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By Neal Rogers
Belgian Tom Boonen has worn many race numbers over his young career, but he may just pin the number 172 he wore at Sunday’s Tour of Flanders on his wall. Boonen, along with the overwhelming majority of the region of Flanders, got what both had collectively wished for when the QuickStep sprinter rode himself into the history books with the biggest win of his young career with a win at the Ronde Van Vlaanderen, or Tour of Flanders.
Under warm and sunny skies, the 24-year-old Belgian launched an audacious solo attack out of a six-man breakaway with over 10km remaining, not just maintaining his lead but increasing it to a stunning 35 seconds ahead of T-Mobile’s Andreas Klier. Two-time winner Peter Van Petegem (Davitamon-Lotto-Domo) took third out of a four-man sprint for the final podium spot, narrowly edging out Klier’s teammate Erik Zabel.
It was a storybook day for the young man from Mol, east of Antwerp, who had been pegged as the race favorite even after a crash last week at Three Days of De Panne forced him to abandon the Belgian stage race with a bruised pelvis and stitches to his hand. In Saturday’s pre-race edition of the Belgian paper Het Volk, Boonen was predicted as the winner by eight of 16 experts, and the permanently grinning Boonen received a tremendous amount of applause at the morning’s sign in, eclipsing the response received by both Tour de France winner Lance Armstrong and two-time Flanders winner Peter Van Petegem.
Many of those who bet against Boonen’s chances Sunday pointed to his young age, his recent injuries and his favorite status as ample reason why he would not succeed in the difficult fourth event of the new UCI ProTour. But Boonen arrived to the start feeling good and looking relaxed.
“Sure, there was some pressure, more than usual,” the former U.S. Postal rider said in clear English. “I was thinking about the Tour of Flanders last night, which is not usually how I like to feel before a race. But this morning I felt good, and just tried to stay calm and relaxed.”
Setting the stage
After 100km of racing, a break of six riders formed on the flat, paved stretch of roads that lead to the infamous 21km of cobbles and 17 hills of the 256km course. In the group was last year’s Paris-Roubaix winner Magnus Bäckstedt (Liquigas-Bianchi), David Boucher (MrBookmaker.com-Sportstech), Constantino Zaballa (Saunier Duval), Carlos Barredo (Liberty Seguros), Francis Mourey (Francaise Des Jeux) and Samuele Marzoli (Lampre-Caffita).
The breakaway quickly opened up a gap of five-and-a-half minutes before QuickStep and the T-Mobile team of race favorite Andreas Klier came to the front to set tempo. With last year’s winner Steefen Wesseman abandoning with over 150km remaining, and no teamamtes represented in the breakaway, T-Mobile was particularly motivated, as evidenced by Zabel’s numerous attacks over the day. Clearly looking to quiet those that might dispute his role on T-Mobile’s Tour de France squad, Zabel rode like a man possessed on Sunday, continuously riding in the wind, initiating moves and countering attacks until he finally escaped for good with 36km remaining.
By the time Zabel finally made his decisive move, however, the initial breakaway had dwindled down to just Zaballa. Marzoli had been first to go, dropping off the pace on the cobbles after the day’s first climb, the Molenberg. Mourey and Boucher were next to shed off the group, which saw its lead dwindle to 2:50 at the day’s second feed zone at 185km in and 70 remaining. With Bäckstedt setting pace on the flats and struggling to hang on over the hills, the group trudged along, while behind, T-Mobile struggled to put something together. Led by Armstrong, George Hincapie and Viatcheslav Ekimov, Discovery Channel rode somewhat conservatively early on, near the front but not yet spending much time driving the pace.
A brief split in the field occurred at the infamously steep 600km Koppenburg climb, with Boonen, Klier, Van Petegem and Fassa Bortolo’s Juan Antonio Flecha off the front while some riders walked the near 20-precent grade in sections. The peloton, however, was all back together within moments. With 69km remaining and the leaders’ gap reduced to 1:31, Zabel again made a move, followed by Phonak’s Gregory Rast, but after Zast was dropped Zabel eventually sat up and waited for the peloton.
Up ahead, Bäckstedt, the biggest man in the peloton, was yo-yoing off the back on the steep climbs and was eventually dropped with 60km to go. “I went more quickly than the others on the flats, but they were stronger on the hills,” Bäckstedt said. “All in all, it was good training for Paris-Roubaix. The condition is good, so I am optimistic.”
