It was one hell of a hilly classics season. Three new winners, tons of drama throughout and plenty of twists and turns along the way. My thoughts on a unique week of bike racing.
Both Enrico Gasparotto and Maxim Iglinsky win their first classics in the colors of Astana. Nice rides by both as tactically they were on top of their games. That said, their results must raise red flags as Astana is not known for being a clean team. Sad to point out the negative, but remember there are more than 100 variants of undetectable EPO out there for riders to use without being caught. And I won't even mention possible bribes lobbed at testers. Just saying . . .
Joaquin "Purito" Rodriguez bags his first classic and gets the monkey off his back. A nice win for sure, but don't expect the tiny Spaniard to come onto next year's classics season and dominate. He needs a specific set of circumstances to win a race, and in most instances that won't happen. Still, a nice win for him at the Fleche.
During his time with Andy and Frank Schleck, Fabian Cancellara, Jakob Fuglsang and more, Bjarne Riis' teams racked up wins video game style, making it look easy. Today though it is a different story for those riders, as things have not been the same for them since leaving the Danish director. Cancellara is somewhat taken out of the equation due to his crash at the Tour of Flanders, but the Schlecks just don't seem as strong as in years past. Johann Bruyneel, the Evil Emperor of pro cycling, has of yet not been able to unlock the potential within his powerful Nissan-Radioshack team. Hopefully things change with the approach of the grand tour season.
Like Nissan-Radioshack, Rabobank had a forgettable spring classics campaign, highlighted by the fact that their team leader Robert Gesink seems far from his best as we head into the mid-point of the year. Gesink is returning from a badly broken leg, and it goes to show that the healing process when coming back from injury is largely unpredictable. Gesink next heads to the Tour of California, where he'll look to get back on track. Kudos to Gesink's teammate Bauke Mollema, who has shown that he will be option 1A going forward for the Rabobank team.
Oscar Freire didn't bag a win during the classics season,but man did he ride his tail off. The veteran was at the front in all the races he entered, and he seems as strong as ever as he continues he storied career. Providing he doesn't get injured the rest of the year, Freire will be back to race again in 2013 regardless of whether he wins a fourth world title or not.
From Danilo Di Luca to Alejandro Valverde to Michele Scarponi, the old guard of dopers just isn't measuring up these days. Scarponi should be considered the best of the three mentioned, and he'll have a chance at glory at the Giro to defend his default title from 2011. For Di Luca, it is game over. He can't even contend in minor races like Trentino, where he was 20 minutes off the pace. He'll never be the same rider again, and clearly had no business being a protagonist throughout his career. Valverde meanwhile has been far less explosive than in years past. He looks human, a shell of the threat he used to be.
Their win at the Omloop Het Niewsblad aside, the Garmin team underwhelmed during the classics season. Tyler Farrar was almost completely MIA, while Ryder Hesjedal rode strong but not strong enough on the hills. Irishman Dan Martin too rode respectably, but too often the Garmin team seemed outgunned by the competition.
Phillipe Gilbert will not repeat his 2011 season of legend. In fact, he'll be lucky to bag 5 wins before the end of the year. And he can forget about London's Olympics, as he'll surely be supporting Tom Boonen.
Years from now, few people will remember Vincenzo Nibali's strong rides at Milan-San Remo and Liege-Bastogne-Liege, but they should. The Italian rode like an old schooler throughout the spring, boldly reaching for victory with aggressive racing. His grinta will serve him well in future years, and it is a matter of time before he claims a monument. Also, he should be the #1 favorite for this year's Giro.
Sky pro cycling and Saxo Bank are battling for most pathetic ProTeam 2012. Who will win the prize?
Damiano Cunego crashes at the Amstel Gold and then skips the Fleche. He wins a stage at the 2nd tier Giro di Trentino and then deflates at Liege. Overall, a poor spring for the veteran Italian.
Sammy Sanchez seemed to be poised to take at least one win in the three hilly classics. He gets none. The Spanish Enigma continues.
Jelle Vandendert is borderline elite after coming out of nowhere at last year's Tour. He should be a co-leader at the Tour this year, as he has shown that he can stay with the best in the world. Like Nibali, it seems only a matter of time before he takes a big time classic.