Pile up in De Panne sends Kittel off the rails

Driedaagse De Panne: Stage 3a, De Panne to De Panne

Kittel eventually finds his bike…

Stage 3a turned out to be an old-fashioned clash between two long time rivals: not riders necessarily, but the bike, and public transport. Which would come out on top?

Marcel Kittel did his part to advocate the humble €9,000 S-Works push bike, while the De Panne public transit system, and the rails it ran along, attempted to prove otherwise.

As riders passed through the finish line on the circuit around De Panne it seemed like the transit system would win.

Riders found themselves on a busy stretch of high street with tramlines running through the middle. These thin death traps are usually enough to encourage anyone to slow down, and maybe walk for a bit, but riders ploughed on, trusting their instincts and hoping they weren’t about to find themselves looking back, as they slid on their backsides across the asphalt, at their front wheel stuck in the middle of one.

Pile up in De Panne

As if to prove how lethal these things were six riders went down in a giant tangle, as shoppers looked on. Others had bunny hopped across the rails successfully, but these six were from the wrong side of the tracks, and had failed miserably.

A lapse of concentration somewhere led to a touch of wheels, and the pile up that brought Kittel crashing down. The cameras picked up on them all trying to extricate themselves, and their bikes, from an enormous tangle of spokes and top tubes. Much like a child’s puzzle – you simply picked a piece of metal, followed it to the end, and hoped it led you to your bike.

Kittel was down for at least a minute as the pack rode on. Tim Declercq and Fabio Sabatini were waiting to pace him back, but the camera showed the damage – a long empty road reaching to the horizon, with the peloton at the end of it. Could he get back in 13.5 km?

Logic suggested that you’d need to catch a tram to make up that sort of distance, but Kittel soon had four teammates working with him as they raced to rejoin the group, which by now was taking on the tramlines for the final time.

Most riders had learned their lesson the first time around not to mess with them, and one rider in particular had figured out that the safest way to cross them was as close to 90 degrees as possible. Which he did, knocking Julien Morice of Direct Energie clean off his bike in the process.

Kittel meanwhile had finally reached the back of the peloton, his teammates sending him to the front with 2 km left to race. That he won the stage, and from so far back, is credit to them as much as the talents of the German sprint star.

A win for him, and his team. Plus an “up yours” to the tramlines.

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Gilbert pushing all the buttons

Dwars Door Vlaanderen

The list of perilous things that can really ruin a professional cyclist’s day is a long one.

There’s crashing for a start, and all the chains, cogs and asphalt that come with that. Then there are those unseen things, like ditches, which as Trek’s Kiel Reijnen discovered today, you might drop into at any second. Finally there are those things you can predict, but might not want to think about. Like being shouted at by Philippe Gilbert.

Playing the lead role in Dwars Door Vlaanderen, Belgian road champ Gilbert had decided this was going to be Classic win number something, even if that meant he had to drag everyone else to the finish line with him and subsequently let one of them win instead.

Gilbert, looking into the eyes of the other riders

As part of a front group of riders with 72km to race, Gilbert, wearing his national colours (and two odd shoes, presumably to appear slightly unhinged), demanded others move forward to take a turn. Lack of co-operation usually spells the end of breaks like this. Gilbert was having none of it.

If the others pretended not to understand, Gilbert removed any doubt with some hand gestures. Afraid perhaps of being singled out for personal abuse, the other riders began coming forward, with Gilbert waving them through, like a zealous firewarden, eager complete the office fire drill in record time.

Then, to be certain, Gilbert dropped to the back, adapting the rare strategy that states that if you can’t drag people towards the finish line, you may as well push them.

Meanwhile, 38 seconds behind, Trek rider Edward Thuens was having the same idea, waving forward the chase group like an ambitious new lieutenant on a rescue mission, who usually gets men killed.

Celebrating with Yves Lampaert

But what failed for Tuens seemed to work for Gilbert, who now sensing glory, demanded with equal vigor that Yves Lampaert keep up with him, so they could take on Luke Durbridge (Orica-Scott) and Alexey Lutsenko (Astana), the only riders left at the front, together. What’s more there was the sight of Zdenek Styber and Niki Terpstra, summoned from way behind to race up towards the chase group, like an escaped Madison team, linking up to spoil any efforts to ruin Gilbert’s day.

