Juan Antonio Flecha Giannoni, winner of the 63rd Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, is not a traditional winner. He's the sort of rider who's always in the mix in the Spring Classics, which he loves. He often comes close, but too often misses out on the cigar. When compared with sprinters like Mark Cavendish or Robbie McEwen, men who grab at least 10 victories per year, Flecha is also not traditional. He's a passionate, Spanish cyclist, who enjoys the occasional moment of glory - exactly what happened on Saturday in Belgium.
The 32-year-old Spaniard blew away the opposition in a race that is considered to be a miniature version of the Tour of Flanders. Just like Paris-Roubaix, it's a race in which Flecha loves to score, but up until this year, he never got closer to a win than a podium spot.
Now that Flecha has moved from the Dutch Rabobank team to British outfit Sky, things are falling into place. Will this be the year in which the Spaniard becomes a regular winner? Flecha himself refused to attribute his success solely to his team change, citing other factors, too.
"Both are big teams with small differences. At Rabobank, I had good results but not the victory. When a rider moves to a new team, everybody wants him to compare it with the old team," said Flecha. "I don't want to look back, and I can only say that I had four good years with Rabobank. During the race, I didn't look back either. I want to look forward."
"My first impression of Sky is that I felt like I was back in an Italian team. At Rabobank, I had to adapt and try to learn the language, which wasn't easy, because otherwise everybody had to talk in English because of me. Now it's easier for me to take part in the conversations at the table."
Everybody at Sky is enthusiastic about how we work. It is surprising that we're still just in February, and we're already very good. Our advantage today was that there were many other teams with more pressure than us so we started the race more relaxed.
"Of course, I'm not going to give away how we work because it's still a long season," Flecha smiled.
Team manager Scott Sunderland added that often riders in a new team go slightly better because of the new surroundings. Flecha figures other factors play a role, too. "There are always a lot of circumstances that decide over winning or losing. Being in a new team is maybe one percent of that."
"Some people said that I was a guy who was happy with second or third place. That's not true. I was happy with what I did in a race and the final result was just the result," he said. "During other years, I was also good, but today I played it smart and didn't show myself before the real finale. The guys in the team car told me that they knew I was good and that I didn't have to show it too early," Flecha explained how Sunderland and director sportif Steven de Jongh showed confidence in a good performance from him.
The team management's confidence was justified even though Flecha had a badly timed flat tyre which almost ruined his race. Luckily for the Spaniard, it didn't put him out of contention for the victory and he bounced back towards the front of the race on terrain that suits Flecha perfectly: cobbles.
"When Gilbert attacked on the cobbles, I countered him right away. I managed to get on his wheel quickly and felt that I had to make more of the opportunity, so I attacked myself. Luckily, I managed to hold on to my lead until the finish line. It's a relief after all the bad luck I have had in my career."
"If you keep trying, things work out in the end and today that was proven. I reward this victory to the whole team and especially my teammate Matthew Hayman who gave me his wheel in the finale, so I could keep my spot near the front," Flecha said.
Flecha also dedicated his victory to Frank Vandenbroucke, the Belgian who passed away last year. VDB and Flecha were teammates at the Fassa Bortolo team in 2004. "I wanted VDB to be part of this victory. He was a good rider and a good person. Today he was riding with me all day long. This morning I saw Nico [Mattan, and best friend of Vandenbroucke], and I told him I would win for Frank. What impressed me when I met him was the way he loved the bike, cycling and these races on cobbles. He was especially crazy about the bike," Flecha recalled.
Flecha is the first Spaniard ever to win the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, Ghent-Ghent or the Omloop Het Volk as today's race was called until a few years ago. It reflects that Flecha isn't a traditional Spanish rider because Spaniards tend not to like the cobbles, the rain, the wind and the cold in central Europe.
It's unusual for a Spaniard to be mad about the Spring Classics since most develop into stage racing specialists at events like the Ruta del Sol, for example. Not Flecha, though he clearly didn't opt for the easiest path.
The fact that there were no Spanish journalists present at the post-race press conference reflected the Spanish racing mentality. Flecha didn't want to throw a stone to the journalists from his home country and figured economics were to blame. "I'm sure that many Spanish newspapers will write a good story about this victory from me. They're not here because it's hard to convince their leaders to pay for the expensive and long trip for one weekend of racing," Flecha said.
While Flecha isn't a traditional winner, his name will feature on the winner's list of the Flemish semi-classic. He will continue his Classics' programme, aiming for wins at races like the Ronde van Vlaanderen and Paris-Roubaix.