The Deceuninck-QuickStep squad rotation system meant that Zdenek Stybar was spared the midweek rigours of Dwars door Vlaanderen, leaving the rest of the team's quadrumvirate of Classics leaders to stake their respective claims for increased responsibility at the Tour of Flanders on Sunday.
It proved to be a mixed afternoon for the men in blue, who were looking to restore momentum after their juggernaut was slowed slightly at Gent-Wevelgem last weekend. Victory eluded Deceuninck-QuickStep in Waregem, too, but Bob Jungels, still a neophyte in these races, will draw plenty of encouragement from his vigorous showing and third-place finish behind winner Mathieu van der Poel (Corendon-Circus).
Belgian champion Yves Lampaert was seeking a third successive victory in his home race but had to settle for 8th place, while Philippe Gilbert’s Ronde prospects suffered a blow when he was forced to abandon the race with stomach problems.
This was a curious edition of Dwars door Vlaanderen, marred by a short neutralisation ahead of the Kluisberg when the men’s race was halted to allow an ambulance required for the women’s event to come past. Shortly after the re-start, a group featuring Van der Poel punched clear on the first ascent of the Knokteberg, with some 62km still to go.
QuickStep's Kasper Asgreen initially tracked that move, but when the young Dane fell back, his more experienced teammates were called upon to step up to the plate. On the second time up the Knokterberg, with 30km remaining, Jungels took it upon himself to forge across in the company of Tiesj Benoot (Lotto Soudal).
"It was a complicated race," Jungels said. "Before the Kluisberg, which is the key moment normally, we were stopped and there was a bit of panic in the bunch. In the end, we went to just go and try something to split up the group. We knew that riders like Mathieu were in front. It wasn’t the moment to wait, and I bridged across with Tiesj."
Jungels and Benoot joined Van der Poel, Anthony Turgis (Direct Energy) and early escapee Lukas Pöstlberger at the head of the race, and that added firepower helped the quintet to establish a winning advantage over a splintered chasing group. The succession of climbs in the finale – the Vossenhol, Holstraat and Nokereberg – failed to whittle down the break, and the five leaders contested the slightly uphill sprint in Waregem.
In such a scenario, there was precious little that a relative diesel like Jungels could do against the explosive Van der Poel. The cyclo-cross world champion may be riding the Classics for the first time, but, like his rival Wout van Aert, he seems as comfortable on the cobbles as he does in the fields.
"I don't want to say the finale was too easy for me, but I think there was not really a moment where I could have made a big difference," Jungels said. "The only moment was maybe on the last cobbles on the bridge, but it was a bit of a mistake from myself to come out of that sector on the front and attack from first place. It was not ideal and then I think against these two guys in the sprint, I had no chance."
Lampaert and Gilbert
A native of nearby Ingelmunster, Yves Lampaert has never wanted for support in the finale of Dwars door Vlaanderen, and his celebrity in Belgium has grown as a result of his emotional victories in the previous two editions of the race. At the start in Roeseleare, the loudest cheers were for 'Iefke', while a presenter from radio station Studio Brussel was even on hand to stencil his face onto the road as a publicity stunt.
Lampaert has been consigned largely to a back-up role so far this spring, however, and so it remained here. With Jungels up the road, the 27-year-old policed the chasing group that came in 19 seconds behind Van der Poel. On this occasion, Lampaert's fan club was spared the ritual of trying to scale the finish line barriers to greet him.
"I think I got a good feeling, but the race was not like I expected. I expected more damage in the hilly zone. I don't know what to think about it," Lampaert said after placing 8th, consoled only partially by the decent turn of speed he showed to gallop home towards the front of the chasing group. "For myself, I sprinted to second here in the bunch, so for that I have to be happy. but for the other sensations it was not really, really super."
It was a more troubling afternoon for Gilbert, who had reportedly been afflicted by stomach problems on the eve of the race. The 2017 Ronde winner opted to abandon with a little over 40 kilometres to go, preferring to save himself for the weekend.
"Phil is sick. A few days before the Ronde, that's not ideal, but we shouldn’t panic either," Deceuninck-QuickStep manager Patrick Lefevere told Sporza afterwards. "Of course, he is worried. But, fortunately, this is Wednesday, not Saturday. We will see what happens tomorrow and the day after tomorrow."
It helps, too, that Lefevere has a wider array of options at his disposal for the Ronde than any other team manager. Stybar will set out from Antwerp among the top echelon of favourites after his victories at Harelbeke and Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, while Jungels, already a winner at Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne, has the potential to go the distance in his Tour of Flanders debut.
"For me it’s still very hard to see myself as one of the favourites," Jungels said. "It's the first year I'm doing these races but I'm well aware I have a good shape so I'll do all I can to be up there, normally with 250km it should be a race that suits me even better than today. I’m happy and we’ll see on Sunday what we can do. We’ve had the strongest team so far and on Sunday we can play a few cards."