Brabantse Pijl is a hidden gem of a race, once hidden in the middle of the cobbled classics season and now the gateway to the Ardennes classics. Held in in the area around Overijse on the border of Flanders and Wallonia, some sixty to seventy kilometers west of the land of the Ronde van Vlaanderen and the cobbled bergs so well traversed over the past month, Brabantse is characterized by its 25 climbs, some with smooth cobbles but most paved, that bite at the legs some 500 to 800 meters at a time. The finishing circuit, containing some five climbs squeezed within 22 kilometers, is home to the best of them, including the cobbled Hertstraat where riders battle for position on the paved sidewalk next to the climb. Really, the spectacle on the Hertstraat is reason enough to watch Brabantse.
But enough about the course, for the race has already been held. What you need to know is Brabantse Pijl is a segue to Amstel Gold, holding the same type of short, punchy climbs that dot the landscape over the Netherlands border. And, while Brabantse may not capture the attention of Ardennes fans quite as much as the three true Ardennes classics next week, it brings the same riders to the fore and offers a preview of what is to come. So, what happened today, and what does it tell us about what is coming in the next weeks?
With 50 kilometers to go, a breakaway of five riders was up the road with approximately forty seconds in hand over the peloton. At this point, Stijn Devolder set off in pursuit of the breakaway with Bjorn Leukemans and Pau Voss shortly behind. As both groups made the junction with the breakaway there was some reshuffling that left six riders up front. Behind, the peloton dawdled for some time (and Philippe Gilbert got the slowest wheel change ever) before Argos - Shimano curiously struck up a furious pace. Coming into the Hertstraat for the final time with 18 kilometers to go, it was clearly time for the real favorites to hold court at the front end of the field, and they did not disappoint. Greg Van Avermaet lit the fuse, powering up the sidewalk with only teammate Gilbert and Peter Sagan able to follow. Just behind, Sylvain Chavanel and Simon Geschke gained separation from the exploded pack and followed up to the breakaway.
The five new riders promptly went to the front and began working in the breakaway, effectively shutting out any chance of being reabsorbed by chasing groups behind. The outcome of the race seemed pre-determined by now with Sagan in the lead group, but the presence of two Omega Pharma - Quickstep and BMC riders each in the break, things might not be so simple. The door was opened when Chavanel initiated hostilities with 4km remaining, attacking right before the road plunged down in the final twisty descent to the finishing climb. Sagan dutifully brought him back, only to have Chavanel's teammate Nikolas Maes and Van Avermaet leap off the front inside the final 2km. Once again, the burden of chasing would be left to Sagan, who looked for a minute as if he might not have the power to close down the attack. When Van Avermaet left Maes behind halfway up the final climb, the several second gap to the rest looked sufficient for the win... until Sagan started chasing. The Cannondale rider's surge was so powerful only Gilbert could respond, and just barely. Coming into the final 300m of flattish road, World Champion Gilbert appeared to be in the perfect position - parked behind Sagan and fresher after not closing down the last two attacks. But, the BMC rider chose to open up the sprint himself rather than wait for Sagan to do so and was passed again in the final 50 meters. Leukemans, who spent much more time in the break, crossed the line in third mere seconds behind.
- Peter Sagan, Cannondale Pro Cycling
- Philippe Gilbert, BMC Racing Team, s.t.
- Bjorn Leukemans, Vacansoleil - DCM, 4"
- Sylvain Chavanel, Omega Pharma - Quickstep, 9"
- Simon Geschke, Team Argos - Shimano, 9"
- Greg Van Avermaet, BMC Racing Team, 11"
- David Malacarne, Team Europcar, 17"
- Stijn Devolder, RadioShack Leopard, 19"
- Paul Voss, NetApp - Endura, 22"
- Kenny Dehaes, Lotto - Belisol, 25"
Brabantse is a wonderful race in its own right, but it offers us the first glimpse of some of the Ardennes riders and a check on the form of cobbled riders who sometimes extend their campaigns through Amstel. So, what can we learn from today? Not as much as we may like, since Brabantse is a mixture of cobbled riders slowly fading away and several favorites for the Ardennes races weren't present, namely Alejandro Valverde, Simon Gerrans, and Vincenzo Nibali. But, there are a few things to note:
- Sagan is still a favorite for Amstel, still retaining the form that saw him win Ghent - Wevelgem and finish second at Flanders. But, Van Avermaet may run him close on Sunday if he has free reign to ride his own race rather than work for Gilbert.
- Gilbert is back on track, showing glimpses of the form he has seemed to lack all season. He will find it hard to beat Sagan on Sunday, but he looks very good for Liége in eleven days time.
- Radioshack have a strong team, but no leader. They were present at all stages of the race with Ben Hermans in the original break that Devolder bridged up to and Tony Gallopin in the bunch waiting to counter or sprint in the event the break came back. But with Frank Schleck still sidelined and Andy Schleck far behind on form, who will they work for? Gallopin won the bunch sprint behind, so perhaps Amstel will be his chance to shine?
- The world would be a better place if Chavanel and Van Avermaet could target the Ardennes too. Chavanel is beginning a break and Van Avermaet is only a reserve for BMC after Amstel, but both could easily win Liége. So sad.