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Lessons learned from the 2019 Spring Classics

Joe Robinson
29 Apr 2019

Alaphilippe's the world's best rider not called Mathieu, Valverde's getting old and women's cycling coverage is still far behind the men's

Jakob Fuglsang's solo victory at Liege-Bastogne-Liege marked the end of the Spring Classics and closed the first chapter of the 2019 season.

The men's peloton saw 17 races produce seven winning teams and 11 winning riders. Deceuninck-QuickStep dominated with nine of those wins with six different riders.

Mathieu van der Poel took four victories to Julian Alaphilippe's four while Zdenek Stybar notched two wins of his own.

Dimension Data managed only two top 10s all spring while the second most successful team of the entire period hailed from the ProContinental ranks, in the shape of Van der Poel's Corendon-Circus.

The racing at times was thrilling and at other times quite boring, however, it all came together to tell some interesting stories ahead of the rest of the season.

Here is what we learned from the 2019 Spring Classics.

It's only a matter of time until Mathieu van der Poel dominates the road

So much for the theory that it takes time and experience to win the Spring Classics. Mathieu van der Poel proved that it can be done at the first attempt.

In fact, the Dutchman proved you can win four in your first go, in both the Ardennes and on the cobbles, and also do pretty well in the ones you do not win, too.

In a month-long smash-and-grab on cycling's road scene, the current cyclocross World Champion took victory in the GP Denain,  Dwars door Vlaanderen, Brabantse Pijl and Amstel Gold. He also finished fourth at Gent-Wevelgem and the Tour of Flanders, despite a horrible crash in the latter.

The 24-year-old has now put the road bike back in the shed in order to focus on mountain biking and Tokyo 2020 qualification this summer before returning to 'cross in the autumn.

Unfortunately, we are unlikely to see Van der Poel back racing on the road until this time next year but when he does return,  expect the domination to continue.

Julian Alaphilippe is cycling's hottest property

The fact the Frenchman could hold his form curve from February through to April is quite remarkable and his underperformance at Liege-Bastogne-Liege was completely understandable considering his results this so far season.

He was the only man to have won three one-day WorldTour races this spring. Those three races also took place across a variety of terrains and spanned almost seven weeks of racing. He took seven victories at various stage races along the way too.

At this moment in time, no rider is more valuable than Julian Alaphilippe. He can win on almost any terrain from any situation, all with a hint of panache that makes him a very popular rider with the sport's fans.

It's no surprise he was linked with a €4 million a year deal with Total Direct Energie over the weekend and it is also no surprise that his current team boss Patrick Lefevere is worried that he may lose the services of this extremely gifted rider over the winter.

Peter Sagan had a spring of sadness

For some, fourth at Milan-San Remo and fifth at Paris-Roubaix would constitute a successful Spring Classics campaign. For Peter Sagan, it almost constitutes a disaster, that's how high the expectations are for the Slovakian.

It just never got going for Sagan. 

He made no secrets of his Milan-San Remo ambitions. Yet, on the day, he fell short despite reaching the line in the winning group, finishing fifth in a sprint that nine times out of ten, you'd have backed him to win.

He was again in the mix at Flanders but quite clearly just fighting to stay in the wheel while his Roubaix defence was valiant but ultimately underpowered as Philippe Gilbert and Nils Politt eventually rode Sagan from their wheels.

He tried to pick himself back up for Amstel Gold and Fleche Wallonne only to abandon before the end and call time on his spring campaign.

Could it be down to poor form? Was he battling illness? Or is it the toll of a marital breakup finally manifesting in his physical performances? I'm not sure but I am sure that this was not the Sagan we have grown accustomed to. 

However, we have written Sagan off before only to be proven wrong time and time again, like when he took three consecutive World titles. So I'm sure he will be back to world-beating form before long.

As for his Bora-Hansgrohe team, they proved with the likes of Davide Formolo, Max Schachmann and Sam Bennett that they are a team that is much more than just Peter Sagan.

Another flat spring for Sky

As of Wednesday, Team Sky will be no more as they become Team Ineos.

Eight Grand Tours spread across a decade, they have dominated racing over three weeks, however, with just two Monument wins in the same time frame, the one-day Classics have proven a much tougher nut to crack.

This year was no different. Riders such as Luke Rowe, Michal Kwiatkowski and Wout Poels should guarantee you good results, including at least one win, across the entirety of spring, if we are honest.

The team's best result was second with Kristoffer Halvorsen at the Koksijde Classic.

It's just very clear that the sporadic unpredictability of Classics racing is not compatible with the iron fist control that Sky like to hold on a race.

Things will pick up at the Grand Tours for Team Ineos, they always do, but it's disappointing to see cycling's most wealthy team falling flat yet again in the one-day Classics.

Route changes don't necessarily make better racing

Liege-Bastogne-Liege changed its route after 27 years, leaving the finish in Ans and returning to Liege. The route change meant that the Cote de Saint-Nicolas was no longer the final climb and the final 15km were downhill and flat.

The change was an attempt by race organiser ASO to force the peloton into racing earlier than the closing kilometres. Truthfully, it didn't work.

The winning attack at Liege still came on the final climb and all hopes of a shoot out on the Cote de la Redoute were scuppered as the peloton proceeded to climb the infamous peak at a steady tempo, preferring to play a game of cat and mouse with poor Tanel Kangert who was out front on his own.

It proved that tinkering with a race route will not necessarily entice more ambitious riding and improve racing. If anything, it just further proved that the excitement of professional bike racing is very much in the hands of the riders and the not the route.

Is age getting the better of Alejandro Valverde?

His first result outside of the top 50 since 2016 with 11th at Fleche Wallonne and now a DNF at Liege-Bastogne-Liege. If it wasn't for his eighth-place finish at the Tour of Flanders, the term 'crisis' could be used to describe Valverde's spring.

He blamed a poor performance at Fleche Wallonne on the fact he swallowed a bee although an early abandonment at Liege suggests that the poor performances boil down to more than the untimely ingestion of a bug.

Now 39-years-old, logic dictates that age will get the better of Valverde and that his incredible 17-year career of all-year consistency will come to an end. This could have been the first signs of age catching up with Valverde. 

He will race the Giro d'Italia in May alongside Mikel Landa so keep an eye on him there. If he fails to perform again, you could be witnessing the end.

Women's racing is definitely still treated as second class

Do you know what happened at the women's Fleche Wallonne last Wednesday? How about the women's Liege-Bastogne-Liege this weekend? You're not sure, are you?

It's because race organiser ASO couldn't be bothered to sort out television for those races, despite the infrastructure for the concurrent men's events already being in place, isn't it?

A farce considering that, more often than not, the women's race produces more exciting, unpredictable riding that sees the favourites chancing their arm far from the finish line.

This spring only further proved that women's racing is nowhere near parity with the men's and its not just the issue of television.

It's also the lack of equal prize money, the fact there is not a women's version of Paris-Roubaix (yet) or Milan-San Remo and the lack of a minimum wage.

Cycling's a long way behind and it's only go itself to blame.