The Italian veteran escaped from a breakaway just five kilometres from the finish and took the win 11 seconds ahead of chasers Niki Terpstra (Etixx-QuickStep) and Geraint Thomas (Team Sky). They were part of the move of the day that gradually emerged as the wind took its toll on the race. Stijn Vandenbergh was also there for Etixx-Quickstep, along with Sep Vanmarcke (LottoNL-Jumbo), Daniel Oss (BMC) and Jens Debusschere (Lotto Soudal). Jurgen Roelandts (Lotto Soudal) made a brave solo stack for much of the final third of the race but was eventually caught with 17km to go.
“This is a surprise but I’m so happy to have won,” Paolini said. “I don’t think I was the strongest but I played my cards. I knew they’d be waiting for the sprint and so I tried to get away with five kilometres to go.
“It was a very difficult day out there. I crashed twice and changed my bike. But I knew the route and know were to stay up front. After my bad luck I was lucky. It was so bad that we weren’t sure if we could carry on. But we're up in the north and this is real cycling. The strongest survived today.”
Paolini's teammate Alexander Kristoff took the bunch sprint for ninth place ahead of Peter Sagan (Tinkoff-Saxo) in 10th.
How it happened
The 200 riders at the start line knew they were facing a long, tough and for some, a heroic battle in such terrible conditions.
After leaving start town Deinze in the rain, few riders were keen on getting in the early breakaway move while facing a headwind towards the coast in Adinkerke. Eventually seven brave riders went away, with Tim Kerkhof (Roompoot Oranje), Alexis Gougeard (AG2R), Albert Timmer (Giant-Alpecin), Alex Dowsett (Movistar), Pavel Brutt (Tinkoff-Saxo), Jesse Sergent (Trek Factory Racing) and Mirko Tedeschi (Southeast) looking for some early glory and a tactical move for their team leaders.
Despite the strong headwind the leaders covered 39 kilometres in the first hour that resulted in a lead of nearly nine minutes over the peloton. The peloton split even before turning back and riding through the famous Moeren flatlands, while the grey clouds turned the atmosphere into a grim scene. Filippo Pozzato (Lampre) was among the riders who quickly pulled out of the race. The Italian had been ill last week.
Once in the Moeren area, the wind started taking victims. Riders were blown off their bikes into the roadside grass or, like Gert Steegmans (Trek Factory Racing), into the ditch. One massive wind gust caused a big crash that forced several riders to pull out, including Martin Velits (Etixx-QuickStep) and Lars Bak (Lotto-Soudal). Mark Cavendish (Etixx-QuickStep) crashed and lost contact with the first part of the peloton. Many riders climbed off, leaving team vehicles and the broom wagon full.
Due to the gusts of wind, riders tried to stay safe while also trying to maintain some sort of speed. Echelons were formed although these could not be compared with the usual echelons. Riders were constantly balancing on their bike, leaning into the wind, trying not to be blown off the road. Many riders were using wheels with deep section rims and they were paying a high price for that. About 50 riders survived the chaos across the Moeren plain.
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More attacks and more crashes
The peloton then headed into France and the breakaway was soon caught by the first peloton. A second peloton bridged up and later also Cavendish reached the front of the race.
However on another long straight road, the Route de Denkerque, the peloton blew apart again. This time about 25 riders remained up front. Bradley Wiggins (Team Sky) was among the riders who pulled out of the race. The ascents of the Casselberg were peanuts compared to the constant battle with the wind gusts. Between the two climbs Edvald Boasson-Hagen landed into the barriers on the market square of Cassel.
Heading to the third climb of the day, the Catsberg, there were still about 25 riders in front, including Sep Vanmarcke, Geraint Thomas, Alexander Kristoff and Peter Sagan. A second group with Arnaud Démare, André Greipel, Matti Breschel and Greg Van Avermaet bridged up just before the Catsberg. While the peloton took a break, Maarten Tjallingii (LottoNL-Jumbo) launched a solo move and opened a one-minute lead on the peloton at the Catsberg.
A cease-fire followed, with Sep Vanmarcke changing bikes. Attempts to anticipate the attacks from Jens Keukeleire, Edward Theuns, Stijn Vandenbergh, Daniel Oss and Jurgen Roelandts were neutralized before the famous Kemmelberg. Then Roelandts attacked in the aftermath of the Kemmelberg – at nearly 80 kilometres from the finish - and quickly bridged up and overtook Tjallingii.
