The first 210km of the race were dominated by a series of crashes, accidents and bizarre incidents. Riders fell, most notably Fabian Cancellara. It was not until the final 40km that the race came alive.
Then with 18km when Alessandro Ballan went clear on the Oude Kwaremont and – as the picture shows – Tom Boonen and Filippo Pozzato rode across to him. This was the moment the race was won.
First, those crashes. TV cameras lingered voyeuristically on Fabian Cancellara lying prone in the road with a cracked collarbone, a moment that ended his spring classics season and immediately forced riders and directeur sportifs to recalibrate race tactics. The same injury for Sebastian Langeveld after he decided to take a cycle path and collided with a spectator. But there were other odd moments, for example the Team Sky car drove into the back of the Liquigas vehicle. The first 200km of the race were not great viewing, enlivened by the “wacky races” aspect. After all the early breakaway was hauled back to 50 seconds at one point but once on the finishing circuits around Oudenaarde the gap doubled as the big contenders watched each other.
At one point a group of 11 riders was away and this looked like the winning move, with Boonen and Chavanel joined by Sep Vanmarcke and Peter Sagan amongst others. But Sky and Vacansoleil led the chase and it all came back together before the last time up the Oude Kwaremont.
The winning moment
Ballan attacked early on the Oude Kwaremont and then Boonen and Pozzato came across over the top. This time Pozzato wasn’t sitting on the wheels, he was the one going across whilst Boonen was tucked in behind. This was where the lead trio formed and credit to all three riders for their aggressive riding. Ballan perhaps had to go since he couldn’t cope with a sprint but Boonen in particular was bold in covering Pozzato.
On to the Paterberg and Boonen looked awkward for a moment. As the trio cleared the Paterberg they had 20 seconds lead but on the final 15km they stretched this to over a minute, taking turns to work as a chase group behind couldn’t get going. Some riders can sprint but Ballan is one of those who cannot, his rangy physique doesn’t have the raw power. So it was inevitable that he would try an attack or two on the run in but these lacked bit and each time it was Tom Boonen who shut them down en patron as they say in French, like a boss. This gave Pozzato the perfect position as they entered the final 800 metres. Ballan led, then Boonen jumped and Pozzato could not come past.
Looking back I think Pozzato made the mistake of trying to pass on the left of Boonen. The wind was blowing from this direction and there would have been more shelter had the Italian gone to the right. But this is an observation rather than a criticism, details like this are hard after 255km. Besides, nobody can stop Tom Boonen this year. We should note he is supported by a very strong team too, having Chavanel, Terpstra and others provides great benefits.
The race was selective and provided a worthy winner. But is the course change an improvement? Dropping the Kapelmuur climb means losing something iconic and I did find the Kwaremont-Paterberg combo obviously repetitive, the course had a feel of the World Championships with laps and riders being dropped out the back. It is hard to judge the new course on the basis of one race, especially since we had bright sunshine and dry cobbles. We will know in a few years’ time if the change works… and if it is not good for the race then the commercially-sensitive organisers will find market forces direct them back to Geraardsbergen and The Muur.
Boonen now joins Achiel Buysse, Eric Leman, Johan Museeuw and Fiorenzo Magni as a three time winner of the race. Sometimes we can read about race history and it seems a bit distant. The black and white photos, the unfamiliar names. But here today we saw Tom Boonen once again placing himself amongst the greatest ever classics riders of all time. Paris-Roubaix is next Sunday.
I’d also add that George Hincapie passed “Briek” Schotte’s record of 16 finishes. He finished 52nd today, the 17th time he has finished the Tour of Flanders.