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Benefiting from a good Etixx-QuickStep lead-out, Boonen beat Vangenechten and Demare in the bunch sprint on the first stage of the Tour de Wallonie; the Belgian is also the first leader of the race

Photo: Etixx-QuickStep / Tim De Waele

ARNAUD DEMARE

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DECEUNINCK - QUICK-STEP

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JONAS VANGENECHTEN

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TOUR DE WALLONIE 

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23.07.2016 @ 18:33 Posted by Emil Axelgaard

Less than 24 hours after announcing an extension of his contract, Tom Boonen (Etixx-QuickStep) proved that he is still competitive by winning the first stage of the Tour de Wallonie. After a great lead-out, he emerged as the fastest in the uphill sprint where he relegated Jonas Vangenechten (IAM) and Arnaud Demare (FDJ) to the minor podium positions.

 

The last few weeks have been difficult for Tom Boonen who has been in hard negotiations with his Etixx-QuickStep team. The Belgian has done nothing to hide his desire to stay but manager Patrick Lefevere seemed to be reluctant to spend the money, having an eye on classics riders like Sep Vanmarcke and Philippe Gilbert as possible replacements.

 

However, things fell into place and yesterday it was announced that Boonen will spend another year in the Etixx-QuickStep jersey. Today he showed Lefevere that he had made the right decision as he won the bunch sprint on the first stage of the Tour de Wallonie.

 

The 37th edition of the Tour de Wallonie kicked off with a stage that brought the riders over 178.3km from Charleroi to Mettet. After a flat start, the terrain got hillier at the midpoint where there were four category 2 climbs and one category 3 climb on the menu. However, the final climb came with 31.6km to go and the stage ended with one lap of a 16.6km circuit, meaning that a bunch sprint was expected.

 

As it was the case when Mettet hosted a stage finish in 2012, this should be a day for the sprinters. The field is loaded with fast finishers and they shouldn’t be troubled by the small climbs. The scene is set for a bunch kick on the first day.

 

It was a sunny day in Wallonia when the riders gathered for the start and after Ludwig De Winter (Wallonie) had rejoined the peloton after a puncture in the neutral zone, they got the race off to a fast beginning. While Dries Devenyns (IAM) worked to rejoin the peloton after a mechanical, there were lots of attacks. Guillaume Bonnafond (Ag2r), Viacheslav Kuznetsov (Katusha) and Thomas Deruette (Wallonie) were the first to get a significant advantage and they were allowed to ride away. The bad conditions of the roads meant that there were lots of punctures so many were pleased when things calmed down..

 

After 11km of racing, the gap was already 1.30 and it soon went out to 4.40. Surprisingly, two riders briefly tried to bridge that big gap but they soon gave up.

 

After 20km of racing, the gap was 5.10 and it reached 5.25 before FDJ hit the front, working for their leader Arnaud Demare. When Kuznetsov beat Bonnafond and Deruette in the first intermediate sprint, they had already reduced the gap to 4.37 and it continued to come down rapidly. At the 45km mark, the escapees were only 3.22 ahead.

 

Etixx-QuickStep took over the pace-setting and they kept the gap stable at around 3.15 for several kiloemtres. Then they slowed increased the pace and at the 100km mark, the gap was only 2.25.

 

The riders reached the hilly zone where Deruette beat Bonnafond and Kuznetsov in the first two KOM sprints. Kuznetsov was faster than Bonnafond and Deuette in the second intermediate sprint and so continued to pick up valuable bonus seconds.

 

With 65km to go, the gap was still 2.14 after a relatively slow stage with an average speed of 39.7km/H. That changed as the peloton suddenly accelerated and split into a few groups. The gap dropped to 1.08 but then the group slowed down and a regrouping took place.

 

Deruette beat Kuznetsov and Bonnafond in the third KOM sprint but further back there was some action. Clement Chevrier (IAM), Sean De Bie (Lotto Soudal) and Lilian Calmejane (Direct Energie) attacked but they never made it across as they were brought back by the peloton which was just 21 seconds behind with 50km to go.

 

After 134km of racing, the nervous bunch caught the leaders. That opened the door for new attacks and it was Maxim Belkov (Katusha), Loic Chetout (Cofidis), Eliot Lietaer (Topsport Vlaanderen), and Deruette who moved clear on the fourth climb. Alexander Kolobnev (Gazprom) made the junction. Deruette beat Lietaer and Belkov in the KOM sprint and then they pressed on to build an advantage of 36 seconds with 35km to go.

 

Unsurprisingly, Deruette was dropped after a long day in the break before Lietaer beat Kolobnev and Chetout in the final KOM sprint. Here Belkov fell behind, leaving just three riders in the front with an advantage of 53 seconds.

 

Etixx-QuickStep led the chase and were soon joined by FDJ. Those team had reduced the gap to 19 seconds when they hit the final 25km. Chetout beat Kolobnev and Lietaer in the final intermediate sprint as they hit the finishing circuit before Lietaer was left behind.

 

The peloton brought everyone back and then maintained a high speed as they approached the finish. Perrig Quemeneur (Direct Energie) tried to attack with 5km to go but he was brought back immediately.

 

It was a big fight between the sprint trains but it was lotto Soudal who won the battle, taking control with less than 2km to go. However, it was all in vain as Etixx-QuickStep came out on top, with Boonen beating Jonas Vangenechten and Arnaud Demare on the final dash to the line. In fact, they did so well that lead-out man Matteo Trentin finish fourth.

 

With the win, Boonen is also the first lead of the race, holding a four-second advantage over Vangnechten and Kuznetsov. He has a good chance to defend his jersey in tomorrow’s second stage.  The 182.7km will bring the riders from Saint-Ghislain to Le Roeulx and again a flat start leads to hilly middle section. Here the riders will tackle two category 3, one category 2 and one category 1 climb. However, there are no categorized climbs in the final 73km and the stage ends with two laps of a 12.3km circuit. Here there is a small climb at the midpoint which may take the sting of the legs of some of the sprinters and be used for a late attack but another bunch sprint is expected.

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