Philippe Gilbert can be assured of going down in the annals of the Tour of Flanders after a genuinely spectacular round. With just 56 km to go, the Belgian champion took off all on his own, cycling across the finish line in Oudenaarde solo, a la Eddy Merckx. Greg Van Avermaet victoriously wrested the sprint away from the trio trailing Gilbert, while Niki Terpstra gave Quick-Step Floors excellent cause for celebration.
70,000 cycling fans turn the cycling event in Antwerp into a celebration
All of Antwerp woke up Sunday morning with Tour fever: the sun had barely risen when the crowds started streaming towards the start at Het Steen, and to the Grote Markt, where the teams were presented. According to the police, the first round to ever start in ‘Cake city’ (Koekenstad in Flemish) drew 70,000 spectators. They anticipated a clear role for top favourite Peter Sagan, who cycled onto the yellow carpet with a wheelie, and crowd pleaser, Tom Boonen, who was greeted an impressive Viking rallying cry.
At half past ten on the dot Mayor Bart De Wever pronounced the archaic ‘Gentlemen, on your marks!’, in reference to Karel Van Wijnendaele, who founded the Tour of Flanders, at the first edition in 1916. After the pack had made their way through the Waasland tunnel towards the Left Bank, the flag in Burcht (the last kilometres of Antwerp soil) was lowered for the official start, - marking the first of 206.8 tour kilometres.
Traditions (not) to be kept
Traditionally, early escapees in the first kilometres of the Tour of Flanders have to put up quite a battle to break free from the pack, but apparently the change in start location also put an end to the old traditions: with Julien Duval (AG2R-La Mondiale), Oliviero Troia (UAE Team Emirates), Mark McNally (Wanty-Groupe Gobert), Julien Morice (Direct Energie) and the Veranda’s Willems duo Stefold Van Zummeren and Michael Goolaerts, six riders were immediately separated from the peloton, with Edward Planckaert (Sport Vlaanderen) and André Looij (Roompot) hot on their heels.
The eight leaders immediately got a terrific head start: while the rest of the pack completed the first hour of the tour in the pleasant spring sunshine at a comparatively lethargic pace, the leaders quickly managed to create a distance of 11 minutes at maximum between them and the rest. Only after 50 kilometres were BMC (for Van Avermaet) and Bora-Argon (for Sagan) able to put one of their guys at the head of the pack, while after 100 kilometres the lead between the escapees and the rest was still 10 minutes.
First signs of nerves
Only then - at approximately 175 kilometres from the finish line - did the first signs of nerves appear, in the run-up to the first cobblestones on Lippenhovestraat and Paddestraat. What’s more, the jury had to step in to prevent several courageous souls from using the foot path, despite a volley of warnings.
At a steady pace, the racers continued towards Oude Kwaremont for the first passage, where the men of Bora-Hansgrohe and Cannondale-Drapac (boasting a remarkably self-assured Sep Vanmarcke) set the pace. Former winner Alexander Kristoff allowed himself to be surprised by the manoeuvre, and had to pull out all the stops to catch up, while Carlos Betancur was ready to throw in the towel. On the Kwaremont itself, Vanmarcke’s team sent Tom Van Asbroeck to the attack in anticipation (tour cliché!). This enabled our countryman to charge away from the pack.
Once again, Lotto allows itself to be caught off guard
With still 30 km to go before the glorious return of the Muur van Geraardsbergen, the nervousness among the pack also became palpable. This resulted in several new victims: Yves Lampaert (Quick-Step) was left standing with his feet on the ground twice, and Rast as well as Burghardt were faced with mechanical problems.
After Lotto-Soudal’s weak performance this spring, one would think that the Belgian team would not allow itself to be caught off guard on this momentous occasion, but just 114 kilometres before the finish line Tiesj Benoot started to lag behind. The Lotto team leader had to be helped once again to the front by team member Jens Debusschere. Just in time for the Leberg-Berendries-Tenbosse triumvirate.
Boonen & Gilbert’s rocket sprint at the Muur
After five years’ absence, the cobblestones of the Muur van Geraardsbergen (96 km from the finish) were back again to give the Tour of Flanders pack a thrashing. Aware of the historic significance, the spectators stood at De Vesten in throngs. The team also knew what lay before them: the struggle to capture the best spot for ascending the climb made it look as if we were gearing up for a mass sprint. Unfortunately, they were not joined by Bernhard Eisel: the Austrian Dimension Data rider was left standing on the side of the road just before the Muur, holding on to two parts of a bicycle frame.
