89th Ronde van Vlaanderen - PT
Belgium, April 3, 2005
Although he's usually known as a sprinter, 24 year-old Belgian Tom Boonen (Quick.Step) made an audacious solo move from a breakaway of six riders with 9km to go in today's 89th edition of the Tour of Flanders. Boonen's move stuck as the other riders in the escape were caught by surprise and hesitated to go after the talented young rider from Balen, near Antwerp. Boonen is a big, strong guy; 1m92cm tall and 80kg, so he wasn't going to just sneak away up the road. Hunched over his bike, the Quick.Step rider nicknamed "Staf" got a gap and then just rode vollgas (all out) to capture the biggest race of his four year professional cycling career.
"I knew I couldn't go to the finish with fast guy Zabel there still, he was so strong today," said Boonen after the finish. "Especially also because Klier and Van Petegem were with me; they would have killed me in the final kilometres. So I decided to take my chances and attacked. I don't quite grasp yet what's happened today, I will need some more time for it to sink in."
For a Belgian bike racer, there is only one race more important than the World Championship or the Tour De France: a victory in De Ronde Van Vlaanderen simply makes a career for a flahute (French cycling slang for a Belgian rider). But for Boonen, his win is a consecration. After a superb third place in Paris-Roubaix 2002 at 21 years-old on the US Postal squad, Belgium's greatest modern classics rider Johann Museeuw called Boonen "my successor". After today's performance, Johan may be right on the mark. Museeuw and Quick.Step director Patrick Lefevere convinced Boonen to leave US Postal and after a slow start in 2004, he exploded in 2004 with 24 wins, including Gent-Wevelgem and two Tour de France stage wins, including Paris Champs Elysées.
Although he crashed earlier this week in the 3 Days of DePanne and got stitches in his hand, Boonen had shown that he was in form for the northern classics with a recent win in GP E3 Prijs Vlaanderen in Harelbeke eight days ago. For Boonen's main rival today, crafty, experienced 35 years old Peter Van Petegem (Davitamon-Lotto) there would be no hat trick. Already winner of Flanders in 1999 and 2003, De Peet is a consummate classics man, but a sickness earlier in the week at De Panne may have compromised the fitness of the Davitamon-Lotto rider. Although he led over the penultimate ascent of the Muur van Geraardsbergen, the opportunistic rider from Opbrakel seemed to lack the explosiveness of years past, but still ended up third on the podium.
"Without a doubt, the strongest rider won today," said Van Petegem after the finish. "Andreas Klier probably went a bit too early on the Bosberg and at the top he slowed. Then Tom reacted and I could hold on. When Tom went again, I couldn't anticipate it well and immediately the bird had flown. Still, I didn't exactly do nothing. On the Muur I went full-out once, and I wanted to reduce our group, but that didn't work because at the top we slowed down. And I was in the pincers, also because of the team tactics of T-Mobile. But if you win like Boonen here today, then you don't have to plan it. That was excellent."
"Can I win the Ronde van Vlaanderen a third time? Maybe if Boonen doesn't ride? No, I still have a contract until the end of 2007 and certainly want to have another crack at the prize that the Ronde van Vlaanderen definitely is."
In fact, the podium today was identical to last week's E3 Prijs, as Belgian-residing German Andreas Klier (T-Mobile) took second after attacking the chasing group in the closing kilometres. Klier admitted afterwards that he wasn't as strong as either Boonen or Van Petegem on the Bosberg. "It was a very difficult finale," he said. "No-one was still fresh. Actually I was the worst of the three. On the Bosberg I was nearly gone. When Tom went, no-one had an answer. Actually I'm happy that I could still finish second. But once again, it wasn't a win for T-Mobile, which seemed to have the numbers up front when Zabel attacked going into Brakel, then Klier bridged up on the Valkenburg, with Ivanov and Aldag in the next group. "But against Boonen today it was not possible. He was really the best."
T-Mobile's team manger Walter Godefroot agreed. "We indeed were the best team in the race today and it's a pity we didn't get that first win of the season here, but it's no disgrace to get beaten today in that way. Boonen was super. Tactically we did everything right. Don't be fooled; the move by Ivanov - appearing to be chasing while Zabel and Klier were in the break - was calculated, he didn't close the gap at all. Overall we rode a great race."
Touted pre-race as one of the strongest teams on paper, the Discovery Channel pro cycling team had leader George Hincapie and emerging talent Stijn Devolder backed up today by none other than six-time Tour de France champ Lance Armstrong. But Discovery missed the key move late in the race and a strong Hincapie could only manage 7th. Post-race, Discovery sports director Johan Bruyneel told Belgian TV tersely that "for the team, it was a big disappointment."
