Nine months ago, West Australian cyclist Ben O’Connor was at a crossroads in his career.
They hung from the trees, they craned and strained their necks and risked getting smashed to smithereens by the team cars and motos that flew past over rutted track and jutting cobbles.
They roared and they hollered and made a din you’d have heard five kilometres away, the whipping wind carrying that wondrous throaty cacophony over the rolling Flemish countryside.
It wasn’t a crowd at a sporting event, no, this was more than that, more devout, more sanctified. It was a coming together of people who love cycling and have it ingrained in their marrow, an appreciation of the masochistic effort required of the participants in the race just to get to the start line.
It was the Tour of Flanders, 2014, and it was a classic Classic.
I was fortunate enough to be standing by the roadside as the race sped by, out here for the week with Velo Classic Tours. We headed first to the VIP start area and rubbed shoulders with ex- and current pros, checked out the Flanders version-bikes (lots of 25mm tires with thick treads and the usual extra layer of bartape).
Then we were off in the vans, roaring across the Flandrian countryside to stop for a glimpse of the race.
Hearing Taylor Phinney was off in the early break, I wondered what he was doing – surely he was a contender for the top five here – but then I remembered Greg Van Avermaet, his erstwhile teammate and the man who makes a pretty decent living off not-quite winning Classics.
The American was a pretty decent knight to sacrifice, but could Van Avermaet, so often the nearly man, become the King of Flanders? Ultimately, it was a case of business as usual, as Van Avermaet’s break saw large chunks of his time unraveling the selfless work of Phinney by pulling Stijn Vandenbergh of Tom Boonen’s Omega Pharma-QuickStep team to the line.
In bike racing, you have to be prepared to lose to win. I have written that so many times it is becoming a cliché, but it is one golden rule guys who win know very well.
A bit harsh maybe? Well, Van Avermaet did indeed make that finale a thriller with a little help from his ‘friends’, but he never once gave Vandenbergh a tongue lashing when the guy clearly deserved one, even if the OPQS rider had a right to say, “Hey I am waiting for Tommeke.” Van Avermaet could at the least have shamed him a little.
He was asked after the race if he was upset to have lost.
“I don’t look upset, do I? It’s just the situation that I’m in, second in the Tour of Flanders.”
“I was a disappointment to work alone. I lost a lot of power doing that because it’s a long way from the Taaienberg to the finish. I put a lot of energy in this attack. Maybe that cost me the victory.”
Maybe, maybe not, but far more draining was the fact he got no help at all from the man who went with him and that he again led-out a breakaway sprint (a bad habit, that).
Compounding the feeling that Van Avermaet just ain’t that clever on two wheels is that he chose the right side of the road to head into the last 400 metres. Why was that dumb? Because, as the flags clearly showed, the wind was coming from the right, meaning that Fabian Cancellara had a good 12 metres of protected space to begin his sprint.
What might Phinney think as he watches the replays? Who knows, but we can imagine.
Still, the feeling on the cobbles was that a new winner might not be a bad thing and you cannot fault Van Avermaet’s chutzpah, and those watching the end of the race from a café far too-well stocked with Belgian beer (unless they were Belgian) were all cheering on Van Avermaet when he finally attacked Vandenbergh.
It was, alas, to no avail. And once that attack failed, we all knew what – or rather who – was coming…
There was a moment when we were out on the Eikenberg and waiting for the peloton to come, after the break had flown by, when a moment of calm passed through the crowd. It was as though we had just seen the outer edges of a great storm and were now getting ready for its true fury to rage over us.
The air hummed with chatter, the whiff of waffles and other waistline-busting Belgian delicacies, and the sparkle of increasing excitement. Overhead, the helicopter buzzed and we knew that meant the peloton was on its way.
The chopper made a din, the motos and lead cars a clamour with their horns honking almost incessantly, but the sound of the peloton as it thundered past, accompanied by the roar of the crowd, was enough to make a grown man (this one, in fact) get a lump in the throat and a tear in the eye.
3,000 on a hillside in Flanders sounds like 80,000 at the Nou Camp in Barcelona, just for a moment or two. And there, oblivious to it all, was Boonen on Cancellara’s wheel, like Thor and his brother, lycra-clad and hell-bent on causing no end of suffering to each other and any other pretended who dared imagine himself worthy of taking the coveted title of the Lion of Flanders.
Cancellara looked to be in some sort of trance-like state of Zen. He just was. He looked very, very comfortable, as others alongside him shook, bobbed and gurned like clubbers at a trance night.
Back to the finale, and it was the big Swiss who decided – and could only decide, so spent were the likes of Peter Sagan and co. – that it was time to reel in the leaders, who had a sizeable gap with 25km still to go. Off he went on the Oude Kwaremont, dumping his brilliance on the rest of them like the disdainful deity he just might well be.
Only Sep Vanmarcke could go with him, something the young Belkin rider is making a good habit out of. Now, if only he could work out how to beat him to the line, that’d be the ticket.
What we saw on Sunday was the difference between very good and great. Van Avermaet cannot drag a man along and then summon up a sprint to beat the best. Cancellara can. It’s that simple. At the end of that long day, the Swiss rider brought all his experience to bear and was a deserved winner, no doubt about it.
(By the way, I rode the Kwaremont the day before and it hurts, I can tell you. It hurts a very great deal indeed.)
The crashes that informed the day were really not good, and I wish people would stop putting them on YouTube. I’m sure all our thoughts go to the women that is in intensive care after being hit by Johan Van Summeren.
Finally, two moments that summed up the day for me.
The first was Cancellara cracking open that beer on the table edge and swigging back three quarters of it, as Vanmarcke looked like he was about to burst into tears next to him.
The other was the sheer joy all over the face of Stig Broeckx, the talented Lotto-Belisol rider, as he was being interviewed on Belgian TV. The 24-year-old explained he’d never even ridden as many kilometres as he did in the race, ever, and beamed and sparkled through the interview, clearly in thrall to the whole Flanders experience.
During the recon on Thursday I rode up some hills for the first time, like the Koppenberg. It was great to experience my first Ronde like this, it was like a dream.
In the beginning I did everything I could to be in the break, I was one of three riders who had to try to get away. I reacted to every move and was relieved when I finally was in the break.
I actually felt very good on the hills. The crowd along the route made me forget about the pain; I really got goose bumps.
It was like a dream.
It really was, What a cracker!
Stay tuned for Paris-Roubaix.