Automatic Endurance Training
Ok, so we've all seen it at this point? Spoiler mode off? Gilbert wins; Sagan, Van Avermaet, and Naesen (MUH BOI, more on that later), hit the deck with about 16 km to go. If not for the crash, maybe they catch Gilbert, maybe they don't. We'll never know. What we do know now is what caused the crash. First it looked like a spectator's jacket was the cause. Then it was said Sagan got hooked on the advertising banner. Then it was said Sagan just lost control and hit a leg of the barrier. We now know it was what we originally thought: the jacket done did it.
There's some pretty clear footage of a jacket hanging over the barrier. As Sagan passes, the jacket catches his left hood, turns his bar toward the barrier, Sagan hits one of the metal legs, and goes down. GVA, right behind Sagan, has no where to go, and Naesen, who was half a wheel behind GVA looks to suffer the exact fate of the man in front: hooking the jacket (taking it with him in the process), and turning into the barrier. All three of them hit the deck. Race over. You should care about this for two reasons.
First: It denied us a climax to what I believe is the greatest race on the calendar. You may disagree on the "greatest race" part: Roubaix, Tour de France, Giro, Worlds, whatever. But you can't deny, Flanders is one of the top tier events of bike racing, and differing tastes aside, it attracts all the best specialists, on their best form, period. If the Sagan group makes it off the Oude Kwaremont unscathed, I believe we were in for a showdown. Even after crashing, then collaborating with Dylan van Baarle (who didn't have the strength to follow on the Kwaremont by the way), GVA was able to hack 30 seconds out of Gilbert's advantage on the run for home. Add the motorcycles that are Sagan and Naesen to that, and I'm not saying we'd have come to a 4 man sprint, but it would have been tense to watch, that much is sure. Instead, we effectively have a RVV that was decided 16.9km from the line in Oudenaarde. I think we're right to feel a little... deflated, regardless of who you wanted to win (and for the record, I don't hate that Gilbert won).
SECOND (and this is the biggie): A spectator directly influenced the outcome of the race. There's a reason there are barriers: to separate those who watch, from those who race. Everything on this side of the barrier is ours: the beer, the grass, the cow turds, the drunk uncles... Everything on THAT side of the barrier is THEIRS. The jacket was on THAT side of the barrier. Exactly where it should not have been. Spectator interference is not "what makes this sport great." It's not Sagan's job to avoid the errant jacket hanging over the railing, or the careless teenager taking a selfie, or the drunk idiot scampering across the street. It's his job to put himself deeper into the black than any of us can imagine in an attempt to win the world's biggest bike races. That means taking any patch of smooth road WITHIN the barriers to keep the speed as high as he can, and make the job of following him as difficult as possible. Cobbles, dirt, grass... the space was his. If you argue that, you're wrong. Sorry.
And the whole, "If he was a man, he would have ridden the cobbles" thing is total crap. Take it from someone who has raced these climbs and cobbles in amateur and lower level UCI races where they don't bother to barricade off the gutters: I would rather ride the cobbles than fight for the gutter 100 times out of 100. It's hard enough when you've got 196 guys fighting for a road barely wide enough to fit three riders across. Open up the gutter and what you have now is 196 guys fighting for 3 inches of road. One guy gets it, and he flies. The rest are left to follow blindly, trying to balance on a patch of road they can't even see. Trust me when I say this: being forced to ride the cobbles is the preferable choice. Slower, sure. Rougher, usually. But way more predictable, and way more controllable. But when the race is on the line, you take the fast option, regardless of risk. That risk, however, should NOT include Aunt Jeanie's Jogging Jacket. Tie it around your waste for god's sake, like a normal dweeb.
Ok, that's all I've got to say about that. Sagan crashing due to a spectator's jacket is not any more a "part of The Tour of Flanders," than a spectator hucking a full can of beer at Tom Brady's head is a "part of the Super Bowl." Watch the race. Enjoy the race. But for Christ's sake, don't think you're part of it.
One final note: If you're looking for someone to root for these next few years (and next week), I'd like to offer up Oliver Naesen. We were teammates a few years ago on the Belgian Continental team Cibel, and I've got to say, as good of a bike racer as he is (and trust me, he's f**king GOOD), he's an even cooler dude. If there's one guy who never made me feel out of place as a foreigner on an effectively all-Belgian team, it was him. Feel good about rooting for that guy. You'd have a hard time finding a more down-to-earth person, and he's gonna win some shit. For sure a safe bet.