Greg Van Avermaet (BMC) was one of the top favourites for victory in the Tour of Flanders, but the Belgian ended a dramatic race a disappointed second as Philippe Gilbert (Quick-Step Floors) soloed to victory in Oudenaarde.
Van Avermaet was in an elite chasing group almost a minute down on Gilbert when he crashed on the Oude Kwaremont, brought down when world champion Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe) struck a roadside barrier in front of him. Although he remounted, and closed to within 30 seconds in the company of Dylan van Baarle (Cannondale-Drapac) and Niki Terpstra (Quick-Step), he was unable to close the gap on the run-in to the finish.
"It was bad luck. The last few years nobody crashed uphill on the Kwaremont. You know you shouldn't be racing on the side like Peter did, but that's what happens in a finale. You take risks and everybody tries to get on that path on the left, but it's just too close to the barriers. You know that if you crash, that your race is over," Van Avermaet told Sporza on crossing the line.
"Sagan was going full gas and we were getting away with the strongest riders. He hit something. I don't know what happened. I was completely tucked onto his wheel. Then you know you're going down and that the race is over. Luckily my bike wasn't broken. I tried to set the handlebars straight. It was too late.
"If I had been with Peter then maybe we could have gotten closer. Instead, we hit the ground and lost out. But chapeau to Phil. I don't want to take away anything from what he has done."
Van Avermaet's frayed and torn kit told its own story, but he insisted he wasn't in much pain. "My left side is a bit scraped. My shoulder hurts too but I'm full of adrenaline and then you don't feel too much. You just pick up your bike and try to make the best of it. Tomorrow it'll hurt more," he said.
In the run-up to the race, Van Avermaet downplayed the importance of the addition of the Muur van Geraardsbergen to the parcours for the first time since 2011. At 95 kilometres from the finish, nobody expected it to be decisive, but it did provide a pivotal moment in the race. Tom Boonen forced the pace, and a group of 14 riders went clear, including Gilbert. Van Avermaet and Sagan, the two favourites, never saw him again.
"I didn't want to take major risks in the run-up to the Muur. There was a crash ahead of me and I got held up. I didn't want to spend too much energy because there was still a long way to the finish line. I also wanted to save my team," Van Avermaet said, according to Sport.be.
Van Avermaet and Sagan were biding their time in the peloton until much later in the race. In the end, Gilbert's early attack turned out to be the winning move. Although Van Avermaet began to chase back in earnest when he joined up with Sagan over the Taaienberg, the crash on the Kwaremont, which also brought down Oliver Naesen (AG2R La Mondiale), ended his hopes.
"The co-operation wasn't good until the Taaienberg. Of course, you know that's going to happen in such a group. When we rode away on the Taaienberg, it was me, Sagan and Ollie who were riding flat out," Van Avermaet said, intimating that Yoann Offredo (Wanty-Groupe Gobert) and Matteo Trentin (Quick-Step Floors) remained in their wheels.
Despite the Kwaremont crash, Van Avermaet managed to crawl back up and continue his race, chasing with Dylan van Baarle, while Terpstra sat on the wheels. Winning the sprint for second place was scant consolation. It marks Van Avermaet's third podium spot in four years in the Ronde van Vlaanderen.
"I started out to win this race and if you finish as runner-up then you're disappointed, you have to be disappointed. Especially, because of the way it happened. Kudos to Gilbert for what he has done, because it was a great 'numéro,'" Van Avermaet said. "Then again, I'm riding my own race and before that crash, I think the race wasn't over yet and I think that we would've been able to ride to him with Peter, and I think Ollie [Naesen] was there too."