His leadout train derailed, Mark Cavendish (Etixx-Quick-Step) free-lanced out of a madly dashing bunch on Sunday to win Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne.
Philippe Gilbert (BMC Racing) tried to spoil the sprinters’ party in the final kilometers of the 196.3km semi-classic, scampering off the front in the final 4km and staying gone through the red kite.
But Gilbert had gone about a kilometer too soon, and the bunch swept him up in the final left-hand corner. With all the sprinters’ leadouts undone, it was every man for himself on the final straightaway, and the man of the day was Cavendish, who took the victory ahead of Alexander Kristoff (Katusha) and Elia Viviani (Sky).
“The team were incredible the whole day, really,” he said, while acknowledging that come the sprint he was more or less on his own.
“We used up guys too early [because of the head winds]. Tom [Boonen] went to go, but I had already left him to go onto Kristoff’s wheel. I know him, and he’s been going good this year. I’m super proud to get this victory for Etixx-Quick-Step.”
Kristoff was disappointed, but said Cavendish was simply the better man on the day.
“I felt really tired all day. In the final, the team did a good job — perfect, actually — but Mark was just faster at the end,” he said.
With 75km remaining in the race there was a good-sized group off the front with 90 seconds on the bunch, fronted by Etixx-Quick-Step, Sky, LottoNL-Jumbo and FDJ.
Among the leaders were Jimmy Engoulvent (Europcar); Eugert Zhupa (Southeast); Mattia Pozzo (Nippo-Vini Fantini); Sjoerd van Ginneken (Team Roompot); Fredrik Backaert and Dimitri Peyskens (Team 3M); Xandro Meurisse (An Post-Chainreaction); and Thomas Vauborzeix (Veranclassic-Ekoï).
With 70km to go the gap was down to less than a minute and falling as Boonen and others tried to force a selection.
Boonen and Sep Vanmarcke (Lotto) were pushing the pace up the cobbled climb of Oude Kwaremont, making a shambles of the peloton. Zdenek Stybar and Cavendish (Etixx), Jean-Pierre Drucker and Gilbert (BMC), Kristoff, and Omloop Het Nieuwsblad champion Ian Stannard with Sky teammate Viviani were there, too, as the chase, down to a couple dozen riders, rolled over the Schelde toward the cobbles of the Varent.
Ahead, the break was down to four riders with just 20 seconds’ advantage. And that slim margin was quickly erased, with the catch coming 60km from the finish.
The break negated, Etixx and Lotto took charge at the front as behind, MTN-Qhubeka led its own chase, having missed the split entirely.
With 50km to race the now-19-rider lead group held a minute’s advantage over the MTN-Qhubeka pursuit.
On the Nokereberg, the final climb of the day, first Stannard, then Boonen took turns pushing the pace. Over the top, the pace-making duties reverted to the Etixx riders, with an assist from BMC’s Drucker.
With 40km to go the gap was down to 47 seconds and Etixx was calling for reinforcements as Cofidis, Wanty-Groupe Gobert and IAM Cycling lent a hand to the chase, which was lined out and gaining ground.
With 35km remaining the chasers were breathing down the lead group’s collective neck. A kilometer later, as the catch came, Kris Boeckmans (Lotto) rolled off the front, but nobody was buying, and he soon drifted back.
There was something of a cease-fire then, as the bunch prepared to begin the first of two 16km finishing circuits. Katusha took the wheel early on, with Etixx just behind, and with 20km remaining that remained the state of play.
A few kilometers further along other teams began insinuating themselves into the pecking order — FDJ, Europcar, MTN — but as the peloton swung round the left-hand corner and into one lap to go it was status quo.
The other teams were happy to let Katusha make the pace, and with 10km remaining they were still parked on the front.
Then, with 7km to go, Sky and Lotto pushed forward, with Sky getting its way and planting five men on the front with 5km remaining.
Then Gilbert attacked up the right side of the road, quickly opening a large gap as the sprinters’ teams watched each other.
With 4km to go the chase was on. Gilbert had six seconds as Sky and Etixx tried to marshal the pursuit.
Two kilometers out Gilbert was pulling faces as he stretched his advantage to 10 seconds. Etixx and Lotto were chasing, but making no headway.
Come the red kite, Gilbert was still away. But he was finally running out of steam. A quick look over his shoulder told him the bad news: The bunch was coming.
They caught him in the final corner and Lotto tried to take charge of the sprint in a cross wind. Nothing doing. It was every man for himself, and out of the chaos came Cavendish.
The Manxman said it was good to follow disappointment at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad with a victory at Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne, a race he has now won twice.
“Especially, after the unfortunate incidents yesterday, it was nice for Etixx to get a win on the opening weekend,” he said. The lads were super good, they all committed 100 percent the whole day to me.
“I’m happy to beat Kristoff. He’s one of the best riders in the world right now.”