Fabian Cancellara of Trek Factory Racing has won a pulsating - but brutal - 98th edition of the Tour of Flanders, taking a record-equalling third victory in the Belgian Monument. Greg Van Avaeremet of BMC Racing was second, with Sep Vanmarcke of Belkin third. Omega Pharma-Quick Step's Stijn Vandenbergh, the other member of the quartet that that contested the finish, came fourth.
Cancellara, who grabbed a well-earned beer shortly after his victory - this is Belgium after all - said: “I tried to ask Dirk [Demol, team directeur sportif] through the radio how many seconds we had because the last thing I wanted was the others coming back.
“That would have been the end of the world. For the spectators at home I am sure it was an exciting track final. It was man against man and I just kept pushing to the end. I did it for the team, and for my wife because I promised to bring the flowers home.
"I feel sorry for the Belgians," he went on. "I was against three Belgians at the end….but now I am happy and it’s time to go rock the bus and have a nice evening.”
A little later, Cancellara tweeted a 'selfie' that showed him and his team mates doing just that.
The group of four had formed with a little more than 10km to ride after Cancellara, followed by Vanmarcke, had attacked on the Oude Kwaremont to go after earlier escapees Van Avermaet and Vandenbergh.
With the group coming together following the last climb of the day, the Paterberg, inside the final 4km came a series of attacks, first by Vandenbergh, then Van Avermaet, and finally Cancellara. Coming under the flamme rouge for the final kilometre, however, the quartet were still together.
Vanderbergh was again first to launch himself, but couldn't get away, the pace slowing until Cancelllara attacked inside the final 200 metres. This time, the move was decisive as the Swiss rider retained the title he had won 12 months ago.
Van Avermaet of and Vandenbergh, who had earlier got away from a select front group, hit the final climb of the race with a slender advantage over Cancellara and Vanmarcke.
The leading pair had hit the previous climb, the third ascent of the Oude Kwaremont, with an advantage of a minute, but that was cut by two thirds by the time they hit the top after Cancellara launched his attack.
Only Vanmarcke was able to stay with the Swiss rider as the two other big-race favourites, Omega Pharma-Quick Step's Tom Boonen, and Cannondale's Peter Sagan, were finally distanced on the last of the 17 climbs.
Cancellara and Vanmarcke joined Vandenbergh on coming over the top, then reeled in Van Avermaet with 11km of the 259km race remaining.
Behind, Milan-San Remo winner Alexander Kristoff of Katusha was on his own leading a desperate chase to try and get across to the quartet in front, Omega Pharma-Quick Step's Niki Terpstra joining him with 9km left.
Apeaking of his attack, Cancellara said: “Since I was alone I knew I had to make the selection up the Kwaremont.
"On the Paterberg I could not go more, I was dead, and then I had to make a gamble to stay with Vandenbergh, Vanmarcke and Van Avermaet. I wanted to finish alone, but today it was better to wait for the sprint.
"Winning solo was the goal – I wanted to lift the bike over the line – but I was not afraid to sprint at the end, since then it is each man for himself; I still don’t know how I did it, I just did it.
“The race was quite intense, quite hard," he went on. "We lost a lot of riders to crashes straightaway. To manage a race like this was amazing. Everyone did his little piece - Jesse [Sergent], Markel [Irazar], Hayden [Roulston], all the team – you need these little pieces to be at the top of the pyramid.
“It was so tough, I almost got dropped two times when they attacked," he added. "I don’t know, everything went well in the end. It’s just amazing. Last year I won in an amazing way here, but to repeat, this is even bigger – I have no words. There is no Monday, we said with the team before the race.”
Boonen, seeking what would have been a record fourth win in the race, had seemed to have an advantage as the race headed into its final 30km.
With his team mate Vandenbergh ahead on the road with Van Avermaet, the Belgian former world champion had another two team mates - Terpstra and Zdenek Stybar - for company in a select group of 11 chasers, while Sagan and Cancellara were isolated.
Omega Pharma-Quick Step failed to exploit their numerical superiority, however, and coming into the last 20km, they were joined by a large chasing group ahead of that one-two punch of the Oude Kwaremont and Paterberg where Cancellara launched the attack that would determine who would be the four riders to fight it out for the win.
The Swiss rider now heads to next weekend's Paris-Roubaix with a chance of being the first man to do the double of that race and the Tour of Flanders in three separate seasons. Should he win in France, he will also join Boonen and Roger De Vlaeminck as the only four-time winners of the Queen of the Classics.
His victory this afternoon continues a remarkable sequence of results in Monuments for Cancellara, with 11 podium places in the last 11 of those races he finished, the only blemish being the 2012 edition of the Tour of Flanders where he crashed out with a broken collarbone).
Those races, with his position in brackers, are Tour of Flanders 2010 (1st), Paris-Roubaix 2010 (1st), Milan-San Remo 2011 (2nd) Tour of Flanders 2011 (3rd), Paris-Roubaix 2011 (2nd), Milan-San Remo 2012 (2nd), Milan-San Remo 2013 (3rd), Tour of Flanders 2013 (1st), Paris-Roubaix 2013 (1st), Milan-San Remo 2014 (2nd), Tour of Flanders 2014 (1st).
Today's race was punctuated by crashes throughout, some of them causing riders to abandon, many looking nasty but none worse than the incident in which Garmin-Sharp's Johan Vansummeren collided with speed with a 65-year-old woman who was standing on a traffic island with other spectators.
Both were taken to hospital. Vansummeren was released later in the afternoon, but the woman is reported to be in an induced coma and undergoing brain surgery
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