It’s hard to believe that spring Classics season is already at an end. It seems mere moments ago that we were counting down to Omloop, impatient for the season ‘proper’ to begin, and yet here we are, already looking back on a monumental couple of months of racing, and beginning a new countdown, as grand tour season is upon us.
Before we cast ourselves headlong into the chaotic pink circus of the Giro d’Italia, I wanted to take a look back at some of the key players from the classics – riders who’ve been integral to our enjoyment of the racing, and to their team’s overall success. Whether they are faithful domestiques or contenders in their own right, these 12 riders have all made a convincing case for being included in a ‘fantasy classics team,’ and all deserve their own success.
There are of course many other names that cropped up when I was considering this list, and this is just one writer’s opinion – feel free to share your own ideas in the comments or on Twitter, but for now, these are the names that rose to the top for me, even if they were unable to rise to the top of the podium, on this occasion…
Ben Turner – the undisputed MVP of this year’s classics season, 22-year-old Ben Turner has been a revelation as part of the revamped INEOS Grenadiers classics unit which has taken 2022 by storm. Never far away from an attacking move, Turner was not simply a workhorse for his team mates, he was an instigator, taking matters into his own hands on multiple occasions and using his immense power to inflict hurt on the team’s rivals. His value as a domestique could not be underestimated as not only was he able to break the peloton apart, he was also there to provide support for his leaders in the final stages of races. Rather than burning his matches to deliver his protected rider to the front and then letting them take over, he’s been there to provide support right to the line, in a similar vein to the classic QuickStep tactic, a team noticeable by their absence at the front this spring.
It didn’t end too badly for him, in terms of results. In his first classics season, Turner secured a 4th place at Brabantse Pijl, 8th at Dwars Door Vlaanderen, and 11th at Paris-Roubaix – a position affected by a late crash. In short, there’s really no-one else whose wheel you’d rather have going into the business end of a classics race – imagine what he’ll be like with a couple of years’ experience under his belt?
Stefan Küng – the big Swiss time triallist with the catchiest theme tune of the spring deserves a special place in our hearts. The past couple of years have been a rollercoaster of great performances and almost-but-not-quite moments for Küng, as he’s seen the likes of Filippo Ganna, Wout van Aert and even young countryman Stefan Bissegger rise to prominence in his favoured discipline, and many victories snapped up by them that could, in another timeline, have been his.
Battling the clock is not the Swiss rider’s only skill though, and he’s been at the pointy end of the action throughout classics season, animating races along with a select group of top riders – simply put, Stefan Küng is not afraid of a hard day’s work in the saddle.
It would be quicker to list races in which the FDJ rider WASN’T active at the front, but suffice to say his hard work hasn’t gone unnoticed, with many cycling fans and commentators uniting to wish good things for him (while singing his name repeatedly), and hoping that the deserved results come in time. His best results were two podiums – he was 3rd at E3 and Paris-Roubaix, but he scored another three top tens and a 12th in what has to be one of the most consistent classics campaigns of any rider this year. If he had any fault it would be that perhaps he works TOO hard, and lacks the killer instinct required to deliver a blow to his rivals when it matters.
Tiesj Benoot / Christophe Laporte – Jumbo-Visma began the classics season with a roar, as Wout van Aert took victory at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad. It was clear from the outset that their two new signings were going to be worth their weight in ̶g̶o̶l̶d̶ yellow and black. Tiesj Benoot was an instrumental part of the team that day, attacking up the Kapelmuur to test the legs of the front runners as van Aert positioned himself perfectly in the bunch behind.
Benoot was active the next day at Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne but his crash at Strade Bianche was a portent of doom. One of the most poignant images from a disaster-strewn day for the peloton depicted Benoot sitting at the side of the road, battered and dejected as a fan offered him a coat, his instrumental role as part of Jumbo Visma’s one-day set-up in jeopardy.
