The Ronde van Vlaanderen never fails to satisfy cobbled classics fans and today’s 100th edition was no exception. In the end, it was finally a double rainbow with both world champions winning their respective races: Lizzie Armitstead winning in a photo-finish sprint for the line in the women’s edition and Peter Sagan monstering his way to the finish solo, fending off the chase from Fabian Cancellara and Sep Vanmarcke.
Today’s RVV was an emotionally charged race from the very beginning, what with the tragic deaths last week of Antoine Demoitié and Daan Myngheer. Dimitri Claeys from Demoitie’s team, Wanty-Groupe Gobert, got in a break in the last 50 or so kilometres, rode with heart and wouldn’t allow himself to be swept up until the last possible minute – and finished a respectable 9th. And Peter Sagan, who always shows a lot of class in his post-race interviews, remembered the two fallen riders:
“We have to think also about two guys dying last week. It’s very sad. I want to dedicate this to them.”
The rollercoaster of emotion didn’t start and stop there, however. There were a few big crashes that took out some strong riders, including Tiesj Benoot (Lotto-Soudal), Marcus Burghardt (BMC) and Arnaud Demare (FDJ), early on. Then five BMC riders went down like skittles after a touch of wheels in a fairly innocuous part of the race, leaving riders dazed and confused and Michael Schar lying on the ground in obvious pain. (Luckily, after his hospital visit, he assured his fans that nothing was broken and he should be back in the peloton soon. But it was the sight of hot favourite Greg Van Avermaet sitting by the roadside sobbing as he realised that his classics season was over due to a fractured collarbone that was most memorable. Regardless of whether you like the guy or not, it’s heartbreaking to see a man’s dreams falling into a Belgian gutter and his tears said it all. These races are not for the fainthearted – both riding and watching.
Riders of the Race
It was also sobering to remember that, as Fabian Cancellara charged after Peter Sagan and Sep Vanmarcke on the final ascent of the Paterberg, we wouldn’t see him ride those cobbles ever again. The fact that he was in peak form and had put in strong-as-Spartacus performances in the E3 and Gent-Wevelgem made the thought even more bittersweet. Here was a cycling legend who was leaving the sport when he was still strong enough – mentally and physically – to leave it all out on the road. His emotional finish, waving farewell to the crowd, brought tears to my eyes.
Sep Vanmarcke has always seemed to have the worst luck – always seems to try to bridge to someone or some group to find himself hanging out in the middle getting nowhere. And today, for the most part, it was that kind of race for him. He must have changed his bike at least three times, had to chase back and bridge over and over, but today his hard work paid off. Able to bridge to Michal Kwiatkowski and Sagan when they went off on their own (not unlike at E3), he was able to stay with them until Sagan put the pedal to the metal on the Paterberg and started his solo ride to glory. But Vanmarcke was able to stay with Cancellara and worked with him to guarantee a podium spot for both of them. And in the mark of a true gentleman, he didn’t contest the sprint for second with Cancellara, allowing Fabian to say his farewells to the crowd. If that isn’t class incarnate, I don’t know what is.
And of course the victor himself, Peter Sagan. After being the perennial second for well over a season, Sagan seemed to have broken the spell over him with his Gent-Wevelgem win. That he won on the Paterberg in almost an identical move that saw Cancellara drop him a few years ago like he did Vanmarcke and solo to the win seems to be ushering in a new classics era. Etixx are not the dominant force of a few years ago (although why they aren’t with such talent in their ranks is anyone’s guess), Tom Boonen and Cancellara’s decade of domination ends this year and Sagan seems made for these races. Well, for just about any hard race, actually. And now that he has his first Monument under his belt, it’s hard not to think he’ll be the one to beat on the cobbles for some years coming.
So it’s all three of them as my Rider of the Race, all for different reasons. Except there’s a fourth…
And that is Lizzie Armitstead. I’ve always had to be intrigued by a sports person in order to get into that sport as a whole. I learn a sport by watching one person. In baseball, it was Lance Parrish and Kirk Gibson of the Detroit Tigers back in the early 80s; in basketball, it was Michael Jordan of the Chicago Bulls; in men’s cycling, Cancellara of course. And I think in women’s cycling, I’ve found the athlete who will help me navigate my way around the personalities and quirks of the sport. Watching Armitstead make the break with Emma Johansson on the Paterberg in the final kilometres of the women’s race was a real treat. She rides so elegantly and with such power and focus, it’s no wonder she’s been having such a magnificent season already. And the fact that she is gracious and friendly to fans, teammates and opponents – what better role model for young girls dreaming of riding in the professional peloton. What a champion.
1 Lizzie Armitstead (Boels-Dolmans) 3:43:27
2 Emma Johansson (Wiggle-High5) s/t
3 Chantal Blaak (Boels-Dolmans) +0.04
4 Megan Guarnier (Boels-Dolmans) s/t
5 Elisa Longo Borghini (Wiggle-High5) s/t
6 Ellen Van Dijk (Boels-Dolmans) s/t
7 Annemiek Van Vleuten (Orica-AIS) s/t
8 Pauline Ferrand-Prevot (Rabo-Liv) s/t
9 Claudia Lichtenberg (Lotto-Soudal) s/t
10 Katarzyna Niewiadoma (Rabo-Liv) +0.08
1 Peter Sagan (Tinkoff) 6:10:42
2 Fabian Cancellara (Trek-Segafredo) 0:25
3. Sep Vanmarcke (LottoNL-Jumbo) 0:27
4. Alexander Kristoff (Katusha) 0:48
5. Luke Rowe (Team Sky) s/t
6. Dylan Van Baarle (Cannondale) s/t
7. Imanol Erviti (Movistar) s/t
8. Zdenek Stybar (Etixx-QuickStep) s/t
9. Dimitri Claeys (Wanty-Groupe Gobert) s/t
10. Niki Terpstra (Etixx-QuickStep) s/t