With Fassa Bortolo and now Van Petegem aiding in the chase, the remaining duo of Barredo and Zaballa hovered at 50 seconds as various combinations involving Zabel, Ekimov, Van Petegem, Erik Dekker (Rabobank), Aussie Stuart O’Grady (Cofidis) and Flecha toyed with breaking away, but were repeatedly reabsorbed.
Next to have a go was T-Mobile’s Marcus Burghardt, who snuck away solo with 52km remaining. And when Burghardt was joined by a surging Alessandro Ballan (Lampre-Caffita), the pair picked up the ailing Bäckstedt and Barredo, forming a chase group 28 seconds behind a valiant Zaballa. Ballan didn’t stay with his new companions long, however, bridging across to Zaballa as the field appeared to slow down, frustrated with negative tactics. Boonen and Van Petegem in particular had been closely marking each other all day. With QuickStep at the front, Bäckstedt, Barredo and Burghardt were caught with 43km remaining, and after the 13th climb of the day, the Berendries, Ballan rode away from Zaballa to take sole ownership of the race lead.
Behind, Discovery came to life on the Berendries, with Armstrong and Ekimov taking duties at the front in hopes to put Hincapie and Belgian Stijn Devolder in position, bringing the gap to within 35 seconds with 37km remaining. It was then that Zabel launched a move that finally stuck.
The winning combination
With just 36km and four climbs remaining, Zabel attacked again, drawing out Fassa Bortolo’s Roberto Petito. The pair reeled in Zaballa, who had been left to hang in no man’s land by Ballan, whose own lead was approaching one minute. Zabel’s move prompted a reaction from Van Petegem, Boonen and Klier on the Valkenburg climb, and when the five men finally picked up Ballan with 29km remaining, the winning break had been formed.
Heading into the day’s 15th climb, the Tenbosse, Armstrong took one final pull at the front in hopes of launching Hincapie and Devolder. But when “The Boss” finally cracked, T-Mobile put a pair of riders, Rolf Aldag and Sergeui Ivanov, at the head of the chase to slow things down, forcing Ekimov, Hincapie and Fassa’s Flecha to drive the chase. Hincapie made a move at 23km to go, but was again flanked by both T-Mobile and Davitamon riders, happy to sit on with teammates up the road.
As the six leaders approached the infamous Muur-Kapelmurr, the steep and cobbled second-to-last climb that has so often been the sight of race-deciding moves, the riders closely watched each other looking for a move. But none came, and with two T-Mobile riders in the front at 16km remaining and a 1:01 lead, it was clear that Van Petegem, Boonen, Petito and Ballan couldn’t let things come down to a sprint.
Van Petegem was first to attack following the Muur, but Boonen quickly followed, and the expenditure of the dual effort was enough for Zabel and Petito, both slightly dropped on the Muur, to claw their way back on to the group. With 15km remaining, the group held a 53 second lead as it approached the day’s final climb, the Bosberg.
Klier was first to try his hand on the Bosberg, again putting Zabel and Petito in trouble, but the pair of breakaway antagonists again scratched back on to the back of the tiring leaders. Boonen made a semi-serious move with 11km remaining, and again Van Petegem easily responded, but as evidenced by his continual conversing with Petito, who wasn’t taking pulls, and Klier, it grew clear Van Petegem wasn’t happy with the race’s impending outcome.
At 10km remaining Van Petegem threw in an attack that Boonen quickly answered, and it was then the QuickStep rider made his winning solo move. “At nine kilometers left it was ideal to go,” Boonen said. “If I had waited for the sprint, with Zabel and a teammate, I would definitely have lost. Not because I would come up short, but because certainly there would have been somebody who attacked. So I did it myself.”
In an instant Boonen opened a seven-second lead, and his powerful pedaling showed he wasn’t slowing. In fact, Boonen was gaining, as his lead stretched to 10 seconds with 5km remaining, 12 seconds with 3km remaining, and ended with an impressive 35-second cushion. As he crossed the line, Boonen pumped his fists repeatedly and let out a primal scream. Waiting at the finish was QuickStep directeur sportif Patrick Lefevre, to whom Boonen gave a tearful first hug.
