WEVELGEM (VN) — With enough time to pop a celebratory wheelie across the finish line, Peter Sagan (Cannondale) won a weather-shortened Ghent-Wevelgem on Sunday.
The Belgian semi-classic, held in freezing conditions, got off to a slow start before a dangerous 11-man breakaway went clear with 60km remaining. From that group, Stijn Vandenbergh (Omega Pharma-Quick Step) was first to make a bid for victory, but it was Sagan who drove away with 4km to go.
Sagan’s breakaway companions dithered for a moment — who will chase? — and it proved a moment too long.
Bernhard Eisel (Sky), Yaroslav Popovych (RadioShack-Leopard) and Greg Van Avermaet (BMC Racing) finally launched a pursuit, but it was too little, too late, and the remainder of the break was racing for second place.
Sagan — who finished second at Ghent-Wevelgem last year and has already finished second this year at Strade Bianche, Milano-Sanremo and E3 Harelbeke — hit the red kite with 17 seconds over his erstwhile mates, who set about attacking each other instead of chasing.
The Slovakian champion looked over his right shoulder twice, then raised his right hand and pointed skyward before his finish line wheelie. Bozic took the sprint for second, with Van Avermaet third and Haussler fourth.
“I’ve been waiting to win one of the big northern classic races, which I rate the best of all and which really inspire me as they are made for riders like me,” Sagan said.
“This race might not be on the same level as the Milano-Sanremo or the Paris-Roubaix but all the same it’s my first major win in a classic and I’m very proud of it.”
A chilly day on the job
With 100km to go the bunch in its heavy winter kit was disintegrating and coalescing under pressure from a variety of interest groups, as well as the harsh, cold conditions.
Ten kilometers down the road Juan Antonio Flecha (Vacansoleil-DCM) rolled off the front, chased by Assan Bazayev (Katusha) and Matthieu Ladagnous (FDJ). The three linked up and quickly took 30 seconds, then 45 on the Catsberg.
World champion Philippe Gilbert (BMC Racing) briefly flexed his muscles then; Sagan and his Cannondale mates instantly took notice, and that was the end of that.
The break, meanwhile, kept taking time. With 80km remaining the Flecha trio had an advantage of 1:15 and was on the Kokereelberg, the third of nine cobbled climbs on the shortened 183km course. Behind, RadioShack-Leopard, BMC, Cannondale and Sky were visible at the front of the pursuit.
Still, with 75km remaining the gap was out to more than two minutes.
Gilbert tries again
Gilbert showed himself again at the foot of the Baneberg — the first of two ascents of the cobbled climb —but the bunch responded quickly.
With 65km to race the leaders’ advantage had fallen back to 1:15. Behind, Belgian champion Tom Boonen (Omega Pharma-Quick Step) clipped a curb at the right side of the road and crashed out of the chase. Sprawled on a sidewalk, clearly in some pain, the defending champion took quite some time to get rolling again only to abandon shortly thereafter.
Another marquee name, Friday’s E3 Harelbeke winner Fabian Cancellara (RadioShack), also called it quits before the finale, at 69km to go, choosing to preserve himself for next Sunday’s Tour of Flanders.
The break reached the first of two ascents of the Kemmelberg with 1:16 over the field. But with 60km to go the gap was just 30 seconds and soon the chase had the break in its sights. Heinrich Haussler (IAM Cycling) had a dig out of the bunch just before the catch came with slightly more than 50km to race, and soon a second break had formed and gone up the road.
The final trip up the Kemmelberg, with 46km remaining, saw first Flecha, then Sagan take charge of the pace-setting. Van Avermaet and Bozic were there, along with Eisel, Popovych, Vandenbergh, Haussler, Ladagnous, and Andrei Amador (Movistar). Sagan was the only rider in the move with a teammate, in Polish rider Maciej Bodnar.
The leaders had 1:20 with 40km to race. Behind, Omega Pharma was setting pace for Mark Cavendish. Also eager for a battle were Gilbert and Andre Greipel (Lotto Belisol).
Ten kilometers further on the gap was holding steady. With 26km remaining Haussler came forward and injected a bit of pace, but with 20km to go it was again status quo.
The break started monkeying around with 12km to go — nobody was eager to bring Sagan to the finish — and with 8km remaining its advantage was under a minute as the peloton sprang to life.
The gap was just 40 seconds with 6km remaining. Bodnar was on the front and driving for Sagan, then peeled off with 5km to go.
Vandenbergh tried to make a race of it, but it was no contest — when Sagan went, with 4km to go, he was gone.
“In the final I just attacked as it was my only chance, so when they reacted and got on my wheel, they were a little bit fresher,” Vandenbergh said. “There was no chance for me to react to Sagan’s move.”
Van Avermaet found himself in the same boat.
“When Sagan went, I tried to follow him but it wasn’t possible,” he said. “I think Sagan is a bit stronger than the rest of us for the moment. But I don’t think I did a bad sprint, it gives me confidence. My condition was already good in Milan-San Remo and E3. After today, it is nice for me and the team to see I’m good. I needed [this result] today for my head.”
As for Haussler, he said there were too many passengers in the group.
“I had good legs, my form is coming, just like in Sanremo and Harelbeke, it was all about positioning, rather than the legs,” Haussler said. “Too many people in our group were sitting on. It was pretty much me and the Cannondale riders [driving the pace]. I knew Sagan was going to be the strongest, I was just worried about the group coming from behind.”