It it were a few years ago, I would have been out riding in the 15 degree weather last Saturday. A few years older now, I instead was sitting indoors, sipping my coffee and watching Omloop Het Nieuwsblad in the comfort of my living room with my 3 month old daughter on my lap. I am glad I did, and not just because I was able to stay warm and comfortable. I also got to witness live the race finish that everyone is is still talking about on Monday morning.
With 40 kilometers left to go in the race, Etixx-QuickStep had put Niki Terpstra, Tom Boonen and Stijn Vandenbergh in a 4 man breakaway with Team Sky's Ian Stannard. With 3 out of 4 in the winning move, victory seemed certain for Patrick Lefevre's team, it was only a matter of how and by how much. The situation seemed very similar to the famous 2001 Paris Roubaix where the Domo-Farm Frites team (also managed by Lefevre) finished 1-2-3 and destroyed what would be George Hincapie's best ever chance at victory in that race and coined the term "Domo-Nation". Ironically, Servais Knaven, the winner that year, now works for Team Sky. I was also reminded of US Postal's director Johan Bruyneel saying after the race, "When it's 3 on 1, you lose. Every time."
What played out in the last 5 kilometers was the perfect storm of tactical mistakes, bad luck and less than peak fitness on the part of the Etixx team and brilliance on the part of Stannard. At 4.7k to go, Etixx forced Stannard, who had been sitting on, to finally take a pull. As soon as he did, Boonen, who had skipped a few pulls in order to rest up, put in a massive attack. This is team tactics 101. When you have 3 on 1, one guy attacks, you force the other guy to chase... if he brings it back the next guy attacks... you force the odd man out to chase again... rinse & repeat until you have one guy off the front. At this point, you can still force the other guy to pull since you have a man off the front. When he is worn down enough you can attack again, putting a second guy off the front. Now it's 1 on 1 but with 2 guys off the front you can still force the other guy to pull and tire himself out enough for you to either beat him in a sprint or attack again. If everything plays out as it should, your team should finish 1-2-3.
Unfortunately for Etixx, it didn't play out exactly like that. Here's a timeline of what happened:
4.6k to go: Boonen attacks. Stannard is at the front after having just taken a pull. He puts his head down and chases Boonen.
3.4k to go: Stannard, with Terpstra and Vandenbergh in tow, reels Boonen back in. Immediately upon making contact, Terpstra attacks with Vandenbergh on his wheel. Stannard is again forced to chase (of course) but this time when he jumps, Boonen (after just having raced a kilo) is unable to hold Stannard's wheel and he has to dig deep to stay with him.
3.0k to go: Stannard (with Boonen just behind him) re-connects with Terpstra and Vandenbergh.
2.9k to go: Stannard attacks the trio and opens up a gap. Vandenbergh gives it all he's got but the gap holds.
2.6k to go: Vandenbergh pulls off and then falls off the pace. Terpstra pulls through.
2.2k to go: Terpstra is able to reconnect with Stannard but he drops Boonen (who has been hanging on for dear life) in the process. At this point, it might be tempting to think that Etixx has completely lost their numerical advantage, but it's important to remember that Terpstra, with Boonen just behind him, has no obligation to pull through. Stannard continues to drive the pace until 250m to go. Boonen never falls more than a couple seconds behind.
275m to go: Terpstra opens up his sprint to the left, but with a slightly uphill finish and dead legs, he doesn't get much of a jump on Stannard.
50m to go: Terpstra, in seeing that Stannard is still on his right hip, swings to the right to try and force him to come around on the left. Of course, he can't take him all the way into the barriers without being relegated. Stannard has room to come around just in time to take his second consecutive win in this race.
(For a great 5 minute summary of the entire race, check out Cosmo Catalano's "How the Race was Won")
Most of the commentary I have seen has been pretty critical of the whole Etixx team, saying that they got cocky, and blinded by their desire to sweep the podium, they underestimated Stannard. While I don't believe that this criticism is wholly unwarranted, I do think that some of it is a bit harsh.
Let's examine the alternatives:
Alternative 1: Etixx should not have let Stannard sit on. The idea here is that the 3 Etixx riders should have forced Stannard to do his fair share of pulls in the break. On Stannard's part, it's probably a smart move to sit on as long as he can. He knew that Etixx would eventually start attacking and the odds were already stacked against him. If Etixx didn't like this, they could try to "ride him off the back". This means that the third rider in the group would let a gap open up and force Stannard to come around and close it. At this point, the 3rd rider would jump on Stannard's wheel and let him tow him back up. This tactic would most likely have either dropped Stannard (though probably at the expense of one of the Etixx riders) or at least forced him to concede to taking his pulls. Another tactic that could presumably have had the same effect would have been for Etixx to have started their attacks sooner in the race instead of waiting until the last 5k.
