What do we count as the biggest sporting day in Australia? Is it the AFL grand final? Maybe the NRL grand final? What about Melbourne Cup?
You can talk about Milan-San Remo being a Monument classic but I think you’ll all nod sagely in agreement with me when I say that the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix are truly the Big Ones of the Spring.
I mean, naturally, no disrespect to San Remo, Liege-Bastogne-Liege and the Giro di Lombardia, but Flanders and Roubaix just are everything that cycling is about.
Two massive, massive races in one week.
It’s like going to your Gran’s for your Sunday dinner and getting two Knickerbocker Glories.
The Giro di Lombardia comes at the end of the season and it is a bit like coffee, cheese and crackers, all crisp and delicate, the perfect way to end a season, whereas Liege is a prime slice of beef, laid out on the plate medium rare with a little glistening of blood to get the nostrils flaring. It’s an altogether adult pleasure that one, a race for the grown ups. Not necessarily spectacular but not without its flavours and intrigues, but you do need to know what you’re looking at.
Milan-San Remo? I’m inclined to say it’s becoming more and more a Brussels sprout (poor Brussels, to have first cultivated such a boring and unpopular vegetable, but you could never imagine Paris or Milan growing them could you? The ‘Milanese sprout’ just wouldn’t do). Quite dull and getting duller each year, I have to say.
But Flanders and Roubaix? Full on, sugar-laden, sense-overloading, excitement-in-a-syringe, straight-to-the-vein crackerjack brilliance. A November night sky full of a thousand fireworks, with a bit of violence thrown in from time to time and maybe even a cheeky snog with Karen Braithwaite behind the waltzers if you’re lucky.
If ever crack cocaine was a bike race, it’d be not just one of these but both. They are the only two races that I will not miss a second of, because these are two races where it can all happen, anytime and anywhere.
Painfully beautiful. If you asked me to choose two words to describe these races, it’d be those. Achingly glorious would be two more. Fractiously perfect, if you were being generous, would be the final two.
The races preceding these races of races do give – usually – an indication of what will happen over the next two weekends (at Flanders this and Roubaix the next). Though this year if there’s one thing we know it’s that we don’t know much.
Or rather, if there is one rider of that group that have the talents to win at Flanders and in Roubaix that truly is head and shoulders above the rest, he is playing a very clever game of rope-a-dope.
Fabian Cancellara was second at Milan-San Remo but has yet to be seen to put down that power that has so distinguished him over the past few seasons. Is he trying to con everyone by not turning it on? Wouldn’t be the first time but if so, he is deep undercover – remember, he was citing fatigue way back in February.
Tom Boonen looks to have the sprinting speed and decent stamina in his legs but he too has shown few signs of the kind of form that saw him win so brilliantly at Paris-Roubaix in 2012.
Peter Sagan is on form for sure, but he is still not the finished article and whether he will ever be allowed to get away by Boonen or Cancellara, unless he discovers another five per cent between now and then well that would take a large error on both their parts for that to happen.
Ian Stannard of Sky might have been in form to go for a win but he’s out injured after Gent-Wevelgem. Nikki Terpstra, Boonen’s roght hand man, will be one to watch as he is going very well, as is another golden oldie, Stijn Devolder.
Devolder rode very well indeed at Gent-Wevelgem and who know, should Boonen and Cancellara find themselves too tightly marked then Devolder and Terpstra are perfectly capable of riding hard enough to win.
Then we come to the likes of John Degenkolb and Marcel Kittel. Both are classed as sprinters and yet, strange as this may be to say, they are not in the ‘pure’ sprinter mold of say Greipel or Cavendish. Each is a little less stocky, more rangy, and while still blisteringly fast, each could, if they took a leaf from Boonen’s book, think about reshaping themselves as men for races just like Flanders or Roubaix.
If either of these two ended up in a bunch of 10 coming into the Roubaix velodrome, you know who would win. Maybe not this year but in the future, I can see this happening.
So, predictions for Flanders?
I could be completely wrong but I think it won’t be Sagan, Boonen or Cancellara, for the reasons outlined. Someone completely new, that’s my guess, but who?
Guess we’ll have to watch to find out.