A once in a hundred year drought: The Belgian Shut-Out
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Tuesday, April 13, 2010

A once in a hundred year drought: The Belgian Shut-Out

by Jered Gruber at 11:10 AM EST   comments
Categories: Pro Cycling, Spring Classics
 

A Belgian shut-out: it has been over 100 years since the feat was last achieved, 103 actually. Belgium drew a complete blank in the nine critical early season classics.

Spaniard Juan Antonio Flecha started the Classics season with a win at Het Nieuwsblad, Dutchman Bobbie Traksel took the following day at Kuurne-Bruxelles-Kuurne. Oscar Freire notched another win for Spain with his third triumph at Milan-Sanremo, then it was back to Belgium for another foreign victory, this one from Denmark's Matti Breschel, who put on a searing display of solo power at the midweek Dwars Door Vlaanderen.

That weekend was supposed to change things for Belgium though - the E3 Harelbeke was Tom Boonen's personal playground, except of course in 2010, that was not the case: super Swiss Fabian Cancellara showed his cards for the first time.

The re-structuring of Holy Week saw Gent-Wevelgem open up the serious Northern Classics, but again, victory eluded the Belgians. This time, the win went to Austria's Bernhard Eisel.

In the most important race of the year for Belgium, Vlaanderens Mooiste, the Tour of Flanders, the Red Hammer showed that the power he displayed in the closing meters of the E3 was not to be trifled with. Fabian Cancellara left Belgium's Fortunate Son lurching in his wake. A few days later, Tom Boonen led out his teammate, Wouter Weylandt in the Scheldeprijs, but Weylandt could barely come around his teammate. Instead, it was young American, Tyler Farrar, who took the most important win of his budding Classics career.

There was talk of a gauntlet being thrown at Paris-Roubaix, talk of war, but with 50k to go, Cancellara put paid to the chances of all and never looked back. The shut out was complete: 9 races, 0 wins.

The winless streak must certainly be difficult to swallow, but now, more than ever, the power of many nations in the Classics is a pleasure to behold, and there's still no nation more respected when the roads go cobbled than Belgium. Tom Boonen's season has been excellent - true, it lacks the big win, but a 2nd at Milan-Sanremo, 2nd at the E3, 2nd at Flanders, and a top 10 at Paris-Roubaix is nothing to scoff at.

There were other bright spots to behold as well in March and the first part of April: Bjorn Leukemans showed himself a solid, consistent performer in nearly all of the races, Sep Van Marcke showed himself to be a new name to watch with a gutsy ride at Gent-Wevelgem, and of course, there's Jens Keukeleire, winner of Le Samyn, Nokere Koerse, and the overall as well as a stage at the Three Days Of West Flanders.

One of Belgium's all-time greats, Johan Museeuw, scanned a critical eye on his homeland following the disappointing Classics season: "The conclusion is that we alone do not play here anymore. The days when Flemings could focus their peak on the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix are over - perhaps we have focused too much on these two races."

Or maybe the cause is work related? "Perhaps Belgium is stuck in old habits and has missed out on the new training methods." It's hard not to see the truth in Museeuw's questioning. After discussing the same topic at length with people directly related to the success of both the Saxo Bank and QuickStep teams, it's apparent that the training methods are completely and utterly opposite: one firmly entrenched in the methods of the downtube shifter era, the other pushing forward, looking for any possible means to improve, to get faster. One need only look at the most basic of examples: the pursuit match between Fabian Cancellara and Tom Boonen en route to Ninove after Cancellara's move on the Muur. There's the image of Cancellara, smooth, low, arms draped over his bars, hands together, SRM between his hands - it's not possible to get any more aerodynamic on a road bike. Behind, Tom Boonen, the Flandrian hardman, lunging, gasping, hammering with his hands wide apart in the drops, the opposite of what he was chasing.

It's easy to question in these moments though, and Museeuw is quick to realize this: "We should not dramatize this either. It's just that we have been too spoiled in recent years due to major champions and victories. The year is not over though."

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