Sure, the 259km of tarmac, then cobbles, then hellingen, the history, from Merckx to Museeuw, the field, Sagan, Cancellara, Boonen, Belgian beer, the fans, the dreary, storm-beckoning sky. It all promised, but for it to come together, on one day?
Ahh, but this is Flanders. This is The Ronde.
An opening littered with crashes, rain, drama. Devolder down, back up, down again. Popovych clipping a spectator at speed. Vansummeren going headlong into yet another. It was anarchic. And yet, despite barely a moment going by without screeching carbon, torn lycra, and grazed skin, of those protagonists we thought would feature, none would be denied their part when the race upped a gear for its frantic finale.
The selection over that oh-so-storied climb, the bone-crunching Koppenberg had distilled the field down to a legendary group.
Sagan was there. The expectation of favouritism heavy on his shoulders. Cancellara, too, cool as ever. The clones, Omega Pharma Quickstep, led by the trio of supermen, Boonen, Terpstra, Stybar. The humble Vanmarcke. The assiduous, but unrewarded Greg Van Avermaet. A stubbornly strong Degenkolb.
Here, the stage was set for a OPQS stompathon. Well-represented, on home territory and versed in the cobbled language that is the Ronde it was only a matter of delivering one of its captains to glory. A fait accompli. Only, it lacked resolve. The clones, as powerful as they were didn't seem to want it. Where was the desire? The passion that makes the Ronde. Between Boonen, Terpstra, Stybar, there was an unthinkable strength between them, but a reluctance to use it. That reluctance was their undoing.
"Flanders is a dream" - Greg Van Avermaet
Enter Van Avermaet. Exuberant? Overzealous? Ballsy. The Belgian injected the race with total and absolute commitment. A Flandrian elixir. Years in the shadows of the likes of Leif Hoste, Philippe Gilbert, Thor Hushovd, Alessandro Ballan; Van Avermaet was in the clear, thrashing at the front with a Ronde win beckoning. It was all courage. And with him, in the deepest possible contrast to his own boldness, the anchor that was Stijn Vandenbergh.
Van Avermaet, you felt, deserved the Ronde. Riding his way into a winning position, even while Vandenbergh sat impassively behind. Making the race, not thinking conservatively, gambling it all on a long-shot. And it very nearly came off. As much as nuance is important in a bike race, Flanders requires its fair dose of grit, and Van Avermaet was full of it. A blunt instrument. There was nothing surgical about it, no thought of failure. It was raw.
Of course, the path of panache, is rarely that of the victor's. While Van Avermaet's riding earned him plaudits, it was, most probably, his undoing when the race hit the Kwaremont-Paterberg double for its last hurrah. Where Van Avermaet rode a race of total abandon, Cancellara was clinical. The Swiss's eruption the final time up the Kwaremont was calculated but emphatic. For the second year in a row, it blew Peter Sagan's credentials out of the water. But it was the tactical finesse that was to come from the Swiss that would be crucial to his success.
"I have to finish on the podium," Sep Vanmarcke
Vanmarcke, a rider whose bulky physique is made for power, was the only rider able to follow. A strong classics campaign to date, but one that, perhaps crucially in a Monument like Flanders, has been lacking a win. The Belgian has all the attributes for a Flanders or a Roubaix triumph, but, Sunday didn't have the belief. Had the Belkin man been one race older, stronger, that little wiser, he may well have been the man that walked away with the Ronde. Instead, he showed too much deference to his Swiss rival. He believed, as Van Avermaet and Vandenbergh did, when the quartet approached the finish in Oudenaarde, that there could be only one result, a Cancellara win. He was in all sorts of pain, but so was everyone else. He was thinking of the podium, but of spot number three, not number one.
Compounding this, Cancellara played the psychological card. 'This is your race to win', he taunted to his three break companions. 'This is your chance, it may never come again'. It was clever. Brilliantly so. Vandenbergh rolled away his faint chances with a half-hearted dig, and oddly it was Van Avermaet and Vanmarcke who brought him back. Cancellara had somehow goaded the trio into a frenzy, all while he kept his cool.
"I wanted to finish alone, but today it was better to wait for the sprint." - Fabian Cancellara
Even in the sprint, experience counted for everything. Despite the Swiss leading into the final kilometre, it was Cancellara, the two-time Ronde winner who coaxed the other three in front, and found himself recovering, in the blind spot of his rivals with 700 metres to race. Cancellara essentially dictated the sprint. Opening up as late as possible, but still sure to make himself first to accelerate. The students, watching the master, roll away with the win.
The result, in so many ways, is irrelevant. Sunday was entertaining to the last, a perfect exhibition of what makes cycling such a beautiful sport. Tension throughout, a battle of wills, speculation, nerves, and finally a champion emerging. You don't see races like this often, but then, this was The Ronde.