Mark Cavendish (Omega Pharma-Quick Step) finally ended his dry spell with a victory in today's second stage for the Driedaagse de Panne. On a windy day, he held off the Italian duo of Elia Viviani (Cannondale) and Francesco Chicchi (Vini Fantini) in a bunch sprint while Arnaud Demare (FDJ) took over the leader's jersey.
It has been an unusually long wait for Cavendish, but today's victory in Belgium finally brought Mark Cavendish his first win in Europe this season. After failing in the Driedaagse van West-Vlaanderen, Tirreno-Adriatico, the Milan-Sanremo, Gent-Wevelgem and yesterday's opening stage in De Panne, his Omega Pharma-Quick Step team made a concerted effort inside the final 10km to set up the Manxman for the final sprint.
Earlier in the stage, the Belgian team had been on the back foot when strong crosswinds split the peloton. In a very rare miss from the squad, only GC captain Sylvain Chavanel entered the 28-rider front group when Astana, Cannondale and Orica-GreenEdge put in an attack in the harsh conditions.
A furious chase ensued - while riders dropped off in large numbers - and a strong effort by Katusha brought everything back together and most of the main sprinters back in contention. With the wind direction changing, the peloton calmed down and allowed a three-man group consisting of Koen Barbe (Crelan), Alessandro Bazzana (Unitedhealthcare) and Dmitriy Gruzdev (Astana) to build up a gap.
The sprinters' teams made sure to bring everything back together inside the final 10km, and Omega Pharma-Quick Step lined out the peloton in a hectic final. Cavendish opened up a long sprint and narrowly held off his two Italian competitors.
Race leader Peter Sagan (Cannondale) made a repeat of his 2012 performance and chose to save energy ahead of Sunday's Tour of Flanders. Hence, he dropped off deliberately and so allowed Arnaud Demare (FDJ) to take over the lead.
A fast start
The 204km stage brought the riders from the Flemish Ardennes to the coastal city of Koksijde. The peloton would travel along the French-Belgian border an enter the classical Gent-Wevelgem terrain with the Monteberg, Kemmelberg, Rodeberg, Vidaigneberg and Sulferberg all on the menu. The final 89km were, however, completely flat, and the race finished with 3 laps of an 11,7km finishing circuit around Koksijde.
Assisted by a strong tailwind, the riders were off to a fast start. Mattia Pozzo (Vini Fantini) was very aggressive in the opening phase and put in a number of attacks. He managed to get into the one that stuck, and in the company of Matthew Brammeier (Champion System), Tim Mertens (Topsport Vlaanderen), Kevin Claeys (Creland) and 42-year old Niko Eeckhout (An Post-Chainreaction) he started to build up a gap.
With Sagan probably planning to abandon the race before the end, Cannondale would do nothing to defend the jersey, and it was up to the sprinters' teams to bring back the breakaway. No one took any responsibility in the opening phase, and the gap was allowed to increase to almost 9 minutes.
The pace picks up in the hills
As the riders hit the hill zone, the peloton started to pick up the pace. Guillaume Van Keirsbulck (Omega Pharma-Quick Step) set a fast pace on the Kemmelberg with Chavanel in his wheel, and the peloton broke into several pieces. Tom Boonen (Omega Pharma-Quick Step) had an unfortunate puncture just before the first climb and had a long chase ahead of him to get back on. As everything came back together, Boonen rejoined the peloton.
Moments later Cannondale, Orica-GreenEdge and Astana attacked as a strong crosswind hit the peloton. 28 riders broke off the front, and Chavanel was the only representative from his Belgian team. He was joined by Bodnar, Boivin, Koren, Viviani, Reynes, Cooke, O'Grady, Vaitkus, Durbridge, Hepburn, Mouris, Ponzi, Groezdev, Guarnieri, Guardini, Westra, Van Hummel, Cimolai, Favilli, Bonnet, Fischer, Salomein, Van Hoecke, Kluge, Schorn, Stevens and Alphonse Vermote who set off in an attempt to distance their rivals.
Katusha brings it back together
A strong effort by Katusha managed to bring everything back together, and even though Stuart O'Grady tried another attack moments later, the wind direction was no longer favourable for attacks. Instead, everything calmed down, and Gruzdev, Bazzana and Barbe were allowed to build up a gap.
It reached its maximum at around the 2.30 mark before Orica-GreenEdge and Katusha chose to up the pace to set up their sprinters Leigh Howard and Alexander Kristoff. Vladimir Isaychev, Anton Vorobyev, Michael Hepburn and Stuart O'Grady swapped turns on the front, and the gap started to come down.
Katusha stopped their effort, but were replaced by Lotto and until the 10km mark, it was mostly Orica-GreenEdge and Lotto setting a strong pace. Behind the sprinters' teams started to line up their trains.
Barbe going for the sprint jersey
In the break, Barbe who was also in yesterday's escape, managed to win the three intermediate sprints to increase his lead in the sprints competition. However, that was his only reward for his efforts, and the break was caught inside the final 10km.
Omega Pharma-Quick Step went to the front to set a hard tempo and string out the peloton on the technical finishing circuit. Tom Boonen, Sylvain Chavanel and Guillaume Van Keirsbulck all took huge turns at the front, and their British sprinter was in the perfect position just behind.
Inside the final 2km, a gap opened up, and Iljo Keisse, Niki Terpstra, Cavendish and Chicchi escaped the peloton's clutches. FDJ closed the gap, and it was all back together as they passed under the flamme rouge.
Lotto-Belisol took the front with 500 meters to go, and Greipel opened up a long sprint. He was easily passed by Cavendish and even though Viviani came fast in the end, the Manxman held off his challengers to finally get his 7th win and his first victory on European soil.
With Sagan dropping off inside the final 5km, Demare had the consolation of taking over the overall lead after his sprint effort had landed him a 4th place.
1. Mark Cavendish
2. Elia Viviani
3. Francesco Chicchi
4. Arnaud Demare
5. Alexander Kristoff
6. Baptiste Planckaert
7. Romain Feillu
8. Blaz Jarc
9. Nikias Arndt
10. Tom Van Asbroeck
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