Despite being a hot prospect for the spring classics, it's been a long time since Jens Keukeleire (Orica-Scott) was able to convert the high expectations and his talent into a top result. After racking up the wins as a new kid on the block in 2010 with Cofidis, Keukeleire moved to the Orica team. He was given time to morph from sprinter into a super domestique and Classics man, since joining the team in 2012. He showed a lot of prospect in the Classics and with age the performances are coming along.
In 2015 he finished sixth in Paris-Roubaix. Last year, Keukeleire entered the Belgian opening weekend after a training camp in South Africa but without a single day of racing. It wasn't a success. This year, the approach was different, with Keukeleire racing in Spain before the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad. Sprinting against Greg Van Avermaet (BMC) for the victory in Gent-Wevelgem on Sunday was the closest he's ever gotten to a victory in the classics. He maneuvered Van Avermaet into the front but failed to pass him him in the sprint.
"I think I did everything right but Greg was too strong. I didn't get further than his front wheel," Keukeleire told Cyclingnews after coming off the podium with his son Lou. "I'm limping on two thoughts right now because I came so close to the win but of course it's fantastic to perform this way."
Keukeleire surprised by saying he wasn't feeling great on Sunday. "I told the team that I was not having great legs. It turned around when we climbed the Kemmelberg for the last time. I was in the top 10 at the top and realised that everyone was crawling to the top while I was climbing smoothly," Keukeleire said
Before the start he told Cyclingnews that he was well aware that the wind would play a major part during Gent-Wevelgem. "There'll be a lot of wind when we reach Veurne but also, there's a headwind to the finish. That'll make it a different race compared to other years." Once off the Kemmelberg, the headwind did play a major role.
"I was surprised because I expected that a big group would be formed after the Kemmelberg, knowing there were a lot of fast riders in front," he said. "The front group was perfectly composed. Still, it was hard work until the finish line." Several riders in the lead group of fourteen were skipping turns. Keukeleire sensed there were chances.
"At that moment I felt it was the time to try something. If you go and one of the Quick-Step riders joins you, then they're not going to chase. I accelerated when exiting Ieper. I closed a gap on Oliver Naesen and was joined by Sagan, Van Avermaet, Andersen and Terpstra," Keukeleire said.
A few moments later Keukeleire again launched the successful move when the cooperation in the lead group of five was gone. Keukeleire did a strong pull after Van Avermaet had done one. Behind, the duo of Peter Sagan and Nikki Terpstra were trying to outfox each other.
"Lorenzo [Lapage] was shouting that we had a gap with the two of us and that they were slowing down behind us. I was pleased to be rid of Terpstra. He was wheelsucking for a while and he had some guys in the chase group," Keukeleire said.
The duo powered towards Wevelgem against the trio behind them. For a long time, the gap hovered around ten seconds. "With Greg, I had an incredible motor with me. It hurt until the line to keep up with him. We didn't have to talk in order to know we had to keep going full gas. I managed to get Greg into the lead in the final kilometre but that was it.
Keukeleire will race the 3-days of De Panne in the final build-up to the Ronde van Vlaanderen.