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Ian Stannard (Sky) outwitted an Etixx-Quick-Step juggernaut on Saturday to win his second Omloop Het Nieuwsblad.
The Briton came to the finish of the 200km classic with three Etixx riders — Tom Boonen, Niki Terpstra and Stijn Vandenbergh — and something to prove. He dealt with all of them in the final kilometers to take his second consecutive victory in Ghent.
Terpstra hung on for second with Boonen third.
“I was a bit worried with three Quick-Step guys,” Stannard said. “It was hard at the end. I was aware they were going to attack me. I was expecting it. I was waiting for it, yeah.
“Last year was a bit of a breakthrough, winning it, and the rest of the season didn’t go so well, breaking my back and stuff. So I really wanted to win this, or be up there, racing hard, and try and win it. You know the team put me in the best possible position and had faith in me again, so it’s nice to have come back and won. Especially after all my troubles last year.”
Stannard’s victory seemed an unlikely conclusion to what amounted to a 40km Etixx team time trial.
With 50km remaining a lead trio — Matt Brammeier (MTN-Qhubeka), Albert Timmer (Giant-Alpecin) and Alexis Gougeard (AG2R La Mondiale) — had just a couple dozen seconds on the peloton.
Luke Rowe (Sky) bridged to the front-runners as Gougeard lost the wheel. And a few kilometers further along the race was on for real as Greg Van Avermaet (BMC Racing), Sep Vanmarcke (Lotto NL-Jumbo), Marco Marcato (Wanty-Group Gobert) and others fought to assemble a new escape.
The third and final trip up the Haaghoek saw Boonen push forward and a selection was made, heavy on Etixx riders, including Boonen, Terpstra and Vandenbergh.
Vanmarcke punctured and dropped out of the group, leaving a foursome out front — the three Etixx riders and defending champion Stannard. With less than 40km to race they had 19 seconds on the peloton, led by Lotto.
The gap quickly went out to more than a half minute as the Etixx riders drove the break onto the Molenberg.
“You know, I knew they were going to ride hard, coming into the finish as well too,” said Stannard. “They haven’t won this race in a long time, and they’re pretty motivated, and it’s also missing off of Tom’s palmares as well, so I knew they were going to commit when they had three of them, to getting into the finish for sure.”
Behind, Vanmarcke pried Van Avermaet and Zdenek Stybar (Etixx) off the front of the chase. Philippe Gilbert (BMC), Marcato and Sylvain Chavanel (IAM Cycling) were next to launch.
On the Paddestraat, 30km from the finish, the lead quartet still had a half-minute over the first chase and 48 seconds over the second, and Boonen upped the pace a bit, forcing Stannard to close the gap.
Behind, Gilbert was slowly riding away from his companions.
Vanmarcke drove the first chase mercilessly, with little help from Van Avermaet and none from Stybar, closing to within 15 seconds of the leaders with 25km to go. Gilbert was riding alone at 45 seconds, but lacking assistance he soon began losing ground.
Twenty kilometers out, bound for the final stretch of cobbles, the Lange Munte, the leaders had stretched their advantage back out to 22 seconds. Gilbert had dropped to more than a minute behind, with the peloton at 1:08.
Again the chasing trio cut into the gap, and again it went back out. With 14km to race the leaders clung to 22 seconds over the first pursuit.
Stannard proved impossible to dislodge — he stayed locked to the rear of the Etixx train with 10km remaining. And three kilometers further along, with their gap out to 30 seconds, it seemed certain that the winner would come from the lead quartet.
“At first, I was comfortable, didn’t have to ride, they were going hard, I was like, ‘This is good,’ ” said Stannard. “But then you start thinking the different scenarios and they were going to attack me at the end, weren’t they? There’s not much you can do.”
Boonen dropped to the back of the group, behind Stannard, as Vandenbergh took the point.
Five kilometers out it was still status quo — and then Terpstra accelerated, forcing Stannard to chase. And as Stannard took the front, Boonen attacked and went it alone.
Boonen was on his own with 4km to go. Stannard immediately took up the chase, but he had two Etixx riders for company. Nonetheless, he dragged them up to Boonen — and Terpstra went again.
Then Stannard tried his own attack, with 2.7km to go. And he took a gap.
“I was a little bit worried about it, I thought they were going to attack me pretty hard at the end,” he said. “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.”
Vandenbergh finally popped, and Terpstra and Boonen went after Stannard. Terpstra made the connection, but Boonen couldn’t close the gap.
At the red kite it was Stannard leading Terpstra, with Boonen trying frantically to get back on terms.
Terpstra hit the front for the two-up sprint and led it out — but it was Stannard who came round him on the right and took the victory. Terpstra hung on for second with Boonen third.
“I went over the top of them and then Niki came to me,” said Stannard. “I was aware Tom was just behind, and then Niki went a little bit early in the sprint and just shielded me from the wind a little bit really. I just had to grit my teeth and go for it.”
Terpstra believed he had the victory in hand, until he ran out of gas short of the line.
“I thought I had him until 50 meters in front of the finish line. I had nothing left in my legs at that point,” he said. “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. Stannard was really strong in the end against our attacks, and deserved the win.”
Boonen agreed that Etixx could have played the game differently, and perhaps more successfully.
After Stannard neutralized his attack, Boonen said, “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. It would have been great to win the race, but that’s cycling. Congrats to Stannard. He rode a smart tactical race and his reactions to our attacks were impressive.”
Asked if Etixx had erred tactically, Stannard replied diplomatically: “It’s a hard situation. There’s guys behind chasing them. They want to be in the front to try and win. So they had to ride hard. Maybe if the gap was a minute they could have played it more, but I don’t know what else they could have done, really.
“You know, thankfully the guys behind were still really close. Sep Vanmarcke was still riding really hard, and it was always 18 to 20 seconds. So the Etixx guys had to ride hard and it killed them really, at the end. It played into my hands. Doesn’t get any better, does it?”
Editor’s note: Dan Seaton contributed to this report from Ghent.