Belgian favorites Tom Boonen, Philippe Gilbert and Nick Nuyens fell short of the podium during the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, the opener of the Belgian season and their first real test of the season. For the first time ever no Belgian managed to get on the podium of the Omloop.
The top Belgian rider, among the main group of 30, was veteran racer Niko Eeckhout of the An Post - Sean Kelly team in seventh place. Gilbert finished at the back of this group in 26th position, 26 seconds down from Flecha, Nuyens and Boonen, who were all in the group finishing at 3:51. The three favorites had their fair share of bad luck to explain their worse than expected results.
Another Belgian favorite Stijn Devolder preferred not to make any excuses after crossing the line in the last group in 131th position at 13:10. "It just wasn't good," Devolder summarized his day before entering the team bus.
Boonen blew the peloton apart on the Taaienberg before a flat tyre took him out of contention. Nuyens was present in the decisive breakaway with Flecha before he suffered what was his third flat of the day, and Gilbert blamed a crash for the fact that he couldn't keep up with Flecha on the cobbles of the Lange Munte.
Boonen impressed the opposition, including Gilbert on the Taaienberg, a short steep cobbled climb where the gutter tempts the riders to smash up the hill all in a line. "I wasn't able to keep up with Boonen there," Gilbert said of Boonen's attack, which proved not to be crucial in the end.
It's not the first time Boonen used the climb to make the difference in a race. "This time I didn't want to ride away from the rest. I just wanted to avoid the problems when you get boxed in further back. Once up front, I maintained a tempo to make it over the Eikenberg and see who were the guys that were going after me." His attack opened up the finale of the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and while his attack made him look like even more of a favorite, bad luck quickly took him out of that role.
"At a certain moment, I flatted and I received a wheel from Maarten Wynants, which took us out of the front group, where only Sylvain Chavanel represented our team. The group in which I ended up had Kevin De Weert but nobody else helped him in bringing us back forward. One more time, I gave everything to get back to the front but then I flatted again. I received a wheel from Rabobank," Boonen said, noting that the rival team had helped him although by that time he was no longer in a position to decide the race.
Boonen congratulated Flecha with his win and said he was the deserved winner. "In Oman, he had been on the attack all day long, that said enough about his form," Boonen said.
The Omloop remains off the list of Boonen's palmarès, but the Belgian champion wasn't too disappointed. "I didn't have a super feeling today, and I'm glad this one is behind me. I had to get used to the cobbles.
"Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne is the next goal and no revenge for this race. Before this weekend, it was my goal to win the Omloop or Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne," Boonen talked about his first races on the cobbles this year.
Just like the Belgian champion, Nick Nuyens was prominently riding near the front during the finale until bad luck pushed him backwards in the standings. At the finish line, the Rabobank rider couldn't hide his annoyance about how the race had developed for him.
"I flatted three times. Two times I received a wheel from a team-mate but the third time there was nobody around. I rode on for five kilometers before I received support. It's unbelievable," Nuyens said to Cyclingnews.
"I felt super strong and had the legs to make the difference. But the last time I flatted was the worst timing ever because that's when the attacks were flying around. I'm very glad that I could show I was worthy of the team's confidence. Hopefully I'll have more luck next time." Nuyens had put in a performance that lived up to his role as team leader at Rabobank.
Gilbert didn't puncture at a bad moment but an early crash forced him to work hard in order to get back in the front of the race. "The energy I lost in coming back was lacking on the last pavé sector where Flecha dropped me," Gilbert said. "Flecha was very strong since he was able to hold on to his lead in his solo effort against the three of us, which surprised me a little. I knew that he would try on the cobbles and I wanted to get away together with him but he was just much faster than me, the motorbikes didn't help either," Gilbert said of the decisive moment in the race on the cobbles of the Lange Munte.
Much earlier both Flecha and Gilbert seemed to be out of contention for the victory, but on the cobbles of the Paddestraat, they fought their way toward the breakaway group. "I took the right-hand side at a junction and suddenly my front wheel slid away; there was nothing I could do. It wasn't anything serious but that's where I lost the race."
"On the cobbles of the Paddestraat I marked Flecha's wheel, and we co-operated well together. After that I thought it was better to go on with the two of us instead of six because some guys could have profitted from that," Gilbert said. In the end, Flecha opted for a solo course of action, which proved even better than going on as a duo.
For the first time, Gilbert is the clear team leader in the Spring Classics and after last year's poor performance, the Omega Pharma-Lotto team had two guys in the decisive breakaway. "Jurgen Roelandts was super strong. I wish him the best of luck for tomorrow in Kuurne," Gilbert said about Sunday's race, Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne, in which he's not taking part. "I'm heading back home in order to get ready for Paris-Nice." The French stage race should be the perfect build-up for the Belgian to get ready for Milano-Sanremo, his first high priority goal of the season.