Saturday at Het Nieuwsblad, Tom Boonen's leg-testing attack on the Taiienberg may have been enough to demoralise his adversaries in his mid-2000s heyday, but now 34, the once King of the Cobbled Classics is no longer perceived as infallible; the same goes for his team.
Still, with 43km remaining, when teammate Stijn Vandenbergh went full throttle on the Haaghoek pavÃ© and took Boonen, Niki Terpstra and Ian Stannard with him, making it three Quick-Step against one Sky, many including myself thought, 'Wake me up with 1,500 metres to go, will you?' By riding as hard as they did, Etixx-Quick-Step (EQS) took two of their most serious threats in Sep Vanmarcke (LottoNL-Jumbo) and Greg Van Avermaet (BMC Racing) out of the equation, notwithstanding Zdenek Stybar in tow. However Vanmarcke, who missed the move due to an untimely puncture, and Van Avermaet, who ironically found his name on the front page of the newspaper that backs the race the morning of the event and for all the wrong reasons, were not prepared to give in so easily, and in riding as hard as they did, EQS gradually self-imploded.
Watching it all unfold with a smile on his dial was Stannard, of course, who EQS, in their bubble of hubris, grossly underestimated, the Welshman having to do little till the last five kilometres: "I could just sit back, play a bit of poker, and enjoy the ride," he said. "I just wanted to get a free ride for as long as I could. That was my idea."
As a Cycling Central reader noted under my blogpost about Team Sky last week, the British based outfit, rather than stick with the same formula that has won them two Tours de France but zero Monuments, is experimenting a little in both the stage race and one-day formats - tweaking things here, adding things there, till they develop what they believe to be a winning race strategy. Still, with their one team, one leader approach at Het Nieuwsblad, they took a big punt in placing all eggs in the basket of the man they nickname 'Yogi'; had Stannard not been on a blinder, we might be lauding the efforts of the team of Patrick Lefevre - but instead EQS was exposed for not having enough faith in Boonen's sprint prowess, which first saw an attack by Terpstra, then, when he was caught by Stannard, rather bizarrely, from 'Tommeke' himself. "Today, we made a mistake in the final," Boonen admitted in a team press release after the race.
"I was pretty sure at that time (I attacked) it was the right moment to do it. But Stannard had the strategy to ride on the wheels of us three in the lead group, and save his energy until the final kilometers, so he was a bit fresher. He was also strong today, so he caught me. The best thing to do at that point would have been to stay calm and wait for the sprint. But we had been full gas for the last hour, so really it was about instinct at that point. Niki attacked again, then Stannard, and then the final sprint was between those two guys. There is a thin line between a great race and a costly mistake, and unfortunately we took the risk of not waiting for the sprint, and it didn't work out."
Admittedly not as quick as he used to be but far from a slouch in a straight line, out of the lead quartet Boonen was nonetheless the fastest on paper - so why did they not send Vandenbergh up the road after Terpstra was caught, or, to begin with, Vandenbergh and Terpstra together, forcing Stannard to chase with Boonen on his wheel? "After a few attacks he (Stannard) countered and then attacked. In the end I was alone with Stannard," recalled Terpstra. "I was in front for the sprint. I saw it was 300 metres and I decided not to go. Then I accelerated at 200 metres. Normally that is perfect for me, but I didn't have the perfect sprinting legs after the big effort all day. I thought I had him until 50 metres from the finish line. I had nothing left in my legs at that point. Looking back, maybe it would have been better to wait for the sprint with Tom and not attacking, but it's a question of moment and circumstances."
Etixx-Quick-Step nearly stuffed things up again Sunday at Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne.
When they, along with LottoNL-Jumbo, broke the field apart on the Oude Kwaremont to create a 19-man lead group, EQS, boasting five men including Mark Cavendish, were easily the best-represented team. If they made it to the finish as one, the Manxman would likely have only Team Sky's Elia Viviani to contend with - notable exceptions were Alexander Kristoff (Katusha) and Edvald Boasson Hagen (MTN-Qhubeka). All excluding Cavendish rode hard on the front to prise open a one-minute advantage over the peloton, but after what happened the day previous, and still 60km from the finish, EQS was unwilling to commit. "You've got to be willing to sacrifice a race in order to be able to win it," former Paris-Roubaix champion turned Eurosport commentator, Magnus Backstedt, during the live coverage of the race, told his audience.
"And I think that's been part of Etixx-Quick-Step's issue in the past - they've been so keen on winning and so keen on setting things up in a spectacular fashion for Mark Cavendish that they've actually done (the lead-out) too early and basically ended up shooting themselves in the foot." Instead of a one-in-four chance of winning and just 14 others to watch, EQS decided to fold; it allowed the peloton led by MTN-Qhubeka to latch back on, and set things up for a likely bunch sprint finish among some 70 riders. As Backstedt intimated, the Belgian based formation became overzealous and were overrun with a kilometre still remaining, but with his Zen-like lucidity, Cavendish took the wheel of Kristoff and pumped the Norwegian at the line. They committed Saturday and lost (mostly because they chose the wrong person to attack Stannard); on Sunday they hesitated and won.
As Terpstra said, a question of moment and circumstance...
It's worth noting Het Nieuwsblad and K-B-K are non-WorldTour races, meaning race radios did not influence the outcome in either. It shows, therefore, that in the heat of battle, poor decisions - even by some of the most experienced campaigners - can be made when the level head of a sports director is not there to guide them, or in some cases, interfere; it'll be interesting to see how things play out at the Ronde van Vlaanderen (Tour of Flanders) a little over a month from now, on April 5, which features many of the same climbs we saw on the weekend though in greater quantity, and with WorldTour status, is radio-friendly.
As they did on Sunday, I imagine Etixx-Quick-Step will bounce back; Boonen is invariably his harshest critic, and a good dose of self-flagellation is exactly what's needed. But after this weekend past, it's clear they won't have it all their own way.