Ronde van Vlaanderen review: Cancellara booms as Boonen busts

Ronde van Vlaanderen logoFabian 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.

Spartacus in victory (image courtesy of rondevanvlaanderen.be)

Spartacus in victory (image courtesy of rondevanvlaanderen.be)

Race summary

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.

One of the race's unsung heroes, Hayden Roulsten (image courtesy of RadioShack-Leopard)

One of the race’s unsung heroes, Hayden Roulsten (image courtesy of RadioShack-Leopard)

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.

Result

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

Links: PreviewOfficial website

Vuelta a España: Stage 4 review

Stage 4: Barakaldo to Estación de Valdezcaray, 160.6km

Five escapees – Luis Angel Mate (Cofidis), Jesus Rosendo (Andalucia), Tony Martin (Omega Pharma-Quick Step), Simon Clarke (Orica-GreenEDGE) and Kazakh national champion Assan Bazayev (Astana) made the day’s break in the 39°C heat and notched up a maximum lead of over 13 minutes. But the real action of the stage had to do with karma and crosswinds. With 30km remaining, it looked like a Vacansoleil rider hit the deck, taking a bunch of Liquigas and Movistar riders down including Alejandro Valverde, the red jersey. Just before that happened, Sky started upping the pace on the front to split the peloton in the strong crosswinds.

The peloton was split into five groups – with Valverde in the fifth group – when BMC and Katusha moved to the front of the lead group and upped the pace some more. In fact, it was so obvious that they were working to distance Valverde that the Movistar team car came up to the front to talk to Philippe Gilbert [!! – Ed] – presumably to explain the situation and ask for the group to slow down. PhilGil no doubt gave them a piece of his Belgian mind and rode on. Hard.

Hitting the climb, Martin and Clark left the rest of the breakaway behind, with the main group containing Rodriguez, Contador and Froome approximately two minutes behind. Valverde gave everything at the base of the climb to try to catch up and he’d made up an impressive amount of time, but in that heat and the peloton in the mood for a little revenge, he was on the rivet and looked cooked for most of the climb. Meanwhile, at the front, Martin and Clarke played cat-and-mouse in the last 500 metres and Clarke sprinted past the German and won with several bike lengths in hand. It was Clarke’s first Grand Tour win – and his first of any description since 2008.

When all was said and done, the red jersey finally slipped out of Movistar’s possession for the first time and on to the shoulders of Katusha’s Joaquim Rodriguez – by one second.

Rodriguez took over the red jersey from compatriot Valverde (image courtesy of Katusha)

VeloVoices rider of the day

It has to be Alejandro Valverde. My observations on karma are below, but the reason I’ve picked him as rider of the day was because he did an incredible ride back to limit his losses. He had been on the ground, hindered in his chase-back by strong crosswinds and a rampant peloton, but went like the clappers on the final climb to stay in the GC mix. And there is no way this is the last we’re going to hear of this incident – one way or another, I reckon this will ripple through the entire three weeks, not only because he’s mad as hell and is going to ride aggressively, but he and his entire Movistar team are going to ride to punish Sky and, by extension, Chris Froome. It’s all happening on the roads of Spain, boys and girls!

Observations

Remember earlier in the spring when Levi Leipheimer kept crashing in Paris-Nice? Even crashing right into the back of a motorbike, and Movistar drilled it on the front to make sure he wasn’t going to come back? Remember stage three of the Tour de France and that horrible crash that resulted in a broken leg for Sky’s Kanstantsin Siutsou? Movistar not only didn’t wait, but they sent a guy to the front to put the hammer down. Remember that? Well, today Sky had already started their ride to split the peloton when Valverde went down in the crash. The race was already on, the splits were already happening, there was no way they were going to wait – and there was no reason for them to. So, Alejandro, when you go storming to the Sky bus, talkin’ all big and bad about ‘no respect’, remember this: you reap what you sow, dude.

Movistar’s directeur sportif, by the way, blamed Juan Antonio Flecha and Sky for an irregular move which actually caused the crash. Sky’s DS Marcus Ljungqvist said he told the team not to go full gas once he found out the red jersey was on the ground. He hadn’t noticed it was Valverde when the car went by and by the time he realised it, the peloton was well and truly split:

There’s always a lot of confusion straight after a fall and it takes time to know who’s been affected, and who’s been held up behind. Before we knew Valverde was down we were already 50 seconds in front and we had to keep chasing the break before the last climb of the day.

Tactical analysis

In what some thought would be a stage in which the breakaway would stay out all day – we predicted as much in our preview – and the GC would remain the same overnight, they only got part of that right. The crash and the splits put Joaquim Rodriguez in red, with Froome and Contador in second and third at one and five seconds respectively. In fact, the top seven on GC are separated by just 14 seconds. Valverde tumbled to ninth place, with a 36 second deficit – damaging but hardly irrecoverable – one place below Nicolas Roche (AG2R), who had an impressive ride today. Euskaltel’s Igor Anton lost 30 seconds and dropped to 16th, 0:57 down.

There were none of the punishing attacks among the leaders we saw yesterday, a reflection of how hard Contador had driven both his rivals and himself on the Arrate climb. After pushing himself to his absolute limit today to restrict his losses, Valverde will be relieved to know that tomorrow is a relatively easy sprint day rather than another mountain finish, which will aid his recovery.

And although they lost the red jersey at last, Movistar will be relieved to pass the burden of riding in its defence to Katusha. They appeared relaxed about the possibility of losing it anyway – albeit in less dramatic fashion, one suspects. You don’t let a break get 13 minutes up the road on a stage like this if you’re intent on retaining the jersey. Yes, it was a summit finish, but hardly the toughest one, and Tony Martin has demonstrated before – on Mont Ventoux, no less – that he can sustain an advantage on a long climb if he is allowed to set his own tempo. What wouldn’t have been in the plan was to lose the jersey to a direct rival – and a fellow Spaniard at that. But that’s cycling for you.