Bruyneel was positive about the performance of his team's superstar Armstrong in Flanders, explaining that, "Lance was into the race today...he was nervous beforehand and he showed he was in good form and motivated to race." After Flanders, Armstrong and his companion Sheryl Crow left for the USA, where Armstrong will prepare for the upcoming Tour de Georgia and his major press conference the day before on April 18. Hincapie and the rest of the Discovery Channel cycling team will be looking for revenge in Wednesday's Gent-Wevelgem and Sunday's Paris-Roubaix.
How it unfolded
After a moment of silence to commemorate the death of Pope John Paul II, the 89th edition of the Tour of Flanders departed the Grote Markt in Brugge at 9:40am on a warm, sunny spring morning. 196 riders started today, with some notable absences such as World Champion Oscar Freire (Rabobank), who was suffering from both saddle sores and flu. Paolo Bettini (Quick.Step) wasn't there either, as the Italian classics specialist has come down with mononucleosis. ProTour leader Alessandro Petacchi (Fassa Bortolo) had never planned to race at Flanders, so no rider took the start wearing the ProTour leader's jersey.
With a huge crowd estimated at 1 million spectators enjoying the warm, sunny day, the Tour of Flanders parcours heads west from Brugge to the North Sea coast at Oostende, then southeast to Kortrijk and Oudenaarde, then weaved its way east through the climbs of the "Vlaamse Ardennen" hills where the first of the 17 climbs of the venerable race begins after 143 km.
After the first two hours of racing and 95km, a seven man break managed to get clear outside of Kortrijk. The riders were Magnus Bäckstedt (Liquigas), David Boucher (Mr.Bookmaker), Samuele Marzoli (Lampre-Cafitta), who had replaced the out of shape Dario Pieri, sent home by team management after dropping out of the 3 Days of De Panne. There was miniscule Francis Mourey (FDJ), Tino Zaballa (Saunier Duval-Prodir) and Carlos Barredo (Liberty). Just after the first feed zone in Harelbeke, last year's Flanders winner Flanders Steffen Wesemann abandoned.
As the break reached climb #1, Molenberg, their lead was 4'30, with Marzoli struggling. The Italian was dropped on climb #2, Wolvenberg as Bäckstedt was pounding hard in the break, perhaps trying to get a workout for next Sunday's Paris-Roubaix. At the now six rider escape hit the Oude Kwaremont with 86km to go, Bäckstedt's tempo blew Mourey and Boucher out the back, while the recently in-form Nico Eeckhout (Chocolade Jacques) abandoned in the peloton. Boucher chopped his back on to the break before the steep Paterberg, but he was soon out the back again.
Once over the top of the Kwaremont, it was onto Ronde van Vlaanderenstraat and a ride past the monument to the founder of the Ronde, Karel van Wijnendaele. The gap between the break was still hovering around 4'00, and on the next climb of the Koppenberg, climb #5, Zaballa attacked the break with 74km to race. Quick Step's Cretskens was still riding hard tempo on the front of the peloton, but then Klier and Flecha moved to the front and this surge formed a front group of 20 chasers, with 0'10 back to a big chase group of 50 riders which struggled up the steep cobbles of the Koppenberg.
At the second feed zone on the N60 just before climb #6, Steenbeekdries with 70km to race, the gap to the four front runners was down to only 1'40, with Swiss champ Gregory Rast (Phonak) and Erik Zabel (T-Mobile) on the attack. Boucher didn't get back on this time, so on Steenbeekdries, then the flat cobbles of the Mariaborrestraat, it was Zaballa who took the points atop Steenbeekdries. Next climb, #7 Taaienberg, the break still had 1'30 and the Quick.Step led peloton just sucked up the move by the German and Swiss riders. Zaballa continued to rack up the points. With 60km to race, Zaballa grabbed the points once again on climb #8 of Eikenberg. In the chase group, rockin' Russian Ivanov (T-Mobile) and race favourite Van Petegem (Davitamon-Lotto) were pounding hard on the front.
On climb #9, Boigneberg, big Bäckstedt came off the back, while Barredo and Zaballa rode on. In the chase group, T-Mobile seemed frustrated by Quick.Step and Davitamon-Lotto's stranglehold on the race. Erik Zabel attacked again, but Dutch champ Erik Dekker (Rabobank) covered his move, as did O'Grady (Cofidis). Maggie finally gave up the ghost on the next climb, #10 of Foreest with 50km to go just as Zaballa made his move and dropped Barredo for good. Behind, T-Mobile sprung Marcus Burghardt on Foreest who got a gap, but right behind the German, lanky Italian Alessandro Ballan, who won Stage 1 of De Panne last week made a major surge and bridged across to Burghardt, who absorbed Bäckstedt and Barredo. At the top of Foreest, with 45km to go, Ballan went again and quickly got across to the race leader Tino Zaballa. As the front duo hit the top of climb #11, Steenberg, after 209km of racing, Ballan and Zaballa had 0'45 on the Quick.Step led peloton.
