As of now, professional cycling’s Spring Classics season is scheduled to shift into the big ring with this Saturday’s Strade Bianche in Italy. However, the entire slate as we know it could change in an instant depending on how the situation with the COVID-19 virus progresses.
While this certainly throws a wrench into things, the health and safety of humanity is ultimately more important than Matt’s favorite bike races of the year. If races are rescheduled or canceled, we don’t expect him to have a problem filling his need for cobblestone speed with archival racing highlights on YouTube.
That being said, it’s time for Matt to take over. He carefully assembled his annual list of men and women to keep an eye on this Classics season. He’ll be back at the end of the March for a preview of April’s races including Paris-Roubaix, aka his personal Super Bowl.
Riders to watch for 2020:
Mathieu van der Poel - The reigning cyclocross World Champion was supposed to make his spring debut at last weekend’s Omloop Het Nieusblad but a bout with the flu put him on the Did Not Start list. Mathieu will need to clear his illness before we can get a sense of how he’s looking for this season but fingers are crossed that he makes speedy and full recovery. His win at the 2019 Amstel Gold was one of the most entertaining races in a long time.
Jasper Stuyven - His Classics season got off to a great start by taking the win at Omloop Het Nieusblad, beating Yves Lampaert in a two up sprint after five hours of racing. The Omloop is basically a mini Flanders and is a great test of form. Stuyven has shown big flashes of potential since joining the pro ranks in 2014 but has fallen short of expectations the previous two seasons. It would be a nice change of pace to see Trek-Segafredo in the mix if he can turn it around for 2020.
Mads Pedersen - Stuyven’s Trek-Segafredo teammate has a big target on his back for 2020 thanks to the rainbow stripes of the UCI’s World Champion Jersey. This Danish 24-year-old thrives in terrible weather so if the conditions are bad, don’t be surprised if he finds his way to the front.
Yves Lampaert - The Omloop runner up is backed by the perennial powerhouse Quick-Step, a team that is built for dominating the Classics while using a structure that is unique to the pro peloton. While other teams name a designated team leader well before they get off the bus, Quick-Step waits for the race to unfold before selecting the contender they think has the best chance at the final podium. This one for all, all for one strategy played out at Omloop. With
Lapaert in the final selection, Quick-Step held off on organizing a sprint train and instead worked to block any potential attacks coming out of a peloton that was steadily chipping into the leaders’ time gap. Quick-Step secured two other spots in the top 10 by employing this strategy. Tim Declercq came across the line in fifth and Florian Senechal rounded out the top 10.
Philippe Gilbert - The 2019 Paris-Roubaix champion left Quick-Step for the Lotto team at the end of last season which means we might not hear much from Gilbert in 2020. When riders leave Quick-Step, they tend to become anonymous as victories become elusive. However, dark horse status could be the kind of cloak of invisibility Gilbert needs to pull off a win and it’s always fun to see him do so. His early season form was good enough for 8th place at the Omloop so maybe he’ll be the rare former Quick-Step rider who doesn’t need their tactics to succeed.
Niki Terpstra - Remember that thing about leaving Quick-Step you read five seconds ago? Niki Terpstra is a good example of the fate that awaits a rider who jumps ship. Granted, he’s a few months away from turning 36 but in 2018 he won the Tour of Flanders, E3, and took the bronze at Paris-Roubaix. In 2019, his first with the Direct Énergie team, Terpstra’s best result was a third place finish at Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurn.
Florian Senechal - Entering his third year on Quick-Step, 2020 could be a breakout Classics season for 26-year-old Frenchman. In 2019 he notched his first victory as a professional with a win at Le Samyn, a smaller one day race in Belgium. However, in the biggest race of them all, Senechal finished 6th at Paris-Roubaix, having ridden in a supporting role for his now former teammate and cobblestone trophy winner Phillipe Gilbert. And this concludes the Quick-Step portion of the preview.
