400 metres, 300… 250… 200 metres to go. Suddenly the four riders launched the sprint and Fabian Cancellara accelerated, took the lead and kept it to celebrate as he crossed the line. This was the moment the race was won.
The finishing straight was a nail-biter but anyone who watched the race live would have felt the tension for much longer, the quartet’s late sprint for the line was only the final act in a race of tension, drama and surprise.
There were umbrellas at the start in Brugge but it was only a light mist. Once the race started the early break wasn’t an early move, a nervous start saw many moves shut down until 11 riders got away including Orica’s Daryl Impey and BMC’s Taylor Phinney, two big beasts whose presence seemed out of place. But why not and besides, it shows that as great as this race is, some might use it for training ahead of Paris-Roubaix.
Nervous? Several riders had left the race before the break had gone including Luke Durbridge and most worryingly Johan Vansummeren who collided with a woman; she was taken to hospital and remains in a very serious condition. The lottery-sponsored Jürgen Roelandts fell and abandoned, one of many to fall from this team alone to go long before the action started and testament to the tension and danger in a race where many more crashed out.
It was windy. The race didn’t split into echelons but it was bound be much harder. The yellow “Lion of Flanders” flags sprouting every spring like Forsythia but if they convey a political message they told a simpler story as they fluttered hard in the breeze. Even the Molenberg windmill was spinning despite a lack of sails, saluting Tom Boonen’s short effort. But Tommeke’s move seemed out of place, more out of anxiety than confidence? It was certainly too early to move.
As the crashes kept falling the bunch was nervous in another way too, it refused to let the lead group get much of a lead. Six minutes was all Phinney and Impey would get. Behind OPQS seemed to be on the front all the time, their tall riders resembling pallbearers with their sombre kit and stoic faces. But as much as we saw OPQS we hardly saw Boonen, Niki Terpstra and Zdeněk Štybar who were well hidden behind their workers. Little did the team know they were the ones who’d be buried alive later on.
90km to go and Peter Sagan and Fabian Cancellara both stopped for a leak; upfront some riders tried a move on the Valkenberg but it was later when Manuel Quinziato, Matteo Trentin and Bernhard Eisel went clear on the Kanarieberg, the first counter-move to meaningfully change the race. Onwards and the second time over the Oude Kwaremont the lead group was now down to three riders, Phinney, Impey and the impressive neo-pro Stig Broeckx, Lotto-Belisol’s only comfort all day. Meanwhile we’d been expecting a big effort from Stijn Devolder but he was relegated from protagonist to victim, reduced to chasing efforts after crashing three times.
The Koppenberg kopmen
It sounds god-like but it’s the geography that allows the race organisers to drag and drop the infamous Koppenberg climb into a later position in the race, this time 45km from the finish. Short and brutal the climb was cobbled alchemy. In went the tired trio of Phinney, Impey and Broeckx and out came selection gold with Terpstra, Cancellara, Boonen and Sagan at the front. We had a few skirmishing attacks which came to nothing but kept the pace up and condemned dropped riders. Stijn Vandenbergh drifted off the front with Edvald Boasson Hagen and Dries Devenyns but if they were clear they were going nowhere and Vandenbergh backed off, presumably a radio-controlled move.
Up the Taaienberg, down the Taaienberg
Greg Van Avermaet counter-attacked on the Taaienberg but was reeled in. As they rode on, the lead group slowed after a junction and took a breather before a descent… this was exactly when Van Avermaet attacked and he was covered by Vandenbergh. The OPQS giant sat behind “GVA” without doing a turn. It was a brave move by Van Avermaet who has a fast sprint and could have waited for alternative events to unfold but he took off to shape the race.
OPQS Force Five
It was looking ideal for OPQS with a man up front getting a tow and five team mates in the group behind getting a free ride as they forced Peter Sagan and even John Degenkolb to chase. On paper OPQS were the strongest team but as anyone who has tried to wipe their rear with a cobblestone will know there’s a big difference between paper and pavé.
OPQS’s reluctance to commit suddenly meant Luca Paolini bridged across to the Boonen-Sagan-Cancellara group and then a large bunch rode across. Cannondale hit the front to chase to the Oude Kwaremont. As they went up the climb for the last time it was Fabian Cancellara who attacked, taking Sep Vanmarcke with him. The two were clearly the strongest in the race, riding away to establish a sizeable gap and leaving Peter Sagan floundering, his chase efforts being closely marked by Štybar and Terpstra.
