Weekend Wrap-Up: Omloop, Kuurne, Etc.

Here are my thoughts on a terrific weekend of racing:

1. After their Belgian victories this past weekend, it’s clear to me that Garmin-Barracuda and Team Sky are two of the best squads in the world—because they understand how to ride as a team.

Heading into the race’s critical phase during Saturday’s Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, Garmin sent it’s team to the front, upping the pace and positioning themselves to follow whatever attacks might come. Eventual-winner Sep Vanmarcke was therefore perfectly placed to follow Tom Boonen’s acceleration on the Taaienberg (and to avoid Lars Boom’s somersault).

Sunday, Team Sky kept their fatigued and vomiting world champion out of harm’s way throughout the day, ensuring that he was at or near the front on every climb and safely guiding him through the last 50-kilometers. In the finale, Chris Sutton—the race’s defending champion—and former Ghent-Wevelgem champion Bernhard Eisel escorted Cavendish to the line.

In an era dominated by super-teams, Garmin and Sky appear to have a successful formula—especially Garmin, a team that has achieved much success with surprisingly few superstars on its roster. It was an impressive display and most likely served noticed to the rest of the peloton.

2. On the other hand, Team BMC appears to be lacking chemistry at a critical point it’s season. Thor Hushovd was situated right where he needed to be when Boonen attacked Saturday, only to find himself isolated once the move was established—a situation that went from bad to worse once the Norwegian was dropped on the Paddestraat. For a team with so many superstars, management must have been shaking their heads after such a lackluster showing.

3. As for Thor, it is easy to criticize the former world champion for getting dropped, but one must remember: it’s still early in the season (as Thor himself admitted before the race) and at least he made it there in the first place.

4. And Rabobank’s Matti Breschel? It was great see him back at the front of a major cobbled classic—even if he didn’t stay there for long. Give him a few weeks and he’ll be fine.

5. Speaking of poor positioning, BMC’s Philippe Gilbert attributed his mundane showing (31st) to a lack of fitness and poor peloton placement heading into the Taaienberg. But while Gilbert’s result was a disappointment to his fans, it should help him later in the season. I wonder if Gilbert watched how heavily marked Cancellara was during last year’s classics and is making his best effort to avoid the same thing happening to him this spring—at least in Flanders. (Everyone was marking Gilbert in the Ardennes—clearly it made no difference.) Gilbert’s known for the timing of his efforts. Perhaps he saw no need to show his hand too soon?

6. Back to the winner: Saturday’s victory confirms the promise Vanmarcke showed back in 2010 when the youngster—then riding for Topsport-Vlaanderen—finished second in Ghent-Wevelgem. While I questioned Vanmarcke’s aggressive riding during the race Saturday—especially with Boonen and Flecha both having teammates—I now see the wisdom of his tactics. His acceleration on the Paddestraat disposed of Hushovd and Breschel; a second surge would later drop both Hayman and Devenyns. Not many riders would choose to isolate themselves against Boonen and Juan Antonio Flecha, but Vanmarcke was smart to realize that a 1:3 chance is better than a 1:7 chance.

I said before the race that the Omloop tends to announce the arrival of new classics champions. Consider Vanmarcke the best candidate to become Belgium’s next Ronde-Roubaix champion.

7. Vanmarcke’s performance also underscored Tom Boonen’s tactical ineptitude (sorry Tommeke, I want more than ever to see you return to form, but you really blew it Saturday). Yes, Boonen was given the unwelcome title of “pre-race favorite” by many pundits (myself included), but it was certainly not a new position to be in for the Omega Pharma-Quick Step rider. And while his sharp attack on the Taaienberg was devastatingly effective (and predictable), his actions in the remaining 59 kilometers were confusing and at some points, head-scratchingly immature.

To me it’s apparent that Boonen suffers in races without radios, as the lack of accurate time splits and information regarding what’s happening behind him probably led him to do more than was necessary to see to it that the break stayed clear. Boonen became a professional at a time when radio use was already more or less widespread among the sport’s best teams. After more than 10 years of riding with them, I’m beginning to wonder if riding without them leaves Boonen feeling insecure and under-informed, hence his bull in a china shop tactics. The last “major” race Boonen won was last year’s Ghent-Wevelgem, a race run with radios.

8. As for Sunday, Cavendish took his third of the season despite battling sickness. The question now turns to whether the Manxman can forge himself into a contender for Belgium’s biggest sprint prize: Ghent-Wevelgem. A new, longer, and hillier course will attempt to thwart him, but given the depth of Team Sky, it’s hard to discount Cav’s chances. What do you think?

