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Having won every road stage in 2015, Kristoff made it four in a row by winning the three-rider sprint at the end of a very hard first stage of the Driedaagse van de Panne; the Norwegian leads Lutsenko by 1 seconds, with Westra in third

Photo: Muscat Municipality/Paumer/Kåre Dehlie Thorstad

ALEXANDER KRISTOFF

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ALEXEY LUTSENKO

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DRIEDAAGSE BRUGGE-DE PANNE

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KATUSHA ALPECIN

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LIEUWE WESTRA

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29.03.2016 @ 17:31 Posted by Emil Axelgaard

After his withdrawal from Gent-Wevelgem due to illness, Alexander Kristoff (Katusha) boosted his confidence for the Tour of Flanders significantly as he continued his winning streak at the Driedaagse van De Panne by winning the very hard opening stage. The Norwegian arrived at the finish in an Astana sandwich but managed to control Alexey Lutsenko and Lieuwe Westra before launching a devastating sprint to take the win and a 1-second advantage over Lutsenko into the second stage.

 

Last year Alexander Kristoff emerged as a Tour of Flanders favourite by dominating the Driedaagse van De Panne. After poor showings in Harelbeke and Gent-Wevelgem, he won all three road stages, did the time trial of his life and won the race overall.

 

This year the race is again set to play a crucial role in his preparation for the first cobbled monument after he fell ill before E3 Harelbeke and had to skip Gent-Wevelgem last Sunday. Hence, the Norwegian didn’t really know what to expect when he lined up for today’s very hard opening stage that included to passages of the famous Muur van Geraardsbergen and lots of crosswinds.

 

There is little doubt that Kristoff feels reassured when he goes to bed tonight. The Norwegian handled both the difficult course and the tough weather in excellent manner to come away with the victory and so make it four road stage wins in a row in the Belgian race. Having been on the forefront all day, he controlled the Astana pair of Alexey Lutsenko and Lieuwe Westra in the finale before easily beating them in a 3-rider sprint.

 

The stage had been marred by strong crosswinds right from the start, resulting in lots of splits in the very fast first hour. From the chaos, a 16-rider group emerged and it contained some of the biggest favourites for the overall win as Westra, Kristoff, Lutsenko, Maciej Bodnar (Tinkoff), Luke Durbridge (Orica-GreenEDGE), Taylor Phinney and Tom Bohli (BMC) had all made it into the move. They were joined by Mads Pedersen (Stölting), Maxime Farazijn (Topsport), Jens Keukeleire (Orica-GreenEDGE), Michael Mørkøv (Katusha), the BMC pair of Loic Vliegen and Rick Zabel and the Sky trio of Luke Rowe, Danny Van Poppel and Christian Knees.

 

By the time, they started the final lap of the 48.8km finishing circuit that included the climbs of Berendries, Ten Bosse, Muur van Geraardsbergen and Klemhoutstraat, Bodnar and Phinney had been left behind. Lutsenko beat Zabel and Durbridge in the final intermediate sprint at the penultimate passage of the line and after a long day of chasing for Etixx-QuickStep, their work was starting to pay off after they had got some help from Frederik Frison (Lotto Soudal) as the gap had dropped from a relatively stable 1.15 to 51 seconds.

 

The gap went down to 35 seconds but this prompted the escapees to improve the cooperation. With 40km to go, they had pushed it out to 1.00. Meanwhile, Cyril Lemoine (Cofidis), Lukas Pöstlberger (Bora-Argon 18) and Nils Politt (Katusha) were forced to chase after they had been involved in a small crash. Pöstlberger had more back luck as he went down again five kilometres later, hitting the deck with his teammate Jan Barta and Roberto Ferrari (Lampre-Merida).

 

As they approached Berendries, the fight for position really started and it was Marcel Sieberg who took control for Lotto Soudal. At the bottom of the climb, the gap was still one minute. Vliegen led Rowe and Pedersen over the top

 

Lukasz Wisniowski (Etixx) set the pace on the lower slopes of the climb until Pim Lighthart attacked for Lotto Soudal. Nils Politt (Katusha), a Nippo-rider, Tony Martin (Etixx), Jack Bauer (Cannondale), Lars Boom (Astana) and Alex Kirsch (Stölting) joined the move before they reached the summit, with Phinney getting dropped in the process. However, a regrouping took place after the descent when the pace went down. Wisniowski, Marcel Kittel (Etixx-QuickStep) and Andre Looij (Roompot) again started to work in the peloton, reducing the gap from 1.00 to 50 seconds with 30km to go.

