Fabian Cancellara (Trek Factory Racing) won his third Tour of Flanders with a powerful surge in the final few hundred meters on Sunday.
The big Swiss was in a four-man break with Greg Van Avermaet (BMC Racing), Sep Vanmarcke (Belkin) and Stijn Vandenbergh (Omega Pharma-Quick Step), and none of them seemed eager to fight the final battle after more than six hours of wind-blasted, crash-packed warfare on the 259km course from Brugge to Oudenaarde.
Van Avermaet was on the front when Cancellara finally lit it up, but he would have to settle for second on the day, ahead of Vanmarcke, with Vandenbergh bringing up the rear.
“It was so hard. I had to think coldly, and follow the attacks,” said Cancellara. “It was fantastic to cross the line and to win again. To repeat a victory is even better.
“I still don’t know how I really managed all this. Maybe on television it looks like I was playing, but I was just trying to go with these four riders to the finish line and go man against man. I knew I had one card to play. I never attacked, I was mostly on defense, that’s why I said, ‘Go with them to the finish and give everything you have.’”
Sky put Edvald Boasson Hagen and Geraint Thomas in the lead group on the Koppenberg. Cancellara, Peter Sagan (Cannondale), John Degenkolb (Giant-Shimano), Tom Boonen, Vandenbergh and Zdenek Stybar (Omega Pharma-Quick Step), Vanmarcke and Van Avermaet were there, too.
Boasson Hagen and Dries Devenyns (Giant-Shimano) got a small gap with 35km to go, but it didn’t last.
Van Avermaet punched it with 31km to go. Vandenbergh went with him. And that seemed the signal for riders to test the group one by one, not wanting to wait for Sagan, Cancellara or Boonen to dictate affairs.
As the gap reached 20 seconds Cancellara, Boonen and Vanmarcke took pulls, and then the Belkin man tried a couple of digs. Bjorn Leukemans (Wanty-Groupe Gobert) had a go, too.
But the gap kept going out, to nearly a half-minute over Leukemans and 45 seconds over the favorites’ group with 20km to go.
“I am a little disappointed that Vandenbergh was not working with me so I was always riding on my own,” Van Avermaet said. “I felt very strong and tried to get a good tempo, knowing the strong guys would come. I made it over the Paterberg and then waited a bit.”
For his part, Vandenbergh said he was merely trying to hang on.
“I suffered from cramps on the last climb of Paterberg. I had then no hope,” he said.
As the chase group dithered it grew larger. Suddenly Sagan had teammates. But the leaders were still 40 seconds up the road with Leukemans in between.
Then Cancellara lit the afterburners on the Oude Kwaremont and Vanmarcke grabbed his wheel. Boonen couldn’t follow, and Sagan finally had to clock in and go to work chasing.
“I tried to do something on Kwaremont and see how it goes,” said Cancellara. “I moved up with Sep to the two riders on the front.”
Van Avermaet and Vandenbergh kept pushing onto the cobbles of the Paterberg. The BMC rider took a slight lead over his companion, but Cancellara and Vanmarcke were roaring up behind. They swept up Vanderbergh and went after Van Avermaet with 13km remaining.
The BMC man had just 10 seconds’ advantage over the first pursuit, and he wouldn’t keep it. They caught him with 11km to go and it was a four-man lead group fighting for the victory.
Behind, Alexander Kristoff (Katusha) was trying to reach the leaders, but it seemed he had left it too late. Niki Terpstra (Omega Pharma) caught him.
Eight kilometers out the quartet had 20 seconds and Vandenbergh was not taking pulls. The first chase was at a half minute with the main bunch — or what remained of it — at 50 seconds.
Vandenbergh jumped with just over 3km to go and Van Avermaet went with him. Vanmarcke was next to go and Cancellara followed. As the group reformed Cancellara had his own dig, but again it all came back together.
Going under the red kite it was cat-and-mouse among the leaders. Van Avermaet was on point. Three hundred meters out they were still waiting to open hostilities — and when they finally did, it was Cancellara who had the most left in the tank.
“We lost some teammates early, so had to change everything. I was alone, and that changed the race for me,” said Cancellara. “I knew I had to race smart. When I crossed the line, I was expecting another wheel to come past me.
“I am so honored to win here again. I wanted to go man against man. I knew I had one card to play. This is not a piece of cake. This is a huge piece of cake.”
Van Avermaet was disappointed to miss the victory, but happy to be in contention.
“It was a sprint of the strongest and Fabian started his sprint at the same moment,” Van Avermaet said. “He was a little bit stronger than me. It is a little bit disappointing for me because Flanders is a dream. It is too bad I don’t have it, but I am happy that I was up there in the first group.”
Vanmarcke, too, was proud to have been in the thick of things despite crashing early on.
“It was a childhood dream,” he said. “In the last kilometers, I was having cramps and I said to myself, ‘I have to finish on the podium.’ I decided to go on safe. I even closed a gap myself as otherwise I knew I could end up fourth. I’m happy with my third place, but now, slowly, a sense of disillusionment hits me. If I had started the sprint earlier, you never know what could had happened.”
• American Taylor Phinney (BMC), in his debut at Flanders, made it into an 11-man break that stayed away for more than 175km and wound up 40th on the day. “It is always a bit of a relief to get in a breakaway in a monument because then you don’t have to deal with the stress all day,” Phinney said. “It also sets the team up well because they know they always have me up there if they want to bridge across. I was feeling really good and knew I was one of the strongest from the breakaway. I just wanted to last as long as I could and try to be helpful in the later part of the race when it really started to kick off from behind.”
• Tom Boonen (Omega Pharma-Quick Step) wasn’t quite up to par on Sunday, finishing seventh. “I felt good, but it was not enough. On the Kwaremont, I realized that I was a notch below the best,” he said. “I have a week to regain confidence and strength (for Paris-Roubaix). The result is disappointing because collectively we had a good race.”
• Peter Sagan (Cannondale) also found himself struggling on Sunday, finishing 16th. “It’s never easy to comment on a disappointing result and there aren’t many words to say right now,” he said. “I did not perform as I wanted in a key moment of the race. When Cancellara and Vanmarcke attacked on the Oude Kwaremont I wasn’t able to push hard enough to follow them. This is not a good result, of course, but there’s always something to learn.”
Editor’s note: European correspondent Andrew Hood contributed to this report.