We had been getting closer to the decision, but on Friday, we finally did it – Ashley and I separated entirely for our chase. After far too much time researching the race route and the time table, I made two separate plans for Ashley and myself allowing us two completely different experiences and eight different viewing spots in the span of less than ninety minutes. It was borderline crazy, but at the end of the day, we both agreed – this was the most fun yet.
We headed out with Gregg Germer of The ChainStay (check out his pictures as well!) and our new friend, Brecht Denys. After only a few minutes, we all split up. Ashley headed to the Boigneberg, as did Gregg, and I waited on the Eikenberg with Brecht.
The wait was painful. I don’t remember ever being so impatient for a race to come. I think it might have had something to do with the anticipation of what was to come.
Back on the Boigneberg, Ashley saw the race first – the break was well clear as they crested the ridge and began the descent back down the Kapelleberg.
Up, down, back up again – it’s a common theme in this area. Really, there was a part of the day that involved climbing the same ridge to the N8 three times in the span of maybe fifteen minutes (Berg ter Stene, Boigneberg, and Eikenberg). It’s a crazy, fun section of road…beautiful, challenging, anything you can ask for! It’s normal to climb the ridges and hills here multiple times, but I’d go so far as to say that this is a particularly entertaining version of that common theme.
The field followed not too far behind, but fully bunched up – no sign of the carnage that would ensue in short order.
Kevin Hulsmans leads Michael Morkov in the break – a huge nod goes to Morkov – he made the break at Milano-Sanremo, Dwars door Vlaanderen, and the E3. That’s three monster breaks in the span of what, a week?
Over on the Eikenberg, it was now my turn while Ashley did her best to get over to the Stationsberg (typically the terrible, horrible, cobbled descent of the Steenbeekdries).
Not too much to report from on the Eikenberg save the same story and the blunt fact – the Eikenberg just isn’t that pretty.
As the race passed, the camera was hastily thrown into the bag, and we started the cobbled descent of the Eikenberg with bits and pieces of the field still plodding by. It’s the beauty of the races not called Ronde or Roubaix – you can move around so much more easily.
We only had a few minutes to reach the Boonenberg, excuse me, Taaienberg. There was sure to be a throwdown, as this is the climb that Tom Boonen can never, ever pass up attacking on. It’s a wonderful tradition. As we climbed the ridge to the Taaienberg, we could see the field heading up the Stationsberg – it was beautiful.
I hoped Ashley was ok, but there wasn’t much to do but pedal harder – we only had a minute or two before they came. My hopes didn’t amount to much – Ashley had JUST missed the race on the Stationsberg and was panicking a bit.
We pulled up to the Taaienberg just in time. The climb was filled with VIPs wearing their VIP uniforms of dress pants and button down shirts. It was a humorous sight to see the woods of the Taaienberg populated with nicely dressed, drunken VIPs ready to scream Tommeke, Tommeke, Tommeke! I got a nasty surprise when I found out that the autofocus on one of my lenses had stopped working. Normally, it would have been ok, but the break was upon us, and the break had only a few seconds on the very hard charging field…
And then there was Tommeke. I had never witnessed Tom Boonen at full gas on his favorite climb before. It was an experience I’ll never forget. People often compare these moments to a rider going as fast as a motorbike. To be honest, it seemed faster. It was like he was going downhill, down a very steep, long, fast downhill, except it was over 10%. The motorbikes barely kept out of his way.
In the span of 30 seconds – maybe – Boonen dropped a bomb on the race and the festivities of the finale were upon us.
Unfortunately, there would be no participation from Philippe Gilbert. He’s still in a bad way it seems.
Still freaking out about my camera situation, Brecht and I did the only thing we could do – get going, and get going fast.
We jumped on our bikes and rode hard in the direction of the Paterberg. We had a fair amount of distance to cover and very little time to do it in. We motorpaced cars, passed cars, and generally engaged in behavior not suitable for reporting on to your parents or grandparents.
We hoped to catch the race on the Kapelberg, which is a small, pretty climb, a few hundred meters from the Paterberg, but we got there just as the break passed and the field approached. We took a hard right, careened across a small dirt road, and ended up at the top of the Paterberg – game on!
Ashley had just seen the race moments before on the descent of the Hoogberg. While working her way across the Vlaamse Ardennen from basically one end to the other, she ran into the race on the descent of what will be one of the critical climbs on the final circuit next week – the Hoogberg. The break was still together, but the field was splintering into many, many different pieces.
Off the front between break and field? None other than Mr. Oscar Freire, showing no signs of any wear. He looks better than ever. Hard to believe he’s going to retire after this year.
