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After a typically full-throated doubleheader across Opening Weekend, the peloton has gathered on the Grand Place in Quaregnon for the next instalment of the Belgian season. The 2021 edition of Le Samyn gets underway at 12.30 CET.

As ever these days, all the expectation seems to surround Mathieu van der Poel (Alpecin-Fenix) - not simply to win, but to do something. Pedro Delgado used to joke that his friends could never leave the room during a Tour de France mountain stage in the late 1980s because they didn't know when he would attack or whether he would blow up. Van der Poel brings a similar degree of unpredictability to one-day racing. He would have been an obvious contender in a sprint at Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne on Sunday, but he took it upon himself to go on the attack and spend over 50 miles off the front before being caught on the run-in. He lines up today at the head of an Alpecin-Fenix squad that also includes Jasper Philipsen and Tim Merlier. 

Le Samyn is a race of two halves. The opening 100km are relatively gentle – in terms of terrain, if not necessarily speed and weather conditions – but the race takes on a different guise after the halfway point, with riders facing repeated passages over a collection of rugged cobbled sections and short, sharp hills in the hinterland of Dour. The dizzying finishing circuit includes the cobbles at the Rue du vert Pignon, the Côte de la Roquette, the Chemin de Wihéries, Côte des Nonettes and the Rue de Belle Vue.

Deceuninck-QuickStep, as always, line up with a strong squad at Le Samyn, including 2019 winner Florian Sénéchal, Tim Declercq and Mark Cavendish, who is in his second race of the new season. "I love the sport, I love it. I think like everyone, I love to do it. I’m fortunate to do it and still have an ambition to do it,” Cavendish said yesterday. Stephen Farrand has the full story here.

Le Samyn has been blighted by some miserable weather over the years, but today's race is set to take place in rather more pleasant conditions. A largely bare-armed peloton has been flagged away from the start in Quaregnon beneath clear blue skies, with the temperature at 14°C. No rain is forecast for the afternoon and there is little in the way of wind.

-195km

Two-time winner Niki Terpstra (Total Direct Energie) is among the starters today. The Dutchman, who had a low-key Opening Weekend, has been blighted by ill fortune since leaving Deceuninck-QuickStep and the 2018 Tour of Flanders remains his last victory. He claimed his second Le Samyn victory that same year, before adding E3 Harelbeke and the Ronde. Terpstra was third in Le Samyn in 2019 after a promising start in Direct Energie colours, but his spring was ruined by a crash at the Tour of Flanders.

-183km

Le Samyn is not the only race on rugged roads these week, with Strade Bianche taking place on Saturday. Bora-Hansgrohe have just confirmed that Peter Sagan will not take part in the race, and he is instead scheduled to start his season at Tirreno-Adriatico. The Slovakian was diagnosed with COVID-19 during a recent training camp on Gran Canaria, which ruled him out of Opening Weekend and he has decided to delay his return to competition a little longer. Stephen Farrand has the details here.

-170km

Mark Cavendish is lining out in Le Samyn for the first time since 2007, and he expects his Deceuninck-QuickStep squad to race aggressively one they hit the cobbles later in the afternoon. "It’s not a race that you can keep it together," he told sportnu.be at the start. "It’s an aggressive race and we have an aggressive team. I don’t think we’ll go for me today but I’d just like to be part of the success of Deceuninck-QuickStep today. I haven’t done this race on the current course. I last did it in 2007, it was a different race in those days."

After almost an hour of racing, a breakaway has yet to establish itself at Le Samyn, but we can expect the peloton to splinter into shards shortly after the 100km mark, when the race hits the cobbles of the Rue du vert Pignon for the first time. 

The peloton covered a very brisk 44.6km in the opening hour of racing.

-157km

David Dekker placed third a year ago in the colours of SEG Racing. He got his professional career off to a fine start at the UAE Tour last week, but he's not in action today. The yellow and black kit of Jumbo-Visma is on show this afternoon, but the colours belong to the development squad rather than the WorldTour team. Groupama-FDJ and DSM have also sent their development squads to Le Samyn.

-145km

The distinctive figure of Jan-Willem van Schip (Beat Cycling) tries to forge clear, and he has some riders for company as they open a small gap. 

Meanwhile, Le Samyn des Dames is into the final 23km, and a dangerous move featuring Amy Pieters, Jolien d’Hoore, Marlen Reusser and Lotte Kopecky has just been brought back by a reduced peloton.

-130km

Into the final 12km in the women's race, where a move from Lotte Kopecky, Jelena Eric and Christine Majerus has just been clawed back, thanks in no small part to the pursuit effort of Audrey Cordon-Ragot.

-121km

In the women's race, there's a still a group of around 25 riders in front with 7km remaining. Lotte Kopecky seems eager to mark any move that might dright off the front in the finale.

The front group in the women's race breaks up slightly on an exposed section, but once again Cordon-Ragot welds it all together again. 6km to go. 

