It's hard to know what Filippo Pozzato (Farnese Vini-Selle Italia) will rue more when he thinks back over the Tour of Flanders: the inches that separated him from winner Tom Boonen (Omega Pharma-QuickStep) in the sprint at Oudenaarde or the metres that were ultimately the difference between dropping Boonen on the Paterberg and dragging him clear in the race's winning break.
Just 300 metres in length, the final helling of the Ronde kicks up to a ferocious 20 percent gradient near its summit, and it was here that Pozzato's forcing looked to have put Boonen into significant difficulty. To the horror of the Flemish faithful gathered on the hillside, the Italian pair of Pozzato and Alessandro Ballan (BMC) opened a small gap over a Boonen, who was clearly struggling to keep his gear turning over.
The Belgian fought gamely to limit his losses, however, and stayed just about within reaching distance of Ballan's back wheel as the road levelled out again. Speaking to Cyclingnews afterwards, Farnese Vini-Selle Italia manager Luca Scinto lamented that the road hadn't gone upwards just that little bit further.
"It's a pity that the Paterberg wasn't 20 metres longer," Scinto said, shaking his head. "I think Boonen was on the limit. With that extra 20 metres, Pippo would have been able to drop Boonen, and the race might have had a very different finale."
Amid the tumult of the natural amphitheatre of the Paterberg, which the race crossed three times, Pozzato did not appear to be fully aware of how close he had come to shedding Boonen from the winning break. "I went to the front on a couple of climbs in the finale, and to tell the truth, I had the impression that Boonen was a little bit in difficulty, but there was nothing to do," Pozzato said as he waited to mount the podium.
Fabian Cancellara was forced to abandon the race after he crashed with 60 kilometres to go, and Pozzato explained that the Swiss rider's absence in the finale contributed to his decision to seize the initiative on the Paterberg. "Fabian's crash changed the course of the race," Pozzato said. "Without him, we had to take the I head on That's why I went to the front on a couple of climbs in the finale."
Once over the top, and with just 20 seconds in hand over the chasing Peter Sagan (Liquigas-Cannondale), the leaders quickly put their swords back in their scabbards and became allies of circumstance to ensure that the Slovak didn't get back on. As the kilometres counted down towards Oudenaarde and it became clear that it was a three-man race, however, Pozzato reached a more explicit agreement with his friend and sometime training partner Ballan in a bid to stack the cards in their favour.
"Ale and I tried to wear out Boonen. I said that if he attacked, I wouldn't go and follow him, and that's the way it was, but Boonen was the still the strongest," Pozzato said.
Each time Ballan jumped, Boonen was promptly on his wheel to snuff out the danger, but with each effort, a little more of the venom was being drawn from the Belgian's sprint. With that in mind, Pozzato opted to play his hand in the finishing straight rather than attempt a surprise move himself, but the cagey nature of the final kilometre ultimately played against him.
"I tried to win, I did everything that I could, but unfortunately I struggled with the kind of sprint that it was in the end. It was from an almost standing start and Tom showed that he was the most explosive," said Pozzato.
Pozzato still had all of Flanders on tenterhooks in the final metres of the race, as he threatened to come around Boonen and take a famous victory. An eerie hush fell over Oudenaarde as the leaders approached the line, and the raucous roar that broke the silence confirmed that the home team had won.
"In the sprint, I took his wheel and then I tried to go past him but he didn't even lose a centimetre. Congratulations to him, he deserved to win," said Pozzato, who now turns his attentions to Paris-Roubaix. "We're going on to Roubaix very motivated, which is a different race and one where I can do well."