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Wevelgem’15: Paolini’s Perfect Performance!

Race Report: All but dead in the water on the final haul up the Kemmelberg – and there was plenty of it landing across Flanders today – Luca Paolini produced an outstanding and tactically immaculate win in Gent-Wevelgem today.

The veteran Italian put a powerhouse six-man escape to the sword and soloed home under leaden skies for a career-best win. Niki Terpstra and Geraint Thomas made the podium on a brutal day. Paolini pointed to his head and heart on the line – the two things that get a rider through a day like this, with crashes, chaos, wind and rain. Maybe you’re not the favorite, maybe you’re not the strongest but in bike racing you never give up fighting or thinking, two of the Katusha man’s great attributes.

As a six-man lead group entered Wevelgem, with the tactical situation as delicate as a china teacup on a picnic table surrounded by rowdy Flemish fans, Paolini hit his rivals where and when it hurt them most. He opened the gap straight away and while Etixx – Quick-Step coulda/woulda/shoulda shut him down… they couldn’t.

How it went down
An utterly miserable looking day, and a lot of utterly miserable looking riders trundled out of Deinze this morning with a farmers’ protest to navigate.

It was a day for strong men (and women, too, as the ladies raced Gent-Wevelgem, Liv-Plantur’s Floortje Mackaij winning) and the early breakaway had some very serious horsepower: Movistar’s Alex Dowsett, Jesse Sergent for Trek Factory Racing and Tinkoff-Saxo’s Pavel Brutt were the more recognised motors but Mirko Tedeschi was there for the Southeast Team, along with Tim Kerkhof for Roompot, Giant-Alpecin’s Albert Timmer and Alexis Gougeard for AG2R-La Mondiale.

They built a gap of over eight minutes as the race battered it’s way towards the coast before the inevitable collective panic attack as the road turned into the wind at Adinkerke. Approximately 100kms in, there was a massive pile-up, which was not necessarily a surprise. And there was a Trek Factory Racing rider clambering out of the ditch, which was not necessarily a surprise given their run of luck lately. Gert Steegmans was the unlucky rider, but he wasn’t the only one. Etixx – Quick-Step’s Martin Velits broke his collarbone, to unfortunately join his twin Peter on the sidelines.

Gent - Wevelgem  WT 2015Crash! One of many

Mark Cavendish was caught up in it and had to chase, and we’d already lost the illness-afflicted Pippo Pozzato and Fran Ventoso by this point, too. That chaos left three distinct groups – escape, peloton, chasers – scattered across about a four minute spread on the road. With 133kms to race, a grim-faced Cavendish had finally renewed his acquaintance with the back of the peloton; the magnificently bedraggled seven up front had just under two minutes.

One of the most bizarre and baffling things to witness today were the constant on-bike wrestling matches between riders and their clothing – a furious Demare (FDJ.fr) versus his gilet and his mechanic attempting to haul the errant garment into the team car. And then Sylvain Chavanel in a heavyweight title grudge match with his jacket, screaming at his team-mate to pull harder as it jammed on his left wrist – what was the poor guy supposed to do? Yank so hard that Chavanel ended up on the deck?

Approaching half-distance, house-sized Belgian Classics specialists were getting blasted across the road by the wind. There were mini-echelons everywhere, the main field not in a happy place.

To compound Cavendish’s mood, he suffered a puncture on the run to the Casselberg for the first ascent. Sagan led the front group up. By the second ascent, through and under the Porte d’Aire, the initial seven had long been toasted, and a new front group had formed, about 30 riders – multiple representation from LottoNL-Jumbo, Lotto Soudal, Etixx – Quick-Step and Katusha, but E3 winner Geraint Thomas (Sky) and Peter Sagan (Tinkoff-Saxo) seemed alone. Terpstra (Etixx – Quick-Step) and Haussler (IAM Cycling) were dropped due to mechanicals.

Gent - Wevelgem  WT 2015A hard day at the office

The last 100K’s
100kms to go, and the two front groups had a happy if damp reunion, but Maarten Tjallingii didn’t fancy the company and jumped away alone. Over the Baneberg, there was a lot of action, with Quinziato (BMC) trying to stretch things on the run to the Kemmelberg; Andre Greipel (Lotto Soudal) was noticeably climbing well, with Tjallingii still a minute clear.

79kms to ride and Tjallingii ground his way onto the Kemmelberg for the first time – in slow-motion, given the weather, his lead disappearing under an Etixx – Quick-Step onslaught behind.

On the Monteberg, there was a bit of a go-slow as riders had a stretch, some food and drink; Jurgen Roelandts jumped away past Tjallingii. Headed out of Wulverberg, the wind hammeredthe riders – a Katusha rider’s gilet tried to lift him off the ground, a roadside cafe’s sign battered one way and then another.

Stybar punctured, and moments later for some reason, Vandenbergh rolled away on a slight dip in the road, with Oss (BMC) and Thomas (Sky) getting up to him.

Jack Bauer (Cannondale-Garmin) performed like his TV namesake, bodyslamming an errant bike into the ditch after getting what looked like a Cofidis musette stuck in the rear mech. No such problem for the five chasers (Thomas, Oss, Debusschere, Vanmarcke, Vandenbergh) behind Roelandts. A little black-clad figure appeared behind them in the gloom – a fantastic chase from Paolini, and this little group of six is now 50” behind the lone leader, and 1’10” clear of the main group with 60kms to go.

