Tom Boonen wins 2011 Ghent-Wevelgem

Tom Boonen (Quick Step) wins Ghent-Wevelgem.
2011 Ghent-Wevelgem, Tom Boonen

WEVELGEM, Belgium (VN) — For a man who didn’t really want to be racing Ghent-Wevelgem, Tom Boonen made the best of a bad situation Sunday, winning the race that helped launch his career in 2004.

Quick Step manager Patrick Lefevere instructed the Belgian star to ride the WorldTour race instead of Saturday’s E3 Prijs Harelbeke — which uses many of the same cobbled climbs as next weekend’s Tour of Flanders — because his Quick Step team sorely needed the WorldTour points to improve its 18th car position in the WorldTour caravan.

Boonen did as he was told, and overcame a mid-race puncture, a long wait for a wheel change and a dangerous four-man breakaway that almost stayed clear to the line, to sprint ahead of Daniele Bennati (Leopard-Trek) and Tyler Farrar (Garmin-Cervélo). In doing so, he took his biggest victory since winning Paris-Roubaix in 2009.

It’s been a long two years for Boonen, who was outclassed by Fabian Cancellara at last year’s cobbled classics, finishing second to the Swiss rider at Harelbeke and the Tour of Flanders before finishing a frustrating fifth at Roubaix from a chase group that had lost the impetus to chase Cancellara.

That this year’s Ghent-Wevelgem would finish in a field sprint was never a guarantee, even after Europcar’s Thomas Voeckler, the lone survivor of the day’s breakaway, was reeled in on the Monteberg, the last of 16 climbs, with 34km to go.

It was also on the Monteberg that Liquigas rider Peter Sagan upped the pace, springing clear with teammate Maciej Bodnar, Ian Stannard (Sky), and Boonen’s teammate Sylvain Chavanel.

With 10km to go the peloton was 22 seconds behind the lead quartet and closing. Five kilometers further along, as the bunch roared through Menen, it had slashed the gap in half. With 2km to go the break clung to six seconds. Behind, riders began peeling off the chase as it closed in on the disintegrating break. And as the bunch swarmed the escapees 500 meters from the line, Boonen shot up the left side of the road to take the win.

“I was very happy, I wasn’t really expecting it any more,” Boonen said. “Over the last few years Ghent-Wevelgem was off my list. But because of certain reasons, it’s back on my list, and I won it for a second time. I was surprised.”

The Kemmelberg gives, and the Kemmelberg takes away

With more hills and less time spent on Belgium’s western coastline, Ghent-Wevelgem has become less about riding echelons and more about positioning for climbs. The 210km course includes 16 hills as riders complete two loops of a closing circuit that each includes eight climbs. The most difficult climbs are the first on the loop, the Catsberg, and the seventh, the cobbled climb up the Kemmelberg, is the defining landmark of this race.

Early into the race five men broke away, carving out a lead of about three minutes. In the move were Voeckler, the French national champion; two Belgians, Zingle Romain (Cofidis) and Steven Van Vooren (Topsport Vlaanderen); and two Dutch riders, Bram Schmitz (Willems Veranda’s) and Albert Timmer (Skil-Shimano).

Boonen experienced firsthand the downside to Quick Step’s poor caravan position when he punctured on a narrow road during the first ascent of the Catsberg. The peloton jammed up getting around him as he waited for 20 or more cars to try to slip past. Up ahead, Schmitz and Timmer dropped from the leading group over the Catsberg, paring it down to three.

Fans lining the cobbled climb of the Kemmelberg were treated to Voeckler, winner of two stages at Paris-Nice, riding ahead of his breakaway companions while Boonen, Sagan, Philippe Gilbert (Omega Pharma-Lotto) Juan Antonio Flecha and Matthew Hayman (both Team Sky) and Alessandro Ballan (BMC Racing) led the peloton over the climb.

Missing was Mark Cavendish. The Manxman had punctured prior to the start of the Kemmelberg in what was an all-around tough day at the office for the HTC team of defending champion Bernard Eisel.

First Matt Goss, winner of Milan-San Remo last weekend, had abandoned at the feed zone just 70km into the race; he later tweeted that he has been sick and was “coughing up a lung.” At the start Eisel said that he had the same head cold as Goss.

Cav’s first puncture, prior to the Kemmelberg, forced him to chase back on; then, 20km to go, the HTC sprinter came to grief when a Movistar rider slipped into a ditch and crashed in front of him, taking him and Sky teammates Jeremy Hunt and Hayman off the bike and out of the hunt.

