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Mark Cavendish sprinted to victory in Sunday's...

Etixx’s hard lesson at Omloop pays dividends in Kuurne

Dan Seaton analyzes Etixx's loss in Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, which the team followed by winning Sunday's Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne

KUURNE, Belgium (VN) — Once again, the contrasts could not have been more stark. On Saturday, for the second straight year, Belgian powerhouse Etixx-Quick-Step failed to deliver at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, its first home race of the season. On Sunday, for the second straight year, it took revenge at Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne.

In 2014 the difference was largely weather: Saturday’s wet, frigid gloom gave way to the kind of lovely early spring sunshine in which Etixx’s Tom Boonen has built the better part of his career. This year, the difference was simple patience.

At Omloop, overeager racing in the final kilometers erased what had appeared to be a certain victory for the Belgians, and Sky’s Ian Stannard overhauled Nikki Terpstra in the race’s final meters. In Kuurne, by contrast, the Etixx squad put everything into delivering sprinter Mark Cavendish first to the finish line. They adapted quickly when a late breakaway evaporated some 30km out and held their fire until the red kite was well behind, even in the face of an audacious but — at least for a moment — plausible attack by BMC Racing’s Philippe Gilbert, and delivered exactly the victory they had planned.

A night of undoubtedly uneasy sleep was apparently all it took to absorb the lesson of one of the more monumental strategic blunders Belgium has seen in a long time.

The errors at Omloop

Moments after Etixx’s Zdenek Stybar crossed the finish line in seventh position on Saturday, he pointed hopefully to teammate Terpstra. The implicit message of the gesture was clear: “You won? Of course you won, right?”

Terpstra’s shrug and shake of the head told far more than just an answer in the negative. His loss, he seemed to say, was almost unexplainable.

For nearly all of the final 40km of Saturday’s race, Etixx’s riders seemed poised for certain victory. The team, arguably fielding the strongest lineup of the day, broke the race open on the Haagheok cobbles with an attack that eventually set up a three-on-one battle up front: Boonen, Stijn Vandenbergh, and Terpstra against Stannard.

If that wasn’t enough, Etixx had another card up its sleeve. Stybar was sitting in the only serious chase group, perhaps 20 seconds down, alongside Sep Vanmarcke (Lotto NL-Jumbo) and Greg Van Avermaet (BMC). On paper, Etixx and its smothering tactics appeared to have the race sewn up.

It did not.

Stannard, racing in a weak position, had far less to lose than the Etixx boys in the event. Vanmarcke, who Etixx director Patrick Lefevere later tipped as the race’s strongest man, managed to haul the break back. While Boonen and company launched into a 40km team time trial, Stannard sat comfortably in the slipstream. When the trio started attacking with 5km to go, Stannard covered every move, eventually forcing Terpstra to ride leadout for him as they approached the sprint, handing him an apparently easy victory.

“I was a little bit worried about [being outnumbered],” Stannard said on Saturday. “I thought they were going to attack me pretty hard at the end. But, you know, the group behind was only 20 seconds behind, so they couldn’t try too much. So I could just play poker on the back. You know, Tom tried to attack me and I rode back up to him. When you ride back up to a guy like that, you know your legs are pretty good.”

After the race, Etixx boss Lefevere stoked controversy, telling reporters he saw things differently, that he believed Stannard had not done his part to secure the break against the challenge from behind.

“Stannard did what he had to do,” said Lefevere. “But a rider at his level from that team should have done his share until the gap was 40 seconds. He played tough, OK, but tomorrow or next week it’s another race, and we could play it that way.”

Sky sport director Servais Knaven knows a thing or two about Lefevere’s smother-the-competition tactics. His own biggest victory, in the epic, muddy 2001 Paris-Roubaix, was built on the back of just such a gambit. In that race, his Domo-Farm Frites team, an earlier Lefevere venture, put four men into the top five, a show of force that suffocated what may have been American George Hincapie’s best chance to win the monument.

On Sunday, Knaven told VeloNews he believed Stannard had played a weak hand perfectly.

“I don’t think he should have [worked in the break],” he said. “I think he made the right decision from the beginning not to pull. The guys were going fast enough, and they took 20, 25 seconds immediately. That’s sometimes the other side, when you are that strong as a team, it’s not always the best situation to have so many guys up there. That means you have to work.”

