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Sagan slows down in the sprint to allow his teammate Gatto to pass him on the left-hand side but the Italian misses a few centrimetres to get past, thus giving Sagan the win in the De Panne opener for the third year in a row

Photo: Sirotti

CLASSIC BRUGGE-DE PANNE

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KENNETH VANBILSEN

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OSCAR GATTO

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PETER SAGAN

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01.04.2014 @ 17:21 Posted by Emil Axelgaard

For the third year in a row, Peter Sagan (Cannondale) has taken the opening stage of the Driedaagse van De Panne but this year the Slovakian would have preferred not to step onto the podium. Arriving at the finish with a small 11-rider group, he tried to slow down in the sprint to allow his teammate Oscar Gatto to pass on the left-hand side but he hit his brakes too late and crossed the line a few centimetres ahead of the Italian to become the first leader of the race.

 

Two years ago Peter Sagan was trying to give the win on the opening stage of the Driedaagse van de Panne to his teammate Fabio Sabatini but when the Italian was passed by Jacopo Guarnieri in the sprint, the Italian was forced to sprint to make sure that the win stayed within the ranks of his then Liquigas team. Today he again tried to give the win on the opening stage of the Belgian stage race to a teammate and again his plans failed.

 

Sagan and teammate Oscar Gatto had blown the race apart with a fierce acceleration on the penultimate climb of the Eikenmolen to bridge across to a front group that had dangled 20 seconds ahead of the peloton for quite awhile. Overall favourite Niki Terpstra (Omega Pharma-Quick Step) also made the junction with his teammate Gert Steegmans to form a 12-rider group that worked hard to stay away.

 

Behind, Arnaud Demare (FDJ) and Luke Durbridge (Orica-GreenEDGE) were chasing hard, the former to keep his stage win options open and the latter to save his GC campaign but the duo couldn't close the 8-second gap. Even further behind, Giant-Shimano and Katusha were chasing hard in the peloton for their sprinters Marcel Kittel and Alexander Kristoff but with Omega Pharma-Quick Step and Cannondale working hard in the front group, it was always doomed to fail.

 

Entering the final kilometre, Sagan moved wisely from wheel to wheel and positioned himself perfectly on the wheel of Mauro Finetto (YellowFluo) when the Italian opened a long sprint. Having Gatto on his wheel, Sagan clearly had intentions of giving the win to his teammate.

 

Gatto allowed Kenneth Vanbilsen (Topsport Vlaanderen) to move onto Sagan's wheel and that probably ended up costing him the win. The Belgian opened a sprint but Sagan had no trouble holding him off and easily passed the fading Finetto.

 

Gatto was coming fast on the left-hand side and despite going at full speed, Sagan sensed what was happening. He slowed down, trying to let his teammate pass him and at first it seemed that he had been successful.

 

However, the photo revealed that the Italian had missed a few centimetres and so Sagan won the stage for the third year in a row. In fact, Sagan's slowing down could have cost the team the win as Vanbilsen almost passed both Cannondale riders on the right but the Belgian had to settle for third.

 

With the win, Sagan is the first leader of the race but the Slovakian usually takes it easy on the second stage before abandoning the race on Thursday. Instead, he will allow the sprinters to come to the fore in tomorrow's leg that brings the riders over the Monteberg and the Kemmelberg back to the coast where a big sprint finish is expected.

 

The queen stage

As usual, the Driedaagse van de Panne kicked off with its hardest stage as the riders travelled over 201km from the coastal town of De Panne into the Flemish Ardennes where they would end the race by doing two laps of a 44km finishing circuit around the city of Zottegem. The circuit contained 5 climbs and the Haaghoek pavé sector, with the final two climbs coming inside the final 10km and preceding a downhill run to the line.

 

After a summerlike Gent-Wevelgem, the riders again took off in excellent weather conditions, with 20-degree temperatures and almost no wind. Mark Cavendish (Omega Pharma-Quick Step) who still hadn't recovered from the illness that saw him miss Gent-Wevelgem, didn't take the start and the Europcar lead-out man Jimmy Engoulvent (Europcar) also failed to make it to the start line.

