90th Ronde van Vlaanderen - PT
Belgium, April 2, 2006
Boonen beats Hoste in two-up; Hincapie third
With Belgium's King Albert II watching the finish of the 90th Ronde Van Vlaanderen from the tribune in Halsesteenweg, the undeniable king of Belgian cycling, Tom Boonen, powered across the line to beat Leif Hoste in a two man sprint to win the Ronde. Boonen, the outstanding favourite, didn't disappoint his legion of fans today, following Hoste's decisive attack on the Valkenberg with over 30 km to go, then riding another two man time trial to the finish. Hoste was unable to attack the impressive Quick.Step rider, and it was always going to be lopsided sprint.
"Hoste and myself were the strongest men in the race, but I had a better team," Boonen explained (four Quick.Steps made the front group of 18 after the Koppenberg). "We found each other in the finale. His attack showed how strong he was. I asked the team to put me in a good situation at the Muur van Geraardsbergen. So they rode what we call a high pace. In the end, I didn't have to wait on the Muur to get to the front front and take the win."
It's Quick.Step's second successive ProTour classic win after Milan-San Remo, and once again, Boonen and his team held all the cards. But Driedaagse van De Panne winner Leif Hoste did take the initiative and was not afraid of the world champ. "Today I was as strong as Boonen," commented the Discovery rider. "Without shame I can say that. My bad luck was that the wrong man joined me in the escape. In my situation, I couldn't permit myself to let them catch us. He was faster than me, that's how he could win."
"It's already some time that I've been saying that you should attack if you want to win. Men who wait are not right. OK, I didn't win but still...Of course, I thought about winning. That's logical when you're up front with two men and have an advantage of almost two minutes at the Muur van Geraardsbergen. Everybody will ask me why I didn't try to shake him off. I felt on the Muur and the Bosberg that it was impossible. Going into the sprint, I allowed myself to get into a good position. So, during the last two kilometres, I didn't do any work. We were almost standing still, but what can I do?"
Third place went to another Discovery rider, George Hincapie, who easily won a four man sprint, 1'17 behind the two leaders. Hincapie was frustrated after he crossed the line. "I'm a bit disappointed because we didn't win. Hoste played his card and that's alright. Sadly, my legs felt better than ever but I couldn't show it. In the pursuit, Bettini covered every move the others made. After 260 kilometres, everything is possible. If you look to my sprint, you'll see that I'm a few bike lengths ahead of the others."
With his win in the Ronde van Vlaanderen and fourth place in Milan-San Remo, Tom Boonen is now the new ProTour leader. He will wear a special rainbow striped ProTour jersey in next Sunday's Paris-Roubaix, where he is again the top favourite.
How it unfolded
It was raining lightly at the start in Brugge's Grote Markt, but it didn't stop a massive crowd turning out with their umbrellas to see the riders sign on. They had to wait a while, because none of the riders were in a hurry to get wet. The 199 starters left the square a little late, as a result, and began the long battle against the elements and the parcours that is the Ronde van Vlaanderen.
The first two hours were nervous, as the riders fought to stay out of the wind and avoid crashes. As expected, there were a few casualties along the way, with Nico Eeckhout (Chocolade Jacques) being one of the first to crash, then puncturing later on, and Michael Barry (Discovery) crashing and abandoning. After 41 km were covered in the first hour, Skil-Shimano's Tomoya Kano and Christoph Meschenmoser abandoned, starting the long list of "did not finishers", while Frank Vandenbroucke (Unibet.com) was put in difficulty by the wind.
The rain stopped before midday, as was forecast, and the sudden sunshine started to dry the roads. There was a lot of pre-race concern about the Koppenberg, and whether it would be passable today. But after a lot of the mud was cleaned off overnight, it became a matter of how wet it would be. It was expected to be a key point in the race.
Surprisingly, it took until km 93 for the first breakaway of the day to form. Six riders: Thierry Marichal (Cofidis), Ludovic Auger (FdJeux), Michael Albasini (Liquigas), Bram Schmitz (T-Mobile), David Boucher (Unibet) and Rik Reinerink (Skil) managed to get a gap after Kortrijk, and after a short chase by the peloton, they were allowed to go. After 125 km, they had 4'40, but didn't get much more than this. In the meantime, a big crash took down 15 riders, with Wim de Vocht (Davitamon-Lotto) being taken to hospital. The speed had picked up, thanks to the tailwind, and the average was 43 km/h after three hours.
En route to the first climb, the Molenberg, and Peter Van Petegem punctured twice. But he was able to return to the front before the climb, where Tom Boonen led the way through another mass of fans. Up front, Boucher and Reinerink dropped out of the lead group, leaving four in front on the cobbles at Mater-Kerkgate (km 150) with a sub four-minute gap. Discovery and Gerolsteiner were working in the peloton.
