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Three T’s are Key to Winning Flanders and Roubaix

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John Wilcockson / Yuzuru Sunada

To win any major race on the UCI WorldTour calendar, you need to have a strong team, smart tactics and great timing. Without one of those three props, even riders as powerful as Tom Boonen, Fabian Cancellara or Peter Sagan could stumble in this weekend’s Tour of Flanders or next week’s Paris-Roubaix. Teams, tactics and timing are so important in these two monumental spring classics because a potential champion has to be in exactly the right place at the precise time that decisive moves are made on the nasty, narrow cobblestone back roads that dissect the green Flemish fields on either side of the Belgium-France frontier.

It’s true that only the strongest riders can remain at the head of a 200-strong peloton for six hours in these near-260-kilometer marathons, but many factors come into play before the winning break takes shape or the final sprint takes place. That is why the three T’s are so critical.

There are 25 teams of eight riders each in the classics, and probably half of those teams believe they have a leader or leaders capable of victory. Those are the teams—and most importantly their domestiques—with the greatest incentive to ride at the front, get into an early breakaway or sacrifice their own chances to help put their top guy where he needs to be when the other contenders are making their moves.

The big teams, the ones that have five-star favorites, Omega Pharma-Quick Step for Boonen, Trek Factory Racing for Cancellara and Cannondale for Sagan, are the ones that have the main responsibilities. They are the ones that will surge to the front on the wide, dead-straight N8 highway between Oudenaarde and Kluisbergen this Sunday, two-and-a-half hours into the Ronde van Vlaanderen (as the Flemish call their biggest sports event of the year).

If the weather forecasters are right, they’ll be racing into a headwind, perhaps into a rain shower that will make the cobbles slick on the upcoming first climb of the day, the Oude Kwaremont. Those three teams—jostled by the other ones with ambitions, including Belkin for Sep Vanmarcke, BMC Racing for Greg Van Avermaet, Garmin-Sharp for Tyler Farrar, Giant-Shimano for John Degenkolb and Team Sky for Geraint Thomas—know that just before Kluisbergen they have to turn sharp left from the highway into the narrow Pontstraat, which within half a kilometer, after a rail crossing, will turn into the Broektestraat to begin the 2.2-kilometer Oude Kwaremont. It climbs at a 4-percent grade, with a steepest 11.6-percent pitch coming on the cobblestone section in the middle.

This is where the peloton will split for the first time, and where the team leaders will need to be in one of the front groups. In Paris-Roubaix the following Sunday, the same teams and most of the same domestiques will be making a similar surge, also about 100 kilometers into the race, on the winding D98 back road that leaves the town of Bertry via a rail crossing before heading into Troisvilles, where a left turn takes them onto the first sector of cobblestones (known as pavé in French)—which coincidentally is 2.2 kilometers long, just the same as the Oude Kwaremont in Flanders. Besides that coincidence and their almost identical race distances, the two monuments have almost the same number of major challenges. There are 17 hellingen (climbs) and six separate sectors of cobblestones (kasseien in Flemish), for a total of 23 difficulties in Vlaanderen, and 28 sectors of pavé on the road to Roubaix.

Besides riding hard at the front to place their leaders advantageously before the vital climbs or cobblestones, the team workers also have to be ready to ride hard at the rear of the field—fetching drinks from the team car for their colleagues, giving up a wheel (or a bike) to a leader should he have a mechanical, or pacing the leader back to the pack after a crash or a flat. And given the high number of danger spots in these two classics, a potential winner is likely to call on his teammates a number of times to help him regain position.

Another necessity is to have one or two teammates strong enough and smart enough to be with their leader when decisions have to be made in the final two hours of the race. In this year’s Vlaanderen, the favorites have to be ready for a 60-kilometer finale that opens with a second ascent of the Oude Kwaremont, followed by five more climbs in 25 kilometers, before a third and final crack at the Kwaremont—immediately preceding the last hill, the Paterberg, which is only 380 meters long, but averages almost 14 percent, and is all cobbled.