Then Thomas got caught by the wind on a wet corner and somersaulted onto the verge and out of the lead … temporarily, as he ground his way back in less than 4 kilometers.

50 to the line
Approaching 50kms to go, there was no togetherness in either the chasers, or the peloton, as Roelandts stretched his lead to 2’03” on the chase (who looked like they were riding through superglue as Terpstra got across) and over 3’35” on the field. Sagan, Van Avermaet and Demare were frustratedly caught in the main field, unable to chase because they had team-mates up the road, or just no team-mates at all.

Roelandts took on the Baneberg again with 47kms to go, two minutes up – the chasers barely moving as they faced a brutal headwind. The peloton had effectively chucked it by this point, five minutes down.

Can Roelandts do it?
40kms to race for Roelandts who entered Kemmel again and over the nice, neat, little town-centre cobbles… before hitting the beastly berg, a speedbump in the road knocking his earpiece out. The effort was now starting to tell as Roelandts rocked and rolled and wrestled his way skywards; a brass band belted out jaunty tunes, but it would have been more appropriate if they were playing funeral marches on such a grey, grim day. Terpstra stretched the chase pulling Thomas clear, but Oss and Paolini were in big-time trouble.

Gent - Wevelgem  WT 2015What could have been

30kms left for Roelandts, but his lead had fallen under a minute as he picksed up a tailwind on the run-in to Wevelgem. LottoNL-Jumbo’s Vanmarcke and the Etixx duo did the bulk of the work as Debusschere did precisely zip. Paolini makes a desperate effort to get past a flailing Oss and pulls himself back onto contention.

Under an old city gate for the lone leader as he stretched his thigh muscles, past the Flanders Fields Museum, and the lead was steadying at 37 seconds. Under the haunting Menen Gate and out of the town again.

20kms to go and 20 seconds for the suffering Roelandts -the chase was right there now, and Vandenbergh jumped. Thomas had to chase, towing Debusschere and Vanmarcke. Terpstra flatted, so knackered he could hardly unclip. The mechanic wrestled a bike off the roof. This changed the dynamic again as Roelandts was done. 17.7 kms to go and he’d ridden 60 clicks alone.

Terpstra’s directeur sportif Wilfred Pieters helpfully waved him through as he chased back, surprisingly resisting the temptation to chuck something through the window as he went by.

Terpstra attacked now, with “good old Paolini” (© Sporza) on him in a flash; Thomas got left to pick up the chase and it was a pursuit race for the Welshman.

Three duos spread across the road with 13kms to go: Paolini/Terpstra; Thomas/Vandenbergh; Vanmarcke/Debusschere. Then Thomas ditched his anchor and it was three up front.

Ten kilometers left as Vandenbergh maked it four up front, with a desperate, touching distance, nodding-dog chase from Debusschere and Vanmarcke.

7.5 kms left saw Vandenbergh with a gearing problem as there was a regrouping – now all six together.

Gent - Wevelgem  WT 2015The big win for the man with the beard

Paolini has gone!
6 to go and Paolini tried, with no immediate reaction. It should have been up to Etixx – Quick-Step to burn either Vandenbergh or Terpstra, but it was no ordinary tactical day. The veteran Italian was utterly committed and going away with 5kms to race. No-one wanted to tow Debusschere to the line, but someone had to act. Terpstra blinked first and Thomas was on him again.

But Paolini was not to be denied, hurtling under the red kite and an amazing Gent-Wevelgem was in the bag. A man-of-the-match perfomance from the Italian, but a huge mention for Roelandts – he didn’t get the win, but he got a huge slice of the glory for making the race on such a brutal day.

Gent-Wevelgem Result:
1. Luca Paolini (Ita) Katusha in 6:20:55
2. Niki Terpstra (Ned) Etixx – Quick-Step at 0:11
3. Geraint Thomas (GB) Sky
4. Stijn Vandenbergh (Bel) Etixx – Quick-Step at 0:18
5. Jens Debusschere (Bel) Lotto Soudal at 0:27
6. Sep Vanmarcke (Bel) LottoNL-Jumbo at 0:40
7. Jurgen Roelandts (Bel) Lotto Soudal at 1:52
8. Daniel Oss (Ita) BMC at 4:15
9. Alexander Kristoff (Nor) Katusha at 5:12
10. Peter Sagan (Svk) Tinkoff-Saxo.
11. Edward Theuns (Bel) Topsport Vlaanderen-Baloise
12. Aleksei Tcatevich (Rus) Katusha
13. Juan Jose Lobato Del Valle (Spa) Movistar
14. Zico Waeytens (Bel) Giant-Alpecin
15. Arnaud Demare (Fra) FDJ.fr
16. Jean-Pierre Drucker (Lux) BMC
17. Scott Thwaites (GB) Bora-Argon 18
18. Mathew Hayman (Aus) Orica-GreenEDGE
19. Florian Senechal (Fra) Cofidis
20. Sylvain Chavanel (Fra) IAM Cycling.

39 riders finished.

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