 

A fast start

With its lumpy profile, early escapees might have a chance to play a role in the finale if they get caught from behind by a strong group of favourites and so it was no surprise that the first part of the race was extremely aggressive. Everybody seemed to want to be part of the early move and the riders did the opening kilometres at a fierce pace of more than 50km/h.

 

At one point, a 5-rider group with Stijn Steels (Topsport Vlaanderen) and Kevin Hulsmans (Vastgoestservice) had a promising gap but it was brought back by the mast-moving peloton. When the riders reached the first intermediate sprint at the 53.2km mark, a group still hadn't gone clear and so the GC riders got the chance to sprint for the bonus seconds.

 

The favourites score bonus seconds

Pre-race favourite Niki Terpstra used his fast teammate Gert Steegmans to pick up the maximum of 3 seconds while the Topsport Vlaanderen and Cannondale GC riders Yves Lampaert and Maciej Bodnar scored 2 and 1 seconds respectively. After the sprint, the fast pace continued and at one point it was reported that the peloton had split in two.

 

Things got back together and finally a group was allowed to go up the road. Steels was again part of the action and he was joined by the MTN-Qhubeka duo of Bradley Potgieter and Jay Robert Thomson, Kevin Peeters (Vastgoestservice), and Tom Devriendt (3M).

 

De Troyer gets across

When the 5 riders had a small gap, the peloton slowed down but Tim De Troyer (Wanty) was quick to react and he managed to bridge across to make it a 6-rider group.

 

The peloton now decided to take it easy and the gap quickly reached 4 minutes. That was as much as they would get though as the peloton started to stabilize the advantage between the 4- and 5-minute marks.

 

Steels and De Troyer battle for moints

Up ahead, Steels showed his intentions of becoming the race's king of the mountains as he was first at the top of both the Edelareberg and the Leberg. However, De Troyer had also set his sights on the jersey and he beat his compatriot on the top of the third climb, Langendries.

 

In the peloton, it was the FDJ team of Arnaud Demare who led the chase. The Frenchman was 2nd in Gent-Wevelgem and 2nd in this stage one year ago and he hoped to go one better this year.

 

Dehaes crashes

The work of the French team had brought the gap down to 3.16 with 79km to go. At this point, a crash brought down Michael Van Staeyen (Topsport), Kevin Hulsmans (Vastgoestservice), Kenny Dehaes (Lotto) and Kris Boeckmans (Lotto) but all seemed to escape the incident without any major injuries.

 

As the riders hit the Haaghoek sector with 71km to go, FDJ sprinted first onto the cobbles, with Matthieu Ladagnous leading the group. After a failed attack from a Lotto rider, however, it was Katusha who put down the hammer.

 

Katusha put down the hammer

Luca Paolini and Marco Haller rode hard on the front to create a big selection in the peloton. The Italien continued his acceleration onto the Leberg which followed just after the pavé but when he reached the top, he again slowed down. This allowed a big group containing Sagan to rejoin the group, the Slovakian clearly preferring to stay safe ahead of the Tour of Flanders.

 

On the Leberg, De Troyer attacked on his own to score maximum points and he briefly seemed to wait for his chasers after the summit. However, he changed his mind and tried to stay away on jis own.

 

FDJ back in control

FDJ again took control, with Ladagnous and Murilo Fischer patrolling the front. The acceleration had brought the gap down below the 2-minute mark but with the slowing down it went back up to three minutes.

 

Potgieter had fallen off the pace in the chase group and he was quickly passed by Pim Ligthart (Lotto) and Mathew Hayman (Orica-GreenEDGE) when the duo attacked on the Tenbosse climb. No one reaction as FDJ continued their steady pace-setting with Ladagnous, David Boucher and Fischer.

 

De Troyer is caught

De Troyer stayed away until the top of the Klemhoutstraat before finally being rejoined by his chasers. The quintet crossed the finish line to start their final 44-km lap with a 1-minute gap over Hayman, Ligthart, and Jerome Baugnies (Wanty), with the latter having bridged across on the Klemhoutstraat. At this point, FDJ had reduced the gap to 1.26.

