Guillaume Van Keirsbulck (Wanty-Groupe Gobert) won a gruelling edition of Le Samyn, out-sprinting Alex Kirsch (WB Veranclassic Aqua Protect) in terrible conditions in the Belgian semi-classic.
Van Keirsbulck was active throughout the final third of the race, as the peloton was slowly whittled down to only a handful of riders as heavy rain and strong winds battered the race throughout.
The former Quick-Step rider first showed his hand as he made it into a group of ten riders that moved off the front with just under 50km remaining, before attacking multiple times to steadily slim the group down as the race neared its finale.
By the time the race reached its ending, only the 24-year-old Kirsch was able to stick with Van Keirsbulck, who unleashed one final effort to sprint past to take his first race victory since 2014.
Racing in filthy conditions in western Belgium, a five-man break escaped early in Le Samyn, consisting of one Belgian in Erwann Corbel (Fortuneo-Vital Concept) and four Belgians: Kenneth Van Rooy (Sport Vlaanderen-Baloise), Gordon De Winter (AGO-Aqua Service), Kevin Van Melsen (Wanty-Groupe Gobert) and Joeri Stallaert (Cibel-Cebon).
Those five riders were only able to build a slender lead, and by the time the race reached the final four 25km circuits with frequent cobbles, their advantage was already below a minute.
Watch: Cobbled Classics essential guide
By the end of the first circuit the break had been caught, and for the next 30km a number of small groups attempted to go clear of the greatly diminished peloton.
Eventually with 44km a group of ten riders were able to open a slender gap, before Guillaume Van Keirsbulck attacked on the cobbled sector of Chemin de Wiheries.
Van Keirsbulck’s attack slimmed the group down to seven riders, but the gap held at around 30 seconds for a number of kilometres as Cofidis and Quick-Step led a peloton, which by this point was down to around 25 riders, over wet and exposed roads.
With the race entering the final lap the leaders’ advantage has fallen to just a handful of seconds, and with Cofidis and Quick-Step still applying the pressure on the front of the peloton, the catch seemed to be inevitable.
However, three riders, Tosh Van Der Sande (Lotto-Soudal), Alex Kirsch, and, almost inevitably, Van Keirsbulck, weren’t quite ready to throw in the towel, attacking once again to pull clear.
Working well together, the trio were able to maintain a narrow gap, before Van Keirsbulck attacked yet again on the cobbles of the Côte de la Roquette, with only Kirsch only able to follow, while behind the peloton was also fragmenting, forming a group of seven chasers.
With 3.2km remaining and the gap dropping below 20 seconds, Van Keirsbulck made another move, with Kirsch clawing his way on to the Belgian’s back wheel, before taking the lead on to the final cobbled sector of Rue de Belle Vue.
Under the flamme rouge and the gap to the chasers had narrowed further, but it was going to be between Van Keirsbulck and Kirsch for the win.
After such a gruelling race it was never going to be a fast sprint, with Kirsch mustering the slightest of accelerations with 250m to go, before Van Keirsbulck edged round the outside to win by a couple of bike lengths.
Le Samyn 2017, 202km
1. Guillaume Van Keirsbulck (Bel) Wanty-Group Gobert, in 5-41-54
2. Alex Kirsch (Lux) WB Veranclassic Aqua Protect
3. Iljo Keisse (Bel) Quick-Step Floors, at 11 secs
4. Florian Sénéchal (Fra) Cofidis
5. Frederick Backaert (Bel) Wanty-Groupe Gobert
6. Jesper Asselman (Ned) Roompot-Nederlandse Loterij
7. Frederick Frison (Bel) Lotto-Soudal, all same time
8. Jos Van Emden (Ned) Team LottoNL-Jumbo, at 13 secs
9. Bert Van Lerberghe (Bel) Sport Vlaanderen-Baloise, at 35 secs
10. Maximilian Schachmann (Ger) Quick-Step Floors, at 52 secs