Omega Pharma’s luckless spring
If Boonen was looking to write the basis for next year’s comeback narrative, things couldn’t have gone much better. But for a man looking to enter history as the first five-time Paris-Roubaix winner, Boonen’s season was a shambles, and in some ways a mirror image of Cancellara’s 2012. This year, it was Boonen lying on the road at De Ronde, suffering a fracture that would deprive him of chances at both Flanders and Roubaix.
Boonen’s crash just 19 kilometers into De Ronde put the final punctuation on an already fitful spring that started with an innocent-looking elbow scrape suffered while mountain biking near his home in January. A week later, the wound had become so badly infected Boonen risked the loss of his arm, and underwent emergency surgery.
He avoided true crisis, but not sporting crisis as the incident pushed back his classics preparation. After missing his usual season opener at the Tour of Qatar due to the surgery, Boonen lost desperately needed racing kilometers at every turn. Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne and the Nokere Koerse were lost to Europe’s snowy spring, and Boonen netted only 117 kilometers at Milano-Sanremo, choosing not to get back out on the course after the bus transfer over the snowbound Turchino pass.
Boonen appeared to be coming around at Harelbeke, forcing the first major selection himself, but he was unable to follow Cancellara’s telegraphed attack on the Oude Kwaremont and soon faded from the chase. His recovery to win the sprint for seventh still showed promise. At Ghent-Wevelgem two days later, things began to come off the rails again. Out of position and well back in the pack on the crucial run-in to the Kemmelberg, Boonen clipped the curb and fell heavily onto the sidewalk. After collecting himself for several minutes, he continued, but hopped off his bike at the crest of the climb with 60km remaining and abandoned.
Boonen squeaked onto the startlist at the VDK Driedaagse De Panne-Koksijde (Three Days of De Panne) in a last-ditch effort to cram some form into his legs before the Ronde, and he was prominent in helping shape the race for Mark Cavendish and overall winner Sylvain Chavanel. Whatever last-minute form he might have gained at De Panne — and gaining form in the final days leading up to Holy Week is almost certainly impossible — lost its chance to manifest itself at De Ronde, however, when he crashed into the road furniture in the kermesse town of Roeselare and fractured a rib.
Even without Boonen, Omega Pharma is one of the deepest teams in the classics, but the captain’s luck seemed to spread to the crew. Matteo Trentin was the first victim, suffering a wrist fracture at Het Nieuwsblad that scuttled his classics season before it really began. Boonen shouldered the team’s bad luck himself at Harelbeke, Ghent-Wevelgem, and the Ronde, then passed it to Mark Cavendish for a spell.
At the mid-week Scheldeprijs, when the Omega Pharma train left Cavendish stranded coming into the final 200 meters, all but burying his chance at a record fourth victory, team boss Patrick Lefevere reached his boiling point. Cavendish carefully refused to point fingers in post-race interviews. Lefevere did it for him, publicly flogging the team.
“This was not OK,” Lefevere wrote on his Twitter account. “Disillusioned today #Scheldeprijs. Was expecting much more in the service of #markcavendish.”
In a Sporza interview, he was less reserved: “The train is just not there. I have not seen men with balls. There are a few who could be better, but they are afraid. ‘Fear of failure’ I call it. A few riders must realize that you do not have to race with Omega Pharma-Quick Step if you are afraid to do the final kilometer.”
No doubt motivated by an even more pointed dressing down behind the scenes, Omega Pharma showed up in Compiègne ready to make an impact at Paris-Roubaix, Boonen or no Boonen. And the team did, making every move that mattered with riders capable of going the distance.
In the last hour of the last cobbled classic, though, luck again turned against the team. Boonen’s second in command, the on-form Sylvain Chavanel, flatted out of contention. Undeterred, the team persisted, with Stijn Vandenbergh and Zdenek Stybar making up half of the key break, with Cancellara and Vanmarcke. Amazingly, first Vandenbergh and then Stybar were knocked out of the move in the Carrefour de l’Arbre, victims of spectators who stayed a little too close to the action when racers sought refuge in the relative comfort of the gutter. In the space of 1.2 kilometers, Omega Pharma went from having half of the race-winning break inside the final 20km to being completely out of contention. If there was any consolation, it was that Lefevere declared himself once again proud of his boys.
Hidden in the rubble, there were still bright spots for Belgium’s premier team. Vandenbergh started the season on a high note with a surprising second-place result in Het Nieuwsblad, and he went on to establish himself as an additional secondary threat in Omega Pharma’s already stacked arsenal. Cavendish won a stage at De Panne despite another severely mistimed leadout, and the reliable Chavanel claimed the overall. Despite their unceremonious departures from the lead group, Vandenbergh and Stybar lived up to company standards at Roubaix, and Niki Terpstra came forward in the waning kilometers to salvage a much needed podium spot for the team, with third. For the cobbled classics steamroller, though, winning De Panne and just getting on the podium at Roubaix will be cold comfort.