“I still don’t believe it” says EF Education First rider after riding away from the race favourites to secure his first professional victory.
The 25-year old Tuscan rider dug deep on the flat final 14km to the finish alone as his rivals and race favourites hesitated and chased each other, allowing the EF Education First rider to finish alone.
Danish rider Kasper Asgreen (Deceuninck-QuickStep) stayed clear after launching a late chase to finish 14 seconds down on Bettiol, with Alexander K-istoff winning the sprint for third place at 17 seconds.
As predicted, the Tour of Flanders was a high-speed tactical race that saw a number of attacks and entertaining racing. 2018 winner Niki Terpstra (Direct Energie) crashed out early, while Deceuninck-QuickStep was unable to command the race as they had done early in the spring.
A special mention to Mathieu van der Poel (Corendon-Circus), battling back after a crash following a puncture to finish fourth.
‘Ronde’ being Bettiol's first professional victory, clearly on form after a fourth at last week's E3 BinckBank Classic.
"I don't know how I did it. I felt really good on the Kwaremont and Andreas (Klier) from the car said: 'If you can, just go.' I closed my eyes and went. I looked down at the top and had a really good gap. They said 'keep pushing, keep pushing.' On the Paterberg I don’t think I lost a lot and then it was the longest 14km of my life.
"We showed we can win the Ronde van Vlaanderen. From now on you (people) should look out more for the pink in the front."
How it happened
As usual for ‘Ronde van Vlaanderen’ huge crowds welcomed the 175 riders at the start line in Antwerp.
The long breakaway move kicked off shortly after leaving the Antwerp area, featuring Hugo Houle (Astana), Damien Touzé (Cofidis) and Kenneth van Rooy (Sport Vlaanderen-Baloise). Jesper Asselman (Roompot-Charles) soon bridge up solo thus creating a four-man lead group.
When passing through Berlare, 2019 official village of the Ronde, the gap climbed to over eight minutes and that was the sign for Tim Declercq (Deceuninck-QuickStep) and Pascal Eenkhoorn (Jumbo-Visma) to start working in the peloton.
The Oude Kwaremont was the first of 17 climbs at 150km from the finish but shortly before the first of three times over the legendary climb, a low-speed crash took out defending champion Niki Terpstra (Direct Energie). He was later diagnosed with concussion.
As the riders tackled eight climbs in 50km, the gap to the break came down rapidly to one minute when arriving at the famous Muur in Geraardsbergen. The peloton split into two parts at the Muur, sparking the first moment of panic in the peloton. The high speed meant it was a battle to get back on to the front peloton.
Despite several attacks, the CCC Team-led peloton remained together until Berchem, approaching the second ascent of the Oude Kwaremont. Things were about to get a lot more intense. It was here that pre-race favourite Mathieu van der Poel (Corendon-Circus) tried to hop over a traffic island, punctured and then went over the handlebars as he tried to signal he need a new wheel. He held his shoulder and lost a lot of time but refused to throw in the towel.
Belgian riders Stijn Vandenbergh (AG2R La Mondiale) and Sep Vanmarcke (EF Education First) rode away from the peloton at the foot of the the 2200 metres long cobbled Oude Kwaremont. By the time they reached the top of the nearby Paterberg, they were joined by Deceuninck-QuickStep's impressive 24-year-old Kasper Asgreen. At 50km from the finish, the three leaders had a lead of 15 seconds on the peloton and 45 seconds on a group with Van der Poel. Vanmarcke had played down his chances after a nasty crash in the E3 BinckBank Classic but played a vital role for EF Education First.
On the Koppenberg, Dylan van Baarle (Team Sky) rode away from the peloton while Van der Poel bridged back up to the tail-end of the stretched out peloton just in time. Van Baarle joined the leaders just before the cobbles of the Mariaborrestraat and the following Steenbeekdries climb. Double Ronde van Vlaanderen winner Stijn Devolder (Corendon-Circus) led Van der Poel and the rest of the peloton to the Taaienberg. The race was on a knife edge as the likes of Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe) and Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) waited on the wheels.
Surprisingly Deceuninck-QuickStep lacked numbers and Philippe Gilbert was distanced. Zdenek Stybar was suffering and only Bob Jungels and Asgreen looked strong.
At 30km from the finish, the three remaining leaders rode towards the long Kruisberg - Hotond climb with a bonus of half a minute on a disorganised peloton, where Oliver Naesen (AG2R La Mondiale) was forced to make a bike switch.
The Kruisberg is 2.5km and sparked a real selection. Van Baarle upped forcing Vanmarcke and Asgreen to go deep to catch him. Behind Stybar cracked and was distanced as Jungels upped the pace. He set a painful pace but some how Van der Poel was back up front. So too were Sagan, Valverde, van Avermaet and Kristoff.
Vanmarcke was swept up on the lower slopes of the Oude Kwaremont as the chasers closed in on Van Baarle. Sagan showed his nose near the front but was riding a more cautious race, perhaps unsure of his form.
There were 17km to race as the Kwaremont gradient eased and Bettiol used it as a launch pad. He spun his legs on the tough cobbled surface and suddenly opened a gap on the rest. He fearlessly lined them out, even making Sagan suffer, soon blasting past van Baarle.
Jens Keukeleire (Lotto Soudal) lead the chase and van Avermaet was generous too but Bettiol got away.
He went all in on the fast main road, tucked in an aero position as he rode towards the Paterberg, the final climb. There were just 15 quality riders in the chase group but none committed to the chase, giving Bettiol a 30-second gift. Langeveld also did some superb blocking for his teammate.
Bettiol suffered on the Paterberg but did not crack. It was his rivals who were on their limit. On the 14km to Oudenaarde, he switched to time trial mode but the chase behind was unorganised, with solo attacks disrupting affairs and boosting Bettiol’s chances.
He kept his lead to 20 seconds and in the final five kilometres the others began to think about the podium spots, racing each other, rather than chasing Bettiol – his solo strength was better than their rivalry.
Sagan made one last effort to inspire the chase but the others failed to join him. Bettiol turned into the long finishing straight and began to realise he was about to win the Tour of Flanders. He surged up the barriers but had his celebrations ready. It was his first-ever road race win but celebrated in style, the same style he had shown with his solo attack and solo drive to the finish.
Resources/Credits: S Farrand / B Decaluwe / cyclingnews / Bettini Photo