Zdeněk Štybar makes his move in the final approach to Ninove just after Greg Van Avermaet has closed down a big attack from Tim Wellens leaving the pair in the red. It was the final move of a busy race with attacks flying throughout the final two hours.
When does the season start? Officially it started on the the 23 October 2018 with the Tour of Hainan and claims otherwise just revealing preferences and bias. But there’s something comforting about the openingsweekend and the start of the Belgian season. It’s like meeting an old friend you haven’t seen for a year and being able to pick up where you left off the last time. The guy with the “Luc” banner, the comforting voice of Michel Wuyts on Sporza, the leaden skies above and the betonweg roads below, it’s like these things never went away, and a year on they’ve just been waiting for us to return.
The race had a slow start, so slow that the women’s race had to be halted for seven minutes as they were in danger of catching the men. An early move went clear with Tom Devriendt (Wanty-Groupe Gobert), Alex Howes (EF Education First), Roy Jans (Corendon-Circus) and Tom Wirtgen (Wallonie-Bruxelles). Things looked sleepy until 90km go and then moves started to happen. This is one reason the Flemish races are so popular because the action can erupt with two hours to go. Here ace cards were being played already as a group of 21 riders went clear with the likes of Zdeněk Štybar (Deceuninck-Quickstep), Oliver Naesen (AG2R La Mondiale) and Ian Stannard (Sky) in the group to name just three. One team that missed the move was CCC and they set about chasing and with hindsight this might have cost them riders they wanted for the finish as the large group hovered around a 40 second lead for the next 15km on the bunch.
With 51km to go Philippe Gilbert accelerated on the Kerkgate cobbles and only Wout van Aert and Greg Van Avermaet could follow, again aces making moves from afar. Things reformed but on the Molenberg with 40km to go and a group of 17 riders drifted clear and caught Devriendt as the last rider from the early move. Sensing the good move had gone, Nils Politt (Katusha) tried to bridge, Sep Vanmarcke (EF Education First) too but their moves lasted for seconds. Among the 17 riders in the lead it’s easier to list who wasn’t there and Sunweb for Mathews, EF Education First for Vanmarcke and Direct Energie for Terpstra led the chase. Up front there were no surprise passengers and they were rolling through but their lead was struggling to reach 30 seconds thanks to the chase behind.
Into the Elverenberg and Lotto-Soudal’s Tiesj Benoot wiped on a corner, stumbling into the doorstep of a house by the road, looking winded and fortunately nothing more serious. The accident split the group with six riders in the lead over top of the berg: Štybar, Greg Van Avermaet (CCC), Alexey Lutsenko (Astana), Štybar, Daniel Oss (Bora-Hansgrohe), Tim Wellens (Lotto-Soudal) and Teuns (Bahrain-Merida). The latter two impressed, normally creatures you find in the Ardennes in April but both have expressed a wish to ride more of the cobbled classics this year; after the race Wellens was telling TV he’d ask his team about riding even more.
Down to six and Kazakh champion Lutsenko looked like a tour guide escorting visitors around the Flemish bergs, it all looked so easy. But it was a race and having recently won on the Jebel Akhdar there was no difficulty tough enough, or rather long enough, to shake his rivals here. Onto the Muur – the crowds looked light – and only Oss was detached, the other five were going to the finish together.
Van Avermaet attacked at the foot of the Bosberg but was quickly marked by Štybar and over the top Lutsenko tried a move but they were all together for the approach to Ninove. Van Avermaet tried a long acceleration, he had no team mates behind – that chase earlier? – so kept wanting to go clear as if he feared a sprint with the others and had to keep the group clear because they had a slender lead. The chase group was led for a long time by Luke Durbridge, toiling for his sprinter Matteo Trentin.
Wellens put in a big move, diving to the far side of a large traffic island but Van Avermaet accelerated and caught the move and with the two riders in the red it was time for Štybar to make his move. He surged clear, his cadence visibly higher as if he didn’t want to make that tell-tale “clunk” of the chain dropping into the 11T before a big attack.
He got a gap but only just but with Wellens and Van Avermaet chasing they’d just made their moves and both were looking backwards. Lutsenko then tried to chase but he too was craning his neck to see what has happening behind. Štybar was away it was Czechmate for the others.
Entertaining but not a vintage edition, but this is judging by the high standards of past editions such as the suspense of 2016 when Van Avermaet got the better of Sagan or Ian Stannard taking apart Quick Step in 2015. It bodes well for the rest of the classics season. It’s good be back.