Classics season is now well and truly under way, and the next ten days see two of the most eagerly anticipated races of the year, the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix. Fabian Cancellara, who displayed stunning form to win both last year, is widely seen as the man to beat in each race, but as road.cc’s expert in the peloton, Team Sky’s Geraint Thomas explains, outside factors can often have a huge influence on the outcome, no matter who you are.
“Cancellara is without a doubt the man to beat,” says Geraint. “We watched him race in E3 on TV and he showed exactly how strong he is. I’m sure he’s a strong favourite for the two races. I don’t think he’s unbeatable, but he’s definitely really, really hard to beat.
“Form-wise, he’s definitely a hot favourite. But,” adds Geraint, “obviously in both Flanders and Roubaix you’ve got to have a bit of luck. All sorts of things can happen. You can puncture at the wrong time, you can have a mechanical issue, or you can crash.”
He continues: “When the race is on and you have a problem, it’s just so hard to get back. If you’re isolated on your own and you don’t have any team mates nearby, it’s almost impossible to rejoin the race – unless you’re Fabian, who probably could get back – but for most people, it’s game over.
The Team Sky rider himself knows from experience how bad luck can ruin your chances, no matter how good your form. Moved into the squad for Milan-San Remo after a great performance in Paris-Nice, he found himself stuck in the second main group on the road after crashes with just under 100km to go caused the field to split, taking him and others out of contention.
Then, after finishing second in the Dwars Door Vlaanderen, his chances in last week’s Gent-Wevelgem were scuppered after he fell on the first descent from the Kemmelberg, then suffered a mechanical problem just after he’d managed to get back to the rear of the peloton.
“I landed on the grass by a ditch so it wasn’t too bad,” says Geraint of his fall. “But then my chain just dropped off. It got caught between the frame and the cranks, I had to stop and fiddle with it and I was dead after that. Hopefully that’s all out of the way now.”
With the Tour of Flanders route featuring some sharp climbs and Paris-Roubaix of course the fabled sections of pave, Geraint reveals that both are effectively turned into a series of mini-races as riders jostle to secure the best and safest position at the head of the group at specific points throughout the race to minimise the possibility of getting caught up in trouble.
“More so in these races than the other races, there’s certain points in each race where you have to be in a good position otherwise you just make it really hard for yourself and there’s like loads of bunch finishes really,” he says.
“In Flanders there’s probably two or three crucial points and there’s big racing for them, for instance on the Kwaremont, the peloton gets strung out and the selection is made. Groups do come back, and you may get back on two or three times, but once you start getting dropped, you’re always going to get dropped. So just getting to the front is the main thing, really.”
That was a tactic that served Geraint particularly well when he finished second in Stage 3 of last year’s Tour de France, which ran over some of the same cobbled sections used in Paris-Roubaix, as crashes behind him caused the field to split.
The Welshman, a past winner of the Junior Paris-Roubaix, was in some pretty good company too – then World Champion Cadel Evans and the man who would succeed him, Thor Hushovd, who won the stage, plus then Saxo bank riders Andy Schleck and Fabian Cancellara, the group eventually catching up with earlier escapee Ryder Hesjedal of Garmin-Transitions.
Being in that leading group to avoid trouble is essential, says Geraint, “especially if there’s a few teams represented up front, and those are strong teams as well – it’s difficult for anyone to come back, because they’re obviously not going to chase. There are a lot of things that can happen!”
Like their rivals, Team Sky will be undertaking a recce of the course of both races, with this rider's-eye view video of last year's pre-race ride of Paris-Roubaix showing just how much punishment the pave inflicts, plus how narrow the roads are in some stretches, reinforcing Geraint's point about the importance of getting near the front to stay safe. If you're reading this article on public transport, maybe wait till later to watch the clip - it made us feel queasy enough watching it while sat at the desk.
Both races of course feature in our Fantasy Cycling game, and if you’ve signed up, keep an eye out for our weekly email in which Geraint will be talking about some of the riders and teams you might want to consider when making your choices.
Meanwhile, you can keep up with the latest news on Geraint through his website, and you also have a chance to ride with him when he hosts a training camp at the Bluestone resort in Pembrokeshire this autumn.
Born in Scotland, Simon moved to London aged seven and now lives in the Oxfordshire Cotswolds with his miniature schnauzer, Elodie. He fell in love with cycling one Saturday morning in 1994 while living in Italy when Milan-San Remo went past his front door. A daily cycle commuter in London back before riding to work started to boom, he's been news editor at road.cc since 2009. Handily for work, he speaks French and Italian. He doesn't get to ride his Colnago as often as he'd like, and freely admits he's much more adept at cooking than fettling with bikes.