Michael Valgren has gone solo and Sep Vanmarcke gives chase in the final straight. The strongest rider didn’t win, the strongest team did.
An early break of eight riders went. A forlorn move in terms of race tactics but good for the TV airtime, to satisfy the organiser who gave them a wildcard and for several local riders in the breakaway a moment to enjoy the adulation of the public. Besides it was a way to keep warm too given the arctic conditions; Niki Terpstra told TV he’d smeared his face with Vaseline to help battle the cold.
100km later and the clothing was peeling off and the action started. No this isn’t the start of an erotic diversion, instead riders were rolling off their leg warmers and removing jackets and gilets, a literal sign things were hotting up. With the early breakaway up the road splintering the peloton looked dense, a sign riders were jostling for space on the narrow roads. Philippe Gilbert attacked on the Leberg with 77km to go. He won in 2008 with an attack Eikenberg and staying away solo for the remaining 49km but this time he wasn’t so incisive, a theme for several other moves. Quick Step were trying to control things but looked like a walker with an untrained dog. Several riders kept pulling on the leash, like BMC’s Stefan Küng.
The Molenberg mattered and there was a sprint to the start of the climb. Bryan Coquard surged up as if he was after the Strava segment for quickly as he appeared he’d vanished. Still the acceleration had the effect of forcing a selection as Van Avermaet and Zdeněk Štybar. As they were brought back Silvan Dillier attacked and was joined by a serious looking group with the likes of Michael Matthews, Tim Wellens, Arnaud Démare and Oliver Naesen among others and they took 25 seconds at one point but were hauled back.
With an hour to go Ag2r La Mondiale and Lotto-Soudal were all over the race but there are no prizes for showing early. Alexis Gougeard and Tiesj Benoot took a flyer but this part of the course was open and exposed. On the Berendries Wellens attacked and a serious move of ten riders went clear with Van Avermaet, Štybar, Sep Vanmarcke and a confident Edward Theuns among them. Wellens and Benoot did the old 1-2, a tactic that’s worked well before and Benoot launched into the lead solo and adopted his familiar style with his back arched. He was to stay away for a while but all by himself and duly ran out of energy.
The race thundered into Geraardsbergen with Arnaud Démare dropped into place by Ramon Sinkeldam, a useful signing by FDJ. Sep Vanmarcke launched up the climb and quickly got a gap as a serious group of contenders closed in over the top of the climb. This was the move that was going to stick but it wasn’t a happy one as riders took turn to fire themselves clear. The presence of Sonny Colbrelli and Matteo Trentin meant several feared the sprint. Astana took turns to attack and with 2.5km to go Valgren made his move. Trentin gave chase briefly, the others looked at each other and the Dane was away for the win.
The jury’s out on the new route, previous editions have seen constant action and selection, this time the winning move went very late in the race. Did the new route work? Nostalgia is often taken to mean a fond yearning for the past, the good old days. But once upon a time it was a medical diagnosis, an illness that thwarted marching armies. Yes the old Ronde was great but the route was in danger of delivering a bunch sprint and if they’d persisted with the course it probably would have happened by now. The Muur-Bosberg combo is good but preceded by a lot of flat roads and tarmac climbs and there was a definite lull on the approach to the climb. Still this was a lively race with attacks flying for two hours, compare that to the desert(ed) processions of late.
For Valgren it’s his biggest win. Belgian TV resorted to explaining “he’s not come from nowhere” and “he’s a big talent” and they’re right but having to explain this live on air is evidence it was a surprise triumph. Astana worked well together with Alexey Lutsenko suggesting his stage win in Oman was not the result of weight-loss or a different focus but brute force and Oscar Gatto was in the mix too. Solidarity in the face of their shock financial woes? More likely the result of their form really. Valgren says he’s totally confident in the team’s financial situation but unless he’s an expert in Kazakh politics in his spare time this is probably something he needs to say. More on this subject on Monday.
Quick Step didn’t deliver and already the Belgian media are asking questions of them. Lampaert tried to haul himself across to the lead group but cracked within sight of it. Newspapers need to be sold and pages clicked but there’s worthwhile subject to explore after their relative discretion over the weekend. Štybar was strong but if he makes the kopgroep can he finish the job?
Among the others Wout van Aert had a very good Ronde too and we’ll see more of him in the coming weeks with with Strade Bianche and then more spring classics but can he keep the form up, he’s been on an intense cyclo-cross season for months. Sep Vanmarcke was very strong but didn’t win, the story of his career perhaps but if he can stay lucky then a trophy awaits. Meanwhile Greg Van Avermaet looked strong but not the strongest and he’s a marked man. The same for Oliver Naesen and to a lesser extent Arnaud Démare who are instantly recognisable with their national champions jerseys. Łukasz Wiśniowski has been Team Sky’s cherry on the openingsweekend‘s icing with his podium on Saturday and a top-10 on Sunday.