“This is insane, just like it ought to be, with a short solo win,” Boonen said. “Petito hadn’t ridden one meter at the front, so he couldn’t be better [for the finish]. This was the scenario I had in my head. Actually, I wanted to do it like Edwig Van Hooydonck in 1991, by attacking at the Bosberg, but I didn’t succeed.”
Behind Boonen, Klier had opened up a gap, crossing five seconds in front of Van Petegem, who just outkicked Zabel for the final podium spot. It was a bittersweet finish for Van Petegem, whose hometown of Brakel is on the Flanders course.
“The last few weeks, these three names were always mentioned by the “specialists,” Van Petegem said, referring to Boonen, Klier and himself. “And these three are on one, two and three in the results. Without any question the strongest rider won. Klier probably attacked a little too soon on the Bosberg, and on the top he broke. Then Tom reacted and I could join on. When Tom attacked another time, I didn’t anticipate it very well and he flew off. I tried, didn’t I? On the Muur I gave everything and I wanted to diminish the group, but it didn’t work very well because at the top we slowed down. And I was imprisoned by the teamwork from T-Mobile. But the way Boonen won here today, it needs no further explanation.”
Likewise, Klier was content with his runner-up status.
“After last year’s victory, T-Mobile has to be happy with second place this year,” Klier said. “It was a very tough final. Nobody was fresh anymore. In fact I was the worst of the three. On the Bosberg I was almost deadly exhausted. When Tom attacked, nobody could answer, certainly not me. In fact I am happy enough that I finished second. Some may question our team tactics, but we rode for each other. I wanted to do the work for Zabel and when he felt a bit less, I could go for my chances. But there was nothing to do against Boonen today. He was really the best.”
Winning the field sprint for seventh today was Hincapie. Belgian Stijn Devolder finished 35th, 4:32 off the winning time.
“Today I didn’t have the legs of the Three Days of De Panne,” Devolder said. “I couldn’t do much more than just follow the bunch. When the decisive attack happened, I couldn’t react. Neither could Hincapie or Armstrong. We tried to come back and came to half a minute at one point, but then our will broke. It’s a shame, because I had thought I could do better. I’ll have to try to do better in Ghent-Wevelgem and Paris-Roubaix.”
And asked about repeating his own feat with a double next Sunday at Paris-Roubaix, Boonen answered, “It’s possible, the way I am riding at the moment. And [the course at] Paris-Roubaix is even more made for me than the Tour of Flanders.”
Discovery director Johann Bruyneel told the Associated Press on Sunday that he was satisfied with Armstrong’s performance on Sunday.
“He suffered a lot in the final stages,” team leader Johan Bruyneel said. “He got seriously hit by the hammer.”
Despite the setback, Bruyneel insisted Armstrong’s preparations are on course for a record-stretching seventh Tour de France title in July.
“He proved he is in good shape and that he is motivated to race,” Bruyneel told the VRT network. “He was very nervous and kept on talking over the radio signal. That is always a good sign. He is on schedule.”
Armstrong himself was not available for comment after the race.
“At the moment, he cannot really think clearly,” said Bruyneel.
Amid rumors Armstrong will retire, Bruyneel refused to speculate on whether it was his last race in Belgium.
“There is a press conference on April 18 and then it will be a lot clearer,” he said.
Bruyneel gave assurances though that Armstrong will not pull out of this year’s Tour.
1. Tom Boonen (B) QuickStep, 256km in 6:22:49
2. Andreas Klier (G) T-Mobile, at 0:11
3. Peter Van Petegem (B) Davitamon-Lotto 0.15
4. Erik Zabel (G) T-Mobile
5. Roberto Petito (I) Fassa Bortolo
6. Alessandro Ballan (I), Lampre, all same time
7. George Hincapie (USA), Discovery Channel , at 1:01
8. Leon Van Bon (Nl), Davitamon-Lotto
9. Sergej Ivanov (Rus), T-Mobile
10. Vladimir Gusev (Rus), CSC
ProTour Standings, after four events
1. Alessandro Petacchi (I) 93 points
2. Oscar Freire (Sp), 78
3. Danilo Hondo (G), 70
4. Tom Boonen (B), 62
5. Bobby Julich (USA), 50
6. Andreas Klier (G), 41
7. Alejandro Valverde (Sp), 41
8. Peter Van Petegem (B), 35
9. George Hincapie (USA), 35
10. Fabrizio Guidi (I), 35
To see how today’s 256km Tour of Flanders developed, simply Click here to bring up our live coverage window.
