Hills are bad enough, Pave is not a preferred surface for cycling. Put the two together and you have a punishing prospect for a cycle race. And so it is with the Ronde van Vlaanderen. Thrills, spills leg-pain, guts and all out exhaustion are guaranteed in every running of this World Pro Tour race. Falling on a pave hill is dangerous (as an amateur who fell yesterday (02nd April) will attest. He broke his hip); the odds of a slip are significantly increased by the narrow roads, pitch of the climbs and swell of riders. This year as Team RadioShack’s Rosseler, Cardoso, Kwiatkowski, Beppu, Lequatre, McEwen, Muravyev and Rast take on the challenge the hope is for a greater number of thrills over spills.
With 125 kms to ride there was a breakaway of 5 riders including Hammond for GRM. With Griepel (OLO) and others putting pressure through the peddles the peloton chased hard. But on narrow and twisting roads a crash took down a number in the bunch. Up ahead the leaders must have felt the pressures from behind; they increased their own pace to stay out in front by 2m 47s. And RadioShack’s flying “R” was at the front of the peloton.
Grivko (AST) leapt from the peloton to chase the leaders, making his challenge on one of the many hills. At 110 kms the leaders improved the gap taking it to 3m.
With 100 kms to the line and over the Kruisberg climb the gap to the leaders was reduced to 2m and the front of the peloton started to line-out riders and break the pack. Gilbert rode up in a forward position, followed closely by Shack’s Gregory Rast. As the riders tackled the Knokteberg those in the rear slowed to a complete stop, resting cleats on the tarmac.
On the Oude-Kwaremont Chavanel launched an attack for Quickstep and Boonen, RadioShack fell back in the peloton but stayed in the first third of the bunch. Beppu put a lot of effort into the climb of Paterberg where the narrow pave road was crowded with yelping spectators. The chasers brought the leading riders gap down to 20s as they approached the Koppenberg. By this point 4 of the RadioShack team were in the second chasing group. By the descent of Koppenberg the cyclists were spead thinly along the route and several took the opportunity to free-wheel and shake their thighs.
Chavanel (QST) and Clarke (AST) led the way into the feed station and on up to the Steenbeekdries ascent.
With 70 kms to the line the peloton was 18s behind the first chasing group. On Steenbeekdries the riders biceps quivered in the increasingly sunny conditions – a good demonstration of how hard riding on the pave really is.
As the peloton comes together RadioShack makes its presence known by riding near the front again. Up ahead Clarke & Chavanel are joined by Boasson Hagen (SKY) and Boom (RAB), It was a good time to be at the front as the route reached the Molenberg.
Attacking the Molenberg hard Chavanel pulled away from his group, descended and continued to work hard on the smooth and flat tarmac. With 45 kms remaining the peloton was 53s behind. Gilbert (OLO) punctured and lost time on the change. Chavanel built a 1m lead over the peloton. Cancellara and Boonen took off from the front of the peloton, passed chasing group and cycled on, sweeping up Boasson Hagen and Boom with 40 kms to the line and Chavanel in his sights. He catches him on the Valkenberg climb with 32 kms remaining of the Tour. Together they rode on, Cancellara leading out.
Back in the peloton Team Radioshack were again in the leading riders. As the gap to the peloton grew to 48s attacks started to fly off, Voeckler (EUC) playing a big part in one of them. BMC organised and brought everyone together again before leading the group in the chase. With 23 kms to ride the gap to be closed was 58s.
Starting the Muur – Kapelmuur ascent Cancellara and Chavanel had a 26s advantage over the peloton but it closed fast with Gilbert on the front. Into the descent Cancellara still had the lead of the race but he was caught. Gilbert took the initiative but was shadowed by Cancellara and Ballan (BMC). Only the Bosberg was ahead of them. The last categorised climb and the last chance for a major attack.
Starting the Bosberg the peloton caught the leaders and Gilbert powered up the pave. Cancellara seemed to have a problem, he kept looking at his chain-rings and certainly had a slow cadence. Behind Gilbert Ballan tried to close the 50 metre gap that had built up. However behind him Cancellara regained some of his composure and Chavanel with Leukemans ((VCD) also regrouped to take up the chase. The gap to Gilbert was 7s with less than 9 kms to ride.
Closing the gap Cancellara was again at the front, but he was joined by a body of others including Flecha and Thomas both of (SKY). Eventually a group of 12 pushed on with much looking back and short turns on the front. Into the last 5 kms it appeared that each rider was trying to protect his position (and save some energy). Langeveld (RAB) took control for 500 metres or so but Cancellara regained command and control, leading Chavanel and Nuyens (SBS). Inside 2 kms the three riders started to work together but the gap to the chasers behind was small. Chavanel and Cancellara shook hands for a good day in the saddle.
Boonen tried a sprint but Nuyens took the opportunity to pull out from behind Cancellara and hit the front and then the line, ahead of Chavanel and Cancellara who almost came together in the closing metres of the race.
Team Radioshack’s Gregory Rast and Dmitriy Muravyev finished in the bunch sprint in 42nd and 44th positions; these belie the hard work and effort that both put into the race. However, when the TV cameras panned through the chasing bunches and peloton Rast in particular could be picked out at or near the front. Not a winning day out for the Shack but all-in-all a good day out, underscoring recent stage and race victories.
Top Ten places:
1 Nick NUYENS BEL SBS
2 Sylvain CHAVANEL FRA QST
3 Fabian CANCELLARA SUI LEO
4 Tom BOONEN BEL QST
5 Sebastian LANGEVELD NED RAB
6 George HINCAPIE USA BMC
7 Björn LEUKEMANS BEL VCD
8 Staf SCHEIRLINCKX BEL VWA
9 Philippe GILBERT BEL OLO
10 Geraint THOMAS GBR SKY
By Julian Winn, staff writer