Who said Italians can’t ride in the cold? On a day when the mercury in the thermometer barely made it above zero, it was Katusha’s Luca Paolini who won this year’s Omloop Het Nieuwsblad. Getting into a breakaway just after the Taaienberg and then taking off with Stijn Vandenbergh (Omega Pharma-Quick Step) 25km from the finish, Paolini surged past the Belgian in the last 500 metres to take the first cobbled race of the season, a victory that must have made the UCI licensing board hold their heads in their hands.
It didn’t take long into the 198km race for a nine-man breakaway to clear the peloton, getting a maximum gap of five minutes before the climbs and pavé started steadily whittling the gap. By the time the group hit the iconic Taaienberg climb – often called the ‘Boonenberg’ around these parts – the gap was at 1:15 and barely holding. While the Taaienberg this year wasn’t the site of race-defining attacks, it was difficult enough for the peloton to be split into three main groups, with the first of these main groups only 40 men chasing the breakaway as they hit the Eikenberg climb.
It was on the descent of that climb that Sylvain Chavanel (OPQS), curiously dressed head to toe in black, and Marco Bandiera (IAM) took a flyer off the front and bridged the gap to the breakaway group. The move looked so successful that a group of seven riders, including BMC’s Greg Van Avermaet, Geraint Thomas (Sky), Jurgen Roelandts (Lotto-Belisol) and Paolini, followed suit and bridged the gap themselves. In a stealthy move that matched his garb, Chavanel then went off the front all by himself with 45km to go and for a little while he looked like he might just be strong enough to stay away.
But the last climb of the day finally sapped the Frenchman’s strength and he was swallowed back into the breakaway group, which by now consisted of Van Avermaet, Thomas, Paolini, Roelandts, Vandenbergh, Sven Vandousselaere (Topsport Vlaanderen), Egoitz Garcia (Cofidis), Maarten Wynants (Blanco) and Bandiera – what would be the entire final top ten.
Down to the last handful of pavé sections, Vandenbergh attacked with Paolini sticking to him and away they went, working together in a cold headwind to keep the chasers away. Thomas and Van Avermaet seemed to be getting the chasing group to do just that, but too little too late as the dynamic duo had by that time built up over a minute’s gap. With 500 metres to go, Paolini opened up the sprint, passing the Belgian who was twice his size and taking the first of this year’s cobbled Classics. The chasing group sprinted for the line, with Thomas narrowly pipped for the final podium place by Vandousselaere.
Paolini had this to say about his win:
It’s a very important victory both for me, for Katusha and for Russia, since today I know is the Russian Men’s Day: I’m very pleased to give them another reason to celebrate. It was a special triumph for me in a very prestigious competition, one of the most beautiful Belgian Classic races. I felt in a great condition despite the cold weather, and in the end I managed to win thanks also to my bigger experience.
By the way, Russian Men’s Day is officially ‘Defender of the Fatherland’ (kind of like Armistice Day or Veterans Day) and it’s a day when Russian women celebrate the men in their lives by giving them little gifts. Or an Italian celebrates being on a Russian team by giving them the gift of a Belgian race.
Analysis & opinion
With such cold weather conditions and Tom Boonen still finding his way back to form after his septic elbow, the race didn’t seem as animated as in past years. But Sylvain Chavanel got everyone’s fires lit when he went off the front and that, plus Vandenbergh‘s second step on the podium, confirms that OPQS is picking up from last year and is a force to be reckoned with this spring. It also means that the team isn’t all about Boonen – or Cavendish (we’ll see how he goes in KBK) – and that they have the depth to take the race on.
The decidedly wintry weather meant that the whole of the peloton was bundled up from start to finish, with some even looking like bandits with their snoods up over their mouths. Maybe it was the cold, maybe it was no race radios, maybe it was being smothered by their own snoods, but there were a few moments nearing the end of the race when the riders in the peloton – hopelessly behind the chasing group by a good four minutes – looked a bit petulant, with Boonen himself angrily waving away the photographers on the motorbikes and Bernie Eisel (Sky) desperately shouting at the camera man for the time gaps. (He didn’t seem to get an answer from anyone …)
It was good to see Geraint Thomas finish so well, although it seems a shame that Sky couldn’t have put some help at his disposal, considering that team leader Edvald Boasson Hagen never looked to be a contender today. There was a brief shining moment when it looked like Heinrich Haussler might take it to another level but he soon fell off the pace – there had been a case of mistaken identity when commentators announced it was Haussler who crashed badly in the last third of the race, when in fact it was his teammate Kristof Goddaert. But the IAM team will be toasting Marco Bandiera tonight for his excellent sixth place – a great start for the new ProContinental team.
1. Luca Paolini (Katusha) 4:52:15
2. Stijn Vandenbergh (Omega Pharma-Quick Step) same time
3. Sven Vandousselaere (Topsport Vlaanderen-Baloise) +1:13
4. Geraint Thomas (Sky) s/t
5. Greg Van Avermaet (BMC) s/t
6. Marco Bandiera (IAM) s/t
7. Sylvain Chavanel (Omega Pharma-Quick Step) s/t
8. Jurgen Roelandts (Lotto-Belisol) s/t
9. Maarten Wynants (Blanco) s/t
10. Egoitz Garcia (Cofidis) s/t