The Model Bike Race

Apr 4 2011

2008-04-06-tour of flanders 059  by edward taylorThere are times—generally a non-GC stage after the first mountain/time trial battle of the Tour de France—where I’ll concede that cycling isn’t the most exciting sport in the world. But races like this year’s Tour of Flanders make the few days that drag entirely worthwhile.

While there were countless things to love, for me, the most memorable aspect of yesterday was how many situations arose in which the race could have realistically been “over”.

Before the start, prognostication on scenarios in which Cancellara would not win seemed to agree that a small group of good non-favorites could get clear while the giants marked each other—and at about 50km to go, Boassen-Hagen, Boom, Chavanel and Clarke looked poised to do just that.

When Chavanel dropped his companions over the Molenburg, and the favorites simply looked around, a few commentators saw shades of Het Nieuwsblad, where a comparatively early solo move from a smaller name ended up taking the the title, even after a catch. But when Cancellara erupted eight kilometers later, it was Superman, reborn and reducing the dreams of his opponents to dust once again.

Despite some signs of cramping and a six-man chase from BMC, most expected Cancellara to fly away for good on the Muur van Geraardsbergen. When he was instead caught on that vaunted slope, he was pronounced dead—mere seconds before accelerating though its steepest pitch and peeling off another elite group.

Over the Bosberg, Philippe Gilbert laid down as solid an attack as the race had seen, and for another brief moment, it seemed like the final chapter had been written. But a group reformed and reeled in the Omega Pharma-Lotto rider, and after a series of solid, but ineffective attacks, it seemed like Tom Boonen’s race to lose from a group sprint.

A Skill-Shimano rider gets back to his team car to talk strategy by Franklin TelloBut Cancellara—allegedly out of the race twice by this point—made one more huge effort. Chavanel was on him immediately, but Nick Nuyens, who’d attacked ineffectively a few moments earlier, suffered quite a bit to bridge the gap, and after a brief recovery, began to pull through.

Even heading into the final few hundred meters, nothing was set—Boonen took a no-hope attack around the final corner, and teammate Chavanel must have seen him bearing down as he checked over his shoulder, because seconds later, he swung back into third position behind Nuyens. If Cancellara had been a little more confident in his pop, and gotten into a debate with Nuyens over who would lead out, Boonen’s last-gasp charge might just have succeeded.

Even so, the final sprint wasn’t exactly a cut-and-dried affair. Cancellara went early in hopes of reaching a speed where the others couldn’t match without a draft. And it almost worked; Nuyens had the burst to get around Cance, but not entirely clear of him, and as the sprint tracked across the road, Chavanel, who looked to have the necessary punch for victory, found himself pinned between his two companions and the barriers.

While I’ve been lukewarm to open, NASCAR-style access to team audio, the car-and-comm coverage was the perfect accompaniment to today’s hell-bent race—and proof-positive for anyone who still needed it that guiding your team through a pro race ain’t exactly sitting down at a Playstation.

Shots of the QuickStep team car saying that Cancellara was “obviously” too strong for Chavanel to work with, and of Jon Vaughters exhorting his riders to stop working and await a sprint, showed that even when the team bosses do know what’s going on, and are able to communicate their intentions, there’s more to crafting a winning strategy than simply coming up with a good plan.

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19 Responses to “The Model Bike Race”

  1. Dan 4 April 2011 at 11:09 am #

    This race should end any more talk of banning radios to make the racing more interesting. I hope this one gets the full “How the Race Was Won” treatment!

  2. Al 4 April 2011 at 11:21 am #

    Great analysis. This race was so good – the best I’ve seen in a while. I also hope for a HTRWW.

  3. henk 4 April 2011 at 12:46 pm #

    I don’t agree with Dan about the radio situation.
    According to Vaughters, at a certain point close to the finish Farrar asked if they had to ride or not. He was nervous about the gap and apparently ready to take action. His team car forbid it in favor of riding for a 3rd place sprint.

    This is exactly the argument against race radio’s. In earlier moments of the race riders can drop to the team car for general guidance but in the heat of the finale they have to think for themselves.
    As I understood it Farrar (or Thor) would have helped in the chase if it wasn’t for a DS cowardly gambling for a podium spot.

  4. Chris 4 April 2011 at 1:06 pm #

    @henk –

    I totally agree. My primary thought when JV told his guys to stop working was, “Wow! You gigantic pussy!” The firepower of Hushovd in the chase might have gotten everything back together quicker and we’d have been able to see a tactical match between Cancellara, Hushovd, Boonen, Farrar, Ballan, etc…

    It was still one of the best classic finishes since LBL a few years ago, but could have been truly legendary.

