The dashboard cameras at Gent-Wevelgem were designed to add colour to the television coverage by capturing the animated instructions of directeurs sportifs, but in the end it was the impassive face of André Greipel that left the day's most lasting impression.
On the run-in to the finish, Greipel must already have been picturing himself atop the podium. He had comfortably survived the final cull on the Kemmelberg and still had four Lotto-Belisol teammates for company in the 50-strong leading group as it trundled towards Wevelgem.
The terrible beauty of the Classics is that nothing is ever certain, however, and Greipel was felled in what seemed the most innocuous of circumstances, hitting the ground when Tyler Farrar (Garmin-Sharp) crashed in front of him with 8 kilometres to go. Immediately, it was clear that his race was over. Soon afterwards, it was apparent that his Classics campaign was, too – Greipel sustained a suspected broken collarbone in the crash.
Greipel was helped into the passenger seat of the team car, where he sat devoid of expression, still wearing his helmet. "Just take me to the finish, please," Greipel said quietly when told that he needed to go to the hospital. Later, the dashboard camera showed Greipel's disappointed reaction as his fellow countryman John Degenkolb (Giant-Shimano) claimed victory in the sprint. "It's not normal. F**k," he said, to himself as much as to directeur sportif Herman Frisson, who drove on wordlessly.
The mood was sombre, too, at the Lotto-Belisol team bus past the finish line, where there was a metaphorical drawing down of blinds. After Greipel climbed aboard, team manager Marc Sergeant emerged to confirm that his spring Classics campaign was at an end. "His collarbone is definitely broken, it's swollen up like this," Sergeant told reporters.
Aside from his immediate concern for Greipel's injury, Sergeant could not hide his disappointment at the way victory had slipped from his team's grasp. When he crested the summit of the Kemmelberg towards the front of the peloton with 40 kilometres remaining, Greipel appeared to have solved the hardest part of the equation.
"We did everything to get with André to the finale, and we succeeded 100 percent in that. We had five men for him in the finale," Sergeant said. "Stijn Devolder's attack was quite dangerous and we put [Lars] Bak and later even [Tony] Gallopin on the front to bring that group back. It was all going very well until the moment when he crashed."
Sergeant said that he did not know the precise circumstances of the crash: "I think it was Farrar who fell first and then André went down. I don't know what caused it, I haven't even seen it."
After the crash, the Lotto-Belisol squad continued to ride on the front of the leading group – not, Sergeant explained, due to a lack of communication, but because they wanted to salvage something from the afternoon by placing Jürgen Roelandts in the top five [he ultimately finished 10th].
"Why not keep riding? Roelandts was feeling good and he could have finished in the top five in the sprint, which would have been important for us too. That would have been impossible with three guys still up the road, so why not keep riding?"
Greipel's loss to Lotto's cause extends beyond Gent-Wevelgem. Twelve months ago, he went on the attack early at the Tour of Flanders in a bid to soften up the race and helped set Roelandts up for a podium finish.
"We have lost a man who is very important for the team," Sergeant said. "Even if he can't win the Tour of Flanders or Paris-Roubaix, he is one of the men who can do something to make the race harder, and now we're going to have to do that now."
Asked if Greipel's crash had affected the morale of the team, Sergeant smiled ruefully. "For the moment, yes," he said. "You can see from their faces that everybody is disappointed, but it wasn't the team's fault, it was just bad luck."
Update: Lotto-Belisol have announced that Greipel will undergo surgery on his injuries which were: "A third degree AC luxation of the collarbone was the conclusion after the examination. Because of the crash the collarbone was dislocated and both ligaments between collarbone and shoulder have been completely pulled off."
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