Damn near every cycling news source will be barraging you with Ronde Van Vlaanderen (Tour of Flanders) news this morning, including detailed blow-by-blow descriptions of the race, close-ups of the equipment, and several forms of minutae that haven’t even occurred to me yet. And with good reason – Flanders is simply one of the best races all year. While yesterday’s contest doubtlessly deserves all the attention it’s receiving, I’m in no position to add to the din of details and firsthand accounts, so instead I’ll just throw out a few things that occurred to me as I watched it. Since I followed the race via Versus’ insanely fragmented and hard-to-follow coverage, I’ve tried to replicate that feeling here…
- First, we have to address the winner, Stijn Devolder (Quick.Step), who took his second consecutive victory in fine fashion. Another perfect execution of strong-team tactics, another well-timed and committed attack on the Eikenmolen, another powerful and unrelenting solo ride to the finish. Devolder doesn’t get a hell of a lot of airplay, but at the last two Rondes at least, he’s been the rider everyone wants Boonen to be. Of course, next year he won’t even be able to sign in without Pozzato and three guys from Lotto running into his back wheel.
- For me, the strongest rider coming into Flanders looked to be Filippo Pozzato (Katusha), and if there were no such thing as teams in cycling, I would have called him the outright favorite. But there are teams, and Pozzato knew that Quick.Step was strong and his Katusha squad wasn’t, and that he’d have to spend his day cuing off them. It looks like Adri Van der Poel, Pozzato, and I are all on the same page, judging by this Van der Poel quote from the cyclingnews.com live coverage: "To me there's one top favourite and that is Pozzato. If he's smart then he's just staying on Boonen's wheel all race long. They have other riders in the Quick Step team but the sponsor will most likely prefer Tommeke to win it." Pozzato did just that, likely using the same logic, and as it turned out, he bet on the wrong Quick.Step horse. I don’t think that makes it the wrong decision on his part - when you're just one guy, sometimes you just have to stick to the plan and hope it all comes back together again, and this time the cards just fell the other way. But when he and Boonen were jamming up the Koppenberg side-by-side, there was a taste of what might have been. And Pozzato looked better.
- Silence-Lotto held true to its signature move of missing the moves that matter. They did look strong during some of the shenigans just after the Paterberg, putting Leif Hoste in the move that also contained Sylvain Chavanel (Quick.Step), Manuel Quinziato (Liquigas), Daniel Lloyd (Cervelo), and Frederick Guesdon (FdJ). Behind that move, Lotto was able to respond to Boonen’s aggression with Philippe Gilbert and Staf Scheirlinckx. Unfortunately for Lotto, by the time the finale was being played out, only Chavanel and the surprising Quinziato were left from that group, and Lotto had nothing at the front or in the half-assed chase. Gilbert saved the day by grabbing the bunch sprint for third.
- How about Chavanel and Quinziato? A career day for both of them, right to the bitter end. Chavanel was particularly remarkable - all race long, he did the right thing, at the right time, in the right place. Just perfect. How did various directors let this guy waste almost 8 years on Tour de France dreams when the classics are clearly what he’s meant to do?
- Fabian Cancellara (Saxo Bank) is typically one hell of a professional – he proved that again by sucking it up and showing up to the start of the race he’d targeted, knowing that injury and illness had him far below where he wanted to be. That said, professionalism-wise, he slipped up a little today. Last week, his team signed a new component sponsorship deal with SRAM. Today, Cancellara snapped his (presumably SRAM) chain on the way up the Koppenberg, a failure of one of the company’s bread-and-butter products. You know, shit happens, and professionals break fine equipment all the time for a variety of reasons. And when they do, the protocol is to not make a big deal out of it and get the broken material into the truck and out of sight as soon as possible. But on the Koppenberg, Cancellara first did a little ‘cross-style hike, then performed a weak bike toss, then picked it back up, and then pointed out the problem to the crowd, a trio of waiting photographers, and the TV cameras. Then he turned around, picked up the offending chain, hung it around his neck, and coasted back down the hill, much to the delight of even more photographers. The only way he could have drawn more attention to the equipment failure was if he used the chain to lasso Tom Boonen and hitch a ride to the top. Not the best way to welcome a new sponsor to the team. From VeloNews.com: “We always joke that when you have full power you’re going to break everything, but now it happened,” Cancellara said, referring to his SRAM Red chain, which snapped midway up the Koppenberg when he was at the front of the peloton…While Cancellara turned around and retrieved his broken chain — maybe the SRAM technical whizzes may learn something from it…”
- I need Heinrich Haussler to win something big, soon. The Australo-German grabbed a well-deserved second place today with a well-timed late attack (and aggressive racing all day), a nice match for his second place at Milan-San Remo, but I can’t imagine that has him feeling overjoyed after an early season filled with near misses in big events. Amstel? Fleche? Probably longshots, but the guy’s gotta get lucky at some point.
- I don’t know what Martijn Maaskant’s (Garmin-Slipstream) contract looks like, but it’s going to be tough to keep him out of Lotto, Quick.Step, and Rabobank hands if he keeps turning in these rides in the big classics. I’ve only seen him work in good conditions – it’ll be interesting to see what he can do if things turn sloppy.
- What’s up with the special Quick.Step podium jersey? Looks like they might have tried to debut a new look, complete with black shorts, but it was a no-go from the UCI. Good thing, too – I think one of the first ten commandments of cycling is that Belgian teams should never be flashy. Leave all the wardrobe changes to the Italians for godssake. I do kind of like the new look, though.
Finally, just for kicks, let’s see how well my little pre-race spiel jived with reality:
- We pointed out that the Quick.Step trio of Boonen, Devolder, and Chavanel would be hard to stop, and that was right. But that’s sort of like predicting that the Ronde will be held in Belgium, so I won’t break my arm patting myself on the back for that one.
- In the Katusha camp, Pozatto did end up looking a bit lonely when the deal went down, and Sergui Ivanov did manage to show himself at the end, mounting a late chase behind the Devolder-Chavanel-Quinziato-Van Hecke group.
- Just like they did at De Panne, Silence-Lotto made all the moves, except the ones that mattered. Despite what Greg Van Avermaet may think, that still isn’t as good as winning.
- I thought Flecha and Nuyens might do something for Rabobank. Even though they got some camera time, they did nothing of consequence. Likewise, Columbia failed to really materialize, capping things off with George Hincapie’s crash in the final few hundred meters. If it weren’t for bad luck…
- Frederick Guesdon (FdJ) did his best to make me look like a genius for naming him as a possible spoiler. It didn’t work out, but I appreciate his efforts.
- As for my final predictions: The winner was not a member of Euskaltel-Euskadi, though two of them did finish: Koldo Fernandez in 51st and Markel Irizar in 65th. So I’m good there, but nobody with a surname beginning with Van was in the early break, so my second prediction failed to become reality. Aleksandr Kuschynski (Liquigas) and Wim De Vocht (Vacansoleil) made up that move, but really, for an early break in Flanders, it’s a toss-up between betting on a “De” or a “Van”, and I picked wrong. Ah well, there’s always next year.