World Champion Peter Sagan of Tinkoff cemented his place in cycling history today with a powerful victory in the 100th Ronde van Vlaanderen, the first Rainbow jersey winner since 2006. Sagan soloed away from his breakaway companion, Sep Vanmarcke of LottoNL-Jumbo, as the Belgian cracked on the final climb, the Paterberg, and was caught by a chasing Fabian Cancellara of Trek-Segafredo, riding his final Ronde and chasing the record for wins. From there it was up to Sagan to win alone, and he did so, powerfully, with a 12km time trial back to Oudenaarde that left a rider as powerful as the four-time ITT world champion in the dust. Sagan didn't need to unleash his powerful sprint, and settled for his trademark wheelie instead.
The race unfolded for real when, with 32km to go Michal Kwiatkowski of Sky launched a move that quickly drew out Sagan and Vanmarcke, and the trio gained 20 seconds over an elite chase group of Cancellara, Boom and the entirety of Etixx-Quick Step. The breakaway was reeled in with 23km to go, and a group of eight rode to the Oude Kwaremont to learn their fate. There, Kwiatkowski faded and Cancellara, 20 seconds back, moved up as the lone chaser. Shortly after the race hit the Paterberg with a leading duo and a lone chaser, but Sagan, peddling as smoothly as a guy on the way to the coffee shop, maintained his place up front while Vanmarcke cracked and was left to be reeled in by Cancellara on the Paterberg slopes. An emotional Cancellara expressed regret afterward for not going when Kwiatkowski made his move, and rode at a champion's level, in pursuit of history. He managed second by dropping an exhausted Vanmarcke in the final 100 meters.
Armitstead By A Wheel
World Champion Elizabeth Armitstead of Boels Dolman took the women's race in a two-up sprint from classics champion Emma Johansson of Wiggle Honda, as the two staged a brilliant, tight sprint on the final stretch after a 16km breakaway. The pair escaped from the race leaders shortly after the Oude Kwaremont and remained up the road by 14-18 seconds all the way to Oudenaarde. There, the patient Johansson parked herself on the wheel of the Brit, as the chasing group of Chantal Blaak of Boels Dolman (Armitstead's teammate) and others closed on them, forcing the faster Armitstead to launch her sprint with Johansson on her. But even then it was a two-rider drag race over the final 150 meters, and in the final few meters Armitstead got half a wheel's worth of separation to seal the victory. Blaak held off Megan Guarnier for third, followed by Elisa Longo Borghini and Ellen van Dijk.
The men's race was marked by some terrible crashes. With 125km to go the peloton piled up in a corner and Lotto's Tiesj Benoot went down hard and was out of the race, while several other riders were slow to get up and retired on the day, including Arnaud Demare and BMC's Marcus Burghardt. Jasper Stuyven had to battle back for a bike change as well.
Following the Molenberg the race stretched out significantly, and with Etixx-Quick Step's Tony Martin and Sky's Gianni Moscon several large splits opened up. The casualties were a line of stragglers and the peloton was slightly reduced by the action, but the two power teams took their foot off the gas leading to the Paddestraat cobbles. Stuyven again found himself out of position, and had to be towed back. Just under 100km to go a touch of wheels on a wide road made the hopes of Greg Van Avermaet go up in smoke, as the Belgian favorite was taken down by one of his BMC teammates and eliminated from the race with a broken collarbone.
With 75km the race had calmed down and a break of seven riders was two minutes up the road, including Dimitri Claeys of Wanty Groupe Gobert, Andre Greipel of Lotto, Nils Pollitt from Katusha, Hugo Houle, Dmitry Grusdev of Astana, Imanol Erviti from Movistar, and Gijs Van Hoecke of Topsport Vlaanderen. Claeys alone survived to the finish, taking ninth on the day.
Sagan's victory represents a clear changing of the guard, as Cancellara retires from cycling and his main rival, Tom Boonen of Etixx-Quick Step, finished outside the top ten. Sagan is in the very prime of his career, only 26 years old, with a chance to make his own mark on the record books. Combining his power and his sprint, he's the most logical successor to the legacy of Boonen, though those are big shoes to fill and he will have plenty of company as things go forward.
Less certain is whether anyone can stop Armitstead. Making it a Double Rainbow on the day, Armitstead has now won the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, Strade Bianche, and Trofeo Alfredo Binda, a classic run for the ages. Only 27, she too could make her mark on the record books if her current excellence is any indication.