Wevelgem’17: Van Avermaet – King Of The Kemmel!

Race Report: Greg Van Avermaet capped off a marvelous long weekend for him and the team by taking another win on the Belgian cobbles. Meanwhile, Quick-Step once again had a tactical meltdown.

It was a marvelous day for racing, with a bright sun and warm weather greeting the riders. An early nine man break went and despite early echelons formed by the Quick-Step team, it was a large peloton who took on the first ascent of the Kemmelberg. The climb was crucial for the break though, after its steep cobbled ramps only Loïc Chetout and Preben Van Hecke remained in the lead, it was soon just Van Hecke left versus the massed ranks of the peloton. The key point was always going to be the second ascent of the Kemmelberg. Greg Van Avermaet drove hard from the very bottom and only Peter Sagan and John Degenkolb could follow him. The lead group swelled but as the attacks continued there were just five men left standing; Van Avermaet, Sagan, Terpstra, Kragh-Andersen, and Keukeleire. Quick-Step’s numerical advantage had disappeared and they were soon to be put in even more trouble as Sagan, unhappy at the disparity in workload, let a gap open and allowed Van Avermaet and Keukeleire to forge clear. This was the key point, and although the chasing trio got close, they could never catch the two Belgians again and Van Avermaet proved himself to be a clinical finisher as he grabbed yet another victory for the year.

Gent-Wevelgem takes place a week before the Tour of Flanders and it’s essentially a light version of the more famous race. It’s slightly shorter, at 249km with fewer hills, 11. It’s often a rare chance for a sprinter to come out on top in this part of Belgium but the route has been made significantly harder since the days when the riders were treated to two ascents of the Kemmelberg but a pan flat route aside from that.

Last year, Peter Sagan had the beating of a select group of four riders and then went on to win the Tour of Flanders a week later. The weather this year is beautiful, summer skies and temperatures with a stiff breeze blowing in from the North Sea. The riders will appreciate the dry conditions on the cobbled sections and climbs but the wind will be an unwelcome addition on the exposed sections.

Fast Start
The attacks were quick to start but slow to form and after 20km it was still gruppo compacto. Finally, with 30km gone a nine man break formed featuring; Ryan Mullen (Cannondale-Drapac), Preben Van Hecke (Sport Vlaanderen-Baloise), Mark McNally (Wanty-Groupe Goubert), Jay Robert Thomson (Dimension Data), Elmar Reinders (Roompot-Nederlandse Lotersij), Loïc Chetout (Cofidis), Hugo Houle (Ag2r-La Mondiale), Dennis Van Winden (Israel Cycling Academy), Christophe Masson (WB Veranclassic Aqua Protect). The gap very quickly shot out to six minutes when FDJ clawed the break back in and they settled around the 5.30 mark.

With 60km gone the crosswinds struck and QuickStep Floors grabbed the baton and split the peloton up and immediately reduced the gap to 4.30. QuickStep were driving through and they were putting serious pressure on the rest of the peloton as they melted further and further back behind the peloton. The winds died down and with 100km gone the peloton merged back together and the break bulked up their advantage to 7.45.

The roads in this region and very narrow and crashes are inevitable. The first one featured pre-race contender Arnaud Demare (FDJ), Stijn Vandenbergh (Quick-Step Floors) and Oliver Naesen (Ag2r-La Mondiale) were the biggest casualties. They all got back up but it was an unwelcome excursion in this hard race.

A dusty day in Flanders

High Profile Splits!
The race settled down as the riders focussed on the upcoming climbs and the gap to the breakaway remained constant. BMC had enough of the ceasefire though and they cranked up the pace and blew the race apart once again. The main riders had all made the front split and as the winds eased once more the echelons reformed and it was all back together again.

With 75km to go, the break hit the Kemmelberg for the first time and Loic Chetout hit the front which immediately but Masson under pressure. Masson was clinging on though and made it to the top within spitting distance of his fellow breakaway riders.

Team Sky were driving the pace for the peloton on the climb but they weren’t firing any bullets off yet and it was all together as they crested the climb and started off their lap around the climb. There were attacks from the front of the peloton by Daniel Oss (BMC) and the LottoNL-Jumbo team but nobody was really in the mood to upset the status quo and the peloton were quickly heading towards the final 50km of the race.