 

As they hit Ten Bosse, Westra launched the expected attack and when Van Poppel cracked in fourth position, Westra, Rowe and Kristoff crested the summit with a small advantage over Lutsenko and then the rest of the group. Bohli, Keukeleire and Knees were dropped. In the peloton, Kirsch launched a solo attack.

 

Lutsenko dug deep to join the leaders while the 7-rider chase group got very close to bringing it back together before they cracked. Meanwhile, Kittel, Wisniowski and Fabio Sabatini chased hard in the peloton for Etuxx, slowly bring Kirsch, Keukeleire, Knees and Bohli back.

 

With 25km to go, the chasers were 20 seconds behind and it had gone out to 45 seconds five kilometres later, meaning that it was over for the 7-rider group. The Etixx-QuickStep work didn’t pay off as they gap stayed around 1.10.

 

The front quartet hit the Muur with gaps of 45 seconds and 1.05 respectively. As soon as they started to climb, disaster struck for Rowe as he suffered a rear wheel puncture. He was back on his bike and was never caught by the chasers.

 

Westra clearly waited for his companions, leading Kristoff and Lutsenko over the top. Rowe crested the summit 15 seconds later while Pedersen rode away from the rest of the chase group, reaching the top 30 seconds behind. In the peloton, Boom, Martin and another two riders escaped but a bigger group gathered on the descent.

 

With 15km to go, Rowe decided to wait for Pedersen but they were still 30 seconds behind the leaders. In the peloton, Martin and Sean De Bie (Lotto Soudal) set the pace but they were stuck 50 seconds behind the front trio.

 

Both the chasers and the peloton were losing ground and were 35 seconds and 1.00 behind respectively with 13km to go. With no cooperation in the peloton, Sylvain Chavanel (Direct Energie) and De Bie tried to attack but they failed to get clear. It was Andrea Fedi (Southeast) and Ligthart who made the next unsuccessful move.

 

With 10km to go, the gap had gone out to 1.05 and it was clear that the trio was going to stay away. Westra was clearly the strongest and he barely got any help from his companions, with Lutsenko suffering a lot. In the peloton, there was still no cooperation, with Ligthart launching repeated attacks.

 

The front trio hit Klemhoutstraat with an advantage of 1.20 and it was Westra and Kristoff leading the group to the top, with Westra cresting the summit in first position. The trio again started to cooperate on the descent until they reached the 3km to go mark with a one-minute advantage.

 

The game of cat and mouse started and after a bit of watching, Lutsenko attacked with 2km to go. Kristoff closed it down and from there the Kazakh rode slowly on the front until the flamme ouge where Kristoff took over.

 

The Norwegian was in full control, constantly looking back to check his rivals before launching his sprint with 200m to go. As expected, Lutsenko and Westra had no response and had to settle for second and third respectively. Pedersen and Rowe arrived 29 seconds later while Ligthart won the sprint for sixth with a time loss of 36 seconds.

 

With the bonus seconds, Kristoff takes the overall lead with a 1-second advantage over Lutsenko whil Westra is 6 seconds behind in third. He will try to defend his position in the second stage which includes the famous climbs of the Mesenberg, Monteberg, Kemmelberg, Rodeberg and Vidaigneberg at the midpoint from where it is a flat run to the finish. The stage ends with three laps of a flat 11.2km circuit in Koksijde.

 

A brutal opener

As usual, the 40th edition of the Driedaagse van de Panne kicked off with its hardest stage which brought the riders over 198.2km from De Panne to Zottegem. After a flat start, the riders headed into the Flemish Ardennes to tackle three climbs before they crossed the finish line for the first time. The race ended with two laps of a 48.8km circuit that included Berendries, Ten Bosse, the Muur and Klemhoutstraat. The famous Muur was located just 17.8km from the finish while the final climb came with 5.3km to go. From there, it was a downhill run to the finish.

 

It was rainy and windy when the riders gathered for the start. Of course the riders started the stage with on minute of silence in memory of Daan Mayngheer and Antoine Demoitie before they embarked on the 16km long neutral zone that already created drama. Patrick Bevin (Cannondale) and Yoann Offredo (FDJ) crashed and had to leave the race early.

 

The peloton splits to pieces

There was crosswind right from the start and that meant that it was a brutal war from the moment the real start was given. After a few kilometers, the peloton was already split into three groups, and after 20 minutes, the first group was 15 seconds ahead of a second group and 45 seconds ahead of a third field. A fourth group was quickly formed and was distanced by more than one minute.

