The peloton feels the sting of Belgian classics crashes

Several riders go down hard in E3 Harelbeke and Gent-Wevelgem

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GENT, Belgium (VN) — Why all the crashes?

That was the simple question posed from veteran Belgian journalist Hugo Coorevits to Gent-Wevelgem winner John Degenkolb (Giant-Shimano) after a weekend filled with lots of them.

“I was lucky to avoid the crashes. Every rider tries to improve, and more and more riders are closer to a good level, so that means everyone wants to be at the front,” Degenkolb said. “It’s dangerous, on these narrow roads, but that is the history of these races. I like it … I hope no one is seriously injured. Even the best riders can crash, even [Peter] Sagan had problems.”

The opening days of the Belgian classics saw a spate of costly falls despite good weather, dry roads, and almost no wind.

Both E3 Harelbeke and Gent-Wevelgem witnessed costly pileups that will have implications going toward the major races at Ronde van Vlaanderen (Tour of Flanders) and Paris-Roubaix.

Belgian superstar Tom Boonen (Omega Pharma-Quick Step) dodged a bullet Friday when he fell in a pileup early in Harelbeke, landing heavily on his thumb. Boonen said he was racing in tears because the pain was so bad.

A team doctor said if Boonen had crashed next week, it would have endangered his Ronde-Roubaix chances.

On Saturday, Boonen rode 60 kilometers to test his thumb and still had some discomfort, but it was nothing he couldn’t handle. He survived Sunday’s Gent-Wevelgem, a good sign he should be OK for Flanders next Sunday.

“I still had some pain in my hand,” Boonen said Sunday. “In the beginning, it was still sensitive. On the cobbles, it still hurts, but on the normal roads, it was acceptable. It was not something I was worrying about. I have some time left to recover from this.”

Boonen will skip this week’s VDK Driedaagse De Panne, adding, “Now it’s recovery, concentration, and training, to tune things up for Sunday.”

Far worse off was André Greipel (Lotto-Belisol), who crashed hard with 8km to go Sunday, along with Tyler Farrar (Garmin-Sharp) and Geraint Thomas (Sky). Greipel went from being poised to win Gent-Wevelgem to exiting with pain inside the Lotto team car.

A video camera mounted inside the Lotto-Belisol team car captured the disappointment of team directors. An upset Greipel later entered the team car, letting out a few expletives before calming down and requesting to be taken to the finish.

There was more bad news waiting there. Doctors discovered Greipel dislocated his collarbone and ripped ligaments in his shoulder. He was scheduled to undergo surgery, and will be sidelined for weeks.

A major crash Friday, which completely blocked the road with about 40km to go, shaped the outcome of Harelbeke.

Pre-race favorite Fabian Cancellara (Trek Factory Racing) was caught up behind the crash, forcing him to pass nearly the entire peloton in a desperate attempt to regain contact with the lead chasers. By then, it was too late to try to counter eventual winner Sagan, who had avoided the mishap.

“It was too bad that Fabian was caught behind the crash, because we were in good position the entire race except for at that moment,” said Trek sport director Dirk Demol. “The most important thing is that there were no injuries, and we could see that Fabian is in very good condition. The way he could chase back was impressive.”

Orica-GreenEdge, too, had more than its fair share of troubles. At Harelbeke, six of the team’s eight starters crashed. Canadian Svein Tuft abandoned with a diagnosed concussion, while classics veteran Mathew Hayman injured his right calf and did not start Wevelgem.

Sky placed Thomas into the winning move Friday, but saw a spate of crashes take its toll Sunday. Omloop Het Nieuwsblad winner Ian Stannard crashed hard into a roadside ditch, while Thomas and Edvald Boasson Hagen fell later in the race.

Mild weather, wild roads

Riders pointed to a few reasons why there were so many crashes.

First, the mild weather and lack of wind meant there was no natural selection, meaning there was still a big group late in both races. Therefore, there were more bodies fighting for position late in the race.

With the Ronde and Roubaix looming, Harelbeke and Wevelgem also saw more riders and teams believing in their chances — so there was more bumping and grinding for position throughout both races. In the hyper-demands of the Ronde and Roubaix, the punishing pace and brutal conditions soon put everyone in their place.

Finally, route changes to both Harelbeke and Gent-Wevelgem saw the peloton directed onto a series of narrow farm roads that were barely wide enough for three riders to ride abreast.

“We saw these new small farm roads in the new parcours, and I am not sure that is such a good thing,” Cancellara said. “It makes for a very nervous race, because everyone is fighting for position. You always had to be concentrating, to be at the front.”

There’s always a balancing act between trying to make road conditions safe, yet at the same time, keeping intact the historic traditions of the northern classics. Racing on bad roads is intrinsic to the essence of these races.

After an atrocious edition of Gent-Wevelgem in 2007 when dozens of riders suffered harrowing crashes, race organizers removed the cobblestoned descent off the Kemmelberg climb. Since then, riders have been rerouted down a narrow, paved road, this time without mishaps.

Yet there was a crash Sunday with just 8km to go on a relatively wide, smooth road, as the sprinters jostled for position. No one could blame road conditions for that crash.

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