As for Roubaix, the dial-up for the contenders also begins with 60 kilometers to go, just after the day’s second feed zone and prior to three long sectors of rugged pavé in the following 10 kilometers: at Orchies (1.7 kilometers long), Bersée (2.7 kilometers) and Mons-en-Pévèle (3.0 kilometers). It was just after Bersée in 2010, on a stretch of smooth pavement, that Cancellara made a shocking acceleration that caught out Boonen, who had drifted to the end of a fast-moving line of riders. The big Swiss went on to time trial the remaining 50 kilometers to win by two minutes, with Boonen ended up in fifth. That was how Cancellara used perfect tactics and timing to score the second of his three Roubaix victories.

The week before that win, Boonen and Cancellara were dueling it out on the steep, cobblestone slopes of the Mur de Grammont (a.k.a. Muur-Kappelmuur at Geraardsbergen), the second-to-last climb on that year’s Flanders course. They’d needed their strong teams to get them to that point—but then it was a pure mano a mano. And to the surprise of the Flemish half of the Belgian nation, along with most of the millions watching screens around the world, Cancellara simply rode away from his Belgian rival. And he did it by remaining firmly in the saddle and using his formidable horsepower on the double-digit gradient.

At the following year’s Tour of Flanders (2011), Boonen and Cancellara were again the dominant characters, but some dramatic turnarounds in fortune resulted in neither of them winning after a highly tactical conclusion. Boonen impatiently played the team game when his French teammate Sylvain Chavanel sped away from an earlier breakaway; and after Cancellara impressively caught Chavanel before Geraardsbergen, his effort was hampered by running out of fuel, leading to a dozen riders (including Boonen) coming back together. An attack by Philippe Gilbert on the last climb, the Bosberg, was eventually neutralized; and then a refueled Cancellara made the key attack in the flat finale—only to be joined by Chavanel and Belgian opportunist Nick Nuyens. It was Nuyens who took the narrow win from Chavanel and Cancellara, while Boonen almost caught the trio in a desperate last-kilometer chase.

Two years ago, on a new course that abandoned the Kappelmuur and Bosberg, and with Cancellara crashing out before the finale, the racers were indecisive and a large group was still together the third time up the Kwaremont (to be followed, the same as this year, by the Paterberg). In 2012, it was BMC’s Alessandro Ballan who accelerated first on the Kwaremont before another Italian, Filippo Pozzato, crossed the gap with Boonen (who had two teammates slowing down the chase in the group behind). Boonen won the resulting three-man sprint to take his third victory in the Belgian classic.

Last year, Boonen was absent after crashing in the earlier Ghent-Wevelgem, and it was Cancellara who dominated. The Swiss simply raced away from a large peloton on the Kwaremont and only Sagan had the energy to catch his wheel. But the young Slovak was no match for a classics king at the peak of his form, and on the Paterberg Cancellara ground out a 20-meter lead that became a minute, 27 seconds 13 kilometers later at the finish in Oudenaarde.

As for Paris-Roubaix, Cancellara had no remaining teammates in the 2011 finale and it was Garmin’s Johan Vansummeren who scored a tactical solo win, with Cancellara eventually leaving the chase group behind to take second place. The Swiss was absent in 2012, when Boonen “did a Cancellara” with a 50-kilometer solo breakaway. And last year, with Boonen out injured, Cancellara again lacked teammates at vital points and had to play catch-up—finally reaching an earlier breakaway by Vanmarcke and Omega-Quick Step’s Zdenek Stybar on the last difficult section of pavé, the Carrefour de l’Arbre. When Stybar lost ground after bouncing off a spectator, Vanmarcke managed to stay with Cancellara until the end, with the Swiss finishing off his dramatic race by out-powering the young Belgian in the final straightaway of the Roubaix velodrome.

All of these results do show the importance of the three T’s, and they’re things you should look for in both monuments this coming week; but unless other teams can outnumber Cancellara in Flanders or Roubaix, he looks poised to out-power everyone once again.