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Marcel Kittel fully justified his number one billing as defending champion to win the 101st running of Scheldeprijs. He positioned himself perfectly in a chaotic bunch sprint and did just enough to close out the charging Mark Cavendish to deny him the perfect first birthday present for his daughter Delilah Grace. Second-year pro Barry Markus claimed third spot to round out the podium.
Buried midweek between the cobbled Monuments of the Ronde van Vlaanderen and Paris-Roubaix, Scheldeprijs is a rare opportunity for the sprinters to hold sway during Spring Classics season. Its profile is so flat it makes a billiard table look lumpy. Essentially it is 4½ hours of outdoor turbo-training followed by a final kilometre of utter carnage as many of the best sprinters in the sport conduct an uncontrolled free-for-all on the streets of Schoten.
It’s also a good chance for sprint trains to fine-tune themselves ahead of the forthcoming Giro, as the flat parcours allows the intensity of a Grand Tour flat stage finish that isn’t easily replicated in other early season races. Consequently, the start-line boasted major sprint names such as former Scheldeprijs winners Mark Cavendish (Omega Pharma-Quick Step), who was aiming for a record fourth win, Marcel Kittel (Argos-Shimano) and Tyler Farrar (Garmin-Sharp), not to mention Theo Bos (Blanco), Arnaud Demare (FDJ), Alexander Kristoff (Katusha), Andrea Guardini (Astana) and Yauheni Hutarovich (Ag2r La Mondiale), with Andre Greipel and Peter Sagan the only big stars absent.
Two separate escapes slipped off the front of the peloton early on, coalescing to form a single group of nine. However, they didn’t even survive as far as half-distance, with a subsequent three-man attack of Matt Brammeier (Champion System), Stefano Borchi (Vini Fantini) and Sven Vandousselaere (Topsport Vlaanderen-Baloise) volunteering as the hare to the hounds of the peloton. However, they too were snaggled up with still 26km – 1½ laps of the closing loop – remaining.
The top sprinters’ teams – FDJ, Argos-Shimano, Blanco, OPQS, Astana and Lotto Belisol (for Kenny Dehaes) – then moved towards the front to raise the tempo, stake their position and dissuade further attackers. All this was mere feinting, however – the light cabaret before the big fight – as OPQS seemed to melt away, leaving Lotto to challenge Argos for pole position under the 1km banner.
Kittel’s train held firm, allowing him to hold station just off the front and launch his powerful sprint with about 200 metres to go. At this point Cavendish was isolated, just outside the top 20 and eight lengths in arrears but with clear air ahead of him. He was forced to drift to the right as carnage unfolded in front of him, leaving him with no wheel to launch out of, but a prodigious burst slung him to within half a wheel of Kittel at the line. Not enough, though. Kittel’s own jump was well-timed, and sufficient to hold sway as the German claimed back-to-back Scheldeprijs titles. An early season disrupted by a virus picked up at Paris-Nice had seen Kittel quiet thus far, but he came roaring back here to steal Delilah’s birthday present from under her father’s nose.
Barry Markus (Vacansoleil-DCM) was third, with Guardini fourth. Bos looked to be heading for a podium finish, but was side-swiped by Markus as he moved out and faded to finish an angry and protesting eighth.
Analysis & opinion
As ever, Scheldeprijs provided a long and frankly dull wind-up ahead of a frenetic conclusion – something this race seems to specialise in. The most exciting things to happen in the first 200km of the race were a minor crash for the new King of Flanders, Fabian Cancellara, and riders repeatedly threatening photographers’ and bystanders’ well-being by hopping across pavements to short-cut corners.
Nonetheless, this was a super performance and result for both Marcel Kittel and his Argos-Shimano teammates. Despite missing Koen de Kort, this is a powerful well-drilled team marshalled by the quick and experienced Tom Veelers and Roy Curvers. They were a constant presence at the front of the bunch in the closing kilometres, depositing their man in the ideal position – and Kittel, despite his relative inexperience, is already a fine and powerful finisher in the mould of a young Greipel. A textbook display of how to win a bunch sprint, and the team can now go into the Giro with their tails up.
