Luca Paolini (Katusha) won Omloop Het Nieuwsblad on Saturday in Ghent, Belgium.
Stijn Vandenbergh (Omega Pharma-Quick Step) was second after the pair attacked a 10-man lead group 26 kilometers from the finish.
Sven Vandousselaere (Topsport Vlaanderen-Baloise) led the chasers across the line 30 seconds later.
“It’s been three years since I was riding for a win. This is a success,” said Paolini. “I felt perfectly during the race. When Vandenbergh attacked, I knew it was the wheel to follow.”
‘Chava’ turns up the heat
Sub-freezing temperatures met the peloton in the opener of the northern classics season. Forecast snow held off for the race, which started and ended in Ghent, but the neck warmers and heavy gloves never came off during the 199km tilt.
Taking in 12 of the Flemish hellingen (hills), including the Kruisberg, Taaienberg, and Molenberg, as well as eight pave sectors, the Het Nieuwsblad circuit serves as an apt preview of the races to come, including the Ronde van Vlaanderen (Tour of Flanders) and Ghent-Wevelgem.
Sylvain Chavanel (Omega Pharma) took Saturday’s race by the horns with 50km remaining, attacking and riding ahead of the peloton to the remnants of the day’s long breakaway with Marco Bandiera (IAM Cycling).
Behind the leaders, two crashes hit the peloton. The first saw Heinrich Haussler (IAM Cycling) on the pavement briefly. He remounted and would ride to 19th on the day. The second crash occurred near the front and delayed the bunch as riders tried to push through on a narrow section of tarmac.
A group of six chasers, including Greg Van Avermaet (BMC Racing) and Geraint Thomas (Sky), struck out on the Varent climb after Paolini tested his legs on the ramp. Chavanel had a friend in the group, in the form of teammate Vandenbergh and the Belgian disrupted the flow of the group once before he settled in at the back.
Chavanel was not waiting around up ahead and went to the front of the swollen leaders’ group and pressed on, in the saddle. His pressure split the group and soon he was solo as he approached the Leberg climb. “Chava” stood and stomped on his pedals.
“I tried to attack and I was thinking somebody would have followed me. When I remained alone I really didn’t force the situation,” said Chavanel. “With a headwind it wasn’t possible to go to the finish alone.”
Behind Chavanel, the chase group made contact with his former companions, approximately 30 seconds behind. The peloton, shrunk to around 30 riders, came over the climb a minute later, looking unmotivated with riders from most of the teams represented up the road.
The chase group did not share the peloton’s lack of drive and began clawing Chavanel back on the long paved section leading to the Molenberg climb, the final of the day’s 12 hellingen. He entered the cobbled section with a 14-second advantage, but Van Avermaet launched out of the chase group early on the climb and pushed ahead toward the Frenchman. By the top of the climb, the lead group was 10, with Chavanel tucking into line.
Back in the peloton, Sep Vanmarcke lit the fuse on the Molenberg, drawing out Tom Boonen (Omega Pharma-Quick Step), but when there was no gap at the top of the climb, the Belgian eased off. The bunch was at 1:45 and its shot at the podium was almost certainly gone. From there, the gap ballooned quickly to two minutes and the race was down to the 10 leaders.
Passing the test
Vandenbergh tested the group with an acceleration from 26km out. Paolini tucked into his wheel and Jurgen Roelandts (Lotto-Belisol), Julien Fouchard (Cofidis), and Maarten Wynants (Blanco) led the pursuit. Wynants said the cold affected his legs and Van Avermaet could not respond to the attack, later saying he bonked. When the lead pair had 10 seconds, Paolini pulled through and the lead duo pressed on, with Chavanel tucked in at the back of the chasers.
“I felt very strong today and spent some time forcing the race. Paolini hesitated to work at first, even when we were gone, until it was certain that we were ahead,” said Vandenbergh. “Perhaps he suspected that the Chavanel group would attack if we were caught again and he wanted to be ready to jump.”
The two leaders’ advantage approached a half-minute with 23km remaining, and the entirety of the eight-man chase group, save for Chavanel, began contributing to the work.
“Paolini and Vandenbergh were the two strongest,” said Wynants. “I still wanted to put pressure on in the hope we could come back, but the others in the group were already working on third place and looked at each other. I thought for a moment that the Cofidis rider would close the gap, but that did not happen.”
The peloton fell back to more than three minutes behind the leaders. The big classics favorites, including Boonen, Vanmarcke, and Thor Hushovd (BMC Racing), stayed out of trouble near the front.
At the front of the race, the diminutive Italian, Paolini, swapped turns with the six-foot-six Vandenbergh. They carried 34 seconds out of the Lange Munte cobbled sector, Wynants driving the chase behind.
But it just would not be enough from the chasers. They would not see Vandenbergh and Paolini again until they were in the finish corral in Ghent. The pair had 39 seconds with 10km to go.
The former Katusha teammates continued to work together heading inside 5km to go. As they passed under the kite, the team directors came forward to give their final instructions, Wilfried Peeters shouting out the window of the Omega Pharma car at Vandenbergh.
Swapping turns, swapping turns, the leaders kept pushing inside 2km to go. A look over the left shoulders confirmed the 51-second gap as they entered the city center.
Behind them, Van Avermaet struck out of the chase group alone, but was quickly brought back.
Vandenbergh led into the finish straight and Paolini jumped.
“I knew he was the fastest of the two of us,” said Vandenberge. “I was hoping to ride away off the last cobbles, but he was right in my wheel. I was already a little tired.
“At the end of such a heavy course you never know whether you still have a chance. Paolini has more experience and more explosiveness.”
It was all the Belgian could do to stay within three bike lengths of the Italian. Paolini had the win locked up. He said afterward that the confidence from the victory would carry him toward the Ronde van Vlaanderen (Tour of Flanders), where he hopes to finish on the podium.
“I will prepare myself with the goal of finishing in the top three at De Ronde,” he said. “Even at age 36, I still feel able to play the first roles, especially if, like today, conditions are difficult. When it is cold, Luca is still there.”
Chavanel jumped from the chase group, but couldn’t shake Thomas, who led the eight men onto the Frenchman’s wheel. Vandousselaere led out the sprint for third and barely held off Thomas at the line.
Van Avermaet lamented a missed opportunity.
“I see my result as a missed opportunity,” he said. “However, I am good at the start of the season. The fifth is a confirmation of my condition. Of course, I would have liked something closer to victory, but that was not to be. “