Niki Terpstra (Etixx-Quick-Step) made the move that stuck, but Alexander Kristoff (Katusha) finished it off in a chaotic Tour of Flanders on Sunday.

The two were off the front with 18km to go in the 264km battle from Bruges to Oudenaarde, chased by Sep Vanmarcke (LottoNL-Jumbo), alone in no-man’s land a half minute down.

Behind them was an overlarge group of hungry favorites, thanks in part to unusually favorable weather.

Asked why he chose to take his chances so far from the line — Terpstra attacked from 30km out — Kristoff replied, “Niki went and I know he’s one of the most dangerous guys from Etixx. It was a little bit early, I thought, but I didn’t want to let him go away because he was going to close it and he was really strong.”

“I raced here a lot as a young rider,” he added. “I watched this race a long time before I got the chance to participate. The dream was just to participate, not to win it. Now I have also won it’s a great feeling. I can’t describe it.”

It seemed anything but a sure bet. On the last trip up the Oude Kwaremont Vanmarcke’s lonely sojourn was abruptly terminated and Geraint Thomas (Sky) attacked, followed by Czech road champ Zdenek Stybar (Etixx). They briefly pried open a small gap, but it was quickly closed. Peter Sagan (Tinkoff-Saxo) was there, under pressure to deliver a win, as were Lars Boom (Astana), John Degenkolb (Giant-Alpecin), Stijn Devolder (Trek Factory Racing) and Greg Van Avermaet (BMC Racing).

But Terpstra and Kristoff were still away going onto the Paterberg, holding a 20-second edge as they drove toward the closing 13km of flats to the finish line in Oudenaarde. Daniel Oss (BMC) made a big push up the cobbles. Then Van Avermaet and Sagan had their own dig and got away.

With 12km to go Kristoff and Terpstra clung to 15 seconds’ advantage over Sagan and Van Avermaet, who in turn had a similar edge over the second pursuit.

Five kilometers from the line it seemed that the steam had gone out of the Sagan-Van Avermaet chase, which had slipped to nearly a half-minute down. The second chase was 10 seconds back and coming apart under the pressure of attack after attack.

With what seemed a comfortable advantage over their pursuers, Kristoff and Terpstra began playing a bit of cat-and-mouse in the final few kilometers. The Katusha man seemed the stronger of the two, and was on point as they hit the red kite.

Then, with 500 meters to go, Van Avermaet suddenly appeared in the picture, closing in on the leaders. Unruffled, Kristoff held his fire until the final 100 meters, then let fly — he accelerated away and took a chest-pounding victory ahead of Terpstra, who held on for second with Van Avermaet third at seven seconds.

“Of course at the end he wanted to save legs so he’d have a chance, but I was pretty confident I would still beat him,” said Kristoff. “I tried not to go really full gas the last few kilometers, to save a little bit so I had something left for the sprint. And it was enough. That’s a great feeling when I saw he couldn’t pass me.

“I’m really happy to win today. My big goal this season, and I managed to do it. It’s a really great feeling.”

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Many contenders, no clear favorite

Filling the vacuum was the big buzz at the always-frenetic start in Bruges. As crowds and riders piled into the medieval market square in the heart of Belgium’s most beautiful city, the big question coming into this year’s Flanders was: Who could inherit the throne?

With Fabian Cancellara (Trek Factory Racing) and Tom Boonen (Etixx-Quick Step) both missing — they’ve won six of the past 10 editions — only one former winner toed up to the line, Trek’s Devolder. There were dozens of contenders, but no clear favorite as some 200 riders from 25 teams bundled under the banner for the start.

Luckily, the weather couldn’t have been more favorable. After a week of hurricane-like winds, crisp, spring-like conditions welcomed the pack at the start line. The weather was still very chilly, with more than a few riders donning arm and leg warmers, but forecasters were calling for clear skies, almost no chance of precipitation, temperatures in the high 50Fs, and a steady northerly breeze of around 10kph, enough to cause some discomfort late in the race, but at least no one was going to get blown off their bikes.

