Wout van Aert produced a perfect ride as he triumphed at Gent-Wevelgem in what was a chaotic race from the outset, with crosswinds laying waste to the peloton and a fire near the finish causing a last-minute redirection.
The Team Jumbo-Visma superstar produced a quite brilliant sprint finish to pip Italian trio Giacomo Nizzolo, Matteo Trentin and Sonny Colbrelli in dramatic fashion. Once the Belgian had his nose in front in the sprint, however, he never looked like being caught and he took an arrow-straight route to the finish line.
Trek-Segafredo, along with Bora-Hansgrohe, were forced to withdraw from the race after positive Covid-19 tests, leaving one of the race favourites, Mads Pedersen, unable to attempt to defend his 2020 triumph.
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A large lead group formed at about the halfway point of the race, and with 90 kilometres to go they had a substantial lead of about a minute on the chasing group behind. With Sam Bennett in group one, Deceuninck QuickStep was happy to let other teams try and control the breakway. Michael Matthews' BikeExchange team took on the lion's share of the work in that front group, in order to maximise the Australian's chances of contesting a sprint without the likes of Greg van Avermaet and Oliver Naesen of AG2R La Citroen chasing in the group behind.
In further drama away from the peloton, Flanders Classics announced with approximately 85km to go in the men's race that the final five kilometres of the men's and women's races would have to be rerouted due to a fire in the city of Menen. A statement from the race organisers read: "Due to a fire at Galloo in Menen, the passage through the city centre of Menen is suspended and the last 5km of the race are being replaced by an alternative route. The finish in Wevelgem remains unchanged."
At 50km to go, the leaders took on the Kemmelberg and van Aert was able to exert some pressure, reducing the front bunch down to nine riders. BikeExchange went from having the most riders in the leading move, to having only Matthews. Also in the front nine were Danny van Poppel (Intermarché-Wanty-Gobert), Nathan Van Hooydonck (Jumbo-Visma), Sonny Colbrelli (Bahrain-Victorious), Giacomo Nizzolo (Qhubeka-Assos), Matteo Trentin (UAE Team Emirates) and Stefan Küng (Groupama-FDJ).
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With just 35km to go, the race took on its final climb – one last ascent of the Kemmelberg – on which Sam Bennett and Danny van Poppel were distanced. Both got back in eventually, but were unable to hang with the tough pace and periodic attacking that followed. Bennett was seen to retch on the TV pictures in the moments right after the climb.
The flat run-in saw van Hooydonck come to the fore, helping to keep the break moving forward and guarantee the win came from what had become a leading septet. Stefan Küng tried a solo attack at about two kilometres to go, but he was unable to break free of the group, with the tenacious van Aert covering the move himself.
As the seven entered the final straight, van Aert was able to open a powerful sprint that saw him cross the line a half-bike-length ahead of next-placed Nizzolo. With so few riders – and the pure sprinting ability of Bennett left for dead – it looked a comparatively easy victory for van Aert, but one built on a huge amount of perfectly-judged effort by he and van Hooydonck throughout the final 50km.
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