The 89th Tour of Flanders started with a minutes silence in respect of the Pope. It was a touching moment that reflected the passion of the huge crowds who had turned out to see the start of this race in the Grand'Place de Bruges. The race had been billed in Belgium as the duel between the hardened pro Van Petegem (Black hat) and the youthful man of the moment Tom Boonen (white hat). However the biggest cheer at the signing on point probably went to Ludo Dierckxsens, as the grand old man of the pave entered his last ever Tour of Flanders.
In almost summer like temperatures the 196 warriors of the pave set off to tackle the 256 kilomètres of winding roads and 17 hills that would thin the peloton at each successive climb.
Magnus Backstedt took the early lead. He is looking forward to the paves of Roubaix which he prefers to the Muurs of Belgium. Carlos Barredo (Liberty Seguros-Würth), who had done so well in the Three Days of De Panne, David Boucher (MrBookmaker.com-SportsTech), Samuele Marzoli (Lampre-Caffita), Francis Mourey (Française des Jeux) and Constantino Zaballa (Saunier Duval-Prodir) joined the big Swedish rider and the 6 men soon built a working lead. By the time they reached the first major pave climb of the day Molenberg, with 113 kilomètres to go the escapees had arounf five minutes on the peloton.
As the climbs came thick and fast the first signs of weakness emerged from the 6 escapees, Marzoli was the first to fall away on the Wolvenberg, the Vieux Quarémont saw Mourey “lâché”, and Boucher could not hold the wheels on the Koppenberg. With 70 kilomètres to go only Backstedt, Barredo and Zaballa remained. The favourites summoned their teams to reduce the gap and to thin out the weaker riders. Quick Step riding for Boonen held a sway of blue at the front of the peloton. Davitamon-Lotto for Van Petegem and T-Mobile for Klier also ensured they were at the head of affairs
Past the 200 kilometre mark and things began to get brutal. In Foreest, with 50 kilomètres to go, Constantino Zaballa dropped Magnus Backstedt and Carlos Barredo and made a valiant effort to hold off the fast approaching peloton.
In Steenberg, with 47 kilomètres to go Alessandro Ballan (Lampre-Caffita), continued his good run of form from De Panne with a classy attack. The 27 year old stage winner in De Panne dropped Zaballa on the climb of the Berendries, with 37 kilomètres. With Ballan at 30 seconds Lance Armstrong (Discovery Channel) came to the head of affairs, but even the Texan could not halt the continuing attacks and counter attacks that successively thinned the ranks of the peloton . Kroon attacked for Rabobank, and then Erik Zabel (T-Mobile) attacked again, Roberto Petito (Fassa Bortolo) managed to hold his wheel. Andeas Klier, Tom Boonen and Peter Van Petegem countered and the break of the day had formed with 26 kilometres to go. Armstrong put in another huge turn but on the Tenbossestraat Ivanov made a false attack for T Mobile that isolated George Hincapie in a group of riders, of whom Leon Van Bon (Davitamon-Lotto), Sergueï Ivanov (T-Mobile) and Juan-Antonio Flecha (Fassa Bortolo) all had team mates up the road. Victory was certain for either Ballan, Boonen, Klier, Petito, Van Petegem or Zabel.
The six men worked together over the Muur de Grammont, with 16 kilomètres to go. As Belgium held its breath. The billed duel was unravelling before their very eyes. With Boonen and Van Petegem eyeing each nervously other as they lead the escapees up the Muur.
Zabel, clearly tiring after his earlier attacks, managed to hold the wheels but it was team mate Andreas Klier who attacked on the final climb of the day the Bosberg with 13 kilometres to go.
At 9 kilometres to go Van Petegem attacked, but Boonen brought him back easily and countered with a devastating charge. It was a bold, dramatic and glorious piece of cycling theatre. He did not look back but had his head down and charged for home. The crowd in Meerbeke let out a huge roar when their young cub reached the finish.
Belgium has a new Lion of Flanders!
Full results in live ticker report.