Peter Sagan (Cannondale) won E3 Harelbeke in Belgium on Friday from a four-man escape group originally instigated by Geraint Thomas (Sky). Dwars door Vlaanderen winner Niki Terpstra (Omega Pharma-QuickStep) placed second, with Thomas finishing third.
The cobbled classic had started relatively tamely, with a five-rider group going clear after 35km, comprising Maxime Daniel (Ag2r-La Mondiale), Jerome Cousin (Europcar), Florian Senechal (Cofidis), Jay Thomson (MTN-Qhubeka) and Laurens De Vreese (Wanty Groupe). The group stayed out front for a long spell, but were reeled in as the action started to heat up behind them.
Thomas accelerated on the Oude Kwaremont, splitting the peloton and forcing the formation of an escape group which was steadily whittled down to Thomas, Sagan, Terpstra and his Omega Pharma team-mate Stijn Vandenbergh by the time they hit 25km to go.
Pre-race favourite and defending champion Fabian Cancellara (Trek Factory Racing) had earlier been held up by a badly-timed crash in the bunch, and was part of a chase group also containing Tyler Farrar (Garmin-Sharp) and Tom Boonen (Omega Pharma-QuickStep).
With Boonen mindful of having two team-mates in the lead group, he did not contribute to the chase - leaving Cancellara to do the vast majority of the work with team-mate Stijn Devolder.
Thomas continued to ride strongly in the front group with Sagan and the Omega Pharma duo, all well aware of the danger from Cancellara behind - particularly when the Swiss rider launched a last-ditch effort to catch the lead quartet on the final climb of Tiegemberg. Cancellara's acceleration momentarily saw the gap drop to 30 seconds, but he paid for the effort and with five kilometres to go the gap was up to over a minute. The winner would come from the lead four.
Vandenbergh and Terpstra took it in turns to attack the lead group, leaving Sagan and Thomas to police the moves. Vandenbergh looked the stronger of the two Omega riders, and his final attempt to break free in the final kilometre saw Thomas jump on his wheel and carry the momentum to lead out the group toward the line.
For a moment, it looked as though Sagan had been caught napping but the Slovak's superior sprint saw him catch and pass Thomas to take the victory. Thomas faded near the line and he was passed in the final metres by Terpstra.
At times, Thomas had looked the strongest rider in the race and his temporary distancing of Sagan on the Oude Kwaremont appeared to give the Slovak a rare moment of panic. In the end, Sagan prevailed - but it was close.
If E3 Harelbeke is anything to go by, we're in for a fantastic Spring Classics season.
E3 Harelbeke 2014
1. Peter Sagan (Svk) Cannondale in 4-56-30
2. Niki Terpstra (Ned) Omega Pharma-QuickStep
3. Geraint Thomas (GBr) Team Sky
4. Stijn Vandenbergh (Bel) Omega Pharma-QuickStep at same time
5. Sep Vanmarcke (Bel) Belkin at 1-30
6. Tony Gallopin (Fra) Lotto-Belisol at same time
7. Borut Bozic (Slo) Astana at 1-40
8. Tyler Farrar (USA) Garmin-Sharp
9. Fabian Cancellara (Swi) Trek Factory Racing
10. Greg Van Avermaet (Bel) BMC Racing at same time
British team swap racing miles for a high-altitude training camp with hope of improving Spring Classics results
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