Tom Boonen (Omega Pharma-Quick Step) is king of Belgium once again after roaring to victory Sunday at the Tour of Flanders. The win erases years of struggles and demons that had derailed the Belgian’s once-sparkling career.
Boonen beat Filippo Pozzato (Farnese Vini-Selle Italia) and Alessandro Ballan (BMC Racing) in a three-up sprint to claim an emotional victory for his third Flanders crown and confirmed that he’s back on top of the cycling world.
“It’s amazing. I wasn’t expecting it. I was even not feeling super today. I don’t know why, but I was feeling really tired during the race,” said Boonen. “But in the final, I had to count on my sprint. I wasn’t strong enough to ride to the finish solo.”
Riding on a controversial new Flanders course, the leading trio had pulled clear over the final passage of the Oude Kwaremont. Their gap proved decisive over the day’s 17th and final climb over the Paterberg with 13km to go to the new finishing straight on Minderbroadersstraat in Oudenaarde.
“During the final 15km after Paterberg, Sagan was chasing, and Pozzato said, ‘We have to go, now,’” said Boonen. “And I said, ‘Ok, we will try,’ and we all rode in the last 8km. It was perfect like that, just keep the tempo high so no one could attack.”
Boonen might not have been feeling great, but neither Pozzato nor Ballan could shake him in a solid headwind. Ballan, a winner in 2007, knew he had no chance in the sprint and tried three attacks in vain in the closing kilometers.
“With the headwind [in the final 10km], you could accelerate, but not really attack,” said Boonen. “I’m not going to sit and let them go, my job was jump on the wheel as fast I could.”
Pozzato was saving everything for the final sprint, but Boonen came around Ballan with 150 meters to go and relegated a surging Pozzato to second by a bike length.
Ballan didn’t contest the final meters and coasted across the line at one second back, happy to be back in the mix after a few years off-form that saw him fend off doping allegations related to a still-ongoing investigation in Italy.
“I tried to avoid the sprint, but Tom was always marking my wheel. It’s been a great race. We had a great group here today. With this podium place, I am very content,” Ballan said. “I knew that Tom was very strong and he would be strong in the sprint, so I had to try something before. Tom was very, very strong.”
The mood was jubilant and expectant in Bruges for the start of the 96th edition of the Ronde van Vlaanderen. Big changes in the race course brought new nerves and anticipation, but the history and energy was the same as riders lined up for the 254km monument.
The route changes were controversial, but the game was on, with 16 climbs and 10 sectors of flattish pave; the Ronde promised to deliver fireworks start to finish.
Boonen and Cancellara started as the five-star favorites, but there were a host of others who were ready to spoil the storyline.
After rolling out of downtown Bruges, the attacks came fast and early, with NetApp and Euskaltel-Euskadi trying to put riders into the day’s main breakaway.
At 23km, the day’s early main break was set, with the following riders: Vladimir Isaychev, David Boucher, Maarten Tjallingii, Andreas Schillinger, Pablo Lastras, Baptiste Planckaert, Gert Dockx, Anders Lund, Sven Vandousselaere, Massimo Graziato, Pello Bilbao, Tom Veelers, Tyler Farrar, Daniel Schorn and Manuel Belletti.
Fabian Cancellara (RadioShack) lost the chance to contend for his second Ronde title Sunday when he was caught up in a crash late in the race. Early reports suggested a hip fracture for the Swiss champion.
Cancellara was riding in the middle-right of the peloton with roughly 65km remaining when he went down hard in a feed zone. The crash occurred on a paved section of road just beyond the Mariaborrestraat cobbled sector near the end of the penultimate finish circuit.
The Swiss champion lay on the ground for minutes following the crash. Belgian network Sporza reported that Cancellara suffered a suspected hip fracture.
Coming back together
With 28km to go, Vincent Jerome (Europcar), winner of last year’s Tro Bro Leon, surged clear of the front group a lead group that had formed as the result of a crash at the foot of the of the Paterberg on the second of three finish circuits.
