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First, Omloop Het Nieuwsblad on February 25. Then E3 Harelbeke, on Friday. And on Sunday, Gent-Wevelgem.
By out-sprinting Jens Keukeleire (Orica-Scott), Greg Van Avermaet of BMC Racing has now won three Belgian classics this spring — only the second rider to win all three in the same season — and heads into next Sunday’s Ronde van Vlaanderen as the five-star favorite. Dutch rider Jan Raas pulled off the same feat, in 1981, and went on to finish third at the Tour of Flanders that year.
“I was not expecting to win Gent-Wevelgem, but I’m really happy,” Van Avermaet said. “It’s definitely the best start of the season that I’ve ever had. I’ve won three Classics already so it’s an amazing feeling. It’s never easy to win these races and normally Gent-Wevelgem isn’t so much of a race for me. I tried so many times to win here and now I’ve won three all in one season. It’s a wonderful feeling and it gives me extra confidence for Ronde van Vlaanderen.”
Ten kilometers later, that group split when Keukeleire surged at the front of the group, and only five men remained — Van Avermaet, Keukeleire, world champion Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe), Niki Terpstra (Quick-Step Floors), and Søren Kragh Andersen (Sunweb).
At 15km to go, Sagan swung out of the rotation, allowing Van Avermaet and Keukeleire to slip up the road. Sagan looked to Terpstra to chase, and when he hesitated — Terpstra had two teammates in the chase group, and pre-race favorite Fernando Gaviria in the peloton — the gap to the two leaders shot up to 15 seconds. The winning move had been made.
— sporza (@sporza) March 26, 2017
Sagan won the three-rider sprint for third. Afterwards, the world champion had strong words for Terpstra.
“I don’t know what Terpstra wanted to do,” Sagan said. “He attacked to go in the breakaway, then he didn’t want to work. This is just one example of how you can lose the race against me. What can I do? I’m not his teammate. I can’t work for everyone, only for them to beat me in the sprint. But I could decide today who can win… One, racing against everybody? This is not sport. It’s a cheap game. We’ll see what the situation is at Flanders and Roubaix.”
Crashes, echelons, and gravel roads
Sunny skies and crisp temperatures in the town of Deinze greeted the peloton of Gent-Wevelgem in Flanders Fields, the 79th edition of the Belgian classic. The peloton faced cobbles, punchy climbs, and gravel roads over a 249km course.
No riders wore race number 192, in honor of Antoine Demoitié, the young Belgian rider from Wanty–Groupe Gobert who died last year after he was struck by a race vehicle at Gent-Wevelgem.
With its flatter profile than E3 Harelbeke and the Tour of Flanders, fast finishers like Fernando Gaviria (Quick-Step Floors), John Degenkolb (Trek-Segafredo), and Arnaud Demare (FDJ) were among the favorites, as well as Sagan, a two-time winner and the defending champion.
A nine-rider breakaway formed after 30km of racing. In the move: Ryan Mullen (Cannondale-Drapac), Preben Van Hecke (Sport Vlaanderen-Baloise), Mark McNally (Wanty-Groupe Gobert), Jay Thomson (Dimension Data), Elmar Reinders (Roompot-Nederlandse Loterij), Loïc Chetout (Cofidis, Solutions Credits), Hugo Houle (AG2R La Mondiale), Dennis van Winden (Israel Cycling Academy), and Christophe Masson
(WB Veranclassic Aqua Protect).
Echelons formed after 70km of racing, with Quick-Step Floors splitting apart the front of the peloton, with the likes of Julien Vermote, Dwars Door Vlaanderen winner Yves Lampaert and even Boonen leading the bunch
The race split apart again with 80km to go when Tony Martin (Katusha-Alpecin) accelerated, and Lampaert followed. The gap from the breakaway to the peloton quickly dropped from 3:45 to 3:20. Though that move would not stick, the race was on.
By the time the breakaway reached the first ascent of the Kemmelberg with 75km to go, the gap had come down to 2:30. Behind, Tom Boonen (Quick-Step Floors), a three-time winner of Gent-Wevelgem, led the peloton up the eighth of eleven climbs on the day.
With 70km left, and the Monteberg up next, the gap was down to two minutes and only two riders remained at the front, Van Hecke and Chetout. The remainder of the breakaway chased 30 seconds behind.
At 60km to go, the peloton hit the first of three sections of “plugstreets,” gravel roads from World War I battlefields added to this year’s edition, totaling just over 5km in total.
Quick-Step’s Zdenek Stybar attacked on the first of the gravel sections, forcing a separation as the peloton split apart. Seven riders went clear, including Stybar and teammate Matteo Trentin, as well as Edward Theuns (Trek-Segafredo) and Guillaume Van Keirsbulck (Wanty-Groupe Gobert), however BMC Racing amassed at the front and chased that moved down.
Kristoff punctured coming off one of the plugstreet sections, and was forced to swap front wheels with a teammate, losing contact.
With 50km to go, only Van Hecke rode at the front of the race, with a gap of just 25 seconds and two climbs — Baneberg and Kemmelberg — remaining.
