Philippe Gilbert (Quick-Step Floors) won the 2017 Tour of Flanders, but that simple statement doesn't even begin to tell the tale of one of the most remarkable editions in the race's history, and certainly the least predictable on the new finale over the Oude Kwaremont and Paterberg.
Gilbert was alone for the final 55 kilometres of the race, having broken clear on the second ascent of the Oude Kwaremont – and that after being part of an elite selection that formed on the Muur 40 kilometres earlier – but that is still only part of the story.
The race will be remembered, too, for the bizarre crash that ended the challenge of Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe) as he gave chase on the final ascent of the Oude Kwaremont. The world champion clipped a roadside barrier and brought down Greg Van Avermaet (BMC) and Oliver Naesen (AG2R La Mondiale).
Van Avermaet got back up and still won the sprint for second place, ahead of Niki Terpstra (Quick-Step) and Dylan van Baarle (Cannondale-Drapac), 29 seconds down on Gilbert. It was that kind of a race, that kind of a day.
Sagan and Van Avermaet were 55 seconds behind Gilbert at the base of the Kwaremont, and the Belgian champion still had the bulk of that lead in hand even after Sagan accelerated near the summit. We will never know if Gilbert would have held out without the crash, but that detracts not one jot from his triumph. Gilbert, for his invention and his startling strength, was well worth his victory at the end of an absurd bike race.
Quick-Step wanted to avoid going toe-to-toe with Van Avermaet and Sagan in the finale, and their approach was flawless. The Muur van Geraardsbergen, back on the route after a six-year absence, proved pivotal even though the old friend was positioned some 95 kilometres from the finish. Tom Boonen, riding his final Ronde, set a fierce pace on the climb, and his effort brought a group of 14 clear, including Gilbert and Matteo Trentin. With Sagan and Van Avermaet caught behind, the Quick-Step trio didn't need a second invitation to put their shoulders to the wheel.
"It all started on the Muur. I was riding on Tom Boonen's wheel and it went on from there," Gilbert said. "We had three riders in the group and we decided to push on."
When they reached the Kwaremont 40 kilometres later, Gilbert opted to follow the same principle. He punched clear midway up the climb, and simply opted to continue alone when it was clear that nobody could come close to matching his speed.
"On the Kwaremont, I decided to go full on. I made an effort and I looked behind and I was alone," Gilbert said. "So I just went on from there." As simple and as brutally complicated as that.
There was, eventually, a general regrouping behind, though, as ever, the Ronde proved an elimination race. Sep Vanmarcke (Cannondale-Drapac) and Luke Rowe (Sky) were thwarted by crashes, and Boonen by a mechanical mishap on, of all places, the Taaienberg.
With 35 kilometres to go, the race finally seemed to be settling into its anticipated script, as Sagan and Van Avermaet went clear over the Taaienberg in a chasing group that swelled to include Van Baarle, Naesen, Yoann Offredo (Wanty-Gobert), Trentin and Fabio Felline (Trek-Segafredo), and this septet hit the base of the Kwaremont for the final time just under a minute down on Gilbert.
When Sagan took up the reins near the top, only Van Avermaet and Naesen could follow, but in an instant, their already guttering hopes were extinguished. Sagan struck a barrier at the roadside – it seemed as his bike was hooked by a billowing advertising banner – and Van Avermaet and Naesen came down with him. Van Avermaet remounted immediately, while Sagan waited for a replacement bike, knowing his chance of a repeat Ronde was gone.
Up ahead, Gilbert betrayed his first signs of suffering on the Paterberg, where he struggled to keep his gear turning over, but he crested the summit with 50 seconds in hand on a chase group made up of Van Baarle, a bloodied Van Avermaet and his Quick-Step teammate Niki Terpstra, who came from a long, long way back to bridge up.
At that point, Gilbert looked every inch the winner, but the ferocity of Van Avermaet's pursuit, allied to a stiff headwind, made for a nervous spell around the 5km-to-go banner, when seconds began crumbling off his advantage.
