Jack Bauer was in the thick of the action for one of the most dynamic Gent-Wevelgem races in recent memory.  The day belonged to Alexander Kristoff of UAE Team Emirates, who took the win ahead of John Degenkolb of Trek-Segafredo and Oliver Naesen of AG2R La Mondiale; but Bauer’s illumination of the final stages almost created history for New Zealand in the Belgian classics. 

Known as one of the more sprint-friendly one-day classics of the Belgian campaign, the 249.5km from Deinze to Wevelgem took in ten climbs and six cobbled sections with the most severe being the Kemmelberg.  What was notable though was the aggression with which the race favourites tackled the opening kilometres.  Typically a breakaway made up of predominantly less fancied teams gets the freedom to go up the road, but this time around it was some of the creme of the crop heading out on the attack early.

Alexander Kristoff bounced back from his breakaway efforts earlier in the day to win in the big sprint, photo Sirotti

Mathieu van der Poel of Corendon-Circus, Niki Terpstra of Direct Energie, Fernando Gaviria of UAE Team Emirates, Luke Rowe of Team Sky, Wout van Aert of Jumbo-Visma, Peter Sagan of BORA-Hansgrohe, John Degenkolb of Trek-Segafredo were all among a group of 20 riders who broke clear of the peloton.  The race was on at a furious pace with the first two hours of racing being ridden at 52kph.

Predictably, the climb of the Kemmelberg trimmed the breakaway and their advantage; with Van Der Poel looking as much at home on the cobbles as he does in the mud of cyclocross.  The presence of Deceuninck-Quick Step in the peloton – with Philippe Gilbert very prominent – kept the break’s lead at a manageable 35 seconds or so, and proceeded to trim the break’s lead a bit more after the Kemmelberg.

Racing was on from the start with an elite breakaway forming. Peter Sagan, Jasper Stuyven of Trek-Segafredo, Matteo Trentin of Mitchelton-SCOTT and Mike Teunissen of Jumbo-Visma, together with Luke Rowe of Team Sky were among the last men standing, photo Sirotti

Cooperation among the leaders struggled to materialise to the point where with less than 70km to go Peter Sagan, Jasper Stuyven of Trek-Segafredo, Matteo Trentin of Mitchelton-SCOTT and Mike Teunissen of Jumbo-Visma attacked and got daylight over the peloton that quickly picked up the remnants of the break.  Jack Bauer of Mitchelton-SCOTT was in the peloton, staying in amongst the pack, but not exerting himself too much; particularly with teammate Trentin up the road.

With 52km to go the break’s lead sat at 40 seconds but there was activity behind them as Luke Rowe of Team Sky launched across the peloton to get in touch with the move.  The Brit made a valiant effort to get on board and made contact with 43km to go and with the gap stretching back out to 53 seconds.  Shortly after Rowe had made the catch it was Alexander Kristoff’s turn to go on the offensive, darting out of the main group and taking advantage of a brief lull in the pace to try and catch on to the leaders.

On the climb of the Baneberg Sagan, Rowe, Teunissen, Stuyven and Trentin continued to lead with a 49 second lead to the peloton; and with Kristoff sitting at 30 seconds in between them.  Kristoff’s move was nullified in the end by an attack from Mathieu Van Der Poel and Wout Van Aert, and while they brought Kristoff back into the fold Jumbo-Visma marshalled themselves at the front only to sit there and try to delay matters for the sake of Teunissen up the road.  All the while Jack Bauer continued to sit in the peloton, well positioned as Trentin persisted up the road.

Mathieu Van Der Poel had a fine 4th place finish at the end of his first World Tour outing, photo Sirotti

Deceuninck-Quick Step, despite their best and persistent intentions, appeared to be nullified in their effectiveness, although eventually they did mange to exhibit some control and bring the break back to almost 30 seconds with 27km remaining.  They still had a hoard of blue shirts – plus the Belgian national champion’s jersey of Yves Lampaert and the Italian national champion’s jersey of Elia Viviani. Bit by bit they pegged back the Sagan group to within a handful of seconds with 20km remaining.  

Luke Rowe was the last man standing from the break, launching a final attack as the catch from the bunch behind was imminent.  But as the rest of the break was swallowed up Jack Bauer got in on the action with the next volley of attacks.  Eventually Jumbo-Visma asserted control of the group, getting set for a big sprint finish.

The attacks weren’t done yet though, with Jack Bauer again in on the action as Jasper Stuyven launched a move with the Kiwi in tow.  Each attack had the bunch at full stretch, but nothing could go clear.  Bauer remained at the front of the group, marshalling everything that went off the front.  After a short-lived attack from Philippe Gilbert and a small group around him, Bauer was at it again in another attack that this time looked like it might go clear.  Sebastian Langeveld of EF Education First, Mads Pedersen of Trek-Segafredo and Amund Grøndahl Jansen of Jumbo-Visma.  The group led through 5km to go and 4km to go with Bauer right there as the peloton gritted their teeth and tried to form some sort of cooperation.  With 2.5km to go Bauer was on the front of the group with the four riders six seconds in front of the chasers.

John Degenkolb, Alexander Kristoff and Oliver Naesen on the podium, photo Sirotti

You could cut the tension with a knife in the final kilometre of racing as Deceunink-Quick Step tried to arrest a race that was slipping away from them.  The Bauer group still led under the kite with 1km to go, but a lull in cooperation spelt the end of their day out in front.  Jack Bauer put in one last gasp attack to go clear and create New Zealand history, but the sprinters smelled the end of the line.  Bauer was caught with 300m to go and from there it was all on.  

Down the left hand side of the road Direct Energie’s Adrien Petit hit for home, but Alexander Kristoff struck and although still with a long way to go he held on to win ahead of John Degenkolb and Oliver Naesen.  Bauer, after his brave late attack crossed the line ahead of Peter Sagan in 31st position; having given everything in over 5 hours of racing.

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