Gent-Wevelgem: Luca Paolini wins as Geraint Thomas finishes third
Italian triumphs on a day battered by wind and rain
By Matt Westby
Last Updated: 21/04/15 4:51pm
Veteran Italian Luca Paolini won an absorbing and weather-battered edition of the Belgian cobbled classic Gent-Wevelgem as Britain’s Geraint Thomas had to settle for third place.
Both riders formed part of a six-man lead group going into the final 15km and although 38-year-old Paolini (Katusha) appeared an outsider for victory, he broke clear with an astutely timed attack 6.2km from the finish and won by 11 seconds.
Thomas (Team Sky) had set off in pursuit alongside Niki Terpstra (Etixx – Quick-Step) and the duo consequently sprinted for second place, but the Welshman was by now exhausted and couldn't trouble his rival.
The 239.1km race was played out in dreadful conditions, with heavy rain in the morning being replaced in the afternoon by winds so strong that the peloton was blown to pieces before the halfway mark as riders struggled to keep their bikes upright.
Thomas was among those who crashed as a result of the wind, after a gust with 58km remaining blew him off the road and on to a grass bank, where he was catapulted over his handlebars. Fortunately, he landed relatively softly and was able to resume racing.
Sir Bradley Wiggins started the race having missed E3 Harelbeke on Friday through illness, but with Paris-Roubaix only two weeks away and his health in question, he opted to abandon at roughly half distance.
The sprinters in the field, who had been fancied to battle for victory, also fell away early as the sapping weather transformed the race from a likely bunch finish into a more conventional spring classic contested by all-rounders.
Paolini said: "This is a surprise but I’m so happy to have won. I don’t think I was the strongest but I played my cards. I knew they would be waiting for the sprint and so I tried to get away with 6km to go.”
With the sprinters all but eliminated from contention, the classics experts began taking control around 80km out, when Jurgen Roelandts (Lotto Soudal) moved into a lone lead and a seven-man chase group formed comprising of Paolini, Thomas, Terpstra, Stijn Vandenbergh (Etixx – Quick-Step), Sep Vanmarcke (LottoNL-Jumbo), Jens Debusschere (Lotto Soudal) and Daniel Oss (BMC Racing).
After Oss fell away and Roelandts’ was caught and quickly dropped 18km from home, the remaining six began attacking each other and briefly split apart, but they were back together by 8km to go.
Thomas and the Etixx – Quick-Step duo then began looking at each other in anticipation of fresh attacks, which opened the door for Paolini to capitalise on a brief slowing of the pace by making a move of his own that no one initially countered.
Terpstra finally set off in pursuit with Thomas in tow 3.5km from the finish but by then it was too late and Paolini was able to start celebrating well before the line.
Thomas told teamsky.com afterwards: “Today was it just on all day - stress and full gas. I’m happy to be on the podium again. Obviously it would have been nice to go for the win but it’s hard when you’re coming into the final and everyone’s attacking."
Of his crash, Thomas added: “The grass was softer that the tarmac! It was unbelievable. The gusts were incredible. It was hard enough just trying to stay on the bike. Fortunately it was all okay in the end."
1 Luca Paolini (Ita) Katusha, 6:20:55
2 Niki Terpstra (Ned) Etixx – Quick-Step, +11secs
3 Geraint Thomas (GB) Team Sky, same time
4 Stijn Vandenbergh (Bel) Etixx – Quick-Step, +18
5 Jens Debusschere (Bel) Lotto Soudal, +26
6 Sep Vanmarcke (Bel) LottoNL-Jumbo, +40
7 Jurgen Roelandts (Bel) Lotto Soudal, +1:52
8 Daniel Oss (Ita) BMC Racing, +4:15
9 Alexander Kristoff (Nor) Katusha, +5:12
10 Peter Sagan (Svk) Tinkoff-Saxo, st