Big time European racing was on tap this past weekend as three different races offered a complete early season view of the European peloton. The E3 Prijs Vlaanderen, as a final tune up to next week's Tour of Flanders, ran on Saturday while in France day one of two began at the Criterium International. Then on Sunday, The Criterium International's famous two race in one day format unfolded, while the sprinter's classic Gent-Wevelgem teed up in Belgium. Our thoughts from all three contests.
Saturday, March 26, 2011
Fabian Cancellara once again seems to be at least a gear faster than all of his competition heading into the biggest cobbled classics of the year in the next two weeks. First up for Sparticus though was defending his 2010 E3 title. Last year Cancellara had to win in the final kilometer, pulling away from Tom Boonen for a solo win. This year it seemed easier, as Cancellara rode away with about 15k remaining in the race for a seemingly simple ho-hum repeat win. Although some of Cancellara's biggest rivals for Flanders were not present, his win is nevertheless a big one, as it shows that he is once again primed for glory at Flanders and Roubaix.
Other notes from the E3 included a resurgent Vlad Gusev, who finished third and seems re-established as a one day protagonist following some troubling and confusing years as a part of Johan Bruyneel's Discovery/Radioshack outfit. The Russian looks set to be a player over the next few weeks as a part of the multi-pronged Katusha attack corps.
Heinrich Haussler doesn't seem to have the explosiveness to match the likes of Cancellara, Hushovd, Boonen or Ballan on the cobbles. Ditto Rabobank's Lars Boom, who despite high expectations has done little thus far in the 2011 road season. And another week, another DNF for American cobbles hope Steven Cozza. The Californian is off to a tough start as a part of the new NetApp team. FDJ's Dominique Rollin too was a DNF, a big disappointment for the Canadian strongman.
Meanhwhile in France the Criterium International offered a glimpse of some stage racing talent as several Tour de France favorites showed themselves at the two day, three stage race. Frank Schleck emerged victorious for stage one, winning impressively ahead of a largely unknown top ten. Ryder Hesjedal, Sammy Sanchez, Andreas Kloden, Brad Wiggins and Alexander Vinokourov all were well off Schleck's pace, and heading into the second day the elder Schleck seemed to have the overall title wrapped.
As it turned out Schleck was able to defend his lead through the final two stages, while one of the pre-race favorites Andreas Kloden won the day's time trial stage. Kloden, as ever, looks good but not great as he preps for the summer's stage races. He'll likely not be the outright leader for Radioshack come July, but he showed that as usual he'll be able to shoot for a top 15 placing at the Tour de France.
Also on Sunday was the sprinter's classic Gent-Wevelgem. With maximum ProTour points on the line, Patrick Lefevre's Quick Step team emerged victorious, as Belgian superstar Tom Boonen surprisingly won the bunch sprint. Boonen's win at Gent was important for the Quick Step team, but was equally huge for Boonen as he prepares to do battle with Fabian Cancellara beginning next week at the Tour of Flanders. Boonen will be able to head into the two biggest races of his season tranquil after his win at Gent. One thing is for certain: Boonen vs. Cancellara should be an amazing thing to watch in the coming weeks as both riders seem to be once again at the top of their games.
Some of the low lights from Gent-Wevelgem were the Garmin-Cervelo team once again falling short in a big classic and Mark Cavendish being derailed by a crash and once again left out of contesting, let alone winning, a bunch sprint. Garmin, despite being the strongest classics team on paper, has not been able to get it done yet at the biggest races. This time it was Tyler Farrar who was unable to withstand Boonen's charge. Heading into the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix, the Garmin team will have huge pressure to succeed at one of the two races.
For Cavendish meanwhile his 2011 season continues to be a poor one, as he crashed out of Gent and was left alone to try to chase back to the front of the race. The self-proclaimed "fastest man on two wheels" seems anything but these days, and for the first time in the past several seasons Cavendish has looked just average. Perhaps the high turn over rate at HTC has finally caught up with Cavendish, as his lead out train just isn't as strong as it used to be.