So far in its three-year history, the Classic Brugge-De Panne had always finished in some sort of sprint for the victory, and nothing else was expected when the race got underway in Brugge on Thursday, with last year’s winner Lorena Wiebes (Team DSM) wearing the number one bib.
At the end of the day, Wiebes was the fastest in the sprint of her group – but this was only for 13th place, 40 seconds after the winner Grace Brown (Team BikeExchange) had crossed the line. Wiebes paid the price for not being far enough ahead in the peloton when the race split in the crosswinds in De Moeren on the final lap of the circuit around De Panne.
Despite the work of three teammates as well as help from other teams including Parkhotel Valkenburg and Drops-Le Col p/b TEMPUR, Wiebes’ group never came closer than 25 seconds to the front of the race in the final 30 kilometres.
"I was close to making the front group, but it broke up two more times in front of me. We did all we could to bring it back together. It is not the result that we came here for, but in the end, it is what it is. We are looking forward to the next race now," said Wiebes.
Another rider who had initially missed the first echelon was Lotte Kopecky (Liv Racing). The Belgian champion started the crosswind section around 40th position in the peloton and was caught out by the splits. However, she then went on the chase on her own, bridging to the front with a massive solo effort.
Other sprinters did not have this opportunity as they had been caught behind a crash with 40km to go, just before De Moeren. Although only a few riders went down, the narrow road meant that almost half of the peloton was held up, losing valuable ground on the front of the race even before reaching the crosswind section. In the end, riders like Marta Bastianelli (Alé BTC Ljubljana) and Amalie Dideriksen (Trek-Segafredo) finished minutes behind.
But even the sprinters that had made it into the first echelon were not to sprint for victory. Brown surprised them with her relatively early attack, and the other riders did not immediately go after her, as Liv Racing sports director Lars Boom explained.
"When Grace Brown attacked 10 kilometres from the finish line, Lotte was right on her wheel. She responded well initially but stopped quickly. I think that was a good decision at the time. If you react, so will the rest, and then the game is on."
Once she had a gap, Brown made use of her time trial skills to stay clear all the way to the finish. It was a victory against the odds, as there were several sprinters with teammates in the group behind to chase her down, including eventual runner-up Emma Norsgaard (Movistar Team).
"At first, I thought we were going to catch her because still there were some really strong riders in the group, but she just went away and eventually I could not see her anymore," said Norsgaard. "My teammate Aude [Biannic] worked really hard to bring her back, but Grace was super strong, congratulations to her."
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