Pressure Drop

Patrick Lefevere and Marc Sergeant, the public faces of top Belgian squads Quick Step and Omega Pharma-Lotto, respectively, have both been around long enough to know that you should never let the public see you sweat. So after last weekend’s new E3 Prijs Vlaanderen/Gent-Wevelgem double header, they’ll either have to stay out of the media glare and wipe their brows in private, or get Alan Lim to jimmy them up a cooling vest that fits smoothly under a sportcoat.

What was so bad about last weekend that the two of the most experienced managers in the business should be glistening with nerve juice? Nothing, really, at least not viewed in isolation. To whit:

Tom Boonen (Quick Step) initiated the winning break at the E3, looking dead relaxed while attacking over the Paterberg, drawing out Fabian Cancellara (Saxo Bank) and Juan Antonio Flecha (Sky) and creating a move with more horsepower than most teams’ buses. The trio rode through several other groups to arrive at the finale, where Boonen fell victim to one of Cancellara’s final kilometer attacks and had to settle for second place. That’s OK – that move is a tough one to counter. It happens. First or second, Boonen showed he’s rising to the form he’ll need coming into the Ronde van Vlaanderen and Paris-Roubaix next week.

On Sunday Omega Pharma put not one but two strong candidates – Philippe Gilbert and Jurgen Roelandts – in the final group of six. Bernhard Eisel (HTC-Columbia) was clearly the most fancied sprinter in a group that also contained George Hincapie (BMC), Daniel Oss (Liquigas), and Sep Vanmarcke (Topsport-Vlaanderen), so it was no great surprise when he waited out Hincapie’s early jump and came around for the win. As for Omega Pharma, well, even with a man-up advantage, you don’t always win. And after a pretty anonymous E3 the day before, the team showed their boys can sniff out the right move and get there in force, a good sign for next week’s mega classics.

That’s the positive reading of those two teams' performances last weekend. The negative reading?

In the E3, Boonen, who all eyes say is on screaming form right now, should have known Cancellara’s late move was coming roughly since the neutral rollout ended. In fact, I think Cancellara actually has the details of his signature attack printed on the back of his jersey, with a map, just in case anyone had any doubts about the plan. If Boonen couldn't anticipate that attack and roll with it last Saturday, is another eight days before the Ronde van Vlaanderen going to make the difference? Tom – Cancellara is NOT going to willingly go to the line with you. You have to make him take you to the line. To do that, you need to stick to the red kite attack until things get back on your own terms. Easier said than done, I know, but most things are.

And Omega Pharma? Two guys in a group of six? That’s 33 percent of the break. A third. Yes, Eisel is a damn good sprinter – and probably an underrated one due to the company he keeps at HTC-Columbia. But the two guys Omega Pharma had in the break weren’t exactly their second string, or neo pros getting a first look at the big time. Roelandts has some serious power, and Gilbert is an excellent late-race attacker and pretty handy in a small group sprint. So how did Omega use those strengths and numbers? Roelandts brought Vanmarcke's late attack back for everyone, then spent a few kilometers calmly dragging the whole group, Eisel included, to the sprint. There are some good cases to be made for altruism in competitive cycling, but that was a pretty weak headed example. A better one? Back when the leading group still numbered nine riders, the other team with two men in – Liquigas – used up one of its riders to kindly escort the most dangerous rider in the group, Oscar Freire (Rabobank), off the back. That I can live with. But just being the mindless derny that takes everyone to the line? No thanks.

All that said, yes, anyone can blow a weekend’s worth of racing pretty easily. Countless teams do it every weekend, and sometimes other people are just stronger. Again, it happens. But where Quick Step and Omega Pharma will run into trouble in the home press this week is that they’ve failed to bag a classic thus far, and it's getting late. And as those teams go, so goes Belgium in the springtime.

This spring, Belgian fans have watched as a Spaniard riding for a British team lifted Omloop Het Niewsblad. The next day, in abominable conditions, a Dutchman riding for a second division Dutch team carried off Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne. A Dane on a Danish team outfoxed the natives at Dwars Door Vlaanderen; his Swiss teammate snatched up the E3. An Austrian on an American team claimed Gent-Wevelgem.

Previously little-known neo-pro Jens Keukelaire has been the country’s only classics winner this year, bagging the Dreidaagse van West Vlaanderen stage race, the GP Samyn, and the Nokere Koerse. He rides for Cofidis, a now-second division French team that didn’t even get an invite to Gent-Wevelgem or the Ronde.

Getting schooled by a local kermesse kid riding for Cofidis (particularly now that it’s a long way from its days as home to hardened classics riders like Jo Planckaert, Nico Mattan, Chris Peers, and Frank Vandenbrouke) is bad enough, but the fact is that there are a multitude of teams performing better in the northern classics than the two big teams that allegedly specialize in these races. It’s Saxo Bank executing the perfectly timed attacks. It’s Liquigas splitting the race in the crosswinds at Gent. It’s HTC-Columbia winning the hardman’s small bunch sprints. And yes, it’s mighty Quick Step putting its top finisher in the 22nd spot at Gent-Wevelgem (and that was Sylvain Chavanel, a Frenchman).

