Wout Van Aert (Vastgoedservice-Golden Palace) launched a flurry of attacks in the final lap to win the first race in the Bpost Bank Trofee series on Sunday.
Van Aert was in a lead group with Kevin Pauwels (Sunweb-Napoleon Games), Lars van der Haar (Giant-Alpecin) and Sven Nys (Crelan-AA Drink) going into the bell lap.
He discarded all of them en route to the line, first shedding van der Haar and Nys, and finally dispatching Pauwels just before the finishing stretch.
Van Aert made it look easy, but said it wasn’t.
“Actually, I didn’t really feel great today. The legs were not really as good as the last weeks,” he said. “But I had the luck that I was still in the first group until the last lap. Then I think made a smart move to go in first position in the field, so I could ride my own lines and when I make a little mistake there is no problem because the other guys are stuck behind me.
“Then in the second part of the last lap I just gave everything on the harder parts of the course and that was enough to take a small gap on Kevin. Then it was just, focus on the pain and give everything until the finish line, don’t look back, and it was a really nice feeling to cross the finish line.”
Van der Haar made an early break, prying open a five-second gap. Pauwels and Van Aert followed, and in short order they formed a trio out front with seven laps to go. Nys bridged to them, as did Michael Vanthourenout (Sunweb), with six laps remaining.
A lap later the group had doubled in size and Gianni Vermeersch (Sunweb) decided to try his luck. Nys followed, as did van der Haar. Van Aert quickly joined up, too.
Nys gave it some stick next and took van der Haar with him. Van Aert chased. With four to go Pauwels was back up there as well.
Van der Haar pressed the pace, and Van Aert seemed to have trouble holding the wheel until there was a brief ceasefire, which ended van der Haar launched going into three to go. Pauwels led the chase, followed by Van Aert, with Nys bringing up the rear.
Pauwels caught van der Haar, while Nys followed Van Aert a few bike lengths behind. And with two laps remaining the quartet had reformed, with a 45-second cushion over the closest pursuit.
Van Aert and Nys traded turns on the front, and the foursome remained intact going into bell lap.
Then Van Aert surged at the line, followed by Pauwels, with van der Haar and Nys chasing. He accelerated once more and van der Haar and Nys found themselves gapped.
Then Pauwels, too, lost the wheel after a run-up. The Sunweb rider didn’t panic — he closed the gap only to see Van Aert punch it one final time.
That was the final blow. Van Aert hit the paved finishing stretch alone and won easily. Pauwels hung on for second ahead of van der Haar in third.
“This feels a little bit like a victory, the past races Wout was far away and now I was quite close to him,” Pauwels said. “I think he had a hard time to follow us at the beginning of the race. But in the end the difference between me and Wout was still quite big.
“There was a running section right before the road where Wout attacked. I lost a bit of time there to Wout, and I had to go really deep to close the gap. At the beginning of the road up I was just in his wheel, but Wout accelerated from the beginning and a little before the summit I exploded.”
Van der Haar was surprised to have fallen out of contention after such a strong start.
“I felt really good. I really believed in a victory for me today. I don’t really know what happened,” he said.
“I had this little gap because of the attack of Wout, and I closed it pretty quick. But suddenly the gap was there again, so they must have been better of course, but it’s really frustrating that I couldn’t hold the wheel. I really want to see why it happened.”
Editor’s note: Dan Seaton contributed to this report from Ronse.