Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Age and the Classics Contender

When Fabian Cancellara, Peter Sagan, and Jurgen Roelandts ascended the Ronde van Vlaanderen (RVV) podium last Sunday, we thought that it represented three generations of cyclists. Cancellara (RadioShack) is today 32 years old, Sagan (Cannondale) merely 23 years old, and Roelandts (Lotto-Belisol) is 27 years old.

We ask ourselves: How do classics contenders age?

Naturally, we went to Cycling Archives and explored the wealth of data to compare several notable cyclists of various era, and compare them to more recent heroes.

What of older heroes?

Thinking about the RVV we certainly thought of Briek Schotte (born in 1919), twice winner of de Ronde and one of the original hardmen. We then thought of Eddy Merckx (born in 1945) and his impossibly long list of victories. We also thought of Roger de Vlaeminck (born in 1947), a rival of Merckx. And of course Bernard Hinault (born in 1954) of a slightly younger generation much like Cancellara and Sagan.

We then plotted our perception of their accomplishment in classics races, versus their age. What we found was interesting.

Despite having grown up in a very poor Belgium recovering from WW1, and then having to contend with WW2 during this prime, Briek Schotte has amazing longevity. He has several empty season, but even at age 36 he still managed to win Gent-Wevelgem, Dwars door Vlaanderen, and Schledeprijs in 1955. We think he deserved his retirement!

Sorting through Eddy Merckx always makes us nervous as his accomplishment is such that we feared we'd lose a significant win -- a victory at Liège-Bastogne-Liège (LBL) -- that for others would define their career but for Merckx defines a decent spring season. Merckx basically started early, had several amazing seasons, and then appeared to age suddenly at 31 years old. That was when he was punched in the gut by an angry French fan, but still limped to 2nd place in the Tour de France that year. He has since said that his decision to fight on had cut his career short. Don't forget that he had had chronic back pain since a bad crash on the track early in his career. One can only imagine how things would have been if not for these two unfortunate incidents.

In his astonishing career, Merckx won 7 editions of Milan-Sanremo (MSR), 5 editions of LBL, multiple RVV, multiple Paris-Roubaix, Worlds, and in the end had won all classics and monuments save Paris-Tours.

Compatriot Roger de Vlaeminck may have been more successful on the cobbles, however keep in mind these two riders had to compete against each other. Their overall haul of wins made certain that Belgium led the number of victories in the 1970s, and often by large margins. If it appeared that de Vlaeminck had a see-saw last several seasons as a pro, it was partly due to his move to Gios/GIS, an Italian team that favored Italian strongman Franceso Moser.

French rider Bernard Hinault is arguably enjoying a resurgence of popularity among english-speaking fans, with his straightforward manner and nickname "The Badger". His first major classics wins were in 1977: Gent-Wevelgem (GW) and LBL, along with Paris-Brussels. The following year he won his first grand tours: the Vuelta a Espana and Tour de France. However, he kept up his classics participation with a win in Lombardia in 1979 and second place in LBL. He liked LBL so much that he started the race despite a raging snowstorm, and finished solo in the freezing snow.

It is said that his frost had diminished him so much that it hurt him through the rest of his career. But for sure he had battled with a knee problem that forced him off the Tour de France several times, and led to his "empty year" at age 29. But regardless, he managed to bag one Paris-Roubaix in front of a stellar cast, Giro di Lombardia, and Amstel Gold.

What of recent heroes?

Of recent heroes, we started with the "Lion of Flanders" Johan Museeuw, born in 1965. He seemed to have had a slow start, part of the star-studded MG-GB team that included Italian stallion Mario Cipollini. Classics wins started slowly as he transitioned from a sprinter to a classics specialist. A win in the Championship of Zurich came at age 26, then E3 Harelbeke the following year. Then at age 28 everything seemed to click: team Mapei-GB was supportive of the classics and he netted a win in RVV, Paris-Tours, Dwars door Vlaanderen. The following year was the year for Amstel Gold. Then another win in RVV.

Finally in 1996, at age 31, classics super-stardom came. Team Mapei-GB was 110% behind Museeuw and they dictated it so as they finished 1-2-3 in Paris-Roubaix that year. Then came a win at the Worlds Championship race in Japan. Unfortunately, disaster struck in 1998 with that infamous crash in Paris-Roubaix.

However, his dedication was such that he returned gloriously to win the 2000 Paris-Roubaix, though bad luck struck yet again in the form of a motorcycle crash. His return to form in 2001 and 2002 was astonishing, and arguably only bad luck -- in the form of a tire puncture -- kept him from winning a final Paris-Roubaix in 2004.

It was not too long ago that Paolo Bettini, arguably the best Italian one-day racer of his generation, went into retirement. He started his career in Mapei as the protégé of fellow Italian Michele Bartoli, acting as a loyal super-domestique until Bartoli's injuries gave Bettini de facto leadership in the hilly classics. His first major win in LBL was in 2000 at age 26, and he nearly won the Worlds race in 2001 except for the entire Italian team deciding to ride for themselves in the finale.

Towards the end of his career he seemed to specialize in the fall classics, including the premier Olympic road race for professionals, 2 Worlds wins, and 2 editions of Giro di Lombardia. He retired at age 33.

This brings us to current kings of cobbles Fabian Cancellara and Tom Boonen, only one year different in age. To be very honest, we thought that Cancellara's Roubaix win in 2006 was a fluke helped by a surging train. His MSR win in 2008 and medal in the Beijing Olympics showed that clearly, he has the legs and tactical nous to attack at just the right time. Now we know him as a double winner of RVV and PR and always a contender for the cobbled wins.

Of Tom Boonen, we recall his past assertion that he would retire soon. Who will step up, does he have one or two more seasons in him to set new performance records in the cobbled classics? He is the only rider to have accomplished the RVV-PR double twice, and has matched de Vlaeminck's record 4 wins in PR. With another RVV win, he would match that record, too, and may set a new overall record.

What do you think of riders age and the classics? Share your thoughts! 

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