The front group in the women's race hits the cobbles on the Rue de Belle Vue for the final time. Marlen Reusser (Ale-BTC Ljubljana) stretches things out with a long, long effort on the front.

Reusser has brought four riders with her as they rattle off the cobbles, but they are maintaining a small gap over the chasers towards the closing kilometres.

Reusser et al are brought back but this front group in the women's race is not exactly cohesive, and there is scope for the race to break up again as they enter the final 2km.

Movistar lead the women's race into the final kilometre. Chloe Hosking (Trek-Segafredo) is among the fast finishers still in this front group. 

A group of 20 or so riders will contest the sprint at the end of Le Samyn des Dames.

Lotte Kopecky (Liv Racing) wins Le Samyn des Dames ahead of Emma Norsgaard (Movistar) and Chloe Hosking (Trek-Segafredo).

Norsgaard opened her sprint from distance and opened an immediate gap over Hosking. The Danish champion looked a winner at that point, but she went from a long, long way out and that proved costly. Kopecky came off Hosking's wheel and then swept past Norsgaard to claim an emphatic win.

-110km

-103km

-85km

The peloton is rattling across the Rue de Belle Vue as they near the end of the first lap of the finishing circuit around Dour. 

-80km

-79km

The selection at this race so often comes from the back rather than the front, but the peloton appears to be largely intact after the first lap over the cobbles around Dour. The speed seems to ratchet up with each passing lap, of course, and the 25km after the bell are always among the most breathless of the season.

-75km

The escapees rattle across the Rue du Vert Pignon still with a lead of 40 seconds or so over the peloton. 

A problem at the rear of the peloton for Niki Terpstra (Total Direct Energie), who calls for his team car. 

A change of bike for Nikki Terpstra, who doesn't seem to be especially stressed by the situation. The break, meanwhile, is 1:15 clear of the bunch.

Sylvain Moniquet (Lotto Soudal) appears to be have been a faller in the peloton, but the Belgian is back on his feet. 

-70km

Van der Poel is keen to be in the right place for the imminent combination of the Cote de la Roquette and Chemin de Wilheries...

Meanwhile, Tersptra has rejoined the peloton, while Moniquet has abandoned the race.

The peloton hits the Cote de la Roquette, where Intermarche-Wanty-Gobert push on the pace and stretch things out.

-67km

-65km

Antoine Raugel of the Groupama-FDJ development squad has escaped the peloton and he is trying to bridge across to the four leaders as he approaches the Cote des Nonettes. 

-60km

The four leaders hit the cobbles at the Rue de Belle Vue with a lead of 20 seconds or so over a chasing group of 20 riders, led by Campenaerts. There are some Lotto Soudal and Deceuninck-QuickStep riders also in this Campenaerts group.

Damien Touze (AG2R-Citroen) brings the Campenaerts group up to the break. the leading group swells to more than 20 riders after the second passage over the Rue de Belle Vue.

-56km

Campenaerts, Touze and Cavendish are prominent at the head of this front group of 20 or so riders. Indeed, Cavendish briefly clips off the front, perhaps hoping to form a smaller, more cohesive group, or at least to encourage those behind to contribute to the pace-making. 

There are two Deceuninck-QuickStep riders in this group - Cavendish and Bert Van Lerberghe. Sep Vanmarcke (Israel Start-Up Nation) and Tim Merlier (Alpecin-Fenix) are also in here, while Lotto Soudal, Qhubeka-Assos and Total Direct Energie are also represented. Who will take up the chase behind?

-52km

A crash in the peloton as Arthur Kruckers (Leopard) hits the ground. 1:00 the gap between the front group and the peloton. 

-49km

-44km

-41km

Alvaro Hodeg (Deceuninck-QuickStep) was lined up on Van der Poel's wheel and he is the only rider who can follow the Dutchman, who skims the pavement as he sweeps through the corners that lead towards the cobbles at the Cote des Nonettes.

Hodeg is shaken loose on the cobbles, but John Degenkolb (Lotto Soudal) and Amaury Capiot (Arkea-Samsic) bridge across to Van der Poel to form a three-man chasing group, 30 seconds down on the leaders. 

-38km

Cavendish, meanwhile, waves to the television motorbike as its rides alongside the front group. The Manxman pledged beforehand to contribute to Deceuninck-QuickStep's aggressive strategy and he has played his part here.   

It looks, however, as there'll be a regrouping of sorts ahead of the final lap. The sizeable Van der Poel group is now just 13 seconds down on the leaders.  

Or maybe not. Van der Poel accelerates over the top of the Nonettes and brings three riders with him. Out in front, meanwhile, Van Lerberghe has attacked from the break, as though anticipating Van der Poel's imminent arrival...

Van Lerberghe can't break clear, but he does line out the front group... Sep Vanmarcke and Victor Campenaerts are the next to try to get away before Van der Poel joins them.

-33km

-30km

Tim Merlier, Danny van Poppel and Jempy Drucker have managed to forge across to Vanmarcke and Campenaerts, but a reduced peloton featuring Mathieu van der Poel is just behind them. It might come - very, very temporarily - back together before they take the bell with 25km to go.

