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Niki Terpstra stood on the shoulders of his QuickStep Floors teammates to take a solo victory at E3 Harelbeke. His teammate Philippe Gilbert was second ahead of BMC’s Greg Van Avermaet.
It was a race dominated by QuickStep’s willingness to use its strength and use it early, and provided a glimpse of the team’s impressive collective form heading into the biggest one-day races of the spring season. Terpstra spent over 70km off the front and was rewarded for his daring.
A crash sets the stage
The stage was set by a massive crash on a narrow lane with 95km to go. A pile of broken bikes and injured riders cleaved the peloton in two. QuickStep took advantage, hitting the front with authority while Astana struggled to close the gap behind.
Out front, a group of eight rode in the day’s breakaway, until it was split by a move from Pim Ligthart (Roompot-Nederlandse Loterij) and Damien Gaudin (Direct Energie).
Crosswinds sapped the legs and set up the peloton for a clash on the Taaienberg. Terpstra hit out with more than 70km to go and took his teammate Yves Lampaert with him. The two made contact with Ligthart and Gaudin, rode through them, and found themselves alone.
Behind, a series of skirmishes sent small groups up and back, but with no great effectiveness. Sagan chased, followed by another Quickstep jersey in Gilbert. Both were swallowed by a larger chase group ahead of the Eikenberg.
Van Avermaet, the defending champion, hit out on the Stationberg in an attempt to bridge. Sagan tried to cover the move but could not match the pace. Gilbert once again followed, along with Benoot, setting up the pursuit that would define much of the latter half of the race.
Van Avermaet, Gilbert, and Benoot came together at 52km to go. The three sat 43 seconds behind the leading duo, presenting Gilbert with a dilemma: Work with his companions to create a group of five with three Quicksteps, or sit on the back and risk being caught once again by the dwindling group behind. He chose the latter.
At 50km, QuickStep found itself with five of the first ten riders on the road.
Behind, Daniel Oss pulled for Sagan, while QuickStep’s Stybar and Sénéchal weighed the group down like anchors. Sagan appeared to make the call to wait for a much larger group behind, hoping that the 45 kilometers remaining would be enough to pull back the two small groups out front — the QuickStep duo, and Van Avermaet, Benoot, and Gilbert trio.
With the regroup, the race reset. QuickStep’s ability to discourage chasing disappeared and multiple teams set up at the front of the large group. EF-Education First, Astana, and AG2R all sent men to the front. The gap was large but not insurmountable: 1’37” to Terpstra and Lampaert and 40” to Benoot, Van Avermaet, and Gilbert.
As it so often does, the Paterberg provided hints of future strength. Terpstra gapped his teammate, Lampaert, as both ground their way up the left side gutter. Behind, Sep Vanmarcke took over the chase in the main group as Sagan trickled toward the back of the group, his legs tired from the earlier efforts. It was the beginning of the end for the world champion. The Kwaremont and a small tumble would finish him off.
“It was a fast and nervous E3 Harelbeke and until the Taaienberg, everything was going exactly according to the way we had planned,” Sagan said after the finish. “Then when Quick-Step attacked, Daniel and I took the responsibility to go across and close the gaps, bringing the chasing groups together. That required a big effort and when you do that so far from the finish, it’s difficult. At 30km into the race, I was caught in a tumble. I didn’t suffer anything serious, just some road rash on my right thigh. However, that didn’t affect my performance and I now look forward to the next race.”
The trio, second group on the road, was now in sight of the peloton, which barreled forward with about 25 riders.
Just as the two chasing groups were about to come together, some 50 seconds behind the lead, Gilbert hit out once again, attacking towards his Terpstra and Lampaert. Three QuickSteps jerseys led Harelbeke with 28km to go. Terpstra hit the radio; there were decisions to be made. Director Wilfried Peeters leaned out the window of his car. In the end Gilbert called off his move, returning to the group behind as Terpstra and Lampaert continued onward with a 39 second gap.
— La Flamme Rouge (@laflammerouge16) March 23, 2018
Terpstra goes alone
It was the moment when Quicksteps dominance began to crack. Lampaert faltered and then fell off, his work done, leaving Terpstra alone with 23km ahead and 35 seconds to the group behind, led now by BMC’s Stefan Kung.
The pursuit was on. Terpstra alone, the rest of the favorites behind, rotating against the wind as Terpstra’s four teammates sat on the back. The gap hovered around 35. Seconds gained, seconds lost, back and forth like a pendulum.
The gap dipped below 30 seconds for the first time with 11 kilometers remaining, and ticked down every kilometer thereafter. Vanmarcke, Van Avermaet, Jasper Stuyven, and Benoot pulled hard behind. A little hand sling between opponents told the story: Van Avermaet pulled Vanmarcke back into the paceline. It was 20 seconds by 8km to go; 18 seconds at 5.5km.
Van Avermaet set off with 5km remaining but was pulled back. Matteo Trentin, a former QuickStep man, countered, but also faltered. Then Stuyven, the Belgian chocolate maker, chased by Kung. He too came back and the group once again slowed. Twelve seconds to Terpstra, 4km to go.
One of the attacks seemed destined to break the elastic, buckling the tired legs around it; but who would it be?
Nobody. Within sight of the flamme rouge the focus among the chasers shifted from the man ahead to the men all around. The gap ballooned to 20 seconds.
Terpstra came across the line alone. Gilbert won the sprint behind. It was a solo victory on the shoulders of an impressive team.