The break of the day

Meanwhile, up ahead the break had received the memo to blow the race up and after the Kemmelberg descent there was just Chetout and Van Hecke left standing as the winds began to blow once more. The peloton was reduced to an elite 50 riders and there was a near constant stream of attacks from this group, but none were sticking yet. They had a deficit of 1.30 on the leading duo but as of yet, no team were willing to throw all their riders to the front.

Kemmelberg Once More
The leading duo were the first to hit the unpaved Plugstreet with 60km to ride. The second part of the peloton had arrived at just to wrong time and it was a 80 strong peloton that hit the Belgian Strade Bianche. The peloton took it very easy though, maybe deliberately so? The road rose immediately after the gravel and both Zdenek Stybar and Matteo Trentin (Quick-Step Floors) drove clear of a peloton which was now lined out in one straight line filled with riders gasping for air through the dust.

It was all too much for Luke Rowe (Sky) who was dangling out the back of the long line. His peril was ignored briefly though as Alexander Kristoff (Katusha-Alpecin) had encountered a puncture and was forced to change front wheel with his team mate as the pace continued to click up a few notches at the front. It was a disaster for the Norwegian as he was caught in no man’s land behind the peloton.

Zdenek Stybar was strong on the gravel

Out front, Van Hecke had gone it alone and Chetout was absorbed back into the peloton, his valiant efforts over. The Quick-Step duo of Stybar and Trentin had been joined by Edward Theuns (Trek-Segafredo) and they were with the earlier break dangling 15 seconds off the head of the peloton. Their efforts were in vain though and they were brought back by the BMC led chase to leave Van Hecke alone in the lead with a 40 strong mob closing him down.

That mob was soon to be reduced as a crash took down Tony Martin (Katusha-Alpecin) and a gaggle of riders, the German was in no hurry to get back on his bike. It was a bad day for Katusha, Kristoff was back within touching distance but he’d chased entirely by himself and the hardest part of the race was yet to come.

Van Hecke had sat, pained expression on, for the last chunk of the race but he was finally beginning to fall back into the BMC led peloton. The team of Greg Van Avermaet were the most populous and they continued to crank up the tempo as they headed back towards the Kemmelberg once again. As soon as Van Hecke was caught, Daniel Oss went clear, the Italian was on exceptional form and he was throwing some stiff body blows on behalf of his Olympic champion team mate.

Daniel Oss was a big help for his team leader

The peloton were committed but the pace wasn’t sky high and Jasper Stuyven (Trek-Segafredo) and Yves Lampaert (Quick-Step Floors) went briefly clear but Bernie Eisel (Dimension Data) put a stop to their fun with 35km left to run. It was Eisel’s last action as he promptly blew up and fell out the back of the peloton.

The Kemmelberg was upon us though and Scott Thwaites (Dimension Data) led the peloton onto the climb. The Brit was quickly swamped by Van Avermaet who smashed into the climb and flew clear. Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe) was the only man who could get close and John Degenkolb (Trek-Segafredo) was dangling a little further behind.

The trio joined forces at the bottom of the descent but the lead group doubled in size as Edvald Boasson Hagen (Dimension Data), Stybar and Niki Terpstra (Quick-Step Floors) made the run for home. The lead group was again increased in size as Thwaites, Naesen, Trentin, Sonny Colbrelli (Bahrain-Merida), Alberto Bettiol (Cannondale-Drapac), Jens Keukeleire (Orica-Scott), Michael Matthews & Søren Kragh-Andersen (Sunweb) all joined in. The lead was 30 seconds over the Lotto Soudal and Sky led chase group but the leaders were fighting amongst themselves and the gap was beginning to fade. There were tired bodies in the lead group and a gap opened up which sent Keukeleire, Sagan, Van Avermaet, Kragh-Andersen and Terpstra disappeared up the road. This was increasing their lead on the peloton but it was bad news for QuickStep who had ceded their numerical advantage.

The gap between the two lead groups was stretching out beyond the 20 second mark and, with 17km left, it looked to be a battle between the leading five and the peloton, 40 seconds behind. QuickStep weren’t riding, Krag-Andersen wasn’t keen to ride and Sagan didn’t want to take the full burden and the trio had a staring contest as Van Avermaet and Keukeleire found themselves alone at the front of the race.

