By Barnaby CHESTERMAN
Paris, March 13, 2016 (AFP) – John Degenkolb’s absence will slightly dampen the excitement building ahead of the new Spring Classic season, particularly with a resurgent Fabian Cancellara aiming for a glorious swansong.
German Degenkolb will miss the defenses of both his Milan-San Remo and Paris-Roubaix titles due to a crash suffered while training in Spain in January.
The 27-year-old nearly lost a finger in the accident when a British motorist collided with a group of Giant-Alpecin riders out training after taking the wrong side of the road.
Degenkolb also broke his arm and injured his hip, while several other teammates were hurt.
The absence of Degenkolb will temper slightly the classic battle between the old guard and the new pretenders with Cancellara riding his final season as a professional.
Cancellara proved his form earlier this month by winning Strade Bianche for the third time, despite facing two Etixx-Quick Step riders and world champion Peter Sagan in the finale.
He will be one of the favorites to land a second victory at San Remo next weekend, although 2014 champion and last year’s runer-up to Degenkolb, Norway’s Alexander Kristoff, will probably start as favorite.
Kristoff also won the Tour of Flanders last year and will again be among the front-runners at the first three Monuments of the season: Milan-San Remo, Flanders and Paris-Roubaix.
Kristoff, though, is yet to find his full form this season, missing out on a stage victory so far at Paris-Nice, although he did come second at Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne in February, winning the dash to the line behind breakaway winner Jasper Stuyven.
Sagan will undoubtedly be in contention, although he more often than not finds himself a marked man in finales to major races and has yet to develop the tactical nous that allowed Cancellara or Belgium’s Tom Boonen to taste success so many times.
Sagan is often a highly-placed finisher and less often a victor, as his results this season have demonstrated, coming second to Greg Van Avermaet at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, also finishing fourth at Strade Bianche and seventh in Kuurne.
Van Avermaet is another known for his bridesmaid finishes but he is always close at Flanders and Paris-Roubaix — he was third at both last year.
– Record winner –
Boonen is another veteran to look out for as he winds down a hugely successful career.
Boonen, like Cancellara, missed his two favorite events — Flanders and Paris-Roubaix — last year due to injury.
He crashed during Paris-Nice, dislocating his shoulder but had already shown strong form with a third-placed finish at Omloop.
But he remains the joint record winner of Paris-Roubaix (four alongside Roger De Vlaeminck) and Flanders (three alongside five other riders, including Cancellara).
Youngsters such as Belgians Tiesj Benoot, Yves Lampaert and Stuyven could create some waves while Briton Geraint Thomas and Zdenek Stybar of the Czech Republic proved last year they were among the very best cobbled classic riders.
Over the second half of April, focus will shift from the cobbles to the Ardennes with the Amstel Gold, Fleche-Wallonne and Liege-Bastogne-Liege classics.
The strongmen of the cobbles will make way for more punchy finishers such as Ireland’s Dan Martin, Czech Roman Kreuziger or Australians Simon Gerrans and Michael Matthews.
The latter has been in good early form at Paris-Nice after winning the opening prologue and then doggedly holding onto the leader’s yellow jersey for several days.
Matthews is rapidly becoming one of the best punchers and day-racers having finished second to Sagan at last year’s world championships and taken third at both Milan-San Remo and Amstel Gold.
But it will be tough to displace Spanish veterans Alejandro Valverde and Joaquim Rodriguez on the tough, steep uphill finishes in the Ardennes.
Valverde came close to landing the first Ardennes hat-trick since Belgium’s Philippe Gilbert in 2011 as he was beaten into second by Michal Kwiatkowski at Amstel Gold before winning the other two.
Poland’s Kwiatkowski has moved to Team Sky from Etixx this year and the British outfit will be hoping he can deliver them their first Monument success, if Thomas hasn’t already done so on the cobbles.