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The defending race champion somehow managed to beat three super-strong riders from the same team — Etixx-Quick-Step’s Tom Boonen, Niki Terpstra, and Stijn Vandenbergh — and take the classics season opener in Ghent, Belgium.
It was a huge disaster for Etixx-Quick-Step and an unforgettable performance by Stannard.
First, here are the top 10 results (via Sporza):
Here’s how things played out in the finale:
In the closing kilometers of the race, after the group of four had been out in front for 40 kilometers, the three Etixx riders started attacking repeatedly in hopes of forcing Stannard to chase and tire himself out.
Almost everyone seemed to be saying that Etixx had the win in the bag and that it would be too difficult for Stannard to win. It looked possible for Etixx to dominate the whole podium in a clean sweep.
And with the likes of Boonen and Terpstra attacking, all that made perfect sense. It was a really classic set-up in terms of tactics: three riders versus one. So, attack the lone guy until he’s blown and win the race.
Also See: Stannard the Great
Boonen put in the first big attack. Stannard was isolated but kept on the gas, with Terpstra and Vandenbergh sitting on his wheel. Then Boonen imploded, and Stannard closed the gap to him.
Next to attack was Terpstra, and Vandenbergh jumped on his wheel, which was puzzling (why not let Stannard chase Terpstra, then attack Stannard again with another hit?). They gapped Stannard right away. But Stannard clawed his way back to them. Suddenly, it was all four back together.
That’s when Stannard jumped. It was quite a sight. He got a gap right away, surprising the Etixx riders, who seemed to be tiring themselves out.
Terpstra rode up to Stannard, while a totally blown Boonen tried to get back to them (Vandenbergh had imploded and was gone). It came down to Terpstra and Stannard going to the line mano a mano, with Terpstra leading out the sprint and Stannard just coming around him to cross the line first.
Watch the final 10 or so kilometers of the race below. (Skip to 6:00 for the real fireworks.)
We already knew Stannard was super strong and a real hardman. Saturday he showed he’s not only one of the toughest riders in the peloton but also one of its most astute tacticians. The guy doesn’t know how to give up. His combination of brute strength and clever riding won him the race.
What looked like a predictable outcome after classic tactics of three-on-one backfired. Conventional wisdom failed because Stannard was too strong. He’s only 27, so expect to see him winning more races.
“I couldn’t be happier,” Stannard told TeamSky.com after the race. “It’s nice to do the double sweep at the race, but after the difficulties I had last year breaking my back it’s nice to have got myself back to where I was.
“Being with those three guys I knew they were all committed to trying to win. As a team they haven’t won it for 10 years and it’s a big one missing off Boonen’s palmares. I knew they were going to race hard. With Sep Vanmarcke and Greg van Avermaet chasing behind it put the pressure on them. I could just sit back, play a bit of poker and enjoy the ride.
“I just wanted to get a free ride for as long as I could. That was my idea. When they all started attacking me it wasn’t a great feeling. When Boonen went I was thinking ‘right, what do I do here?’ I knew if I rode him back I’d get attacked. I paced myself back a little bit. I could feel the wheel behind was trying hard to stay with me. So I felt like it was going pretty good and then I just took my chance.”
Here’s what Terpstra and Boonen had to say (via Etixx-Quick-Step.com):
Terpstra: “Looking back, maybe it would have been better to wait for the sprint with Tom and not attacking, but it’s a question of moment and circumstances. Stannard was really strong in the end against our attacks, and deserved the win.”
Boonen: “Today we made a mistake in the final,” Boonen said. He added: “There is a thin line between a great race and a costly mistake and unfortunately we took the risk of not waiting for the sprint, and it didn’t work out. It would have been great to win the race, but that’s cycling. Congrats to Stannard. He rode a smart tactical race and his reactions to our attacks were impressive. His sprint was also strong. As a team we rode super strong today and while we unfortunately fell short of victory, we know what we are capable of for future races.”
Etixx team boss Patrick Lefevere posted a blunt tweet:
— Patrick Lefevere (@PatLefevere) February 28, 2015
Last year the UCI was saying that riders could no longer ride up on the sidewalks. Well, we saw lots of riders hopping up onto the sidewalks today. Here’s one wild GIF showing some of that (via Sporza):
— peloton magazine (@pelotonmagazine) February 28, 2015
Be sure to read our new classics feature: