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Flanders’07 – Ballan Ballan Ballan!

The weather was perfect, the wind was still, and over 250k of Flanders’ finest roads and bergs lay in wait for one of the most entertaining finales in recent years. Ballan and Hoste were the strongest over the Muur and from there on in it was a drag race between the leading duo and the chaotic chase from behind – ultimately, it was Ballan by a wheel over a despondent Leif Hoste.

Oh lord, that was one helluva race.

Alessandro Ballan confirmed on all of the expectations and hopes that have been heaped upon his slight shoulders over the past two years. In fact, it was only three Flanders ago when Ballan put his name in the hat for a possible future win after a sterling ride late in the day that saw him into the top 10. It’s been a meteoric rise from then on, coming to a boiling point a few days ago with overall victory at the Three Days of DePanne and reaching its zenith today in Meerbeke as he swiped the win right out of poor Leif Hoste’s hands.

There was no doubt in the finale though: Alessandro Ballan was the strongest. He made the move on the Muur, he drove the move to the Bosberg, drove it up the Bosberg, and all the while Hoste clung for dear life. Hoste didn’t really start to contribute until the final 5k, but that’s not the point: Ballan was incredible. There was no luck, no team tactics, no gambles: it was a dispay of raw power that saw Ballan to his first win in the most important day of racing in Belgium.

Woe To Quick.Step
The results show one thing loud and clear though: not one Quick.Step rider made the Top 10. Not one. Not Steegmans, not Bettini, not Van Petegem, and definitely not Tom Boonen – who was the top QuickStepper in 12th. Tom Boonen tried to blow the race apart on the Muur, taking command early on up the climb, but when Ballan went over the top of him, Boonen’s time was up, he dropped anchor in the final few hundred meters up the epic climb, whilst Ballan and Hoste galloped away. The gap they established on the Muur was more or less the gap they took to the line.

Bettini tried to race out of the chasing group, but he had what amounted to absolutely nothing, and when the decisive moves leapt out of the chasing group for 3rd thru 7th-ish, he watched them go, true the moves never caught the leaders, but they came oh so close. Apparently Quick.Step only races for the win, which isn’t a bad thing, but sometimes a podium spot ain’t too shabby.

The Travails Of Leif Hoste
After the Quick.Step implosion, the next disappointment has to be Leif Hoste – though he did nothing wrong – if anything, I just feel bad for Hoste. Ballan stuck it to Hoste the whole way to the line, with Hoste only taking spare pulls here and there, but it was obvious that Ballan was the motor. So Hoste did what he was supposed to do – he tapped through and kept it moving, but he didn’t really contribute, if he did contribute and got beat in the sprint like that, it would probably have been his contract on the line. Instead, Hoste rode smart the whole way to the line and had to feel confident that Ballan had ridden himself down at least a little bit, but unfortunately, Hoste got a bit jumpy and went a fraction too early, maybe 20 meters.

Hoste appeared to have the win in hand, but the gear was too small, the line too far, and Ballan just too damn strong, and just like that – Hoste’s dreams of Flanders Hero went poof in the span of 10 measly meters.

There it was over the line, Ballan confirmed what everyone knew and the joy flowed, and just inches away the life drained from Leif Hoste’s face. It has to be the hardest of his three runner-up finishes at De Ronde to swallow. In 2004 he was 2nd to Wesemann after well over 200k off the front, the sole survivor of the early break. Last year he lost to an unbeatable Tom Boonen, but this year, this was going to be it for Hoste – he made another two-up break, and this time there was no Tornado in the mix. That’s probably why the Cycling.TV coverage showed the sad-faced Belgian in tears just moments after the finish.

The Italians Return To Flanders’ Fields
Heading back to the positive side of things, the Italians were out in force today. It had been since Andrea Tafi’s fantastic win in 2002 since an Italian last graced the top step of the Flanders podium, and since 2001 (Bortolami won and the now deceased Zanette was 3rd) since two Italians stood on the podium – both streaks came to an end today with Ballan’s win and Luca Paolini’s incredible ride to take 3rd.

