Tour of Flanders analysis: never two without three

Tom Boonen took a record-equalling Tour of Flanders win, outsprinting Filippo Pozzato and Alessandro Ballan in Oudenaarde.

Words by Lionel Birnie

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Sunday April 1, 2012

No one could argue with any great conviction that Tom Boonen did not deserve to take his place alongside Achiel Buysse, Fiorenzo Magni, Eric Leman and Johan Museeuw as a three-time winner of the Tour of Flanders. The Omega Pharma-Quick Step rider has ruled the cobbled roads of Flanders this spring, winning the Grand Prix E3 at Harelbeke and Ghent-Wevelgem over the space of a long weekend, before adding the one that really matters in Oudenaarde today.

And yet the final phase of the race felt strangely unsatisfying, as if something was being kept from us. That’s not to say it was a bad race, but the jury will remain out on the redesigned course until we have had chance to assess two or three more editions.

Fabian Cancellara crashed heavily in the feed zone with 61 kilometres to go, just as the riders were taking a brief breather and trying to take on food and drinks. The fact that the other pre-race favourite was ruled out changed the dynamic of the final phase of the race, although it is pointless trying to guess what might have happened had he stayed upright.

What we can say is that the decision to send the riders over the Oude Kwaremont and Paterberg three times each in the final 77 kilometres certainly made the race harder. But instead of offering the riders a chance to take a risk knowing that they might reap the reward, the route simply brought the strongest riders to the fore and softened everyone else’s legs. On the final ascent of the Kwaremont, the three freshest riders remaining in the race simply rode clear of the rest.

With 18 kilometres left, Alessandro Ballan, winner of the 2007 Tour of Flanders, surged away, followed by Filippo Pozzato, with Boonen smartly on his wheel for a change.

Ballan chose his moment well. The leading group that he, Boonen and Pozzato had all been part of had just been caught by a larger pack, which looked at one stage to have been eliminated from the picture. Most of the riders in the second group were riding on fumes by then, particularly the Sky riders who had gone so deep to close the gap. It meant they were vulnerable to an attack on the 2,200-metre cobbled climb and the lack of recovery time before the Paterberg, the 16th and final hill, meant that the gap was only going to grow.

After the Kwaremont the Italian rider Luca Paolini tried to ride across to the three leaders, without success. Then Peter Sagan, the Slovakian riding for Liquigas, had a go.

It soon became apparent that the front three would fight it out between themselves. Ballan, with no sprint finish to speak of, had little option but to launch four extremely predictable and, it has to be said, half-hearted attacks on the run-in. Pozzato probably should have taken more of a risk by at least trying to jump past Boonen in the final kilometre rather than marking him and hoping the Belgian would fade just before the line. Pozzato’s front wheel drew level with Boonen’s rear wheel but that was as far as he was going to get. The commentator on Belgian television nicknamed Pozzato ‘The Shadow’, and with good reason.

The early break of 15 riders went clear in the first hour of racing and contained a couple of dangerous riders – notably Tyler Farrar of Garmin-Barracuda and Maarten Tjallingii of Rabobank. The others were Anders Lund (Saxo Bank), Gert Dockx (Lotto-Belisol), Manuel Belletti (AG2R), Pello Bilbao (Euskaltel), David Boucher (FDJ), Vladimir Isaychev (Katusha), Massimo Graziato (Lampre), Pablo Lastras (Movistar), Sven Vandousselaere (Topsport Vlaanderen), Baptitste Planckaert (Landbouwkrediet), Tom Veelers (Argos), Andreas Schillinger and Daniel Schorn (both NetApp).

The presence of Farrar and Tjallingii probably persuaded Omega Pharma-Quick Step to take a leading role in keeping the gap to a manageable five minutes rather than allowing it to grow any close to nine or ten, as we are accustomed to seeing in this race. The other factor was that the new course meant the teams were heading into the unknown. Twenty years after Jacky Durand’s victory came from a long break, the peloton was in no mood to take any risks.

As they reached the first climbs, the Taaienberg, Eikenberg and Molenberg, the peloton began to look twitchy. At the bottom of the Molenberg, Cancellara punctured and was at the very back of the bunch for an unsettlingly long time. It’s not that his RadioShack team left him to his own devices but there wasn’t the co-ordinated sense of urgency you’d have expected from a team that had the joint favourite for the race.

