Road race - Men
Ronde van Vlaanderen - 7 April 2019
Ronde van Vlaanderen – Follow this cycling race live with Eurosport. The action starts at 10:45 on 7 April 2019. Our live coverage lets you follow all the key moments as they happen.
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"I still don't believe it," Bettiol said. "I was feeling really good on the Kwaremont, I closed my eyes and just went. I looked back and had a good gap so I kept on pushing. After the Paterberg I was still in the lead. It was the longest 14km in my life. But I knew that I had Sebastian Langeveld behind me working hard. We are a really good team and from now on you should look more on the front for the pink."
Not only was that Alberto Bettiol's first professional win, it was the first Italian win in the Ronde since 2007 (Alessandro Ballan) and his team's first Monument scalp in almost five years.
Kasper Asgreen holds on for second place with Alexander Kristoff winning the sprint for third.
VICTORY FOR ALBERTO BETTIOL!
Under the flamme rouge goes our lone leader. This is his fourth Ronde van Vlaanderen: he didn't finish two of them, and came 24th in 2017.
Now Kasper Asgreen had ridden clear in pursuit - but it'll be for second place. Alberto Bettiol has this one in the bag - even with a puncture...
Still no organisation behind as Bettiol goes under the 3km banner with 19 seconds. Now it's the world champion who briefly riders out of the saddle - but it looks like they're going for second place today.
Here was the moment Alberto Bettiol put in his decisive attack on the Oude Kwaremont...
Before today, Alberto Bettiol had never won a professional bike race. Is that about to change?
The likes of Kristoff and Sagan look like they're gambling on it coming down to a sprint - but it won't if they don't help out. Still 22 seconds for Bettiol.
Jungels is back now so QuickStep have three after all. But he has no sprint. Benoot now takes it up - but no one will help him, certainly not Langerveld, who is Bettiol's team-mate. 25 seconds now for out lone leader.
Alberto Bettiol may win this because there's no cohesion behind. The gap grows to 18 seconds - and now Van Avermaet puts in an attack.
Still 15 seconds now for Bettiol. Sagan is forced to lead the chase with Lampaert behind. My apologies, Lampaert, in the Belgian colours, is also Deceuninck, so it's not just Asgreen.
Asgreen leading the chase now - the only Deceuninck-QuickStep rider left, amazingly. We have some fast men in this group with Matthews, Sagan, Kristoff... even Naesen and Van Avermaet.
Van der Poel has a small gap over Naesen, Van Avermaet and Valverde, who in turn are about to be joined by Sagan and the other chasers.
And Van der Poel comes through! Valverde and Sagan aren't far off the pace either, although Jungels and Van Baarle have lost ground. Bettiol over the top in pole with van der Poel about 10 seconds behind.
It's Van Avermaet, Naesen and Van Aert who are leading the chase on the climb.
I count 17 riders in this chase group. Bettiol arrives at the foot of the climb with 18 seconds to play with.
It's been a long time that we've seen so many riders together ahead of the final climb of the Ronde van Vlaanderen. It's anyone's guess. Bettiol now has 20 seconds as he negotiates the narrow concrete farm track that shoots down towards the foot of the Paterberg.
Alberto Bettiol has 12 seconds on the wide, rolling road between the Kwaremont and Paterberg, with the select group of 15-odd riders behind.
This is a good gap for Bettiol. The likes of Sagan, Kristoff and Lampaert are happy to let the others lead the chase.
The leaders are caught and past by Bettiol, who has opened up a gap over the others. Van Avermaet, Naesen, Jungels and Van Aert are just behind.
Van Baarle leads Asgreen but Bettiol is closing in now, with Van Avermaet just behind.
Onto the Oude-Kwaremont they go. Vanmarcke, who was in the break earlier, is the first to pop after his hefty pace-setting going into the climb.
Still 15 seconds for the leaders over this select chasing group. EF Education First have three riders on the front ahead of the decisive climbs: Vanmarcke, Bettiol and Langeveld.
Alexander Kristoff is here, too. He's had a quiet race, which will have suited him just fine.
Jungels, Sagan, Benoot and Matthews are on the front. Valverde takes off his arm warmers. Van der Poel lurks too - just as Nils Politt puts in an acceleration.
