The Fewer Efforts You Make The Better

Geraint Thomas won the 2015 E3 Harelbeke Classic in Belgium in the most impressive way, attacking from a small break (that he had started) with 4 km to go and winning alone.
The E3 Harelbeke is 218km long and takes place amongst the roads, hills and cobbles of Flanders. Coming just 5 days after Milan San Remo, it signifies the start proper of the Northern Europe cobbled classics season. Two weeks later is the tour of Flanders and the Queen of the classics, Paris Roubaix is a week after that.

Previous winners are the cream of professional cycling, Fabian Cancellara (3 times), Tom Boonen (5 times) and Peter Sagan last year. Winning it puts you amongst the best in the world, and Wales’ Geraint Thomas has done just that.

Riding in Belgium is a war of attrition. The roads are narrow, they turn left and right in series’ of 90 degree turns and if you are a long way back you can often be brought to stop at the pinch points. Add to that the cobbles and cobbled climbs and just to be at the front of a classic demands a level of skill and strength that is awe inspiring. But… winning one demands more.

This is the missive of the day.

Road racing is all about power. You need a high threshold, the ability to ride above it for sustained periods and must be able to constantly absorb changes in pace dictated to you by your competitors. Any effort you make above that reduces the amount of energy you have left to use at the finish.

The simple answer to how many efforts you need to make is one. The super sprinters, the Mark Cavendish’s of the world will sit in the bunch all day being protected by their team mates and put the hammer down in the last few kilometers. If all goes to plan the only time they reach the front is in the last 100m and then they never leave it, crossing the line first. One effort, one win. The cobbled classics on the other hand are very rarely won in a bunch sprint, so more efforts are needed. The optimum number for a classic is still low – just two: one to get in or form the break, and one to attack the break or win the sprint. It sounds simple but it very rarely happens like that. The 2015 E3 was one of those rare occasions when it did and those who saw it witnessed Geraint Thomas executing one of the most beautiful race wins we have seen for ages.

Of course during the 218km there will be times when the race is strung out and you need to go hard to stay on the wheel or at the front of the bunch, but assuming you can cope with that, how do you win?

Geraint Thomas attacks on the Oude Kwaremont

Geraint is a master at the cobbled classics having won the Junior Paris Roubaix in his youth and so is one of those riders that can stay at the front of a nervous bunch. In that sense he is having to make small efforts all day but no more than anyone else around him. All races go through stages and in one over 120 miles long there are moments when everything can change. The way to win is to be part of those changes or if you are really good, make them happen yourself. In the E3 Geraint took control, attacking on the Oude Kwaremont with about 40km (25m) to go. Zdenek Stybar and Peter Sagan were the only two riders able, willing or intelligent enough to go with him, realising that this was probably one of those moments. Others may have seen it but hesitated for just a few seconds too long.

With three riders their first goal was to establish the break and then get themselves a good lead. This required all three to be allies for a while. Over the next 35 km this is what happened, they settled down and got on with the job, all working equally. But as the finish got nearer thoughts would be turning to how do I beat the others? Allies become enemies. 12 months previously Peter Sagan had won and Geraint was 3rd in a sprint finish. On paper Sagan was the faster finisher. But G had a plan. With masterful timing he attacked the break as Stybar finished his turn on the front.

Zdenek Stybar hesitates as Thomas Attacks

Being a sprinter and as it turned out, tired, Peter Sagan didn’t react straight away. Stybar would have expected him to and appeared to hesitate – Thomas had his gap. When Stybar did chase it was too late, Thomas powered over the last 4 km to finish on his own to win his first cobbled classic. He had won his race in the most magical way possible, with just two efforts – one to get into the break and once more to attack it. Geraint’s win is obviously a masterful display of power and skill but it is also a masterful display of tactics and confidence. It is how many of us imagine winning but very few ever do.