Mark Cavendish puts in a remarkable effort to join Vanmarcke, Campenaerts, Merlier, Drucker, Van Poppel and Krisoffer Halvorsen at the head of the race. This group has a small lead over the reduced peloton.

-27km

-26.5km

Deceuninck-QuickStep are grouped en masse at the head of the peloton, while Campenaerts continues his lone effort out in front. 

-24km

Campenaerts and Robeet continue their lone efforts, just in front of the Deceuninck-QuickStep-led peloton. There are still plenty of fast men in this group, including Hugo Hofstetter (Israel Start-Up Nation), and one imagines there will be a severe acceleration once the race hits the cobbles once again...

-21km

-20km

Campenaerts keeps his mammoth gear rolling over out in front. His lead over the bunch is out to 21 seconds, but there will surely be attacks once they hit the Cote de la Roquette and the Cote des Nonettes. 

-18km

Bingoal - Wallonie Bruxelles join Deceuninck-QuickStep in organising the pursuit of Campenaerts. Timothy Dupont, a stage winner at Etoile de Besseges, is in this peloton.

Van der Poel drops towards the rear of this chasing peloton. Will he throw him onto the attack on this final lap or will he ride to try to tee up Philipsen?

-15km

Sep Vanmarcke's challenge has been ended by a front wheel puncture... He gets a bike change, but there's surely no way back at this juncture...

Amaury Capiot and Mathieu van der Poel are among the riders trying to force their way across to Campenaerts on the cobbles, and they look like succeeding...

Capiot, Van der Poel, Senechal and Dimitri Claeys (Qhubeka-Assos) come across to Campenaerts on the cobbles, but the pace relents as soon as they hit smooth roads, and the peloton regroups - in so far as regrouping is possible at this point.

-13km

-12km

Van der Poel is tucked on Declercq's wheel. The Dutch champion is poised to move once his teammate De Bondt is brought back...

-11km

-10km

-9km

Milan Menten (Bingoal) and Cedric Beullens (Sport Vlaanderen) join forces in a bid to bridge across to the lone leader Wisniowski.

-7km

-5km

Van der Poel rides on the front of the chasing group. He has Dries De Bondt, Tim Merlier and Jasper Philipsen still in here with him.

-3.5km

-3km

Sep Vanmarcke, Danny van Poppel and Lukasz Wisniowski have joined Van der Poel and Senechal at the front of the race. This looks like the winning move - provided they are willing to work together for at least the next kilometre...

-2km

-1.5km

-1km

Van der Poel swings over. Rasmus Tiller (Uno-X) opens the sprint from distance, but Merlier is behind him...

Tim Merlier (Alpecin-Fenix) wins Le Samyn.

Given his handlebars had snapped in two, Van der Poel could only lead that sprint out so far. He sat up with around 300 metres to go and then Campenaerts tried to take a flyer. Tiller then kicked from distance, while Merlier moved up from a long, long way back before unleashing a fine turn of speed in the closing 150 metres.

Disappointment for Deceuninck-QuickStep, who had six riders in that front group, including Mark Cavendish, but they didn't put a rider in the top ten. Their race seemed to be focused on Senechal, but while the Frenchman attacked on the last stretch of cobbles, he wasn't able to forge clear and repeated his 2019 victory.

Result

Tim Merlier (Alpecin-Fenix) on his Le Samyn victory: "Normally, Mathieu wanted to do something but his handlebars were broken so he said it was for the sprinters. Jasper [Philipsen] said he wasn’t feeling very good, so it was up to me. Mathieu went with a group on the last cobbles but he said straight away he couldn’t sprint because his handlebars were broken, so he asked the team to ride again. I’m happy I could do it for the team."

Merlier is asked by RTBF if Alpecin-Fenix had prevented Deceuninck-QuickStep from faire du Wolfpack aujourd'hui. He looks slightly bemused, but answers all the same. "We said on the bus today that it was for us," he says. "I’m very happy."

DOUR BELGIUM MARCH 02 Arrival Tim Merlier of Belgium and Team AlpecinFenix Celebration Rasmus Tiller of Norway and UnoX Pro Cycling Team Andrea Pasqualon of Italy and Team IntermarchWantyGobert Matriaux during the 53rd Grand Prix Le Samyn 2021 Mens Elite a 2054km race from Quaregnon to Dour GPSamyn on March 02 2021 in Dour Belgium Photo by Luc ClaessenGetty Images

(Image credit: Getty Images Sport)

A full report, results and pictures from today's race are available here.

Tim Merlier won the race, but Mathieu van der Poel's handlebars will grabbed plenty of attention at the finish line. "I was still very good myself, but I couldn't put any power in because my handlebars broke off on that long cobblestone strip," Van der Poel said afterwards. Read more here.

Thanks for joining our live coverage of Le Samyn. A report of the men's race is available here, while all the details from the women's race can be found here.

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