We now have a big chase group of 20 riders that has formed on the flat following that dig by Jungels. Leaders Van Baarle and Asgreen have 15 seconds to play with. We have the final Kwaremont-Paterberg dual ascent coming up in around 7km.
Jungels, Van Avermaet and Bettiol catch Vanmarcke. Van Aert leads the chase but Stybar is one of the riders who has been distanced near the top of the climb.
Vanmarcke has been dropped by Van Baarle and Asgreen.
The leading trio are back together with 24 seconds to play with aftrer that climb. There's a select chase group of 20-odd riders including Van Avermaet, Valverde, Jungels, Van der Poel, van Aert, Stybar, Lampaert, benoot, Bettiol, Sagan...
With the gap down to 25 seconds, Van Baarle rides clear of Vanmarcke and Asgreen on the climb. Behind, Degenkolb has been dropped by Weening. Then there's an attack by Jungels, which Van der Poel covers. All this just happened as Naesen rejoined the back of the pack.
John Degenkolb (Trek Segafredo) now riders clear with Pieter Weening (Rompoot) ahead of the Kruisberg. They open up a small gap as, behind, Oliver Naesen stops for a bike change following a puncture.
Mohoric is back on the front of the main pack now alongside three Sky riders. Impressive from the British team, who also have Van Baarle in the break ahead. Could today be the day that they finally win a cobbled Monument?
It's coming back together for the chasers, with the four leaders still 22 seconds ahead. I say four - it's just three now because Asgreen, Van Baarle and Vanmarcke have dropped Vandenbergh. Cyclo cross rivals Van der Poel and Van Aert are shadowing each other back in the main pack. We have the Kruisberg coming up in about 5km.
SOME HIGHLIGHTS FROM THE WOMEN'S RACE HERE....
It's all splitting up again on the flat with two riders, then four riders, chasing down the leading group of four, with the main pack a small bit back. Nils Politt of Katusha is there in the mix.
Still 22 seconds for the leaders - and there's another attack as the road flattens out. It's from Bahrain Merida's Ivan Garcia. The big names take a step back as Movistar and Lotto Soudal send riders clear - and it looks like Tim Wellens again.
Stuyven, Van Avermaet, Van Aert, Jungels, Van der Poel, Lampaert, Sagan, Valverde, Matthews, Bettiol... they're all there on the front as the group strings out again on the Taaienberg. UAE Team Emirates duo Kristoff and Gaviria are holding on - just.
Van der Poel is back! What a phenomenal ride from the Dutchman, who's now alongside Lampaert and Stuyven ahead of the Taaienberg.
The gap is 27 seconds now for the four leaders as they hit the Steenbeekdries cobbles. Van Baarle is now the driving force of this move and Vanderbergh looks to be struggling.
The gaps are starting top open up on the Koppenberg. It's Dylan Van Baarle who leads the chase for Team Sky, with a Movistar rider on his wheel. It's Jasha Sutterlin, the German. Asgreen leads the trop over the top, but their gap is small - and Van der Poel is not too far back, either.
And here they are: the Koppenberg. It's Asgreen, the Dane from QuickStep, who leads his Belgian companions onto the start of the climb.
The leading trio has 18 seconds on the main chase group with Van der Poel leading a smaller group a further 30 seconds back.
On the Paterberg, Asgreen managed to join leaders Vanmarcke and Vanderbergh.
One of the riders Van der Poel picked off on the Kwaremont was Gilbert, who seems to be struggling.
Belgian duo Vanmarcke and Vandenbergh have about 10 seconds over the main chasing group on this rolling, wide main road ahead of the run-into the Paterberg. There's a big second peloton now, where Van der Poel must be, with another crash happening just towards the end of the cobbles as an Astana rider hit the deck on the crest of the Kwaremont.
Van der Poel is picking off riders on the climb as he tries to ride back into contention. But with the pack so strung out, it's going to be hard for the Dutchman to see the front of the race again.
As the pack hits the Oude Kwaremont it's Stijn Vandenberg (Ag2R-La Mondiale) who opens up a gap with EF Education First's Sep Vanmarcke, whose race was in doubt because of a dodgy knee.
