Inside Cycling with John Wilcockson: French hero Chavanel came close to historic Flanders win

Editor’s note: Every week through the 2011 road season, VeloNews Editor-at-Large John Wilcockson is writing about key features of the week’s racing. This eighth installment focuses on Sylvain Chavanel and last Sunday’s dramatic Tour of Flanders. Chavanel at Flanders Anyone who watched the three-man sprint that concluded…

Editor’s note: Every week through the 2011 road season, VeloNews Editor-at-Large John Wilcockson is writing about key features of the week’s racing. This eighth installment focuses on Sylvain Chavanel and last Sunday’s dramatic Tour of Flanders.

Chavanel at Flanders

Anyone who watched the three-man sprint that concluded the thrilling 95th edition of Belgium’s Tour of Flanders classic on Sunday will know just how close Quick Step’s Sylvain Chavanel came to winning — and making history.

The 31-year-old Frenchman was in the ideal position entering the last 200 meters, sitting on the wheel of Saxo Bank’s Nick Nuyens, who was following the long lead-out of defending champion Fabian Cancellara of Leopard-Trek. But when Nuyens dived sharp to the right, to make his challenge closer to the more sheltered side of the slightly uphill finish, Chavanel didn’t follow him but just moved up to Cancellara’s wheel on the left side of the road.

When the big Swiss drifted right, Chavanel followed before accelerating farther to the right, drawing level with Cancellara and heading after Nuyens. But as the Quick Step man made his effort, Cancellara moved even more to the right, causing Chavanel to cut his speed; and just as he began challenging Nuyens, the Belgian’s drift toward the barriers caused Chavanel to momentarily stop pedaling. Game over.

Chavanel crossed the line half a bike length behind winner Nuyens. No wonder he thumped his bars in frustration, knowing how close he’d come to the biggest victory of his life.

French drought

One of the better-known facts in professional cycling is that the French haven’t won the Tour de France since 1985, when Bernard Hinault scored his fifth title. That’s more than a quarter-century ago. Not so many people know that it’s been 14 years since a French rider last took one of the sport’s five monumental classics. That was in 1997, when Laurent Jalabert won the Tour of Lombardy and Frédéric Guesdon shocked the stars at Paris-Roubaix.

That same year also saw the last French podium appearance at the Tour of Flanders, when sprinter Frédéric Moncassin placed second to Denmark’s Rolf Sørensen, while it’s been 19 years since Jacky Durand scored the last Tour of Flanders victory for the French at the end of a marathon breakaway.

So Chavanel’s second place in Sunday’s Ronde van Vlaanderen was very nearly a performance of historical proportions. Some said he was the strongest rider in the race, having made his first aggressive move on the seventh of the day’s 18 climbs, the Old Kwaremont, 87km before the finish in Meerbeke.

“I wanted to get away before the big stars started their battle,” he said, “as I have a little less power on the climbs than Cancellara, (Phil) Gilbert or (Tom) Boonen.”

Chavanel’s solo attack on the Old Kwarement cobbles launched him toward the day’s main breakaway group, which he caught and then dropped on the 13th climb, the often-decisive Molenberg, with 48.5km still to go.

The Frenchman is an expert at long-distance breaks, and such efforts have resulted in his taking three solo stage wins at the Tour de France in his career. For the majority of his 12 seasons as a professional, Chavanel raced for French teams and focused on winning races in France; he pleased his fans and sponsors so much that he became the highest-paid road racer in France, his salary around the million-dollar mark by 2007.

At the time, critics said Chavanel lacked ambitions and was too soft to make it to the very highest levels of the sport. Then came a critical week in the spring of 2008 when he was wearing the colors of Cofidis, a team based in the north of France that was (and is) very interested at doing well in Belgian races.