Sagan blinked first and he attacked to close the gap, Terpstra was forced into work and he dragged Kragh-Andersen back to the Slovakian but they were track sprinting once again. Whilst they were fighting a phony war, the duo up front were forging clear.

The ‘Top Men’ of Wevelgem ’17

Cats and Mice
It was two against two, Kragh-Andersen wasn’t willing to take a turn and the gap between the groups continued to grow to 15 seconds. Sagan wasn’t willing to let any extra cars hitch on his train and a stern look forced the Dane through for a swift turn.

There was no such in-fighting by the leaders as they made it into the final 8km. Their advantage wasn’t growing significantly though and they were still within a distance that Sagan could close down with a hard attack. The leading duo continued to fall further and further towards the grasp of the chasing trio, the gap was now just 8 seconds and the chasing peloton, 48 seconds down, were back in the frame.

5km to go, Kragh-Andersen was coming through but he wasn’t contributing much to the chase. It was back to two on two and that was showing in the time gap, it was back out to 10 seconds. 4km to go, Terpstra was drilling it with Sagan but the gap wasn’t reflecting that hard work, it was out to 11 seconds, then 12. 3km to go, the peloton were no longer in with a chance of the win and it was going to be a victory for one of the front five. It was looking less likely to be a victory for the second group on the road, the gap was now the best part of 20 seconds as the duo up front unflinchingly continued their insatiable drive towards the line.

Another win for the Olympic champion

Van Avermaet led them under the red kite and Keukeleire was glued to his wheel. The Orica-Scott rider wasn’t willing to come through but then, inexplicably, he went to the front. Van Avermaet was in a giving mood and he overtook his fellow Belgian as they made it into the barriers. The chasing trio were in shot, Van Avermaet wasn’t biting though. The Olympic champion went with 300m to go, he had Keukeleire pinned to the barriers. The Orica Scott rider wasn’t fading though as he tried to squeeze between the crowd and his rival. The line came too soon though and Van Avermaet punched the air to celebrate yet another win on the cobbles after taking Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, E3 Harelbeke and Ghent-Wevelgem.

Behind him, Peter Sagan capped off the podium ahead of Terpstra and a ridiculously fast finishing peloton. John Degenkolb was the best of the rest but this was all about the leading five riders. Greg Van Avermaet is in the form of his life and a win next week at Flanders is looking less of a possibility and more of a probability.

Gent-Wevelgem Result:
1. Greg Van Avermaet (Bel) BMC in 5:39:05
2. Jens Keukeleire (Bel) Orica-Scott
3. Peter Sagan (Svk) Bora-Hansgrohe at 0:06
4. Niki Terpstra (Ned) Quick-Step Floors
5. John Degenkolb (Ger) Trek-Segafredo
6. Tom Boonen (Bel) Quick-Step Floors
7. Jens Debusschere (Bel) Lotto Soudal
8. Michael Matthews (Aus) Sunweb
9. Fernando Gaviria (Col) Quick-Step Floors
10. Sacha Modolo (Ita) Team UAE Emirates
11. Maxime Vantomme (Bel) WB Veranclassic Aqua Protect
12. Bert Van Lerberghe (Bel) Sport Vlaanderen-Baloise
13. Sonny Colbrelli (Ita) Bahrain-Merida
14. Juraj Sagan (Svk) Bora-Hansgrohe
15. Christophe Laporte (Fra) Cofidis
16. Søren Kragh Andersen (Den) Sunweb
17. Sam Bennett (Irl) Bora-Hansgrohe
18. Jos Van Emden (Ned) LottoNl-Jumbo
19. Edward Theuns (Bel) Trek-Segafredo
20. Guillaume Van Keirsbulck (Bel) Wanty-Groupe Gobert
21. Ian Stannard (GB) Sky
22. Oliver Naesen (Bel) AG2R-La Mondiale
23. Coen Vermeltfoort (Ned) Roompot-Nederlandse Loterij
24. Daniele Bennati (Ita) Movistar
25. Marco Marcato (Ita) Team UAE Emirates.

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