Greg Van Avermaet had a plan in mind for the Tour of Flanders but acknowledged in the lead-up to the race that it was "easy to say and a lot harder to do." On the big day itself, there could be no faulting the BMC man for invention but he ultimately had to settle for second place behind Fabian Cancellara (Trek) in a gripping edition of De Ronde.
BMC's tactics were hewn straight from Lotto-Belisol's 2013 playbook – send riders up the road in every break, and then let their leader off the leash early rather than try to slug it out with Fabian Cancellara, Tom Boonen and Peter Sagan on the final circuit over the Oude Kwaremont and Paterberg.
Taylor Phinney and Manuel Quinziato obligingly laid the groundwork, and then Van Avermaet himself took up the mantle by zipping clear ahead of the Taaienberg, with 37 kilometres and four climbs still to come, and with the gargantuan figure of Omega Pharma-QuickStep's Stijn Vandenbergh locked onto on his rear wheel.
"I tried to go where I planned to go and it was a good move, I think, before the Taaienberg, and then I tried to make it to the end," Van Avermaet said by the podium area. "It was a little bit disappointing that Vandenbergh did not ride with me, I was always on my own."
Van Avermaet's thoughts were echoed by BMC manager Allan Peiper, who was at a loss as to why Omega Pharma-QuickStep ordered Vandenbergh not to work. "If Vandenbergh had ridden, there's a good chance they'd have stayed out in front," he said. "Still, it was a gutsy move to take just before the Taaienberg, but you could see he had the legs."
Once Van Avermaet went clear, his finish line effectively shifted forward by 13 kilometres. "The goal was to get over the Paterberg," Peiper said, mindful that if his rider crested the final climb still in front, then he would be in the shake-up for the win at the very least.
"I think it was perfect. When you're racing against Boonen, Sagan and Cancellara, this is not kindergarten, this is against the best in the world, you know," Peiper said. "Realistically speaking, if Greg waits until the Paterberg, is he going to be with him [Cancellara]? Even he doesn't know. This way he was ahead of the ball game and that was perfect."
With 20 kilometres remaining, Van Avermaet and Vandenbergh had a lead of a minute, and although that advantage was halved once Cancellara and Vanmarcke began their forcing on the Kwaremont, they still had 13 seconds in hand at the foot of the Paterberg, and were only caught on the descent.
On paper, Van Avermaet was the fastest finisher of the four riders who rolled towards Oudenaarde together. No sprint takes place in a vacuum, however, and after almost 40 kilometres off the front – as well as an earlier chase back following a puncture – Van Avermaet was arguably the least fresh of the quartet.
The group's pace slowed dramatically in the finishing straight before Cancellara wound up his sprint with a shade over 300 metres to go. As is so often the case after such a distance, raw power rather than pure speed won the day, and Van Avermaet had to settle for second place. "I tried to do good final in the sprint, but it was a sprint of the strongest. We started at the same moment and Fabian was a bit stronger," Van Avermaet admitted.
It was Van Avermaet's second near miss of the spring after Ian Stannard surprisingly beat him into second place in the finishing sprint at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad in February. For the second time in six weeks, then Peiper found himself putting a brave face on Van Avermaet's disappointment when he spoke to reporters by the BMC team bus afterwards, although the Belgian will probably find little to reproach himself for whenever he watches a replay of the final 40 kilometres.
"This is one of the major races of a rider's career and the chance Greg had today was enormous," Peiper admitted. "But having said that, the way he rode dispels any doubts people had about him and the way he can ride a bike race, and the way he can play himself out. Being beaten by Cancellara, who's winning it for the third time, that's not a bad way to be beaten."