Who is Imanol Erviti?

Erviti Movistar 2015 Vuelta Espana COR VOS

The Spring Classics usually throw up a surprise or two, and this season was no exception, especially at Paris-Roubaix where we saw rank outsider Mathew Hayman win from the early breakaway.

Spaniard Imanol Erviti was one of Hayman’s companions in that move, and the only other man in the break to finish in the top ten. The Movistar man’s ninth place came a week after an equally surprising seventh in the Ronde Van Vlaanderen.

So who exactly is Imanol Erviti, the anomaly among these top ten standings, otherwise filled with cobbled specialists?

The 32-year-old is one of a rare breed in cycling – a one-team man. Since turning professional in 2005, Erviti has stuck with Eusebio Unzue’s Abarca sports through its several different iterations. He’s not the first rider to stay with the team for such a long time, following in the footsteps of José Vicente Garcia Acosta (17 years) and Pablo Lastras (18 years).

Like those riders Erviti is a gregario, a worker, a loyal lieutenant to long-time team leader Alejandro Valverde. He has helped Valverde achieve some of his greatest victories, including the 2009 Vuelta a España and last year’s Liège-Bastogne-Liège, and was supposed to ride in his service at the Ronde Van Vlaanderen.

Instead Valverde went to an altitude training camp to prepare for the Giro. The rest is, for Erviti at least, history.

Erviti Movistar 2015 Ronde Vlaanderen COR VOS 2
Erviti on the way to a surprise seventh-place finish at De Ronde

At De Ronde he became only the second Spaniard in history to finish in the top ten, the first since Juan Antonio Flecha in 2008. That ride included over 180km in the breakaway. At Roubaix he was out front for over 200km.

Speaking to Spanish newspaper Marca after Roubaix, Erviti said, “I have raced these cobbled classics many times and have returned disgusted, so the results are a surprise. However, my physical performance doesn’t surprise me.”

This spring saw Erviti race the two cobbled Monuments for the twelfth time, and with his previous best result being a 40th place at the 2009 Paris-Roubaix, it was a surprise to everyone. Of course, experience plays a big factor at these races, something that Erviti agrees with.

“Maybe [these results could have come earlier], but I don’t know. Clearly it’s a matter of experience and learning how to manage in these races,” he says. “The method is more or less trial and error. Maybe there are teams who are experts in these races and can teach you a lot faster, but they are not like Movistar in other aspects.”

“Everyone has their way and I do not regret mine.”

Erviti Movistar Roubaix 2016 COR VOS
Sprinting to ninth behind Heinrich Haussler and Marcel Sieberg at Roubaix

So there are no regrets about this late emergence, but does Erviti forsee a future in leadership?

“It’s a step on the way and what I need to do is to keep working so that it’s not the final step,” he says. “Being a leader is nice but it’s not easy in any race, and it’s a big responsibility.”

Erviti is not a natural leader, and even if he has done well on the cobbles he’s unlikely to lead a team again until next April. It’s his willingness to work for others that is of most value to his team, and this is something that has caught the eye of others too.

One notable man who has recognised Erviti’s talents is Spanish national coach Javier Minguez. The ex-Vitalicio Seguros DS has been in charge of World Championships team selection since 2013, and has selected Erviti in 2014 and 2015. It’s no small deal when a country like Spain could easily fill a squad of stars.

“Imanol is a very good rider, and he has very specific qualities to do the hard work,” says Minguez. “These are qualities that every leader wants to have at his side.”

Minguez wasn’t surprised about Erviti’s rides over the past few weeks though.

“He’s a rider with the quality to do very well in races like De Ronde. Usually his gregario mentality limits his thoughts about showing his personal brilliance though,” he says. “He has the physical potential that allows him to do extra work on behalf of the team.”

Erviti Movistar 2015 Ronde Vlaanderen COR VOS
Erviti riding in the break at De Ronde

Minguez wouldn’t be drawn on whether these performances are likely to secure him another Worlds selection, but don’t be surprised to see him in Qatar, working for Spain’s stars once again. It’s a role that he’s comfortable with.

