Sylvain Chavanel continued Omega Pharma-QuickStep's startling beginning to the season by winning the Three Days of De Panne thanks to victory in the concluding time trial. In spite of the extraordinary haul of 21 victories secured by his teammates in the opening three months of the season, Chavanel was surprisingly still itching to get off the mark when he rolled down the start ramp in De Panne.
"It's always a relief when you bring wins to the team," Chavanel said in his post-race press conference. "I'm here to win races for the team and I've won two in one day, so I'm really happy. The team already had more than 20 wins and I was one of the riders who had yet to open his account."
After surgery to correct a herniated disc during the winter, Chavanel was concerted in his off-season efforts to regain his time trialling form. The fruits of his labour were apparent on Thursday, when he put four seconds into Lieuwe Westra (Vacansoleil-DCM) and a remarkable 17 into Svein Tuft (GreenEdge) on the 14.7km course to take the stage and the overall victory.
"It was my third time trial of the year. I was 4th in the time trial at San Luis and 6th at Paris-Nice, so I was so proud to win this one, especially as I was up against Westra, Tuft and Durbridge, guys who are good rouleurs."
The Tour of Flanders dominates Flemish thoughts as March turns to April, and in spite of Chavanel's protestations, there was more interest at the press conference in dissecting his Ronde chances than in discussing his first victory since the French national championships last June.
Chavanel's display on Thursday also saw him reel in Omega Pharma-QuickStep's 22nd and 23rd victories of the season. Their haul to date is just two shy of the team's entire tally for the past two years combined; a frankly astonishing turnaround after their travails last spring.
Given the performances of Boonen, Terpstra, Chavanel et al on the cobbles over the past week or so, there is a discernible sense of expectation about what Omega Pharma-QuickStep might achieve on Sunday. "There are a lot of riders who are in condition on the team, almost everybody," Chavanel acknowledged. "You can't escape the fact that we have a very strong team when you look at our recent results, but there are a lot of strong teams."
A lot of strong teams, but one particularly potent individual. Might the nature of Chavanel's victory have sounded a warning of sorts to Fabian Cancellara (RadioShack-Nissan)?
"I don't think he's afraid of anyone," Chavanel said.
While Cancellara and Boonen opted to forgo De Panne and rest up for Sunday, Chavanel was happy to keep racing through the week, reluctant to change a formula that came agonizingly close to paying off in full last April.
"Last year I came here and then I was second at the Tour of Flanders, so I didn't want to change my programme. I'm a rider who can take on efforts like this quite well, and in the past there have been riders who have ridden De Panne and then done very well on Sunday.
"This year it's a bit mitigated also as we had an exceptional De Panne because of the good weather, so it's been a little stressing but not enormously so."
After missing Milan-San Remo due to illness, Chavanel has recovered to play a starring role on the cobbles in the past week. He first marshalled Niki Terpstra to victory at Dwars Door Vlaanderen, and then aided Boonen at Harelbeke before helping himself to De Panne for good measure.
"I started the classics period at Waregem, I wasn't bad," Chavanel said, smiling at his understatement. "At Harelbeke too, I wasn't bad. And here at De Panne, I wasn't bad either."
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Barry Ryan is Head of Features at Cyclingnews. He has covered professional cycling since 2010, reporting from the Tour de France, Giro d’Italia and events from Argentina to Japan. His writing has appeared in The Independent, Procycling and Cycling Plus. He is the author of The Ascent: Sean Kelly, Stephen Roche and the Rise of Irish Cycling’s Golden Generation, published by Gill Books.