Flanders blog: The best race in the world (part II)

Was the 2011 event the best Tour of Flanders in living memory? Our reaction to a brilliant day’s racing.

Words by Edward Pickering

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On Thursday, I wrote a piece explaining why the Tour of Flanders is the best race in the world. You can read it here. What I meant wasn’t necessarily that it was the most exciting on a racing level, or won with the most spectacular riding, but that it encapsulates the sport of cycling better than every other race.

But after watching today’s race in a Kortrijk bar, through a haze of cigarette smoke and with the rat-tat-tat of the Flemish commentary drumming into my ears, I’d argue that anybody who thinks there’s been a more exciting Tour of Flanders than that in the last 25 years has been drinking the same brown stuff as the old boys in the bar here.

At 40 kilometres to go, following Fabian Cancellara’s attack on the Leberg, I was checking my watch and wondering if it wouldn’t matter if I packed up and tried to get an earlier crossing back to the UK. I even had Mark Twain’s quote about history not repeating itself, but often rhyming, ready to use in my report. The gap between Cancellara, who quickly picked up Sylvain Chavanel, and the next group was approaching a minute. At 30 kilometres to go, the gap remained about the same. But BMC had emerged from the carnage that ensued after the Leberg with six men, and they’d started to work. It was just interesting enough for me to keep my eyes on the television.

At 25 kilometres to go, Jonathan Vaughters called off the chase for Garmin, and my heart sank. The ironic spectacle of Vaughters, who represents the teams’ almost unanimous desire for race radios to be kept, being shown using those same radios to race for third place, was an unfortunate piece of PR. And at that point the chase needed every man it could muster.

But into Geraardsbergen, suddenly Cancellara and Chavanel’s lead melted like Swiss cheese in a fondue. Suddenly the race was on again, thanks to BMC being the one team who didn’t give up.

And that’s what made today’s race such an amazing advert for the sport. Of course, a couple of wayward tweets from the usual suspects drew a correlation between there being radios and the excitement of the race, but that is to disregard the incredible efforts and spirit shown by almost everybody in the lead group, which split on the Muur, coalesced on the descent, split again under Gilbert’s impetus on the Bosberg and finally came together again on the heart-breaking, leg-sapping drag down into Ninove.

Gilbert’s attack on the Bosberg gave me goosebumps. He’s one of the few riders whose attacks can put an entire bunch in the red, and he broke an elite group on the Bosberg, or at least damaged them significantly. And instead of looking back at his pursuers, who were never out of sight on the run-in, he gave it everything to try and stay away.

The advantage, which had swung so convincingly in Cancellara’s direction 30 minutes before, had suddenly swung towards Gillbert. But behind the Belgian, at least three groups were involved in an infernal chase, of each other and of the leader. As they all came together in a final selection of a dozen riders, the advantage swung towards Tom Boonen, the best sprinter.

But this is why the race was such a cracker: nobody gave up. And everybody was so spent, nobody could get away, but it didn’t stop them attacking each other. Flecha had a go. Geraint Thomas. Sebastian Langeveld. All risking everything for the chance of victory, rather than conservatively for a safer guarantee of a placing.

And, incredibly, there was Cancellara attacking in the final three kilometres, followed, just as incredibly, by Sylvain Chavanel, who had attacked initially on the Oude Kwaremont, and spent almost the entire race right at the front – 85 kilometres. And, in a desperate sprint to bridge, Nick Nuyens. Cancellara still pushed on, although he must have been shattered, and he was followed by Chavanel, his face twisted in pain, and Nuyens, clawing his way up the final three bike lengths to the safety of Chavanel’s wheel. By this time, I was standing up, involuntarily. Even facing certain defeat behind, Tom Boonen launched his sprint from about 500 metres out, and fought all the way to the line for fourth place.

In the end, it didn’t matter who won. Nuyens crossed the line first, but the real winner today was cycling and the Tour of Flanders.

Read our whole week’s coverage of the Tour of Flanders:
Iconic Places: Muur van Geraardsbergen
CS expert panel
The best race in the world
Cycling geek heaven
Essential last-minute tactics for the Ronde

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