Hugo Hofstetter (Israel Start-Up Nation) claimed victory in Le Samyn by outsprinting Aimé De Gendt (Circus-Groupe Gobert) and David Dekker (SEG Racing Academy) at the end of keenly fought contest in Dour.
As ever at Le Samyn, much of the selection came at the rear of the race rather than the front, with riders shaken loose from the back of a fragmenting peloton each time they clattered over the cobbled sections on the four laps of the 27km finishing circuit around Dour.
Hofstetter proved the quickest and strongest of the handful of riders who remained in contention in the finale after a group of twelve had finally forced its way clear of the severely reduced peloton on the cobbles at the Côte de la Roquette with 12km to go.
Alex Kirsch (Trek-Segafredo), Giacomo Nizzolo (NTT) and the Deceuninck-QuickStep duo of Florian Sénéchal and Tim Declercq caught the eye on the final lap, and the intense pace at the front proved too much for fast man Bryan Coquard (B&B Hotels-Vital Concept), who was dropped on the final section of cobbles on the Rue de Belle Vue with 3km remaining.
The defending champion Sénéchal sensed his opportunity on this stretch of cobbles, pressing clear with Nizzolo, Kirsch and De Gendt for company. They built a lead of 10 seconds before they were pegged back just beneath the flamme rouge.
Kirsh attempted to kick once again with 900m to go, before Clément Venturini (AG2R La Mondiale) tried his luck with an acceleration from the front. The Frenchman split the group but his effort served only to lead out the sprint for the men directly behind him. De Gendt hit the front with 150m to go, but Hofstetter was building up a head of steam and the Frenchman flashed past to claim an emphatic victory ahead of De Gendt and Dekker, who is the son of former professional Erik.
It was only the second win of Hofstetter's career and his first since joining Israel Start-Up Nation from Cofidis ahead of this season. He had showcased his form with 6th place at Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne on Sunday and followed up with a win 48 hours later.
"Winning is so difficult. I am not a winner, which is why I am so pleased with this, because I did a lot for it," he said. "In Kuurne I was already good", he says. I have good legs at the moment, and I had some energy for the sprint. It went perfectly for me."
How it unfolded
There was a brisk start to proceedings after the peloton was flagged away from the start but it took over an hour for the first break to forge clear. The escapees were kept on a tight leash, however, and the race took on another dimension after it hit the finishing circuit around Dours just before the midpoint.
The first major rendezvous came with 78km remaining, when Deceuninck-QuickStep split the peloton, placing no fewer than five of their riders in a reduced front group of 30 or so riders. Thus began a breathless race of attrition that would continue all the way to the final lap, as dropped groups scrambled to get back in contact, while the strongmen of the race looked to accelerate every time they encountered the mud-encrusted cobbled sections that punctuate the circuit.
Belgian champion Tim Merlier and Groupama-FDJ development team rider Lewis Askey were among those to make notable cameos on the third last lap, and the racing was remorseless in the last two hours. Two-time Niki Terpstra (Total-Direct Energie) lost all hope of completing a hat-trick of wins when he suffered a rear wheel puncture on the pavé of the Rue de Belle Vue with 57km to go.
Davide Ballerini (Deceuninck-QuickStep), Omloop Het Nieuwsblad winner Jasper Stuyven and Merlier were among those to try to forge clear on the penultimate lap, but there were still 40 or so riders still in contention when they took the bell with 27km to go.
On the final lap, fatigue finally began to take its toll on those who had spent the day chasing, while the strongmen eventually came more definitely to the fore. The on-form Stuyven put in a long, long turn before the cobbles at the Côte de la Roquette, and this teed up his teammate Kirsch, who surged clear on the pavé, bringing Declercq, Nizzolo and Venturini with him.
Eight more riders bridged across after the Chemin de Wihéries, leaving a dozen men in front to contest the victory: Florian Sénéchal, Tim Declercq (Deceuninck-QuickStep), Clément Venturini (AG2R La Mondiale), Hugo Hofstetter (Israel Start-Up Nation), Giacomo Nizzolo (NTT), Alex Kirsch (Trek-Segafredo), Gianni Vermeersch (Alpecin-Fenix), Aimé De Gendt (Circus-Wanty Gobert), Lionel Taminiaux (Bingoal-Wallonie Bruxelles), Dries Van Gestel (Total-Direct Energie), Bryan Coquard (B&B Hotels-Vital Concept), David Dekker (SEG Racing Academy).
Declercq tried to forge clear on the Côte des Nonettes, while Venturini kicked just afterwards, but a split worthy of the name only formed when Sénéchal went into overdrive on the final stretch of cobbles, bringing De Gendt, Kirsch and Nizzolo with him. It looked like the winning move, but the four leaders were brought to heel as the race entered the final kilometre. The ensuing sprint was a disorganised one, but Hofstetter's finishing speed brooked no argument.
|#||Rider Name (Country) Team||Result|
|1||Hugo Hofstetter (Fra) Israel Start-Up Nation|
|2||Aimé De Gendt (Bel) Circus-Wanty Gobert|
|3||David Dekkerr (Ned) SEG Racing Academy|
|4||Clément Venturini (Fra) AG2R La Mondiale|
|5||Florian Sénéchal (Fra) Deceuninck-QuickStep|
|6||Giacomo Nizzolo (Ita) NTT Pro Cycling|
|7||Alex Kirsch (Lux) Trek-Segafredo|
|8||Gianni Vermeersch (Bel) Alpecin-Fenix|
|9||Tim Declerq (Bel) Deceuninck-QuickStep|
|10||Dries Van Gestel (Bel) Total Direct Énergie|
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