CRASH: Mathieu van der Poel's down! The Dutchman picks up a puncture at top speed going through a town. He does amazingly to keep his balance and ride to the side of the road, avoid hitting the kerb and road furniture while slamming on the brakes. But just as he puts his arm up to signal that he needs help, he loses his front wheel and goes over the handlebars, landing heavily on his right shoulder. It looks bad. But he gets back up and on his bike, with a new wheel. He has a team-mate with him but this will be a real battle for him to get back on now - and we don't know how badly he's injured. Terrible luck for the debutant, who did so well to avoid crashing earlier on at top speed.
Back to the men's race and Mohoric is no longer out in front alone - he's been replaced by a rider from Sport Vlaanderen, perhaps Piet Allegaert. Big Ian Stannard (Team Sky) leads the chase and brings it back together before CCC assemble on the front of the pack, with their man Greg Van Avermaet, with his gold Olympic helmet, sitting in third place. It's 5km until the next ascent of the Oude Kwaremont which is why the pace is high ahead of the narrow roads on the approach.
WOMEN'S RVV: Victory for Marta Bastianelli, the European champion from Italy! Annamiek van Vleuten opened up the sprint early and looked to have done enough, but Bastianelli was too strong and surged past to take the win, with Cecilie Uttrup Ludwig having to settle for third place.
WOMEN'S RVV: As they go under the flamme rouge there's a lot of looking over the shoulders from the leaders, who could get caught on the home straight if they're not careful...
WOMEN'S RVV: Just two kilometres to go for the leading trio of Van Vleuten, Ludwig and Bastianelli, who won't be able to play too many games because there's a chasing group of four riders just 10 seconds behind...
Mohoric drops a fresh bidon over the summit and shakes his head in annoyance. Behind, it's Wellens who rides clear in the forest with Anthony Turgis of Direct Energie on his wheel. Turgis is his team's Plan B but following Niki Terpstra's crash and withdrawal, he's got a pass to do his best. Remember, he finished second to Van der Poel in Dwars door Vlaanderen during the week, so he's no stranger to these roads.
Luke Rowe now leads the main pack up the climb with Tim Wellens - who fought back - and Alejandro Valverde right on his wheel. Off the back, numerous riders are suffering after those big efforts of bringing the race back together.
Mohoric hits the ninth of 17 climbs, the Kanarieberg, with a small gap over a peloton which has merged back together following those fireworks on the Muur-Kapelmuur.
Matej Mohoric has soloed clear to open up a gap of eight seconds ahead of the chasing group of 30 riders. A few others follow in drips and drabs but it may come back together, what with the main pack now only 15 seconds further behind.
RVV WOMEN: A leading trio of Ludwig, Bastianelli and Van Vleuten have a sizable gap over a chasing quartet that includes Niewiadome, Black, Bertizzolo and van Dijk with 7km remaining.
Rowe, Van Aert, Van der Poel, Stuyven, Valverde, Trentin, Matthews, Van Avermaet - they're heavily involved in this main move, which has reabsorbed that quintet. The gap is 53 seconds now back to the rest of the pack. Mohoric, Dillier, Oss and Colbrelli are now driving the pace. Odd to see Dillier there giving it his all when his team-mate Naesen is stuck behind.
Danny van Poppel of Jumbo-Visma has joined the leaders so we have a quintet now - but they're about to sit up and be joined by a chasing group of 30 riders, who managed to shed a dozen or so riders, who are riding in another chasing group a bit behind. This is surely unsustainable?! Amazing scenes.
WOMEN'S RVV: With 15km remaining, a leading quartet has hit the Paterberg with a small gap on a chasing group of 15-odd riders, but it's bad luck for Marianne Voss, who picks up a puncture at the worst possible moment. It was Cecilie Uttrup Ludwig who attacked after the Oude Kwaremont before being joined by Bastianelli, Van Vleuten and Niewiadoma.
Katusha-Alpecin and Dimension Data missed the split, too, and are heavily committed in the chase. Our new leading quartet of Lampaert, Oliviera, Postlberger and Breschel, have 15 seconds on the chasers and 1'10" over the rest of the pack.
