Niki Terpstra made a long-range attack stick to win the 2018 E3 Harelbeke as Quick-Step Floors dominated the cobbled Classic.
Terpstra escaped the main group with his team-mate Yves Lampaert with around 70km to go and held off an elite chasing group in the final kilometres after going solo with 42km left.
It’s the Dutchman’s first victory E3 Harelbeke and his second victory of the season after taking the win in Le Samyn in February with a similar solo victory.
How it happened
The opening kilometres of the race saw an expected breakaway get up the road, with eight riders going early.
The first part of the race was defined by it’s crashes though, with world champion Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe) taken down at one point.
A big crash with 110km to go caused a major split, with Quick-Step pushing on the front of the lead group and riders including Sep Vanmarcke (EF Education First-Drapac) and much of the Astana squad being caught behind.
Quick-Step were able to push the gap out to that group to well over a minute with 90km to go as Astana led the chase, and began bearing down on the original break.
Damien Gaudin (Direct Energie) and Pim Ligthart (Roompot) were able to break clear from their early breakaway companions on the Hotondberg with 86km to go, while the other six riders drifted back to the Quick-Step led chasers.
That pressure from Quick-Step on the cobbled climb of the Taaienberg caused a major split with 76km to go, with Lampaert and Terpstra able to get away solo shortly after.
They quickly caught Gaudin and Ligthart before leaving them behind and putting 45 seconds into the bunch behind.
Counter attacks began quickly though, with a number of the favourites trying to bridge across.
Sagan, Gilbert and Van Avermaet as well as Tiesj Benoot (Lotto-Soudal), Daniel Oss (Bora-Hansgrohe), Zdenek Stybar and Florian Senechal (Quick-Step) and Matteo Trentin (Mitchelton-Scott) were eventually able to come together to form with Ligthart and Gaudin in a chase 43 seconds behind the leaders and 35 seconds ahead of the next chasing group.
The next major move saw Greg Van Avermaet try and bridge to the leaders with 56km remaining, and he was quickly joined by Benoot and Gilbert.
With 45km to go, the gap was up to 50 seconds between the leaders and group two. Group three at 1-35 but were caught by large the next chasing group including Vanmarcke, Michael Matthews (Sunweb) and Oliver Naesen (Ag2r La Mondiale).
Up front, Terpstra began to distance Lampaert on the Paterberg with 42km to go but waited at the top, with Lampaert struggling again on the Karnemelkbeekstraat climb with 30km to go.
Behind, the Van Avermaet group was soon to be caught, and Gilbert attacked to try and bridge to his team-mates up front.
With the gap to the front at 30 seconds, by 26km remaining, Gilbert, Benoot and Van Avermaet were all back in the chase group which had lost a huge number of riders over the Paterberg and Oude Kwaremont, and now contained just Stybar, Naesen, Trentin, Vanmarcke, Gianni Moscon (Team Sky), Stefan Küng and Jurgen Roelandts (BMC) and Jasper Stuyven (Trek-Segafredo).
Terpstra finally let the now exhausted Lampaert drop off with 24km to go on the final cobbled sector, and it was then up to former Paris-Roubaix winner to hold the elite group behind at bay.
That group attempted a number of attacks but nothing would stick, and the presence of Gilbert and Stybar rolling across the front and not taking a turn slowed them down enough for Terpstra to maintain a precarious 20 second gap.
That gap has slipped right down to around 14 seconds with 5.5km to go, when Van Avermaet initiated a late flurry of attacks, with none again able to stick.
As that group began to look at each other with 2km to go, Terpstra was able to grit his teeth and hold on to take a heroic solo win.
Gilbert made a late attack in the final kilometre to nip in for second place, while defending champion Van Avermaet won the sprint for third place.
E3 Harelbeke 2018 (206.1km)
1 Niki Terpstra (Ned) Quick-Step Floors 5-04-18
2 Philippe Gilbert (Bel) Quick-Step Floors
3 Greg Van Avermaet (Bel) BMC Racing Team
4 Oliver Naesen (Bel) AG2R La Mondiale
5 Tiesj Benoot (Bel) Lotto Soudal
6 Jasper Stuyven (Bel) Trek-Segafredo
7 Sep Vanmarcke (Bel) EF Education First-Drapac
8 Gianni Moscon (Ita) Team Sky
9 Zdenek Stybar (Cze) Quick-Step Floors
10 Stefan Küng (Swi) BMC Racing Team