Omloop Het Nieuwsblad: Jan Tratnik takes first big Classics victory

Slovenian beats Nils Politt in two-up sprint after late opportunistic attack

Clock14:54, Saturday 24th February 2024
Jan Tratnik wins Omloop Het Nieuwsblad

© Luc Claessen / Velo Collection via Getty Images

Jan Tratnik wins Omloop Het Nieuwsblad

Jan Tratnik (Visma-Lease a Bike) claimed his first major Classics success with an unlikely victory in a thrilling edition of Omloop Het Nieuwsblad.

The in-form Slovenian slipped clear with Nils Politt (UAE Team Emirates) as an open race stitched back together over the final climbs of the Muur and Bosberg, and he dispatched the German in the two-up sprint.

Tratnik’s teammate Wout van Aert punched the air as he mopped up from the bunch behind to make it two Visma riders on the podium.

A Visma rider topping the podium was always the most likely outcome for the opening race of the Classics campaign, but few would have predicted it would be Tratnik, at least not before the final 10km. The 34-year-old had been tipped as a dark horse all week, but Visma lad long since opened the race, splitting it in the wind with some 130km to go, and they appeared to hold it in the palm of their hands with three riders in a lead group of six inside the final 50km.

When Matteo Jorgenson, went solo with 20km to go, leaving Van Aert and the European champion Christophe Laporte sitting pretty behind, it looked like an utterly one-sided exhibition. However, an extraordinary finale saw a bunch that seemed dead and buried come back into the equation over the Muur and Bosberg.

As a dozen riders came up to Jorgenson beyond the final climb, with another 20 behind, it looked like Visma may have thrown away a golden situation. However, their extraordinary strength in depth was underlined when Tratnik suddenly sprang out and attacked with 9km to go. He was immediately joined by Politt and, in a nail-biting run-in, the pair combined against a bunch that was reformed and led by Arnaud De Lie’s Lotto-Dstny’s teammates.

The gap was only a few seconds by the home straight, but they’d done enough to fight it out between them, and in the end it was a convincing victory, as Politt soon sat up and bowed his head, leaving Tratnik, still wearing his neck warmer, to celebrate a remarkable victory.

"It's maybe the biggest win of my life," said Tratnik, a Giro d'Italia stage winner who's usually a helper and has limited experience on the cobbles.

"We have such a strong team, and in the past I didn't do many Classics, so today I was more in a domestique role, but the guys did a really good job, I could be behind, not relaxed but with guys in front, and in the end I kept believing. We caught back all the guys, I just went to counter-attack, and it worked.

"In the last k I was a bit worried if I could win the sprint but then I saw Nils started pulling quite early and I started to believe I could win."

The race is prized open after just 70km

The start of the Classics campaign was treated with the customary ceremonial pomp, with the riders setting off from Gent after the atmospheric teams presentation inside the famous Kuipke velodrome. Ahead of them, 202.2km delving deep into the Flemish Ardennes, in dry but cold and blustery conditions.

It didn’t take long for an early breakaway to form, and it contained nine riders: Frank van den Broek, Sean Flynn (dsm-firmenich-PostNL), Lars Boven (Alpecin-Deceuninck), Alexis Gougeard (Cofidis), Sander De Pestel (Decathlon-AG2R), Elias Maris (Flanders-Baloise), Samuele Batistella (Astana Qazaqstan), Manlio Moro (Movistar), Jelle Vermoote (Bingoal-WB).

With the strongest team in the race on paper, Visma-Lease a Bike took responsibility in the peloton, although they were leant a helping hand by Ineos Grenadiers. After 40km, the first of the day’s difficulties cropped up, with the Haghoek cobbles and the Leberg climb combining for the first of three times, at which point the gap between break and bunch stood at 4:30.

It was all calm, but not for long. The riders hadn’t even seen another cobble or climb before the race was blown to pieces. With a whiff of wind, the pace ramped up after 60km of racing, and with 70km on the clock, a sensationally strong group of 23 riders went clear of the main peloton.

Visma-Lease a Bike was instrumental in initiating the move and they were rewarded with five riders in the group: Wout van Aert, Christophe Laporte, Matteo Jorgenson, Tiesj Benoot, and Edoardo Affini. Ineos, meanwhile, placed their leader Tom Pidcock along with strong support in Luke Rowe, Ben Turner, and Ben Swift. Lidl-Trek were equally represented with Toms Skujiņš, Jonathan Milan, Alex Kirsch, and Tim Declercq.

The strongest sprinters in the race were there, each with a teammate – Jasper Philipsen (Alpecin-Deceuninck) joined by Michael Gogl, and Arnaud De Lie (Lotto-Dstny) joined by Jasper De Buyst. Soudal Quick-Step had two in Kasper Asgreen and Gianni Moscon, Israel-Premier Tech had two in Krists Neilands and Riley Pickrell, while the group was rounded out by Kenneth Van Rooy (Bingoal-WB) and Stian Fredheim (Uno-X).

