The two previous times Fabian Cancellara has won the Tour of Flanders, he has done so in splendid isolation. The only thinking he’s had to do in the finishing straight, indeed in the last 15 kilometres, has been over which victory salute to use.
Going into the finishing straight this time, he had company: A trio of Belgians, along perhaps with the ghosts of all the Classics at which he’s been outsprinted or outwitted in the last four seasons: Milan-San Remo many times, this race in 2011, Paris-Roubaix in 2011. Cancellara likes his own company in these situations. He’s at his best when the racing is uncomplicated, and while he’s got the outright power to finish extremely fast, there just always seems to be somebody faster than him over the last 100 metres.
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A snapshot of the four leaders, with just 150 metres to go, showed them in the shape of an unequally-sided triangle. At the apex: Greg Van Avermaet of BMC, on paper the fastest sprinter, but tired from having been the most aggressive rider in the race, and in the worst position of all – right at the front, just a metre from the barriers on the right hand side of the road. Behind him, slightly to his left: Sep Vanmarcke, the Belkin rider who’d absorbed everything Cancellara had thrown at him, and given some back. Behind Vanmarcke, slightly to the left again: Cancellara, who’d been left without team-mates from a dangerous distance out, and unable to control and shape the race as he’d wanted. And scratch that bit about Van Avermaet being in the worst position, because Stijn Vandenbergh of Omega Pharma was boxed behind Van Avermaet, to his right, with neither a possible exit strategy, nor a sprint. His fourth place was already a foregone conclusion.
This formation lasted for a split second, before Cancellara launched his sprint, holding a straight trajectory a metre to the right of the solid white line up the centre of the road, hardly deviating. Force of will and sheer power made up for anything Van Avermaet and Vanmarcke had left, and the Swiss rider was a clear winner. He has now won this race three times, equalling the all-time record held by Tom Boonen, Johan Museeuw, Eric Leman, Fiorenzo Magni and Achiel Buysse.
This is the third year that the race has finished in Oudenaarde. The two previous races had been tactically moribund – the finishing circuit over the Oude Kwaremont and Paterberg climbs had been so tough that the riders had been unable to think of anything more original than waiting for them, with the strongest simply riding away.
For 2014, however, the organisers made a significant tweak, and while it still favoured the strong, it ensured the riders had to think, as well as ride hard. They put in a triple whammy of very hard climbs – Kwaremont, Paterberg and Koppenberg – in with 50 kilometres to go, swiftly followed by Steenbeekdries and the Taaienberg. This would have the effect of isolating the leaders, but not so close to the finish that the race was over. The climbs duly shattered the peloton, from both front and back – all but a baker’s dozen riders were dropped, while Van Avermaet and Vandenbergh used them as the foundation from which to prepare the first of two race-defining attacks.
The important thing was that nobody, apart from Omega Pharma, had numbers in the group behind Van Avermaet and Vandenbergh, and they weren’t going to chase their own man. The other favourites were too isolated, tired or cautious to chase coherently, and their group was caught by 25 more riders, who briefly but significantly launched a belated chase of the leading duo. Cannondale reduced the gap from a minute to 40 seconds by the foot of the Kwaremont.
The second race-defining attack came from Cancellara on the Kwaremont, and it was devastating. Only Vanmarcke was able to follow, although it took the descent to the Paterberg, the Paterberg itself, and another few kilometres to close down Van Avermaet, who’d dropped Vandenbergh on the final climb.
Even then, the leading quartet had to make a temporary alliance and work very hard into the final 10 kilometres – Katusha’s Alexander Kristoff, who’d outsprinted Cancellara at Milan-San Remo, had launched an all-out pursuit. He closed to within seven seconds, but while the four leaders smoothly rotated, Kristoff’s legs had stopped doing so, and he was left with the small consolation of beating Omega Pharma’s Niki Terpstra the sprint for fifth.
Vandenbergh did what he could to try and win, with two attacks in the final 3.5 kilometres, but the three others all fancied their chances enough in a sprint finish that they wouldn’t let him go. It’s a mark of what an unpredictable and exciting edition of the race it was that until 50 metres to go nobody knew who was going to win. Except, perhaps, Fabian Cancellara.
BMC were the most positive and aggressive team in the race. They put Taylor Phinney into the 11-man early break, while Manuel Quinziato made a good attempt at bridging to Phinney, along with Guido Trentin of Omega Pharma and Bernhard Eisel of Sky, in advance of the penultimate time up the Kwaremont. Omega Pharma didn’t bother with the early break, but after that, they had a rider in every significant attack. This meant Cancellara and Sagan had to put their Trek and Cannondale domestiques to work.
The aggression at the front wasn’t reckless. The peloton had been inexorably eroded by crashes, which took out riders at unpredictable moments, as if a sniper were tracking the race and picking off random individuals. The constant chasing and reforming resulted in a nervous 50-strong peloton followed by a long tail of hangers-on and chasers. (Crucially for Cancellara, Stijn Devolder crashed out of contention before the endgame, leaving Trek with only their leader at the front.)
Ideally, BMC wanted Quinziato to catch Phinney, then work together to make the chase a bit harder for their rivals. Unfortunately for them, Trek’s pursuit brought both escapes back almost at the same time, over the penultimate Paterberg climb. The ease with which Cancellara smoothly moved up into the top 10 up the Paterberg was telling, and by the time that climb and the Koppenberg were done, there were only 30 riders in contention.
Vandenbergh attacked on the cobbled descent of Steenbeekdries, drawing Giant’s Dries Devenyns and Sky’s Edvald Boasson Hagen clear. With Boonen, Degenkolb (Giant) and Geraint Thomas (Sky) in the group just behind, the onus was clearly on Sagan and Cancellara to close the gap again. This enterprise might have been a success, except Vandenbergh was unable to match Boasson Hagen and Devenyns on the Taaienberg, forcing Omega Pharma to chase.
With 35 kilometres to go there were 13 riders together at the front, four of whom were from Omega Pharma.
Van Avermaet attacked with 30 kilometres to go, and again it was Vandenbergh who countered. With Omega Pharma refusing to chase, and nobody else willing to make the effort, the two Belgians had written themselves into the final act of the race. Cancellara and Vanmarcke’s pursuit did the rest.
BMC did all they could to win, and just came up short. Van Avermaet might have won had Cannondale not briefly rallied before the final ascent of the Kwaremont and cut a 20-second chunk out of his lead. Omega Pharma had the wrong man up the road, but Boonen, Terpstra and Stybar couldn’t match Cancellara’s pace on the Kwaremont. Substitute Terpstra or Stybar for Vandenbergh, and the result would have been broadly similar – they had strength in numbers, but in the face of Cancellara and Vanmarcke’s superior strength, and Van Avermaet’s bold tactics, they were unable to convert that into a win, or even finish on the podium. No matter how many times Flanders Classics tweak their race route, Fabian Cancellara always seems to win.