Australian Simon Gerrans’s surprise victory at Liege-Bastogne-Liege on Sunday brought to an end the Spring Classics season but also ushered in a new and exciting era in cycling.
Fabian Cancellara may have won the Tour of Flanders and Philippe Gilbert triumphed at the Amstel Gold Race — in the process both claiming a third victory in those races — but what was undeniably apparent was how much closer the competition has become.
The cobbled classics began with Swiss Cancellara and Belgian Tom Boonen the overwhelming favourites to add to their multiple victories in Flanders and at Paris-Roubaix.
But while Cancellara’s return of a win in the first and third place in Roubaix demonstrated that he remains the king of the cobbles, he was unable to stamp his authority on either race in the way he has done in the past, when he sparked suspicions of riding a motorised bike as he rode away from helpless opposition.
This time it was his wily experience that enabled him to win a four-up sprint in Flanders against riders who found themselves in unchartered waters having never won a cobbled classic.
In Roubaix it was an opportunistic move from Dutchman Niki Terpstra 6km from the end that proved decisive while Cancellara was then beaten to second in a sprint in which German John Degenkolb had been as close to a near certainty as there could be.
But the very fact that sprinter Degenkolb, who had previously displayed his Spring form in winning Gent-Wevelgem, could arrive at the end of 250km, including 50km on the cobbles, alongside Cancellara and Boonen was telling in itself.
Behind Terpstra’s late breakaway, 11 riders arrived at the velodrome in Roubaix together, something previously unheard of in the Queen of the Classics.
And so to Boonen, whose record of three wins in Flanders and four in Roubaix is unsurpassed by anyone in history.
He followed up a seventh in Flanders with a 10th place in Roubaix, where he was unable to make stick a typically daring attack some 40km from home.
The podiums gained by Greg Van Avermaet and Sep Vanmarcke in Flanders, not to mention the results of Terpstra and Degenkolb in Roubaix, demonstrated not so much a changing of the guard as a widening of the talent pool.
It was a similar story in the Ardennes where there were three different winners of the three Classics.
True, Gilbert did win the semi-classic Brabantse Pijl as well as Amstel but his 10th placed finish at the Fleche Wallonne and eighth in La Doyenne proved he was not only beatable but vulnerable.
Alejandro Valverde had the best set of results, winning Fleche, coming second in Liege and fourth at Amstel, while young Pole Michal Kwiatkowski also managed top five finishes in all three races.
But aside from their impressive consistency there was nonetheless a fair spread of the podium positions.
Gerrans took third in Amstel as well as his victory in Liege but Belgian Jelle Vanendert made the podium in the Netherlands while Ireland’s Daniel Martin broke up the usual suspects at Fleche.
Gilbert looked a class apart in Amstel, as Valverde did likewise on the Mur de Huy at the end of Fleche, but Liege saw an outsider claim the win after two pure climbers in Gianpaolo Caruso and Domenico Pozzovivo had threatened to cause a real shock with a long break for home.
Tellingly, in Liege a group of around 35 riders arrived together at the final climb around one kilometre from home. There were similarly surprisingly large groups contesting the business end at Amstel and Fleche, while the 12-man group running into Roubaix before Terpstra’s lone break was another remarkable turn of events.
Sceptics will suggest that the new supposedly drug-free era in cycling is a major player in the tightening of competition.
How much truth there is in that is impossible to know but what is certain is that cycling appears to be entering an exciting period of fierce and unexpected competition in its Spring Classics.