Belgian classics specialist Tom Boonen proved he was back to his best with an historic third Ronde van Vlaanderen crown on Sunday.
Although his job was made easier by the withdrawal of main rival Fabian Cancellara following a crash, Boonen still had to hold his nerve and deliver the goods – something the 31-year-old Omega Pharma-Quick Step rider would not have done during last year’s patchy form.
Boonen now has three big wins on home soil this season – and after success in 2005 and 2006, this third Flanders victory puts him in the select group of five riders (including his idol, Johan Museeuw) who have won the cobblestone classic on three occasions.
It was a triple of another sort for Cancellara: the Swiss powerhouse was caught up in an innocuous crash during the feeding zone 60km from the finish and was taken to hospital with a triple fracture of the right collarbone.
Cancellara’s unlikely exit changed the dynamic of the race, for sure, but it’s too facile to say that Boonen only won because of his rival’s absence.
Granted, prior to the RadioShack-Nissan-Trek rider’s crash Boonen had been pretty much riding in his wheel, marking his every move. But Cancellara’s crash meant the race was no longer a one verses one affair: it had become one verses all.
That Boonen has refound the kind of form that entitles him to such elevated status is testament to his remarkable turn around over the past few months.
Indeed, many had written off Boonen’s stuttering career prior to the season getting underway.
His 2010 season was wrecked by tendinitis around his left kneecap while last year saw Boonen forget even the most basic of bike-handling skills: heavy crashes ended his hopes in both the Tour de France and Vuelta a Espana, plus sidelined him from the World Championships in Copenhagen.
Outdone by Cancellara and a new breed wave of riders in the classics, and clearly not in the same league as Mark Cavendish and Andre Greipel in the Grand Tours, Boonen was beginning to look like an anachronism on two wheels.
But a solid training programme in the off-season coupled with an injury-free start to the year has seen Boonen’s form – and confidence – skyrocket. Habitual wins in Qatar were followed by a Paris-Nice scalp, second in the Omloop and back-to-back victories in the E3 Harelbeke and Gent-Wevelgem.
Boonen entered Flanders as favourite but always knew Cancellara – second in Milan-San Remo – would be the danger man. His job was to follow the Swiss intently. Cancellara’s crash changed Boonen’s race in that he was not subjected to the kind of brutal surge of pace that did for his chances in both Flanders and Paris-Roubaix in 2010.
But without Cancellara there to force an early selection, Boonen might well have come up against stronger rivals in the finale.
As it was, the race was affected by more crashes. First, GreenEDGE hope Sebastian Langeveld was involved in a frightful high-speed collision with a spectator that saw his front wheel ripped spectacularly from his frame; then a slip by Paris-Roubaix champion Johan Van Summeren (Garmin-Barracuda) caused a split in the main pack, distancing the likes of Edvald Boasson-Hagen (Team Sky).
Omega Pharma-Quick Step, however, held all the trump cards: not only did they have Boonen in the leading group, but also ‘Plan B’ Sylvain Chavanel (second in 2011) and the in-form Nikki Terpstra.
Both men laid down the hammer on the front before 2007 winner Alessandro Ballan (BMC) attacked on the Paterberg, with fellow Italian Filippo Pozzato (Farnese-Vini) and Boonen following.
Had the new climb been a touch longer, Boonen could well have been distanced by the Italian training partners; but the Belgian just managed to hold on during the 350m cobbled ascent ahead of the 10km run-in to the finish.
The weakest finisher of them all, it was left to a resigned Ballan to open up the sprint before Boonen held off a late surge by Pozzato to take the win.
It may have looked easy, but Boonen had worked hard throughout the race to bring about that exact conclusion. He also had to avoid crashing and those crashing around him – something the Boonen of 2011 would not have been able to do.
So, Boonen enters next Sunday’s Paris-Roubaix as the overwhelming favourite to net his second Roubaix-Flanders double seven years after first achieving the feat back in 2005. A win will also see Boonen equal compatriot Roger De Vlaeminck’s record four victories in ‘the Hell of the North’.
“Hopefully he’ll be a bit tired,” said Pozzato after the race. “Otherwise we won’t have that much of a chance against him.”