Cobbled classics riders to watch

Happy New Year and welcome to The Year of the Cobble. I was going to pay a bit more attention to the cobbled classics anyway, but it’s also worth following them to get a feel for this kind of racing ahead of the cobbled stage of the Tour de France – a day that could potentially see the chances of several of the main contenders utterly knacked-up.

Back in November, I highlighted four British riders to watch during the spring, but what of the true specialists on the cobbles. Here are six names you could maybe try and remember.

Tom Boonen

Readers of this site know Tom best for his buttocks and barse, but there’s a reason why this quadrant is newsworthy and it’s because the cyclist it belongs to is quite simply one of the greats. To the English-speaking world, cycling basically means the Tour de France, but elsewhere – particularly in Belgium – they give a sizeable toss about the classics. Cobbles-wise, Tom’s won what is now E3 Harelbeke five times, Gent-Wevelgem three times, Ronde van Vlaanderen (the Tour of Flanders) three times and Paris-Roubaix four times.

Fabian Cancellara

I once said of Cancellara that if he were a computer game character, his special move would be ‘riding with the strength of many men’. He can do this and it has brought him E3 Harelbeke three times, Ronde van Vlaanderen twice and Paris-Roubaix three times. He won all three last year, so he’s basically the man to beat.

Peter Sagan

Last year’s cobbled classics seemed set to be all about the Cancellara-Sagan rivalry. They sort of were, even if the Slovak didn’t ride Paris-Roubaix. Instead, everything climaxed at the Ronde van Vlaanderen where Cancellara bided his time before putting Sagan through the mincer. The cheeky green giant has time on his side though and seems set to lead the next generation. Maybe this is his year.

Zdenek Stybar

Stybar’s a two-time cyclocross world champion, so he doesn’t mind shitty surfaces. He seemed a bit more serious about riding on the (cobbled) road last season, winning two stages and the overall at the Eneco Tour (a race which covers similar terrain to the cobbled classics, even if it’s run at a different time of year). He was also one of the few riders managing to stay with Cancellara during the latter stages of Paris-Roubaix, but then ploughed into a spectator. If he can add ‘pedestrian evasion’ to his otherwise exceptional bike-handling skills, he might prove to be a major protagonist this year.

Greg Van Avermaet

Greg likes to finish fourth. It’s not entirely clear whether he’s up there with the best, stringing together consistent results ahead of some big wins or whether he’s just that sort of a rider. Last year a raft of top ten finishes included third in Gent-Wevelgem, seventh in the Ronde van Vlaanderen and fourth in Paris-Roubaix. He was fourth in the Ronde van Vlaanderen in 2012 as well.

Sep Vanmarck

The man that Cancellara couldn’t shake during last year’s Paris-Roubaix. That’s something to put on your CV – that it took a sprint for him to beat you. Vanmarck weighs 77kg and is the third Belgian on this list after Boonen and Van Avermaet. He is therefore pretty much the archetypal cobbled classics rider.