Sean Kelly's boys deliver as Niko on top in Flanders

Veteran An Post rider Niko Eekhout notched the team’s first stage win of the season in Belgium.

Image: INPHO/Lorraine O'Sullivan

NIKO EECKHOUT WON won yesterday’s final stage of the Three Days of West Flanders marking the first win of the season for the An Post-Sean Kelly team.

The 40-year old Belgian won the bunch sprint in a photo finish ahead of Jimmy Casper (Saur-Sojasun) and Dominique Rollin (FDJ).

The race was won overall by Jesse Sergent (Team RadioShack) in what was only his second ever stage race as a professional cyclist. The young New Zealander defended the leader’s jersey he gained after winning Friday’s prologue time trial. Team RadioShack dominated the GC as Sergeant was joined on the final podium by team-mates Sébastien Rosseler and Mikel Kwiatkowski who finished second and third respectively.

For a team renowned for having a large number of old riders on their roster, the presence of Sergent (22) and Kwiatkowski (20) on the final podium is a large boost to their future prospects.

The performance of his youthful charges pleased the RadioShack team director Dirk Demol, he said “I cannot describe how proud I am of all these young guys. Don’t forget, for all of them it’s the first time they do a race in Flanders with narrow, windy and slippery roads. After our demonstration in the prologue, the other 24 teams, including seven other World Tour teams, didn’t give us any gifts.  We had to work for it the entire three days”.

Saturday’s stage also ended with a bunch sprint which was won by John Degenkolb (HTC-High Road), a double stage winner in last year’s Rás. But it was a man almost double Degenkolb’s age who beat everybody yesterday, as Eeckhout proved that on his day he still has what it takes to beat the young guns of professional cycling. The stage victory meant that Eeckhout finished the race in eighth place overall.

An Post-Sean Kelly team manager Kurt Bogaerts was delighted with the victory:

“I said at the start of the season that Niko was looking sharp and today he proved it. He had a lot of bad injuries last year and bad luck, but this year he has started so well and he is really an inspiration to the less experienced members of the team”.

It is Eeckhout’s second ever stage win in the Three Days of West Flanders as he also won Stage Three back in 2006 on his way to overall victory.

Irish champion Matt Brammeier, a team-mate of Stage Two winner John Degenkolb, finished the race in 34th place overall, over six minutes behind Sergeant. The highlight of Brammeier’s race came in the prologue time trial where he finished in 30th place. Unfortunately, Mark Cassidy of the An Post-Sean Kelly team pulled out of the race on Saturday’s Stage One.

Elsewhere in Belgium last weekend, Sam Bennett, Philip Lavery and Ronan McLaughlin all took part in the Vlaamse Pijl one-day race for the An Post-Sean Kelly team. Of the trio only McLaughlin completed the race finishing in 99th place, over three minutes down on eventual winner Frédéric Amorison (Landbouwkrediet).

In Spain yesterday, the three-stage Tour of Murcia was won by Alberto Contador (Saxo Bank-Sungard). He won the mountainous second stage as well as yesterday’s individual time trial to take the overall win by 11 seconds from budding Frenchman Jerome Coppel (Saur-Sojasun), with Denis Menchov (Geox-TMC) just six seconds further back.

Contador is eligible to race having been cleared by the Spanish cycling federation (RFEC) after testing positive for Clenbuterol during the rest day of last year’s Tour de France. An appeal against this decision is expected to be lodged by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) in the coming weeks. If the appeal is successful and Contador is eventually banned, he will likely be stripped of all results achieved since his positive test last July and Coppel would be declared as the rightful winner of the Tour of Murcia.

Contador decided to race in Spain this week rather than make his usual appearance in Paris-Nice which got underway yesterday. The Spaniard is the defending Paris-Nice champion and his absence will provide ample incentive for many potential victors this coming week. Yesterday’s first stage was won by the Belgian Thomas de Gendt (Vacansoleil-DCM), the biggest victory of his career so far.

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De Gendt formed a breakaway along with Jens Voigt (Leopard-Trek) and Jérémy Roy (FDJ) with 40km left to race. The trio held a tentative lead all the way to the finish as the peloton fought to reel them in. But for once, the bunch failed to time the catch correctly and De Gendt stole away from his breakaway companions to win the stage by one second and take the overall race lead.

Yesterday’s stage was not only a victory for Thomas de Gendt, it was a victory for those in favour of using race radios. As a World Tour race, Paris-Nice is one of the few races left on the cycling calendar in which riders and team managers are allowed to contact each other using two-way radios. One of the major arguments against their use is that they contribute to dull uninspiring racing. However, yesterday’s stage raced with radios was one of the more exciting flat stages we are likely to see this year.

Nicolas Roche, who finished the stage safely in the bunch back in 48th place, argues that if riders had not had the use of radios then De Gendt, Voigt and Roy would never have been allowed to reach the finish ahead of what would have been a nervous and less confident peloton. Roche said “I’m convinced if we hadn’t had [radios] yesterday, the breakaway would have never made it as the bunch wouldn’t have taken any risk and caught them straight away”.

Philip Deignan’s boss at Team RadioShack, Johan Bruyneel, a vocal supporter of race radios, also commented on yesterday’s Paris-Nice stage saying sarcastically that the “break made it to the finish although the robots received command from remote control to chase down break. Radios = boring?”

Paris-Nice continues tomorrow with a 199km stage from Montfort l’Amaury  to Amilly, another mostly flat day likely to be affected once more by strong winds.

About the author:

Cillian Kelly  / Twitter: @irishpeloton

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