89th Tour of Flanders
1. Tom Boonen (B), QuickStep, 256km in 6:21:49 (40.209kph)
2. Andreas Klier (G), T-Mobile, at 0:35
3. Peter Van Petegem (B), Davitamon-Lotto, at 0:40
4. Erik Zabel (G), T-Mobile
5. Roberto Petito (I), Fassa Bortolo
6. Alessandro Ballan (I), Lampre-Caffita
7. George Hincapie (USA), Discovery Channel, at 1:42
8. Leon Van Bon (Nl), Davitamon-Lotto
9. Serguei Ivanov (Rus), T-Mobile
10. Vladimir Gusev (Rus), CSC
11. Karsten Kroon (Nl), Rabobank
12. Juan Antonio Flecha Giannoni (Sp), Fassa Bortolo, all s.t.
13. Bernhard Eisel (A), Française Des Jeux, at 2:04
14. Fabio Baldato (I), Fassa Bortolo
15. Allan Johansen (Dk), CSC
16. Stuart O'Grady (Aus), Cofidis
17. Nico Mattan (B), Davitamon-Lotto
18. Mirko Celestino (I), Domina Vacanze
19. Bert De Waele (B), Landbouwkrediet-Colnago
20. Marcus Ljungqvist (Swe), Liquigas-Bianchi
21. Nick Nuyens (B), QuickStep
22. Frédéric Guesdon (F), Française Des Jeux
23. Leif Hoste (B), Discovery Channel
24. Erik Dekker (Nl), Rabobank
25. Bert Grabsch (G), Phonak
26. Marc Lotz (Nl), QuickStep
27. Rolf Aldag (G), T-Mobile
28. Lance Armstrong (USA), Discovery Channel, all s.t.
29. Frank Hoj (Dk), Gerolsteiner, at 3:25
30. Constantin Zaballa Gutierrez (Sp), Saunier Duval
31. Thor Hushovd (Nor), Credit Agricole, both s.t.
32. Marcus Zberg (Swi), Gerolsteiner, at 4:32
33. Staf Scheirlinckx (B), Cofidis
34. Martin Elmiger (Swi), Phonak
35. Stijn Devolder (B), Discovery Channel, all s.t.
36. Uros Murn (Slo), Phonak, at 6:25
37. Lars Michaelsen (Dk), CSC
38. Wilfried Cretskens (B), QuickStep
39. Aart Vierhouten (Nl), Davitamon-Lotto
40. Anthony Geslin (F), Bouygues Telecom
41. Carlos Barredo Llamazales (Sp), Liberty Seguros-Würth
42. Inigo Landaluze Intxaurraga (Sp), Euskaltel-Euskadi
43. Filippo Pozzato (I), QuickStep
44. Sebastian Lang (G), Gerolsteiner
45. Geert Verheyen (B), Landbouwkrediet-Colnago
46. Steven De Jongh (Nl), Rabobank
47. Mathew Hayman (Aus), Rabobank
48. Bram Tankink (Nl), QuickStep
49. Christophe Detilloux (B), Française Des Jeux
50. Gianluca Bortolami (I), Lampre-Caffita
51. David Canada Gracia (Sp), Saunier Duval
52. Roger Hammond (GBr), Discovery Channel
53. Daniele Bennati (I), Lampre-Caffita
54. Luke Roberts (Aus), CSC
55. Marc Wauters (B), Rabobank
56. Viatcheslav Ekimov (Rus), Discovery Channel, all s.t.
57. Tomas Vaitkus (Lit), Ag2r, at 6:40
58. Peter Wrolich (A), Gerolsteiner, at 7:40
59. Franck Renier (F), Bouygues Telecom, at 9:52
60. Aketza Pena Iza (Sp), Euskaltel-Euskadi
61. Magnus Backstedt (Swe), Liquigas-Bianchi, at 10:21
62. Fabian Cancellara (Swi), Fassa Bortolo
63. Stephan Schreck (G), T-Mobile
64. Kevin Hulsmans (B), QuickStep
65. Marcus Burghardt (G), T-Mobile
66. Alexandre Usov (Blr), Ag2r, at 10:26
67. Johan Coenen (B), Mrbookmaker, at 11:40
68. Kristof Trouve (B), Mrbookmaker
69. Andrea Tafi (I), Saunier Duval