Here is the problem: there was a group of riders just behind led by Sep VanMarcke (Lotto-Jumbo) and Greg Van Avermaet (BMC) with Phillipe Gilbert (BMC) stuck in no-mans-land. Although VanMarcke eventually finished a minute and a half behind, his group was hovering at 20-25 seconds for most of the last 40k. If Etixx had started trying to ride Stannard off the back, that gap could have easily evaporated. In a post-race interview, Lefevre defended his team's tactics, saying that VanMarcke was the strongest rider in the race and his team could not afford to play games. In fact, the only reason VanMarcke wasn't in the lead group was because he had flatted at the key moment of the race. Whether Lefevre was right about VanMarcke or he was simply making excuses for his team's disappointing result, one can't deny that the odds are much better with 3 out of 4 than 4 out of 8.
Alternative 2: Etixx should not have gone on the attack at all. After the race, Boonen said that this would have been his team's best strategy. After all, he was the best sprinter in the group he should have been able to beat Stannard head to head. Boonen could have let his teammates drive the pace all the way to the line and then sprint with 150m to go. This was exactly what worked for Boonen when he won Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne in 2014
Of course, the situation was quite different in last year's KBK. Yes, QuickStep had 5 out of 10 riders in the final breakaway, but the Belkin team also had 3. This means that they would most likely have been able to neutralize any QuickStep 1-2 attacks. Leading Boonen out was the only real option. Second, Moreno Hofland (Belkin) finished a very close second to Boonen in that race. It's always a gamble to let the race come down to a sprint. QuickStep got lucky that time but it would not have taken much for it to have gone the other way. Finally, it's worth noting that in that race, Boonen's teammates finished in 5th, 7th, 8th and 9th in the 10 man final group. To wait until the finish and then lead Boonen out for the sprint would have meant giving up all hope of sweeping the podium. Hindsight being 20/20, 1st, 3rd and 4th is a lot better than 2nd, 3rd and 4th, but you can't blame Lefevre for kicking his chops at the thought of another glorious sweep, can you?
Alternative 3: Terpstra or Vanderbergh should have attacked instead of Boonen. Perhaps one of them could have held off Stannard better than Boonen did, but even if they didn't, Boonen would have been fresh for the the sprint.
Of all of the options, this one seems to me like it would have been the best, but you still run into some of the same problems. Both Terpstra and Vanderbergh had been working hard and were close to their limit. Most likely, Vanderbergh would not have been able to put in a serious attack, so it would have to have been Terpstra. Stannard was able to catch Terpstra when he counter-attacked Boonen's move, so in all likelihood he would have reeled in an earlier Terpstra attack as well, even if Terpstra had been a little fresher. If we assume that Vanderbergh was too tired to make a good attack, that again leaves Boonen. While Boonen vs. Stannard in the final sprint would have been a much better match for Etixx, there are no guarantees and if Boonen were a little tired, the race could still have gone to Stannard.
The truth is that looking at the end of Saturday's race should teach us a few valuable lessons about racing:
1. It's a lot easier to "Monday morning quarterback it" than to have to make those decisions in the heat of the moment. It's important to realize that back in 2001, all the racers had radios. A clear headed director sportif sitting in his car with access to the exact time splits, would presumably have more chance of making the right call. It's not so easy to do this when you are suffering, excited about the possibility of winning (and in this case, possibly sweeping the podium) and nervous about blowing it. After all, being the favorite carries a lot of weight with it. Now, these guys are all professionals., which means that they should be able to think (and act) under pressure. They wouldn't be where they are if they couldn't. In my opinion, the decisions that were made on the road weren't as bad as many of the critics in the cycling press (not to mention social media) would imply. They just turned out to be wrong.
2. No one could have anticipated how strong Stannard would be. It would be a mistake to focus only on the mistakes of the Etixx guys and not at all on how incredibly good Stannard was. Despite the fact that he was sitting on for most of the last 40k, he was able to pull back Boonen's attack, then pull back Terpstra's attack, then put in his own attack, then stay in the wind for almost 3k riding hard enough to hold off Boonen, then win the sprint. This is not even to mention that he had the clairvoyance to attack at the absolute perfect time.
3. Omloop is traditionally the first big race of the season in Belgium. While it's always interested to see who is riding well and who isn't, it doesn't really mean all that much in the long run. It is essentially a "tune-up" race. It's worth noting that no one has won Omloop and then one of the "Monument" races since Musseuw in 2000. In fact, the Etixx team redeemed itself the very next day with Cavendish's win at KBK. The lesson to be learned is that even the pros need to race with their teams a bit before they are able to operate as a well-oiled machine.
4. In my opinion, the biggest error for Etixx was simply that Terpstra started his sprint too early. If he had forced Stannard to start the sprint or at least waited longer, I think that he would have won and we wouldn't even be talking about this. The lesson: practice your sprints. It's only 10-20 seconds of the race, but it can end up be the most important 20 seconds. I advise my athletes to practice sprinting in different gears, starting from different speeds, on uphills, on downhills, by themselves, with one partner and with a large group. A sprint will very rarely be perfect but the more you practice, the more chance you have that it will be good enough. And as is often the case in life, good enough is all you need.
Colin Sandberg is the owner and head coach of Backbone Performance, LLC. He is a Cat. 1 road racer, a USA Cycling Level II coach and a UCI Director Sportif. He is also head coach at Young Medalists High Performance and race director for Team Young Medalists. If you have questions or comments, feel free to use the comments section or email us. Thanks for reading!