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World champion Peter Sagan won the 100th edition of the Ronde van Vlaanderen in thrilling style, following an attack with 30km remaining, then attacking breakaway companion Sep Vanmarcke over the final cobbled climb to ride the final 10 kilometres alone.
Behind, Vanmarcke (LottoNL-Jumbo) and three-time Flanders winner Fabian Cancellara (Trek-Segafredo) chased, but Sagan held them off to win his first Monument.
Racing De Ronde for the last time, Cancellara finished second, giving a long, emotional wave to the crowd. Vanmarcke crossed the line third, with last year’s winner, Alexander Kristoff (Katusha), taking the bunch sprint for fourth.
The race was marked by several crashes, with pre-race favorites Greg Van Avermaet (BMC Racing) and Tiesj Benoot (Lotto-Soudal) exiting the race in the same incident at 100km to go.
Sagan dedicated the victory to Antoine Demoitié and Daan Myngheer, two young Belgian riders who died last week after separate racing incidents — Demoitié following a crash at Gent-Wevelgem, and Myngheer due to a heart attack at Criterium International.
“It was a super hard race, from the start to the finish, it was always full gas,” Sagan said. “I had a problem after 100km, I had to change both wheels. There were a lot of crashes. I have to thank my team. They did a great job. I also have to also think about the two guys who died last week. It’s very sad, and I want to dedicate this to them.”
Sunny skies, chaotic racing
Sunny skies and warm conditions greeted the riders at the start in Brugge, with most wearing arm warmers, but no leg coverings. Ahead of them: 255km, 18 hellingen (climbs, many cobbled) and seven kasseien (flat cobbled sections).
Four former winners were on the start: Cancellara, Kristoff, Stijn Devolder (Trek-Segafredo), and Tom Boonen (Etixx-QuickStep).
Belgian team Wanty-Groupe Gobert observed a moment of silence in honor of their fallen teammate, Antoine Demoitié, who died after a crash and moto incident one week earlier at Gent-Wevelgem.
Soon after the race started, the route passed through Hooglede, hometown of Daan Myngheer, who died after a heart attack at Criterium International; the town’s church paid tribute to the fallen rider.
Almost 90 minutes of racing, and 75 kilometres, had passed before a six-rider breakaway finally went clear. In the move: Gijs Van Hoecke (Topsport Vlaanderen-Baloise), Imanol Erviti (Movistar), Lukas Postlberger (Bora-Argon 18), Hugo Houle (Ag2r-La Mondiale), Wesley Kreder (Roompot-Oranje Peloton) and Federico Zurlo (Lampre-Merida).
A crash at the front of the bunch took down Milan-San Remo winner Arnaud Démare (FDJ) as well as Gent-Wevelgem runner-up Sep Vanmarcke (LottoNL-Jumbo) and Geraint Thomas (Sky). Démare was unable to continue.
With just over 100km to go, a crash at the front of the race took down five BMC Racing riders.
Several would not continue, including Van Avermaet, Marcus Burghardt, and Michal Schar (BMC), Benoot; and recent Three Days of De Panne winner Lieuwe Westra (Astana).
BMC’s Taylor Phinney and Daniel Oss also went down in the crash, but were able to continue.
At 100km to go, Tony Martin (Etixx-Quick Step) attempted to bridge out, followed by Heinrich Haussler (IAM Cycling), but the peloton quickly reacted.
Up ahead, only two riders remained in the breakaway — Van Hoecke and Erviti.
Next to attack was Andre Greipel (Lotto-Soudal), with Nils Politt (Katusha) on his wheel.
At 88km to go, Van Hoecke and Erviti held 36 seconds over Greipel and Politt, and 1:29 on the main bunch, which had seen three small groups come back together to form a large peloton.
Houle, from the original breakaway, latched on to Greipel and Politt as they passed by, and once they’d bridged across to Van Hoecke and Erviti, it was a five-rider group at the front.
