Luca Paolini does not win often - instead, he is most comfortable in the service of others. His shepherding of teammate Alexander Kristoff through the finale of both last year's and this year's Milan-Sanremo was as memorable as his captain's win last year. But, occasionally Paolini uses his considerable tactical acumen to serve his himself, and when he does, the result is often memorable victories. T
Paolini's victory came at the end of a harsh day of racing across northern Belgium. Rain and wind lashed at the riders in the earlier parts of the race, at time so harsh riders were pushed into the ditch by the screaming crosswinds. Pre-race favorite Mark Cavendish fell victim to the winds, crashing twice and later losing contact after a flat. Teammate Zdenek Stybar met the same fate, flatting with 71 kilometers remaining in the race and proving unable to chase back on before the race-defining split occurred. The attrition rate was so high that when the peloton finally turned east towards the Belgian heartlands and the first of three trips up the Kemmelberg, a mere 40 riders were still in contact.
At that point, Maarten Tjallingi hit out solo and hit the Kemmelberg for the first time harboring a gap of 25 seconds with 79 kilometers remaining. A few kilometers later, Lotto Soudal grabbed the race by the scruff of its neck by sending Jurgeon Roelandts to bridge up to and eventually ride away from Tjallingi. Though rarely mentioned as a top-tier contender, Roelandts has considerable power and cobbles prowess. In 2013 he struck out early in an otherwise conservatively raced Tour of Flanders, an effort that netted him third place at the end of the day after only being caught by Fabian Cancellara and Peter Sagan.
As Roelandt's lead stretched up to two minutes over the second pass of the Kemmelberg a chase group composed of E3 Harelbeke winner Geraint Thomas, Sep Vanmarcke, Daniel Oss, Stijn Vandenbergh, and Roelandt's teammate and current Belgian champion Jens Debusschere. As the chase group's gap extended past 30 seconds Paolini and then Nikki Terpstra bridged up. At this point the bunch sat up and effectively removed themselves from the race; the gap from Roelandts to the peloton would grow to over 6 minutes over the next half hour of racing.
With one rider two minutes up the road with 50 kilometers remaining and another - who just happened to be a strong sprinter - sitting on the back of the chase, Lotto Soudal was firmly in the driver's seat of the race. Though Etixx-Quickstep had two riders in the chase, one had already put in a big effort to bridge to the chase group and they still had to both chase down Roelandts and convince a trio of riders without teammates to cooperate evenly with them. To add to their tough situation, Quickstep seemed to once again lack a clear tactical plan for how to win the race. Early in the chase, Vandenbergh shouldered much of the burden of chasing, seemingly saving the more pedigreed and faster finishing Terpstra for the finale of the race. But as the group began to close in on Roelandts, that plan seemed to have faded into the back of the Quickstep riders' minds.
While Roelandts' gap held steady for twenty kilometers, the chase regained urgency on the final passages over the Kemmelberg and Monteberg. The chasers attacked each other with Terpstra and Thomas gaining space over the top of the Kemmelberg with others chasing in groups of two. Paolini and then Oss dangled off the back, but Paolini would slowly fight his way back on terms with the group over the next ten kilometers. Ahead, Roelandts was visibly struggling, losing thirty seconds on the Kemmelberg alone and stretching his back more and more. The effort was clearly written on his face when he removed his sunglasses, his gap now below forty seconds.
The catch of Roelands with 17 kilometers remaining did not bring an end to Lotto Soudal's strong position as Debusschere had not taken a single pull for over thirty kilometers, but it became increasingly clear that they were simply outgunned by stronger riders. Terpstra and Paolini countered after the Roelandts was absorbed and got immediate daylight. Thomas and Vandenbergh chased five seconds behind with Vanmarcke and Debusschere a few seconds back. Thomas looked incredibly strong as he rode Vandenbergh off his wheel and bridged solo, but the lead trio's cooperation wavered and six riders coalesced once again at the front of the race.
With two teammates, one fresh sprinter, and three solo riders in the front group, cooperation was always going to be spotty, and Paolini took advantage of this. Though Paolini is a fast sprinter in his own right - he has finished on the podium of Milan-Sanremo twice - he hit out solo at 6.5 kilometers to go and quickly got a gap as the remaining five riders visibly tried to cajole each other into chasing. With a strong tailwind, it was always going to be hard to close down a gap once it opened and continued disagreement sealed the fate of the five chasers. With four kilometers remaining, Paolini was fifteen seconds up the road and out of sight on the twisting run-in to the finish. Thomas and Terpstra finally attacked in chase, gaining immediate separation, but their efforts would come to naught. Paolini hit the finishing straight with ample time to sit up and celebrate in front of the sprint for second.
Though not expected, Paolini's victory should come as no surprise from such an experienced rider who has finished second in the Tour of Flanders before. More surprising, however, was the way Etixx-Quickstep handled the chase. Instead of saving one rider from the bulk of the work inside the final twenty kilometers of the race, Vandenbergh and Terpstra both chased down attacks, perhaps costing Terpstra the energy that could have put Terpstra in first instead of second. But, the duo was also plagued by mechanical problems in the finale and both had to chase back on as attacks flew out of the front group. Either way, Patrick Lefevre can't be pleasant company these days.
Behind, Vanmarcke crossed the line in sixth looking hallowed, a surprising result from the rider who often looked the strongest in Het Nieuwsblad and E3 Harelbeke. Whether he hit top form too early or simply did not eat enough during the cold, wet race is something we won't fully know until next Sunday's Ronde van Vlaanderen.
- Luca Paolini (Katusha)
- Nikki Terpstra (Etixx-Quickstep)
- Geraint Thomas (Team Sky)
- Stijn Vandenbergh (Etixx-Quickstep)
- Jens Debusschere (Lotto Soudal)
- Sep Vanmarcke (LottoNL-Jumbo)
- Jurgeon Roelandts (Lotto Soudal)
- Daniel Oss (BMC)
- Alexander Kristoff (Katusha)
- Peter Sagan (Tinkoff-Saxo)