It’s never easy for an overwhelming race favorite to live up to expectations in a difficult and unpredictable race like the Tour of Flanders, but on Sunday Saxo Bank’s Fabian Cancellara did just that and more, soloing to victory for his first win at the race local Flandrians refer to as De Ronde Van Vlaanderen.
In what amounted to an Easter Sunday clash of the titans, the Swiss national champ squared off mano a mano against the other unanimous race favorite, Belgian national champion and two two-time Flanders winner Tom Boonen of Quick Step, after the pair escaped an elite lead group on the cobbled Molenberg climb, 45km from the finish line.
When Cancellara attacked on the Molenberg, the 10th of the day’s 15 rated hills, a momentary lapse in reaction by several race favorites — including Juan Antonio Flecha (Team Sky), George Hincapie (BMC Racing) and Philippe Gilbert (Omega Pharma-Lotto) — allowed the pair of cobbled-classics heavyweights to spring free.
Working together Cancellara and Boonen quickly built up an insurmountable lead. However their temporary partnership came to an abrupt end on the steeps of the penultimate and often decisive kilometer-long cobbled climb known simply as The Muur, or “The Wall.”
Without ever standing up out of the saddle, Cancellara upped the pace on his Belgian rival, who struggled to keep contact. Cancellara had opened up a 15-second gap over the top, and with only 16km and one climb remaining, Cancellara used his world-championship-winning time-trial skills to power away alone to the finish. His lead over Boonen stretched out from 28 seconds with 13km to go to 75 seconds at the finish.
It was Cancellara’s third victory in one of cycling’s five monuments — he also soloed to victories at Paris-Roubaix in 2006 and Milan-San Remo in 2006 and in 2008. And he became only the second Swiss rider to win De Ronde, following Henry Suter in 1923.
“It was a perfect race and a dream come true,” Cancellara said. “The team worked very hard before the finale to minimize the peloton and to put me in the best situation before the last tough climbs. From then on, I felt confident, and when I accelerated on the Muur I knew I was going to be alone until the finish line.”
Handicapping the race
After precipitation that vacillated between showers and downpours Saturday night into Sunday morning, the expected filthy weather never quite materialized, and the 198-man field enjoyed a cool if relatively pleasant day in the saddle. Among them was Lance Armstrong (RadioShack), who was looking forward to the 261km cobbled classic.
“It’s always an exciting start,” he said at sign-in in the medieval city square in Brugge. “It’s fun to be here, it’s great. It’s important to race the cobbles, and to see the sections we’ll race at the Tour de France this year. It’s also important to see how the equipment reacts on the pavé.”
Armstrong was never favored to win. His boss, RadioShack director Johan Bruyneel, was picking Flecha for the victory. Broadcaster Paul Sherwen, meanwhile, was betting on Boonen.
“Boonen has the form, and he has the experience,” Sherwen said. “Obviously you have to consider Stijn Devolder, but his teammate is his biggest rival. And of course there’s Cancellara. One of them should win.”
Boonen, for his part, was happy to be in Brugge with good form and ready to race.
“I’m really just trying to concentrate on the race,” Boonen said. “I’m always happy to be here in Brugge, but I’m also always happy to leave and start racing. It’s the nicest moment of the day. The second nicest moment of the day is when you get to the first climb in peace. Then the race can really start.”
Out of Brugge
A break of eight riders slipped away shortly after the race began and was quickly given a long leash. In the move were Nicolas Rousseau (Ag2r), Vicente Garcia Acosta (Caisse d’Epargne), Michele Merlo (Footon-Servetto), Oliver Bonnaire (Française des Jeux), Michael Ignatiev (Katusha), Floris Goesinen (Skil-Shimano), David Boucher (Landbouwkrediet) and Joost van Leijen (Vacansoleil).
After the gap stretched to 10 minutes, with Sky and Saxo Bank patrolling the front the break’s lead fell to 7:40 over the main field with 125km and 15 rated climbs remaining. Twenty-five kilometers later the lead had dropped to under six minutes.
