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Olympic road champion Greg Van Avermaet (BMC Racing) won a three-man, all-Belgian sprint to win the Record Bank E3 Harelbeke, a Tour of Flanders warm-up race held nine days before De Ronde. Van Avermaet out-sprinted Philippe Gilbert (Quick-Step Floors) and Oliver Naesen (AG2R La Mondiale) to take his first victory at Harelbeke.
It was Van Avermaet’s second win on Belgian soil in 2017, adding to his victory at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, putting him in pole position as the big favorite for next weekend’s Ronde van Vlaanderen.
“This is a really nice win,” Van Avermaet said. “I know how hard it is to win here. At the beginning of the year, I had only been on the podium once here in 2008. That says it enough, I think. Every year I come back with high expectations and every year it is hard to win this kind of race. I am happy that I have two wins in my pocket now but at the beginning of the season, I said that Tour of Flanders is my big goal. That still has to happen, but it is nice to start with two victories on home soil.”
Crashes, punctures, and finally, a breakaway
The 206km Record Bank E3 Harelbeke started and finished in the town of Harelbeke, near Kortrijk, traveling a circuitous route from west Flanders to east and back, stacked with cobbled climbs in the second half of the race.
Team Sky entered the race having won the race the past two years, with Geraint Thomas in 2015, and Michal Kwiatkowski last year. Kwiatkowski, who won Milan-San Remo on Saturday, did not take the start, instead focusing on the Ardennes classics, putting Sagan and Van Avermaet as the pre-race favorites.
Quick-Step Floors, winners of Dwars Door Vlaanderen on Wednesday, brought a strong squad that included Gilbert, Zdenek Stybar, Jack Bauer, Niki Terpstra, and five-time Harelbeke winner Tom Boonen, who received a framed print commemorating his victories at the start.
It took 75km for a breakaway to form. The six escapees were Laurens De Vreese (Astana), Alexis Gougeard (AG2R La Mondiale), Christophe Masson (Veranclassic), David Per (Bahrain-Merida), Taco Van Der Hoorn (Roompot-Nederlandse Loterij), and Gijs Van Hoecke (LottoNL-Jumbo). Dries De Bondt (Verandas Willems-Crelan) was initially with the group but was dropped.
With 95km to go, the breakaway held a 2:06 gap over chasers Tom Van Asbroeck (Cannondale-Drapac), Mickaël Delage (FDJ) and De Bondt, with a 4:52 gap over the main peloton.
As with many cobbled classics, crashes and punctures were commonplace. Riders to hit the deck included Christian Knees (Team Sky), Matti Breschel (Astana), Dayer Quintana (Movistar), who also crashed at Dwars Door Vlaanderen on Wednesday, and Tony Gallopin (Lotto-Soudal), who abandoned in pain with a left knee injury.
— Gallopin Tony (@tonygallopin) March 24, 2017
With 76km to go, and additional punctures and crashes, the gap from the breakaway to the peloton had come down to 3:25.
Quick-Step saw Bauer crash heavily after losing traction in a lefthand turn, and abandon. Sep Vanmarcke (Cannondale-Drapac) was briefly held up in Bauer’s crash, but chased back swiftly.
As the peloton hit the Taaienberg, Boonen went to the front of his favorite cobbled climb and drilled it, forcing a reaction from Daniel Oss (BMC Racing), Van Avermaet, and Sagan.
Boonen’s effort split the bunch, drawing out a select group. Gilbert was next to attack, which Naesen quickly marked, followed by Van Avermaet. They soon caught the first chase group of Van Asbroeck, Delage, and De Bondt. Van Asbroeck dropped back to help Vanmarcke, who was bridging across with Luke Durbridge (Orica-Scott) and Lukas Pöstlberger (Bora-Hansgrohe), forming a group of 10 chasers.
“We did a great race today and all the guys did a marvelous job, covering the moves of our rivals and keeping me in a good position,” Gilbert said. “Over the top of the Taaienberg, we had a gap, and although I wasn’t sure that group will stick, I decided to give it a go, so from that moment on it was full gas all the way to the finish line in Harelbeke.”
At the front of the race, the gap had come down to 1:41 with 66km to go. Sagan, who failed to mark Gilbert’s attack, was forced to chase, with Fabio Felline (Trek-Segafredo) and Matteo Trentin (Quick-Step) on his wheel.
Gilbert went to the front on the cobbled climb of the Eikenberg, dropping Van Asbroeck and Delage, as the gap to the leaders plummeted to just 35 seconds.
