Spring Classic Season Is Upon Us

Photos: Bettini

Saturday will signal the true start to the Classics, with the running of Milan-San Remo, the first of five Monuments of Cycling. While Milan-San Remo historically favors the sprinters, it’s the longest Classic at 298 kilometers, which makes it anything but unpredictable.

Last year’s winner John Degenkolb is out with injury, so all eyes will be on a resurgent Fabian Cancellara aiming for a glorious swansong. The 27-year-old Degenkolb nearly lost a finger in an accident when a British motorist collided with a group of Giant-Alpecin riders out training after taking the wrong side of the road.

Milano Sanremo 2015 - 106a Edizione - Milano - Sanremo 293 km - 22/03/2015 - John Degenkolb (Giant - Alpecin) - foto Luca Bettini/BettiniPhoto©2015
John Degenkolb (Giant – Alpecin) earned his biggest result at the time by winning the 2015 Milan-San Remo

Degenkolb also broke his arm and injured his hip, while several other teammates were hurt. The absence of Degenkolb will temper slightly the classic battle between the old guard and the new pretenders with Cancellara riding his final season as a professional. Cancellara proved his form earlier this month by winning Strade Bianche for the third time, despite facing two Etixx-Quick Step riders and world champion Peter Sagan in the finale. He will be one of the favorites to land a second victory at San Remo next weekend, although 2014 champion and last year’s runner-up to Degenkolb, Norway’s Alexander Kristoff, will probably start as favorite.

Kristoff also won the Tour of Flanders last year and will again be among the front-runners at the first three Monuments of the season: Milan-San Remo, Flanders and Paris Roubaix. Kristoff, though, is yet to find his full form this season, missing out on a stage victory so far at Paris-Nice, although he did come second at Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne in February, winning the dash to the line behind breakaway winner Jasper Stuyven.

Tirreno Adriatico 2016 - 6a tappa Castelraimondo - Cepagatti 210 km - 14/03/2016 - Greg Van Avermaet (BMC) - Peter Sagan (Tinkoff) - foto Roberto Bettini/BettiniPhoto©2016
Both Greg Van Avermaet (BMC) and Peter Sagan (Tinkoff) will be heavy favorites in every Classic they line up for.

Sagan will undoubtedly be in contention, although he more often than not finds himself a marked man in finales to major races and has yet to develop the tactical nous that allowed Cancellara or Belgium’s Tom Boonen to taste success so many times. Sagan is often a highly-placed finisher and less often a victor, as his results this season have demonstrated, coming second to Greg Van Avermaet at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, also finishing fourth at Strade Bianche and seventh in Kuurne. Van Avermaet is another known for his bridesmaid finishes but he is always close at Flanders and Paris-Roubaix — he was third at both last year.

Boonen is another veteran to look out for as he winds down a hugely successful career. Boonen, like Cancellara, missed his two favorite events — Flanders and Paris-Roubaix — last year due to injury. He crashed during Paris-Nice, dislocating his shoulder but had already shown strong form with a third-placed finish at Omloop. But he remains the joint record winner of Paris-Roubaix (four alongside Roger De Vlaeminck) and Flanders (three alongside five other riders, including Cancellara).

Campionati del Mondo Richmond 2015 - Road World Championship 2015 - Strada Uomini Elite 261,4 km - 27/09/2015 - Tom Boonen (Belgio) - foto Luca Bettini/BettiniPhoto©2015
Tom Boonen will be looking to get his spring off to winning ways.

Youngsters such as Belgians Tiesj Benoot, Yves Lampaert and Stuyven could create some waves while Briton Geraint Thomas and Zdenek Stybar of the Czech Republic proved last year they were amongst the very best cobbled classic riders. Over the second half of April, focus will shift from the cobbles to the Ardennes with the Amstel Gold, Fleche Wallonne and Liege-Bastogne-Liege classics.

The strongmen of the cobbles will make way for more punchy finishers such as Ireland’s Dan Martin, Czech Roman Kreuziger or Australians Simon Gerrans and Michael Matthews. The latter has been in good early form at Paris-Nice after winning the opening prologue and then doggedly holding onto the leader’s yellow jersey for several days. Matthews is rapidly becoming one of the best punchers and day-racers having finished second to Sagan at last year’s world championships and taken third at both Milan-San Remo and Amstel Gold.

But it will be tough to displace Spanish veterans Alejandro Valverde and Joaquim Rodriguez on the tough, steep uphill finishes in the Ardennes. Valverde came close to landing the first Ardennes hat-trick since Belgium’s Philippe Gilbert in 2011 as he was beaten into second by Michal Kwiatkowski at Amstel Gold before winning the other two. Poland’s Kwiatkowski has moved to Team Sky from Etixx this year and theBritish outfit will be hoping he can deliver them their first Monument success, if Thomas hasn’t already done so on the cobbles.

Monuments of Cycling
Milan-San Remo, March 19
Reigning champion: John Degenkolb (GER)

Tour of Flanders, April 3
Champion: Alexander Kristoff (NOR)

Paris-Roubaix, April 10
Champion: John Degenkolb (GER)

Liege-Basotgne-Liege, April 20
Champion: Alejandro Valverde (ESP)

Other major classics:
E3 Harelbeke, March 25
Champion: Geraint Thomas (GBR)

Gent-Wevelgem, March 27
Champion: Luca Paolini (ITA)

Amstel Gold, April 17
Champion: Michal Kwiatkowski (POL)

Fleche-Wallonne, April 20
Champion: Alejandro Valverde (ESP)

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