In the Classics, everyone has a plan until the races shatter into shards in the crosswinds and the cobbles and climbs reveal who really is on form.
Fernando Gaviria started Gent-Wevelgem as UAE Team Emirates’ designated team leader but 250 tumultuous kilometres later he finished the afternoon playing the role of sweeper as his hitherto lead-out man Alexander Kristoff sprinted to victory. It was a day that called for improvisation.
Gaviria showed his intentions early on by making the elite group of 21 riders that forged clear in the crosswinds near Gistel, home of Johan Museeuw. Favourites such as Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe) and Wout van Aert (Jumbo-Visma) were among their number, and when their advantage stretched out to 1:20, it looked as though they might go all the way to the finish.
The group would spend most of the day off the front before being reeled in by a severely reduced peloton, and after a further winnowing process over the final ascent of the Kemmelberg, a weary band of 35 riders approached Wevelgem to contest the sprint. Gaviria and Kristoff were the only two UAE Team Emirates riders among them, and directeur sportif Allan Peiper held an impromptu briefing over the radio with 10 kilometres remaining.
"The plan was that Alex would lead out the sprint for Fernando, but Fernando had spent a lot time in the breakaway. We asked him with 10k to go how he felt, and he said not good, so we switched it around so Alex could do his sprint," Peiper told Cyclingnews on Wevelgem's Vanackerstraat afterwards.
In the build-up to the race, Peiper said that Kristoff would be expected to work for Gaviria in the event of a 30 or 40-man sprint, but the remarkable circumstances of a race run off at more than 46kph saw their roles reversed. Gaviria wore his demotion lightly. Though lacking the strength to perform a lead-out for Kristoff, he had the nous to nudge favourite Elia Viviani off his teammate’s wheel just as the Norwegian opened his sprint.
"He was clever," Viviani admitted of his former teammate Gaviria’s move.
"We just asked Fernando to get up there and give him a hand if he could,” Peiper said. "It showed great team spirit that Fernando could get up there and help, and then Alex brought it home. A sprint after 250k is what he’s really good at. At San Remo, even though it was only for 13th place, he put down big power in his sprint, so we knew that if he could repeat it here, he was going to be a player."
Good after 250km
Kristoff was not among the pre-race favourites, and his victory in Wevelgem owed as much to invention as to strength. Mindful of how he would struggle to follow the inevitable accelerations of men like Van Aert and Zdenek Stybar on the final ascent of the Kemmelberg, the Norwegian opted to attack alone from the reduced peloton ahead of the climb. That canny move ensured that he remained in contention on the run-in.
"I think he got some confidence after Luke Rowe got across to the break," Peiper said. "He told me he felt okay, but he was tired. And I said, ‘Alex, everyone is tired but you’re good after 250k, you can still do this.’ It was great what he did, anticipating the Kemmel the second time, getting out in front before the attacks came. As we saw, Stybar and Van Aert can attack pretty violently, which can take a lot of energy out of a guy like Alex."
On the final approach to Wevelgem, with no one team capable of control affairs, attack and counter-attack drifted off the front, but Peiper said UAE Team Emirates had no option but to stake their entire race on a reduced bunch finish.
"We had no helpers left, just two leaders, so we had to gamble," Peiper said. "You can do nothing else. You just have to wing it. Fernando had no legs left and anything we did with Alex would take away from his sprint. He had to sit in and wait and hope for the best."
After taking a seat in the gymnasium that housed the press room in Wevelgem on Sunday afternoon, Kristoff spoke of how Gent-Wevelgem victory had saved his Classics campaign, adding that he was still not among the favourites for the Tour of Flanders next Sunday.
The Norwegian has not been classed among the very top echelon of contenders since his victory in De Ronde in 2015, though he still placed in the top five in the following two years.
"Flanders is another race again," Peiper warned. "It is 265km and it is really hard, which suits him, but it’s also a very explosive final over the Kwaremont and Paterberg the last time. If he can anticipate there or be good enough to set the pace, then anything is possible."