“I have been a gregario for a long time,” he says. “It’s what I’m good at and suits the qualities I have, so this is not something I want to change.”

After the highs of the cobbles it’s back to that supporting role for Erviti now, starting at the Amstel Gold Race before racing the other Ardennes classics. Then he hopes to ride the Tour de France, his seventeenth Grand Tour, in service of Nairo Quintana.

But first, the big question – which race is harder?

“They are both very demanding. You push your limits in both. Roubaix is hard for the enduring pain, De Ronde for the gradients,” he says. “The worst of Roubaix is undoubtedly the falls and danger, but the impact of reaching the vélodrome is the best.”

 

A POTTED HISTORY

Born in Pamplona, Navarre, Erviti started out at the local Ermitagaña Cycling Club. He rode in the amateur ranks with Bideki, the ONCE feeder team previously known as Iberdrola.

The team had previously brought through Alberto Contador and Juan Manuel Garate among others, but shut down in 2002. A move to Serbitzu-Kirolgi followed and steady results, including stage wins at the Vuelta a Valladolid and Vuelta a Navarra saw him secure a contract with Pamplona-based Illes Balears for 2005.

Since then Erviti has stayed with the team, helping them top the ProTour/WorldTour rankings in 2008, 2013, 2014 and 2015. It hasn’t always been about toiling away for the leaders though. In 2008 he won stage 18 of the Vuelta a España, outsprinting breakaway companion Nicolas Roche in Valladolid. Two years later came his next (and most recent) victory, again at the Vuelta and from another breakaway.

The spring Erviti the worker has proven his talent as a sometime breakaway specialist once again.

Les Amis de Paris-Roubaix

Work on Haveluy-Wallers - April 2 - LES AMIS DE PARIS-ROUBAIX
Work on Haveluy-Wallers on April 2 (Les Amis de Paris-Roubaix)

Think Paris-Roubaix and you think of the roads. It’s not about the 205km of the plain asphalt roads though. No, the majority of the race is run on roads no different from any other on the calendar. The other 52km are what set this race apart. The cobbles are Paris-Roubaix.

As crazy as it sounds now, there was, once upon a time, a push to wipe out these cobbled roads. In the aftermath of World War Two, France began to modernise the damaged road system, and the pavé of the north slowly disappeared.

The race first lost a cobbled sector to the unrelenting march of modernisation in 1939, with more and more covered by asphalt as the years rolled by. The advent of live television only accelerated this process as local authorities, ashamed of their poor roads, would resurface them if the race passed through.

In 1983 that changed. Paris-Roubaix organiser Albert Bouvet and Jean-Claude Vallaeys, founder of Vélo Club Roubaix, founded a new organisation – Les Amis de Paris-Roubaix (the friends of Paris-Roubaix). The group’s aim was to preserve cobbled sectors, repairing and restoring them each year.

Les Amis repaving Ennevelin on March 19 (Les Amis de Paris-Roubaix)
Les Amis repaving Ennevelin on March 19 (Les Amis de Paris-Roubaix)

Fortunately, they are still at it today, headed up by President François Doulcier. His day job, a car assembly line manager, Doulcier joined the group as a member in 2001, and has been President since 2011.

The organisation has grown from 40 members when Doulcier joined to over 200 today. These members come from around the world, from Belgium to Brazil, and anybody can join for a fee of between €20-30.

This money goes towards the maintenance of the cobbles, and the same local authorities who were once dead-set against the race now work with Les Amis in order to carry out the work, as Doulcier explains.

“For the big jobs, the work is funded by the local government, yes. Smaller jobs are done by the students, and they are funded by us as well as local communities.”

Those students are from the Raismes Horticultural College near Valenciennes. The school has been involved since 2002, and groups of students have worked on the cobbles every spring. Last year they worked on Quérénaing-Maing  and Wallers-Hélesmes (otherwise known as Pont Gibus), while this spring has seen them restore sector 19, from Haveluy to Wallers.

