Words by William Fotheringham | Photo: CorVos/SWpix.com
The daffodils are out, the cuckoos are on their way from Africa, its time for the first Monument of the season, and I’m going to be waiting for the moment when we get the first glimpse of the sun shining on the waves on the Ligurian coast road somewhere near Savona. And I will be thinking about… Ludovic Robeet.
Robeet won’t be riding Milan-San Remo on Saturday, but the name should remain at the back of cycling fans’ minds for the next six weeks. If you were a DS, you could make his name the first two words that break the silence at morning briefings when the riders gather in the bus, coffees in hand and numbers nervously pinned on.
Let me confess that with all respect to him, as of lunch time on Wednesday, Ludovic Robeet had never entered my consciousness. I remembered the name of his father Patrick of course, and I knew his Bingoal-Wallonie-Bruxelles team. Who can watch a race transmitted from Belgium and not know that fabulous fluorescent yellow strip? But like many in the cycling world, it wasn’t until Wednesday afternoon, when Robeet escaped late on in an epic edition of Nokere Koerse, run off in cold rain and wind, that I noticed him.
Sometimes, you notice riders when they haven’t won much, and then they win something, and then they slip out of your mind. But I’m going to try and remember Ludovic Robeet, because there’s a message in that win out of the early break at Nokere. Those final few kilometres, with the riders suffering in wet and cold and covered in dirt, encapsulated something that draws all of us to sport in general, and which I think cycling fans appreciate about cycling in particular.
Like all sport, cycling has its scripts, the way things are meant to be. Races proceed according to certain templates. But more than most other sports, cycling has vast potential for those scripts to be rewritten on the hoof, for those templates to be redrawn. That’s why Ludovic Robeet’s win in Nokere mattered. It would be patronising to say this was a victory for a minnow, for a rider of lesser stature. I’d see it another way. It was a reminder of the infinite opportunities this sport offers, of the fact that the margin between the greats and the good is pretty narrow and that there are multiple ways to bridge that gap.
On paper, you look at the 40 days of Classic racing that lie ahead from Milan San Remo on March 20 to Liège-Bastogne-Liège on April 25, and you think the script is written. Late March and most of April will be about SD Worx on the one hand, and on the other the Holy Trinity: Wout van Aert, Matthew van der Poel, and Julian Alaphilippe (pictured). Potentially, every big race between now and Liège could fall to either a rider from SD Worx or one of men’s racing’s big three.
When a team show the collective strength and cohesion that Anna van der Breggen and company do, or the individual flair and initiative that has set the Big Three apart, it’s rational to write their scripts for them. So here’s what I would expect: be it Binda, Flanders, Liège or Roubaix, Van der Breggen and her team mates will want to produce classic bike race team work: softening up the field before one of them delivers the coup de grace. All for one, one for all. We’ve seen that time and again, in their Boels-Dolman days, and this season. Total cycling, appropriately by a Dutch team as not only was “total football” what their soccer players did, “total cycling” was essentially founded by Dutchman Peter Post. It’s fantastic to watch.
The Holy Trinity do it differently, because while they can act as a foil for a team mate, the races they want to win end up being defined by their individual talent. Van der Poel in particular seems to have thrown cycling back to the 1970s, the pre-Post years, when a team was about its leader. He’s broken the mould by riding for a non World Tour squad, and when Alpecin-Fenix have him on the roster, you don’t look beyond him. But you can write a script for the upcoming Classics season based on Strade Bianche this year, and last year’s San Remo, Liège and Flanders: the big three waiting for their moment, the opposition hoping to hang on to their coat tails. Again, fantastic to watch.
But here is why Ludovic Robeet matters and where the great fascination of the upcoming few weeks will lie. The script at Nokere appeared to have been written. The early break with riders who we didn’t expect to win. A peloton which – while lacking the big three – kept them within reach, and which included plenty of teams that could make the race happen in the final hour, with stacks of firepower between them.
The weather, the course, and the mindset of the riders in the early move all ensured Nokere didn’t pan out like it should have done. It was a reminder that the script can be rewritten, that there are openings thanks to the things that make cycling special. So the DSs should say to their riders: look, this is the magic of what we do, we have the power to make things happen. For sure, some riders seem to have diamonds in their legs – Van der Poel most days it seems – but you can’t let them do what they want.
What do I want to see between now and April 25. Several things. Firstly, a full spring in spite of the pandemic, and on current numbers, that’s far from a given. Assuming it all happens as planned, there’s what the French call the coups de coeur – the heartwarmers. So it would be great to see Philippe Gilbert nail his final Monument on Saturday, and who wouldn’t applaud at a late-career flourish from Marianne Vos? And up-and-coming talent in the thick of the action: Tom Pidcock, Emma Norsgaard, Mauri Vansevenant, Pfeiffer Georgi.
More generally, I’d put this in five words: Don’t Wait for the Poggio. By which I mean, everyone knows that Milan-San Remo and other races are won at the key strategic location, be it La Redoute, Carrefour de l’Arbre or the Kemmelberg. It doesn’t have to be that way. Teams need to look for other answers, play their second cards, go from distance. Just race. Finally, it’s the same as every year. The early April rain dance, the hope for downpours in northern France up to the night before Paris-Roubaix, then gloop and sun and a howling tailwind into the Hell of the North. For women and men. It will be a historic day, a big step down cycling’s tortuous road towards equality, so let’s hope it’s special. And very muddy.