  5. Jarvis 4 April 2011 at 1:45 pm #

    Think it would be shortest “How the race was won” ever. No-one saw Nuyens until 2km to go.

    Not to belittle his win, because he won Flanders, but how the race was won: After the Bosberg Nuyens gets towed back to the front group by Thomas. In the last 2km manages to pick the right attack to go with and outsprints his two companions who had been out front for 80 and 40km.

  6. Jan 4 April 2011 at 2:03 pm #

    @Chris and Henk

    I couldn’t disagree more. It was indeed Farrar asking if he should take pulls in support of Hushovd, but with Thor not feeling well that would have served nobody. So Vaughters was correct to tell Farrar to save what he had for the sprint, hoping that other teams would close the gap. Had Thor been in shape, it would have been a completely different issue, as either Farrar could have worked for him or vice versa, in any case delivering a fresh Garmin rider to the finale.

    I also don’t see what this has to do with race radios, as I think if there hadn’t been any Farrar would have talked to Hushovd, learned that Thor wasn’t feeling well and come to the same conclusion. If not, it would have hardly made the racing any better and also not given Garmin the win, either.

  7. velomonkey 4 April 2011 at 3:28 pm #

    @Chris and Henk

    I am full support. JV lost it and I think to most people he looked like a fool? He literally said wait for the sprint, doesn’t matter if it’s for 1st or 3rd.

    Are you kidding me? Do you think, at all, that this is how Quick Step plays? The whole point of having a multi-rider team is that you send guys up the front to either drill it, close it, attack it or something. Here is what you don’t do: nothing. And this is 100% of what JV did. I want to like Garmin, I just can’t. HTC is 5 times the team.

    Race radios stink, in this day with GPS, recon and all else you can simply program in where riders need to be at the front and look for big turns. I mean is it EVER a surprise you have to be at the front before a climb?

    As for the race – Chav looked great, Boonen was toast on the attack where Fabian bridged to the group (to be fair he did have a rider up the road, but the 2 of them should have worked over Fabian). And in the end, by hook or crook, Riis gets to say “told you so” and show he can take riders to the next level.

  8. Guy 4 April 2011 at 3:53 pm #

    Riis was fortunate – he basically did nothing, had Nuyens sit in, and won the race (although being there at the end was tough enough). Quick Step were lucky with Chavanel to podium as they almost lost the whole thing waiting for Boonen. Anyway, just my two cents…

    On race radios, we’ve now had two thrilling races (add M-SR in here) raced with radios, with the in-car coverage now adding another dimension of intrigue and feverish posting. The riders clearly want them (for safety and other reasons) and will still deliver awesome racing action. The UCI should take note.

  9. DJ 4 April 2011 at 4:56 pm #

    Did Riis really do nothing?? Nuyens is on fire this year after two years of not not living up to his promise at Rabobank. Saxo Bank has a good classics team and one thing Cancellara (who btw won his classics victories riding for Riis) clearly is lacking is support in the final part of the race. If everyone is riding against you, a few teammates could make the difference…

  10. henk 4 April 2011 at 5:39 pm #

    That’s kind of the whole point.
    It doesn’t matter if Vaughters was right or not, Farrar should have figured it out for himself. Go talk to Thor, encourage other teams to work etc.

    Considering comments in the media and around the internets this was anything but advertisement for the pro-radio side.

  11. LDR 4 April 2011 at 7:21 pm #

    Riis did nothing? Nuyens did nothing but sit in?

    The only thing Nuyens did was be right where he needed to be all day long.

    Did nothing except ride the best race of the day.

    But I guess that is the American view. A true aficionado of the sport (or a Frenchman, take your pick) would complain of the lack of panache. I think it’s pretty darn thrilling to see someone who is outgunned figure out how to let the biggies beat each other up, and then be there to take advantage of it.

    Nothing indeed!

  12. Sean 4 April 2011 at 8:11 pm #

    It was a great race. I think that Paris-Roubaix should have the same format. Maybe the race-officials can wait for Cancellara to make his move and then schedule a train for a particular road-crossing. Heck, don’t even worry about the train – just have the crossing gate down until the chasers catch up to him.

  13. The Hitch 4 April 2011 at 9:59 pm #

    I love cosmos articles but i think there are some exagerations here.

    For 1 Chavanels move with 50 to go, didn’t look like a winner with only about a minute on a peloton that included Canc,

    But more importantly, How did Gilberts attack on the Bosberg make it “seem like the final chapter had been written”?

