Three-Pete! Sagan holds off Viviani to take a third Gent-Wevelgem title

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World champion Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe) won the 80th edition of the Belgian classic Gent-Wevelgem Sunday, holding off Italian Elia Viviani (Quick-Step Floors) and Arnaud Démare (Groupama-FDJ) in a small bunch sprint.

With the win, Sagan becomes one of six riders to win the Belgian race three times. He’s also become the most successful rider in the race’s history; over the past seven editions of the race, he has won three times and reached the podium a total of six times.

“I’m very happy and I’m glad to win this race again,” Sagan said. “My team did a great job. In the finale, there were two of us remaining in the front group and I’m really happy with our performance. Sprints are always like a lottery and I was wondering what was going to happen. In the end, I started my sprint early and it worked out — I had the legs to keep going.”

2018 Gent-Wavelgem race highlights

Held two days after E3 Harelbeke, and one week before the Ronde van Vlaanderen, the 80th edition of Gent-Wevelgem drew a field mixed with cobblestone specialists and field sprinters.

While a very different race than Milan-San Remo, Gent-Wevelgem is a classic that can often finish in a sprint, meaning many of the same riders who contested La Primavera one week earlier were on the start line.

Five former champions were at the start: Last year’s winner, Van Avermaet of BMC Racing, along with Sagan (2016 and 2013), John Degenkolb (2014), Edvald Boasson Hagen of Dimension Data (2009), and Marcus Burghardt of Bora-Hansgrohe (2007).

Riders were greeted at the start in Deinze with dry and cool, overcast conditions, and steady but unremarkable winds.

The 250.8km course, which traveled west to the coast before returning back to Wevelgem, featured 11 climbs and three plugstreets (dirt roads), many traversing battlefields from World War I, including two ascents of the Kemmelberg in the final 80km, with the final trip up the cobbled climb coming 35km from the finish.

Driving the breakaway: Frederik Frison (Lotto-Soudal), Filippo Ganna (UAE Team Emirates), and Jan Willem Van Schip (Roompot-Nederlandse Loterij). Photo NV/PN/Cor Vos.

The day’s six-man breakaway formed after about 35km of racing, opening a maximum gap of just over 10 minutes. In the move: Frederik Frison (Lotto-Soudal), José Gonçalves (Katusha-Alpecin), Filippo Ganna (UAE Team Emirates), Jimmy Duquennoy (WB Aqua Protect Veranclassic), and Roompot-Nederlandse Loterij teammates Brian van Goethem and Jan-Willem Van Schip.

With 100km remaining, that gap had been halved, to less than five minutes, with the Groupama-FDJ team of French champion Arnaud Démare leading the chase.

A crash in the bunch at 100km to go saw Mitch Docker (EF Education First-Drapac) hit the deck and abandon the race in pain, shorts shredded. Another, larger crash, a few minutes later, held up the peloton as several riders sorted out their damaged bikes and injured bodies.

Large crowds greeted the breakaway on the first ascent of the Kemmelberg with 75km to go. The six riders had made the tricky descent of the fabled climb before the main peloton had reached the hill. A crash in the bunch on the lead in to the Kemmelberg saw Baptiste Planckaert (Katusha) and Luke Durbridge (Mitchelton-Scott) hit the deck. Once on the climb, three Quick-Step Floors riders manned the front of the peloton, flanked by Tony Martin (Katusha).

Philippe Gilbert and Elia Viviani (Quick-Step Floors) at the front. Photo NV/PN/Cor Vos.

After the descent, Gilbert (Quick-Step) upped the pace, eliciting a reaction from Sunweb and Cofidis and stringing out the bunch. Several unsuccessful accelerations followed as the race action increased in the peloton, prompting a fair bit of arm waving and shouting over who wanted to ride and who were simply following. The net result was that the gap to the breakaway came down dramatically, to under four minutes with 65km to go.

BMC Racing hit the front as the race reached the first of three plugstreets. It was there that Gregory Rast (Trek-Segafredo) suffered his second mechanical of the day, and lost contact with the main peloton.

Stefan Kung (BMC Racing Team) at the front on one of the day’s three plugstreets. Photo: NV/PN/Cor Vos.

As the wind picked up and the peloton hit a second plugstreet section, gaps started to open in the bunch. One rider who was put into difficulty was Dutch classics star Niki Terpstra, winner of E3 Harelbeke on Friday.

Inside the final 50km the gap between a splintering peloton and the six-man breakaway was just around 90 seconds.

A move of about 12-15 riders slipped off the front, including several top favorites — Van Avermaet, Sagan, Oliver Naesen (AG2R), Yves Lampaert and Zdenek Stybar (Quick-Step Floors) all made the split. That move was short-lived, however, and as the two groups merged, several riders — Stybar, Sacha Modolo (EF Education First), Stefan Kung (BMC Racing), and Gallopin (AG2R) — tangled up and hit the deck.

