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April 22, 2014
Just when we thought it was time to catch our breath after a brutal cobbled Classics season, up pops Philippe Gilbert to ignite the hilly Classics of Limburg and the Ardennes. It’s normally no insult to the legend of the hilly races when one makes the statement that races like the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix overshadow just about every other one-day race on the planet. Especially when you recall how severe and bruising and downright exciting the latest batch were. But to have Gilbert pull off victories in the minor classic of Fleche Brabançonne and the demi-classic Amstel Gold Race, means that if nothing else, we still have an awful lot to look forward to as April draws to a close and with it the springtime classics season. Just as we looked to Fabian Cancellara, Peter Sagan and Tom Boonen to light our path to utter enjoyment up north, so too we can now look to Gilbert and see if he can come close to repeating his 2011 hat-trick of victories in the Amstel, Fleche Wallonne and Liege-Bastogne-Liege.
I’m enjoying a quiet week in Liege, post-Amstel, pre-Fleche and L-B-L, with three full months of the season already in the archive and a ton of memories to feed-off for the rest of the year. It’s hard to believe my last blog was posted on January 3rd - before the Tour Down Under started! But it has been that busy, I promise you, with barely a few days to chill out, and certainly no time to collect enough thoughts to pen a new blog. Heavens, enough has happened on two skinny wheels to write several books at least, but to this travelling photographer there just hasn’t been the time to do justice to any blog, until now. In addition to following the races – forty-one days so far and still counting – I’ve been preparing an exhibition for the 2014 Tour de France start in Leeds, England. Almost 200 framed images will be on display at the White Cloth Gallery, and one of the reasons for my peaceful week in Liege is the fact that I sent all the images off for framing four days ago – job done! Well, almost…
So, how has the 2014 season been so far, I hear you ask? Well, Gilbert’s return to form last weekend seems to have completed a long cycle where just about every big ‘star in this sport has won something by now. All the top sprinters have hit pay-dirt – Andre Greipel in the TDU and Tour of Qatar, Marcel Kittel in both the Dubai Tour and Scheldeprijs, John Degenkolb in Paris-Nice and Ghent-Wevelgem, Nacer Bouhanni in Oman and Paris-Nice, Mark Cavendish in Algarve and Tirreno-Adriatico, and - most especially – Alexander Kristoff in Oman and his great win in Milan-San Remo. Most of the climbers have tasted success too. Chris Froome won the Tour of Oman, Alejandro Valverde has won in Spanish and Italian races, Carlos Betancur has won Paris-Nice, Joaquim Rodriguez has won the Tour of Catalonia, Michael Kwiatkowski has risen to fame with his wins in the Algarve Tour and the Strade Bianche. Of all the climbers, only Nairo Quintana and Vincenzo Nibali have failed to catch the glory – but their time will come soon.
I’m missing one particular cyclist, aren’t I? Well, Alberto Contador deserves a paragraph all his own, so dominating has he been in this first third of the season. His overall victories in Tirreno-Adriatico and the Basque Country tour were laden with some vintage climbing and attacking, the like of which we’ve not seen in many years. The Contador of 2014 appears more like the one who won the 2009 Tour de France or the 2010 Paris-Nice, and at least as exciting as the Contador that launched a stunning attack, on just one stage, to win the 2012 Vuelta a España. I know Contador has had his problems in recent years, but on his day he is the most exciting stage-racer out there. He only knows one way to race, by attacking, and by attacking again if he hasn’t finished the job properly the first time. And on the evidence of this past few months, cycling fans are in for a real treat as the summer tours loom and that delicious prospect of a Froome-Contador-Nibali battles draws ever closer in the Tour. I’m never one for believing what PR spokesmen put out, but it seems as if the Tinkoff-Saxo propaganda that began during the winter might be closer to the truth than I realized. It is yet to be seen if Contador has the consistency to race so well on the longer ascents, but if nothing else, the brutality of his attacks will cause problems for his rivals. Now, if only if he were racing the Ardennes Classics, racing against Gilbert, and against Froome – then we’d really have a lot to sing about!
