Niki Terpstra put in a storming performance in the Tour of Flanders, continuing QuickStep Floors’ dominance of the spring’s big one-day races when he soloed to victory in the race. The Dutchman added the Monument to his 2014 victory in Paris-Roubaix, landing success in the same style as when he took the E3 Harelbeke last month.
Terpstra looked good throughout the Classic, and put in a tentative attack with 45 kilometres to go. While this was brought back, he was the only one able to respond to Milan-San Remo victor Vincenzo Nibali when he went clear with 28 kilometres remaining. Two kilometres later Terpstra dropped the Italian, and with 19 kilometres to go he caught and jettisoned breakaway riders Mads Pedersen (Trek-Segafredo), Dylan van Baarle (Team Sky) and Sebastian Langeveld (EF Education First-Drapac p/b Cannondale).
From there he pushed on solo, with Pedersen bravely chasing hard and keeping him in sight for quite some time. World champion Peter Sagan (Bora-hansgrohe) attacked on the final ascent of the Paterberg, trying desperately to bridge.
Yet while the 2016 race winner was stronger than the other big favourites at that point, he didn’t have the legs to close the gap. Instead, he was reeled in by the chase group behind, which rolled through well but didn’t make any real impression on the two out front.
Terpstra eventually crossed the line 11 seconds ahead of Pedersen. His teammate Philippe Gilbert jumped clear of the group behind and got past Michael Valgren (Astana) for third, securing two places in the top three for QuickStep Floors. Greg Van Avermaet (BMC Racing Team) outsprinted Sagan for fifth, with Jasper Stuyven (Trek-Segafredo) and Tiesj Benoot (Lotto-Soudal) seventh and eighth.
“It’s a dream. Winning the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix was always a big dream of mine when I was a kid,” Terpstra beamed. “I cannot describe how happy I am to have these victories on my palmares.”
Sagan appeared surprisingly sanguine about how things worked out. “It was a very hard and fast Tour of Flanders, right from the outset, with Quick-Step, Sky and BMC setting a strong pace,” he said. “I’m happy with my performance as well as that of the rest of my teammates, who were there, together with me, whenever it was possible.
“I gave my best effort to close the gaps, but on my own it was impossible. I’m happy with my condition and I now look forward to Paris-Roubaix, a week from now.”
However he then issued a caution to his rivals about riding passively. “If the other riders don’t wake up, it’s going to be like this,” he said.
“QuickStep is a great team because they have many riders at a good level They can play multiple cards. QuickStep did a beautiful race. I just think that the other teams didn’t respect the situation and collaborate.
“It isn’t just me that they need to beat. We are 200 [riders]. The other teams were mistaken, I believe. Like this, QuickStep will go and win all the races.”
Alexander Kristoff (UAE Team Emirates) was another former winner who came up short on Sunday. “In this moment, maybe the Kwaremont is too hard for me,” he admitted after netting 16th. “I just missed a little bit. It was smart solution to anticipate the climb, and the best moment was when Terpstra attacked.”
How it played out
The riders gathered in an overcast, cold Antwerp for the start of De Ronde, arguably the most prestigious Belgian Classic of the year. The race route totalled 264.7 kilometres, plus a neutralised section of almost ten kilometres. The racing distance included 18 climbs, namely:
Oude Kwaremont (first ascent): km 121.1
Kortekeer: km 131.7
Edalareberg: km 138.6
Wolvenberg: km 142.1
Leberg: km 151
Berendries: km 155
Tenbosse: km 160
Kapelmuur/ Muur van Geraardsbergen: km 170.4
Pottelberg: km 189
Kanariberg: km 194.8
Oude Kwaremont (second ascent): km 210.7
Paterberg: km 214.2
Koppenberg: km 220.8
Steenbeekdries: km 226.2
Taaienberg: km 228.7
Kruisberg: km 240
Oude Kwaremont (third ascent): km 249.8
Paterberg (second ascent): km 253.3
There was also a series of cobbled sections, serving to further ramp up the difficulty of the race.
As expected, the pace was hectic from the start, with many riders trying to get clear. A big crash inside the first ten kilometres downed several riders, including the EF Education First-Drapact leader Sep Vanmarke and Alberto Bettiol (BMC Racing Team). However both were able to rejoin the bunch, which remained together despite the constant attacks.
The first break of note finally went after 70 kilometres, with 11 riders building a lead of over three minutes. The move comprised the Belgian riders Tom Devriendt (Wanty-Groupe Gobert), Michel Goolaerts (Veranda’s Willems Crelan) and Dimitri Peyskens (WB Aqua Protect Veranclassic), who were aiming to show themselves on home soil. There were also the Dutch riders Pim Ligthart (Roompot-Nederlandse Loterij), Pascal Eenkhoorn (LottoNL-Jumbo) and Floris Gerts (Roompot-Nederlandse Loterij), the Spaniard Ivan Garcia Cortina (Bahrain-Merida), the South African Ryan Gibbons (Team Dimension Data), Frenchman Jimmy Turgis (Cofidis), Italian competitor Filippo Ganna (UAE Team Emirates) and Austria’s Marco Haller (Katusha-Alpecin).