Next to attack was Jack Bauer (Mitchelton-Scott), followed by a counterattack from Jelle Wallays (Lotto-Soudal) that drew out a four-rider first chase group — Wallays, Julien Vermote (Dimension Data), Alex Kirsch (WB Aqua Protect Veranclassic), and Vyacheslav Kuznetsov (Katusha-Alpecin).

Behind, another crash impacted several riders as they tangled with a bush lining the side of the road.

Two final climbs awaited: The Baneberg, and the Kemmelberg.

Into the final 40km

The six-man daylong breakaway had been caught by the four chasers as they hit the Baneberg, creating a 10-rider front group holding a 1:15 advantage over the peloton inside the final 40km.

Four teams — Katusha, Lotto-Soudal, Roompot-Nederlandse Loterij, and WB Aqua Protect Veranclassic — were represented by more than one rider in the lead group.

Behind, the peloton exploded at the base of the Kemmelberg; there would be no waiting for the steep, cobbled climb to sort things out. Burghardt rode clear of the bunch, followed by a chasing Gilbert. Italian Gianni Moscon (Team Sky) came to trouble on the climb and rode into the barriers, putting a foot down. Gilbert also had an issue on the climb and lost momentum as Sep Vanmarcke (EF Education First) drove the group of favorites over the top of the climb.

Frison was dropped from the front group, eliminating Lotto-Soudal’s numerical advantage; Ganna also lost contact as the race entered its climactic finale. Riders from Quick-Step and Astana drove the first chase group, while Alexander Kristoff (UAE) could be seen at the front of the second chase group.

“We had planned to send a rider in the early breakaway because we didn’t have one leader, but several riders with opportunities,” Frison said. “We had to try long before the peloton would let us go. At first we only got a few seconds lead, it was only after 35 kilometres that the bunch started to take it slow and that we got a large gap. I am glad that I could help the team. It was a strong breakaway and we worked together really well. I wanted to stay at the front until the second ascent of the Kemmelberg and I did.”

With 25km to go, the leaders were caught creating a 29-rider front group; their gap over the main chase group was 25 seconds. Démare, Viviani, Sagan, Van Poppel, Modolo, Trentin, and Matthews were all in the front group. Kristoff, Degenkolb, Cort, Groenewegen, and Moscon were in the chase group. The composition of the final sprint could go either way.

As the leaders rode through the Ypres Gate with 22km to go, Wallays attacked, followed by Stybar. Van Avermaet chased, followed by Sagan and Gilbert, as several protected sprinters sat on.

With 20km to go, the gap was 31 seconds. The pace at the front was enough to see Danny Van Poppel (LottoNL-Jumbo) put into the gutter and dropped from the decisive break. “In my head I was already preparing my sprint,” he said. “I thought it was going to be a sprint. I misjudged the circumstances in the wind and ended up on the side, which resulted in me being dropped from the group. From the car they tried to slow me down, but in my enthusiasm I did not respond well. It was a good lesson.“

Vanmarcke gave it another go with 18km remaining, but Stybar quickly chased that move down. The gap over the Kristoff-Degenkolb chase group stretched out to one minute, ensuring that the winner would come from the front group.

At 2km to go, Van Goethem attacked, chased down by Gilbert. The next move came from Van Avermaet, and then Vanmarcke in the final kilometre.

In the wind up to the line, Sagan took the front early on the left side of the road — had he not won, some might have speculated it was too early — but the world champion had the strength to hold off Viviani and Démare to take his third Gent-Wevelgem title.

“I felt good the second time we climbed the Kemmelberg,” Sagan said. “It wasn’t too stressful and there wasn’t a lot of wind to make things difficult, which is why we came to the finish in a bigger group. It was a different race today from all of the Gent-Wevelgems I’ve ridden, and the lack of stress and the better weather conditions made it easier. It wasn’t anywhere near as crazy as the race has been over the last few years, but it was still really fast.”

In the moments after the sprint, Viviani, who had positioned himself first behind Trentin and then Démare before he was able to launch his sprint, sat alone on the sidewalk, sobbing, his head dropped into his folded arms.

“I was on the wheel of Démare, I thought he was the fastest, but Vanmarcke crossed our path, and I just had to keep my legs shut, and then Sagan shot away,” Viviani told Sporza. “If someone like Peter jumps, it’s hard to take those meters back. It’s bitter that I lost this sprint. When you are so close to one of the biggest goals of your career, there is that disillusionment — it is a huge missed opportunity.”

World cyclocross champion Wout Van Aert (Crelan-Charles) continued his impressive spring classics campaign, finishing 10th, three weeks after his podium finish at Strade Bianche.

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