Belgian champion Tom Boonen felt he was an equal match in strength for Fabian Cancellara in the Tour of Flanders today, yet for the second time in a week, he found himself unable to stay on the Swiss champion's wheel. Once the gap opened on the Kapelmuur between the two riders with less than 20km to go, Boonen realized he didn't stand a chance of winning his third career title and had to settle for second place.
Unlike last week's E3 Prijs, where Cancellara struck on a technical final turn that caught Boonen off guard, this time the Saxo Bank rider distanced Boonen on the toughest part of the climb in Geraardsbergen with 16km to go. Without getting out of the saddle, he powered away and when Boonen tried to accelerate he found himself unable to match the effort.
"It wasn't a secret that if something was going to happen that it would be there. I didn't feel worse than him. I had taken the lead to control affairs when he passed me. He didn't accelerate extremely hard. I wanted to follow but had to sit back right because I cramped in my right leg. Then I sat back, hoping that I would get in my rhythm and that the cramps would fade away, which happened.
"Cancellara gained twenty seconds in one kilometer so then you have to accept the facts. I rode away from the men behind me but he was riding a minute away from me. You don't need a drawing to understand that," Boonen said before pointing out there wasn't much else he could do against Cancellara. "What can you do? Shoot him to death?" Boonen joked.
From then on the Belgian champion didn't give up and stood tall to keep his second place. "I battle with as much pleasure for second place as for first place. I'd rather won today and I had a good chance, but he has one of the best periods in his career. He's a top rider."
For himself, Boonen invented a new title. "Finishing second in the last few races... it makes me the most regular rider of the peloton."
When asked about the attack on the Molenberg that resulted in the two riders leading the race, Boonen explained that at that moment he felt strong. "I started in the lead and wanted to go myself. Maarten [Wynants] had escaped earlier with a group [with Bernhard Eisel, Matthew Lloyd and Daniel Oss] to be in front and keep up with us.
"I attacked at half speed to join them. He rode next to me and I told him to wait because it was still far away, I still had Maarten and the others who were all good too. Then he went on the right hand side of the road, very quietly. I was a bit boxed in behind those men. Then I manueverd to get past them and I managed to come back on him quite easily.
"Cancellara and I started co-operating without saying a word. So afterwards, I didn't feel I was less strong than him. But he's the time trial world champion and I'm not, and I never will be. If he's gone, he's gone; it's as simple as that," Boonen said.
Before the finale started many riders were caught behind one of the multiple crashes. Boonen was among them together with his teammate Stijn Devolder.
"It took us thirty kilometers before we returned to the front. It was total misery. Everytime we bridged up they crashed again. It was total bullshit. The men from Saxo were going flat out in front. Stijn needed even more time to return.
"I bridged back up on my own - that took some energy. I think everybody has his own side story about a crash. It was a classic how we predicted it, a very tough one," Boonen said.
"It was a beautiful race. I liked the new course a lot. In the past riders were able to come back and attack but now that was impossible. The Molenberg didn't make the difference. It's the part just before and after the Molenberg that makes it very hard," Boonen said.