saw no poetic descending and no inspired yellow jersey defense. It’s likely that he was simply committed to Leopard-Trek’s GC hopes of Andy and Frank Schleck – in fact, reports are that his Stage 20 Time Trial, in which he finished 1:42 behind winner Tony Martin, was taken at a moderate pace so that he could communicate with Andy and Frank in the follow car and point out the best lines for their benefit. Committed domestique work, we understand, but the GC race played out such that Cancellara doesn’t get the praise that Marcus Burghardt receives.
5. Bjorn Leukemans – We all know that gravity is a greater enemy in the high mountains of the grand tours than it is in the classics parcours. For this reason, we tip our helmets to regular classics top-tenner Leukemans for daring to dream that he would survive, and valiantly trying, even if he failed to survive the fast-and-furious Stage 19. Bring an Antwerpen, whose most visible logo is a solid rock castle called “Het Steen” (“The Rock” in english), we can imagine what a valiant fight it must have.
6. Filippo Pozzato – You caught us. Pozzato didn’t even race the 2011 Tour de France, as his unimpressive results from the past two years (sole highlight: 5th place in Milan-San Remo) betrayed his earlier hype and his current salary. Passing him over, Katusha opted to bring an all-Russian squad. A lot of good it did them: Alexandr Kolobnev tested positive for a controlled substance during the Tour and Katusha finished with only 5 riders, no results to speak of (four mild stage top-tens), and the third-lowest prize purse of all the teams. It’s hardly all Pozzato’s fault, but we can’t help taking a dig at a rider who appears to spend more time coiffing than training and consistently fails to live up to his initial potential.