He bounced back in style though, and assisted in Wout van Aert’s second win of the season at E3 Saxo Bank classic, before taking his own shot at leadership at Dwars Door Vlaanderen, where he claimed a spot on the podium, finishing second behind Mathieu van der Poel. He also took third at Amstel Gold Race.
Laporte has taken a victory this season, at Paris-Nice, but as it’s not a classics win he’s eligible for this list. He took second at E3, crossing the line arm-in-arm with his leader, and narrowly missed out on another second place days later at Gent-Wevelgem, when Biniam Girmay made history to become the first black African rider to win a Belgian classic. 9th place at the Tour of Flanders rounded out an impressive campaign for the French rider who has looked revitalised since joining his new team.
It’s hard to argue which of Jumbo Visma’s two super signings has had a bigger impact in the classics season, but looking back at the results, it’s also fair to say that both deserved a win of their own.
Victor Campanaerts – another time triallist turned classics rider, Campanaerts has been open about his shift in focus, which is more wholesale by comparison with Küng, and the Belgian rider is clearly loving life as a one-day specialist. He’s hugely popular with fans for his full gas riding and never say die attitude, and along with Küng was one of a select group of special riders who were always to be found animating races, attacking and bringing chaos down upon the bunch with gleeful abandon throughout the spring. Campanaerts suffered for his art in more ways than one: he crashed heavily at Roubaix and at the Tour of Flanders but he picked himself up and continued. He even broke a tooth at De Brabantse Pijl, turning such a huge gear that his characteristic determined look actually caused him a dental-based injury.
Like Küng, Campanaerts is one of those riders for whom you only wish good things. He was a brilliant advocate for Qhubeka Assos until their demotion and now, at Lotto Soudal, he is a role model for the younger riders and a strong presence in the bunch. And his presence almost guarantees fireworks. Or the need for dental treatment.
Benoît Cosnefroy – After a strong start to the season at the French one-day races (Cosnefroy bagged 5th and 3rd at the GP Marseillaise and Drome Classic respectively.), the AG2R rider opted to miss the early block of cobbled classics, joining the bunch for Amstel Gold Race. The rest is history. He almost didn’t make this list, as for a few precious moments, he had won the race, after a valiant two-up break with INEOS’ Michal Kwiatkowski ended with him being briefly awarded the victory.
But it was not to be. In a second photo finish in as many years, Kwiatkowski was latterly declared the winner. The French rider took defeat with good grace, and came back just a few days later to take another second place, coming in first from the select group behind solo winner Magnus Sheffield, undone twice in as many races by the British team.
Cosnefroy is a total joy to watch. He’s punchy, climbs with power and fluidity, and brings races to life by his mere presence and OK yes I’m big fan of him but it’s not hard to see why – he is one of those riders who pours his soul into his riding and is a likeable individual both on and off the bike. I foresee more good days in his future, and I will be the first one dancing with a jersey hanging from my teeth whenever he snags a win.
Lianne Lippert – With bags of young talent coming through the ranks and Lorena Wiebes in sparkling form, Team DSM have been visible at the front of all the races so far this season. While the first half of classics season was, on the whole, all about the sprinters, in the latter half, the climbers have come into play, particularly in the Ardennes classics which are far more suited to the mountain goats than the fast women. Liane Lippert has led the charge for DSM in recent races, constantly involved in the big moves, and never far from the front of the race, happy to mix it with the bigger names and stronger teams. For her troubles, she’s finished in the top ten of all her last four participations, with a third place finish at Amstel Gold Race and De Brabantse Pijl the highlights of her campaign.
Lippert is definitely one to watch going into the summer and no doubt she will be stage hunting at races such as the Giro Donne and the Tour de Frances Femmes. In this form, you would not rule her out.
Ashleigh Moolman – in her last season of professional racing, Moolman Pasio is proving she still has plenty to offer, both as a top class climbing domestique and a contender in her own right. While the season has yet to really get going in terms of serious climbing, the past week in the Ardennes have given us a sense of the form the veteran South African is in ahead of the big stage races, and it’s clear she intends to go out on a high.
