Kasper Asgreen put in a sublime performance to take the 2021 E3 Saxo Bank Classic solo.
The Danish national champion launched a huge attack more than 60km from the finish and was alone until 12km, when he was caught by a chasing group led by Mathieu van der Poel (Alpecin-Fenix).
But with dominant numbers in the chasing group, Deceuninck – Quick-Step sent Asgreen on another solo attack 5km from the line, and this time he wouldn’t be caught.
Deceuninck’s Florian Sénéchal then came through to win the sprint in the chasing group to finish second, making it a one-two for the Belgian squad, while Van der Poel was forced to settle for the final podium spot.
How it happened
The 2021 E3 Saxo Bank Classic, formerly E3 Harelbeke, was raced over a gruelling 203km in the Flemish Ardennes, starting and finishing in Harelbeke, and featuring 10 cobbled sectors and 16 notable climbs.
Early in the stage, riders had to take on a relentless rolling opening 70km, before the famous climbs came thick and fast.
In the middle section, the peloton took on the Oude Kruisberg, and the Taaienberg, before heading into the brutal and decisive final 60km.
The serious climbing got underway at the 130km mark, with four climbs in quick succession, before the tough combination of the Kapelleberg, the Paterberg, and the Oude Kwaremont, which topped out around 40km from the finish.
Into the final sector, the final climb, the Tiegemberg, fell 20km from the line, followed by a fast and flat run to the finish.
The race started with a large breakaway escaping the peloton in the opening kilometres, as 12 riders set the pace out front, including Marco Haller (Bahrain Victorious), Niki Terpstra (Total Direct Energie) and André Greipel (Israel Start-Up Nation).
That group pulled out a decent gap of over three minutes in the opening 50km, but with Tim Declerq pulling the peloton along behind for Deceuninck – Quick-Step the advantage was never secure.
Into the final 100km the gap had dropped to two minutes on the succession of short and punchy climbs, as Deceuninck raced to the foot of every ascent to keep their riders safe at the front of the bunch.
As the race hit the Taaienberg with around 80km to go, Declerq and Deceuninck absolutely tore the bunch to pieces as they hit the climb, causing splits and setting up Asgreen to launch his first attack.
Asgreen’s move from the bunch was followed by some of the biggest names in the race, setting up an elite chasing group hot on the heels of the breakaway with 70km to race.
That chasing group featured Wout van Aert (Jumbo-Visma), Mathieu van der Poel, Greg Van Avermaet (Ag2r-Citroën) and three riders from Deceuninck – Quick-Step – Asgreen, Zdenek Štybar and Florian Sénéchal.
Asgreen attacked once again and he got a gap with around 65km to the line, as his Deceuninck team mates were able to sit in the group and leave the chasing to the favourites.
The remains of the break was finally caught with just over 60km left to race, as Asgreen continued to hold a modest gap of around 20 seconds to the chasing group, while the peloton lingered around a minute further down the road.
Into the final 30km, and Deceuninck’s Yves Lampaert and Dylan van Baarle (Ineos Grenadiers) were able to bridge across to the group of favourites, which now consisted of 12 riders, including Van Aert, Van der Poel, Van Avermaet, and now three Deceuninck riders.
Asgreen continued to hold onto his advantage of around 25 seconds as the final climb approached, but Deceuninck’s advantage was narrowed slightly when Lampaert suffered a puncture with 20km to race, forcing him to drop out of the chasing group having only just arrived.
Onto the Tiegemberg, the final climb, inside 20km and Van Aert was the first to launch a huge attack, which was quickly followed up by Van der Poel, as Van Aert blew up spectacularly and was dropped.
Van der Poel pressed on with Štybar on his wheel, as Van Avermaet and a handful of other chasers were able to follow, as Asgreen’s advantage slipped to 10 seconds.
With 16km to the line, the firsting chasing group consisted of six riders – Van der Poel, Van Avermaet and his team-mate Oliver Naesen, Štybar, Sénéchal, and Van Baarle – with the Van Aert chasing group slightly further behind.
Asgreen was finally caught by the Van der Poel group 12km from the line, but the Dane was still strong enough to hold onto the leading group, as the Van Aert group was now 14 seconds back.
Inside 5km and miraculously Asgreen attacked once again and went clear of the leading group, pulling out a 10 second advantage.
Despite attacks from Naesen and Van Avermaet, Deceuninck were able to control the race behind as Asgreen continued to ride away .
Finally the chasing group stalled as Asgreen arrived at the finish alone, 30 seconds ahead of his rivals.
Van der Poel then tried to sprint early to secure second place, but Sénéchal got the better of him to finish second, with Van der Poel settling for third place.
E3 Saxo Bank Classic 2021, Harelbeke to Harelbeke (203.9km)
1. Kasper Asgreen (Den) Deceuninck – Quick-Step, 4-42-37
2. Florian Sénéchal (Fra) Deceuninck – Quick-Step, at 32s
3. Mathieu van der Poel (Ned) Alpecin-Fenix
4. Oliver Naesen (Bel) Ag2r Citroën
5. Zdenek Štybar (Cze) Deceuninck – Quick-Step
6. Greg Van Avermaet (Bel) Ag2r Citroën
7. Dylan van Baarle (Ned) Ineos Grenadiers, all at same time
8. Markus Hoelgaard (Nor) Uno-X Pro Cycling, at 1-28
9. Gianni Vermeersch (Bel) Alpecin-Fenix, at 1-30
10. Marco Haller (Aut) Bahrain-Victorious, at same time