Luke Rowe and Greg Van Avermaet attacked up the Taaienberg. Normally the climb has been reserved for Tom Boonen but he and his team were absent this time and with over 55km to go the pair went clear with Tiesj Benoot and Peter Sagan joining them over the top of the climb. This was the moment the race was won.
The early break went and had all the usual ingredients of lesser teams alongside the irrepressible Alexis Gougeard of Ag2r La Mondiale: half jack-in-box, half Jacky Durand. Among them was Kai Reus, the Dutchman crashed in 2007 training solo on the Col de l’Iseran, Europe’s highest paved pass. He fell so hard he was in a coma for 11 days. They never got much of a lead but bought options over valuable TV coverage and without any threatening names or teams it left the bunch relaxed.
The early chase saw Katusha and Trek Factory Racing at work with the speed picking up as the cobbled sectors and climbs came. With the increased pace came the pressure as riders were seen swerving around parked cars and kerb-hopping and soon a crash took out Lotto-Jumbo’s Dennis Van Winden, Orica-Greendge’s Magnus Cort and Lotto-Soudal’s Tosh Van Der Sande.
The race sped to the Taaienberg and Belgium held its breath for the annual Tom Boonen outing that’s been as as a part of the spring ritual as flowers and birdsong. Only Etixx-Quickstep were not driving the bunch and Tom Boonen wasn’t in the box seats as they hit the early slopes. It was Luke Rowe of Team Sky and BMC Racing’s Greg Van Avermaet who clipped off. Moments later Tiesj Benoot gave chase, flashing past and identifiable thanks to his arched back, camel style. Peter Sagan took off next with friend and former team mate Daniel Oss briefly on his wheel for a moment before popping.
Suddenly there were four but was the Taaienberg test worth it? As much as Boonen has made famous moves here he’s tended to accelerate and blast away a few cobwebs all while benefiting from his frontal position in the race to blast away a few struggling riders before the race regroups and gradually refines and reduces. After all there’s 57km to go and the messy situation of a large breakaway up ahead. To complicate things further Etixx-Quickstep had missed the move and were sure to chase.
Etixx-Quickstep did start chasing but it took them almost 10km to get going and it seemed as if Sporza were a moto down for a moment as there were no images from the chase. Soon after the pictures picked up Tony Martin went down, sliding away on a left-hand turn and his fall sent Niki Terpstra straight into the spectators. They’d regroup again but were faced with a dilemma: chase and they’d just tow everyone into Gent for free or face the wrath of the Belgian tabloids for not trying. They opted to chase again but the gap was not falling and didn’t have much help with Lotto-Soudal licking their lips given Benoot was up the road.
Ahead the four were ploughing past the remnants of the breakaway and caught the final four escapees in neo-pro Julien Morice of Direct Energie but already a bronze medallist in the track pursuit worlds last year, Gougeard and Brecht Dhaene and Kai Reus of Verandas Williams. These survivors latched on to the four stars and had every right to sit tight but knew if they could just hang in they’d be sure of a top-10 placing. Behind the chase continued in a half-hearted way with various counter-attacks with IAM trying two moves, Sylvain Chavanel showing, and the longest move by Jasper Stuyven of Trek who was potato-hunting until he slid out on a bend and got caught by the bunch. Others had their accidents too, notably BMC Racing when one crash took out Philippe Gilbert, Jempy Drucker and Daniel Oss.
The final cobbled sector came. The Lange Munte is flat and relatively even, the kind you can drive fast over in a large car but it’s exposed and crosswind quickly unpicked the early breakaway riders. But Gougeard wasn’t done and in an act of superb haulage to make his truck driver dad proud heaved his way back to the lead four once again.
It was now poker time with the four riders and Gougeard beginning to mark each other and taking a soft turn here and there. It wasn’t visibly slower but it the gap was falling and as they road into Gent there was little more than 20 seconds in it. Were they going to stay away? This question was the preoccupying one instead of trying to work out who would win the sprint.
Cycling’s version of the Schrödinger’s Cat paradox arose once more: Van Avermaet always finishes second and so does Peter Sagan so what happens when they contest a finish together? Meanwhile Benoot had been looking very strong all day and the uphill run to the line suited his power and relative lighter build. As for Rowe, he’s got track craft and had beaten Alexander Kristoff and Arnaud Démare to win the bunch sprint here a year ago. It made for an open sprint and when Van Avermaet started Peter Sagan chased but could not close him down on the uphill drag yet alone overtake him leaving the Belgian to finally take the win he wanted after years of near misses. Gougeard salvaged fifth place just ahead of what was left of the peloton, just over 30 riders, led by Jens Debusschere.
Looking ahead is Van Avermaet cursed? Of course not and this would could take the pressure off him now which will only help him. Rowe was both bold and strong on the Taaienberg and should be around from here to Roubaix, ditto Tiesj Benoot. Peter Sagan put any doubts about his form away and in case you’re wondering, he’s kept his hairy legs. As for the others Alexander Kristoff backed off after being caught by a crash and then a mechanical and will be back for Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne. Gougeard has been an early breakaway specialist but has the power to match the big names but easier said than done, he’s a giant diesel and if latching onto today’s quartet takes giant stamina having the explosive power to match Sagan and Benoot uphill is another matter. If anything his team will let him keep playing, “Gougou” is still 22 and tied to the team until the end of 2018.
The big absentee was Etixx-Quickstep. When asked by Sporza what happened Patrick Lefevere quipped “we’ve won, but in France” after Petr Vakoč had taken the Classic Sud Ardèche before lamenting Tony Martin’s crash and the way it took out Terpstra too. But where was Tom Boonen? He wasn’t full of beans on the Taaienberg and told the media that he’d been out of position and never had the legs to follow the eventual winners.
The Verdict: the long winter break is over. As good as some races have been so far this year they’re never as tactically complex nor offer excitement and uncertainty for so long. This was a superb edition with a long range attack that never got a minute on the bunch and the time gap was plunging as they raced into Gent to add to the tension. Gougeard was never going to win but the other four all had their cards to play and it was only the final metres that we saw Sagan could not pass Van Avermaet.