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In a sign of what to expect at the upcoming Ronde van Vlaanderen, 2014 world champion Michal Kwiatkowski won E3 Harelbeke from a two-man breakaway ahead of current world champion Peter Sagan.
It was a thrilling finale, with the two riders holding a tenuous 20-second lead inside the final kilometres and a victory from the escapees only assured inside the final 500 metres.
To call the finale a two-man sprint, however, might be considered an exaggeration. Kwiatkowski (Sky) attacked at 275 metres to go, just after Sagan (Tinkoff) had looked back to check their gap ahead of a surging 12-man chase group.
As soon as Sagan turned his head forward, Kwiatkowski launched his sprint. Sagan briefly tried to respond, but it was clear that the world champion had nothing left in his legs; he crossed the line three seconds in arrears.
“We were working together,” Sagan said. “In the finish I was without energy, and he was better… Cycling is simple, I think.”
Sky’s Ian Stannard won the bunch sprint for third, 13 seconds behind his teammate.
If Team Sky was the day’s big winner, home team Etixx-QuickStep was the overwhelming loser. At one point, the classics super squad had five riders in the winning selection, yet ended up with no riders in the top 10.
“I was really motivated today and I did my best,” Kwiatkowski said. “I was perfectly protected by my teammates, Ian Stannard was always there for me and then me and Peter worked together well.
“We were in a similar position at Strade Bianche two years ago and that brought back memories for me. I knew I had really good legs today and I had to go for the win. There was no other option.”
The race was also marked by a strong display from Fabian Cancellara, who suffered a broken rear derailleur while riding in small, select group and then spent several minutes waiting for his team car before getting a new bike. With the help of his Trek Segafredo teammates, the three-time Harelbeke winner spent nearly 40km chasing back on to the lead group.
Cancellara’s frustrating day at the office
The big news at the start line in Harelbeke was the absence of classics star Greg Van Avermaet, due to stomach illness. The BMC Racing rider is enjoying his finest spring to date with wins at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad and Tirreno-Adriatico, fifth at Milan-San Remo, and a dangerous solo attack at Dwars door Vlaanderen that was caught 300 metres from the line. Van Avermaet is expected to return to racing Sunday at Gent-Wevelgem.
It took almost 40km of the 206km race for a breakaway to finally be established. Ultimately eight men escaped from the peloton: Bert de Backer (Giant-Alpecin), Antoine Demoitie (Wanty-Groupe Gobert), Nico Denz (AG2R La Mondiale), Tony Hurel (Direct Energie), Sjoerd van Ginneken (Roompot-Oranje Peloton), Reto Hollenstein (IAM Cycling), Jay Thompson (Dimension Data), and Wouter Wippert (Cannondale).
After 55km, the eight men had opened a five-minute gap on the bunch.
At the halfway point, with 100km to go, the gap was down to 3:30, with Etixx driving the chase.
It was on the cobbled climb of the Taaienberg, with 73km to go and the gap down to 1:40, that the race started to heat up.
Young Belgian Tiesj Benoot (Lotto-Soudal) was the first in line on the Taaienberg, with five-time Harelbeke winner Tom Boonen perched on his wheel.
Over the top, a group went clear with five Etixx riders — Boonen, Niki Terpstra, Zdenek Stybar and Matteo Trentin — as well as Daniel Oss (BMC Racing), Cancellara (Trek-Segafredo), Lars Boom (Astana), Sep Vanmarcke (LottoNL-Jumbo), and Lotto-Soudal teammates Benoot and Jurgen Roelandts.
Missing from the move? Sagan and Kwiatkowski.
Just as the select chase group caught the breakaway, Cancellara was off his bike with a broken rear derailleur. With his team car stuck in the convoy behind, Cancellara could only stand on the roadside and wait as the strongest riders in the race went up the road.
With 66km to go, the Sagan-Kwiatkowski group made contact with the front group, meaning the daylong breakaway, the Etixx group, and the Sagan-Kwiatkowski group were together, while Cancellara and his teammates Yaroslav Popvych and Markel Irizar were almost two minutes behind.
At 55km to go, Cancellara had bridged up to the main peloton, his gap to the Etixx group under one minute. From there, Cancellara had reinforcements in the form of Stijn Devolder and Gregory Rast.
