On a day marred by strong crosswinds, the Belgian rider made another step towards winning the overall classification.
An eventful stage unfolded Wednesday afternoon at Driedaagse De Panne-Koksijde, when the riders rolled out from Zottegem – where Philippe Gilbert took a spectacular victory one day earlier – aware that not the presence of Montenberg and Kemmelberg will make the stage difficult as will the crosswinds expected in the final two hours of racing.
It was with around 50 kilometers left that the bunch was split when several teams accelerated and rode hard in the crosswinds, hoping to catch as many riders as possible off-guard. Echelons formed, but Quick-Step Floors remained alert and moved to the front with six men, including Marcel Kittel and race leader Philippe Gilbert, who helped the group establish a 30-second margin on second-placed Luke Durbridge (Orica-Scott) and the other general classification contenders who were distanced in the wind.
Besides doing some long turns at the front and helping the front group put more than a minute between them and the other riders on this entertaining and thrilling stage two, the Belgian Champion also got involved at the intermediate sprints, grabbing six important seconds on the finishing circuits in Koksijde.
In the final two kilometers, Matthias Brändle (Trek-Segafredo) attacked and tried to solo to the win, but Gilbert chased him down and closed that move before the others came back. Still, organizing a lead-out train turned out to be impossible in these conditions and on the uphill drag to the line Alexander Kristoff (Katusha-Alpecin) took advantage of this messy situation and sprinted to victory ahead of Edward Theuns (Trek-Segafredo) and Marcel Kittel, who placed in the top 3 for the sixth time this season.
Quick-Step Floors' aggressive riding not only earned plaudits, but it also helped Philippe Gilbert increase his gap in the standings ahead of the final day of Driedaagse De Panne-Koksijde, which schedules two half-stages, one for the fast men of the peloton and one for the time triallists.
"This stage was very nervous, but we stayed at the front and were well-positioned at all times. I knew Chavanel or Brändle will try something in the finale, so when the latter went, I responded immediately. Unfortunately, his surge meant everyone lost their position there, so the sprint became pretty hectic", said Philippe, who looks with optimism to Thursday's stages: "Tomorrow we will be again at the front to help Marcel get the victory, while in the afternoon I'll try to do my best against the clock."
Photo credit: ©Tim De Waele