By the flamme rouge, however, Gilbert had steadied the ship, and he could sit up and celebrate his win as he pedalled up the long finishing straight in Oudenaarde. On crossing the line, Gilbert stepped off his bike and lifted it over his head. It was a wonder he had the strength to do so.
Behind, Van Avermaet out-sprinted Terpstra and Van Baarle for second, coming home 28 seconds down. Alexander Kristoff (Katusha) came home 52 seconds down in fifth, ahead of Sacha Modolo (UAE-Emirates) and John Degenkolb (Trek-Segafredo).
"I was aiming for the win but it didn't work out," Van Avermaet said. "On the Muur I was a bit far behind and I didn't see what happened when that group went past. I was riding a very strong race and we were chasing very hard, but some people weren't contributing to the chase. It was better when we got to the final - once you get away there, you can take some time back. But Phil had a minute by then, and it was very hard."
Gilbert hadn't raced the Ronde since 2012, as BMC had preferred to deploy him in the Ardennes to give Van Avermaet sole leadership on the cobbles. On signing him for Quick-Step Floors during the off-season, Patrick Lefevere had no misgivings about adding another potential leader to his Ronde line-up. He clasped Gilbert in a hug by the podium. "Mamma mia," Gilbert said.
How it unfolded
The 101st edition of the Ronde van Vlaanderen was the start of a new era, as Antwerp hosted the start of Vlaanderens Mooiste for the first time, after 19 years in Bruges. Pleasant spring sunshine and thick crowds greeted the riders in the Grote Markt, where Boonen, on the verge of his retirement, was feted with the ‘Viking clap' celebration popularised by Iceland's supporters at Euro 2016 last summer.
The early break ghosted off the front surprisingly early, with Mark McNally (Wanty-Gobert), Oliviero Troia (UAE Emirates), Julien Duval (AG2R La Mondiale), Stef Van Zummeren (Veranda's Willems Crelan), Michael Goolaerts (Veranda's Willems Crelan), Julien Morice (Direct Energie), Edward Planckaert (Sport Vlaanderen-Baloise) and André Looij (Roompot) forging clear in the opening kilometres and opening a maximum lead of twelve minutes.
From there, BMC and Bora-Hansgrohe took the initiative to keep the octet under control, with the pace in the peloton eventually rising after the first ascent of the Kwaremont, with 144 kilometres to go. A number of nervous crashes took place, too, as the peloton bottlenecked on narrow roads, with Taylor Phinney (Cannondale-Drapac) among the victims.
The eight leaders reached the Muur van Geraardsbergen with a lead of more than five minutes, but all eyes were on the main peloton, where Tom Boonen was setting the tempo. The Muur, back in the race after a six-year absence, may have been a long way from the finish – some 95 kilometres – but it proved to be a pivotal moment in the race. Boonen's forcing split the peloton into several groups and when the dust settled, the Belgian was joined by teammates Gilbert and Matteo Trentin in an elite 14-man selection that also contained Sep Vanmarcke (Cannondale-Drapac), Alexander Kristoff (Katusha-Alpecin), Maciej Bodnar (Bora-Hansgrohe), Arnaud Démare (FDJ), Luke Rowe and Gianni Moscon (Team Sky), Jasper Stuyven (Trek-Segafredo), Bryan Coquard, Sylvain Chavanel (Direct Energie), Pieter Vanspeybrouck (Wanty-Groupe Gobert) and Sacha Modolo (UAE Emirates).
The big absentees were Sagan and Van Avermaet, and they trailed by 1:10 when the Boonen-Gilbert group caught the early break with 67 kilometres remaining. Boonen and Trentin were particularly active on the front, eager to ensure they stayed clear until the second ascent of the Kwaremont, knowing that no one team would be able to marshal a chase on the succession of hills that followed.
They had 35 seconds in hand at the base of Oude Kwaremont, where, with 55 kilometres remaining, Gilbert went clear alone, dropping Vanmarcke and the others. By the top, the Belgian champion was 56 seconds clear of the peloton, and he opted not to wait for company.
