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Hushovd takes sprinters’ battle at Wevelgem

It was a day for the sprinters at Wednesday’s Ghent-Wevelgem, and Norwegian Thor Hushovd (Crédit Agricole) proved that Italian speedster Alessandro Petacchi (Milram) can indeed be beat in a dead-flat drag race. Of course, if you’re Hushovd, it helps if that drag race comes at the end of a gritty, 210km Belgian slugfest. Hushovd, the green jersey points winner at the 2005 Tour de France, edged out the fast-improving German David Kopp (Gerolsteiner), who took second, and Petacchi, who was third, to become the first Norwegian to win Ghent-Wevelgem in the race’s 72-year history.

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By Kip Mikler, VeloNews editor

Hushovd takes it at the line

Hushovd takes it at the line

Photo: Graham Watson

It was a day for the sprinters at Wednesday’s Ghent-Wevelgem, and Norwegian Thor Hushovd (Crédit Agricole) proved that Italian speedster Alessandro Petacchi (Milram) can indeed be beat in a dead-flat drag race. Of course, if you’re Hushovd, it helps if that drag race comes at the end of a gritty, 210km Belgian slugfest.

Hushovd, the green jersey points winner at the 2005 Tour de France, edged out the fast-improving German David Kopp (Gerolsteiner), who took second, and Petacchi, who was third, to become the first Norwegian to win Ghent-Wevelgem in the race’s 72-year history.

“I already beat [Petacchi] once this year, and I know I can beat him,” said the 28-year-old Hushovd, who also got the better of Petacchi in March at a stage of the Tirreno-Adriatico stage race. “But he’s maybe the best sprinter in the world, so it’s always good to beat him.”

A perfect day for a bunch finish

A perfect day for a bunch finish

Photo: Graham Watson

As for Petacchi, he said, “I started my sprint badly positioned; I tried to move up but I had heavy legs. Thor is one of the most powerful riders … he’s very strong for this type of finish. But I know that I can win here one day.”

This year’s Ghent-Wevelgem featured prime sprinters’ conditions — dry roads, no rain, and a head wind in the finishing approach — but a group finish was never a guarantee until the closing kilometers. After several attacks and splits in the final half-hour, Quick Step-Innergetic rider Filippo Pozzato came close to a solo win when he launched an attack inside the 1.5km mark.

By that point, Petacchi’s Milram team had been put under pressure in its pursuit of Belgian Bert Roesems (Davitamon-Lotto), who had launched his own attack with 13km to go. Milram might have outnumbered Hushovd, but in the end it was every man for himself on the final dash down Vanacker Street in Wevelgem.

Riders faced typical Belgian spring weather at this year’s running of the midweek Belgian semi-classic. It was 47 degrees Fahrenheit at the 11:30 a.m. start in Deinze, just outside of Ghent, and strong winds were blowing from the north. Quick Step was considered the team to beat heading into the race, with Pozzato, winner of the Milan-San Remo ProTour race on March 18, and the scintillating Tom Boonen coming off a win at the Tour of Flanders on Sunday.

Other favorites included Rabobank’s Spaniard Juan Antonio Flecha, who lost to Belgian Nico Mattan in a controversial finish at last year’s Ghent-Wevelgem; CSC rider Fabian Cancellara, who was edged out by American George Hincapie (Discovery Channel) in the sprint for third place at Flanders on Sunday; 2003 Ghent winner Andreas Klier (T-Mobile); and the experienced Milram sprinting duo of Petacchi and Erik Zabel.

Hincapie, who won Ghent-Wevelgem five years ago, was also considered a favorite, having shown impressive finishing speed at the Tour of California in February, as well as at Sunday’s Tour of Flanders, where he outsprinted Peter Van Petegem (Davitamon-Lotto), Alessandro Ballan (Lampre-Fondital) and Cancellara for third place.

It wasn't going to be Boonen's day

It wasn’t going to be Boonen’s day

Photo: Graham Watson

The Ghent course follows a counterclockwise direction. After leaving Deinze, riders head northwest to the coast of Belgium. From that point, they turn southwest for a windswept run along the coast, with the North Sea on the riders’ right. Then they hook back to the east for a loop in the hills before the final run northeast into Wevelgem. Unlike the Tour of Flanders, which features dozens of short, steep climbs, Ghent-Wevelgem is mostly flat, with a few sharp climbs in the second half of the race.

The Monteberg and the Kemmelberg are the climbs of note, and racers face each one twice on a double circuit near the French border to the south. The final climb over the steep, cobblestone Kemmelberg, which also features a harrowing descent that can be treacherous when wet, comes 35km from the finish.

The first riders to get a significant time gap on Wednesday were Vladimir Gusev (Discovery Channel) and Bernhard Eisel (Française des Jeux). That duo escaped at the 120km mark, and worked up a lead of about a minute-and-a-half.

