Europcar’s Thomas Voeckler claimed an opportunistic win at the pre-Ardennes Brabantse Pijl semi-Classic. He rode solo to victory over the final 27km after catching and passing long-time leader Daniel Schorn (NetApp), taking advantage of a lack of organisation in the chasing group to win by over a minute at the finish in Overijse.
With the three Ardennes Classics – Amstel Gold, Liege-Bastogne-Liege and Fleche Wallonne - coming up over the next week and a half, Brabantse Pijl provides a useful tune-up ahead of these. Last year Philippe Gilbert showed his form here by defeating fellow Belgian Bjorn Leukemans in a two-up sprint, before going on to complete the Ardennes hat-trick.
The course is a puncheur‘s delight. Run this year over 196km, it includes 28 hellingen (hills), with all but eight occurring in the final 63km. Four hills – Hagaard (480 metres, 3% average gradient, 12% maximum), Hertstraat (725m, 3.5%, 11% max), Ijskelderlaan (450m, 7%, 11% max) and Schavei (700m, 6.2%, 12% max) – are negotiated five times each on a concluding series of loops around Overijse. There is little respite between the ascents, each of which provides opportunities for the bold to launch an attack.
Thomas Voeckler is nothing if not bold - sometimes to the point of foolhardiness – but here his tactics and timing were spot on. The race-defining breakaway had comprised three riders – Maxim Belkov (Katusha), Daniel Schorn (NetApp) and Artem Ovechkin (RusVelo) – who built a lead of five minutes before the peloton, driven by BMC and Rabobank, started to make inroads in the tricky wet conditions.
The dampness of the roads – standing puddles of water were visible on several corners – resulted in a number of crashes, including Omega Pharma-Quick Step’s Jerome Pineau (twice) and Gerald Ciolek, Saxo Bank sprinter J J Haedo and a certain Andy Schleck, who only yesterday had stressed the importance of this race as his final preparation for the Ardennes Classics:
I know that I was working good and I was feeling good, now I am just missing the racing. I can tell the form is coming up. I wanted one more day of racing before the Ardennes, so I will start Brabantse Pijl.
Oh well, eh?
Ovechkin dropped off the lead group with 57km to go, with Belkov following suit soon after. This left Schorn alone up front with an advantage of just under two minutes, which was rapidly eroded by the chasing pack as the repeated climbs began to exact their toll.
A number of small attacks tried to jump off the front of the peloton, but each was quickly brought back. All the while, however, an all too familiar green-suited rider hovered at or near the front of the pack, tongue lolling and head rolling in instantly recognisable fashion. Voeckler bided his time as Schorn’s lead was whittled down to a single minute. And then, on the antepenultimate ascent of the Hertstraat with 32km to go (hill 18 of 28), the former French champion decided it was time to stretch his legs and bolted off the front.
The peloton wavered, with some seemingly content to let him go, before eventually a group of seven set off in pursuit. Shortly after, Liquigas’ Peter Sagan - one of the big favourites for the race – ran wide on a damp right-hander and slid off his bike, collecting a nasty case of road rash for his troubles and eliminating him from contention.
At about the same time, Voeckler caught and rode straight past Schorn with the scent of victory in his nostrils. He started the penultimate lap (with 25.6km to go) with a handy advantage of 24 seconds over his pursuers – now numbering eight with the inclusion of Schorn and counting some notable strong men among their number such as Greg Van Avermaet (BMC), Laurens Ten Dam (Rabobank), Dries Devenyns (OPQS) and Jelle Vanendert (Lotto-Belisol).
However, the organisation in the chase group was poor, as each rider looked to the others to inject some urgency. And Voeckler is not a man to whom you can afford that sort of opening. Frequently out of the saddle and with his bike rocking precariously from side-to-side, his style may look horribly inefficient but it is certainly effective. Kilometre by kilometre, climb by climb, the Europcar leader’s advantage gradually extended: 30 seconds, 40, and out to 1:10 by the time he heard the bell signalling the start of his final 12.8km lap.
With rain starting to fall heavily, the chasing group decided discretion was the better part of valour and conceded defeat to the Frenchman – by then it was doubtful they could have caught him anyway. His victory assured, Voeckler had the luxury of negotiating the increasingly slick and treacherous corners at the pace of an octogenarian in a Reliant Robin. But he did treat us to the obligatory slow-mo of the Tommy Tongue™ hanging out of his mouth, as well as exercising his full range of pained facial grimaces.
The final kilometre was a procession. Up the Schavei for the final time, and then the short 300-metre run to the finish to take a hard-earned solo win. On another day of short, sharp climbs and cobblestones, it was no surprise to see a Tom on the top step of the rostrum once again. But today was a French rather than a Belgian day, as Voeckler built on his eighth-place finish at the Ronde van Vlaanderen with a performance which will provide him and his team with much encouragement for the Ardennes.
Behind the winner, Colombia-Coldeportes’ Fabio Duarte had bridged across to the chase group and then attacked it, but he was overhauled within sight of the line. Three-time former winner Oscar Freire (Katusha) sped past him with his superior sprint in the final 200 metres, followed by Topsport Vlaanderen’s Pieter Serry. 24-year old American neo-pro Alex Howes (Garmin-Barracuda) took a fine sixth place.
Gilbert finished quietly in the main pack, over two minutes down. On this form, he looks highly unlikely to be in a position to defend his Ardennes triple crown.
Voeckler said after the race that he was surprised to have ended up riding solo to the finish:
I thought some riders would come with me. When I attacked, I wasn’t thinking about the victory at that point. I didn’t expect to arrive alone. When I was holding the gap of more than one minute, I started to believe it was possible.
The peloton now moves on to the hills of the Ardennes forests, starting with Amstel Gold on Sunday.
1. Thomas Voeckler (Europcar) 4:49:02
2. Oscar Freire (Katusha) +1:20
3. Pieter Serry (Topsport Vlaanderen-Mercator) same time
4. Fabio Duarte (Colombia-Coldeportes) s/t
5. Greg Van Avermaet (BMC) s/t
6. Alex Howes (Garmin-Barracuda) s/t
7. Jelle Vanendert (Lotto-Belisol) s/t
8. Dries Devenyns (Omega Pharma-Quick Step) s/t
9. Laurens Ten Dam (Rabobank) s/t
10. Michael Matthews (Rabobank) s/t
Link: Official website