The race, initially slow-burning was now fully ignited. On the fast descent before the Paterberg, Vanmarcke crashed and brought Bodnar and Rowe down with him. On the Paterberg, Sagan, Van Avermaet were to the fore, and their efforts helped the the peloton to bridge back up to the Boonen group.
Come the foot of the Koppenberg, Gilbert had a lead of 55 seconds on the main group, an advantage he maintained over the Steenbeekdries and Taaienberg, but again, the drama was behind. The climb, nicknamed the 'Boonenberg,' marked the end of Boonen's challenge. A chain problem forced him to stop for a bike change, and when his replacement machine also proved problematic, he knew his chances had disappeared.
At the head of the group, meanwhile, Sagan launched his first telling acceleration, and only Naesen, Van Avermaet, Trentin and Yoann Offredo (Wanty-Groupe Gobert) could follow, and they caught earlier attackers Van Baarle and Fabio Felline (Trek-Segafredo) over the top. They were a minute down on Gilbert over the Kruisberg, and the situation remained static until they reached the Kwaremont, where, suddenly and dramatically, this most incredible Tour of Flanders took on another guise.
Touchingly, Gilbert dedicated his victory to the late Claude Criquielion, who was the last Walloon to win the Tour of Flanders, 30 years ago. "I thought about him a lot on this special day," said Gilbert.
His 2012 world title notwithstanding, Gilbert had seemed in steady decline since his startling 2011 campaign, but at 34 years of age, the Belgian has somehow conjured up the greatest performance of his career. After the Tour of Lombardy (2009 and 2010) and Liege-Bastogne-Liege, he has now won three of cycling's Monuments, and he vowed to try to complete the set.
"I want to win all five," he said. "I've gone close at Milan-San Remo and I'll have to test myself at Paris-Roubaix, but my career is far from over and I want to realise this dream."
|#||Rider Name (Country) Team||Result|
|1||Philippe Gilbert (Bel) Quick-Step Floors||6:23:45|
|2||Greg Van Avermaet (Bel) BMC Racing Team||0:00:29|
|3||Niki Terpstra (Ned) Quick-Step Floors||Row 2 - Cell 2|
|4||Dylan Van Baarle (Ned) Cannondale-Drapac||Row 3 - Cell 2|
|5||Alexander Kristoff (Nor) Katusha-Alpecin||0:00:53|
|6||Sacha Modolo (Ita) Team UAE Emirates||Row 5 - Cell 2|
|7||John Degenkolb (Ger) Trek-Segafredo||Row 6 - Cell 2|
|8||Filippo Pozzato (Ita) Wilier Triestina||Row 7 - Cell 2|
|9||Sylvain Chavanel (Fra) Direct Energie||Row 8 - Cell 2|
|10||Sonny Colbrelli (Ita) Bahrain-Merida||Row 9 - Cell 2|
|11||Michael Valgren Andersen (Den) Astana Pro Team||Row 10 - Cell 2|
