Depending on your perspective, Nico Mattan’s win at the 67th edition Ghent-Wevelgem on Wednesday was either one of the most heroic come-from-behind efforts of the season, or it was something that bordered on cheating.
To observers, it was the day’s runner up – Spaniard Juan Antonio Flecha (Fassa Bortolo) – who seemed on his way to victory, when suddenly, in the closing meters of the 208-kilometer spring classic in Northern Belgium, Mattan came streaking past to take the win. It was a glorious moment for the Davitamon-Lotto rider, who lives in nearby St. Eloois-Winkel, less than 10km from the finish, and trains regularly on the roads around Wevelgem.
Mattan’s win in this, the fifth round of the 27-race ProTour, lost a bit of its luster, however, as Fassa Bortolo team director Giancarlo Ferreti cried foul, pointing to the time Mattan spent behind caravan vehicles in the closing kilometer as he gained ground on Flecha. Ferreti filed an appeal with the race jury, but after a closed-door review UCI officials determined it was the fault of the caravan vehicles and race organization that the Belgian had vehicles in between him and the race leader.
Mattan was cleared, but officials also sent video to the UCI for further review. The race could potentially be penalized and could even suffer exclusion from next year’s ProTour calendar, although such a drastic step is viewed as unlikely.
The most notable incidents involved crashes that took out Phonak’s Fabrizio Guidi, Discovery Channel’s Roger Hammond and T-Mobile’s Andreas Klier the 2003 winner and second-place finisher at the Tour of Flanders Sunday, who was the unfortunate victim of a motorbike collision a short time later and was feared to have left the race with a broken leg. Initial tests, however, revealed no broken bones, but Klier’s status for Sunday’s Paris-Roubiax remains uncertain.
Hammond’s teammate, George Hincapie, punctured at 103km and never regained contact with the front of the race. Instead, the American – who won here in 2001 – abandoned after more than 30 minutes of futile chasing into the wind, opting instead to reserve his legs for the cobbles of Roubaix. But Discovery’s Antonio Cruz put in a valiant effort for the American team, finishing 16th, 10th out of a 25-man chase group that crossed the line just 18 seconds behind Mattan.
Further into the race, another mishap on the course that had a direct effect on the race’s finale involved Swede Magnus Bäckstedt (Liquigas-Bianchi) and Italian Fillipo Pozatto (QuickStep), who crashed out of the lead break of eight riders in the final 10km due to the slippery road conditions. Without Bäckstedt and Pozzato, the race would be determined by six remaining riders — Mattan, Flecha and teammate Fabian Cancellara, Daniele Bennati (Lampre-Caffita), Thor Hushovd (Credit Agricole) and Aussie Baden Cooke (Française Des Jeux) — as a charging chase group closed in on the breakaway in the final kilometers.
Classic Belgian conditions
High winds and dark skies greeted the peloton at the race start in Deinze, just outside of the historic city of Ghent. With two pairs of major climbs on the course located just 2km apart, the Vidaigneberg/Rode Berg (at 148km and 169 km) and Monteberg/Kemmelberg (150km and 171 km), racers knew the peloton — or what was left of it — would likely shatter on the pair of pitches, particularly the cobbled ascent up the Kemmelberg. But before that could happen, the gusting crosswinds would take their own toll.
As the nervous peloton reached the coastal town of Oostende on the North Sea, and turned from its headwinds to a crosswind along a southern route from the coastal town of De Panne to Wevelgem, a major split occurred in De Moeren with 105km remaining. Belgian-style echelons formed, splitting the field into three groups. Sadly for Hincapie, it was at this time that his tire went flat, and though teammate Leif Hoste dropped back to help him back, it was the last either would see of the head of the race.
At the front a group of approximately 30 riders had formed with a one-minute advantage, including defending champion Tom Boonen, Wilifried Cretskens, Kevin Hulsmans and Servais Knaven (QuickStep), Tom Steels, Gert Steegmans, Henk Vogels and Mattan (Davitamon-Lotto); Steven De Jongh, Matthew Hayman and Karsten Kroon (Rabobank); Cancellara and Flecha (Fassa Bortolo); Canadian Mark Walters (Navigators Insurance); Lars Michaelsen and Matti Breschel (CSC); Bennati; Nico Eeckhout (Chocolade Jacques-T-Interim); Cruz; Bäckstedt and Mauro Gerosa (Liquigas-Bianchi); Cooke; Cyril Lemoine, Geoffrey Lequatre, Jaan Kirsipuu and Hushovd (Credit Agricole); Simone Cadamuro (Domina Vacanze); Sebastian Lang (Gerolsteiner); and Stefan Adamsson (Barloworld).
