Dylan Groenewegen (Lotto-Jumbo & The Netherlands) goes from way out, Arnaud Demare (FDJ & France) scrambles for his wheel but is lengths back at the line with Sonny Colbrelli (Bahrain & Italy) doing well for a man whose speciality is late season races in balmy Italy, taking third. We agree it was a great sprint from the Dutchman but it wasn’t a vintage Kuurne Brussels Kuurne.
Meanwhile, just like every year when we watch the finale in L’Escale bar in Ronse, the locals don’t even look up from their billiards.
The morning was even colder in Kuurne than it was in Gent but none of us have a hangover, the sun is out and the bikes are in full view, not tucked away where you can’t play with the brake levers so no complaints.
It’s unusual to see riders in their new trims – Matteo Trentin has been a QuickStep man since 2011 – he gave them seven wins last year – but this year he’s with Mitchelton-Scott.
There a few neat little bits of tech to be seen, Lapierre have changed their seat cluster, for the better, we think; and those direct mount brakes are nice – and those Specialized power meters are super neat.
Despite the cold, Borut Božič has time for banter with team mate Colbrelli’s fan club.
Sonny looks relaxed, he won the Brabantse Pijl as one of his three wins last season so he can handle himself on the cobbles and ramps.
Meanwhile, Aussie Elite Road Race Champion, Alex Edmondson smiles for the camera but must be asking himself if this is really where it’s at.
And there’s the mad local band, ‘Les Coureurs’ – who seem impervious to the cold in their retro kits.
Groenewegen is being interviewed at his bus; “I’ve won three times already this year so I’m pretty confident today.”
And the man does look relaxed and ready for his cold day out in the Flemish Ardennes; he had eight wins last year including the last stage of Le Tour, on the Champs Élysees.
Rival fast man Démare is too well wrapped up to see his demeanour but looks cool in that national champion’s tricolour tricot; 10 wins in 2017 for him including a Tour stage.
Our first close encounter with the race is at the top of the Wolvenberg climb, a typical Flemish Ardennes cobbled ramp.
It’s painfully cold, ears and cheeks burn in the icy wind.
There are seven away with a 2:10 lead but they’re still chatting in the peloton.
It’s a wee while before we catch them again, this time on the Hotond Berg, not cobbled but long, mostly straight and painful enough.
The break is still clear but patently doomed as a big peloton passes in icy silence.
Sky’s Messrs. Dibben and Lawless are off the back, desperately chasing – the odds on them re-joining are slim with the mad positioning battle for the Oude Kwaremont about to begin.
Their team mate, Owain Doull was a sterling 11th, the day before in Het Nieuwsblad – but 200 K isn’t 265 K…
Also off the back is Saturday’s winner, Valgren – but his DS won’t be too upset about that.
The Oude Kwaremont – our vantage point is near the top; it’s a horror climb, legendary, 2.4 kilometres and cobbled all the way.
There’s a false flat in the middle which, paradoxically is one of the hardest parts of the hill, exposed and catching the Arctic crosswind.
By the time they rattle and ‘clack!’ past us the peloton is just one long line of men fighting for their life with gaps all over the place.
Because of the nature of the parcours, with the big eastern loop, it’s hard to see the race multiple times so after the green flag car to signify the end of the race passage, we head down to Ronse and L’Escale.
The owner greats us with a smile and a handshake and kills the soccer interviews on the TV.
There are 60 K to go and a group of 21 are clear; fast men Demare and Groenewegen are there but it comes back.
Just as it does so, winner from 2016, Jasper Stuyven (Trek & Belgium) heads off up the road.
Strong, solid and stylish he has two laps of the 15 K finish circuit to ride – but when another big ‘rouleur’ Daniel Oss (Bora & Italy) bridges across the venture begins to look more optimistic.
We’d seen big, tattooed Daniel on the Kwaremont where he didn’t look great but he’s not built for the hills.
Two strong, bold men like this could perhaps pull it off?
But then camera zooms in Oss’s rear wheel, he’s on the rim.
Stuyven doesn’t wait; Oss is soon absorbed and wheels in to the team bus PDQ.
Big Jasper rides on but the fire is gone and inevitably, he succumbs.
There are no ‘trains’ to be seen, just the fastest survivors who want it most at the front with Groenewegen going first, long and hard to take the win easily with Demare runner up and Colbrelli third.
With just Vanmarcke on the podium in Gent on Saturday it’s been a bad day for Belgium.
But even worse for the team which usually enlivens this, ‘Opening Weekend’ – QuickStep.
They’ve had a dozen wins this year but would trade them all for Het Nieuwsblad.
Tom Boonen, their talisman has gone – and worse, he’s going to advise the young riders at Lotto-Soudal.
Can they win on Wednesday in Le Samyn?
[‘Yes’ was the answer to that with Dutch assassin Niki Terpstra taking the win from team mate Phil Gil and big French beast Damien Gaudin, back in the World Tour with AG2R after a year with now defunct Armee de Terre where he remembered how to win, scoring six victories, ed.]
Patrick Lefevre will be demanding honour to be restored, it should be a good race.
We shake hands with our host; ‘next year’ I say to him in bad French…