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Tales from the peloton, February 27, 2009

Spring classics: 10 riders who need a result

By Greg Johnson

Professional cyclists from around the world come out of hibernation as spring arrives for the classics season, the first major, historical races of the road calendar. For some it's not just winter they've been hibernating from, but also the spoils of success.

While a select few are in top form as classic favourites, there's another selection of rider whose need to perform well outweighs the expectation to perform well. Cyclingnews picked out 10 riders who could do with classic success - either because they're yet to get the job done or were once great but have been out of the limelight in the past 18 months. For the record, the following are in no specific order.


George Hincapie (Team Columbia)

Luck certainly wasn't on George Hincapie's side
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George Hincapie has made the classics a focus of his career over the past decade. The problem for Hincapie is victory at spring classic Gent-Wevelgem in 2001 is his only win amid a plethora of near misses.

While he's yet to claim a monument win, Hincapie became one of the most successful American classics rider in 2005. He finished second at Paris-Roubaix as Tom Boonen overcame him in a sprint to the finish, similar to the Belgian's victory in last year's edition.

Off the back of that accomplishment was the most heart-breaking of Hincapie's close encounters with monument success. With three Discovery Channel riders out front inside the final 50 kilometres, it was all looking well for Hincapie to achieve his dream. But that dream crashed to the ground as his steerer tube snapped and breakaway mate Fabian Cancellara powered down the cobbled road to victory.

The much loved American rider is no spring chicken at 35 years of age, so if Hincapie is to crack his beloved Paris-Roubaix then time is of the essence. He's got the talent to claim monument glory, but the Team Columbia rider desperately needs to seal the deal if he's to be remembered as a winner. Otherwise, Hincapie will forever be the greatest rider to never win a monument.

"This year in Roubaix I was stronger than I've ever been in that race but I just had bad luck," Hincapie told Cyclingnews in December. "That's what has always happened to me. I know I have a few more chances though."


Matti Breschel (Saxo Bank)

Watch out for Saxo Bank's Matti Breschel
Photo ©: Roberto Bettini
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Denmark's Matti Breschel has been tagged by many in the sport for big things, and now Breschel had joined the chorus himself. Breschel, a rider similar to multiple classic winner Oscar Freire, confirmed in January he's aiming for a breakthrough performance this spring.

Just two years ago Breschel put in a strong performance during the
classics. While on paper 15th at Paris-Roubaix in 2007 might not seem anything special, when you consider Breschel was only 22 at the time it does make the position somewhat more significant. Add to that the fact Breschel was instrumental in assisting teammate Stuart O'Grady win that year's monument and his big goals for this year suddenly seem all the more achievable.

Classics success only comes with experience and despite his young age, the 24-year-old could well have enough already to do what those 10 years his senior are yet to do. It's not unheard of for a rider of his age to shine in the classics, as Filippo Pozzato demonstrated at Milan-Sanremo s few short years ago.

The situation could well mirror that of Pozzato's in 2006. Just as the Italian had the help of Tom Boonen and Paolo Bettini to get him home back then, Breschel will have O'Grady in his camp and the Aussie would be only too happy to repay the Dane for his efforts in 2008 at this year's Gent-Wevelgem.

"It's hard to be in the same team as Fabian [Cancellara] and Stuart [O'Grady]," said Breschel regarding the double Paris-Roubaix champions. "For sure I'm aiming for all the Classics and I hope that I can take my chances when I get them."



Juan Antonio Flecha (Rabobank)

Rabobank's Juan Antonio Flecha feels the pain
Photo ©: Roberto Bettini
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Juan Antonio Flecha is a spring classics contender - he has been for years. At Paris-Roubaix he was right there in the mix in 2005, 2006 and again in 2007. He's been in the mix at Gent-Wevelgem, too.

Perhaps Flecha should have been more than a near-miss at Gent-Wevelgem in 2005. Nico Mattan claimed a controversial victory for Davitamon-Lotto, with claims he drafted behind a vehicle to sprint past Flecha.

However unlike George Hincapie, who also made our list, Flecha hasn't even got a smaller classic victory under his belt. While he once shared the title of co-leader with Fabian Cancellara at Fassa Bortolo, Flecha hasn't gone on to match the success of his Milan-Sanremo- and Paris-Roubaix-winning former teammate.

As a Tour de France stage winner it would be harsh to say Flecha's never won anything, but given his constant presence near the top it's a shock his palamres doesn't feature the word 'victory' a little more frequently. He's been up there again and again, so perhaps Flecha can finally step out of the shadows to become a classics winner in 2009.