 

When the riders approached the Haaghoek for the final time, the battle for position heated up, with Europcar hitting the front briefly before Giant-Shimano took over on the cobbles. Meanwhile, the Hayman trio had joined the front quintet to make it an 8-rider escape.

 

Vermote gives it a go

On the Haaghoek, Julien Vermote (Omega Pharma-Quick Step) attacked and was joined by Jonas Ahlstrand (Giant-Shimano) and Danilo Napolitano (Wanty). Behind Paolini, Guillaume Van Keirsbulck (OPQS), and another Giant rider took off in pursuit but Lotto brought all those late attackers back.

 

Surprisingly, Hayman fell off the pace in the front group while De Troyer again attacked on the Leberg. He was joined by Baugnies and Ligthart while Van Keirsbulck made another attack on the climb.

 

A strong group makes it across

The Omega Pharma-Quick Step rider was joined by Sander Cordeel (Vastgoestservice), Vanbilsen and Vincent Jerome (Europcar) and they joined the riders from the early escape that had been dropped by the front trio. Peeters and Devriendt fell back while Steels and Thomson managed to keep up with the strong trio.

 

Those five riders joined the front to make it an 8-rider front group. Steels gave it his all for Vanbilsen and when they hit the Langendries, he fell off the pace as did Ligthart.

 

Finetto joines the leaders

Finetto rode hard with Kristijan Koren (Cannondale) on the climb to draw clear a small group that also included the likes of Demare and Martin Velits (OPQS). When no one wanted to cooperate, he took off on his own and quickly bridged the gap to the front group.

 

The 7 leaders were now 14 seconds ahead of the peloton where Koren was leading the chase with a NetApp rider. The momentum briefly went out of the chase until Cannondale got it all organized, with Alan Marangoni doing a massive work at the front of the 50-rider main group.

 

Cannondale set up Sagan for an attack

Androni brought another big group back to the peloton to bring riders like Svein Tift and Jens Muris back in contention. Cannondale and Marangoni kept the pace high all the way to the bottom of the Tenbosse where Laurens De Vreese (Wanty) made an attack.

 

Thomson tried to accelerate from the front group and as he didn't get clear Vanbilsen and Finetto were the next to try. As Van Keirsbulck brought it back together, De Vreese closed the gap to make it 8 riders in the front.

 

Sagan makes his attack

Koren had again taken control for Cannondale to set up Sagan and Gatto. The Slovakian accelerated hard from the bottom of the penultimate climb of the Eikenmolen and only Gatto could stay on his wheel.

 

Behind, Terpstra and Steegmans formed an OPQS chase duo while Paolini and a Lampre rider followed a little further behind. Terpstra and Steegmans joined Sagan and Gatto that quickly closed the gap to the leaders.

 

Kristoff tries to get back

Paolini rode hard on the front of a second group that included his teammate Alexander Kristoff and Viacheslav Kuznetsov but Giant-Shimano brought them back to again form a bigger bunch in pursuit of the front group. Vanbilsen made a small attack at the head of the race but had no chance to stay away as the Cannondale and OPQS riders were giving it their all.

 

Jan Barta (NetApp), Kristoff and a few more riders tried to get away from the peloton but didn't get clear. Instead, Durbridge and Demare attacked on the final climb with 6km to go while Johan Le Bon (FDJ) and Julien Vermote (OPQS) tried to join them.

 

The chase gets organized

Sagan's hard pace on the climb was too much for Thomson who fell back and ended up with Le Bon and Vermote. When Giant and Katusha got the chase organized, that trio was swallowed up while Demare and Durbridge got closer to the front.

 

They got to within 8 seconds but failed to close the final small bit of the gap and so it was all set to be decided in a sprint finish. Van Keirsbulck rode hard on the front for Terpstra as they passed the flamme rouge but Sagan was well-placed on his wheel.

 

A little later Finetto opened his sprint but Sagan had no trouble passing him. Sensing Gatto getting closer, he slowed down but his attempt to give a gift failed.

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