With four QuickStep riders and an equal number of Davitamons, it looked as though the winner would likely come from one of the two Belgian teams. And though it did, it wouldn’t be from Boonen or Steels, QuickStep and Davitamon’s respective top sprinters. Noticeably absent in the front group was T-Mobile, which had fallen back to aid Klier after his crash, and Phonak; together the two teams went to work at the front.
As the break hit the first series of climbs, Bäckstedt, Cretskens, Knaven, Boonen and Flecha all spent time setting the tempo at the front, while behind, Pozatto jumped across to give QuickStep added support. Flecha led atop the Kemmelberg the first time around, with Boonen sitting squarely on the Spaniard’s wheel while the others came across in ones and twos. At the bottom, the group of survivors consisted of Flecha, Boonen, Cancellara, Cretskens, Hulsmans, Hayman, Kroon, Bennati, Walters, Bäckstedt, Michaelsen, Breschel, Kirsipuu, Hushovd, Eeckhout, Steels, Mattan, Cadamuro, Lang, Cancellara, Adamsson, Cooke and Cruz. Behind the gap was closing, from 52 seconds at 47km remaining to 20 seconds seven kilometers later.
A series of regroupings took place as the splintered groups shuffled and reshuffled through the climbs, while behind the chase group closed in, reaching the tail end of the leaders at the second ascent up the Kemmelberg. It was then that Flecha flexed his legs, jumping off the front of the break and setting a tempo that few could match. Those that could included Hushovd, Bäckstedt, Boonen and Cancellara.
But the winds on the flat run in to Wevelgem wreaked havoc on any kind of organized chase to Flecha, and with 33km remaining, the decisive eight-man break of Flecha, Cooke, Pozzato, Mattan, Bennati, Cancellara, Hushovd and Bäckstedt had formed, while 15 seconds behind, a group containing Boonen, Kroon, Steels, Cruz and Breschel dangled off the back as the rest of the field was nearly one minute off the pace.
The leaders’ advantage grew as the group worked together, save Pozatto, who refused to take a pull with his team’s big hope, Boonen, behind. Still, the break stretched to 50 seconds with 20km remaining, but after the Rabobank-led peloton reabsorbed the Boonen chase group, the advantage began dropping rapidly, so that with 10km remaining it had been reduced to 20 seconds.
Going through a slick corner, Bäckstedt and Pozzato went down, and while not seriously hurt, were out of the hunt for victory. Bennati was first to throw in an attack, but a well-rested Pozatto closed it down. Mattan went next from 9km out, opening up a six-second lead for several kilometers before Flecha reeled him in and took a stab of his own. Only Cooke could initially follow, while Mattan struggled to recover from his effort; Bennati, Hushovd and Cancellara had dropped off the pace and dangled in between the leaders and a hard-chasing peloton.
With Mattan apparently exhausted from his efforts and Cooke unable to hold Flecha’s wheel, the 2005 Ghent-Wevelgem appeared to be over and won by the Fassa rider. But in the final kilometers, inspired by the hundreds of Belgian fans, Mattan picked up the pace, slowly reeling in the fading Spaniard in the final kilometer. Using the race vehicles that were stuck in a shrinking gap to his advantage, Mattan leapfrogged between caravan motorcycles and cars, ultimately surging past the Fassa rider in the final 150 meters to win in front of a partisan home crowd.
Still, many in attendance quickly pointed to the vehicles, upset that Mattan had illegally drafted, allowing him to recover and put together a finishing sprint.
Most upset was Fassa team director Ferreti, who claimed his team had been “defrauded,” and said, “A sportsman couldn’t be happy with this result. I saw the pictures on television and I said to myself, ‘What on earth is going on here?’”
Mattan, however, insisted that he was simply working his way through the traffic, and it was his legs, not the vehicles, that led him to victory.
“I knew I could catch him,” Mattan said. “I used the cars as a point to focus on… I know the finish line very well. Two or three kilometers from the finish, I thought I’d lost. But I was still riding at 59km an hour. I saw the bikes in the distance, but it was me riding 59km an hour. I did the pedaling. I gave everything in the last two kilometers, and at 500 meters, I knew I could still make it.”
“Besides,” Mattan added, “It’s not my fault that there were vehicles where there shouldn’t have been.”
Race officials took Ferreti’s protest into consideration, but after consulting determined that the result would stand, explaining that the blame belonged with the race and camera motos, not the rider, and that it would be difficult to punish a rider for a situation provoked by the race organizers themselves, a conclusion that could result in an host of penalties – including exclusion from next year’s ProTour – being levied against the race itself.
It may not have been pretty, but to Nico Mattan, it was still a win — and a win on home turf.
To see how today’s race developed , simply Click Here to open up our Live Update window and then check back soon for a complete race report from Neal Rogers, photos from Graham Watson and full results from this, the fifth stop in the UCI’s new ProTour.
