The Joker Card Revealed
Since 1875 the joker playing card and cycling have been joined together in an improbable union. First came the Joker Playing Card, itself an American idea, the very first joker playing card was created in the image of a man riding a penny farthing bicycle. Since then the Joker has been represented riding a bicycle in a multitude of variations. The bicycle joker card was made famous worldwide by the United States Playing Card Company, creators of the 808 bicycle series playing cards featuring The Bicycle Joker. At Friday's press conference when Fabian Cancellara said, "I will play my cardbut how it’s gonna play that’s gonna be the joker" he could not have known how these thoughts would transgress into an unimagined reality on Sunday. Cancellara's words would echo through the peleton and over race radio, as the "pack" was reshuffled at the feed zone, with sixty one kilometres left to race - in the 2012 Ronde van Vlaanderen. When Cancellara hit the deck at the back of the main group the state of play changed in an instant. Fabian Cancellara had done everything right up to that moment, poised and ready to thrill the legions of Belgian fans, eagerly awaiting the showdown, on a perfect sunny day in Flanders. Now thoughts turned to how the show would progress without Spartacus at the head of affairs.
Judging by the reaction of tent attendees, interviewed for Belgian TV, the latest version of the course was a hit, this time the emphasis shifted to an enhanced viewing experience for spectators, complete with kilometre plus - long VIP catering tents. Testament to this was their reaction when interviewed, "what course changes?" was the average response. If you were on the Paterberg and Kwaeremont, the race passed by three times and at the Paterberg you could see the riders on the final climb, then watch the race unfold on the big screens, as the final three laid claim to their podium places over the final thirteen kilometres.
The Joker Card played and Cancellara out of the race with 196km covered, the race was wide open. With forty two kilometres left to race Farnese Vini - Selle Italia massed at the front. Since Filippo Pozzato's crash in stage five at the Tour of Oman, which resulted in a broken collarbone and subsequent surgery, he's been on a steady trajectory to the top, finishing sixth in the bunch sprint at Milan Sanremo, now at the Tour of Flanders he was in form and ready to show his hand.
Team BMC had come to the fore with an earlier attack from Philippe Gilbert amongst others. On the third and final ascent of the Kwaremont with 18 km to go BMC's persistence paid off when 2007 winner Alessandro Balansmashed over the top, the only ones who could answer were Pozzato together with Boonen glued to his wheel. By the time Pozzato, Balan and Boonen reached the last climb of the day, the Paterberg, Pozzato then showed us all the meaning of patience and strength. Boonen clung to Balan's back wheel as they reached the steepest part of the climb with a gradient of 20.3%, Pozzato put down the hammer, Balan stayed in contact and Boonen lost two bike lengths by the time they rounded the left hander at the top, Boonen made contact again, all together they were ready for the final thirteen kilometre dash to the finsh line. From there the trio built a lead into the final kilometres of over a minute. Meanwhile Peter Sagan of Liquigas Cannondale rocketed out of the bunch over the final metres of the Paterberg, stuck in no man's land between the bunch, with thought's of bridging the gap to the leaders - plus a shot at the podium, but it wasn't to be.
Recently talk has been around whether Cancellara can finally figure a way to set himself free of the pack, or whether Boonen would tally up his third win in what some consider to be the most important monument. Could a wildcard enter the fray to take the honours at the brand new finish line in Oudenaarde. Finally there was the question of whether the new finish line and changes to the course were worthy of such a historic race.
In the end Cancellara's luck ran out with the joker, Boonen's resilience proved that he was a worthy winner as the sentimental favourite, and as he said his sprint was his biggest asset. It was no surprise that Fillipo Pozzato took it to Boonen in the sprint, he was strong out on the course and the sprint was slightly uphill, in the end Pozzato was a revelation on the day, when Cancellara was absent Pozzato animated the race and played his cards right in the final kilometres. Team BMC's work paid off, Balan's attack at the Kwaremont proved to be the decisive moment in the race, forcing the split and instigating the final outcome. All three played the perfect hand. As for the new course - a few beers, lunch on a sunny Flanders day plus a bike race, what more could you want. Who'd miss the vision of the picturesque church on the top of the hill, as usual the thrill is in the race made by the riders no matter what the course.
Cancellara's luck sheds some light on where the results may lay next week in Paris Roubaix. Radioshack - Nissan - Trek had kept their man sheltered and ready for the final onslaught but to no avail, highlighting the fact that you must first make it to the finish line to lay claim to victory. At times the roads to Roubaix favour the wildcard, Boonen has his hat trick, will his luck run out?