Over the Paterberg and the Van Avermaet finally shook Vandenbergh to go clear. Vandenbergh was lucky, dropped he was able to crest the climb just as Cancellara and Vanmarcke came across. All that was left was for the four to ride to the finish but they were each avoiding too much work. Briefly it looked like Alexander Kristoff would bridge across but he blew. By now OPQS had gone from control to spectators, nobody could follow Cancellara and Vanmarcke.
Three Vans and one motorbike
So who would win the sprint? Here’s the poker mix to read with a cool head, imagine it after six hours of racing:
- Vandenbergh was the easiest to discount, yes he’d been sitting on the wheels but he was clearly the slowest, something confirmed by his attacks on the run-in
- Van Avermaet’s normally very fast but had done the last 30km solo, at least with Vandenbergh for a saddlebag and as they came to the finish he seemed to be pushing a big gear, a sign of fatigue
- Vanmarcke is fast he too was looking tired and remember he’s lost to Cancellara in a sprint when the two rode the Roubaix velodrome this time last year
- Cancellara isn’t reputed as a sprinter but was still the second fastest behind Kristoff in Sanremo and who’d discount him after such a long day?
I thought it would be close with the odds tilted towards Sep Vanmarcke…
…but one late attack saw GVA and Vandenbergh ride away. Poker time as Cancellara refused to tow Vanmarcke across, the Swiss pedalling but in no hurry to move. The gap grew.
Eventually the Belgian’s nerves went and he jumped, allowing Cancellara to slot in behind and get paced back. Did this effort allow Cancellara to rest while Vanmarcke burned a match? Yes. Did it affect the sprint? Probably, but whether it determined the result is for debate.
And so the metres counted down, the finish line in sight but nobody was sprinting until the last moment. They jumped and Cancellara seemed ready in a relatively low gear that allowed him to accelerate all the way to the line
Unwatchable… you almost wanted to look away as the four came to the finish, such was the tension. Vandenbergh was cooked but the others were playing poker right to the end and the winner wasn’t obvious until the final two seconds.
It wasn’t just the excitement in the final metres. A series of moves and selections in the last hour saw changing scenarios and uncertainty reign for a long time. Just as you got used to one group it would be joined by more riders or someone would counter-attack. Moving the Koppenberg seems to have made a positive difference, prompting a better selection in the final hour. Is the course perfect? Not without the Kapelmuur but it allowed for some great racing. But the real drama was the tactical tension as OPQS exploited their numerical superiority only to fold in the final 20km and Peter Sagan found the final climb of the Kwaremont too long for his liking.
Fabian Cancellara won but with a gamble, a sprint instead of a solo raid. Greg Van Avermaet stands on the podium again and Sep Vanmarcke is becoming a regular, almost a certainty at this level. All three would have made a worthy winner. Alexander Kristoff’s fifth place is impressive but, for preview readers, predictable, no?
The TV production did linger on the losers too often, for example replaying Europcar’s Pichot when he wobbled off the road instead of relaying the action up front. But overall it was well-filmed and the in-car cameras are a great addition, perhaps the swing argument to keep race radios?
Any sporting losers? If Lotto-Belisol had bad luck, OPQS had a very bad day. Fourth place isn’t much for the team that places a lot of its recruitment and identity on this race and they’ll already be plotting revenge for Sunday’s Paris-Roubaix. Another team that will need a new plan is Team Sky with Geraint Thomas crashing again but then again so did Sep Vanmarke too). Meanwhile it was a collective national failure from the Italians and French, not one in the top-10 and apparently this hasn’t happened since 1989. Paris-Roubaix does allow for corrections but the cobbled classics are drawing to a close.
1 Fabian Cancellara (Swi) Trek Factory Racing 6:15:18
2 Greg Van Avermaet (Bel) BMC Racing Team
3 Sep Vanmarcke (Bel) Belkin Pro Cycling Team
4 Stijn Vandenbergh (Bel) Omega Pharma – Quick-Step
5 Alexander Kristoff (Nor) Team Katusha @8 seconds
6 Niki Terpstra (Ned) Omega Pharma – Quick-Step @18s
7 Tom Boonen (Bel) Omega Pharma – Quick-Step @35s
8 Geraint Thomas (GBr) Team Sky @37s
9 Björn Leukemans (Bel) Wanty – Groupe Gobert @41s
10 Sebastian Langeveld (Ned) Garmin Sharp @43s