These are the times that try Belgium’s soul. Leading into the frenetic seven days of “Holy Week,” which includes cycling’s two cobbled monuments, the Ronde van Vlaanderen (Tour of Flanders) on Easter Sunday and Paris-Roubaix the next, the nation that has so dominated the classics throughout their long history has yet to notch a win on its own hallowed grounds.
The racing has been at times both brutal and electrifying thus far, but that will not pacify the Flemish fans who consider victories on their storied roads a birthright. Compared with the seemingly everyone-gets-a-prize nature of the grand tours, there is slim margin for error during the cobbled classics season. Just nine days of racing (13 if you count the Driedaagse van De Panne stage race) can make or break Belgian cycling’s year, and with February’s Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne and March’s Nokere Koerse canceled due to snow, the opportunities this year were even fewer.
Veteran Italian campaigner Luca Paolini (Katusha), without a northern win since a 2007 stage of De Panne, carried off the prized Belgian season opener Omloop Het Nieuwsblad. He was only the 12th foreigner in 66 editions to do so. His countryman, 28-year-old Oscar Gatto (Vini Fantini-Selle Italia), took his success in the Italian one-day semi-classics on the road, claiming the win in last Wednesday’s Ronde tune-up Dwars door Vlaanderen (Across Flanders).
On Friday, Swiss powerhouse Fabian Cancellara (RadioShack-Leopard) showed that he may be back to his 2010 best by winning the E3 Harelbeke with a long solo raid. Two days later, Slovak Peter Sagan (Cannondale) continued to amaze, not so much by winning his first classic at Ghent-Wevelgem, which many expected, but by breaking away to win solo from a lead group in which he was already the fastest finisher.
Now, with no wins and just three podium appearances, only three one-day races remain for Flemish cycling to regain its confidence.
Tom Boonen’s burden
Most of Belgium’s hopes have rested, understandably, on Tom Boonen (Omega Pharma-Quick Step), who did the unthinkable last season by winning Harelbeke, Ghent-Wevelgem, De Ronde, and Roubaix. With Boonen behind on form after an infected elbow early in the year nearly cost him his arm, nobody expected the same level of performance this year. With Cancellara and Sagan clearly on form after their showings at Milano-Sanremo, and De Ronde a week away, Belgium hoped its star would show signs of life last weekend.
On Friday at Harelbeke, it looked as if things were coming around when Boonen launched his now-obligatory attack over the Taaienberg and forced the eight-man selection that would contest the final. For a few kilometers — from the Taaienberg, over the Paterberg and onto the lower slopes of the Oude Kwaremont — it seemed the stage was being set for the Boonen/Cancellara rematch fans had been waiting for since 2010, with Sagan and Jurgen Roelandts (Lotto-Belisol) along to provide some interesting variables.
That hope evaporated when, at the exact spot where everyone knew he would attack, Cancellara simply rode away. As he disappeared over the top of the Oude Kwaremont, Boonen was not only unable to respond to Cancellara’s attack, he faded from the chase group as well. Boonen said afterward that he was simply underfueled, started to go dark, and beat back the bonk with the help of a bottle and a few gels. He recovered enough to take the field sprint for seventh, 2:15 behind Cancellara.
At Ghent, Boonen’s chances came to a more violent end. He clipped a curb on the right side of the road and fell heavily on his right knee with 65 kilometers to ride to the finish. He stayed on the ground for several minutes as he was evaluated, but remounted. Shadowed by the broom wagon, he made it to the top of the Kemmelberg before finally abandoning.
Boonen’s travails seem relatively minor at first blush — a bit of carelessness with regard to nutrition, a fall that could have happened to anyone on a narrow, crowded road through a narrow, crowded Belgian town. But on closer inspection, Boonen’s hunger knock and crash are not so much causes of his poor finishes as they are symptoms of still sub-par form.
After his Harelbeke swoon, Boonen told reporters, “We really had to push to get a gap and I didn’t have the luxury of feeling comfortable enough to eat.” It was a frank admission that the pace was at the root of his bad patch, not inattention, miscalculation, or overconfidence.
And while Boonen told Het Nieuwsblad after Ghent-Wevelgem that Omega Pharma had the race under “perfect control” when he crashed, the tape shows differently. The crash occurred at around 65 kilometers to go; the Kemmelberg, the race’s most-feared obstacle, begins at around 64 kilometers remaining. The fight for position ahead of the Kemmelberg ascent is legendary, something a three-time winner would know. But Boonen was well back in the bunch, already poorly positioned during what he knew could be a crucial point in the race.
Just prior to the crash, footage shows three or four riders moving up the sidewalk on the right side. Boonen appears to try to jump on, but misses the curb cut by inches, hits the curb, and goes down. It is hard to tell for certain whether he was aiming for the sidewalk express lane or was simply forced outside. If it was the former, as it looks to be, it was a desperate measure from a rider who would normally be ensconced in the first 10 places. For its part, Boonen’s Omega Pharma squad looked off its game as well, failing to adjust for Boonen’s departure and pondering they day’s big move for too long before deciding to chase on Mark Cavendish’s behalf, despite the presence of race favorite Sagan.