The bunch eased up a little through Oudenaarde, allowing the four leaders to reach 4'45 again, before the inevitable upping of tempo started. The road to Kluisbergen is wide, but the racing is always nervous with the Kwaremont looming. Roger Hammond (Discovery) crashed and injured his knee, and he was out of the race.
In front, Schmitz and Marichal dropped Auger and Albasini on the Kwaremont as they struggled to maintain their lead. Paolo Bettini started the selection happening in the bunch, stringing the peloton out over the 2.2 km cobbled berg. The pace continued on the Paterberg, with Quick.Step in particular keeping the speed high. Then it was full gas with the tailwind to the Koppenberg (km 185), the hardest climb of the race.
Boonen was piloted to the foot of the climb in front, and he flew up it, gapping everyone and passing the suffering Auger like he was standing still near the top. Behind, Bettini (Quick.Step), Klier (T-Mobile), Van Petegem (Davitamon), Cancellara (CSC), Hincapie (Discovery) and Petito (Tenax) chased and closed the gap, with Ballan (Lampre-Fondital), Hoste (Discovery), Kroon (CSC), Ventoso (Saunier Duval) and Juan Antonio Flecha (Rabobank) the next group to make contact. The next group all walked up: Hushovd (Credit Agricole), Zabel (Milram) and Quick.Step's Pozzato and Baguet, who were chasing at 30 seconds over the top. As feared, most of the peloton ended up running up the Koppenberg, losing crucial time.
The two remaining leaders, Schmitz and Albasini, were caught after 195 km, with the chase groups coming together to form an 18 man lead group: Boonen, Bettini, Baguet, Pozzato (Quick.Step), Van Petegem (Davitamon), Klier, Schmitz (T-Mobile), Cancellara, Kroon (CSC), Hincapie, Hoste (Discovery), Petito (Tenax), Ballan (Lampre), Flecha (Rabobank), Hushovd (Credit Agricole), Zabel (Milram), Ventoso (Saunier Duval) and Marichal (Cofidis). Sergei Ivanov (T-Mobile) was chasing alone, after being one of those unlucky enough to have had to walk up the Koppenberg. He got some help from the dropped Schmitz on the Boigneberg (km 201), but couldn't quite close the gap to the lead group, and let them go, frustratingly.
With Pozzato and Baguet now riding tempo for Boonen, the group began to thin down further. Ventoso and Marichal were dropped by Foreest, and Baguet eventually finished his work on the Leberg (km 216). There were five more climbs, and Quick.Step had the upper hand, giving the others a free ride for a while as they protected Boonen.
The final key moment of the race came on the Valkenberg (km 226), when Hoste put in a serious attack and was marked by a vigilant Boonen. Karsten Kroon tried bravely to close the gap, but had to give up when he was just off the wheels of the lead pair. "I got as close as ten metres, but then Boonen took over from Hoste," Kroon told Cyclingnews. "I wanted to react earlier, but I was trapped between other riders. I was just too late; otherwise I would at least have a podium place in a race that was extremely hard."
Then on the descent back into Brakel, Bettini played a perfect spoiler role in the chase group to allow Boonen and Hoste more time, and they did not hang around, riding at 75 km/h on the way to the Tenbossestraat, gaining 40 seconds.
It became apparent that none of the chasers had the strength to catch the two leaders, and it was going to be a battle for third place. The chase group whittled down to Bettini (Quick.Step), Van Petegem (Davitamon), Klier (T-Mobile), Cancellara, Kroon (CSC), Hincapie (Discovery) and Ballan (Lampre) as Boonen and Hoste sped towards the Muur van Geraardsbergen with the wind blowing them further away.
Both leading riders were strong today, and neither tried to take an advantage on the Muur, or the Bosberg that followed. Boonen did more of the work on the climbs, while Hoste pedaled a lower gear and looked comfortable. Hoste was on a good day, but he needed to be on a brilliant one to get away from the world champion. He wasn't.
The gap grew to 1'40 as the chasers were powerless now. On the run into Ninove, Hincapie, Van Petegem, Ballan and Cancellara were able to get away to contest the third place, but all eyes were now on the pair in front. The kilometres ticked down rapidly as they continued their 55-60 km/h pace towards the finish.
Only when Boonen approached the 1 km to go banned in the lead, did he slow down and try to get Hoste to come through. He said to Hoste that he would not lead out the sprint from the front, and would stop if necessary. But the Discovery rider smartly stayed behind, waiting until they turned the corner with 450m to go before thinking about his move. Unfortunately, Hoste's surprise jump was not enough to put the world champ in difficulty, and Boonen wasted little time in reacting and coming past Hoste with 200m to go to take an expected, but still another impressive victory in the Ronde van Vlaanderen. George Hincapie put another Discovery rider on the podium by winning the sprint for third from Van Petegem, and Ballan and Cance rounded out the top six.
So ended another edition of Vlaanderen's mooiste: more difficult than in recent years, where the weather hasn't played as much of a factor, but with the same result.