Ian Stannard took on three riders from a rival team, cracking them one by one on the road to Gent before it was Niki Terpstra’s time to get done over in the sprint.
The locals call triumphing in a race overwinning, a term that ought to be used in English to describe Stannard’s success.
The early break went with only seven riders. It had quality with 21 year old Aléxis Gougeard plus two established rouleurs in Albert Timmer and Matt Brammeier and as the race went on this trio were the last to hold out as Team Sky set the pace with Bradley Wiggins, born in Ghent, leading over the cobbles to the sound of angry farmers waving black flags from idle tractors.
Cycling is a traditional sport: Spring starts in Belgium with Tom Boonen’s customary attack on the Taaienberg. Off he went, lining up the bunch in the gutter behind with one absentee, Sep Vanmarcke punctured and was being paced by back his team. The acceleration up the climb continued afterwards and if Vanmarcke got a lift back from his team mates the bunch had been split.
Cycling is a mechanical sport: Sep Vanmarcke looked at ease on the Haaghoek pavé, a sadist dishing it out to everyone but only for him to suffer a puncture. It was just after this on the Leberg climb that Tom Boonen, Stijn Vandenbergh and Niki Terpstra rode away with Ian Stannard for company. There were 40km to go, a long way but a good time to get going. As OPQS the team have used these tactics before, a committed escape like this leaves the others floundering. Put yourself in the position of BMC, Lotto-Jumbo or Lotto-Soudal: are you even capable of bringing back those four riders? If you can, you will do all the work just so a rival team can stuff you in the next phase. There was no big team chase and in response Sep Vanmarcke tried to do it all by himself, dragging Greg Van Avermaet and Zdeněk Štybar with him.
Cycling is a team sport: Vanmarcke’s chase efforts, aided by GVA, were enormous and you could see the strain on the lead four who had to work to stay away, Stannard was grimacing as he held on over the Molenberg. This effort ensured the gap was maintained as they rode to Gent, a three man rotation with Stannard sat on the back like a giant saddlebag. It’s testimony to the brawn and bulk of these riders at Terpstra (1m85/74kg – 6ft1/163lbs) looked like the small guy. The bigger optical illusion was to see it as one Sky rider trumping three Etixx-Quickstep riders, as if this was an astonishing triumph against the odds. It was a fine demolition job but this wasn’t an equal contest, the Quicksteppers were cooked riding on the front for 40km while Stannard was as fresh as could be. This isn’t a criticism of Stannard as he was fully entitled to sit on the back, simply that by the time things got tactical on the approach to Gent the Briton was clearly friskier than the others. Etixx-Quickstep appeared to pre-empt this by placing Boonen on Stannard’s wheel.
Tactical Interlude: What to do if you if you’re up the road and outnumbered by a rival team? You can sit tight and sprint for a podium place knowing you’ll probably get attacked and there’s no shame in that. But better to anticipate those attacks: wait for someone to go, let them get a small gap then hit it hard and ride across. Hopefully one of your rivals won’t stand the pace and you’ll hook up with a motivated rider.
With the front four certain to dispute the finish they left it late to start playing tactical cards. With 4km to go Terpstra accelerated forcing Stannard to chase and as soon as Stannard caught up Boonen launched a proper attack but this wasn’t vintage Tommeke, if it was he would have sat tight for the sprint. Stannard reeled him with the bridge over the E40 offering enough vertical gain to slow Boonen. As expected, Terpstra replied with a proper attack but this time something strange happened, Vandenbergh was the one leading the chase. Were two team mates really chasing each other? It looked like it. Take a look at the image below to see the body language of Vandenbergh.
Just as it came back together Stannard took off. Vandenbergh did a turn and it was game over. He wasn’t the only one in trouble, as Terpstra chased Boonen hanging back, he got to within two seconds but cracked, his head nodding like a donkey. Now Stannard’s odds went to 50-50 as they rode into Gent. Terpsta, a trackie too, led out the sprint but like last year Stannard used his power on the incline to the line to win.
Etixx-Quickstep held four aces in the final phase of the race: they had three men up the road and the chasing group behind was being policed by Štybar, a smooth rider any day but looking even more at ease as he sat on the chasing GVA and Vanmarcke tandem. How did they drop all four cards? Ideally they would have used Vandenbergh to drive the break, send Terpstra up the road and if Stannard chased, used Tom Boonen to win the sprint. But all three where tired while Stannard was fresher. I’m still mystified by Vandenbergh’s chase.
The Verdict: a thrilling race for the final 50km. Etixx-Quickstep blew the race apart on the Leberg and only Ian Stannard could follow the trio. There was a lull in the action as the front group established its lead but the lull left you wondering how Etixx-Quickstep would play their cards. Vandenbergh’s pursuit of Terpsta stands out as a strange move but as they went into Gent it was like a scene from Rambo with Stannard blasting his rivals away one by one until he was only left with Terpsta.
Stannard’s win makes him the ninth rider to win back-to-back Omloops but as ever this is a great race to win but often the winner has peaked too early. Today Stannard won by clever riding rather than brute force so his supporters should be optimistic for the spring classics.
Etixx-Quickstep had a bad day and so did Sep Vanmarcke; let’s not dwell on what could have been but imagine for a moment he too had made the cut with Stannard? If you thought Greg Van Avermaet had a nasty surprise when he came down for breakfast and read the newspapers, the Belgian squad is going to find unpleasant commentary tomorrow. The pressure on Mark Cavendish to deliver in Kuurne is huge.