    Did anyone actually think Gilbert was doing anything other than showing off the Lotto colors with his attack?

    Gilbert wins on goldilocks hills. Not too long, not too short and a finish not too far after it.

    His attempts at tting to victory after a hill tend to end in tears, as his many attempts to win MSR prove, or more to the point, his courageous but ultimately doomed to failure attempt to live up to the favorite status that was unfairly given to him in Geelong.

    An itt against Boonen, Cancellara, Chavanel, Pozzato, THomas and about 7 others at Flanders.

    No chance.

    No chance in hell.

  14. Touriste-Routier 5 April 2011 at 8:54 am #

    @ the hitch was Gilbert supposed to wait for the sprint?

    His move was predictable, but I also thought logical, and tactically sound. The chances of him getting away on the Bosberg were probably better than his sneaking away for the win in the last Km or of winning the sprint, particularly if Boonen was likely to be there with Chanvanel.

    Winning gaps are often less about one’s ability to TT solo to the finish, but about timing, along with weakness and/or hesitation of your opponents.

    Furthermore, if it failed (as it did), it gave him at least an opportunity to try something else, if he recovered in time. If Gilbert did nothing, than he was essentially conceding the race. I was disappointed that his move didn’t work, but not in the fact that he tried to win the race on his terms.

  15. cosmo 5 April 2011 at 9:19 am #

    @The Hitch

    Did anyone actually think Gilbert was doing anything other than showing off the Lotto colors with his attack?

    No. “Showing off the colors” does not happen with 11km to go in a 260km classic. Especially not at Tour of Flanders. I don’t think you can say a favorite tag is given unfairly to anyone leading the race at that point, let alone with the legs to make an attack.

    Second, after Gilbert launched on the Bosberg, the leading group was decimated. Ballan was well ahead of the others, and Cancellara was very close to being dropped entirely. Thomas’ group didn’t rejoin until several KM later, and even that was unexpected. It was tactically sound move, especially since Boonen’s presence in the group didn’t exactly make collaboration forthcoming.

    While your “Goldilocks” climb theory is intriguing, Gilbert’s won big events with hilltop finishes (Amstel, Strade Bianche) and dead-flat run-ins (Paris-Tours). As for San Remo, the Poggio and San Fermo climbs are roughly the same distance from the finish line in their respective events, and Gilbert didn’t seem to have much trouble TTing to the end of Lombardy last year.

  16. Larry T. 7 April 2011 at 10:03 am #

    I enjoyed watching the race despite the radio-controlled racing, but the in-car shots of the various DS’s droning along in the car at 50 kph while telling the riders what to do demonstrated why radios should be ditched. How much MORE interesting could it have been if the riders decided for THEMSELVES (or at least had to get instructions yelled at them from the car – for all to hear) whether to attack, chase or sit up? If a radio-ban does NOT result in more interesting races after a year or two, the rules can always be changed back to allow them, no?

  17. The Hitch 8 April 2011 at 7:08 pm #


    I dont think Gilbert did anything tactically wrong, nor am i critiscising him for trying.

    Im just saying that it didnt look like a winner. He wasnt in form, and Flanders doesnt suit him like the Ardennes do. It was a good attempt but after that it was flat, and Gilbert trying to tt away from the peloton, Ive seen that movie before and it rarely ends in Belgian victory. At Flanders he just wasnt strong enough and no scenario would have given him victory.

    @ cosmo, I said his favourite tag was unfairly given to him in Geelong. It was a sprinters course but he was given the favourite tag and so people waited for him to attack and were ready to respond when he finally did.

    The move in Flanders was tactically sound, but thats not what im disputing. Im simply saying he never really had a chance of staying away.
    I think Phil just isnt a good enough itter on the flat to stay away from the peloton the way Canc and Vino sometimes do.

    Lombardy, well thats a course far more suited to him than the others. On hilly courses Gilbert is an expert no doubt. He brought back most of the moves himself in Agr before crushing the peloton.

    Having said that, similar, itt troubles showed itself in his surprisingly ineffective atempt to haul back the 2 Alexanders in Liuk a week later. I would have expected him to make that 40 second gap, not take 20 seconds then crack.

  18. Cathal 18 April 2011 at 5:51 pm #

    Just like to add to the HTRWW chorus.
    That is all.

  19. Velotex 12 July 2011 at 5:48 am #

    What an awesome race! Its been a while since a cycling tournament was this exciting. Nuyens basically ‘made’ that race for me. Shooting for the back of the group like a true trooper! He certainly had all his supplements that morning!
    Great summary of the race – Great article! Thanks!

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