|12||Luke Durbridge (Aus) Orica-Scott||Row 11 - Cell 2|
|13||Matteo Trentin (Ita) Quick-Step Floors||Row 12 - Cell 2|
|14||Yoann Offredo (Fra) Wanty - Groupe Gobert||Row 13 - Cell 2|
|15||Gianni Moscon (Ita) Team Sky||Row 14 - Cell 2|
|16||Scott Thwaites (GBr) Dimension Data||Row 15 - Cell 2|
|17||Tony Gallopin (Fra) Lotto Soudal||Row 16 - Cell 2|
|18||Nelson Oliveira (Por) Movistar Team||Row 17 - Cell 2|
|19||Fabio Felline (Ita) Trek-Segafredo||0:01:01|
|20||André Greipel (Ger) Lotto Soudal||0:02:29|
|21||Baptiste Planckaert (Bel) Katusha-Alpecin||Row 20 - Cell 2|
|22||Edvald Boasson Hagen (Nor) Dimension Data||Row 21 - Cell 2|
|23||Oliver Naesen (Bel) AG2R La Mondiale||0:02:32|
|24||Alberto Bettiol (Ita) Cannondale-Drapac||Row 23 - Cell 2|
|25||Alexander Edmonson (Aus) Orica-Scott||0:03:30|
|26||Adrien Petit (Fra) Direct Energie||Row 25 - Cell 2|
|27||Peter Sagan (Svk) Bora-Hansgrohe||Row 26 - Cell 2|
|28||Nikias Arndt (Ger) Team Sunweb||Row 27 - Cell 2|
|29||Pim Ligthart (Ned) Roompot - Nederlandse Loterij||Row 28 - Cell 2|
|30||Magnus Cort Nielsen (Den) Orica-Scott||Row 29 - Cell 2|
|31||Julien Duval (Fra) AG2R La Mondiale||Row 30 - Cell 2|
|32||Matti Breschel (Den) Astana Pro Team||Row 31 - Cell 2|
|33||Marco Marcato (Ita) Team UAE Emirates||Row 32 - Cell 2|
|34||Matthieu Ladagnous (Fra) FDJ||Row 33 - Cell 2|
|35||Julien Vermote (Bel) Quick-Step Floors||Row 34 - Cell 2|
|36||Yves Lampaert (Bel) Quick-Step Floors||Row 35 - Cell 2|
|37||Tom Boonen (Bel) Quick-Step Floors||Row 36 - Cell 2|
|38||Boy Van Poppel (Ned) Trek-Segafredo||Row 37 - Cell 2|
|39||Frederik Backaert (Bel) Wanty - Groupe Gobert||Row 38 - Cell 2|
|40||Florian Senechal (Fra) Cofidis, Solutions Credits||Row 39 - Cell 2|
|41||Stefan Küng (Swi) BMC Racing Team||Row 40 - Cell 2|
|42||Nils Politt (Ger) Katusha-Alpecin||Row 41 - Cell 2|
|43||Luka Pibernik (Slo) Bahrain-Merida||Row 42 - Cell 2|
|44||Preben Van Hecke (Bel) Sport Vlaanderen - Baloise||Row 43 - Cell 2|
|45||Stijn Vandenbergh (Bel) AG2R La Mondiale||Row 44 - Cell 2|
|46||Thomas Sprengers (Bel) Sport Vlaanderen - Baloise||Row 45 - Cell 2|
|47||Alexey Lutsenko (Kaz) Astana Pro Team||Row 46 - Cell 2|
|48||Guillaume Van Keirsbulck (Bel) Wanty - Groupe Gobert||Row 47 - Cell 2|
|49||Silvan Dillier (Swi) BMC Racing Team||Row 48 - Cell 2|
|50||Eugert Zhupa (Alb) Wilier Triestina||Row 49 - Cell 2|
|51||Jasper Stuyven (Bel) Trek-Segafredo||Row 50 - Cell 2|
|52||Tom Van Asbroeck (Bel) Cannondale-Drapac||Row 51 - Cell 2|
|53||Andrea Pasqualon (Ita) Wanty - Groupe Gobert||Row 52 - Cell 2|
|54||Huub Duyn (Ned) Veranda's Willems Crelan||Row 53 - Cell 2|
