Kooij wins Tour de Pologne opening stage

A drawn-out bunch sprint through the streets of Lublin rewarded Olav Kooij (Jumbo-Visma) with his first WorldTour victory on stage 1 of the Tour de Pologne, simultaneously netting the promising young Dutch fastman the first leader's jersey of the 79th edition of the race.

Second on the lengthy, almost completely flat 218-kilometre stage was a narrowly defeated Phil Bauhaus (Bahrain-Victorious), with Jordi Meeus (Bora-Hansgrohe) in third.

With Kamil Malecki (Lotto-Soudal), the last rider from a five-rider breakaway, caught seven kilometres from the line and most of the fastmen already in place, a large crash in the back of the peloton close to the line failed to prevent the first sprint of the race. 

Kooij therefore goes into Sunday's stage, another flat run between Chelm and Zamosc, as race leader, where he will likely enjoy another chance of victory on what is, on paper, a much more straightforward finale.

The 20-year-old Kooij admitted afterwards the presence of former Tour de France yellow jersey winner Mike Teunissen by his side had been fundamental to his win as his teammate guided him through the final tricky technical section. And he also had a keen perception of what a breakthrough taking his first WorldTour win will be in his career.

"There are a lot of good sprinters here at the start line and it's also WorldTour level so I would say this is the biggest win this year," Kooij said about his ninth victory of the season. "And we were aiming for a stage win this week, so it's always nice when you get it."

How it unfolded

A warm but overcast day greeted the peloton on the lengthy stage to the historic city of Lublin in eastern Poland. In the first hour of racing the 218.8-kilometre stage, a five-man move containing Polish star Kamil Malecki (Lotto-Soudal), Sam Brand (Team Novo-Nordisk), Jonas Abrahamsen (Uno-X-Pro Cycling Team), Patryk Stosz, Mateusz Grabis (Poland National team) went clear. But the peloton's refusal to let the quintet open up a gap of more than five minutes was strongly indicative of their belief that a bunch sprint was on the cards.

Jumbo-Visma, working for their young sprinter Koolj, Groupama-FDJ for Arnaud Démare and Deceuninck-Quick Step for Mark Cavendish all had interest in keeping things together and the trio of squads duly kept a lid on the early breakaway's margin as the race headed deep into the flatlands of Eastern Poland.

As the stage reached its half-way point at a healthy average speed of 43kmh and sporadic rain set in, the gap shrank marginally, to just under three minutes. But it was only on a couple of fourth-category climbs, the Dobre and the Wylagi, at 62 and 50 kilometres to go, that the long, monotonous previous spells of racing across empty farmland finally sparked into some kind of life.

Amidst a spate of skirmishing between the five, Abrahamsen sheered away on both the Dobre and the Wylagi climbs to claim the first King of the Mountains jersey. But with the quintet’s collaboration self-destructing in the effort to give the break some life, their advantage on the peloton plummeted to well under a minute. Meanwhile, Jumbo-Visma continued to pile on the pressure behind.

An acceleration by Malecki at the last intermediate sprint at Naleczow saw Stosz dropped, and the increase in pace was too much for all bar local hero Malecki, who soldiered on alone despite the rising hopelessness of his task. The long, broad country avenues did nothing to favour him. That said  the bunch, conscious that his chances were extremely limited, opted to steady their pace rather than risk more breaks going up the road.

DSM put their shoulder to the collective wheel with 10 kilometres to go, by which point Malecki was battling with his bike and looking round, trying to stay away against all the odds. Finally a slight but steady rise did for the Pole and he all but wheeled to a halt at the right side of the road as the peloton roared past.

No team seemed able to take control on the rapidly drying, flat roads, and with Bahrain Victorious hammering away on the front, the crash with two kilometres to go split the back end of the peloton completely. Initial reports said Sam Oomen (Jumbo-Visma), Steve Williams (Bahrain Victorious) and Mark Padun (EF Education-EasyPost) were among those injured, but all were able to finish. 

Then the Jumbo-Visma duo of Teunissen and Kooij took the last grinding uphill and sharp righthand bend with 200 metres to go on the front and ready to go. As Kooij said afterwards, given the lack of distance between the final corner and the finish, it would have been almost impossible to overhaul him, and although Bauhaus pushed him all the way to the line, the 20-year-old was able to claim a fraught but well-earned victory.

For Kooij, the first WorldTour win of his career represents a notable step forward in the 20-year-old's rise through the sprint hierarchy and it also constitutes a kind of sporting revenge after a couple of near misses last year in the same race. 

Meanwhile for Jumbo-Visma, this latest win constitutes yet more success after their devastating triumphs in the Tour de France and Tour de France Femmes. More business as usual for the Dutch squad, then, but with a new, very promising name to watch out for in the bunch sprints.

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