Belgian racing is good. Good like Belgian beer, though not like Belgian weather. Of course, if you have a thing for cold, crosswinds, and rain, well then you will no doubt find goodness in Belgian weather. Thanks, but no thanks.
Belgian racing is fast. Watch a grand tour, and you'll count the time gaps in minutes, even hours, and watch the tactics unfold over days and weeks. Watch a race in the flatlands and short climbs of Belgium, and the tactics change with every passing kilometer. Forget about taking that nature break, the whole race situation may well have changed before you return. Forget about grand tour flat stages where a breakaway lasts a hundred kilometers. Catch and release is the game in these Belgian races, with tactical choices made on the quick.
Attack or chase. It's a simple proposition. Below, a few snapshots of tactical moments at Brabantse Pijl. Or, how to win a bike race in Belgium.
Murder By Numbers
To win, a team needs numbers. With the constant attacking comes non-stop calculation. Go with the break? Let it go? Chase? A team deep with talent can afford to cover the moves. And, they can chase down the moves they miss.
With four laps to ride at Brabantse, Saxo Bank worked away at the front. The break hovered at 1.00, before starting to fall. With no Saxo Bank riders in the move, they had to chase. Cycling 101 there. Did they intend to miss the break? Probably yes. With a race favorite in Karsten Kroon and a deep roster, they had the legs to control the race and could afford to play the waiting game. Both Matti Breschel and Karsten Kroon clearly had good form, as each initiated moves in the final laps. With riders who could make the race, the team could afford not to cover every move and ride a more defensive race, until they were ready to unleash the woop-ass. In the end, Karsten Kroon made the winning move, though he could not take the win at the line. A half order of woop-ass.
Rabobank was not so lucky and ran short on legs. When the Kroon-created move went free in the final lap, Rabobank missed it. With all the main teams represented, they couldn't hope for much help, even with the gap hovering at a handful of seconds. Alas, not in the move, no legs left to chase, game over. Better luck next time.
Yes, numbers matter. They matter in these semi-classics and they matter in the big monuments like the Ronde.
Something In The Way
With Karsten Kroon up the road, Saxo Bank now had the break they wanted. Maybe Kroon could win, maybe not, but he now sat in the best position to get a result. The last thing Saxo Bank wanted was to see all the hard work undone by an overzealous chase. No way.
So they set about disrupting all the efforts of Rabobank and Cervélo and Vacansoleil and Topsport Vlaanderen to chase. Did Saxo Bank sit up and grab brakes? Nah, that's far too obvious. Instead, a Saxo Bank rider sat second or third wheel. Sometimes, they went through, taking a short pull on the front. But not a hard pull, a sort of half-assed pull. It's all about half-assed.
Other times, when the front rider went to pull off to the right, there sat a Saxo Bank rider. Ever been on a group ride where no one wants to pull? Every time you go to pull off, the whole train follows you. You try to drift back, and there's a rider still following your wheel. So annoying. Saxo Bank was that annoying guy that sits on your wheel and won't pull through. Eventually, the Saxo Banker let the poor suck stuck on the front drop back, but not before the pace of the chase slowed. Crafty.
Desperate Times, Desperate Measures
With less than a lap to ride, Cervélo TestTeam realized they had a problem. Like Rabobank, they had missed the move, the move they soon realized was in fact The Winning Move. At first, the team went to the front and tried to chase. Why not chase down the break, reshuffle the cards, and hope they dealt out in the team's favor? Better still, why not try to make the ending a sprint? Sprints are fun.
But quickly Cervélo realized they still had a problem. Despite their mad chase, the break stubbornly stayed up the road. So uncooperative. No one else wanted to help either. Slackers. But the chase had succeeded in bringing the gap down, putting the escape temptingly close.
Time for Plan B, and here again, numbers mattered. Xavier Florencio and a Simon Gerrans shot out of the main field in a desperate attempt to bridge. Gerrans used his hops to get the two clear, and in a nice piece of riding, Gerrans drove Florencio halfway across to the break. The rest, Florencio had to do for himself. He made it. Voilà, no more chasing for Cervélo, and a rider in the winning move. Mission accomplished, as they say.
Policing the Break
With the break nicely established, Karsten Kroon was not about to let anyone have a free ride to the line. Kroon stayed vigilant. No slacking allowed! As he drifted back, the Dutch rider made sure no one was trying to sit on. Fabian Wegmann of Milram helped out.