Allan Davis (Quick Step)

Quick Step's Allan Davis is the newest ProTour
Photo ©: Roberto Bettini
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The sport's newest ProTour race winner, Allan Davis, needs to solidify his result Down Under with high-profile success in Europe. Davis has a track record to suggest he can do it too, having finished runner-up at Milan-Sanremo in 2007 with Discovery Channel.

This will be Davis' first full season back in Europe with a top squad since his time at Discovery Channel. He was implicated, and subsequently cleared of any involvement, in the Operación Puerto doping investigation which left him with an uphill battle to return to cycling's top level.

Davis' unique reputation as a sprinter who can climb holds him in a strong position for the classics. Being with Patrick Lefevere's Quick Step squad won't hurt Davis' cause either, as the outfit clearly knows how to win in the spring.

Having Tom Boonen as a teammate will mean Davis is likely to play second fiddle during the monuments, or possibly act as a back-up for the Belgian squad. There is however several classic titles up for grabs and Boonen can't physically win them all, meaning Davis will get a day to prove his classic potential.


Danilo Di Luca (LPR)

Danilo Di Luca's successful 2007 started with Liège-Bastogne-Liège
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As an all-round cyclist Danilo Di Luca is no spring slouch, but the Italian has been focusing on stage races in recent years. During his time at Saeco earlier this decade, Di Luca was touted as the next Michele Bartoli. Bartoli claimed three of the five monuments during his highly-decorated carrer, including Liège-Bastogne-Liège twice, La Flèche Wallonne and Amstel Gold Race.

Di Luca has serious pedigree when it comes to the Ardennes Classics, having won Liège-Bastogne-Liège in the lead up to his 2007 Giro d'Italia win. The Liège victory is just one of those under Di Luca's belt, with the rider having claimed victory in Amstel Gold Race and Belgium's La Flèche Wallonne in 2005. Those two victories are the jewels in a classics crown that features several top finishes.

While his Giro success in 2007 was a massive accomplishment, Di Luca's headlines of success quickly swapped to those of despair as his name was connected to the Oil for Drugs case.

Unlike Floyd Landis or Ivan Basso, Di Luca managed to keep a low profile during his suspension, which was significantly shorter than that of Landis or Basso and largely during the off season. This has allowed the rider to slip back into the sport in 2008 and keep a comparatively low profile.

After a quiet year in 2008, relative to the massive success of the previous year, Di Luca could be ready to take back the big titles he once held. At 33 years of age, Di Luca either needs to prove he's still a classics class act or get ready for his career to fade away from the heights it had once attained.


Sylvain Chavanel (Quick Step)

Last year was good but with Quick Step Sylvain Chavanel
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Sylvain Chavanel said au revoir to the French squads he's spent his entire career with and joined Belgian squad Quick Step for 2009. It's a classic move for Chavanel, who is keen to capitalise on his wins at last year's semi classics Dwars door Vlaanderen and Brabantse Pijl with a solid result in the top classics this year.

During his eight years between Bonjour, Brioches La Boulangère and most recently Cofidis, Chavanel attracted more hype than success. After a quiet season in 2007, last year was somewhat of a watershed year for the 29-year-old. His two semi classic wins were complimented by stage victories at Paris-Nice, Volta Ciclista a Catalunya, Tour de France and also the French National Time Trial victory.

Now that he's with one of the classics super squads, Chavanel has the opportunity over the coming years to etch his name into the history books as a top classics rider. It's a big call, but having taken a leap of faith away from the safety and familiarity of French squads Chavanel is obviously committed to his pursuit.

"Now I'm 29, and I'm coming off a very good season," said Chavanel. "I'd rather be a rider who improves from year to year than someone who's already won everything. I still have everything to prove, and that's very motivating."

The year has already started off nicely with Chavanel finishing second at the Volta ao Algarve. Chavanel told Cyclingnews last month he is taking a better targeted and more effective approach this season, but like Davis he will have to take his opportunity when the likes of Tom Boonen is having a lazy day. Watch this space.


Aurélien Clerc (Ag2R La Mondiale)

Aurélien Clerc (Ag2R La Mondiale) came close to winning
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While he's not the youngest rider listed, Swiss rider Aurélien Clerc is one of the least experienced in the context of our list. While he's been busy clocking up stage race victories for years now, the 29-year-old's classic abilities have taken some time to develop.

During his first attempt at Paris-Roubaix with Phonak Hearing Systems in 2005, Clerc finished outside of the time limit. He went a little better the following year, finishing as the last classified rider. After skipping the 2007 edition, Clerc made progress at last year's race where he was 35th, just less than 12 minutes behind.

