Alberto Bettiol surges out of the lead group on the Oude Kwaremont just as the breakaway pair of Dylan van Baarle and Kasper Asgreen are about to be a caught. Behind the group is a constellation of star names but none of them can shape events from this point on and Bettiol quickly takes a 20 second lead which he’d keep until he sat up to celebrate.
The early action was negative with Niki Terpstra crashing and apparently losing conciousness. He was taken to the hospital and because of the concussion apparently his team doctor has ruled him out of Paris-Roubaix, a brave call for his health.
Over the Muur van Geraardsbergen and Astana’s Magnus Cort attacked and over the top a group of 35 riders went clear with all the big names minus Oliver Naesen, Alexander Kristoff, Sep Vanmarcke and Sebastian Langeveld. Normally a move like this seemed destined to stay away, the riders had an interest to eliminate the rest of the field and they had a minute’s lead. Lotto-Soudal and Katusha-Alpecin looked like they were ordered into a punishment chase but they started to bring the group back and it worked. Imagine how different the race would have been if Kristoff, Vanmarcke and Langeveld were out of the picture?
Watching the race you wondered if there was going to be a sprint finish. Nobody seemed able to get away. Yes Kasper Asgreen, Stijn Vandenbergh and Vanmarcke were up the road and later joined by Dylan van Baarle but these felt like second fiddles doing a job for the team, or in the case of Vanmarcke, a workout before next Sunday’s Paris-Roubaix. But they hung out there with van Baarle and Asgreen staying clear until the final ascent of the Oude Kwaremont. Behind Jungels tried a move, Van Avermaet an acceleration and while these weren’t timid tests they didn’t force a selection either.
Bettiol attacked on the Oude Kwaremont just as van Baarle and Asgreen were about to get caught, the perfect moment to go. Van Avermaet led behind but didn’t couldn’t accelerate any more and the gap grew. Once Bettiol took 15 seconds he had a gap that nobody behind could zip across with a quick sprint and soon the others behind began to mark each other. Onto the Paterberg and van der Poel surged over the top and if he had a few metres on the others he was caught on the descent by the others. They tried rolling together but the gap didn’t fall so Greg Van Avermaet and Peter Sagan tried solo moves but this took more cohesion out of the group and those that did take a pull would look over their shoulder for the next rider to come through only to see the pink jersey of Langeveld idly blocking the others, a piece of teamwork as useful as Vanmarcke’s earlier attack. As the chase approached the final kilometer Asgreen surged ahead and Jungels got on the team radio urging him to keep going as he’d got a gap and he collected second place on his debut while Alexander Kristoff won the sprint for third.
A strange edition, the race never quite came alive. The dangerous move after the Kapelmuur was reeled in and if the big names were among the final group of 20 that began the Kwaremont-Paterberg, none of them seemed to shape the race. Did they cancel each other out? Bob Jungels tried an attack over the Hotond, Van Avermaet powered up the Kwaremont but each move got shut down as if they didn’t have an edge on each other. The most trenchant move came from Bettiol: this wasn’t a lucky break because he attacked right on the Kwaremont and rode away solo. He’s no household name – his victory salute of removing his sunglasses and pointing to his eyes was apparently a dig at the Italian media who don’t have eyes for him – but he’s long been a strong rider able to make people’s legs hurt in the final 20km of a race. In 2016 he finished the season ranked 47th in the world, not stardom but impressive for someone still eligible for the U23 ranks, and by placing in hard races like the GP Plouay. More recently he was strong rider in Tirreno-Adriatico this spring and Sanremo where he jumped on the Poggio. But here we are having to remind ourselves of this because he’s not a star name. In fact before the race the boss of Flanders Classics was vaunting the tough finishing circuit saying the likes of Bettiol simply couldn’t win on the course as it’s too hard. Oeps as they say in Dutch
Which brings us to the course. The circuit is becoming predictable. One of the features of racing in Flanders is knowing the terrain and the course. Only the large circuits around the Kwaremont and Paterberg reduce this technical aspect, as does the featureless run to the finish. It seems unlikely to change given this route compliments the VIP tents as guests can see the race three times but the more the riders race it, the more they know where to attack and also where not to, resulting in stalemate rather than action.
Finally if Bettiol won, Mathieu van der Poel almost deserves a prize for effort and resilience. He’d been in an earlier attack then he had a mechanical – it looked like his fork steerer had snapped – and crashed had with 60km go to and for a moment was sat on the kerb in the fateful collarbone clutch position. But seconds later he was chasing and after a long pursuit, some of it solo, he made it back to the lead group. Dynamic on the Paterberg in the finish and only Kristoff beat him in the sprint.