Wednesday, August 29, 2012

2012 Fall Classics Preview

With the end of the Tour de France and Olympic cycling competitions, we turn our attention to the Fall Classics, perhaps the lesser cousins of the Spring Classics. What races do we look forward to? We preview the World Championship, Il Lombardia, Paris-Tours, and discuss the issues plaguing GP Ouest France-Plouay, and fall classics in general.

World Championship in Limburg

World Championship in the Limburg, the Netherlands, has parcours similar to Amstel Gold.  As usually the case, it is an attrition-style long course. While it is true that the course contains the dreaded Cauberg climb as it nears the finish - it can be a death knell for the ambition of many pure sprinters - it is hard to predict how the race will go. For one thing, the distance from the final climb to the finish line is changed enough that we think it will have a significant impact that rouleurs might make it to the finish.

Or even rouleur-like sprinters.

Unlike in the Olympics, the top teams are allowed to field 9 riders for the Worlds elite men road race. Clearly the home Netherlands team would love to win this one, and they might just have the numbers for it if not a clear contender. Cavendish might like to be the designated leader for team GB again, but his team is not likely to have Bradley Wiggins on the roster. Team Italy has been unusually quiet, even though Damiano Cunego former winner of Amstel Gold might be quietly preparing for this race. Whether coach Paolo Bettini will select him as team leader is not clear.

Team Spain is quietly confident as usual, what with their proven record in winning Worlds races. Three-time winner Oscar Freire is retiring and what better surprise will it be than a fourth win to set a new record? Think we're crazy? Perhaps we are. But ultimately Spain has a wealth of potential winners to pick from - recent Clasica winner L-L Sanchez, Alejandro Valverde, Joachim Rodriguez, and even Alberto Contador if he can get back into shape - and unlike the Italians they are better team players.

We think it's hard to bet on anybody not Spanish for this one.

Finally, with Alexandre Vinokourov's win at the Olympics road race, we would be amiss to omit Team Kazakhstan. What better way to make glorious the great nation of Kazakhstan than a glorious win in Limburg? Even with Vinokourov retiring, they still boast recent Liège winner Maxim Iglinsky.

Il Lombardia

The queen of the Fall in our mind is the race formerly known as the Giro di Lombardia - it now goes by Il Lombardia. Not only is it a very tactical race, it revels in re-defining itself regularly. Among the monuments, Lombardia and Ronde van Vlaanderen are the two without prescribed starting and ending points. The only common feature of Lombardia is that it treks around Lake Como. The ever-changing route impacts the cast of winners, from sprinters such as Sean Kelly to roleurs such as Roger De Vlaeminck to climbers such as Damiano Cunego.

This year's route brings the Muro di Sormano, a terrible climb of 15% that was eliminated from the route 50 years ago because too many riders had to walk up it. Terrible as it is, it summits 80km away from the finish line, enough to cause damage and perhaps encourage a break, but not to completely determine the race. The showcase climb Madonna del Ghisallo - site of a chapel dedicated to cyclists - summits 50km away and it is here that the leaders' group forms. With the two summits only 30km away from each other, we expect a very dynamic development in the race.


Not to be forgotten is the Monument that Eddy Merckx himself never won: Paris-Tours. From its name its route is constrained to be mostly along the flatness between Paris and Tours, the areas near Tours to be flatter than the areas around Paris. Perhaps due to this reason, the organizers reversed the route in 1974, starting from the Tours area to somewhere in the vicinity of Paris where hills can be found. In 1988 the organizers decided to again reverse the route to start in Paris and end in Tours.

For a race that many still associate with sprinters, fast men have not dominated in modern times. In fact, the last 10 years have seen only four sprint finishes (including the 2010 edition – won by Oscar Freire), wind direction, and thus luck, plays a huge part.


Not too forget are the semi-classics, including Clasica San Sebastian that ran recently, Vattenfall, GP Ouest France-Plouay, and finally the north-American GP de Quebec and GP de Montréal. These may not be as prestigious as the established monuments and Worlds, but they are often indicators of future greatness.

Even in their two years of age, GP de Quebec and GP de Montréal have boasted winners such as Robert Gesink (RAB), Philippe Gilbert (now BMC), Thomas Voeckler (EUC), and Rui Costa (MOV). Unfortunately conversely, Plouay has been plagued by problems, the biggest of which is financial. We think that the race is a great one to watch, and it does bring a star-studded peloton each time (recent winners include George Hincapie, Vicenzo Nibali, Thomas Voeckler, Pierrick Fédrigo, Matty Goss, Grega Bole, and EB Hagen). But sponsorship money is hard to come by.

If one weren't paying attention, GP Plouay could be an example of the challenge facing semi-classic races as the modern race schedule as dictated by the UCI, except that Plouay is actually on the top-level UCI WorldTour race calendar. But so was GP Hangzhou, evidently poorly managed and was just cancelled. Arguably, just earning WorldTour status doesn't guarantee survival. At the same time, Het Nieuwsblad thrives despite not being a WorldTour race.

Perhaps the UCI, and race organizers, should look at things more from the fan's perspective. Het Nieuwsblad is a season opener that gives an exciting preview of how top contenders are doing a few weeks before the big races happen. So fans and riders both pay attention. This year we saw a glimpse of Tom Boonen's searing form that won him de Ronde and Roubaix. In short, there is an important context through which Het Nieuwsblad is viewed. What is the context through which one watches GP Plouay?

Is there a lesson to be learned from Montepaschi Strade Bianche's move from October to March?

We wrote earlier of the threat facing these second-tier semi-classics in the spring, given the threat of races in warmer and sunnier foreign lands being more suited for preparation for the big hitters such as de Ronde and Roubaix. We fear a similar malady is plaguing the fall classics too. We hope they will survive and prosper, because we love all one-day races.

What races do you look forward to in the fall?

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