How to Win a Classic

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An excerpt from Peter Cossins’s new book, How the Race Was Won: Cycling’s Top Minds Reveal the Road to Victory.

Chapter 16: How to Win a Classic

“In preparing for battle I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.”

—Dwight D. Eisenhower

The first time I reported on one of the Classics was in 1994 at the Tour of Flanders. Sharing a car with three Belgian journalists, we drove from the start in the small town of Sint-Niklaas along a warren of roads, eventually weaving through narrow lanes until we reached a small crossroads. “Up that way is the Oude Kwaremont, and that climb is the first big test in this race,” one of the Belgians said, noticing my bewilderment as to why we were standing in what appeared like the middle of nowhere as far as the race was concerned. “If you’re not in the front 20 riders when you come around this corner, then you’ve got almost no chance of winning this race. So we come here to see who is at the front.”

By the time the race came through, there were plenty of others standing on the junction, waiting for the bunch to reach the sharp right-hander that led toward the Oude Kwaremont’s steeply rising cobbles. First came the break, a few minutes ahead of the main pack. “Nobodies, they’ll soon be caught,” I was told. A handful of minutes later, the peloton arrived, bowling along the narrow road, travelling so fast there seemed little chance of any of the riders negotiating the right-angle turn. Almost as startling was the frenzied noise of bellows and shouts, brakes squealing, the clattering of gears engaging, the whoosh of air being shifted by 200 riders travelling at perilous speed on a lane where cars would struggle to pass each other. I couldn’t pick out a single individual from the blurred mass. Amid a rush of thoughts, one stood out: Why on earth are they sprinting with 80 kilometers still left to the finish?

There are several answers to that question, each of them highlighting a fundamental difference between the strategies applied to one-day races such as Flanders and stage races. David Millar sums them up particularly well, explaining, “A stage racer is always trying to control the variables—if risks are taken, they are calculated—whereas a one-day racer essentially knows they can’t control the variables, so they reduce them by racing aggressively . . . The closer to the front they are the fewer riders they have to deal with—for a one-day racer the biggest variable is the number of racers in front of them. Classics turn into a war of attrition, they become elimination races. It doesn’t matter how strong you are, if you’re not in the right place all the time, you won’t win.”

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What then are the keys to being in the right place when racing in one of the Monuments? The first, says Millar’s former directeur sportif Matt White, is to watch specific teams, generally those regarded as the favorites based both on their history and lineup. “For Flanders, for instance, you do focus on Quick-Step because they’re always strong in that race. They’re the best team in the northern Classics, and they often control them, so we will usually ask our domestiques to mark their riders, to follow them if they move. I think at Orica we’ve had a strong team for the Ardennes for the last few years, and people have often looked to us in those races.

“There are clearly key points, too. The Ardennes races don’t change much so the guys know beforehand at exactly which points they need to be at the front, and those races are a bit predictable from that point of view. Flanders and Roubaix have a different level of chaos, though, with a great deal depending on the weather and the conditions of the roads.”

From a tactical perspective, these two cobbled Classics are the most intriguing because the approach required for them is quite different from what is required for the other three Monuments and the individual stages of a multiday race, where success most often depends on saving resources for as long as possible. While endurance does matter enormously at both races, Roubaix and Flanders don’t follow a predictable pattern and, therefore, encourage boldness, even from the best teams and riders. They and other cobbled Classics are the races that hark back most closely to the sport in its early days, when being at the front was the sole strategy on roads where racers had to be ready for the unexpected, especially in bad weather.

Since its inception in 1913, the Flanders route has been given frequent makeovers to maintain its legitimacy as one of the sport’s outstanding racing challenges and to accommodate the practicalities of racing on public roads. As its Flemish title De Ronde van Vlaanderen suggests, it began as a tour around Dutch-speaking Flanders, passing through most of the major towns and cities in that region on a route that extended to 324 kilometers but was primarily flat. The first climbs in the Flemish Ardennes, the Kwaremont and Tiegemberg, were added in 1919, with more added gradually over the next 80 years to ensure the race remained selective. The race usually features around 18 of these hellingennowadays. In 2012, Flanders underwent another extensive overhaul to tackle the issue of increasing traffic and spectator chaos along the meandering route, with the organizers introducing a finishing circuit featuring a number of the toughest climbs including the Oude Kwaremont, which has to be covered three times.