The luckless and listless
If Boonen and Omega Pharma were making their own bad luck, another Flemish contender, Jurgen Roelandts (Lotto-Belisol), was having it thrust upon him. The 27-year-old has hinted at a big classics result for years, and looks to be coming into his prime just when Lotto needs a leader on the cobbles. At Harelbeke, he was the first to latch on to Boonen’s Taaienberg acceleration, only to flat and be dropped out of the selection. With no teammate in the move and the cars still stuck behind the peloton, there was no wheel to be had. He finished in 60th, part of a large group that rolled in 5:11 back.
At Ghent, Roelandts flatted again, with around 50 kilometers remaining, just as the key moves were coalescing. This time, he had teammate Frederick Willems to give him a wheel, but as they made the change on the roadside, Roelandts was struck by a race organizer’s car. Lotto manager Marc Sergeant reported that Roelandts hit his head and was feeling groggy and opted to abandon. While Roelandts endured his abuse, his 23-year-old teammate and countryman Jens Debusschere diligently found his way into the key move of 11, only to flat out as well. As Sergeant put it to Gazet van Antwerpen, “how unlucky can you get?”
The rest of Belgium’s big hopes have failed to make big impacts. World champion Philippe Gilbert (BMC Racing) has been visible, but largely ineffective, failing to make a single final so far. His teammate Greg Van Avermaet has fared better, sniffing out the moves to get on to the podium at Ghent with a third place behind Sagan and Borut Bozic, but after a breakout win at Paris-Tours in 2011, he seems to have settled back into being a nearly-man, always close but never a closer. After crashing hard at Tirreno-Adriatico earlier this month, Sep Vanmarcke (Blanco) has yet to show the form and vigilance that saw him take second at Ghent as a neo-pro in 2010 and capture Het Nieuwsblad the following year.
Nick Nuyens (Garmin-Sharp), a past winner of both Het Nieuwsblad and De Ronde, is still struggling to come back from a heavily invasive hip surgery he underwent last September to repair damage sustained at the 2012 Paris-Nice. He abandoned early at Harelbeke, having told the Belgian Sporza TV network that if he couldn’t ride well at Harelbeke, he would “draw a line under (his) spring.” He’s remained true to that pledge, calling an early close to his classics campaign. His Garmin teammate, 2011 Roubaix winner Johan Vansummeren, has had an anonymous but untroubled early season, likely saving himself for the big showdown at Roubaix.
Can it be salvaged?
Despite schedule changes that have rearranged Harelbeke, Ghent-Wevelgem, and other mainstays of the Belgian calendar in the last several years, the Driedaagse van De Panne remains the last cram session before the Ronde exam. Held this Tuesday through Thursday, the three-day, four-stage race through West Flanders can pack on last-minute race kilometers, but it does so at a cost. With frenetic courses and a field rounded out by scrappy, results-hungry Pro Continental squads, crashes and injuries tend to abound during its three road stages. Wins at De Panne alone will not save the Flemish season, but form gained there and applied at De Ronde or Roubaix could.
Boonen, who missed his usual start at the Tour of Qatar and abandoned Sanremo and Ghent, has been confirmed as a last-minute entry, desperately seeking race kilometers. If De Panne does not give him the sharpness he needs to mount a serious challenge next weekend, he will likely enter Flanders sharing leadership at Omega Pharma with Frenchman Sylvain Chavanel, who has shown consistently good form all spring, including a strong fourth place at the brutal Sanremo. If he does find what he’s looking for, well, he’s Tom Boonen, and it would be foolish to write him off.
On the Wednesday after De Ronde, the 101st Scheldeprijs will offer one last shot at a spring win in Belgium before the final cobbled showdown over the border to the south. Held on flat roads outside of Antwerp, the Scheldeprijs’ fast course could well yield a victory to one of the big Belgian teams, but if it does, it will almost certainly come at the hands of foreign talent. Omega Pharma will place its hopes in Mark Cavendish, who will chase a record fourth win, while Lotto will likely work to set up reliable German sprinter André Greipel.
And of course, a win at De Ronde or Roubaix, a Flemish stronghold despite the border, would change the face of the season in an instant, and the preceding five weeks would be remembered not as dark, doubtful times but as dramatic preludes to ultimate victory. It is a lot to hope for. Cancellara and Sagan are clearly on superb form. Sagan’s Cannondale squad has looked increasingly capable of supporting him as a favorite, and even Cancellara’s RadioShack has shown signs of life, with Stijn Devolder shutting down chases at Harelbeke and Yaroslav Popovych putting in credible rides at both Harelbeke and Ghent. Beyond the super-favorites, a host of other challengers, from the resurgent Paolini to Sky’s Geraint Thomas, are waiting in the wings. The momentum, the accumulated weight of a month’s worth of results and injuries and disappointments, all seems to be against the vaunted Belgians.
But that’s the thing about the classics — momentum can change in an instant, and storied races with a hundred years of history can hinge on a single moment. At roughly 50 kilometers longer than the other cobbled classics, there are simply more of those potentially crucial moments at De Ronde and Roubaix, and they carry more weight. In cycling’s death zone, beyond the 200-kilometer mark, everything gets harder, form can disappear more quickly, and small mistakes and misfortunes are amplified. If Roelandts doesn’t flat, but Sagan does, that could be the Ronde victory. If Boonen eats an energy bar but Cancellara doesn’t, that could be Roubaix. Let the favorites watch each other too closely, and a veteran domestique like Vansummeren rides away for the win. So far this season, those moments have not tipped in the Belgians’ favor. But that was last week. This week might be different, and all of Belgium will be waiting to with bated breath to find out.