Breschel after Ghent-Wevelgem: ‘I’m still here’

After 18 hard months, the most promising classics rider of 2010 is back to the front

WEVELGEM, Belgium (VN) — It’s not often a rider admits to being pleased about finishing on the last step of a podium, particularly after a bunch sprint, but Rabobank’s Matti Breschel traveled a long and winding road to get from his eighth-place finish at the 2010 Ghent-Wevelgem to third place in the same race on Sunday.

Along the way the Danish rider switched teams, from Saxo Bank, endured a knee surgery that kept him out of last year’s spring classics, and suffered a catastrophic crash at the 2011 Vuelta a España, resulting in a deep gash to his chin, severe road rash, two broken fingers and a torn tendon in his hand.

The 2010 classics season belonged to Saxo Bank, with Breschel winning at Dwars door Vlaanderen and puncturing out of an eight-man group at Ghent-Wevelgem; even race winner Bernhard Eisel claimed the Dane was the strongest man at the front of the race.

Over the next two weeks Breschel’s teammate Fabian Cancellara went on to win the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix. But a botched bike change during Flanders, where Breschel was mistakenly given Stuart O’Grady’s spare bike while the lead team car followed Cancellara, was the beginning of the end of that relationship. Breschel crossed the line at Flanders in 15th, and furious, and for the 2011 season he moved to Rabobank.

His transfer to the Dutch squad for 2011 was anything but smooth. Before the calendar had even flipped, Breschel required knee surgery, with an extended recovery period that prevented him from contesting last year’s classics. He would not return until late May, his best results a handful of top-10 stage finishes at the Tour of Denmark before abandoning with illness.

Early on at the Vuelta he crashed hard during a neutral rollout, ending his dream of riding as captain of the Danish national team at the Copenhagen world championships. It was an anticlimactic finale to a disappointing debut with his new team — Breschel called it “a crap season.”

Until Sunday, he had shown only glimpses of his former self during the 2012 season, with front-group finishes at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and Milan-San Remo. He finished 11th at E3 Harelbeke on Friday, the top Rabobank rider on a day when Carlos Barredo crashed out with a broken wrist. (Barredo collided with Breschel’s ex-teammate Cancellara in a feedzone.) And he topped that with third place Sunday in the sprint into Wevelgem, behind Tom Boonen (Omega Pharma-Quick Step) and Peter Sagan (Liquigas-Cannondale), but ahead of Oscar Freire (Katusha) and Edvald Boasson Hagen (Sky). It was Breschel’s most inspiring result since his win at Dwars door Vlaanderen 105 weeks earlier.

Asked to describe the relief he felt in returning to the podium of a cobbled classic, Breschel answered, “For sure, it felt really good. I am happy with third place. I felt strong. I’m very happy with my ride today. I wasn’t happy with Harelbeke; I was not myself, I was making mistakes. Today I was good. I was beaten by two guys who are going better than me right now.”

Breschel confirmed that his fitness is the best it has been since the 2010 classics season. “It took a long time, but I feel good,” he said. “I’m confident that I have done everything I could do. I felt good, the way you do when you wake from a good night of sleep and you know everything feels right. I had a nice, long breakfast, and all day I was on top of the pedals. I hit my stride when the race went full gas. You never know if you can follow the moves; but we did and we rode away, with several other teammates in the front group.”

Though Breschel acknowledged that Lars Boom remains Rabobank’s primary leader for Flanders, he said it felt good to be able to remind his financier employers that their investment wasn’t a waste. And with Boom’s status uncertain as he fights an illness early in the week, Rabobank may yet turn to Breschel to lead its charge at De Ronde.

But that charge will involve going head-to-head with Boonen, who won twice last week. Heading into Flanders on an untested new course, Breschel said Omega Pharma is in the driver’s seat — in more ways than one.

“It’s possible that everyone will ride Flanders cautiously [due to the unknown nature of the revised race route],” Breschel said. “It’s possible everyone will take care of themselves, and if there is good weather, it makes the race easier, and more people will survive more of the climbs. With Boonen winning Harelbeke and Ghent-Wevelgem, and the team riding really well, they obviously have so much morale. I think they will probably try something around 70km to go, and I will have to try to follow. Rabobank is not the big favorite, but today I proved that I’m still here.”