A measured Van Aert takes first Classic of 2021
In a Classics campaign that had up until now been defined by near misses, Wout van Aert (Jumbo-Visma) landed his first of the season today at Ghent-Wevelgem.
Although he has been consistent as ever, the Belgian had perhaps lacked a killer instinct. At Strade Bianche he was dropped by Mathieu van der Poel (Alpecin-Fenix) and Julian Alaphilippe (Deceuninck-Quick-Step) in the finale, and he wasn’t able to bring back Jasper Stuyven (Trek-Segafredo) at Milan-San Remo.
Most disappointing of all was his ride at E3 Saxo Bank Classic, where he was found wanting on the final climb and was dropped altogether by a group he would usually be expected to accelerate away from.
But there were no issues with Van Aert’s form today, as he made the early split, thinned out the group to a manageable number of nine on the Kemmelberg, and had plenty left in reserve to win the sprint at the line.
Compared to his ride at E3, where he expended lots of energy chasing breaks, he cut a far calmer figure today. Despite the presence of Sam Bennett (Deceuninck-Quick-Step) and several other dangerous sprinters), he did not try to drop them on the final ascent of the Kemmelberg, instead choosing to save energy and back himself in the sprint.
The decision turned out to be the correct one, as he comfortably won the sprint at the line. It’s clear he’s had the form all spring, but today he backed his legs up with a calm head and smart tactics, to take his first classic win of the season.
Sprinters in break miss out on a golden opportunity
Behind Van Aert in the final dash to the line were several sprinters who will rue having missed out on a golden opportunity to win a Classic.
Giacomo Nizzolo (Qhubka-Assos), Michael Matthews (BikeExchange), Matteo Trentin (UAE Team Emirates) and Sonny Colbrelli (Bahrain-Victorious) have all been contenders for the Classics for years, and each have multiple semi-Classic victories in their palmarès, but as yet none had ever claimed a major cobbled Classic.
All four did well to make the early split, and looked good over the climbs to remain in the front group, placing themselves in a very promising position to put that right.
Each rider is renowned for their quick sprint finish, and backed themselves to win that way at the finish, as no attacks were made by any of them on the approach to the finish.
This might have been as good a chance as any will ever get to win a cobbled Classic as prestigious as Ghent-Wevelgem, but when it came to the sprint, none had an answer to Van Aert’s turn of pace.
Nizzolo was second and Trentin third, meaning they can at least another podium finish to their palmarès. But with Van Aert being so good both on the attack and in the sprint, it’s difficult to see how these kinds of riders can win a classic like this while he’s present.
Sickness undoes brilliant work by Bennett on a bad day for Deceuninck-Quick-Step
One of the rides of the day was from Sam Bennett, who was the only Deceunick-Quick-Step rider to make the early split, and managed to stay in contact with the Classics specialists in the lead group over the climbs.
However, just when it looked as though he was in a brilliant position to use his peerless sprint finish to take victory, Bennett threw up while still riding the bike. Evidently unwell, he struggled on for a while, but was dropped from the lead group after an attack by Nathan Van Hooydonk (Jumbo-Visma).
Later, the Irishman explained that, while trying to make sure he remained fueled, he had gone overboard and eaten too much.
As the only Deceuninck-Quick-Step representative in the lead group, the team’s hopes ended the moment he was dropped, making this race a stark contrast to their dominant display at E3 SaxoBank Classic.
That extends their winless run at Ghent-Wevelgem to nine years. For whatever reason, they don’t seem to be able to dominate this race the same way they do in the other cobbled Classics.
Vos adds Gent-Wevelgem to her stacked palmarès
During her peak years, Marianne Vos (Jumbo-Visma) dominated women’s cycling like no other rider ever had or has done since, and won pretty much every race there was to win.
Her palmarès is, however, missing many of the more recently introduced races, such as Amstel Gold, Liège-Bastogne-Liège, Strade Bianche — and, until today, Ghent-Wevelgem.
While the other three races have proven difficult for her to win since she has morphed into more of a sprinter that can climb rather than a climber that can sprint in this later stage of her career, Ghent-Wevelgem still looked like a race perfectly suited to her, and indeed the Dutchwoman used her killer finishing kick to get the better of top sprinter Lotte Kopecky (Lotto-Soudal) and Lisa Brennauer (Ceratizit-WNT).
It was also a maiden victory for Jumbo-Visma, who formed at the start of the season with Vos as their headliner. With Vos still on such flying form, and good work also from Britain’s Anna Hendersen who led the race briefly following a solo attack out of the group of favourites, the team look set to live up to the hype.
Borghini runs out of gas as Trek-Segafredo attack in the crosswinds
As expected, Trek-Segafredo were the chief instigators in trying to prevent a bunch sprint, but, despite clearly having very strong legs, Elisa Longo Borghini wasn’t able to take the victory.
The Italian’s first major move came on the Kemmelberg, where she went clear with Kasia Niewiadoma (Canyon-SRAM).
That had the effect of taking out several of the pre-race favourites, most notably Jolien D’hoore (SD Worx), Kirsten Wild (Ceratizit-WNT) and Lorena Wiebes (DSM), but the duo was soon caught by several more chasers, among them dangerous sprinters like Koppecky, Emma Norsgaard (Movistar) and Vos.
With this in mind, Trek-Segafredo launched another, brilliantly coordinated attack at a change of direction during the flat run-in to the finish, hoping to take advantage of the strong winds.
Borghini again went clear, this time with Italian compatriot Soraya Paladin (Liv Racing). Paladin could barely hold the wheel, and after a while was unable to take a turn, but Borghini motored on and looked as though she might single-handedly drag them to the line.
But the bunch managed to make the chase inside the final kilometre, meaning there was to be no repeat of her victory at Trofeo Alfredo Binda last week.
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Stephen Puddicombe is a freelance journalist for Cycling Weekly, who regularly contributes to our World Tour racing coverage with race reports, news stories, interviews and features. Outside of cycling, he also enjoys writing about film and TV - but you won't find much of that content embedded into his CW articles.