Two other riders, Dmitriy Gruzdev (Astana) and Dimitri Claeys (Wanty-Groupe Gobert) went clear of the bunch and bridged across; with 65km to go, the seven riders held a 2:40 lead over the main peloton as the race approached the second ascent of the decisive Oude Kwaremont.
As the breakaway crested the Kwaremont with 55km remaining, the gap had come down to under two minutes, with red jerseys from Lotto-Soudal and Katusha at the front of the main group.
Stijn Vandenbergh (Etixx-QuickStep) and Dylan van Baarle (Cannondale) slipped off the front of the peloton on the Kwaremont with very little reaction from the peloton.
The breakaway held a 1:45 advantage as it approached the first of two ascents of the short, steep, cobbled Paterberg climb with 54km remaining.
As the main bunch crested the same climb, several pre-race favorites were at the front: Cancellara, Thomas, Sagan, and Vanmarcke.
Next up was the steep, slippery slope of the Koppenberg.
With 45km remaining, Greipel attacked the breakaway, solo.
The Kopenberg created massive chaos within the main bunch. While riders such as Cancellara, Sagan, Boonen, Edvard Boasson Hagen (Dimension Data) and Lars Boom (Astana) rode at the front, a slipped wheel in the bunch forced many to dismount and walk up the infamous cobbled climb.
The next move came on the Steenbeekdries climb, at 38km to go, when Ian Stannard (Sky) attacked from the peloton and attempted to bridge to Vandenbergh and Van Baarle.
The gap from Greipel, Claeys, Erviti, Politt, and Van Hoecke to Vandenbergh and Van Baarle was 53 seconds.
Quickly following Steenbeekdries was the Taaienberg time — 530 metres, at a 6.6% average gradient. A group of about 20 riders formed, with most of the big favorites, including Cancellara, Devolder, Vanmarcke, Sagan, Thomas, Kwiatkowski, Kristoff, Jurgen Roelantds (Lotto-Soudal), Niki Terpstra and Matteo Trentin (Ettix-QuickStep).
Boom punctured on Steenbeekdries, his third of the day.
Stannard reached Van Hoecke and Pollit, but that trio was caught by the larger group that had formed over the Taaienberg.
Four Sky riders were in the main group: Stannard, Thomas, Kwiatkowski, and Luke Rowe. But that wouldn’t last long.
The winning move — and where was Cancellara?
Shortly after the Taaienberg, the winning move was made. Kwiatkowski attacked, followed by Sagan. It was the same two riders that formed the winning move at E3 Harelbeke nine days earlier, from nearly the exact same distance (30km) to the line.
Only this time, Vanmarcke bridged across, to form a three-rider move.
“When Sagan and Kwiatkowski attacked, I felt that it was going to be the decisive moment in the race,” Vanmarcke said. “I had to close the gap to them immediately. Behind me, there was a moment of doubt and that was a perfect situation for me.”
“It was a strange situation,” Sagan said. “It was not a big group. Everyone tried to attack on the Taaienberg. On the front, Oscar Gatto (Tinkoff) and Devolder were pulling. There was a small group, after they came back, it was a surprise for everyone. We said, ‘Okay, what are we going to do now?’ There were four or five Sky riders, and Kwiatowski attacked. He was very smart, and I was lucky, I was on his wheel. I saw him, he knew he had a gap, and we just went away. It was very easy, it was a surprise for everybody.”
Behind, with Devolder on the front, Cancellara watched the move and opted not to chase. It would ultimately prove to be his undoing.
“I missed this one second,” Cancellara said. “Sep was the last one who could close to Peter. The way Kwiatkowski went was annoying, Stannard had been away, he was just looking, and then he went. It was just a one-second decision. Maybe it was not the right decision. I knew there were others in the bunch, Astana, Katusha, who also wanted to win. I’m not saying it was too early … clearly it was the deciding moment for Peter, he could bring it home.”
Kwiatkowski, Sagan and Vanmarcke managed to ride away, gaining on the breakaway as Boom, Cancellara, Trentin and Oss attempted to bridge across.