Wout Van Aert - Four days after winning his first individual stage of the Tour de France, Van Aert crashed out of the 2019 race during a time trial, suffering a torn hip muscle that could have ended his career. Six months ago, he couldn’t walk. The fact that he’s already back in the peloton and racing with enough vigor to make him a marked man is nothing short of miraculous. It’s tough to say if he’ll have the strength to build on last year’s Classics podiums (Strade Bianche, E3) and a 6th place finish at Milan-San Remo but the peloton is better with Van Aert in it because he’s such an entertaining rider to watch.
Tiesj Benoot - The 2018 Strade Bianche winner jumped from Lotto to Sunweb for 2020. Over the past three seasons, Benoot has been a solid regular in the top 10 during Classics season but outside Strade Bianche, standing on the top step has been a rarity. Then again, he only turns 26 next week so it’s not very fair to bust his chops when he’s only starting to enter the prime of his career.
Peter Sagan - It’s hard to believe we’re already into our second decade of watching Sagan light up nearly every race he enters. In 2019, Sagan was unable to defend his championships at Paris-Roubaix and Gent-Wevelgem but he spent his July winning a record breaking seventh Green Jersey at the Tour de France. For 2020, his season starts next week with the weeklong Tirreno-Adriatico across Italy. If that race gets canceled, don’t be surprised if he shows up at a midweek Belgian race to keep his legs in order for Milan-San Remo. Sagan tends to play his racing plans close to the vest- he recently finished off a high altitude training camp which doesn’t make a lot of sense for one day races but then again, he’s friggin’ Peter Sagan and who am I to question his training methods?
Women to Watch:
Anna van der Breggen - Anna has won so many races that there’s no need to add any superlatives. Her racing resume since 2017 features these Classics victories: Amstel Gold, La Fleche Wallone (x3), Liege-Bastongne-Liege (x2), Strade Bianche, and the Tour of Flanders. Outside of that, she found the time to win the Tour of California twice and a World Championship.
Annemiek van Vleuten - The 2019 World Champion started her 2020 right where she left off- with a victory. van Vleuten came across the line at Omloop 42 seconds ahead of a small chase group. If she can defend her Strade Bianche title this weekend, the real battle for Classics season could be the battle for second place.
Chantal van Den Broek-Blaak - Chantal was one of the chasing riders who finished 42 seconds behind van Vleuten at Omloop. The 2017 World Champion had a quiet 2019 but could be a quality sleeper pick for Classics season.
Kasia Niewiadoma - One of the most exciting finishes of 2019 was Kasia’s dramatic win at Amstel Gold. Just outside of two kilometers to go, she launched an attack from off the front of the lead group up and over the final climb. Then from 300 meters out, she wound up a sprint that held off a hard charging Annemiek van Vleuten by about two lengths. If the race was 15 meters longer, there very well could have been a different result. Outside of Amstel, Kasia’s 2019 Classics season was highlighted by a 3rd place finish at Strade Bianche and a trio of 6th place finishes at the Tour of Flanders, Fleche Wallone, and Liege-Bastogne-Liege. If she’s back on the Strade Bianche podium this weekend, 2020 could be her breakout season.
Coryn Rivera - The first (and only) American woman to win the Tour of Flanders for Women, Rivera’s 2019 was cut short due to illness and injury. She pinned on her first number of the year at the women’s edition of Omloop and finished 34th, four minutes off Annemiek Van Vleuten’s winning breakaway. Don’t be shocked if Rivera quickly moves up in the results. She’s a powerhouse and a fierce competitor who has six dozen(!) Stars and Stripes jerseys hanging in her closet.
Strade Bianche - Saturday, March 7 (Women and Men)
Milan-San Remo - Saturday, March 21
Cyclingfans.com: If you want information and links to coverage of literally every race on the pro calendar, Cyclingfans is the place to start.
YouTube: It’s amazing what you can find if you enter the race name, year, and live into the search field.
NBC Sports Gold: NBC’s annual cycling pass has been prorated to $19.99 until April 30. (It auto-renews on May 1 at $54.99 for the next year.) NBC’s cycling coverage is top notch but its primary focus is on stage races for the first half of Classics season. The schedule for April though is full of one day monuments starting with Paris- Roubaix on April 11.
OK, this should be all... for now. I'll be back at the end of the month with a recap of Classics season so far and preview of April's races including my personal Super Bowl Paris-Roubaix.
Thanks for reading!