Next up was Leberg, climb #12 where the front duo's lead was down to 0'30 and the chase group caught Bäckstedt, Barredo and Burghardt. Up front, Ballan accelerated hard on the Berendries, the 13th climb of the Ronde and it was bad luck for Tino, as the Italian blew past him. Half a minute behind Ballan, Karsten Kroon (Rabobank) tried to jump away and bridge to the Italian, as Discovery Channel decided to flex their muscles on Berendries. Kroon came back while Lance Armstrong was pounding away on the front, with George Hincapie and Slava Ekimov sitting just behind. Ballan was riding brilliantly up front with 35km to go as he approached the 14th climb of the day of Valkenberg. The Lampre-Cafitta man had gained almost 1'00, and no one was going after him...yet.
On the descent into Brakel, Zabel attacked again and got a gap with Petito (Fassa Bortolo) and this duo caught the fading Zaballa, who managed to hang on to the counter-attackers for a moment before climb #14, Valkenberg. Suddenly from the chase group, Boonen, Klier and Van Petegem attacked and bridged across to Petito and Zabel. This decisive counter move suddenly turned into a dangerous situation for Discovery Channel, who were put on the defensive as neither Hincapie nor Devolder had made it up front with 30km to go. Ballan was caught one kilometre later and this sextet were riding flat out. From that point on, the Tour of Flanders was over for the rest of the riders.
Armstrong was still riding hard on the front with the six front runners just 0'25 up the road, but Davitamon-Lotto, Quick.Step and Fassa Bortolo were just not cooperating. The gap between the six escapees and the Discovery Channel-led chasers was steady at 0'30 over climb #15, Tenbosse. On the slight downhill, fast 10km between the base of the Tenbosse and climb #16, the almost always decisive Muur van Geraardsbergen, Discovery Channel knew it was almost their last chance to bring the break back, but despite their best efforts, Davitamon-Lotto, Quick.Step and Fassa Bortolo smothered any effort to regain the leaders. At 20km to go and with the wooded hill of Geraardsbergen looming, the lead break had gained time on the chasers and was now 0'50 ahead. Clearly the move of the day, the sextet had two T-Mobile riders as well as Belgians Van Petegem and Boonen, and opportunistic Italians Ballan and Petito.
At the penultimate climb of the Ronde Van Vlaanderen, the Muur van Geraardsbergen began, Boonen moved to the front in the town square with cagey Van Petegem right on his wheel. Van Petegem then made his move on the steep section of the Kapelmuur, but couldn't shake Klier and Boonen. Gussev (CSC), Hincapie (Discovery Channel) and Flecha (Fassa Bortolo) were leading the chase 1'00 behind. Petito and Zabel were dumped, but then came back on the front group on the descent.
As the final ascent of the day, climb #17 of the Bosberg approached with 13km to race, the nerves jacked up in the break while the chasers kept coming behind. Klier attacked first, but Boonen was right there. Van Petegem was waiting behind, while Zabel was clearly suffering. Then Boonen attacked over the top, while Van Petegem, Klier and Ballan came back to him. Finally Petito chased back with Zabel right on his wheel, while the chasers were at 0'50.
With 10km to go, there were still six riders together as the finish in Meerbeke approached. Klier kept pace high for a kilometre of so, and when he slacked off, Van Petegem went hard to test the rest. Boonen countered Van Petegem with 9km left and the Davitamon-Lotto rider looked back to the T-Mobile riders to chase. But they all just looked as Boonen flew the coop. The Quick.Step man quickly gained 50 meters on the rest, as no-one in the break expected Boonen to make a solo move. The young Belgian had turned the tables on T-Mobile with 7km to go, while Klier and Zabel were chasing desperately and even the opportunistic two-time winner Van Petegem had joined the pursuit.
With 5km, the Ronde became a nail biter with Boonen just 0'10 ahead of the chasers. But the five chasers couldn't get past looky-loo, while Boonen made the most important solo move on his career stick. Boonen made the right turn onto Halsesteenweg in Meerbeke with enough time to sit up, raise his hands over his head in triumph and savor the sweet taste of success, the sweetest race of all for a Belgian. T-Mobile's Klier dumped the rest to solo in for second, improving on his sixth place in 2004, but was once again runner-up to Boonen as he was a week ago in Harelbeke. Van Petegem won the sprint for third to take the final podium spot, while George Hincapie won the sprint from the chasing group for 7th, 1'40 behind Boonen. Even though the American improved on his 10th place in last year's Flanders, Hincapie shook his head in disappointment as he crossed the finish line in Meerbeke.