The famous Omega Pharma - Quick-Step (OPQS) team is specialized in the Spring classics and on Sunday the Ronde van Vlaanderen was the first of two monuments in which the team wants to excel. At 34 kilometres from the finish, the team had no less the four riders in the lead group of fourteen riders, but in the end the team feel short.
Super-domestique Stijn Vandenbergh ended up being the team's man in the four-man group that fought for the victory in the final kilometres. Vandenbergh tried to escape the sprint but failed. He finished fourth in the sprint that was won by pre-race favourite Fabian Cancellara (Trek Factory Team).
"It was a sprint of dying swans," a down-hearted Patrick Lefevre said at the finish line. The Belgian manager of the OPQS-team said he was glad none of his riders were inflicted in the multiple crashes and that he had the strongest team. "We were the strongest team until the Oude Kwaremont. That doesn't buy us anything. Only winning matters. No mistakes were made but the others were better. We rode well all race long but couldn't make the difference."
The team's stars fell short when Cancellara and Sep Vanmarcke (Belkin) accelerated on the long cobbled Oude Kwaremont climb. "Tom struggled on the Oude Kwaremont. Sadly enough for us [Zdenek] Stybar or [Niki] Terpstra were not able to go along with Cancellara and that killed us," Lefevre said.
As planned, someone like Stijn Vandenbergh was covering the early attacks in the finale which preluded the firing of the big guns. Vandenbergh struggled on most of the steep climbs like the Taaienberg and Paterberg but excelled on the longer Oude Kwaremont climb. He had already attacked and done some chasing work in the group of fourteen leaders when he responded to an attack from Greg Van Avermaet shortly after the Taaienberg at more than 30km from the finish.
"I anticipated with Greg because I was well positioned at the front of the group. That was good because the Paterberg doesn't suit me. I made the right choice so that the team was in a comfortable position. I didn't take a lot of pulls so I managed to conserve some energy."
At 17km from the finish the duo had 45 seconds on the favourites group when climbing up the Oude Kwaremont a final time. Halfway the climb the duo of Fabian Cancellara and Sep Vanmarcke steamed forward and none of the Omega Pharma - Quick-Step riders in the group managed to move along. Suddenly Vandenbergh was the Quick-Step card to be played.
"It's too bad that Nikki or Boonen weren't there with Fabian and Sep but that's cycling," Vandenbergh said at the finish line. For Zdenek Stybar it was impossible to move along with Cancellara when he attacked on the Oude Kwaremont. "On the Oude Kwaremont the two strongest riders rode away. Even if I would have been in the wheel I don't know if I could follow. I do feel that I made a step forward since last year," Stybar said at the team bus after taking a shower.
"Of course it's better to have someone in the lead group with a better sprint. Stijn always deserves to be there as he's a strong rider but his weak point is sprinting. At that distance from the finish it was hard to predict the outcome. Everyone tries. It's a little lottery," Stybar said.
After the first part of the descent from the Oude Kwaremont towards the Paterberg there was a fierce attack from Van Avermaet. Vandenbergh struggled hard to keep up with him but managed to close the gap back down.
"I could not let him go. It's sad for him that I couldn't ride and I told him that a couple of times. It's not in my nature. That's the team tactic and only winning matters."
Vandenbergh struggled hard on the Paterberg and had to let go of Van Avermaet. By the time he reached the top of the steep cobbled climb Fabian Cancellara and Sep Vanmarcke caught him and Vandenbergh barely managed to hook on his wagon when Cancellara shifted up towards Van Avermaet and the finish in Oudenaarde.
While approaching Oudenaarde Vandenbergh sat at the back of the group, being forced to come up with a plan that delivered nothing but the win. "I wasn't allowed to take pulls which is understandable since I'm not the fastest in the sprint. I had cramps since the Paterberg. I had to attack because in the sprint I'm always going to finish third or fourth."
Three kilometres from the finish Vandenbergh attacked with Van Avermaet quickly reacting on the move. Cancellara and Vanmarcke pokered and for more than a kilometre there were two duo's. Half a kilometre later Vandenbergh attacked again under the red flag but kept his legs still when the three others were back on his wheel at 600m from the finish.
In the sprint he finished fourth. "I'm sad that I'm not on the podium. I tried my best but I think Patrick will be disappointed because only winning counts in our team. Fourth place is something but not enough."
Lefevre echoed that sound. "Stijn is a nice guy and an extremely good rider. [...] It wasn't a mistake to have him there. He had to be there and was there. That's his achievement. The problem is that he has no experience in these races. He even lets him intimidate by Sep Vanmarcke. If Vanmarcke lets him drop back with Cancellara he even panicked and close the gap himself. Cancellara was the strongest but also the smartest," Lefevre concluded.