Michal Kwiatkowski (Sky) proved that he masters almost everything when he claimed his first big win on the cobbles in the traditional dress rehearsal for the Tour of Flanders at E3 Harelbeke. Having joined forces with Peter Sagan (Tinkoff) on the penultimate climb, he cooperated with the world champion to keep a strong group of favourites at bay and then surprised the Slovakian by launching a long sprint. Ian Stannard attacked from the chase group to make it two Sky riders on the podium.
Michal Kwiatkowski may mostly be known for his skills in the Ardennes classics but when he first showed himself in a major one-day race, it was actually with a gutsy ride in the Tour of Flanders. Since then he has mostly avoided the cobbled races but this year he has decided to again test himself on the rough surface by doing E3 Harelbeke and Tour of Flanders before he sets his sights on the Ardennes.
Last year he again proved his skills in Flemish terrain by taking third in the Dwars door Vlaanderen, the obly cobbled race he did the entire year. Today he again underlined that he is probably the most versatile rider in the peloton as he moved from Tour of Flanders outsider to being a favourite by taking an impressive win in the traditional dress rehearsal at the E3 Harelbeke.
Kwiatkowski showed his class by initiating the decisive move from a select group of favourites on the penultimate climb of Karnemelkbeekstraat with 30km to go. He got company from Peter Sagan and the pair worked well together to keep a strong 13-rider group with four Etixx-QuickStep riders at bay. Despite being the underdog in the sprint, he surprised the world champion by going from afar and rode to a surprise victory in his first cobbled race for more than a year.
As usual, the race really came to life on the Taaienberg with 73km to go where Marcel Sieberg led the Lotto Soudal team onto the cobbles 1.30 behind the early break. He put Jurgen Roelandts in a position to attack and at the top, the Belgian had created a quintet that also included his teammate Tiesj Benoot, Daniel Oss (BMC) and the Etixx-QuickStep pair of Tom Boonen and Matteo Trentin.
Fabian Cancellara (Trek) had missed the boat but started to chase, creating a 5-rider group that also included Zdenek Stybar, Niki Terpstra (Etixx-QuickStep), Sep Vanmarcke (LottoNL-Jumbo) and Lars Boom (Astana). They quickly made it across to the Boonen group while Sagan and Kwiatkowski found themselves in a 15-rider chase group.
The 10-rider group of favourites worked well together and were just 45 seconds behind the breakaway with 70km to go. In the Sagan group, Sky had four riders and were chasing hard to bring Kwiatkowski and Stannard back into contention.
That’s when disaster struck for Cancellara as he suffered a very untimely chain problem. The cars were far behind and it took around three minutes for him to get back on his bike. At this point, he was far behind almost everyone, riding among riders who were among the first to have been dropped.
While Cancellara started a furious solo chase, constantly passing riders who had no chance to hang on, the breakaway, the Boonen group and the Sagan group merged on the Boigneberg with 66km to go. Laurens De Vreese, Dries Devenyns, Jempy Drucker, Marco Marcato, Salvatore Puccio, Boy Van Poppe, Kwiatkowski, Ian Stannard, Sagan, Tony Martin, Bryan Coquard, Jasper Stuyven were among the many riders to have made it back to the front. Frederik Backaert and Stijn Vandenbergh were chasing desperately and both made it back before they hit the Eikenberg.
Etixx-QuickStep had six riders in the group and Martin immediately started to work hard. As soon as he had recovered, Vandenbergh gave him a hand and those two riders worked together to maintain a high speed. However, they lost a key rider when Stybar suffered a mechanical that forced him to drop back to the peloton which was 1.30 behind and led by Alexander Kristoff’s Katusha team. Most of the early break was also dropped from the front group.
Cancellara was still passing riders and caught Yaroslav Ppopvych who helped him rejoin a bigger group. Here Popovych and Markel Irizar emptied themselves for their captain until the hit the Stationsberg with 56km to go where Cancellara took off on his own. Meanwhile, Martin was going so fast that he briefly got a gap with Puccio, Stannard and Benoot but Stuyven brought it back together.
Cancellara joined the peloton with Kristoff and immediately asked teammates Gregory Rast and Stijn Devolder to work with the Katusha pair of Sergey Lagutin and Nils Politt. They got some help from Wouter Wippert (Cannondale) who had dropped back from the early break and slowly got closer. With 53km to go, the gap was down to 30 seconds but it stabilized around that mark. Meanwhile, Backaert crashed out of the front group.
Martin and Vandenbergh did a good job to keep the gap stable and even increased it from 20 to 30 seconds as Politt, Lagutin and Rast finished their work. Finally Cancellara had to take over himself as they approached the Paterberg.
As they hit the steep ascent, Kwiatkowski attacked hard. Trentin, Boonen, Boom, Vanmarcke and Oss joined him Stannard and Sagan soon regained contact. The group exploded but after the top, Terpstra, Stuyven, Benoot and Drucker also made it back and so a 12-rider group was formed. Further back, Cancellara accelerated hard and only Stybar could hang onto his wheel.
Devenyns managed to rejoin the leaders before they hit Oude Kwaremont while Stybar and Cancellara caught Vandenbergh, Coquard, Roelandts, Puccio, Wynants, De Vreese and Van Poppel. The latter emptied himself for his captain until they hit the climb, 30 seconds behind the leaders.
Terpstra set a fast pace on the Kwaremont and he got a gap. Boom joined him before Sagan sprinted past the pair. Terpstra managed to hang on and those two riders had a small gap at the top before Boom regained contact. Meanwhile, Cancellara and Stybar caught Devenyns and Stuyven who sacrificed himself for his captain.