Heading onto the Kruisberg, with 28km to go, Greipel, Claeys, Erviti, Gruzdev, Vandenbergh, and Van Baarle held a 38-second lead over Kwiatkowski, Vanmarcke, and Sagan, and one minute over the main bunch.
Devolder chased furiously for Cancellara. However the two-time Flanders winner swung off with 25km — and two decisive climbs — remaining.
Sagan, Kwiatkowski, and Vanmarcke caught Greipel, Vandenbergh, Van Baarle, Erviti, and Claeys, making it eight men up front as they reached the Oude Kwaremont. Their lead was 28 seconds, with 22km remaining.
Astana and Katusha chased at the front of the Cancellara-Boom-Kristoff-Thomas group.
Cancellara was in a tough spot. Though he is the best rider in pro cycling across the Kwaremont, if he went clear, he would be chasing solo to the bottom of the Paterberg.
Both groups were on the Oude Kwaremont at the same time, as Sagan and Vanmarcke rode clear. Kwiatkowski, who had been so strong on the Kwaremont nine days earlier, could not match the pace. Behind, Cancellara jumped from the chase group and rode through the remnants of the breakaway.
Exiting the Kwaremont, Sagan and Vanmarcke held just 10 seconds over Cancellara, who was followed by Terpstra, with Erviti and Claeys desperately hanging onto their wheels.
The race would all come down to the Paterberg.
With Cancellara closing in, Sagan attacked Vanmarcke, quickly opening a substantial gap.
“I know the Paterberg very well,” Sagan said. “Fabian did the same to me four years ago. The Kwaremont and Paterberg, it’s a hard combination, it’s very hard to do well. You need good legs. I’m very happy that today I had good legs.”
Cancellara caught Vanmarcke, making it two against one. However they had a 15-second deficit to make up in the final 12km.
And even if the were to catch him, it was Sagan, Cancellara, and Vanmarcke that made up three of the four riders in the Gent-Wevelgem finale; a sprint Sagan won fairly easily.
The gap floated between 15 and 20 seconds for several kilometres as Cancellara chased, with Vanmarcke sitting on until Cancellara convinced the Belgian to contribute.
“I was not giving up after Paterberg,” Cancellara said. “Peter has shown in the past, in the last kilometres he’s not at the capacity he can manage to the finish. I knew if Sep would not pull, I would also give up. I said ‘listen, let’s work together, or we will lose the podium.’ We did the maximum.”
Peter Sagan, off the front, alone, nursing a tenuous lead, with a major victory in the balance — it was a scenario eerily reminiscent of that which earned him the rainbow jersey he was wearing.
But with 5km to go, Sagan’s gap remained at 20 seconds, and it was clear he would win his first Monument. A world champion, winning the 100th edition of the Ronde van Vlaanderen, just hours after the women’s world champion, Lizzie Armistead, had done the same. Sagan celebrated with a one-handed wheelie, right after the finish line.
Cancellara crossed the line 25 seconds later, and was in tears after coming so close to setting the all-time record of Flanders wins.
“It’s very emotional,” Cancellara said. “I knew that everything would be for the last time for me. But as soon as the race started, I was focused on the plan, the tactics. There were a lot of crashes, easy on we lost Gregory Rast. I had to throw away my radio, all could hear was ‘changing bike’ three times from Jasper [Stuyven]. We had so many problems in the middle part of race, Sep was falling, Greg [Van Avermaet] was out, Tiesj [Benoot] was out. With the heat, with the intensity we had, it was a very difficult race. Sky was at the front with a lot of riders. Everyone was looking at me. I knew it was going to be tough.”
Asked about his decision to go solo, rather than wait for a sprint, Sagan delivered a quote that might just live on for another 100 years.
“It’s very hard to work with the other guys, no one wants to work with me,” he said. “It’s always better to drop everybody. But it’s not easy.”
SAGAN Peter SAGAN Peter Tinkoff
CANCELLARA Fabian CANCELLARA Fabian Trek - Segafredo
|Trek - Segafredo||0:25|
VANMARCKE Sep VANMARCKE Sep Team LottoNL-Jumbo