Five things we learned from E3 Harelbeke and Ghent-Wevelgem

It was all action in the two cobbled Classics this weekend, and bodes well for Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix…

Peter Sagan can still cut it

Fabian Cancellara and Peter Sagan in the 2016 Ghent-Wevelgem

Fabian Cancellara and Peter Sagan in the 2016 Ghent-Wevelgem

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Well that’s pretty obvious, but it would be easy for lesser riders to quickly become disheartened with the luck the current world champion has had.

And it’s not even the curse of the rainbow jersey, it’s the same thing that plagued the Slovakian for much of last season and it’s been something he’s has had to deal with through 2016 up until his win at Ghent-Wevelgem on Sunday.

Second in Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, second overall at the Tirreno-Adriatico and second to Michal Kwiatkowski in the E3 Harelbeke on Friday to name but a few, it’s not been easy street for Sagan so far this season.

But the best athletes learn and adapt, and that’s exactly what he did at Ghent-Wevelgem. After leading his breakaway companion Kwiatkowski in to the final kilometre at E3, where he just couldn’t catch the Pole after he got a jump on him, Sagan wasn’t going to make the same mistake again.

Having instigated the race’s decisive break, as he did at E3, Sagan managed to tuck himself nicely amongst his three breakaway rivals Fabian Cancellara (Trek-Segafredo), Sep Vanmarcke (LottoNL-Jumbo) and Viacheslav Kuznetsov (Katusha), as they entered the last kilometre, not flinching as others feigned to attack.

The Katusha rider blinked first, having found himself in the elite break after a solo break earlier in the day, looking to go long. But it presented the perfect opportunity for Sagan, who jumped on his wheel and used it as a lead out to finally break his duck.

Not only does it signal the end of a frustrating run for him, but it’s the perfect confidence booster ahead of the two Monuments that are fast approaching, the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix.

Numbers don’t always conquer

Tom Boonen chases in the 2016 Ghent-Wevelgem

Tom Boonen chases in the 2016 Ghent-Wevelgem

Much to Etixx-Quick Step’s frustration.

In both E3 and Ghent they found themselves with a number of their Classics powerhouses commanding the peloton, but in both they found their was nothing they could do when the decisive break went.

Peter Sagan instigated both those moves on climbs between 30km and 40km to go, but on both occasions no Etixx rider could go with them, not even Tom Boonen.

With that they became the chasers; giving the likes of Sagan and Cancellara a few metres to get away spells a lot of work if you’re going to get back on, and the rest of the chasing teams look more than happy to let Etixx do the bulk of the work, particularly with the five riders they had in the second group at Ghent-Wevelgem.

And while Etixx boss Patrick Lefevere might call those not pulling with his team ‘cowards’, it seems pretty understandable that they’re letting the likes of Niki Terpstra and Zdenek Stybar take the front of the group, particularly with most teams only having a maximum of two riders in the chasing pack.

Getting a rider in the key race moves has got to be the Belgian squad’s target in the upcoming Monuments, but that’s easier said than done. A team with so much Classics pedigree will desperately want to dominate proceedings, even at these most unpredictable of races, but it looks like there’s some work to do in the coming week before Flanders.

Team Sky are looking a real Classics threat…

Luke Rowe in the 2016 Ghent-Wevelgem

Luke Rowe in the 2016 Ghent-Wevelgem

…even without Geraint Thomas. Last year the Welshman looked like the British team’s great hope at landing a first Monument, but his desire to focus on stage racing has meant that they’ve had to turn to those who supported him in his E3 victory and Classic campaign of 2015.

Ian Stannard has always looked primed to lead Sky on the cobbles, particularly after two consecutive wins at the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad in 2014 and 15, but bad luck and injury has scuppered that in recent years.

This year though (despite illness ruling him out of Ghent), he’s looking back in imperious, powerful form after showings at Paris-Nice and third place at E3.

Meanwhile, Luke Rowe is coming to the fore after playing a supporting role for so long. Leading at Omloop and sticking it out with the likes of Greg Van Avermaet and Sagan. He also looked strong in Ghent, and about the only rider really willing to attempt to bridge the gap from the chasers to the leading group.

But what’s different about Sky is that they look like the have a much clearer direction to the Classics campaign.

With Kwiatkowski netting his first win on the cobbles in Sky colours, not only do they have more than one card to play, but they look like they have a team rounded enough for different situations.

Whether they can make the biggest impression where it counts in Flanders (where Geraint Thomas will return) and Roubaix remains to be seen, but they as ready as ever to try and add that first Monument win to their list of Grand Tour successes.

Cancellara looks as formidable as ever

Fabian Cancellara in the 2016 E3 Harelbeke

Fabian Cancellara in the 2016 E3 Harelbeke

Alright, he might have missed out on a podium in both races, but he impressed nonetheless in his final year. While his veteran rival Boonen looks far from dominant Classics rider he once was, Spartacus continues to dominate proceedings.

You can still sense that awe (or fear) of him from the other riders, even on TV, with everyone watching him for when he makes his move.

At E3 he suffered some awful luck with the mechanical that saw him drop two minutes behind the leading group, but the way he rode (with help from his teammates) to make it back to the front of the race on the Oude Kwaremont was simply something you could only see him doing.

Fourth on that day was a remarkable result considering many riders would have just thrown in the towel.

Likewise on the steep climb of the Kemmelberg, Cancellara looked equal to everything those five, ten years his junior were able to throw at him, making it into the small break that would eventually contest the finish.

He’s never won in Ghent-Wevelgem in his illustrious career, and that might be a frustration for him this weekend as he looks to bow out at the end of the year, but he has got bigger fish to fry in the coming weeks and he doesn’t look like he’s in bad shape for them.

The real question is, with all that form still, should he really be retiring?

You can’t escape illness

Ian Stannard in the 2016 E3 Harelbeke

Ian Stannard in the 2016 E3 Harelbeke

Greg Van Avermaet, Ian Stannard, Edvald Boasson Hagen, Alexander Kristoff…the list goes on. Illness spreads around the peloton like wildfire it looks like, and it can be even more difficult to deal with in the changeable conditions of the Belgian spring.

Form and fitness can be dialled in as much as you like ahead of the big event, but missing the likes of E3 and Ghent with illness ahead of the Tour of Flanders can quickly undo a lot of that hard work, and leave a lot of riders cursing their luck this weekend as the Ronde looms.