With 58k to go, Luca Paolini was on the side of the road after a wreck, with no bike, and the race rapidly heading on down the road. That’s quite the turnaround considering that the field was moving Mach 3 about that time – just to regain contact with the field was impressive, but to make the selection, and come out on the podium: unbelievable. And the manner in which he took 3rd: pure baller. Going into the final kilometer, Tomas Vaitkus and Karsten Kroon had a tenuous gap on the rest of the chasers, in fact, they appeared fairly solid in their quest for 3rd and 4th. They weren’t going to quite catch the leaders, but the chase was in shambles from behind, but just seconds after Ballan crossed the line in triumph, an electric green rider pounced right on past Vaitkus and Kroon: Paolini.

Ok, Let’s Go Back To The Beginning
The finale and aftermath were just too good to relegate to the latter half of the story, but now it’s time to take it back to the start in Brugge.

The race rolled out of the Oude Markt in one of Europe’s most beautiful cities at 9.45, and officially started at 10 in the town of St. Michiels. It was a cool morning, but the day was set for perfection: calm winds and highs around 17C (mid 60’s) – perhaps these conditions hurt a team like Quick.Step, which generally fares better the tougher the race…maybe.

Early Break: Check
Of course, the attacks started quickly with one after the other heading into the cool morning, but nothing doing. There was quite the fight to make the early break, and finally after about an hour and 40k, the break went. After some shuffling and some bridging, the break was inhabited by the following seven: Josй Vicente Garcia Acosta (Caisse d’Epargne), Laurent Mangel (AG2R), Enrico Franzoi (Lampre), Maarten Tjallingii (Skil-Shimano), Aleksandr Kuschynski (Liquigas), Evert Verbist (Chocolade Jacques) and David Boucher (Landbouwkrediet).

After two hours of racing, 91km were in the bag – over 45km/h average and the race honestly hadn’t started yet.

Heading on towards the first berg of the day, the Molenberg, the break went out to their biggest advantage: over 12 minutes, but in the outrageously aggressive approach to Berg Numero Uno, the gap shrank down to little kid size: now only 8ish, from then on, it was only a matter of time.

We All Fall Down
By 175km into the race, there were at least five significant wrecks, taking out a number of riders, including Erik Zabel, and necessitating some hardcore rejoining tactics by the affected riders. At one point, CSC had four riders (including Cancellara) off the back chasing back on following a spill.

This wonderful spring day with no wind was really causing havoc in what is always a nervous field, except for once, there was no wind to really make for a pecking order.

Counting Down The Hills
Berg after berg goes by, but the field didn’t shrink too terribly much. The only ‘favorite’ that looked bad around the 200k mark was De Peet. Peter Van Petegem looked like crap and he exited stage left with nary a whimper. Around 200k into the festivities, the break had 3ish minutes, and it continually was going the way of Peter Van Petegem stock…down, down, down.

Up until this point, the race had seen really only some posturing here and there. The favorites were on the front driving the pace up the hellingen, but nothing spectacular…yet. With about 50k to go though, the big teams and riders opened for business.

Just as Luca Paolini fell into a ditch, Kevin Hulsmans (QS) and Johan Van Summeren (Predictor) were headed on down the road to finally get a Quick.Step and Predictor rider up the road. Their move was ill-fated, but it was the first indicator that the racing was about to begin.

Fabian Cancellara Clocks In For Work
A few minutes later, indicators were gone and full-blown emergency sirens were blaring as Fabian Cancellara said peace out to the main field and rocketed on out to open road and a small gap up the Leberg (Berg #12 of 18). He wasn’t gone long, but it got the proverbial ball rolling.

Shortly after that, Bennati, Steegmans, Boogerd, and O’Grady went across to the two dangling out front: Hulsmans and Van Summeren. Eyebrow raising, but nothing like the Cancellara violence.

And so it went, move after move, but nothing really going anywhere, as the break’s time gap continually fell, fell, fell.

Cancellara: The One Man Train
With 34k to go, Cancellara was out for some more alone time: he drove off the front on a small descent and took only QuickStep’s possibility, Gert Steegmans. The two, well, only Cancellara was working, but that was more than enough, since Cancellara seems to often ride with the strength of two men, but I digress – the two riders rode up to the ailing early break and Cancellara just kept on churning through.

