Tom Boonen (Quick Step) silenced his critics on Sunday at Gent-Wevelgem by winning the sprint ahead of Daniele Bennati (Leopard Trek) and Tyler Farrar (Team Garmin-Cervelo) and show that he is on form just a week before the Tour of Flanders.
Gent-Wevelgem is known as the sprinters’ classic but in recent years the breakaways had held off the chasers to steal victory. This year was close, with attacks holding out until sight of the line but despite mechanical problems early in the race, Boonen showed he is still fast in a sprint.
“This race used to be a big goal for me each season but then year after year I focused more and more on the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix. But I’m proud to have won it because it wasn’t an easy day for me.” Boonen explained.
“It seemed that everything was going wrong before it went right. I had a mechanical problem at the foot of the first climb and that forced me to wait a long time to get service. It was definitely more than a minute.”
“It’s true that I’d have preferred to ride the E3 Prijs Vlaanderen – Harelbeke but my team wanted me to ride here. I under stand the reasons and know that the team’s interests are more important than mine. Thanks to this success our team has scored some important ranking points.”
“Fabian won on Saturday and is in great shape but I’ve won today and my form is getting better and better after being illness slowed me before Milan-San Remo. I’m ready for the Tour of Flanders.”
The early action
The skies were overcast and the air chilly in Deinze before the start of the race, but with little wind on the menu, there was no shortage of riders trying to leaving the safety of the peloton. Consequently, the opening section on the flat roads towards the coast was run off at a breakneck pace, with the bunch covering a shade under 52km in the first hour of racing.
The elastic finally snapped soon afterwards, when French champion Thomas Voeckler (Europcar) sparked a move and dragged away Bram Schmitz (Veranda’s Willems – Accent), Romain Zingle (Cofidis), Steven Van Vooren (Topsport Vlaanderen – Mercator) and Albert Timmer (Skil-Shimano) with him for company. After the break reached its maximum lead of five minutes after 70km, the redoubtable Voeckler took matters in hand to ensure they stayed out there by going to the front and driving the group.
With the race passing into France twice to hit the climb of the Catsberg, Voeckler was certainly not short on motivation, but he soon demonstrated that his escape was by no means a mere exercise in showing off the jersey, and he surged to the head of the group as soon as the road went upwards. That immediately put Schmitz and Timmer in trouble and they were dropped on the second ascent of the Catsberg (154km), as the gap to the peloton slipped down to 2:20.
Behind, there was a moment of panic for Tom Boonen (Quick Step) when he suffered a mechanical problem on the climb and after a long delay he was forced to chase back on in the company of Kevin Van Impe. Like Fabian Cancellara at the previous day’s E3 Prijs, Boonen made it safely back to the peloton but the Belgian used up a lot of valuable energy in his pursuit. Yet it also seemed to be a source of extra motivation.
The next man to suffer misfortune was Mark Cavendish (HTC-Highroad), when he punctured at the foot of the Kemmelberg, just as Philippe Gilbert (Omega Pharma-Lotto) hit the front of the climb. The Belgian’s brief show of forcing sent ripples through the peloton, and that reshuffling of the pack would ultimately contribute to sparking a short-lived but dangerous move.
After the next climb of the Monteberg, George Hincapie (Team BMC), Matt Hayman (Team Sky), Baden Cooke (Saxo Bank) and Geoffroy Lequatre (RadioShack) managed to forge clear of the bunch, and they were soon joined by the in-form Gilbert, Thor Hushovd (Garmin-Cervélo), Maxim Iglinsky (Astana), Jelle Wallays (Topsport-Vlaanderen) and Gert Steegmans (Quick Step).
A break featuring Gilbert and Hushovd was never going to be allowed to simply ride away, however, and they were soon reeled back in once Rabobank and Saxo Bank got themselves organised behind, and the pace ratcheted up in the bunch as it approached the decisive second ascent of the Kemmelberg with 41km to go.
