Ronde van Vlaanderen delivered on its hype. The crowds were big and boisterous. The action was daring and dramatic. The crashes and mechanicals plentiful and, in some cases, peculiar. At the end of it all, Philippe Gilbert (Quick-Step Floors) delivered Belgium a home victory in spectacular fashion.
Twenty nine seconds after Gilbert hoisted his bike over his head across the line, Dylan van Baarle hit the finish. Part of the first chase group of three that included Greg Van Avermaet (BMC) and Niki Terpstra (Quick-Step Floors), Van Baarle finished in fourth place. Two spots better than the sixth place he snagged last year; one spot off the podium.
“It was a mental roller-coaster,” said Ken Vanmarcke. “It was a crazy, crazy day. It was too much to happen all at once.”
The first half of the Ronde van Vlaanderen unfolded according to plan for Cannondale-Drapac. The boys in #greenargyle were calm and collected in the peloton behind the early breakaway and led into the first ascent of the Oude Kwaremont.
Tom Van Asbroeck charged off the front on the Oude Kwaremont and gained a 30 second gap over the top. His solo effort was short-lived but signaled the team’s intention.
“The plan was to attack,” said Vanmarcke. “At first everything was going really well. We had Taylor [Phinney] attack on the Holleweg.”
Like Van Asbroeck, Phinney gained a small advantage. He rejoined the peloton where he subsequently clipped wheels and hit the ground.
“That was not nice, but you have to make a click and move forward,” said Vanmarcke.
Things were looking up for Cannondale-Drapac when Sep Vanmarcke put himself in a possible winning move on the Muur van Geraardsbergen. Tom Boonen (Quick-Step Floors) upped the pace to force a selection. When the elastic snapped, 14 riders were on the right end of the split, including the Cannondale-Drapac team leader.
“And then toward the Patersberg, he crashed,” said Vanmarcke. “We went from a very positive situation again to a very bad one, but we still had three riders in the following group behind Gilbert. You have to make the click and move on.”
Van Baarle set off in pursuit of Gilbert between the Paterberg and the Steenbeekdries. He was joined by Fabio Felline (Trek-Segofredo). The pair made up a bit of ground on Gilbert before being joined by Van Avermaet, Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe), Oliver Naesen (AG2R La Mondiale), Yoann Offredo (Wanty-Groupe Gobert) and Matteo Trentin (Quick-Step Floors). The group hit the base of the Kwaremont for the final time just under one minute down on Gilbert.
In a bizarre twist of fate, Sagan was struck by a roadside banner causing a crash that took down Van Avermaet and Naeson, too. A black jacket was caught in Naeson’s wheel, causing further complications. Van Baarle, climbing up the other side of the narrow road, avoided the incident. Second over the top of the Kwaremont, he chased Gilbert alone.
“You are shouting for a podium for Dylan,” said Vanmarcke. “The excitement and the possibility, that’s a good feeling.”
By the top of the Paterberg, Van Avermaet and Terpstra, who had come out of what had been chase group two, reached Van Baarle. The trio crested the final climb 50 seconds behind Gilbert. There were 13 kilometers left to race.
“Before Kwaremont, I felt a little cramp in my hamstring,” said Van Baarle. “I thought ‘no, no, no’ and I hammered a bit and it went away. Luckily.”
“Then in the last five kilometers, I could feel there was not so much in the legs anymore,” Van Baarle added “I tried to play poker, and I set myself up fourth wheel.”
Fourth place. Two spots better than last year. One spot off the podium.
“It would a better feeling if I was on the podium,” said Van Baarle. “We raced for the win, and it’s fourth place. I can be happy about my race but less happy about the result. I knew when Niki was with us that he would be fresh for the sprint, and Van Avermaet is always hard to beat.”
Phinney suffered light road rash on his left side and a minor concussion. He is now in the team’s internal concussion protocol. The earliest he could return to racing is Paris-Roubaix. Vanmarcke suffered heavy road rash and a broken pinky finger. His upcoming schedule can only be determined with further medical review.
Van Baarle’s courageous ride provided a bright spot in an unlucky day.
“It’s really nice for him, for us, to come away with fourth place,” said Vanmarcke. “It’s a good feeling. Then after a few hours, you learn about the injuries, and you’re disappointed again. It’s difficult. You cannot get one feeling. At the end of the night, we’ll struggle to fit together both feelings.”