Søren Kragh Andersen (Sunweb) was the victor in the first of a new-look Paris-Tours.
The 24-year old Dane broke clear from breakaway companions Niki Terpstra (Quick-Step Floors) and Benoit Cosnefroy (AG2R La Mondiale) with 11km left to ride, and soloed to the finish to claim victory in a race he finished second in last year.
Paris-Tours is nicknamed the “sprinters’ Classic” for the way it has traditionally favoured fastmen over Classics specialists, but a revised route this year that featured nine sections of gravel roads swung the advantage back towards the latter, and prompted a very selective race.
The race was also characterised by numerous punctures, with Philippe Gilbert (Quick-Step Floors) and Tiesj Benoot (Lotto-Soudal) among those whose chances were scuppered despite clearly having very good legs.
The changes attracted a mixed response, with many praising the race as a great spectacle, and others bemoaning it as a farce - including Quick-Step Floors’ manager Patrick Lefevere, who tweeted that ‘this will be the last time that Quick-Step Floors do this race’ as it had ‘nothing to do with road cycling’.
How it happened
A five-man breakaway went clear at the start of the race, consisting of Dries de Bondt (Veranda’s Willems-Crelan), Bernhard Eisel (Dimension Data), Thibault Guemalec (Fortuneo-Samsic), Emiel Vermeulen (Roubaix Lille Metropole), Brian Van Goethem (Roompot-Nederlandse Loterij) and Sylvain Chavanel (Direct Energie).
Chavanel was the most eye-catching name in the break, as this was the Frenchman’s last road race of his illustrious career before retiring.
When splits in the peloton prompted an increase in pace that brought the gap down to within one minute, three riders - Johan Le Bon (Vital Concept) and Tom Devriendt (Wanty-Groupe Gobert) and Britain’s Alex Dowsett (Katusha-Alpecin) - took the opportunity to bridge up to the lead group.
The gap was briefly allowed to go up again, but tumbled once more as the peloton turned up the intensity in anticipation for the upcoming gravel sections approached.
By the time the riders reached the first section (listed as ‘secteur nine’, counting down backwards), it stood at mere 16 seconds, at which point the race broke into pieces.
After the first two back-to-back sections had been completed, all the breakaway riders had been caught, and a new leading group of around 25 riders had formed at the front of the race.
Among those dropped were sprinters like Dylan Groenewegen (LottoNL-Jumbo) and Christophe Laporte (Cofidis), who might have fancied their chances of winning in more traditional Paris-Tours parcours.
Terpstra accelerated on the climb leading up to secteur seven, forming a yet more select group including Sep Vanmarcke (EF Education First-Drapac), Søren Kragh Andersen (Sunweb) and former winner Jelle Wallays (Lotto-Soudal). His Quick-Step Floors teammate Gilbert (Quick-Step Floors) was also present, but had to drop back upon suffering a puncture - a common occupational hazard on the gravel roads, which also struck other big names including André Greipel and Tiesj Benoot (Lotto-Soudal).
Andersen pressed on alone over secteur six, to be joined by Terpstra with a small group in pursuit. The duo worked well together, opening up a lead of over 20 seconds as secteur three approached, and were joined by Benoit Cosnefroy (AG2R La Mondiale) upon reaching secteur three, who impressively managed to bridge the gap all by himself.
The gap continued to increase and was just under thirty seconds at the start of secteur two, by which time Valentin Madouas (Groupama-FDJ), Oliver Naesen (AG2R La Mondiale) and Sep Vanmarcke (EF Education First-Drapac) had distanced the rest of the chasers.
On the approach to sectur one, the final section of gravel roads in the race, the gap from the leading three to the chasing three remained hovering at around 30 seconds.
By the end of secteur one it had gone up to over 40 seconds, from which point it seemed inevitable that the leaders would go on to contest for victory.
Cosnefroy frustrated his two companions by refusing to take a turn, due to the presence of his teammate Naesen in the chasing group behind.
However, despite his rested legs, Cosnefroy was unable to follow Andersen when the Dane attacked 11km from the finish.
Andersen used his time trialling pedigree to motor away from Cosnefroy and Terpstra, who failed to make any inroads as the deficit remained stubbornly at around 20 seconds.
Ultimately Andersen had time to savour his celebration over the finish line, as Terpstra outsprinted Cosnefroy to take second and third respectively.
Paris-Tours 2018, 214.5km
1. Søren Kragh Andersen (DEN) Sunweb, in 4-37-55
2. Niki Terpstra (NED) Quick-Step Floors, at 25s
3. Benoit Cosnefroy (FRA) AG2R La Mondiale
4. Oliver Naesen (BEL) AG2R La Mondiale, at 1-14
5. Valentin Madouas (FRA) Groupama-FDJ
6. Tiesj Benoot (BEL) Lotto-Soudal
7. Sep Vanmarcke (BEL) EF Education First-Drapac
8. Philippe Gilbert (BEL) Quick-Step Floors, at 1-24
9. Taco Van Der Hoorn (NED) Roompot-Nederlandse Loterij
10. Jos van Emden (NED) LottoNL-Jumbo