Over the first ascent of the Kemmelberg an escape group formed, including Hayman, Gilbert, Thor Hushovd (Garmin-Cervélo), George Hincapie (BMC), Baden Cooke (Saxo), Geoffroy Lequatre (RadioShack), Gert Steegmans (Quick Step), Jelie Wallays (Topsport Vlaanderen) and Astana’s Maxim Iglinskiy.

It was a dangerous move, but with 50km still to go, its chances were negligible. Those odds were lowered when Gilbert punctured out of the group, taking a spare wheel from a teammate as the peloton passed. The bunch caught the group — and Voeckler, who had shed his breakaway companions — the second time over the Kemmelberg.

One climb was left — the Monteberg.

The break that almost stayed away

Sagan, the 21-year-old Liquigas phenom from Slovakia, drove hard over the Monteberg, drawing out Stannard, Chavanel and his Liquigas teammate Bodnar. Gilbert drove the chase to the Sagan group, which carved out a 12-second lead with 31km to go; the margin grew to 42 seconds with 27km remaining.

Saxo Bank took to the front, riding to set up its sprinter J.J. Haedo, and with Cavendish, Farrar, Boonen, Bennati and André Greipel (Omega Pharma-Lotto) all there, a bunch sprint looked assured.

But with just over 20km remaining, a crash on a narrow road split the field. Cavendish was down, along with Hunt and Hayman, while Hushovd would lose contact with the front. The chase was disrupted, and with 19km to go, the four-man move had 32 seconds.

As the kilometers to the finish in Wevelgem clicked by, the leaders’ gap progressively came down. Sagan’s teammate Bodnar was having trouble holding the pace and slipped off the back of the break and into the chasing peloton. Three kilometers from the line the chase had the leaders in sight on a long, straight stretch of road. However, they didn’t make the catch until inside the final kilometer. With the sprinters waiting for the catch to launch their sprint, it was a chaotic finale that saw Boonen shoot up the left side of the road to take the win.

“I didn’t really expect it,” Boonen said. “I thought the breakaway was gone, and to tell you the truth, (with Chavanel in the move), we were protecting it a bit. All I was doing was shouting at the guys at the front, trying to keep the morale of other teams as low as possible. Suddenly Gert (Steegmans) started sprinting, and I realized it was the lead guys we were passing. It all happened really fast. Next thing I knew I had crossed the finish line first.”

Bennati took second, with Farrar in third.

“It’s bittersweet, I didn’t come to race for the podium, I raced for the win,” Farrar said. “It just didn’t play out that way. I had good legs, but not quite the good luck. I was a bit isolated. It was just me at the front, and I had to spend energy fighting for position. I just didn’t have the legs in the sprint. I got straight–up beat, there’s nothing else to it.

“You could see Quick Step was the best organized at the end, and Boonen is obviously on good form coming into classics,” Farrar continued. “I wasn’t sure if the breakaway was coming back or not. I was just sitting on the group, since I had no one there to sit on the front. I just gambled that the other teams would bring it back.

“I fought for Tom’s wheel, and I wasted some energy for it, but that’s how it goes. A sprint at the end of a one-day classic is different than at a stage of a grand tour; it’s more of who has the best legs at the end of the day. Tom is one of the best classics riders in the world, so it’s no surprise that he’s winning here today.”

Race note: In the finale, Leonardo Duque (Cofidis) and Yoann Offredo (FDJ) hit the deck, apparently after clipping a photographer standing well into the right side of the finishing straight.

Quick results

  • 1. Tom Boonen (Bel), Quick Step, 4:36:13
  • 2. Daniele Bennati (Ita), Leopard-Trek, s.t.
  • 3. Tyler Farrar (USA), Garmin-Cervélo, s.t.
  • 4. André Greipel (Ger), Omega Pharma-Lotto, s.t.
  • 5. Lloyd Mondory (Fra), Ag2r La Mondiale, s.t.
  • 6. Mitchell Docker (Aus), Skil-Shimano, s.t.
  • 7. Bernhard Eisel (Aut), HTC-Highroad, s.t.
  • 8. Kristof Goddaert (Bel), Ag2r La Mondiale, s.t.
  • 9. Lars Boom (Ned), Rabobank Cycling Team, s.t.
  • 10. Baden Cooke (Aus), Saxobank-Sungard, s.t.

Complete results