BMC’s Greg Van Avermaet cemented his status as the favorite for next weekend’s Ronde van Vlaanderen, certainly in the hearts of the home crowd, as the Olympic Champion made all the right moves and showed enough strength to profit off them. After splitting the peloton on the last ascent of the Kemmelberg, Van Avermaet caught the Jens Keukeleire Express as it pulled away from the leading group, and the two held their advantage to the end, with Van Avermaet winning the sprint by half a bike. World Champion Peter Sagan of Bora-Hansgrohe survived a painful chase of the leaders for third, ahead of Quick Step’s Niki Terpstra and the closing peloton, in yet another action-packed day of Belgian-style classic racing.
With the victory, Van Avermaet matched the accomplishment of Jan Raas in 1981 with wins in the cobbled classics Omloop Het Nieuwsblad (Het Volk in Raas’ time), E3 Harelbeke and Gent-Wevelgem. Only the E3 has been a good predictor of success in de Ronde, but last year the G-W winner, Sagan, went on to Ronde success. More importantly than history, Van Avermaet has consistently displayed the strength, aggression and instinct that is so often rewarded in Flanders, so while Sagan’s abilities are beyond question, Van Avermaet is a worthy opponent.
The race progressed under sunny skies and pleasant spring weather in Belgium, and though the usual breaks came and went, by 50km remaining the peloton was all together with the exception of a lonely effort by Sport Vlaanderen’s Preben Van Hecke. The “plugstreets,” dirt and gravel roads, had played their role as a visual spectacle introducing more and more of the area’s character, specifically its World War I memorials, as somber and sobering spectacles. There was the Irish Peace Tower, a very large set of headstones for fallen British lads, a bagpipe trio in a field, and a passage by where the Christmas Truce football (soccer) match took place. As desperately sad as all that was, the cycling experience was more indecisive and only slightly irritating, as sprint favorites Arnaud Demare and Alexander Kristoff both needed wheel changes. Kristoff in particular spent what must have seemed like forever chasing back to the peloton, dashing his chances for victory.
With 36km remaining Jasper Stuyven took off with Lampaert, announcing the start of hostilities, with Dimension Data’s Bernie Eisel, a former winner, chasing them back for the peloton just before the Kemmelberg’s final assault. There, Van Avermaet shattered the tranquility of the race with a devastating acceleration from the very start of the climb, and only Sagan and John Degenkolb could stay in contact. A second selection of Terpstra, Edvald Boasson Hagen and Zdenek Stybar were close enough over the top of the climb to allow for the chance to make contact after the descent, and as the race turned in the direction of Wevelgem, the sextet were away and hammering.
That group was tracked down at the 30km mark by another group containing Michael Matthews, Sonny Colbrelli, Scott Thwaites, Soren Kragh Andersen, Oliver Naesen, Alberto Bettiol and Keukeleire, with the peloton 17 seconds back and desperate for some organization behind Lotto-Soudal, the biggest losers in the reshuffling.
After Ypres, the front group seemed to be coming back to the peloton, so Jens Keukeleire accelerated and brought Van Avermaet, Sagan, Terpstra and Andersen for the latest power group, and the gap grew back to 35 seconds from the peloton. with 15km to go Van Avermaet and Keukeleire got off the front, and left Sagan, Terpstra and Andersen behind, leaving them playing games to stay in the race. Sagan — clearly annoyed with Terpstra’s reliance on Sagan doing the work (post race he pointed out that “we are not teammates” — repeatedly hit the gas, but the other two managed to stay with him, a disorganized effort behind the two leaders who were knifing through the headwind to Wevelgem.
The trio of chasers did finally get organized, and with 5km to go they were just seconds behind. Terpstra and Sagan were riding strong, with Andersen unable to contribute as much, and Van Avermaet and Keukeleire generally sharing the duties up ahead. It was wobbly, painful-looking effort on the wide, straight roads heading to greater Kortrijk, one group’s wattage against another’s. Inside the final 3km it was the two leaders who seemed to have the better of it. With 1km to go the chasers were closer to the peloton than the front, and the leading duo began playing games. Van Avermaet got maneuvered to the front as they hit the 300 meter mark, but he had plenty left to finish the job even from that unenviable position, and beat Keukeleire by half a bike’s length.
For Keukeleire it’s a promising sign that he may achieve his 2015 levels, when he came in sixth in Paris-Roubaix. For Sagan, it’s a sign to others that he isn’t going to just tow everyone to the line, regardless of how strong he might be. For guys like Degenkolb, it’s a sign that brute strength isn’t enough in these tricky events. For Quick Step especially, it’s a sign that no matter how many kings they hold in their hand (Terpstra fourth; Boonen and Gaviria placed sixth and ninth from the peloton), it won’t matter when other teams play their ace.
- Greg Van Avermaet, BMC
- Jens Keukeleire, Orica-Scott
- Peter Sagan, Bora-Hansgrohe
- Niki Terpstra, Quick Step
- John Degenkolb, Trek
- Tom Boonen, Quick Step
- Jens Debusschere, Lotto
- Michael Matthews, Sunweb
- Fernando Gaviria, Quick Step
- Sacha Modolo, UAE
In the Women’s event Lotta Lepisto took another sprint win, over Jolien D’Hoore, to double up her success from Dwars door Vlaanderen.