Sagan lights up the finale
The cobbled climb is often the key to Gent-Wevelgem and Thomas Voeckler managed to rid himself of his remaining breakaway companions and crest the summit alone. But the peloton was now just 40 seconds behind and closing at pace. In the main group, Peter Sagan (Liquigas-Cannondale) showed his hand on the Kemmelberg with a brief burst that was closely watched by Juan Antonio Flecha (Team Sky). His effort was enough to force another brief selection over the summit of the climb, with Hushovd, Greg Van Avermaet (BMC) and Filippo Pozzato (Katusha) among those keeping tabs on the young Slovak.
Once Voeckler was swallowed up after the fast descent of the Kemmelberg, there was a brief regrouping behind but then Sagan jumped again ahead of the final climb of the Monteberg, with 35km to go. This time he was joined by his teammate Maciej Bodnar, Ian Stannard (Team Sky) and Sylvain Chavanel (Quick Step). The quartet soon opened a 30 second lead thanks to some smooth collaboration.
Gilbert made an abortive attempt to bridge alone but then the large group behind finally began to organise itself with HTC-Highroad and Omega Pharma-Lotto sharing the load. HTC were riding for Cavendish who had got back after his mechanical. Thomas Voeckler was also lending a hand, but with Sagan and Chavanel driving hard up front, the gap grew to 42 seconds with 26km to go.
Cavendish crashes out of contention
Cavendish talks about his race, and the crash that ruined his chances (Warning: video contains explicit language)
While Sagan and company were continuing their move off the front of the bunch, disaster struck one of the other pre-race favourites, when Cavendish crashed at the rear of the bunch. The Manxman couldn’t hide his frustration at missing out on the chance at a classic win in such banal circumstances, and even though he began to chase alone, he must have known that his race was over.
The crash split the front group and gave the four attackers extra hope of success. However while Cavendish lost any chance of victory, Gilbert became more convinced of his chances as did BMC, who also worked hard to pull the quartet back.
The long straight roads of the finale to Wevelgem allowed the chasers to see the four riders up the road and the race turned into a pursuit match.
The gap fell second by second but the kilometres were also down to single figures and the race could have gone either way. With five kilometres to go the gap was down to single figures and Bodnar sat up after giving his all to help teammate Sagan. The prodigious Slovakian rider would have been favourite for the sprint but the now 30-strong bunch was closing on them.
Stannard knew it was better to risk it all than sit back and be swept up. He jumped away with two kilometres to go and dropped Sagan and Chavanel. As he speeded under the one kilometre to go banner, it looked like he could do it. But then the long straight road to the finish seemed to drain his legs. Suddenly the sprinters were on him and swamped him with just 150 metres to go.
Farrar opened up the sprint but Boonen had a better lead out from Steegmans and timed his acceleration better. He hit the front and held his speed all the way to the line.
He had admitted he no longer loved bunch sprints but he loved winning Gent-Wevelgem. Suddenly his season was back on track. Quick Step would no longer be last in the UCI ranking and Boonen had responded to Fabian Cancellara. Bring on the Tour of Flanders.
1 Tom Boonen (Bel) Quickstep Cycling Team
2 Daniele Bennati (Ita) Leopard Trek
3 Tyler Farrar (USA) Team Garmin-Cervelo
4 André Greipel (Ger) Omega Pharma-Lotto
5 Lloyd Mondory (Fra) AG2R La Mondiale
6 Mitchell Docker (Aus) Skil – Shimano
7 Bernhard Eisel (Aut) HTC-Highroad
8 Kristof Goddaert (Bel) AG2R La Mondiale
9 Lars Boom (Ned) Rabobank Cycling Team
10 Baden Cooke (Aus) Saxo Bank Sungard
11 Yoann Offredo (Fra) FDJ
12 Leonardo Fabio Duque (Col) Cofidis, Le Credit En Ligne