FOR A SPORT that is no stranger to controversy, this winter was as testing to the patience of fans than any other in the sport’s history.
Alberto Contador’s ongoing doping case having tested for Clenbuterol, Riccardo Ricco ending up in hospital having botched an attempt at giving himself a blood-transfusion, the federal investigation into Lance Armstrong and his US Postal team spring to mind.
And even non-doping issues like corruption within the sport’s governing body and rider strikes due to the race radio ban have all been dominating the cycling headlines in recent months. But this weekend, all that was forgotten as cycling fans were reminded as to why we watch the sport in the first place; cyclists riding their bikes in foul weather across cobbles in northern Europe.
The Omloop Het Nieuwsblad took place on Saturday and was won by Sebastian Langeveld (Rabobank) after he attacked the bunch with just over 50km left to race. A well-organised chase failed to materialise, resulting in the last year’s winner Juan Antonio Flecha taking matters into his own hands. The Spaniard attacked with 30km to go and rode after Langeveld alone. Flecha eventually closed a gap of 1’30″ and caught the Dutchman with 15km to go. From that point, the two leaders worked together to eke out a gap of almost two minutes over the nearest group on the road.
This two-minute buffer allowed them to slow down in the final kilometres as both riders tried to manoeuvre each other into the front to lead out the sprint. Ultimately it was left to Langeveld to begin the race for the line. Flecha appeared to be coming around to take the victory but Langeveld held on by a whisker to take undoubtedly the biggest win of his career. Matt Hayman (Team Sky) rounded out the podium having crossed the line over a minute behind Langeveld.
The rain and wind on the day made it a gruesome challenge for the riders but all the more exciting for the fans. There were rumblings that teams would turn up equipped with race radios despite the fact that they are now banned in non-World Tour races, but this never materialised and the race was completed without radios. The ban certainly troubled some riders who couldn’t radio back to their team car in the convoy to ask for a replacement bike, while other riders complained that their safety was being compromised because they were unaware of the upcoming road furniture.
In terms of race tactics, it’s near impossible to tell whether any team manager yelling instructions in a rider’s ear would have made any difference, especially in an attritional race such as this. Last year, with a radio, Flecha attacked with 20km to go and won, this year with no radio, he attacked with 30km to go and lost by an inch. It is hard to see how Flecha could have ridden a better tactical race, he was simply beaten by a rider who was fractionally stronger at the finish.
While Langeveld was busy adding his name to the honour roll of Het Nieuwsblad winners, the An Post-Sean Kelly team were taking part in another Belgian race called the Beverbeek classic. In his first one-day race as a professional, Irishman Philip Lavery attacked the peloton with over 100km to go, an attack which initiated a break of 18 riders. This dangerous breakaway stayed up the road for 70km until they were eventually reeled in.
Once the peloton was back together many counter attacks began. But the one that stuck contained two Belgians, Evert Verbist (Veranda’s Willems – Accent) and Dries Hollanders of the An Post-Sean Kelly team. Similarly to the finale of Het Nieuwsblad, the pair stayed away until the finish where they sprinted it out for the win.
Unfortunately for the An Post-Sean Kelly team, it was Verbist who would ultimately prove successful as Hollanders was forced to settle for second place. But his 2nd place was the An Post-Sean Kelly team’s first podium place of the year. Philip Lavery finished up in the bunch, in 31st place just six seconds behind the winner Verbist. Ronan McLaughlin also made it home with the main peloton back in 56th place.
The action continued on Sunday with Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne where the An Post-Sean Kelly team were again in action, as was Irish champion Matt Brammeier of the HTC-High Road team. As has been their speciality so far this year, the An Post-Sean Kelly team once more had a rider in the early break of the day as Andrew Fenn formed part of a five-man breakaway.
The quintet’s lead reached seven minutes at one stage before a bizarre incident put an end to proceedings. The riders in the break rode through a closing level crossing, this is against the rules and as a result they were all disqualified from the race. This is a well-known rule in cycling which is, bafflingly, often ignored by riders.
Luckily for Fenn, he had been dropped from the breakaway shortly before they reached the railway line, so he had not been coerced into crossing the track with his breakaway companions. Fenn is a former winner of the Junior Paris-Roubaix. In 2008 he powered past the phenom that is Peter Sagan to win alone in the Roubaix velodrome. As a result of the ill-discipline of some, this future star of cobbled classics ended up off the front of the race for a further hour.
After a series of attacks with small groups forming only to be pegged back, in which Saturday’s runner-up Flecha and triple Paris-Roubaix winner Tom Boonen were very active, the race came down to a bunch sprint which was won by the Australian Chris Sutton (Team Sky), closely followed by Yauheni Hutarovich (FDJ) and André Greipel (Omega Pharma-Lotto).
Matt Brammeier finished in 22nd place with the same time as the winner, this is Ireland’s result in this particular race since Sean Kelly finished 4th back in 1992. An Post’s best placed rider was the Lithuanian Gediminas Bagdonas in 33rd while Mark Cassidy also finished in the main bunch in 76th position.