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The week in numbers: w/e 1/4/12

All football fans will wish Petrov well

32 – Age of Aston Villa captain Stiliyan Petrov, who was diagnosed with acute leukemia last week.

56 – Jail sentence (in days) handed down to 21-year old student Liam Stacey, who made malicious and racist posts on Twitter in the wake of Fabrice Muamba‘s on-pitch heart attack two weeks ago.

1Sri Lanka beat England by 75 runs in the first Test at Galle to record their first win on home soil since Muttiah Muralitharan’s retirement in July 2010.

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Nuyens’ sprint trumps Cancellara’s power to claim Tour of Flanders victory

A Belgian rider triumphed at the Tour of Flanders (Ronde van Vlaanderen), but it was not Tom Boonen or Philippe Gilbert. Saxo Bank-Sungard‘s Nick Nuyens claimed the biggest win of his career as he prevailed in a three-up sprint against Sylvain Chavanel and Fabian Cancellara to claim the second of 2011’s Five Monuments. Defeat was tough on Chavanel and Cancellara, who had both contributed enormously to a hugely exciting race across the north of Belgium.

Last year, the Swiss world time trial champion powered away from Boonen on the penultimate climb of the Muur van Geraardsbergen, a short, brutish hill which averages 9.3% and ramps up as high as 20%, before soloing to a dominant victory.

This year’s edition, starting in Bruges and ending in Meerbeke, included 18 leg-sapping climbs in its 256km route, finishing as ever with the Tenbosse, Muur and Bosberg hills inside the final 25km.

The peloton ride out of Bruges at the start of the race (image courtesy of Graham Watson)

The race set off at a furious pace, with the first 25km flashing by at an average of 50kph. After 55km, five riders successfully broke away, with the British pair of Roger Hammond (Garmin-Cervélo) and Jeremy Hunt (Sky) being joined by Stefan van Dijck (Veranda’s Willems), Mitchell Docker (Skil-Shimano) and Sébastien Turgot (Europcar). The quintet established a lead of six minutes by the time they reached the first climb at the Nokereberg.

A second 15-man escape including sprinters Mark Cavendish (HTC-Highroad) and André Greipel (Omega Pharma-Lotto) forced Cancellara’s Leopard-Trek team to expend energy in the chase, as did a subsequent attack by Greipel, as rivals sought to weaken the favourite’s support.

The serious racing kicked off on the Oude Kwaremont, a 2.2km hill of which about two-thirds is cobbled. Cancellara had attacked decisively here in winning the G3 Prijs the previous weekend. Here it was Quick Step‘s Chavanel who launched himself off the front of the peloton in pursuit of the escapees. A series of attacks over the following hills shuffled the order at the front as the original break was swallowed up, various riders had a dig and Chavanel found himself alone in the lead with an advantage of just under a minute.

With 42km to the finish, Boonen attacked the favourites’ group between the Molenberg and Leberg climbs. He was closely marked by Cancellara and Katusha‘s Filippo Pozzato as they swept past the remaining breakaway riders. At the same time, Gilbert stopped to change his rear wheel and had to expend energy chasing back to the pack.

Cancellara then attacked on the Leberg, riding away from the others with his customary power and rapidly bridging the gap to Chavanel before the top of the Valkenberg climb with 31km remaining. Under team orders, the Frenchman left Cancellara to set the pace, content to sit on his wheel in the knowledge that teammate Boonen was in the chasing group. With the gap hovering at around the minute mark BMC – working for 2007 winner Alessandro Ballan and 37-year old veteran George Hincapie – sent their entire team to the front but struggled to make significant inroads as Cancellara single-handedly kept the chasing pack at bay over the Tenbosse. At this point it was hard to see beyond the defending champion for the victory.

Cancellara leads Chavanel up the punishing Muur van Geraardsbergen, with the chasing pack hot on their heels (image courtesy of Graham Watson)

The lead duo at the foot of the Muur van Geraardsbergen – where Cancellara launched his decisive attack last year – with a 40-second advantage, but with the Swiss rider suffering from cramps and their pursuers now in attack mode the gap tumbled with every pedal-stroke and the race was back together again before the summit and heading for a tense, tactical finish.

