Belgian national champion Philippe Gilbert lived out a dream scenario for any Belgian cyclist Sunday at the Ronde van Vlaanderen — crossing the finish line of the most important race in Belgium, alone, in the tricolor of black, yellow, and red.
On a day marked by crashes and slow bike changes of several pre-race favorites, Gilbert could do no wrong, riding clear of a strong group on the second of three ascents of the Oude Kwaremont with 55km to go.
The return of the iconic Muur van Geraardsbergen, or Kappelmuur, after five years of exclusion, proved pivotal; what would prove to be the winning group went clear with over 90km remaining.
Gilbert’s teammate, three-time Flanders winner Tom Boonen, initiated the split on the Kappelmuur, and those who missed out included Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe) and Greg Van Avermaet (BMC Racing).
And while Sagan and Van Avermaet would ultimately regain contact with the lead group after the difficult Kwaremont-Paterberg combination with 50km left, by that point, Gilbert held a 40-second lead.
The Kwaremont would be the setting for further drama, on the third and final ascent with 19km to go, when Sagan tangled with a course barrier, taking down Oliver Naesen (AG2r La Mondiale) and Van Avermaet.
Though Van Avermaet was able to quickly remount, and ultimately won the sprint for second place, Sagan and Naesen had major mechanicals and would not play a factor in the finale.
Gilbert’s gap, which had been one minute, came down to 35 seconds in the final five kilometers as Van Avermaet, Dylan van Baarle (Cannondale), and Niki Terpstra (Quick-Step) chased. But with Terpstra sitting on, there would be no catch. Terpstra would take the sprint for third, to make two Quick-Step jerseys on the podium.
At the line, Gilbert had enough time to dismount and raise his bike over his head, adding a Ronde title to a career that includes a world title and wins at Liege-Bastogne-Liege, Il Lombardia, Amstel Gold Race, Omloop Het Volk, Fleche Wallonne, and more.
“It all started on the Muur, I was riding on Tom’s wheel and it went on from there,” Gilbert said. “After the Muur, we had three riders in the group and we decided to push on from there. We had a good gap, a group of about 15 riders. Then we went to the Kwaremont and we decided to go full on. I looked behind and I was alone and I just went on from there.
“We won as a team today and everyone deserves to be on the podium, so a big thanks goes to all the guys, because they did a huge workload,” he continued. “After Tom initiated that move on the Muur, we continued to push and decided to go full gas on the second ascent of the Oude Kwaremont. Tom did a big pull just ahead of the hill, I took over as the road began to rise and soon noticed I opened a small gap and never looked back again.”
— sporza (@sporza) April 2, 2017
The return of the Kappelmuur
Sunny spring conditions greeted the peloton for the 101st Ronde van Vlaanderen, starting in Antwerp, in the northern part of Belgium after 19 years starting in Brugge, 100 kilometers to the west.
A 260.8km route, with 18 climbs and five flat cobbled sections, separated the 200 riders from the finish in Oudenaarde.
There were three former Flanders winners in the field — Sagan, Boonen and Alexander Kristoff (Katusha) — but two riders who have never won, Van Avermaet and Gilbert, were among the biggest pre-race favorites.
Van Avermaet won on Belgian soil three times already this season, at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, E3 Harelbeke, and Gent-Wevelgem, while Gilbert was second at Dwars Door Vlaanderen and Harelbeke, and won the opening stage, and overall, at Driedaagse De Panne-Koksijde.
Sagan’s season, up to the start in Antwerp, had included second at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, a win at Kuurne-Bruxelles-Kuurne, two stage wins at Tirreno-Adriatico, second at Milan-San Remo, and third at Gent-Wevelgem.
A six-man breakaway quickly went clear. In the move: Mark McNally (Wanty-Groupe Gobert), Julien Duval (AG2R La Mondiale), Oliviero Troia (UAE Team Emirates), Stef Van Zummeren (Veranda’s Willems Crelan), Michael Goolaerts (Veranda’s Willems Crelan), and Julien Morice (Direct Energie).
Shortly after, two riders, Edward Planckaert (Sport Vlaanderen-Baloise), and André Looij (Roompot-Nederlandse Loterij), bridged across to make it eight off the front. Their gap swelled to 11 minutes during the first hour of the race. BMC Racing, Quick-Step, and Bora-Hansgrohe all put riders on the front of the peloton to drive the group.
