Michał Kwiatkowski jumps with 250m to go. Peter Sagan tries to sprint but is quickly distanced by the Pole, his long term rival, who condemns him to yet another second place. This was the moment the race was won.
There was a minute’s silence for the bomb victims in Brussels and the country has yet to regain its festive mood for obvious reasons. Out on the course this Good Friday fathers and sons visible but the holy gueuze was not flowing so freely. After the race nobody was shaking the Kwaremont beer bottles on the podium afterwards either.
Pre-race pick Greg Van Avermaet was a non starter, “digestive problems” said the team, a precautionary withdrawal, he’s still planning to ride Sunday’s Gent-Wevelgem. The early break went but these days it never stands a chance. Once upon a time the early move could succeed, a slim to anorexic chance but possible. Nowadays the breakaway is kept to within five minutes and there’s not even the pretence of a chance. With 85km to go the race was rushing towards the hellingen hotspots and Team Sky, BMC Racing, Lotto-Soudal and Etix-Quickstep were massing at the front like there was a bunch sprint coming up in two kilometres.
They hit the Taaienberg and Tom Boonen was there. But he couldn’t lead, instead Jürgen Roelandts was first and Boonen settled in behind and was soon wrestling with his bike and began to lose ground. This wasn’t vintage Boonen but his form is maturing nicely in time for Paris-Roubaix and he still made the cut of a very selective move.
“Wat een kopgroep” said Belgian TV, what a lead group of riders with Boonen, Zdeněk Štybar, Niki Terpstra and Matteo Trentin of Etixx-Quickstep, Roelands and Tiesj Benoot for Lotto-Soudal plus Sep Vanmarcke (Lotto-Jumbo), Lars Boom (Astana), Daniel Oss (BMC Racing) and Fabian Cancellara (Trek-Segafredo). All of Team Sky missed the move and set about chasing with Peter Sagan on their wheels.
Cancellara made the move but suffered a mechanical. If he was up the road his team car was well behind the shattered bunch and the wait for a spare bike took ages. First he tossed his bike, then picked it up and waited by the road with his arms crossed like an Uber client impatiently waiting for the ride to show. He was on the wrong side of the road though and had to walk out in front of the vehicles to flag down the Trek-Segafredo car.
Cancellara’s chase back was part of the action especially of memories of 2011 when he’d punctured and then rode through the groups to eventually win solo. Was Cancellara just giving them a headstart once again? He was back on a mission again and chasing with intermittent help from his team mates and others. At this point Etixx-Quickstep held all the cards, they had numerical superiority in the lead group and duly put Tony Martin to work to try and keep it this way. Only moments later Štybar punctured, the first hiccup and for all the chasing, riders were getting back to the group including Team Sky with Peter Sagan hitching a ride.
Cancellara was still chasing but he and the others couldn’t close the gap before the Paterberg-Oude Kwaremont combo so he had to go off in pursuit himself as team work is little use on these climbs and he took Štybar with him. Up ahead Niki Terpstra lead on the Oude Kwaremont and slowly began to pull a group of riders away but it was Sagan who put the big move in and suddenly another select group formed with him, Matteo Trentin, Terpstra, Boonen, Benoot, Vanmarcke, Boom, Kwiatkowski, Stannard, Oss, Drucker and soon Cancellara got across with Štybar too.
Onto the climb of the Karnemelkbeekstraat – literally “Butter milk stream street” – and the enlarged group looked too big, especially with Sagan lurking as the sprint danger. So of course Sagan attacked. It made sense though, there was no point waiting for Etixx-Quickstep to gang up on him and if a few riders came across to him then his chances of winning increased. Kwiatkowski followed and Trentin tried but couldn’t close the gap.
Slowly the Central European tandem was riding away; a tentative ten second gap become a stable 30 second advantage. The two have been rivals since the junior days when they won everything north and south of the Tatra mountains, even clashing in Italy and beyond and it’s continued since, you might remember Kwiatkowski beating Sagan in the 2014 Strade Bianche race. In a straight sprint between the two you’d back Sagan but this wasn’t an ordinary finish. Sagan knew he didn’t have any team mates behind so he had to keep the break away. Kwiatkowski had Ian Stannard behind, sat tight on the Etixx-Quickstep riders once again.
So the odds were tilting to the Polish rider. Was he going to try a late attack? The run in to Harelbeke offered few ambush moments and besides Peter Sagan is hard to outwit when it comes to exploiting corners and traffic islands. With the gap falling to 10 seconds with a kilometre to go Sagan was obliged to lead and keep working and at 250m to go Kwiatkowski jumped, an attack instead of sprint and Sagan was beaten in two seconds.
The Verdict: an entertaining race that was both defensive and aggressive. Sagan’s probing attacks on the Oude Kwaremont and Karnemelkbeekstraat set up the winning move but Kwiatkowski could count on a team mate so he was able to make Sagan work while behind Etixx-Quickstep played it cagey, unable to chase for fear of being exploited by the others yet unwilling to give up. Fabian Cancellara’s mechanical changed the race, for TV viewers it provided added drama but meant he wasn’t force he could have been in the finale. Team Sky will be pleased with the win but, just like Sagan, really want to a win a Monument instead.
Peter Sagan does look like someone who’d finish second on a solo training ride right now but he was the one who attacked on the Karnemelkbeekstraat when he could have played it safe. He was the one who had to drive he breakaway because he didn’t have a team mate behind and in the final couple of kilometres as the gap began to fall he had to keep riding. So he provoked the winning move and kept it going, something few others are capable of.
The big losers of the day are Etixx-Quickstep. They had numerical superiority in the break with four out of 15 riders but Matteo Trentin couldn’t follow Sagan and Kwiatkowksi when it mattered. The cream rose to the top on the Karnemelkbeekstraat and the Italian just didn’t have it; it was a big ask to expect him to match the current and previous world champions. But if Trentin missed the move, the whole team faced a dilemma, expend energy in a chase while the likes of Tiesj Benoot, Sep Vanmarcke and the fast-finishing Jempy Drucker of BMC Racing were sat tight on their wheels? The only hope was a slow chase where they’d haul back the lead duo who’d be cooked and then use Trentin and Boonen in the sprint. Only that didn’t happen, it turned out they didn’t place one in the top-10. A small loser was Alexander Kristoff, distanced today and in the morning he said his numbers in training have been as good as last year but the Norwegian media say he could be ill.
It all bodes well for the Tour of Flanders but there’s plenty to come in between with Gent-Wevelgem and the Three Days of De Panne. Cancellara, fourth today, looks irresistible now.