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Feature: Science of winning is an art form for HTC-Columbia

As Bernhard Eisel celebrated on the podium of Gent-Wevelgem, spraying Philippe Gilbert and Sep Vanmarke with champagne, his HTC-Columbia teammate Lars Bak screeched to a standstill by the team bus.

Face awash with dirt and grime from over five hours of hard racing, his only distinguishable features were some tufts of blonde hair peeping through the vents in his helmet and Danish national flags around the sleeves of his jersey.

"Did we win? What happened?" he asked the team mechanics. When he heard the news Eisel had won, his face lit up.

"There's nothing better than winning a really big race. It's fantastic," he said, gulping down a bottle of water - it quickly helped to remove the grime as it spilled down his face.

Despite finishing well down on today's winner, Bak rode a strong race, acting as a protagonist in the action and helping propel Eisel to within a chance of winning. He attacked with around 80 kilometres remaining, bridging the gap to the early escape group of four riders.

Instead of sitting in and doing the occasional turn, the Dane moved straight to the front, thrashing out a pace that had everyone struggling to stay on his wheel. "I was a little bit impulsive but the roads were so small and I'm not that good at fighting for position," admitted Bak, "So I tried to get a small advantage so that when the leaders came up, I would be there for the guys."

Sure enough, that's what happened, and Bak was joined by a group of eventually 30 riders, including Eisel and Matt Goss. "In the end, I was tired and when Bernie's group went, the best riders broke clear," he explained

Bak added that in the morning's routine pre-race briefing, team directors Allan Peiper and Tristan Hoffman had both encouraged the riders with a rousing pep talk. They told their men that although they weren't favourites, the team had always enjoyed luck in the event and having won it twice it was "their race".

"I'm new on the team," Bak said as he made a beeline for the bus. "But Bernie said in the press two days ago that we wanted to win and that he wanted to go for it. He's a good helper when Greipel and Cavendish are there and he can also win himself. He's a world class rider and a rider for the Classics."

Peiper was at the race last year when Edvald Boasson Hagen won for the team and said of this year's efforts, "Everyone counted us out," referring to the riders that had left the team last year and the problems that have beset Mark Cavendish's season so far. "But like I said a few weeks ago, no one expected Hagen to win last year or Burghardt three years ago, so they didn't expect us to win today."

The Australian explained what Eisel means to the team, not just as the winner of today's race but as an experienced road captain. It's a role the Austrian has grown into since joining from Française des Jeux at the end of 2006 as a raw sprinter.

"He's been really close a few times, but he's the team leader in so many ways. He's the man we rely on from the car, the man at the Tour who looks after Cavendish and calls the shots. It's just brilliant for him to make his stamp as a bike rider... 'Berhard Eisel, Classic winner'. It's really good for him."

But perhaps the biggest smile on the team came from Erik Zabel, who was so ecstatic at the finish he was going around high-fiving everyone in sight. The German has been a key figure in elevating Cavendish to where he is today but has spent the last few days riding reconnaissance with the young team, guiding them over the climbs.

"I was with the guys, and we rode the route and the new climbs and from all our guys Eisel was in my eyes the best," said Zabel. "He was confident in himself and he did it. Now he's at his peak to get results like this."

Back in the press room, Gilbert and Vanmarcke took their seats on small stools as the Belgian press swarmed around them and listened to the reasons why they didn't win. On the other side of the large room sat Eisel, his grin nearly spanning the width of the venue as he paid tribute to the team for his victory.

"Everybody in the team works together, we have a good relationship," said Eisel. "This morning in our team meeting it was said I was the captain; you saw how well we share things with Lars Bak attacking. I have to thank Matty Goss and Hayden Roulston, they did an amazing job."

Team Columbia before a training ride in Belgium

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Daniel Benson was the Editor in Chief at between 2008 and 2022. Based in the UK, he joined the Cyclingnews team in 2008 as the site's first UK-based Managing Editor. In that time, he reported on over a dozen editions of the Tour de France, several World Championships, the Tour Down Under, Spring Classics, and the London 2012 Olympic Games. With the help of the excellent editorial team, he ran the coverage on Cyclingnews and has interviewed leading figures in the sport including UCI Presidents and Tour de France winners.