Events

‘Blue bullet’ Ballan wins Flanders

Don’t tell Alessandro Ballan he’s heir to Italian classics heroes such as Andrea Tafi and Franco Ballerini after his dramatic sprint victory ahead of Leif Hoste in Sunday’s Tour of Flanders. The panache shown by the 27-year-old in winning the crash-laden 91st edition is just the stuff Italian journalists love to turn into legend, but Ballan sees himself as more than a one-trick pony after the biggest victory of his career.

By Andrew Hood

Ballan wins

Ballan wins

Photo: AFP

Don’t tell Alessandro Ballan he’s heir to Italian classics heroes such as Andrea Tafi and Franco Ballerini after his dramatic sprint victory ahead of Leif Hoste in Sunday’s Tour of Flanders.

The panache shown by the 27-year-old in winning the crash-laden 91st edition is just the stuff Italian journalists love to turn into legend, but Ballan sees himself as more than a one-trick pony after the biggest victory of his career.

“I’m a rider who can be competitive throughout the entire year, not just during the classics,” said the Lampre-Fondital rider. “Flanders is the classic that’s best adapted to my characteristics.”

Panache and power

Panache and power

Photo: Graham Watson

While Ballan might not want the crown as Italy’s new king of the cobbles, he’s sure to earn the distinction since becoming the first Italian to win a northern classic since Tafi last won the Ronde van Vlaanderen in 2002.

After a day that saw spectacular spring weather, numerous crashes and futile attacks, Ballan took the initiative in a chaotic finale with a daring attack at the base of the Grammont climb, with 16km to go in the 259km race.

Ballan, fresh off winning the Three Days of De Panne, bolted up the steep climb just after a breakaway led by Fabian Cancellara (CSC) was neutralized and then dropped pre-race favorite Tom Boonen (Quick Step-Innergetic), who was gunning for his third consecutive Flanders crown.

Ballan and Hoste working their slim advantage

Ballan and Hoste working their slim advantage

Photo: Graham Watson

Only Hoste was able to follow the marauding Italian and the pair drove home a five-second advantage to the line despite the hard-chasing combo of Thomas Vaitkus (Discovery Channel) and Karsten Kroon (CSC) and another dozen favorites.

Ballan kept his cool when Hoste out-positioned him in the final kilometers, and he had just enough in the tank to squirt past Hoste’s burly right shoulder in the final 50 meters to relegate the Belgian to second for the third time in four years.

“I gave everything on the Grammont and Hoste didn’t do much work in the final kilometer, but I was able to overtake him in the final kilometers,” Ballan said.

Great weather and a scourge of crashes marked the 91st Flanders. Boonen flipped over his handlebars after slipping on roads sprayed down by firefighters to clear dust in the opening 50km. Other unfortunates included Erik Zabel (Milram), third-place finisher Luca Paolini (Liquigas), two-time champion Peter Van Petegem (Quick Step-Innergetic) and Cancellara.

Boonen was aiming for a rare consecutive Flanders hat trick, but couldn’t follow when Ballan attacked and had to settle for 12th at 35 seconds back.

“I have to admit, it took my head out of the race when I crashed,” Boonen said. “I won’t lose any sleep because I didn’t win today. I’ve won twice and I have Roubaix on Sunday.”

With a seven-man breakaway earning some early TV time, the peloton roared over 18 rated climbs in front of an estimated crowd of 1 million spectators. Scores of spills marred the action as a nervous bunch got tangled up in traffic circles, narrow village roads and each other’s bikes.

“Usually when it’s rainy or windy, three-quarters of the guys are afraid,” said the 2006 Paris-Roubaix champion, who attacked twice in the closing 50km. “Today, three-quarters of the guys thought this was their big chance.”

The podium

The podium

Photo: Graham Watson

Several other big-time riders followed moves by Cancellara and CSC teammate Stuart O’Grady, with the likes of Michael Boogerd (Rabobank), Paolo Bettini (Quick Step), Daniele Bennati (Lampre) figuring in on late moves.