With a pair of favorites in Cancellara and Danish national champion Matti Breschel, Saxo Bank put the hammer down. Cancellara sat tucked neatly out of the wind, and 10km later the tiring leaders had just two minutes on the bunch. Rousseau slipped out of the break and was caught on the Kwaremont as the climbs began to string the bunch out.
On the short but steep Patersberg Breschel increased the pressure and created a group of 10 favorites. Boonen and Cancellara also pushed the pace on the Paterberg, with its grades of up to 20 percent, and with 78km to go, the break had dwindled to Ignatiev, Goesinin and van Leijen, just barely ahead of a fresh selection containing Boonen, Cancellara, Breschel, Flecha, George Hincapie (BMC), Leif Hoste (Omega Pharma-Lotto), Thor Hushovd (Cervélo TestTeam) and Lars Boom (Rabobank). Notably absent was Boonen’s teammate, two-time winner and defending champion Stijn Devolder.
But with Sky at the front the peloton dragged that elite group back. On the Taaienberg Flecha, Cancellara and Boonen were again at the front of a substantial bunch and once again pushing the pace. Sky continued driving the chase on the Eikenberg, as Aussie Matthew Hayman turned his pacemaking effort into a dig off the front, joined by Daniel Oss (Liquigas), Bernard Eisel (HTC) and Maarten Wynants (Quick Step).
It was on the cobblestone section of Holleweg following the Eikenberg that Cancellara had his biggest scare of the day. He punctured, had a wheel change and drafted his team car through the caravan, only to require a bike change. Soon after Breschel flatted, also requiring what devolved into a confused bike change by Saxo’s mechanic; the time lost would essentially torpedo Breschel’s race.
While Saxo’s two favorites sorted out their mechanical issues, Armstrong finally emerged, driving the chase to the Hayman group containing Oss, Eisel and Maarten Wynants. However, the main pack was back together at the base of the Molenberg, with only a few remnants of the breakaway remaining ahead
The big dogs bark
As the peloton caught what was left of the break, Cancellara punched it on the Molenberg. And as he’d done all day with Breschel’s repeated surges, Boonen quickly followed. However, this time the pair opened a dozen seconds on the bunch with about 40km to race. It was a similar scenario to seven days earlier at the E3 Prijs Harelbeke, only without Flecha, the third man in that day’s move.
Sky team director Scott Sudnerland said Flecha simply didn’t have the legs of a week ago.
“Everything went fine, I couldn’t ask more of the guys,” Sunderland said. “In fact we had a few riders do more than what we’d expected. The only thing was that Flecha was a little under what he was last weekend. It wasn’t an off day, but it wasn’t fantastic. It happens.
“Last weekend it was three guys away, today it was two guys, but I don’t think it would have made much difference to Fabian’s result. If Flecha had been there maybe it would have been less of a time gap, but I think it still would have been a similar result to last weekend.”
By the time they’d reached the steeps of the Leberg with 36km to go, their lead had doubled, with the 40-rider field led by Hoste, Devolder, Flecha, Gilbert, Eisel, Hincapie, Wynants and Garmin-Transitions rider David Millar, winner of last week’s Three Days of De Panne, riding his first-ever Flanders.
With less than 35km remaining, Millar shot out of the chase group, attempting to reach the leaders on his own as they began the climb of the Berendries. Gilbert followed, with Bjorn Leukemans (Vacansoleil) in tow.
With 28km to go, the leaders had nearly a minute on that three-man chase and 1:08 on the dwindling bunch containing Hincapie, Flecha, Devolder, Hoste, Wynants, Maxim Iglinsky (Astana), Johnny Hoogerland (Skil-Shimano), Steve Chainel (BBox) and Sebastian Langeveld (Rabobank). Six kilometers later it seemed that the steam had gone out of that second group, which was nearly 90 seconds behind, while the Millar trio was holding steady at 52 seconds.
As the leaders hit the slopes of the Muur, the penultimate ascent of the day, the first chase was making some progress, closing to within 45 seconds. Then Cancellara proved he was the stronger of the two, pulling away on the cobbled steeps, and the big Swiss was on his own with 15km to race.
