The risks of reconnaissance
After Wednesday's Flèche Wallonne saw a spate of crashes throughout the peloton, with numerous big names involved, we ask whether riding the Spring Classics for experience, rather than for competition, is worth it.
Many will have winced when Team Sky’s Chris Froome hit the deck at yesterday’s Flèche Wallonne, not least the team's staff. With the 2013 Tour de France champion only in the race to preview the roads for stage three of this year’s race, it was hearts-in-mouths time as the Brit gingerly got back on his bike.
After the race team boss Dave Brailsford said that Froome hadn’t sustained any serious injury in the crash, but it does raise a question about the risk vs reward of Grand Tour contenders racing in the Spring Classics.
There are a number of ways to get into trouble in these races, with two examples being the Amstel Gold Race, infamous for its road furniture, and Flèche Wallonne with its packed peloton jostling for space on the run-in to the Mur de Huy.
Chris Froome notably struggled on the cobbled stage of last year's Tour de France and was on the ground yesterday at La Fleche Wallonne - a course almost identical to this year's third stage of the Tour. pic: Offside/L'Equipe
Parked cars are another obstacle - we saw the peloton bunch up to avoid them yesterday, with BMC’s Philippe Gilbert looking the worst off from the ensuing crash.
Indeed, yesterday’s race saw a higher volume of crashes than we are used to. Dan Martin (Cannondale-Garmin) and Jelle Vanendert (Lotto-Soudal) were other notable names to hit the deck, with the Belgian looking shellshocked as he sat in the road for several minutes after his crash.
Froome wasn’t the only Sky man to take a tumble either, with Wout Poels and Lars-Petter Nordhaug - potential members of the team’s Tour squad - both crashing into a ditch forty kilometres from the finish.
Away from the Ardennes, notable incidents include Tom Boonen (Etixx-QuickStep) and Fabian Cancellara (Trek Factory Racing) missing out on Paris-Roubaix and the Ronde van Vlaanderen. Both were involved in crashes during warm-up races, meaning they missed their biggest goals of the season.
That isn’t to say that every reconnaissance mission goes badly. For example, earlier in the month Movistar’s Nairo Quintana raced Dwars door Vlaanderen and E3 Harelbeke without incident.
Meanwhile, Froome is previewing the cobbles to be used in this year's Tour de France in training today. Katusha's Joaquim Rodríguez is another who avoided the hectic Northern Classics, instead riding them with his lieutentant Dani Moreno a few weeks ago, with both men looking particularly ill-at-ease as they juddered along.
One way to circumvent the risk involved in racing among the packed peloton and tight roads of the Ardennes is to spend your time at training camps. That’s what Astana’s Fabio Aru has done this season. His racing time at Paris-Nice and the Volta a Catalunya (fifteen days) are vastly outnumbered by the twenty-eight days spent in Tenerife.
Training is no substitute for racing though, and surely racing the Mur de Huy is better preparation for July than riding it alone.
So there’s a balance to be struck. Miss out and you stay safe but don’t experience the roads, or race and run the risk of a crash or season-disrupting injury.
Teams will gain confidence from the small historical precedent for Grand Tour riders missing their major goals after crashes in warm-up or reconnaissance races. One example is Jan Ullrich’s 1999 crash in the Deutschland Tour, which saw him miss the Tour de France with a knee injury and win the Vuelta a España instead.
It’s a risk, but it seems to be a risk worth taking.