Which meant tough love for Xavier Florencio of Cervélo. Having crushed himself to make it across to The Winning Move, Florencio wanted to sit on a bit, catch his breath, check out the scenery. He missed one turn. But that was all the neighborhood toughs allowed. First Kroon, then Wegmann sat on poor, blown Florencio's wheel. Florencio, he was determined. No pulling for me, he said. He let the gap open up, as if to drop off the back, trying to force Wegmann to come around. Wegmann kept sitting, until at last, an acceleration from the front of the break forced Wegmann to abandon this little game of who's going to get dropped from the break. Wegmann jumped across, but not hard enough to clear his wheel. Florencio played barnacle. Have I mentioned lately how much I hate barnacles? Nothing personal Xavier, promise. Anyway, Florencio 1, Wegmann, 0.
Of course, Wegmann got the last laugh, since Florencio wasn't entirely bluffing. He didn't have much left in his legs and finished seventh on the day. There were only eight riders in the break. L'ouch. At least, he didn't get dropped. Or, miss the move (cough Silence-Lotto cough)
Too Little, Too Late
With six kilometers to ride, Philippe Gilbert decided to come out of hiding. Silence-Lotto, who?
With two riders in the winning move, Milram held the advantage. Their race to lose, if they could. Christian Knees did the hard work of keeping the break strung out in the closing kilometers. No attacks for you. The efforts of Knees ruled out an early attack from someone crafty, like say, Kroon. Knees also made sure that the Gilbert group behind made no progress.
Still, Milram sadly found a way to lose. There are so many ways to lose a bike race. Easily more than fifty. Fabian Wegmann positioned himself perfectly at the back of the break. He looked terribly nervous, all the same, checking behind to see if the field was coming. Dude, they're not coming. Chill. No one really paid him much attention. Looking good, for Wegmann. Kroon sat behind him for a short while, then got impatient and moved up, along the barricades. A misjudgement as it turned out, though Kroon may have thought Wegmann had run short on legs.
The finish had an uphill false flat. And a headwind. Wegmann, he decided to go early. Ack. Uphill into a headwind? Not so ideal, unless the legs are really really good. Wegmann managed to open up a big enough gap to drive Gav's veedub through. But not big enough to hold off Kroon's perfect lead-out for Anthony Geslin of Français des Jeux and the second place rider, Jerôme Pineau of Quickstep.
Alas, poor Wegmann. Despite his team's advantage, he badly mistimed his sprint. Perhaps he missed the hint of wind on the previous laps or underestimated the effects of the slight gradient at race end. He still made the podium, though certainly, he wanted more.
But spare a thought for Kroon, too. Kroon initially had the right idea: Sit on Wegmann. But he became impatient and perhaps a tad nervous at the idea of reaching 200 meters to go still sitting at the back. So he moved up. And led out the winner. Some days are like that.
The Quiet Guy
Français des Jeux rode a quietly perfect race. Clover leaves popped up in all the breaks. The 28 year old Geslin took his pulls in the winning move. No drama, no trauma. The Frenchman did very little to attract attention. Sometimes, that's the way to win a bike race. When Kroon jumped to chase down Wegmann with 200 meters to go, Geslin had the right wheel. What a lovely lead-out, thank you so much Karsten. No doubt Geslin will be certain to send Kroon a Christmas card. A well-timed bike throw gave Geslin the win over another French rider, Jerôme Pineau. Two French riders on the podium. You just don't see that every day in Belgium.
How to Win a Bike Race in Belgium in Seven Easy Steps
Step 1 Sign with a strong team. You want team-mates with big legs who love to suffer. Total headbangers, really.
Step 2 Don't miss the break. Either make your own break or join someone else's. But don't miss the winning move.
Step 3 If you miss the winning move, make sure you successfully completed Step 1. You may yet have a chance.
Step 4 Don't let anyone slack in your break. Make them work. Verbal abuse may be necessary.
Step 5 If your team-mate makes the winning break, cause trouble in the chase. Verbal abuse may come your way.
Step 6 Check for nasty headwinds before committing to an early sprint.
Step 7 Get on the race favorite's wheel. Let him lead you out. Thank him later.
So simple, this bike racing.