Five Lessons from the Tour of Flanders

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The biggest race of the season thus far proved to be as hard as promised. The revamped course, replete with the triple loop finish, achieved the goal of making the race extremely selective and very hard. The results, however, were anything but surprising. Tornando Tom Boonen had said earlier in the week that he didn’t need to drop anyone, and he proved it by outkicking Alessandro Ballan and Pippo Pozatto at the line to become just the fifth racer to win De Ronde three times. What can the avid cycling fan take from the race? Here are five wise lessons to write down in your 2012 cycling diary.

1. He’s Spartacus, Not Superman. Fabian Cancellara came into Flanders with the weight of his season on his shoulders. This is his Super Bowl, his National Championship, his Tour de France. Time trials aside, he spends the rest of the summer ushering one or more Schlecks around and destroying hearts on the flats for the good of the team. The highly-touted showdown with Boonen appeared to be in the cards as the Swiss Time Machine rolled through the feed zone. The team confirmed this morning that Fabs crashed over a water bottle, suffering a quadruple fracture of the collarbone, which was successfully operated on this morning in Basel. From his crash on, the race was anti-climatic, with cycling fan unable to resist asking the unknowable: What would it have been like if Fabian were still there?

2. Tom Boonen Has His Groove Back. It’s not only about form. The story of Boonen’s resurgence is just as much about his mental ability to stay calm, stay dominant, and make the right move. After being pummeled at Flanders and Paris-Roubaix in 2010, Boonen has slowly built not just his legs but his mind, becoming a calmer, more alert rider. His two biggest mistakes in 2010 were being in the wrong gear when Cancellara attacked at Flanders, and not marking Cancellara amongst a group of favorites at Paris-Roubaix. This year, Boonen has been in the winning breaks and out of the ones that are eventually pulled back, like last week at Gent-Wevelgem. It doesn’t hurt to have a team strong enough to dictate any Classics race, but that, too, is a part of the mental side of the sport. Know your cards, know how to play them.

3. BMC Is Close To Being A Super-Squad. Hear me out: Ballan’s third place was similar to what Cancellara would have done, though his attacks may have worked near the end. The weakest sprinter in the final trio, Ballan had already made the separation and was joined by Boonen and Pozzato on the legs of Boonen’s death throes. The Belgian recovered in time for the sprint, but for a while, the speed of Ballan looked like it might be too much for the other two. Aside from the third place, BMC has made steady improvements from the early disasters at E3, Dwars and Omloop. But as in Strade Bianche, BMC grouped two riders in the top ten, this time 3-4 with Ballan and Greg van Avermaet. The off-form Phillipe Gilbert made an appearance, putting on an acceleration on the Kruiseberg before conceding way for a very low placing. BMC had four men in the top fifty and six in the top sixty, with support for Ballan lasting right up to the point of his attack. If Cadel Evans can join a successfull Ballan and van Avermaet after Paris-Roubaix at the Ardennes Classics, BMC could definitely put together a string of victories.

4. Peter Sagan Will Win Everything One Day. He took the first stage at Three Days of de Panne before sitting up and letting the race lead go. He’s been a force at every race this season. He was one of only four riders capable of staying with a charging Fabian Cancellara last week at Gent-Wevelgem. Yesterday, Sagan missed the decisive move after being caught behind a crash (caused by Johann van Summeran, cleverly nicknamed ‘van Summersault’ shortly after the incident) that essentially ended his chances of winning. Someone should have told Peter Sagan. Mostly on his own, the Slovakian champion gave chase to the leading trio, making ground until the last trip up the Paterberg, where the headwind near the top was too much. He was absorbed into what was left of the peloton, and even after all that exertion, still was able to sprint to second in the field sprint for fifth overall. He’s just 22 years old, and there is no doubt he will win this race, and whole lot of others, over the course of his career. Special note: He’ll be battling Sep Vanmarcke every step of the way. He’s only 23.

5. Belgians Are The Best Cycling Fans. They estimated roughly 250,000 to 750,000 Belgians lined the cobbles for the Tour of Flanders Sunday, tightly ringing the final loop and cheering like crazed, drunken madmen. In a country known for beer and cycling, the masses were undoubtedly both. As iconic as the race is by itself, it would be far less impressive without the teeming mass of humanity lining the roads where ever the course winds through the towns and countryside. Almost the entire 256km route had people two or three deep, cheering, yelling, swilling and showing that Belgium, if divided by Flandrians and Walloones, is united by cycling.

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