91st Ronde van Vlaanderen - PT
Belgium, April 8, 2007
Italian Alessandro Ballan (Lampre-Fondital) proved he belongs with the best in the Belgian Classics by winning the 91st Ronde van Vlaanderen. The 27 year-old attacked an elite field, including 2006 winner Tom Boonen (Quickstep-Innergetic), on the Muur of Geraardsbergen and was immediately joined by Belgian Leif Hoste (Predictor-Lotto), who he later out-sprinted on the line in Meerbeke.
The duo went full-gas and fairly traded pulls over the final 16 kilometres from the Muur. Ballan was forced to lead over the final kilometre, where the two went increasing slower while the chase closed in at only a few seconds. At 150 metres, Hoste opened up his sprint on Ballan's left, thinking he had enough to hold it to the line. But the 1.90m tall rider that usually leads out for Daniele Bennati kept on his rival's wheel, finally coming around in the last ten metres to steal glory.
Hoste finished second for the second year running while Ballan scored the first Italian win since Andrea Tafi in 2002. "The last kilometre was crazy," said the rider from Castelfranco Veneto after the finish. "I still don't believe that I did it!
"I did the attack on the Muur and did a huge pull all the way to the end; it went great. This course was really suited for me.
"Then, in the last kilometre, Hoste forced me to lead-out. I did not think that he would ever come around me. When he did pass me I just hooked on and... [huge smile - ed.] After the crash in GP Chiasso I have been building now I am able to be so strong. I will go into Paris-Roubaix with calmness." Liquigas' Luca Paolini finished third, just ahead of CSC's Karsten Kroon, while pre-race favourite Tom Boonen and his QuickStep team completely lost out on the winning move.
Hoste came so close to his first victory in Flanders but the finish was just a couple of metres too far for the Belgian. Right after he finished the he sat down and swore up a storm, louder and louder. "F***, verdomme, I feel so bad right now, not only for me but for the whole team," he explained. "They were doing an excellent job all day long.
"Many people were laughing with us but we were probably the strongest team in the race," Hoste continued. The Belgian wasn't mentioned too much as favourite for the race as he performed bad in the races leading up to Flanders. "I wasn't hiding or anything and there wasn't anything wrong with my form. I crashed twice - being injured on the same spot - in a short space of time, and it's no wonder I was faced with such a hard time."
How it unfolded
It was a wonderful day at the start in Brugge for the 91st Ronde van Vlaanderen. The riders and directeurs sportifs were commenting on the weather, and how it had been years since it had been so warm for De Ronde, near 18°C.
The riders faced 259 kilometres of riding before the finish in Meerbeke; winding their way south, towards Kortrijk, before heading east and onto the pavé and Hellingen ('climbs'). The second half of the race presented the riders with 18 climbs in 125 kilometres.
Right away there were attacks and it took only until kilometre 29 for the first move to form. A group of seven riders moved free, consisting of José Vicente Garcia (Caisse d'Epargne), Enrico Franzoi (Lampre-Fondital), David Boucher (Landbouwkrediet-Tönissteiner), Maarten Tjallingii (Skil-Shimano), Laurent Mangel (Ag2r Prévoyance), Aleksandr Kuschynski (Liquigas) and Evert Verbist (Chocolade Jacques-Topsport Vlaanderen).
Oleg Tinkov's boys of Team Tinkoff were particularly active and trying to join the move before it gained too much distance. Mikhail Ignatiev and Nikolai Trusov both gave a go but could not get on. The Belgian Champion, Niko Eeckhout (Chocolade Jacques-Topsport Vlaanderen), also shot off the front but it was too late because the move had been formed. It lacked key teams Predictor, Quickstep and Rabobank but nonetheless it moved forward without too much difficulty.
The seven men worked their way south and by Gavere they had built up a lead of 13 minutes, the maximum they would see for the day. Behind, the peloton was allowing the escape to get its advantage, saving some energy for the latter half of the day. There was slight problem for Belgian favourite, Tom Boonen, he took a spill in Kortrijk but then quickly rejoined; he was reported with a sore right wrist.
By the first of 18 climbs, Molenberg, the seven men were down to 9'30" over the peloton. The chase was not being driven by any team in particular, but they were slowly closing the gap. Over the next three climbs, the Wolvenberg, Kluisberg and Knokteberg, the gap was further whittled away. The seven men, although working in harmony, now only had 6'42" in hand as they started the 1260 metre climb up Knokteberg. Spaniard Vicente Garcia led the way up the smooth, non-cobbled climb.