It wasn’t until Ballan and Hoste surged up the Grammont that the race took its decisive turn.

The victory marks a clear upward trajectory for Ballan, who turned pro relatively late in 2004. Ballan enjoyed a breakout year in 2005, winning a stage at De Panne and the Eneco Tour. Last year, he was fifth at Flanders, third at Paris-Roubaix and finished second to Oscar Freire in Stage 12 at the Tour de France.

“I knew I loved the classics when I was a protagonist in the 2005 Flanders [leading an attack]. That’s when I knew I could win a race at this level,” he said. “I’ve always dreamed of winning Flanders since I was a little boy. Now that it’s happened, I still can’t believe it.”

Just don’t call him the next Italian classics capo.

Maximum anticipation, early jitters
There’s perhaps no race with as much pre-race ambiance and excitement as the Ronde van Vlaanderen. Considered one of cycling’s “monuments,” the race across the “bergs” of the Flanders region is what football is to rural Texas.

An estimated 1 million spectators line the twisting, zigzagging course across the heart one of Europe’s cycling hotbeds, and it seemed a good chunk of those poured into Brugge on a crisp Easter morning.

Absolutely fabulous weather greeted the peloton for the 91st Ronde, with crisp blue skies, almost no wind and afternoon temperatures well into the 70s. Some 259km and 18 short but steep climbs stood between them and the finish line.

Early, no-hope breaks almost never work, so when seven riders finally broke free in the opening 30km, the peloton seemed happy to let them grab some TV time.

First to test the waters were José Vicente Garcia Acosta (Caisse d’Epargne), Laurent Mangel (AG2R), Enrico Franzoi (Lampre) and Maarten Tjallingii (Skil). Three more – Aleksandr Kuschynski (Liquigas), Evert Verbist (Chocolade Jacques) and Jan Kuyckx (Landbouwkrediet) – bridged out to make the day’s move. The group opened up a 12-minute gap within the opening 80km.

Quick Step got a major fright when Boonen was caught up in a spill with 145km to go. He later was visiting the race doctor complaining of knee and wrist pain.

“I slipped on some wet pavement that the firemen had sprayed with a hose,” Boonen explained. “I immediately felt pain in my wrist and both knees. That cost me later in the race.”

Boonen’s spill seemed to set the tone for the rest of the afternoon as riders fell like dominos despite the fair skies and dry roads.

Staf Scheirlinckx (Cofidis) showed some dexterity by changing his right shoe with about 115km to go while Heinrich Haussler continued Gerolsteiner’s bad luck with crashes when he hit the deck with about 112km to go (two weeks ago, seven of eight Gerolsteiner starters at Milan-San Remo crashed).

Quick Step took its responsibility at the front, with occasional help from Team CSC, T-Mobile and Liquigas to keep the breakaway at a reasonably safe distance.

Things started to get dicey as the speeds ramped up under pressure of the earnest chase in the final 100km. Discovery’s Tony Cruz – back in the European bigs after racing domestically last season – got held up by a crash just as the peloton cranked up the pace with about 108km to go.

Pre-race fave O’Grady flatted and needed help from two teammates to chase back on with about 100km to go just as things were about to heat up. There were more troubles for CSC when Cancellara got caught up in a pileup with about 95km to go as Lars Michaelsen, riding in his last week on the cobbles before retiring, hit the deck hard.

“We took a more aggressive tactic in the race this year and we have to be satisfied with how we rode,” said Team CSC sport director Scott Sunderland. “I think the weather worked against the stronger teams like ours because normally the weather eliminates a lot of riders.”

Less than 2km later, a dozen riders went down as riders squeezed through a line of trucks, with Matti Breschel (CSC) and Renaud Dion (Ag2r) being hauled off to the hospital for X-rays.