2011 wins for UCI ProTeams

(in UCI .1 races and higher through April 4)
1. HTC-Highroad 15 (seven riders)
2. Rabobank 12 (five riders)
3. Team RadioShack 10 (seven riders)
4. Garmin-Cervélo 10 (five riders)
5. Saxo Bank-SunGard 9 (four riders)
6. Lampre-ISD 8 (five riders)
7. Liquigas-Cannondale 8 (four riders)
8. Vacansoleil-DCM 6 (four riders)
9. Sky 5 (four riders)
10. Movistar 5 (three riders)
11. Omega Pharma-Lotto 5 (two riders)
12. Leopard-Trek 4 (two riders)
13. Katusha 3 (three riders)
14. Quick Step 3 (two riders)
15. AG2R-La Mondiale 2 (two riders)
16. BMC Racing 2 (one rider)
17. Astana 1 (one rider)
Euskaltel-Euskadi 1 (one rider)

On March 26 that year, Chavanel won the Across Flanders semi-classic (the same race that Nuyens won this year by out-sprinting breakaway companion Geraint Thomas a second ahead of the chasing pack) in a solo breakaway. Four days later, Chavanel made a similar attack in the much hillier Flêche Brabançonne, again winning on his own.

By taking two of Belgium’s toughest (if lesser) single-day races in harsh weather conditions, Chavanel showed he wasn’t soft. Those victories also opened his mind to elevating his ambitions at the major spring classics.

In 2009, he signed a contract (at a lot less than a million dollars) with the top Belgian squad, Quick Step, where he agreed to work for team leader Boonen, knowing he would get a live tutorial in winning the biggest classics.

What he didn’t expect in his first Ronde de Vlaanderen with Quick Step was to be treated as a team pawn: Going into the final hour Chavanel was in a break with Italian Manuel Quinziato when his then teammate Stijn Devolder attacked out of the peloton and helped a half-dozen chasers catch the him and Quinziato. Luckily for Quick Step, Devolder went on to win solo, while Chavanel finished at the back of the 30-strong chase group.

Boonen falls short

Curiously, something similar happened this past Sunday. When Chavanel had dropped the rest of the early breakaways on the Molenberg, he took a one-minute lead on the group of favorites and looked capable of going all the way.

Right then, at the end of the Haaghoek, a flat 2km section of cobblestones, just after Garmin-Cervélo’s Thor Hushovd made a long acceleration (it turned out to be the world champion’s last hurrah), Boonen came storming through the ranks and jumped right by Hushovd. There were 43km to go.

Despite knowing that teammate Chavanel was up the road, Boonen kept on charging — and when he looked back to see what damage he’d done, he saw defending champ Cancellara locked to his back wheel, along with the potentially dangerous Filippo Pozzato of Katusha. (The on-form Phil Gilbert of Omega-Lotto would also have been there but he was just reintegrating the group after changing a wheel.)

Later, former race winner Eddy Merckx said this about Boonen’s shocking move: “His attack behind Chavanel wasn’t really necessary in a situation where he only had one thing to do: park himself on Cancellara’s wheel and bank everything on the sprint.”

Seeing the gap made by Boonen and knowing he had no more Leopard-Trek teammates at the front of the race, Cancellara then took control of the chasing trio, mopping up the riders between him and race leader Chavanel. The Swiss then gapped those following him on a 90-degree left turn to reach the foot of the 14th climb, the 950-meter-long Leberg (not cobbled) with Boonen desperately trying to catch his wheel.

It looked like the Belgian superstar would make it to Cancellara’s wheel, but as the climb steepened to a short 13-percent pitch, the Swiss jumped harder, racing straight past Rabobank’s Lars Boom and Sky’s Edvald Boasson Hagen, the last chasers behind Chavanel. Boonen stayed on their wheels until the gradient eased. when he tried to jump after Cancellara again. But the Swiss thunderbolt had gone.

It took him 8km to close the 45-second gap to Chavanel, joining him right at the summit of the next climb, the short, steep Valkenberg, 33km from the finish. The Frenchman, despite having been virtually alone for more than 50km, still looked remarkably strong, unlike his teammate Boonen, who later confided to La Dernière Heure: “I was feeling good enough, but … on the Valkenberg I felt that my candle was starting to go out.”

Reversal of fortunes

While his team leader was recovering, Chavanel followed team orders and sat resolutely behind Cancellara — who, on this unexpectedly warm, sunny Sunday, was seeking, and finally got, a new water bottle from the neutral service vehicle. It was only when the lead hit one minute with 29km to go that his Saxo Bank team car was permitted to go forward. Cancellara took on two full water bottles (one likely containing an electrolyte drink) and a gel before he put his head down again, fighting gusting crosswinds.