She rode for Demi Vollering at La Fleche Wallonne and Liège–Bastogne–Liège and there was nothing to choose between them at either race, as the pair finished third and fourth in the standings at both. Moolman Pasio’s explosive attack on the Côte de La Redoute at Liège–Bastogne–Liège was the decisive move that really tore the peloton apart and forced Annemiek van Vleuten to show her cards early. It worked for the Dutch woman in the Ardennes, but with Moolman Pasio leading the charge at the major stage races, van Vleuten is going to have a real battle on her hands.
Brodie Chapman / Grace Brown – FDJ Nouvelle-Acquitaine-Futuroscope began the season a little off-kilter – there were a few cases of questionable tactics (see Le Samyn) and a couple of races where they didn’t perform as expected. But they have always been there or thereabouts, and the fearless attacking nature of these two riders is part of the reason why they are always visible at the business end of one-day races.
Chapman attacked twice at Dwars Door Vlaanderen to light up the race and spent time in the breakaway at the Tour of Flanders too. Grace Brown has been a key aggressor in a number of races this season, making it three riders in the top 10 for FDJ at Flanders, and coming 11th at Strade Bianche.
The vibe in the team is clearly one of unity and confidence despite the recent absence of their nominal leader Cecilie Uttrup Ludwig, who was side-lined from the Ardennes Classics with a positive Covid-19 diagnosis. Even without the Dane among their ranks, it was in the Ardennes where the French team really found their stride, with Marta Cavalli in flying form, taking two of the three classics there.
Her win at Amstel Gold Race seemed to light a new fire under the team, who animated the racing after that, going on the front foot and bringing the race to the likes of SD-Worx and Movistar. Brown attacked solo at the pointy end of Liège–Bastogne–Liège and gave Annemiek van Vleuten something to think about, and although Cavalli wasn’t able to make it three from three, she led out Brown to an extremely well earned second place.
Pauliena Rooijakkers – Canyon//SRAM’s number one at the classics is undoubtedly Kasia Niewiadoma, and while the Polish rider has had a good season so far, it’s her team mate Rooijakkers who’s caught our attention on more than one occasion with her brave and powerful attacks. She wasn’t particularly active earlier in the classics season but as climbing is her real strength, it’s unsurprising her best form has come in recent weeks, in the Ardennes.
Prior to this though, it was her gutsy break at Brabantse Pijl that had everyone talking about her. Commentators on the race even had her confused with Niewiadoma for a while, as they assumed it would be the team leader making such a dominant statement. Rooijakkers fought hard to stay away but didn’t quite have the legs that day, losing out to Demi Vollering but still finishing an impressive sixth on the day (with her team leader, Niewiadoma, taking second).
Rooijakkers was active again at both La Flèche Wallonne and Liège–Bastogne–Liège, finishing a creditable 11th place in both, and with such an active classics campaign behind her, don’t be surprised to see her breaking out for a stage win or two over the summer.
Shirin van Anrooij – OK I might be a bit biased because I love seeing cyclocrossers do well on the road, but Shirin made the transition between disciplines look like a walk in the park in the beginning section of this season. Immediately a vital part of Trek-Segafredo’s engine room, van Anrooij has regularly been seen at the front driving the peloton, and her work for her team mates has paid off, with some notable success for Trek across the classics season.
She’s also had her own chances – she was the best placed Trek rider at both Omloop het Hageland, where she was 5th, and Le Samyn des Dames, where she came 7th. All this from a 20-year-old CX rider? Impressive stuff. Van Anrooij clearly has a bright future ahead and I can’t wait to watch her come into her own over the coming seasons.
Join me again as I analyse the winners and losers from the classics season, and delve into the winning moves, in my Big Review: Classics Edition, coming soon.