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Gent-Wevelgem roundtable: Sagan/Quick-Step stare-down and dirt drama

We unpack all the action from a tactical thriller at Gent-Wevelgem. Why does Sagan hate Quick-Step? Is dirt good for the Belgian classic?

Sunday’s Gent-Wevelgem classic was a tactical thriller, as Olympic champion Greg Van Avermaet (BMC Racing) initiated the break on the Kemmelberg, was joined by a cast of all-stars, including world champ Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe), and then managed to sneak off with Jens Keukeleire. Sagan was forced to chase with Quick-Step’s Niki Terpstra and Sunweb’s Soren Kragh Andersen. Drama ensued. Recriminations flew. The peloton almost caught everyone. And to top it all off, they rode some dirt roads! Time to roundtable.

Why did Niki Terpstra and Peter Sagan sit up out of that breakaway?

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Chris Case @chrisjustincase: Terpstra sat up for one of two reasons: His DS is lame or he is lame. What a pathetic way to race a bike. Sagan sat up because he isn’t the killer everyone thinks he is. And he’s getting whiny.

Fred Dreier @freddreier: If Quick-Step is actively trying to rattle Peter Sagan, it seems to be working. Sagan was taking monster pulls and Terpstra was a passenger. You can see that Sagan went back to say something to Terpstra, and Terpstra was just like “You want me to pull? Well, pull back this gap!” and let the gap open.

Andrew Hood @Eurohoody: Pure team dynamics that completely backfired. Terpstra had Tom Boonen and Fernando Gaviria in the bunch behind, but he blew it by not covering Van Avemmaet’s surge. Sagan called his bluff, but he missed out on a chance for the win, proving again that having the strongest team and/or the strongest legs doesn’t guarantee anything in the classics.

Spencer Powlison @spino_powerlegsI actually liked Terpstra’s decision to sit up, because Quick-Step has a much better chance of chasing back the break and winning the sprint with Gaviria. In fact, nearly every option is better than trying to pit Terpstra against Sagan and Van Avermaet in a sprint. Sagan’s tactic almost worked, but he didn’t quite have the gas to go across the gap to the two leaders. Can’t win ’em all …

Should Keukeleire have worked less in the break, knowing that he was up against GVA in the sprint?

Chris: No. If he had stopped working or slowed up, GVA would have attacked him and dropped him well before the line anyway. Then he would have risked getting caught. Better to work until the end and give yourself a chance in the sprint.

Fred: Nah. When you’re an up-and-coming Belgian rider and you find yourself in a breakaway at Gent-Wevelgem with Greg Van Avermaet, then you’re already guaranteed free beer for life so long as you don’t allow yourself to be caught. Pull, Jens, pull!

Andrew: No, he was right to fully commit driving it to the line. Against GVA, he had a 50-50 chance to win, and second still earned him his best classics result of his promising career. You won’t win a big race without committing 100 percent to a promising, late-race move like that.

Spencer: My only critique for Keukeleire (#AskACat3) is that he shouldn’t have pulled through in the final kilometer. Yes, make that breakaway stick, but why not roll the dice a little in the finale and show the world that you’ve got a head on your shoulders?

The peloton was close to catching everyone in the end, but not close enough — why? Not enough firepower?

Chris: There’s always a bit of disorganization in a big chasing group at first. By the time they got rolling, it was too late.

Fred: Gent-Wevelgem is 250km of wind and bergs and attacks. Those guys were hosed.

Andrew: It was hard to read the dynamics in the chase group. Despite being a large group, it appeared that only Trek-Segafredo had real horsepower in the bunch to chase. A headwind stymied everyone, and that extra 30-40km that’s been tacked onto Gent-Wevelgem since it moved to Sunday also means everyone is that much more on the rivet. It’s always a tug-of-war between a sprint and the attackers.

Spencer: Certainly there were few sprinters’ teams to aid in the chase. Honestly, I think Quick-Step should have brought Terpstra back to the bunch and truly committed to a sprint. They were darn close.

Gent-Wevelgem organizers added dirt “plugstreets” to the course this year, despite some grumblings from teams. Should they add more dirt? Keep it as-is? Or go back to a traditional route?

Chris: It was a creative addition in some ways, but the organizers will need the cooperation of the weather gods to have the dirt sections play a significant role in the outcome of the race.

Fred: I can see both sides of the argument (see my column). I say keep the existing sections but don’t add any more. Gent-Wevelgem doesn’t need to drive the dirt bandwagon.

Andrew: In this year’s dry conditions, they didn’t seem to make that much of a difference. In the wet, they could have been treacherous. How much does it add to the dynamics of the race? Not much, and only seems to add to the carnival aspect of the course. Hoody is old-school. I say keep it that way. Crosswinds and the Kemmelberg are the signature elements of Gent-Wevelgem.

Spencer: What a great opportunity! Gent-Wevelgem could be the marquee dirt WorldTour race where bike companies roll out their new GROAD bikes for the coming season. Worried about wet weather? Well most of these capable new gravel bikes offer integrated fenders. And don’t worry about feed zones either, because everyone can easily set up little lunch boxes on their handlebars.

Tour of Flanders is less than one week away. After Gent-Wevelgem, what rider is off the front, and what rider is off the back in your picks for de Ronde?

Chris: King Greg is clearly the frontrunner. He isn’t being given the same attention as Sagan for some reason, and he is benefitting greatly from that. Perhaps that changes now. Sagan needs to stop dicking around and just bludgeon people on the Paterberg and all will be redeemed. Quick-Step is once again showing that despite its strength in numbers, they’re a bunch of dumdums who can’t get out of their own way.

Fred: I mean, Greg Van Avermaet looks capable of winning Flanders, Roubaix, and the Belgian Prime Ministership at this point. And Tommeke? I think there will be some sympathy claps for him on Sunday.

Andrew: Clearly, Van Avermaet and Sagan are a step above everyone else. BMC has the advantage over Bora-Hansgrohe with a deeper squad, and I expect these two to go swinging for the fences Sunday. Quick-Step has the strongest team for the classics, but it cannot get the numbers to add up when it really counts. Boonen won’t be holding back, nor will an on-form Gilbert. Off the back? It’s been hard to get a read on riders like Alexander Kristoff, strong at Sanremo, but invisible so far in the northern classics. Ian Stannard, Sep Vanmarcke, and Boom need to step up their game the next two weekends.

Spencer: Van Avermaet is off the front, but did he attack too early? You can’t be on peak form all spring — or can you? Vanmarcke is way off the back. He and his new Cannondale-Drapac team made a lot of noise coming into the classics, but where are the results? One last thought: Boonen sprinted to second out of the bunch at Gent-Wevelgem. Is the old dog coming on strong right when it matters?