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Boonen snatches victory on Classic debut

Tom Boonen provided a perfect demonstration of one-day bike racing to clinch the Prudential RideLondon-Surrey Classic on The Mall this evening, timing his effort to perfection to win a race that seemed beyond his grasp until the final metres.

The 35-year-old Belgian showed why he is one of the greatest one-day racers of his generation as he emerged from the obscurity of the pack and powered past Mark Renshaw on the rails to take the final sprint by two bike lengths.

The former world champion has won the famous Paris-Roubaix four times and the Tour of Flanders on three occasions, but this was his Prudential RideLondon-Surrey Classic debut, coming a full decade since his last victory in the British capital.

With just 10km to go it looked like the win would go to Team Sky’s Geraint Thomas, after the Briton had ripped the race apart, closing down the day’s big break involving defending champion Jean-Pierre ‘Jempy’ Drucker and flying away from the field up Box Hill to open an apparently unassailable lead.

Thomas had a minute’s lead with less than 20km to go, and half a minute as he crossed Putney Bridge for the final push towards St James’s Park. But just when it looked as if this would be the diligent domestique’s day in the sun, the pack closed and the man they call ‘G’ finally ran out of gas.

After a day of breaks, and an unsolicited 25-minute pause for public safety at 47km due to congestion on the roads, it was a large group that turned the final corner into the finishing stretch with Buckingham Palace ahead up the road.

Renshaw made a mistake as he moved away from the barriers and Boonen, virtually anonymous for the rest of the 202km race, grabbed his chance, bursting across the line before opening his arms in wide celebration.

“I'm really happy to win,” he said. “It’s 10 years since I’ve won in London. It was a hard day as everyone was going bananas all day long. Everyone was fighting for every metre of the road.

“It was only with about 35 to 40km to go that we started to pull back the break and it finally came back together with 5km left.

“Then the team got well organised going into the final corner and I was really happy with my sprint.”

So often the lead-out man for Mark Cavendish, Renshaw made his own bid for victory today and almost matched the famous sprinting speed of his Dimension Data teammate before falling just short at the line.

“At 200m to go I decided to make my move and it seemed like I’d got it,” said Renshaw. “But I made a human error and moved off the barriers and that’s when Tom came through.”

Renshaw’s fellow Australian Michael Matthews was third for Orica BikeExchange on a day when he just didn’t have the legs.

“I would have liked to go with ‘G’ to mix it up but I just didn’t have the legs today,” he said. “I worked hard to get back in touch and in the end it was a great job. I hope to come back with better legs next time.”

Much of the pre-race attention had been on Chris Froome, Britain’s three-times Tour de France winner, and his Sky colleague Ben Swift who has twice finished on the podium here.

But it was their colleague and compatriot Thomas who made a bold bid for glory in a move pre-planned by Sky to throw the sprinters off their game.

It so nearly worked. Never before has anyone managed to break clear on this course – not in the 2012 Olympic road race, nor in the first three editions of the Classic – but Thomas appeared to be in a class of his own today as Sky delivered a tactical masterclass that almost worked to perfection.

In the end his efforts were to no avail but they drew huge admiration from teammate Froome.

“It was amazing what G did today,” said Froome, who spent much of the race policing the peloton and trying to shut down attacks on Thomas’s lead.

“The plan was always to get him and Ian Stannard up the road and we were hoping it was going to stick.

“I was really hoping he could go all the way today and it looked as if he would do it. But in the end the teams got themselves into a good chase and unfortunately for us it all came to nothing.”

Despite Thomas’s heroic efforts through the towns and hills of Surrey, Sky are still looking for their first Classic victory, although Froome enjoyed his debut in the event nevertheless.

“It was an amazing atmosphere on the road today, even compared to the Tour de France,” he said. “The roads were just jammed. I felt good and it was a great little opener for me before Rio.”

As for Thomas, the Welshman was left wishing the course had been 5km shorter.

“We wanted to ride aggressively today so I made a move on Box Hill hoping someone would come with me but I found myself out on my own,” he said.

“It was a bit of a spur of the moment thing but I’d bought my ticket by then so I just had to bite the bullet and try and go. But I was always going to be up against it.

“It’s great to race back here in the UK. Hopefully I’ll be back again next year.”

Drucker’s bold bid to defend his title was not entirely in vain as he finished top in the Continental Tyres King of the Mountains competition, level with Britain’s Matthew Holmes, while Jonathan Lastra, another of the early breakers, took the Continental Tyres Sprints contest.

“It was a pretty hard day to be honest and I went in the early breakaway, which wasn’t actually the plan, but I tried to give it a go and defend my title as hard as possible,” said Drucker.

“The only way we could get to the finish was with Thomas and Stannard, it’s just a real pity that things didn’t work out in the end.”

Not for Boonen, of course.

“I was dropped twice and I had a puncture once,” he said. “But my team did an incredible job to close it down and get me ready for the sprint.

“I waited for the perfect moment and I had the legs to finish it off.”