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Escape to victory: how to win a Spring Classic

At a time when Grand Tours are won by marginal gains, at the Classics a more cavalier approach is taking hold. Photos: Offside

Richard Moore
1 Apr 2021

Many thought Philippe Gilbert was in the autumn of his career when he lined up in new colours at the 2017 Tour of Flanders. After five underachieving years in the red and black of BMC the 34-year-old had moved to QuickStep over the winter.

He was set to play second fiddle to his new teammate Tom Boonen, the three-time Flanders winner, and certainly wasn’t the favourite as they rolled out of the Grote Markt in Bruges for the 101st edition of the race.

Since finishing third in 2009 and 2010, Gilbert had usually skipped Flanders to focus on the Ardennes Classics later in April. As a Walloon, Liège-Bastogne-Liège mattered more to Gilbert than Flanders – and indeed he won the race in 2011.

There had never been intense pressure to perform at the Ronde despite it being the biggest of all the Classics (certainly as far as Flandriens are concerned). And at BMC, Greg Van Avermaet, a Flandrien, was preferred on the cobbles.

Maybe this was why, when Gilbert slipped clear with 55km to go, there was no panic, only surprise that a rider of his pedigree had gone so early.

The foundations for the attack had in fact been laid earlier, with 100km remaining, when QuickStep went to the front on the approach to the Muur van Geraardsbergen, forcing a split on the climb.

In the 14-man group that went clear were Gilbert and his teammates Boonen and Matteo Trentin. Other teams worked to minimise the lead of this dangerous group, and nearly reeled in the escapees as they approached the Oude Kwaremont.

Perhaps believing their work was done, the favourites and their teams then appeared to switch off, because it was on the Kwaremont that Gilbert made his move, deftly disappearing up the road, almost as if it was unintentional.

The odds on him staying away over the remaining 55km, against the might of Peter Sagan, Van Avermaet and the other favourites, were extremely long. Yet this is exactly what Gilbert did, never establishing much of a lead but somehow holding on to win by 29 seconds. The question is: how?

He who dares…

How, in an era of marginal gains and minuscule differences between top riders, and when three-week Grand Tours are won by ever fewer seconds, did Gilbert outgun such a strong chasing group?

True, he did have some luck, with Sagan, Van Avermaet and Oliver Naesen crashing when Sagan’s bars snagged a spectator’s jacket as they climbed the Kwaremont for the final time.

But Van Avermaet and Sagan were quickly back up and chasing. They still had enough road to catch their prey by the finish, yet the lead held for kilometre after kilometre at a tantalising 50-55 seconds.

Incredibly, Gilbert’s lead never went above 1min 10sec for the duration of his escape. The fact remains: he was out front alone for 55km.

His victory proved a peculiar point as well as highlighting a new trend. While stage races are now typically won with conservative tactics and through precise calculation, the Cobbled Classics – the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix in particular – can still favour the brave over the calculating, and reward apparently irrational tactics over sensible strategy.

Gilbert’s was also a prime example of a new approach to these races, with the favourites making their decisive move much earlier.

It wasn’t a one-off. At the 2018 Tour of Flanders Niki Terpstra, also of QuickStep, went clear on his own with 25km to go, and held off the chasers to win.

A week later, at Paris-Roubaix, Sagan attacked his fellow favourites with 54km to go. It seemed ridiculously premature for the three-time World Champion to be making his move, but Sagan committed fully to the effort. He bridged to the survivors of the break, of whom only Sylvan Dillier was able to stay with him.

Dillier became a passenger on the Sagan Express, though Sagan used his companion cleverly, towing him most of the way but snatching the odd breather when the Swiss rider took a turn on the front.

As with Gilbert’s win at Flanders, Sagan established and then maintained a slender advantage over a chasing group that should have been stronger than the sum of its parts, and certainly capable of catching the front two.

But they didn’t. And when they reached the old velodrome in Roubaix, Sagan toyed with Dillier before coming off his wheel with 200m to go to beat him fairly easily.

Breaks in history

It’s not that long-range attacks are new. At the Tour of Flanders in 1992 Frenchman Jacky Durand attacked after 45km of the 257km race. With two other riders he built a lead of 24 minutes and then dropped his final companion, Thomas Wegmüller, on the last climb to win alone after 213km out front.

Wegmüller had come close at Roubaix four years earlier after a similar escapade. On that occasion he was the last survivor of a race-long break with Dirk Demol. The pair arrived at the finish together, only for Wegmüller’s effort to be stymied when a plastic bag got stuck in his rear wheel.

A different scenario played out in 2016 when Mat Hayman – a strong outsider due to his experience and history of good performances at Paris-Roubaix – made it into the early break, which went away after around 70km.

Hayman survived when big hitters such as four-time winner Boonen reeled him in, then won in the velodrome.