A crash in the peloton with 43km to go saw several riders down, including Tony Martin (Katusha-Alepcin), Gianni Moscon (Team Sky), Tom Leezer (LottoNL-Jumbo), Loïc Chetout (Cofidis), and Silvan Dillier (BMC Racing). Sagan and Kristoff were slowed by the pile-up but did not go down.
— Eurosport UK (@Eurosport_UK) March 26, 2017
Van Hecke plugged away at the front, finally caught with 40km left by a reduced peloton of about 45 riders. BMC’s Daniel Oss was first to attack, on the Baneberg, as Lars Boom (LottoNL-Jumbo) was dropped. Oss was unable to stay clear, and the next attack came from Jasper Stuyven (Trek-Segafredo), with Lampaert on his wheel.
Van Avermaet attacked hard on the Kemmelberg, with Sagan marking him, followed by Degenkolb, who trailed several seconds back. Over the top, three riders bridged across — Stybar and Terpstra from Quick-Step, and Edvald Boasson Hagen, from Dimension Data, to form a group of six.
“The Kemmelberg is always a point when everyone wants to go and I felt really strong there,” Van Avermaet said. “I hoped to get a good group with me and that’s what happened. Then we went way with strong guys. I was riding really hard the whole time because sometimes when you do a small pull you lose less energy than when you have to close gaps.”
Next to jump across were Keukeleire (Orica-Scott), Alberto Bettiol (Cannondale-Drapac), Matteo Trentin (Quick-Step Floors), Michael Matthews and Søren Kragh Andersen (Sunweb), Sonny Colbrelli (Bahrain-Merida), Scott Thwaites (Dimension Data), and Oliver Naesen (AG2r La Mondiale), to make 14 at the front. The group opened a 35-second lead.
Among those missing the move were Katusha, Sky and Lotto-Soudal; 25km remained.
The winning move
After the race passed through the iconic Menin Gate Memorial in Ypres, five riders went clear — Sagan, Keukeleire, Van Avermaet, Terpstra, and Andersen, opening 30 seconds over the rest of the lead group.
Colbrelli and the Dimension Data riders drove the chase while the peloton, another 16 seconds back, approached.
“It was a hard race and the finale began quite early today,” said Boasson Hagen, who won the race in 2009. “I managed to be up in the front, in a good position and was riding well. I was feeling a bit hunger flat when there was a split. I still tried to close the gap, and I used all the energy I had left. At the end, I didn’t have anything left for the sprint. It was a really hard race.”
With 15km to go, Keukeleire and Van Avermaet rode away from the leaders, while Sagan looked to Terpstra and Andersen to chase. When they didn’t, Sagan attacked on his own, forcing Terpstra to chase hard.
“We were five riders in the front,” Terpstra said. “When Greg and Jens attacked, I didn’t chase immediately, because I thought it was up to Sagan to close the gap, as he was the fastest of the group. Unfortunately, we couldn’t come back until the line and that was that.”
The gap to the peloton was 55 seconds. Nine seconds separated the Sagan-Terpstra group from Keukeleire and Van Avermaet.
“In a race like this you can’t say ‘we are not going to ride’ with 20km to go. You have to keep going the whole time,” Van Avermaet said. “That’s what happened with Jens Keukeleire and I when it was just the two of us. The whole last 10km we weren’t speaking, it was just head down and going as fast as we could.”
Over the next few kilometers the gap fluctuated between 10 and 15 seconds as Keukeleire and Van Avermaet worked well together at the front while Andersen, initially, did not contribute to the chase.
Inside the final 3km, the gap was 15 seconds. Into the final kilometer, that extended to 22 seconds.
Van Avermaet led the sprint, and was able to hold off his younger compatriot, who was thrilled with second at Gent-Wevelgem after a career that has included sixth at Paris-Roubaix, ninth at E3 Harelbeke, and four top-10 finishes at Dwars Door Vlaanderen.
“For the Tour of Flanders, I think it means a lot,” Keukeleire said. “I’ve been feeling really good, the last few years, in these classics. I have a lot of confidence from the team, and I’m really happy to be able to show I can get good results in these races. If you can come second here, you wan win as well, and I think that’s the same in Flanders.”
If there was a loser on the day, it was Quick-Step, which brought the strongest team to the race, had three men in the lead group of 14 with 25km to go, and did not reach the podium.
“Niki, Sagan and Kragh Andersen missed the timing when the other two went away, but sometimes races are decided by details and today we probably made a small mistake,” said Quick-Step team manager Patrick Lefevere. “I’m sure that if they could play those final kilometers again, they would choose a different approach. That’s racing sometimes.”
Like Sagan, Bora-Hansgrohe director Jens Zemke, was frustrated with the day’s outcome. “To start playing games with 15km to go is not the way to win races,” he said. “At the moment, it seems that some are more interested in beating Peter than in winning, but that’s cycling. Peter was strong again and always in control until that point – that’s the good thing about today.”
— BMC Racing Team (@BMCProTeam) March 26, 2017
Gent-Wevelgem in Flanders Fields ME (1.UWT) Deinze → Wevelgem