“These are future gardeners, and the paving work is part of the landscaping integrated into their training,” says Oliver Codron, the landscaping teacher at the college.

Students work on Haveluy-Wallers - April 2 - LES AMIS DE PARIS-ROUBAIX
Students work on Haveluy-Wallers on April 2 (Les Amis de Paris-Roubaix)

Lugging around twenty-pound stones is some apprenticeship for these students. It’s estimated that over 50,000 cobbles have been repositioned and restored by students of the college over the years.

“There are classes of fifteen to twenty working for fifteen days. The budget for their work is €15,000 each year,” says Doulcier. “The heavy work has a budget of €100,000.”

Of course the organisation, which is entirely voluntary, does not make a profit – their work is a labout of love.

The heavy work described by Doulcier is outsourced to companies. He says a team of four work for several months, with 100 metres of the route taking around a month to renovate.

Such work includes a street sweeper cleaning the famous Trouée d’Arenberg sector – its forest location means that moss and mould thrive on the cobbles there.

Arenberg brings with it another problem – cobble theft. Yes, really. Each year the organisation replaces dozens of stones in the forest and elsewhere. Finding the replacements isn’t a problem though, as the group has a stockpile of over 90,000 thanks to local authorities, who save the stones they dig up.

Street Sweeper cleaning Arenberg - March 25 - LES AMIS DE PARIS ROUBAIX
The street sweeper cleaning Arenberg on March 25 (Les Amis de Paris-Roubaix)

This year, the work has been extensive, with restoration carried out at a number of well-known sectors, including Auchy-lez-Orchies, Mons-en-Pévèle and Carrefour de l’Arbre. For Les Amis (or the ‘convicts of the road’ as they call themselves), this has just been a regular year.

“The repairs have been a similar level to recent years,” says Doulcier. “In addition to the spring work, the pavé is checked throughout the year in order to identify any potential problems.”

Don’t think that the group is making the race easier though – the challenge is in maintaining the cobbles. That is, keeping them tough to ride as well as preserving them aesthetically.

“We don’t want to turn it into a pool table,” Doulcier jokes. “We have to keep the challenge of the cobbles, but remove the ruts and potholes.”

For now though, he can sit back and enjoy the fruits of his organisation’s labour. On Sunday the peloton will roar over the same rough cobbles that Les Amis have spent months painstakingly renovating.

Sunday’s victor will take home one of the famed cobbles of Paris-Roubaix – one from the vault I’m sure. But then it won’t be long until thoughts turn to next year, for Doulcier and Les Amis, at least. The work is never done.

 

“The Northern Classic in Southern Europe”

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The leaders tackle the sterrato last year (Cor Vos)

At least that’s what RCS claims, but is it an accurate comparison?

After the first classics of the season at last weekend’s Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne, the peloton heads south to Italy and the Strade Bianche. It’s a race that feels decades-old but Saturday sees just the tenth edition of the Tuscan classic.

The wording in the title is from the organisers, RCS Sport, as part of the race promotion. Of course every promoter seeks to liven up their press releases and put a positive spin on their offerings. So, I thought I’d take a closer look at the race and see if the comparison to the likes of Paris-Roubaix and the Ronde van Vlaanderen holds up.

Non-tarmacked roads are a novelty common to all of these races, and realistically the basis of all comparisons between them. Strade Bianche is, of course, known for (and named after) the white gravel roads (sterrato) that make up sections of the course.

These are roads that are unique in the sport, save for the rare occasion they find their way into the parcours of the Giro d’Italia. Brittany’s ribinoù – the dirt farm tracks found at the Tro-Bro Léon – are perhaps the closest analogue in terms of texture and ride-feel.

Certainly riding the sterrato gives a sensation unlike riding on any other road – the contrast between riding the white gravel or normal roads is as stark as the contrast in appearance between them. Two-time winner Fabian Cancellara is in a better position than most to comment, and the Swiss draws an interesting parallel.

