Quick-Step with another tactically flawless race
Niki Terpstra’s (Quick-Step Floors) race-winning move was not the strongest attack of the 2018 Tour of Flanders. That was Peter Sagan’s (Bora-Hansgrohe) over the Paterberg, where, on the climb’s steepest section near the top - probably the most difficult and selective section in the whole race - the world champion rode every other rider in a chasing group of favourites off his wheel.
If that attack suggested that Sagan was probably the strongest rider in the race, the fact he ultimately finished in sixth was a reminder of how the Ronde is not a race won purely on sheer strength, but through the right tactics.
As they have done all spring, Quick-Step Floors played a blinder. Despite being surprisingly absent during the earlier ebb and flow of the race, once the business end was reached they controlled the race, firing of Terpstra and Zdenek Stybar at intervals to give the other teams something to chase.
Eventually, shortly after the Kruisberg with around 25km to go, Terpstra responded to a move from Vincenzo Nibali (Bahrain-Merida), then set off alone when it became clear the Italian (who, on his debut Ronde, it was surprising to see still in play this late in the race) was too exhausted to contribute.
While his teammates Stybar and Philippe Gilbert were quick to cover whenever any of the chasing group tried to make a move, Terpstra was strong enough to catch and then immediately drop a leading breakaway trio on the Oude Kwaremont, then solo to victory.
It was a strategy that closely resembled Terpstra’s similar long-range wins this spring at E3 Harelbeke and Le Samyn, especially when Gilbert - who was second at both those races - sprinted from the group of favourites to join him on the podium in third.
Quick-Step Floors’ tactics were nothing new, but their rivals had found no answer to them.
A huge win for an under-rated rider
For most of his career, Niki Terpstra has ridden under the shadow of Tom Boonen. Since joining Quick-Step in 2011, he has been used in the classics teams as a ‘plan B’, impressing with his trademark long-range attacks, but generally seen as subservient to Belgium’s favourite son.
In many was the role has been to his advantage - for his previous monument win, the 2014 Paris-Roubaix, he was able to slip off the front as his rivals were preoccupied with marking Boonen, allowing the Dutchman to solo to victory.
But this spring he has really come into his own, winning three classics over the past five weeks. Philippe Gilbert has ostensibly taken over Boonen’s role as leader, but in reality Quick-Step Floors look like a more egalitarian outfit in their first post-Boonen season, with Terpstra emerging as their strongest rider.
It would be easy to give too much praise to Quick-Step’s tactics and understate the individual quality of Terpstra’s win - to pull off such a powerful move and ride alone for the final 25km as the Dutchman did today requires extraordinary legs.
Terpstra has probably been underrated his entire career - now, with two cobbled monuments on his palmares, there’s no denying his class.
Mads Pedersen’s breakthrough ride
The ride of the day was arguably Mads Pedersen’s (Trek-Segafredo) sensational and entirely unexpected second place.
It wasn’t just the fact that the Dane, aged just 22-years old and up against the world’s best managed to podium on his debut Tour of Flanders - it was that he did so the hard way.
Pedersen was out in front from early in the day, having formed a leading group of three with Dylan van Baarle (Team Sky) and Sebastian Langeveld (EF Education First) prior to the key climb of the Koppenberg, 45km from the finish.
When Terpstra bridged up to the trio on the Oude Kwaremont, Pedersen - who one might have expected to be the weakest of the three - was in fact the only one to remain within touching distance of the Dutchman.
Though he never made it back up to Terpstra, the way he held off the chasing group of favourites in the finale, despite riding on his own with no support, was seriously impressive.
It had the feel of a star-making turn - look out for Pedersen to be a new star of classics racing.
Disappointing day for sky
Despite some early promise, Team Sky will be disappointed with the way the race panned out for them.
Van Baarle spent a significant portion of the race in the lead group, but did not have the same legs as Pedersen to hold and contest for a podium finish. Michał Kwiatkowski set the tempo on the first ascent of the Paterberg, but disappeared in the finale. Gianni Moscon made a few attacks, but missed the final selection.
Luke Rowe was the least fortunate of all, being disqualified from the race for riding onto the pavement, when it seemed as though he was simply trying to avoid riding into some spectators.
It continues what has been a quiet classics campaign for Sky, but there’s still hope for redemption at Paris-Roubaix next week.
Anna van der Breggen triumphant again
The Tour of Flanders was one of the few major races Anna van der Breggen (Boels-Dolmans) had yet to win, and she put that anomaly to right in comprehensive fashion to win this year’s edition by over a minute.
The Dutchwoman attacked with 27km, with no other rider either alert enough or capable to cover the obvious danger.
She soloed over the Oude Kwaremont and Paterberg without ever suggesting she might tire, and comfortably maintained a lead of a minute over the group of chasers.
To seal a perfect day for Boels-Dolmans, Amy Pieters won the sprint for second.
Having also won the Strade Bianche earlier in the spring, Van der Breggen could be in for a huge haul of classics wins this spring, and currently looks like comfortably the best rider in the world.
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