The beauty of the pre-2012 route, say three-time winners Tom Boonen and Fabian Cancellara, was that winning was not simply about power and being the strongest. According to Cancellara, it was a much more tactical race than Roubaix and, therefore, much harder to win. Boonen added that the victor could make his move on any one of the closing climbs.

“You always had to be watchful,” said the Belgian. “It’s the hardest race to read. The Tour of Flanders challenges you. It wants you to start racing . . .you have this big fight to get into each climb. Then everybody sits up and goes up the climb easy. Then you get it all over again. Every time you do this, you reach the bottom of the climb full of adrenalin.”

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Confirming what my Belgian colleagues informed me on my first visit in 1994, success at Flanders is about being very close to the front of the group of favorites once the race is into its final 80 kilometers, with the Oude Kwaremont the first important marker of form and position. Experience, technique, and tactical craftiness are essential at this point. Speed is vital not only for positioning but also because carrying momentum into these relatively short but often very steep climbs enables riders to power up them, often remaining in the same gear.

“The run-up to this climb is a race within a race. It’s nervous, and elbows and shoulders are the order of the day to secure the best spot at the front,” two-time Flanders winner Peter Van Petegem confirms. “You really need to be a nasty bastard to defend and keep your position, but I had no problem with that . . . It’s important to be in the first two rows in order to get in the right position. What’s more it’s important because from this moment on hills feature regularly in the race . . . If you have to chase from the foot of the Oude Kwaremont, you’ve lost already. That’s why the Oude Kwaremont is so crucial. You can be sure that one of the first 10 riders to the top will win the race.”

Van Petegem, who was born on and still lives on the race route, says that when he was racing he knew it “like I know my own wife.” The Belgian trained regularly with German Classics specialist turned directeur sportif Andreas Klier, who realized that knowing the sections in between the climbs was often more crucial to success in Flanders. Having this insight, says Klier, enables a rider to work out which way the wind will be blowing from at every moment, making positioning easier on a course that switches back and forth continually along the sharp ridge of the Flemish Ardennes.

“We always met at the same point of the Ronde—he had the same tactics as me, and I knew exactly where he would go—but I couldn’t always follow him,” Klier recalls of his racing days at Flanders. “You didn’t see Van Petegem for 220 kilometers, then all of a sudden he was there. You don’t see anyone do that now; he had a better eye than anyone else.” Yet, while Klier was looking for Van Petegem, rival riders would track the German knowing that he was a good rider to watch, even if victory always eluded him.

The radical revamp in 2012 shifted the emphasis for success away from tactical prowess and toward brute strength. In Boonen, Cancellara (twice), and Alexander Kristoff, the route still produced victors of the highest quality, but it made Flanders more of a waiting game. It also stripped the race of its most iconic climb, the Muur at Geraardsbergen, which winds up from the heart of the town to the chapel at the crest that gives the ascent its alternative title, Kapelmuur.

However, the move in 2017 of the Ronde’s start from Gent to Antwerp presented the organizers with the opportunity to reinsert the Muur. Although it now featured 100 kilometers from the finish rather than in the final 30, as it had previously, it nevertheless played a decisive role in the outcome of the race, suggesting that the scales had tipped back toward brain from brawn.

Going into the redesigned race, the favorites were world champion Peter Sagan and the in-form Greg Van Avermaet. Sitting at home in Italy watching the race on TV, Marco Pinotti, one of the directeurs sportifs on Van Avermaet’s BMC Racing team, tuned in for the second half of the action and soon noticed a gaggle of blue Quick-Step jerseys had begun to gather near the front of the peloton approaching Geraardsbergen. “I could see that they were planning something and also that there weren’t many BMC riders up there ready for whatever it was,” says Pinotti. “Mind you, no one could have expected an attack with 100 kilometers still left to race. It seemed too far out to try anything, even though the Muur has such a reputation.”

Quick-Step boss Patrick Lefevere and his management staff had been counting on this. “In one-day races, sometimes it comes down to the tactic of the strongest prevailing, but at Flanders we managed to get around that,” he reveals. “We knew going into that race that it was going to be very difficult to beat Van Avermaet and Sagan given the form they were in at the start of the season. You can’t beat them in the last 30 kilometers as it’s impossible to drop them then and they are faster in a sprint, so we made another plan, thinking that no one would expect us to open up the race 100 kilometers from the finish. Every rider has respect for the Muur van Geraardsbergen, but they’re not afraid of it when it’s so far out from the finish. It was just another climb to be negotiated before getting onto the final circuit, although it’s always special wherever it features.”

