Nick Nuyens of Saxo Bank-SunGard today thwarted the dream of that team's former rider, Fabian Cancellara, to become the first man to win both the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix in the same season twice, the Belgian winning a three-way sprint from Quickstep's Sylvain Chavanel and the Leopard Trek rider. Tom Boonen, winner of last week's Gent Wevelgem, came fourth.
Some bookmakers had installed Cancellara as odds-on favourite to win the race for the second year running, and the four-time world time trial champion did everything he could to live up to his status as favourite bar winning the race.
Last year, the Swiss rider had waited until the Muur before launching the attack that finally shook off fellow escapee Tom Boonen. This time, it was on that climb that he probably lost today's race.
Boonen, winner of Gent-Wevelgem last week, had gone off the front of the group containing the main contenders on the climb of the Leberg, 41km from the finish, as he sought to test Cancellara’s form.
Presumably, the proverb about letting sleeping dogs lie doesn’t have an equivalent in the Flemish language as the Leopard Trek man, as though prodded with a stick, responded with a stunning display of power that Boonen, and other riders seen as potential winners, were simply unable to match.
Cancellara swiftly passed earlier escapees including riders of the calibre of BMC Racing’s Greg van Avermaet, Rabobank’s Lars Boom and Team Sky’s Edvald Boasson Hagen, and had soon bridged the gap to the lone leader, Quickstep’s Sylvain Chavanel.
The Frenchman slipped into the Leopard-Trek rider’s wheel, content to let Cancellara do the work as Boonen and other riders regrouped behind to launch the chase in earnest, with BMC Racing, represented by seven riders in the main group including former world champion Alessandro Ballan, leading the way.
Cancellara and Chavanel had a lead of just under a minute as they began the ascent of the Muur, but that had been wiped out by the time they crested the summit, Philippe Gilbert of Omega Pharma-Lotto heading the chasing group.
The Belgian another of the big pre-race favouroites, attacked again at the foot of the day’s 18th and final climb, the Bosberg, quickly establishing a gap of 10 seconds with Ballan the first to respond, and by the time the race headed into the final five kilometres, the leading bunch had regrouped.
Again, it was Cancellara who attacked, Chavanel and Nuyens going with him. But his earlier efforts meant that he couldn't get away on his own, and with the Frenchman too sapped by his earlier exertions, it was the Saxo Bank-SunGard man who proved strongest in the finale, as Boonen, leading the chasing bunch, realised he had left it too late to launch his own sprint for glory.
Earlier, with 50km of the 256km race behind them, a five-man breakaway had got off the front of the peloton, including two British riders who have in the past got top-ten places in the Classics over the past years, Jeremy Hunt of Team Sky and Garmin-Cervelo's Roger Hammond, seventh in this race 12 months ago.
The escapees, who also included Mitchelll Docker of Skil-Shimano, Europcar's Sebastien Turgot and Stefan van Dijk of Veranda's Willems, spent more than 100km off the front of the race, building a lead of five minutes at one stage, but were eventually caught as the race headed over the Koppenberg, with 75km still to go.
The top British finisher today was Team Sky's Geraint Thomas, who impressed in finishing tenth. Coming a week and a half after his second place in the Dwars dor Vlaanderen, the Welshman, a past winner of the junior Paris-Roubaix and second to Thor Hushovd last summer when Stage 3 of the Tour de France hit those same cobbles, is developing into the kind of rider who may one day challenge for the top prize in the biggest one day races.
On his website, Thomas wrote: "Well that was the Ronde Van Vlaanderen! It went pretty well I think… Never really expected to get 10th today. I knew I was going well and had the legs to make an impact, especially after the last month or so but it is still a bit of a shock!
"That’s one special race though," he continued. "The crowds and passion of the public is phenomenal. In Belgium, It’s bigger than the football world cup final!"
The 24-yearold added: "I felt good all day today. The plan was to race aggressively and have men up the road with any breaks going. We pretty much did that with Jez [Hunt], Eddie[Boasson Hagen] and [Matthew] Hayman. Okay, we lacked the final result, which we deserved but we couldn’t have done anymore.
"Me and [Juan Antonio] Flecha were trying to cover the attacks at the end, but when Fabian went I didn’t quite have the legs. He’s not bad though is he?! I did my best to close it as much as possible and Flecha had a dig but that’s bike racing.
"The whole team was committed and everyone is going well though! Brad [Wiggins] will be joining us for Roubaix next Sunday, so hopefully we can do something special," he concluded.
Tour of Flanders 2011 Result 1 Nick Nuyens Saxo Bank-Sungard 6:01:20 2 Sylvain Chavanel Quickstep 3 Fabian Cancellara Leopard Trek 4 Tom Boonen Quickstep +2 5 Sebastian Langeveld Rabobank +5 6 George Hincapie BMC Racing 7 Björn Leukemans Vacansoleil-DCM 8 Staf Scheirlinckx Verandas Willems 9 Philippe Gilbert Omega Pharma-Lotto 10 Geraint Thomas Team Sky 11 Juan Antonio Flecha Team Sky 12 Alessandro Ballan BMC Racing 13 Tyler Farrar Garmin-Cervelo +1:24 14 Bernhard Eisel HTC-Highroad 15 Dominique Rollin FDJ 16 Danilo Hondo Lampre-ISD 17 Lloyd Mondory AG2R 18 José Joaquín Rojas Movistar 19 Leonardo Duque Cofidis 20 Maarten Wynants Rabobank
Born in Scotland, Simon moved to London aged seven and now lives in the Oxfordshire Cotswolds with his miniature schnauzer, Elodie. He fell in love with cycling one Saturday morning in 1994 while living in Italy when Milan-San Remo went past his front door. A daily cycle commuter in London back before riding to work started to boom, he's been news editor at road.cc since 2009. Handily for work, he speaks French and Italian. He doesn't get to ride his Colnago as often as he'd like, and freely admits he's much more adept at cooking than fettling with bikes.