The peloton initially reacted to reduce the gap, closing it to less than two minutes, but then had second thoughts and allowed the breakaway riders pad their advantage to five minutes with 160 kilometres remaining. This may have been linked to the worsening weather conditions, with rain falling heavily and dampening the mood.
The favoured QuickStep Floors team wasn’t represented in the break and was doing much of the pace-setting behind. Out front, the break remained together over the early climbs, although inclines such as the Kwaremont put the pressure on several in the move, stretching things out.
Ditto for the cobblestone sectors, which were made even trickier by the slippery conditions.
Consolidation in the breakaway group
Heading onto the Wolvenberg climb, 122 kilometres from the finish, the break was five minutes clear. The bunch then accelerated, slashing the gap to just over three minutes by the time it reached the day’s sixth climb, that of the Berendries (km 155).
The famous Kapelmuur/ Muur van Geraardsbergen was inching closer, prompting a big battle for positions. Several riders in the bunch hit the deck before the ascent, while the climb itself caused its own chaos with several of those in the break being gapped.
Meanwhile, the favourites were gradually becoming more prominent in the bunch, with riders such as Tiesj Benoot (Lotto-Soudal), Wout Van Aert (Veranda’s Willems Crelan) and Vincenzo Nibali (Bahrain-Merida) all visible and getting closer and closer to the front.
The increase of the pace continued as the next climbs ticked by and because of this, gaps opened on the second ascent of the Oude Kwaremont. Former winners Peter Sagan (Bora-hansgrohe) and Philippe Gilbert (QuickStep Floors) were amongst several big names who were further back than they might have been, but the splits came back together.
In the break, the distance and the difficulty was having a big effect and the breakaway group was being further whittled down. Garcia Cortina went clear and was joined by Devriendt, and together the two lead onto the Paterberg.
However others were close behind and between there and the Koppenberg, Mads Pedersen (Trek-Segafredo) bridged, with Sebastian Langeveld (EF Education First-Drapac) and Dylan Van Baarle (Team Sky) joining soon afterwards.
The fresher trio would soon leave Garcia Cortina and Devriendt behind, while in the bunch Terpstra showed his strength on the Koppenberg when he briefly pushed ahead of the other big names.
Soon afterwards Van Avermaet was prominent on the Taaienberg, putting others under pressure. Zdenek Stybar (QuickStep Floors) then flexed his legs, trying to drag a smaller selection clear, but sat up when things didn’t play out as well as he wished.
Undeterred, he was the big aggressor on the Kruisberg (km 240), sparking off a move containing Sagan, Nibali and others. However the others were able to get back up to them, prompting another slight stall.
The key moves fire
The intensity of the attacks and the identities of the attackers pointed towards a new phase in the race, with the big guns increasingly showing their hand. Milan-San Remo winner Nibali played his cards with 27 kilometres to go, getting a slight gap. Terpstra then bridged up to him, with the duo then some 28 seconds behind the trio out front.
Soon afterwards Terpstra dropped Nibai and sped across to the leaders on the final ascent of the Oude Kwaremont. He pushed ahead over the top, while riders such as Benoot, Van Avermaet, Vanmarcke and Sagan muscled their way to the fore and appeared poised to respond.
Sagan made his first move with 16 kilometres to go, gapping the others in what seemed to be a test of his, and their, form. Gilbert got up to him, then Van Aert, with the others then joining. Sagan put in a bigger move on the final ascent of the Paterberg, immediately dropping his rivals, turning left at the summit and beginning what was an important chase.
The Slovakian had played his winning hand around this point two years earlier and looked set to close up on Pedersen and then Terpstra. However he was still 33 seconds behind the leader with 11 kilometres to go, and increasingly spent time repeatedly looking back rather than focussing on getting up to the leader.
This hinted at fragile legs, as did his difficulty in getting closer to Pedersen.
Soon afterwards the chasers reeled him in. And although they all began rolling through well, Sagan included, Terpstra was fully committed and showing incredible form. He was 18 seconds ahead of an similarly impressive Pedersen with three kilometres to go, with the chase group was a further 19 seconds back. It was too late for the others, and inside the final kilometres the Dutchman had time to fully savour his win before reaching the line with his arms in the air.
“I went on the Kruisberg,” he said afterwards. “All day I felt I had good legs but still you have to get in the right position and make the right attack. The team was strong and we attacked, we attacked. Zdenek attacked in the Kruisberg, the peloton reacted and then I did a counter attack, and in the end that was the right move.
“I’ve got good condition, but still you need to have the good condition, the right legs, but also a lot of luck and of course the most important thing a great team behind me. With this shape I’m looking forward, also for the whole team. I will go full gas [in upcoming races] but if I can do something for the team as payback, I will do it.”
Pedersen hung on for second, 11 seconds back, while Gilbert came around Valgren to ensure two QuickStep Floors riders were on the final podium.
The latter missed out on third, yet said he was satisfied with how things turned out. “I finally showed I’m really a Classics rider,” he said. “I got some amazing help from my team, so I’m proud of being fourth in the end.
As for Van Avermaet, Sagan, Stuyven, Benoot, van Aert and Stybar, they will look towards next weekend’s Paris-Roubaix, seeking to do there what they couldn’t do in De Ronde.