. . . as was Franzoi

. . . as was Franzoi

Photo: Graham Watson

The leaders hit the Kluisberg climb with 92km to go with their lead down to 6:40 as the peloton fractured under the stress of the crashes, with such as riders as Bert Roesems (Predictor-Lotto) and Servais Knaven (T-Mobile) forced to chase alone.

More crashes peppered the peloton as it roared toward the decisive Kwaremont climb with 79km remaining. Manuel Quinziato (Liquigas), Fabian Wegmann (Gerolsteiner) and Erik Zabel (Milram) were KO’d on a wide section of road as it neared the decisive climb.

The crashes, fatigue and attrition had taken their collective toll, trimming the peloton to just 80 riders.

More crashes
The Kwaremont revealed the strongmen in this year’s Flanders: Bettini, Freire, O’Grady, Van Petegem, Boonen and Cancellara were visible behind the magenta jerseys of T-Mobile’s Bernard Eisel and Marcus Burghardt leading the way.

The leading seven held a four-minute lead over the steep, cobbled Paterberg climb with 76km to go and rolled through the day’s second of two feed zones hanging onto the dream.

The day’s first aggression out of the main pack came on the cobbled Steenbeekdries climb with 67km to go when the wily Arnaud Coyot (Unibet.com) tried to slink away. Lorenzo Bernucci (T-Mobile) was another KO with a crash in the back of the bunch.

Knaven chases

Knaven chases

Photo: Graham Watson

Suddenly, Bettini came out of his shell, surging near the front behind the wheel of teammate Sebastien Rosseler coming up the Taaienberg with 65km to go. The rainbow jersey reeled in Coyot and had two-time defending champ Boonen on his wheel. Van Petegem, however, drifted off the back of the main pack as the peloton started to fracture under the Quick Step aggression.

“We weren’t at our best today, and after Tom crashed, the fatigue of the day settled in,” said Quick Step manager Patrick Lefevere. “Bettini still wasn’t 100 percent after his crashes [at Tirreno-Adriatico] and Van Petegem crashed twice and had a mechanical problem. Those add up in a race like Flanders.”

With 60km to go, on a long section with freshly laid asphalt, Kevin Hulsmans (Quick Step) bolted out of the pack with Johan Van Summeren (Predictor-Lotto) marking his wheel. Paolini (Liquigas) went down for the second time, sliding onto his left shoulder after losing his wheel through a sweeping right turn.

More riders chased back on to create about a 60-strong peloton while the leading seven hit the Boingberg climb with 55km to go still nursing a 3:12 lead. Hulsmans and Van Summeren were still dangling off the front as the race hit crunch time in the final 50km.

Crunch time
Big Danish champion Allan Johansen put the peloton on notice as he barreled to the front in the flats ahead of the final seven climbs. The leading seven still nursed a 3:35 lead —but the merde was about to hit the fan.

With 49km remaining, Cancellara put the hammer down on the short Leberg climb. On the wheel were O’Grady, Van Petegem (he’s back!) and Steegmans. Two Quick Step, two CSC – with Liguigas and Discovery Channel chasing hard to shut it down..

Cancellara continued to pour it on and the main bunch was fracturing in his wake as riders were on the rivet, trying to stay on the wheel.

Three kilometers later it was Steegmans turn to throw a jab, with O’Grady on the wheel and Boogerd, Bennati and Hoste, last year’s runner-up, marking the move.

Up the road, Van Summeren and Hulsmans latched on to make what looked like a promising lead group about 10 seconds off the front. Another crash sent another half dozen riders to the deck with Matt White (Discovery Channel) getting his bike tangled with another machine.

There was uncertainty in the O’Grady-Boogerd group — the Quick Step riders weren’t about to work too much, considering their big men weren’t represented. The Predictor-Lotto riders, however, had Hoste in the break and were looking to drive a wedge.

