The second race of the season for the Hagens Berman Axeon Cycling Team started off in unusual conditions in Belgium: it was sunny and almost 13°C (55°F). The Danilith Nokere Koerse, a 191 km (118 mi) semi classic race in the Flanders region, is the first UCI category 1.HC race in the program’s history (the team has competed in .HC races previously, but never as a one day race).
The 73rd edition of Nokere Koerse featured over twenty sections of cobblestones and eight ascents of Nokereberg, the uphill section near the finish line.
Right from the start, a group of eight riders went off the front, including recent UCI Track World Championships silver medalist Ivo Oliveira. At one point in the race, the breakaway had a ten minute advantage over the field.
“It was a hard breakaway, with a lot of wind all day,” said an exhausted Oliveira. “I was happy to be in it though; it was my first World Tour race.”
“Our plan wasn’t too different from a few days ago,” said sport director Koos Moerenhout. “Regardless of the race category, we are going to race as well as we can. If there was a breakaway, we wanted to be in it. Ivo did a great job today.”
Realizing if there would be any chance for a group sprint at the end, the peloton needed to get to work. And with 65 km left in the race, it did. Teams CCC–Sprandi–Polkowice and Direct Energie took to the front in an attempt to reel in the breakaway.
Unfortunately, there was a small crash in the middle of the peloton that forced recent Dorpenomloop Rucphen winner Mikkel Bjerg to abandon. Bjerg was up and walking around, but left the race with a broken right hand. A doctor at a nearby hospital said he would not need surgery and expected to heal in 4-6 weeks.
With 30 km to go, Jasper Philipsen and a group of eight riders escaped from the peloton and gave chase to the breakaway. The chase group made swift work to close the gap and within 15 km they had joined the breakaway.
In the end, the finish came down to a small group sprint, with Fabio Jakobsen (Quick–Step Floors) claiming the victory. Rui Oliveira helped teammate Philipsen sprint to 14th place, placing 24th himself after the effort. After spending all day in the breakaway, Oliveira finished 93rd. Maikel Zijlaard finished 78th, Joao Almeida was 104th, and Michael Rice abandoned after becoming ill.
“The guys were attentive all day and raced well,” remarked Moerenhout. “We initially had plans to set up Ricey for any finishing sprint, but he was sick today so we shifted to Jasper. Jasper made a great move in the end to get into the top 15.”
Up next: the Hagens Berman Axeon Cycling Team will race Handzame Classic in Belgium on Friday, March 16.
(Photo: Davey Wilson)