So what about those classics of the north? Or south, if we want to talk about Milan San Remo first then… I’ll remember that long, long, race more for the horrible weather than the race, which was average at-best. If we thought 2013 was bad with the snow that shortened the route and brought hypothermic issues to a large proportion of the peloton, it had nothing on this year’s event. Rain from the start, a headwind too, a lowering of temperatures on the Turchino Pass then more rain and a cold headwind all the way to the finish – even with my Goretex covers on, I was a touch miserable, and it’s not often I’m feeling that way. So just how the cyclists coped with it was very evident when you see the lack of strength in them when it mattered the most. And the fact that a hard nut like Kristoff won when we thought it would be Cavendish or Sagan, tells us that Norwegians live in the coldest conditions of any cyclists and that we should not be surprised at what the Katusha man did. Still, this was not a great race to remember Milan-San Remo by.
E3, Ghent-Wevelgem, Tour of Fanders and Paris-Roubaix – four cobblestone races with four very different winners, and Tom Boonen wasn’t amongst them. Peter Sagan – a brilliant win in E3 after a brilliant attacking finale, yet the Cannondale rider was no-where to be seen in Flanders, the race he seemed to have the most chance of winning. Sagan’s acceleration on the Oude Kwaremont seemed a statement of his coming intent as a one-day legend like Boonen and Cancellara, but it has to be said his chief rivals were not there, caught up in a big crash while the peloton pondered the finale to come. In hindsight, I wonder whether Cancellara cared that much about E3, for the way in which he won Flanders spoke of an act of cheeky deceit – letting his rivals in the escape believe he was weak and not worth watching in the sprint. By not figuring in E3, Cancellara had been able to hide his form until it mattered the most – in De Ronde. But one of my images from E3 shows him hurting Boonen horribly with his power in the chase of Sagan – for sure, Cancellara knew exactly how strong he was. And he then did the same in Ghent-Wevelgem, chasing Boonen’s attack on the Kemmelberg while managing to smile at the race photographers.
What crash-ridden days these were, and not least the one that put Ian Stannard in hospital with some fractured vertebrae during Ghent-Wevelgem. In a Classic like that one, or Flanders, you expect to see between three or four crashes yourself – and hear about a lot more crashes on the race-radio. This year seemed to be a record score, to the point where you wanted to close your ears to the reports and shut your eyes to the sights of so many injured cyclists. Geraint Thomas seemed to figure in a crash per-race, and even fell off in the Amstel Gold last weekend – it’s a miracle he can still get his leg over a bike and ride-on. Paris-Roubaix had more than a sprinkling of crashes, as it always does, but such is the chaos of the race that there are as many crashes you don’t hear about, nor see, as well as the ones that you do. Aside from the crashes, Paris-Roubaix was a tad forgettable I think - either the wind was blowing all wrong, or it was too warm, or just that Omega scored a tactical win for Niki Terpstra while everyone rode against Cancellara. I’ll remember the race more for Boonen’s provocative escape, Bradley Wiggins’ solid attempt at winning, and for Sagan’s brilliance and endeavor at trying to win alone.
What other observations can be made from this first long phase of the season? Well, my favourite day’s racing was the wet, cold and muddy Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, won by Ian Stannard – now if we could only have those epic conditions for a Tour of Flanders! I also found fresh delight in the Strade Bianche, a crazy kind of race where anything can happen and usually does. To see cyclists climbing gravel-roads with 18-percent inclines is stirring enough, but to then see them going down the other side, also with an 18-percent drop and on gravel, defines what true madness is on a bicycle. The race that followed on that second weekend in March, Paris-Nice, was a great disappointment. No Prologue to set a pecking order for the fans. No TT on the Col d’Eze to close-off the week’s racing - and no summit stage-finish whatsoever! Just what the organisers were thinking defies logic, not least because its rival event in Italy, Tirreno-Adriatico, had everything Paris-Nice usually has but with a whole lot more besides.
Now, you might get the impression that I love doing what I do – and you won’t be far wrong. But there’s a price to pay for such privileged adventurism. I always start the new season with cameras cleaned and scrubbed and ready for a new campaign, and don’t bother cleaning them again until after the dusty Classics of the north are over. So it was, after three months of a season that also saw me going to the sand-blown deserts of Arabia, that I dropped each and every camera-body and lens into the repair shop in London. Ouch - £1,200 was the bill, or €1,400, or US$1,800… The dust and dirt and general wear-and-tear of this year’s so dusty Classics will probably see me replace the lot for 2015. But the good news is that I’ve now got almost-new gear for the start of the summer stage-races, and that there’ll be clearer, sharper images coming from those races. This is a delicious time of the year when spring rolls slowly into summer, when the Classics make room for the Tour de Romandie and Giro d’Italia, and where the month of July and its famous bike-race creep ever-so closer to my sights. I can’t wait to point my lenses at these great events.GW