1. Nico Mattan (B), Davitamon-Lotto 4:53:07 (42.58kph)
2. Juan Antonio Flecha Giannoni (Sp), Fassa Bortolo, at 0:02
3. Daniele Bennati (I), Lampre-Caffita, at 0:09
4. Fabian Cancellara (Swi), Fassa Bortolo
5. Thor Hushovd (Nor), Crédit Agricole
6. Baden Cooke (Aus), Française des Jeux, at 0:16
7. Tom Steels (B), Davitamon-Lotto, at 0:18
8. Simone Cadamuro (I), Domina Vacanze
9. Erik Zabel (G), T-Mobile
10. Stuart O’Grady (Aus), Cofidis
11. Jaan Kirsipuu (Est), Crédit Agricole
12. Magnus Bäckstedt (S), Liquigas-Bianchi
13. Marcus Ljungqvist (S), Liquigas-Bianchi
14. Steven De Jongh (Nl), Rabobank
15. Grégory Rast (Swi), Phonak
16. Antonio Cruz (USA), Discovery
17. Matti Breschel (Dk), CSC
18. Stefan Van Dijk (Nl), MrBookmaker.com
19. Vladimir Gussev (Rus), CSC
20. Marcus Burghardt (G), T-Mobile
21. Robert Hunter (RSA), Phonak
22. Ludovic Auger (F), Française des Jeux
23. Lars Michaelsen (Dk), CSC
24. Frédéric Guesdon (F), Française des Jeux
25. Mathew Hayman (Aus), Rabobank
26. Tom Boonen (B), Quickstep
27. Inigo Landaluze Intxaurraga (Sp), Euskaltel-Euskadi
28. Joost Posthuma (Nl), Rabobank
29. Nicola Loda (I), Liquigas-Bianchi
30. Wilfried Cretskens (B), Quickstep
31. Roy Sentjens (B), Rabobank
32. Rory Sutherland (Aus), Rabobank
33. Bram Tankink (Nl), Quickstep, at 0:31
34. Nick Nuyens (B), Quickstep, at 0:36
35. Wim De Vocht (B), Davitamon-Lotto, at 0:57
36. Kevin Hulsmans (B), Quickstep, at 1:08
37. Karsten Kroon (Nl), Rabobank, at 2:05
38. Aurélien Clerc (Swi), Phonak, at 2:55
39. Lars Ytting Bak (Dk), CSC
40. Enrico Franzoi (I), Lampre-Caffita
41. Christophe Mengin (F), Française des Jeux
42. Thomas Voeckler (F), Bouygues Telecom
43. Unai Yus Kerejeta (Sp), Bouygues Telecom
44. Alessandro Cortinovis (I), Domina Vacanze
45. Julio Garcia (Sp), Madeinox
46. Bert Roesems (B), Davitamon-Lotto, at 2:57
47. Inaki Isasi (Sp), Euskaltel-Euskadi
48. Uros Murn (Slo), Phonak
49. Gianluca Bortolami (I), Lampre-Caffita
50. Sebastian Lang (G), Gerolsteiner
51. Alessandro Ballan (I), Lampre-Caffita, at 3:01
52. Filippo Pozzato (I), Quickstep
53. Eric Baumann (G), T-Mobile, at 6:57
54. Fabio Baldato (I), Fassa Bortolo
55. Pedro Horrillo Munoz (Sp), Rabobank
56. Stefan Adamsson (S), Barloworld
57. Geoffroy Lequatre (F), Crédit Agricole
58. Henk Vogels (Aus), Davitamon-Lotto
59. Marco Zanotti (I), Liquigas-Bianchi
60. Wesley Van Speybroeck (B), Chocolade Jacques
61. Mauro Gerosa (I), Liquigas-Bianchi
62. Gianluca Sironi (I), Liquigas-Bianchi
63. Laszlo Bodrogi (Hun), Crédit Agricole
64. Michael Albasini (Swi), Liquigas-Bianchi
65. Ludo Dierckxsens (B), Landbouwkrediet-Colnago
66. Servais Knaven (Nl), Quickstep
67. Gert Steegmans (B), Davitamon-Lotto
68. Kevin Van Impe (B), Chocolade Jacques
69. Thomas Bruun Eriksen (Dk), CSC
70. Allan Davis (Aus), Liberty Seguros
71. Isaac Galvez Lopez (Sp), Illes Balears
72. Sven Krauss (G), Gerolsteiner
73. Paolo Longo Borghini (I), Barloworld
74. Matthé Pronk (Nl), MrBookmaker.com
75. Daniele Righi (I), Lampre-Caffita
76. Jimmy Engoulvent (F), Cofidis 12:25
77. Siro Camponogara (I), Navigators
78. Hilton Clarke (Aus), Navigators
79. Jeff Louder (USA), Navigators
80. Josu Silloniz Aresti (Sp), Euskaltel-Euskadi, all s.t.
194 starters, 80 finishers