Behind, at kilometre 165, a crash involved Matti Breschel (Team CSC). The Dane rider was rolling around on the pavement for some time and had to abandon. This crash was followed by another when Renaud Dion (Ag2r Prévoyance) took a spill on the right had side of the road. There was yet another crash, involving Fabian Wegmann (Gerolsteiner), Manuele Mori (Saunier Duval-Prodir), Manuel Quinziato (Liquigas) and Erik Zabel (Milram), but the race continued its march towards the Oude Kwaremont and left the German holding his left collarbone.
At this point, 80 kilometres to go, there was a noticeable building of speed in the peloton. T-Mobile, with help from Quickstep, was revving up the pace and had the whole group in one long line. The move put Marcus Burghardt in prime position to unload on the Oude Kwaremont.
The 23 year-old fired up the 2200 metre climb (averaging 4% gradient with 1600m of cobbles). His teammates setup his move and by the left-hand turn at the top the difference was made. Burghardt showed his form in recent races was no fluke and the weaker riders were being shot out the back.
The pace kept rising over the Paterberg, 20.3% maximum gradient and 360m long, and on to climb number seven, the Kortekeer. By the Kortekeer, the difference to the seven leaders was down to 3'58". This climb was the replacement for the near-by Koppenberg, which was deemed too dangerous due to the gaps between the cobbles.
The fact that Belgian's number one team, Quickstep, had missed putting a man in the day's escape was starting to become troublesome. The blue-men were moving to the front to start an offensive. After Steenbeekdries, 530m long and a dangerous descent, Sébastien Rosseler (Quickstep-Innergetic) pushed towards the Taaienberg for Boonen. The 2005 World Champ was finally coming forward to show himself. While Lorenzo Bernucci (T-Mobile) took a spill leading to the climb, compatriot Paolo Bettini was moving up.
The World Champ came to the front and did a huge pull for his Quickstep teammate; the orders must have been for him to work as a super-domestique to Boonen. Meanwhile, Quickstep's Peter Van Petegem was hurting and drifting off the back. The move by Bettini and Rosseler did not succeed in an escape but it helped eliminate further men.
Running towards the Eikenberg, Luca Paolini (Liquigas) lost it on a right hand bend. He was quick to get back up but his bike needed mechanical help, forcing him and a waiting teammate into a long chase.
Kevin Hulsmans (Quickstep-Innergetic) and Johan Van Summeren (Predictor-Lotto) darted off the front on the Eikenberg (61 km to go). The duo, representing Belgian's super-squads, spent about five kilometres away before being pulled back; a further attempt by the teams to put their men up the road and to ease the pressure, but the pressure only increased.
CSC's Fabian Cancellara starting hammering shortly after the Berendries and he forced the favourites to react. He split the field on an undulating cobbled section and winner of Three Days of De Panne stage three, Gert Steegmans (Quickstep-Innergetic) was sent to follow. The Belgian joined the Swiss man for a ride, as they closed the gap to the leaders ahead.
The duo joined the front men and quickly Cancellara went to the business-end and started driving the new escape, minus Vicente Garcia, who had been dropped in the warfare. The move proved Cancellara to be strong but he lacked the right mix of men to make it to the finish clear of the chase.
Stuart O'Grady (Team CSC), Hulsmans, Van Summeren, Michael Boogerd (Rabobank), Leif Hoste (Predictor-Lotto), Daniele Bennati (Lampre-Fondital), Steegmans were part of a smaller move, which was chased by Bettini, Karsten Kroon (Team CSC) and Philippe Gilbert (Française Des Jeux). But the moves all merged before the start of the Muur of Geraardsbergen, leaving 17 kilometres to go.
The front group went over the train tracks and it was immediately on the Muur, heading towards Moerbeke. The climb is nasty, with 475m of pavé and a maximum gradient of 19.8%, and was the perfect place for Ballan to stretch his legs. His teammate, Bennati, pushed forward with Boonen before Ballan rode clear.
2006 winner Boonen faded and left only Leif Hoste (Predictor-Lotto) to bridge up to Ballan. By the top, the two were flying on their way to victory. Kroon and Tomas Vaitkus (Discovery Channel) moved free to begin a chase but could not close on the two, who stayed about 15" ahead until the finish.
The Italian and Belgian traded equal pulls over the closing 10 kilometres. In the final 1500 metres there was a slight game of cat-n-mouse before Hoste opened the sprint that Ballan finished off.