Luca Paolini (Katusha) soloed to Gent-Wevelgem victory, triumphing after a war of attrition in strong winds and rain.
The veteran Italian escaped from an elite front group, which included E3 Harelbeke winner Geraint Thomas and defending Paris-Roubaix champion Niki Terpstra, to take his first victory since the 2013 Giro d’Italia.
Having been in superb form riding for Alexander Kristoff at Milan-San Remo, Paolini proved himself again, escaping the clutches of a star-studded front group before kicking again, decisively, when they reeled his first attempt back in.
Terpstra took second ahead of Thomas, meanwhile, the Welshman’s third place ensuring a second trip to the podium in three days after his success in Harelbeke.
Billed as the sprinter’s Classic, the fast men had their work cut out from the off as a fierce headwind welcomed them out of Gent before crosswinds took hold, causing splits and crashes.
Mark Cavendish (Etixx-QuickStep) was one rider to lose contact with the peloton after an early crash, while former team-mate Gert Steegmans (Trek Factory Racing) suffered the ignominy of being blown into a ditch as the winds whipped up.
Up the road, Alex Dowsett (Movistar) was one of seven men in the day’s early break, testing his form after his early-season training crash before the race was brought back together.
Already depleted in size – despite Cavendish’s group re-joining the peloton – the race was blown apart again, literally, as echelons formed on the long, straight Route de Dunkerque.
Sir Bradley Wiggins (Team Sky) climbed off shortly afterwards, but the big Classics contenders remained in the front group – Thomas, Terpstra, Sep Vanmarcke (LottoNL-Jumbo) and Zdenek Stybar and Stijn Vandenbergh (Etixx-QuickStep) among them.
Andre Greipel (Lotto-Soudal), Arnaud Demare (FDJ), Kristoff and Peter Sagan (Tinkoff-Saxo) were also still involved as they hit the Catsberg, where Maarten Tjallingii (LottoNL-Jumbo) attacked solo.
More counter-attacks followed, before Jurgen Roelandts (Lotto-Soudal) went on his own over the top of the Kemmelberg to catch and overtake Tjallingii.
In more crosswinds, Vandenbergh instigated another strong counter-move, Thomas, Daniel Oss (BMC Racing), Vanmarcke and Jens Debusschere (Lotto-Soudal) joining him.
Paolini and Terpstra made successful attempts to bridge as the peloton eased off behind but Roelandts stayed clear as Thomas became the latest rider blown off his bike.
The Belgian was eventually caught with 17km remaining before, after a quick bike change, Terpstra, with Paolini on his wheel, attacked solo off the front of the elite leading group.
That move was reeled in but when Paolini went again with six kilometres remaining his move stuck – the Italian proving his strength to get his arms in the air in style.
Tersptra took second ahead of Thomas, with only 39 riders finishing after a brutal day in the saddle – Scott Thwaites (Bora-Argon 18) also among them.
Gent-Wevelgem 2015: result
1) Luca Paolini (ITA) – Katusha – 6.20.55hrs
2) Niki Terpstra (NED) – Etixx-QuickStep +11”
3) Geraint Thomas (GBR) – Team Sky – ST
4) Stijn Vandenbergh (BEL) – Etixx-QuickStep +18”
5) Jens Debusschere (BEL) – Lotto-Soudal +26”
6) Sep Vanmarcke (BEL) – LottoNL-Jumbo +40”
7) Jurgen Roelandts (BEL) – Lotto-Soudal +1.51
8) Daniel Oss (ITA) – BMC Racing +4.15
9) Alexander Kristoff (NOR) – Katusha +6.54
10) Peter Sagan (SVK) – Tinkoff-Saxo – ST