“I remember once I came off the road when I punctured in Qatar,” he says. “I ended up riding through the sand there. That’s the kind of sensation you have at Strade Bianche.”

Sienna - Italia - wielrennen - cycling - radsport - cyclisme - Fabian Cancellara (RadioShack - Nissan) pictured during Strade Bianche 2012 - Gaiole in Chianti > Siena 190 km - 03/03/2012 - foto RB/Cor Vos ©2012
Cancellara takes his second win in 2012 (Cor Vos)

These are normal roads too, used by all as opposed to the pavé of northern France – the exclusive domain of heavy-duty farm vehicles. As a result, the gravel is ground down into a mixture of sand and small stones – a world away from the bone-aching cobbles seen on the road to Roubaix.

“It’s harder to manoeuvre at Strade Bianche though,” says Cancellara. “Because when you are riding through a lot of gravel it’s very difficult to keep your bike steady.”

There is one similarity in terms of feeling, and that is the age-old law of ‘the faster you go, the smoother it feels’, as the bike almost glides over the harsher bumps. Well, not glide exactly but you get the drift.

Selectivity is of course an important factor in these classics – more specifically the road’s importance in how selective the race can be. At Roubaix, the cobbles are often where the race is won and lost, but here the hills are the main obstacle. In this regard, Strade Bianche has more in common with the Ronde van Vlaanderen, with gradients upwards of 10% the norm.

There are no stand-out climbs in the race yet, nothing to compare with lionised hills like the Koppenberg or Muur anyway. Instead it’s an attritional slog made up of innumerable of small but sharp hills and rises.

But while the north has Roubaix and its fabled and historic velodrome, the Strade Bianche has Siena and the Piazza del Campo. The town’s medieval main square is associated more with the famous Palio horse race than bike racing, but just look at it. That is a fitting end point for any bike race, and is certainly one of the more memorable finishes in the sport.

Siena - Italy - wielrennen - cycling - radsport - cyclisme - illustration - illustratie Vittoria pictured during Strade Bianche - By Limar 2014 - San Giminiano - Siena 200 km - 08/03/2014 - photo Claudio Minardi/Cor Vos © 2014
The Piazza del Campo, Siena (Cor Vos)

But before riders get there they have to put the hard miles in – and this is another instance in which the race bears no comparison to the Northern Classics. While 1.HC races such as this are restricted by UCI rules to 200km, WorldTour one-day races have a freer reign, and so we see the 250-260km norm for De Ronde and Roubaix. This year Strade Bianche is 176km long, so in that respect the races differ massively.

And what does Cancellara think about the Strade Bianche-Roubaix comparison?

“It isn’t similar to Roubaix at all. The gravel doesn’t feel the same,” he says. “There are some parts where the roads are a little fluffy, but the race is a different experience altogether.”

It’s an unequivocal statement from the man who will be riding his last Strade Bianche on Saturday, but just because the races are so different doesn’t lessen the value of the Tuscan classic.

So the promotional spin exists to draw attention to the race and boost the profile, but it has certainly worked. Strade Bianche has risen from 1.1 status to 1.HC and there’s even talk of it moving up to WorldTour next season. The startlist is already of a quality approaching Paris-Roubaix, with stars like Nibali, Van Avermaet, Valverde, Cancellara, Sagan and Kwiatkowski all riding on Saturday.

Probably the most important factor to consider though, is one that all of these races have in common – the excitement. The chaos, crashes, punctures and heavyweight battles right to the final turn of the wheel that characterise the Northern Classics are here too. And ultimately, that’s what it boils down to – it’s we watch bike racing for.


A final note: It looks like we might see the first ever wet Strade Bianche on Saturday, as showers and thunderstorms are likely in the morning and afternoon. We all know how revered a wet Paris-Roubaix is, but if you want a taste of what a wet Strade Bianche could be like, look no further than stage seven of the 2010 Giro d’Italia.

Strade Bianche 2012
The peloton kicking up dust in 2012 (Cor Vos)