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Whatever curse may been associated with the world champion’s rainbow jersey was lifted Sunday at Gent-Wevelgem, when Peter Sagan won a four-man sprint to take the Belgian semi-classic ahead of Sep Vanmarcke (LottoNL-Jumbo).
Russian Vyacheslav Kuznetsov (Katusha) finished third, with Fabian Cancellara (Trek-Segafredo) in fourth.
It was Sagan’s second victory at Gent-Wevelgem, and his first in the rainbow jersey.
“I am very happy to win today,” Sagan said. “I want to thank my teammates, they did good work from the start. We played a little bit with the group, it was very nice work from them. The race was hard, there was strong wind, it was all day, full gas.”
Conditions were cool and windy at the start in Deinze, outside of Gent, with dark clouds threatening rain all day.
Riders who chose not to start due to illness included Ian Stannard (Team Sky) and Alexander Kristoff (Katusha).
Strong winds and a crash split the peloton into several groups. At the race’s halfway point — 125km to go in the 243km race — five riders held a 1:30 advantage over a select first chase group. In the lead group: Lieuwe Westra (Astana), Pavel Brutt (Tinkoff), Josef Cerny (CCC Sprandi Polkowice), Jonas Rickaert (Topsport Vlaanderen-Baloise) and Simon Pellaud (IAM Cycling)
Among those riders in the first chase group were many of the pre-race favorites: Tom Boonen (Etixx-QuickStep), Edvald Boasson Hagen (Dimension Data), Fabian Cancellara (Trek-Segafredo), Peter Sagan (Tinkoff), Tiesj Benoot and Jens Debusschere (Lotto-Soudal), and Greg Van Avermaet (BMC Racing).
At 115km to go, the chase group caught the breakaway, with the second chase group just a few seconds behind. With Trek and LottoNL-Jumbo setting pace in the second group, it was back together at 91km to go, with about 50 riders at the front of the race.
A calm set in on the peloton as it approached the final, five significant climbs: Baneberg, Kemmelberg, Monteberg, Baneberg (again), and Kemmelberg (from the backside).
Trek-Segafredo amassed at the front over the Baneberg and into the first ascent of the Kemmelberg.
A crash between the Baneberg and Kemmelberg saw the abandonment of Debusschere, the winner of Dwars door Vlaanderen just four days earlier.
At 66km to go, five riders went clear over the Monteberg, and quickly opened a gap of 15 seconds. In the move: Matteo Trentin (Ettix-QuickStep), Benoot (Lotto-Soudal), Daniel Oss (BMC Racing), Brutt (Tinkoff), and Giacomo Nizzolo (Trek-Segafredo).
With Dimension Data and LottoNL-Jumbo driving the chase, the five-man group was caught at 53km to go.
Next to strike out was Katusha’s Vyacheslav Kuznetsov, who opened up a 45-second lead with 45km to go.
Two climbs remained: the Baneberg, at 40km to go; and at 34km to go, the backside of the Kemmelberg, with its 23% pitch.
Vanmarcke attacked on the Baneberg, with 40km remaining. BMC’s Quinziato was first to respond, and the move was neutralized. It would all come down to the Kemmelberg.
The winning move
Etixx rider Stijn Vandenberg rode off the front as the bunch approached the Kemmelberg, opening a slight gap.
Sagan went to the front over the top, with Cancellara on his wheel, followed quickly by Vanmarcke. Chasing behind were Van Avermaet, Zdenek Stybar (Etixx-QuickStep), and Luke Rowe (Sky).
At the bottom of the Kemmelberg, Cancellara, Sagan, and Vanmarcke quickly caught Kuznetsov, opening a 15-second lead, while behind, Van Avermaet, Stybar, and Rowe chased, followed by a larger group containing Boasson Hagen, Boonen, Trentin, Terpstra, Vandenbergh, Gaviria, Oss, Démare, Benoot, and Coquard. Just over 30km remained.
Ultimately Van Avermaet, Stybar and Rowe were caught by the remnants of the peloton. The gap to the four leaders was 20 seconds with 28km remaining; 30 seconds with 25km remaining, and at 15km to go, it was up to 40 seconds, where it remained with 10km left.
Because Etixx had so many riders in the front group, as well as Gaviria, the Belgian squad did the majority of the chasing. The chase fell apart, however, and with 5km to go it was clear the winner would come from the front group of four.
The cat-and-mouse tactics began inside the final 2km. After taking a pull, Sagan swing off and looked back at the rest of the group, demanding another take the front. Kuznetsov refused to pull through.
Cancellara went to the front, but was unhappy about it, and at one point the Swiss rider screamed at the other three, furious about the situation that was unfolding; a four-man sprint would decide the winner.
Kuznetsov was first to attack, and Sagan quickly followed. As Kuznetsov swung back across the road, Sagan followed, nearly colliding with Cancellara. But the Tinkoff rider kept his momentum to easily take the sprint ahead of Vanmarcke.
Kuznetsov finished third, with Cancellara fourth. Behind, Démare took the bunch sprint for fifth, ahead of Gaviria.
The win came as a relief for Sagan after finishing second in a two-up sprint against Michal Kwiatkowski on Friday at E3 Harelbeke, second twice (and second overall) to Van Avermaet at Tirreno-Adriatico, and second at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad.
“I’m very happy to win, in this jersey,” Sagan said. “This is an important race for me.”
Sagan dedicated the victory to his wife’s father, who he said “had a hard time yesterday.”
A hard rain began to fall in the moments after the race finished. And then, during the podium ceremony, as if on cue, a rainbow broke through the clouds.
This year, on Easter Sunday, Gent-Wevelgem truly was a day for rainbows.
Race note: Belgian Antoine Demote was rushed to a hospital in Lille, France, serious condition after he was struck by a motorbike following a crash. “Antoine Demoitie is in Lille hospital after a serious crash with a motor bike in Gent-Wevelgem,” read a post on the Wanty-Gobert Twitter account.
SAGAN Peter SAGAN Peter Tinkoff
VANMARCKE Sep VANMARCKE Sep Team LottoNL-Jumbo
KUZNETSOV Viacheslav KUZNETSOV Viacheslav Team Katusha