Welcome race fans, to the 2020 Ronde van Vlaanderen. It's A beautiful day here in Oudenaarde, at the finish of the 104th Tour of Flanders, as we try to process just what went down here. Surely one of the most unusual, beguiling and entertaining De Ronde's in recent memory? Forget Gilbert in 2017, this edition of the race has carved its own place in the history books.
Going into the 2020 edition of the race we knew it was going to be a bit... odd. If you haven't been living under a rock for the last few months, you will be aware of the truly bizarre place the world has become. Yes, the coronavirus crisis has turned the world upside down, and pro cycling has absolutely been affected. With many of the usual teams pulling out of De Ronde for 2020, we can only assume that the race organisers staged some kind of wild publicity stunt by letting what you might call, on a good day, some slightly 'amateur' cycling teams take their place.
Of these new and unknown teams, the two we were told to watch were those of Dirty Wknd and All Things Ride. Up until this point, they've both had solidly mediocre results at events like L'Etape du Tour and the Yorkshire World Championships, so an invite to the Flanders was massively out of the blue, to say the least. With literally no expectations at all, these two teams were entering the veritable tiger cage of the Flemish Hellingen. Reports that some concerned members of the public had called the police to prevent this massacre proved to be unfounded, but you really do have to wonder.
At 9:15am, the sun was shining brightly and the riders were on the start line ready for the off. On the front row were previous winners Peter Sagan and Philippe Gilbert, alongside Ronde newbies Tom Elliott, Paul New and Sheree Lim. What strange times we're living through!
No time to dwell though as the gun went off and the riders began to roll. It doesn't matter who you're up against, whether a 3 time world champion or a software developer from North London, it's all business. The fact this wasn't going to be a normal edition of De Ronde was clear for all to see right away.
To say the All Things Ride boys showed their hand early is a bit of an understatement, as Seb Cailliau Alastair Grant, Matt Godfrey and Jonny 'The Whisper' Secrett attacked in the neutralised start zone, gaining a gap of around a minute. An early break away is always expected, but this was ludicrous!
Pure bafflement flooded through the peloton, as no one knew what was happening. Sagan looked at Gilbert. Gilbert to Trentin. No response from the bunch, as the 'favourites' stared at each other, probably expecting this bunch of jokers to get ejected from the race. Sometimes it takes a maverick move to upset the applecart though, as the commissars, also staring at each other in disbelief, let the move stand. The small group of ATR riders had gained a big gap on some of the best cyclists in the world.
Whether it was a planned move, early race nerves or sheer stupidity no one will ever know, but other members of the ATR team and a couple of the Dirty Wknd riders reacted well to the move, managing to bridge to the Secrett group and form a formidable breakaway. Before the race started, we would have called this a 'laughable breakaway', but whichever way you looked at it, this group was gaining ground on the early flat sections of the route.
The original break of The Whisper (Secrett), Grant, Godfrey and the Frenchman Cailliau were joined by David Bavin, James Wright and Marcus Connolly from Dirty Wknd as well as Tom Eliott and Adam Jones from All Things Ride, gamely protecting their team leader, Muz. A more naive race fan could be fooled into thinking that the ATR team were just making things up as they went along, but the astute observer could see the beginnings of a race plan developing.
The mob handed ATR squad set about bossing the breakaway, with their rivals Dirty Wknd blowing in the wind. The DW team were at a loss for what to do, as panicked riders were strewn all over the road; no direction or strategy coming over the race radio. However tragedy struck for the ATR team, as team leader Muz's Di2 battery seemed to fail. Muz dropped back, leaving it to his domestiques to take up the mantle and try to make something of this race.
And take up the mantle they did, with Jonny Secrett attacking the breakaway with vigour. So silent and deadly is The Whisper that his ATR team mates nearly didn't notice! Luckily Grant and Cailliau reacted eventually and made it up to Secrett, taking relative unknown commodity Tom Jagger with them. Would this be the winning move? The favourites clearly thought not. Still firmly entrenched in the peloton swapping wine gums and laughing about this doomed breakaway.
What then of the Dirty Wknd riders? At this early point in the race it was anyone's guess. Bavin was now alone with Yorkshireman Tom Elliott, having both missed the Secrett move (he's so quiet!). The rest of the team had retreated back to the peloton to get water and await further orders. Enforcers Paul New and Rich Trindall set about trying to bully Sagan and the rest, making room for team leader Stephen Byrne.
But where was the Irishman? Camera phone footage from a fan would later come to light showing Byrne and team mate Craig McColl sipping espresso in a Flemish roadside bar, somehow mistaking the race for some sort of cafe ride. It would take some pretty choice words over the team radio, none of which is repeatable here, to bring Byrne into the fray. However, leap he did, as the two DWRT riders set off after the Peloton, and then what was left of the breakaway.