Belgian champion Yves Lampaert is now driving the pace and he rides clear with three others: Breschel (EF Education First), Postlberger (Bora-Hansgrohe) and Oliviera (Movistar). They have about 10 seconds on the main chasing group, with the rest of the pack one minute down. Belgians Oli Naesen and Philippe Gilbert didn't make the cut, nor did Tim Wellens, which is why Cofidis are leading the chase - even though they have Benoot up front. Ag2R-La Mondiale are also helping out because Naesen missed the split on the Muur.
It's over for the break now as this strung-out pack of 50-odd riders extend their lead to 1'20" over the rest of the pack. It looks like Luke Rowe is here with two Sky team-mates. Sylvan Dillier is setting the tempo in a splinter group that momentarily opened up a small gap off the front. Rowe is here, too. Mohoric then comes through with a big dig, followed by Stybar. The race is well and truly on.
All hell has broke loose now with a few riders having joined the four leaders and a chasing group behind with Van der Poel among those who is really pushing. The gap back to the main pack is 55 seconds.
Some other names in this main chasing pack: Gaviria, Oss, Van Avermaet, Van Aert, Bettiol, Mohoric, Matthews, Stuyven, Benoot... Many have missed out, though.
Just the three QuickStep riders here, it seems. It was Asgreen and Stybar setting the tempo earlier, with Lampaert tucked in. But it's now just 40-strong with the likes of Peter Sagan, Alejandro Valverde, Mathieu van der Poel and Matteo Trentin involved. But it looks like more and more riders are returning so it may yet come back together.
We've had the first true natural selection of this race as Deceuninck-QuickStep respond to Cort's attack and have split the pack in two. We have about 60 riders in this main group and they have about 20 seconds on the rest of the peloton...
It's single file as the pack crests the summit of the Muur - and it's the big Dane Magnus Cort (Astana) who has ridden clear past the chapel and opened up a small gap. The leading quartet, meanwhile, are only one minute up the road.
Time for the wall! The break has entered Geraardsbergen and are about to hit the Muur-Kapelmuur. They have two minutes over a pack which is really hotting up ahead of this steep and iconic climb.
It's a real fight now for positions as Sunweb send five men to the front. Sky, CCC, Rompoot and Trek are also heavily present - and there's some serious jostling going on with the world champion Alejandro Valverde right in the thick of things.
Just 2:40 now for the four leaders - oh, and there's been a crash! Two down in the pack on a tight bend as both Jonas Van Genechten (Vital Concept) and Laurens de Vreese (Astana) roll into a grassy ditch. They're back up and on their way...
Dries De Bondt (Corendon-Circus) puts in a dig near the top of the climb when the peloton come through but nothing came of it. Worth pointing out that the same rider did the same thing at Dwars last week - attacking early to pave the way for his team-mate Mathieu van der Poel.
The leading quartet hit the Tenbosse climb with four minutes to play with - the gap is really coming down since those accelerations behind. Gianni Moscon is one of the riders in that chasing group for Team Sky, but it looks like they're being reeled in by the pack.
CRASH: Jasper Philipsen hits the deck for UAE Team Emirates and needs a new bike before he can continue. The Belgian seems ok.
Groupama-FDJ make a move near the top of the Berendries climb and that has forced a split. 10 riders have opened up a gap with four in pursuit and then the pack further back. That came from nowhere.
WOMEN'S RVV: In the women's race, Ashleigh Moolman-Pasio (CCC Liv) has just crashed into a ditch on the side of the road. With 43km remaining, the break has been reeled in and the race is very much on.
Mathieu van der Poel in those white shorts we mentioned earlier... Apparently he wears white when the sun shines - according to the Dutch press this morning.
The leaders are onto the Berendries climb, the sixth of 17 ascents. Their advantage has dropped below the five-minute mark.
WOMEN'S RVV UPDATE: With 50km remaining, the break - which is down to five riders now - has just 50 seconds to play with. It's the Sunweb team of Coryn Rivera who are on the front of the pack alongside Annemiek van Vleuten's Mitchelton-Scott.
The four leaders - Canadian Hugo Houle (Astana), Frenchman Damien Touze (Cofidis) and Belgium's Kenneth Van Rooy (Sport Vlaanderen) and Dutchman Jesper Asselman (Roompot-Charles) - are onto the Haaghoek cobbled section now. They have 6:15 to play with. The next big climb - the infamous Muur-Kapelmuur - is in about 25km.
