Jasper Philipsen (Alpecin-Fenix) won the sprint finish along the Knokke-Heist seafront, using his speed and kick to edge clear on the unusual ramp finish.
Philipsen came up late but then squeezed past Fabio Jakobsen (QuickStep-AlphaVinyl) to hit the front along the barriers as the gradient hurt.
Jakobsen eased up to avoid any danger, allowing Danny van Poppel (Bora-Hansgrohe) and Mads Pedersen (Trek-Segafredo) to complete the top three. Twenty-year-old Arnaud De Lie (Lotto Soudal) was fourth, with Jakobsen finishing seventh.
Thanks to his sprinting skills and the different time bonuses, stage 1 winner Pedersen kept the race leader’s blue jersey. He leads Philipsen by six seconds, with Tim Wellens (Lotto Soudal) third at 12 seconds.
"It was a very hectic sprint. A lot of riders still had a lot of energy, so it was not easy to be in a good position,” Philipsen said, happy to have beaten a lot of the best sprinters he will soon clash with at the Tour de France. “This victory gives me courage with a view to the Tour de France. I'm in pretty good shape."
Pedersen was not as happy as Philipsen. He wanted to use his Trek-Segafredo team-issue skinsuit for Friday’s vital 11.8km time trial stage but will have to race in the race leader’s blue skinsuit. He revealed he also spoke to UCI race commissaires at the conclusion of the stage about riders using the footpaths and bike paths to move up in the peloton.
"It's nice to keep the leader's jersey, although I might have preferred to ride in my own time trial suit. Tomorrow's time trial is quite technical and also a good preparation for the Tour. I'm looking forward to it," he said.
“We tried to control the race but a lot of guys used the bike paths and sidewalk. I think 90% follow the rules and don’t go there but others do. They always tell us they give out fines and disqualify them but then it almost never happens. I told them it is annoying. Theory should at least give them a time penalty.”
How it unfolded
The stage always seemed destined to end in a sprint but six riders formed the early attack of the day as the peloton bided their time in the Belgian sun.
Yentl Vandevelde (Minerva), Jacob Relaes (Tarteletto-Isorex), Theo Bonnet (Geofco-Doltcini Materiel Velo.com) Yoeri Havik (BEAT Cycling), Nick van der Meer and Daan van Sintmaartensdijk (VolkerWessels) lead by up to two minutes as QuickStep-AlphaVinyl, Alpecin-Fenix and Trek-Segafredo lead the chase to keep them in check before the two finishing circuits around Knokke-Heist.
Later Bora-Hansgrohe also joined the chase, as only Havik, Vandevelde and Relaes survived out front. Pedersen had a scare when he needed a wheel change but was soon back in the pack.
The gap to the trio was down to 20 seconds as the final lap began but the peloton and the sprinters let them take the first golden kilometre sprint time bonus, so they could focus on the finish sprint. Then in the second sprint, Quinten Hermans (Intermarché-Wanty-Gobert Matériaux) jumped away to take it, with Florian Sénéchal (QuickStep-AlphaVinyl), Dries De Bondt (Alpecin-Fenix) and Axel Zingle (Cofidis) fighting for the third sprint as their leader waited behind.
QuickStep-AlphaVinyl took control in the final kilometres, with Yves Lampaert coming back from a late bike change. Arkéa-Samsic also tried to take control but the long wide roads, the bike path jumping, and then two turns in the final kilometre, made it difficult for any one team to form a full lead out.
Sam Bennett tried to move up but his Bora-Hansgrohe team were spread across the road and so Van Poppel contested the sprint. Pedersen hit out early on the Knokke-Heist sea front but he was passed as the ramp kicked up, with Philipsen timing his sprint and his effort much better.
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