Sunday 6 April 2014

Tour of Flanders 2014 - This is Sparta!

Yesterday was the 2014 Ronde van Vlandeeren, or the Tour of Flanders to you and I. It was the 98th incarnation of the race, and despite the lack of traditional rain and rivers of mud, provided much exciting racing.

The Tour of Flanders is one of the Spring Classics of cycling, and one of the monuments. Long gruelling distances circa 230km are raced over cobbles usually flowing with rivers of mud, delightfully named Belgian Toothpaste, for it's unrivalled ability to find it's way into riders mouths. The slippery nature of these, and the overwhelming narrowness of the roads - think singletrack country lane - mean tactics are key, and staying upright even more so.

This year's race was no exception, with numerous crashes including Britain's Geraint Thomas (SKY), who went down for the third time in as many weeks. However, the most spectacular - and not in a good way - was that of Johan Vansummeren (Garmin-Sharp). About a quarter of the way through the race, the bunch were chasing a breakaway of 11 riders at high speed when they came upon a traffic island. What happened isn't too clear, but Vansummeren ended up hitting the island, on which several spectator's were standing. An older woman, reported to be in intensive care, took the brunt of the impact, falling to the ground firmly. A press release from the organisers states their sympathy and regret for the crash, as does that from team Garmin-Sharp. Vansummeren himself is reported to have suffered facial lacerations and widespread cuts/bruising.

Racing was fierce, with breakaways being chased down until a group of 11 riders escpaed at about 40km, the last of them reeled in with a mere 50km to go. Any potential attacks were swiftly relled in there forth, until that of Belgians Greg Van Avermaet (BMC) and Stijn Vandenbergh (Omega Pharma-Quick-Step) launched an ultimately successful attempt with over 20km to go. With just over 20 seconds advantage, the peloton tried to reel the pair in, but the narrow cobbles seemed to negate the bunch advantage, and despite brutal efforts they struggled to reduce the gap. This surge in pace had the unexpected effect of eliminating 2 of the 3 main contenders bids for victory. Overwhelming favourite Peter Sagan (Cannondale) and Tom Boonen (Omega Pharma-Quick-Step) were seen struggling to hang on to the back of the bunch, putting them out of contention on the tight roads.

On the other hand, this provided the perfect opportunity for the third of the favourites, and two time champion, Fabian Cancellara (Trek Factory Racing). With the two leaders ahead, Cancellara demonstrated his unrivalled tactical mind, and unmatched engine, attacking on the Oude Kwaremont, taking only Sep Vanmarke (Belkin) with him. A punishing pursuit ensued, with a frustrated Cancellara screaming at Vanmarke to work to catch the leading pair, which they did with 10km to go.

With just over half a minute on the bunch, a furious Cancellara powered the quartet forward, with the other reluctant to take turns. As they approached the final few kilometres, a brace of attacks came close to distancing the workhorse Cancellara, but the four came into the final kilometre together. Slowing to nearly a standstill, with 500m to go Cancellara was nestled perfectly at the back of the group, none wanting to lead out the others. At 300m to go, Spartacus wound up, launching an attack, which only the initial escapee Van Avermaet could follow, but to little avail. Cancellara crossed the line elated, a three time champion, joining the legendary ranks including Johan Museeuw and Tom Boonen.

Overall a thoroughly exciting race, and scintillating tactics and power from Spartacus himself, Fabian Cancellara. A well deserved victory.

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