As that group caught the breakaway on the Lange Munte cobbles with 114km to go, the peloton behind was led by an increasingly panicked Groupama-FDJ, EF Education-EasyPost, and Intermarché-Wanty. FDJ did the bulk of the work and managed to peg the gap at around 45 seconds, although a crash in the bunch involving Julian Alaphilippe (Soudal Quick-Step) didn’t aid momentum.

Visma create the key selection

After the Kattenberg, the second dose of Haghoek-Leberg and the Hostellerie, the chase gained impetus going over the Valkenberg and over the Holleweg cobbles. It seemed now or never, as the gap fell to below 30 seconds. However, Visma soon stamped out the threat, and ripped the race again apart in the process.

Jorgenson took the reins going into the Wolvenberg with just over 50km to go and then stamped on the pedals all the way up. Many of the 30-strong group soon found themselves in trouble, and when Van Aert and De Lie started turning over the top, the lead group split to pieces. Initially, seven were left up front: Van Aert, Jorgenson, Laporte, De Lie, Pidcock, Skujiņš, Moscon. The latter, however, blew up spectacularly on the flash flat cobbles of the Kerkgate soon after.

Laporte gave it a nudge over the Molenberg and was tracked by Pidcock as Visma forced Skujiņš to close the gap, but the tactical complexion was simplified as the dropped riders from the lead group were swallowed back into the large peloton. Ineos began to work, Victor Campenaerts (Lotto Dstny) launched a doomed attempt to bridge the gap, but as the gap rose above a minute after the third ascent of Leberg with 34km to go, it was hard to see the winner not coming from the six in the lead.

The Berendries saw some cracks emerge up front, but without any defining consequence. Skujiņš launched a vicious attack and succeeded in opening a gap but sat up over the top, as Pidcock was exposed and forced into a lung-busting effort to latch back on.

There was no real action on the Elverenberg with 27km to go, but, with another 10km until the Muur-Bosberg finale, the race became tactical on the flat. Possessing the numerical advantage, Visma started chucking little attacks around, and using their other riders to leave gaps and force others to chase. They succeeded in opening things up when Jorgenson launched from the back of the group through a bend with 21km to go. Pidcock was on the front and didn’t jump on it, and all of a sudden the gap was open, with Visma in the perfect position.

The race turns on its head

The whole complexion of the race changed, however, on the Muur van Geraardsbergen. The game-playing up front, plus the lull after Jorgenson’s attack, allowed the bunch to close back in, almost to within touching distance on the uphill approach to the Muur. Pidcock was dropped for good there, as Tim Wellens (UAE Emirates) – who’d punctured out of the initial split earlier in the day – launched a sensational attack from behind to effectively replace the Brit in the Van Aert group by the chapel at the top of the hill.

After a couple of kilometres on the flat, Jorgenson’s lead was down to just 10 seconds, and the Van Aert group was itself just 10 seconds ahead of a mini bunch that was reforming after the Muur. Onto the Bosberg with 12km to go, the Van Aert group was swamped, and Jorgenson started to fade. It was all in the balance and coming back together on the final climb of the day.

Jorgenson was caught over the top, while Van Aert and Laporte issued fresh digs to try and keep the new group of 14 ahead of a larger group of 20. They did so for long enough for Tratnik to launch his winning move with 9km to go, with Politt alive to the threat but the rest left on the back foot. Decathlon-AG2R looked to correct things but it would take the next group to join, and Lotto to take the reins, for a proper chase to form.

The gap fell throughout the closing kilometres, to the point where it was just a sevenral seconds heading into the final kilometre. A bunch sprint would have been a wild outcome given what had gone before, but the two-up sprint was a thrilling conclusion to a race that was never how it seemed.

Politt led it out but Tratnik comfortably outkicked the German to put a polish on Visma's day. It may not have been utterly convincing in the end, but the way they threw it away and still came up with a trump card will only serve to further demoralise the opposition. In the first Classic of the season, the Dutch team have very much set the tone for the spring.

Race Results

1

si flag

TRATNIK Jan

Team Visma | Lease a Bike

4H 31' 27"

2

de flag

POLITT Nils

UAE Team Emirates

+ 3"

3

be flag

VAN AERT Wout

Team Visma | Lease a Bike

+ 8"

4

be flag

NAESEN Oliver

Decathlon AG2R La Mondiale Team

"

5

fr flag

LAPORTE Christophe

Team Visma | Lease a Bike

"

6

be flag

REX Laurenz

Intermarché-Wanty

"

7

be flag

STUYVEN Jasper

Lidl-Trek

"

8

gb flag

PIDCOCK Tom

INEOS Grenadiers

"

9

it flag

TRENTIN Matteo

Tudor Pro Cycling Team

"

10

be flag

DE LIE Arnaud

Lotto Dstny

"

Provided by FirstCycling

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