Davide Ballerini won the opening race of the classics campaign after Deceuninck-Quick Step’s Italian won a bunch sprint finish at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad ahead of Britain’s Jake Stewart who rides for Groupama-FDJ.
It was the seventh victory of Ballerini’s career and the third of the season following two stage wins at this month’s Tour de la Provence, and one that owed a great deal to the hard work done by world champion and team-mate Julian Alaphilippe. Typically aggressive, Alaphilippe went on a solo attack 33 kilometres from the end of the 200km race that traverses through Flanders on tight narrow lines and short punchy cobbled climbs.
Once Alaphilippe was reined back in by a strong group that included Greg Van Avermaet (Ag2r-Citroën), Sep Vanmarcke (Israel Start-Up Nation), Matteo Trentin (UAE Team Emirates) and Tom Pidcock (Ineos Grenadiers) — who was hugely impressive on his WorldTour debut — Ballerini was able to sit in the wheels patiently behind his team-mates.
With the finishing line looming it became apparent the race would most likely be won by a fast man. However, it was not to be for Alexander Kristoff (UAE Team Emirates) who suffered a mechanical, while Briton Ethan Hayter who arrived in decent form and like team-mate Pidcock was making his debut at the race, crashed around 3km out from the line.
Marshalled by team-mates Alaphilippe, Kasper Asgreen, Florian Sénéchal and Yves Lampaert, who had earlier crashed before chasing back to the front of the pack, Ballerini was positioned perfectly before opening up his sprint and take arguably the biggest win of his career. It was a superb result, too, for Stewart, a first year neo-pro with Groupama-FDJ who took second place ahead of Sep Vanmarcke (Israel Start-up Nation).
Stewart later said he hopes to build on his second place. “Today was a bit of a surprise but I had good legs in [Etoile de] Bessèges and carried that into today. I was always prepared for today,” he told cyclingnews.com.
“I’m still trying to discover my potential,” the 21-year-old from Coventry added. “This is where my heart is and I love the Belgian races. This is where I want to excel, it’s where I want to see a good career.
“We weren’t sure where I was going to excel on the road but we’ve found my potential in these harder races. We’ll try and build on it.”
Later in the day Anna van der Breggen (SD Worx) won the women’s race after the Dutch world champion soloed to victory. Emma Cecile Norsgaard (Movistar), the Danish national champion, won a reduced bunch sprint to take second ahead of Van der Breggen’s team-mate Amy Pieters in third. Hannah Barnes (Canyon-Sram) was the highest placed Briton, finishing fifth just behind Lotte Kopecky (Liv Racing).