Victory at the Muur was clearly in Belgian hands: with Quick-Step leaders Tom Boonen and Philippe Gilbert practically driving the entire pack, favourites Sagan and Van Avermaet were already far ahead. The much-loved underdogs scented opportunity: Sep Vanmarcke, Jasper Stuyven, the returning Alexander Kristoff, Matteo Trentin and Luke Rowe pushed their limits to form an elite group that also included Bodnar, Moscon, Démare, Vanspeybrouck, Modolo, Chavanel and Coquard. The gap between the second pack including Van Avermaet and Sagan rapidly dwindled to a single minute. Also remarkable: Lotto-Soudal once again allowed itself to be caught off guard. Not a single member was among the first group of pursuers. In other words: Once again, Jens Debusschere had to ride like the wind to bring the big group led by Benoot (and therefore also Sagan and Van Avermaet) to heel.
Gilbert suffers collision on Kwaremont
However, the group boasting Boonen as its key driver (thanks to Gilbert?) and company didn’t allow this to happen without putting up a fight: the pace remained so high that the eight early escapees had to sacrifice their leading position at 67 kilometres before the finish line. Cycling at breakneck speed, the new lead group comprising 21 racers approached the second ascent of the Oude Kwaremont.
This is where Gilbert benefited from the work of his team mate Boonen, laying down his first ace by forcing his main rival, Sep Vanmarcke, to move aside and let him pass. Things became even worse for Cannondale’s leader: while Boonen slowed down for his Walloon team mate, Vanmarcke crashed for no apparent reason, while taking a slight turn . His shirt completely torn, he was only able to start cycling again after several minutes.
On the way to a number-one hit?
At that moment, Gilbert had already opted for the open sea, so to speak: at 50 kilometres from the finish line, he was one of the two Belgian favourites to go solo, ascending the Paterberg as well as the Koppenberg on his own, a thirty second lead on his pursuers.
The group of pursuers led by Boonen still hadn’t manage to break into the lead of Sagan and Van Avermaet, the other top favourites, on the Paterberg; they only managed just before the first Koppenberg climb. Ever since the Muur, the beloved pair had been unable to keep up the pace, which they made every effort to remedy on the Koppenberg: both surged up the hill in a valiant effort to capture the hunt.
Taaienberg is Boonenberg no more
The Taaienberg is 36 kilometres from the finish. Over the years it has come to be known as Boonenberg: the question now is whether it will remain that way. This was precisely the place where crack cyclist Boonen encountered problems with his chain. Only after a long wait for the team car was Tornado Tom able to continue his pursuit.
This meant that the Quick-Step team would need to revise its tactics, marking a turning point in the race: Sagan was the first to notice the newly missing spanner in his works and immediately took it up a notch. Oliver Naesen latched onto the world champion’s wheel, and Greg Van Avermaet was on his game, joining the rest on the foothills of the Taaienberg. Together with Trentin and Yoann Offredo and Fabio Felline (who had picked up speed) and Dylan van Baarle they formed a group of seven racers in hot pursuit of lonesome leader Gilbert.
A group of six racers - Trentin, of course, did not ride behind his Quick-Step team mate - formed a train behind him, but the unleashed Gilbert rode the tour of his life in terms of time: at 20 kilometres from the finish line his pursuers had only been able to reduce the gap between them by ten seconds. Even more impressive: during the last passage of the Kwaremont the front-racer sprinted ahead of his pursuers. Led by Sagan, the seven lagged behind Gilbert in his race to the top.
A scrap of fabric determined it all
The decisive moment happened at the Kwaremont’s crest, when Peter Sagan crashed after hitting a scrap of fabric. Close on the Slovakian’s heels, Oliver Naesen and Greg Van Avermaet were out of luck, and were also brought down. At that moment, Dylan van Baarle, who lagged a stretch behind, benefited from the distance between him and the riders ascending Kwaremont ahead of him and was the only rider left unscathed to continue the chase on Gilbert.
This was the final blow, killing all hope of catching up with Gilbert, who quickly put his devastated pursuers far behind him. Van Avermaet and Niki Terpstra, who suddenly appeared as if from nowhere, were able to join Van Baarle, but anything higher than a second place was now definitively out of reach for the triumvirate. Utterly exhausted, but clearly over the moon, Philippe Gilbert rode across the finish line at Oudenaarde, a broad smile on his face. The 34-year-old Walloon dismounted, threw his bicycle in the air, and pleased cycling fans with a couple of fantastic shots by crossing the finish line on foot. Van Avermaet won the sprint for second place, with Niki Terpstra, cheered on by Patrick Lefevre fans, joining the other two on the podium.
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