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OUDENAARDE, Belgium (VN) — There was a lot of Belgian shoulder-shrugging and “booofs!” around the team buses following Alexander Kristoff’s powerful victory at Ronde van Vlaanderen (Tour of Flanders). The 27-year-old Katusha rider left no debate about who was strongest in the 264km, six-and-a-half-hour suffer-fest.
Mild weather conditions and a race lacking a clear rider of reference, with the marked absences of Tom Boonen (Etixx-Quick Step) and Fabian Cancellara (Trek Factory Racing), meant that Sunday’s race was more a battle of attrition than aggression.
Kristoff barnstormed straight in to fill the void. He marked a surge by Niki Terpstra (Etixx-Quick-Step) with 28km to go, and then barreled his way into the history books as Norway’s first Flanders winner. Everyone else could only look on in awe.
“There was nothing we could do. Kristoff was too strong,” said Etixx sport director Wilfried Peeters. “Niki wanted to drop him on the Paterberg, but he was too strong. The strongest rider won today.”
That sentiment echoed across the team bus parking lot in downtown Oudenaarde. As riders came pedaling in, most shook their heads in dismay. Terpstra took second, with Greg Van Avermaet (BMC Racing) salvaging Flemish pride with third following a failed effort to bridge across with Peter Sagan (Tinkoff-Saxo) after coming over the Paterberg.
“The problem with Kristoff is that he is hard to drop, and then he can beat you in the sprint,” Van Avermaet, who collected another podium following his second place last year, told Sporza. “I would have preferred someone else than Sagan to have come with me, because I am sure we could have closed the gap. Kristoff was strong, no doubt.”
Kristoff and Terpstra powered clear just ahead of the final passage over the Oude Kwaremont-Paterberg double. Their styles couldn’t have been more contrasting. Kristoff churned a huge gear, while Terpstra was spinning a higher cadence.
Their gap was slender, never more than 30 seconds, meaning that Terpstra and Kristoff both had to commit to give their hopes a chance. Behind, a dozen riders with opposing interests and diminishing strength joined forces. Those who hesitate often wait too long.
Team Sky rode superbly going into the final 30km, and then the wheels came off the cart. E3 Harelbeke-winner Geraint Thomas started as a major, pre-race favorite, but couldn’t follow when Terpstra opened it up. Behind the pair, the others couldn’t formulate a strategy, but it might not have mattered anyway.
“It was that typical ‘big race,’ where everyone looks at each other. It was a bit like that, poker or chess on wheels,” Thomas said. “Those two were strong, so hats off to them. Kristoff has really moved up the past two years. He was super-strong today.”
Etixx-Quick-Step certainly didn’t shy away from assuming its responsibility in the race despite the absence of three-time winner Boonen. Zdenek Stybar and Terpstra were prominent in the late, decisive moves, and things looked to be going to plan until the team ran headlong into the Kristoff express.
Last year, in a similar scenario, with Stijn Vandenbergh marking a strong Van Avermaet, Quick Step put the brakes on Vandenbergh to allow Terpstra to bridge out. This year, Terpstra played his card all the way to the line, but couldn’t match Kristoff’s power when it counted.
“In the last 10 kilometers when he was still there, there wasn’t much left to do. In the last 3 kilometers I stayed on his wheel because everyone knows how fast he is in the sprint. I hoped he was too tired to have a perfect sprint at that point,” Terpstra said. “But even then, I came next to him when I launched my sprint, he accelerated, and then showed he was the best guy on the roads today. He deserved the victory.”
Another team playing chess was BMC Racing. The squad was active throughout the classics so far this season, but changed its tactic during Flanders, deciding to save its matches for the final, race-breaking 50km of racing. Van Avermaet was caught out by Terpstra’s long-distance attack, and couldn’t find any allies to help him chase it down.
“I was just hoping they would wait for me a little bit because Kristoff is so much faster than Terpstra in the sprint, and last year they didn’t want to ride with me when I was with Stijn Vanderdenbergh,” Van Avermaet said. “So I was hoping today I could come back. But I couldn’t make it anymore.”
Last year, Van Avermaet tried to make his own fortune, only to have the numbers game turn against him. This time, it was Kristoff who laid it all on the table, and the bet paid off big-time.
Terpstra and Kristoff worked well to nurse their winning gap into the final 5km, and then Terpstra realized he was in a no-win situation. After failing to drop Kristoff on the Paterberg, he knew that he wouldn’t be able to ride him off his wheel on the flats. In the closing kilometers, Terpstra stopped taking pulls, in the slim hope of saving his legs for a final sprint. Kristoff was the master of his fate.
“It was a little bit early, but I didn’t want to let [Terpstra] go away because he was really strong,” Kristoff said. “In the end he wouldn’t work with me, but I said to him, ‘Come on, you will at worst get second, it’s still a good result.’ And he was working again.
“Of course, at the end, he wanted to save legs so he’d have a chance, but I was pretty confident I would still beat him. I tried not to go really full gas the last few kilometers, to save a little bit so I had something left for the sprint. And it was enough. That’s a great feeling when I saw he couldn’t pass me.”
In the classics, the strongest almost always wins. That was certainly the case in Oudenaarde on Sunday. Kristoff was in a class by himself, and just about everyone admitted it. Booof!