Sky’s Mat Hayman tried to stir things up, getting clear over the top of the Molenberg and dragging Tomas Vaitkus (Green Edge), Lars Boom (Rabobank), Aleksandr Kuschynski (Liquigas), Alexandre Pichot (Europcar) and Kris Boeckemans (Vacansoleil) with him.

They stayed clear for a few kilometres before the group, driven by Omega Pharma-Quick Step’s Sylvain Chavanel caught them.

The approach to the first climb of the Oude Kwaremont was chaotic – like a scene from Ben Hur on bikes. Viewed from the air the peloton was like peering into a giant washing machine with riders constantly moving up. Many riders took ridiculous risks, jumping onto the pavement to try to gain a few places, dodging between street furniture and trees. To add to the confusion, team cars that wanted to get up to the break came alarmingly close to the riders at times.

By the time the peloton reached the Kwaremont, the leading group was down to 11 riders and the gap was just two minutes. In the bunch, Cancellara, Boonen and Pozzato were all close to each other, while the likes of Stijn Devolder, Bjorn Leukemans (both Vacansoleil), Sep Vanmarcke and Johan Vansummeren (Garmin) and Edvald Boasson Hagen (Sky) were near the front.

The Kwaremont, followed quickly by the Paterberg and Koppenberg, began to turn the screw. The leaders were within 55 seconds of being caught.

Cancellara’s involvement in the race came to an abrupt end with 61 kilometres to go. Riders were throwing bidons and bags of unwanted food left and right. There was a touch of wheels and the Swiss champion came off worst. It was immediately clear he wasn’t going to get back on his bike, although he came off lightly compared to the GreenEdge rider Sebastian Langeveld. On the fast downhill stretch of main road on the approach to the Oude Kwaremont for the second time, Langeveld tried to gain a few places by riding on the cycle path. Unfortunately, a spectator panicked and tried to dart out of the way, succeeding only in stepping into Langeveld’s path. It was a horrible impact as Langeveld’s front wheel flew out of the forks, and it was a relief to see him sit up when the doctor reached him.

The second race to the Kwaremont was even more intense than the first, because the we were now reaching a critical phase. The leaders had been caught, apart from FDJ’s David Boucher, who delayed the inevitable for another few kilometres until he was swamped at the bottom of the climb.

Omega Pharma-Quick Step had carefully monitored things all day and now it was up to Sylvain Chavanel, in his French champion’s jersey, to ride imposingly at the front.

With 36 kilometres remaining, Paolini moved clear with Europcar’s Vincent Jérôme and Sky’s Juan Antonio Flecha. This move was never likely to go all the way to the finish but it sparked a bit of anxiety in the group behind. Vansummeren of Garmin misjudged the corner at the bottom of the Paterberg, went too wide and ended up in the barriers. Behind him riders ran into each other and a couple ended up in the ditch.

That allowed an extremely powerful group to go clear. Boonen was there, so were Chavanel, Ballan, Pozzato, Vanmarcke, Sagan, Jérôme, Jacopo Guarnieri and Assan Bazayev of Astana and Niki Terpstra. With Boonen, Chavanel and Terpstra, Omega Pharma-Quick Step had three riders in the lead.

Behind them Boasson Hagen and Oscar Gatto of Farnese Vini were engaged in one of a number of fruitless chases that characterised the end of the race. They were eventually caught by a big group of riders that eventually got up to the front of the race thanks to sterling work from Bernhard Eisel, Ian Stannard and Christian Knees of Sky.

Jérôme was still away on his own but when Terpstra joined him with 21 kilometres to go it was clear that the Kwaremont and Paterberg would have the final say.

Sensing that he had to get out of the group to have any chance, Ballan went clear. Pozzato and Boonen recognised the danger and although others tried to respond, once the gap opened the fight seemed to go out of the chase.

Pozzato’s mistake was leaving it so late to challenge Boonen. He had little to lose and should have tried to spring a counter-attack in response to one of Ballan’s doomed efforts near the end. But with a strong cross-headwind in the riders’ faces, escape was all but impossible.

As it was, Boonen closed out his third successive victory in style to claim a place in the Tour of Flanders record books. With a good few years still left in him, it’s conceivable he could become the first man to win the race for a fourth time.

Much will depend on Cancellara, of course. On today’s evidence the new course is made for him.

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