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The young Belgian sprinter survives the climbs in the GP La Marseillaise and shows his fast finish to beat Planckaert, Dumoulin and Degenkolb in a sprint for the first win of the French season

Photo: Sirotti

BAPTISTE PLANCKAERT

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GRAND PRIX CYCLISTE LA MARSEILLAISE

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KENNETH VANBILSEN

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SAMUEL DUMOULIN

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SPORT VLAANDEREN - BALOISE

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02.02.2014 @ 17:31 Posted by Emil Axelgaard

Kenneth Vanbilsen (Topsport Vlaanderen) confirmed that he is a rider for the future when he won the opening race of the French season, the GP La Marseillaise. The youngster dug deep to survive the many climbs in the Marseille hills before launching his powerful sprint to beat Baptiste Planckaert (Roubaix), Samuel Dumoulin (Ag2r) and big favourite John Degenkolb (Giant-Shimano) in the final dash to the line.

 

When the peloton swallowed up Mikael Cherel (Ag2r) inside the final kilometre of the first French race of the season, the GP La Marseillaise, all eyes were on John Degenkolb, Samuel Dumoulin and Bryan Coquard (Europcar) as the reduced bunch powered down the finishing straight to decide the race in a sprint finish. When the dust had settled, however, it was talented young sprinter Kenneth Vanbilsen who raised his arms in celebration.

 

Already last year, the youngster had proved his potential, especially in the Tour de l'Europmetropole at the end of the season, and today he confirmed that he a man for the future. He launched his powerful sprint down the finishing straight in front of Stade Velodrome in Marseille and managed to hold off Baptiste Planckaert, Dumoulin and Degenkolb to take his first big win.

 

The sprint came at the end of a very aggressive race that had seen numerous of France's best climbers and biggest stars test their legs on the many hills that surround Marseille. However, it was Cherel who proved the most resistant when he escaped in between the final two climbs of the day and managed to build up a 1.30 gap.

 

Europcar and Giant-Shimano were eager to set up a sprint finish and they controlled all the attack on the final climb. However, they had a hard time getting Cherel under control and only got things back together inside the final kilometre.

 

The hard chase may have cost them a few riders for the lead-out as it was Vanbilsen who exploited their hard work to take the win. Degenkolb had to settle for 4th while Coquard could only manage 24th.

 

The French season continues on Wednesday with the first European stage race of the season, the 5-day Etoile de Besseges, which will have many of today's riders in attendance.

 

A hilly course

The GP La Marseillaise is the traditional opener of the European season and took the riders out on a 139.7km trip through the hills northeast of Marseille. The categorized climbs and the Col de la Gineste coming inside the final 20km of the race were set to make for a testing start to the year, with the race often having come down to a reduced bunch sprint or being won from a breakaway group.

 

The peloton was made up of ProTeams Ag2r, FDJ, Europcar, Lotto Belisol and Giant-Shimano, pro continental teams Bretagne, Cofidis, Wanty-Groupe Gobert, Topsport Vlaanderen, IAM, Caja Rural and CCC Polsat and continental teams La Pomme Marseille, Roubaix, BigMat-Auber, Verandas Willems, Wallonie Bruxelles and An Post-Chainreaction who were all eager to get their European campaign off to a good start. At this time of the year, the riders have often battled tough weather conditions but when the riders took off, the conditions were dry, not too cold but a bit windy.

 

The break is formed early in the race

The race was off to a fast start but it was the first group to get a significant gap that proved to be the right one. Thomas Vaubourzeix (La Pomme Marseille) - a perennial attacker in his home race - Brice Feillu (Bretagne) - in his first race with his new team), Mark McNally (An Post), Frederic Brun (BigMat-Auber) and neo-pro Alexis Gougeard (Ag2r) got clear after 4km of racing.

 

Wanty-Groupe Gobert were reluctant to miss out to miss out on their first opportunity to gain some exposure in Europe and so Jan Ghyselinck said off in pursuit. Meanwhile, the pace and the uphill start was too much for McNally who was dropped by his breakaway companions.

 

De Vreese gives it a go

Ghyselinck didn't have any success and when he was brought back by the peloton, his Wanty teammate Laurens De Vreese tried to bridge the gap. He passed McNally and got to within 40 seconds of the leaders before he started to lose ground.

 

While McNally was caught by the peloton, the front quartet had now opened a gap of 2.15 over the peloton. However, An Post were reluctant to miss the breakaway and set Conor Dunne off in pursuit of the leaders.

