Luca Paolini wins the 2013 Omloop Het Nieuwsblad

Stijn Vandenbergh (right), runner up to Luca Paolini at Het Nieuwsblad 2013

The Omega Pharma team did everything right at Het Nieuwsblad, except win

By Edward Pickering

Saturday February 23, 2013

Rule one of cycling: never take a superior sprinter to a sprint finish.

Armchair tacticians all over Belgium must have been wondering, therefore, what Omega Pharma rider Stijn Vandenbergh was doing sharing the workload with Katusha’s Luca Paolini all the way to the finish of Het Nieuwsblad in Ghent after the pair had worked themselves clear of a dozen-strong group in the final 25 kilometres of the race.

Maybe the frigid temperatures had frozen his brain. The tall Belgian had only one chance of winning, and that was to attack and drop Paolini, the better sprinter, before the finish. But as the kilometres ticked down, his options narrowed. In the final 10 kilometres, each rider rode 400 or 500-metre turns on the front, unselfishly relaying each other to maintain their lead. But with two and a half kilometres to go, Vandenbergh inexplicably put a huge 800-metre turn in, just when he should have been gathering the mental and physical resources together for an all-out attack. Second place was safe. Why not try for first?

At that moment, the race was decided. The pair would sprint, and Paolini would win.

***

Until Vandenbergh’s tactical capitulation, Omega Pharma had ridden a perfect race. Of course, every rider who’d ever seen a cobbled Classic knew that Tom Boonen was the man to watch, so Omega kept the Belgian champion safe while Sylvain Chavanel and Vandenbergh were allowed up the road.

Chavanel had been the first to go, bridging to the fragmenting early break after a dwindling peloton had hit the Eikenberg. Then a strong-looking octet including Geraint Thomas of Sky, Vandenbergh and BMC’s Greg Van Avermaet set off in pursuit.

Over the Leberg, the leaders – first Chavanel, then, 20 seconds behind, Thomas, Vandenbergh, Chavanel, Van Avermaet, Paolini, Bandiera (IAM), Vandousseleire (Topsport Vlaanderen), Wynants (Blanco), Garcia (Cofidis) and Roelandts (Lotto) – didn’t have a huge advantage, just 90 seconds or so, but when the television cameras panned back to the peloton, it was clear the leading 10 riders would never be caught. There were only 30 riders left in the peloton, and with nine teams represented in the front group, nowhere near enough manpower or motivation to chase. FDJ and Orica-Greenedge, two of the teams notably absent from the front group, tried, but with only one or two domestiques each, they were outnumbered by the smoothly rotating front group.

Omega Pharma were the only team with two riders ahead – Chavanel and Vandenbergh, and they engineered the oldest tactical trick in the book – ganging up on their rivals. Vandenbergh made an innocuous-looking attack with 26 kilometres to go, and only Paolini was awake enough to sense the danger. As the pair’s lead grew to 30 metres, the other riders looked at each other, saw the dangerous Chavanel sitting on the back, ready to mark counter-attacks and chases, and decided they didn’t want to take him back up to the front of the race.

Luca Paolini wins Omloop Het Nieuwsblad 2013

Luca Paolini wins Omloop Het Nieuwsblad 2013

Between 26 and 17 kilometres to go, the pair’s lead grew steadily by four or five seconds a kilometre before a brief rally by Geraint Thomas pegged the lead at just under 40 seconds. But when nobody co-operated, and with Chavanel still sitting ominously at the back of the group, the lead went back out again.

Up ahead, Paolini made short work of Vandenbergh in the sprint, then Vandousseleire caught his rivals out with an early jump to take third place ahead of a fast-closing Geraint Thomas. The Italian had won Het Nieuwsblad, but it could equally be said that Vandenbergh had lost it.

Races held on days as cold as this are no indicator of future form – with all but 40 riders out of the race by the 50-kilometre-to-go point, it was clear no chase could be organised once a decent break had gone up the road. It’s too early to draw conclusions for the rest of the Classics season, although neither Omega Pharma nor Sky gave us any reason not to believe they are both in excellent shape. But the Omega Pharma management must have wondered, did they send the wrong man up the road?

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