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Tactics Talk: Omloop het Nieuwsblad

How to lose a bike race, while trying really really really hard.
By Team Rabobank.

tactics talk Rarely has a team tried so hard to lose a bike race. But that is precisely what we saw from Team Rabobank at Omloop het Nieuwsblad. Arguably the strongest team in the race with Juan Antonio Flecha, Joost Posthuma, Sebastian Langeveld, and Nick Nuyens, they looked certain to dominate, especially when the four Rabobankers went up the road on the Taaienberg with 55 kilometers to go.

There, in a seeming moment of dominance, Rabobank made their first mistake. No way were the teams left in the main field going to let a break containing four Rabobank riders go up the road all. QuickStep, Silence-Lotto, and Team Columbia-High Road, in a rare moment of cooperation, shut down the move. This chase marked one of the few times when the teams worked together. Otherwise, the chase rarely, if ever, organized in this Omloop het Nieuwsblad (yes I'd like to buy a vowel). By sending all their legs up the road at once, Rabobank allied the other teams against them and wasted precious energy in a doomed attack. They had the look of a team who all wanted to be the leader.

Of course, the absence of a sprinter forced Rabobank to ride an attacking race. Quick-Step, by contrast, could ride defensively, and wait for Tom Boonen to win the sprint. With only Sylvain Chavanel in evidence at the front, the Belgian team looked a tad under-powered even for that fairly straightforward task. Surely, at least one of the Rabobank rouleurs could escape the tenuous hold of the sprinter's teams. But all of them? Not likely.

After achieving a maximum advantage of 15 seconds, the four-up Rabobank break dissolved under the impetus of a concerted chase. Heinrich Haussler of Cervélo TestTeam, fresh off stage wins in Portugal and a second overall at the Tour of Qatar, bridged up to the Rabobank move. Then, Thomas Voeckler of Bbox-Bouygues Télécom joined the party. (As a side note, the French rider is on so fire this early season, with wins at the Étoile des Bessèges and Tour du Haut Var.) Meanwhile, Columbia-High Road, Silence-Lotto, and Quick-Step chased. With 46 kilometers to ride, the dream of Dutch dominance ended and the bunch reabsorbed the break.

But Sebastian Langeveld was not done yet. In the confusion of the catch, Langeveld slipped up the road. Haussler bridged across quickly and a hint of daylight opened up between the twosome and the field. A classic move from Langeveld, as the bunch let up after the catch, he simply rode away. Haussler rode perfectly to cover Langeveld. Well-played by both riders.

The gap between the Langeveld-Haussler move and the bunch behind hovered around 10 seconds seemingly forever, as it often does in these Belgian races. But soon, they began to extend their advantage to 30 seconds, then 40, and finally a minute. Here, it seemed, was the race-winning move. At worst, Rabobank had second in hand. Haussler has the better sprint on paper, but after 45 kilometers of hard riding, a two-up sprint is an unpredictable game. Clearly on good form, Langeveld was in with a chance.

But back in the Rabobank team car, DS Erik Dekker wasn't so sure. Dekker explained after the race that he doubted the ability of Langeveld to beat Haussler in the sprint. That doubt dictated his tactical calls for the remainder of the race. To complicate matters for Dekker, the Rabobank car sat low in the caravan heirarchy. The teams draw before the race, and Rabobank received slot number 18. From his position, Dekker could talk to Langeveld in the break, but Langeveld could not talk to him. Dekker has admitted in the press that he made tactical errors in the finale, and by all acounts, Langeveld was unhappy with how the race unfolded. And rightly so, since Langeveld's own Rabobank team-mates did a great deal to ruin his chances.

With 24 kilometers to go, Langeveld and Haussler had just over a minute in hand over the chase group. The body language at the front of the chase showed the truth: the energy and motivation seaped out steadily. Rabobank and Cervèlo made life difficult for the chasers by sitting close the front and interfering with the rotation. Riders came to the front in ones and twos, but no team ever put their numbers to work. Neither Quick-Step nor Silence-Lotto had much power left for the chase, in any case The group rode bunched up. Hoste waved his arms, a sure sign of doom for the chase.

Fortunately for the chasers, Rabobank decided to help out. With 23 kilometers to go and the gap at 1.03, Rabobank sent Juan Antonio Flecha up the road. Was Flecha riding for himself? Or did the team car direct his actions? Dekker's post-race comments suggest that it was his idea to send Flecha across to the break. He intended the move not only to reinforce Langeveld in the break, but also to pressure Haussler to keep riding. In theory, it might have made sense, but Flecha's move quickly brought a reaction, first from a Cervèlo rider, then from the chase group. Flecha's move failed, but not before it sped up the chase group, bringing down the gap to the break.

Then, Nick Nuyens tried. The Nuyens attack brought Philippe Gilbert out of hiding. Once they had a gap, Nuyens sat on, while Gilbert and Frédéric Amorison did the work of bridging across. They nearly made it, which would have fulfilled Dekker's dream of adding a second Rabobank rider to the break. But would it really have been a victory if the break also contained Philippe Gilbert? I'm not so sure. And if the worry was that Haussler would stop riding, why not wait? With both Flecha and Nuyens sitting in the bunch, Rabobank had plenty of power for the counterattack or to cover any late moves from the likes of Gilbert or Pozzato. At it was, the repeated attacks helped galvanize the chase behind, which ate away at the advantage of Langeveld and Haussler. It also used up Rabobank's legs to no purpose.

With just five kilometers to ride, the chase group bunched up, again disorganized. No one wanted to drag sprinters Tom Boonen or Thor Hushovd to the finish. The break held an advantage of about 25 seconds in time. And, the more significant advantage of a disorganized chase. Yet again came an ill-timed move from Flecha. Rather than sit, Rabobank couldn't help but ride. Flecha again failed to get a gap, instead towing the field closer to the break. Inside the final two kilometers, the sprint became inevitable. Little wonder that Langevelde was unhappy with his team's tactics. Rarely has a team expended so much energy to gain so little.

By contrast, Cervélo TestTeam rode textbook tactics. Of course, they held an ace card: an on-form Thor Hushovd. Many sprint teams would have contented themselves with waiting for the sprint. Instead, Cervélo jerseys popped up just about everywhere that mattered. They did hard turns on the front to minimize the gap to the Rabobank Four. With Haussler up the road, Cervélo played a dual game. They covered the bridging moves that mattered. Andreas Klier went with Gilbert in the first of Gilbert's escapes. Cervélo also sat near the front of the bunch, keeping the chase from becoming too organized. No rest for the weary, as Sylvain Chavanel did the hard work of chasing for much of the race's finale. With Haussler up the road, Thor and his team could wait patiently. Either they win with Haussler or they wait for the sprint. An ideal situation.

In the end, Cervélo TestTeam scored the win with sprinter Thor Hushovd. Both Filippo Pozzato and Tom Boonen said later that they would have won, if not for the crash in the final kilometers. C'est le vélo. Rabobank scored a third place with Flecha in the sprint, one place lower than their worst case finish had the Langeveld-Haussler move stayed away. So much effort, so little return.