by La Course En Tête

Race analysis by Nick Bull | Main photo by Alex Broadway/ASOCorVos/SWpix.com

What is it about Deceuninck-Quick-Step and Gent-Wevelgem? The race may lack some of the importance of other one-day WorldTour events in March and April, but somehow the all-conquering Belgian team haven’t won it since Tom Boonen sprinted to glory in 2012.

With 35 kilometres of Sunday’s race remaining it appeared that Sam Bennett had a chance of ending their surprisingly barren run; the Irishman having made it over the final ascent of the Kemmelberg – just – as part of an elite lead group. Fast forward 30 minutes of racing and Bennett had been seen throwing up over the road and then getting spat out, a dumping more unceremonious than the love of your life leaving you by WhatsApp message. Glory instead went to Wout van Aert (Team Jumbo-Visma), who has seemingly learned quickly from his over-exuberance in Friday’s E3 Saxo Bank Classic. He was the fastest in a seven-rider sprint, finishing ahead of Giacomo Nizzolo (Team Qhubeka ASSOS), Matteo Trentin (UAE-Team Emirates) and Michael Matthews (Team BikeExchange).

In Deceuninck’s defence, their one-two-five in Friday’s E3 meant that this final pre-Flanders weekend was still a success. The Ronde will be different, surely, given that Julian Alaphilippe, E3 winner Kasper Asgreen and Tim Declearcq will be back in action for them there. For today, at least, their rivals should enjoy the way they ganged up on Deceuninck here and won.


Bennett’s presence as the sole Deceuninck rider in the front group of 25 when the international TV feed began showed how badly the Belgian team’s day had played out in the opening 150 kilometres of the race. They weren’t the only team on the backfoot, however: for example, only one INEOS Grenadiers rider – Michal Golaś – had managed to stay with the leaders when echelons wreaked havoc on the approach to the Scherpenberg. That’s right: Deceuninck uncharacteristically found themselves caught out in the wind. “We wanted to split the race ourselves, but it didn’t go,” Yves Lampaert told Sporza. “Then we let ourselves be surprised a bit and 20 guys rode away. After that it was a whole day of trying.”

Eventual winner van Aert only had Dutch team-mate Nathan Van Hooydonck for company, while Team BikeExchange were in the enviable position of having four riders (including Matthews) up front. Nonetheless, with the gap to the peloton hovering around 80 seconds, the race was far from over. 


Deceuninck sprang into life on the Baneberg, the race’s third listed climb, when Davide Ballerini and Zdeněk Štybar accelerated out of the peloton. They were followed by Oskar Riesebeek (Alpecin-Fenix), who appeared to be on his limit, and BikeExchange’s Luke Durbridge, who naturally wasn’t going to co-operate. Despite essentially being a two-up time trial, this group reduced the time gap from 1’10” to just 45 seconds within four kilometres. 

After the first ascent of the Kemmelberg the group increased in number as they caught the likes of Jasha Sütterlin (Movistar), Laurenz Rex (Bingoal – Wallonie Bruxelles) and Yevgeniy Fedorov (Astana), all of whom were dropped by the leaders on the climb. Rex and Fedorov were in the day’s original five-rider breakaway, so they were also not particularly useful to Deceuninck. 


The efforts of Ballerini and Štybar pulled the group to within 23 seconds of the leaders with 81 kilometres remaining. It’s the closest they got to the leaders for the rest of the race. Štybar’s frustration with the lack of cohesion within the chase group was apparent when he was seen urging other riders – who by now included AG2R Citroën’s Oliver Naesen, who didn’t commit fully given that his team-mate Greg van Avaermaet was a few seconds back in group three at this point – to co-operate. The two chasing groups rejoined shortly after.


BikeExchange made use of their numbers up front to set the pace on the Plugstreet Hill 63 gravel sector. In doing so they increased their gap to over a minute again, before one of their quartet – Luka Mezgec – punctured approaching the feed zone.

