Bernhard Eisel claimed the biggest victory of his ten-year professional career and secured HTC-Columbia's second consecutive victory at Gent-Wevelgem on Sunday.
Eisel triumphed after a drawn-out sprint from a group of five riders. As the strongest sprinter in the late-race move, everyone else was riding against him but the 29-year-old made no mistake. He stayed protected in the final kilometre and then opened his sprint with 200 metres to go, beating Sep Vermarcke (Topsport Vlaanderen-Mercator) and Philippe Gilbert (Omega Pharma-Lotto).
"What can I say, it’s my first big one and I’m so happy," said an elated Eisel immediately after crossing the line in Wevelgem. "I was really strong today but I was lucky and smart too. I always kept going."
The Austrian was one of nine riders able to match Matti Breschel's acceleration on the final ascent of the Kemmelberg. That group was whittled down in the final 35 kilometres with Breschel suffering the misfortune of a puncture and Oscar Freire (Rabobank) falling off the pace.
"I'm sorry for him [Breschel], the cars in front of our group flicked some stones onto the road and unfortunately he punctured, there were five riders chasing so we couldn't stop and wait for him," explained Eisel.
"The group I was in was a really, really good group of riders, there's a lot of respect there," he added.
Eisel chose to mark Daniel Oss (Liquigas) in the finale, but his race-winning sprint was eventually led out by former-teammate, Hincapie, who finished fourth. Still close friends, Eisel admitted the two hadn't had too much time to make small talk during the race.
"Oss was the fastest after me. I saw George coming across, I looked up and thought 'oh, it's still a long way to go'," he said. "It was a bit strange [racing with George today]. I gave him a gel with about 20 kilometres to go because he was hungry, but I think that's the only thing we talked about the whole day. We're still good friends, we'll probably be texting each other tonight," he said.
Eisel will continue his programme at the Classics where he will "remain focused on the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix," but he will soon return to protecting and leading out Mark Cavendish, a role he says he is happy to fill.
"I have the power and I'm quick enough, but I'm not aerodynamic enough for the Grand Tours. It's something I need to work on; I'm too big and too high," he said with a laugh. "I had my chance and he's the fastest sprinter in the team. If Mark is here [at Gent-Wevelgem] next year I'll be happy."
Sunday's result bore little resemblance to that of the previous day at E3 Prijs Vlaanderen-Harelbeke, with riders and teams carefully choosing their objective and their effort. Eisel said the busy calendar with two tough races back-to-back on the same weekend, made it risky for riders and teams to be too ambitious.
"We need a year that's 700 days long. I think it's important to switch the races around to keep them alive, but not make them all super hard," he said "For us [HTC-Columbia] we're racing here, Criterium International and Catalunya. These days you need a team of 40 riders and no one can afford that. It shows because there were completely different riders in the front group today than there were yesterday."
After winning the race he first contested in 2003, but has now only finished twice, Eisel thanked his teammates, both past and present. He made a particular point of thanking former La Française des Jeux teammate and 1997 Paris-Roubaix Champion Frédéric Guesdon for his role as a mentor in the formative years of his career.
"Everybody in the team works together, we have a good relationship. This morning in our team meeting it was said I was the captain; you saw how well we share things with Lars Bak attacking. I have to thank Matty Goss and Hayden Roulston, they did an amazing job. I have to also thank Frédéric Gudeson and Hincapie for showing me how to [win]."