Monday, November 19, 2012

Classics talents and the grand tours

To lovers of the classics, one of the most frustrating aspect of being a fan is that we have to watch promising classics talents waste their potential by foregoing the classics in pursuit of General Classification (GC) glory in the grand tours. Countless riders have fallen into this pitfall, sacrificing their huge classics potential yet not quite succeeding in the grand tours.

With specialization become both more prevalent and deeper in recent years, we consider some active riders of today.

Vicenzo Nibali 

A prime example of a nearly-proven classic talent who is hedging his career more and more for the grand tours is Vicenzo Nibali. With his previous team Liquigas-Cannondale, he always had to share the grand tour highlights with Ivan Basso. The classics was one venue where he could be the undisputed leader, except for the few where teammate Peter Sagan could feature in the finale.

The 2012 season can either be a burden that he has to bear for the rest of his career, or just the right impetus to move forward as a champion: he was podium in Milan-Sanremo, Liège-Bastogne-Liège, and the Tour de France. Will his move to Astana - notably the team run by Guiseppe Martineli - and be a classics contender? How will things play out with Astana's returning riders, notably Enrico Gasparotto (winner of Amstel Gold) and Maxim Iglinsky (winner of Liège)? It seems he may have the opposite problem in Astana, namely that he will be the undisputed grand tour contender but he'll have to leave the classics to his teammates. 

Damiano Cunego 

After a breakout 2004 season in which he won both the Giro d'Italia and Giro di Lombardia, many of us had high hopes for Damiano Cunego. The following season wiped off by Epstein-Barr, he showed definite brilliance in 2006 when he won Amstel Gold, finished third in Liège-Bastogne-Liège, and win the White Jersey in the Tour de France. He also very nearly won the Alpe d'Huez stage, getting overhauled by a superhuman Frank Schleck that day. Since then, he had vacillated between the classics and the grand tours. He made several announcements that he would forsake the grand tours to focus on the classics. Or maybe he was to focus on stage wins in the grand tours. Or maybe he would aim for a top ten instead. Or maybe to be a super domestique instead.

Regardless, during this time he still managed to win two more editions of Giro di Lombardia, in 2007 and 2008. Who knows where his career will take him? The last two editions of the Giro d'Italia, with his teammate Michele Scarponi being the GC leader, have been absolutely frustrating. Often dangling just off the front, he earned neither stage wins, GC placement, nor jerseys. If anything else, it often felt as if each mountain stage was a summary of his career: ahead just far enough to get some attention, but not completely enough to win.

Andy Schleck

Need we say more about Andy Schleck? With a win in the 2009 Liège and several podium placings in other hilly classics, Schleck often shows up as if it were his first training ride of the season, but his talent could carry the day for him. Unfortunately, his head and his heart are often not in it, and in the classics one can't win without having one's heart in the race.

The Spaniards: Sammy Sanchez, Alberto Contador, Alejandro Valverde

Out of the three, only Valverde has netted big wins in the classics: two Liège and one Flèche (sorry Sammy, but the Olympics was a special case). Out of the three, we believe all of them are big talents for the classics. In past, Sanchez was game for a strong spring and fall, what with his consistent performance in Lombardia. More recently, he's focused more and more on the Tour and the Vuelta. Contador seems to have made his pick early in his career. What Valverde does with his remains to be seen, as the spring 2012 was his first race season after his suspension.

It is often said that Spanish riders are pressured to focus on the grand tours. It is also said that the most prominent Spanish classic, Clasica San Sebastian, is in serious financial trouble. We say too bad to both.

What of the cobbled classics?

Strikingly, our examples above contain no cobbled classics specialists. We attribute this to be a symptom of the specialization not only between classics contenders and grand tour GC aspirants. Climbers with huge engines may dream of the yellow jersey, but non-climbers like Fabian Cancellara and Tom Boonen can't share the same dream -- even though they have some of the largest engines in the peloton today.

Extending our consideration to grand tour sprinters, few are true classics contenders beyond Milan-Sanremo and Paris-Tours, and as we pointed out, until recently glory in Sanremo was often taken by non-sprinters.

Who else do you think forsook classics talent for the grand tour delusion? Share your thoughts below.

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