Kuurne ’17: Super Sagan!

Race Report: Second in Het Nieuwsblad on Saturday, Peter Sagan wasn’t going to be outdone in Kuurne on Sunday. The World champion was the strongest and smartest rider, he went with the important move and played cat and mouse at the finish for his first of probably many wins of 2017.

The 2017 edition of Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne saw the World champion Peter Sagan claim his first victory of the season. The bearded Slovak, who escaped in the finale along with four other fugitives, got the better of last year’s winner Jesper Stuyven of Belgium and Britain’s Luke Rowe in a sprint for the line, and goes down as the third rider in history to claim the Flandrian semi-classic while wearing the rainbow jersey after Johann Musseuw in 1997 and Mark Cavendish in 2012.

Two hundred kilometers may seem an awful long way to ride one’s bicycle over hills and cobbles for the privilege of stepping on a podium and brandishing a toy donkey before a crowd of Belgians, but Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne prides itself on its specific identity.

The donkey in question is modeled after Ambroos, the mascot of Kuurne, whose statue is found outside the town hall. Legend has it that when one of the city’s priests became tongue-tied and could not remember a blessing for his followers, a colleague told him: “you were born an ass and will die an ass”, and the other, mistaking this for a cue, proceeded to bless the residents of Kuurne in those precise terms.

The second episode of Belgian cycling’s opening weekend after Saturday’s Omloot Het Nieuwsblad, Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne is a race with a reputation for springing surprises, and the first one of the day came before the starter pistol had even resounded, as news reached the crowds in Kuurne’s velodrome that Belgium’s Tom Boonen, the record holder for the most victories in this event with three triumphs, had failed to sign up due to gastric problems, instantly dampening the festive mood.  After crashing out of Het Nieuwsblad the previous day, the great ‘Tommeke’, who at 36 is participating in his final season before retirement, once again missed out on the action, to the consternation of his many supporters, decked out to a man in the blue of Quick Step Floors.

Stubborn as a mule
Proceedings got underway just before noon, beneath menacing grey skies, as the participants set off on a course that would take them eastwards in the direction of the Belgian capital before turning to the west and affronting twelve of the famous ‘hellingen’, the cobbled hills of Flandria, including the fabled Oude Kwaremont, one of the iconic climbs of the Tour of Flanders, and finishing off with a flat circuit around Kuurne.

The opening part of the race saw the riders barrel out of Kuurne and through the Bruegelian countryside at speeds approaching fifty kilometers per hour, as numerous pretenders sought an early ticket out of the peloton.

Within the first kilometer, the Franco-Belgian baroudeur David Boucher—riding for the Pauwels-Vastgoedservice outfit—went on the attack, only to be rapidly caught. The man from Maubeuge persevered, however, and after a series of fruitless attempts his obstinacy paid off.

It took some time for the day’s break-away to pull clear of the peloton but with just over 130 kilometers remaining, as the riders reached the day’s second climb, the Onkerzele berg, a group of nine formed at the front, comprising Boucher, Alexis Gougeard (Ag2r La Mondiale), Jurgen Roelandts (Lotto Soudal), Antoine Duchesne (Direct Energie), Guillaume Boivin (Israel Cycling Academy), Alex Kirsch (WB Veranclassic Aqua Protect), Sjoerd van Ginneken (Roompot), Sander Cordeel (Vérandas Willems-Crelan) and Maxime Farazijn (Sport Vlaanderen-Baloise).

Donkey work
At the approach of the day’s third climb, La Houpe, the gap between the escapees and the peloton stood at 4 minutes and 30 seconds, and this had increased to 6 minutes when they reached the foot of the fourth, the Kanarieberg. But subsequently the domestiques of the BMC and Quick Step Floors formations worked hard to keep the nine within reach and the trend was rapidly reversed.

As the break-away progressed over the successive stretches of cobblestones and the steep hills, it gradually lost personnel, and soon only Gougeard, Roelandts, Duchesne and Farazijn remained in contention, their lead now reduced to a matter of seconds.

Meanwhile, the peloton had splintered into several groups following an eventful ascent of the Oude Kwaremont. Offensives launched by Tiesj Benoot (Lotto-Soudal), Zdenek Stybar (Quick Step Floors) and Stefan Kung (BMC) caused heavy casualties at the back, as most of the sprinters lost contact and found themselves in a trailing group, while Sagan and his great rival Greg Van Avermaet (BMC), the winner of yesterday’s Het Nieuwsblad, moved into an elite group from which it became clear that the day’s winner would emerge.

The Fantastic Five
No man has ever won the Het Nieuwsblad and Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne double the same weekend but many had tipped Van Avermaet, ‘the Lion of Flanders’, who has long been suspected of closet Merckxism, to do just that by beating Sagan again.

However, any hope that the World and Olympic champions would resume their perpetual duel after yesterday’s spectacular clash of swords on the road to Ghent was soon dashed.

With 32 kilometers to the finish, the break-away was finally caught. Jasper Stuyven burst out of the group of favorites with 28 kilometers remaining but Sagan counter-attacked, accompanied by Matteo Trentin (Quick-Step Floors). The three were then joined by Lotto-Soudal’s young prodigy Tiesj Benoot and Sky’s Luke Rowe, who made a titanic effort to bridge the gap. FDJ’s Arnaud Démare, the victor of last year’s Milan-San Remo, hesitated to jump into their slipstream and he would not see them again before the finish in Kuurne.

The fantastic five made the most of the situation, co-operating diligently over the final circuit around Kuurne to prevent the return of those fast men that had been trapped earlier in the race.  Then, as the finish line came within sight, it was each man for himself.

Stuyven had been expected to attack in an effort to repeat his solitary run to victory the previous year, but the Belgian, under close surveillance, had little margin for maneuver, and it was instead Trentin that went for the jugular, chased down by Rowe. The Italian’s botched move opened the way for Sagan to accelerate and sprint to the line to scoop an apparently effortless victory.

Video and rider quotes in EUROTRASH Monday and Roadside from Ed Hood as soon as he has finished a Duvel and frites!

Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne Result:
1. Peter Sagan (Svk) Bora-Hansgrohe at 4:37:49
2. Jasper Stuyven (Bel) Trek-Segafredo
3. Luke Rowe (GB) Sky
4. Tiesj Benoot (Bel) Lotto Soudal
5. Matteo Trentin (Ita) Quick-Step Floors
6. Arnaud Démare (Fra) FDJ at 0:06
7. Greg Van Avermaet (Bel) BMC
8. Oliver Naesen (Bel) AG2R-La Mondiale
9. Zdenek Stybar (Svk) Quick-Step Floors
10. Baptiste Planckaert (Bel) Katusha-Alpecin
11. Jurgen Roelandts (Bel) Lotto Soudal
12. Luke Durbridge (Aus) Orica-Scott
13. Nikolas Maes (Bel) Lotto Soudal
14. Ian Stannard (GB) Sky
15. Stefan Küng (Swi) BMC at 0:11
16. Silvan Dillier (Swi) BMC
17. Jean-Pierre Drucker (Lux) BMC at 0:13
18. Dylan Groenewegen (Ned) LottoNl-Jumbo
19. Tom Van Asbroeck (Bel) Cannondale-Drapac
20. Rudy Barbier (Fra) AG2R-La Mondiale
21. Alexander Kristoff (Nor) Katusha-Alpecin
22. Aidis Kruopis (Ltu) Veranda’s Willems Crelan
23. Joeri Stallaert (Bel) Cibel-Cebon
24. Sam Bennett (Irl) Bora-Hansgrohe
25. Raymond Kreder (Ned) Roompot-Nederlandse Loterij.

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