Durbridge and Lutsenko knew that Gilbert had the perfect lead out man in Lampaert, but missed that it made Gilbert the perfect decoy for Lampaert.

Without Gilberts help to chase Lutsenko and Durbridge found they hadn’t the legs to reel him back. To make matters worse Gilbert pulled away to take second, far enough ahead at least to spare them the jubilant shouts coming from his direction.

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Mad Jack Down Under

Santos Tour Down Under
Stage 5 – McLaren Vale to Willunga Hill (151.5km)

Jack Bauer was already the most competitive rider of Stage 4 when he apparently decided it was worth doing all over again on Stage 5. Not only did that make him the most combative rider, but probably the craziest too. At least that was the general consensus, given that this was too heroic an attack to have any chance of succeeding. Mad Jack Bauer begged to differ, and you couldn’t help but take his side as he pedaled away to glory, joined by Thomas De Gendt of Lotto Soudal, and William Clarke of Cannondale.

Still, three in the break, with 143km to ride, would be difficult. So when Bauer turned to see that Jeremy Maison, a first year pro from FDJ, was trying to reach them, he slowed, gave Maison a thumbs up, and let him join them. It was a nice moment, (one Maison will never likely see again in his career) and it improved their situation. Now they were four, which as Bauer knew, gave this heroic, if doomed attack, a fighting chance.

But this was less a hopeless breakaway than a boys own action story about four men with something to prove.

Thomas De Gendt, the Lotto Soudal rider, was on an all-or-nothing mission to lock up the KOM jersey on his back. He needed to reach the summit of Willunga Hill first, and he’d destroy anyone who tried to stop him.

A good enough motive, but what saved the others from the label lunatic?

The plucky Jeremy Maison wanted to prove something in the first race of the year. Notably smaller than the others, he looked to struggle at times, but this was his chance to put in a good show for his employer.

Then there was Mad Jack himself, chasing of his own mythical Green Place, away from the demons of last season, and chased by a bike gang of a different sort. He seemed to want De Gendt to get up his hill, to want to drag Maison along in his first breakaway. As for Clarke, he was happy to let him be the eyewitness. Sure success seemed unlikely, but Bauer, like Maison and indeed Clarke, knew simply that this is what bike riders do.

And so they took turns setting the pace, Bauer, at one point putting an arm on Maison’s back to encourage the new boy, De Gendt determined with that one mission in mind.

It was now a big adventure. De Gendt had his mission to complete; Bauer was the man holding everyone together. Maison the young kid who we worry might not make it. Clarke, well, there’s always someone in stories like this that has to die, taking the role of Shelley Winters, reminding the others of the danger they’re in. In keeping with the role Clarke faded and dropped off.

With Clarke gone the writing was on the wall.

With 33km to race their lead was down to 3min 05 seconds, teetering on that borderline between what amount of time can be closed within the distance remaining. But that included two climbs of Willunga Hill, and 3km later the gap had closed even more.

Bauer, riding alongside the young Maison, smaller in both experience and stature to himself, gave him a fist of encouragement. At this point Bauer was the virtual race leader. Was he really trying to hang on? Probably not. But the implication that he was seemed heroic enough.

They would get up Willunga Hill, and De Gendt would get his points. But by that time the gap had dropped to 1 minute 55 seconds, and with his mission accomplished De Gendt had no reason to chase the impossible.

With 15 km to go the gap hovered around 1 minute 20. Five kilometers later it was down to 45 seconds. Five kilometers after that it was all over.

It was inevitable that the peloton would swallow them up, and the real story of the day would finally begin. Now on the final climb, Richie Porte would climb best, taking the stage (fourth he fourth time), and the overall lead, although not quite De Gendt’s KOM jersey.

But not before Mad Jack Bauer, finding something left in his legs – pride, adrenaline, simple enjoyment – led his Quick-Step team to the base of the climb. Some would say with a grimace on his face. To others though, it could only have been a smile.

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