Fabian Cancellara accelerates on the Paterberg and Peter Sagan tries to match him. But the Slovak’s exposed to the stiff breeze and struggling to follow. A gap opens up between the two riders. One metre, two metres and by the time they reach the top the Swiss rider has distanced his arch-rival by a few seconds. This was the moment the race was won.
With temperatures around zero the riders soon warmed up given they covered 48.5km in the first hour. The race didn’t just start with a bang but an earthquake as Tom Boonen fell to the ground after 19km and left the race in an ambulance. The medical bulletin suggests he’s bruised and battered but nothing is broken. Short of racing miles I’m not sure if he’d have been in the finish. In a strange way it might have been the best way to leave the race. His classics campaign has not worked as planned and rather than disappoint the fans with a mediocre ride, crashing out left people wondering what could have been.
Back on the road an early move went but was brought back, another group went but behind the race was on as even with 150km to go riders were leaving the road to find every way to move up ahead of the Taaienberg.
André Greipel (Lotto-Belisol) sprinted up the Molenberg, taking Michał Kwiatkowski (OPQS), Martin Tjallingii (Blanco) and two Europcar riders in a move to bridge up to the leading group of early escapees. It showed us Lotto-Belisol and Europcar wanted to soften up the race. Behind Radioshack-Leopard led the chase – a rare sight to see the squad as a visible unit – and the gap fell to 10 seconds but over the Valkenberg the move slimmed down to Greipel, Sieberg, Kwiatkowski, Tjallingii with early escapees Jetse Bol (Blanco) and Laurens De Vreese (Topsport) briefly hitching a ride and their lead went back out to 90 seconds as they approached the finishing circuits around Oudenaarde.
Each climb and cobbled section did its damage. Often it’s via the backdoor, and the TV producers know this, posting a moto cam to monitor the mishaps. The Koppenberg did the most damage, chaos theory in action where the flap of one rider forced another to stall and in no time many riders were walking up. Mechanicals got the better of others, for example Juan-Antonio Flecha. Whilst a crash on a normal section of the road saw Geraint Thomas fall. He got back up, he got back on but got no more.
Offredo’s not afraid
It was with 32km to go that FDJ’s Yoann Offredo launched his second attack of the day, going away with Jurgen Roelandts (Lotto-Belisol), Seb Turgot (Europcar) and Seb Hinault (IAM). Offredo has worked with a psychologist to calm his nerves and stop him attacking from too far. But there’s clearly more work to be done because the Frenchman had already been away solo earlier, using up energy in a solo move that could never stick. This time it was the right move because with Sagan and Cancellara behind, going up the road was a way to reserve a place at the front of the race during the final 20km.
As the race headed towards the final Oude Kwaremont-Paterberg combo Twitter crackled with complaints about the race. Indeed at times it looked like the peloton had collectively forgot to change the clocks overnight and they were riding like there was 90 minutes left instead of 30 minutes left to grab one of the biggest wins of the year.F or sure the new route and its laps lend a repetitive aspect but few races see frantic attacks from 25km out. Anyone in the bunch going clear risked being hauled back by Radioshack and there was a headwind too. You only had to look at the riders, their faces were tired, it was hard work just being there.
Gunfight on the O.K. Cobbles
The leaders hit the Oude Kwaremont and immediately Jurgen Roelandts rode away from his breakaway companions. It looked risky but he was making an advance booking for the final of the race, getting as much of a lead as possible.
Behind Fabian Cancellara led with Peter Sagan and then Edvald Boasson Hagen (Sky) but the Norwegian champion, like the rest of the bunch, could not match the firepower of Cancellara and Sagan. In the space of a kilometre the race was distilled from a large group of contenders into a duel between Cancellara vs Sagan. The Swiss rider looked stronger as they hit another steep ramp towards the top of the Kwaremont and opened up a gap of one metre, two metres. But the pair regrouped with Roelandts hitching a ride.
Paterberg, the Daddy
On to the final showdown on the Paterberg and Sagan was spinning a low gear and looking down at his legs. Was it cramp? Or just fatigue? We’d seen Sagan miss a bottle handed up from the road and he said after the race he was low on energy. The 20% slopes are merciless, a crowbar to prise apart the smallest of differences and Roelandts was the first to pop. Then as they approached the higher parts of the cloud, where Swiss flags were taming the Flemish lions, Cancellara was pulling away. Sagan was out of the saddle at one point to close the gap but there was a gap. By the time they reached the top and the cobbles gave way to the velvety tarmac Cancellara was gone.
In the short descent alone Cancellara took 12 seconds but kept going. A TV moto suggested 50km/h but that wasn’t counting the headwind. Behind Sagan and Roelandts looked like they’d be caught but in turned out nobody in the bunch wanted to chase. They were riding hard but not fast enough to capture the two in their sights. At one point Oscar Gatto punctured but was able to claw his way back up to the bunch, a clue that the pace was not fierce.
By now Cancellara was celebrating, punching their air with delight to finish with the largest winning margin in 30 years. Unable to pull a stunt at the finish line, Sagan made the podium and grabbed more than the limelight. Probably a stunt too far.
Roelandts meanwhile probably grabs his biggest result even if it’s not a win. His team spent much of the day in his service, with no less than André Greipel launching the first big attack of the day and Lotto-Belisol deserved their place on the podium.
It wasn’t a thrilling race until late in the day for the TV viewer. Yet the finish and the results left no doubt about the strongest rider and should have left spectators satisfied. Cancellara rode away and this was impressive to watch him in full flight. He knew there was only one way to beat Sagan, to outpower him on the cobbled climbs and he timed his accelerations like a Swiss watch.
Now we can see the only way to beat Sagan and Cancellara is to anticipate their moves, to ride away and build up a time buffer with the hope of jumping on their wheels as they speed past in the race. Easier said than done but we can expect teams to send solid riders in early breakaways in Paris-Roubaix.
Once again the big teams were denied a result. Some are saying Team Sky’s Tenerife training isn’t working but neither is BMC’s Belgian basecamp nor OPQS either, although Kwiatkowski did a great ride. But such is cycling and perhaps it’s just the fluo tones but I recall seeing Vini Fantini a lot more than some of the big budget World Tour squads.
Vos Gets Her First Win
Finally we might think Marianne Vos wins everything but until today she’d never won the Tour of Flanders. She rectified this obvious omission today but did not have it easy and had to sprint rather than solo for the win.