Fabian Cancellara rode an imperious race to take victory at the Ronde van Vlaanderen, powering away from the field on the Paterberg before slipping into time trial mode and easing his way to the line. His nearest competitor Peter Sagan finished over a minute behind, while his biggest rival Tom Boonen (Omega Pharma-Quick Step), didn’t finish at all.
The day started in typically lively fashion, with many riders buzzing around near the front of the peloton excitedly in the hope of slipping away in a break. Although it took a while, one did eventually form. Jetse Bol (Blanco), Jacob Rathe (Garmin-Sharp), Tosh van der Sande (Lotto Belisol) and Michael Morkov (Saxo-Tinkoff) were the big names (or at least small names on big teams) off the front, while there were also three representatives of Pro Continental Belgian teams in the break, getting all-important TV air time for their sponsors.
By the time they had escaped, reigning champion Tom Boonen had already climbed into the back of an ambulance, with the population of Belgium feeling the pain of a bruised hip and a wound to the left elbow every bit as much as Boonen did. His Spring Classics campaign had been cut short by a crash inside the opening 20km, and while his injuries weren’t too serious they’re enough for him to be ruled out of Paris-Roubaix next weekend.
Things didn’t start to properly get interesting in racing terms until the Molenberg, with just over 120km of the race to go. Andre Greipel (Lotto Belisol) attacked off the front of the peloton, followed by the strong Classics duo of Maarten Tjallingii (Blanco) and Michal Kwiatkowski (Omega Pharma-Quick Step), along with two riders from Europcar.
It didn’t take long for the new breakaway to catch the old one, merging to create a group which the peloton – and in particular the team of favourite Fabian Cancellara (RadioShack-Leopard) wasn’t all too keen to let away. The striped Leopards quickly amassed at the front of the peloton and shut the gap to just a few seconds.
But, they didn’t fully bring it back, and on the Rekelberg Marcel Sieberg (Lotto Belisol) attacked, making it across to the lead group which was quickly disintegrating. It was clear Lotto Belisol had something up their sleeve, as Sieberg was their third rider in the breakaway, which was allowed to open up a bigger advantage after a crash involving rank outsider Sep Vanmarcke (Blanco).
Nevertheless, it was never a gap big enough to cause any worry behind, though the peloton was slowed momentarily on the crazy Koppenberg, with riders off their bikes and pushing, tearing the bunch in half. There was some momentary concern 10km later when Cancellara had to stop for a wheel change, though it was smoothly done and with help from some convenient brake twiddling by his mechanic, he was quickly catapulted back into the peloton.
The break’s gap with 50km to go was just one minute, when escapees Greipel and Kwiatkowski took it upon themselves to force a higher pace. Mirko Selvaggi (Vacansoleil-DCM) had counter-attacked across and joined them, with a formidable chase group of Yoann Offredo (FDJ), Sebastien Hinault (IAM), Sebastien Turgot (Europcar), Tjallingii and, notably, Lotto team leader Jurgen Roelandts following suit.
With 20km to go and with the riders heading onto the Kwaremont, it was Roelandts who emerged the strongest, shredding Hinault on the climb. On the same climb Cancellara – who had been surprisingly quiet up until that point – made his first acceleration. Peter Sagan (Cannondale) was – rather less surprisingly – the only rider in the peloton who could live with the pace. Any hopes that the likes of Sylvain Chavanel (OPQS) and Pippo Pozzato (Lampre-Merida) had of causing an upset instantaneously evaporated.
Soon it was a lead trio of Cancellara, Sagan and Roelandts, with the Swiss making the decisive move on the Paterberg. His acceleration was truly brutal. There was no chance anyone could match him and his gap was, of course, insurmountable. The four-time world time trial champion proverbially slipped on his skinsuit and aerobars, and veritably cruised to the line.
Sagan mustered a clenched fist as he took second place, almost 1½ minutes in arrears of the victor, while Roelandts took a satisfactory third. Katusha’s Alexander Kristoff led home something resembling a peloton ten seconds later.
Here’s a video of the decisive attack:
And the final kilometres:
Analysis & opinion
For the second year in a row we have been cruelly denied the ding-dong Boonen-Cancellara battle in the major cobbled monuments. Having said that, I really doubt that Boonen, who’s been enduring such an annus horribilis, would have been able to stay up in the running. Even aside from his recent crash at Gent-Wevelgem he’s struggled for form, and what with Cancellara looking so strong, it would’ve been difficult for Boonen even in top form to have contested.
The manner in which Cancellara won the race was interesting in that it was different to what we have been used to seeing from him before. For example, the last time he finished this race in 2011 (when he finished a late runner-up after being outsprinted by Nick Nuyens) he made his first proper move on the Leberg, some 20km further out than he did in this edition. The year before, when he won the race, he attacked 10km even further from the finish. Whether this change of approach was due to last year’s route change, a tweaked strategy to deal with the threat of Sagan or a combination of the two, it was nonetheless effective.
Quotes following the race have revealed more about how RadioShack-Leopard approached it, with Hayden Roulston – who did a heroic amount of work on the front, commenting: “Early in the race we went to the front with our plan to keep everyone together and stay in the front,” while Cancellara himself also reported that the team looked to control the race right until the Kwaremont, whittling down the peloton’s numbers: “It was so fast in the beginning and we had to take over early but I think that was the key. There were not so many riders left at the end.”
Even more so after the withdrawal of Boonen, there was no one racing who could match the power of Cancellara on the cobbles and hills. So, the strategy that RadioShack-Leopard took in just controlling the break before letting Spartacus loose nearer the finish was a safer option than allowing him to go so early, where he wouldn’t have had the manpower of Boonen to work with, and where there was a much bigger chance of him getting reeled in. It was a simple but effective plan.
Also deserving praise for how they rode are Lotto Belisol, who worked so hard throughout the day, trying to get countless riders into the breakaway with the hope of supporting their man Jurgen Roelandts when he made his move on the Kwaremont. It was a brave, aggressive plan and his third place finish was fully merited.
1. Fabian Cancellara (RadioShack-Leopard) 6:06:01
2. Peter Sagan (Cannondale) +1:27
3. Jurgen Roelandts (Lotto Belisol) +1:29
4. Alexander Kristoff (Katusha) +1:39
5. Matthieu Ladagnous (FDJ) same time
6. Heinrich Haussler (IAM) s/t
7. Greg van Avermaet (BMC s/t
8. Sebastien Turgot (Europcar) s/t
9. John Degenkolb (Argos-Shimano) s/t
10. Sebastian Langeveld (Orica-GreenEDGE) s/t