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Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne is better when the sprinters are in Abu Dhabi.
Who would have thought we would celebrate this calendar conflict?! The happy consequence of the WorldTour-ification of Abu Dhabi was that KBK—generally considered a sprinters’ classic that plays second-fiddle to Omloop Het Nieuwsblad—packed an extra dramatic punch this year. Elia Viviani (third, 2015), Andre Greipel (twice second), and Mark Cavendish (twice a winner) all skipped KBK in favor of the middle east and took their sprint trains with them. With fewer teams working to hold the peloton together, KBK was quite a lot more fun to watch.
Sunday’s edition followed the usual KBK script at first. A large group separated itself over the Oude Kwaremont and was then further split by defending champion Jasper Stuyven with 30km to go. Chasing and bridging ensued, and then five riders, including eventual winner Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe), found themselves rotating off the front.
Behind, only Alexander Kristoff’s Katusha squad and Cannondale-Drapac, which missed the move, made any concerted effort to pull the move back.
This is when the lack of sprinters had the biggest impact. Let’s do the math: When there are more sprinters (and thus more teams willing to chase), breakaways get shut down. The result is always the same: gruppo compatto, bunch sprint. But when there are fewer sprinters (and thus fewer teams willing to chase), the advantage goes to the break. Even Sunday’s break never had much of a gap to begin with — the time check hovered just under a minute.
What if Andre Greipel had been at KBK instead of at Abu Dhabi? His teammate Tiesj Benoot would have been charged with closing the break, rather than bridging to it (which he did, with considerable panache). Had Viviani been back in the peloton, would Luke Rowe have been given the green light to ride for Sky in that front group? Probably not.
Because of the lack of sprint firepower, we were treated to a series of attacks, bridges, and chases up front followed by a lovely bit of chess in the final kilometer. By the time Sagan crossed the line the first chase group was only six seconds behind. The peloton crossed at 13 seconds, led by sprinter Dylan Groenewegen (LottoNL-Jumbo). Add the collective sprint motivation of the teams of Cavendish, Greipel, and Viviani and that lead would likely have been wiped out.
Abu Dhabi wasn’t the only factor, of course. In fact, calling KBK a sprinters’ classic is a bit misleading. The sprint hit-rate is about 60 percent, at least in the modern era. Cavendish won in 2015 and 2012. 2011 was another sprint year. 2016 felt destined for the same until Stuyven (Trek-Segafredo) escaped solo. Kristoff won a bunch sprint 17 seconds behind him, followed by Nacer Bouhanni (Cofidis). Tom Boonen won out of a small group in 2014, one of his three wins. Go back a decade and sprint wins were few and far between.
But what’s always true is that when a breakaway survives, the gap is small. The Oude Kwaremont, the final climb, tops out 50km from the finish line. Inevitably, a group of strongmen rides clear over the climb and then attempts to stay off the front to the finish, just as it did Sunday. It’s this cat-and-mouse between a group of strong classics-type riders and the sprinters and their teams behind that has always been the primary reason to tune into KBK. If the catch is made it’s often made quite late. It’s a good source of drama.
While the tension of a chase is well and good, small group finishes are almost always more exciting, particularly when they involve a popular world champion. Even connoisseurs of bunch sprints can understand why, this time of year, we yearn for the sort of gamesmanship and feats of strength portrayed on Sunday. Calendar conflicts that send big names to opposite ends of the world are generally considered damaging on the sport. But sometimes, if not entirely intentionally, they can improve a race. So thanks, Abu Dhabi, for placing the big sprinters’ focus elsewhere. Kuurne was better for it.