Secrett, Jagger, Grant and Cailliau had formed a pretty tight knit group at the front and were pushing on. Would this peloton of the world's finest male cyclists begin to worry about these amateurs streaking away up the road. There were certainly a few nervous looks as they started to wonder. Quickstep's Remco Evanaepol was seen texting his mum asking for instructions. As well as some warm milk and a cookie. Ahhh, bless!
Another ATR move began to develop, as Tom Elliott, feeling strong from all of his SPOK'D training, easily dropped Bavin and set off in search of his team mate Matt Godfrey. ATR now had two groups up the road and a strong handle on this race. But what about team leader Muz? The Scotsman would not be counted out, and with the help of ATR domestique Adam Jones, Muz had struck out from the peloton and was hot on the heels of Bavin just before the decisive Oude Kwaremont climb.
Attacking on the descent Muz opened up a small gap and it became clear that his race was not done. Luckily for the Dirty Wknd effort, at the same point Stephen Byrne arrived on the scene to announce that he too was not yet done. Bavin and Byrne set about frustrating Muz by sitting on his wheel and refusing to do any turns. However, being a flatlands/pavè specialist, Muz was undeterred and set a high tempo to ride the boys in black off his wheel. The quality of a team leader shone through in that moment, as Byrne and Muz dispensed with Bavin like an empty bidon, and managed to bridge the gap up to Elliott and Godfrey with ease.
Now, race fans, we were on! The pro peloton had tried their best to close the gap, with one after the other taking turns to attempt to bridge over. Sagan, Gilbert, GVA - they all rode their hearts out to try and close, but to no avail. The story of the post ride interview would all read the same - "they were just too strong for us". To the amazement of absolutely everyone, this group of rank amateurs were about to best the very best. Should we be surprised? This is, after all, 2020!
Back to the front of the race and the small group had managed to get even smaller, as Secrett, Jagger and Grant distanced Cailliau on the final ascent of the Patterberg. Grant drove the pace, attempting to hog all the glory and solo the final 13km run into Oudenaarde, ala PhilGil. However it wasn't to be. The Whisper was not about to let another rider steal his (quiet) thunder, daintily sauntering away from Grant and Jagger, without them even noticing. 8km to go; could Seccrett hold on for a famous and frankly unthinkable win?
Meanwhile a little further back, on the Kwaremont for the final time, the duo of team leaders, Muz and Byrne, would start to distance Elliott and Godfrey, the latter two starting to pay for their earlier efforts. With the podium and 4th place all but confirmed now, these two titans of the amateur cycling world were just playing for pride. Even further down the road, swinging wildly in no man's land, Bavin and Jones attempted to take lumps out of each other, seemingly just for motivation to finish. Jones however would be up in front of the commissars post race as it seems he'd 'accidentally' entered the race on a TT bike! The cycling world, grown so accustomed to scandal, would be rocked again!
The kilometres ticked down as Secrett took the final long, flat run into Oudenaarde. Like so many before him, solo, after a blistering attack on the final climb. This road has the ability to make or break, but after a quick look around in the final kilometre it was clear that he had done enough. He had time to zip up his yellow and black ATR jersey and, whilst respecting social distancing guidelines, high five some fans. The Whisper had sealed perhaps the most famous Tour of Flanders victory in recent memory (yea, suck it Gilbert!) One that would have it's own chapter in the history books.
Grant and Jagger would sprint for second place, with Grant taking the silver by less than a second. Cailliau would come solo home in 4th, ahead of DWRT's Stephen Byrne who just got the better of Muz in the finish straight. The two team leaders had ridden a heroes race, so very nearly getting back to the front group. Just what would've happened with Di2 failure, or, you know, multiple café stops in the early part of the race.
Elliott and Godfrey would come over the line near enough together, a job well done to see their man onto the top of the podium. Jones would take 9th, almost certainly to be DQ'd later for use of a TT bike, followed by Bavin rounding out the top 10 and looking a little worse for wear.
The remainder of the riders would come in safely within the peloton, having done their jobs of holding back a very animated, but ultimately tardy Peter Sagan. Better luck next time, Peto!
What a race! certainly not what we expected first thing this morning, but gripping none the less. And so the caravan rolls onto next weekend ad Paris Roubaix, remarkably still going ahead! In keeping with the 'new normal', the race organisers are going to let even more amateur cyclists take part. So if you're a completely average cyclist and you want to take part in Paris Roubaix 2020 then just click this link to sign up!
Thanks for tuning in race fans for what was the most remarkable edition of the Tour of Flanders. Until next week...