Mighty Thor hammers Kopp and Petacchi

68th Gent-Wevelgem - PT

Powerful sprint gives Hushovd first Norwegian victory in Gent-Wevelgem

After a very tense finish to the 68th Gent-Wevelgem, Norwegian Thor Hushovd (Credit Agricole) grabbed his second win of the season, beating David Kopp (Gerolsteiner) and Alessandro Petacchi (Milram) in a small bunch sprint. After a stage win in Tirreno-Adriatico, this is his second win in a ProTour event. "This is a big victory for me, my first classic," Hushovd said after the finish. "Winning green in the Tour de France is bigger. Still, winning a race like Gent-Wevelgem, a semi-classic, is big. I'm really happy."

Talking about the sprint, Hushovd admitted it was tight. "Yeah it was really close. He [Pozzato] did a really good attack. I choose to stay in the wheel of Petacchi. David Kopp started the sprint quite early and instinctively I decided to go with him. It proved to be the right decision as I passed him at the end."

The win in Gent gains in importance when you beat the likes of Petacchi. "First of all I'm really happy to win the race and for sure it's good to beat Petacchi in the sprint. I saved as much energy as possible and then I had enough power in the end to win the sprint."

Paris-Roubaix, the 'Hell of the North' is coming on Sunday, a race that suits the bear from Grimstad as well. "I'm in good form. It's my last race before my holiday so I want to do well." The powerful Norwegian sprinter added that he loves Belgium, "I do many races in Belgium so it's kind of my second home. Though I race here very often, it's not easy to win here. I'm 28 years old and considering that this is my first win in Belgium, it proves that you need a lot of experience. Hopefully I can go on with my progression and eventually the biggest classics like the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix. Those races are tougher, but that should suit me well."

Second placed David Kopp wasn't far off a victory, falling short by just a few centimetres. The result is a surprise, although he has been riding very well this season, winning at the Trofeo Calvia in February. After this good start, Kopp finished 12th in Milano-Sanremo. Last Sunday he proved that he's a man for the classics with a 16th place in the Tour of Flanders. "I am overjoyed, the second place in this classic makes up for my bad luck last Sunday on Koppenberg," he said. "Today, we had four men in the first group. My compliments on Rene Haselbacher, Sebastian Lang, Frank Hoj and Heinrich Haussler, who worked their tails off for me. In the end I lost by 3 centimetres, but on the other hand, I outsprinted Petacchi - I can be satisfied with that!"

Alessandro Petacchi wasn't satisfied, however. "It was a sprint that I don't like," he said. "The speed was not very high and with the wind up front it was very hard. I'm very disappointed because my form is alright. Coming second in Milano-Sanremo and third over here is sad because you know the chance was there to win both races. Still, for me the most important thing is to gain experience in these races. I know I can win a big classic one day. My form is alright but I don't want to take any risks considering the Giro is coming up in a few weeks. That's why I won't compete at Paris-Roubaix."

How it unfolded

Dry, sunny but windy conditions greeted the riders as they lined up in Deinze's Grote Markt for the start of the 68th Gent-Wevelgem. John Gadret (AG2R) and Daniele Colli (Liquigas-Bianchi) were non-starters. With a chilly wind blowing from the north east, it was likely that the peloton would stay together for the most part of the race, with the often treacherous coastal section more tailwind than crosswind. Before the start, the UCI carried out blood tests on six teams: Rabobank, Quick.Step, Euskaltel, AG2R, Française des Jeux and Cofidis, with all riders declared fit to race.

The peloton covered 40 km in the first hour as it headed west through the many of the same towns that were visited last Sunday in the Ronde van Vlaanderen. The first abandon came from Lorenzo Bernucci after just 4 km, reducing his T-Mobile team to only five riders. After 25 km, three riders attacked: Iker Flores (Euskaltel-Euskadi), David Boucher (Unibet.com) and Cyril Lemoine (Crédit Agricole)< but were brought back. After 40 km, Carlos Zarate (Saunier Duval) and Kenny van Hummel (Skil-Shimano) were able to get clear. They stayed away along most of the coastal section, where the peloton flew along at 60 km/h with the wind behind. But at 105 km, it was all back together again, save for an unlucky Bernard Van Ulden (Navigators), who crashed out of the race.

