Geraint Thomas of Team Sky won his first Cobbled Classic victory with style today at an eventful and very tricky edition of E3 Prijs Harelbeke, attacking with under four kilometers to go from an elite breakaway group consisting of Peter Sagan of Tinkoff and Zdenek Stybar of Etixx-Quick Step. Thomas, who had created the selection with a strong acceleration on the Oude Kwaremont, showed his two decorated break-mates that he was the elite rider on this day. Undoubtedly uninterested in dragging two very fast sprinters to the last 100 meters, Thomas seized the initiative with a hard acceleration up the right side of the open roads heading into Harelbeke, to which Sagan had no response and Stybar only a brief one. Thomas got clear and stayed there, soloing across the line like a Flandrian. Stybar came in alone for second, while Sagan, enduring a poor first spring for his new team, got swamped by the chasing peloton which saw Stybar's teammate Matteo Trentin pip Alexander Kristoff of Katusha for the last podium place.
Unlike Milan-Sanremo and Wednesday's Dwars Van Vlaanderen, the E3 Harelbeke started off under sunny skies, giving riders a nice reprieve from the rain of the past week. But, though the roads may not have been slippery they were treacherous. Nervous racing, even in the sunny, dry weather, led to a number of high-profile casualties in the first 100 kilometers, among them Sebastian Langeveld, Lars Boom, and three-timeE3 winner Fabian Cancellara. Cancellara's crash was the worst, resulting in two fractured vertebrae in his lower back that will sideline him for the rest of the cobbles season.
As the kilometers ticked down from 80km to 70km to 50km to go, the situation stabilized with the break of five gradually dropping time and a chase led alternatingly by Sky, Saxo-Tinkoff, and Etixx-Quickstep slowly decimating the back end of the field. The racing really kicked off over the Paterberg with 44km to go as riders began to vie to fill the gap left by the departure of Cancellara and Boonen from this year's cobbles season. Sep Vanmarke put in a big attack only to be foiled by pulling out of his pedal on the early slopes of the climb. Daniel Oss and Sylvain Chavanel continued the charge over the top as what was left of the peloton splintered behind.
After a scant few kilometers the bunch thundered into the bottom of the Oude Kwaremount, the longest and most difficult climb of the finale, and the race split wide open. Thomas levied a haymacker that only Stybar could match, sweeping past Dries Devenyns, the last remaining survivor of the break, over the top. Sagan quickly bridged the gap, while everyone behind seemed to look to BMC, who had the most riders in the chase group, to chase but they seemed unable to muster the firepower to do much as the leading trio extended their lead up to forty seconds over the next twenty kilometers.
Behind, the chase was hindered by Sep Vanmarke's Great Spring of Discontent as Lotto-Jumbo riders refrained from contributing to the chase until Sep had replaced a malfunctioning shoe, that the Belgian eventually replaced on the fly. BMC's Daniel Oss and Lotto-Soudal's Thiesj Benoot drove the peloton to within 30 seconds of the leaders inside 23km to go, but the elastic snapped on the descent off the day's final rated climb, the Tiegemberg. There, BMC captain Greg Van Avermaet got squeezed off the tarmac and went down, alertly executing a brilliant somersault to save his season, if not his day. With BMC deflated, the chase fell to Katusha, with significant disruption from BMC and Sky. That was game over for the chasers. Possibly the saddest sight of the day was Luca Paolini of Katusha taking one of his patented mega-pulls, then trying to waive through a Sky rider, who duly refused. No gifts.
Up ahead there was a minimum of gamesmanship, as the advantage occasionally got as low as 30 seconds over the chasing peloton before rebounding back into safe territory as the kilometers ticked down. No one rider seemed to be spared of the work, and nobody ganged up on anyone else even with the spectre of Sagan, the defending winner, involved. Representing (with Vanmarcke) the young veteran wave of Cobble-riding talent and classics acumen, the three were surely planning their pathways to victory when Thomas left them sputtering in the dust.
Stybar may or may not have had a chance to match Thomas, but any hope was extinguished when he sat on Sagan's wheel for nearly ten seconds, waiting for the Slovakian to match Thomas's pace. By the time Stybar gave up on the faltering Sagan and came around him to take care of business, the Brit was several seconds ahead and never to be seen again. Whether this was a blunder by Stybar or not is debatable; from the outcome Thomas appeared to be the rightful winner, and would had to have botched his tactics in the finale to cede his place. As the bunch came home, Sagan continued to sag and was overtaken in the sprint for third by the peloton. Trentin barely held off a hard-charging Kristoff, as well as Vanmarcke, Matti Breschel and the rest.
For Thomas, the win is affirmation of the class we have seen him show in spurts since 2011, when he enlivened the final kilometers of the Ronde van Vlaanderen and also finished second in Dwars door Vlaanderen. Thomas has devoted much of his career to track racing, as well as stage racing, where his climbing ability makes him an interesting rider at times, but his Classics acumen was always there, waiting to be put to use. That happened today, and to great effect. Team Sky can also boast of having won a major Spring Classic now, apart from the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad where they have three victories. They have been knocking on the door for a long time, and Geraint Thomas just kicked it open.
|1||GBR||Geraint Thomas||SKY||5u15'00 "|
|2||TSJ||Zdenek Stybar||EQS||+25 "|
|3||ITA||Matteo Trentin||EQS||+38 "|
|4||NOO||Alexander Kristoff||CAT||+38 "|
|5||BEL||Sep Vanmarcke||TLJ||+38 "|
|6||PINE TREE||Matti Breschel||TCS||+38 "|
|7||BEL||Jürgen Roelandts||LTS||+38 "|
|8||NZL||Jack Bauer||TCG||+38 "|
|9||BEL||Jens Keukeleire||OGE||+38 "|
|10||ITA||Daniel Oss||BMC||+38 "|