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Kristoff Completes Cobbles Transformation with Ronde Van Vlaanderen Victory

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Katusha's Alexander Kristoff stunned the Tour of Flanders favorites with a sprint win from an escape with Niki Terpstra.

Eric Lalmand, AFP/Getty

Alexander Kristoff of Katusha delivered the first victory for Norway in the Ronde van Vlaanderen today with a huge, surprising and powerful performance, outkicking Niki Terpstra of Etixx-Quick Step in a two-man sprint in Oudenaarde for the win. The pair had escaped on the Hotondberg, a sometimes-overlooked climb with just under 30km to go, when Terpstra accelerated and Kristoff alertly took his wheel. From there, the two rode together all the way to the final stages, and though Terpstra did his best to maneuver the devastating sprinter Kristoff into a bad position, Kristoff had more than enough snap in his sprint to finish the job. Greg Van Avermaet of BMC, who along with Tinkoff-Saxo's Peter Sagan forged a desperate two-man chase form the Paterberg, took the last podium place as Sagan cracked down the home stretch.

This was yet another edition of de Ronde which took place under sunny skies, featured a mere modicum of attacks, and yet once again delivered the glory to the race's strongest rider. One by one, the Stars of the Cobbles suffered devastating power outages behind the two-man escape. Geraint Thomas of Sky, the putative favorite, tried to close the gap to Kristoff and Terpstra on the Oude Kwaremont, and briefly did before falling back. Zdenek Stybar of Etixx-Quick Step either couldn't, or wouldn't, with a teammate up the road. Sep Vanmarcke of Lotto-NL missed an earlier split and couldn't rejoin the big names. Van Avermaet's third place was fitting enough, since he was the race's only other aggressor, forcing a split on the upper slopes of the Taaienberg which sent initially six riders away, to be joined by another dozen (including, fatefully, Terpstra). Van Avermaet's Flandrien Card won't be recalled anytime soon, not with the gritty determination he showed in trying to drag back the winning duo all the way to the end, running out of road just a minute or so too soon.

Terpstra and Kristoff Away

Dirk Waem, AFP/Getty

Earlier phases of the race were marred by two incidents involving the Shimano neutral service car, once hitting  Jesse Sergeant of Trek and knocking him from the breakaway with a suspected collarbone break, and later rear-ending an FDJ car into a stopped rider, Sebastian Chavanel, sending him airborne in a terrible scene. With 60km to go the peloton had to duck under an inflatable advertising gate that had lost pressure -- narrowly avoiding a real mess.

The peloton remained curiously intact over the Paterberg with 50km to go, with only Damien Gaudin off the front surviving from the day's long break. Gaudin was reeled in shortly after on the Koppenberg, which also did not -- surprisingly -- force a greater selection. That left conventional wisdom pointed in the direction of the Oude Kwaremont as the day's decisive place, but Terpstra, as he often does, had other plans.

Despite an earlier acceleration on the Oude Kwaremont that went nowhere, Terpstra was up to his usual strong, aggressive, counterintuitive riding. Winner of Dwars door Vlaanderen and Paris-Roubaix last year with impressive, solo attacks, Terpstra's earlier effort was deceptive, as he not only bridged the missed gap on the Taaienberg but sped away when not expected on the Hotondberg -- a good place for an attack, as it turns out, coming as it does almost in tandem with the preceding Kruisberg. Kristoff had ridden with Terpstra in a two-man effort at last year's Ronde van Vlaanderen, and sensed a chance to get away with a smart, strong rider who he could expect to work with. These textbook Etixx-Quick Step tactics left the usual confusion in their wake, as they so often do. The gap grew quickly to 30 seconds, then down to half that on the Oude Kwaremont, before bouncing back up to 25 or so the rest of the way. But this time Terpstra's break-mate held more cards on his own than Terpstra's entire team.

Chase group on Oude Kwaremont

Dirk Waem, AFP/Getty

People may complain that, for once, the venerable Tour of Flanders was won by "a sprinter," despite the late hills designed against such a probability, and that description of Kristoff is technically correct. He is a fantastic sprinter. But he won the way so many before him earned their Flandrien stripes: by being the strongest man in the race. Kristoff was strong enough to catch Terpstra's acceleration, strong enough to contribute his fair share to the escape, strong enough to negate any plans Terpstra had for dropping him on the Oude Kwaremont or Paterberg, even strong enough to do all the work in the final four kilometers, when Terpstra sensed his fate and stopped contributing to his likely demise in a sprint. Even pulling for the last stretch, with some effort ahead of the dangerous duo of Van Avermaet and Sagan, Kristoff was able to stay strong for the inevitable sprint attempt by Terpstra, which he marked with ease and dispatched the Dutchman to his fate.

It is just as portentious that Kristoff finished three spots ahead of Sagan, whose season of disappointment continues. For the last three seasons, the Norwegian looked like a slightly dimmer copy of the great Slovakian sprinter and all-round stud. Sagan was the one ticketed for Flanders glory, which he came tantalizingly close to last year (and the year before). Kristoff looked like the guy with the same tools in his toolbelt, only ever so slightly less so. Now he has matched and exceeded Sagan in both the sprinting and Flanders-riding departments, and if he can take Sagan's green jersey this summer, the transformation will be complete.

Results:

1 NOO Alexander Kristoff CAT 6u26'38 "
2 NED Niki Terpstra EQS +0 "
3 BEL Greg Van Avermaet BMC +7 "
4 SLW Peter Sagan TCS +17 "
5 BEL Tiesj Benoot LTS +35 "
6 NED Lars Boom AST +35 "
7 DUI John Degenkolb TGA +48 "
8 BEL Jürgen Roelandts LTS +48 "
9 TSJ Zdenek Stybar EQS +48 "
10 SWI Martin Elmiger IAM +48 "