MEERBEKE, Belgium (VN) — Nick Nuyens (Saxo Bank-Sungard) won a hard-fought Tour of Flanders on Sunday as defending champion Fabian Cancellara (Leopard-Trek) finally proved himself mortal on the steeps of the Muur.

2011 Tour of Flanders, Nick Nuyens wins
Nick Nuyens comes around Fabian Cancellara and Sylvain Chavanel to win the Tour of Flanders. Photo: Graham Watson |

The two, with Sylvain Chavanel (Quick Step), were part of a threesome racing to the line just ahead of a furious chase containing Tom Boonen, George Hincapie, Philippe Gilbert and Juan Antonio Flecha.

The defending champion put in considerable work over the final 40km of the 256.3km monument, and for a moment, it seemed that Cancellara could still prove victorious as he drove the break toward the line.

But Nuyens — a former lead-out man for Boonen — found the legs to come around him in the finale, while Chavanel pipped the big Swiss for second.

“I felt very relaxed during the final sprint,” said an ecstatic Nuyens, who was competing in his seventh Tour of Flanders.

“It was only in the final 50 meters that I started to fully realize what was happening, that I was about to win this beautiful race.”

Getting busy early

Riding out under overcast but dry skies from Brugge’s historic downtown square, the peloton quickly got down to business, averaging 50kph in the first 25km.

After a few fruitless attacks, five riders went clear at about 55km into the 260km contest — former Cervélo teammates Roger Hammond (Garmin-Cervélo) and Jeremy Hunt (Sky) plus Stefan van Dijck (Veranda’s Willems), Mitchell Docker (Skil-Shimano) and Sébastien Turgot (Europcar)

By 80km at the Nokereberg, the first of 18 helling (climbs), the break had six minutes.

Hammond leads the early break. | Graham Watson photo.

Behind, Rabobank’s Maarten Tjallingii attacked, followed by Garmin’s Heinrich Haussler and then a few others. Soon a group of 15 was clear, including Mark Cavendish and Bernhard Eisel (HTC-Highroad), André Greipel (Omega Pharma-Lotto), Edvald Boasson Hagen (Sky) and Vladimir Gusev (Katusha). The Leopard-Trek squad of defending champion Cancellara took up chasing duties.

As this bigger group was caught, Greipel again attacked, bringing two riders with him. Before the start in Brugge, Greipel said that his teammate Philippe Gilbert was the clear team leader for Flanders. And Greipel put his legs where his mouth was, doing his part to force Leopard to expend their resources chasing while keeping Gilbert protected.

The battling between Omega Pharma and Leopard chopped the break’s lead in half.

Back in the peloton, Haussler, the runner-up here in 2009, shook out his left leg at the back, putting his foot on the saddle to stretch his quad. As the peloton filled the entire road and both sidewalks, riders bunny-hopped curbs to change position. Combined with the aggressive racing, this type of riding resulted in Marcus Burghardt (BMC), Davide Malacarne (Quick Step) and Joop Posthuma (Leopard-Trek) all going down separately.

As the peloton hit the Kruisberg, the gap was down to two minutes. Next up was the Knokteberg, a little hump en route to the crucial Oude Kwaremont, a 2.2km climb — 1.5km of it cobbled — with a maximum gradient of 11.6 percent. Cancellara sprang clear on the Kwaremont to win G3 Prijs Harelbeke on the preceding weekend.

Many of the climbs begin with tight turns on narrow roads, forcing the peloton into a bottleneck. For riders in the back, this can mean coming to a complete standstill — not the way you want to start a hard cobbled climb. This was the situation for about 30 riders on the Knokteberg as Omega Pharma drove the pace, fracturing the peloton.

Daniel Lloyd (Garmin) washed out while leading the peloton, flying around a corner, quickly bouncing back up as the field dodged around him.

Attacks on the Kwaremont

A wall of sound swallowed the break as the riders hit the fan-packed Oude Kwaremont, drowning out the rattling of bikes — and chattering of teeth — over the stones.

Behind, Chavanel went clear of the peloton. Although Quick Step tried to mass at the front and ride tempo on the climb, Team Sky’s Matt Hayman pushed through and drilled it to chase, with teammate Geraint Thomas quickly lending a hand. Hunt and Stefan van Dijck (Veranda’s Willems) were dropped.

Roger Hammond (Garmin-Cervélo), Mitchell Docker (Skil-Shimano) and Sébastien Turgot (Europcar) held a slim lead up and over the very steep Patterberg. Chavanel and Simon Clark (Astana) bridged up to the leading three.

On the Koppenberg — a 600-meter pitch that kicks to 22 percent — Gilbert hammered out of the saddle at the peloton’s front, with Boonen about a wheel’s length back and Cancellara and Juan Antonio Flecha (Sky) right behind. Gilbert caught the original three from the break just as they crested the climb. Chavanel and Clark still had enough spring in their legs to stay clear off the paved but very narrow and winding descent of the Koppenberg.

On the Taaienberg, BMC’s Greg Van Avermaet took a dig at the front, with Boonen, Flecha and Sebastian Langeveld (Rabobank) going clear with him. World champion Thor Hushovd (Garmin-Cervélo) was having none of it, and closed the gap.

Cresting the Eikenberg at 190km, Boasson Hagen  jumped and Lars Boom (Rabobank) followed.