“I didn’t plan the attack on the Grammont, even though it’s a legendary strategic point in the race,” Cancellara said. “I saw I was on my own and I simply tried to go as fast as I could. I’ve been in great form all week, and when you feel 100 percent you feel even stronger mentally.”
Hincapie led the second chase on the Muur, but the real race was up front, where Cancellara led Boonen by just 17 seconds.
“If I could have stayed with him, then I think I could have beaten him in the sprint, and I think he must have known that,” Boonen said. “He was never planning on going to the finish with me. The only place where he could attack me is where he attacked me, and he put me into difficulty.”
The final kilometers
The Saxo man quickly doubled his margin — Boonen had slipped to 35 seconds back with 12km to race. The effort was taking its toll, and Cancellara grimaced as he rose from the saddle on the Bosberg’s cobbles. But soon he was back in the drops and motoring along, with nearly a minute in hand over his Belgian pursuer, who was in danger of being overhauled by Gilbert and Leukemans. Millar, meanwhile, had dropped back to the second chase group
“Unfortunately I bonked, the lights just went out,” Millar said. “I’d missed a few bottles, and a few bottles fell off my bike. It was total depletion, just lights out, and unfortunately it came just before the Muur, which is not an ideal place.”
With 3km to go Cancellara held a minute’s advantage over Boonen and nearly twice that on Gilbert and Leukemans as he powered along, forearms draped over the bar tops. Boonen drove along in the drops with jaw clenched, but he was losing, not gaining, ground.
“He wasn’t going that much faster at first, only a little faster, but then slowly the gap grew incrementally larger and larger,” Boonen said. “He just rode away, and I couldn’t follow him. From there, I just had to find my own tempo.”
With 1km to go on the flat streets of Meerbeke Cancellara was planning his victory celebration, grinning for the cameras. He had time to pay tribute to his family by brandishing an Easter Sunday angelic trinket to the TV cameras 3km from the line, and in the finishing straight he snatched a Swiss flag and waved it overhead, punching his left fist skyward as he crossed the line victorious.
Boonen coasted across the line for second at 1:15 back. Gilbert outsprinted Leukemans for third at 2:10. Twenty seconds later a pair of Americans — Tyler Farrar (Garmin-Transitions) and Hincapie — went fifth and sixth in the bunch sprint; Armstrong was the top-placed RadioShack rider, finishing 27th in the same time as Farrar.
Farrar was pleased with his result, particularly after crashing twice and almost quitting the race, telling VeloNews, “I felt super. My form is the best it’s ever been in my life.”
Hincapie, however, was only frustrated, saying he felt he had the legs to go with Cancellara and Boonen.
“I’m disappointed,” he said. “I had good legs on the Molenberg and I hesitated when Fabian and Tom went. That was a big mistake, and from then on everyone in the chase was watching each other. I got a little caught behind the breakaway guys we were catching on Molenberg, and that was a big mistake. I really think I could have gone there, but it’s Flanders, and you have to be 100 percent focused at all times. It’s really unfortunate, I think I could have gone with them. I had really good legs today.”
Boonen, meanwhile, was gracious in his second successive runner-up place in a one-day classic after he was beaten to victory in Milan-San Remo by Spaniard Oscar Freire two weeks ago
“If you give him a few meters, you won’t see him again. I was racing after him at 55 km/h, and he took a minute off me,” Boonen said. “What can I say? He was the strongest.”
Basking in his victory, Cancellara, who embraces his nickname of Spartacus, laughed at the suggestion that his joy in finally winning Flanders might distract him from another Roubaix victory next week.
“The condition is there, I’m not going to just throw it away,” he said. “It’s a normal thing I always do to savor my victories. Sure a lot of tension went away with this win. What I did today I had put a lot of pressure on myself. But that is what’s pushed me, in a way.
“To attack on the Muur and leave Boonen behind is amazing. When I get old, to be able to say to young riders, ‘At the Ronde I attacked on the Muur, left Boonen behind and won alone,’ not in a sprint, or dropped and came back, but alone … it was the perfect scenario. The gladiator won the battle.”