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Omega Pharma frustrated to lose numbers game to Sagan

HARELBEKE, Belgium (VN) — Belgian super-squad Omega Pharma-Quick Step’s strength in numbers could not stand up to a superior Peter Sagan Friday in Harelbeke. On home soil, it lost the E3 Harelbeke one-day classic, despite having Cannondale’s Slovak star out-gunned two-to-one.

“It’s very difficult,” sport director Tom Steels told VeloNews. “You are in the front with one of the fastest and strongest riders, but in numbers you have more. You just have to gamble at that point.”

In the race referred to as the “mini-Ronde van Vlaanderen,” Boonen crashed once and was held up behind another pile-up, along with defending champion Fabian Cancellara (Trek Factory Racing), 40 kilometers from the finish. The resulting split helped produce an eventual lead group with Sagan, Geraint Thomas (Sky), and two Omega Pharma riders, Niki Terpstra and Stijn Vandenbergh.

“It was a bit confusing at the beginning because we weren’t allowed to cooperate,” the 6-foot-6 Vandenbergh told reporters. “Then the team ordered me to work with Sagan and Thomas. Then both of us were allowed to work.

“We took turns in trying to attack, but there was a mutual interest between Sagan and Thomas. They didn’t talk, there was no deal, but they wanted to keep the group together for the sprint.”

Omega Pharma had hoped to increase its numbers against the wunderkind Sagan. For some time, when the gap hovered around 10 to 20 seconds, it tried to launch Boonen and cyclocross world champion Zdenek Stybar into the front group.

“We had a number of setbacks with Tom and Stybar,” Steels said. “Stybar had a puncture. Those two really had some bad luck; even Niki had to come back a few times. The luck was not on our side.”

Vandenbergh explained that with 50 kilometers to race, Boonen told him his injured thumb bothered him too much on the cobbles. He said that it caused Boonen to cry in pain while riding over the Flemish cobbles around Harelbeke. The five-time Harelbeke winner injured his right thumb in his early crash earlier, at the foot of the La Houppe climb.

The team remains in good spirits, however. Terpstra won the smaller mid-week classic Dwars door Vlaanderen on Wednesday and one month ago, it dominated Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne to give Boonen his third title.

Steels said he remained hopeful for Sunday’s Gent-Wevelgem, despite the withdrawal of former world champion Mark Cavendish due to fever, and the monuments at Ronde van Vlaanderen (Tour of Flanders) and Paris-Roubaix next month.

“We gave them a fight today. We always like to win, of course, but we were there and we were one of the strongest team. We didn’t win — it’s a disappointment — but if you see what they did, then we can go home with a good feeling,” Steels said. “We are there always and you always need some luck to win. We are there, we are able to win, able to make the battle. We hope Tom has fewer setbacks. If he had been in the front it would’ve been a totally different game.”

Boonen is rebounding after his partner Lore and he suffered a miscarriage last week. After sitting out Sunday’s Milano-Sanremo, he returned to racing at Dwars door Vlaanderen on Wednesday and appears to have carried over the early-season form that helped him take two stages in the Tour of Qatar before Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne.

With Boonen in the mix, Steels said Omega Pharma would be ready to take on Sagan and Cancellara come the monuments.