Things definitely don’t smile on Groupama-FDJ and Laurence Pithie recently. On the second round of the Flemish Classics this Sunday, at Ghent-Wevelgem, the New Zealander yet shone brightly when the race was on through the different climbs of the Kemmelberg. In the last fifty kilometers, he even found himself alone at the front alongside Mathieu van der Poel and Mads Pedersen! Yet, as on Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne, the last climb of the route proved too much for him. He only missed a few seconds to hold on to his two rivals and then couldn’t hope for a major result. Pedersen claimed victory while Stefan Küng took fourteenth position in the bunch that came for third place. Another frustrating day.

The riders’ road certainly included less hills compared to the E3 Saxo Classic, but the day did not promise to be any less hard on Sunday at Ghent-Wevelgem. The 250-kilometre mark was to be passed (253), the horrendous Kemmelberg was to be done three times, and the wind was also set to join the party. Everything was there for a grueling race, which started with the fight for the break. It took some twenty kilometres for a group of eight riders to go with Michael Mørkøv, Johan Jacobs, Kelland O’Brien, Hugo Houle, William Blume Levy, Cyrus Monk, Dries de Bondt and Mathis Le Berre. The peloton then rode quietly for an hour or so before everything got lively, as planned, in the exposed area of De Moeren. The expected echelons did not take long to form. “When the race opened up, we had three men in a group of twenty-nine, it was ideal,” said Frédéric Guesdon. Stefan Küng, Lewis Askey and Laurence Pithie followed the first bunch which caught the breakaway already at mid-race. “I was quite far behind when the echelons happened, and I had to ride around a lot of guys to enter the first group,” said Laurence. “Once I was there, it was fine. We rode hard for a while, but in the end, everyone eased up when we were getting closer to the first Kemmelberg.”

“I don’t think I’ve ever gone so deep in my life,” Laurence Pithie

The gap went from one minute to just a few seconds as the riders entered the last hundred kilometres, which allowed a large number of riders to get back in the mix on the first climbs. Laurence Pithie and Lewis Askey tried to follow a few moves before the decisive Kemmelberg, but everything came back together, and everything did explode on this very climb. Stefan Küng and Laurence Pithie were able to enter it in the first positions, Mathieu van der Poel fired his first shot, and only six riders were able to follow… including the “Kiwi” of Groupama-FDJ! With 80 kilometres to go, he found himself with the world champion, Mads Pedersen, Jasper Stuyven, Jonathan Milan, Mick Van Dijke and Rasmus Tiller. Lidl-Trek then used their numbers and sent the Italian in front, but the collaboration kept on going behind him. Then came the three Plugstreets, unpaved paths, where Van der Poel put the hammer down. After a few hundreds of metres, only Pedersen and Laurence Pithie were left in his wheel. “I was able to follow Van der Poel there, but I don’t think I’ve ever gone so deep in my life,” explained the 21-year-old young man. Yet, when Milan was caught, the Groupama-FDJ rider immediately responded to Pedersen’s counterattack. A four-man group therefore reformed in the lead, gaining up to a minute to the bunch, before the gap fell to twenty seconds approaching the second ascent of the Kemmelberg.

There, Pedersen produced a strong acceleration, but Laurence Pithie managed to hold on, just like Van der Poel. Across the next two hills, the three riders continued to work together and even saw their lead increase to more than a minute before the final time up the Kemmelberg, 35 kilometres from the finish. It was there, in the very last difficulty of the day, that the race turned wrong for the New Zealander, in trouble after the acceleration of the two big favourites. It came as an echo of his almost perfect performance on Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne. “Again I just missed a little bit, this time to follow Pedersen and Van der Poel,” Laurence said. “My legs were really giving out. I tried to push as hard as I could over the top to get back on them, but in the end, I just didn’t have the legs.” The Cadel Evans Great Ocean Road Race’s winner came back to just seven seconds after the descent and left everything on the road to bridge the last few meters, but the two leading men worked together right away. With more than thirty kilometres to go, he therefore found himself alone, and despite a group of chasers joining him a few minutes later, the well-organized peloton managed to catch him in the final. That put an end to his hopes and his superb performance.

“The legs are good, we are up there, but it doesn’t smile on us”, Frédéric Guesdon

“It’s super disappointing but the legs are good and I’m proud of how I rode today,” explained Laurence. “I worked when I had to with Pedersen and Van der Poel. I have no regrets, I gave everything out there. It just wasn’t enough. It’s becoming a ‘thing’ to be distanced on the last climb, but I’m still young, and as I grow and mature as a rider, hopefully I’ll have the legs to follow them. I’m not too far away now. I think I was in good company with the world champion and the ex-world champion… It’s a good thing for the future”. Behind Pedersen, winner ahead of Van der Poel, the peloton fought for third place, and Jordi Meeus won the sprint. As Laurence Pithie no longer had the energy to get in the mix, Stefan Küng tried to get involved and eventually placed 14th. “We were really active today, and we are not rewarded, like since the start of the races in Belgium this year”, said Frédéric. “It’s a bit disappointing. We obviously race to win, and that’s what Laurence did today, but we always hope for results. The legs are good, we are up there, but it doesn’t smile on us. This is the most heart-breaking thing. In any case, Laurence was impressive because he does not yet have a lot of experience in this type of race. I think he has a lot of room for improvement.” “I’m surprising myself every day,” said the young man. “Being in front today is another step forward.”

Like the rest of the squad, he now hopes that everything will pay off with a great result in the coming days. “We’ll keep on trying first on Dwars door Vlaanderen, then on the Ronde,” concluded the man of the day.