So all of that leaves Quick Step and Omega Pharma in an unenviable position. Yes, the whole cycling season is important in their native country. Yes, knowledgeable fans appreciate good rides that don’t necessarily end on the top step of the podium. But the fact is, if you’re one of the big Belgian teams and you’re not bringing home the big cups in the spring, you’re not doing your job. Fail to gain the top step in March and April, and there’s not much you can do the rest of the season to make up for it in the eyes of their core fan base. Make no mistake, these aren’t the sunshine boys of stage racing, where every race but the Tour de France or maybe the Giro is passed off as being “for training” or “a test.” Het Nieuwsblad matters. The E3 matters. Gent-Wevelgem matters. So after not nabbing any of the lesser classics to take the pressure off a bit, the big home teams need to win at the two hardest cobbled classics, the Ronde and Roubaix, to save face. And that’s a tall order, especially when you’re not going in with a rock solid confidence base. It feels a little like going 0-10 in the regular season, but planning to save it all by winning the championship.

The kicker for Quick Step and Omega Pharma? If one of them does take the big one on Sunday, it takes every last bit of pressure off that team’s shoulders….and heaves it directly onto the shoulders of the other. If one of them takes the win at the Ronde van Vlaanderen, look for the other to be throwing everything but the kitchen sink – and maybe even that – on the road the following Sunday at Paris-Roubaix.

Do I think that Quick Step's slow start means Boonen won’t bag the Ronde or Roubaix? Not by a longshot. Boonen is Boonen, and he's hungry. And I still think Gilbert’s chances are good, too. But putting all your eggs in those Easter baskets is enough to make any manager sweat, no matter how experienced.

  • As Scott T. noted in the comments to the last post, I guess now we know how top riders will treat the E3 now that it’s the day before Gent-Wevelgem. Apparently, they go for the throat. Having Boonen, Flecha, and Cancellara driving the front, with Filippo Pozzato (Katusha) trying desperately to get across felt like what we expect a week or two weeks from now. After the first running of the E3/Gent-Wevelgem weekend, the lineup has seemed to draw E3 up a notch to put the competition at the same level as Gent-Wevelgem. This year, the latter race saw most of its action come from second-tier classics threats, but that's something that can happen in any given year and isn’t necessarily indicative of much. But the big boys coming out to play in the E3 rather than Gent makes sense. The E3 shares a lot more similarities and climbs (including the Paterberg where the key move went down) with next weekend’s Ronde than Gent-Wevelgem does, so it makes sense that the Ronde contenders were out in force on Saturday rather than Sunday.

    It is worth noting, however, that Gent-Wevelgem winning HTC-Columbia didn’t ride the E3 the day before. Neither did Gent strongman Matti Breschel (Saxo Bank), and E3 winner Cancellara hadn’t originally planned to ride Gent the following day. It’ll be interesting to see how teams play these two races as the arrangement becomes more ingrained in the calendar.

  • Speaking of Pozzato, it’s not really fair, since I’m basing this on only this year’s E3 and last year’s Roubaix, but I feel like I spend a lot of time watching him chasing alone. Hey Pippo, how about we spot the break when it goes – I think it’ll work out better for you.

  • You know (part of) why I like Gent-Wevelgem? It’s one of the only races that’s historically been capable of showing people that sprinters can really ride. Remember Mario Cipollini bridging up to the break in 2002 before taking the win? Yesterday, we had Eisel and Freire in the break, and Tyler Farrar (Garmin) and Baden Cooke (Saxo Bank) helping drive the chase. Most of the time, the big sprinters are hiding in the wheels until the last possible moment, because that’s the best way to win those races. But they get a bad rap for it, anyway, and people love to label them as hopeless climbers, one-trick ponies, or lazy glory-hounds. Gent seems to be their favorite chance to prove otherwise.

  • Sep Vanmarcke, whoever that is, had a career day at GW yesterday. No matter how anonymous the Topsport-Vlaanderen rider was in the morning, by the afternoon we all knew who he was since he dutifully sat on the back of the break right in front of the TV cameras for the last 20k. Which, as the new guy in a group of bigger names in a huge race, is exactly where he should have been. Sure, Freire and likely a few other guys in the break hollered at him for it – if you can intimidate someone into working, why not – but they also knew exactly where he was coming from. While he was back there, Vanmarcke saved up enough gas to try the only real late-race grab at victory, then still mustered a second place in the sprint. Beats just plodding steadily to the slaughter…Roelandts.

  • Matti Breschel’s (Saxo Bank) flat on Sunday was the heartbreaker of the race. The kid is absolutely flying right now, stomping everyone on the final climb of the Kemmelberg before (sensibly) easing up, and his presence in the finale could have drastically reshaped the race. It’s not quite to the level of the Boonen/Devolder two-headed monster, but with Breschel riding as he is, Cancellara’s chances at the Ronde are a little better than they were.

  • Related: Shimano neutral support is going to have to spend this week practicing its wheel changes – if Boonen gets a change that slow next Sunday, they’re going to get lynched.

  • Finally, think Omega Pharma-Lotto's current no-win season is bad? In 2005, the very talented T-Mobile went scoreless until Alexandre Vinokourov finally outsprinted Jens Voigt (CSC) to win Liege-Bastogne-Liege.