Peter Sagan attacks up the Kemmelberg. He went on to win the sprint but his attack was the definitive moment as only a two other riders could follow him up, over and down the landmark climb. This was the moment the race was won.
There’s a storm warning coming and the wind was getting up from the start making for a nervous peloton. The day’s breakaway was given more time then usual with 11 minutes at one point but then caught earlier than usual. Among the non-starters were Alexander Kristoff of Katusha and Ian Stannard of Team Sky forcing their squads to hatch last minute alternative plans.
The nervousness took its toll. Fernando Gaviria was caught out by crashes but carried on while Jens Debusschere crashed into a ditch and Nacer Bouhanni bailed too. A nasty collision with a motorbike took out Wanty-Groupe Gobert’s Antoine Demoitié and at the time of typing reports say he’s in intensive care.
With 70km to go the peloton was reduced into what could fit across the road. Five riders got away in Daniel Oss (BMC Racing), Tiesj Benoot (Lotto-Soudal), Giacomo Nizzolo (Trek-Segafredo) and Matteo Trentin (Etixx-Quickstep). It was unlikely to be the race-winning move but it forced the others to chase with Dimension Data and Lotto-Jumbo the most visible on the front and for once Etixx-Quickstep hadn’t missed the move so they got to rest all their other riders. The quintet worked well together but the chase behind slowly reeled them in and with just over 50km to go they were hauled back.
At this point Katusha’s Viatcheslav Kuznetsov took a flyer. It was one of those moves everyone else seemed happy to let go, no rider especially the unheralded Russian was going to stay out there alone to Wevelgem. But as we’ll see it was a good move.
As Kuznetsov forged ahead the race took on the air of a slow procession towards a sprint. Gaviria was still in the bunch with plenty of EQS team mates while Arnaud Démare, Bryan Coquard and Jürgen Roelandts were there too. But not everyone could wait for the sprint and an impatient Team Sky accelerated and then Sep Vanmarcke attacked over the Baneberg.
The rode onto the Kemmelberg and this time it was Peter Sagan who attacked with Fabian Cancellara and Sep Vanmarcke following him. Zdeněk Štybar, Luke Rowe and Greg Van Avermaet were close by, a second or two away, but on the descent this second trio couldn’t close the gap to the first.
Once again Etixx-Quickstep had missed the move and were forced to lead the chase with occasional pulls from Lotto-Soudal and even Démare was visible taking a tow on the front. Etixx-Quickstep chased with Boonen reduced to the role of a domestique, grimacing as he pulled on the front: the very symbol of his team’s struggles right now. But the gap was growing and Sagan, Cancellara and Vanmarcke swept up Kuznetsov who, in the words of Blondin, resembled a passenger in the first class wagon with a second class ticket.
As they raced towards Wevelgem the gap was 40 seconds for the lead four bit nobody was playing cat and mouse in the lead group until the flamme rouge, it was here that they began to look around and Cancellara’s elbow was jerking like it wanted chicken tonight. He was also wobbling his legs and it turned out he was cramping up. Sagan could wait for the sprint of course but Cancellara and Vanmarcke have won sprints from groups before on raw power. Kuznetsov? He’s part of Kristoff’s lead out train and knew what to do too, plus he’d been sitting on the back of the group at times too. The Russian launched the sprint and Sagan followed him, passed and kept going to take his first win of 2016 and become only the second world champion to win Gent-Wevelgem since the imperious Rik Van Looy. It’s Sagan’s second win and his fourth time on the podium here. As he stood on the podium a downpour washed over the beaten riders crossing the line nearby and out in the fields beyond a rainbow appeared.
The Verdict: the race split up early and this eliminated a lot of riders. It brought a cagey phase in the race were many seemed afraid to attack given the crosswinds, open roads and with an hour to go the race looked as if it was heading for a sprint finish. But Peter Sagan had other plans and attacked on the Kemmelberg. Sep Vanmarcke had been very active too and they were joined by Cancellara. This set up a thrilling pursuit as the lead four were often insight of the chasing bunch behind led by a committed Etixx-Quickstep and this meant suspense all the way to Wevelgem and once the chase had given up thoughts turned to who would win the race, was Sagan finally going to get that win? The result wasn’t obvious until the final 10 metres.
Behind Démare won the sprint for fifth place ahead of Gaviria. Once again Etixx-Quickstep missed the move, this time Zdeněk Štybar was close but could not make it across and condemned the whole team to chase, a task which they could not do despite the presence of Stijn Vandenbergh, Tom Boonen and Niki Terpstra, normally huge engines who can match a breakaway. Kuznetsov though merited his place up there given he’d attacked alone and had been solo in the wind for the best part of 25km before the trio reached him.