Exterioo Classic Brugge-De Panne: Elisa Balsamo storms to another major win
Wiebes winning streak ended in second, Bastianelli finishes third.
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World champion Elisa Balsamo (Trek-Segafredo) made it two WorldTour wins in a row, winning the Exterioo Classic Brugge-De Panne from a reduced bunch sprint. The WorldTour leader beat Lorena Wiebes (Team DSM) for the first time this season, whilst Marta Bastianelli (UAE Team ADQ) finished third.
A crash in the final 20km heavily reduced the peloton, but all the key sprinters kept uptight and contested the finish in De Panne. Despite a day of attacks and counter-attacks, the pan-flat route and lack of crosswinds resulted in an expected fast finish among the WorldTour sprinters.
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The peloton rolled out from the centre of Bruges under sunny and blue skies on Thursday, and the winds low on the traditionally exposed route from Bruges to De Panne.
From the gun, the race was on in the 135-rider bunch as various teams tried to find their way into the breakaway ahead of the expected sprint finish in De Panne. With no hills or crosswinds from which to launch attacks, the pace was very high with a flurry of attacks off the front.
Several riders and small groups tried to force a move in the opening kilometres of racing, but it was Nicole Steingenga (Coop-Hitec Products) who was the first to open up a small gap with a solo attack. Steingenga was then joined by Hannah Ludwig (Uno-X), April Tacey (Le Col-Wahoo) and Antonia Gröndahl (IBCT), and the quartet quickly built a 40 second advantage after 20km of racing.
The Parkhotel-Valkenburg duo of Kirstie van Haaften and Marith Vanhove then bridged across to the leaders, helping to stretch the break’s lead to over a minute for the first time with 50km complete.
The peloton let the gap stabilise briefly as the race headed towards De Panne, but kept the leading group on a tight rein, coming back down to 40 seconds by the time they started the first of two 45km finishing laps. The gap rapidly fell once the laps got underway, and the original breakaway was reeled in by the peloton with still 75km to race.
Almost immediately after the catch was made, a counter-attack of four riders escaped the peloton: Sara Van de Vel (IBCT), Danique Braam (Bingoal Casino), Fien Delbaere (Multum Accountants Ladies Cycling Team) and Senne Knaven (AG Insurance-NXTG Team) took advantage of a lull in the peloton to build a significant gap in a matter of kilometres. The group enjoyed a lead of around 45 seconds – enough for Braam to take the intermediate sprint at 60km to go – but the peloton were again unwilling to let the gap grow too much and the four riders were brought back after just 20km of escape.
Heading into the second lap and the final 45km of the race, the bunch remained intact as several teams tried to up the pace and reduce the field, though the effect was limited. It wasn’t until the final 35km that the key sprinters’ teams – Movistar, SD Worx, Trek-Segafredo – really had to put their noses in the wind, again setting a high pace but failing to shake off any significant number of riders. Alice Sharpe (IBCT) and Mieke Kroger (Human Powered Health) both attempted solo moves in the closing 25km, but neither gained any meaningful advantage.
With 16km to go, a crash on a particularly narrow section of road took out a large number of riders, cutting the peloton down to less than 40 riders. Whilst most of the pre-race favourites were on the right side of the split, the sudden reduction in the group forced a re-reckoning of teams’ tactics and resulted in a more aggressive run-in than expected for a bunch sprint as riders tried to take advantage of the reduced team numbers for the sprinters.
Ultimately though, the sprinters’ teams kept it together for a reduced but fast and competitive finish in De Panne. Lotte Kopecky (SD Worx) lead out the sprint into the final 300m in support of Lonneke Uneken, but it was Elisa Balsamo who was able to launch off Kopecky’s wheel and power to the line, with Lorena Wiebes and Marta Bastianelli unable to find their way around her and taking second and third respectively.
Despite having no team leadout to speak of, the world champion’s turn of speed was insurmountable, and the more organised leadout efforts from SD Worx and Movistar had to settle for fourth (Uneken) and sixth (Norsgaard). Balsamo said at the finish she had been working for Chloe Hosking, but had to change plans when the Australian was involved in a minor crash with 2km to go.
After taking victory at last weekend’s Trofeo Alfredo Binda, this is Balsamo’s second win in a row and third so far this year, and will see her extend her lead in the women’s WorldTour rankings.
Results will be available once stage has completed.