The E3 Saxo Bank Classic heralded the return of racing on cobbles, as the peloton tackled some of the famous climbs that will feature in the Tour of Flanders next weekend.
The traditional warm up race for the big Flemish event did not disappoint, with action throughout its 203.9km long parcours. Ultimately, though, the race was decided 42km out from the finish, as the Jumbo-Visma duo of Wout van Aert and Christophe Laporte attacked and only extended their lead on the run in to the finish.
There were, however, more things than just 'Van Aert is good' to be gleaned from this race, however, I promise.
Jumbo-Visma show their strength, again
Jumbo-Visma have won eight races this season. On three occasions, like at E3, they have had at least two riders on the podium. They are great at making their numbers count, as we saw on Friday.
Wout van Aert, Christophe Laporte, Tiesj Benoot and Mike Teunissen were all part of the crucial selection, and that gave the first two the belief to attack and stay away, in the knowledge that they had teammates behind.
This was despite them being down to just six riders from quite early on, as Tosh van der Sande crashed out of the race.
They really do look like the team to beat in the classics, with the additions of Laporte and Benoot really making a difference to the men in yellow. Gone are the days when Van Aert would look isolated at the end of a one-day race, with his teammates now lasting the distance.
An underrated difference this year is the return of Teunissen, who missed all of last year's classics season with injury. He told me at Paris-Nice that he was coming back into form, and this certainly proved to be the case in Belgium.
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The team of defending champion Kasper Asgreen just did not look in control of the race at any point, and were left chasing Jumbo-Visma as they cemented their position as the squad to beat.
Last year they were the team to take the 1-2 at E3 with Asgreen and Florian Sénéchal, and four riders in the top-13, just like Jumbo-Visma this year. However, on Friday, their top finisher was Asgreen in 10th, and their second best was Davide Ballerini in 53rd.
The Belgian squad have been depleted by injury and illness, with Tim Declercq a big miss; "The Tractor" has become so good at controlling races like this for his team, that he might one of the reasons for their underperformance.
It isn't quite panic stations for Patrick Lefevere's squad, but with three more crucial races in Gent-Wevelgem, Dwars door Vlaanderen and then the Tour de Flanders coming in the next nine days, the Belgian will surely be expecting more at these home events.
Narvaez and Girmay make big impressions
There were two riders that stood out in the elite group chasing behind Laporte and Van Aert: Jhonatan Narvaez of Ineos Grenadiers and Biniam Girmay of Intermarché-Wanty-Gobert.
The Belgian classics have traditionally been the domain of riders from cycling's heartlands, with only one winner in 64 editions of E3 coming from outside of Europe.
To have an Ecuadorean and an Eritrean battling it out in the final of a cobbled classic, then, is a big step forward for cycling.
Narvaez is 25 and Girmay is 21, but both looked at home among the more experienced riders around them in Flanders. This year, the former has surprised as a classics rider, finishing 6th at Strade Bianche among other eye-catching displays, while Girmay is having a breakout season, winning once and having five top-10 finishes.
The pair could continue to impress in the cobbled classics over the next few weeks, and their presence will no longer be a surprise at the sharp end of races.
Mohorič can do more than descend
Matej Mohorič of Bahrain-Victorious was repeatedly heralded as the best descender in the world following his victory at Milan-San Remo last weekend.
However, on Friday, it wasn't his downhill skills that were on show, but his power, his rouleur and puncheur abilities. The Slovenian is clearly in fine form, whatever the terrain, and finished fourth in Harelbeke.
When Laporte and Van Aert made their move, Mohorič looked like the most likely to be able to bridge across, powering up the Oude Kwaremont.
This would have been one of his first times racing some of the cobbled climbs, seeing as this was only his second E3, and he has never raced the Tour of Flanders.
In fact, his only previous top-10 result in a cobbled classic was at Gent-Wevelgem in 2019, which makes this result all the more impressive. There might be more to come from the 27-year old.
Groupama-FDJ edge AG2R Citröen in battle of big French teams
AG2R Citröen made a big attempt to build their classics pedigree last year, with the signings of Greg van Avermaet, Stan Dewulf and Bob Jungels joining Oliver Naesen at the French team.
However, the squad is yet to fully fire, with it happening once again at E3, with their highest finisher being Naesen in 21st. Van Avermaet might have finished 3rd at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad this year and the Tour of Flanders last year, but these are selected highlights.
Meanwhile, their French rivals Groupama-FDJ might not always have concentrated on the classics, but with Stefan Küng and Valentin Madouas both finishing inside the top ten on Friday, they look like they are a force to be reckoned with in one-day races.
Küng in particular looks especially suited to hard races, harnessing his time trialling skills to put the power down. He has looked good all season, climbing with some of the best at Paris-Nice for example.
His third place at E3 might be the sign of bigger things to come for the Swiss rider.
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