There is some work to be done at OPQS, however. They have the most coveted sprinter in the world in Cavendish and started here with a formidable team including Gert Steegmans, Iljo Keisse, and Stijn Vandenbergh, but they seemed to peel away far too early – not the first time this has happened this season – leaving Cavendish with too much to do. Even then, he nearly pulled off an improbable win, so his personal form looks bang on track. Perhaps there’s some fine-tuning still to be done. Equally, the return of key men such as Tony Martin and Niki Terpstra ahead of the Giro may be all the additional support Cav requires.
Beyond the first two, it was a good showing for youngsters Markus (21) and Guardini (23), third and fourth respectively, showing they can mix it in the bigger races. Fifth was no bad result for Alexander Kristoff, although he would probably have hoped for better in a spring campaign which has seen him win a stage at De Panne and finish fourth and eighth at Flanders and Milan-San Remo. Tyler Farrar barely registered in coming sixth, and shows little sign of emerging from a funk which has seen him fail to claim an individual victory in Europe since his Tour de France stage win on Independence Day 2011 – 21 months ago tomorrow.
1. Marcel Kittel (Argos-Shimano) 4:42:20
2. Mark Cavendish (Omega Pharma-Quick Step) same time
3. Barry Markus (Vacansoleil-DCM) s/t
4. Andrea Guardini (Astana) s/t
5. Alexander Kristoff (Katusha) s/t
6. Tyler Farrar (Garmin-Sharp) s/t
7. Kenny Dehaes (Lotto Belisol) s/t
8. Theo Bos (Blanco) s/t
9. Romain Feillu (Vacansoleil-DCM) s/t
10. Michael Van Staeyen (Topsport Vlaanderen-Baloise) s/t
Link: Official website
Mark Cavendish (Omega Pharma-Quick Step) continued his team’s dominance of this race and, with four straight victories, was definitely King of the Sand-Castles. Brent Bookwalter (BMC) was runner-up thanks to his individual win on stage one and his team’s on stage two. The teammate who orchestrated that team time trial victory, Taylor Phinney, completed the podium and took best young rider. BMC also won best team, dominating the general classification with five riders in the top seven overall.
After escaping in the final kilometres with Gregory Rast (RadioShack) and Martin Elmiger (IAM), Bookwalter got his and his team’s season under way by snatching victory in the sprint for the line – only his second win in a six-year professional career. The wind played havoc with the day’s racing, forcing breaks in the peloton which constantly had to regroup.
Bookwalter extended his overall lead after BMC won stage two, a flat 14km team time trial. They clocked 16:07, four seconds faster than runners-up Sky, with Omega Pharma-Quick Step third.
Ridden on normal road bikes with ordinary road helmets and no start ramp, RadioShack-Leopard, marshalled by Fabian Cancellara, set a time of 16:18 which was good enough to withstand the efforts of a number of fancied teams including Katusha and Orica-GreenEDGE. But world team time trial champions OPQS managed to shave a second off that time. Then Sky posted the fastest time while final runners BMC were still on the course. They opted for the tactic of burning three riders en route to finish with the minimum five, going four seconds quicker, taking the stage win and retaining their grip on both the leader’s and points jerseys.
Stage three saw Mark Cavendish take the bunch sprint ahead of Barry Markus (Vacansoleil-DCM) and Aidis Kruopis (Orica-GreenEDGE), which moved him to within eight seconds of Bookwalter, who finished safely in the bunch.
BMC and OPQS worked hard to keep the day’s seven-man break under control, a task made easier by the apparent lack of wind and splits in the peloton on the 143km circuit. However, with so many sprinters looking to score their vital first fix of victory, the last 10km of racing was hectic with teams jostling for position. Cavendish rode to the finish on the rear wheel of Edvald Boasson Hagen (Sky), then accelerated from 350 metres out to overtake his challengers and sail across the finishing line.
A repeat victory on stage four at Al Khor Corniche saw Cavendish take over the race lead. Again sprinting from well out, the Manxman came around a fading Andrea Guardini (Astana), who was also overtaken by Markus, to claim a comfortable win.
