Gazzetta dello Sport at the RondeIf we were to insert all the data from this Tour of Flanders in a computer and ask for the worthier winner the answer would be easy: Rolf Sorensen. The Danish blond from Italy (he lives at the doors of Montecatini) has been the strongest, most intelligent and if you want, the most cunning.
Sorensen had the courage to attack from far away in order to answer an incomprehensible Laurent Jalabert. The Frenchman has afterwards gone off unexpectedly, while the Danish of the Rabobank has always raced in front, careful not to let anything escape, not even a fly. He has known how to breathe at the right time and he has also known when to bluff.
"After the Bosberg I have remained on the wheel for 5 kilometers. I pretended to have died, although I was very well -has revealed Sorensen-. With Ballerini and Moncassin I was convinced of a win. I would have been able to wait for the sprint also, but preferred my odds in the tactical game. On paper, Moncassin was fastest, so therefore it was logical that Ballerini and I try alternatively to attack him. Moncassin closed the first time on Franco when Ballerini attacked, but then he was left with short breath and I have taken advantage".
In Sorensen's career, he has often made the mistake of too much generosity. He must have learned the lesson. Yesterday there were no mistakes. "True, but I haven't stolen anything from anybody -he said-. Without souding conceited, I believe I was the strongest". The Danish had one moment of difficulty, at the wall of Grammont. "If was the weight of the long escape and it limited me to staying on Ballerini's wheel -he said-. Bartoli returned afterwards, he was the man that I feared the most. I thought that he would go off and leave us all on the Bosberg, but instead he also was tired. When I saw that after the last wall we were still together, my strenght has multiplied". The Dane was amazed by Jalabert's behavior of Jalabert. "I don't know what happened to Jalabert. I know that in cycling things have a way of leveling out and now it has return for me to win and give me good times".
A Fan watches it on TVEurosport show some highlights from earlier in the race before joining the race live with about 70 kms to go. The weather is sunny, hardly a cloud in the sky, with temperatures around the 12 degrees centigrade mark, with a moderate north-easterly wind.
The early stages of the race were animated by a break of 18 riders who went clear around the 100 km mark. Riders in this break included Mario Cipollini (Saeco), Zbigniew Spruch (Roslotto), Laurent Desbiens and Frankie Andreu (both Cofidis), Jeremy Hunt and Orlando Rodrigues (both Banesto) and Bert Dietz of Telekom. There maximum advantage was 1:45 at the 124 km mark.
When we join the race live the break has been caught and the main field is down to around 50 riders with 70 kms to go. A secondary peloton of 40 riders is close behind and Telekom, whose leader Zabel is in the second group are chasing hard. The groups merge just short of the Knokteberg.
After this climb the group drops down into a town and then begin the approach to the Kwaremont. TVM are massed at the front. On the climb Peter Van Petegem of TVM opens a gap and he has around 10 seconds at the top, before Andrei Tchmil (Lotto) and Bruno Boscardin (Festina) come across. Behind the peloton, with Museeuw, Jalabert, Ekimov and Sorensen all noticeable is down to around 20 riders and the these group quickly latches onto the leaders.
Onto the Paterberg and Telekom's Brian Holm leads with Bartoli, Moncassion, Museeuw, Jalabert and Ekimov all close behind. These climbs are beginning to make a selection and the big-hitters are massing at the front. Fondriest (Cofidis) is here as is Sciandri (Les Francais des Jeux ) and Chiappucci (Asics).
We're on another climb, can't remember which, as they are coming thick and fast now. Jalabert moves to the front and begins to apply the pressure, Museeuw responds and these two move clear with Bartoli and Jo Planckaert (Lotto) jumping across. They work well together and open up a gap of 12 seconds.
Planckaert isn't contributing as they approach the Taaienberg. Behind the group is closing in. On the climb now, and Planckaert moves to the front, he'd be a popular winner and is cheered up the climb by the massed Flemish fans. But the escape is over as the chasing group latch on to the back of this quartet about halfway up. But Jalabert isn't done and he rides clear again. He's looking ominously strong, the level of effort seems easy yet no-one can stay with him. Rolf Sorensen recognises the danger and jumps away from the group as they crest the top. He's in good form, having won the time-trial stage of the 3 Days of de Panne in the week. He chases hard and gets across the gap to Jalabert.
They are working well together and behind no-one has responded yet. The gap begins to open up, 9 seconds. Then 15 seconds. We cut back to the main field, Ballerini is leading but the gap is still going up. It's now 22 seconds. This could be a dangerous move. Museeuw moves to the front but no-one wants to help. He's looking strong and no-one wants to make it easy for him by closing the gap. It's gone up again, 25 seconds now. Up front Sorensen seems to be doing more of the work, Jalabert seems content to let him.
Behind a flurry of counter attacks comes to nothing. There is no cohesive chase and still the gap grows. It's now 31 seconds. Damn, a commercial break. We come back. The gap is has held steady at around 30 seconds. Museeuw has had enough and Mapei are starting to chase. An immediate effect as the gap is reduced to 20 seconds in a few kilometres.
** 33 kms to go **
Someone has jumped clear of the chasing group. A Scrigno rider, Casarotto, has gone after him. We shoot up the road to the chaser, it's Ballerini.
