Team Sky broke a victory drought in major one-day races stretching back over 500 days when Ian Stannard took a surprising but well-deserved victory in Omloop Het Nieuwsblad. The British team have never managed to translate the dominance they exercise in stage races into single-day events, and even this win was a product as much of one man’s tenacity, strength and resilience (plus a seeming imperviousness to cold) as the well-controlled racing by numbers we’ve seen from Sky at the Tour de France.
But Sky still played a blinder, even when it looked like the final selection – Stannard off the front with the dangerous fast finisher Greg Van Avermaet, Edvald Boasson Hagen tagging along on in a mistimed chase by Niki Terpstra and 2012 winner Sep Vanmarcke 15 seconds behind – might not have been the perfect one. Van Avermaet’s a consistently high finisher in the Classics, with a decent sprint, and as Stannard did the lion’s share of the work in their 17-kilometre break, he was the clear favourite. Sky’s better sprinter, Boasson Hagen, looked marooned as Terpstra and Vanmarcke, tired from earlier attacks, failed to close the gap.
But Het Nieuwsblad sprints are not always logical. The finishing straight is a significant climb, which sucks the jump out of the sprinters’ legs. Vanmarcke’s 2012 win came at the expense of Tom Boonen, for example, and Stannard surprised Van Avermaet by going for a long one, a lumbering diesel-powered slow acceleration which nevertheless distanced the Belgian significantly. It’s not clear which froze first, the Belgian’s brain, or his legs, but he seemed to be stunned by the power and speed with which Stannard was riding to the line. Van Avermaet painfully closed the gap, then started to come around Stannard, but the Belgian needed Stannard to slow down, and he simply didn’t. Van Avermaet did pass Stannard, but only once the finishing line was behind them.
Stannard is the first British rider to win Het Nieuwsblad, and the second Sky rider, after Juan-Antonio Flecha in 2010. The team’s last major one-day race win came on September 27 2012, through Rigoberto Uran at the Giro del Piemonte, and they received much ridicule for their attempt to reinvent the Classics preparation process in 2013, when they favoured training over racing at certain moments. Though they got good results, notably with Ian Stannard (sixth in a freezing cold Milan-San Remo) and Geraint Thomas (fourth in E3 Prijs and Het Nieuwsblad), the plan was written off as a failure at worst, and a work in progress at best. Sky have never lacked strong one-day riders – will the 2014 Het Nieuwsblad be seen as the turning point in their Classics fortunes?
Sky weren’t the only team with a point to prove in Belgium. Omega Pharma-Quick Step have amassed one of the strongest-looking flat Classics squads of the last decade, and showed devastating form in the Tour of Qatar. BMC came with ambition, having not shone in the first half of 2013, while Belkin also came to Belgium with their A-team.
Of these four teams, it looked like BMC had misjudged the race when they missed an important split between the Leberg and Molenberg climbs with 45 kilometres to go. An attack by GP Marseille winner Kenneth Van Bilsen (Topsport Vlaanderen) pulled six riders clear: Niki Terpstra of Omega Pharma, Lars Boom of Belkin, Boasson Hagen, the surprising Egoitz Garcia (Cofidis) and FDJ pair Arnaud Demare and Yoann Offredo.
This group split again on the Molenberg, as Terpstra surged away, followed by Boom, then Boasson Hagen. The trio pulled clear on the flat, exposed road at the top, perhaps mindful that Tom Boonen and Fabian Cancellara’s famous 2010 Tour of Flanders escape had been forged on the same road. While Garmin and BMC chased, having missed the boat, the leading three worked well together to build a lead of 45 seconds with 30 kilometres to ride.
But their chances suffered a crucial blow when Boom punctured a few kilometres later, which had the effect of reducing the lead group’s firepower by a third, and removing any semblance of co-operation between Terpstra and Boasson Hagen, who bickered, surged, freewheeled, attacked and generally played silly buggers, while a smooth pursuit behind them, led by Belkin, swallowed up their lead.
Het Nieuwsblad may be held just over the border from France, but a wet-weather one-day race in the Flemish Ardennes is as far removed from the Tour as a Second Division mid-table clog on a muddy pitch is from the Champions League final, and by this point in the race, the hills, cobbles and freezing conditions had reduced the contenders to 18 riders. This always has the effect of swinging the balance of power away from defensive, controlled racing to attacking, as team leaders are left without domestiques to counter or close gaps. Strength in numbers still counts, however, and Sky were the only team with three riders at the front. Sure enough, as soon as Terpstra and Boasson Hagen were caught, with 17 kilometres to go, Stannard counterattacked, followed by Van Avermaet. Their team-mates (Luke Rowe and Boasson Hagen for Stannard, Taylor Phinney for Van Avermaet) sat tight, while the teams who’d missed the boat, notably Belkin and Omega Pharma would have to lead the chase.
Terpstra and Vanmarcke set off in pursuit of Stannard and Van Avermaet, policed by Boasson Hagen, and it looked at this point as if Van Avermaet would be the winner if the gap was not closed, while Boasson Hagen would be favoured if it was. Terpstra and Vanmarcke closed to within 10 seconds, but couldn’t finish the job. Terpstra had earlier looked like the strongest rider in the race, but when he really needed to be the strongest, he fell short and will be ruing the expensive accelerations he made in the final quarter of the race. Omega Pharma had blown it, while Belkin could rightly feel unlucky that Boom had punctured at such a critical moment. BMC played the finale perfectly, but for one thing: Stannard’s incredible strength in a hard race, and, perhaps, a new-found confidence for Sky, who marshalled their riders well in a highly tactical race.