After seven climbs and 100km, the race reached the Kappelmuur; there was just under 100km to go, and the gap from the peloton and the leaders had come down to below six minutes.
Boonen went on the offensive over the iconic climb that often served as a springboard for victory, 15km from the finish, before the finish was moved from Ninove to Oudenaarde in 2012. With Gilbert and Kristoff close by, Boonen broke the race apart, catching both Sagan and Van Avermaet out of position.
In all, 14 riders formed to make a dangerous chase group: Boonen, Gilbert, and Matteo Trentin (Quick-Step); Bryan Coquard and Sylvain Chavanel (Direct Energie); Arnaud Démare (FDJ); Sep Vanmarcke (Cannondale-Drapac); Kristoff (Katusha); Luke Rowe and Gianni Moscon (Sky); Maciej Bodnar (Bora-Hansgrohe); Jasper Stuyven (Trek-Segafredo); Sacha Modolo (UAE Emirates); and Pieter Vanspeybrouck (Wanty-Groupe Gobert).
Among those missing; Sagan, Van Avermaet, Naesen, Andre Greipel (Lotto-Soudal), and John Degenkolb (Trek-Segafredo).
With three from Quick-Step and two from Sky in the new group — and most teams represented in one of the two breakaway groups — the gap stretched out to 30 seconds. Among those chasing in the peloton were Astana, Bora-Hansgrohe, Lotto-Soudal, Wilier Triestina, Bahrain-Merida, AG2R La Mondiale, BMC Racing, and Orica-Scott.
While the gap from the Boonen-Gilbert group to the Sagan-Van Avermaet group was growing, the gap between the eight-man breakaway and the Boonen-Gilbert group was dropping, from 4:50 at 90km to go to 3:25 at 85km to go, to just two minutes at 80km remaining.
Among the riders to have missed the move: Naesen, Sagan and Van Avermaet. #RVV
— Quick-Step Cycling (@quickstepteam) April 2, 2017
At 70km to go the gap from the eight-man breakaway to the 14-rider chase was down to 28 seconds, with the Sagan-Van Avermaet peloton another 50 seconds back. The Boonen-Gilbert group swelled to 22 riders when the breakaway was caught, just prior to the second of three ascents of the 2.2km long Oude Kwaremont, followed by the first of two ascents of the shorter, steeper Paterberg.
Gilbert makes his move
Several riders from the breakaway dropped off the pace at the bottom of Kwaremont, as the gap had opened to 45 seconds. Sensing that the strongest riders from the chasing peloton would attempt to bridge across on the Kwaremont-Paterberg combination, Gilbert went to the front with 55km remaining and drove away from the group, opening an impressive 22-second gap.
Vanmarcke crashed on the descent off the Kwaremont to the bottom of the Paterberg when his front wheel became lodged in a seam between two slabs of concrete; Rowe also went down, though Vanmarcke was worse for the wear. A slow bike change, and significant road rash, meant that Vanmarcke’s day was over, and the Cannondale rider would not finish.
On the slopes of the Paterberg Gilbert’s lead had extended to 28 seconds, with the Sagan-Van Avermaet group 22 seconds behind the splintering Boonen-Kristoff group.
“Many people thought I was crazy to attack 55 kilometers out, myself included, but I didn’t go that hard, because I was aware the final 15 kilometers were very tough, so I kept some energy which I knew would prove very useful for that last part of the race,” said Gilbert.
— BMC Racing Team (@BMCProTeam) April 2, 2017
By the time the Paterberg was in the rearview mirror, several riders had bridged across to reconfigure the main chase group. Among them were Van Avermaet, Sagan, Degenkolb and Fabio Felline (Trek-Segafredo), Filippo Pozzato (Wilier Triestina), Dylan van Baarle (Cannondale-Drapac), and Edvald Boasson Hagen (Dimension Data).
Felline and van Baarle immediately went on the offensive, opening a slight lead ahead of the others, becoming the first chase group to Gilbert.
With 45 remaining, Gilbert drove up the infamous Koppenberg climb, extending his lead to 54 seconds over a chasing group that had swollen to about 45 riders.
