Luca Paolini goes solo in the final kilometres, his breakaway rivals only a murky blur behind. He was dropped over the Kemmelberg but kept chasing and eventually latched on to the small group of riders chasing Jurgen Roelandts. Hiding among giants Paolini emerged in the finish with a sneaky seated attack to catch Etixx-Quickstep out once again.
The race started with wild conditions. An early break was promising with powerful riders like Albert Timmer, Alex Dowsett, Alexis Gougeard, Jesse Sergent and Pavel Brutt in the move, all solid riders. But they couldn’t do anything about the wind and as soon as the race stopped its westward procession and turned south it was exposed to crosswinds. The cross wind raged, scattering branches over the roads and bending trees.
See the video from two minutes in. Do not adjust your set, the riders are leaning diagonally as if the road is on a large camber but it’s the wind. Soon riders were being fished out of drainage ditches. Up Mont Cassel and the race was split to pieces. 120km to go and the race was going wild. By now many had crashed out and the race had been reduced to a few groups which started to reform but those behind were only facing further dejection on the upcoming climbs and exposed roads.
Lotto-Jumbo profited from several riders in the front group to sent Marten Tjallingi up the road, the ex-MTB rider took a minute but his task was to force others to chase and he began to slow as the race crossed the Kemmelberg. On the descent Jurgen Roelandts took off with 75km to go. The same tactic from a lottery-backed team? Yes although as solid as Tjallingi is, Roelandts was an outside pick for the win. He probably wanted company but found himself alone.
With Roelandts taking time it was time to act. Stijn Vandenbergh attacked and was joined by Geraint Thomas and Sep Vanmarcke, then Luca Paolini hitched a ride along with Niki Terpstra, Daniel Oss plus Jens Debusschere, team and brother in law of Roelandts. This group worked well and quickly distanced the rest of the race. All are tall riders except for Luca Paolini, 1.74m and the wheel to avoid.
Roelandts built up a tidy lead of over two minutes but the weather and the distance took their toll and he was looking more and more ragged. The second time up the Kemmelberg saw Luca Paolini and Daniel Oss distanced but the Italian pair kept chasing for kilometres and Paolini just found the energy and craft to get back to the group while Oss. All day staying upright was a challenge and in once instance Thomas crashed, a spectacular wipe-out where the wind seemed to scoop him up and dump him on the grass verge. He had a soft landing, got a new bike and rode back to the group. With 30km to go Roelandt’s lead fell below a minute as the chase group was working well, everyone taking reasonable turns except for Debusschere who was allowed to sit on. Roelandts was swept up and done for the day.
The final 20km got very tactical. It’s easy to examine the situation in the cold light of day: numerical superiority for Etixx-Quickstep but neither Terpstra nor Vandenbergh can be counted on a in sprint; Thomas is in top form; Vanmarcke is dangerous but looked to be flagging on the Kemmel; Debusschere must be fresh from sitting on but is still an outsider; Paolini struggled to get back to the group. Only there was no cold light of day, just cold rain and over 200km had been covered. We got a series of attacks, the strongest came when Niki Terpstra punctured, he got a new wheel and rode back to the group who’d kindly waited for him and blasted past. Suddenly the lead six were two-by-two with Terpsta and Paolini leading, Thomas being tracked by Vandenbergh and Debusschere accompanied by Vanmarcke. Thomas managed to eject Vandenbergh off his wheel by using the left gutter. They all came back and we got a series of punchdrunk attacks from the Etixx pair.
Then with 6km to go Paolini made his move, first a stamp on the pedals which was so obvious it almost had neon lights on it and Geraint Thomas closed him down. But Thomas and the others didn’t ride right up to his wheel. It was here that the guile was executed as Paolini placed a sneaky seated acceleration just as the others were left looking at each other. Paolini was in a big gear and steathily giving it everything and by the time they saw him winding up the gear it was too late, he’d got a gap. The others fanned out across the road, only this time it wasn’t because of the crosswind they were wondering who’d go next. Every second’s hesitation was costing them but who wanted to chase? Paolini was taking time with every push of the pedals and the others quickly resigned themselves to salvaging a podium place.
Once again Etixx-Quickstep miss Tom Boonen. It’s good to have Terpstra and Vandenbergh up front but neither are famous for their sprint. Sep Vanmarcke had a tough time: an off day or part of a trend? His cleat problems in the E3 could explain his struggles on Friday but he didn’t look so powerful today and had to use all his guile to stay with the lead group.
The Verdict: a superb race although built on cruel conditions which for a while almost got the race suspended. Once the season is done surely we’ll be looking back on this as of the highlights of the year and a day where the word “epic” is at last suitable rather than hyperbole. There are many events where you only need to tune in for the last hour or even the final 15 minutes to catch all the action but this had tension, drama and tactics live on TV for four hours and the hard racing had started before coverage had begun.
Paolini was distanced on the Kemmelberg only to haul his way back to the front group. He probably wasn’t the strongest but he had the wisdom of Athena, covering moves when it mattered and timing his attack just right, a wily seated acceleration allowed him to sneak a few seconds and in the finish the Italian out-Flandriened the Flandriens, in fact the podium was Belgian-free.
39 riders finished. Low and high too alike. Low because it’s a fraction of the field but high because 30 of them were seven minutes down and out of contention. But extra work all counts for the Ronde and Roubaix. Can next Sunday’s Ronde van Vlaanderen be half as good?