The 200 km classic was run in cold and wet conditions, classic weather really for this kind of race. Pictures of riders at the start revealed an impressive display of layer upon layer clothing and indistinguishable riders in neckwarmers and hats, clearly no one wanted to be suffering like they were at Milano-Sanremo a few days ago. In the end they managed to avoid getting snowed on though, with the exception of a few scattered snowflakes late in the race.
In the cold the race unfolded as unpredictably and thrillingly as we had come to expect .The early racing was intense as riders knew that the conditions meant you had to race hard from the start. The peloton was thus unwilling to let a break go and it was almost halfway into the race just as they reached the first of the climbs that a 14 man group managed to get a gap. Most recognizable names in the group were Gert Steegmans of Omega Pharma and Matt Hayman of Sky. They were also among the frontmen as the group split in half as the race entered Brakel and it's local hills and then again as tired riders were shed as the group progressed through the list of climbs. Cofidis Romain Zingle tried his luck but had to admit defeat at the top of the Eikenberg and a leadgroup was established by Hayman, Steegmans and Saramotins of IAM Cycling.
Throughout, the gap to the peloton was never more than a minute - minute and a half and as the pace back there among the stronger favorites began to pick up it was clear that the race was entering a new phase. A smattering of minor crashes marred the race as riders were squeezed out on the narrow roads in the position battles , the worst of it struck Garmin's Jack Bauer who ended up face down and motionless on the ground still clipped into his pedals. The images of him lifeless were gruesome but he was reported as conscious as he was taken to hospital. He has since been released and is being monitored for signs of concussion by the Garmin physicians. A lucky escape from something that looked decidedly much worse.
The race was taking new shape now. Hayman went away solo on the Knokteberg and by the time they hit the Oude Kwaremont new groups were forming at the front as a mix of the strongest of the old escapees and offensive riders charging up from the remains of the peloton. Powerhouses Stijn Vandenbergh and Ian Stannard joined at the front along with attentive riders like Jens Keukelaire and Oscar Gatto. Astana were also represented by two riders, Iglinskiy and Bozic. Vacansoleil had Mirco Selvaggi at the front but neither of their two pre-race favorites Flecha and Leukemans. The latter sat in the chasegroup that hung on behind at 20-40 seconds for a long time without ever really looking to close the gap as the two groups were fairly even in size and strength and as the front riders managed a fairly good cooperation.
As the leadgroup passed the final hill fairly intact the scene for the finale was set. Ian Stannard tried capitalizing on the form that served him so well in Sanremo by launching a mauling Cance-style attack but QuickStep took the responsibility of neutralizing his effort, something that didn't come easy and the group stretched and split briefly but never decisively. Instead it was Thomas Voeckler who seized the opportunity as Stannard was assimilated back in the group. Using the brief standstill he quickly gained a 10 second lead as the the group hesitated to close the opening gap. With six kilometers to the finish it was clear that it was going to be Voeckler vs.the rest for the win and the Frenchman looked to be holding aces as the tiring and tactical group behind failed to make up any significant ground. Voeckler went through his entire repertoire of painfaces, desperate glances over his shoulder, tongue-wagging and camera-posing as he poured everything he had into the pedals in the final kilometers. The group , mainly led by Vandenbergh and in the end Stannard were held firmly at 12-15 seconds and looked to have missed out until they turned into the finishing straight where Stannard accelerated to close down on the cramping and fading Frenchman. Gatto then opened up the sprint and it fast became clear that Voeckler's situation was desperate. He could do nothing as he saw Gatto pass him to take the win ahead of Bozic and Hayman. It was a painful but thrilling end to a race that failed to feature the biggest names but had all the excitement and aggressive racing you can expect.
The outcome wasn't completely out of the blue. I've dissed the chances of Vini Fantini this year since they lost Pozzato mainly because Gatto has the look of one of those reluctant cobbles riders, the ones that end up doing these races because the team has to send someone or other and he lost the lottery. The former sprint super-talent who has been moving sideways for a good while without really reaching the potential he had in the U23 ranks never looked like a cobbles rider to me. Stage-wins and Italian one-day races I thought he could rack up, a Dwars win I didn't. But he played his chances perfectly all day. When the move went from he peloton he was in the right place and he was then aggressive on the climbs to keep the pressure on when the chasing group behind was still in play. As Stannard and Voeckler put in their moves he let the other teams with two riders in the break shoulder the work, gambling that workhorses like Vandenbergh and Stannard were going to sew the race back together for him and it was a good call. The other guy who probably stood the greatest chance in a sprint finish was Keukelaire and he didn't have the cool of Gatto. Instead he had been hanging out at the front rotating through and then burning matches on the Nokereberg, not much but perhaps just enough to lose him the edge he would have needed to overcome more experienced guys at the finish. The kid will probably be fairly pleased with his day and thinking that this won't be the last time in this position. He will come away smarter after today.
What also shone through was the problems Sky face in their fight to take the step up from being a presence in the classics to being a dominating, winning team. In a word it is finishing power. Granted today they lacked their fastest finisher Boasson Hagen but he has yet to prove that he can work his way into the winning moves in the big races anyway. Their fastest man today was probably Hayman but once again, he was put (or put himself ) in the very early action. Once Stannard connected, Hayman did very little work but by then he had been pushing at the front for a good long while in moves that stood very little chance of succeeding. With Geraint Thomas clearly not on a good day that meant a wasted resource Sky couldn't afford to lose. In the end, having Stannard pull like a stubborn mule accomplished little as Hayman never had anywhere near time to recover enough to be the fastest even if Voeckler was reeled in. In fact they may have had a better chance if Hayman had tried to go with Voeckler in the countermove when Stannard's first donkey-pull ended but he was clearly not looking to do that. In short, Sky have a lot of cards to play but without one killer finisher to focus their efforts on they have to co-ordinate and orchestrate their moves much smarter than they did today. When you're not the sharpest or strongest you need to be the smartest and today they weren't.
Quick Step were starting with a team without it's two biggest stars and Terpstra looked a level below his usual self and they still came away with a respectable result. Vandenbergh looked like a beast in his bridging move after the Kwaremont and he gave 100% to to give young Nikolas Maes a chance to factor in the finale. In the end Maes didn't have the weapons to be a factor for the win but they played their cards as they were dealt well enough. They will be going confident into the bigger races to come. Radioshack on the other hand struggled more without their leader. Devolder tried to factor when the deciding move went but he just had to admit defeat on the Kwaremont/Paterberg combo and he and Gallopin ended up fading out of the chasing limbo-group. Whether Fabian will be better supported than in previous years still looks an open question.
Come Friday of course the game will be radically changed. All the teams will be putting their big gun in the game and the intensity will be taken up several notches. Gatto and Vini Fantini will already be happy to have saved their spring season but with this wind in his back we can count on him showing up at the front of more races in the weeks to come. He could turn out to be a nuisance for the bigs now that they know he's not going anywhere and with a win already under his belt he can afford to play it very cool in the races to come. Italian bikeriders with that trump on their hand are usually lethal opponents.