Cancellara put on a one-man show of force, taking the gap on out to almost 30 seconds, and for a few short minutes, we all thought that Cancellara might be able to do the most spectacular ride ever. Yeah, it didn’t happen. Cancellara was a one-man show, and sure, when it comes to going really fast, by yourself, he’s one of the world’s best, but it wasn’t to be today, and at the absolute worst moment in the world to get caught – his move was caught: at the base of the grand ol brute herself: the Muur van Geraardsbergen.

Immediately, Quick.Step took over, and soon after, it was only Tom Boonen setting the pace as the enormous field started to evaporate. It was a single file mess of detonations and explosions and come aparts, and at the front, Flanders’ best was about to feel what it’s like to fall apart. Boonen looked good, well, he looked good until Alessandro Ballan went right over the top of the Tornado and left him looking almost foolish. Boonen played along for a moment, but he came apart hardcore soon after, and that normally powerful pedalstroke looked more like a rec rider on the same climb the day before in the cyclotourist event.

The Ballad Of Ballin Ballan And Hoste
Whilst Tom Boonen finally got the opportunity to feel what it’s like to get worked over, Alessandro Ballan was hop, hop, hoppin on up to the top of the Muur and the welcoming sight of the chapel. Nary a few meters behind him was the perennial also-ran, Leif Hoste.

After the quick descent of the Muur, Hoste and Ballan joined up and Ballan worked on his best Fabian Cancellara impression.

Behind, the group was tremendously disorganized, but once again, it was a large, large group: 20 riders!! Nobody seemed too concerned though, Balloste had less than 20 seconds, and there was still the Bosberg and the run-in to the finish.

A Point Of Mathematical Importance
Unfortunately for the 20 chasers, they neglected to note, or were too concerned with everyone else in their monster group, that the final 10 miles of the race are incredibly fast. The Bosberg isn’t too terribly hard, and the rest of the way home is downhill or flat, with only a couple of small rises. Translation: Balloste were going fast, and it would take a mammoth effort from the mammoth chasing group to make up any ground at such high speeds.

The expected occurred in the chasing group behind: attacks. Everyone wanted a piece of the action, getting away in 1s, 2s, and sometimes even 3, but no one was making any ground. Bettini made a hard move, nothing doing, Pozzato hit it, nothing doing. Move after move went, until Tomas Vaitkus and Karsten Kroon rode out to a little gap, and that one worked. Well, it worked in that they got away from the chasers, but it did little to eat into Balloste’s gap.

Chaos Is Not A Good Chasing Technique
The kilometers ticked by, 10,9,8,7,6,5 – with 5k to go, Balloste had 13 seconds over Krootkus. Leif Hoste finally started putting in some good pulls around this time, because that 13 second gap probably didn’t look so big on the wide open, straight roads heading on to the promised land of the finish.

The Showdown
Coming into the final kilometer, Balloste still had their gap, Krootkus the same. Hoste made Ballan lead out the sprint, and so they inched ever closer to the line…it was an eternity before Hoste finally came off of Ballan’s wheel and opened up the sprint. He got over top of Ballan and Ballan tucked in, but didn’t look capable of coming around the Belgian who would finally get his long sought after due. Ever closer Hoste stomped to the line until just meters before the Grail, Ballan opened up his own sprint, and in just a few strokes, Ballan was past the luckless Belgian and the win was his.

The Fight For Third
Hoste probably wished he could have fallen into a black hole and disappeared forever, and it was in this time that the sprint for 3rd opened up…and 3rd didn’t go to either Kroon or Vaitkus, but rather another Italian: Luca Paolini, who had come across in the final kilometer and come within 5 seconds of Hoste and Ballan!

And that friends and neighbors was one fine finale. Whew.

1. Alessandro Ballan (Lampre-Fondital)
2. Leif Hoste (Predictor-Lotto)
3. Luca Paolini (Liquigas)
4. Karsten Kroon (Team CSC)
5. Vladimir Gusev (Discovery) – came across w/Paolini
6. Tomas Vaitkus (Discovery)
7. Nick Nuyens (Cofidis)
8. Dmitriy Muravyev (Astana)
9. Michael Boogerd (Rabobank)
10. Stuart O’Grady (CSC)
11. Jesus Del Nero (Saunier)
12. Tom Boonen (Quick.Step)

Keep it PEZ for all the latest as we assemble the story and the pictures.

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