Not in a decade or more have the Spring Classics looked such a wide open affair - and so far, writes Anthony Tan, it's been absolutely brilliant.
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7 Apr 2015 - 11:32 PM  UPDATED 13 Apr 2015 - 3:39 PM

Less than a week after the season's first monument, Milan-San Remo, and men's professional cycling has lost three of the biggest favourites for the Northern Classics.

Well, almost - two for sure. How the hell did that happen?

Well, first-up, Tom Boonen was riding where he shouldn't have been on the opening road stage of Paris-Nice. Twenty kilometres from the finish in Contres, the Belgian, shortly after handing over his rain-jacket to the team car (why didn't he hand it to one of his team-mates, or, if one wasn't around, put it in his back pocket?), was riding at the rear of the peloton when a touch of wheels with the rider in front saw him kiss the tarmac and dislocate his left shoulder. "An AC-joint dislocation, as we've already seen with other riders of the team with the same kind of injury, requires an extended time of recovery due to the nature of the injury," Etixx-QuickStep doctor Yvan van Mol said afterwards.

Surgery required; three to six weeks' recovery time. In one fell swoop, Cobbled Classics Season 2015 over for the 34-year-old.

Friday at the E3 Harelbeke was a double Classics whammy. Less than 40km into the race, on the cobbled descent of the Haaghoek, an innocuous dropped wattle bottle precipitated a crash when a rider rode over the top and lost control, then an even larger pile-up, to which Fabian Cancellara fell victim to. "It all happened so fast. Someone slammed the brakes and there was no way to go, just straight into it. I flew over a couple of riders and then landed in a pile of bikes. There were riders everywhere. I fell so hard, and felt pain everywhere. It was sort of reflex to get back on the bike but the pain was hard, in my lower back, left wrist, and my ribs on the back," Cancellara said, where X-rays and CT scans confirmed the worst possible diagnosis: a pair of transverse process fractures in two vertebrae.

"I felt right away that it was a serious crash, but I wanted to try to keep going. I had to stop; the pain was too much."

Recovery time is unknown, but "the injury is serious enough to make definite there will be no spring Classics for Fabian Cancellara", read the press release from his Trek Factory Racing team.

Then, 35km from the finish in Harelbeke, with the winning trio of Geraint Thomas, Peter Sagan and Zdenek Stybar, clearly the three strongest on the day, already up the road and quickly gaining time over a chase group led by a panic-stricken BMC Racing, Greg Van Avermaet - along with Philippe Gilbert one of their two star riders - went A over T trying to avoid another rider on a narrow, twisting descent. "My hip is hurting a little bit. It was a pretty bad crash. But I tried to come back easy to the finish, just not to be sore, because if you go directly in the car after the race, it's probably worse the day after," said he who remains under investigation for suspected ozone doping.

Van Avermaet, however, unlike Cancellara, finished - albeit 88th, 6'44 behind winner Thomas. "I feel OK. I feel a little bit of pain. We will see how it is tomorrow. I think I am still there for the other races," the Belgian said, sounding less than sure about his future prospects this Spring.

Conversely, after a less than ordinary 2014, Team Sky is enjoying a blinder to date. Less than three months into the year, the British-based outfit boast 15 victories among 34 podium places.

Boding even better, those 15 wins are spread across seven riders. From Richie Porte's stage victories at the Tour Down Under and Paris-Nice; to Elia Viviani at the Dubai Tour; to Ian Stannard outfoxing an Etixx-Quick Step triumvirate at the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad; to Chris Froome turning the tables on Alberto Contador at the Vuelta a Andalucia; to Wout Poels' mountain stage win at Tirreno-Adriatico; and, on Friday, Ben Swift winning a stage at the Coppi e Bartali and Thomas victorious in a pre-Flanders warm-up. "I can't believe it, really... I felt pretty good from the second half of the race and I just committed," said the Welsh winner of Harelbeke and part of the reigning Olympic team pursuit squad from the London Games. "These six weeks from Paris-Nice to Paris-Roubaix was the big hit for me, early season, and Paris-Nice was really disappointing (placing seventh on the final time trial up the Col d'Eze, Thomas finished eventually finished fifth to team-mate and overall winner Porte). It was so close last week (at Paris-Nice), so to get the win now is really special... Anything else is a bonus."

With two days remaining in each, Team Sky also lead two stage races: Porte at the Volta Ciclista a Catalunya, and Swift at the Settimana Internazionale di Coppi e Bartali. Deftly poised they may be, both riders are nevertheless capable of bringing home the bacon and augmenting the team's already enviable 2015 palmarès. Perhaps the only (at this stage small) concern is the Tasmanian's spell of form and fortune - is he peaking too soon, or can he get better still? - and Froome's rather sudden loss of race condition; will he get his mojo back before the Tour, or will Sky pull Richie out of the Giro, and make him leader (or co-leader) in July?

For the cobbled Classics at least, with two of the big names gone and a third licking his wounds, it's open slather for the rest.