Early move takes form

The pack was in no hurry to open up the race. The peloton rolled past huge crowds for the opening 30 minutes of racing, with any early moves promptly chased down. Getting into the day’s breakaway at Flanders is important, especially for the second-tier teams hoping to give their sponsors some quality airtime.

The first real move gelled about 40km into the race, with Matthew Brammeier (MTN-Qhubeka) linking up with Dylan Groenewegen (Roompot), Clement Venturini (Cofidis), Ralf Matzka (Bora), Jesse Sergent (Trek Factory Racing), and Damien Gaudin (Ag2r-La Mondiale). Lars Bak (Lotto-Soudal) and Marco Frapporti (Androni) bridged across at 217km to go to set the early move.

Brammeier won the day’s first intermediate sprint, winning his weight in “Steene Molen” beer, a true Belgian tradition if ever there was one.

The race is on

With the breakaway firmly established, the gap quickly grew to north of six minutes. At about 150km to go, Wiggins got caught up in a pileup going through a lefthander when another rider slipped out. The Olympic champion, racing in his final events on the road, remounted a spare bike, looking rather frustrated, and chased back on, then changed bikes again, before slipping into the pack.

At about 120km to go, the pace upped once more, trimming the lead to under four minutes. Sky was leading the pace over the first of three passage up Oude Kwaremont as the race turned into the decisive string of 19 “bergs” pocking the course.

There was a freak accident in the lead group when the Shimano neutral service car bumped into Sergent, who was knocked hard to the ground. Moments later he was forced to abandon the race.

IAM, Sky, and Etixx-Quick-Step massed at the front of the bunch as the roads narrowed. Temperatures remained cool, with sunny skies and a slight breeze. At the back of the bunch, the day’s endless string of mishaps, pileups, punctures, crashes, and mechanicals started to take their toll, setting up the eventual thinning of the field.

Tightening the pressure

With 85km to go, counter-attacks started out of the reduced front group, now down to about 120 riders. Sky continued to be vigilant at the front, with Wiggins pushing toward the front, and despite a few forays, the pack stayed together. The gap was trimmed to 3:20.

With 76km to go, things started to liven up. Bak and Gaudin bolted clear of the fatigued breakaway group, hitting the Kanareiberg nursing a three-minute lead. Meanwhile, three riders shot out of the main pack: Mitchell Docker (Orica-GreenEdge), Christopher Juul Jensen (Tinkoff-Saxo), and Pieter Vanspeybrouck (Topsport Vlaanderen).

A few more riders bridged out, including André Greipel (Lotto-Soudal), Juanjo Lobato (Movistar), Sylvain Didier (BMC Racing), Dylan Groenwegen (Roompot), Bjorn Thurau (Bora), Yannick Martinez (Europcar), Mirko Selvaggi (Wanty), and Guillaume Van Keirsbulck (Etixx-Quick Step). Sky remained vigilant at the front of the main pack as the tension began to ratchet up.

Kwaremont raid

The counter-attack was swept up before the second of three passages up the decisive Kwaremont climb. Bak and Gaudin dangled off the front at less than a minute, with the main pack seeing its first real fractures.

The first climb up the Paterberg at 51km to go saw Bak pop, with Gaudin fighting the brave fight from the day’s main breakaway. The pack fractured again, with riders such as Wiggins losing contact.

Greipel shot away again at 46km, while Matteo Trentin (Etixx) was caught up behind a pileup just ahead of the Koppenberg. Thomas surged to the front, showing his first taste of his form. Sylvain Chavanel (IAM) linked up with Greipel, while Astana’s Alexey Lutsenko found himself at the front alone with 38km to go.

Giant-Alpecin and BMC hit the Taaienberg as the race hit crunch time. Van Avermaet bolted clear just at the top of the cobbles, fracturing the lead bunch. Stybar was there, but Sky’s Luke Rowe wouldn’t pull through until Thomas regained contact. The surge split the pack for good. Anyone losing contact was not coming back.

Joining Lutsenko off the front were JP Drucker (BMC) and Nelson Santos (Lampre-Merida), but it all came back together, with about 25 riders left in the front pack for the final decisive moments.

