The sight of Briton Ian Stannard defying the odds to beat the three Etixx-QuickStep riders to win last Saturday's Omloop Het Nieuwsblad was extraordinary. But it was not the first of its kind to show how a numbers advantage is no guarantee for victory in a bike race.
Watching Stannard (Team Sky) outsprint Dutchman Niki Terpstra (Etixx-QuickStep) and beat two other breakaway riders – Belgians Tom Boonen and Stijn Vandenburgh, at eight seconds and 15 seconds, triggered Australian legend Phil Anderson's memory – a not so fond memory either. It first reminded him of stage 7 of the 1993 Tour de France from Peronne to Chalons–sur-Marne in the Champagne region when he and, Motorola teammates, Max Sciandri and Alvaro Meija were in the key seven man break but failed to win the stage.
With the break set to stay away after the Motorola trio had won 260 bottles of Fleury la Rivieri champagne in the two intermediate sprints beforehand, they looked set to win the stage with their numbers advantage and Sciandri's reputed sprinting prowess. Alas, as with the Etixx-QuickStep trio at Omloop-Het Nieuwsblad, it was not to be.
Champagne but no cigar …
Sciandri was pipped on the line by, the yet to become Tour de France champion, Bjarne Riis, whereas Mejia finished in fourth place, and Anderson sixth. Sciandri's sense of embarrassment was clear as he said: "To get beaten, yeah … but by Riis?"
Anderson recalled this week how it may have left his team with champagne to drink - it was not in celebration, but commiseration.
"I worked for Sciandri, just buried myself because he was our designated sprinter," Anderson told Cyclingnews. "He was beaten by the 'oompa loompa' that was Bjarne Riis at that stage … he was a bit heavier then … He wasn’t really a sprinter. I don't know what was going on … Sciandri was having an extremely slow day. I thought we would have had that one in the pocket."
Asked about Motorola's stash of champagne they won beforehand, Anderson laughed and said: "I remember using a sabre to open the champagne that night around the table, but we were drowning our sorrows, not celebrating that we had won a heap of champagne.
"I guess that's how the Etixx guys felt … but they probably didn't win champagne."
Thumbs up for Stannard …
As Anderson learned on several occasions in his professional career that ran from 1981 to 1994 – and not always at his cost – winning the race for numbers in the decisive break of the day does not always translate to winning the race for first place.
"Often I was in a situation where I was out numbered and won, or held my place for 'GC' [general classification]," Anderson said. "But [last Saturday's Omloop Het Nieuwsblad] was an extreme case when there were four of them in the break … when it is three against one it is quite outstanding really."
Anderson revelled in the north European classics despite one win in the 1983 Amstel Gold Race against near-misses in the Tour of Flanders (2nd in 1985 and 1987), Liege-Bastogne-Liege (2nd in 1984 and 3rd in 1983 and 1989) and Ghent Wevelgem (2nd in 1985).
But Anderson had nothing but praise for Stannard's ride, even after the criticism of Etixx-QuickStep manager Patrick Lefevere. While the Belgian Etixx-QuickStep boss criticised Stannard for not working more in the break, Anderson felt he rode superbly.
"Stannard was smart and he was named at the top of the results [in first place]," Anderson said. "He also had the guts to attack [in the finale]."
The roots of conflict …
Discussing how a race can turn on its head led Anderson to remembering how he learned that an apparent 'fait accompli' may be anything but. He also says the unexpected is not always because of the numbers game and what happens between riders, but also them and their sports directors – or sports directors.
A case in point, says Anderson, was the impact of rivalry between Dutch icons Peter Post and Jan Raas on his time in cycling. Anderson recalls his 1983 Amstel Gold Race win when he was riding for the French Peugeot team and finished with a 31 second lead. Anderson believes the Post-Raas divide influenced his Amstel Gold Race victory.
Raas - who finished third in that year's Amstel Gold Race - was leader of the Dutch TI-Raleigh team that Anderson would join the next year, which was due to be renamed Panasonic-Releigh. Post was the powerful Dutch team's sports director. However, building tension between Raas and Post led to Raas leaving TI-Raleigh after 1983 to create his own team Kwantum, which morphed into Superconfex.
At the time, Raas was a super star. His career included his 1979 world championship win, and also wins in Milan-San Remo (1977), Tour of Flanders (1979, 1983), Paris-Roubaix (1982) and the Amstel Gold Race (1977, 1978, 1979, 1980 and 1982).
In the 1983 Amstel Gold Race, the feud between Raas and Post was apparent to Anderson. "It played a little bit in my hands that  Amstel Gold Race," said Anderson, who sensed there "was a split on the team" between Post and Raas who had won the race five times, and was the defending champion. "They called it the 'Amstel Gold Raas' …," Anderson recalls. “But there was some indecision when I attacked.
"I got away and there some in-fighting in their team and I rode away with the race.
"[Post and Raas] were big egos. Post thought he was in charge and Raas was saying, 'No,' … he is in charge … guys will do what he says, not Post. One of the winningest riders, he was extremely respected in the bunch, and butting heads with his director."
Nine years later …
Anderson was not shocked when the Post-Raas rivalry erupted near the end of stage 17 of the 1992 Tour de France from La Bourbole to Montlucon – which was won by France's Jean-Claude Colotti.
The Z-Peugeot rider was in a three man break with Belgian Marc Sergeant of Post's Panasonic team and Dutchman Frans Maassen of Raas' Superconfex team and nearing the final kilometres when the pace of the break stalled to almost a halt.
The reason was that Post and Raas had ordered their respective riders to not work in the break at the risk of assisting one of the other's riders winning the stage and sit on. A stunned Colotti just soft pedalled away for the win; leaving the Dutch Panasonic and Superconfex teams to receive an official reprimand for their cynical tactics.
As Anderson now says with a laugh: "The 'impossible' does happen," in a bike race.
Rupert Guinness is a sports writer on The Sydney Morning Herald (Fairfax Media)