World champion Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe) took a third Ghent-Wevelgem title on Sunday after sprinting to victory from a reduced bunch.
Sagan was part of a circa 20-man group containing a number of world-class sprinters, but launched his finishing move early and held his power to beat Elia Viviani (Quick-Step Floors) and Arnaud Démare (Groupama-FDJ) to the line.
Viviani was visibly upset after the finish having had his powerful Quick-Step Floors team, which had four riders in total in the front group, commit to setting him up for the sprint finish.
The Italian was unable to make up enough ground after finding himself boxed in when Sagan started his sprint.
Sagan's victory means he joins the likes of Robert Van Eenaeme, Eddy Merckx, Rik Van Looy, Mario Cipollini and Tom Boonen as a three-time winner of Ghent-Wevelgem, having won the race in 2013 and 2016.
How it happened
The day had got off to a relatively calm start with over 250km on the cards, but eventually Frederik Frison (Lotto-Soudal), José Gonçalves (Katusha-Alpecin), Felipe Ganna (UAE Team Emirates), Jimmy Duquennoy (WB Aqua Protect Veranclassic) and Brian Van Goethem and Jan-Willem Van Schip (Roompot) were able to establish the day's main break.
Their maximum gap got out to over nine minutes at one point, but the peloton sustained it at around four to five minutes before beginning to reel them back in.
The racing really only began to heat up as Quick-Step pushed the pace following the first ascent to the top of the Kemmelberg with 68km to go. That saw a portion of the field dropped out the back, but wasn't enough to cause any defining splits.
BMC were the next to push on as the peloton reached the plugstreet sections of the race with just over 50km to go, with the breakaway hanging on with over a a minute's advantage.
At 45km to go the gap was down to 54 seconds, and that prompted the race's next significant move as Alex Kirsch (WB Aqua Protect Veranclassic) Vyacheslav Kuznetsov (Katusha-Alpecin), Jelle Wallays (Lotto-Soudal) and Julien Vermote (Dimension Data) broke clear and got 30 seconds on the peloton with 1-18 still from the leaders to the peloton.
That foursome made gains on the leaders over the race's penultimate climb of the Baneberg, catching them before the final and steep ascent of the Kemmelberg.
At this point there was visibly some worry in the peloton about the gap of over a minute to the swelled breakaway group, with Philippe Gilbert (Quick-Step Floors) attempting to follow a move by Marcus Burghardt (Bora-Hansgrohe) and Guillaume Van Keirsbulck (Wanty-Groupe Gobert) towards the front.
But that was short-lived with the bunch altogether as they hit the cobbled Kemmelberg, with Sep Vanmarcke (EF Education First-Drapac) setting the pace to try and reduce the size of the main group.
Team Sky's Gianni Moscon appeared to be forced into the barriers and unclip at the foot of the climb, forcing him to put a huge effort in to try and get back to the bunch.
While last year saw the final climb create a select group of favourites, this year's still saw a a number of sprinters make the selection and the peloton was still sizeable as they began the final 35km or so to the finish.
The break at this point had begun to shed riders who had been out there all day, but still held a reasonable advantage as they sped along the flatlands towards Wevelgem.
But that began to diminish as the peloton split, with a group of around 20 riders or so containing most of the favourites breaking clear. Astana were the team to miss out with no riders in the split, while Alexander Kristoff (UAE Team Emirates), John Degenkolb (Trek-Segafredo) and Moscon all began to see any chance of victory disappear up the road.
Eventually the pace of the main chase group was enough to see the breakaway pulled back in, and the strongest riders began to turn the screw on those who didn't want to contribute to setting the pace, with the wind battering the riders from the left-hand side.
The ferocious pace meant that attacks were difficult and unlikely. Quick-Step Floors with four riders in Gilbert and Viviani, as well as Zdenek Stybar and Yves Lampaert, looked determined in setting up a sprint finish. Sagan, Démare, Matteo Trentin (Mitchelton-Scott), Christophe Laporte (Cofidis) and Jens Debusschere (Lotto-Soudal) were the other riders also looking comfortable with trying their luck in a sprint finish.
Behind, Astana's Michael Valgren and Magnus Cort Nielsen rode with Kristoff to get away from their group, but they couldn't do enough to bring the gap to the leaders to below 40 seconds.
The real attacks in the front group only really came in the final 5km or so. The two Roompot riders, who had been in the original breakaway, tried their hand but weren't able to make it stick.
Defending champion Greg Van Avermaet (BMC) tried to go but came from too far back, and was unable to gain any distance.
The last attack in earnest came from Vanmarcke as the riders hit the final kilometre, but he only briefly had a few metres before Quick-Step reeled him back.
It was then down to the sprinters, with Sagan the first to break on the left hand side. Démare reacted first, while Viviani had to come from quite far back and around too many riders on the right side of the road.
Despite carrying more speed, Viviani ran out of road and it was Sagan who was able to hold his sprint enough to come home victorious and claim a third Ghent-Wevelgem title.
Ghent-Wevelgem 2018 (251.1km)
1 Peter Sagan (Svk) Bora-Hansgrohe, in 5-07-32
2 Elia Viviani (Ita) Quick-Step Floors
3 Arnaud Demare (Fra) FDJ
4 Christophe Laporte (Fra) Cofidis
5 Jens Debusschere (Bel) Lotto-Soudal
6 Oliver Naesen (Bel) Ag2r La Mondiale
7 Matteo Trentin (Ita) Mitchelton-Scott
8 Zdenek Stybar (Cze) Quick-Step Floors
9 Jasper Stuyven (Bel) Trek-Segafredo
10 Wout Van Aert (Bel) Veranda's Willems Crelan, all same time
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