Matt Brammeier, national road race and time trial champion of Ireland, is a rider used to life on cycling’s biggest teams.
A member last year of the HTC-Highroad winning machine, following the team’s collapse at the end of 2011 he was recruited to the ranks of this season’s dominant outfit, Omega Pharma-QuickStep, where he rides in the service of some of the biggest names in the sport, including a resurgent Tom Boonen.
A resident of Belgium for the last six years, and now a member of its most successful team, Brammeier is ideally placed to offer an insider’s view on the significance of the spring Classics to the team’s Belgian leader, its Belgian sponsors, and to the Belgian people.
Ruled out of the Northern Classics through illness, Brammeier returns to action today (April 5) in the Grand Prix Pino Cerami where he will ride alongside British neo pro, Andy Fenn, 2012 Dwars door Vlanderen winner, Niki Terpstra, and Francesco Chicchi, who has already won five times this year. The enforced perspective of highly informed spectator for the Tour of Flanders increased his appreciation for the efforts of his teammates.
“The pressure on Tom on Sunday [for the Tour of Flanders] must have been unbelievable. He’d won all the semi classics but Sunday was the big one and that’s where the pressure was. To keep cool and ride the race that he did was unbelievable. He didn’t need to drop the other guys. They needed to drop him.”
That pressure will remain this weekend at Paris-Roubaix, and perhaps intensify with the return to Belgium for the Ardennes Classics at the end of the month: a trio of historic races each won last year by Belgium’s national champion, Philippe Gilbert.
“We’re the biggest Belgian team at the moment and we have predominantly Belgian sponsors. There’s huge pressure to perform here. These races generate 80 or 90 per cent of what the sponsors want from us. The pressure to do everything right in these races is huge,” Brammeier explains.
“Everyone is told they need to be in their best shape for these two weeks. They leave the team selection really late; sometimes two days. It’s not just pressure from the outside: everyone’s riding for their place. It’s a really tough time for everyone, to be on form for those two weeks of the year.”
The antidote to pressure is success, a commodity in ready supply at Omega Pharma-QuickStep, who have notched up 29 wins in the first three months of this year. Its riders are upbeat and comfortable, says Brammeier, but not over confident. Start line nerves are still the order of the day, he insists, and were for some intensified by the unknown challenges of the Ronde’s brutal new finish.
“After speaking to a few of the guys, I think a lot of them were scared of it,” he says. “They had done the recce and knew how hard it was. I think maybe next year it will be a different race and they will attack earlier; they’ll know what’s to come. It’s the same with everything. After a few years, it will become normal.”
While Brammeier is backing Boonen for victory in this Sunday’s Paris-Roubaix, his reasons for doing so are based on a tactical analysis of the race rather than team loyalty. “If you ask me, it’s really a team race,” he says.
“It’s about the best team: whichever team has the best tactics and has the most guys in the front group after the Arenberg. Last year Garmin had everyone working really well and Van Summeren in the break. It sounds biased, but in all the races we have been the best team. Even at San Remo, we still had four or five guys at the bottom of the Poggio.
“It will be hard to bet against Tom. I know Flanders is the big one, but I think Roubaix suits him better. People were asking whether Flanders was too hard for Tom, with all the climbing. For sure, my money is on Tom.”