Eddie Dunbar (Axeon Hagens Berman) has today achieved the biggest win of his career when he soloed to victory at the U23 Tour of Flanders. In doing so, he joins fellow Irishmen Sean Kelly and Stephen Roche in winning the Espoirs or Amateur version of one of the sport’s monuments. Kelly won the amateur Tour of Lombardy whilst Roche won the amateur version of Paris-Roubaix.
Dunbar lined up on the Irish team alongside Matthew Teggart (An Post-Chain Reaction), Daire Feeley (U.C. Monaco), Michael O’Loughlin (Team Wiggins), Jake Gray (V.C. Toucy) and Darragh O’Mahony (O’Leary Stone Kanturk) and had been considered one of the favourites after his second place at last weekend’s Triptyque des Monts et Châteaux.
The riders faced eighteen categorised climbs and eight sectors of pave on the course of 168 kilometres and amongst the well-known climbs they had to tackle were the Muur van Geraardsbergen, Paterberg, Oude Kwaremont and Taaienberg.
Martin Palm (Team Wallonie) and Masaki Yamamoto (Japan) were the early attackers but were never given too much of a lead by the bunch and the pair were brought back after an acceleration by the peloton on the Muur with 96 kilometres still remaining.
Evan Burtnik (Canada) and Klavs Rubenis (Latvia) were next to go clear and when they were brought back, Jasper Philipsen (Belgium), winner of the Triptyque des Monts et Châteaux broke away. Once again though, he wasn’t given much freedom and was pulled back.
With 31kms left to race, Dunbar attacked and was joined by Tobias Foss (Norway) and Alexys Brunel (France). But Foss could not keep pace on the hilly, cobblestoned terrain. Brunel and Dunbar rapidly built a 50-second lead as they started the final lap of the 22-km local circuit.
On the last ascent of the Eikenberg with sixteen kilometres remaining, Dunbar attacked alone and despite a counter attack from the peloton, Dunbar stayed clear to the finish in Oudenaarde to take the biggest win of his career.
Philipsen took second place 49″ behind with French rider Jeremy Lecrocq finishing third. Matthew Teggart was next best of the Irish riders in 65th place with Michael O’Loughlin and Darragh O’Mahony also amongst the finishers.
“I was actually cramping in the last three kilometers and was just hoping that my legs would not lock up completely,” Dunbar said. “So I was trying not to press too hard. Once I passed two kilometers to go, I knew I was not going to be caught. There were so many things going through my head at the end. I was even wondering if there was maybe a guy ahead of me.”
“I think this year is more relaxed for me,” he said. “My training has gone better and I am more motivated this year. “It is not like I was not motivated last year, but I have had more things to motivate me this year. So it is different. I am going back to the way I used to cycle. I feel better on the bike both mentally and physically.”
In winning the U23 Tour of Flanders, Dunbar joins the likes of WorldTour riders Dylan Groenewegen, Salvatore Puccio, Rick Zabel and Alexander Edmondson who have also taken victory there in recent years.