The Cobbles Kickoff Weekend is never without its curious plotlines, and this edition was no exception. As you know, Ian Stannard doubled up on his Omloop success, and Mark Cavendish revisited his own past Flemish success with the Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne bunch sprint victory. Obviously the British Cycling hierarchy is patting themselves on the back for a fine weekend across the Channel. How much credit they deserve? Well, I guess that's where the debate begins.
Omloop Het Nieuwsblad
Douglas already explained what happened when Ian Stannard of Sky won his second consecutive Omloop title, and to summarize it was Etixx-Quick Step botching a three-on-one as badly as though they were the reincarnation of an old Rabobank team. Patrick Lefevre essentially blamed the lack of race radios, grumbling that he had three employees out front from 35km and wasn't allowed to talk with them, and you can see what happened. Maybe all those years of riders acting like gigolos on the end of a gameboy have come back to haunt them. [I love you Bernard Hinault.]
Do riders know how to act spontaneously anymore? Based on Saturday alone -- and let's confine it to that, for obvious reasons -- I'd say... yes and no. Stijn Vandenbergh, clearly the only bread in the Etixx sandwich, did let a gap out and forced Stannard to chase -- an evil little tactic that I recall Liquigas using on Oscar Freire in Gent-Wevelgem a few years back, to great success. But when it was time to do it again, Vandenbergh whiffed and reeled in Niki Terpstra. Tom Boonen's attack was regrettable, to put it kindly, but that's what having twin newborns will do to your powers of reason. And besides, we fans should be among the last to complain about aggressive tactics.
Ultimately, though, I'd advise against further gnashing of teeth in Belgium. Stannard was just stronger, and that's what this race, these races, are about. Sure, he was smart and saving his effort but to close down Terpstra and Boonen was boss. To win the sprint was telling. And if you're not convinced, let's put this another way: Terpstra and Boonen were weaker. Maybe Stannard wasn't all that, but clearly the two Etixxx stars, who own some pretty epic breakaways as recently as the last cobbled classic (2014 Paris-Roubaix), were not in peak form. Stannard was.
If anything, Stannard's career points to the usefulness of an opening weekend specialist. For all their excellence Etixx-Quick Step don't have someone they can just orient toward such an early peak, with so much important work to do later. They do have Mark Cavendish, whom they know they can activate on Sunday, but mostly the Quick Step franchise has been content to try to win the Omloop with a pre-peak Boonen or whomever. Part of being great is not wasting your greatness on 200km races in February. Stannard is not a Monuments Man, a term I will overuse this spring, but he's close enough to win when the competition isn't quite at that level. Sky have the kind of roster where you can peel off a Stannard and dedicate him to the Omloop, while Eisel and Wiggins use it to get their work in... pounding away on the front of the peloton. I'm not sure Brailsford is so prescient as to have designed the roster in such a complimentary fashion, or if it just kind of worked out that way. But two Omloops into this trick and it's a hell of an opening hand to play.
Oh and... Sporza, being Belgian, pronounced Sep Vanmarcke the strongest rider of the day. A puncture on the nasty Haaghoek prevented us from knowing for sure, but I know at least seven people (counting the Editors' league) who will be happy to hear that. Vanmarcke is a former Omloop winner, and as recently as last year his Omloop weekend form didn't detract from his April form... Zdenek Stybar, on the other hand, seemed clearly off his best, as Lefevre acknowledged. Stybar has been working his way back from torn shoulder ligaments, and that sounds more than horrible enough to suggest that he probably needs more time.
In case you missed it...
This race was a great face-saver for Etixx, or would have been if anyone in Belgium regarded it as on par with the Omloop. They were patient, smart, and there when it mattered. It's almost as if they'd done this before.
Which is more than you can say for their rivals. Katusha are the biggest losers on the day, seeing as how they had the race in control with 10km to go and wound up losing by half a wheel when Alexander Kristoff's endlessly long sprint fell short of Cavendish's better-timed burst. Had anything resembling teammate assistance for Kristoff survived til the final KM, things could well have turned out differently. Kristoff's sprint was hellacious, few people even come close to beating Cavendish when launching from nearly 200 meters out. The message? Don't assemble your sprint train at 15km to go unless they're strong enough to hold it for a while longer.
Same I guess could be said of Sky, who swamped Katusha off the front, and then got washed away when Etixx got revved up, once Philippe Gilbert had gotten away and a serious chase was required. Elia Viviani got third, so you can't say Sky didn't belong up front, but they too could do little to stem the tide of sprinting humanity that included maybe half a dozen teams launching people in the last 2km, notably Lotto-Belisol and the giant bees of Dutch lotto too....
It was curious to see Tyler Farrar running bottles, but MTN-Qhubeka brought an odd assortment of riders for the event, as befits a team in the early stages of its growth phase. Theo Bos seems like a possible protected sprinter, but he departed early on, and has rarely succeeded in this type of race. Farrar would be a likely candidate, but he had gone hard at the Omloop and has never really been an opening weekend guy, so his domestique work makes sense. Kristian Sbaragli finished eighth for team best, and Edvald Boasson Hagen 13th. I had wondered about Gerald Ciolek, but he too had gone hard the day before and was back with Farrar lending a hand up front in the penultimate hour of the race.
OK, enough for now. We have a Patrick Verhoest gallery on the way in a bit!