Trying to bridge across with 41km to go were Bettini, Kroon, Gilbert and Wim Vansevenant (Predictor-Lotto). With Bettini in the lead group, the dynamic suddenly changed despite the absence of Boonen and Van Petegem.

Among several teams left holding the bag were Discovery Channel, which was chasing hard, trying to close the gap for Vladimir Gusev and its host of young riders in the team’s first Flanders sans Hincapie in eight years. O’Grady took another stab on the Valkenberg climb with 37km to go, but the group came together.

“Our boys did a great job today. Our goal was to have one in the top 10 and we had two in the top six,” said Discovery Channel sport director Dirk Demol, referring to Gusev’s fifth and Vaitkus’s sixth. “When Cancellara went again, sometimes if you miss that move by five or 10 meters, that’s the difference. Then you have to chase.”

Cancellara then counter-attacked with 37km to go, while Steegmans marked his wheel without lending a hand. The exasperated Swissman signaled for Steegmans to pull through, but the Quick Step rider shook his head as Bettini chased down the road.

The big Swiss time machine motored alone, reeling in the remnants of the day’s breakaway, with Devolder and Vansevenant trying in vain to bridge across at 20 seconds back. The main bunch was trying to muster the will to launch a pursuit at 45 seconds as Cancellara hit the Tenbosse with 33km to go, intent on driving to the finish even if no one was going to lend him a hand.

Tinkoff, Predictor-Lotto, Discovery Channel and Lampre gave chase to keep Cancellara on a 24-second leash with 23km to go. He was getting no help from the frazzled riders from the breakaway while Steegmans was earning his paycheck by doing absolutely nothing but mark Cancellara’s wheel.

“Cancellara was upset that I didn’t pull through, but to be honest he was going so hard, I couldn’t,” Steegmans said. “It wasn’t until he started to tire some 10 kilometers later that I was able to take some pulls. He was very strong.”

Fitting finale
The Muur-Kapelmuur, with its brutally steep 20 percent ramps just 16km from the finish, stood between Cancellara and victory. White drove the chase in the main bunch to shut it down coming to the decisive climb.

It was time for the big guns to step up. Boonen launched an attack only to be marked by Bennati, Hoste, Boogerd, Ballan and Nuyens.

“I tried to attack but my legs were cooked,” Boonen said. “In this race, unless you’re 100 percent, the others make you pay. When I am strong, I can go up the climb with anyone. Today, the strongest were ahead and I wasn’t able to follow.”

Big Ballan led up the twisting, cobblestoned climb, gritting his teeth in pain as Hoste and Boogerd fought to stay close. Hoste was the only one strong enough to follow the blue bullet.

Ballan and Hoste nursed a slender eight-second lead as they hit the flats on the backside of the Kapelmuur. A dozen riders fought desperately in their wake to try to latch on.

Pozzato made the brave decision to try to bridge out with 12km to go as a baker’s dozen hesitated ahead of the final 11 percent climb at Bosberg, when the gap stood at 20 seconds. Cofidis’ Scheirlinckx gave it a go out of the pack in a desperate chase in a gripping final 10km, but Ballan and Hoste still held an 18-second gap.

“I was confident we were going to not get caught by the others,” Ballan said. “We collaborated well without speaking about it. We worked together until the final kilometer, then we made our race.”

Next to try were Kroon and Vaitkus gave chase with 9km to go, but the leading duo was collaborating to drive it to the line. Four more chased out in their wake, but the leading duo held 17 seconds with 6km to go. With 3km to go, the gap was down to 11 seconds and anything was possible.

“We both gave everything, but the two in the front were stronger,” said Kroon, who settled for fourth. “I’m still not 100 percent from my fall at California [broken rib], but I have been a protagonist here the past two years, so I attacked after the move by Cancellara didn’t work.”

With Hoste and Ballan sparring over the prize, Paolini snatched the final spot on the podium after enduring a harrowing day that included two crashes and a broken cleat.