The final blows on the Kwaremont

After a rather chaotic, less-than-spectacular race that was more about attrition than aggression, things finally got hot in the closing 30km.

Terpstra was tired of waiting, and bolted clear of a 30-rider pack, with Kristoff wisely marking his wheel. The two powerhouses pried open a 27-second wedge to the chasers, led by Greipel, Sky and BMC, going toward the final Kwaremont-Paterberg double.

“In the start he worked really a lot and we got a gap,” said Kristoff. “And after a while I managed to find a rhythm and I could contribute and we were working really well and kept the distance quite good. In the end he wouldn’t work with me, but I said to him, ‘Come on, you will at worst get second, it’s still a good result.’ And he was working again.”

Vanmarcke lost the wheel, and tried in vain to regain contact, but it was impossible so late in the race to bridge across alone.

“What can I say? I am disappointed,” Vanmarcke said. “I was hoping to win, but I was gapped on the Taaienberg, and then I couldn’t bridge across to the front group. I was hoping for a lot more today.”

Greipel, likewise, said he did what he could.

“It was not about me, it was about the team today,” he said. “We tried to make the race a bit harder, but of course with Team Sky, the race was a bit locked today. But still I think we did a really good team performance.

“I just did what I had to do. It’s nice to give something back to the team. I can do more than just sprinting. I knew it before, and I had not the best legs at the start of the race today, but somehow I could motivate myself to do the best I could.”

Terpstra and Kristoff were off the front by 16 seconds when Thomas made a surge on the Kwaremont, with Stybar tactically marking his wheel. BMC was making a desperate chase, but it was Boom and Sagan who linked up.

Terpstra and Kristoff hit the pavement with a growing 27-second gap to a now-reduced chasing group of a dozen. Stybar was marking surges in the chase group, when Daniel Oss took up the chase in earnest with 14km to go. Did they leave it too late?

Last cobbles on the Paterberg

Terpstra and Kristoff hit the final pavé at Paterberg with a paper-thin lead of 25 seconds. Oss pulled, opening the door for Van Avermaet to make his shot at glory. Sagan, discreet through much of the race, followed, gapping chasers such as Boom, Thomas, Degenkolb, and Pozzato.

It was a drag race to the line, with Terpstra and Kristoff just 16 seconds ahead of Van Avermaet and Sagan with 12km to go. Behind, Boom made his play with 11km to go, but Kristoff and Terpstra kept taking pulls as the chasers diddled about. They widened their gap to 26 seconds with 5km to go, and the others would be fighting for the leftovers.

Kristoff said his experience from previous editions served him well in the 2015 Ronde van Vlaanderen.

“I learned that in the end you should go in the moves,” he said. “Because everybody’s tired. If you manage to get some seconds, it’s hard to take those seconds back. Like we saw today. We were sometimes just 15 seconds in front, and when you are 15 seconds in front in a normal race it’s easy for one guy to bridge up. In this race everybody is so tired at the end that these 15 seconds are too much.

“I think I could have won even if they came back. Of course I used energy to go with Terpstra also, so I would rather have them not coming up. That’s why I worked a lot the last kilometers. You have a better chance to win against one guy than a whole bunch.”

Van Avermaet, who came so close to making it a three-man contest at the end, pronounced himself content with his third-place finish.

“In the end, I am happy I am on the podium,” Van Avermaet said. “I had the legs to win, I think. I was feeling really good the whole day. I tried to make the race hard and when they went, there were were still some teams to control the race, so I didn’t have to go. In the end, we didn’t see them back anymore.”

The finale was a disappointment for Etixx-Quick-Step, but director Wilfried Peters was sanguine about the outcome.

“We rode the tactic we wanted, to send Niki first, then hope that Stybar could bridge out, but it didn’t work out that way,” he said.

“It might not have mattered. Kristoff was strongest today, there’s not much to argue about that.”

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Editor’s note: VeloNews European correspondent Andrew Hood and Dan Seaton contributed to this report. Stay tuned for more from Flanders.