Fabian Cancellara (Trek Factory Racing) has become a three-time Tour of Flanders champion by winning a cat-and-mouse sprint from an elite quartet at the end of a gruelling and crash-hit 259km race.
The Swiss star timed his sprint to perfection, launching from the wheel of Sepp Vanmarcke (Belkin) and seeing off the late challenge of Greg Van Avermaet (BMC Racing), who was pipped on the line for the second time this season after losing in similar fashion to Team Sky’s Ian Stannard at the Omloop Het Niewsblad in February.
Today’s defeat – and, more importantly, Cancellara’s victory – was of a different magnitude, and Spartacus has now sealed his place among the all-time greats with a courageous and tactically astute performance begun with a devastating attack on the Oude Kwaremont.
Vanmarcke, who appeared to exchange angry words with Cancellara on the road to Oudenaarde, each exhorting the other to a greater share of the workload, suffered his second defeat to Spartacus in a major race, after losing out to his Swiss nemesis in the finale of last season’s Paris-Roubaix.
Of the other pre-race favourites, Tom Boonen (Omega Pharma-Quickstep), was the next home, trailing in seventh after a determined ride with an injured hand that lacked nothing in terms of courage, but placed him below his best.
Peter Sagan (Cannondale) was still more comprehensively defeated by Cancellara. Isolated from his team-mates in an elite selection some 30km from home, he tried to stall the group until help arrived, but his tactic backfired by setting Van Avermaet loose. While the Slovak, winner earlier this month of E3 Harelbeke, was still in the mix on the Kwaremont, he could find no answer for Cancellara for a second year running.
Team Sky’s Classics leader, Geraint Thomas, was the first British rider home in eighth place. His team-mate, Edvald Boasson Hagen, had looked feisty in the closing 50km, while Bradley Wiggins had faded early. Victory in a Monument Classic looked as far beyond the reach of Sir Dave Brailsford’s men as ever today, despite the progress made with Ben Swift’s podium at Milan-San Remo.
The fortunes of Team Sky were unlikely to have been the central concern of most fans today, however. Even Sagan was forced to accept second billing by the mouth-watering match-up of Boonen and Cancellara: the two greatest Classics riders of their age. Today, Spartacus was clearly Boonen’s superior, but the Belgian, stung by defeat on home roads, will seek vengeance in a week’s time on the pavé of Paris-Roubaix.
The race in detail
Crashes were a frequent occurrence for almost 200km, with Trek’s other two-time Ronde champion, Stijn Devolder, among those who suffered the most. The Belgian champion showed tremendous fortitude to continue climbing back on and unleashed his fury on the Koppenberg when the time came.
Earlier, Taylor Phinney (BMC Racing) and Darryl Impey (Orica-GreenEDGE) were the best-known and strongest riders of a group that also contained Raymond Kreder (Garmin-Sharp),Wesley Kreder (Wanty Group), Alexander Kuchynski (Katusha), Andrea Palini (Lampre Merida), Taylor Phinney (BMC), James Vanlandschoot (Wanty Group), Jelle Wallays (Topsport Vlaanderen), Stig Broeckx (Lotto-Belisol) and Romain Zingle (Cofidis).
Impey, Phinney and Broeckx were the last remaining survivors, whose daring escape reached its denouement with about 47km remaining as OPQS hit the front in numbers, forming an arrow head at the front of an elite selection of about 30 riders.
The trio was first on to the Koppenberg, a 600m climb with a peak gradient of 22 per cent. Impey took the climb seated, his hands gripping the tops seemingly with all his strength. Phinney and Broeckx toiled but remained in contact.
Crushingly for the three escapees, the elite chase group were now within metres of making contact: Boonen, Cancellara, Sagan, and John Degenkolb (Giant Shimano), winner last week of Gent-Wevelgem, all in situ. Just behind the Team Sky duo of Boasson Hagen and Geraint Thomas struggled to join the favourites.
As the favourites left the cobbles behind and enjoyed the comparative luxury of the smooth tarmac descent, Devolder continued his inspired chase back on, to the delight of a passionate home support.
A temporary ceasefire on the road to the Steenbeekdries saw the favourites sit up, take on refreshment and take a long, hard look at each other. Cancellara, perhaps tellingly, rolled slightly ahead of his rivals, while Boonen looked a little surprised by the company, given the sustained effort of his OPQS troops.
The pace soon resumed and the Sky duo of Boasson Hagen and Thomas took up the fight, but it was again Impey on the front as the 700m flight of cobbles that make up the Steenbeekdries was reached.
With smooth tarmac again beneath their wheels and just 37.5km remaining, three riders broke clear: Boasson Hagen, Dries Devenyns (Giant-Shimano), and Stijn Vandenbergh (OPQS).
The giant Belgian was the first to be caught by an inspired Van Avermaet, who leapt from the chasing group. His effort, however, seemed only to gain the attention of Cancellara and Sagan, both isolated in the lead group.
The illustrious pair were the next to take up the chase. Cancellara waved a hand contemptuously at Sagan, urging him to increase his effort. Sagan rolled through but with no real alacrity, perhaps recalling his sound defeat to Cancellara last year and unwilling to assist a rider who may be stronger at the denouement.
Boasson Hagen and Devenyns saw a lead of 14 seconds halved within two kilometres, and with a little under 35km remaining, they sat up and waited for the inevitable catch from the elite chasing group.
A brief calm was shattered by another assault from Van Avermaet but Vandenbergh was alert to the danger and soon latched onto his countryman’s wheel, the claims of shared nationality lost to team rivalry.
