Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe) has won Gent-Wevelgem almost every way possible – alone, from a group of four, and in a larger group sprint. On Sunday, the three-time world champion animated the race by spending 180 kilometres out front, but that ultimately left him unable to clinch a fourth title to move clear as the all-time record-holder.
After a rapid start, with more than 50 kilometres covered in the first hour, Sagan was part of an elite 18-rider breakaway that formed as the race hit the stiff winds up by the North Sea coast.
After the first of the two ascents of the Kemmelberg, and before the Plugstreets (gravel tracks), with 67km to go, Sagan moved clear from the group alongside Matteo Trentin, Edward Theuns and Mike Teunissen. He thought they might go all the way to the line, but a headwind on the 30-kilometre run-in to Wevelgem after the second ascent of the Kemmelberg saw the reduced peloton come back with 18km remaining for a sprint between 30 riders.
Sagan explained that his day-long efforts out front left him unable to contest the sprint, and he rolled across the line in 32nd place, 13 seconds behind the rest of the group.
“I didn’t have the legs at the finish line, and I was at the back of the group," Sagan said. "After 200k in the breakaway I didn’t have the legs to sprint.”
At 251km, Gent-Wevelgem is the longest of the spring Classics outside the Monuments and, although it's always liable to culminate in a sizeable group finish, the wind in the early phase and the climbs later on can blow it apart. Even so, few expected such a strong group of riders - Fernando Gaviria, Niki Terpstra, John Degenkolb and other big-names were also there - to go into the breakaway so early on.
“It wasn’t planned. It was because of the weather conditions and the wind. Nobody decided to be in front – the guys who were there in the front were there because they were in the front," Sagan said.
As well as a couple of teammates, Sagan had an elite list of riders for company, which made it a move that shaped the whole complexion of the race. QuickStep, so dominant in the Classics so far this year, had one man in there but arguably the wrong man: Tim Declercq, who’s normally found chasing down such moves. When the big Belgian was dropped on the first ascent of the Kemmelberg, they had to switch tactics and start chasing for their sprinter Elia Viviani.
Sagan, Trentin, Van Aert, Teunissen and Luke Rowe – who bridged across ahead of the second Kemmelberg – worked well together and maintained belief, but were scuppered by a headwind on the run-in to Wevelgem.
“When we were with four after the first time up the Kemmelberg, I expected another group would come across to us, and that we would go to the finish,” Sagain said.
“But QuickStep chased and made sure that the big group came together to the finish line. But in the end, QuickStep can't be happy because Kristoff won.”