One week before the Tour of Flanders, Stefan Küng is still on the right track. A few days after his third place overall in the BinckBank Tour, the Swiss rider took a very solid fifth place on Sunday in a challenging edition of Ghent-Wevelgem. The Groupama-FDJ rider proved to be one of the most active riders in this first big Flemish Classic of the season, which also marked Jake Stewart’s debut in the WorldTour.
“Stefan never was caught behind”, Frédéric Guesdon
The day did not start in the best way on Sunday morning in Ypres, for Frédéric Guesdon and Martial Gayant’s squad. At the Gand-Wevelgem’ start line, only four riders actually were set to represent Groupama-FDJ due to the late withdrawals of sick Kevin Geniets and Tobias Ludvigsson. “It was actually the most difficult part of the day, or almost,” Frédéric said. “It wasn’t easy for us, but we still had our best card and we still had the right spirit. We just hoped Stefan could manage the finale on his own. Micka was to do the entire first part of the race, until the first climbs, then Jake and Fabian were to be alongside Stefan for the first time up to the Kemmelberg”. The three teammates eventually “proved to be a great help to their leader” as a breakaway of seven riders including Mark Cavendish took the lead. “After about 100 kilometers, I was caught in a crash and my bike was damaged,” said Stefan Küng. “Jake and Fabian helped me a lot, but it took us almost thirty kilometers to get back because there were already some splits in the peloton. When I got back I had to change my bike because it was too damaged. The race then really started and in the first time up to the Kemmelberg. We were at the front with Jake, then the attacks kept going and the race never calmed down.”
With about seventy to go, several favourites including Mathieu van der Poel broke the bunch in pieces, and it never came back all together. “We had only four guys at the start, but we knew that the legs would eventually do the talk,” added Frédéric. “We just got a bit lucky that the race amongst the best started early, so they pretty much all found themselves alone quite quickly. Therefore, Stefan didn’t really need any help in the last part.” Above all, the European time trial champion was able to interpret the race in the right way on Sunday. “I followed the moves because I thought it was better to be one step ahead than to be chasing,” he confirmed. “As soon as he had the opportunity to go in front, and manage his race from there, he did,” Frédéric said. “He never was caught behind. He almost did the perfect race”. Along with eight riders, including Pedersen, Vanmarcke and Trentin, Stefan Küng then took one minute on a second group of favourites. However, in the second time up to the Kemmelberg, with fifty kilometers to go, Wout van Aert and Mathieu van der Poel accelerated behind. “Once there was this group in between, the cooperation wasn’t very good anymore,” Stefan said. “In the last time in Kemmelberg (33 km), I took my own pace and I found myself alone in front after the descent. I continued to push for a few kilometers because I was 15-20 seconds ahead, so I told myself “if they watch each other, you never know”. When I saw that they were working well behind, I stopped”.
“I really raced for victory”, Stefan Küng
About twenty-six kilometers from the finish, fourteen riders, including all the race’s favourites and underdogs, caught the Swiss rider. His attempt did not work out, but “he did well to go up front,” said Frédéric. “Also, he managed his effort, he didn’t go full gas. He was waiting for some help, but it did not come. He rode well. If a Jumbo and a Deceuninck would have made the jump, it would have been a whole different story”. The lead group eventually reduced to nine guys entering the final ten kilometers, and Stefan Küng got in the right move. “He found himself with strong guys and it wasn’t easy to know how it was going to unfold,” Frédéric explained. “He did not want to miss the right move so he maybe saved less energy than the others, but I think he has no regrets. There were quite a few sprinters in this group, so he had to attack, and it was not easy to play in this finale.” “I tried my luck three kilometers from the finish but Van Aert closed the gap and then Van der Poel made the effort and brought everyone back,” Stefan said. “Then, a counterattacks went and this was the good one… Later, I tried to go from far, thinking they could look at each other, but they didn’t. So I finished fifth, but I rode like I wanted to. I was very active and I really raced for victory, not just for placements”.
A few meters ahead of him, former world champion Mads Pedersen took the win by outsprinting three riders. Nevertheless, this fifth place is the best result on a WorldTour Classic for Stefan Küng. “I have to say a big thank you to my guys because it was really difficult for us today with only four riders at the start,” he added. “It’s not the best way to approach such a classic but all three really did their best.” “When you know how it started, you can be satisfied with the results of the day”, concluded Frédéric. “There is a lot to be happy about with one week to go before the Tour of Flanders. Stefan just got third place in the BinckBank Tour and now gets fifth in Ghent-Wevelgem. We can hope for a good result on Flanders. Before that, we will have the Grand Prix de l’Escaut, where we could possibly bet on Jake. He did a very nice Ghent-Wevelgem for his first time in the WorldTour. It’s another satisfaction for today. He was there in the first ten positions on the first time up to the Kemmelberg. He got a little tricked in the echelons, but for a start (35th at the finish), it is still very encouraging.”