For 150 kilometres, Scheldeprijs looked set to be an oasis of calm in the middle of the frenetic week bookended by the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix, but a show of force from Omega Pharma-QuickStep and a string of crashes on treacherous roads turned the race on its head on the finishing circuit in Schoten on Wednesday.
Tom Boonen put the cat amongst the pigeons when he hit the front of the peloton coming through the cobbles at Broekstraat for the first time with a shade under 50 kilometres still to race. His searing acceleration signalled the beginning of real hostilities as he strung out the field, and the Tour of Flanders winner was later joined in his efforts on the front by the rest of his Omega Pharma-QuickStep team as they worked to close down the day’s early break for sprinter Francesco Chicchi.
At one remarkable point, all eight of the Omega Pharma-QuickStep squad occupied the first eight places in the peloton, with the remainder of the bunch battling grimly for the positions behind. With two laps of the finishing circuit to go, Boonen was still active at the front, and when a number of riders fell in the middle of the pack, his lengthy turns at the front split the field.
Speaking to Cyclingnews after the race, Garmin-Barracuda directeur sportif Geert Van Bondt believed that Boonen and his teammates were simply moving to the front to keep out of danger as drops of rain began to fall from the leaden skies above. Nonetheless, Boonen remained an active presence on the front of the peloton until deep into the third and final lap of the finishing circuit. A drastically reduced peloton was the fruit of his labour, and even if QuickStep ulimately only had Matteo Trentin in the final split, it was the umpteenth show of force ahead of Paris-Roubaix from a team that has appeared to occupy a different plane in recent weeks.
"I think QuickStep, and especially Tom, saw that it was getting dangerous with the rain and they wanted to make good training and that’s why they made the tempo so high," he said. "I don’t think they did it on purpose. It’s probably more that Boonen is very focused on Paris-Roubaix and he wanted to test himself a bit and stay out of trouble. He started to pull, and when the rest of the team saw that, they thought they also had to do it, but sometimes you have to stay calm and not do what the real leader is doing."
While Omega Pharma-QuickStep’s forcing sowed panic throughout the peloton, it played to the advantage of Garmin-Barracuda, who were keen to keep tabs on the gap to the seven escapees up the road on behalf of Tyler Farrar.
"It was better for us that Quick Step did it for us, as it meant that we didn’t have to use other guys. It saved us some energy for the final to bring Tyler to the front," Van Bondt said.
As well as coping with the Omega Pharma-QuickStep onslaught, the peloton then had to deal with treacherous conditions in the closing 20 kilometres. On a technical circuit replete with cobblestones, road furniture and slick zebra crossings, the rain that fell in the final half hour of racing led to a succession of crashes and it was a significantly reduced group that contested the finishing sprint.
"It’s a long time that it hadn’t rained here in Belgium, maybe three weeks, so when it starts to rain, it can be very dangerous and that’s why it was so important to stay at the front to avoid the crashes," said Van Bondt, whose own Garmin-Barracuda succeeded in marshalling Farrar into the select group that contested the victory, even if the American was denied a second Scheldeprijs victory by Marcel Kittel (Argos-Shimano). "Maybe he went a little bit too early but with the rain and the danger I think he didn’t want to take any risk."
The finishing sprint was itself marred by crashes, with a number of riders including Jonathan Cantwell (Saxo Bank) and Rudiger Selig (Katusha) falling immediately on crossing the line after their wheels slipped on greasy road markings. A press photographer was also struck in the accident. "It really was a big mess in the sprint with so many crashes," Van Bondt said.