CRASH. We cut back and Museeuw is done with Boscardin. They can't separate the bikes as Boscardin's handlebars are hooked through Museeuw's back wheel. He's frantically trying to free it but can't and throws the bike down in disgust. The team car arrives and he gets a new bike and is away. But that was a delay of at least 30 seconds and no-one has dropped back to help him chase. Bad luck for Museeuw.
We cut back to the front and more drama. Ballerini has got across but we're on a climb and Jaja is in all sorts of trouble, he's almost soft-pedalling. Casarotto comes up to him and goes straight past. It looks like his race is run. Ironic that as Museeuw gets into trouble so does Jalabert, shades of Milan-San Remo.
Back to the race. Three riders are clear up front, Sorensen, Ballerini and Casarotto. He's the surprise package. Behind a group of four are chasing, Van Petegem, Bartoli, Tchmil and Jalabert, who's tagged onto the back. We cut back to Museeuw who is chasing with Boscardin some 20 seconds behind the lead group. I bet he wants to throttle Boscardin, we've just seen the action replay of the accident and Boscardin was looking back down the road when he took out Museeuw. Whoops. I bet he'll be in a hurry to get out of Belgium tonight.
** 29 kms to go **
The 3 remain clear. Behind a group of around 15-20 riders is altogether but there is no sign of Jalabert. He looked good earlier but has obviously bonked. It's got to be the only explanation.
We're onto the Tenbosse climb. Van Petegem attacks from the main group and charges up the climb. He's 50 metres behind at the top. The group is 10-15 seconds further back. Ekimov, Bartoli, Tchmil, Sciandri, Moncassin, one Rabobank, looks like Van Bon, and Planckeart are all in this group.
Up ahead Van Petegem gets across after diving inside a photographer's motorbike on a corner. Nice bit of riding.
The Muur is approaching. Behind the chasers are finally getting a cohesive chase going the gap is coming down, it's 7 seconds.
We hit the Muur. Ballerini is at the front and putting on the pressure, Casarotto is drifting off the back, but is fighting hard to stay close. The group hit the bottom slope and the gap is still 7 seconds.
Onto the steeper cobbled part of the climb, with a huge crowd watching on. Ballerini and Van Petegem move clear but Sorensen and Casarotto are only a few metres back. On the main group Bartoli attacks and rides away from them, this is where he attacked to win last year.
Over the top and Ballerini and Van Petegem have a gap of around 25 metres on Sorensen, Casarotto and Bartoli. Ekimov, Moncassin, Tchmil, Sciandri and Chiappucci come up from behind, maybe 75 metres back.
Long descent towards the Bosberg. As they approach, Sorensen, Bartoli and Casarotto get across to Ballerini and Van Petegem. The chasers are not far behind.
They hit the Bosberg and suddenly the impetus goes from the leaders. We look back and the chasers are right behind and its back together. Ballerini moves to the front and forces the pace on this, the last climb. Sorensen and Casarotto drift backwards again.
** 12 kms to go **
The top of the Bosberg and a group of 10 riders are all together. Ballerini, Van Petegem, Sorensen, Moncassin, Ekimov, Tchmil, Chiappucci, Casarotto, Sciandri and Planckaert. It looks like the winner will come from this group.
We go under the 10 km to go banner and the attacks are flying. Suddenly 3 riders have a 50 metre gap, we cut from the helicopter to the motorbike camera and the three are Sorensen, Ballerini and Moncassin. Where has Sorensen found the strength for another attack from ? He's been out in front for about 35 kms. Behind the chasers are in disarray and Bartoli tries to jump clear but Sciandri leads them up to him.
** 7 kms to go **
The leading 3 are working well together, the gap is up to 9 seconds. Behind there is no sign of an organised chase with only Lotto having two riders in the group. The impetus seems to be going from the chase as no- one is prepared to sacrifice their chance of a win. Meanwhile the front 3 pull away.
The gap grows, at the 5km to go mark it is up to 17 seconds. It's beginning to look like it's going to be one of these three that wins. Moncassin has a good sprint so the other two must try and get away.
** 3 kms to go **
The gap is up to 28 seconds. They've got enough of a gap to play a bit of cat and mouse in the last kilometre. Still no sign of the chasers getting it organised behind and the leaders continue to pull away.
** 2 kms to go **
It's beginning to get twitchy now. No-one is a hundred per cent committed anymore. Ballerini attacks but without conviction and Moncassin closes the gap. He's looking strong but Sorensen is at the back, waiting.
** 1 km to go **
They go under the red kite and almost immediately Sorensen has gone down the left hand side of the road and he's got a gap. Moncassin looks at Ballerini. Ballerini looks at Moncassin. Sorensen looks straight ahead and pounds on the pedals. He's away and it looks like he's got it.
He turns to the right and he is in the finishing straight. Behind, Ballerini begins to chase but it is too late. Sorensen is into the last 100 metres and he knows he's won. He approaches the line and up go the arms in salute. A great ride and a worthy winner. Behind Moncassin easily outsprints Ballerini to come second, 4 seconds back.
Tchmil is 4th, 17 seconds back, then comes Casarotto and Chiappucci before Bartoli leads in the last 4 riders from the front group.
Beyond the finish line Sorensen is embraced by the soigneur. He looks delighted. His second major classic win, after his 1993 Liege-Bastogne-Liege win. He was on the attack from over 40 kms out and thoroughly deserves the victory.
Report from Andy Powers via Frank.