Belgium's Nick Nuyens of Saxo Bank claimed the biggest victory of his cycling career when he won the Tour of Flanders one-day classic here Sunday. Nuyens, who was hired by Saxo Bank after classics giant Fabian Cancellara left the team, narrowly won a three-man sprint to beat Quick Step's Sylvain Chavanel, with Cancellara, the defending champion, in third after 256 km of racing.
Cancellara lined up as virtually the only favourite for the second cycling 'monument' of the season having coasted to victory in a smaller classic race in midweek, and by virtue of his unrivalled domination of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix last year. However, in the end the big Leopard-Trek rider was undone by his comparative lack of sprinting prowess. Nuyens, second in Flanders in 2008, spent years working as a support sprinter for former two-time winner Tom Boonen at Quick Step.
"I felt very relaxed during the final sprint," said an ecstatic Nuyens, who was competing in his seventh Tour of Flanders. "It was only in the final 50 metres that I started to fully realise what was happening, that I was about to win this beautiful race."
After a thrilling final 30km in which Cancellara and Chavanel were caught by a small select bunch of contenders, the big Swiss found himself with Nuyens and the Frenchman for company in the final few kilometers, and with Boonen bearing down. Cancellara hit full gas with 200 meters to go, however Nuyens sprung from out behind the Swiss's wheel in the final 50 to come over the finish line in triumph.
Chavanel, a two-time stage winner at last year's Tour de France, was making his race debut and only narrowly missed victory after being blocked into the barriers as he launched a late bid for success. Nuyens had been part of a small group of chasers that had battled successfully to close a 40-sec advantage held by Chavanel and Cancellara going into the closing 30km. And despite Cancellara later complaining of having suffered cramps earlier, it was on the 18th and final 'berg' (climb) of the day, the Bosberg, that they first glimpsed possible weakness in the Swiss.
An attack by Belgian Philippe Gilbert upped the pace on the Bosberg and left Cancellara struggling on his own. Gilbert crested the summit solo but with 9km remaining the Omega-Pharma team man bowed to the inevitable as a chase group which contained Cancellaraand Chavanel closed him down. Cancellara later said the penultimate climb, the Mur de Grammont, had taken its toll.
"The Mur de Grammont was the turning point in the race for me. I started suffering from cramps," said the Swiss star.
A 12-strong group formed for the 9km remaining after the Bosberg and a series of unsuccessful attacks came and went before Cancellara powered to the front again with a little under 4km to race. Chavanel struggled to keep pace, but ultimately held on to the Swiss's wheel - as did Nuyens, who appeared to be in even more pain than the Frenchman. Inside the final 2km Boonen threatened a huge upset with a late charge to close the gap, but by then the final sprint was winding up. Cancellara launched his drive, and when he sat back on the saddle Nuyens made his move.
The Swiss added: "I knew that Boonen was coming back to us but I didn't know exactly where he was. That's why I launched my sprint from so far out."
Nuyens' previous victories include Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne (2006), Omloop Het Volk (2005), and Paris-Brussels (2004). He has also won the GP de Wallonie three times (2004, 2005 and 2008). Despite this setback, Cancellara is likely to saddle up as the favourite again when Paris-Roubaix, ominously named the 'Hell of the North', is held next Sunday.
2011 Tour of Flanders
1. Nick Nuyens (Saxo Bank Sungard)
2. Sylvain Chavanel (Quickstep Cycling Team)
3 Fabian Cancellara (Leopard Trek)
4 Tom Boonen (Bel) Quickstep Cycling Team
5 Sebastian Langeveld (Ned) Rabobank Cycling Team
6 George Hincapie (USA) BMC Racing Team
7 Björn Leukemans (Bel) Vacansoleil-DCM Pro Cycling Team
8 Staf Scheirlinckx (Bel) Veranda's Willems - Accent
9 Philippe Gilbert (Bel) Omega Pharma-Lotto
10 Geraint Thomas (GBr) Sky Procycling