Alexander Kristoff is back with a vengeance
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It’s been a long time since we’ve seen Alexander Kristoff ride like he did to win Ghent-Wevelgem this weekend.
With the significant exception of the stage win on the Champs-Élysées, his move to UAE Team Emirates last year did not bring the results expected from a rider of his quality, while the their signing of Fernando Gaviria for this season threatened to push him down the team’s hierarchy. Indeed, Kristoff endured another slow start to the spring, and finished outside of the top-10 in his best race, Milan-San Remo, for the first time since 2012.
All that meant most assumed he’d be leading out Gaviria in the sprint when the two found themselves in the leading group heading to the finish line at Ghent-Wevelgem. However, when the Colombian admitted to not feeling great, Kristoff seized upon the opportunity, to take victory in his trademark fashion – with a powerful sprint at the end of a long, gruelling day’s racing.
That he was so strong in the finale despite having used up precious energy in a fruitless solo pursuit of a leading quintet earlier in the race underlined just what strong legs he had. Out of relative obscurity, he must now be considered a major contender for the Tour of Flanders next week.
Jumbo-Visma take the race to Deceuninck-Quick-Step
Whereas Deceuninck-Quick-Step had been licenced to dictate the previous classics on their own terms, at Ghent-Wevelgem Jumbo-Visma took the race to them, and disrupted the Belgian team’s usual dominance.
Their first move was to place a total of five riders in a large early break that featured several dangerous riders, including Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe), Niki Terpstra (Direct Energie), Fernando Gaviria (UAE Team Emirates) and Mathieu van der Poel (Corendon-Circus). Although a couple of Jumbo-Visma’s representatives had to drop back due to mechanicals, the team’s star man, Wout van Aert, remained.
Deceuninck-Quick-Step only had Tim Declercq present, and this numerical disadvantage put them in the rare position of being on the back step, forcing them to have to chase down the move.
The collective might of Zdeněk Štybar, Philippe Gilbert and Yves Lampaert ensured that the catch was always likely to be made (and it was, 18km from the line), but the effort required to do so meant the team struggled to control the many counter-attacks – in which Van Aert was again prominently involve – launched after that. Come the sprint, therefore, Deceuninck-Quick-Step were unable to implement their usual flawless lead-out train, and a stranded Elia Viviani could only manage nineteenth.
Jumbo-Visma also missed out on victory, with Danny van Poppel their highest finisher in fifth. However, by riding aggressively and ambitiously, they’ve set a template for how the previously invincible Deceuninck-Quick-Step can be beaten in the Classics.
Experience wins out over youth at Women’s Ghent-Wevelgem
There were signs of what the future of sprinting in the women’s peloton might look like at Ghent-Wevelgem, as 20-year old Lorena Wiebes and 19-year old Letizia Paternoster finished second and third respectively in the race’s climactic bunch sprint.
However, experience got the better of youth as Kirsten Wild – a rider who, at 36, is nearly twice their age – was crowned winner.
It became apparent earlier in the week that Wild was on great form, after she sprinted to victory at the Three Days of De Panne on Thursday. Once again, she produced a powerful sprint in the finishing straight to claim victory, her second Ghent-Wevelgem having also won here in 2013.
Having also finished second behind her at the Three Days of De Panne, Wiebes must be getting sick of the sight of Wild. But at such a young age, it’s likely her and Paternoster will start converting promising performances like these into major wins soon enough.
A sprint for the strong
If the same 30(ish)-man group that made it to the finish at Ghent-Wevelgem had contested a sprint in a more conventional, flat race, there would have been two clear favourites for the victory – Elia Viviani, and Fernando Gaviria.
Both have been on flying form this season, with four and three wins respectively, and have looked (with the exception of Dylan Groenewegen) like the quickest pure sprinters in the peloton.
However, a sprint at the end of such a long, arduous day of racing is a very different prospect, and both riders were evidently exhausted by the finish, with neither even managing to make it into the top-10.
Instead, all-rounders who can be considered as both classics specialists and sprinters came to the fore. Behind Kristoff, John Degenkolb also showed his quality to sprint for second, a welcome boost both to him (this was his second highest finish of the season), and his Trek-Segafredo team, who at last played a prominent role in a Classic with Mads Pedersen and Jasper Stuyven also animating the race with late attacks.
And rounding off the podium was Oliver Naesen (Ag2r La Mondiale), who, for the second time in as many weeks following his second place finish at Milan-San Remo, demonstrated just how strong a sprint he has at the end of such a long day of racing.
Sagan isn’t quite right
Whereas his underwhelming performance at the E3 BinckBank Classic on Friday could be explained away by an unfortunately timed mechanical, at Ghent-Wevelgem it seemed pretty clear that his form is a problem.
Tactically, he was bold and aggressive, first placing himself in the large breakaway group that went clear early in the day, and then, along with Matteo Trentin (Mitchelton-Scott), Mike Teunissen (Jumbo-Visma) and Edward Theuns (Trek-Segafredo), formed part of the more select group of four (which later became five when Sky’s Luke Rowe bridged across) that emerged from that larger group with around 65km left to ride.
However, he toiled and grimaced on the decisive second ascent of the Kemmelberg, struggling to keep the wheel of his breakaway companions, who he would usually expect to drop on a climb like this.
Later, come the finish, he also failed to get involved in the sprint, rolling in a lowly 32nd, 13 seconds adrift.
With only a week left until the Tour of Flanders, Sagan is going to have to find his best form quick if he is to repeat his 2016 victory.