The Tour of Flanders is a special race for any Belgian team but it took on an extra meaning this year for Wanty-Groupe Gobert. The Belgian team raced for the first time since the death of Antoine Demoitié -the 25-year-old neo-pro who died of the injuries he sustained during a crash at last Sunday's Gent-Wevelgem.
It had been an emotional week for the riders and staff as they come to terms with what happened. Demoitié's family had given their blessing for the team to ride at the Three Days of De Panne earlier in the week but the riders decided that it had been too early. It was a sombre mood at the team's bus by the start line in Bruges and the riders rode to sign on wearing t-shirts bearing his face and the words 'Ride for Antoine.' Riding in memory of Demoitie is what they set out to do at the Tour of Flanders.
"I am very proud of this team and everybody worked really hard," Wanty-Groupe Gobert directeur sportif Hilaire Van Der Schueren told Cyclingnews post race. "In the beginning, it was very hard because you think about this a lot of time. We made a good plan yesterday that we must be in the first break. We were not and we were all disappointed a little bit, but we said, ok, the race is not finished. We still have five or six riders who can do make a result."
To their dismay, they missed out on the initial break that went after 50 kilometres of racing. As the race progressed, Wanty-Groupe Gobert continued to put riders off the front of the bunch. Tour of Flanders rookie Dimitri Claeys broke free along with Astana's Dmitriy Gruzdev just before the Kaperij and they joined a group of riders up the road. Claeys held on when the favourites joined the party, eventually finishing ninth after finally being dropped by race winner Peter Sagan on the Koppenberg.
"I knew I was capable of this. Early on I wasn't feeling great. That's why I anticipated. It turned out to be a good move. In the finale I showed that I was good," said Claeys. "I'm really pleased. Finishing ninth in the Ronde as a debutant, that's nice."
"It was very emotional. I lost two very good friends [Antoine Demoitié and Daan Myngheer –ed]. The only thing we could do was showing ourselves in the race. We all have to go on, even though it's so hard. There's not much more we can do… I was keen to show myself at the classics. It was an extra motivation but it doesn't make you ride faster, in contrary. It's very sad."
This is Claey's second attempt at making a career as a professional ride. The 28-year-old was part of the NetApp team that turned Pro Continental in 2011 but left the team at the end of the season and had to go back to the amateur ranks. He found some hope when the Verandas Willems Continental team picked him up in 2015 and his five wins brought him to the attention of Wanty-Groupe Gobert.
"I started back from scratch and improved every year, until the level where I am now. The last four, five years I've been improving every year. Last year I wasn't able to show myself because I was in a team that didn't take part in these races," he said.
"At the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad I finished twelfth but while enjoying good sensations that made me think more was possible in the finale. I started training really hard since then to be good here. They were long, hard training rides. In Harelbeke and Waregem (Dwars door Vlaanderen) I was really bad, though. Maybe I did too much. Since Harelbeke, I've been resting for four days. It's been a good thing because now I'm getting better."
Buoyed by his strong result at the Tour of Flanders, Claeys is hoping to get a ride at Paris-Roubaix this weekend.
"Roubaix? That fits me even better," he said. "A better result won't be simple to get but I'm motivated to go flat out for it."