Omega Pharma-QuickStep may have racked up 19 victories in such faraway outposts as Argentina, Qatar and Oman since the turn of the year, but the team’s bread and butter will always be the cobbles of Belgium. With the Tour of Flanders just 10 days away, therefore, it was no surprise to see Sylvain Chavanel to the fore at Dwars Door Vlaanderen on Wednesday.
The French champion expertly policed the chasers as his teammate Niki Terpstra soloed to victory in Waregem, and then duly helped himself to second place. After missing out on Milan-San Remo due to illness, Chavanel declared himself pleased with his Belgian workout.
"I think I took the right decision not to ride Milan-San Remo and take care of my bronchitis," Chavanel said afterwards. "I wasn’t quite 100%, but from talking in the peloton I could see that there were quite a few riders in the peloton who were ill."
The correctness of his choice became clear at Dwars door Vlaanderen, when, alert to the danger when a 13-man move forged clear without any Omega Pharma-QuickStep representation midway through the race, Chavanel all but glided across the gap in the company of Terpstra shortly before the cobbles at Haarghoek.
With the Oude Kwaremont and the Paterberg forming the grand finale of the Tour of Flanders this year, Chavanel was understandably keen to test his legs when the leaders hit the climbs with 35km to go. He strung out the group with a long, steady acceleration from the base of the climb before Terpstra shot clear shortly before the summit, with Jelle Wallays (Topsport Vlaanderen-Mercator) for company.
"I wanted to ride the Kwaremont in front, and then halfway up it Niki made the acceleration. At that point he was a little bit stronger than me, so he took the initiative to attack," Chavanel said.
Terpstra soon freed himself of Wallays’ company and began to eat up the road in front of him, while Chavanel marshalled the chasers behind.
"I was a bit worried that he might have gone too far from the line because there was the Paterberg to come afterwards too, so I just controlled Maarten Wynants behind as he was the strongest of that group. When he accelerated on the Paterberg and I went with him."
Chavanel continued in the same vein when the likes of Sep Vanmarcke (Garmin-Barracuda), Koen De Kort (Project 1t4i) and Filippo Pozzato (Farnese Vini-Selle Italia) bridged across to the chasers, and in the closing kilometres he was sharp enough to clip off the front in the company of De Kort to take second place behind Terpstra.
"I suppose I benefited from the presence of Niki up front to race on the wheels a little bit in the finale," smiled Chavanel, who was Omega Pharma-QuickStep’s designated leader before the start.
"I would really like to win a race in the French champion’s jersey but the team’s aim is to win as many races as possible and it’s clear we’re on a positive spiral since the start of the season."
Building towards Flanders
In spite of his second place at the Tour of Flanders in 2011, not to mention a string of fine displays on the cobbles dating back to his time at Cofidis, Chavanel remains something of an outsider for victory at De Ronde. As if to underline that status, he is set to race significantly more in the next ten days than some of the more touted contenders. Unlike his teammate Tom Boonen or Fabian Cancellara, for instance, Chavanel will ride the Three Days of the Panne next week.
"I’ve always done these races," said Chavanel, sipping on a glass of beer in the press room in Waregem. "Competition is what gets me going and I don’t worry about others. Next week there are plenty of others who won’t do De Panne, but so be it. I’m doing the programme that’s worked for me in the past few years."
But is he not concerned that so many of the stars weren’t on the start line in Roeselare on Wednesday morning, and certainly won’t spend most of next week being buffeted by North Sea winds at De Panne?
"I’m not worried about others. The stars can too what they want…" Chavanel shrugged.
Although Chavanel will forgo Gent-Wevelgem at the weekend, he does line up at E3 Harelbeke on Friday, even though he was reluctant to be placed among the favourites for victory.
"I’m still an outsider. I’m a good rider but I’m not the strongest in the peloton," he said. "There’s only one name that comes to mind as favourite and that’s Cancellara."
With Chavanel lining up alongside Boonen, Terpstra and Gert Steegmans, the battle between the collective might of Omega Pharma-QuickStep and the individual force of Fabian Cancellara may yet prove to be the defining theme of the classics campaign, beginning at Harelbeke.
"It’ll be a team game for us on Friday," Chavanel said. "Having more than one card to play is always a good thing."