The next 10 kilometres became a battle with BikeExchange and AG2R, as the French team picked up the chase behind on behalf of Naesen and van Avermaet. Michael Schär’s pacesetting will quickly be forgotten given that the team didn’t ultimately place a rider in the top 10 let alone come near the win, but the Swiss’ work brought the chasers to within 35 seconds of the leaders. It took for the advantage to grow to 55 seconds for Deceuninck, alongside Groupama – FDJ, to take over the responsibility again.


An acceleration from van Aert over the top of the Kemmelberg triggered the race-winning move: only eight other riders were able to follow the Belgian as he made light of the cobbled climb. His mini-attack was set up on the lower slopes by Van Hooydonck, who, crucially for van Aert, managed to stay on the right side of the split.

Behind, Lampaert led the peloton up the climb but there was still no cohesive chase effort. It was so disjointed that, instead of following his team-mate when he formed a short-lived four-rider group coming off the descent, Štybar let his wheel go. In doing so he took himself, van Avermaet, two Lotto-Soudal, INEOS and Team Total Direct Energie riders (including Anthony Turgis, who went on to finish ninth) among others out of the chase. Had Lampaert been attempting to ride away for the win this would have been a smart tactic. Alas, he wasn’t. As a result, the main group fell from being a minute behind the leaders on the lower part of the climb to 1’42” in arrears going into the final 50 kilometres. 


Despite how questionably the team were riding behind, Bennett was still in contention approaching the final ascent of the Kemmelberg, albeit the one passage of its steeper Ossuaire side. The Irishman notably marshalled van Aert on the lower slopes and even hit the cobbles in third wheel to allow himself sliding room. Impressively he stayed in contention over the top, however the effect of this effort quickly became apparent (more of that shortly). Van Hooydonck, the only rider who lost contact on the climb, quickly rejoined the leaders on the descent. 


The sight of Sam Bennett vomiting – we’ve deliberately not used that screengrab here and you’re welcome – was the unsubtle sign that his race was all-but run. Impressively, the Irishman managed to stay in the lead group for nearly 20 more kilometres after this unplanned reacquaintance with his lunch. “I made a mistake, as I ate a lot during the race,” he said. “I didn’t want to run out of fuel, but I overdid it and had too much in my stomach inside the final hour of racing, which everybody could see when I threw up. Because of this and the effort I put in during the day, it just happened and I ended up going from one extreme to another, as after this I was completely empty and had no more energy left.”

Behind, Lampaert and Štybar continued to form part of a 12-rider chase group that never looked like getting close to the leaders. The gaps between them went from being 55 seconds with 30 kilometres remaining to 1’20” with 20 kilometres to go and 1’04” inside of 10 kilometres to the finish, which strongly suggests the severity of today’s race. 


The least surprising move in this fantastically unpredictable race came when Jumbo-Visma sought to make their numerical advantage among the lead group count. Van Hooydonck’s attack-by-stealth over the top of a small incline owed a lot to van Aert’s smart decision to let his team-mate’s wheel go. Stefan Küng (Groupama-FDJ) shut it down but it was too much for both Bennett and Danny van Poppel (Intermarché – Wanty – Gobert Matériaux). The two sprinters were dropped. Behind, Lampaert tried one last attack but it was futile.

After his biggest threat was ruled out of contention, and Van Hooydonck had done a splendid job of marshalling any accelerations on the run into the line, van Aert delivered a confident sprint in Wevelgem to take the victory. He hit the front 150 metres out and won relatively easily, although Nizzolo would have run him closer had he not been boxed in. 

Having arguably been the strongest rider in last October’s race, the much-publicised showdown with Mathieu van der Poel in which he accused the Dutchman of racing negatively to stop him from winning, van Aert issued his Flanders warning shot on Sunday afternoon. “As it was only a group of about 20 guys, we had to do a lot of turns,” said van Aert “It was a whole day in the crosswinds. It was a massive effort, but it was  definitely worth it.”

Lampaert was Deceuninck’s highest finisher in 14th, nearly a minute-and-a-half down on the winner. “It’s a shame that I can’t deliver a result,” he said. “On the Kemmelberg I was always among the best.” The Ronde can’t come soon enough for the wounded Wolfpack.

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