Peter Sagan (Cannondale) won stage 1 of the VDK Driedaagse De Panne-Koksijde (Three Days of De Panne) on Tuesday in Zottegem, Belgium. The Slovak champion assumed control of the general classification after the first of three days of racing in West Flanders.
Arnaud Démare (FDJ) was second in a photo finish at the end of the 199-kilometer stage from Middlekerke to Zottegem. Alexander Kristoff (Katusha) was third.
Sagan, Démare, and Kristoff were part of a 10-man group that escaped the peloton inside the final 5km.
With the finish-line time bonus, Sagan holds a four-second advantage over Démare. Kristoff sits at :06, with defending champion Sylvain Chavanel (Omega Pharma-Quick Step) in fourth, at 10 seconds.
Goudin goes long, but not long enough
Damien Goudin (Europcar) was the last of the day’s breakaway riders to survive. The Frenchman held more than half-a-minute with 30km remaining, but it was not to be his day.
After pulling back a brief surge from André Greipel (Lotto-Belisol), Tom Boonen (Omega Pharma-Quick Step) led the peloton toward Gaudin’s rear wheel with just over 20km remaining. It wasn’t until 16km to go, however, that the bunch finally drew in the French winner of the Paris-Nice prologue.
Boonen, who decided after the weekend to start the four-stage race, remained near the front of the peloton for the bulk of the late running. The Belgian champion’s flag flew on the point over a number of the hellingen over the final 40km, working hard for former world champion Mark Cavendish and defending De Panne champion Chavanel.
“He’s very strong, even today, he wasn’t trying to win, but he was working strongly for Mark and Chavanel in the sprint,” Sagan said of Boonen. “He stayed at the front and pulled Omega Pharma-Quick Step over the cobbled climbs and pulled on the cobbled sectors; I think that on Sunday he’s going to be a big favorite.”
Sagan wasn’t interested in Omega Pharma’s designs on the race, however, and attacked immediately out of the left-hand corner leading into the race’s final climb, the Eikenmolen. Chavanel followed the acceleration, but was disinterested in the move surviving, with Cavendish behind them in the bunch. The peloton drew the tandem back and Alan Marangoni (Cannondale) countered, quickly taking an eight-second advantage.
“It wasn’t necessarily a difficult day. It was more difficult to control. Yeah,” said Cavendish. “Mostly a headwind, so you can’t break the race, so it’s difficult to ride.”
Sagan, Gatto launch the final selection
Omega Pharma gave chase, putting three riders on the front of the bunch ahead of Cavendish. The Cannondale man survived until 8km to go, and as soon as the bunch neutralized him, Sagan and Oscar Gatto (Vini Fantini-Selle Italia) immediately countered, drawing out Chavanel, Niki Terpstra (Omega Pharma), and a Lotto-Belisol rider who quickly dropped back to the peloton.
With 4km to go, there were four men on the front, two of them wearing the Omega Pharma banner.
“We tried with other riders in the escape, but it kept coming back,” said Sagan. “I tried going in an escape too, but everyone stayed with me.”
Four riders bridged across to the breakaway and Johan Le Bon (FDJ) immediately went to the front and strung the leaders out. Also joining the escape were Démare, Davide Cimolai (Lampre-Merida), and Maxime Vantomme (Crelan-Euphony), and then Jérôme Cousin (Europcar) and Kristoff.
Astana led the chase, 12 seconds behind, with 5km to go. Le Bon swung off the front, but Cimolai was unwilling to carry the work, forcing Gatto into the wind. The Italian took the impetus and attacked, but Sagan closed him down.
Chavanel then surged, and Sagan chased the Frenchman down as well. The Slovak’s presence in the breakaway was smothering, but Le Bon continued to work hard for Démare.
With 2km to go, the escapees held a 12-second gap over the bunch, with Vacansoleil-DCM and Astana on the point.
Le Bon pulled the leaders under the 1km to go banner. Chavanel sat near the back of the group, but Sagan kept his head on a swivel in second wheel.
“Luckily, the FDJ rider [Le Bon] started pulling too, and they were able to come back,” said Sagan. “That helped in getting to the finish. It’s not like I did all the work.”
Kristoff launched the downhill sprint up the center of the road with 500 meters to go.
“I managed to jump into the decisive group; I spent some energy and perhaps, I was not at 100 percent for the last sprint,” he said. “So, I tried a long sprint, because it was a little bit downhill, but deplorably it did not pay out completely.”
Sagan jumped as well, coming off the Norwegian’s right shoulder. Démare closed on the Slovak, but Sagan drifted toward the right barrier as the road veered left inside the final 100 meters, forcing Démare to sit briefly and reach out to tap his right hip.
Sagan took the win by a tire width in photo finish. The hesitation likely cost Démare the stage and leader’s jersey.
“To be honest, I didn’t see much,” said Sagan. “I hope he’s not going to accuse me of doing something untoward. … No, not too much of a problem, but I’ll let the judges decide.”
Officials met briefly after the finish to review the sprint and decided against relegating Sagan. Démare was coy after the finish.
“I gave a light touch to Peter along the way. It’s like that. You choose your lines and the commissaire made his decision. … We’ll see what [FDJ director] Marc Madiot has to say about it,” said Démare. “It could have been my first victory of the year and I’m a little upset about that. I’m in good shape and I’m disappointed.”
The Three Days of De Panne continues Wednesday with the 204km second stage from Oudennarde to Koksijde. It is the final tune-up event ahead of Sunday’s Ronde van Vlaanderen (Tour of Flanders).
“I’ll see tomorrow how it’ll go,” said Sagan of the race for the overall. “Last year, I was able to win the first stage and on the second day it didn’t go so well. I think to win the GC, the third day and the [time trial] all out, would be throwing away too much energy for Flanders. We’ll see tomorrow how it goes tomorrow, however, I think I did more good training today, rather than a true race.”