This time around, the sprinters did not gamble at all. The Benelux Tour got to Belgium on Thursday, and a bunch sprint indeed concluded the fourth stage. Following a hectic final, Tim Merlier took his second win of the week while Fabian Lienhard replaced Jake Stewart at the last minute and grabbed tenth place on the line. Stefan Küng is still twenty seconds behind the leader in the general classification, but now sits in fourth position, in the same time as Durbridge, 3rd.
“A big crash after twenty metres of racing”, Jussi Veikkanen
The successful attempt from the breakaway on Wednesday in the Benelux Tour could have paved the way for others in stage 4, contested in Belgium. Yet only three men took the lead in the day’s completely flat course. Sam Bewley(BikeExchange), Arjen Livyns (Bingoal-Wallonie Bruxelles) and Thomas Sprengers (Sport Vlaanderen-Baloise) got away after eleven kilometres without fighting too much for it. There also were special circumstances at the start. “Not many riderswere interested in going in front today,” confirmed Jussi Veikkanen. “However, there was a big crash after just twenty metres of racing. The stage was neutralized for a few minutes and a new start was given. The crash nevertheless calmed some guys down.” No damage was to be reported within the Groupama-FDJ squad, and the peloton therefore got back together afterwards to control the leading trio. “The scenario was known beforehand,” added Jussi. “We also knew the final circuit as we had ridden it last year. We just had a little doubt about the wind”. The riders entered the Ardooie circuit after about a hundred kilometres and even caught the breakaway some twenty kilometres later. “The wind made the peloton very nervous,” said Jussi. “For a good part of the circuit, it was coming from ¾ back or from the side, but it was not strong enough so that did not cause any damage“.
It however led to a general regrouping early on, and the peloton therefore covered the last hour of racing without any escape to chase. The tension increased again later at the golden kilometre, located ten kilometres from the line. “Miles wanted to help Stefan out at this moment, but Stefan was not the fastest up there,” added Jussi. “It was a bit improvised, because you never know how the golden kilometre can play out. If there was an opportunity we would have liked to take it, but the scenario was not ideal for Stefan. There were no good surprises”. Everything then came together for the final sprint. Lead-out trains came from all sides, the speed went up again and the Jake Stewart-Fabian Lienhard duet struggled to come out from the middle of the pack. “They were already too far back with 5-6k to go, on the main road with the headwind”,explained Jussi. “They lost each other and couldn’t find each other again in the final”. The Swiss rider then found himself alone in the first part of the peloton. He recounted: “It was another nervous stage and a super fast sprint. There were a few corners in the last 2-3 kilometres. I was supposed to lead Jake out, but neither he nor I really like those super fast sprints. He lost my wheel about two kilometers from the line, I turned around, didn’t see him, and I kept going to try to get a result and show that we are there”.
“Always nice to be up there“, Fabian Lienhard
The Swiss man got a bit boxed in the last few hundred metres and had to “touch the brakes”, said Jussi Veikkanen. He therefore had to settle for tenth place on the day. “It’s good for someone like me, who is doing the lead-out all year, to get that feeling of the sprint every once in a while,” he said. “It’s alsointeresting to better understand how it unfolds. The sprinters always talk about it but we’re never there to see it … So I kept going and it was tenth place. It’s not super, but like I said, it’s always nice to be up there. Jake was also happy for me. I joked about it with him, saying, “you see, I can sprint too!” It was a good stage anyway, we rode well together the rest of the day, and we will keep going this way“. In the general classification, Stefan Küng lost one spot (4th) but remains twenty seconds behind his fellow countryman Stefan Bissegger, leader of the race. “Tomorrow, we will get toanother, hillier terrain,” added Jussi. “The final circuit is not easy, we’ll see how it goes. I think EF wants to keep the jersey as long as possible. As for us, we will try to do something if we have the opportunity“.