Boonen, riding his final Flanders before retirement, said after the race he had been expecting Sky “to go full gas on the Muur. There was another race, I cannot remember when, but they tried some old cyclocross trick, when you have many guys go hard to the base, then pedal at 3 kilometers an hour, and then everyone behind you has to step out of the pedals, and then those at the front accelerate again. But then [Luke] Rowe asked me if we were going to attack and I realized they were more afraid of us. So I said, ‘screw it,’ and decided to go for it.”

As well as getting the home fans in a frenzy, Boonen’s acceleration carried 14 riders clear of the peloton, including teammates Matteo Trentin and Philippe Gilbert, with a breakaway of eight riders almost six minutes ahead of them. Over the next 20 kilometers, this group pushed its lead over the bunch out to more than a minute. By the time it had reached the second ascent of the Oude Kwaremont, with 55 kilometers left, the Boonen group had reeled in the escapees, but it now looked likely to suffer the same fate with the peloton less than 30 seconds behind.

Lefevere explains that the plan had indeed been for three or four Quick-Step riders to get away, but now the plan was unravelling with the favorites almost back on terms. The veteran team boss could see this, but admits he had no inkling of what would happen next, that it wasn’t part of his team’s plan.

Realizing they weren’t going to stay clear, Gilbert opted to attack the Oude Kwaremont in the same aggressive way that Boonen had the Muur, aiming to keep the initiative by having one or more Quick-Step riders at the front. With climbs coming every few kilometers in the final section of the race, it was a canny move. He guessed rightly that the bunch would be slimmed down dramatically by the Kwaremont and the Paterberg almost immediately after and that the regular ups and downs would disrupt the chase behind him. What he hadn’t figured on was that not a single rider from the lead group would be able to go with him. Having reached the top of the Paterberg with his lead beyond 30 seconds, he called up his team car to get some instructions. Keep going, he was told.

Gilbert did precisely that, all the way to the finish, to claim his first Flanders title and give Lefevere his eighth as a team manager. Luck played a very significant role in this success, most particularly when Sagan clipped the roadside barrier the final time up the Oude Kwaremont and crashed, taking Van Avermaet and Oliver Naesen with him just as the trio were making inroads into the lone leader’s advantage. However, by making himself the hare, Gilbert was using the fundamental ploy required in cobbled Classics by making his rivals chase. They are, as Millar says, elimination races. You have to be in the right place at the right time to win. Even from 55 kilometers and with no one for company, the front can be the right place if you’re one of the strongest.

“Gilbert is from the old school. He goes when he feels it’s the right moment, and when he goes there’s no stopping him,” says José De Cauwer, who rates his compatriot as one of the ultimate tacticians of recent years and believes his Flanders victory was his best yet, a coup of true sporting beauty. “His move might have seemed to be unsound tactically, but when no one could follow and then they all looked at each other to chase, it turned out to be quite the opposite. Yes, you do need a bit of luck, like he had with the crash involving Van Avermaet, Sagan, and Naesen. But don’t forget that he was in the right place to take advantage of that bit of fortune. By being ahead, he was putting pressure on Sagan and the others to chase, and that helped him win the race.”

It was, even after so many before, a special moment for Lefevere too, especially given some of the flak he’d received for taking on Gilbert when his best years appeared to be behind him. “I remember people thought I was a bit foolish to take on an old horse, but even old horses can become young again. This is what happened with Philippe when he got the right team around him and became part of the team spirit we have here. A character like Philippe’s thrives in a team like ours, an aggressive team. Setting up an attack 100 kilometers from the finish on the Kapelmuur was in the eyes of many like committing hara-kiri, but our aggressive mentality landed the win.”

How the Race Was Won  investigates the fine details of bicycle racing through extensive interviews with the sport’s brightest minds. Author Peter Cossins has interrogated the riders, managers, and directors who have shaped the sport, and reveals how they learned to navigate the invisible undercurrent that sweeps their riders to the finish line.