ZOTTEGEM, Belgium (VN) – German sprinter André Greipel wins a lot of bike races, but not often from a breakaway.
But that was the scenario at Tuesday’s opening stage of the Three Days of De Panne, where the Omega Pharma-Lotto rider jumped into a move with 64km remaining and then made the final selection with 22km to go.
A dwindling peloton full of sprint teams and GC favorites was determined to bring the move back, but in this non-radio run UCI Europe Tour event, poor communication, combined with poker-face tactics, gave Greipel just enough room to finish the job.
The big German, whose muscular physique has earned him the nickname “The Gorilla,” jumped from the break 200 meters from the line, holding off his breakaway companions — and the peloton — for the win.
Along with Greipel, riders in the break were Dmitriy Muravyev (RadioShack) and a pair of time-trial specialists, Lieuwe Westra (Vacansoleil), and Vladimir Gusev (Katusha).
With Westra and Gusev both keen on taking time from the field, Greipel found himself in a rare situation — alongside breakaway companions that were willing to go to the line with him.
“It’s something new for me, to ride in the breakaway,” Greipel said. “But I was at the front when the move went, and I had to cover it.”
Gorilla gets away
Conditions were pleasant for the 181-rider field to race De Panne’s toughest stage — 194km from the coastal town of Middelkerke to Zottegem, near Ghent. With temperatures in the mid-50s and light wind, the course brought riders across the finish line in Zottegem a total of three times — once to begin a closing loop that was then completed twice.
After an early move of eight riders opened up a small gap, several riders bridged across on the first of two trips over the Valkenberg climb. RadioShack’s Michal Kwiatkowski and HTC’s Matt Brammeier crept off the front of the pack, joined by Greipel, Gusev and Murayvev.
A bridging group also came together, with Westra, Kevin Ista (Cofidis), Gert Steegmans (QuickStep) and Andriy Grivko (Astana) working to get across. Steegmans and Westra made contact with the leaders, while Ista and Grivko sat up and waited for the pack.
On the pavé of Hagghoek BMC’s Alessandro Ballan attacked, drawing out Sébastian Rosseler (RadioShack), Sylvain Chavanel (Quick Step) and Tiziano Dall’Antonia (Liquigas). Climbs that remained were the Leberg, Valkenberg, Eikenmolen and Stuivenberg, which came at 5km to go.
Vacansoleil’s Westra was first to attack the breakaway on the Leberg climb, however Steegmans jumped on his wheel and shut it down. Greipel was next to attack, but also failed to open a gap. Gusev also took a shot, with Muravyev smothering his wheel; tired from pervious efforts, Westra and Greipel struggled but clawed their way on. Eventually the four riders opened a decent gap with 22km to go; it would be the winning move.
Behind, Chavanel reached Steegmans, and together with Ballan they drove the first chase group. Over the Valkenberg a second time, Westra and Muravyev dropped Greipel and Gusev, but again Greipel fought his way back on, joined by Gusev.
With 18km to go, Greipel’s group held a 38-second lead over the Ballan/Chavanel group, with the pack a full 1:23 behind.
Westra was first to attack on the Eikenmolen climb, but he was again unable to drop his breakaway companions. The Chavanel group was swallowed up by the peloton with 4km to go, with Greipel’s group at just four seconds. It looked to be all but over, but with 2km to go their lead had grown to 10 seconds.
“I was surprised at Gusov and Westra,” Greipel said. “They kept attacking each other. If we had worked together they would have had a guaranteed place on the podium for the overall.”
Inside the final kilometer it was too close to call. But confusion, combined with a collective hesitancy to drive the chase, played into the breakaway’s hands. After the race, BMC’s Manuel Quinziato told VeloNews he hadn’t known Greipel was in the winning breakaway.
Just like at Ghent-Wevelgem on Sunday, the breakaway was caught inside the final 400 meters. Unlike at Ghent-Wevelgem, however, the riders from the break were able to hold off until the finish line — but barely.
Westra finished second, Muravyev third and Gusev fourth, with Romain Feillu (Vacansoleil) bringing home the peloton in fifth, in the same finish time; not even a bike length gap separated Feillu from Gusev.
“It’s not the best way to win,” Greipel said of his time trading pulls at the front. “I’m tired now. But it’s good to try something different. It was a special way to win.”
With the win, Greipel took the overall lead, however he pointed to Westra as the strongest man in the breakaway — and his pick for the overall win.