Luca Paolini (Katusha) attacked a six-man lead group in the final kilometers of a rainy, blustery day to win Gent-Wevelgem on Sunday.
The sextet had been part of a larger pursuit that overhauled a lone breakaway, Jurgen Roelandts (Lotto-Soudal), with less than 17km remaining in the 239km race.
The catch made, Paolini and Niki Terpstra (Etixx-Quick-Step) shot away from the others. Geraint Thomas (Sky) and Stijn Vandenbergh (Etixx) followed, as did Sep Vanmarcke (LottoNL-Jumbo) and Jens Debusschere (Lotto-Soudal).
But when Paolini laid down an attack with 6km remaining, the others dithered, and that was all the edge the Italian required. They finally launched a furious chase, but it proved too little, too late, and Paolini celebrated his victory ahead of Terpstra and Thomas.
“It was a very difficult day,” said Paolini. “I crashed, and I had to change my bikes, but I know the course very well. And I knew where I had to be today.
“The wind was impressive today. I wasn’t sure if I could carry on. To win in conditions like this, with the wind and the cold, it’s amazing. I opened up a little gap, and I knew if I just kept going, I would have a chance.
“It was an incredible race, one for the courageous. Halfway through I was asking myself if it was reasonable to continue. But I resisted (the temptation to quit) and I’ve earned the best win of my career.”
Rain, wind lash peloton
Cloudy skies unleashed a pelting rain as the peloton huddled under umbrellas and awnings at team buses. The 239km course would soon serve up apocalyptic conditions.
“It is what it is,” said Bradley Wiggins (Sky), making a classics debut that didn’t last long. He abandoned barely two hours into the race.
“This is the start of my classics season. I don’t know.”
The real worry wasn’t the rain, but the gusting winds, which shredded the peloton to bits. As the route pushed west across the Flanders fields, the wind picked up as the peloton edged toward the coast. Crossing into France, the peloton was torn apart by fierce crosswinds.
The TV images were impressive as riders struggled to stay upright on their bikes, leaning into the wind as the pack split into echelons. Riders such as Mark Cavendish (Etixx-Quick Step), who crashed twice during the day, was gapped out when he flatted. Riders gnashed their teeth to try to stay at the front. Etixx-Quick-Step, LottoNL-Jumbo, Tinkoff-Saxo, and BMC Racing kept their key men at the front, but more a few were taken out of contention, among them Geert Steegmans (Trek Factory Racing), who plunged into a watery ditch alongside the road.
First passage over Kemmelberg
Finally, an order was selected as about 40 riders fought into the lead when the peloton turned east to ride back into Belgium. A tailwind pushed them toward the first of two passages over the Kemmelberg climb.
Martin Tjallingi (LottoNL-Jumbo) broke clear over the Casselberg at the halfway mark and hit the famous Kemmelberg climb at 79km to go nursing a lead of 25 seconds. Even with the damage already done by the harsh conditions, the famous cobblestone climb served as a race-breaker.
All the remaining big guns were well positioned over the first passage, with Quick Step and LottoNL-Jumbo protecting their men. Mathew Hayman (Orica-GreenEdge) crashed on the descent as conditions continued to worsen.
Roelandts bridged out to Tjallingi with about 75km to go, but the reduced leaders’ group wasn’t far behind. Zdenek Stybar (Etixx-Quick Step) punctured with 71km remaining and gave a desperate chase. Up front, his teammate Vandenbergh, perhaps not realizing what was happening behind him, was forcing the pace to split the lead bunch as winds once again started to exact a price.
Roelandts presses on
Roelandts pushed on alone, building a 44-second lead. E3 Harelbeke winner Thomas, Vanmarcke, Daniel Oss (BMC), and Debusschere followed, opening up a gap with 65km to go. Cannondale-Garmin rider Jack Bauer, who had fought into the front group, threw his bike into a ditch, apparently after another rider’s rain cape became entangled in the back wheel.