Noticeable absentees from the front group included Sagan, Team Sky, Katusha-Alpecin, Lotto-Soudal, and Trek-Segafredo, which brought Felline, Jasper Stuyven and John Degenkolb to the race.
With 60km to go, the Gilbert-Durbridge-Vanmarcke group caught the breakaway, forming a group of 12 with a 55-second lead over the main peloton, which was down to about 50 riders.
Degenkolb jumped from the group after Mariaborrestraat, followed by Oss, and Sonny Colbrelli (Bahrain-Merida). Stybar and Terpstra, however, covered all moves.
Quick-Step appeared comfortable with only Gilbert at the front, while AG2R held the numbers with Gougeard and Naesen.
With 50km to go, the gap was at one minute. Still to come were the Kapelberg, Paterberg, Oude Kwaremont, Karnemelkbeekstraat, and Tiegemberg.
Another crash saw Sagan off his bike, along with Oscar Gatto (Astana) and Julien Vermote (Quick-Step Floors). The timing of the crash, just before the Paterberg, along with mechanical issues, dashed any hope that Sagan might rejoin the front of the race.
— Cycling.TV (@CyclingTV) March 24, 2017
“It was a tough race,” Sagan said. “I didn’t jump on the front group when they attacked and made the decisive move and then the crash wiped out all the chances I had to bridge the gap.”
Gilbert on the attack, again
Gilbert accelerated on the Paterberg, trimming the lead group down to seven, while Trentin set pace in the chase group, slowing the pace. A bottleneck on the Paterberg forced several riders in the main bunch, including Degenkolb, to set a foot down and dismount.
As the leaders approached the Oude Kwaremont with 37km remaining, seven remained: Vanmarcke, Van Avermaet, Naesen, Gilbert, Durbridge, De Vreese, and Pöstlberger.
Three Belgians — Van Avermaet, Gilbert, and Naesen went clear on the Kwaremont’s steepest pitches with Durbridge, alone, chasing 30 seconds back.
“When I attacked on the Oude Kwaremont, I saw that they were both able to follow,” Naesen said. “I knew that we would be fast enough to stay away.”
The three leaders hit the Tiegemberg, the final climb with 27km remaining, holding a 1:25 gap as Fellini and Tony Martin (Katusha-Alpecin) drove the chase. The gap grew to two minutes with 20km left, as some of the contenders seemed resigned to save their legs for Sunday’s Gent-Wevelgem.
Gilbert used the Tiegemberg to distance Naesen, who fought hard to bridge across, making contact with 18km to go.
“That was a difficult situation for me because we train every day together,” Van Avermaet said of Naesen, who was left to chase alone after Gilbert’s attack. “But the battle is every man for himself.”
The group rode together back into Harelbeke, with no further attacks until the final kilometer. Naesen was first to launch, at about 250 meters to go, and though he opened a small gap, Van Avermaet closed it and held off Gilbert to take his first Harelbeke victory.
“In the sprint, Naesen surprised me when he opened his sprint and I hesitated for a second,” Gilbert said. “That, and the headwind, made it really hard to get back in the front. It’s a pity, because I was there and could have won, but that’s racing. I’m looking at the bright side of things, which is that my form is good and I’ve rediscovered those sensations that make me feel at ease on the cobbles. In these races, you have to work hard to get into the best position and to keep it. I really like this. I found again my fighting spirit and this makes me happy.”
Durbridge finished fourth, 38 seconds down, just ahead of Pöstlberger.
“I’m very happy with today’s performance and result,” Pöstlberger said. “It was an extremely tough and challenging race but I consider it to be the best ever of my professional career.”
Michael Valgren (Astana) took the bunch sprint for sixth, ahead of Colbrelli and Boonen.
“The strongest riders are on the podium,” Van Avermaet said. “We all deserved the victory.”
With the win, Van Avermaet took the top spot in the UCI WorldTour ranking heading into Sunday’s Gent-Wevelgem, and the Tour of Flanders one week later.
“It always helps with your confidence going into a big race when you get the win, and the guys know that I am good and that I will always try,” he said. “If you win, you see that the team gets stronger and more confident. It’s good to start a race like Ronde van Vlaanderen with the confidence of the team. They know I am ready and when the leader is good, most of the time the team comes also.”
— E3 Saxo Bank Classic (@E3SaxoClassic) March 24, 2017
Record Bank E3 Harelbeke (1.UWT) Harelbeke → Harelbeke