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OUDENAARDE, Belgium (VN) — American team Garmin-Barracuda endured a hard-fought day at the office Sunday at a new-look Tour of Flanders.
The team came into the race as an underdog, one of several squads with a few dark-horse contenders but without a top favorite like Tom Boonen or Fabian Cancellara. Protected leaders were Sep Vanmarcke, the 23-year-old Belgian classics prodigy who beat Boonen at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad in February, and Heinrich Haussler, the 28-year-old Aussie who finished second at Flanders in 2009.
In the end, the team left without a rider among the top-25 finishers, with Tyler Farrar’s time spent in the daylong breakaway and Vanmarcke learning valuable lessons as the primary fruit of its efforts.
Vanmarcke came into Flanders an unknown quantity. After his win in the opening semi-classic of the year and his fifth-place finish at E3 Prijs Harelbeke, enthusiastic Belgian fans heralded Vanmarcke as the nation’s next big classics champion, with perhaps 2012 as the year for his first Flanders victory. However, skeptics pointed to the chasm, in difficulty, between 200km and 250km races.
After riding in a 10-man move on the second of three finishing circuits, Vanmarcke lost contact with the leaders when Alessandro Ballan launched the winning attack on the third and final trip the Oude Kwaremont, with 18km to go. He finished 48th, 48 seconds behind Boonen.
“I was a little disappointed, nobody raced, everyone was waiting and waiting,” Vanmarcke said. “It took so long, even 40km from the finish there was still 100 riders. It’s not a normal Tour of Flanders. I was disappointed nobody raced, not even on the Koppenberg.
“I’m also disappointed in how I rode,” he continued. “The team was really great today, and I hoped to be in the front and at least top-10. I know I am still young, but I felt that was maybe possible. I believed in it, even on the second-to-last lap, after the Kwaremont and Paterberg, I was in a breakaway of 10, and then I believed in a top-five finish. But there was no cooperation, and they brought us back the last time over the Kwaremont. Then I didn’t have the power anymore to answer Ballan’s attack. At the top I was 50 meters behind and I couldn’t close it anymore. I guess I’m still a little bit too young.”
Last year’s Paris-Roubaix champion, Johan Vansummeren, crashed at the bottom of the second trip over the Paterberg, with 33km to go, taking out several others. (It was that crash that created the split that put Vanmarcke into a 10-man move until the final trip over the Kwaremont.) He finished 49th, 1:06 back.
Garmin’s top finisher, Heinrich Haussler, finished in the 40-strong first chase group, in 30th place.
“It was hard race with a lot of crashes,” Haussler said. “All the riders were stressed about being in the front, because positioning is everything in this race. I’m really proud of how the team rode today.”
Farrar went into the early breakaway of 15, riding strongly over the cobblestones for 200km until the move was reeled in. He finished 101st, 15:34 down.
“We weren’t really seeking the early breakaway, but if big groups went, we wanted to be represented so we didn’t have to work,” Farrar said. “If it had been give guys, we didn’t want anyone, but 15 riders, that was a big group, it was actually a lot of fun. I’ve never done anything like that in Flanders before, and it felt like all of Belgium was cheering for me today.”
Though he finished fifth at the 2010 Tour of Flanders, the American said the updated Tour of Flanders course is one on which he cannot win.
“We knew with the new course I wasn’t going to be able to factor in the finale,” Farrar said. “Even the old course, I don’t know if it was ever a race I was going to win. I’ve been good there, but fifth-place and winning is two different things. But on this new course, it’s a bit ridiculous now. I don’t see it happening.”
Riding in his first major classic, Garmin’s Jacob Rathe finished 98th, in the same group as Farrar.
Team manager Jonathan Vaughters was philosophical about the team’s performance.
“The guys rode well, but Sep ran out gas at the end,” Vaughters said. “That was our gameplan. He’s 23 years old, so he has time to build into that. We knew that the finishing circuits would be too tough for Tyler, so that was the alternative strategy — get him out there early. That was more based around trying to help Sep out, keeping the pressure off, so that Johan would never have to chase. Which worked, all the way until Johan went into a barrier. He’s fine, it was just at a bad moment.”
Haussler said that one takeaway from the race was feeling better at Flanders than he did last weekend for Harelbeke and Ghent-Wevelgem — good news heading into Paris-Roubaix next weekend.
“The last few weeks I haven’t really felt fresh,” he said. “I went home after Harelbeke and just rode easy. I know I’m still not at the level that I’d like to be, but I felt a lot better today than the last few weeks.”
Farrar said the team will rally around Vansummeren at Roubaix on April 8, and that he will do whatever is asked of him to help the 2011 winner.
“The team’s objective is to try and win the race again,” he said. “When you have the defending champion, there’s not really a question of who the leader is. I think if I have the legs I had today I can be there to support ‘Summi’ really late into the race, and then it will be a question of if he has the legs or not.”