Oss, Stannard, Kwiatkowski, Vanmarcke, Boonen, Benoot and Trentin joined the front trio but the 10-rider group wasn’t working well together. Hence, Cancellara, Stybar, Stuyven, Devenyns and Drucker caught them just before the Karnemelkbeekstraat with 32km to go.
The pace was slow until they hit the climb where Kwiatkowski launched a big attack. Sagan quickly joined him while Trentin and Stybar were desperately leading the chase. However, they both exploded and the front duo had a solid gap as they crested the summit. Stuyven and Drucker had both been dropped but managed to regain contact.
Etixx-QuickStep started to chase hard with Trentin and Terpstra but the gap still went out from 5 to 15 seconds. With 25km to go, it was even 25 seconds and when they exited the Varent cobbles with 23km to go, another 5 seconds had been added. Finally, Terpstra and Trentin got some help from Stuyven, Vanmarcke, Stybar and Cancellara but as they hit the Tiegemberg with 20km to go, the gap had gone out to 40 seconds and all the work was now left to Stybar and Terpstra.
Stybar and Terpstra kept the gap stable at 35 seconds and for a long time it was status quo, with the gap being completely unchanged. However, the chasers started to regain momentum with 7km to go, reducing the gap to 25 seconds. It went out to 30 seconds with 5km to go where Stybar ended his work.
Drucker started to work with Terpstra and suddenly the gap was coming down as the game of cat and mouse started. With 3km to go, it was only 15 seconds and now Boonen sacrificed himself for his teammate Trentin.
Terpstra and Boonen worked hard but the front duo realized the danger and managed to stabilize the gap. Just before the flamme rouge, Terpstra swung off and the gap was still 10 seconds.
Sagan led the pair under the flamme rouge and it was now evident that Kwiatkowski would not come through again. The world champion stayed on the front until 300m remained where he launched a long sprint. He caught Sagan by surprise and the Slovakian reacted way too late when the Pole already had a big gap. He quickly sat down to watch Kwiatkowski claim his first win of the cobbles. Further back, Stannard made a late attack to make it two Sky riders on the podium, narrowly holding off Cancellara who won the sprint for fourth.
With E3 Harelbeke done and dusted, the focus moves to Sunday’s Gent-Wevelgem which is the next cobbles classic and the next race on the WorldTour calendar.
A classic course
After a rainy morning, it was again dry when the riders gathered for the start of Harelbeke. One rider was missing as a sick Greg Van Avermaet (BMC) had to stay at the hotel while the rest of the riders held a minute's silence in memory of the victims for the terrorist attacks in Brussels.
As is often the case in the Flemish classics, the start was very fast, and there were constant attacks in the early part of the race. Actually, it was only a short-lived two-man break that got a significant gap before a compact peloton hit the day's first climb, Katteberg. Here Maxime Daniel (Ag2r) and Johan Le Bon (FDJ) managed to get clear, but the move did not last long, and things came back together.
The break is formed
Huge Houle (Ag2r) launched the next attack and was - of course - joined by the always aggressive Kevin Van Melsen (Wanty). That attempt also failed which opened a door for Nico Denz (Ag2r), Wouter Wippert (Cannondale), Antoine Demoitie (Wanty), Tony Hurel (Direct Energie) and Sjoerd van Ginneken (Roompot). Bert De Backer (Giant-Alpecin) quickly joined the move, and after a hard fight, Reto Hollenstein (IAM) also made the junction. The peloton took a small breather, and the gap quickly went out to 30 seconds.
While the advantage grew, Jasha Sütterlin (Movistar), Jay Thomson (Dimension Data) and Olivier Le Gac (FDJ) attacked after one hour of racing with an average speed of 47.2 km/h. The former quickly dropped back to the bunch while the latter constantly lost ground. Thomson managed to reach the leaders after a hard fight.
Trek and Lotto Soudal take control
The gap went out to 4.15 before Trek took control of Markel Irizar and Marco Coledan. They were quickly getting some help from Lotto Soudal that placed Sean De Bie on the front of the peloton. When the gap had reached six minutes, they quickly reduced it by one minute while Le Gac was still struggling 40 seconds behind the front. He finally gave up and waited for the peloton.
Lotto Soudal and Trek slowly reduced the gap to 4.15 with 115km to go where they stabilized the situation. Things started to change inside the final 100km when the fight for position really started. It was briefly down to 2.50 but had gone out to 3.15 with 95km to go when Filippo Pozzato (Southeast) had to work hard to rejoin the peloton after a mechanical.
A hard fight for position
De Bie and Pim Ligthart led the peloton up the Oude Kruisberg 2.50 behind the leaders before they again got some help from Trek. Meanwhile, Sam Bewley hit the deck in a small crash.
On the Knokteberg, it was a big fight for position, with Martin, Coledan, Michael Mørkøv and Puccio setting the pace. The fast pace meant that the gap was melting away and it was down to 2.10 with 84km to go.
Etixx-QuickStep hit the front
After the climb, Etixx-QuickStep took complete control with Iljo Keisse and Martin who strong out the field as they approached the Taaienberg. Lots of riders were dropped while Maarten Wynants suffered a very untimely mechanical and Elia Viviani and Roy Cuvers crashed.
Things calmed down as they hit the narrow roads where Martin and Christian Knees led the field 1.30 behind the leaders. Moments later, Sieberg took over as they hit the Taaienberg and from there the race exploded to pieces.
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