At the 84th Tour of Flanders on April 2, Andrei Tchmil (Lotto-Adecco) put his staying power to the test with a 10K solo dash to the line, earning victory by a hair-raising four seconds over a charging peloton.
Up-and-coming sprinters Dario Pieri (Saeco) and Romans Vainsteins (Vini Caldirola-Sidermec) led the bunch for second and third, respectively, ahead of Erik Zabel (Telekom) in fourth, who retained the world cup leaders jersey.
For the wily Tchmil, his win is further validation that wits can beat brawn, if exercised at just the right moment.
Perhaps its his 37 years, or the fact that hes neither a super climber nor sprinter, but Tchmil is rarely on the pre-race hot favorites list.
Nevertheless, over the last several years he has easily been one of the strongest one-day racers in the world, as evidenced by last years overall world cup title.
Tchmils well-timed escape tactics have become something of a trademark.
A late-race jump won him Milan-San Remo last year, Paris-Tours in 1998 and Paris-Roubaix in 1994. The solo dash is one of the hardest moves to make stick, but for the veteran Tchmil, a former Moldavian and now a naturalized Belgian, it has been a fast route to big wins and a late-blossoming career.
Usually the cobbles, narrow roads and steep climbs of Flanders are wet and slick with Belgian mud, but dry weather at this years second classic race meant that most of the contenders out of the 185 starters were well placed for the finish of the 269K race; in fact, no less than 24 riders would finish within four seconds of each other.
Flanders is a rough-and-tumble race primarily due to its bicycle-path width roads that lead up to the 16 climbs, or bergs along the course.
To do well in Flanders, a rider has to be highly placed coming into each climb, which is a matter of maneuvering skill, sheer strength and the nerves to ride on cobbles at high speed.
As Dane Rolf Srensen, who won the Ronde in 1993, puts it: "Racing in Belgium sucks but it definitely makes you a better bike racer. Two weeks out of the whole year I have to ride cobbles and ironically two of my most important races of the year happen to be on those damn cobbles.
At the 70K mark of the race, last years Paris-Roubaix winner Andrea Tafi (Mapei-Quick Step), along with Rabobanks Mark Wauters and Marco Serpellini (Lampre) tried a long escape that lasted until 50 riders, including World Cup leader Zabel, caught them with 20 km to go.
Hot favorite Johan Musseuw (Mapei-Quick Step) bolted away on the penultimate climb, the Muur de Grammont, but was well marked and couldnt spring free.
It was on the final Bosberg climb with 10K to go, that a determined Tchmil slipped away (at a cool 60 KPH) to an 18 second lead, still within tantalizing site of the big group behind.
Viatcheslav Ekimov (US Postal) went on a last-kilometer attack to try to reach Tchmil, but couldnt catch him, and the pack couldnt quite organize itself to put a concerted chase together.
As he rolled across the line just ahead of the 33 charging sprinters, Tchmil raised his arms in an ecstatic victory salute.
After taking Belgiums most coveted race, Tchmil is now the favorite to recapture the world cup leader's jersey next week on the infamous pave of Paris-Roubaix.
"There are 16 hills in the Tour of Flanders, along with several sections of pav, and it's a mini-sprint before each one to be among the first riders before each difficulty," Tchmil said after the race.
"So it's great to have a team that works so hard for me to get to the front each time, without my having to use too much energy or take a lot of risks."
84th Tour of Flanders
1. Andrei Tchmil (Lotto Adecco) 6.48.17
2. Dario Pieri (Saeco) at +0.04
3. Romans Vainsteins (Vini Caldirola-Sidermec) same time
4. Erik Zabel (Telekom)
5. Tristan Hoffman (Memorycard-Jack&Jones)
6. Fabio Sacchi (Polti)
7. Leon Van Bon (Rabobank)
8. Peter Van Petegem (Farm Frites)
9. Zbigniew Spruch (Lampre Daikin)
10. Markus Zberg (Rabobank)
15. Viatcheslav Ekimov (U.S. Postal Service)
17. George Hincapie (U.S. Postal Service)
33. Johan Museeuw (Mapei-Quick Step)