It seems that once Farrar starts winning, it’s hard to stop him. Last year the Garmin-Transitions rider went on a hot streak in August and September, winning the Vattenfall Cyclassics, three stages of the Eneco Tour of Benelux and a stage at the Vuelta a España.
This year his streak began at last week’s Three Days of De Panne, where he took his first win of the season in the final field sprint. At Sunday’s Tour of Flanders Farrar took the best-of-the-rest bunch sprint for fifth place, and Wednesday he won the 98th version of the Grand Prix Scheldeprijs , a flat 204-kilometer loop around Northern Belgium, featuring a field of the sport’s top sprinters.
On a day that was all but guaranteed to result in a sprint finish, Farrar’s team, along with HTC-Columbia and Quick Step, helped keep an eight-man breakaway in check. In the hectic final kilometer the American was on his own to freelance through the chaos as former Scheldeprijs winner Tom Boonen surged ahead of the peloton with 450 meters to go to set up his Quick Step teammate Wouter Weylandt.
Weylandt couldn’t handle the pace, however, and Farrar was first to jump on Boonen’s wheel. Behind Farrar, Katusha’s Robbie McEwen and Milram’s Robert Forster battled for position, and in the end, that would be the finishing order: Farrar, McEwen, Forster.
Team Sky’s Greg Henderson took fourth, and Weylandt finished fifth. Last year’s winner Alessandro Petacchi (Lampre-Farnese Vini) and top favorite Andrei Greipel (HTC-Columbia) both finished out of the top 10.
“It was a really hectic race as a whole,” Farrar said. “It was a dangerous break that got away, it was a strong group. We had to chase harder than we’d planned on originally so we used up a lot of our guys chasing to bring them back. I was lucky in the last few k’s, I had a pretty easy time finding the right wheels, and then had the perfect run in off of Quick Step. I was suffering all day, but when it’s one of your objectives and you have seven guys suffering for you, you find a little more.”
From Antwerp to Holland, and back
Met by clear skies and temperatures approaching 70 degrees, the peloton rolled out of Antwerp town square at 12:15. After 15 minutes of a neutral rollout, racing in earnest began in Schoten, where the race would end over four hours later.
Objectives at the start line were mixed. For McEwen, the race was a chance to prove he’s still one of the top sprinters in the sport, even at almost 38 years old and after ending his 2009 season with a nasty knee injury.
“It’s one of the more important race for me in the first part of the season,” McEwen said at the start in Antwerp. “It’s one of the few races that suits my capabilities as a sprinter. It’s an important race, it fits right in amongst all the classics. If you can win here, then it’s a big one.”
For Farrar, the race was one final chance to take a victory during his spring classics campaign, which concludes Sunday at Paris-Roubaix, where he will ride in support of Martijn Maaskant and Johan Vansummeren.
For Boonen, with the Scheledprijs now positioned between Flanders and Roubaix, it was “a training ride,” as he told VeloNews at the start. “I think in the past it was easier to take some risks, it was the last race of spring classics, and if something happens, something happens. But now with most of the guys wanting to do well on Sunday, they won’t want to take any risks.”
In addition to Petacchi and Griepel, other top sprinters included Sky’s Henderson and Chris Sutton, Bernhard Eisel (HTC), Baden Cooke (Saxo Bank), Graeme Brown (Rabobank) and Theo Bos (Cervélo TestTeam). So regardless of any one rider’s objectives, one thing was clear: with so many top sprinters in the field, the final was going to be a field sprint. The wild-card factor would be the smaller Belgian Pro Continental teams competing. In all 24 eight-man teams were on the start list — minus three no-shows — for a peloton of 189 riders.
Inside the Garmin-Transitions team car, director Matt White had simple instructions for his riders: “There are a lot of smaller teams here that will want to get into a break. But if a big break goes away, we shut it down immediately. We’re going to have a sprint today if it kills us.”
Sure enough, the day’s first move was a 15-rider break that included HTC’s Adam Hansen. Without representation, Garmin, Quick Step, Lampre and Sky smothered the move. Once brought back, White was more explicit with his directives: “Everyone to front, except Julian (Dean) and Tyler.”