The leaders have just completed the Holleweg cobbled section, which the pack will tackle soon. The gap is 6:10.
With the pack on the third climb of Ladeuze, the four leaders have moved onto the fourth climb, the Wolvenberg. Again, it's not a cobbled one, but the maximum gradient is a whopping 17.3%. As a result of Stybar's puncture, the QuickStep team have called for a go-slow on the climb, so the pace is slow again. It also slows because a rider decided to stop to say hello to his baby... or a baby, at the very least.
Puncture for Zdenek Stybar! What's the QuickStep mechanic been up to? The Belgian team seem to have had more than half all today's flats out there...
The pace has ramped up again as the road widens and the surface improves. Alejandro Valverde is very present near the front, as are Lotto Soudal, Sky, CCC, Bora, UAE and QuickStep. Some riders have been caught out by this injection of pace as the gap comes down again to 5:30.
Since 2012, the Ronde has finished in Oudenaarde following a dual ascent of the Oude Kwaremont and Paterberg. Just seven riders have finished these previous seven editions, with 2015 winner Kristoff very much the best placed aggregate finisher over two minutes to the better of Sagan.
The last three editions have been won by solo attacks: Peter Sagan in 2016 (after a pop on the Paterberg), Philippe Gilbert in 2017 (after a ballsy acceleration more than 50km out) and Niki Terpstra in 2018 (another long-range effort some 30km from the finish). Their average winning cushion of the three victors was 22 seconds.
RONDE FINISH SCENARIOS: The Ronde is a battle of geared attrition where the pack slowly gets whittled down to a group of favourites who slug it out to the finish. Since the turn of the century, the race has been won by a single rider soloing home to glory on 10 out of 19 editions, with the average number of riders battling for victory on the home straight just two. In 2001, when Gianluca Bortolami won, the final sprint was contested between a huge eight riders – exactly double the next most crowded finish, Fabian Cancellara's third and final win in 2014.
The gap is back up to six minutes now following the collective easing up in the peloton.
Here was the moment Niki Terpstra went down earlier on.
The pack has slowed up once again ahead of their ascent of the Kortekeer, with Team Sky on the front and seemingly eager to knock the pace back a little.
The leaders are onto the next climb, the Kortekeer, which is steep but not cobbled. It's 0.8km at 6.9% but with a maximum ramp of 21.1%. Their lead is down to 4:20.
Confirmation from his Direct Energie team that Niki Terpstra is out of the race and on his way to hospital. A terrible shame for the defending champion and his pro-continental team, who he joined precisely so he could be captain for these kinds of races.
Houle sits up and waits for his fellow escapees after getting a little carried away on the Oude Kwaremont. Behind, it got quite fiesty on the climb at the start - with the likes of Luke Rowe coming to the fore for Team Sky - before things settled a little. The gap is five minutes now.
Back with the pack it's a real dog-fight for positions ahead of the Kwaremont, with the Lotto Soudal team of Tiesj Benoot in particular throwing down the hammer. On the climb itself, Hugo Houle has drifted clear of his three companions.
The leaders are now approaching the Oude Kwaremont for the first of three ascents - the next two will come in a pairing with the Paterberg. It's the first of 17 cobbled climbs and so the race is starting to get serious now.
CRASH: And it's the reigning champion Niki Terpstra who is on the bottom of a pile of bodies. He's surrounded by Direct Energie team-mates and this doesn't look good: the Dutchman's race - and season - could be over. Because if he's KO'ed from this race, it could be curtains for next year's Paris-Roubaix too.
The peloton has just passed in front of the Ronde museum in Oudenaarde where this vintage Molteni is usually parked. The gap is six minutes as Deceuninck-QuickStep come back to the front with four riders alongside the single Jumbo-Visma rider, Pascal Eenkhoorn. Jungels is one of the four, which suggests that he has not got protected status in his maiden Ronde appearance.
While the pack passes through the feed zone, the four leaders have just ridden through the main square in Oudenaarde, where the race will finish in around four hours. Their gap is back above six minutes now.