Ahead, with Martin and Vandenbergh driving, Trek riders Jasper Stuyven and Boy Van Poppel sat on in the Etixx group, waiting for Cancellara to bridge.
At 50km to go, Cancellara was still 28 seconds back. At 45km to go, and with Devolder the last man standing for Trek, the gap was the same. Finally, Cancellara took matters into his own hands. However, he had a passenger in the form of Stybar, who had punctured out of the front group.
For a time, the race amounted to two of the best time trial riders in the sport setting the pace across the cobblestones, as three-time world champion Tony Martin drove the front group while Cancellara, having spent his teammates, chased behind.
With 42km remaining, Kwiatkowski came to the front on Paterberg, followed by Trentin, Boonen, Boom, and Vanmarcke. As they crested the top of the climb, Cancellara was at the bottom of the same climb, with Stybar on his wheel, while Van Poppel drifted back to aid Cancellara.
The next cobbled climb, the 2.2km Oude Kwaremont, proved decisive. Though Terpstra surged to the front on the steep section, it was Sagan’s counterattack across the flat, top section that broke the race apart.
Sagan, Terpstra, and Boom emerged from the Kwaremont at the front, followed by Stannard, Oss, Vanmarcke, Kwiatkowski, and Benoot. Back on the pavement, Stuyven drifted back to pace Cancellara, who was 20 seconds behind.
The decisive move
Just as Cancellara caught on, Sagan attacked on the paved and wooded Karnemelkbeekstraat, the 14th of the race’s 15 bergs, with 30km to go.
Kwiatkowski chased on to Sagan’s wheel, while there was no immediate response from Etixx. Together, their gap opened to 25 seconds with 22km to go.
“You have to believe you can win,” Kwiatkowski said. “I struggled to hold Peter’s wheel at first but quickly got into a rhythm. It’s not an easy thing to beat a world champion but I’m really thankful to him. We worked well together at the front trying to protect the gap to the chasers.”
A disorganized chase took place behind, as riders looked to Etixx riders Boonen, Terpstra, Stybar, and Trentin to do the work. Also in the chase group: Benoot, Boom, Oss, Stannard, Cancellara, Stuyven, Dries Devenyns (IAM Cycling), and Jean-Pierre Drucker (BMC Racing).
“Our team was homogeneous, sticking together at all times and doing a good race,” Boonen said. “We were a real team. When Sagan and Kwiatowski went, we tried to go there with Matteo and Styby, but we came a few metres too short. Then we started to pull to close the gap, but we were alone in the chase, and Sagan and Kwiatkowski are great riders; it’s not easy to catch them back. We didn’t get any cooperation from the other teams, which was awkward, because the race was still open with 18 km to go.”
With 10km to go, the gap had stretched up to 39 seconds, with Terpstra and Stybar on the front, driving the chase.
With 4km to go, the gap was 20 seconds With 2km to go, it was 17 seconds. Under the red kite, it was 11 seconds.
It was only in the final kilometre that it was clear the two riders with rainbow bands on their jerseys would sprint for the win.
From there, everything went perfectly for Kwiatkowski and everything fell apart for Sagan. A quick look over his shoulder was followed by a moment of inattention — seemingly inexplicable in the final moments of a spring classic — and Kwiatkowski was gone.
By the time Sagan responded, he had no chance, particularly on what looked to be expired legs.
“After riding on the front for 30 kilometres, together, I knew I had to go with a long sprint,” Kwiatkowski said. “Peter has a kick, a big punch, much bigger than me, so I tried to go more than 300 metres from the finish. I didn’t look back, just full gas to the finish.”
Sagan could only concede that the better man had won. Yes, he ordinarily would be considered a faster sprinter than Kwiatkowski, he said, but there was nothing ordinary about riding 30km off the front in a two-man move.
“After a race like this, it’s all different,” Sagan said. “I think I worked a lot. The last 2km, on the radio, [the Tinkoff team director] saying ‘you have to pull, they are coming.’ I pulled a lot, and for the finale, I was without legs.”
[Link to Kwiatkowski’s Strava file from E3 Harelbeke, complete with power and heart rate data, here.]
KWIATKOWSKI Michał KWIATKOWSKI Michał Team Sky
SAGAN Peter SAGAN Peter Tinkoff
STANNARD Ian STANNARD Ian Team Sky