The Kapelmuur. Fewer than twenty kilometres to go. Fewer than twenty seconds between the lead group and the peloton. An attack. Greg Van Avermaet. He’s been animating the front group for kilometres on end and he knows this will be one of his last chances to crack his rivals. Daniel Oss, the weakest of the six at the front, breaks. He won’t be seen at the front again. He’s the only one to fall back though, as Zdeněk Štybar glues himself to the Olympic champions wheel, while their companions Dylan Teuns, Tim Wellens and Alexey Lutsenko, less specialised for the cobbles, hang on behind.
We reach the Bosberg. Another attack. It’s the same rider. Van Avermaet is determined to shed or hurt his companions, but Stybar at least is having neither of those things happen to him. Van Avermaet’s effort is palpable, but Stybar is unperturbed as Teuns and Wellens let a small gap, soon to be closed, appear. This is the Omloop, not a hill climb and there will be eleven flat kilometres before the riders can call it a day and the lead group, five in number point their collective bow to Ninove.
It’s been a trying day, not without farce, not without danger. The early talking point of the race was the languid start causing the women’s race to be briefly neutralised as they were in danger of catching up. In the circumstances it was the right call but the organisers are going to have to triple-check the logistics for next year.
It wasn’t until the final eighty kilometres that the racing started in earnest, as a big group of real threats snuck away from the peloton — Stybar, Naesen, Lampaert all involved. However, they were never really driven and enough teams hadn’t made it in that they did not survive for very long. The race was really broken when Danny van Poppel took it upon himself to sprint up the Molenberg for his teamleader Wout Van Aert. While he eased off at the top, by the time the dust settled a group of about seventeen had pulled away from the peloton, including Van Aert, Trentin and the six riders mentioned in the opening paragraph. How these six became the six that would define the race is an unfortunate story, as the race-defining split was made by the crash of Tiesj Benoot in the middle of the front group. A gap was formed between the lucky six and the poor followers trapped behind, as they dropped back to the peloton and the six leaders worked together all the way to the Kapelmuur, and I’ve already dealt with what happened there.
The final, flat kilometres are ones which Greg Van Avermaet will want to have back. He jumped on every move and probably worked the hardest, two things that came back to bite him when the clearly-knackered Tim Wellens attacked three kilometres out and Van Avermaet was on him like a terrier, only to be unable to react when Stybar made his move six hundred metres later. Once Stybar had his followers out of his wheel, he was home and hosed: all five riders were out on their feet and once he had the gap, nobody was closing it. He takes his first classics victory. The Wolfpack are starting 2019 like they left off.
A few reflections: Van Avermaet could have been the strongest guy in the race but it was very clear that he wanted it too much. He didn’t let anyone get a centimetre of free air in front of his wheel until all of a sudden he had no choice and no matches. He was probably the strongest sprinter in the group so a more judicious strategy might have been to patrol around the front but not attack any time the road rose.
Stybar on the other hand, judicious could be the title of an interpretative performance based around his ride today. He was always at the front, didn’t burn too many matches and jumped at exactly the right time with pinpoint accuracy. I could not be more impressed with this display of just how to win a bike race.
Teuns and Wellens deserve to be commended for their performance in a race that didn’t totally suit their talents, while Trentin can rue what might have been. Oh, and Jumbo-Visma are going to be a force, I’m now sure of that. Trek will also be a force and today was a blip, if a disappointing one for the supporter.