When it comes to sprinting Arnaud Demare (FDJ) is in a class of his own in the Four Days of Dunkirk and today he crushed the opposition even more convincingly than he did yesterday when he won the second stage of the race. On a very rainy and windy day, Demare overcame a few struggles on the pavé sectors in the finale, made it into the small front group that sprinted for the win and did a very impressive final burst that allowed him to almost gain seconds on his nearest challengers Jonas Ahlstrand (Giant-Shimano) and Tom Van Asbroeck (Topsport Vlaanderen).
Last year Arnaud Demare seemed to be in own league in the bunch sprint at the Four Days of Dunkirk and used three convincing victories in the first three stages to lay the foundations for the overall victory. This year he is back to defend his title and seems to be even more superior than he was 12 months ago.
Yesterday he overcame a very poor position in the final sprint to easily pass Ramon Sinkeldam (Giant-Shimano) who had been given the perfect lead-out and today he again crushed the opposition when the second stage came down to a sprint from a small 30-rider group. And again he found himself in a difficult situation when he had used his final two teammates, Yoann Offredo and Mickael Delage, to chase a late attack by Edwig Cammaerts (Cofidis).
With Delage fading already 400m from the line and Cammaerts still a few seconds ahead, Demare had to do a very long sprint that would usually have been risky business. However, no one was even close to holding his wheel and he flew past Cammaerts while opening up a massive gap to the rest of the peloton.
If he had kept going all the way to the line, he would have gained a few seconds on his nearest chasers but Demare chose to sit up and celebrate what was almost a solo victory. Hence, Jonas Ahlstrand, Tom Van Asbroeck, Sacha Weber (Veranclassic) and Pieter Jacobs (Topsport) joined him just before the line while the rest of the peloton lost 3 seconds to the front quintet.
Earlier in the stage, however, Demare had seemed to be on the back foot when the peloton split to pieces on a pavé sector that was passed three times inside the final 70km. At the second passage, the wind and rainy conditions had already blown the field to pieces and when it further split on the cobbles, Demare found himself in a second group.
Most of his teammates were in the front group and as they tried to slow down the leader, Demare managed to rejoin the front. When the group again split the final time over the rough surface, he seemed to be much stronger and this time he stayed in the first group that caught a dangerous attack by Sylvain Chavanel (IAM).
With his win he extended his overall lead and he heads into tomorrow's third stage with a solid 16-second gap over Van Asbroeck. That stage, however, will be no easy affair as a hilly first part and a flat middle section precede four laps of a 16.1km finishing circuit that includes two tough climbs. The stage is the first of two hilly days that will give Demare's rival a chance to drop the race leader ahead of the final day's sprint stage.
A small Paris-Roubaix
After yesterday's mostly flat but very windy stage, the riders faced another stern test in today's second leg of the race. They headed over 166.9km from Hazebrouck to Orchies and after a flat opening part, they went up the day's only climb as they passed the famous site of Mons-en-Pevele, known from Paris-Roubaix.
In fact that passage was the perfect signal of what was to come as they race ended with three laps of a 21.1km finishing circuit that included the 1700m Chemin des Prieres pavé sector. From the final passage of that rough section, 17km remained and they were mostly flat. However, the final part of the stage was slightly uphill before a downhill finish in Orchies
As it was the case yesterday, the 133 remaning riders in the race took off under very windy conditions but as opposed to yesterday's drama, the direction wasn't right to split things in the early part of the stage. Instead, four riders were allowed to go up the road as Victor Campanaerts (Topsport), Gorik Gardeyn (Veranclassic), Quentin Bertholet (Wallonie) and Julien Fouchard (Cofidis) took off. The quartet was allowed to build a gap that reached 1.40 at the 30km mark but it was never allowed to gain much more than 2 minutes as the windy conditions made the peloton extremely nervous.
The peloton splits
It has now started to rain and the combination of wind and water made the peloton blow to pieces as they reached the finishing circuit. The early break was caught on the first lap and the peloton split even further as they went over the cobbles for the first time.
After the cobbles, there was a moment of confusion which Jonas Rickaert (Topsport) exploited to take off. He was joined by Jimmy Engoulvent (Europcar) who briefly got dropped and fell back to David Boucher (FDJ), but the duo soon joined the lone Rickaert.
More riders join the peloton
Boucher took a few turns on the front but soon decided to just follow wheels to protect Demare's overall lead. Nonetheless, the trio managed to build up a 15-second gap over their 20 nearest chasers that was led by Offredo and Matthieu Ladagnous who were two of four FDJ riders in the group, the others being Demare and Delage.
A second group with around 20 riders including Samuel Dumoulin (Ag2r) made it back to the main group that kept the gap stable at around 15 seconds. As they started their second lap of the circuit, Cofidis hit the front to up the pace and their fast riding was enough to bring the gap significantly down.
On the pavé, Chavanel made an attack and he was joined by the Cofidis duo of Christophe Laporte and Adrien Petit to form a trio that joined the leaders. More riders gradually bridged across until a 28-rider group had formed.
Demare had missed the move and so the FDJ riders tried to slow down the group but Cofidis tried to keep the speed high. However, Demare managed to get back in contention when a second group that also included Dumoulin rejoined the gront.
A new break
Rickaert attacked again and this time he was joined by Cammaerts. While FDJ again took control with Boucher, Ladagnous and Delage, they built up a 25-second gap but as the battle for position for the final passage of the pavé kicked off, it again started to come down.
Boucher led the peloton across the line for the penultimate time and moments later Jan Ghyselinck (Wanty) attacked. He quickly got a nice gap and entered the pavé as the lone chaser.
Chavanel tries again
On the cobbles, Chavanel again attacked and this time only Vincent Jerome (Europcar) and Florian Senechal (Cofidis) could follow him. They caught Ghyselinck and when Chavanel attacked again, the IAM leader got clear on his own.
He quickly joined the front duo while Senechal also made the junction. Behind the peloton had split into two groups, with the first one being made up of 10 riders.
The lead group grows
Kenneth Vanbilsen (Topsport) and Julien Duval (Roubaix) bridged the gap to the leaders but soon after the rest of the first group also made the junction. Sebastien Delfosse (Wallonie), Jerome, Ghyselinck, Offredo, Demare, Lloyd Mondory (Ag2r), Tim Declercq (Topsport) and Jempy Drucker (Wanty) were the final riders to maje up the 14-rider front group.
Ahlstrand bridged across but soon after MTN and Ag2r brought the second group back up to the leaders. Just as the junction was made Delfosse attacked and he was joined by Ghyselinck and Declercq while FDJ again assumed their position on the front of the peloton, with Offredo doing all the work.
Brave move by Cammaerts
Offredo neutralized the move 5km from the line but Demare now only had two teammates to support him. Cammaerts sensed that FDJ were running out of power and made a brave move inside the final 3km.
While Offredo continued to lead the chase, a crash brought down Declercq, Johannes Fröhlinger (Giant) and a few more riders but it did nothing to stop Cammaerts. The Belgian passed the flamme rouge with a nice gap that forced Delage to use his final bit of energy in the chase.
With 400m to go, Demare had no more teammates to support him and so had to do a long, risky sprint. However, he opened a massive gap when he launched his effort and easily passed Cammaerts to take what was almost a solo victory in Orchies.
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