One of the reasons I love the one-day Classics is that they provide the most unpredictable and exciting racing of the year. Despite horrendously cold conditions, Saturday’s Omloop Het Nieuwsblad was no exception, with a surprise one-two and a wealth of tactical turning points, all of which required split-second decision-making (and without the benefit of race radios).
Racing in multi-stage events can be formulaic: breakaway, chase, catch and then a victory for one of the headline sprinters or climbers. Often you can wander off for a couple of hours mid-race and return only for the denouement without missing anything. In the Classics, however, anything can happen at any time, and the identity of the winner is far less certain. It is not always the best rider who wins: it requires an elusive combination of ability, determination, opportunism and plain, simple luck. On Saturday it was Luca Paolini‘s number which came up.
Whittling down the contenders
The process of elimination started on the Taaienberg with 57km to go. An accelerating peloton was closing to within striking distance of the early nine-man break. The combination of cobbles and gradient was enough to gently split the peloton, with a front group of around 40 riders distancing the main pack. This would have important consequences later.
The immediate impact was that the hopes of 100-plus riders were dashed either because they could not keep up or were caught out behind the split. Such incidents underline the importance of being up near the front at such moments. Of course, not everyone can be at the front, which is why the peloton always speeds up when it approaches the hills and cobbled sections, as everyone tries to muscle their way into the optimum position about 20 places off the front.
On the Eikenberg a few kilometres later Omega Pharma’s Sylvain Chavanel made his move as he and IAM’s Marco Bandiera bridged across to the break, drawing a response from a small group of riders including his own teammate Stijn Vandenbergh. Soon after, Chavanel jumped off the front on his own and for a few minutes it looked like he might just snap the elastic.
However, the weather conditions did not help. Bitterly cold and with crosswinds and headwinds, the penalty for riding alone and unsheltered was even greater than normal. Even for a rider with the fortitude of the French time trial champion it was too big an ask and by the final climb, the Molenberg, Chavanel was forced to concede. Energy expended, cards played, he remained in the group which would form the final top ten but was effectively no longer a contender.
The chase across to Chavanel had been led primarily by BMC’s Greg Van Avermaet, a former Paris-Tours winner. However, he too was left with no reserves to draw upon. He had recognised Chavanel needed to be shut down, but would have been hoping for more help from his fellow pursuers. Unfortunately he was left out to dry. That’s just the way the chips fall at times. He too was effectively done for the day. Sometimes doing the right thing for the race ends up being the wrong thing tactically for the individual.
There was still about 35km remaining at this point and the lead group’s advantage was 90 seconds with only four pavé sections interrupting a flat run to the finish. However, it was here that the earlier peloton split came into play. With just 30 chasing ten – and that number including teammates of the front group, who were never going to assist – it was really more like 15-20 versus ten. Close enough to parity, in other words, for the smaller group to be able to hold the gap if they worked together well, which they did. A few riders tried to strike out from the bunch, but never with the critical mass to get a proper chase going. They were left hanging in no-man’s land. Game over.
Ten becomes two
This meant the winner would come from the ten-man lead group – effectively eight with Chavanel and Van Avermaet now dead men pedalling – and the decisive move came inside the final 30km as Vandenbergh eased off the front and only Paolini responded. The pair combined efforts to eke out a lead, and this time the organisation in the rest of the group dissipated as they proved unwilling – or unable – to give chase. Perhaps the eight underestimated the two – after all, Paolini and Vandenbergh are hardly Tom Boonen and Fabian Cancellara, with a grand total of zero wins between them in the past three years – but as the gap nudged upwards it became apparent they had blown their chance. Tactically it can help to be a minnow in situations like this as the bigger names concentrate on man-marking each other until it is too late.
This left a simple two-up sprint to determine the winner. Although both were visibly tiring as they hit the outskirts of Gent, it was Paolini who got his tactics spot on. The Italian nailed Vandenbergh to the front as they approached 500 metres, enjoyed a few seconds’ shelter and then turned on the afterburners at 300. Vandenbergh, who is categorically not a sprinter, had no answer.
Was there anything that Vandenbergh could have done to change the result? Probably not. Even if he had been able to sit on Paolini’s wheel, he does not possess the burst to win a sprint. And it did appear that he did give the only other option – a long-range attack – a go with an acceleration at about the 2km mark. But the legs just weren’t there after nearly five hours of hard racing, and sometimes the only tactic open to a rider is to hope that his opponent gets it wrong. Paolini didn’t, so second place it was – still a great result for a rider whose only professional victories are a stage and the overall at the 2007 Tour of Ireland. (Although, as a curious little footnote, he did win the Omloop under-23 race in 2004.)
It also didn’t help his cause that, despite being a relative unknown in the peloton, Paolini was one of the few to have inside knowledge on Vandenbergh. The pair were teammates at Katusha in 2011, so the Italian knew his weakness and exploited it ruthlessly.
Ability, determination, opportunism and luck. Both Vandenbergh and Paolini had those by the bucketload on Saturday, but in the final analysis Paolini had just a little bit more and seized his opportunity when it came, as others fell by the wayside. A well-deserved win.