Mattan swoops, Flecha foiled in controversial finish

67th Gent-Wevelgem - PT

Belgium, April 6, 2005

ProTour standings

Nico Mattan took the second ProTour victory by a Belgian rider in three days when he won the 67th edition of Gent-Wevelgem today, staging a last gasp recapture of lone leader Juan Antonio Flecha inside the final kilometre of racing.

The 33 year old Davitamon-Lotto rider reached the line in Wevelgem two seconds clear of the deflated Spaniard, with Daniele Bennati (Lampre – Caffita) leading home Flecha’s Fassa Bortolo team-mate Fabian Cancellara and Credit Agricole’s Thor Hushovd for third. Pre-race favourite Tom Boonen looked strong midway through the 208 kilometre event, but faded in closing stages to finish a disappointed 26th. He will hope to turn things around again in time for Paris-Roubaix this coming weekend.

After the race finish Flecha’s Fassa Bortolo team lodged a protest, on the grounds that they felt the race victor had been aided in the closing stages by press motorbikes and neutral support vehicles. Mattan himself insisted that the vehicles were in his way and that he didn’t deliberately draft in his efforts to catch and pass the race leader.

The College of Commissaires agreed with his version of events, fining the driver of the Shimano neutral support car 400 Swiss Francs and warning the motorbikes in question. They upheld the race result, stating that a detailed report will be sent to the UCI on the matter.

Flecha, however, will feel deeply disappointed with how things unfolded. He was away the second time up the Kemmelberg but was brought back by a chasing group. An attack by Mattan inside the closing ten kilometres carried the Belgian clear, but Flecha got across with Baden Cooke (Francaise des Jeux) and then countered, opening up a decent lead. With one kilometre to go he had five seconds, yet despite the gap he was hauled back before the line. While the commissaires pointed the finger of blame at the vehicles rather than the rider, the Spaniard and his team still feel bitterly disappointed by the result.

"I did what I could to win," he said. "Myself and Cancellara were always to the fore and, near the end, I made my bid for victory. I was a little nervous because I only had a handful of seconds and I could see vehicles behind me."

"I kept the speed at 55 km/h and was clear until three hundred metres to go. I was very surprised to be caught."

"One consolation is that I leave this race knowing that I have got over the black period I had after Paris-Nice, being sick. Just before the Three Days of de Panne I also had an accident between my bike and a car. My condition is excellent now, though, and I hope to ride strongly in Paris-Roubaix."

Fassa Bortolo were stronger about what happened, releasing a statement this evening criticising the day’s finale. They stated that they "denounced what happened in Belgium at Gent-Wevelgem, a ProTour event, where the rider Flecha was caught and passed inside the final three hundred metres by the Belgian Nico Mattan.

"Although Flecha opened an advantage of six seconds over Mattan, there were, inexplicably five vehicles that followed our rider. These facilitated the return of Mattan and caused Flecha to lose his win.

"It is not possible that that this should happen in a ProTour race. All of the events in this contest should be synonymous of absolute quality," the team fumed, promising to pursue the matter further with the UCI.

For his part, Mattan maintained he did nothing wrong. "This is the best win of my career," he said. "I have always dreamed of winning here. I train on these roads and to take this victory is really important to me.

"I kept going when Flecha attacked, believing I could still win. I was closing up to him when I saw the vehicles, but what could I do about that? I wasn’t going to ease up. I had to get back up to him so I had to just keep going. It wasn’t my fault, they shouldn’t have been there.

"You can’t say that the motorbikes helped me win. I was never right behind them, on their wheel, it was my legs that got me to the line.

"A couple of kilometres before I was clear by myself. Cooke and Flecha got across. Flecha attacked. I waited a little bit, recovering, keeping the same speed as he, before making a big effort to get back to him."

"It really means a lot to win this. It is my best victory. It is a ProTour event and it is also in Belgium, so that makes it very special. It is the best race I could win. I train every day here, I spend a lot of time in the area and know it really well."

How it unfolded

Gent-Wevelgem’s elevation to ProTour status this year lifted its status from being a prestigious mid-week event sandwiched between the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix. In terms of points, the race is now on an equal footing two its two big brothers, even if it doesn’t have quite the same history.

The new billing ensured a top lineup of teams, with all the ProTour squads plus Chocolade Jacques, Navigators Insurance, Landbouwkrediet-Colnago, Bartloworld-Valsir and amassing at the start in Deinze. Tom Boonen (Quick.Step) was the obvious favourite following his excellent win in Flanders, the young Belgian drawing most of the cheers at the sign-on, but the likes of compatriot Tom Steels (Davitamon-Lotto), Steven De Jongh (Rabobank), Andreas Klier and Erik Zabel (T-Mobile), George Hincapie (Discovery), Alessandro Ballan (Lampre), Nico Eeckhout (Jacques), Thor Hushovd (CA), Allan Davis (Liberty), Lars Michaelsen (CSC) and Baden Cooke (Francaise des Jeux) were amongst the long list of contenders who would be happy to spoil the party.

Calm conditions awaited the riders at the start, with temperatures around ten degrees on what was an overcast – but relatively bright – morning. Ahead lay 208 kilometres of racing, with early obstacles likely to be speed and sidewinds before eight climbs helped break things up. The bunch would travel twice up the Viadaigneberg and Rodeberg (137 and 160 km), twice up the Monteberg (148 and 169 km) and twice up the Kemmelberg (150 and 171 km) before an eyeballs-out dash in to the finish in Wevelgem.