While riding into the crosswinds again, a group of 13 riders rode away from the peloton. While Stybar punctured, attacks were fired in front. Stijn Vandenbergh rode away and he was eventually joined by Oss, Thomas and later also Vanmarcke and Jens Debusschere. Somehow the five chasers were unable to close the gap on Roelandts. The pace in the peloton dropped back as there were no more teams keen to work.
Paolini launched a late counter-attack. Against the wind the experienced Italian rider managed to join the chase group before it was too late. A little later Thomas was spectacularly blown off the road, tumbling in the grass, barely avoiding falling into the ditch. The winner of the E3 Harelbeke was quickly back on his bike and re-joined the chase group but looked shaken. When the gap between the chase group and the peloton was fifty seconds, Nikki Terpstra (Etixx-QuickStep) also made a successful solo attempt, creating a chase group of seven riders. From there the peloton threw in the towel and quickly lost several minutes. Roelandts kept the chase group at two minutes when reaching the Kemmelberg for the second time, at 38 kilometres from the finish.
The final climb of the Kemmelberg
On the Kemmelberg for the final time, Vandenbergh set the pace in the chase group, with only Thomas holding his wheel. Vanmarcke and Terpstra quickly bridged up on the top of the steep cobbled climb with Oss, Debusschere and Paolini in trouble. Debusschere quickly returned solo, while Paolini needed much more time and Oss cracked. The fast pace set by Vandenbergh and the two final climbs of the day took its toll on leader Roelandts. After the final climb of the day, the Monteberg, the gap was back down to one minute with still thirty kilometres to cover towards the finish in Waregem.
As the road turned flat and the wind blew, Roelandts faded and the chasers upped their speed and began to hunt him down. His lead quickly fell and he was swept up with 17km to go and then cruelly spat out of the move as the attacks began.
Etixx-QuickStep had Terpstra and Vandenbergh and the latter seemed especially strong. However Terpstra surprised his rivals when he attacked immediately after a quick bike change and a chase through the cars. Paolini joined him, indicating he was a threat. However, Thomas also had something left and led the chase up to them, revealing that Vanmarcke and Debusschere were tired.
Thomas, Paolini, Terpstra and Vandenbergh came together with 10 kilometres to go and even Vanmarcke and Debusschere got back on too.
The race seemed set for a sprint but then Paolini tried with six kilometres to go. He was pulled back but noticed his rivals were tired and so went again, this time giving it everything. It was a make or break moment and Paolini broke his rivals. They eased up and moved across the road, looking for someone else to chase. That allowed Paolini to open a gap and take flight.
He opened a 10-second gap in the final kilometres as the other began to race for the podium places. By the time he reached the finish he had time to raise his arms in celebration and savour a great win after a great race. It really was a Gent-Wevelgem for the strongest and the 38 year-old Italian proved he was just that.
|#||Rider Name (Country) Team||Result|
|1||Luca Paolini (Ita) Team Katusha||6:20:55|
|2||Niki Terpstra (Ned) Etixx - Quick-Step||0:00:11|
|3||Geraint Thomas (GBr) Team Sky||Row 2 - Cell 2|
|4||Stijn Vandenbergh (Bel) Etixx - Quick-Step||0:00:18|
