Alexander Kristoff became the first ever Norwegian to win the prestigious Tour of Flanders on Sunday as he beat Dutchman Niki Terpstra in a sprint finish.
Belgian Greg Van Avermaet took third ahead of Peter Sagan of Slovakia in fourth.
But it was a breakaway led by last year’s Paris-Roubaix winner Terpstra 30km from home that made the difference with only 2014 Milan-San Remo winner Kristoff able to follow, winning his second ‘Monument’ race.
It was that break on the Kruisberg climb, the third last of 19 on a brutal day that covered 264km, that made the decisive split.
Terpstra knew that Kristoff was the better sprinter by far, although both had shown great form in the last month with the Norwegian finishing second to John Degenkolb in the defence of his Milan-San Remo title before winning Three Days of De Panne last week, having triumphed in three of the four stages.
Terpstra had also been in good form having finished second at Gent-Wevelgem a week ago but although he forced Kristoff into leading for much of the last 10km and leading out the sprint, when he finally made his attack, there was no contest.
Pre-race favourite Geraint Thomas was unable to shine, hamstrung by close marking and rolled over the line outside the top 10.
If the first 220km were tepid, bordering on dull, from a racing point of view, it was still pretty hot on the road for certain riders.
New Zealand’s Jesse Sergent was knocked down by a Shimano service car while yet another vehicle from the same company caused a car crash that resulted in Frenchman Sylvain Chavanel, twice previously second in the this race, knocked off his bike.
The next obstacle around 60km from home was an inflatable arch over the road that had started to deflate and collapse — a loan spectator seemed to be helping hold it up as the riders passed underneath with barley an inch of clear air to spare.
The fight really started to kick into gear with the passage of the tough Koppenberg climb — with one section boasting a 22 percent gradient — 45km from the finish, with Thomas showing his strength at that moment as he briefly opened a gap on some of his main rivals.
Van Avermaet was next to have a dig on the following climb before Jurgen Relandts accelerated on a flat section as splits formed amongst the leaders, gradually reducing the group of possible winners.
One of the big losers was Sep Vanmarcke who faced a forlorn chase to regain contact on the Kruisberg climb while Olympic time-trial champion Bradley Wiggins had long been in difficulty and languishing near the back.
The Kruisberg was where Terpstra attacked and took Kristoff with him, quickly opening up a gap of 30sec with 20km left.
Thomas attacked on the final of three ascensions of the Kwaremont — the penultimate climb — and only Zdenek Stybar initially could hold his wheel.
They couldn’t make it stick, though, and it was Van Avermaet followed by Sagan who got a gap on the chasers on the final climb, the Paterberg.
But although they never gave up their chase, the front two had the strength to prevent them from bridging, leaving Kristoff to demonstrate his power in the sprint finish. – Agence France-Presse