Behind, the half-dozen chasers had been joined by 50 others, and this resurrected peloton included seven BMC team riders, who now began to pull the pack. The gap slowly came down: 56 seconds at the top of the next climb, the Tenbosse, with 26.5km to go; and 44 seconds on reaching the outskirts of Geraardsbergen, 18km from home.

Cancellara on his own

With that town’s famous Muur (a.k.a. Mur de Grammont) beckoning them on the other side of the Dender valley, the strongest riders started moving up, increasing the pace. And so the advancing group crossed the river bridge at the foot of the climb toward the Muur only 33 seconds behind Cancellara and Chavanel.

At this same point in 2010, before Cancellara famously dropped break companion Boonen on the Muur, their led on the Gilbert group was 1:32 — a gap that proved too big to close. This year, Cancellara and Chavanel’s lead might have been closer to one minute had the Quick Step rider not played the team game and sat on Cancellara’s wheel for the 16km preceding the Muur. As the Swiss later said, “If Chavanel had worked with me, we would have gone all the way to the finish together, but behind there was Boonen and six BMC riders.”

Alessandro Ballan and George Hincapie were the strongest of the BMC men. Ballan was able to follow an acceleration made by Rabobank’s Sebastiaan Langeveld up the crowd-lined streets of Geraardsbergen, along with Pozzato, Gilbert, Boonen, Nuyens and Vacansoleil’s Bjorn Leukemans. As these first chasers turned right onto the rougher cobblestones of the half-kilometer-long Muur, they were only nine seconds behind the two leaders.

But even though Cancellara later said he was starting to cramp on the climb (the refreshments had not fully kicked in), he managed to ratchet up his speed on the last (less steep) section of the Muur, with Chavanel still locked to his wheel. Gilbert was the strongest of the chasers, and only Leukemans and Ballan were able to stay with him.

Those five frontrunners linked up on the next downhill, while they were joined by seven others —Boonen, Langeveld, Nuyens, Langeveld, Sky’s Thomas and Juan Antonio Flecha and Willems-Accent’s Staf Scheirlinckx — before the day’s 18th and final hill, the Bosberg, 12km from the finish.

Palpitating finale

Any one of these dozen men (five Belgians and one each from France, Great Britain, Italy, the Netherlands, Spain, Switzerland and the U.S.) had a chance of winning this superb classic. A strong solo attack by Gilbert on the Bosberg (that gained him a maximum 13 seconds’ lead) did split them up, but all 12 came back together with seven flat kilometers remaining.

Ballan, Nuyens, Thomas and Flecha all tried to get away in the next few minutes, but the winning move came about in unusual circumstances. There was a traffic island 4km from the line, and it was here that Cancellara led 11 riders to the left while Langeveld dashed to the right and accelerated clear.

Nuyens was at the back of the line at that point, so he had a clear view of what was happening ahead. Flecha briefly chased Langeveld, but it was Ballan who was the first to close on the big Dutchman, with Thomas and Hincapie on his wheel.

Right then, with just over 3km to go, a revived Cancellara sprinted to the right of the four leaders; Chavanel was strong and astute enough to jump on the defending champ’s wheel, while the observant Nuyens quickly joined them. This was the decisive move, and despite a last desperate chase by Boonen in the final 700 meters, they were the ones that sprinted for the win.

Cancellara leads Chavanel

Seeing Boonen charging out of the last corner only 20 meters back, Cancellara began his sprint early. That was just the springboard the wily Nuyens needed to give the race’s 700,000 Belgian fans another cause for celebration. And a frustrated Chavanel, who’d been at the head of the action for more than two hours, could only regret how close he came to give the French a historic victory.

“Yes, it makes you mad to fail so close to the finish,” Chavanel told reporters after the finish. He later added, “I waited too long to react to Nuyens’ kick. I should have followed him instead of going toward Cancellara. Then I cut my effort a second time … because I was afraid of [hitting] the barriers.”

And despite Boonen’s somewhat hostile tactics, the Frenchman had only kind words for his team leader. “I can understand him,” he said. “To lose here, that’s always upsetting for a Flandrian.”

But despite just losing in Meerbeke, Chavanel has made the breakthrough he sought when he signed for Quick Step two years ago. And that elusive major classic success may not be too far away.