The seemingly unstoppable Peter Sagan (Cannondale Pro Cycling) gave another crushing demonstration of his abilities on the opening stage of the Three Days of De Panne, the key form finder for Sunday’s Tour of Flanders.
Fresh from winning his first Classic at last Sunday’s Gent-Wevelgem, Sagan was dominant on the climbs towards the end of the stage and sprinted clear of two of the peloton’s fastet men at the finale.
Arnaud Demare (FDJ) and Alexander Kristoff (Katusha) were left trailing in the Slovakian’s wake.
Speaking afterwards, Sagan, said he hadn’t planned to ride for the win, but had seized his chance as it appeared.
“Today’s win is more by chance than an objective. The strategy for the stage was to let my teammates find a good break and make their own race. My personal goal was to be in the front and avoid risks.
“The group didn’t let any riders go so in the final I tried to escape and see what could happen. When the advantage was enough, I gave the responsibility to lead to the other riders.
“Of course I like to win and if there’s the chance to take one, I’ll do it.”
The sprint was briefly the subject of a mild controversy after Sagan closed the door on Demare in the final run to the line.
Sagan said he hadn’t changed direction deliberately and Demare later conceded that the move was part of racing.
“The last bend turned to the left and it’s normal to move a little to the right. I didn’t change my direction on purpose to close off Demare,” said Sagan.
Freezing temperatures characterised another day in the 2013 European season as the riders left Middlelkerke.
A break within the first 10km saw Irish under-23 champion, Sam Bennett (An Post-Chainreaction), go clear with Katusha’s Marco Haller, Kiel Reijnen (UnitedHealthcare Pro Cycling Team), amd Koen Barbe (Crelan-Euphony).
The quartet worked steadily to build a break of six minutes over the chasing pack with 65km to go, and Bennett won the first intermediate sprint.
Haller would prove to be the strongman of the breakaway, however, accelerating on the climb of Edelare, and resisting the attempts of poursuivant, Preben Van Hecke (Topsport Vlaanderen-Baloise), as the escapees stretched their lead to 8.46.
With 120km completed, the breakaway hit the cobbled section at Haaghoek for the first time and prepared for the first ascent of a string of six climbs, including the Valkenburg, an 875-metre ramp with a peak gradient of 15 per cent, and one of the key features of the Ronde.
The peloton, however, was by now coming to life, firstly in the shape of Tom Boonen (Omega Pharma-QuickStep), perhaps judging how a knee injured in a fall at Gent-Wevelgem would respond to serious pressure, and then by Lotto-Belisol, riding for Andre Greipel.
Up ahead, the group began to falter on its second encounter with the cobbles at Haaghoek, and Haller, sensing a chance for victory was slipping, accelerated away, only to be joined by Barbe on the descent of the Leberg. The Katusha man launched again on the climb of the Berendries, but again Barbe fought his way back to the Austrian’s wheel.
A greater sense of urgency began to creep through the peloton, with Mark Cavendish (Omega Pharma-QuickStep) heading the bunch on its ascent of the Valkenberg, and Greipel chasing down the lone break of Tomas Vaitkus (Orica GreenEdge).
The 31-year-old Lithuanian attacked again, however, making contact with a fading Sam Bennett ahead of the Eikenmolen. The pair soon found themselves under attack from another group to launch from the bunch, a quartet that included Irish national road race champion, Matt Brammeier (Champion System).
Vaitkus, sensing the urgency of his pursuers, shed Bennett, but both men were swept up by Brammeier and his cohorts, who soon made contact with the rest of the day’s early escapees. Europcar’s Damien Gaudin then launched from the front of the newly-merged group, valiantly pursued by Vaitkus, who was soon dropped by the Frenchman.
Boonen sent his OPQS troops to the head of the bunch, but some of their impetus was sapped by a puncture for Iljo Keisse. FDJ took up pace making on the bunch’s second trip across the cobbles at Haaghoek.
Niki Terpstra (Omega Pharma-QuickStep), winner of the 2012 Dwars Door Vlaanderen, was the next to attack, moving clear on the descent of the Leberg, but Luke Durbridge (Orica-GreenEDGE) was alert to the danger and, with help from riders from FDJ and Lotto Belisol, chased him down.
Terpstra’s team-mate, and defending champion, Sylvain Chavanel, then tried his luck, and exhibiting the strength that carried him to within sight of victory at Milan-San Remo, drove clear.
Enter Sagan. The Terminator, inspired perhaps by the dwindling distance to the line, moved to the head of the bunch with just 30km to go, but found himself marked by Boonen.
Gaudin was swept up by an energised peloton, before Sagan himself launched a series of attacks on the last of the climbs. The Slovak pulled clear, bringing with him some of the strongest riders in the peloton in Chavanel and Terpstra, fighting to create a sprint finish for Cavendish, and the some of the fastest, in Demare and Oscar Gatto (Vini Fantini-Selle Italia).
As the 10-man breakaway swept into Zottegem, it was clear a sprint between its contingent would decide the outcome. The presence of Sagan, in rich form, left little doubt who among them would triumph.
Tomorrow’s 204km stage from Oudenaarde to Koksijde is punctuated mid-stage with six climbs in short succession, among them the Monteberg and Kemmelberg.
VDK-Driedaagse-de-Panne-Koksijde 2013 – stage one – result
1) Peter Sagan (SVK) – Cannondale Pro Cycling – 5.00.27
2) Arnaud Demare (Fra) – FDJ – ST
3) Alexander Kristoff (NOR) – Katusha
4) Sylvain Chavanel (FRA) – Omega Pharma-Quick Step
5) Oscar Gatto (ITA) – Vini Fantini-Selle Italia
6) Niki Terpstra (NED) – Omega Pharma-Quick Step
7) Maxime Vantomme (BEL) – Crelan-Euphony
8) Jerome Cousin (FRA) – Team Europcar
9) Davide Cimolai (ITA) – Lampre-Merida
10) Johan Le Bon (FRA) – FDJ