They were scratching their heads at the start of Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne on Sunday morning, still wondering how Belgium’s top team could have thrown away victory in Het Nieuwsblad the previous day.
To recap: Ian Stannard of Team Sky, away with three Etixx-QuickStep riders for the final 40km, scored the most improbable of wins in Ghent, and in so doing left three of the strongest Classics riders, Tom Boonen, Niki Terpstra and Stijn Vandenbergh, with – choose your description or metaphor – red faces, pants around ankles, egg on face, bottoms on a plate.
Luke Rowe said that he and his Sky teammates watched the final 5km twice in their hotel on Saturday evening and even though they knew the outcome: “We still couldn’t figure out how he won it.”
Patrick Lefevere, boss of the Etixx team, said he too had watched the replay and claimed he wouldn’t have asked his riders to do anything differently. “We did what we did and we lost,” he shrugged. “Stannard won. That’s the conclusion.”
Some sympathy came from an unlikely source – Sky’s Belgian sports director, Servais Knaven, who conceded that it was “not easy” for Etixx. What he meant was that the race was more complicated than it looked – there was more going on than there appeared – and there were no race radios.
Communication was difficult; riders had to rely on their instincts and wits, though at one point Knaven drove alongside Stannard as he sat on the three-man Etixx train (“That was a nice team time trial,” Boonen told him on the podium) and gave his rider some instructions.
What tactical advice could Knaven offer Stannard? Most imagined the message would be straightforward: “Don’t move.”
In fact, Knaven was telling him that he might have to work with the three Etixx riders. The reason was that a three-man chasing group, led by a rampaging Sep Vanmarcke, was coming up fast. Vanmarcke had been in the front group until a puncture – surely a turning point in the race.
Now Vanmarcke was dragging Greg Van Avermaet (BMC) and a fourth Etixx rider, Zdenek Stybar, back into contention. They got as close as 20 seconds.
Stybar was, understandably, a passenger in this chasing group, just as Stannard was up front (Lefevere was critical of Stannard for sitting on the front group but seemed OK with Stybar doing likewise behind).
Knaven feared a fresh Stybar. And the Etixx riders up front must have feared Vanmarcke, who had been so strong when he forced the original move clear that the motorbikes couldn’t get away quickly enough.
“I told Ian,” said Knaven, “‘If they get closer, you will have to work, because we have no one else behind. You’ll have to go just for the podium.’”
Terpstra admitted afterwards that they under-estimated Stannard. But perhaps in trying to eliminate Vanmarcke they all but forgot about him. Or maybe they considered that even with Stannard sitting on the back, it was three against one. Job done, surely.
But if distancing Vanmarcke was understandable, the Etixx tactics over the final 5km were baffling. Why did Boonen – on paper the strongest sprinter of the four – attack? Why did Terpstra, when he then chased and caught Stannard, not sit behind and give Boonen a chance of getting back on?
Most puzzling of all was Terpstra’s decision right at the end to pass Stannard. In doing so he gave him a perfect lead-out.
And Lefevere wouldn’t have done anything differently? Really?
At the finish, there was a surprising reaction in Ghent’s Sint-Pietersplein: a big cheer as Stannard eased past Terpstra before the line. True, there were some British supporters, but others seemed to appreciate the win, too.
A staff member on a rival team remarked that it was “a good result for cycling,” adding: “Team Sky are maybe not the most popular among the other teams, but everyone cheered this win for Stannard.”
It showed how gloriously unpredictable and uncontrollable road racing can be. Everything about Het Nieuwsblad was topsy turvy, from a Sky rider being cast as the plucky underdog, to his team, famous for their devotion to data and science, proving – with considerable help from the hapless Etixx trio – that cycling cannot always be reduced to numbers.