Omega Pharma didn’t waste time, sending Tepstra and last year’s runner-up Sylvain Chavanel up the road. Quick to mark Chavanel’s wheel were Sep Vanmarcke (Garmin) and Paolini, but Juan Antonio Flecha (Sky) didn’t want to let them get too far and helped bring the front group back together.
The front chase group, which included Edvald Boasson Hagen and Philippe Gilbert, was dangling about 30 seconds back, with Sky taking big pulls to try to bring it back. As they’ve done many times in the last few weeks, Bernhard Eisel and Ian Stannard took huge turns to help put Boasson Hagen back with the leaders with 20km to go.
Split on the Oude Kwaremont
A group of 40-plus riders hit the final run up the race’s penultimate climb and the day’s third passage over the cobbled Oude Kwaremont, with Jerome and Terpstra hanging off the front of the big group that had come back together with 20km to go.
Ballan made a strong surge low on the climb, drawing out Boonen and Pozzato. Just behind were Sagan, Luca Paolini (Katusha), Thomas Voeckler (Europcar) and Edvald Boasson Hagen (Sky), leading what became a single-file string of ever-desperate riders.
Ballan was nursing a slender lead nearing the top of the cobblestoned-sector of the climb, when Pozzato finally let it rip with 18km to go. Boonen knew this was a decisive moment and quickly marked his wheel.
The leading trio quickly formed at the front over the top of the climb, with Paolini and Tony Gallopin (RadioShack) desperately leading a chase group of about a dozen riders. Paolini went bravely alone, chasing at 14 seconds back as Ballan, Boonen and Pozzato powered toward the Paterberg.
Last run up the Paterberg
After weeks of anticipation, the Ronde all came down to the final climb at the Paterberg, with 13km to go. It was two Italians — Ballan and Pozzato — versus Boonen, who had pulled clear on the Oude Kwaremont a handful of kilometers earlier.
The peloton had already blown up in their wake, with only Peter Sagan (Liquigas-Cannondale) putting in a brave, lone chase effort 20 seconds behind. The leading trio had the race in their hands, but the question remained on how it would play out.
Some of the big favorites were nowhere to be seen. Fabian Cancellara (RadioShack-Nissan) crashed out in the feed zone with 62km to go. Philippe Gilbert (BMC Racing) was a shadow of his dominance from last year, languishing as a non-factor, barely hanging on in a chase group after a crash at the base of the Paterberg during the penultimate finish circuit.
The leading trio roared over the top of the Paterberg, with everything to gain by working together. They couldn’t start playing cat-and-mouse, not with a baker’s dozen looming at just 25 seconds back.
With 5km to go, the gap had grown to 55 seconds for the chasing group. The race for the podium was over for everyone else except for the leading three.
Boonen showed last weekend, with wins at the E3 Prijs Harelbeke and Ghent-Wevelgem, that he had the most explosive sprint of the rider contesting the finale, so Ballan and Pozzato would have to try to shake the big Belgian.
There were some big results between these three; two world titles, three Flanders and one Milan-San Remo. All three had overcome recent rough patches in their respective careers. No way would this race be up negotiation.
With 4km to go, the games began in earnest. Ballan took a few timid stabs, but Boonen quickly marked the moves, with Pozzato turning a big gear in his wake to save his legs for the final sprint.
The long, flat straight to the finish after hitting the red kite played into Boonen’s hands. It was a game of marking wheels, saving energy and positioning.
With 500m to go, it was Ballan, Boonen and Pozzato. They had plenty time ahead of the chasing group. It would all come down to the sprint.
Ballan opened up the sprint at the 300-meter card. Boonen came out strong to the left, but Pozzato nearly came around him. Boonen hunched low over his handlebars and squeaked out the win by less than a bike length.
Greg Van Avermaet (BMC Racing) led the chase group across for fourth, at 38 seconds back with Sagan coming through fifth in his first Ronde.