Van Avermaet dragged the OPQS rider clear with him, while Sagan stalled his rivals, hoping to allow team-mates in the chasing group to join him. While Sagan played games, Sebastian Minard (Ag2r-La Mondiale) was among the riders who sprinted clear. Boonen looked askance, but, like Cancellara, refused to take up the chase.
Meanwhile, Van Avermaet and Vandenbergh had reached the 2.5km ascent of the Kruisberg, a cobbled climb with a maximum gradient of nine per cent. Sagan finally responded, remaining seated on the cobbles and dragging the likes of Vanmarcke with him. The pace was too hot for Degenkolb, who unhitched.
Sagan’s effort seemed to signal the beginning of the endgame. Cancellara moved to the front with real purpose for the first time, causing Boonen to grimace. The courageous Degenkolb, meanwhile, chased back on.
Vanmarcke was the next to try his luck, launching with 26km remaining and Van Avermaet and Vandenbergh 26 seconds ahead. The OPQS man refused to assist Van Avermaet’s efforts, while Vanmarcke launched a second, doomed bid for freedom from the elite group.
Bjorn Luekemans (Wanty), not among the favourites, seized the opportunity of a temporary lull in the action to ride clear of his more illustrious counterparts, who seemed happy to watch him go. Degenkolb, surprisingly, was the next to try to move clear, perhaps sensing that the Oude Kwaremont and Paterberg would be no place for him to launch his bid for victory.
Van Avermaet and Vandenbergh retained a 26-second margin of Leukemans, and perhaps more significantly, a lead of 48″ over the favourites’ group.
Deja vu for Cancellara on the Oude Kwaremont
Oude Kwaremont served as a launch pad for Cancellara for a second year, but he could not shake Vanmarcke, the man with whom he contested victory at last year’s Paris-Roubaix. Their effort reduced the lead of Van Avermaet and Vandenbergh almost instantly, cutting it to just 13 seconds. The BMC man, undoubtedly warned on the radio of the ensuing danger, took off again, but could not shake Vandenbergh, the latter rapidly becoming the strongest card OPQS had to play.
Behind, his team leader Boonen rode hard to get back onto the wheel of Sagan, but at 23 seconds down, Tornado Tom was effectively blown out. Sagan, riding with the considerable but highly conditional and temporary support of Alexander Kristoff (Katusha), continued to drive the chasing group in pursuit of Cancellara and Vanmarcke, desperate to close a gap of 16 seconds.
Spartacus was at his best as he reached the base of the Paterberg, lunching a determined pursuit of Van Avermaet and Vandenbergh. Vanmarcke initially toiled in his wake, but somehow found the strength to come round the Swiss and take a turn.
Van Avermaet at last unshackled himself from his mill stone, Vandenbergh, as he crested the Paterberg, and not a moment too soon. Cancellara swooped past the giant Belgian with Vanmarcke on his wheel.
Back on smooth tarmac, the trio threw themselves into a high-speed pursuit of Van Avermaet, needing to find only eight seconds to reel him in. Momentary indecision, however, drew an infuriated response from Cancellara, who waved Vanmarcke through, urging the Belkin man to take a turn.
With 11km remaining, the catch was made. Vanmarcke was the next to do the waving, now infuriated by what he perceived as Cancellara’s lack of effort. If they needed impetus, it was about to arrive in the shape of Kristoff, winner just two weeks ago of Milan-San Remo, who slowly closed the gap on the four men ahead.
Each of the leading quartet rode with gritted teeth as they passed beneath the 10km to go kite, with only Vandenbergh refusing to work. Turns on the front became shorter among the other three and elbows were flicked with greater agitation.
They’d eked out a 26-second advantage over Kristoff, suddenly joined by Niki Terpstra (Omega Pharma-Quickstep) , while behind them, a further quartet of Thomas, Boonen, Sebastian Langeveld (Garmin-Sharp) and Luekemans rode with a futile determination.
The 5km to go kite effectively signalled the end of the chasers’ challenge. The leading quartet mixed turns on the front with extended glances to the side and at each other. Cancellara, meanwhile, seemed to luxuriate in opening a gel.
Vandenbergh shattered the calm by launching from the rear of the group. Only Van Avermaet could respond. Cancellara and Vanmarcke played cat and mouse behind them, momentarily splitting the quartet into two pairs. Van Avermaet countered immediately but his effort was soon neutralised, and then Cancellara launched, but his advantage was similarly short-lived.
The 1km to go kite signalled another effort from Vandenbergh, and Cancellara was momentarily dropped from the three-man train ahead, but with just 500km remaining, the quartet coasted into track mode.
Cancellara was the first to launch, doing so from third wheel and with devastating effect. Van Avermaet was alive to the danger, but despite his best effort, he was to be second best again.
There will be a party in the Cancellara camp again tonight. Spartacus loves the Ronde, and the Ronde loves Spartacus. He is only the seventh man to win the race three times in its 98 editions – cause for celebration, indeed.
Tour of Flanders 2014 – result
1) Fabian Cancellara (SUI) – Trek Factory Racing – 6.15.18
2) Greg Van Avermaet (BEL) – BMC Racing – ST
3) Sepp Vanmarcke (BEL) – Belkin Pro Cycling
4) Stijn Vandenbergh (BEL) – Omega Pharma-Quickstep
5) Alexander Kristoff (DEN) – Katusha +8″
6) Niki Terpstra (NED) – Omega Pharma-Quickstep +18″
7) Tom Boonen (BEL) – Omega Pharma-Quickstep +35″
8) Geraint Thomas (GBR) – Team Sky +37″
9) Bjorn Leukemans (BEL) – Wanty-Groupe +41″
10) Sebastian Langeveld (NED) – Garmin-Sharp +43″