|55||Marcus Burghardt (Ger) Bora-Hansgrohe||Row 54 - Cell 2|
|56||Arnaud Demare (Fra) FDJ||Row 55 - Cell 2|
|57||Edward Theuns (Bel) Trek-Segafredo||Row 56 - Cell 2|
|58||Bram Tankink (Ned) Team LottoNl-Jumbo||Row 57 - Cell 2|
|59||Reinardt Janse Van Rensburg (RSA) Dimension Data||Row 58 - Cell 2|
|60||Reto Hollenstein (Swi) Katusha-Alpecin||Row 59 - Cell 2|
|61||Daniel Oss (Ita) BMC Racing Team||Row 60 - Cell 2|
|62||Gaetan Bille (Bel) Veranda's Willems Crelan||0:03:35|
|63||Alex Turrin (Ita) Wilier Triestina||Row 62 - Cell 2|
|64||Ian Stannard (GBr) Team Sky||0:03:36|
|65||Bryan Coquard (Fra) Direct Energie||Row 64 - Cell 2|
|66||Maciej Bodnar (Pol) Bora-Hansgrohe||Row 65 - Cell 2|
|67||Zdenek Štybar (Cze) Quick-Step Floors||Row 66 - Cell 2|
|68||Ivan Garcia Cortina (Spa) Bahrain-Merida||0:04:15|
|69||Sam Bewley (NZl) Orica-Scott||0:04:32|
|70||Olivier Le Gac (Fra) FDJ||0:06:59|
|71||Mark Mcnally (GBr) Wanty - Groupe Gobert||Row 70 - Cell 2|
|72||Sebastian Langeveld (Ned) Cannondale-Drapac||Row 71 - Cell 2|
|73||Michael Morkov (Den) Katusha-Alpecin||Row 72 - Cell 2|
|74||Søren Kragh Andersen (Den) Team Sunweb||0:08:02|
|75||Koen De Kort (Ned) Trek-Segafredo||Row 74 - Cell 2|
|76||Pieter Vanspeybrouck (Bel) Wanty - Groupe Gobert||Row 75 - Cell 2|
|77||Federico Zurlo (Ita) Team UAE Emirates||0:08:35|
|78||Ramon Sinkeldam (Ned) Team Sunweb||Row 77 - Cell 2|
|79||Laurens De Vreese (Bel) Astana Pro Team||Row 78 - Cell 2|
|80||Christoph Pfingsten (Ger) Bora-Hansgrohe||Row 79 - Cell 2|
|81||Mike Teunissen (Ned) Team Sunweb||Row 80 - Cell 2|
|82||Ryan Mullen (Irl) Cannondale-Drapac||Row 81 - Cell 2|
|83||Iljo Keisse (Bel) Quick-Step Floors||Row 82 - Cell 2|
|84||Dries Van Gestel (Bel) Sport Vlaanderen - Baloise||Row 83 - Cell 2|
|85||Antoine Duchesne (Can) Direct Energie||Row 84 - Cell 2|
|86||Andrey Grivko (Ukr) Astana Pro Team||Row 85 - Cell 2|
|87||Imanol Erviti (Spa) Movistar Team||Row 86 - Cell 2|
|88||Dion Smith (NZl) Wanty - Groupe Gobert||Row 87 - Cell 2|
|89||Jasha Sütterlin (Ger) Movistar Team||Row 88 - Cell 2|
|90||Roy Curvers (Ned) Team Sunweb||Row 89 - Cell 2|
|91||Mathew Hayman (Aus) Orica-Scott||Row 90 - Cell 2|
|92||Mitch Docker (Aus) Orica-Scott||Row 91 - Cell 2|
|93||Wesley Kreder (Ned) Wanty - Groupe Gobert||Row 92 - Cell 2|
|94||Jonas Rickaert (Bel) Sport Vlaanderen - Baloise||Row 93 - Cell 2|
|95||Julien Morice (Fra) Direct Energie||Row 94 - Cell 2|
|96||Mickael Delage (Fra) FDJ||Row 95 - Cell 2|
|97||Lars Boom (Ned) Team LottoNl-Jumbo||Row 96 - Cell 2|
|98||Dimitri Claeys (Bel) Cofidis, Solutions Credits||Row 97 - Cell 2|
|99||Jean-Pierre Drucker (Lux) BMC Racing Team||Row 98 - Cell 2|
