Italian proves the fastest at the end of testing race
Sonny Colbrelli (Bahrain-Merida) took a highly impressive victory in De Brabantse Pijl, making his way into an elite lead group, before sprinting clear of defending champion Petr Vakoc (Quick-Step Floors) at the top of the finishing climb.
The Italian rider had made his way into an elite group which went clear with just under 50km to go in the hilly prelude to the Ardennes Classics, which included 26 climbs along it 197km route.
That strong group yo-yoed at between 10 and 30 seconds off the front of the peloton for the rest of the race, only being joined by Vakoc and Tim Wellens (Lotto-Soudal) who jumped across before the base of the final climb.
Having worked hard to keep the group clear, Colbrelli might have been expected to have lost a bit of zip from his sprint, but was able to recover from poor positioning against the barriers to surge clear for Vakoc, who took second ahead of Tiesj Benoot (Lotto-Soudal).
The race had earlier seen five-strong breakaway ride clear, consisting of Jacques Janse Van Rensburg (Dimension Data), Adam Blythe (Aqua Blue Sport), Lorenzo Rota (Bardiani CSF), Zak Dempster (Israel Cycling Academy), and Christophe Masson (WB Veranclassic Aqua Protect).
They escaped on the first climb of the race after less than 10 kilometres, quickly building an advantage of more than five minutes. However by the time the race reached the 33km-long finishing circuit with 80km to go, their lead was down to less than two minutes, with Lotto-Soudal leading the pursuit.
With 60km to go the gap had already dropped below a minute, with a number of unsuccessful attacks helping to further cut the time difference.
Watch: Ardennes Classics essential guide
The catch was eventually made as the race crossed the finish line at the top of the Schavei climb for the second of four times, as a counter-attack group moved off the front of the peloton.
That group eventually grew to ten riders as more came across from the peloton. In the move were Christoper Juul-Jenson (Orica-Scott), Victor Campenaerts and Bert-Jan Lindeman (LottoNL-Jumbo), Laurens De Plus and Dries Devenyns (Quick-Step Floors), Grega Bole and Sonny Colbrelli (Bahrain-Merida), Tiesj Benoot (Lotto-Soudal), Stijn Devolder (Vérandas Willems-Crelan), Silvan Dillier (BMC Racing).
Direct-Energie led the peloton as they crossed the line for the penultimate time with a deficit of around 30 seconds to the leaders, who had begun to fight among themselves with Lindeman accelerating off the front.
Lindeman’s time off the front was short-lived, but the injection of pace was enough the shell Devolder out of the back, while the chasing group brought gap down further to just 16 seconds with 16km remaining.
That advantage fell further on the cobbled climb of the Hertstraat as Bryan Coquard launched an attack out of the chasing pack, fragmenting the group, but it then went back out towards 30 seconds with no one team willing to take control of the peloton.
There was also a slight lack of cohesion among the leaders, but the Bahrain-Merida duo in particular appearing keen to hold the advantage, working hard on the front to maintain their advantage.
The penultimate climb provided a launching pad for a counter attack from Tim Wellens and defending champion Petr Vkoc (Quick-Step Floors), just making contact by the bottom of the final climb at the flamme rouge.
With two team-mates in the group, Vakoc immediately attacked before a slackening of the pace saw Devenyns take to the front to set the pace for his Czech leader, who opened the sprint as the road flattened with 200m to go.
Colbrelli was up against the barriers, but somehow found an opening, accelerating clear to win comfortably by a number of bike lengths.
De Brabantse Pijl 2017: Leuven to Overijse (197km)
1. Sonny Colbrelli (Ita) Bahrain-Merida
2. Petr Vakoc (Cze) Quick-Step Floors
3. Tiesj Benoot (Bel) Lotto Soudal
4. Tim Wellens (Bel) Lotto Soudal
5. Bert-Jan Lindeman (Ned) Team LottoNl-Jumbo
6. Christopher Juul Jensen (Den) Orica-Scott
7. Dries Devenyns (Bel) Quick-Step Floors
8. Silvan Dillier (Swi) BMC Racing
9. Victor Campenaerts (Bel) Team LottoNl-Jumbo
10. Laurens De Plus (Bel) Quick-Step Floors