Of those climbs, the cobblestoned Kemmemberg was likely to be the most decisive, with an average grade of 9% and steepest section of 21.5% occurring during its eight kilometres.

It didn’t take that long for things to break up, however. Just after ten kilometres into the race a big crash took down some riders, with Tom Steels, Roy Sentjens and Fabrizio Guidi amongst those hitting the dirt. Guidi was the most badly injured, breaking his wrist and abandoning. The biggest effect was a fragmentation of the bunch into three pieces, with a second group number approximately fifty riders being stranded and a smaller collection of riders finding themselves even further back.

By the time the riders hit Oostende on the coast, the first and second groups were two minutes apart. However, swinging southwest for De Panne meant that the peloton turned into a headwind, leading to a regrouping by the halfway point.

This unity didn’t last too long, with things breaking apart on the run-in towards the climbs. With approximately 84 kilometres remaining a group of thirty-odd riders went clear, including Tom Boonen, Wilfried Cretskens, Kevin Hulsmans, Servais Knaven (Quick.Step), Steven De Jongh, Matthew Hayman, Karsten Kroon (Rabobank), Daniele Bennati (Lampre-Caffita), Nico Eeckhout (Chocolade Jacques), Mark Walters (Navigators Insurance), Magnus Backstedt (Liquigas Bianchi), Lars Michaelsen, Matti Breschel (CSC), Thor Hushovd, Cyril Lemoine, Geoffrey Lequatre, Jaan Kirsupuu (CA), Tom Steels, Nico Mattan, Henk Vogels, Gert Steegmans (Davitamon Lotto), Simone Cadamuro (Domina Vacanze), Sebastian Lang (Gerolsteiner), Fabian Cancellara, Juan Antonio Flecha (Fassa), Stefan Adamsson (Barloworld), Baden Cooke (FDJ), Mauro Gerosa (Liquigas), Stuart O’Grady (Cofidis) and Antonio Cruz (Discovery Channel). Missing were riders such as Cruz’s team-mate George Hincapie, plus crash victims Roger Hammond and Andreas Klier. The latter’s fall led to several T-Mobile riders also missing the break by waiting for Klier. However, the in-form Erik Zabel did make the split.

The chasing group slipped to over a minute down just before the climbs began, essentially spelling an end to their chances. Up front, Boonen’s QuickStep team set the pace on the Vidaigneberg, with Michaelsen, Vogels, Backstedt and Cruz leading over the top. Boonen himself led the group up the Rodeberg then, once over the Monteberg, pushed the pace on the much harder Kemmelberg. This effort put Backstedt, Vogels, Steegmans, De Jongh, Lemoine and Lequatre in difficulties, while Boonen’s team-mate Filippo Pozzato made things look even better for his leader when he jumped across from a small chase group to the back of the fragmenting front bunch.

However, he couldn’t quite close the gap. Although there was a bit of a regrouping after the descent, De Jongh, Steegmans, Vogels, Knaven, Lemoine, Lequatre and Pozzato slipped back and were reabsorbed by a chasing group with about 52 kilometres remaining. The gap was hovering around the 50 second mark.

Backstedt led over the top of the Vidaigneberg, second time round, looking strong. About thirty seconds later the persistent chase group crested the top, looking determined to get back in touch. The gap was down to 14 seconds on the Monteberg, prompting a flurry of attacks up front as the strong riders sought to put the hammer down again.

Flecha kicked with 41 kilometres remaining, opening a gap of ten seconds over Backstedt, Mattan, Boonen, Kirsipuu, Cooke, Hushovd, Cancellara, and Michaelsen by the top. He held this advantage on the second and final ascent of the Kemmelberg, with Hushovd prominent and Boonen staying close to the front, but now starting to suffer.

A regrouping took place after the descent, with Flecha joined by Bennati, Cancellara, Hushovd, Backstedt, Mattan, Cooke and an impressive Pozzato, who jumped from the chase group on the climb and was able to surge again over the top. Meanwhile, Boonen, Kirsipuu, Breschel, Cruz, Kroon and Cretksens were slipping back, dropping to first 15 and then 18 seconds in arrears as the leaders put the hammer down.

With 25 kilometres to go the front runners were 28 seconds up on the chasers. The peloton was just 50 seconds back. Boonen tried to drive his group along and get back to the head of affairs but finally relented, deciding to wait for the main bunch along with his breakaway companions. Up front, the leaders started to jump around as the kilometres ticked down. Pozatto was looking strong and closed down many of the moves, hoping that Boonen would win the sprint if the Rabobank-led chase brought things back. However, Mattan had no intention of waiting around for that to happen. The Belgian jumped with nine kilometres to go, being brought back by Hushovd; he went again, and while Bennati and Cancellara did what they could, they couldn’t quite back on terms.

Pozzato and Bäckstedt were looking strong and could have had a chance of reeling him in, but both went down on a corner, losing any chance they had of winning. A fully committed Mattan opened up a gap of 6 seconds with 7 kilometres to go, beincg chased by Bennati, Flecha, Cancellara, Hushovd and Cooke. This quintet gradually clawed him back, Flecha and Cooke surging to get across and make it three up front.

Cooke’s sprint made him a big danger, so Flecha wasn’t going to wait around. He put in a huge effort with three kilometres to go, shaking off the other two. Cooke slipped backwards and eventually finished sixth, but Mattan kept going. With one kilometre to go he was five seconds back; it seemed too much to close, but with cars and motorbikes hovering in the gap, he managed to get across with 300 metres remaining. Once there, he went straight past a tiring Flecha, hitting the line two seconds clear and scooping the biggest – and probably the most controversial – win of his career.

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