One of the (many) great things about the Tour of Flanders is the almost equal weighting given to both the men’s and the women’s race. Run on the same day, with the women setting off a little earlier and racing a shorter (but, given the climbs, no less brutal) course, we are treated to two races in one day, as it should be. With UK TV being a little slower to catch onto the public demand for live pictures, we (us at Marmeladrome, at any rate) had to enjoy the final 20km of the women’s race only when Eurosport were able to cut to it. Fortunately, we were able to see Lizzie Armitstead and Emma Johansson’s crucial move on the Paterberg to take them away from their chasers, and again we were able to see the excruciatingly tense sprint between the two ladies at the line, with Armitstead, the world champion, continuing her remarkable season by winning by a tyre’s width. Hopefully we’ll be in a position to report on more of the women’s races in the coming years, if not months.
At this point in the day, the men had fewer than a 100kms to race until the finish and the cycling community the world over started to ask: “are we going to see a double rainbow jersey win?“.
And the answer was a most emphatic: yes. But we’ll get to that.
It was clear from the start of the men’s race that this wasn’t going to be an easy day in the saddle. Maybe it was because it was the hundredth edition, maybe it was because everyone was intimidated by the strength and depth of the favourites, or maybe it was just because the weather was warm and calm, but the pace was ferocious for the majority of the race. By the time TV began airing live pictures, we were looking at an already strung-out peloton, with huge numbers having stepped off their bikes due to the relentless charge of the peloton. Unfortunately we also had to say good bye to some pre-race favourites from crashes in the form of Arnauld Démare (FDJ) and Tiesj Benoot (LTS) — both huge losses for their teams.
Fortunately there weren’t many crashes to plague the race, other than, with a little over 100km left, a relatively innocuous touching of wheels turned into a complete catastrophe for BMC. Five of their riders, including their leader (and one of the overall favourites) Greg Van Avermaet hit the pavement, hard. Clutching his right arm whilst throwing his helmet to the ground, and holding back tears, his day was over. Daniel Oss, who also went down in the crash and stayed back to survey the damage, managed to salvage something for the team by ending the race in a fine 16th place.
With around 30km to go, after a slight easing in pace, the race kicked off again. Echoing his attacking move in the closing stages of Milan-Sanremo, Michal Kwiatkowski jumped off the front of the peloton and leapt clear. Peter Sagan and Sep Vanmarcke managed to track his move, and the three worked well together to first bridge over to the breakaway, and then pass them altogether. The peloton at this point didn’t seem to panic, with Fabian Cancellara still looking unbothered and confident. At this point, we can be honest and say we wondered whether Sagan had once again gone too early, but later interviews suggested his tactical hat was firmly on. He described identifying Team Sky’s strength in the diminished peloton, knowing they weren’t going to chase their own rider, and that this was his main chance to avoid a bunch finish.
Until the penultimate climb, the three worked out a solid lead that looked like it was going to be difficult to overturn. That was until the penultimate climb, the Oude Kwaremont, which Fabian flew up. Whether it was slight panic that he had missed the crucial move, or just it was his plan all along, Cancellara left the reduced peloton for dead. This was his chance for a fourth and final victory in Flanders and he wasn’t going to go down without a fight.
Approaching the final climb, Sagan and Vanmarcke had dropped Kwiatkowski and had around 20 seconds on a fast approaching Cancellara and Nikki Terpstra. The Paterberg loomed large and it was here that Sagan’s victory was to be sealed. Cancellara climbed with grace and speed, but Sagan climbed with pure power. Vanmarcke could only watch as he lost ground as fast as Sagan gained it and by the time he reached the top, Fabian had caught him and Sagan had a 17 second lead. The chase was on!
Sagan, resplendent in his rainbow journey, effectively cruised to the line. Hands hanging over his bars in a mimicry of his TT position, he never let his lead drop below 15 seconds, with Cancellara and Vanmarcke powerless to catch him. Vanmarcke took turns in the wind for Fabian, but might have even cost the duo time — he looked completely exhausted. Crossing the line, raising his arms, Sagan finally bagged his first monument in style, highlighting his incredible form this year and underlining just how good a cyclist he is.
Fabian would roll home in second place, an exhausted Vanmarcke letting him have the higher step on the podium. Waving to the crowd and giving a final thumbs up, Cancellara’s fairy-tale end to his Flanders career didn’t quite give him the result he wanted, but he can’t be too disheartened at how he rode the race. There was a bunch sprint for the minor places, won by last year’s winner, Alexander Kristoff, to take fourth. And Luke Rowe impressed by taking fifth – Team Sky’s best ever finish in the Tour of Flanders.
A special word must be writ for Dimitri Claeys and the Wanty-Groupe Gobert team here. Much has been said about Antoine Demoitié and the tragic circumstances surrounding his death, so we won’t go into it here. But the tenacity and passion with which they rode this race has to be admired by all. Crestfallen at missing the break, but determined to feature in some way, Dimitri Claeys pushed on from the peloton with the help of Astana’s Dmitriy Gruzdev and bridged across to the breakaway. Head down, riding ‘like a man possessed’, Claeys would go on to finish 9th overall. Talking afterwards, Claeys said (regarding Demoitié): “It was an extra motivation, but it doesn’t make you ride faster, in contrary, it’s very sad”. An astonishing performance and a powerful tribute from the sombre and sober Claeys. Chapeau.
We originally said that Belgian TV wasn’t showing coverage of the women’s race. This was not true, as a reader pointed out Canvas showed the majority of it live. We have amended to say that UK TV isn’t up to scratch.
We also (somewhat embarrassingly) forgot Ben Swift’s second place in Milan-Sanremo and claimed Rowe’s fifth place here was the team’s best monument finish. We have amended the article to correct this.