When Jürgen Roelandts launched a solo attack in extremely windy conditions at nearly 80 kilometres from the finish in Gent-Wevelgem his chances to win the race seemed slim. The Belgian 29-year-old managed to ride away from an elite chase group, that also featured teammate Jens Debusschere, and build up a lead of more than two minutes. Sadly, his heroic ride was brought to an end with 17km to the finish line, and his hard work didn’t pay dividends for the Lotto-Soudal team as Debusschere failed to profit from his protected position in the chase group. Debusschere finished fifth and Roelandts seventh.
At the finish line, a muddy Debusschere was clearly disappointed that Roelandts was unable to make it to Wevelgem with the prestigious win.
“Halfway in the race Jürgen told me that if you can win this race then you’re a strong rider. He told me that he would try early because the tailwind would make it hard for others to come back. Terpstra should not have come back because then Vandenbergh would not have worked so hard. After riding through Ieper we saw him riding. Vandenbergh did everything to get him back and then you know it’s over,” Debusschere said.
Despite riding on the wheels in the chase group for more than 50 kilometres, Debusschere wasn’t fresh enough to deal with eventual winner Luca Paolini (Katusha) and most other riders in the group. It didn’t surprise him.
“I wasn’t super all day long. I told him that it was all for him today. I would try to get him out of the wind as much as possible. It was a very hard race and when you’re not super then you can’t win. It was good but not good enough.”
Nevertheless, Debusschere dealt well with the windy conditions. Being a sprinter he carries around some extra weight that others would have wanted on Sunday afternoon. “I saw riders being blown into the ditch. I’ve never seen it before. It’s the first time in my career I’m happy to weigh a few extra pounds. I’ve always seen it as a disadvantage but not today,” he said.
After freshening up in the Lotto-Soudal team bus Roelandts glanced back on his impressive Gent-Wevelgem ride. It was obvious he wished that his adventure would’ve concluded with a happier ending.
“I’m a bit disappointed. If this would’ve worked out it would’ve been an extra-ordinary performance. In the last 15 kilometres, I had a bit of a fringalle [hunger-flat], despite eating and drinking all race long. It was always five against one. With the wind and the rain today it wasn’t easy. In the end, I fell short. I possibly lacked that bit of freshness because I rode the finale in [E3] Harelbeke. It’s two races in three days. I also hoped the chasers would look at each other. I really thought I could win,” Roelandts said.
“I’ve never witnessed conditions like this. Sometimes I really had to hold tight to my bike. You started on the right side of the road and ended on the left due to the wind. I had low rims but the others with high rims must’ve suffered.”
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After surviving the epic conditions in the first half of the race the peloton held a cease-fire. Maarten Tjallingii (LottoNL-Jumbo) didn’t bother and rode solo in front of the peloton for a long time but his attempt showed that it was suicidal to battle alone against the conditions. It emphasized that Roelandts’ attempt to ride away from the peloton after the first ascent of the famous steep cobbled Kemmelberg climb was quite a risk.
“I mostly ride intuitively. I just like racing. Today was really a race to just race. That suits me,” Roelandts smiled. “I hoped one or two riders would bridge up. Early on I just rode my pace, not flat out. Then I learned that there were six men behind, with Jens. Then I rode flat out so the five had to work and Jens was able to stay on the wheels. The last 30 kilometres there was a tailwind. That wasn’t a disadvantage. Then again, adding the cold weather to the strong wind and then you know you’re consuming a lot of energy. Being with five benefited them.”
After finishing 11th in Milan-San Remo, seventh in E3 Harelbeke and seventh in Gent-Wevelgem it was clear that Roelandts is ready to shine in the races that matter most: Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix.
“I still regret not finishing top-five in San Remo because my legs really felt great. This performance boosts my moral. In Harelbeke, I didn’t have the legs from San Remo. Today was better. I believe the good form is there. I rode a good series since San Remo… I'll take a lot of rest this week. I’m ready for Flanders and Roubaix.”
Next week there’s the Tour of Flanders (April 5) and one week later Paris-Roubaix (April 12). In the absence of the usual suspects, injured riders Tom Boonen and Fabian Cancellara, it’s clear other riders will stand up to the occasions. The Lotto-Soudal duo Debusschere and Roelandts are eyeing those big wins.
“We’re a strong duo,” Debusschere said. “From now on the others will have to take us into account. I do hope I have a better day next week than the one I had today. Especially Jürgen is ready. We’ll do everything to deliver him the victory.”