Alexander Kristoff continued his transformation from pure sprinter to baroudeur, taking victory in the Circuit Franco-Belge from a four-man breakaway in La Louvière.
It wasn't quite the same as his massive solo effort to win the Scheldeprijs but Kristoff ripped up the usual script for the Belgian Pro Series race that typically ends in a bunch sprint.
The Intermarché-Wanty-Gobert veteran shut down an early surge by Hour Record holder Victor Campenaerts and powered to the victory, while fellow escapee Dries Van Gestel (TotalEnergies) nudged the fading Lotto Soudal rider to third.
Jasper De Buyst held off the sprinting peloton after leading out his Lotto Soudal teammate.
Alberto Dainese (Team DSM) led the bunch to the line ahead of Arnaud De Lie, giving Lotto Soudal a total of 295 UCI ranking points for the day. That helped them near Movistar in the ever closer battle out of the WorldTour relegation zone.
Kristoff admitted that the slightly uphill finish didn't suit him perfectly and said it was only Campenaerts' mistimed sprint that swung the race to his advantage.
"I was a bit lucky that Campenaerts started a bit too early, because if he had timed it a bit later maybe he would have enough gap to hold the whole way. I managed to get into the draft and come past," Kristoff explained after recovering from his huge effort.
"It worked out quite good for me in the end but I had to dig really deep because it was a slightly uphill finish. When I was younger it would suit me perfectly but with age, I've not been so good in these uphill finishes so I was happy I could win in such a finish."
Lotto Soudal made Kristoff work hard for the victory, sending Campenaerts to bridge across to De Buyst, Van Gestel and the Norwegian on the steep final climb on the Rue du Four à Chaux. When Campenaerts came past the shattered trio, Kristoff had to scramble for nearly a kilometre to catch him.
"We were in a break with De Buyst and Van Gestel and we worked well in the start but then Lotto had Campenaerts coming up so De Buyst was (not working),” Kristoff explained.
“I got the message a bit late that he was coming on the counter - he was just past me when they said on the radio that Campenaerts was attacking on the last climb. So I was a bit late to react and had to chase really hard from 2km to 1km to come back. Then we slowed down and De Buyst came back, so Lotto had two guys."
Ultimately, Lotto Soudal's tactics fell victim to the determination of the renewed power of the 35-year-old Norwegian, who was on the brink of retirement before joining Intermarché this season.
His victory near the Intermarché headquarters was bittersweet since he will leave for the Uno-X team next season.
"I really enjoyed it here. I saw the faces of the bosses and they were so happy for the victory here on 'home soil'," Kristoff said. "That's important for the team and I'm happy I could give this joy to the team."
How it unfolded
The 81st edition of the Circuit Franco-Belge, known as the Eurométropole Tour from 2012 until 2021, got underway in Tournai with a 77.8km run-out to the 20.4km long closing circuits in La Louvière, with the 175.2km Pro Series race finishing on five circuits each crossing several demanding climbs pitching up to a maximum 22% grade.
Four riders made the early breakaway, with Tim Naberman (Team DSM), Ayco Bastiaens (Alpecin-Deceuninck), Tom Sexton (Bolton Equities Black Spoke) and Timo de Jong (Volkerwessels) spending 132km out front.
On the first of the finishing circuits, many of the pre-race favourites were already out of the picture.
A crash with 72km to go took out Biniam Girmay (Intermarché-Wanty-Gobert) and Luca Mozzato (B&B Hotels-KTM). Giacomo Nizzolo, also involved, abandoned, leaving Israel-Premier Tech with one fewer chance to gain points to avoid WorldTour relegation.
An attack from Filipo Baroncini (Trek-Segafredo) and Thomas Joseph (Minerva Cycling) with 58km remaining enlivened the chase while the early breakaway began to come apart. Sexton was the first to be dropped from the breakaway on the steep Rue Bois de Breucq climb with 48km to go.
Edward Theuns (Trek-Segafredo) attacked in an attempt to bridge on the climb but didn't make it. However, his acceleration and the subsequent chase slashed the leaders' advantage and the escapees were swept up by the peloton with 43km to go.
Another crash took out Alpecin-Deceuninck's Edward Planckaert, while Caleb Ewan (Lotto Soudal), in his accelerated return to racing after collarbone surgery, sat up with two laps to go.
Attacks shattered the peloton on the penultimate lap leading to splits in the bunch. Jasper de Buyst (Lotto Soudal) and Dries Van Gestel (TotalEnergies) attacked after the bell with 19km to go, drawing out Alexander Kristoff (Intermarché-Wanty-Gobert).
The trio opened a persistent 15-second lead and were in sight on the Strepy-Thieu boat lift ascent but still managed to fend off the chasers.
The trio's lead came down on the Brois de Breucq, but Kristoff had two teammates marking every move in the chase group. Ludovic Robeet (Bingoal Pauwels Sauces WB) put in a dig to try and bridge across, and was joined by Julian Mertens (Sport Vlaanderen-Baloise) and Campenaerts.
With 3.4km to go and on the Rue du Four à Chaux climb, Campenaerts attacked, bridged across to the leaders, and left De Buyst and Kristoff behind. When the lead trio came back together on the final climb, Campenaerts eased, allowing De Buyst to return as Lotto Soudal thought about victory but also the UCI points.
De Buyst lead for his teammate but the Hour Record holder opened up the sprint too early and Kristoff sprinted past to snatch the win.
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Laura Weislo has been with Cyclingnews since 2006 after making a switch from a career in science. As Managing Editor, she coordinates coverage for North American events and global news. As former elite-level road racer who dabbled in cyclo-cross and track, Laura has a passion for all three disciplines. When not working she likes to go camping and explore lesser traveled roads, paths and gravel tracks. Laura's beat is anti-doping, UCI governance and data analysis.
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