John Degenkolb (Giant-Shimano) won Gent-Wevelgem by half a wheel in a crash-marred bunch sprint on Sunday.
A late break containing Silvan Dillier (BMC), Stijn Devolder (Trek) and Andrey Amador (Movistar) had just been retrieved as the race entered its final kilometer. A crash in midpack disrupted the dash to the line, and defending champion Peter Sagan (Cannondale) led out the sprint, only to see both Degenkolb and Arnaud Demare (FDJ.fr) blast past him at the line.
“This is one of the big classics, I am very happy to get this victory. It’s the next step for me,” said Degenkolb. “I won a WorldTour race in Hamburg, and no disrespect to them, but this is a really big, big race. It’s great to win here. It was very hectic in the finale. I was in good position and could make my sprint.”
A five-man break went early in the 233km race from Deinze to Wevelgem — Sebastian Lander (BMC Racing); Manuele Boaro (Tinkoff-Saxo); Jacobus Venter (MTN-Qhubeka); Marcel Aregger (IAM Cycling); and Frederik Veuchelen (Wanty-Group Gobert).
With 70km to go, the break’s advantage had been cut to two minutes. Ten kilometers further along, the escapees had lost another 30 seconds, along with Lander. With 50km remaining, the bunch was just a half-minute behind, and Boaro decided to go it alone.
The Tinkoff-Saxo rider took an edge of 1:14 into the final 45km, with the final ascent of the Kemmelberg approaching. Behind, a crash disrupted the chase, taking down Luca Paolini (Katusha) and a number of other riders.
Boaro crested the Kemmelberg alone. But Sagan and Fabian Cancellara (Trek Factory Racing) were leading a fractured pursuit, with Tom Boonen (Omega Pharma-Quick Step) along for the ride, and they had him in the crosshairs with 37km to go.
With Boaro retrieved, Dillier had a dig 22km from the finish, drawing out Devolder and Amador. The trio built a double-digit lead, and Guillaume van Keirsbuick (Omega Pharma) tried and failed to bridge to them.
Cannondale, Giant-Shimano and Lotto-Beliosol were on the front of the bunch with 15km to go and the escapees nearly a half-minute up the road, working well together.
Garmin-Sharp, Tinkoff and Omega Pharma contributed men to the chase with 12km remaining, but the gap held steady at more than a half-minute as the break saw 10km to go.
A crash took down Andrei Greipel (Lotto), Tyler Farrar (Garmin) and a couple of NetApp-Endura riders, and subsequently some of the steam went out of the chase. Five kilometers out the gap held firm at 30 seconds as the lead trio continued working together.
But Lotto, Cannondale and Omega Pharma kept driving the chase as the race came to Wevelgem, and suddenly the gap started coming down, to just a dozen seconds with 3km remaining.
The catch came at the red kite marking the final kilometer. Another pileup made a hash of the run to the line, and out of the chaos Sagan went first, only to see Degenkolb power away to a narrow victory ahead of Demare.
“The final was very hectic,” said Degenkolb. “There was a big crash with 8km to go, when Farrar and Greipel were there. I just saw Farrar lying there, with his hands protecting his head. I could just come through the crash, I was lucky not to crash.
“Last Sunday, I had the most disappointing day of my cycling career. Today, everything went 100 percent better for me than last week. I am very happy to win this race.”
Devolder was disappointed to see the escape fail, but said the near-miss was an indication that his form was coming along.
“I believed in our chances until about 2km to go. We were working well together,” he said. “This shows I am ready for the big races coming up. This week, I will train behind the motorcycle to finish off my form. The legs are feeling good.”
Belkin’s Sep Vanmarcke, who just missed the podium, finishing fourth, was likewise hopeful of better things down the road.
“I tried something on the second passage up the Kemmelberg, but the weather was too good today, because normally under this pace, I can break up the peloton,” he said. “I have showed to myself that I am ready for the coming weeks. I have the condition. I’ve been consistent in all these races.
“So far, I have been in the top five in every Belgian race I’ve started. Of course, what I want is the victory.”
• The official medical report said that Greipel and Andreas Schillinger (NetApp-Endura) may have broken collarbones in their crashes. “Riders crashed behind André, but a bike that catapulted through the air hit André and so he crashed. His shoulder hit the kerb,” said Lotto’s Marc Sergeant. “This is a disappointment for André and the entire team. He’s our finisher in many races. In the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix he could have helped the team a lot.”
• BMC’s Greg Van Avermaet and Klaas Lodewyck likewise hit the deck, but the team reported no serious injuries.
• Sky’s Ian Stannard visited the hospital with back pain, while Movistar’s Fran Ventoso may have fractured an ankle, the medicos reported.
Editor’s note: European correspondent Andrew Hood contributed to this report.