His improvement was also demonstrated through a second place at Gent-Wevelgem last year. Prior to the event Clerc hadn't even been considered an outside chance, let alone a favourite.

Becoming one of the classical elite, however, is no easy feat. If Clerc is serious about stamping his authority on this part of the season, he needs to get the ball rolling this year.

In addition to having to overcome the likes of Tom Boonen and Alessandro Ballan to establish himself as such a rider, he also faces a threat much closer to home. For Clerc to become Switzerland's top classics rider, he is first going to have to figure out how to beat Fabian Cancellara.

Of course, Clerc is not alone on that front, but stepping out of his countryman's shadow will prove particularly difficult for Clerc. Being with a new squad in Ag2R La Mondiale this year might just give him the renewed motivation to push that bit harder.

A victory during classics season would also help better define the surfie look-a-like's career. While he's currently considered a sprinter, Clerc lacks the big victories - and certainly the quantity of them - of a sprinter like Team Columbia's Mark Cavendish.


Filippo Pozzato (Katusha)

Tom Boonen helped Filippo Pozzato win Milan-Sanremo in 2006,
Photo ©: Roberto Bettini
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Despite being a Milan-Sanremo winner at just 24, Filippo Pozzato makes our list of those who need a win. In fact it's because he won at such a tender age, as he's proven to have the legs for victory but even by his own admission hasn't filled his potential since.

Pozzato finished runner-up in last year's race to Sanremo and will be hoping to beat the Italian teams on home soil this year, since he's joined a Russian squad after Liquigas chose to show him the door.

There is some good news for Pozzato. While the likes of George Hincapie are sorting out their superannuation arrangements ahead of looming retirement, Pozzato is only now entering the prime classics-winning age.

There is one big difference between now and his 2006 victory: Tom Boonen. Yes, bad-arse Boonen was around in 2006 but Pozzato was riding with the Belgian on Quick Step-Innergetic. To get a victory these days, Pozzato needs to take on the winner of multiple classics and monuments head-to-head. The question is can he quash big Boonen?

Yet Boonen isn't the biggest obstacle the Tour de France stage winner faces. No, that threat comes from much closer to home - in his own mind. Pozzato is known for attacking but then failing to do any of the work, something he'll need to address in order for another victory.


Lance Armstrong (Astana)

Lance, everyone knows I'll be back, but when will you be back for a classics win?
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Okay, so this one's a little cheeky, but it has been 13 years since Lance Armstrong's last classics success. The veteran racer won Spain's only classic, Clásica San Sebastián, in 1995 a year after finishing runner-up to Armand De Las Cuevas at the event.

It's not the only classic Armstrong has a degree of success in either, taking victory at La Flèche Wallonne a year later. The seven time Tour de France winner also took on Liège-Bastogne-Liège in 1994 and 1996, finishing second on both occasions.

Second is a bit of a theme for the former UCI Road World Champion, who is more accustomed to winning, when it comes to classics. His attempts on the Amstel Gold Race in 1999 and 2001 yielded another two second place finishes, with Michael Boogerd and Erik Dekker outclassing him on those occasions.

Armstrong has said the Giro d'Italia is his main focus for this season, after an impressive finish at February's Tour of California. But with defending champion Alberto Contador onboard his squad at the Giro, the Texan might be better off getting the wins he can where he can to help promote his Livestrong cause.


Leif Hoste (Silence-Lotto)

Leif Hoste knows it's a long way to the top of Koppenberg
Photo ©: Roberto Bettini
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Leif Hoste has taken a leaf out of Juan Antonio Flecha's book by being a constant contender that hasn't sealed the deal. The focus of Hoste's classical love since joining Belgian squad Lotto in 2003 has been the Ronde Van Vlaanderen, one of Belgium's two monuments.

The cobbled classic has greeted Hoste as runner-up on not one, but three occasions. First it was Steffen Wesemann who topped him in 2004, then Tom Boonen in 2005 and finally Alessandro Ballan in 2007.

In 2006 Hoste only just missed out on adding a monument second place to his palamres, after being the second rider to cross the line at Paris-Roubaix. He was later controversially disqualified, along with Peter Van Petegem and Vladimir Gusev, for having passed through a closed level crossing.

While Hoste has enjoyed some success throughout his 11-year career and proven useful during Grand Tours for his team leader, he lacks a big individual result. At 31, Hoste should have the experience required to outwit his rivals in brutal races like the classics, but whether he can actually conquer the likes of Boonen and Ballan remains to be seen.


For a thumbnail gallery of these images, click here

Images by Roberto Bettini/www.bettiniphoto.net

Images by Sirotti/www.sirotti.it

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