Better precedents for the Gilbert and Sagan moves might be Fabian Cancellara’s win at Roubaix in 2010 after riding the last 40km alone, and Boonen, two years later, who was out front on his own for 50km.

But their victories were easier to rationalise. Each was coming off a win at the Tour of Flanders the previous weekend; each was the very strong favourite; and when each attacked, there was stasis behind.

Indeed, Boonen’s inspiration was Cancellara’s ride in 2010. He had a good idea there would be a stalemate behind him when he got away in 2012 because he had seen it happen when he was stuck with the chasers following Cancellara’s great escape.

On that occasion Boonen was seething. ‘If Cancellara attacks and I can’t follow him that’s fair enough,’ he said at the finish.

‘But I’m really angry with the way some of the other guys rode. At no time did any of them try to race. Some of them, including [Juan Antonio] Flecha, had already resigned themselves to racing for second.’

Boonen’s comments hint at the tactical game that plays out behind a breakaway, especially a solo one. Gilbert also discussed this after his Flanders win.

He knew how important the chasers’ perception of his strength was. He played games with his pursuers, not riding the 55km as if it were a time-trial, with a well paced, consistent effort, but easing off at certain points to save energy, then going hard when he knew the chasers would be banking on making gains.

In particular he knew the importance of the approach to the final climb, the Kwaremont. And he knew that if the gap was less than a minute they would be able to see him. He therefore went ‘full gas to try and crack them in the head’ on the approach to the climb.

He goes so far as to claim that it was this pressure – the questions they would be asking themselves, and a growing sense of frustration and desperation – that forced Sagan into a mistake on the climb, when he rode too close to the barriers and became ensnared with that spectator’s jacket.

‘I know the feeling when you’re riding behind someone – you don’t see what’s happening in front so you ride full gas,’ said Gilbert. ‘When you don’t come back, you think, “What’s wrong?” and then you start to think you have to go harder. Then you start to take all the risks.’

Gilbert’s comments hint at the game of poker involved in his move, and confirm that it wasn’t just brute strength that won him the Classic.

It was also tactical, but completely different to the tactics that might win a stage race. When, apart from Chris Froome at the 2018 Giro d'Italia, are Grand Tours won by riders launching 50km solo breaks?

Times they are a changin’

One of the great authorities on the Cobbled Classics is Andreas Klier.

As a rider Klier was second to Boonen at the 2005 Tour of Flanders, and during his career he lived in the heart of the region, close to the mythical Geraardsbergen climb. His knowledge of the roads that criss-cross Flanders is such that he is known as ‘GPS’.

‘The course has changed but, more importantly, cycling has changed over the past 10 years,’ says Klier. ‘It’s still the best rider who wins, but the way they race is different now. The two great examples are Gilbert and Terpstra.

‘They started this way of winning by attacking from 60km with aero bikes, skin suits, aero wheels. It’s almost like a time-trial. What we find now is that the selection comes earlier and the attacks also come earlier. In the past we waited until the final selection, or for the sprint.’

Klier credits Gilbert with pioneering this ‘new way of winning’, as he puts it, at the 2017 Tour of Flanders: ‘You watched him attack and thought, “That’s not going to work.” Then, wow!’

Sagan, when he went so early at Paris-Roubaix a year later, might have been inspired by Gilbert’s audacity. With only one Monument to his name – Flanders in 2016 – the pressure was growing on Sagan to convert his immense talent into major victories.

Sagan’s ‘curse’ was arguably his fast finish. If a rider has a good sprint, he doesn’t need to go early. But no matter how fast a sprinter you are, waiting for the finish carries a risk. ‘It’s easy for Sagan to wait for the sprint,’ says Klier. ‘That’s what everyone expects him to do. Going early was unexpected but smart.’

It put pressure on his rivals, who, as much as they were prepared to chase, were also watching each other, weighing their efforts carefully, just as Sagan and Van Avermaet had done the previous year behind Gilbert in Flanders.

What has changed, says Klier, is that the important staging posts have shifted, coming earlier in the race, with a pre-selection as well as the ‘final selection’. If it was a football tournament, it would be as if extra qualifying rounds had been added.

‘If you look at Paris-Roubaix, you always tried to be in the break in the first 100km, and if you had the legs and there was a headwind there was a chance you could win,’ says Klier.

‘It’s not the case any more that the break will be given 10, 12 minutes. The peloton doesn’t allow it. Now, at 60km, 70km to go, there’s an early final. The final doesn’t come until the last 30km but sometimes now the race is decided before then.’

A similar thing has happened on flat stages of the Tour de France, as Mark Cavendish noted. Breaks are allowed very little rope – the pace is more consistent throughout, rather than being steady for several hours with a frantic final 50km.

To what, other than equipment and materials, does Klier credit these changes? ‘Guys are training better, eating better and preparing better. They’re better athletes.’

As Klier says: ‘The best guy still wins, even if the way he wins is different.’