Though Knaven acknowledges Etixx had probably not played the final perfectly, he declined to say they had made a tactical error.

“They played it like this and they didn’t win it, so it was probably not the best tactic,” Knaven said. “I didn’t expect Tom to attack, I thought they would play his card for the sprint. Also because he was sitting on the wheel of Ian the last 10km. But of course that’s easy. If Terpstra had won the sprint everything would be different. It was only 50cm of difference. I’m not going to say they did a stupid tactic. At the end it was good for Ian, but you have to remember Ian still had really strong legs and he had to close all the gaps. He didn’t steal it.”

Etixx sport director Wilfried Peeters, a key player on that same 2001 Domo squad that brought Knaven to victory in Roubaix, told VeloNews he basically agreed with his former teammate’s assessment.

“We were very, very strong with the team. We had four guys in the top seven. OK, we were missing the victory, that’s a mistake from us, also from me and from the team, and it’s not going to happen anymore. But I am very, very happy after the race with the team results. Not with the victory, but hopefully the next races it won’t happen anymore.”

But he walked a very fine line, siding with his boss Lefevere on whether Etixx would use the similar tactic on Sky had the roles been reversed while simultaneously acknowledging Stannard’s limited options.

And the Etixx men who occupied the lower steps on the podium, both of whom had watched victory slip from their grasp in the closing moments of an otherwise near-perfect race?

“Today we made a mistake in the final,” Boonen said. “We were in control of the race with three riders in the front group. In the final kilometers we attacked.

“But Stannard had the strategy to ride on the wheels of us three in the lead group, and save his energy until the final kilometers, so he was a bit fresher. He was also strong today. So, he caught me. The best thing to do at that point would have been to stay calm and wait for the sprint. But we had been full gas for the last hour, so really it was about instinct at that point. So, Niki attacked again, then Stannard, and then the final sprint was between those two guys.

“There is a thin line between a great race and a costly mistake and unfortunately we took the risk of not waiting for the sprint, and it didn’t work out.”

Terpstra echoed Boonen, crediting Stannard for savvy racing and an impressive sprint.

“[Sitting in] was a smart move by [Stannard], any of us would have done the same thing,” he said. “In the final we attacked with the three of us in front. But after a few attacks he countered and then attacked. In the end I was alone with Stannard. I was in front for the sprint. I saw it was 300 meters and I decided not to go yet. Then I accelerated at 200 meters. Normally that is perfect for me, but I didn’t have the perfect sprinting legs after the big effort all day. I thought I had him until 50 meters in front of the finish line. I had nothing left in my legs at that point.

“Looking back, maybe it would have been better to wait for the sprint with Tom and not attacking, but it’s a question of moment and circumstances.”

Etixx strikes back

An hour before Kuurne kicked off, Etixx’s Peters was clear the team did not intend to repeat Saturday’s mistakes.

“We need to have a clear plan every race,” he told VeloNews. “And every race we will say ‘OK, you are the leader now.’”

And indeed, in Kuurne, the team went all-in for Cavendish.

“Tom [Boonen] has won here three times,” said Cavendish later. “But he said this morning on the bus, ‘I’ll be leadout for Cav for it.’ You know it could have been easy for him to want to go for his fourth, but to commit for the sake of the team and guarantee the win as best we could here was nice.”

This time it worked. The team accounted for five of the 19 men in the breakaway that went clear as the peloton rolled through the final climbs of the race. With four men and Cavendish in what appeared to be the decisive move, again the race appeared to belong to Etixx.

When the break faltered, reeled in with about 35km to go, Etixx regrouped around Cavendish, putting him in perfect position just as the peloton reeled in Gilbert’s damn-the-torpedoes move.

They didn’t smother the race, but Etixx’s quick-change tactical plan, and a return to fundamentals — patience, execution, and overwhelming firepower — made the second time a charm.

“It wasn’t easy. F—king hell, it was Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne,” said the victorious Cavendish. “It was hard all day. It wasn’t easy, but I got great support from Etixx-Quick-Step and I was able to sprint at the end.”