How Not to Try to Win Tour of Flanders – Rant

Apr 3 2006

Discovery DS Dirk Demol is not a stupid man. “One thing is sure,” he told Eurosport yesterday, “The longer that everybody waits to make the race hard, the better for Boonen”. It’s sound logic, as the best way to upset a heavy favorite is to make things not go smoothly and predictably. What I don’t understand is why Demol never followed up on it.

I guess his first problem was no breaks got clear until 90k into today’s race. Sometimes, I’m told, the field just doesn’t want to let people go. But I find it hard to believe that a rider of Sergei Ivanov’s or Roger Hammond’s cailber committing to a break suicidally early in such a long race couldn’t have gotten clear. Conventional wisdom says you want to save potential contenders for later, but conventional wisdom also says Boonen wins this race at a cantor.

As it happened, though, no group got a noticeable gap until 90k, and even then, it was faily inconsequential – only Schmitz (T-Mobile) represented the interests of a real contender. So you might expect that Disco would try to bridge someone up to the lead group, or ease off completely, giving the leaders a huge margin and daring Quick.Step not to burn matches reeling it back in. But from what I can tell reading the live reports, what followed was 70k of the race not being hard, with Discovery rolling obediantly to the front every so often. And then suddenly, as soon as the race hit the hills, it was Boonen and three of his closest friends dictating the pace.

Where was Disco? Just kinda hanging in, until the the Koppenburg where Tommy Boy decided it would be good to be at the front. Hoste and Hincapie were pretty close, but…oooopsuh-oh! Of course, Hoste was able to chase back on, though his efforts were no doubt eased significantly by Quick.Step realizing it could put four riders in the selection if it slowed up enough to let Baguet and Pozzato on as well.

Then Disco sat up and let Quick.Step work for a bit; makes sense when there’s another team with four guys in a group of less than 20. But playing it “smart” like that like that simply allowed Quick.Step to continue to dictate the action of the race, riding tempo to chew off the weak riders and discourage attacks. As many commentators noted, they never really went all that hard (search “not actually”), and certainly, attacking was possible. But nothing of note happened until Hoste finally got the gumption (or the green light) to attack. Boonen followed, and that was it: race over.

For some reason, the Discovery Channel camp seemed a-ok to have Boonen finish with Hoste, despite George Hincapie’s warning a few days earlier. Hmm, let’s see – Disco rider gets away in final selection of a huge classic with Tom Boonen, and then gets completely scooped out in the sprint…why does that sound familiar? Oh, yeah.

Now, most would say to stick with a two-up sprint when there’s three guys on the other team waiting in the group behind, but a two-up sprint against Tom Boonen isn’t a coin toss unless you’re betting for the nickel to land on its edge. Demol should have told Hoste to swing away Chiapucci-style, or let up entirely; even outnumbered 2:1, Disco’s odds at victory would have been better if they’d tried to shuffle Boonen out of that break.

I should add that it’s not like Demol blundered today. He played a tough hand well, and going 2-3 at Flanders, after losing two riders (Hammond and Berry) to crashes early, is no small feat. And despite claims to the contrary (search “stronger”), Quick.Step definitely had his riders overmatched. But with two top-caliber guys absolutely on form, Discovery had a decent chance to win this race, and just never took the big risk to try and capitolize on it. It’s like my man JPJ said: “He who does not risk, does not win”, and according to two-time champ PVP (search “podium”), at this race, the win is all that matters.

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