The day was to turn into a nightmare for Etixx-Quickstep who found themselves thoroughly in the driving seat in today's finale with a big presence in the leadgroup that formed, predictably at this point, on the Taaienberg. Acceleration there from Lotto's Roelandts and Benoot along with Tom Boonen started a selection at the front that looked decent for Etixx. Decent soon turned to excellent when Cancellara was struck with a mechanical and had to wait six and a half hours (or 2 minutes?) by the roadside for a new bike. This meant that Etixx found themselves up front with 4 men along with a handful of other favorites.
The next section of the race was dominated by a fight from Trek-Segafredo, with some help from Kristoff's Katusha helpers, to bring their man Cancellara back to the front. With the assistance from Irizar, Rast and Devolder Cance had gradually reduced the distance to about half a minute by the bottom of the Oude Kwaremont at which point he struck out on his own. At this point Kristoff said thank you and goodbye and it is looking increasingly like he isn't on as dominant form as last year, or he was simply wisely saving himself for Gent-Wevelgem on Sunday. Cancellara though was looking fine as he connected with a dropped Stuyven from the lead group who was then able to help him close the remaining gap to the lead group.
At this point it was looking as a wasted opportunity for Etixx. They had some bad luck of their own losing Stybar from the group with a flat and he was now back at the front after marking Cancellara. They had been doing the lion share of the work though with Martin and Vandenbergh while other favorites like Sagan, Benoot, Stannard, Kwiatkowski, Vanmarcke and Boom had contributed little. Things were about to go from bad to worse for Etixx when with 30 kms to go the group hit Karnemelkbeekstraat, the last really big climb, where Kwiatkowski launched his big attack of the day. Peter Sagan was quick to follow while non of the Etixx riders had the legs to follow the two all the way to the top.
A small 5 -10 second gap over the top slowly grew as Niki Terpstra and a tiring Stybar were in reality the only ones working to close down the escapees who were clearly motoring. Both of them contributed evenly, as it appeared, to keep the chasers at bay and with the numbers in the chase, Etixx was getting little or no assistance. The gap came down ever so little in the final kms as Sagan and Kwiatkowski started thinking a little of the sprint but it never looked in danger of being closed to be honest.
And so the 2014 and 2015 World Champs rolled into the final kilometer for a sprint that most were assuming would be Sagan's to lose and Kwiatkowski had made no move to make the long range attack that seemed like his only chance of winning. It was then all turned on its head though with a few hundred meters to go when Kwiatkowski launched his sprint from Sagan's wheel. The launch seemed to take a sleeping Sagan by surprise and the Sky rider instantly opened a winning gap, relegating Sagan to yet another frustrating second place. On replays the chock becomes more understandable as Sagan clearly had little or nothing left to respond with and once again we are reminded that sprinting at the end of a brutal 200 km classic is never a foregone conclusion and the rider with the most left at that point will often beat a stronger sprinter on paper.
The aftermath of this and the big talking point until Tour of Flanders will of course be Etixx-Quickstep and what they should have done differently to get another outcome from this. They will rightly catch some flack but they were not the only ones who lost out here. Lotto had their two best up there and Roelandts cracked on the Paterberg and Benoot looked like he was just hanging on for dear life in a finale that was a full on blast-furnace from the Taaienberg at 75 kms to go and all the way to the finish. Vanmarcke as well looked struggling for most of the day even if he did make the front group. BMC had two secondary riders in Oss and Drucker holding the fort in the absence of Van Avermaet who threw in the towel just before the start and they were never going to do much in a group buzzing with Etixx stars. And then there was Cancellara and Stuyven who had done a massive job just to get back to the front from what looked like an impossible situation.
Either some of these players had more to contribute than they let on or the job was always going to be tricky. The attack on Kernemelkbeekstraat looked to expose pretty well the powerbalance in the group. Sagan was the only one with the legs to join Kwiatkowski even on a climb that should have suited guys like Benoot and Stybar better. What Etixx perhaps need is to act themselves more in these situations and not wait for someone else to checkmate them? Clearly they paid a price both for not pushing the pace when Cancellara was chasing and for allowing the opponents to dictate when and where to attack. Losing Stybar cost them but they had Terpstra, Trentin and Vandenbergh to use even if they wanted to save Boonen in the group of favorites. Much debate will go on about this for sure even if the Etixx instinctual response is to point the fingers at the others who weren't helping them.
The other main talking point will be the status of Sagan and Kristoff. Sagan for his inability to finish of longer harder races like he is expected to and Kristoff, and his Katusha team, for once again missing a finale and looking terribly unconvincing doing it.
Convincing on the other hand is the way to describe Team Sky who will also be fortified next week with Geraint Thomas. For a bunch of guys who say they want to ride stage races they sure do look like they know their way around the cobbled classics at the moment. This may not be what they brought aboard Kwiatkowski for but it must have been a heck of a bonus. Now they "just" have to keep doing as well in the Monuments too, something they have failed to in the past, and they will be the big winners of the 2016 spring. Michal Kwiatkowski is already a big winner after an otherwise slightly anonymous start to the year.For him it looks like the fun is just getting started.
- Michal Kwiatkowski , Team Sky
- Peter Sagan , Tinkoff + 4 sec
- Ian Stannard, Team Sky +11 sec
- Fabian Cancellara, Trek
- Jasper Stuyven, Trek
- Lars Boom, Astana
- Tiesj Benoot, Lotto-Soudal
- Sep Vanmarcke , LottoNL
- Jempy Drucker, BMC
- Daniel Oss, BMC