Tom Boonen took his second WorldTour race in three days, winning a tense sprint in Ghent-Wevelgem

Words by Edward Pickering

Sunday March 24, 2012

About a week ago, Tom Boonen wrote a blog for Het Nieuwsblad in which he played down his ambitions in bunch sprints. “Nowadays the guys take too big risks,” he complained.

Since then, he’s won E3 Prijs, in a sprint. And today he won Ghent-Wevelgem, also in a sprint.

Cycling fans with longer memories might also remember that Boonen gave Cycle Sport an interview this time last year in which he told us, “sprints are too scary.” While that magazine was in the shops, with those very words on the cover, he won Ghent-Wevelgem, in a sprint.

Reverse psychology is evidently working for the Belgian.

Boonen has won two WorldTour races in three days, taking his season’s win tally to seven. Importantly, he’s taken some significant scalps: Oscar Freire was the runner-up in E3 on Friday, while Peter Sagan was second in Wevelgem. After a few quiet seasons, Boonen’s career is waxing again.

The Belgian rode as clever a race as he needed to. The routine event of Fabian Cancellara going off the front, after the final crossing of the Kemmelberg and Monteberg, was followed by the now-routine event of Fabian Cancellara getting chased down. In spite of Cancellara’s ambition, there were enough sprinters in the lead group to make a sprint the most likely outcome. Omega Pharma-Quick Step, aided by Katusha and GreenEdge, kept the group under a tight rein, until the final kilometre, when discipline broke down. Boonen emerged at the front of a messy, ugly sprint, and while he was shadowed all the way by Sagan, he sprinted confidently.

E3 and Ghent-Wevelgem. Next up is the Tour of Flanders. ‘Never two without three,’ goes the old French proverb. Boonen hasn’t looked this assertive in years.

***

It wasn’t a vintage Ghent-Wevelgem. The race lacked the seat-of-your-pants urgency and tension of Milan-San Remo, and it seems to be undergoing a crisis of identity. It still hasn’t settled into the weekend slot it took over in 2010, nor has the route-tweaking which added several narrow, gravelly hills into its third quarter in the same year added much in the way of tactical intrigue to the race. The bunch is still being eroded by the climbs, but more so by the logistical challenge posed by the narrowness of the roads than positive riding or attacking at the front. The helicopter shots after every climb showed the bunch looking slightly smaller, but the selection was happening from the back.

GreenEdge had no need to be stung by the astonishing wave of criticism aimed at Simon Gerrans following his Milan-San Remo victory, for the perception that he’d sat on Cancellara before outsprinting him, but they answered that criticism by taking responsibility for the middle part of the race in Ghent-Wevelgem. They briefly split the peloton with about 85 kilometres to race. Philippe Gilbert was one of the riders caught behind, although the Australian team didn’t press on. Perhaps they just wanted to enter the hilly phase of the race with their riders at the front – for the Mont des Cats, Vert Mont, Vidaigneberg and Baneberg, claustrophobic, rutted lanes twisting through wooded countryside, the roads were wide enough for just four or five riders, and for a while, they were all from GreenEdge.

One crossing of the Kemmelberg taught us nothing, although it reminded us that Filippo Pozzato still can’t resist riding on the front of the bunch at non-crucial phases of races and that Mark Cavendish isn’t climbing brilliantly – the world champion went over in about 50th place, although he didn’t look uncomfortable.

The second crossing was a different story. BMC pushed hard into the climb, while Matti Breschel dragged a small group clear over the top. It looked like the bunch had just about kept structural integrity as they rounded the corner into the descent: eight riders a few metres clear, then a long string of riders in a line. The bunch was under tension: how much more would it take to break?

At the bottom, the bunch was virtually on the eight riders. Cavendish went through in about 25th position, with the bunch still in one, albeit stretched, piece.

But on the flat, exposed roads off the Kemmelberg, somebody let a gap open. Suddenly the peloton was in three pieces, with Cavendish caught behind the split. History, as Mark Twain is said to have observed, rarely repeats itself, but it does rhyme. Just as Cavendish getting dropped on Le Manie in Milan-San Remo caused a level of unprecedented organisation and co-operation in the front group on the Mediterranean coast roads, so Cavendish getting dropped off the Kemmelberg saw the front group buckle down and make common cause.

For Sky, this was a small premonition of what might happen at the Tour de France if they don’t get things exactly right. Edvald Boasson Hagen had made the front group, with Christian Knees, while Cavendish had not. Would Knees be best used to drop back and pace Cavendish on, or stay with Boasson Hagen (who went on to finish fifth)? Having two leaders in a race means that there is a Plan A and a Plan B, but it also stretches resources.

While Omega Pharma worked at putting Cavendish out of the race, Fabian Cancellara, with Peter Sagan, attacked off the Monteberg, a small rise which used to form part of the approach to the Kemmelberg from the west. Both riders had something to prove from Milan-San Remo. Cancellara wanted to show that he could still attack a race and win, while Sagan just wanted to sprint for first, rather than fourth.

As the race crossed the plains south of Ypres, Omega Pharma were fighting a war on two fronts: put the best sprinter in the race definitively out the back, and stop the best rouleur in the race going off the front. And they succeeded in both – Cavendish had only one team-mate, Ian Stannard, to help, while Cancellara’s fire was quenched with 25 kilometres to go. Sagan had probably thought that Cancellara’s wheel would give him a Simon Gerrans-like opportunity to contest the finish, but the Swiss is looking less and less invincible with every long-range attack he makes. In the end, Sagan’s effort might have cost him his sharpness at the finish.

From the moment of Cancellara’s capture the sprint was as inevitable as death, taxes and crosswinds in Belgium. Omega persuaded Katusha and GreenEdge to help them on the run-in, and the only subsequent attack was a short-lived effort by Christian Knees.

Sprints in races like Ghent-Wevelgem are only a distant relation to the bunch gallops of the Tour de France. The difficulty and intensity of the race make lead-outs far less organised and while Boonen, Goss and Freire all had team-mates to help, there was no question of organising a train. Sprinters’ legs are less sharp in a Classics finish, as well – the dash for the line is more of a surge than a true sprint.

The group went from right, to left, to right, to left to right again as they bumped and barged into the final kilometre. Boonen started his surge at the right moment, having evidently learned the lesson from mistiming his effort in the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, and bludgeoned his way over the line first. Sagan, in second, edged closer to a Classic win, while Matti Breschel put a season of injury and disappointment further behind him in third.

With the Tour of Flanders is less than a week away, the whole of Belgium is waiting with expectation for Tom Boonen to take part three of a WorldTour hat trick.

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