Peter Sagan judged the finale to perfection to take victory from a decisive four-man attack at E3 Harelbeke and kick-start his 2014 classics campaign.
Crash, bang, wallop
As is often the way in the cobbled classics, there were plenty of crashes during the race. Often these occur in the back half of the peloton. But today a crash close to the front with just over 40km remaining changed the course of the race as Trek’s Fabian Cancellara, winner in three of the last four years, was delayed behind the incident.
A group of around 20 went clear, with fragmented clusters trailing in their wake. Cancellara was soon in hot pursuit, picking off those ahead of him in what must have been an adrenaline-fuelled rage, and eventually settling into a stable chase group that formed over the top of the Paterberg.
It was a monumental effort by Spartacus, but in reality it probably drained him of the energy necessary to put in one of his trademark long-range attacks.
We never got to find out, though. Although Cancellara’s group outnumbered the seven ahead of them, it was left to him and teammate Stijn Devolder to do the pulling on the front.
Why? Cancellara’s peloton included several riders with teammates among the lead group, who understandably refused to contribute. Other teams such as BMC and Lotto-Belisol took the conservative route, apparently more worried about giving Cancellara a helping hand than they were about promoting their own chances.
That essentially left Devolder to plough a lone furrow at the front and, redoubtable rider though he is, he was always going to lose that unequal battle. By the time Cancellara decided to take matters into his own hands and increase the pace it was too late. The gap fell briefly but with little help forthcoming the momentum quickly fizzled out.
The fact that the exhausted Devolder was dropped but later able to rejoin said as much about the group’s lack of pace as it did his determination.
Sagan the strong, Sky on the rise
Up ahead, Cannondale’s Peter Sagan had launched an attack on the penultimate climb which only Geraint Thomas (Sky) and the Omega Pharma-Quick Step pair of Niki Terpstra and Stijn Vandenbergh were able to follow. These four earned a large enough gap to afford them the luxury of playing tactics in the closing kilometres.
With the numerical advantage, OPQS tried the classic one-two punch as first Terpstra (once) and then Vandenbergh (repeatedly) attacked. Vandenbergh’s final move came inside the final 500 metres but served only to make Sagan’s task easier as Thomas immediately followed, allowing Sagan to slot in and pick his moment to launch a convincing winning sprint.
Terpstra edged past Thomas to take second – a great result for the former Dutch national champion after his victory at Dwars door Vlaanderen on Wednesday.
Should Thomas have reacted so quickly? No. His best shot was probably to surprise Sagan with a long effort from 300 metres or more, but it would have been difficult into a slight headwind and Vanmarcke’s move denied him the opportunity anyway. He would also have been better placed if he had risked letting the OPQS man go, waited for Sagan to respond – as he would have had to – and then try to come off his wheel, rather than serve as his lead-out.
Mind you, such was the ferocity of Sagan’s sprint, there was probably no way to beat the Slovak today. And it’s easy to criticise a rider’s split-second decision with the benefit of hindsight from the comfort of a keyboard. Suffice it to say that it was a great ride by Thomas, who is carrying superb form and not suffering the ill-fortune he did last spring, when it seemed like he crashed every time a camera focussed on him.
Never mind all the talk about Wiggins and Paris-Roubaix. If any Sky rider is going to win one of the big spring classics any time soon – and, no, I haven’t forgotten about Ian Stannard‘s win at the much smaller Omloop het Nieuwsblad – it’s going to be the affable Welshman.
Add in Ben Swift‘s podium finish at Milan-San Remo, and Sky certainly aren’t a laughing-stock when it comes to one-day races any more. It’s pleasing to see their British riders at the forefront of this improvement.
Race at a glance
3 – Sagan‘s victory marked only the third time in the last 11 years that the race has been won by someone other than Tom Boonen or Fabian Cancellara.
3 – Only three of 2013’s top ten finished in the top ten this year: Cancellara (1st in 2013/9th in 2014), Sagan (2nd/1st) and Thomas (4th/3rd).
2 – Omega Pharma-Quick Step have now placed two riders in the top seven two years running. Last year Sylvain Chavanel and Tom Boonen were sixth and seventh. Today Niki Terpstra and Stijn Vandenbergh were second and fourth.
1. Peter Sagan (Cannondale) 4:56:31
2. Niki Terpstra (Omega Pharma-Quick Step) same time
3. Geraint Thomas (Sky) s/t
4. Stijn Vandenbergh (Omega Pharma-Quick Step) s/t
5. Sep Vanmarcke (Belkin) +1:16
6. Tony Gallopin (Lotto Belisol) s/t
7. Borut Bozic (Astana) +1:19
8. Tyler Farrar (Garmin-Sharp) s/t
9. Fabian Cancellara (Trek) s/t
10. Greg van Avermaet (BMC) s/t