“When I crashed the second time, I had to stop to change my shoe and I had to give everything to get back to the group at the base of the Grammont. When the attacks went, I had nothing left in the tank to follow,” Paolini said. “I felt better in the chase, but then it was too late. Otherwise I am content with third.”

Race notes
World No. 1 Nicole Cooke won the women’s Tour of Flanders World Cup stop run on portions of the men’s course. Cooke, a winner at the World Cup opener in Australia, beat Zoulfia Zabirova and Dutch rider Marianne Vos.

Only two North Americans were in the field. Tyler Farrar (Cofidis) made his Flanders debut while Tony Cruz (Discovery Channel) was back in the spring classics after racing domestically in 2006.

How big is cycling in Flanders? Some 22,000 rode in Saturday’s public ride over portions of the course and an estimated 1 million people lined the 259km route.

There were 116 finishers from 200 starters.

Mountain biker Filip Meirhaeghe finished 42nd riding for Landbouwkrediet-Tonissteiner.

Tour of Flanders
1. Alessandro Ballan (I) Lampre-Fondital, 6:10:15
2. Leif Hoste (B), Predictor-Lotto, same time
3. Luca Paolini (I), Liquigas, at 0:05
4. Karsten Kroon (Ned), CSC, s.t.
5. Vladimir Gusev (Rus), Discovery Channel, s.t.
6. Tomas Vaitkus (Ltu), Discovery Channel, 0:13
7. Nick Nuyens (B), Cofidis, s.t.
8. Dmitriy Muravyev (Kaz), Astana, s.t.
9. Michael Boogerd (Ned), Rabobank, s.t.
10. Stuart O’Grady (Aus), CSC, at 0:35
11. Jesus Del Nero (Sp), Saunier Duval-Prodir, s.t.
12. Tom Boonen (B), Quick Step-Innergetic, s.t.
13. Marcus Burghardt (G), T-Mobile, s.t.
14. Filippo Pozzato (I), Liquigas, s.t.
15. Gregory Rast (Swi), Astana, s.t.
16. Steffen Wesemann (Swi), Wiesenhof-Felt, s.t.
17. Staf Scheirlinckx (B), Cofidis, s.t.
18. Cristian Moreni (I), Cofidis, s.t.
19. Daniele Bennati (I), Lampre-Fondital, s.t.
20. Bjoern Leukemans (B), Predictor-Lotto, at 0:42

Complete results (.pdf)

Photo Gallery

Results

1. Alessandro Ballan (I) Lampre-Fondital, 6:10:15
2. Leif Hoste (B), Predictor-Lotto, same time
3. Luca Paolini (I), Liquigas, at 0:05
4. Karsten Kroon (Ned), CSC, s.t.
5. Vladimir Gusev (Rus), Discovery Channel, s.t.
6. Tomas Vaitkus (Ltu), Discovery Channel, 0:13
7. Nick Nuyens (B), Cofidis, s.t.
8. Dmitriy Muravyev (Kaz), Astana, s.t.
9. Michael Boogerd (Ned), Rabobank, s.t.
10. Stuart O’Grady (Aus), CSC, at 0:35
11. Jesus Del Nero (Sp), Saunier Duval-Prodir, s.t.
12. Tom Boonen (B), Quick Step-Innergetic, s.t.
13. Marcus Burghardt (G), T-Mobile, s.t.
14. Filippo Pozzato (I), Liquigas, s.t.
15. Gregory Rast (Swi), Astana, s.t.
16. Steffen Wesemann (Swi), Wiesenhof-Felt, s.t.
17. Staf Scheirlinckx (B), Cofidis, s.t.
18. Cristian Moreni (I), Cofidis, s.t.
19. Daniele Bennati (I), Lampre-Fondital, s.t.
20. Bjoern Leukemans (B), Predictor-Lotto, at 0:42