Van Avermaet vs Sagan: it’s close
Peter Sagan and Greg Van Avermaet have established themselves as the super-stars of the single-day races, with a consistent show of strength and results to back it up. It’s a safe bet that one or both will usually be a major player in any given Classic, and E3 Harelbeke and Ghent-Wevelgem lived up to the expectation.
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Last year, Olympic road race champion Van Avermaet (BMC) got the better of world champion Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe) – and everyone else – in the Cobbled Classics, winning Omloop Het Nieuwsblad, E3 Harelbeke, Ghent-Wevelgem and Paris-Roubaix.
Twelve months on, Van Avermaet has so far perhaps not quite shown the same level of form, claiming third in Friday’s E3 (in which Sagan finished 26th after crashing), and finishing 14th behind Sagan in Ghent-Wevelgem on Sunday.
Sagan bounced back from an under-par E3 to convincingly win the sprint at the end of a fast edition of Ghent-Wevelgem, in which Van Avermaet worked hard in the lead group with little in return. So in terms of classics wins, it’s one-nil to Sagan in 2018.
Belgian cobbled races culminate on Sunday with the big one: the Tour of Flanders. Last year, Philippe Gilbert (Quick-Step Floors) took the honours, with Van Avermaet in second while Sagan was ruled out of contesting the win after crashing heavily.
Can Van Avermaet finally win De Ronde on Sunday and fill in a crucial gap in his palmares? Or will Sagan repeat his win of 2016?
Quick-Step Floors’ impressive Belgian show
Of course, it’s by no means all about Sagan and Van Avermaet… It’s no secret that Belgian WorldTour squad Quick-Step Floors put huge emphasis on their home races in the spring. And this year they have been an overridingly dominant force in the lead-up to Flanders week.
Before E3 Harelbeke, the squad had chalked up victories in Le Samyn (won by Niki Terpstra), Dwars door West-Vlaanderen (Rémi Cavagna), Nokere Koerse (Fabio Jakobsen), Handzame Classic (Álvaro José Hodeg) and Driedaagse De Panne-Koksijde (Elia Viviani).
Niki Terpstra added a further victory in E3 Harelbeke, which came at the end of a hard-fought escape over the final 70km of the race, initially in a two-rider escape with team-mate Yves Lampaert. Philippe Gilbert and Zdenek Stybar were there in the following group, disrupting the chase but providing further options for victory should Terpstra get caught.
It was a similar story in Ghent-Wevelgem, with Quick-Step Floors having strength in numbers in the lead group, with Gilbert putting in huge turns on the front to ensure they didn’t get caught. They were working for Viviani, who couldn’t quite get the better of Peter Sagan in the final sprint after getting boxed in – but still a second place, albeit a frustrating one for the Italian sprinter.
The team goes into this week’s Dwars Door Vlaanderen and Tour of Flanders with defending champions Lampaert and Gilbert, meaning that we will inevitably see Quick-Step’s blue-clad riders dictating the action – and highly likely to occupy a podium place or two.
E3 had a spectacular, race-defining crash
Crashes are part of everyday life for professional cyclists, and are almost a given in the Cobbled Classics as rider navigate rough, narrow roads with nerves jangling. However, there have been few crashes as large as the one in E3 Harelbeke, with a huge swathe of the peloton spectacularly stacking up on the road with 108km to go.
The incident played a large part in shaping the remainder of the race, with several key riders – noticeably most of Astana and Sep Vanmarcke (EF Education First-Drapac) – among those to get caught up.
Thankfully, none were seriously injured, although Trek-Segafredo’s Marco Haller was forced to abandon the race with a cut to his leg caused by a broken bike tube, complete with shards of carbon-fibre embedded into the wound.
It was just after the crash that Quick-Step Floors upped the pace leading to Terpstra’s ultimately race-winning move, capitalising on some of their rivals getting delayed.
Wout Van Aert continues to impress
Cyclocross world champion Wout Van Aert has continued to make a very impressive transition from off-road to top-level road racing this spring.
The 23-year-old Belgian has paid back race organisers faith in inviting his Vérandas Willems-Crelan team with third in Strade-Bianche in Italy on March 3, followed by 10th in Ghent-Wevelgem on Sunday.
Van Aert played his part in putting in the work to ensure the lead group stayed away from the chasers during Ghent-Wevelgem, and only really looked underpowered in the final sprint.
It shows that Van Aert is happy in the company of the likes of Gilbert, Sagan and Van Avermaet, and will be a rider to watch in both the Dwars door Vlaanderen and Tour of Flanders this coming week – and in future seasons.
Mikel Landa: classics racer?
Some people no doubt did a double-take at the E3 Harelbeke start list after spotting Mikel Landa’s name among those taking part. The Spanish Grand Tour specialist was part of Movistar’s line-up as he experienced his first time racing in a Cobbled Classic.
The Spaniard’s appearance wasn’t a sudden change in career direction, but a way of gaining experience ahead of stage nine of the 2018 Tour de France, which features 15 sectors and 21.7 kilometres of cobbles. Recent history has told us that such Tour stages can be as decisive in terms of time lost/gained as those in the mountains.
Despite getting mixed up in the huge crash (see above), Landa finished E3 in the last big group of riders, in 86th place and 14 minutes down on race winner Terpstra.
It’s the turn of Landa’s Movistar team-mates and fellow Tour riders Alejandro Valverde and Nairo Quintana to tackle the Belgian cobbles on Wednesday, with the duo getting in some cobbled road experience at Dwars door Vlaanderen after taking the top two spots on the podium at the Volta a Catalunya on Sunday.
Imagine Quintana winning it. Now that would be something.