In an early display of his race-winning potential Paolini bridged out alone with about 60km to go. Moments later, Thomas was squeezed off the road under heavy crosswinds, and he landed heavily on his shoulder.
As the peloton neared the second passage over the Kemmelberg, Roelandts bravely fought alone, about one minute ahead of the chasers, and another minute ahead of a group of favorites that included Peter Sagan (Tinkoff-Saxo), Alexander Kristoff (Katusha), John Degenkolb (Giant-Alpecin), André Greipel (Lotto-Soudal), Greg Van Avermaet (BMC Racing), and others. Thomas regained contact, and Terpstra had enough, making an attempt to bridge across.
Second climb up Kemmelberg
Roelandts continued to plow alone, opening up 1:45 to the Thomas group. Terpstra powered across, while the favorites’ group was left behind at more than three minutes to Roelandts. That soon mushroomed to more than five minutes as the group collectively threw in the towel.
Roelandts struggled up the Kemmelberg’s second assault, giving hint that his gas was running low. With under 40km to go, he was still nursing a promising two-minute gap. But the attacks from behind were all but inevitable.
“I had hoped more riders would follow me,” Roelandts said. “For a while I thought about holding back, but eventually I continued. I wanted to make something of this race. If I had one other man with me, this could have worked.”
Terpstra was on fire up the Kemmelberg’s cobbles, but Thomas calmly marked his wheel. Paolini dangled off the back, and Oss was dislodged. Roelandts’ lead remained solid at two minutes with 35km to go, but it quickly shrank as Terpstra opened up the chase, trimming the gap to 49 seconds in less than 6km.
The catch and the counter
The pursuit swept up Roelandts with less than 17km to go. And Terpstra and Paolini wasted no time giving the others the slip.
Thomas launched a powerful chase and made the connection with 12km remaining. Vandenbergh tried to follow but lost the wheel and was briefly stuck in no-man’s land before he, too, bridged up. That left Debusschere and Vanmarcke chasing.
With elss than 8km remaining those two latched on as well and it was a six-man lead group bound to contend for the victory.
Until Paolini lit it up with 6km remaining and opened a gap, that is. After some argument the others began a halfhearted pursuit, but the Italian wasn’t waiting around for them to decide the pecking order. Four kilometers from the line he was already out of sight.
Finally Terpstra and Thomas punched it, shedding the others, but they had a lot of ground to make up.
Paolini drove under the red kite, checked over his shoulder once, twice, thrice, and then celebrated the victory.
Terpstra regretted some bad luck, including a pair of flats and having to chase — “full gas, maximum effort” — to make the front group. But he tipped his hat to Paolini for making the move that stuck.
“I have to say Paolini deserved the victory today,” he said. “He was already going so fast when he attacked, and there was a tailwind. We would have had to do almost 65 kilometers per hour to catch him. It was really hard. He simply did the right attack in a good moment. So all I could do in the end was my best for a second place, and I have to say I am happy with my sprint. I made the best of my situation, I think.”
Thomas felt himself a marked man in the finale.
“Today was it just on all day — stress and full gas,” he said. “I’m happy to be on the podium again. Obviously it would have been nice to go for the win but it’s hard when you’re coming into the final and everyone’s attacking. You can’t really go with everything and some people don’t want to pull as much.
“There wasn’t really any collaboration in the group. It was hard to get everyone going. People were looking at me a bit after my win on Friday. That’s what it felt like. When Paolini went it was a good move for him but we all looked at each other. Fortunately me and Niki got away at the end.”
As for Paolini, he agreed that the end game was as much about brains as brawn.
“This victory is one for heart, courage, but also intelligence,” Paolini said. “I possibly wasn’t the strongest at the finish. Niki Terpstra and Geraint Thomas still had strong legs, but they were worried about each other and I took my chance.”
There will be other chances, and Katusha will take them. “I have good legs,” Paolini said. “We will be riding for Alexander Kristoff at Flanders, so let’s see if we can do something there as well.”
Editor’s note: Andrew Hood contributed to this report.