Disaster stuck Boonen at the base of the Taiienberg — his favorite berg, which has become known as “Boonenberg” for the regularity of his attacks on the cobbled climb. A mechanical, followed by a slow bike change, and then a faulty spare bike, meant that the retiring Boonen would not have an opportunity to fight for victory in his final Tour of Flanders.
Sad Tomboone. pic.twitter.com/svyucCuZbK
— In The Crosshairs (@CXHairs) April 2, 2017
“My chain got stuck, which almost never happens,” Boonen told Sporza. “When I took my spare bike, it immediately did the same. Then you’re really having bad luck. You know right away at such a time, your race is done.”
Meanwhile, Sagan drove it at the front of the group, slipping away with Van Avermaet, Naesen, Trentin, and Yoann Offredo (Wanty-Groupe Gobert), and catching Van Baarle and Felline, to make a seven-rider chase group behind Gilbert. With 28km remaining, the gap to Gilbert was 56 seconds.
— Ronde Van Vlaanderen (@RondeVlaanderen) April 2, 2017
Carnage on the Kwaremont
That gap remained the same 10km later as the race reached its climactic finale on the final Kwaremont-Paterberg when disaster struck. After snagging a spectator’s jacket, Sagan clipped a roadside barrier, triggering pile-up that saw three of the strongest riders in the chase group — Sagan, Naesen, and Van Avermaet — on the ground. While Van Avermaet was able to quickly remount, Sagan and Naesen were tangled up on the ground, both requiring bike swaps. Sagan finished 27th.
“The Tour of Flanders lived up to its reputation,” Sagan said. “It was a complicated race, but I felt I was in good form and in a position that would have allowed me to reach Gilbert in the final stretch. Unfortunately, my crash at the Oude Kwaremont meant it was all over and that was a pity because the team did a tremendous job to help me and keep me safe. I don’t know how I crashed but these things are a part of cycling.”
Naesen, who finished third behind Van Avermaet and Gilbert at Harelbeke but 23rd on Sunday, could only wonder what might have been. “I was riding too close to Sagan, and I could not avoid him when he crashed,” he said. “I’m disappointed because I was one of the four strongest men in the race. This is the most important race of the year. It’s more than a race. But you have to have good luck, and I just didn’t have any.”
Over the Paterberg, with 12km to go, Gilbert’s lead was 48 seconds ahead of Van Avermaet, Van Baarle, and Terpstra, who was sitting on. The race was over — any chance of catching the Belgian champion had ended with Sagan’s crash.
“It’s disappointing for me because I was going for the win, but it didn’t happen,” Van Avermaet said. “But that’s how racing is, you have high expectations and you try to achieve them. I did my best and I came second so it is like it is. It was just a little bit of bad luck but there are still more races to come.
“I think Peter Sagan was close to the barrier or the people and maybe he hit somebody on the side of the road and I was just behind so I couldn’t avoid the crash. That was the moment when maybe we could have still done something with Peter and Olivier Naesen. We could have worked together but then you stop, you crash, and you lose another 30 seconds and then the race is over. If you see how close we still came at the finish I think the race was not over until that point.”
— Peter Sagan (@petosagan) April 3, 2017
Though his lead came down to 38 seconds with 5km to go, Gilbert was able to savor his victory — his fourth Monument victory after winning Lombardia in 2009 and 2010, and Liège-Bastogne-Liège in 2011.
“It has always been a dream [to win all five Monuments],” Gilbert said. “I was always speaking about this for a long time now, about winning all the Monuments. I was two times third here in Flanders, two times third in San Remo. Finally I won today in Flanders, I can make a cross on this one, it is done. Now I still have two to make, you know. Roubaix and San Remo. But the good thing it is not my last year.”
What a race from @PhilippeGilbert
— Fabian cancellara (@f_cancellara) April 2, 2017
Click here for a report of the Women’s Tour of Flanders, won by American Coryn Rivera (Sunweb).
VAN AVERMAET Greg
BMC Racing Team
VAN BAARLE Dylan
Cannondale-Drapac Pro Cycling Team
Team Katusha - Alpecin
UAE Team Emirates
Trek - Segafredo
Bahrain Merida Pro Cycling Team