70. Grégory Rast (Swi), Phonak, at 13:19
71. Laurent Brochard (F), Bouygues Telecom
72. Ralf Grabsch (G), Wiesenhof
73. Mirco Lorenzetto (I), Domina Vacanze
74. Jaan Kirsipuu (Est), Credit Agricole
75. Rafael Nuritdinov (Uzb), Domina Vacanze
76. Aurélien Clerc (Swi), Phonak
77. Laszlo Bodrogi (Hun), Credit Agricole
78. Andrus Aug (Est), Fassa Bortolo
79. Matej Jurco (Svk), Domina Vacanze
80. Mauro Gerosa (I), Liquigas-Bianchi
81. Bradley Wiggins (GBr), Credit Agricole
82. Ignacio Gutierrez Cataluna (Sp), Phonak
83. Maarten Den Bakker (Nl), Rabobank
84. Manuel Quinziato (I), Saunier Duval
85. Erwin Thijs (B), Mrbookmaker
86. Lars Ytting Bak (Dk), CSC
87. Jimmy Casper (F), Cofidis
88. Pieter Ghyllebert (B), Chocolade Jacques
89. Heinrich Haussler (G), Gerolsteiner
90. David Boucher (F), Mrbookmaker
91. Christophe Mengin (F), Française Des Jeux
92. Simon Gerrans (Aus), Ag2r
93. Wim De Vocht (B), Davitamon-Lotto
94. Gianluca Sironi (I), Liquigas-Bianchi
95. Matthé Pronk (Nl), Mrbookmaker
96. Erki Pütsep (Est), Ag2r
97. Johan Verstrepen (B), Landbouwkrediet-Colnago
98. Jan Boven (Nl), Rabobank
99. Wesley Van Der Linden (B), Chocolade Jacques
100. Kevin Van Impe (B), Chocolade Jacques, all s.t.
196 Starters, 100 finishers
UCI ProTour Standings, after four events
1. Alessandro Petacchi (I), Fassa Bortolo – 93 pts
2. Oscar Freire Gomez (Sp), Rabobank – 78
3. Danilo Hondo (G), Gerolsteiner – 70
4. Tom Boonen (B), QuickStep – 62
5. Bobby Julich (USA), CSC – 50
6. Andreas Klier (G), T-Mobile – 41
7. Alejandro Valverde Belmonte (Sp), Illes Balears – 41
8. Peter Van Petegem (B), Davitamon-Lotto – 35
9. George Hincapie (USA), Discovery Channel – 35
10. Fabrizio Guidi (I), Phonak – 35
11. Constantino Zaballa Gutierrez (Sp), Saunier Duval – 35
12. Thor Hushovd (Nor), Credit Agricole – 35
13. Jens Voigt (G), CSC – 31
14. Erik Zabel (G), T-Mobile – 30
15. Stuart O'grady (Aus), Cofidis – 30
16. Roberto Petito (I), Fassa Bortolo – 25
17. Jörg Jaksche (G), Liberty Seguros – 25
18. Franco Pellizotti (I), Liquigas-Bianchi – 25
19. Laurent Brochard (F), Bouygues Telecom – 25
20. Alessandro Ballan (I), Lampre-Caffita – 20
21. Philippe Gilbert (B), Française Des Jeux – 20
22. Frank Schleck (Lux), CSC – 15
23. Angel Vicioso Arcos (Sp), Liberty Seguros – 15
24. Leon Van Bon (Nl), Davitamon-Lotto – 10
25. Cadel Evans (Aus), Davitamon-Lotto – 10
26. Marcus Zberg (Swi), Gerolsteiner – 10
27. Serguei Ivanov (Rus), T-Mobile – 5
28. José Angel Gomez Marchante (Sp), Saunier Duval – 5
29. Patrice Halgand (F), Credit Agricole – 5
30. Vladimir Gusev (Rus), CSC – 1
31. Fabian Cancellara (Swi), Fassa Bortolo – 1
32. Davide Rebellin (I), Gerolsteiner – 1
33. Gilberto Simoni (I), Lampre-Caffita – 1
34. Servais Knaven (Nl), QuickStep – 1
35. Joost Posthuma (Nl), Rabobank – 1
36. Manuele Mori (I), Saunier Duval – 1
37. Vicente Reynes Mimo (Sp), Illes Balears – 1