Well, that was a pretty bloody good Ronde, no?
(Driving home from chez Tomalaris, crashing to bed at 2am, then off to work five hours later, you tend to run out of superlatives, so 'pretty bloody good' it'll have to be...)
I'll leave it up to my Cycling Central colleague Al Hinds to tell wax lyrical how the 2014 edition of Vlaanderens mooiste was lekker as downing a half-litre of the best chocoladevla or a sinking some of the finest Westvleteren has to offer. No, I'm here to pass on a trio of observations that piqued my interest during what indisputably was an intoxicating, six-and-a-quarter-hour, crash-filled slugfest.
Favourites cancel each other out.
If Sep Vanmarcke had gone when Edvald Boasson Hagen and Dries Devenyns boldly decided after the Taaienberg with around 35km remaining Ã¢â¬â or, better still, teamed up with Greg Van Avermaet and Stijn Vandenbergh inside the final 30km, before the Kruisberg and the final of three ascents of the Oude Kwaremont Ã¢â¬â you may have seen none of the three pre-race picks Ã¢â¬â Fabian Cancellara, Peter Sagan, or Tom Boonen Ã¢â¬â stand on the podium Sunday in Oudenaarde.
Boasson Hagen, Devenyns and Van Avermaet all took advantage of the fact that the aforementioned favourites were eyeing each other in the final 50km, after they crested the Koppenberg en masse.
While EBH and Devenyns' lead never got out too much, Van Avermaet single-handedly Ã¢â¬â since Vandenbergh, riding for Omega Pharma-Quick Step, was instructed not to contribute Ã¢â¬â eked out a potentially race-winning one-minute buffer 19km from the line; had he courted one or two willing and able allies before making his move, instead of towing the deadweight of Vandenbergh up hill and down dale, I'm convinced you would've seen a huge upset.
Remember, unlike last year, Cancellara, despite his wont, was not able to ride away solo and thus for me, was slightly weaker than in 2013.
Take note of his post-race remarks: "On the Paterberg I could not go more; I was dead, and then I had to gamble to stay with Vandenbergh, Vanmarcke and Van Avermaet. I wanted to finish alone, but today it was better to wait for the sprint." (Last year on the Paterberg he was far from "dead" Ã¢â¬â he rode Sagan and Jurgen Roelandts off his wheel and onto victory.)
Had any three-man combination of Van Avermaet, Vanmarcke, Devenyns and Leukemans Ã¢â¬â quite clearly, all pedalling powerfully on the day Ã¢â¬â collaborated, flown the coup sans pre-race favourites inside the final 30km and amassed a minute's lead by the base of the Kwaremont, do you think Fabulous Fabian would have been able to pull them back?
I don't think so. But to pull off a major upset requires a bit of forward thinking.
Just desserts for OPQS.
Talking about a major upset and lack of forward thinking brings me to Omega Pharma-Quick StepÃ¢â¬¦
What a debacle! Oh, the shame!
Collectively, as a unit, OPQS were the strongest by a country mile. To control to race was sensible because Nikolas Maes aside they avoided all the crashes. Yet in the final they rode as if suddenly, they all had the flu.
I'm glad we could watch and listen to (but not learn from) their sport director Wilfred Peeters, who, throughout the race, continued their mantra over the mic that went something like this: "Don't let a move go without one of us being in it."
So, the strongest team in the race, with myriad options available, chooses to ride defence?
Why not: "We've got more cards to play than anyone. Let's MAKE the moves!"
Almost certainly after the Taaienberg, its crest 36km from Oudenaarde, three-time champ Boonen, judging from his comments afterwards, would have told his team-mates and DS Peeters that he wasn't on a flyer. ("Up until 230 kilometres I felt the way I was supposed to feel for maybe a Classic win, but with 30 kilometres to go that's where I could maybe improve.") If we're honest and understandably so, he hasn't quite been the same since choosing not to start Milano-San Remo due to the miscarriage of his partner. Conversely, Niki Terpstra and Guillaume Van Keirsbulck have been floating the past fortnight; ZdenÃâºk Ã tybar and Stijn Vandenbergh have also been looking solid.
Bike racing is dynamic Ã¢â¬â particularly in races like Flanders or Roubaix with so many variables and multitude crashes, it calls for decision-making on the fly Ã¢â¬â so why didn't they change the game plan when it became obvious Terpstra was the strongest in their lot?
OPQS stubbornly stuck with Boonen as leader. And when Van Avermaet launched his savage salvo a few kilometres from the Kruisberg, they sent a guy who had done a pile of domestique duties and was already half-cooked Ã¢â¬â then told him to sit on and hope for the best.
Said Boonen afterwards: "I think we could have done a better job if the radio was working, but we had no radio communication from the last time on the top of the Oude Kwaremont."
What are you saying, Tom? With all your collective experience, four OPQS riders in front couldn't make a decision for themselves?
Had Terpstra gone instead with Van Avermaet, or even better Terpstra and Ã tybar Ã¢â¬â all possible outcomes, since Ã tybar himself said, "As for the rest of us, we were always in good position" Ã¢â¬â it could easily have been the winning move.
OPQS lost because 1) they hedged their bets with a rider that, despite his Ronde-winning pedigree, never looked like being in a position to win when the crunch came; and 2) when Puppeteer Peeters could no longer make radio contact (and even before then) they failed to switch leaders to Terpstra till it was too late.
A few more seasons for Sagan.
As I wrote in my blogpost last week, as accomplished as Peter Sagan is, he's just not quite there in those few races which really do go the distance Ã¢â¬â literally, mentally and physically. The rest, on his day, he can win Ã¢â¬â but for races like Flanders, Roubaix, LiÃ¨ge and Lombardia, as well as road worlds courses like that we've seen the past two years, he'll need a few more seasons in the tank before we can call him a bona-fide champion of the Classics.
Even if he is to ride for Tinkoff-Saxo next year, as is rumoured to be the case, we cannot blame his team because on Sunday, other than Omega Pharma-Quick Step, Cannondale was the only outfit still to have four riders shortly before the penultimate climb of the Oude Kwaremont. Okay, all Ã¢â¬â including Sagan Ã¢â¬â were jettisoned shortly thereafter, by-products of the infernal pace set by one Fabian Cancellara, but to be safely delivered inside the final 20km of Flanders, you can't ask for much more than that.
As his endurance improves (no argument there) and he can be just as good over 260km as he is over 200km (more than likely), a Flanders scalp will be forthcoming before too long.
However LiÃ¨ge and Lombardia will take a little more time because not only will he need to go the distance, if he's to mix it with Joaquim RodrÃguez, Alejandro Valverde, Carlos Betancur, Daniel Martin and the like, he'll need to drop a few kilos without a corresponding reduction in power. And until he wins a half-dozen Flanders and Roubaix trophies, he's unlikely to want to make himself incapable of winning one Monument at the expense of another.
It's been quite some time since a rider could challenge in cobblestone races like Flanders/Roubaix and climber-oriented ones like LiÃ¨ge and Lombardia, but Sagan is one rider, should he wish to, that could do so.
If he keeps his head screwed on, I have little doubt he'll get there. And, like the rest of you, I'm looking forward to watching the journey.