 

The chasers are caught

Dunne joined forces with De Vreese but as they kept losing time, they decided to give up, getting swallowed up by the peloton. No one showed any interest in controlling the pace in the main group and at the 23km mark, the gap had reached 5.30.

 

At this time, Europcar decided that it was time to kick into action. With Bryan Coquard on the roster, the team had one of the favourites to win the race and they asked neo-pro Bryan Naulleau to up the pace. The youngster did a good job stabilize the gap between the 5- and 6-minute marks.

 

The first climb takes its toll

Naulleau even gradually started to bring back the escape and when he was later joined by an IAM rider - whose team was keen to work for Sebastien Hinault, Kristof Goddaert or Matteo Pelucchi in a sprint - the advantage dropped quickly.

 

When the peloton hit the first climb, the Petit Galibier, they accelerated hard and at the top they had reduced their deficit to just 2.20. Brun crested the summit in first place ahead of Vaubourzeix and Feillu.

 

FDJ driving the chase

The peloton had no intention of slowing down and at the bottom of the descent he advantage was only 1.25. It was now FDJ.fr who had taken the lead, with the French team keen on setting up riders like Arthur Vichot, Laurent Pichon and Anthony Geslin.

 

The fierce pace saw the peloton split in two, with the second group quickly losing 25 seconds. Meanwhile, Brun was unable to keep up with his companions, leaving just Feillu, Vaubourziex and Gougeard in front.

 

Di Gregorio attacks

Remy Di Gregorio (La Pomme Marseille) decided to show his cards in his first race with his new team and he set off in pursuit. Meanwhile, Feillu left his companions behind and was now the lone leader of the race.

 

Giant-Shimano had one of the big favourites in John Degenkolb and decided to take control in the peloton. Meanwhile, Di Gregorio caught Vaubourzeix and Gougeard.

 

A strong chase group is formed

Alexis Vuillermoz (Ag2r), Pierrick Fedrigo (FDJ), Thibaut Pinot (FDJ), Fabrice Jeandesboz (Europcar) and Reto Hollenstein (IAM) attacked on the next climb, the Col de l'Espigoulier. However, the move didn't get far and instead a number of new attacks were launched.

 

All escapees were caught and instead a new 7-rider group former. Di Gregorio was again part of the action and he was joined by Romain Bardet, Hubert Dupont, Mikaël Chérel (AG2R La Mondiale), Bryan Coquard (Europcar), Clément Koretzky (Bretagne-Séché Environement) and an unidentified IAM rider.

 

Cherel takes off

The group was quickly caught and instead Romain Zingle (Cofidis) and Blel Kadri (Ag2r) went on the attack. They were quickly reabsorbed too, allowing Cherel to try again.

 

Cherel hit the final categorized climb, Col des Bastides, with a 12-second advantage while Christophe Premont (Wallonie) set off in pursuit. Cherel managed to build up a 45-second gap over the peloton at the top of the climb while Premont was 30 seconds adrift.

 

Giant-Shimano leads the chase

Premont was quickly swallowed up while Cherel extended his lead to 1.15. However, Giant-Shimano had now again taken control and was driving a hard chase.

 

Cherel was riding really well and hit the Col de la Gineste with a 1.30 gap. The FDJ duo of Vichot and Emilien Viennet launched a counterattack but Viennet was unable to keep up with his teammate.

 

A strong chase group

Europcar was now driving the chase but they were unable to prevent Di Gregorio , Bardet , Pinot , Vichot , Cyril Gautier (Europcar), Yannick Martinez (Europcar), Zingle and Tobias Ludvigsson (Giant-Shimano) from creating a counterattack. They managed to stay clear for some time before being reeled in.

 

Pinot, Martinez, Vichot and Zingle refused to give up and were joined by Hubert Dupont (Ag2r). The quintet build up a gap of more than 30 seconds to the peloton while they gradually got closer to Cherel.

 

Cherel can smell the win

Cherel had a hard time battling the long straight roads, and both groups got closer. However, he was still clear when he passed the 2km to go banner.

 

The chase group was picked up, opening the opportunity for Yoann Bagot (Cofidis) to set off in pursuit. Just after the passage of the flamme rouge, however, everything was back together and set for an exciting sprint finish.

 

Kenneth Vanbilsen continued his upwards trajectory when he beat Baptiste Planckaert, Samuel Dumoulin and Degenkolb to take a beautiful win in the first race of the French season.

 

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