9. For the second year in a row in Kuurne, Saur-Sojasun’s Jimmy Engoulvent tried at a late-race move. Next year, he might want to try a different tactic.

10. Last but not least, where was GreenEdge this weekend? After more than a year of hype surrounding the formation of the squad, the men in green and black were conspicuously absent from the first important weekend of the season. The team’s best result was 12th in Kuurne. It all goes to show that it takes more than money to build a successful World Tour squad. Like many team’s before them, GreenEdge might find that their first season is filled with more growing pains than victories.

In other news:

11. Like Garmin and Sky, Liquigas-Cannondale deserves mention in any conversation about the best teams in the sport. The team won its ninth race of the season Sunday, as Eros Capecchi defeated Damiano Cunego and Enrico Battaglin to win the GP Lugano.

12. And speaking of Lugano, Battaglin is a rider I missed when compiling my list of Up-and-Comers a few weeks ago. Keep an eye on him—and look for him to be joining a World Tour squad soon. Maybe he can join Moreno Moser at Liquigas?

13. One final question: Michael Matthews won Rabobank’s first race of the year at the Clasica de Almeria in Spain, but why wasn’t he racing in Belgium? Matthews, Taylor Phinney, and John Degenkolb traded blows as U23’s in 2010—why isn’t the Aussie on the same career trajectory as the other two? He certainly possesses similar talent.


Follow me on Twitter: @whityost

Image courtesy Slipstream Sports

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  1. Paul I.

    I’m not sure that Boonen’s tactics were that bad. The only thing he did wrong was start his sprint too early, and that’s probably because he underestimated Sep Vanmarcke. He forced Flecha to lead him out, and once he passed him he probably thought he had the race in the bag. But Sep was stronger, even despite the matches he burned in burying first Hushovd and Breschel and then later Hayman and Devenyns. BTW, the latter move was probably more important, as it meant that neither Flecha nor Boonen had a teammate to lead them out for the sprint. Anyway, it was a great race, a true classic.

  2. henrietta

    Appreciate the write-up and certainly agree that Garmin and Sky really demonstrate how work together as a team.

    Re GreenEdge – growing pains or not, I think it’s a little early in the season to be writing off an entirely new team, especially when they’ve actually won the *only* World Tour event held so far this year and are third in the overall team points rankings. No-one should expect much in the first twelve months – just look at Sky or Leopard-Trek’s rookie year.

    As for “first important weekend of the season”, that comes across as a disappointingly Eurocentric view. It seems to me overly dismissive of the efforts made by those who make Adelaide, Oman, Qatar, the Algarve and so on into watchable and entertaining racing. I appreciate that the cycling year has a certain rhythm to it with a few notable crescendos but as with any great opera, the overture is as crucial as the arias or the grand choral finale.

  3. mattio

    Could Boonen have been working for Devenyns? OPQS seems to think that Devenyns is a big win away from moderate stardom. Considering that he’s quietly top-tenned some major, hard races, I wouldn’t be surprised if OPQS was trying to do to Devenyns what Garmin-Barracude successfully did to Vanmarcke.

    1. Author
      Whit Yost

      @Henrietta, I’m not writing-off GreenEdge, but for a team with such ambitious goals, failing to place a rider in the top-10 on either day is a big disappointment–especially for a squad with last year’s Omloop winner and experienced classics men like Cooke and Wilson. Growing pains or not, the team will be under some pressure to put Matty Goss on the podium in MSR. Are they dead in the water? Certainly not. Could they have started things off a bit better? Certainly.

      As for this being the first important weekend of the season, while I agree that San Luis, TDU, Qatar, Oman, etc. produced exciting racing, I think most riders racing this weekend in Belgium (many of whom raced in these earlier events) would have traded wins in any of the former for the top step Saturday.

      @Paul, I think Boonen simply misjudged the sprint–he more or less admitted as much. But earlier, he burned way too many matches when he didn’t too.

      @Mattio, yes Devenyns is rider to watch, but more so for the Ardennes. I think Boonen was a bit overzealous, and perhaps spooked to be riding without a radio. The race was split all over the road, and Boonen might have done more than he had to keep the break away.

      Thanks everyone for reading and for the insightful comments!

  4. gfurry

    I know BMC didn’t look that great this weekend as a team but does anyone have any idea how Taylor Phinney did as a team player? Good, bad, indifferent? Lots of hype coming in. Is he living up to the high hopes? I know it is early but any thoughts on his chances on making it at this level?

    1. Author
      Whit Yost

      Great question, @gfurry!