Fast forward a bit now to the Paterberg. Typically, the race goes Kwaremont-Paterberg, but for the E3, they switched it up, making the Paterberg first and the Kwaremont second. These two climbs were sure to get a huge load of fireworks dropped on them. Farnese Vini’s Oscar Gatto had moved clear of the break and was off solo. He’d enjoy a solid chunk of solo time from here on out – if it weren’t for a horribly timed flat on the descent of the Nieuwe Kwaremont, Gatto might have fought out the win with Sylvain Chavanel and Astana’s Muravyev.
That’s getting a bit ahead of ourselves though – back to the Paterberg. Gatto was first and going well. There were bits and pieces of the break behind, and then there was the field. Rather, then there was Boonen. Tommeke launched yet again on the Paterberg.
On Wednesday, I had marveled about Sep Vanmarcke’s acceleration on the Paterberg during the finale of the Dwars door Vlaanderen, but Boonen was another class higher on Friday.
Say what you want, but there are two riders that cause justified panic when they attack – Tom Boonen and Fabian Cancellara. It’s not a statement of favoritism, it’s just a fact.
Behind Boonen’s acceleration, the favorites weren’t far off. No one was very far off actually. While the race was in tatters, the gaps were not that great. A perfect spring day with no real wind made for a very fast and difficult race, but it wasn’t quite difficult enough to shatter the race permanently. There would be a huge regrouping at the end heading into Harelbeke.
With that said, don’t think that this was an easy one – the suffering on the Paterberg was immense. As a bike rider, when you see those contorted looks, the violent heaving of shoulders, the massive rocking from back to front, all looking for one more watt, five more seconds, anything at all…you can feel it in some weird, twisted way. It hurts.
And then they were gone, heading toward Ashley on the Oude Kwaremont.
In the last week, the Kwaremont has gone from a quiet little road with a beautiful field in the middle of it, to the focal point of the cycling world. They’ve build a gigantic tent in the field to house the 10,000 VIPs that are expected on the climb for the Ronde.
While everything around it looks different, the cobbles are the same as they’ve always been – long, hard, painful, selective.
Ashley probably wouldn’t have made it if it weren’t for the help of AG2R’s Kristof Goddaert. Goddaert was out of the race, but wanted to see the finale on Kwaremont, so he was riding over to see the race. He came up on Ashley, gave her a nod, and motorpaced her all the way to the climb. Thanks, Kristof!!
Fabian Cancellara attacked through the town of Kwaremont, heading into the field and the second part of the climb. Unfortunately, luck wasn’t with him, and he flatted. By the time he got to Ashley in the final 500 meters of the climb, he was well back and suffering through an even bumpier ride than normal, as he did his best to get to the top, where he had support waiting.
First came Gatto.
Boonen wasn’t far behind…
Unfortunately, Fabian Cancellara was going backwards with a flat.
Voeckler’s day is done.
Ahead, the race was happening. Gatto was still clear, but the chase was drawing nigh.
As Chavanel and Muravyev leapt clear just past the top of the Kwaremont, Cancellara was stopping to get a wheel change. Moments later, he was hit by Carlos Barredo. Cancellara was stunned and shaken up, but he got off far better than Trek’s Jordan Roessingh. Ashley saw Jordan sprawled out on the ground with blood everywhere – a scary sight. We were really happy to later see that he had suffered only a broken nose and gotten 25 stitches.
No time to worry, running over to the Cote de Trieu now – more or less the final climb of the day, as the Tiegemberg doesn’t normally cause much of a selection.
On the beautiful climb of the Trieu, Gatto still held the reins of the race, but Muravyev and Chavanel were coming on strong. Chavanel, in particular, was digging deep, but going strong.
Peter Sagan led the leaders behind, and not too far beyond them was a committed Fabian Cancellara. Looking back, it’s fair to say that Cancellara’s bad luck ensured a big group sprint in Harelbeke, as the multi-time champion of seemingly everything was not going to let bad luck get in the way of him taking part at the front end of the race.
It’s hard to describe what he managed to pull off – considering just how hard and fast the race was, Cancellara’s feat in getting back up the front is extremely notable. I’ll leave it at that.
Once the break, the leaders, and a committed Cancellara and group had stormed by, there were the finishers. They weren’t a part of the race anymore, but they continued to suffer, continued to push on. They had made it this far, there was only a little bit more to go.
I wish I had more time to marvel about the nature of these races, but I’ll save it for another time.
The end result? Chavanel’s move came back late, there were a few attacks, but a bunch gallop was surprisingly undeniable – and it was Tom Boonen who took the fifth win of his career in the E3.
I heard the result while riding home on the bike path. Brecht was listening to the radio on his phone.
It was an unbelievable day.
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