Monday, April 16, 2007

Kelly, O'Grady, Paris-Roubaix and Le Tour

OK, it's stunning. Stuart O'Grady has won Paris-Roubaix. It's (sadly) not big news here in Australia, at least we haven't heard a lot about it yet - but it should be HUGE. Hopefully as the news filters through it will get some more attention.

As Cyclingnews points out today, "In addition to first being the race's first Australian victor, O'Grady became the first English-speaking rider since the great Sean Kelly to win Paris-Roubaix, and not only the first Australian, but indeed the first cyclist from any Commonwealth country to win this race (Kelly is from Eire, which is not part of the Commonwealth). And the last time O'Grady won a race on a velodrome, it was nothing less than a Gold medal in the Madison at the Athens 2004 Olympics (with Graeme Brown)."

Before Stuey won I was going to note (as Irish hard-man and road sprinter Sean Kelly does here in Cyclingnews) that the way pro riders target their season has changed over the last 20-30 years. CN also recently reported that "the last time a rider did the Paris-Roubaix-Tour de France double was Bernard Hinault in 1981. Before that, Eddy Merckx took both races in 1971. Merckx was the last rider to win the Tour and triumph in Flanders in the same year, way back in 1969." Stuey won't win Le Tour but he has worn the Maillot jaune.

It's interesting that Stuey is a little in Kelly's mould. A hard man, known for his sprinting as well as his versatility. Kelly was arguably a better sprinter but the way he toughed it out in the mountains was a rare treat. Stuey too has been known to have a dig in the high stuff, if there was a sniff of some time to be gained on GC. But Roubaix is dead flat and cobbled, so this win is a monument to O'Grady's versatility.

Thinking along these lines, these days we don't expect to see a sprinter like Boonen contest the GC at Le Tour, as we didn't expect to see Armstrong do Paris-Roubaix; whereas Merckx and Hinault contested the classics, the GC, the mountains... even the sprints. We can expect nothing less than increasing specialisation over time if the individual targets are worth it - and that's exactly what has happened. Le Tour is so big that it alone justifies a rider's salary. Whilst we have always had some specialists - it's a physiological thing after all - it wasn't possible for a pro to to make enough money (or even to retain their place in a team) without riding lots of races over the course of a year and being good at more than type of race. Which is why we'll 'never' see another Merckx, if things stay as they are but will 'probably' see more Armstrongs, Boonens and - I hope - more O'Gradys.

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