On the day’s final climb of the Bosberg hill with 12km left, Gilbert launched a savage solo attack which, though unsuccessful, shattered the pack. It left an elite group of 12 riders including Cancellara, Boonen, BMC’s Ballan and Hincapie, and the Sky pair of Geraint Thomas and Juan Antonio Flecha to contest the win.

Nuyens (shown here riding for Rabobank in 2009) prevailed in the final sprint (image courtesy of Wikipedia)

After the usual sequence of feints and counter-attacks, it was Cancellara again who launched the decisive move attack just before the three-kilometre marker, going into time trial mode with only Chavanel and Nuyens able to respond to his acceleration. The trio moved several seconds clear into the final kilometre, although Boonen made one final solo effort in the final 500 metres which prompted Cancellara into opening up the sprint a little earlier than he would have liked. Nuyens waited before jumping, and as Chavanel followed and attempted to dive up his right he found himself squeezed into the barrier and was forced to check his sprint. The Belgian, who had stayed in touch throughout without wasting energy launching attacks of his own, crossed the line first. Chavanel was left to bang his handlebars in frustration at his missed opportinity. A shattered Cancellara was third, with an isolated Boonen a couple of seconds further back ahead of the remainder of the lead group.

Nuyens was rewarded for his persistence on a day which did not run as smoothly as he would have liked:

Never give up. It’s one of the key phrases. Today was not my best day. Every time there was a crash, I was behind it. I crashed myself at one time. At many times today I was very far from the front.

I didn’t feel that well, but then suddenly when we were on the Muur [Cancellara and Chavanel] were 100 meters in front of us. Then I thought, maybe the race can start again “I knew that once we caught them that anyone could win. Because when you don’t have any more climbs, it’s all tactics. That’s something that I really like. It’s the best part of cycling, that you can play a game.

Cancellara talked about how his race had been compromised by a combination of cramps and Quick Step’s refusal to let Chavanel ride:

I had Chavanel with me … I was trying to get alone. I believed it was possible. But we had BMC and Sky chasing, and on the bottom of the Muur I had cramps. Chavanel could see I wasn’t super. If Chavanel could have ridden with me I think we would have battled for first and second spot.

But I believed even then that it was still possible. You only need something little that will make a small gap. The problem is they know me, and they won’t let me go. But to go away with 3.5km shows me I have done the maximum to try and get this victory.

Even in defeat, Cancellara rode with the heart (and legs) of a champion, although I have to wonder whether he was twice spooked into jumping earlier than he would have liked. If Boonen had not attacked so far out, would Cancellara have launched his counter-attack so early, with five testing climbs still to go – or would he perhaps have waited until after Tenbosse or the Muur? And did the glance over his shoulder which showed Boonen launching his last-ditch attempt in the final half-kilometre panic him into opening up the sprint unnecessarily soon? He would likely have struggled to live with Nuyens and Chavanel in a straight-up finish anyway, but going as he did at 300 metres effectively sacrificed his own chances.

I would also question Quick Step’s tactics in ordering Chavanel to sit on Cancellara’s wheel. The Frenchman is the better sprinter, and if the pair had worked together there is a good chance they would have stayed away, with Chavanel the likely victor. Certainly Nuyens would not have won in this scenario, and in the event of the pair being caught Boonen would have been a strong favourite in the likely bunch sprint. Second and fourth was not a bad result – but it could easily have been a victory for the Belgian squad.

Regardless, it was a tremendous race full of attacking riding and tactical switches and Cancellara’s status is, if anything, enhanced on a day on which he proved mortal and yet so nearly prevailed with the entire peloton massed against him.

Next weekend we move on to Paris-Roubaix, the third of this year’s Five Monuments. The defending champion here? Fabian Cancellara.

Result:

1. Nick Nuyens (Saxo Bank-Sungard) 6:00:42

2. Sylvain Chavanel (Quick Step) same time

3. Fabian Cancellara (Leopard-Trek) s/t

4. Tom Boonen (Quick Step) +0:02

5. Sebastian Langeveld (Rabobank) +0:08

6. George Hincapie (BMC) +0:08

7. Björn Leukemans (Vacansoleil-DCM) +0:08

8. Staf Scheirlinckx (Veranda’s Willems-Accent) +0:08

9. Philippe Gilbert (Omega Pharma-Lotto) +0:08

10. Geraint Thomas (Sky) +0:08

2011 ‘Five Monuments’ recaps:

Milan-San Remo

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