Look, we love the Classics. Maybe it’s because races like the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix guarantee a different mix, a different script, compared to stage races. Riders, and spectators, don’t know what’s around the next corner, and that sort of unpredictability provides a degree of suspense most other races just can’t cook up.
Stage races have tried to make the predictable a bit less formulaic for years. For example, last year’s Tour de France included a sub-100 kilometer race that featured and F1-type start grid and launched riders right on the base of the climb from the start banner. Was it excited? Yeah, kind of. Did the state still go pretty much exactly how we all predicted? Yep, it sure did.
Shoot, some of the best examples of stages races getting it right have included the cobbles themselves. Some of the best memorable Tour de France stages of the past decade include stints on Paris-Roubaix cobbles. In 2010, an ill-timed flat turned turned Lance Armstrong’s final Tour from a Tour de Force into a dusty downward spiral that left him simply hunting for stages by the Tour’s final week. In 2014, Vicenzo Nibali bossed the stones in a downpour, putting more time into his rivals just a day after taking a first-week stage win, itself a rarity in Le Tour.
Even last year’s Giro d’Italia saw its best moments on dirt. Chris Froome used an all-out team assault to go from the gravel, muddy slopes of the Col de Finestre to go from barely clinging onto a top ten finish to winning his first ever pink jersey. Gravel, stones, and grit can make even the marginal gains and barely entertaining ways of Team Sky exciting.
Paris-Roubaix's Perfect Hero, Wout van Aert
And if the Classics are our favorite races, then riders that thrive in them have to be our favorite heroes. For 2019, Wout van Aert embodies everything you’d want in a gritty Classics racer, even if that also includes getting through spring without a win. While he never took the top step, it’s hard to argue with his consistency, even way back in February. He started off the campaign with 13th at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, then third at Strade Bianche, 6th at Milan-San Remo, second at the E3 BinckBank Tour, before going for top 30 in both Flanders and Paris-Roubaix. But even those finishes aren’t done justice by the results sheet. At Roubaix, he battled back from no fewer than three times, and crashing to top it all off. Then, for reasons that haven’t been made clear, he was left to chase back completely alone. He had two riders in the lead group, and neither teammate eased back to help him back into the mix.
Seeing the multiple-time cyclocross World Champion essentially time trial across the pave for over 20 kilometers, latch back on and survive into the final throes of the hardest race of the season was, in a world, amazing. The commitment, the guts, and the sheer class of the 24 year old rider is something we just haven’t seen before. That isn’t to say we haven’t also seen it in this generation, with Wout van Aert just one half of a story that is going to be told for another decade or more with his long-time rival, Mathieu van der Poel his equal on the dirt, on the road, and even on the cobbles.
The Classics may be done for the year, but you know that we’ll be watching the replay of this edition for a long time to come. Who knows: the 117th edition of Paris-Roubaix might be just the start of a new era starting even more young guns, all of them match, measured, and marshaled by Wout van Aert.
Ready for spring? Get your garage organized for more time riding and more time pretending to drop Wout during your solo gravel rides.