Brilliant Boonen nails Flanders hat-trick

Felix Lowe Columnist

By Felix Lowe, Felix Lowe is a Roar Expert

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    Tom Boonen (centre) wins the Tour of Flanders ahead of Filippo Pozzato and Alessandro Ballan. (AFP)

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    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.”

    Felix Lowe
    Felix Lowe

    Felix Lowe is an English photographer, writer and Arsenal fan with a penchant for pro-cycling. Eurosport writer and blogger, Felix has covered the major cycling races in the pro calendar for the past decade and is now taking up the sport himself, at the ripe age of 31.

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    The Crowd Says (8)

    • Roar Guru

      April 2nd 2012 @ 12:42pm
      Kit Harvey said | April 2nd 2012 @ 12:42pm | ! Report

      What a win from Tommeke. Disappointing he and Fabian couldn’t duke it out at the end though!

      • April 2nd 2012 @ 1:18pm
        liquorbox_ said | April 2nd 2012 @ 1:18pm | ! Report

        he would have just sat on Fabian’s back wheel and surge at the end. I dont think Fabians tactics will get him any better than 2nd spot in big races

        • Columnist

          April 2nd 2012 @ 2:42pm
          Felix Lowe said | April 2nd 2012 @ 2:42pm | ! Report

          I see what you’re getting at but I still think it’s a bit harsh. Remember, Cancellara’s same tactics have seen him win Flanders once and Roubaix twice. So they’re kind of tried and tested. When he crashed out yesterday it was with 90km to go and in the feeding zone. He hadn’t even had the chance to start putting his tactics into action. No one’s going to beat Boonen in a classics sprint – yesterday was further proof of that. But Cancellara’s tactics were not to leave it to the final sprint – he would have tried to surge ahead on the final climbs and then time trial to the finish – like he did to deny Boonen in both the cobbled classics in 2010. Granted, the field are more aware of Spartacus’s tricks (see Gerrans’s recent win in San Remo) but that doesn’t make it any easier to deal with. Like Boonen, he’s merely playing to his strengths. And whereas last year it was Boonen who kept on crashing, this year it’s the Swiss who has tumbled out.

    • Columnist

      April 2nd 2012 @ 1:20pm
      Tim Renowden said | April 2nd 2012 @ 1:20pm | ! Report

      Yeah, great stuff from Boonen. Controlled the race beautifully and played to his strengths, with very good support from his team-mates until the winning break went away in the final 25km.

      I wonder if Pozzato is kicking himself for misjudging his ability to outsprint Boonen. In hindsight he probably should’ve counter-attacked after one of Ballan’s surges, and tried to drop him instead.

      • Columnist

        April 2nd 2012 @ 2:35pm
        Felix Lowe said | April 2nd 2012 @ 2:35pm | ! Report

        You’re right, Tim. But I guess Pozzato had reached the point where he had to just believe in his own sprinting ability or throw in the towel then and there. Ballan knew he was a beaten man – much like third-placed Nibali in Milan-San Remo. Pozzato must have just hoped Boonen had left his remaining strength on the Patenberg. Had that climb been a little longer, things could have been very different. Tommeke was beginning to tire towards the summit.

        I just hope Paris-Roubaix is a bit more animated. With the exception of the nasty crashes, this Tour of Flanders was a bit subdued. I guess Boonen’s rivals will know that they only way to beat him is to distance him before the finish – which should make for a lively race.

        • Columnist

          April 2nd 2012 @ 2:49pm
          Tim Renowden said | April 2nd 2012 @ 2:49pm | ! Report

          Yes, Boonen *almost* lost the wheel on that final climb… another 100 metres uphill and it might’ve been a different story for Pozzato.

          I’m about to write something about Paris-Roubaix and who can realistically challenge Boonen.

    • April 2nd 2012 @ 2:55pm
      JoeP said | April 2nd 2012 @ 2:55pm | ! Report

      Great post, Felix. Keep up the good writing!

    • April 2nd 2012 @ 9:45pm
      Jamie said | April 2nd 2012 @ 9:45pm | ! Report

      I missed the race. Thx for the great wrap up Felix.

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