The Omloop Het Niewsblad was marked by an against-all-odds title defence by Ian Stannard (Team Sky), who deserves all the praise that has come his way, while Mark Cavendish proved himself Quick-Step’s face-saver in chief by winning Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne.
That Stannard was not outgunned by Etixx-Quick-Step’s three amigos makes it his triumph, more than Team Sky’s, who left him outnumbered. Are they any closer to winning a Monument Classic this season?
Etixx-Quick-Step will be more strongly backed in the great one-day races of Spring, but only if they banish the Nightmare of Sint-Pietersplein. What exactly went wrong on the road to Gent?
If matters don’t improve for the Belgian heavyweights, will Patrick Lefevere seek alternative employment as a stand-up comedian? His assertion that Stannard should have shared the pacemaking with his trio was rib-tickling indeed. And has Cavendish found a stronger footing for contract negotiations now his skills extend to damage limitation?
Five conclusions from the opening weekend of professional road racing in Belgium…
Warrior Stannard outnumbered but never outgunned
It’s hard to heap sufficient praise on Ian Stannard, who won his second consecutive Omloop Het Nieuwsblad with an admirable mix of grit, determination and tactical nous. Outnumbered three to one by the best team in the sport, whose resource in the breakaway included the reigning Paris-Roubaix champion and arguably the greatest Classics rider of his generation, Stannard kept a cool head and fresh legs, saving his efforts for the critical moments, such as calmly riding back to Boonen with 4km remaining after Tornado Tom had blown his hardest.
With a little under 3km to go, when Terpstra was ‘caught’ by Vandenbergh (more of which below), Stannard attacked, removing any hope from the minds of his adversaries that he was there only to make up the numbers. His acceleration was enough to shell Vandenbergh and to leave Boonen scrabbling for Terpstra’s wheel; one he never quite managed to reach. And when noted non-sprinter Terpstra led out the sprint, Stannard overhauled the Dutchman with the line in sight to complete a masterclass that might be entitled: “How diesels win bike races”. Chapeau, Ian. Again.
Stannard’s second consecutive victory at Het Nieuwsblad came largely as a result of his own efforts, much like the first. Wiggins rode strongly in Stannard’s support in the early stages on Saturday, but when the chips went down, Etixx were there in numbers, while Stannard was left to fight alone.
Is this the season in which Sky finally wins a Monument Classic? The British team has talked big about cycling’s revered one-day races since its inception, but never really looked like winning a Monument, while squandering talents like the now departed Edvald Boasson Hagen. Chris Froome’s early-season form looks likely again to place the Tour at the top of Sky’s agenda, but with the resources at its disposal in the Classics – Stannard, Thomas, Wiggins, Rowe, Eisel, Fenn, Swift – an even half-way coherent strategy should yield a result, shouldn’t it?
While Etixx suffer an embarrassment of riches, Sky’s greatest problem in recent years seems to have been a strategic wooliness that has begat race plans no more advanced than “Let’s see what Geraint can do today”. If Brailsford is serious about making Sky one of the great teams in sport, winning a Monument this season would make an excellent start to his 2020 Vision. He should pick a leader and back him. His name is Stannard.
Etixx and out
Oh dear. Who was Stijn Vandenbergh riding for at the Omloop’s denouement? Hint: not Niki Terpstra. The Dutchman’s counter-attack, launched the moment that Stannard had ground his way back to Boonen’s wheel, was perfectly judged. Why then did Vandenbergh chase him down? Only he will know, but it was the moment when Quick-Step’s numerical supremacy was rendered null and void.
Who was Niki Terpstra riding for at the Omloop’s denouement? Hint: not Tom Boonen. The view from Sporza’s camera, overlooking Boonen’s shoulder, revealed the scale of the Belgian’s effort and suffering. Had Terpstra moved to the front only to block Stannard and disrupt the Englishman’s rhythm, Tomeke would surely have regained contact. Instead, Terpstra pressed on, perhaps believing, and not without justification, that with Boonen having taken his biggest swing and missed, it was his turn to try to register a knockout.
Instead, Terpstra succeeded only in KO-ing his team’s ambitions. Had he waited for this team-mate, a vastly superior sprinter, it’s likely Quick-Step would have registered the decisive blow. Instead, Stannard was the warrior with glove raised at the end of the contest.
Taxi for Lefevere
Oh, Patrick, how you make us laugh. Your post-Omloop comments prompted tears of laughter to roll down our cheeks. Of course Stannard should have shared the workload with your boys on the run in to Gent. Wilfried Peeters was nearby in the team car: perhaps he could have handed a Quick-Step jersey to Stannard? Suitably attired, the new recruit could have led out Tom in Sint-Pietersplein for a Stannard-Quick-Step victory? What larks.
Grapes do not come much more sour than those offered by the Etixx-Quick-Step boss in the immediate aftermath of his team’s humiliation at Het Nieuwsblad. Cavendish may have applied soothing balm to his irritation by winning in Kuurne the following day, but Het Nieuwsblad offers a far greater synergy with the races Etixx-Quick-Step must win this Spring, and there they were humiliated. Lefevere should learn some humility for the rare occasions on which his team does not win. Stannard might help him.
Mark Cavendish spared Lefevere’s blushes for a second day by winning Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne, as expected. The Manxman’s victory came chiefly at the expense of second-placed Alexander Kristoff (Katusha), the form sprinter of last month’s Middle Eastern escapade, who won three stages at the Tour of Qatar and one at the Tour of Oman. Cavendish’s contract is up for renewal and if he needed to supply his paymaster with a compelling reason to extend the lease on his services, he couldn’t have chosen a better time to do so. Today’s headlines in the Belgian press are likely to be more palatable than those of 24 hours earlier.
Indeed, Cavendish has provided Lefevere with more reasons to be cheerful this season than any of his team-mates, winning at the Tour de San Luis and claiming a stage and the overall at the Dubai Tour, before winning at the first time of asking in Europe. His early-season success compares favourably with the peloton’s other quickmen, too. The likeable Kristoff will not lose too much sleep after ceding victory in a comparatively unselective race, but the out-of-form Marcel Kittel (Giant-Alpecin) will have found little in Cavendish’s continued success to lighten his dour mood of Qatar.