Amid the comedy of errors that was Etixx-QuickStep’s unravelling in the finale of Omloop Het Nieuwsblad on Saturday, Tom Boonen could at least summon up some gallows humour. As he leant across to congratulate the surprise winner Ian Stannard (Team Sky) on the podium, he quipped laconically that it had been “a nice team time trial.”
Boonen had two Etixx-QuickStep teammates – Niki Terpstra and Stijn Vandenbergh – for company in the four-man winning move that formed after the cobbles at Haaghoek with 40 kilometres remaining, and nothing, it seemed, could come between the team and a first Omloop win since Nick Nuyens triumphed all of a decade ago.
True, Stannard was able to sit on their wheels all the way to Ghent, but the race’s apparent strongman, Sep Vanmarcke (Lotto-JumboNL) had punctured out of the move. The deck was stacked so heavily in Etixx-QuickStep’s favour that it simply seemed a question of choosing exactly how they wanted to win it.
They ultimately opted to play a rather surprising hand, however, as Boonen himself was the first to launch a telling attack in the finale. He punched his way clear with a little over four kilometres remaining, but a resilient Stannard clawed him back and grew in confidence thereafter.
Stannard responded to Terpstra’s later move, too, and then pulled the Dutchman away with him inside the final three kilometres. Boonen gave a desperate, lone chase through the streets of Ghent’s southern outskirts, but had to settle for third place, while Terpstra contrived to lead out the sprint and lose it to Stannard.
“We made the error of starting to attack,” Boonen said afterwards. “Stannard could have sat on our wheels for an hour. We didn’t have a lead of a few minutes on the chasers either. We should have just kept riding to make sure they didn’t bring us back.”
Indeed, at Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne twelve months ago, QuickStep did precisely that, using their numerical superiority to drive the winning move out of sight before setting up Boonen for the sprint. Here, however, they looked to engineer a solo winner even though Boonen would surely have been expected to see off Stannard in an eventual sprint.
“It was Niki Terpstra who was the first to go and then it was my turn because I didn’t think that Stannard could follow everybody. I was convinced my attack was the one,” he said. “Unfortunately, the wind was against me and we’d also ridden on the front for an hour and we were cooked.”
In 2012, Boonen faced criticism when he managed to lose out in a sprint to Vanmarcke, but Etixx-QuickStep’s collective malfunction here surely outweighed even that disappointment. Omloop remains the only cobbled classic missing from Boonen’s weighty palmarès and he must have felt it was a case of déjà vu all over again when Stannard bore down upon him in the finale.
“When Stannard came back, I knew that he was going to win,” Boonen said. “It’s a pity that we didn’t manage to close it out but it’s always easy to say afterwards that we should have done this or that. One thing is certain: we should have waited for the sprint and we shouldn’t have attacked.”
Mercifully for Boonen and Etixx-QuickStep, most of the Belgian newspapers do not carry print editions on Sundays, and Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne offers an immediate chance to rewrite the headlines before they return to the newsstands on Monday morning.
It’s worth noting, too, of course, that no Omloop winner has managed to add a Monument later in the same spring since Johan Museeuw landed both Het Volk and Paris-Roubaix in 2000. Alhough as a thousand post-mortems began in the bars of Ghent on Saturday evening, that will have been of scant consolation to Boonen et al.