By Jonny Long
Wout van Aert added yet another prestigious one-day Classic to his palmarès, sprinting to victory at Ghent-Wevelgem, besting the likes of Giacomo Nizzolo (Qhubeka-ASSOS), Matteo Trentin (UAE Team Emirates) and Michael Matthews (BikeExchange).
The Belgian had made it into the front group after windy conditions caused echelons to form on the road, the peloton's chase in vain as the large leading group went the distance, whittled down until Van Aert proved the strongest of a number of fast men left to contest the win.
Sam Bennett was the only Deceuninck - Quick-Step rider to make the front echelon, but was eventually distanced in the closing kilometres.
After two victories at Tirreno-Adriatico, Van Aert had to settle for third at Milan - Sanremo, before finishing outside the top 10 at the E3 Saxo Bank Classic, taking his first one-day win of 2021 at Ghent-Wevelgem.
How it happened
The EF Education - Nippo duo of Stefan Bissegger and Jonas Rutsch were among those off the front early, Philippe Gilbert (Lotto-Soudal) Trying and failing to get himself in the mix, as the breakaway were soon nearly 10 minutes up the road. But then the wind picked up.
While a week ago we were all moaning about Milan - Sanremo being broadcast in full from start to finish, we could have done with some RCS-inspired television coverage for Ghent-Wevelgem, as winds ripped apart the peloton.
With 180km remaining, there were echelons, a front group soon taking out a 30-second lead over the rest of the peloton.
Sam Bennett, Wout van Aert, Sonny Colbrelli, Michael Matthews, Matteo Trentin and Giacomo Nizzolo had made this group, the breakaway now only two and a half minutes ahead.
The Wout van Aert group of 20 riders were soon only a minute behind the smaller breakaway, and now more than two and a half minutes ahead of the bunch, BikeExchange finding themselves with numbers and therefore forcing the issue.
With a little over 150km to go the group had caught the breakaway, the peloton now fracturing behind as they started to feel the race going away from them, starting to bring the gap down before it began to settle around the 1-30 mark.
Sep Vanmarcke (Israel Start-Up Nation) then abandoned the race, having been caught on the wrong side of the split, as Philippe Gilbert hung on at the back of the peloton that was trying its best to hunt down the group up ahead. With a little help from Deceneuninck - Quick-Step the gap came down to around 1-20 before the first of the day's 11 climbs.
Zdenek Štybar and Yves Lampaert then launched a move as the gradient increased to try and get across to Bennett up ahead, bringing the gap down to 38 seconds, this second group also containing Oliver Naesen (Ag2r Citroën) and Luke Durbridge (BikeExchange).
Greg Van Avermaet (Ag2r Citroën) and Arnaud Démare (Groupama-FDJ) then made it across to this Deceuninck - Quick-Step chase that was now 25 seconds behind, but they soon faltered, the gap going back out and Deceuninck - Quick-Step running out of puff, maybe not wanting to drag the likes of Van Avermaet, Démare and Naesen over to Bennett.
Jasper Philipsen (Alpecin-Fenix) then punctured, neutering his team's chase efforts behind as the group swelled, the gap with 60km to go hovering around the 40-second mark.
As the crosswinds soon picked back up the desperation in the peloton increased, riders getting dropped from the bunch as the gap increased to over a minute.
As Nathan Van Hooydonck set the pace for Van Aert on the Kemmelberg, the front group started to slim down, Yves Lampaert making a move behind to splinter that group once again.
With 50km to go there were nine men left out front: Bennett, Van Aert, Nizzolo, Trentin, Matthews, Van Hooydonck, Colbrelli, Danny van Poppel (Intermarché-Wanty-Gobert) and Stefan Küng (Groupama-FDJ).
Lampaert soon gave up his pursuit and waited for the peloton, who swelled and gathered up their chase once more, 1-20 in arrears, but
Trentin decided to test his companions up the next ascent of the Kemmelberg, stringing the group out, Bennett hanging on by the skin of his teeth, as his team-mates behind once again went off the front of the peloton, forming a chase group with the likes of Ineos' Dylan van Baarle.
Bennett was suffering now, still coming through to take a turn in the group, and the chase group behind wasn't making any inroads, still a minute behind with 25km remaining.
Küng began to get annoyed with those in the front group perceived to not be doing their fair share of work as it increasingly looked like the eventual winner would be among their number.
With 16km to go Van Hooydonck launched an attack, dropping Bennett and Van Poppel, music to the ears of his team-mate Van Aert.
That left seven in front, who started to watch each other into the final 10km, still working but wary, the group containing a number of fast finishers.
Matthews began to shake his legs, sitting on the back of the group with 5km to go. Küng, not as fast as the others but a powerful time-triallist, attacked with 2km to the line, but proved no trouble to the others despite trying to use a traffic island like Kasper Asgreen (Deceuninck - Quick-Step) had at the E3 Saxo Bank Classic in his winning move.
Van Hooydonck led under the flamme rouge, Küng opening up his sprint from a long way out, Van Aert responding and no-one could match his power, Nizzolo and Trentin having to settle for the minor podium places.
Ghent-Wevelgem 2021: Ypres to Wevelgem (247km)
1. Wout van Aert (Bel) Jumbo-Visma
2. Giacomo Nizzolo (Ita) Qhubeka-ASSOS
3. Matteo Trentin (Ita) UAE Team Emirates
4. Sonny Colbrelli (Ita) Bahrain-Victorious
5. Michael Matthews (Aus) BikeExchange
6. Stefan Küng (Sui) Groupama-FDJ
7. Nathan Van Hooydonck (Bel) Jumbo-Visma
8. Dylan van Baarle (Ned) Ineos Grenadiers
9. Anthony Turgis (Fra) Total Direct Energie
10. Gianni Vermeersch (Bel) Alpecin-Fenix
Hi. I'm Cycling Weekly's Weekend Editor. I like writing offbeat features and eating too much bread when working out on the road at bike races.
Before joining Cycling Weekly I worked at The Tab and I've also written for Vice, Time Out, and worked freelance for The Telegraph (I know, but I needed the money at the time so let me live).
I also worked for ITV Cycling between 2011-2018 on their Tour de France and Vuelta a España coverage. Sometimes I'd be helping the producers make the programme and other times I'd be getting the lunches. Just in case you were wondering - Phil Liggett and Paul Sherwen had the same ham sandwich every day, it was great.