|5||Jens Debusschere (Bel) Lotto Soudal||0:00:26|
|6||Sep Vanmarcke (Bel) Team LottoNL-Jumbo||0:00:40|
|7||Jurgen Roelandts (Bel) Lotto Soudal||0:01:51|
|8||Daniel Oss (Ita) BMC Racing Team||0:04:15|
|9||Alexander Kristoff (Nor) Team Katusha||0:06:54|
|10||Peter Sagan (Svk) Tinkoff-Saxo||Row 9 - Cell 2|
|11||Edward Theuns (Bel) Topsport Vlaanderen - Baloise||Row 10 - Cell 2|
|12||Aleksei Tcatevich (Rus) Team Katusha||Row 11 - Cell 2|
|13||Juan Jose Lobato Del Valle (Spa) Movistar Team||Row 12 - Cell 2|
|14||Zico Waeytens (Bel) Team Giant-Alpecin||Row 13 - Cell 2|
|15||Arnaud Demare (Fra) FDJ.fr||Row 14 - Cell 2|
|16||Jean-Pierre Drucker (Lux) BMC Racing Team||Row 15 - Cell 2|
|17||Scott Thwaites (GBr) Bora-Argon 18||Row 16 - Cell 2|
|18||Mathew Hayman (Aus) Orica GreenEdge||Row 17 - Cell 2|
|19||Florian Senechal (Fra) Cofidis, Solutions Credits||Row 18 - Cell 2|
|20||Sylvain Chavanel (Fra) IAM Cycling||Row 19 - Cell 2|
|21||Björn Leukemans (Bel) Wanty - Groupe Gobert||Row 20 - Cell 2|
|22||Laurens De Vreese (Bel) Astana Pro Team||Row 21 - Cell 2|
|23||Eugert Zhupa (Alb) Southeast Pro Cycling||Row 22 - Cell 2|
|24||Grégory Rast (Swi) Trek Factory Racing||Row 23 - Cell 2|
|25||Gerald Ciolek (Ger) MTN - Qhubeka||Row 24 - Cell 2|
|26||Tom Van Asbroeck (Bel) Team LottoNL-Jumbo||Row 25 - Cell 2|
|27||Marco Marcato (Ita) Wanty - Groupe Gobert||Row 26 - Cell 2|
|28||Matteo Trentin (Ita) Etixx - Quick-Step||Row 27 - Cell 2|
|29||Christian Knees (Ger) Team Sky||Row 28 - Cell 2|
|30||Andriy Grivko (Ukr) Astana Pro Team||Row 29 - Cell 2|
|31||Manuel Quinziato (Ita) BMC Racing Team||Row 30 - Cell 2|
|32||Oliver Naesen (Bel) Topsport Vlaanderen - Baloise||Row 31 - Cell 2|
|33||Nikolas Maes (Bel) Etixx - Quick-Step||Row 32 - Cell 2|
|34||Jens Keukeleire (Bel) Orica GreenEdge||0:07:00|
|35||Bram Tankink (Ned) Team LottoNL-Jumbo||0:07:03|
|36||Greg Van Avermaet (Bel) BMC Racing Team||Row 35 - Cell 2|
|37||Jelle Wallays (Bel) Topsport Vlaanderen - Baloise||0:07:06|
|38||Zdenek Stybar (Cze) Etixx - Quick-Step||Row 37 - Cell 2|
|39||Maarten Tjallingii (Ned) Team LottoNL-Jumbo||Row 38 - Cell 2|
|DNF||John Degenkolb (Ger) Team Giant-Alpecin||Row 39 - Cell 2|
|DNF||Nikias Arndt (Ger) Team Giant-Alpecin||Row 40 - Cell 2|
|DNF||Bert De Backer (Bel) Team Giant-Alpecin||Row 41 - Cell 2|
|DNF||Koen De Kort (Ned) Team Giant-Alpecin||Row 42 - Cell 2|
|DNF||Roy Curvers (Ned) Team Giant-Alpecin||Row 43 - Cell 2|
|DNF||Ramon Sinkeldam (Ned) Team Giant-Alpecin||Row 44 - Cell 2|
|DNF||Albert Timmer (Ned) Team Giant-Alpecin||Row 45 - Cell 2|
|DNF||Mark Cavendish (GBr) Etixx - Quick-Step||Row 46 - Cell 2|
|DNF||Martin Velits (Svk) Etixx - Quick-Step||Row 47 - Cell 2|
|DNF||Lukasz Wisniowski (Pol) Etixx - Quick-Step||Row 48 - Cell 2|
|DNF||André Greipel (Ger) Lotto Soudal||Row 49 - Cell 2|
|DNF||Lars Ytting Bak (Den) Lotto Soudal||Row 50 - Cell 2|
|DNF||Stig Broeckx (Bel) Lotto Soudal||Row 51 - Cell 2|
|DNF||Pim Ligthart (Ned) Lotto Soudal||Row 52 - Cell 2|
|DNF||Marcel Sieberg (Ger) Lotto Soudal||Row 53 - Cell 2|
|DNF||Dennis Vanendert (Bel) Lotto Soudal||Row 54 - Cell 2|
|DNF||Gediminas Bagdonas (Ltu) AG2R La Mondiale||Row 55 - Cell 2|
|DNF||Maxime Daniel (Fra) AG2R La Mondiale||Row 56 - Cell 2|
|DNF||Damien Gaudin (Fra) AG2R La Mondiale||Row 57 - Cell 2|
|DNF||Alexis Gougeard (Fra) AG2R La Mondiale||Row 58 - Cell 2|
|DNF||Hugo Houle (Can) AG2R La Mondiale||Row 59 - Cell 2|
|DNF||Quentin Jauregui (Fra) AG2R La Mondiale||Row 60 - Cell 2|
|DNF||Sébastien Turgot (Fra) AG2R La Mondiale||Row 61 - Cell 2|