We all know that cycling is about pain and suffering. When we go out on a cold, wet windy Winter’s morn we may be doing it to get fit or to meet up with fellow sufferers, or perhaps it is an excuse to get out of doing DIY or visiting the in-laws, activities which will bring their own peculiar sufferings, but we are most certainly not doing it because it is fun. We have heard the old cliche about the worst day on the bike being better than the best day at work, but this is a hindsight thing – nobody who is halfway through a fifty mile ride in a blizzard, their hands so cold that it’s impossible to brake or change gear, would pass on the chance to sit in a nice warm office, or stack shelves in Aldi (other super-markets are available).
But, through our suffering, we learn to better appreciate the suffering of others – we may be watching it from the comfort of our armchairs but we will be kindred spirits. This is especially true in Spring, when we are glued to our TVs for the Classics, watching as the best riders in the world get caked in mud, slip and slide on the greasy cobbles and are reduced to grovelling up the bergs of Flanders.
The heroic nature of the Spring Classics, and the riders who contest them, would, at first glance, seem to be the ideal environment for nominations for the Armchairtifosi.com Balaclava Award, a competition seemingly designed to recognise such valiant efforts. But, one of the main criteria for recognition is that of doomed failure, and the normal rules of cycling do not apply in the Classics. The usual rule of thumb is that the peloton can wipe out a breakaway rider’s (or group’s) advantage at the rate of 1 min. for every 10km remaining to race, but, in the Classics, riders can power clear off the front and stay clear. The races are generally wars of attrition, decided from the back as riders drop out of contention, so that there is often no peloton left to give chase, just a group of survivors, who are all just as tired as the escapees they are trying to chase down. There are often unlucky losers in the Classics but never a lucky winner.
Alexey Lutsenko: 2 Falls But No Submission
Away from the cobbles of Belgium a new generation of Grand Tour contenders has come to the fore thanks to the wins of Egan Bernal, Primoz Roglic and Miguel Angel Lopez in Paris-Nice, Tirreno-Adriatico and the Volta a Catalunya.The Tirreno-Adriatico (which saw Julian Alaphilippe warm up for his Milan-San Remo win by taking 2 stages, one in a bunch sprint) was also notable for the gutsy win of Alexey Lutsenko on stage 4, in a style that merited nomination for the Balaclava Award. But, after careful consideration, the ceremonial knitwear has remained stretched over the head of Fabian Grellier(Direct Energie). It was, of course, Lutsenko’s late capture of Grellier at the top of the Green Mountain in February’s Tour of Oman which allowed the Frenchman to stake his claim, but Lutsenko’s triumph over adversity counted against him. The Kazakh champion had gone on a solo attack with 30km of the hilly stage left and was holding a minute’s lead when he crashed on a tricky downhill left-hander. He slid into a bank which somehow righted him and stopped him from falling and the mishap only cost him a few seconds. On the run to the finish he steadily lost more time but he still had a lead of nearly 20s when he crashed again, only 2 kms from home, sliding across the tarmac on another left hand bend [ NOTE FOR FUTURE BLOG : ARE THERE MORE CRASHES ON LEFT OR RIGHT HAND BENDS??]. Lutsenko was quickly back on his bike but was reeled in by Primoz Roglic and Adam Yates (1st and 2nd overall) and his team-mate Jakob Fuglsang. If anything, they caught him too soon as he got a quick breather, then gathered his energies for the “sprint” (in a race with no time bonuses Roglic and Yates were more concerned with time gaps over their rivals and Fuglsang was content to sit it out). Lutsenko managed a wobbly victory salute before the medics began patching him up.
Such heroics are what cycling is all about and, arguably, what the Balaclava Award is supposed to represent, but Lutsenko is probably too good a rider to merit the award; he had dominated the Tour of Oman, winning 3 stages and the overall, and had made a brief foray into Belgium to finish 4th in the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad before tackling the Italian stage race. It will be no surprise if he wins one or more of the sport’s major prizes in the near future. The ride also lacked the essential element of futility: he went into the stage holding a top 20 place on GC and was only 1m13s behind Yates, so if he had stayed clear (and upright) he would have been challenging for a podium place.
Adam Yates – A Close 2nd in Catalunya; Even Closer in Tirreno-Adriatico
Adam Yates had something of a Balaclava moment in the short time trial that concluded the “Race of the Two Seas” – the 25s lead that he held over Primoz Roglic never looked like being enough of a buffer over one of the best TT riders among the GC contenders, and he shipped time throughout the 10km course, but it was agonisingly close… the clock on the TV screen went from green to red when he was only 1s. from the line. So, this week he had another go – aided by brother Simon he went on the attack on the last lap of the tough finishing circuit around Montjuic in Barcelona on the final stage of the Volta a Catalunya. Stage winner Davide Formolo (incredibly gaining his first victory since a 2015 Giro stage win) was away and gone but Yates was gunning for overall success, and at one point held enough of a lead to win, but it was always going to be a big ask to hold off Bernal, Lopez, Valverde et al on the final headlong gallop to the line. [FURTHER NOTE FOR FUTURE BLOGS – ARE THE YATES THE BEST CYCLING BROTHERS SINCE THE DE VLAEMINCKS? DISCUSS]
Epic Solo Win Gives De Gendt 3 Days in the Leader’s Jersey
The Tour of Catalunya had seen a succession of solo wins and is one of those races that always delivers excitement right up till the final stage. The week had begun with one of the long-range solo attacks that has become the hallmark of Thomas De Gendt’s career. Winning the stage by over 2m 40s, he had shown he was in good form with a 2nd place in a Paris-Nice stage and is one of those riders (like an in-form Steve Cummings or the much-missed Tommy Voeckler) who, once at the front of a race, can usually be expected to hold on for the win. Such riders disqualify themselves from consideration for the Balaclava Award!
“If I have the legs, I will try and just go!”
De Gendt was chased home, at an albeit respectful distance, by Maximilian Schachmann of Bora-Hansgrohe. He went into stage 5 in 23rd place overall @3m52s and his stage win, holding off a fast-closing bunch by 14 seconds, moved him up to 18th, so that gives him consideration on the grounds of futility, but as the German said in a post-race interview, “If I have the legs, I will try and just go.” Bravo. He had been in the day’s 4 man break but went on alone with 10km to go, keeping just far enough clear to seal the win, though his cause had been helped after Wilco Kelderman’s crash (on a left-hand corner) at the front of the pursuing bunch caused disruption of the chase. A former Worlds U23 TT medallist, Schachmann stepped up last year to win a stage of the Giro (wearing the white jersey for 5 stages) as well as one in Catalunya and was 3rd in the Tour of Germany. He is a more than capable rider in his own right when not on lead-out and domestique duties… probably too good for the Balaclava.