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10 conclusions from E3 Harelbeke and Gent-Wevelgem

By:
Daniel Benson
Published:
March 26, 2012, 19:59 BST,
Updated:
March 26, 2012, 23:47 BST
Race:
Gent - Wevelgem
Tom Boonen (Omega Pharma-QuickStep)

Tom Boonen (Omega Pharma-QuickStep)

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1. At the finish line at E3 Harelbeke, Patrick Lefevere was asked if this was the best he’d ever seen of Tom Boonen. A giddy Lefevere had to pause before reining in his Flemish delight and eventually playing down his star’s form. Nonetheless it is clear that Boonen, a rider who had been on the wane since 2010, is back at the top of his game.

But don’t mistake this incarnation as the Boonen of 2005 or 2006. This version, as Brecht Decaluwé pointed to yesterday is a smarter, more calculating clone of the one that secured the Worlds, Roubaix and Flanders in 2005.

Yet a word of caution: in 2007 Boonen won Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne, Dwars door Vlaanderen and E3 but then went on to finish 12th in Flanders and 6th in Roubaix. Omega Pharma-QuickStep’s ruthless wining streak can’t go on forever.

2. Just how much time do professional riders spend sprint training? Given the relatively important nature one would suggest hours of analysis, on and off the bike, with structured training scenarios in various conditions of both weather and fatigue. Because to hear Oscar Freire (Katusha) say that he didn’t know where the finish line was at Harelbeke was a near inexcusable defence from the likeable and experienced Spaniard. The margins of success and error in professional sport are minuscule and in sprinting perhaps even more so. At the very least, a five minute warm-up or drive along the final few kilometres the day before would have been worth the effort. Second in E3 and 4th in Gent-Wevelegem, Freire should have won the former and could have won latter.

3. Mark Cavendish looked on course for a strong spring when he put all his rivals to the sword at Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne last month. Such was Sky’s dominance – they really made it look easy – that it seemed that the world champion would knock off Milan-San Remo and Gent-Wevelgem in quick succession. But an off-day in Italy and bad luck/poor positioning in Belgium have taken the shine off the Briton’s spring, leaving us to wonder if Kuurne was the exception rather than the rule. The start to the season has been far from a failure, especially when you consider his start to 2010 and 2011, and while he wasn’t the only sprinter caught adrift in Gent-Wevelgem, he was the biggest in terms of stature and form. Had he made the split with Edvald Boasson Hagen and Christian Knees he would have caused Omega Pharma-QuickStep to alter their tactics.

4. Scott Sunderland made a valid point in a recent blog, stating that while Fabian Cancellara is a fine time triallist who can ride rivals off his wheel, Boonen is the smarter racer. There’s little doubt that the RadioShack-Nissan leader is close to the form of 2011 and maybe even 2010 but while Boonen has improved Cancellara has perhaps stood still. His tactics at Milan-San Remo were overly criticised and we’ll never know what might have happened in E3 had he not crashed and punctured. His major objectives remain Flanders and Roubaix and the Belgian parcours will suit him perfectly – if ever there’s a race to ride rivals off your wheel, it’s there.

5. At this stage last year QuickStep had just three wins under their belts and with 21 wins already this season they’re just 4 shy of their win total from 2010 and 2011, combined. It’s an incredible turnaround but while Boonen has taken the recent plaudits their strength lies in their depth, with 9 riders chipping in with victories this season. Even though Tony Martin hasn’t hit top form they’re filling the majority of the vacuum left by HTC-Highroad. The signings of Martin, Brammeier, Grabsch, the Velits twins and Brian Holm go a long way to explain why. Wins in E3, Dwars Door Vlaanderen and Gent-Wevelgem have given them a monopoly on Belgian trophies in recent weeks and their grip on the upcoming Monuments is threatening to become a formality. Boonen, Chavanel, Terpstra and to some extent Steegmans could each lead a Classics team in their own right and for proof you just have to scroll down the results at Gent-Wevelgem to find Kroon (35), Gilbert (39), Hushovd (48), Cavendish (58) and Voeckler (119).

6. Once again Garmin-Barracuda’s Classics season is in the balance with Sep Vanmarcke looking increasingly like their only option of winning either Flanders or Roubaix. At the finish in E3 he told Cyclingnews that in order to follow Boonen on the Taainberg he’d been stuck in the 52 chainring – a incredible achievement – and his 5th place in the race was testament to his endurance. The only question is whether he can maintain his form. Boonen, Cancellara and even the likes of Pozzato and Ballan look stronger than they did a few weeks ago. Some will point to the fact that Vansummeren is Roubaix’s defending champion but can lightning really strike twice?

7. Sky’s spring almost mirrors Garmin: A strong opening weekend in Omloop and Kuurne followed by mixture of frustration and positives. Eisel’s podium place in E3 was a welcome boost and a reminder of how versatile the Austrian can be. However, with Flecha’s form an uncertainty could the British team’s best option lie in looking towards the likes of Ian Stannard? Sure they’re not in the same league as Boonen and Cancellara but if Sky is adamant on developing British talent then perhaps a leadership role for Stannard is warranted. The 24-year-old took 3rd in a brutally tough Kuurne in 2010 and with Sky always looking to enter a race with more than one card to play, an alternative to Boasson Hagen is justified.

8. BMC have never been prolific winners. Take away Cadel Evan’s Tour and his other victories from 2011 and they’d be left with just 8 wins. Barry Ryan’s assessment from San Remo rightly pointed to a number of mitigating circumstances but two weeks on and there’s little light at the end of the tunnel. Philippe Gilbert and Thor Hushovd are still off the pace while Greg Van Avermaet and Alessandro Ballan have at least been in the reckoning to steady the ship. Gent-Wevelgem was a race BMC were always on the fringes of but Ballan and Van Avermaet are the team’s two best cards for Flanders and Roubaix.

9. At his press conference in Wevelgem, Boonen was asked about the talents of Peter Sagan. For the second race in a row the Liquigas rider impressed with a combination of gutsy attacking and fast finishing. However, while Boonen paid the youngster a number of compliments he also raised the question of whether Sagan was at the right team, pointing out that the 22-year-old lacked a Classics mentor at Liquigas. In Gent-Wevelgem Sagan attacked from the front while Boonen sat back on the Kemmelberg knowing that the race would come back to him. Of course, Boonen has the wealth of strength on show at his team to help him. Given that QuickStep turned down Sagan as a youngster and are believed to have enquired about his availability last season, could Sagan one day move to Belgian’s biggest team?

10. A dark horse for both Flanders and Roubaix, Filippo Pozzato’s steady improvement since his collarbone break has been nothing short of striking. The Italian set the pace on the first trip up the Kemmelberg and was a leading force in Farnese’s challenge taking 9th in the sprint. Cancellara and Boonen are the favourites for the coming races but Pippo is in the middle of a group that contains Breschel, Langeveld, Chavanel, Ballan, Van Avermaet and Vanmarcke.
 

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