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Tour of Flanders 2015: analysis

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Photographs: Philipp Hympendahl, Jakob Kristian Sørensen

Alexander Kristoff won a thrilling ninety-ninth edition of the Tour of Flanders. Is a Ronde-Roubaix double within his grasp?
Victory for the Viking would depose Niki Terpstra, who finished second in a Flanders Classic for the third time this season. How rare are the qualities required for consistent success?
The group chasing Kristoff and Terpstra had 25 kilometres to organise themselves. Would a greater willingness to collaborate among the pursuers have thwarted their long-range attack?
Sky attempted to control the race and finished with no greater reward than fourteenth place for Geraint Thomas. Will they have developed a Plan B by Roubaix?
And should the UCI provide cars and trained drivers for WorldTour races, after two separate crashes involving neutral service vehicles at the Ronde, both of which left a rider on the ground?

Viking direct
Previous experience has taught us that Alexander Kristoff can win a sprint from a selection, typically with the aid of Katusha team-mate Luca Paolini, but by winning De Ronde from an attack begun 25km from home, the Norwegian champion proved he can go long, too. Kristoff shouldered the greater burden on the road from the Kruisberg to Oudenaarde, with Terpstra – sensibly – contributing little in the closing stages.

Alexander Kristoff doubled his tally of Monument Classic victories by winning De Ronde. Can he claim a third next week at Roubaix? pic: Philipp Hympendahl
Such endurance far exceeds the scope of pure sprinters like Terpstra’s team-mate Mark Cavendish and Giant-Alpecin’s Marcel Kittel, and the successive failure of Andre Greipel’s repeated attacks, although intended to do no more than soften the opposition for Lotto-Soudal team-mate Jürgen Roelandts, offered a more direct comparison between Kristoff’s talents and those who have to be delivered to the last 200 metres of a flat finish to be in with a chance of victory.
Kristoff became the first Norwegian winner of the Ronde, an accomplishment that once seemed within the grasp of Edvald Boasson Hagen, and in doing so doubled his tally of Monument Classic victories. No one can claim to be surprised: Kristoff has been on fire since the opening race of the season, when he won three stages of the Tour of Qatar. Success breeds success and Kristoff is on a roll. Will it extend for a further week? A Ronde-Roubaix double would place him among the sport’s superstars.

Winning is hard to do
Niki Terpstra finished second for the third time this Classics season at the Ronde, having claimed the runner-up slot at the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and Gent-Wevelgem. Like Peter Sagan, the Paris-Roubaix champion is finding that winning is hard to do. Greg Van Avermaet might offer a view point, too: the BMC Racing man was second last season at the Omloop and the Ronde, and so far this season has finished no better than runner-up in a one-day race. He was third in Flanders.

Niki Terpstra finished exhausted and in second place at Gent-Wevelgem. It was the same story at the Ronde. pic: Jakob Kristian Sørensen
There can only be one winner and those able to triumph with regularity are few and far between. Kristoff is becoming that rider, but even he was second to Giant-Alpecin’s John Degenkolb on the Via Roma. The men who have won Flanders on multiple occasions are rightly revered. The absence of Tom Boonen and Fabian Cancellara from the ninety-ninth Ronde made the scale of their accomplishment in winning three editions each ever clearer. Both men posses exceptional physical resource, a strategic brain and calmness under pressure. The occasional success of their rivals only underlines their qualities. Terpstra must show similar resolve to defend his Paris-Roubaix crown.

One dimension
Team Sky has but one strategy. Its ‘match burning’ technique, in which a succession of support riders is extinguished, one after the other, has served them well on mountain stages – a recent example can be found on the fourth stage of Paris-Nice, ending in a one-two finish for Richie Porte and Geraint Thomas at the summit of the Col de la Croix de Chaubouret – but offered little more than a free ride to their rivals at the Ronde van Vlaanderen.

Bradley Wiggins benefited from Team Sky’s relentless pacesetting during his stage race annus mirabilis in 2012, but, like the rest of his Sky team-mates, was unable to assist Geraint Thomas at the finale of the 2015 Ronde. pic: Philipp Hymendahl
Luke Rowe mounted a superb, tireless, single-handed defence of Geraint Thomas’ interests in the latter stages, but in the critical moments, with Kristoff and Terpstra up the road and Sagan and Van Avermaet in pursuit, the Welshman could find no one to assist in the chase.
Lotto-Soudal, by contrast, employed a host of different strategies in a bid to set-up Jürgen Roelandts, keeping Tiesj Benoot by his side, placing Lars Bak in the early break and using Andre Greipel in a roaming role that forced their rivals to chase. The men in red finished with two riders in the top ten whereas Sky, despite having expended more energy than any team in the peloton, claimed a reward no greater than fourteenth place for Thomas.
Will Sky take a different approach at Roubaix, with two potential winners in Thomas and Bradley Wiggins? Highly unlikely. There were shades of Great Britain’s doomed assault on the Olympic road race on the road to Oudenaarde; a single team attempting to control an entire peloton and then finding itself unable to respond to the decisive attack. If Brailsford’s men have been unable to develop an alternative strategy in three years, they are unlikely to do so in seven days.

The moment the race was lost
It’s tempting to describe Alexander Kristoff and Niki Terpstra’s attack soon after the summit of the Kruisberg as ‘race winning’; in truth, the success of the move owed much to the disorganisation of the chase. Van Avermaet and Sagan recognised its significance, but too many from the pursuing group looked at each other for too long, expecting someone else to pick up the baton. Only Daniel Oss and Zdenek Stybar had no reason to help. Everyone else in the pursuing group of ten did.

The early break organised successfully and gained more than seven minutes on the pursuing peloton. The pursuers hoping to thwart Kristoff at the finale failed to do so. pic: Philipp Hymendahl
Instead, they pursued a strategy of every man for himself, which allowed the Kristoff-Terpstra break to become decisive. Van Avermaet and a cooked Sagan made greater in-roads into the winner’s lead than the chase group, proving that with organisation, the advantage was not insurmountable. While Degenkolb’s presence may have provided a disincentive, when two Monument winners chip off the front with 25km remaining, all hands should attend the pump.

Wacky races
Two accidents caused by neutral service cars does not speak volumes for a system that allows part-time drivers called from a pool of enthusiasts to pilot vehicles in one of the biggest races of the season; especially one held in large part on narrow rural roads. “They’ve hardly been neutral today,” an outraged Carlton Kirby observed in Eurosport’s race commentary.

Team cars are driven skilfully, by drivers with long experience in bike racing. Is it time for the UCI to employ a permanent staff of drivers for neutral service cars in WorldTour races? pic: Jakob Kristian Sørensen
Anyone lucky enough to have ridden in a team car will appreciate the skill of the driver and the implicit understanding with the riders. Many of those at the wheel are former pros and operate on what can seem like a sixth sense; their meticulous positioning the accumulation of years of experience. Formula One employs highly-skilled drivers to pilot the pace car deployed in accident scenarios. The UCI should consider retaining a staff of neutral service drivers and compelling organisers to use them at WorldTour races.

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