Davide Ballerini continued his fine start to 2021 as he eased to victory at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad.
In the reduced bunch sprint of around 50 riders, the Italian was peerless as he was led out by team-mate Florian Sénéchal, Groupama-FDJ's Jake Stewart moving up late to snatch an impressive second as Sep Vanmarcke (Israel Start-Up Nation) had to settle for third.
Heinrich Haussler managed fourth for Bahrain-Victorious, while Lotto-Soudal's Philippe Gilbert rounded out the top five.
Deceuninck - Quick-Step brought the race to the rest of the peloton all day, the world champion Julian Alaphilippe once again orchestrating from the front as he first led a group away from the bunch before hitting out alone.
When the race came back together, however, a mechanical for Alexander Kristoff (UAE Team Emirates) in the final couple of kilometres left Ballerini as clearly the best sprinter left in contention, taking his third win of the season after two stage victories at the Tour de La Provence.
How it happened
Israel Start-Up Nation's Reto Hollenstein and Guillaume Boivin didn't make the start line after returning positive Covid-19 tests before five riders set up the day's break in the first 10km: Kenny De Ketele (Sport Vlaanderen-Baloise), Bert De Backer (B&B), Yevgeniy Fedorov (Astana), Ryan Gibbons (UAE) and Matis Louvel (Arkéa-Samsic).
This quintet soon built a lead of nearly nine minutes as the peloton settled in for the day, with Deceuninck - Quick-Step then marshalling the bunch as they approached the first of two ascents of the Leberg.
Tensions were already high inside the first 100km, with a crash involving Groupama-FDJ and Bahrain Victorious en route to the second climb, the breakaway's advantage dropping a couple of minutes due to the intensity of the racing.
Leg warmers and rain jackets began to be dispensed with as the race ticked under 100km to go, Tim Declerq the only proper domestique brought to the race by Deceuninck - Quick-Step and put to work on the front for 40km as the breakaway's will was slowly chipped away.
Mitch Docker (EF Education-Nippo) and Sonny Colbrelli (Bahrain Victorious) were then involved in a crash, the rain then beginning to fall on the cobbles to increase the nerves a touch more. Kasper Asgreen and Owain Doull were the next two to hit the deck, Greg Van Avermaet another caught up and Sep Vanmarcke also scabbing his elbow in the incident.
Van Avermaet soon caught back up as the gap to the break came down to around the three-minute mark with 70km to go, the road heading uphill as Asgreen put in a dig and the back of the peloton became heavier with riders.
Julius van den Berg then tried a move for EF, momentarily grabbing a few seconds off the front, as the escapees started to crumble on the Valkenburg.
Tim Wellens was the next to win the crash lottery, taking a tumble onto a grassy verge before quickly getting back on, another big crash following soon after, once again involving Colbrelli. The breakaway was only a minute up the road with 50km left, as the riders still in the bunch also numbered half a century.
Yves Lampaert led the peloton onto the next cobbled section, his team-mate Julian Alaphilippe tucked in on his wheel.
The Belgian then crashed after taking a bend too quickly, Victor Campenaerts (Qhubeka-Assos) taking advantage of the break in Deceuninck - Quick-Step programming to go off the front. As the time trial specialist was brought to heel, Asgreen countered, the escapees almost in touching distance now.
Edoardo Affini (Jumbo-Visma) then hit the deck on the approach to the Molenberg before the pace really went up a gear, Alaphilippe leading a group off the front of the peloton alongside team-mates Zdenek Štybar and Davide Ballerini, as Greg Van Avermaet and Matteo Trentin were among those to have made the cut.
This star-studded group soon caught the day's break, as Pidcock impressively rode across the gap, these 10 or so riders holding a 13-second advantage on the Haaghoek cobbles.
Alaphilippe continued to be the main instigator of this move before peeling off the front on his own, Pidcock and Christophe Laporte (Cofidis) trying to counter but to no avail, the world champion taking a 20-second advantage up ahead with 30km remaining.
Pidcock then went again, Van Avermaet responding this time, while Deceuninck - Quick-Step sat in the group possessing numbers, but soon losing one as Štybar hit the deck, a touch of wheels as the Czech rider was caught looking the wrong way at the wrong time.
With 20km to go, Alaphilippe's lead was hovering just above 10 seconds, the Frenchman caught before the Muur but then setting the pace up the climb.
Gianni Moscon (Ineos Grenadiers) was the next to make a move, peeling off with 17km to go, caught 4km later as Stefan Küng (Groupama-FDJ) then chanced his arm.
Alaphilippe and Asgreen were back on the front into the final 10km as Ineos were the other team with the numbers heading into the finale. Alaphilippe continued to drive the pace before handing over to Yves Lampaert inside the final 5km. Trentin was piloting Kristoff until the Norwegian suffered a mechanical, as Ethan Hayter was then caught up in a crash inside the final 2km.
Advantage Ballerini, now clearly the fastest finisher in the group, as Philippe Gilbert lurked ominously in the final kilometre. It was a perfect lead-out from Asgreen and Sénéchal, however, as Ballerini finished it off for Deceuninck - Quick-Step, yet another Classics victory for the Belgian team.
Omloop Het Nieuwsblad 2021, Ghent to Ninove (200.5km)
1. Davide Ballerini (Ita) Deceuninck - Quick-Step, in 4-43-03
2. Jake Stewart (GBr) Groupama-FDJ, at same time
3. Sep Vanmarcke (Bel) Israel Start-Up Nation
4. Heinrich Haussler (Aus) Bahrain-Victorious
5. Philippe Gilbert (Bel) Lotto-Soudal
6. Alex Aranburu (Esp) Astana - Premier Tech
7. Florian Sénéchal (Fra) Deceuninck - Quick-Step
8. Matteo Trentin (Ita) UAE Team Emirates
9. Kevin Geniets (Lux) Groupama-FDJ
10. Nils Politt (Ger) Bora-Hansgrohe, all at same time
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Hi. I'm Cycling Weekly's Weekend Editor. I like writing offbeat features and eating too much bread when working out on the road at bike races.
Before joining Cycling Weekly I worked at The Tab and I've also written for Vice, Time Out, and worked freelance for The Telegraph (I know, but I needed the money at the time so let me live).
I also worked for ITV Cycling between 2011-2018 on their Tour de France and Vuelta a España coverage. Sometimes I'd be helping the producers make the programme and other times I'd be getting the lunches. Just in case you were wondering - Phil Liggett and Paul Sherwen had the same ham sandwich every day, it was great.
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