Cycling was back in Belgium, which meant a huge crowd in the Ghent Kuipke for the official opening show. Thousands enjoyed a spectacular team presentation and saw women's elite passing by on the red carpet for the first time, something unique in Belgium. Smoke machines, pumping beats, a refreshing new duo of hosts: enough elements to warm up the crowd for the start of a (bitter cold) beginning of the season on Flemish roads.
On the brand new route between Ghent and Ninove, the race remained locked for a long time, as expected. The traditional escape of the day was quickly formed and existed of ten riders, amongst them five Belgians: Michael Van Staeyen and Kenneth Vanbilsen justified the participation of Cofidis in this race and also the Belgian ProConti teams had their rider up front with Edward Planckaert (Sport Vlaanderen), Dries De Bondt (Veranda’s Willems-Crelan) and Ludwig De Winter (WB Veranclassic). These Belgians were accompanied by Aleksejs Saramotins (Bora), Marco Mathis (Katjoesja), Michael Svendgaard (Fortuneo) and Tim Ariesen + Brian Van Goethem (Roompot). A five minute lead is what they got, but in the peloton Van Avermaet, Naesen en Quick-Step put their domestiques to work to keep the time difference within the acceptable limits.
Belgian teams attack, Molenberg does the job
That some big names such as Peter Sagan, John Degenkolb or Alexander Kristoff did not come to the Belgian opening weekend, didn't bother the Belgian teams at all. They started in Ghent with their strongest team and we're strongly present in the race. Despite the cold and heavy wind, both Philippe Gilbert and Zdenek Stybar tested their legs. Naesen and Van Avermaet reacted immediately.
The Molenberg marked the finale: Van Avermaet set the pace with the quick Bryan Coquard and split the peloton to pieces. An elite group of twelve was able to stay together, an excellent chance for the Lotto-Soudal team to show themselves. First Tim Wellens, in his first Omloop, was the one to go full gas on the Berendries, ending the story of the breakaway group. On Valkenberg it was Tiesj Benoot's turn to attack, but an impressive solo ended sadly after Tenbosse, partly because of a fierce adverse wind.
Vanmarcke at full speed on the Muur, Valgren Andersen finishes in Meerbeke
Will it happen on the Muur van Geraardsbergen? That was the question with about 20km to go. For the first time since 2011 the decesion was to be made on the Muur/Bosberg duo. Many people awaited the riders and were not dissapointed. Sep Vanmarcke saw his chance and escaped on the Muur. At the bottom of the Bosberg an select group connected, amongst them Van Avermaet, a surprisingly strong Wout van Aert, Stybar, Naesen, Wisniowski, ... Striking: three light blue jerseys of Astana were still there: Gatto, Lutsenko and Valgren Andersen.
That numerical superiority was in favor of the Kazach formation. In turn they attacked, hoping one of those accelerations was the right one. With two kilometers to go, the attack by Michael Valgren Anders was a hit, as the others were looking at each other and no one reacted. The Danish riders sneaked away and finished solo on the Halsesteenweg in Ninove. A perfect team display by Astana, who left the first classic of the season with a victory. For Valgren Andersen it was without a doubt one of the most beautiful victories in his carreer.
(c) Photonews / Digitalclickx