|100||Stijn Steels (Bel) Sport Vlaanderen - Baloise||Row 99 - Cell 2|
|101||Dries De Bondt (Bel) Veranda's Willems Crelan||Row 100 - Cell 2|
|102||Christian Knees (Ger) Team Sky||0:11:31|
|103||Hugo Houle (Can) AG2R La Mondiale||Row 102 - Cell 2|
|104||Bernhard Eisel (Aut) Dimension Data||Row 103 - Cell 2|
|105||Twan Castelijns (Ned) Team LottoNl-Jumbo||Row 104 - Cell 2|
|106||Lukasz Wisniowski (Pol) Team Sky||Row 105 - Cell 2|
|107||Kiel Reijnen (USA) Trek-Segafredo||Row 106 - Cell 2|
|108||Owain Doull (GBr) Team Sky||Row 107 - Cell 2|
|109||Stijn Devolder (Bel) Veranda's Willems Crelan||Row 108 - Cell 2|
|110||Tom Scully (NZl) Cannondale-Drapac||Row 109 - Cell 2|
|111||Rudy Barbier (Fra) AG2R La Mondiale||Row 110 - Cell 2|
|112||Juraj Sagan (Svk) Bora-Hansgrohe||Row 111 - Cell 2|
|113||Rafael Andriato (Bra) Wilier Triestina||Row 112 - Cell 2|
|114||Bert Van Lerberghe (Bel) Sport Vlaanderen - Baloise||Row 113 - Cell 2|
|115||Gijs Van Hoecke (Bel) Team LottoNl-Jumbo||Row 114 - Cell 2|
|116||Amund Grondahl Jansen (Nor) Team LottoNl-Jumbo||Row 115 - Cell 2|
|117||Yohann Gene (Fra) Direct Energie||Row 116 - Cell 2|
|118||Alexandre Pichot (Fra) Direct Energie||Row 117 - Cell 2|
|119||Gregory Rast (Swi) Trek-Segafredo||Row 118 - Cell 2|
|120||Luke Rowe (GBr) Team Sky||Row 119 - Cell 2|
|121||Tyler Farrar (USA) Dimension Data||Row 120 - Cell 2|
|DNF||Jonathan Diebben (GBr) Team Sky||Row 121 - Cell 2|
|DNF||Liam Bertazzo (Ita) Wilier Triestina||Row 122 - Cell 2|
|DNF||Nick Dougall (RSA) Dimension Data||Row 123 - Cell 2|
|DNF||Jurgen Roelandts (Bel) Lotto Soudal||Row 124 - Cell 2|
|DNF||Stef Van Zummeren (Bel) Veranda's Willems Crelan||Row 125 - Cell 2|
|DNF||Michael Goolaerts (Bel) Veranda's Willems Crelan||Row 126 - Cell 2|
|DNF||Jay Robert Thomson (RSA) Dimension Data||Row 127 - Cell 2|
|DNF||Coen Vermeltfoort (Ned) Roompot - Nederlandse Loterij||Row 128 - Cell 2|
|DNF||Carlos Alberto Betancur Gomez (Col) Movistar Team||Row 129 - Cell 2|
|DNF||Jorge Arcas Peña (Spa) Movistar Team||Row 130 - Cell 2|
|DNF||Héctor Carretero (Spa) Movistar Team||Row 131 - Cell 2|
|DNF||Brian Van Goethem (Ned) Roompot - Nederlandse Loterij||Row 132 - Cell 2|
|DNF||Luka Mezgec (Slo) Orica-Scott||Row 133 - Cell 2|
|DNF||Nuno Matos (Por) Movistar Team||Row 134 - Cell 2|
|DNF||Alex Dowsett (GBr) Movistar Team||Row 135 - Cell 2|
|DNF||Youcef Reguigui (Alg) Dimension Data||Row 136 - Cell 2|
|DNF||Nico Denz (Ger) AG2R La Mondiale||Row 137 - Cell 2|
|DNF||Tony Martin (Ger) Katusha-Alpecin||Row 138 - Cell 2|
|DNF||Hugo Hofstetter (Fra) Cofidis, Solutions Credits||Row 139 - Cell 2|
|DNF||Christophe Laporte (Fra) Cofidis, Solutions Credits|