With 95 km to go, Vladimir Gusev (Discovery Channel) and Bernhard Eisel (Française des Jeux) jumped away and built up a steady lead as they road towards the hill zone and the feared Kemmelberg. With 80 km left, the pair had 1'20 over the peloton, where Matt White (Discovery) and Sergei Ivanov (T-Mobile) were sharing the workload. The pace increased as the hills approached, and the leaders had only half a minute at the Scherpenberg (km 136), the first of the climbs.

On the Vidaigneberg, the gap was only 17 seconds and last year's winner Nico Mattan (Davitamon-Lotto) led a counter attack in pursuit of the leaders. He was joined by Allan Davis (Liberty), David Kopp (Gerolsteiner), Marco Milesi (Liquigas), Nick Nuyens (Quick.Step), Philippe Gilbert (Française des Jeux), Gert Steegmans (Davitamon), Staf Scheirlinckx (Cofidis), Andre Greipel and Marcus Burghardt (T-Mobile) as they caught the leaders before the top. David Kopp and Allan Davis tried to continue the move, but the peloton came back together after the descent.

Eventual winner Thor Hushovd made a strong impression on the first ascent of the Kemmelberg (km 150), leading for much of the way before Fabian Cancellara (CSC), Leif Hoste (Discovery) and Tom Boonen (Quick.Step) took over. The cobbled climb strung out the peloton, but no real breaks occurred, and it was still together at the start of the second lap of the hill zone.

With 55 km to go, a group of five split off the front: Wim Vansevenant (Davitamon-Lotto), Steven De Jongh (Quick.Step), Anthony Geslin (Bouygues) Alessandro Cortinovis (Milram) and Rene Haselbacher (Gerolsteiner). There were a few sprinters in this group, which got 48 seconds very quickly, before Discovery began to chase hard. Matt White buried himself to reduce the lead to around 30 seconds, then Rabobank came to the fore and carved more time out of the break.

On the second time up the Kemmelberg, Geslin had problems following the other four, but could rejoin them on the tricky descent. The quintet kept 24 seconds of their lead over the bunch, now led by Liberty's Allan Davis. Tom Boonen was sitting well down in the field, preferring to save his legs for Sunday while his teammates Pozzato and Nuyens kept themselves in front.

As the race hit the flatlands again and began to head back towards Wevelgem, the peloton finally split for good. A group of around 40 riders gapped the rest with 37 km to go, with Milram putting six riders in front, including Erik Zabel and Alessandro Petacchi. Other sprinters such as Hushovd, Kopp, Davis, Eisel, Hincapie, Flecha, Dekker, Pozzato and Nuyens, all made the cut, while Boonen ended up in group two with Tom Steels, Nico Mattan and Leon van Bon. Mattan and Van Bon pulled their hardest to bridge the gap, but 16 seconds was as close as they got and they sat up. Their consolation was that Davitamon's Henk Vogels and Bert Roesems sat in front.

Milram and Rabobank kept the tempo up, and it was very difficult for anyone to escape. Former winner Lars Michaelsen (CSC) had a go with 15 km left, but lasted only 3 km before he came back. Then Bert Roesems (Davitamon) put in an enormous attack at 12 km to go, using his power into the wind to carve out a lead over the Milram train. Roesems stomped away in front as Milram used up all of its strength to try to bring him back. He gained 13 seconds with 9 km to go and the small peloton was stretched in pursuit.

Roesems reached the safety of Wevelgem with a diminished lead, and it seemed as though he would lose the battle to the sprinters. But it cost Milram so much strength to bring him back, that Erik Zabel ended up on the front with 1.5 km to go as Roesems was caught. Then it was the turn of Quick.Step's Filippo Pozzato, who had targeted this race after his disaster here last year, when he crashed. He powered away from the group with just over a kilometre to go, opening up a nice looking lead and anticipating the sprint.

Pozzato gave it everything, but the headwind finish proved to be too much for him and he was caught in the final 50 metres. In another small surprise, it was Thor Hushovd who proved stronger than David Kopp and Alessandro Petacchi, becoming the first Norwegian to win Gent-Wevelgem. Not only that, Belgians finished outside the top 10, which might also be some kind of a record in a Belgian classic.

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