The day’s long breakaway trio escaped early on but were easily reeled in with around 8km remaining by the sprinters’ teams – many still searching for an elusive first win – to set up another bunch sprint. Although, there was more wind than the previous day there wasn’t enough to disturb the peloton. A crash in the final few kilometres delayed race leader Bookwalter – who was credited with same time as Cavendish – but the winner’s ten-second time bonus was enough for him to take the gold leader’s jersey. Bookwalter dropped to second, two seconds back, with teammate Phinney third at eight seconds.
Thursday was Groundhog Day in Qatar as Cavendish extended his lead with his third consecutive victory – and a nice birthday present for OPQS team owner Zdenek Bakala – on the fifth stage from Al Zubara Fort to Madinat Al Shamal. But the Manx Missile didn’t have it all his own way, with a couple of scares late on. Firstly, in the final 25km an attack from Phinney – his second of the day – in the company of Bernhard Eisel (Sky) had to be brought to heel. And then in the final a late surge to the line by Belarusian champion Yauheni Hutarovich (Ag2r La Mondiale) almost snatched victory away in the dying metres.
Despite claiming he was only here for stage wins, Cavendish picked up a three-second advantage at an intermediate sprint which, combined with his ten-second win bonus, increased his lead over Bookwalter to 15 seconds with only one stage remaining.
Tour du Quatre! Cavendish won his fourth stage and the overall at a canter to claim his second overall stage race victory [after last year’s Ster ZLM Toer, giving him twice the career total of one Andy Schleck – Ed]. The Manx Missile bested the Minsk Missile Hutarovich in a sprint finish for the second day running, with Markus third. Astana and Sky had taken control of the peloton in the final kilometre hoping to deliver their respective sprinters Guardini and Boasson Hagen to victory, but Cav was having none of it. From a long way back, he found his way through on the right-hand side, timing his sprint to perfection.
— OPQS Cycling Team (@opqscyclingteam) February 8, 2013
Analysis & opinion
This stage race has long been dominated by the team that is now Omega Pharma-Quick Step and this year was no exception. It was pretty much a closed shop. Shorn of their perennial Tom and his magnificent Boonen(s), the Manx Missile proved to be a more than adequate substitute. Looking lean, mean and back to his best, he won four stages on the trot at a canter after his team had adroitly managed and steered the peloton. It was a job well done and augurs well for the team in the run up to their Classics season.
But who else deserves a pat on the back? Well, BMC, whose 2013 has gotten off to a much better start than 2012. They looked pretty awesome on the team time trial, superbly orchestrated by everyone’s favourite Hollywood star, Taylor Phinney, and Brent Bookwalter put the first notch on their bedstead on stage one and wore the leader’s jersey for three days. He put up a good fight but was ultimately unable to withstand the onslaught of the OPQS juggernaut. He finished runner-up, while Phinney was third.
Sky, runners-up in the time trial, placed four riders in the top ten overall and spent plenty of time animating the race. No victories but nonetheless a satisfactory performance ahead of the European WorldTour stage races and the all-important Classics.
I feel I should also mention that there were four British riders in the top ten: Cavendish, BMC’s Adam Blythe and Sky’s Luke Rowe and Geraint Thomas. There are two other riders worthy of a mention. In our pre-season round table we talked about second year neo-pros who would begin to show their mettle. We didn’t mention Barry Markus who, with a solid and successful track background, is beginning to make us sit up and take notice. He had two top tens in the Tour Down Under and went even better here. A big win must surely be on the cards. We also discussed older riders who might be revitalised by a move – riders such as Yauheni Hutarovich, who’s moved this season from FDJ to Ag2r and finished right on Cav’s wheel in the final two stages.
1. Mark Cavendish (Omega Pharma-Quick Step) 15:55:20
2. Brent Bookwalter (BMC) +0:25
3. Taylor Phinney (BMC) +0:26
4. Adam Blythe (BMC) +0:30
5. Bernhard Eisel (Sky) +0:32
6. Greg Van Avermaet (BMC) same time
7. Michael Schaer (BMC) +0:35
8. Edvald Boasson Hagen (Sky) +0:39
9. Luke Rowe (Sky) +0:40
10. Geraint Thomas (Sky) s/t