I've just been chewing the fat with Eurosport commentators Carlton Kirby and Sean Kelly, who are on a break from the booth while Matt Stephens and Declan Quigley step up to the plate. Carlton, who's never shy from a flutter, thinks Alberto Bettiol is a good outside tip and also has a good feeling about Zdenek Stybar. Sean also fancies the chances of the likes of Stybar, Mathieu van der Poel and Wout van Aert.
Deceuninck-QuickStep are taking a breather ahead of the feedzone, allowing the CCC team of Greg Van Avermaet to come to the front and help out. The Belgian has yet to find his feet at his new team - and he's arguably the most popular Belgian rider yet to win the Tour of Flanders. Could all that change today?
The first two cobbled sections have really stretched out the peloton, which trails the four leaders by 5:35. Germany's Nikias Arndt (Sunweb) needs a bike change so he'll have a tough battle to get back on. Jumbo-Visma have Pascal Eenkhoorn on the front and he seems content to give QuickStep's Declercq a break.
Second last year in his debut race, Denmark's Mads Pedersen (Trek-Segafredo) is riding near the back of the pack, which is a surprise. He's part of a three-pronged attack for Trek alongside Jasper Stuyven and John Degenkolb.
CRASH: A handful of riders go down ahead of the first cobbled section. No big names but that's a reminder of how tense things can get ahead of the cobblestones, which the pack has now hit with a deficit of 6:10.
Meanwhile, in the women's race there's a break of seven riders who have 3:35 over the pack with 100km remaining. The escapees are: I. Sanguineti (Valcar Cylance), G. Marchesini (Team Vaiano), K. Dobrynina, (Team Servetto), Valsecchi (BePink), Eraud (Doltcini Van Eyck), Waterreus (Cyclelive Team), Stougje (Hitec Products). We'll be bringing more specific updates later on in the race.
The first section of cobbles is swiftly followed by the second, the Paddestraat, which the four leaders will complete before the peloton has even started the first section. The gap is down to 6:50.
COBBLES AHOY! The break is onto the first cobbled section of the race, the Lippenhovestraat, which comes after 87km of racing. It's not one of the climbs, just a section of pave, but it does mean tensions will increase behind in the peloton as the riders do their best to get into a good position ahead of the stones.
On QuickStep's strength, Peter Sagan, the 2016 winner, said yesterday: "They are not stronger than before, they are just a good level of riders that can play with a lot of cards. We have to try to figure out what is their goals and what they want to do. For sure, a lot of guys are very strong, and we have to take account of that. It depends because one guy might not be dangerous, but if you let four or five riders go then it could be dangerous. At Flanders, when the big leaders are fighting between themselves then maybe some outsider can go in the breakaway and keep going for a long time. It happens a lot of times at the Tour of Flanders. We can never know how the race will be, especially if it is hard from the early kilometres."
The strongest team is clearly Deceuninck-QuickStep for whom Philippe Gilbert, Yves Lampaert, Zdenek Stybar and Bob Jungels could all feasibly win today. But sometimes too many cooks can spoil the broth - and last week, at Gent-Wevelgem, the team missed the main break and then failed to get any rider in the top 10. So, it's not a done deal - even if they're favourites to win a third consecutive Ronde crown here today.
Oli Naesen, the Belgian national champion, enters Flanders in excellent form although he's apparently been suffering from bronchitis (probably just a cold) which his team has blamed on their rider being doused in champagne following his podium finish at Gent-Wevelgem last weekend.
The start of the Koppenberg today...
The gap is still over eight minutes as Tim Declercq drives the peloton along in pursuit of this four-man break. Still a little while before the first cobbled section so it's very much the calm before the storm.
Who are you backing today?
If Mathieu van der Poel wins today he'll do so 33 years after his father Adrie van der Poel pulled off a surprise by beating our own Sean Kelly in a four-man sprint at the finish, with Jean-Philippe Vandenbrande taking third ahead of Steve Bauer.
Alejandro Valverde on making his first Ronde appearance 20 days short of his 39th birthday: "I think it’s the right moment. It’s been a lot of years without ever doing it, and this year it feels like the right moment, especially with the rainbow jersey. Do I consider myself a favourite? No. I consider myself a rider who can do well, but a favourite? No. I’m realistic. I know it’ll be very difficult to be up there with the riders who know the race well, who are specialists, who are heavier than me and much more experienced. It’s a race you have to know, and I practically know nothing about this race. I would say 90 per cent I can’t win. As for the other 10 per cent, with a lot of luck, with good legs, and with everything going well, then maybe I can. I need everything to go like it did at Worlds – without one single mistake."
