Fifty metres from home, Bryan Coquard (Direct Energie) began to sense that victory at Dwars door Vlaanderen was his. He could almost reach out and touch it. In the end, that would prove part of his undoing.
After careering past another man with a solid track schooling, Fernando Gaviria (Etixx-QuickStep), on the uphill sprint to the line, Coquard must have felt that he had already completed the hardest part of the bargain.
To his right, Edward Theuns (Trek-Segafredo) could not match his acceleration and as the finish banner approached, Coquard looked a certain winner. Just as the Frenchman began to straighten up and lift his hands from the bars in celebration, however, Jens Debusschere (Lotto-Soudal) swooped past to snatch victory by little more than a rim.
Shades of Erik Zabel’s defeat at the hands of Oscar Freire at Milan-San Remo in 2004, but Coquard accepted his fate with good grace, in part, perhaps, because he has just returned from a month away from racing after fracturing his right shoulder in a training crash.
“Gaviria went for a very long sprint and he faded a bit, and then I launched my sprint with 150 metres to go. I saw Theuns to my right and I saw myself winning the race,” Coquard said afterwards. “I flung my bike forward, and I was ready to raise my arms, but then at the last minute I saw Debusschere come by.”
Following a fierce battle on the Oude Kwaremont and Paterberg, the splintered peloton reformed in part on the run-in to the finish, with 33 riders contesting the sprint once late attacker Greg Van Avermaet (BMC) was swept up in the finishing straight.
After Arnaud Démare’s victory at Milan-San Remo on Saturday and Nacer Bouhanni’s back-to-back wins at the Volta a Catalunya this week, it was only to be expected, perhaps, that French sprinting’s third man would be keen to show himself here.
Coquard was guided through the frantic closing kilometres, incidentally, by Direct Energie’s new signing Adrien Petit, who served as Démare’s lead-out man when he won the under-23 Worlds in Copenhagen in 2011 and then raced with Bouhanni at Cofidis last year.
“Adrien got back on over the top of the Nokere so I had another card to play in the sprint. He guided me very well through the finale. I followed his wheel and at the corner with 300 metres to go, he left me beside Gaviria. When he started his sprint, I jumped on his wheel,” Coquard said.
The rest, of course, has already been consigned to history. Coquard will have the chance to dream it up all over again at Gent-Wevelgem on Sunday, though the fast man will also line out at E3 Harelbeke in two days’ time.
“I’ll see what I can do there against the grand champions, the grand puncheurs. Maybe I’ll miss a bit of freshness in Gent-Wevelgem by doing E3 but I’d prefer to be at the race than at home,” Coquard said. “I’ve missed the race atmosphere the last few weeks. I’m very motivated for these Flemish races and I want to enjoy them.”
There was, of course, a rather more muted atmosphere than usual at Dwars door Vlaanderen in the wake of the terrorist attacks in Brussels on Tuesday that left 31 people dead. There was no music over the public address and no team presentation at the start in Roeselare, and there was no champagne or celebrations on the podium at the finish in Waregem.
“It was a special day. In France we’ve unfortunately had attacks like this, so we know the terror that acts like this can provoke,” Coquard said.
In the immediate aftermath of Tuesday’s bombings, with the whole of Belgium on its maximum terror alert, the assumption was that Dwars door Vlaanderen would be cancelled. Ultimately, however, the race went ahead, albeit with a heavy heart, and Coquard felt that it was the correct decision.
“Personally, I think it was a good thing because it shows the terrorists that we’re going to keep living, that life goes on in Belgium,” Coquard said. “The Classics in Belgium are the national pastime, they’re almost a religion.
“It’s a difficult time, of course, but the people could still come and spend a pleasant afternoon enjoying the race, and they can do that for E3 and Gent-Wevelgem too. So I think it was a very good and wise decision to race.”
Despite the doleful circumstances, Dwars door Vlaanderen would turn out to be as full-blooded a contest as ever, though at day’s end, Coquard could put his misfortune in its proper context.
“I thought I was going to win today but in the end it was a Belgian who did,” he said. “And that was probably fitting.”