The cycling calendar has had a reshuffle this year to fit this most famous of races right into the heart of the spring classics. Not only did the riders have to face the treacherous cobbled areas that make this race so famous, but also 15 climbs on route that would surely see the peloton split into several groups.
The big local favourite was Tom Boonen, riding for Quick Step, a two-time winner of this event. His teammate Stijn Devolder was looking for his third consecutive victory, something that had not been achieved since Italian rider Fiorenzo Magni pulled off this remarkable feat 60 years ago.
Saxo BankÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s Fabian Cancellara was the hot favourite after some sparkling early season form. Lance Armstrong headed up a strong Radioshack team and British interest centered around David Millar of the Garmin Transitions team and Mark Cavendish of HTC Columbia, whose form has started to improve after a season delayed by dental problems at the turn of the year.
The pace was fast as the peloton rolled out of Bruges, after 80km the lead group contained eight riders who had a lead of around 13 minutes. The peloton seemed unconcerned and the pace was being controlled by Saxo Bank, with their lead rider Cancellara staying out of any trouble. As the riders approached the first climb at Den Ast, the eight fugitives had a lead of around 10 minutes, the speed increased in the chasing pack as the course started to become more technical as the roads became very narrow.
Saxo Bank were driving the peloton along and as they approached the second climb at Kluisberg, the gap had been closed to just four minutes. Several crashes had occurred as riders bunched up to negotiate the tricky corners and the slippery cobbled pave.
Cavendish was having a horrible time and as the race approached the first big climb at Oude Kwaremont, the inevitable split in the peloton occurred with 100 riders now in the first chasing group.
The lead was down to two minutes with less than 100km to go. Stuart OÃ¢â‚¬â„¢Grady and Matti Breschel of the Saxo Bank team now drove the pace on even more and as the race approached the Paterburg climb with 80km to go, the big favourites made their move. Cancellara and Boonen were in the group alongside Lars Boom of Rabobank, Juan Antonio Flecha of Team Sky, George Hincapie of BMC and Thor Hushovd of Cervelo.
The riders now approached the famous cobbled climb of the Koppenberg, at one point the gradient ramped up to 22%, the lead group was now down to three riders with an advantage of 40 seconds. Saxo Bank were dismantling the field with their pace, as we reached the Eikenberg climb with 60km to go, Cancellara needed a change of bike as did his trusty lieutenant Breschel. Unfortunately for the Dane, the mechanic had problems selecting his replacement machine and he lost valuable time on the race leaders.
As the early breakaway group was finally reeled in, Lance Armstrong had made it across to the lead group of about 40 riders and was driving the pace on the front as the Molenberg climb came into view with 45km to go. This was the moment the race exploded into life as Cancellara and Boonen seized the initiative. As the two leaders approached climb number 13 at Tenbosse, they had a gap of 54 seconds over a chasing group of three riders which was being lead by BritainÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s David Millar.
Approaching the final climb of the Kapelmuur, it was looking a two-horse race between the Belgian and Swiss National champions. The crowds who had turned out in their thousands, were roaring on home favourite Boonen, but it was Cancellara who showed a devastating turn of speed at the steepest part of the climb to destroy the Belgian with a incredible display of strength. As the big Swiss rider came over the summit of the Kapelmuur, he could now use his incredible time trialling skills to propel himself to the finish.
As he entered the long finishing straight in Merebeke he had time to celebrate with team boss Bjarne Riis following in the team car. He then flashed his lucky charm at the TV cameras and snatched a Swiss flag from a supporter to cross the line one minute and 15 seconds ahead of Boonen.
Two more BelgianÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s then followed, Philipe Gilbert of the Omega Pharma Lotto team and Bjorn Leukemans of Vacansoleil. Tyler Farrar of the Garmin Transitions team was fifth with George Hincapie of BMC sixth. Another Britain, Roger Hammond riding for Cervelo was seventh, a wonderful performance by him. But the day belonged to Cancellara who has now won three of the classic monument races – in 2006 he won Paris-Roubaix and in 2008 he conquered Milan-Sanremo.
Next up on the pro-tour is the Ã¢â‚¬Å“Queen of the classicsÃ¢â‚¬Â the Paris-Roubaix as Boonen looks to defend his crown. There is a strong possibility we could have an exhilarating re-match between himself and Cancellara.
Tour of Flanders top 10:
1. FABIAN CANCELLARA (SVI/SAXO BANK) 6h 25min 32sec
2. Tom Boonen (Bel / Quick-Step) a 1’14”
3. Philippe Gilbert (Bel / Omega Pharma-Lotto) a 2’10”
4. Bjoern Leukemans (Bel / Vacansoleil) a 2’14”
5. Tyler Farrar (U.S. / Garmin) a 2’35”
6. George Hincapie (U.S. / BMC Racing Team) s.t.
7. Roger Hammond (Gb r/ Cervelo)
8. Maxim Iglinskiy (Kaz / Astana)
9. Danilo Hondo (Ger / Lampre)
10. William Bonnet (France / Bbox-Bouygues)
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