The Jumbo-Visma and Ag2R-La Mondiale teams of Wout van Aert and Oliver Naesen have come to the front to help tempo-setting alongside Deceuninck-QuickStep, who have the familiar face of Tim 'Breakaway Chaser' Declercq on familiar duties. The gap is 8:25 for the four leaders.
ROUTE cont.: The ascent of the short-but-savagely-steep Koppenberg (620m at 10.2% and a maximum wheel-stopping gradient of 21.4%; see tweet below) is capped by the three tough pavé sections of Mariaborrestraat, Steenbeekdries and Taaienberg. With 25km remaining, the riders now tackle the Kruisberg ahead of the tense approach to the final Oude Kwaremont-Paterberg dual ascent. The Oude Kwaremont is crested with 16.7km remaining and just ahead of the Paterberg. As the riders go over the top, with 13.3km remaining, we have a good idea of who is going to win. But it's not a done deal – especially if a handful of riders are still in contention.
ROUTE cont.: The first ascent of the Oude Kwaremont comes at 120km, 50km before the fans favourite of the Mur van Geraardsbergen rears its ugly but beloved head. The legendary wall is one kilometre long and peaks at 20% before reaching the iconic chapel at the top – but its somewhat emasculating position in the race, with still 100km remaining, means it will unlikely prove decisive. There follows another 30km before the next climb, the Kanarieberg, which is then followed by the first of the two Oude Kwaremont-Paterberg combos. It's here that things get really serious, where the aforementioned canary would be forgiven if it keeled over and expired.
ROUTE: the 270km race takes in 17 cobbled climbs and five stretches of flat cobbles. It's a bottom-loaded course with the majority of the cobbled tests coming in the second half of the race, with things getting particularly fruity over the final sixty clicks. The Oude Kwaremont (2.2km at 4%) is used three times, the second two occasions in the now-famous pairing with the Paterberg (360m at 12.9% and peaking at 20.3%). It is this decisive double ascent that provides the platform for most victories, culminating as it does 13.3km from the finish.
It's piano-piano on the front now as the Deceuninck-QuickStep team ride a bloc on the front as the gap stretches out to seven minutes. Remember, those cobbled sections and climbs don't really come until the second half of the race and so it's nothing new to see a break get such a large lead in the Ronde van Vlaanderen.
The gilets are coming off and its short-sleeves for most now under the Belgian sunshine, with temperatures set to soar to the high teens.
Once the train passes and the barriers come up, Philippe Gilbert puts in a faux dig to open up a small gap. But he's only joshing with the Bora-Hansgrohe riders on the front of the pack, and they're all smiles once the Belgian drops back among them. Gilbert had been struggling with illness this week but it looks like he's ok now. It remains to be seen if he can put in the kind of performance that saw him solo clear 50km from the finish in 2017...
Meanwhile, the gap is pushing four minutes now for the four leaders. They are: Canadian Hugo Houle (Astana), Frenchman Damien Touze (Cofidis) and Belgium's Kenneth Van Rooy (Sport Vlaanderen) and Dutchman Jesper Asselman (Roompot-Charles). And their gap will extend because the peloton has been stopped at a level-crossing to wait for a train to go past.
CRASH: Half a dozen riders go down on a tight left-hand bend in a town, including Cees Bol (Sunweb), Damian Gaudin (Direct Energie) and Mike Teunissen (Jumbo-Visma). They all get back up - and a mass pee-stop for the peloton helps them get back on - but that will be a reminder of the perils of a brain fade or not paying attention in these early stages of a race.
Indeed, for the first time since the Second World War there has been no Belgian winner of a spring classic ahead of the Tour of Flanders. Read more about this and whether the likes of Tiesj Benoot, Philippe Gilbert, Oli Naesen or Wout van Aert can end that run for Belgium in my race preview...
STAT: Belgium have seen just one winner in the past 40 major one-day races categorised 1.HC or above. That's a terrible run for a nation that lives and breathes cycling.
