It started so calmly. It was a beautiful, warm spring day, the whole of Belgium was out by the roadside and conditions were perfect for E3 Harelbeke‘s first year as a WorldTour race. Odds were on Fabian Cancellara to make it a hat-trick but everyone wanted to see what kind of form Tom Boonen was in on the run-up to Ronde van Vlaanderen. Well, we found out.
The first part of the race was given over to a nine-man break, which included Michael Morkov (Saxo Bank), who has had a busy week having also been part of major breakaways at Milan-San Remo and Dwars door Vlaanderen. They built a seven-minute lead ahead of the Muur, the first of the race’s 13 climbs approaching the mid-point of the 203km race. Tom Boonen‘s Omega Pharma-Quick Step started to up the tempo here, gradually reeling the break back in and setting up Boonen to make his customary attack on the 9.5% climb of the Taaienberg with 55km to go. An elite group of only a dozen or so riders, including Fabian Cancellara and his RadioShack teammates Daniele Bennati and Tony Gallopin, Liquigas’ Peter Sagan, and Farnese Vini’s Filippo Pozzato went with him.
With 40km left only Farnese Vini’s Oscar Gatto remained of the original escape ahead of the Boonen group as the peloton hit the slopes of the two key cobbled climbs: the short but vertiginous Paterberg (362m, 12% average) and the shallower but longer Oude Kwaremont (2,200m, 4.2%). Here Cancellara made his move and he succeeded in splitting the pack but, having already suffered a bike change and a puncture earlier in the race, he punctured again, negating his attack.
To make matters worse, as he stopped at the road-side to change his wheel, Rabobank’s Carlos Barredo careered into him from behind. Cancellara was left dazed after hitting the ground hard, but Spartacus shook himself back into the present, got on his bike and showed that unbelievable power and will of his by hurtling down the road in hot pursuit of the peloton. And he caught them. And got up to the front, ready to chase down Boonen. But the effort undoubtedly cost him and he was ultimately unable to contest the finish.
Barredo was less fortunate, suffering a broken arm. He would not be the only one forced out with a serious injury. Both David Millar (Garmin-Barracuda) and Jan Ghyselinck (Cofidis) sustained suspected broken collarbones in a crash at two-thirds distance, bringing their Classics campaigns to a premature end.
Boonen, meanwhile, was sitting pretty, keeping his group at a fair pace while his teammate Sylvain Chavanel was off the front with Astana’s Dmitri Muravyev and making good time. The disheveled and chaotic chasing peloton had riders scattered all over the road due to a never-ending sequence of jumps, attacks, minor crashes and one King of Belgium, Philippe Gilbert, blowing off the back and abandoning.
The French/Kazakh alliance looked strong but not strong enough, as at about the 8km mark, the main bunch put the pedal to the metal and scooped them up. A warm handshake and they vanished into the blaze of riders coming up fast. And who should be up in front, driving the main bunch faster and faster? Sky’s Bernie Eisel, this time riding for himself! Right behind Eisel were the OPQS boys, keeping Boonen safe and speeding towards a bunch finish. They ruthlessly reeled in a number of speculative attacks in the closing kilometres, most notably by Flemish veteran Leif Hoste (Accent.jobs-Willems Verandas).
Then in a chaotic finish – no lead-out trains today – Boonen kicked off the final bend and just managed to hold off the late-charging Oscar Freire (Katusha) – who later admitted he had started his sprint too late – to take a record fifth E3 title by the width of a wheel rim. It was a well-deserved victory and a tantalising dress rehearsal for next Sunday’s Ronde.
This wild, untamed race was absolutely riveting, with the only predictable thing being Boonen’s attack on the Taaienberg. Even the podium kiss carried an element of surprise to it.
Boonen admitted after the race that his legs were heavy on the run-in to the finish, but was pleased to win to relieve the pressure ahead of Ronde van Vlaanderen:
I was doing a few big attacks, I wasn’t saving myself for a sprint, but when it came back together it looked like it would be a sprint. I was tired but I knew everyone was tired. Everyone suffers on a parcours like this, whether you’re at the front or the back. I was not very comfortable for a sprint, but I was sure I would do a good sprint.
This takes away the pressure a little bit. I can be a little more relaxed in the days that are coming.
Cancellara was philosophical about his misfortune. It certainly seemed fated that he would not win today:
Three times problems with the bike, two times I crashed … so much bad luck … more is not possible. What can you do? I tried on the Kwaremont but then had a flat tyre, and I pulled over in the curve to change it and then Barredo crashed into me.
Nonetheless, Cancellara looked strong and, if not for his mechanical mishaps, would undoubtedly have been in contention for victory. The Ronde (Tour of Flanders), which takes place a week on Sunday, features many of the same bergs as the E3: the Taaienberg is the first climb of the race, and the peloton must tackle the Kwaremont and the Paterberg three times each, with the final summit just 13km from the finish. Don’t be surprised if Boonen and Cancellara are among the key protagonists again next weekend.
1. Tom Boonen (Omega Pharma-Quick Step) 4:51:59
2. Oscar Freire (Katusha) same time
3. Bernhard Eisel (Sky) s/t
4. Leonardo Duque (Cofidis) s/t
5. Sep Vanmarcke (Garmin-Barracuda) s/t
6. John Degenkolb (1t4i) s/t
7. Alexandre Pichot (Europcar) s/t
8. Alessandro Ballan (BMC ) s/t
9. Sebastian Turgot (Europcar) s/t
10. Matti Breschel (Rabobank) s/t