DeJongh and Vansevenant get something organized

DeJongh and Vansevenant get something organized

Photo: Graham Watson

Gusev and Eisel were caught with about 70km to go, and there were several other breakaway attempts in the lead-up to the climbs. The lead group came back together though by the time it hit the first climb, the Monteberg. Quick Step went to the front, with Boonen sitting comfortably behind his teammates.

Next was the first trip over the Kemmelberg, which approaches a grade of 20 percent at its steepest; that’s when Boonen, who will attempt to win his second straight Paris-Roubaix on Sunday, knew it wasn’t his day.

“I said to my teammates to race their own race, that it would be a training ride for me,” Boonen said.

It was Hushovd, the big Norwegian, who led the first charge over the Kemmelberg. The Crédit Agricole rider was followed closely by Quick Step, Discovery Channel and Milram riders, and cheered on by his Belgium-based fan club.

“I saw them many times,” Hushovd said. “They always support me when I’m up here in Belgium.”

The next move to get away was a group of five with just under 60km remaining. Wim Vansevenant (Davitamon-Lotto), Steven De Jongh (Quick Step-Innergetic), Anthony Geslin (Bouygues Télécom), Alessandro Cortinovis (Milram) and Rene Haselbacher (Gerolsteiner) quickly worked up a lead of 30 seconds on the main field, which had stretched out single-file as the pace picked up.

The leaders worked together to build a lead of 40 seconds, but on the second and last trip over the Kemmelberg, Geslin was faltering and the gap was down to just 24 seconds. After safely descending the cobblestone hill, it was a mostly flat, 35km grind into the wind to the finish.

With a small group dangling in front, and the sprinters’ teams powering the chase, conditions looked prime for a bunch finish. In the flats, the main group split, with about 40 riders making the selection. Zabel, Petacchi, Klier, Hushovd and Hincapie were among those in the front group.

The five breakaways were caught by the front of the main group with 32km to go, and the gap to the second large group continued to grow. There was a failed attempt to escape by Lars Michaelsen (CSC) with 15km to go, then another by Roesems with 13km to go. Roesems dug deep and built up a gap of about 13 seconds. The tall Belgian held on valiantly over the next 11km, but was finally caught when Pozzato counterattacked with 1.5km to go.

Pozzato, winner of Milan-San Remo in March, flew past Roesems to open up a big gap 500 meters from the line. He came close, but was chased down by the sprinters. Petacchi’s Milram teammates were spent from the chase, and couldn’t offer their star sprinter much help in the end.

. . . Roesems had the guts  . . .

. . . Roesems had the guts . . .

Photo: Graham Watson

“I stayed on Petacchi’s wheel … but I lost his wheel and I then got behind Kopp, who led out the sprint very strongly,” said Hushovd, who was simply the strongest in the final charge to the line.

Pozzato ended up fourth, with Hincapie just behind him in fifth — a solid result for the American after his third-place finish at Flanders. Boonen finished 5:55 back, but retained his UCI ProTour leader’s jersey heading into Sunday’s Paris-Roubaix. Petacchi moved up from sixth to second in the ProTour standings, and Hincapie jumped up a spot from sixth to fifth.

Hushovd said the win in Wevelgem gave him momentum heading into this weekend’s Hell of the North. “Now I have a lot of confidence for Paris-Roubaix on Sunday,” he said. “Last year I was ninth there, and I hope next year I’ll be even closer to the podium.”

Top 10
1. Thor Hushovd (Nor), Crédit Agricole, 210km in 4.53:15
2. David Kopp (G), Gerolsteiner, same time
3. Alessandro Petacchi (I), Milram, s.t.
4. Filippo Pozzato (I), Quick Step, s.t.
5. George Hincapie (USA), Discovery Channel, s.t.
6. Fabian Cancellara (Swi), Team CSC, s.t.
7. Bernhard Eisel (A), Francaise des Jeux, s.t.
8. Erik Putsep (Est), AG2R, s.t.
9. Allan Davis (Aus), Liberty Seguros, s.t.
10. Kurt-Asle Arvesen, (Nor) Team CSC, s.t.

Photo Gallery

Results

1. Thor Hushovd (Nor), Crédit Agricole, 210km in 4.53:15
2. David Kopp (G), Gerolsteiner, same time
3. Alessandro Petacchi (I), Milram, s.t.
4. Filippo Pozzato (I), Quick Step, s.t.
5. George Hincapie (USA), Discovery Channel, s.t.
6. Fabian Cancellara (Swi), Team CSC, s.t.
7. Bernhard Eisel (A), Francaise des Jeux, s.t.
8. Erik Putsep (Est), AG2R, s.t.
9. Allan Davis (Aus), Liberty Seguros, s.t.
10. Kurt-Asle Arvesen, (Nor) Team CSC, s.t.