With three-time winners Marcel Kittel and Mark Cavendish already absent, André Greipel’s late withdrawal from Scheldeprijs was met with no little disappointment from race director Piet De Smet, who wasted no time in voicing his ire to the Flemish media.
While the official explanation from Lotto-Soudal was that Greipel was still recovering from his exertions at the Tour of Flanders last weekend, over the years the German has scarcely hidden his dislike of a race reputed to be among the most dangerous on the professional calendar.
Greipel has not competed here since 2012, and he will doubtless have felt at peace with that decision after the finale of Scheldeprijs was marred once again by a mass crash – the fourth such incident in the past seven editions.
Inside the final kilometre of the last lap of the technical finishing circuit in Schoten, a clash between Sam Bennett (Bora-Argon 18) and Andrea Guardini (Astana) saw both men fall and bring Tom Van Asbroeck (LottoNL-Jumbo) down with them. Over a dozen more riders hit the ground as a result of that initial contact, including Elia Viviani (Sky), Michael Mørkøv (Tinkoff-Saxo) and Shane Archbold (Bora-Argon 18).
Only 14 riders evaded the crash altogether, with Alexander Kristoff (Katusha) claiming the win ahead of Edward Theuns (Topsport-Vlaanderen) and Yauheni Hutarovich (Bretagne-Séché).
After the crash, Viviani sat on the roadside clutching his right arm and was taken to hospital for further examination after the race, though the full extent of his injuries were not immediately apparent. “Elia had a lot of pain in his arm and ribs, but that’s all we know at the moment,” directeur sportif Servais Knaven said in a statement from the team.
Later, team doctor Richard Freeman confirmed Viviani had escaped serious injury. "Elia was caught up in a really violent crash at the end of the race and was transported to hospital for precautionary X-Rays and checks. Those have revealed soft tissue injuries but no fractures," Freeman said to TeamSky.com. "After treatment the team's medical staff will continue to monitor Elia in the coming days."
Viviani’s fellow countryman and sometime training partner Guardini was able to remount and soft-pedal across the finish line in Schoten, and on emerging gingerly from the Astana bus a short time later, he confirmed that his injuries were largely superficial.
“I’ll have to go to hospital to get a few stitches on my left knee but it’s nothing major – so long as it’s only skin, va bene,” Guardini told Cyclingnews, before describing the crash from his viewpoint.
“I was trying to get on [Alexander] Kristoff’s wheel and I wasn’t able to get it. Then somebody squeezed in and I got sandwiched and I ended up on the ground. Unfortunately when you lose the first positions in these races, you find people who don’t really look and who don’t brake. And that’s exactly what happened.”
Bennett and his Bora-Argon 18 teammate Archbold were also taken to hospital for check-ups after the race. While Archbold had at least been able to pick himself up and cross the line, Bennett was a non-finisher.
Team director Enrico Poitschke confirmed that neither rider suffered any broken bones. “[Neither rider has] broken anything, which is good news after that hard crash. Shane is with the team now and he is OK so far. As it looks right now he’ll be able to line-up in Paris-Roubaix on Sunday. Sam will stay a night in the hospital for further observation. He is OK, but in pain. He fell on his head and he has a whiplash. Even though we are confident that he’ll be released shortly, we didn’t want to risk anything. That’s why we decided that Sam spends the night in the hospital.”
Tom Van Asbroeck was the first rider to be taken out as a result of Guardini’s collision with Bennett, but the Belgian was able to pedal back to his LottoNL-Jumbo team bus after the race. “I was on Kristoff's wheel when Andrea Guardini passed me on the left side. Someone else overtook me on the other side, on the right afterwards. I got boxed in and couldn’t get out,” he said. “Guardini was the first who went down and he took me down with him.”
Initial television images suggested that Sep Vanmarcke had also been involved in the crash but he later confirmed that he had simply been held up by the incident but had not fallen. “With Paris-Roubaix coming up, I didn’t want to take any chances,” he said.
Bradley Wiggins (Sky) took an even more prudent attitude, presciently sitting up inside the final kilometres to ensure that he avoided any risks in the closing kilometres. He may well have been encouraged to do so by an incident earlier on the final lap when, just like at the Tour of Flanders, an inflatable advertising bridge collapsed as the peloton approached and had to be held aloft by supporters on the roadside.
Just 24 hours after two bollards on the road caused a serious accident at the Tour of the Basque Country and prompted a rider protest, the issue of rider safety was – almost inevitably – front and centre in the finale of Scheldeprijs, a race already blighted by final kilometre crashes in 2009, 2011 and 2012.
“It was nothing to do with the course, this time, it was just a fast finale and nervous, it’s normal,” Guardini said. “It’s an important race and everybody wants to do well. To stay away from risks you really need to be at the very front. I lost the right train for a moment and a lot of us ended up on the ground. The important thing is that I don’t think I’ve done myself a lot of damage.”
One can only hope the same is true for the others who fell after him.