We start as the racing began to kick off, which in these semi-classics is usually around 40km or 1 hour of racing remaining. We were immediately treated to Yorkshireman and World-Tour debutant Tom Pidcock [Ineos-Grenadiers] pulling a monstrously strong turn to rapidly close the gap, solo, from the peloton to the late breakaway. This late break as it usually does in classics, contained all the main protagonists who were the favourites for the win. The escape included, naturally, three Deceuninck-Quickstep riders in the form of the brilliant Julian Alaphilippe, Davide Ballerini, and Zdenek Stybar. Have we already mentioned Tom Pidcock. Other Favourites included Matteo Trentin [UAE Team Emirates], Greg Van Avermaet [AG2R-Citroen], Oliver Naesen [AG2R-Citroen], Christophe Laporte [Cofidis] Sep Vanmarcke [Israel Start-Up Nation]. Key helpers in the move were the likes of Luxembourg champion Kevin Geniets [Groupama-FDJ], Yevgeniy Fedorovo [Astana-Premiertech], Arjen Livyns [Bingoal-Wallonie-Bruxelles] and Michael Gogl [Qhuebeka-Assos]. Most notably however was that the youngest man in the race, Olav Kooij [Jumbo-Visma] was mixing it up in the front group. Now I’ve raced him personally as he was a big rival to my team Spiderking Soenens in 2019. Myself, Axel Van Der Tuuk, Bodi Del Grosso and Mathias Vandenborre were constantly fighting him and his team WWV throughout the season. Inspirational to see him up there.
Phew, that was a long list wasn’t it. The favourites pushed hard over the famous rolling cobble section of the Haaghoek, leading into the series of Leberg and the Berendries. Two staple climbs in the heart of flanders, and probably the two most known least influential climbs in the race. On the Berendries, however, Alaphilippe launched a searing attack to distance his breakaway companions. Incidentally it was Tom Pidcock who attempted to claw back the Frenchman on one of the few paved bergs in the race. They were only successful in clawing back the lively world champion 10 km later, at the base of the famous Kapelmuur.
In that time, where the Alaphilippe was solo, his teammate Zdenek Stybar, had a touch of wheels with Trentin’s rear derailleur. The coming together saw the Czech rider on the floor battered and bruised. A shame because I’d touted him as being a real favourite this spring in the early days of these race reports. Leading into the Kapelmuur, it was clear Lotto-Soudal had missed out on the main move of the day, and saw Wellens trying desperately to bridge across the gap, and even if he did he would be cooked as he’s doing the work on his own.
Pidcock, still attacking even dropping seasoned pros. But we shouldn’t be too surprised because as the winner of Junior and u23 Paris Roubaix he is well versed in the cobble classics. But this being his first race was he doing too much work? Closing in on the big climb of the day, the Kapelmuur, the Bunch appeared to be getting back on terms as Lotto-Soudal and Bora-Hansgrohe joined forces to draw back the strong breakaway. They caught the escape just as the road kicked up over the steep bridge on the outskirts of Geraardsbergen.
This merging of groups saw what was probably the biggest group into the final of a classics race in the last few years. Notably, in the peloton of about 50 riders, was that Ineos-Grenadiers were now looking far more dominant than in recent classic campaigns. They had 5 riders in the front group, drilling it up the hill. Clearly Pidcock’s attitude and recent interview for cycling news exposing his beliefs that the Ineos-Grenadiers have far more to give in the classics and they showed this today. The final climb was the Bosberg before a largely downhill run to the finish. Unlike last year’s duo sprint for the line, we were in for a mass sprint. The question though, who could come out on top?
Alaphilippe was yoyoing backwards and forwards between working on the front selflessly, for his teammate Ballerini, and recovering in the pack. Ineos-Grenadiers were chatting at the back like they were on a Sunday group ride and not in the final 10 km of a Semi-Classic. They were either deciding, on the move, who to ride for in the finale, or just complaining at their teammate Moscon for sitting at the back and being the complete opposite of the World Champion’s likeable characteristics, selfish.
5km remaining for the 201km ronde, and it was Deceuninck-Quickstep once again dominating on the front searching for victory. But the win could literally go anywhere, there were vast numbers of talented well-established sprinters in the front group. Too many to list off, but some of my top picks included: Ballerini, of course, Bryan Coquard, Jake Stewart, Alexander Kristoff and Matteo Trentin, although he had a dislodged derailleur so was unlikely to feature heavily in the sprint. Closing into the final couple of kilometres, there were a number of little touches of wheels and crashes. The first finished Kristoff’s race, who was livid, in usual style from the Norwegian. This also put out Yves Lampaert, one of the leadout riders for Quickstep. Thankfully, both were unscathed. Israel were also there with two riders, the ever-consistent Sep Vanmarcke, and Tom Van Asbroeck. The second of the crashes in the closing moments of a thrilling Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, included two Intermarché-Wanty-Gobert riders, and the protected rider from Ineos, Ethan Hayter. This was his second crash in as many races unfortunately for the young brit [I include Tour de la Provence a singular race].
There were manic accelerations to be the first into the final sequence of corners, and therefore increase your probability of the win. Quickstep had once again nailed it. Someone really needs to dissect their winter leadout training, because they nail it every time. Tom Van Asbroeck made a late dive up the inside to make it into the top 10, but his legs quickly fell off. A hard day in the hellingen can sap your legs of any sprint you think you have. Quickstep still dominating proceedings into the final corner of the day, but our eyes have become trained to ignore the repetitive nature of the Belgian outfit. Instead, our eyes were drawn to Philippe Gilbert [Lotto-Soudal] and Vanmarcke trading blows into the final corner, as they fought to keep the wheel of the Italian and big favourite, Ballerini. 500 m to go, Quickstep looked to have the win sown up. It was now a fight for who could come out second best. You had seasoned pros battling each other, but just behind them invisible in the background behind the rangey Luxembourg champion was brit Jake Stewart. In his first professional season for the French outfit Groupama FDJ, he had a storming start to the year in the Tour de la Provence.
Ballerini launched with 200 m remaining, and it was only natural that, without any specialist sprinters left in the peloton, the Italian would gain a handful of metres over the secondary sprint behind. Ballerini would go on to take the win comfortably, and by a large margin, but the classy ride came from Stewart. The brit, formerly supported by the Dave Rayner Foundation, had the overspeed on the respective Belgians, of Vanmarcke and Gilbert who’s legs fell off a cliff. In the end comfortably coming around the two home riders, once the gap was available and claimed the second step on the podium. What a ride. Cannot wait for the day he and Ethan Hayter go head to head. They did it many times throughout their youth development. Could they bring it to the professional peloton like Wout Van Aert and Mathieu Van Der Poel have done in recent years. I sure hope so.
Top 10 on the day then:
1st Davide Ballerini [Deceuninck-Quickstep]
2nd Jake Stewart [Groupama-FDJ]
3rd Sep Vanmarcke [Israel Start-Up Nation]
4th Heinrich Haussler [Team Bahrain-Victorious]
5th Philippe Gilbert [Lotto Soudal]
6th Alex Aranburu [Astana-Premiertech]
7th Florian Sénéchal [Deceuninck-Quickstep]
8th Matteo Trentin [UAE Team Emirates]
9th Kevin Geniets [Groupama-FDJ]
10th Nils Politt [Bora-Hansgrohe]
Join me tomorrow for the race report from Kuurne Bruxelles Kuurne to close out the ‘Opening Weekend’ been a great first day of racing. I hope you liked this report today as always please leave any feedback in the comments and I’ll be sure to look into any suggestions you have.