There 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.
But 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.