Gilbert opens Classics campaign with top 5 in Omloop
The weekend will continue on Sunday with the 70th edition of Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne.
The Classics are here to stay for the next two months, and as usual, it was Omloop Het Nieuwsblad who had to honor to lift the curtain with an edition which put on the table a revamped course, identical in the final 30 kilometers to the one used by the Ronde van Vlaanderen until 2011, meaning the riders had to overcome Tenbosse, Muur-Kapelmuur and Bosberg on their way to the finish line in Meerbeke.
Quick-Step Floors was a strong presence in the race right from the start, when Iljo Keisse took command of the peloton and set a steady pace behind the ten escapees, who weren't allowed to take their advantage north of five minutes. Things began heating up before the Kokkerelle – Wolvenberg – Molenberg triad, when the peloton got strung out by Philippe Gilbert and Yves Lampaert with some powerful accelerations.
That move was followed by an attack of Greg Van Avermaet (BMC), dutifully covered by Zdenek Stybar, before another series of moves tried to split the race on Tenbosse, but without any luck, as the race came back together before the Muur van Geraardsbergen (1075 meters, 9.3%). There, on the iconic hill bathed in sunshine, Sep Vanmarcke's pushed hard and got a gap, only for Stybar to bridge across and work together with the Belgian as they put ten seconds between them and the first chasing group, which numbered ten riders.
They closed down that move before the Bosberg, whose top the newly-formed group crossed with a 30-second advantage over the peloton. The status quo lasted at the front – despite several attacks – until with two kilometers to go, when Michael Valgren (Astana) surged clear and took a solo win, ahead of Lukasz Wisniowski (Team Sky) and Vanmarcke, who came across the line 12 seconds later, just as the bunch was getting ready to make the catch.
Philippe Gilbert sprinted for Quick-Step Floors and finished fifth at the 73rd Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, scoring valuable World Tour points which helped our squad reduce the deficit to the first place in the team classification. For Philippe, who started his season just two weeks ago, this is the best result in a decade at the prestigious Belgian Classics, one which gives him confidence for the upcoming races, especially as he was struck by bad luck in the final.
"We controlled the race from the start with Iljo, who did a great job, and then, together with Yves, I attacked to make the race a bit more open. Unfortunately, on the Muur, I got stuck behind a crash for about 20 seconds. Was a tough moment, but I remained calm and hoped we will come back helped by the headwind. We weren't so far off in the end, so considering all the circumstances, fifth isn't a bad result."
Swallowed by the charging peloton 500 meters from home, Zdenek Stybar looked at the bright side of things after the opening classic of the year: "It was a nice day, despite the cold we had in the morning. At the start you could sense how nervous everybody was, because it's the first big one-day race of the season and all want to know what their shape is after the winter. We rode aggressively, but the final was strange with all that headwind. It's not the result I was hoping to get, but nevertheless, it gives me a morale boost for the next weeks."
Our Belgian weekend will continue on Sunday, with Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne (200 kilometers), at the start of which we'll line up a team consisting of Tim Declercq, Dries Devenyns (who replaces Florian Sénéchal, hit by a stomach bug), Fernando Gaviria – who'll start despite suffering some abrasions after crashing because of an errant bidon between the Muur and Bosberg – Iljo Keisse, Yves Lampaert, Maximiliano Richeze and Niki Terpstra.
Photo credit: ©Tim De Waele/ Getty Images