Katusha-Alpecin have a man just off the front as the peloton is all strung out, 1:45 down on the break of four. It's Vital Concept, the French second tier team, who are leading the chase.
Yet another puncture for Deceuninck-QuickStep. This time it's the youngster Kasper Asgreen, who was on the front of the pack moments ago - and now will need to pace himself back on. Nervous start for the team who won this race for the past two years through Gilbert and Terpstra (now of Direct Energie).
With the pace almost at a standstill, a Vital Concept rider pings off the front. But the gap is up to 1:45 for the leaders and so that looks like a futile move. In any case, no one is inclined to chase it down.
Strong performances on one's debut at Flanders are not unheard of - although the last first-time winner was Frenchman Jacky Durand back in 1992. Last year we saw Vincenzo Nibali put in a huge performance on his debut. The Italian was on the front of the race and dictating play as Niki Terpstra made his winning move 15km from the finish. So, for those of you who think that the Spanish veteran Alejandro Valverde's decision to ride his first Ronde at the age of 38 represents something of a midlife crisis for the world champion, then it's worth noting that, in training, he set the fastest time recorded on the Paterberg on Strava this week…
The four leaders have opened up a decent gap now as the peloton seemed content to let this one go. The pace has really slowed as the pack passes through the town of Sint-Niklaas, it's as if they're back in the neutral zone.
Van der Poel is one of the favourites today after his maiden WorldTour win last week at Dwars door Vlaanderen. The 24-year-old cyclo cross king has as team-mate the double Flanders winner Stijn Devolder. But if he wins, he'll be the first non WorldTour winner of a Monument since Gerald Ciolek in Milano-Sanremo back in 2013.
Jungels is one of a handful of notable debutants here in Flanders. The Luxembourg champion has been in good form this season on the cobbles, having put in a huge shift at E3 (in which he finished fifth behind team-mate Zdenek Stybar) and soloing to glory in Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne. Other debutants include the Dutch sensation Mathieu van der Poel (Corendon Circus), Tim Wellens (Lotto Soudal), Fernando Gaviria (UAE Team Emirates), Michael Matthews (Team Sunweb) and the veteran Alejandro Valverde (Movistar).
Bob Jungels (Deceunicnk-QuickStep) needs to stop for a rear wheel change. That's his second puncture of the day already. Bad luck or a bad batch? The Luxembourg champion is now riding back to the peloton.
The three leaders - who actually may not be those who were initially away - are Hugo Houle (Astana), Damien Touze (Cofidis) and Kenneth Van Rooy (Sport Vlaanderen). They have just been joined by Jesper Asselman of Roompot-Charles.
That five-man move comes to nothing and we're back as one again. The camera focuses on Philippe Gilbert, the 2017 winner from Deceuninck-QuickStep for a long time near the back of the pack as three other riders try to zip off the front. Scrap that, those three are three of the original five, with a gap that is still tiny and five or six now doing their best to bridge over. It'll be back as one again soon.
Gidich has been joined by four riders so we have a break of five now with a small gap over the pack. A few are trying to bridge over but to no end. The gap is very small - just 50 metres so now.
Things didn't last long for that Sport Vlaanderen rider - in fact, I didn't even catch his name before he was reeled in. Now we have a single Astana rider off the front. it's Yevgeniy Gidich.
They're off! The show is on the road... and it looks like there's an attack from the gun from a solitary Sport Vlaanderen-Baloise rider.
Here's what's in store for the riders: Starting in Antwerp and finishing in Oudenaarde, the 270-kilometre race spaghetties its way around the Flemish countryside, taking in 17 cobbled climbs (or helligen) and an additional five stretches of pavé.
AND OUT OF ANTWERP THEY ROLL AT THE START OF THE NEUTRAL ZONE!
An early sighting of world champion Alejandro Valverde and his predecessor Peter Sagan at the sign-on. Look at the crowd!
Scenes from the start earlier today in Antwerp...
Hello and welcome to live coverage of the Tour of Flanders - or the Ronde van Vlaanderen to the Flems or traditionalists. It's the second Monument of the season - the one filled with both cobbles and climbs - and it promises to be a corker.