It took over an hour of racing for the day’s breakaway to be established. In the move were Jonas Ljungblad (Omega Pharma-Lotto), Mat Hayman (Sky), David Boucher (Landboukredit), Arnoud Van Groen (Vacansoleil), Cyril Lemoine (Saur-Sojasun), Gregory Joseph (Topsport Vlaanderen-Mercator) and Niko Eckhout (An Post-Sean Kelly); BMC’s Jackson Stewart was the sole American, and the sole rider from an American team.
Once the day’s breakaway went clear, it became a game of “which teams want the sprint most?” And on Wednesday, those teams were HTC, Garmin and Quick Step. With Hayman in the break, Sky simply lurked at the front, amassed behind the two American squads.
“I didn’t really want to be in the breakaway, to be honest,” Hayman said. “Sunday is a bit more important, with Roubaix. But I couldn’t let any big groups go. I was just up there for the team, and I tried to take it as easy as possible. But the others didn’t want to take it so easy.”
As the peloton rolled north near the border with Holland, clouds rolled in and the skies opened for brief, if threatening, showers.
The escape was given some leash, slowly extending its lead to a maximum of just over six minutes at the feedzone in Tielen as the race moved along averaging 29 miles per hour.
The final 50km
As the race returned to Schoten for three 16km finishing circuits, the gap was down to 2:33. Crossing through the finish line for the first of four times (three circuits plus the finish), the peloton bottlenecked through a narrow but seemingly benign passageway; Garmin’s Maaskant, already bandaged from a crash at Flanders, again touched down, while Quick Step’s Stijn Devolder remained upright but was held up.
With less than 40km to go, a crash through a corner on a cobblestone section saw Boonen stopped when an Euskaltel rider went down. The Belgian national champion was offered a spare bike but refused it, and instead was given an extended tow back through the caravan as his team mechanic helped him trade out a shoe.
Crossing the finish line the second of four times, Stewart had been dropped, while HTC’s Goss took an extended pull. Thirty-two kilometers remained.
Ten kilometers later Quick Step’s Devolder and Boonen were back in the field, with Devolder at the front, helping bring down the break’s gap to 40 seconds. Another 5km later that lead had been halved, and with 10km to go the peloton was intact as the sprint teams began assembling their lead-out trains.
“I knew in the last 30km we didn’t have enough time,” Hayman said. “With eight guys, we had a chance, and we had six minutes at one point, and then I thought maybe.”
However with so many top sprinters in contention, and so many teams in the race, the final 5km became a free-for-all.
“It was very, very hectic of course, as it is every year here,” McEwen said. “A lot of good sprinters are here and their teams trying to help them so it was just guys going absolutely everywhere. It was just a matter of trying to take position and see who would take control of the front of the bunch. Sky was trying, Columbia was trying, everyone was trying to be in control.
“Finally in the final kilometer Quick Step got to the front and Boonen pulled the sprint for Weylandt,” McEwen continued. “I was a little bit far back, but I had two teammates to bring me forward. From about 500 meters to go I had to bite the bullet and come around myself into the wind up to Farrar’s wheel. I had to outmaneuver Forster for his wheel, and that cost a little bit of energy. I tried to come out of the wheel and go, but the legs didn’t quite respond like I wanted to. He rode very strongly and was better on the day.”
When Farrar crossed the finish line he let out a victory scream that also served as a message to the rest of the pro peloton — he’s the real deal, and he’s here to stay.
“I surprised myself a little bit on Sunday at the Tour of Flanders,” he said. “I did more than I thought I could do. I think my form is about the best it’s ever been right now. I can’t really ask for more. My spring is complete, I can’t ask for more. Whatever happens Sunday is bonus. I hope I can help Martijn and Johan stand on the podium.”
Asked why not look for a result for himself at Roubaix, Farrar said it’s not his place, not this year. “I’ve only ridden Paris- Roubaix once, and we have two riders who have been in the top five before,” he said. “I’m not the team leader for Sunday. We have a strong classics team. I’m there for them, unless something happens.”
And what about for future years?
“Yeah I hope so,” Farrar said. “Every year is a new year. If I continue to progress, it’s possible.”