      Unfortunately, Phinney’s going to have hype following him forever. While he need a full weekend of racing in his legs, I wonder how he would have done had he rode the first half of the race Saturday and then saved himself for Sunday. Placing Van Avermaet in the breakaway Sunday led me to believe he might have received a shot, but at the end–no luck.

      Let’s give him some more time–he’s surrounded by some pretty big fish and will have to earn his chances. Let’s just hope he makes the most of them when they arise.

  5. Nick

    RE: #3, I don’t criticize Thor for getting dropped (such is the nature of bike racing), but I still don’t understand his logic in moving to BMC. He complained about too many leaders at Garmin, not giving full support because a team win was more important, etc., and yet he joined a team with a lot of leaders and says that this year the team win is more important. Am I the only one confused about this?

  6. DavidA

    I watched the live Belgian coveage of both Kuurne and the Omloop. In the post-race interview Boonen said that he and Sep were the strongest 2 riders in the race…with Flecha alitte less, but still one of the favs. Sep attacked 3 times and on the lange Munte going into Gent pretty much rode Thor and Breschel off his wheel..Boonen and Flecha hanging on for their lives. They were going about 32-35mph over the last stones!!!! A very emotional win for Sep, he started to cry several times in the post-race interviews, saying, “I cannot believe that I beat Boonen in the sprint…just unbelieveable” and that he had dreamed of winning this race since he was a boy.The interviewer said,” and now Vanmarcke…classics winner” and Sep Stated…”unbelieveable” He is only 23yrs old.

  7. Adam

    Question regarding Thor: in a race without radios, if you get dropped from the break should you not try and rejoin the peleton ASAP to let your teammates know they need to work on plan b? It seemed that he tried and failed for 10+kms to latch back on, meanwhile his team is back there unaware that the race is disappearing without them.
    Does Hushovd get more praise than he deserves? He’s never actually won a monument, and his one win in Het Volk was largely due to the out of his skin riding from team mate Hausler. Maybe I’m wrong but his complaining about tactics (both Garmins and Norways) last year rubbed me the wrong way.
    If I were Cadel I’d be worried; if Thor and Gilbert don’t both win big in the next two months their unfulfilled ambition is going to spill over to the Tour – regardless of what they say about wanting to be good team mates – and effectively rob him of two rdiers in his bid to repeat.

  8. grolby

    Is Hushovd overrated? No, he has not won a Monument, but he has won a World Championship, multiple stages in the Tour de France (including TWO last year) and other important races. That’s not a fluke. It’s pretty hard for me to see a case that he’s overrated.

    Whether he’s a gracious teammate is another matter. I don’t know, but he certainly didn’t fit in at Garmin, and he wasn’t terribly polite about it. Supposedly everything will be fine at BMC, because he says he’s been guaranteed sole leadership in Roubaix. We will see.

    As for Cadel, the opening weekend is far, far too early for him to be concerned about this. And I doubt that whether BMC has a successful Classics season will have much bearing on how Gilbert and Hushovd ride in the Tour. “Unfulfilled ambition” is a strange idea to me – we are talking about Le Tour. Riders like Hushovd and Gilbert are going to want their opportunities to ride for a stage win no matter how successful their spring season is. But I would worry more come April than right now.

  9. CAT4Fodder

    I could be a wrong, but Thor looks as if he is carrying a little too much weight right now (which would support his contention that he is not in form yet). But you compare him to Boonen or Greipel, and it is clear that they have cut uneeded body mass (i.e. – fat) from their bodies.

    It may not sound like much, but eventually every pound of weight which does not contribute to moving the bike forward increases the effort to maintain speed.

  10. DavidA

    Rambo is the bomb, 41yrs old and still wins races against the jongens. Did you notice that he never missed his turn in the rotation in the breakaway in KBK, and just as the break was getting caught jumped away hoping to catch a train coming out of the peleton. After the race on Belgian TV he was interviewed and said tha he had been sick for a week and wasnt going at top form. Keihard= tough as flint in Flemish.

  11. Big Mikey

    Man, what an opening weekend. And to henrietta’s comment, yes, this is the first important weekend of the season. Oman, Qatar, etc. are all build up for this.

    Interesting, Whit, your comments about Gilbert. He’s probably strategicallly better off appearing not to show up before his focus races. I think it’s Bobke who said don’t show them how strong you are until it’s too late for them to do anything about it. Cancellara might pay attention to this.

    As for Boonen, he’s done. He hasn’t been there for a few years, and if he is on form, he’ll be so heavily marked, he’ll have a tough time winning. I think he’s past his prime.

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