Sky’s Juan Antonio Flecha kicked off the spring classics season in style, soloing to the finish line to become the first Spanish winner of the Belgian semi-classic, Omloop Het Nieuwsblad.
Late in the race Flecha joined a six-man escape that had a small advantage over the field. The Spaniard counter-attacked a hard charge from 2008 winner Philippe Gilbert (Omega Pharma-Lotto) over the Lange Munt cobbles, 20km from the finish of the 204km race originally known as Het Volk.
Flecha pointed to the sky before firing off his signature bow-and-arrow victory salute. He later explained that he dedicated his win to the memory of the late Frank Vandenbroucke, the 1999 winner of Het Volk.
“They told me from the car it was a good moment to go and I never looked back again until 20 meters before the line,” Flecha said. “It’s really emotional for me. I’ve been knocking on the door many times in these races and if you keep trying then sometimes, like today, the victory comes. It’s a really beautiful feeling.”
Flecha’s win was the first in the event by a Spanish rider and a major victory for new kid on the block, Team Sky, who also placed Edvald Boasson Hagen in sixth.
It was a huge win for Flecha, who has finished on the podium at Paris-Roubaix, Tour of Flanders and Ghent-Wevelgem, but never won a major one-day Belgian race.
And the Argentine-born Flecha won in the possible manner – all alone across the line. (Click to see Graham Watson Omloop Het Nieuwsblad gallery.)
“I want to dedicate this victory to the whole team,” Flecha continued. “Especially Mathew Hayman who gave his back wheel to me when I had a flat tire just before the Eikenberg. Scott [Sunderland] and Steven de Jongh in the car were incredible too. A small part of this win must also go to Frank Vandenbroucke. It’s my first victory in Belgium and that’s why I pointed up to the sky.”
Gilbert was reeled in, with Cervélo’s Heinrich Haussler and Garmin’s Tyler Farrar led the chase group across the line, fighting up to the line for second-place honors.
Officials from Team Sky were thrilled with the result.
“He was so, so strong and just did everything right. He must have been in a world of pain in those last kilometers but he kept going further and further clear,” said Sky sport director Scott Sunderland. “We were doing everything we could to encourage him and were constantly giving him the latest info – there’s so much adrenaline in that situation and it’s great to be part of.”
Cervélo did its best to defend its team honor with Haussler coming through second.
Last year, Haussler was the day’s main protagonist, attacking and nearly hanging on to win, which forced the other teams to win. That allowed teammate Thor Hushovd to sit in and wait for the sprint, which he promptly won.
Hushovd, however, has been struggling with a cold while Haussler has been suffering some knee pain.
“I tried to attack a few times today but it was never the right group,” Haussler said. “No one seemed to want to work. So in the final I tried it again and I was just able to stay ahead of the group behind me. I am really happy about the second place, to be honest I was not sure about today. Actually this race was a bit of a test because of my knee, but I realized today that my form is still there I felt comfortable mixing it up at the front of the bunch.”
Farrar’s third is also an encouraging result for the Garmin-Transitions rider, who lives in Ghent during the racing season. Farrar has become such a local that he was doing post-race interviews in Flemish.
George Hincapie (BMC), still feeling the effects of a cold, was 67th in a group at 4:59 back and won’t race in Sunday’s Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne, which he won in 2005. Michael Schar led the team with 18th. Many didn’t expect Flecha to hold off the chase with such a long distance, including BMC’s Marcus Burghardt.
“I thought he would be brought back because the speed in the peloton was so high,” Burghardt said. “I attacked at two kilometers to go on the last cobblestones, but they took me back and I had no power for the sprint.”
Michael Barry (Team Sky) finished 85th after doing some early work to help set up Flecha for victory.