Michał Kwiatkowski has attacked after the top of the Taaienberg with 33km to go, Peter Sagan followed immediately and Sep Vanmarcke bridged across moments later. A long range move with both Sagan and Vanmarcke taking a big risk given they had no team mates behind but they were going to stay away. This was the moment the race was won.
The first attack of the day came from the Topsport Vlaanderen team, who else. But try as they might no move could go clear until almost two hours of racing had passed. This first phase of the race can last seconds as the peloton consents to letting the first move go, sometimes it can take two hours and the longer it goes on the more riders will set new high scores on their power meters. All this action, all those calories only to make the day’s doomed breakaway? Maybe but two of the fugitives were going to stay away all day and make the top-10, proof that the tactic can pay off.
The hectic start put the race ahead of schedule until finally the peloton decided a pee stop was needed and the move got away. It’s not often reported but that’s often how it works, there comes a point where the top riders have to pull over for a leak and this encourages others to do the same and a critical mass of urinators allows the breakaway to go clear. The nature break was brief and over the following kilometres a series of crashes took out riders. Arnaud Démare and Tiesj Benoot were among the early victims but there were too many to name. Sep Vanmarcke crashed but continued, albeit on a replacement bike which he’d later use up more energy when he demanded to swap bikes as he wasn’t comfortable. Later on a Bora-Argon 18 rider allided with BMC Racing rider causing a wave that crashed into an inconsolable Greg Van Avermaet, reportedly out with a broken collarbone.
The race split over the Molenberg with 118km to go and Etixx-Quickstep put Tony Martin to work. Cancellara made the right side of the split but his Trek-Segafredo team hadn’t and they led the chase back in order to surround their leader with his lieutenants, a move that was going to prove essential later on. From here the race was in a state of flux, a posh way of saying nobody had a clue what was going on. The race was split into pieces and there were not enough cameras on motorbikes and helicopters to cover who was where and what the time gaps where. Among the big names Ian Stannard had slipped the peloton and Etixx-Quickstep were trying to get tactical control of the race by sending Stijn Vandenbergh up the road.
The lead break was reshaped as Imanol Erviti (Movistar) and Gus Van Hoeke (Topsport) of the early move were joined by Dimitri Claeys (Wanty-Groupe Gobert), Dmitriy Gruzdev (Astana) and Nils Politt (Katusha), one of the quiet revelations of the spring classics, plus André Greipel on one of his regular spring outings in the spring classics and they lead the race into the Koppenberg.
The bunch split apart on the Koppenberg, a 20% slope is hard any day but after 210km tougher and then add cobbles and it always seems to provoke a selection, more so since some were caught in traffic and forced to run up, the timeless image, including Filippo Pozzato, comically tipped by some to win, now click-clacking up the cobbles in his cleats.
The Steenbeekdries and the Taaienberg kept the race split apart but after Nukerke things gradually began to regroup. Ian Stannard was caught and the Sky riders began to talk. Who would be their next rider to attack? Their classics race plan has revolving attacks, no sooner is one rider caught than another goes: now it was Kwiatkowski’s turn.
Sagan followed instantly and Vanmarcke barged across. Kwiatkowski’s move was bold but prompted, in part at least, by Team Sky’s presence at the main group, they had several riders. But for Sagan and Vanmarcke this was a much more risky prospect as they’d now committed to a move and exposed themselves early and had little or no help from their team mates in case things went wrong while Kwiatkowski could work or sit on.
Behind Stijn Devolder took a long pull and looked over for Cancellara to come through but was it too early? Would Cancellara just end up towing others across? The time to pose these questions and think through the answers and the Kwiatkowski-Sagan-Vanmarcke trio had twenty seconds. As the minutes went by Cancellara began to look like a passenger in a taxi stuck in traffic knowing he was going to be late for a meeting while being forced to watch the meter rack up. Trek’s riders worked but struggled to pull back the trio who caught the lead breakaway with 20km to go. Help from Astana and Katusha arrived and brought the gap down from 30 seconds to 20 and this changed plenty. It meant Cancellara and company had the leaders in their sight on the Oude Kwaremont. It’s a long climb out of Kwaremont and Cancellara got to work on closing the gap and soon Vanmarcke and Sagan had just 10 seconds. Kwiatkowksi, the instigator of the move, began to wilt on the Kwaremont.
On to the Paterberg and Sagan and Vanmarcke had a ten second lead over Cancellara and Terpstra. This was a role reversal with Peter Sagan riding as we might have expected Cancellara to ride, the Slovak was leading when we might expect him to track others and win from the sprint. With only Sep Vanmarcke left Sagan accelerated on the steepest part of the final climb. It was barely an attack, after all if the pair came together to the finish surely Sagan would win in a sprint? Foresight said so. Hindsight confirmed it as Vanmarcke suddenly came undone, his forceful style suddenly looking clumsy as he grimaced and was forced to stand on the pedals. In the space of a few metres a significant time gap had opened up. As such this wasn’t the winning move since Vanmarcke beginning to cramp, this was the coup de grace and the exhibition. Sagan was away.
Behind Cancellara surged away from Terpstra and got Vanmarke but the Belgian was hardly a prize catch. The pair took turns only the Swiss’s efforts were longer and more applied, as if Vanmarke knew he could assure himself of a podium finish but could not contribute much more. Cancellara got his second place and waved goodbye to the crowds with Vanmarke rolling in behind and then Alexander Kristoff took the sprint for fourth place.
The race ended as predicted yet it it was the manner of the racing that made it so appealing. Last year’s winning move went early when Kristoff and Terpstra slipped away with 26km to go over the Hotond climb. This time it was seven kilometres earlier. Three of the top four contenders in Sagan, Vanmarke and Kwiatkowski took off with the remaining pick Cancellara in pursuit. For Sagan and Vanmarke this was bold given they had the least amount of team support with them, committing early to a move. It was far superior to Sagan’s world championship win, a powerful and skilful move but a late one, this was more audacious to start with and concluded in authority nobody could bring him back. The two triumphs married together as Sagan achieved the rare feat of winning De Ronde in the rainbow jersey, the only men to have done so are Tom Boonen (2006), Eddy Merckx (1975), Rik Van Looy (1962) and Louison Bobet (1955).
With hindsight Cancellara should have gone with the Kwiatkowski-Sagan-Vanmarke move but at the time it wasn’t obvious: other teams had numerical superiority and there was a still a breakaway up the road and if he’d gone and done the work then Sky could have countered him. Astana, Katusha and Etixx-Quickstep all had a lot of riders in the mix too in the final half hour of the race but couldn’t profit from this. Etixx at least tried to get control of the race, at first with Tony Martin pushing the pace and later with Stijn Vandenbergh but they didn’t have the captains to back it up, Zdeněk Štybar and Tom Boonen were hard to spot and Niki Terpstra could only try to chase Cancellara late in the race.
Years ago Quickstep were sponsored by Specialized and the bike sponsor sent them a young Slovak mountain biker for tests, you can guess his name. “They were very good tests and even more, he turned up without shoes or a bike” said the team boss Patrick Lefevere. “The problem was that he only spoke Czech [sic] and wanted to focus on mountain biking and, above all, he wanted money. But he was only 18 years old.” Sagan is now 26, what chance of a reunion with the Belgian team for 2017?
Sagan rode as he did as a neo-pro with that careless air of a rider who doesn’t know his limits. As good as the race was there’s more to come, an air of revenge for Cancellara perhaps. This time next week we will know the winner of Paris-Roubaix and the cobbled classics will be over another year.