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Game of Saddles: A Song of Bikes and Tyres

As the ‘Hell of the North’ approaches, the battle for cycling’s Classics crown has just begun 

The yellow of Team Visma-Lease A Bike was the only colour that seemed to matter on Opening Weekend of cycling’s Classics season, the series of one-day races that pave the way, mostly with Flemish cobblestones, towards the Giro d’Italia’s Grande Partenza in Piemonte on 4 May. Not content with resting on the laurels of 2023, the Dutch outfit formally known as Team Jumbo-Visma swept up nine victories in only four days, six of which occurred over Opening Weekend.


Having taken the top step of the podium at both the men’s and women’s Omloop Het Nieuwsblad as well as the following day’s Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne, upon first glance it may appear that Visma-LaB victories at every major Classic are foregone conclusions. However, while the strength in depth that they have in their squads is indeed daunting, the early one-day races have not necessarily been representative in terms of competition. Last year’s Ronde van Vlaanderen winner Tadej Pogačar only made his season debut at Strade Bianche, winning in an unfathomably dominant style with a winning margin of almost three minutes, while current road and cyclocross world champion Mathieu van der Poel is set to begin his campaign at Milano-Sanremo in mid-March. As such, the barometer of the organisation’s strength may so far be misleading.


That being said, a resurgent Marianne Vos, one of the greatest the sport has yet seen, confidently marked her comeback for the team in yellow at Omloop after a year peppered with injuries by outsprinting current world champion Lotte Kopecky, who looked to continue her impressive run of form off the back of an overall victory at the UAE Tour. Regardless, Kopecky’s SD Worx, which arguably boasts the strongest squad of any women’s World Tour team but often falls victim to internal clashes of ego, enjoyed a repeat double-podium finish at an extended Strade-Bianche, making defeat in their Classics campaign seem yet more unlikely.


Soudal-Quick Step’s historically all-conquering Classics Wolf Pack, in the midst of a transition to a general classification-focused team built around Belgian champion Remco Evenepoel, appears to have pressed the self-destruct button in recent months. Talismanic two-time world champion Julian Alaphilippe, himself a Monument winner, has been under fire from the team’s problematically outspoken general manager Patrick Lefevere during a series of races marred by crashes. Lefevere, who accused the Frenchman of indulging in “too many parties” and “too much alcohol,” citing a negative influence from Alaphilippe’s partner and fellow professional Marion Rousse, has subsequently reneged his public criticism, but the damage may already be irreparable.


The peloton will now set its sights on cycling’s most historic races. Sprinters will look to the 270km of Milano-Sanremo for glory, with sparks sure to fly on the infamous Poggio climb minutes before the finish. Mathieu van der Poel will seek his first victory in the rainbow bands with back-to-back victories at the storied velodrome marking the end of Paris-Roubaix, the aptly named “Hell of the North.” The Ronde van Vlaanderen, which will see perennial rivals van der Poel and Wout van Aert juke it out for victory on the brutal Flandrian cobblestones, will mark the climax of this year’s spring Classics.


Races will be available to view on Discovery+ or Eurosport 2.

Image: Wikimedia Commons

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