But, things went pear-shaped for the classics juggernaut as Team Sky's Ian Stannard out sprinted Nikki Terpstra and took his second victory in two years, both over supposedly faster finishers. The culprit? Most likely greediness, mixed with a little hubris. Instead of racing for a guaranteed victory, Tom Boonen, Stijn Vandenbergh, and Terpstra seemed intent on taking at least the top two steps of the podium.
Somewhere in Belgium, Patrick Lefevre is fuming.
The race trundled along through the first 130 kilometers as the early breakaway of 9 riders flaunted their sponsors' names in front of the TV cameras. But, as the race ascended the paved Kaperj climb with 80 kilometers to go, the breakaway's legs looked leaden. Predictably, riders started falling off the pace one by one as the break ramped up its pace and traded probing attacks, each hoping to be the last man standing. Behind, the chasers began ramping up the pace as the race entered the finale of 5 climbs and 6 flatter cobbled sections in the span of 50 kilometers.
Early forays attempted to get clear, and Luke Rowe of Sky made the junction to Matt Brammeier (MTN-Qhubeka), Albert Timmer (Giant-Alpecin), and Alexis Gougeard (AG2R - La Mondiale), the last survivors of the early break. While Rowe's move, and the dozens of kilometers of work Sky had done before, were a ploy to set up Ian Stannard, it was Tom Boonen who capitalized on Rowe's capture. As the modern day king of the cobbles powered away over the flat Haaghoek cobbles with teammate Vandenbergh. Terpstra, Sep Vanmarke (Lotto-Soudal), Steve Chainel (Cofidis), and Stannard were able to respond, but a puncture by Vanmarke upon exit of the secteur helped break the group in two.
From that point onwards, it was an Etixx-Quickstep time trial at the front of the race with Vanmarke and Greg Van Avermaet (BMC) chasing with Etixx's Zdeneck Stybar in their draft. Herein began a tactical conundrum for Etixx: keep the pressure on to maintain 3 on 1 advantage, or play poker, make Stannard contribute, and risk lowering that ratio to 4 on 3.
Stannard coyly called the Etixx bluff, sitting on the back and letting the trio pull through over the remaining two cobbled sections and 30 kilometers to the finish. The continual presence of Vanmarke and Van Avermaet 20-30 seconds behind created an impetus to continue working to keep open the gap, especially with such good odds. But as the quartet approached the final ten kilometers, mistakes began to appear.
First, Tom Boonen continued pulling through equally with his teammates instead of sitting on Stannard's wheel. Without a Het Nieuwsblad win in his lengthy palmares, Boonen had motivation to win - and the sprint to ensure it happened, as long as he rested near the finish. Instead, it wasn't until the final seven kilometers when Boonen began to conserve his energy like Stannard had been all along.
Then, the games began. Vandenbergh let a gap open up when Terpstra accelerated on the front, forcing Stannard to close the gap and finally catch some wind. Then, surprisingly, Boonen launched with 4 kilometers to go.
Solo sorties from Boonen are not uncommon - he won the 2005 Tour of Flanders with an attack from a break of three with five kilometers left in the race and went on a memorable solo journey of 53 kilometers to win Paris-Roubaix in 2012. But, with two teammates with less powerful sprints in the group, the decision was odd. After the race, Boonen would acknowledge the move was a mistake and that he should have waited for the sprint. But, it was too late by then.
Stannard did not respond immediately and instead slowly ratcheted up his pace to bring Boonen back to heel about a kilometer later. As one would expect, Terpstra was the next to attack. But, confusingly, Vandenbergh was the first to respond, acting as if Terpstra was pulling through rather than trying to establish a gap to Stannard. The lone Sky rider rode Vandenbergh's coattails and then put in a move of his own.
Tired from the prior 35 kilometers of work, Vandenbergh was immediately unable to respond. Boonen almost made it up to Stannard, but his attack two kilometers before seemed to have sapped him of the last crucial reserves needed to make contact. Left with just Terpstra on his wheel, Stannard powered on.
With Boonen dangling a few seconds behind, Stannard was forced to do all the work in the final two kilometers, including leading into the final sprint. Terpstra waited and opened up his sprint 200 meters from the line. But, the final kilometer of the race is a deceiving uphill drag into the heart of Ghent and Terpstra's move proved too early. Stannard clung to his rear wheel and managed to come around at the last instant, taking a narrow win against all the odds.
Normally, Stannard's sprint is much poorer than Terpstra's, and especially than Boonen's. But, the odd choices made by Boonen and his teammates, likely made with the fogged brain racing a bloc for an hour, left the Briton with far more in reserve. It was a deserved win, but a strange one, and one that will certainly leave the entire Etixx-Quickstep squad hungrier than usual when racing returns to northern Belgium in a few week's time.