It was a day that started with everyone looking out their bedroom windows with equal parts dread and excitement this morning. The threat of more snow made the race uncertain to go ahead late Saturday evening. While many saw the feared snowcover outside in the morning, the reports from the areas the race was to pass were predominantly positive. The roads were clear and, save for some fear of ice, the peloton and organizers drew a sigh of relief as the race was given the go-ahead. Cold, around freezing, temps and above all strong winds were to dominate the day though.
With the race having been shortened the peloton hit the feared windy stretch near the coast almost from the start and it didn't take long for the race to be split into several echelons. An initial group of 25 with almost the entire Sky and OmegaPharma teams were out in front for awhile before a chasegroup linked up to create a lead-group of about 50 riders. Small splits and chases kept occurring as the sidewinds hit the riders but it wasn't until the race entered the zone of climbs around the famed Kemmelberg that the race took a decisive turn. Juan Antonio Flecha had set out on the attack with two others and were left to gain about two minutes on a peloton well aware that the group would struggle in the predominant headwind on the way to Wevelgem.
Between the two ascents of the Kemmelberg what looked like a vain attack by IAM Cycling's Heinrich Haussler soon turned into something quite different as he was joined by nine others, including pre-race favorite Sagan and his teammate Macej Bodnar in a group that soon linked up with the three in front to create a breakaway group of 13. That break soon established a stable gap of over a minute as the peloton behind looked to have little real incentive to close the leaders down. Most of the big teams were represented, BMC by van Avermaet, Sky by Eisel and OPQS by Vandenbergh. Lotto had Debusschere there but he was to flat out of the group leaving Lotto as the team with the most to work for as Greipel sat in the chase. But with Roelandts struck by bad luck as well, hit by a car as he was waiting by the roadside after a puncture, they were severely weakened. So going into the final 10 km the race looked to be decided in the frontgroup.
With all eyes on Sagan as the main favorite much of the pacemaking was up to him and his helper Bodnar but others, especially Haussler and Flecha, also contributed to maintain the lead over the chase. As Bodnar tired and dropped out of the group and the peloton was closing menacingly behind,Sagan took the decision to go on the offensive. At 4 km from the finish he accelerated away rather than wait for the inevitable flurry of attacks to come from the others, seeing as not many have the confidence to take on the young Slovak in a sprint. Considering that Sagan most likely would have been faced with the task of closing down almost everything it was a bold but intelligent call. Instead he left a bewildered chase behind as the others looked to each other to take on the un-enviabe task of pulling the wonderkid back. They could never establish the meaningful cooperation it would have required to overcome the lone, but stronger, attacker and instead Sagan crossed the line and celebrated with one of his patented wheelies as the others scrabbled for scraps behind. Bozic and Van Avermaet rounded out the podium as the chasegroup only just held off the prloton that came in 14 seconds behind them with Greipel leading the charge.
While a Sagan victory comes as no surprise the race did offer some interesting pointers for times to come. Once again it was a race where much of the best action happened even before the cameras were turned on. The intense first hour of echelon-racing basically cut off half the startfield from even participating in the in the deciding part of the race. Of course it also decided the look of the race later as many of those that actually made the front groups when the race calmed down a little where quite clearly well spent from the trying first half of the race. This probably goes a long way towards explaining why the breakaway that included the hyper-dangerous Sagan was allowed to go in the first place too. Neither Sky nor Omega were too well represented, Eisel may have been their captain but having him alone up front after Sky had such a dominating presence up front and Vandenbergh alone against Sagan and a teammate? No way those were good odds and yet we saw no huge concerted effort to bring the Sagan group back.
Sagan's choice of strategy in the finale also pointed to the problems that are likely to face the competition in the future. The kid simply has too many cards to play to make him easy or even possible to neutralize when he's on form. I'm reminded of Tom Boonen winning Flanders in 2005 in similar fashion. Boonen was sitting in a group in the finale where he was generally considered strongest sprinter by far. Common logic dictated that all he had to do was sit in and make sure he made the sprint in the end and he was unbeatable but he did the opposite and countered an early attack and went solo by himself. Having that dual ability has made him, and will make Sagan, a nightmare to defend against.
As for the group that found itself left behind there's probably any number of cases to be made for how they messed up that finale. A few of them probably didn't play their cards very well before Sagan's final attack and even after it, the group probably had a chance to get back in the finale. Fact of the matter is though that it probably didn't matter much. This race was pretty much decided the minute Sagan was allowed to drift off the front of the peloton and stay in the Haussler-driven lead group at all. After that he was by far the strongest and anyone else would have needed a tremendous amount of luck to wrestle the win from him.
In the end we saw a Peter Sagan who will clearly be Cancellaras premiere opponent next Sunday and a Boonen who had to DNF after taking a tumble against a curb. That was pretty much the last thing he needed in his buildup for Sunday. Whether he actually hurt his knee significantly remains to be seen but as it is he is a step behind the main competition. Right now a win in De Ronde looks very far away for him and it will be interesting to see if the Omega Pharma strategy will reflect that on Sunday. Having multiple threats in Chavanel and Terpstra might become more important than ever for them.
Top 20 Gent - Wevelgem
|Greg Van Avermaet
|Juan Antonio Flecha