 

The first group contained 45 riders continued to increase its lead, while the second and third group merged after 25 kilometers of racing. While André Greipel (Lotto Soudal) worked hard in the first group, the group rode at an impressive speed of 56 km/h in the first 39 minutes.

 

Bonus seconds for Martin

After a regrouping, it developed into a battle between two groups and individual riders who still had not come back after the crash in the neutral zone. Along the way there was a battle for bonus seconds in the first intermediate sprint which was won by Danny Van Poppel (Sky) ahead of GC riders Tony Martin (Etixx-QuickStep) and Luke Drubridge (Orica-GreenEdge) who both got important bonus seconds.

 

The riders covered 52.3km during the first hour, and now the lead group started to lose some momentum. The gap was reduced to 25 seconds as they approached Edelareberg, the day's first climb. When it was as low as 13 seconds, it looked like a merger between the two groups was imminent, but the front group responded well, bringing back the gap back to 26 seconds.

 

A strong 16-rider group

While rain and hail made conditions tough, 13 riders escaped from the first group and when another three had joined the move, the peloton took a breather. The two groups merged and were 1.1 0 behind the front group as they hit Edelareberg where Taylor Phinney (BMC) won the KOM sprint ahead of Christian Knees (Sky).

 

Alexander Kristoff, Michael Mørkøv (Katusha), Maciej Bodnar (Tinkoff), Alexey Lutsenko, Lieuwe Westra (Astana), Tom Bohli, Taylor Phinney, Loic Vliegen, Rick Zabel (BMC), Luke Durbridge, Jens Keukeleire (Orica-GreenEDGE), Christian Knees, Luke Rowe, Danny Van Poppel (Sky), Mads Pedersen (Stölting) og Maxime Farazijn (Topsport Vlaanderen) were the riders in the group but they started to lose ground as they approached the Berendries. The field increased the pace, and as they hit the climb, the gap was only 12 seconds. This time it was Vliegen who won the KOM sprint ahead of teammate Tom Bohli and Kristoff and he also won the third sprint ahead of Westra and Lutsenko. At this point, the peloton had lost ground and was 2.12 behind.

 

Etixx-QuickStep lead the chase

Etixx-QuickStep started to chase with Iljo Keisse, Wisniowski and Maximilano Richeze and they kept the gap stable at around 2 minutes before Van Poppel beat Durbridge and Mørkøv in the second sprint at the start of the first lap of the circuit. At the bottom of the Berendries, they had reduced it to 1.34 and when Zabel beat Vliegen and Bodnar in the KOM sprint, it was down to just 1.10.

 

As they hit the Ten Bosse, Rowe accelerated hard to lead Vliegen and Durbridge over the top. Surprisingly, Bodnar was unable to keep up and he was soon brought back by the peloton.

 

Boom attacks on the Muur

Bora-Argon 18 again stopped their work, leaving it to Richeze, Keisse and Wisniowski to keep the gap around the one-minute mark as they entered the final 70km. Meanwhile, Eugert Zhupa (Southeast) hit the deck in a solo crash.

 

Zabel and Westra upped the pace as they hit the Muur for the first time and only Durbridge, Keukeleire and Rowe could keep up. Westra led Zabel and Durbridge over the top. In the peloton, Martin, Lars Boom (Astana) and Dylan Teuns (BMC) escaped but Florian Senechal (Cofidis), Matti Breschel (Cannondale) and Sean De Bie (Lotto Soudal) joined the move as they crested the summit.

 

Lotto Soudal start to chase

Apart from Phinney, the front group came back together and a small 20-rider group gathered around Martin and Boom. After a brief attack from Pim Ligthart (Lotto Saoudal), Fabio Sabatini started to work for Martin. Gradually more riders got back and it was Wisniowski, Sabatini and Daniele Martinelli who took over the pace-setting. Meanwhile, Jan Barta and most of the Bora-Argon 18 team were chasing hard in a second group.

 

The gap stayed around 1.15 for a while until the hit the Klemhoutstraat climb for the first time. After winning the KOM sprint ahead of Westra and Keukeleire, Vliegen got an unintentional gap and he briefly continued his effort before waiting for his companions. Meanwhile, Lotto Soudal lent Etixx-QuickStep a hand as Frederik Frison now started to trade pulls with Sabatini, Martinelli and Wisniowski. Moments later, they started the final lap where Kristoff, Westra and Lutsenko made the race-winning move.

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