VeloVoices will bring you previews of each day’s stage every morning, live coverage of as many stages as possible on Twitterreviews in the evening and in-depth analysis after selected stages.

Link: Vuelta a España official website

Behind the barricades: The start of the Clasica San Sebastian

The Clasica San Sebastian is usually held the Saturday after the finish of the Tour de France, generally the last weekend in July. It’s always well attended, particularly by local Basque fans, and engenders a fantastic atmosphere in the beautiful and historic San Sebastian, at the start of the Spanish holidays. Moved to mid-August to avoid the London 2012 Olympics, with the summer vacations well under way, San Sebastian is in full party mode with its famous music festival and global fireworks competition. The fans will be hoping for pyrotechnics on the road today and praying for a Basque winner or, at the very least, a Spanish one.

Clasica San Sebastian 2012 Orica-GreenEDGE

Clasica San Sebastian 2012: Orica-GreenEDGE’s Simon Clarke’s run out of new kit!

Clasica San Sebastian 2012 Team Sky: The long and the short of it!

Clasica San Sebastian 2012 Team Sky: The long and the short of it!

Clasica San Sebastian 2012 FDJ-BigMat: Blindingly white kit

Clasica San Sebastian 2012 FDJ-BigMat: Blindingly white kit and matching socks!

Clasica San Sebastian 2012: Garmin Sharp including fellow-Brummer Dan Martin

Clasica San Sebastian 2012: Garmin-Sharp including fellow Brummie Dan Martin 2nd from right

Clasica San Sebastian 2012 Team Lampre-ISD: Il piccolo principe - Damiano Cunego - far right

Clasica San Sebastian 2012 Team Lampre-ISD: Il piccolo principe – Damiano Cunego – far right

Clasica San Sebastian 2012 Euskaltel-Euskadi: Yes, he's back it's Sheree's favourite Samu Sanchez

Clasica San Sebastian 2012 Euskaltel-Euskadi: Yes, he’s back it’s Sheree’s favourite Samu Sanchez with his hand in the air

Clasica San Sebastian 2012: what's the 2010 champion LL Cool J Sanchez showing to Laurens Caveman Ten Dam?

Clasica San Sebastian 2012: what’s 2010 champion LL Cool J Sanchez showing to Laurens Caveman Ten Dam?

Clasica San Sebastian 2012: friend of VeloVoices BMC's Amael Moinard on far right

Clasica San Sebastian 2012: friend of VeloVoices BMC’s Amael Moinard on far right

The procession of the riders via the sign-on to the team presentation was eagerly awaited by the rapidly swelling crowds and, in particular, the young souvenir and autograph hunters who were surely in competition to see who could claim the most trophies. The young poppet below collected one from every member of RadioShack – a result!

Clasica San Sebastian 2012: RadioShack's Hayden Ralston signs autographs for young fans

Clasica San Sebastian 2012: RadioShack’s Hayden Roulston signs autographs for young fans

As to be anticipated, there was a rugby scrum around the recently crowned Olympic Champion, Astana’s Alexandre Vinokourov, who when questioned by the Spanish commentator Juan Mari responded in a mixture of Italian and French. It didn’t matter. The crowd understood that he was delighted to be riding once more in San Sebastian as it afforded him an opportunity to flash his new Olympic jersey(s). Here’s the one with the Olympic rings. [Pretty sure that’s not IOC approved. Oh well, eh? – Ed.]

Clasica San Sebastian 2012 Inigo, Alex and Juan Mari

Clasica San Sebastian 2012 Inigo, Alex and Juan Mari

The second most popular guy – although he was resolutely trying to keep a low profile – was former Olympic champion Samu Sanchez (Euskaltel-Euskadi), now shorn of most of his bling although helpfully still wearing his gold and white helmet and shoes, plus his bike’s still sporting gold brake cables. Before the start he was having a chat with his Olympic successor about his recent hand injury acquired on stage eight of the Tour de France. You may recall he was cruelly felled by a teammate who’d been taken out by a picnic table. The heaving partisan crowd will be hoping he’s fully recovered.

Clasica San Sebastian 2012: Current and former Olympic road race champions

Clasica San Sebastian 2012: Current and former Olympic road race champions

Samu’s bling has migrated to the current holder, resplendent with a very special gold Specialized and not one but two shirts – here’s the second one – neither of which seemed to find favour with the UCI officials. View from the front:

Clasica San Sebastian 2012: UCI officials calculating the size of Alex's fine for a non-approved shirt

Clasica San Sebastian 2012: UCI officials calculating the size of Alex’s fine for a non-approved shirt

Here’s the back view. Note it bears his name, London 2012 and the Kazakh eagle has been gilded!

Clasica San Sebastian 2012: Alex's blinged up shirt

Clasica San Sebastian 2012: Alex’s blinged up shirt

Almost ready for the off, take your marks …

Clasica San Sebastian 21012: a chance to catch up before the start

Clasica San Sebastian 21012: a chance to catch up before the start

All too soon and the boys are on their way, racing 234km over an undulating parcours with barely a flat stretch [I understand you’re speaking from bitter experience – Ed] until they’re racing back along the seafront to the finish.

Clasica San Sebastian 2012: trying to get rid of those pesky silly tan lines!

Clasica San Sebastian 2012: trying to get rid of those pesky silly tan lines!

All images are courtesy of my beloved Richard Whatley but rest assured he’s not giving up the day job!

Links: PreviewOfficial website