Lieuwe Westra and his Astana teammate Alexey Lutsenko must have felt they did everything right and yet still they came away empty-handed on the opening stage of the Three Days of De Panne in Zottegem. Against Alexander Kristoff (Katusha) on Tuesday, it seemed as though there was precious little to be done.
The Astana pair and Kristoff found common cause in the finale of a wind-buffeted day of racing that brought the peloton from the North Sea coast deep into the Flemish Ardennes, as they battled to maintain their lead over the chasing group on the run-in to the finish.
Not content with their numerical advantage, Westra and Lutsenko managed to get the upper hand tactically, too, as they manoeuvred Kristoff to the front underneath the flamme rouge, and forced him to lead out the sprint.
It made little difference. On the slightly downhill finishing straight, Kristoff simply wound up his big gear and coolly dispatched the Astana pair to claim the stage honours and the overall lead. Before mounting the podium, the Norwegian was generous in praising Westra’s efforts. “He was the strongest in the group and he pulled all the way to the line almost,” Kristoff said.
As Westra helped into a jacket by a soigneur a little further down Zottegem’s Van Aelbroekstraat, he told a small group of reporters that he and Lutsenko had raced with designs on final overall victory rather than a stage win.
“For me, we’re riding for the GC. I was not focused on the stage,” Westra said. “I was more focused on the GC. I’m happy with my legs now and it’s ok, but I’m not so happy with the last five kilometres because we lost a lot of time there.”
All day, Westra had been part of the reduced front group, and his acceleration over the Ten Bosse, where Johan Museeuw attacked to win the 1998 Tour of Flanders, led to the formation of the decisive move with 29 kilometres remaining.
Westra was joined promptly by Kristoff, Lutsenko and Luke Rowe (Sky), though they would later lose the Welshman when he suffered a puncture at the base of the Muur van Geraardsbergen. At that point, the leaders had almost a minute on the chasers but their advantage would be pared back to 36 seconds come the finish.
“There was a wind of 54kph or something like that, and it was side wind all day, so we knew it would be very, very hard,” Westra said. “You could see it today. After ten metres, the race had already broken up today. It was a very hard stage.”
Westra lies third overall after Tuesday’s opening stage and, with time bonuses factored in, trails Kristoff by six seconds on general classification. There are still two road stages to come before Thursday afternoon’s decisive time trial, but already, the Three Days of De Panne has the feel of a two-way battle between Kristoff, the defending champion, and Westra, a regular challenger in the race.
Westra finished second overall in both 2011 and 2012, losing out to Sebastien Rosseler and Sylvain Chavanel, respectively, and is always a consistent performer in the traditional finale along the seafront in De Panne.
In his post-stage press conference, Kristoff pointed to Westra as the favourite for final overall honours this time around. “Today I felt very good,” Westra admitted, though he warned that Wednesday’s ostensibly more straightforward day might prove more complicated in practice.
“With this wind, you never know,” he said. “You could see it today.”