Neo Pro Erik Baška takes first victory at Handzame Classic

Erik Baška has raced to the biggest victory of his young career so far at the 14th edition of the Handzame Classic in Belgium, sprinting clear in the bunch finish to take a convincing win in his first year at WorldTour level.

The 22 year-old Slovakian sprinter was Tinkoff’s protected rider from the off today and made sure that he delivered after his teammates, riding as just six here, dropped him off in a perfect position in the final kilometre before he unleashed a perfectly timed finish to outpace all around him.

Delighted with the result, Sport Director Tristan Hoffman said: “Things didn’t work out like we wanted and had hoped them to on Wednesday, but sometimes you need days like this to refocus, and today it came together. Erik is a neo pro, and we already saw how fast he was last year but the step up this year is very different, yet today he showed that he’s getting stronger quickly.

“The guys all raced really well together. Early on we covered some of the course of Gent-Wevelgem, over a climb and some cobblestones and Michael Gogl and Jay McCarthy were up there, and then later on everyone looked after Erik well.”

“I have to say a big thank you to the team and to the Sport Directors for giving me the opportunity to be the leader for this race,” said an elated Erik Baška after the finish. “Also to my teammates for doing an incredible job today. The race was pretty hectic but I had really good legs and a good position in the finish. Michael Kolar brought me into around 10th to 15th wheel with about 500m to go and from there I told him that I would go on my own, up the left as there was more space there. I started to sprint with around 200 to 250m to go and had enough speed that I knew I had it in the last 50m.

“Preparation has gone well so far, and I’m really happy with this win after the hard work. I started racing in Dubai and then was in Langkawi so I’ve got some good racing in the legs, and this win will hopefully give me the confidence I need to keep stepping up.”

The race started with an early break of two riders, following a flurry of attacks from the drop of the flag. The peloton wasn’t convinced with the composition of the move and everything came back together before a group of seven riders moved clear at the mid-way point. This move never gained more than a minute and gradually their lead was reeled back in as the Tinkoff riders stayed safe in the wheels, focusing their energy on the expected bunch sprint.

With 11km to go the final breakaway rider was brought back into the fold and the scene was set for a fast finish. Riders tried to break clear but the peloton was attentive to the moves. The Tinkoff jerseys were a constant presence at the front of the bunch as the kilometres ticked by, with Jay McCarthy covering moves and then the team keeping Erik out of the wind, preparing for his sprint.

As the race opened up on the wide road on the approach to the line, Erik unleashed his effort, coming around the outside of the bunch, victory never looking in doubt as he pulled ahead of the sprinting bunch behind. The win is Erik’s first of the year, his first year with the team and at WorldTour level, and will be a great confidence boost ahead at this early stage of the season.

Hoffman continued: “At the December training camp Erik was sick so at the January camp we had to take it easier but he still showed that he was quick. He had a good build up to the start of the season, and then he showed good legs at Langkawi, getting up there in some of the sprints. We don’t want to put too much pressure on him as it’s a big step up from the races he did last year, but today he showed his promise for the future.”