Behind, Martin Mortensen (Leopard-Trek) took a huge pull for the main front group, which had been whittled down to about 50 men.

After the pack made a hard left onto the Molenberg, Boasson Hagen jumped once more and again Boom followed.

Then Flecha took the front to force the pace, with Cancellara, Boonen and Hushovd in single file behind.

Soon Björn Leukemans (Vacansoleil) jumped with Baden Cooke (Saxo) and formed a group with Van Avermaet,  Hayman and Tom Leezer (Rabobank) in pursuit of Boasson Hagen and Boom.

Off the climb, however, the favorites sat up and looked around at each other.

Boonen jumps — and Cancellara rockets past

After Hushovd drilled it up the Haaghoek, Boonen launched a hard counterattack, marked immediately by Cancellara and Filippo Pozzato (Katusha) at 42km. The trio blew through the group of five, and Cancellara punched clear. Boonen sprinted out of the saddle, two bike lengths back.

As Cancellara passed Boom and Boasson Hagen, Boonen was caught behind as the road tightened. He hesitated — and the big Leopard man was gone.

Then, it was a 40km time trial.

Cancellara quickly caught Chavanel, who immediately sat on the Swiss engine. Behind, Leukemans, Boom, Boasson Hagen, Pozzato, Boonen and Van Avermaet rode together in pursuit.

With 30km to go and only three climbs to go — the Tenbosse, the Muur-Kapelmuur and the Bosberg — Gilbert led a group of about 20 back to the Boonen group. Despite its strength in numbers, the group continued to lose ground to Cancellara, who held a 50-second lead. With Chavanel hanging doggedly onto the wheel, the world time trial champion did what he did best, not so much as looking back at the Quick Step rider.

After a lot of disorganization in the chase, BMC finally took control, putting a half-dozen riders on the front and clawing back a handful of seconds.

Garmin-Cervélo took a different tack. “No riding, no riding,” team manager Jonathan Vaughers told his riders over the radio. “We’re just riding for the sprint now. Let everybody else do the work.”

Belgian national champ Stijn Devolder and his Vacansoleil-DCM teammates did some work; and with 20km remaining the gap was under a minute, with the Muur and its maximum grade of nearly 20 percent just ahead.

The chase closes in

As the two leaders began the climb the peloton quickly began snatching back bags of time. With 16km to race Cancellara and Chavanel had only a dozen seconds’ advantage, and the bunch was closing in fast.

Gilbert was the first to make contact, with Boonen on his wheel and Alessandro Ballan (BMC) nearby.

Cancellara dug once more and only Boonen could stick with him. Then Boonen lost contact, and Gilbert, Leukemans and Ballan joined up with Cancellara, with a seven-man chase shaping up behind, led by Thomas.

Gilbert attacked on the Bosberg, the final climb of the day, chased by Leukemans. Cancellara seemed finally spent, either through fatigue or a mechanical.

Cancellara later said the penultimate climb had taken its toll.

“The Mur de Grammont was the turning point in the race for me. I started suffering from cramps,” he said.

Ballan was in pursuit, too, but Gilbert was away with 11km to go.

Ten kilometers from the line he held a double handful of seconds over a five-man pursuit containing a revitalized Cancellara, Ballan, Leukemans, Chavanel and Staf Scheirlinckx (Veranda’s Willems-Accent). But he couldn’t hold it and soon it was a six-man group racing toward the finish.

A second chase containing Nuyens, Boonen and George Hincapie (BMC) quickly tacked on, doubling the size of the lead group. Ballan then attacked 6km from the line and Gilbert shut him down.

Sky teammates Flecha and Thomas traded attacks then, to no effect. Then Langeveld had a go, taking a slight gap. Ballan quashed that move.

Cancellara goes once more, but Nuyens goes when it counts

Finally, Cancellara gave it the gas once again — Chavanel and Nuyens quickly marked him and the three took a slight gap.

With 2km remaining Nuyens was anxiously looking over one shoulder as Boonen and Flecha drove a desperate, last-ditch chase. One kilometer from the line the trio kept driving, with Cancellara on the front.

Cancellara, too, had one last look over the shoulder as the leaders dove into the final right-hander leading to the finish. He saw a sprinting Boonen coming off of Flecha and trying to get across, prompting the big Swissto lead out the sprint.

“I knew that Boonen was coming back to us but I didn’t know exactly where he was,” Cancellara said. “That’s why I launched my sprint from so far out.”

Nuyens slipped past Cancellara on the right for the win, just ahead of Chavanel.

Preliminary results

  • 1. Nick Nuyens (B), Saxo Bank-Sungard, 256.3km in 6:00:42
  • 2. Sylvain Chavanel (F), Quick Step, s.t.
  • 3. Fabian Cancellara (Swi), Leopard-Trek, s.t.
  • 4. Tom Boonen (B), Quick Step, at 0:02
  • 5. Sebastian Langeveld (Nl), Rabobank, at 0:08.
  • 6. George Hincapie (USA), BMC, at 0:08
  • 7. Björn Leukemans (B), Vacansoleil-DCM, at 0:08
  • 8. Staf Scheirlinckx (B), Veranda’s Willems-Accent, at 0:08
  • 9. Philippe Gilbert (B), Omega Pharma-Lotto, at 0:08
  • 10. Geraint Thomas (GB), Sky, at 0:08

Complete results