Geraint Thomas (Sky) claimed his first big spring classics win on Friday with a canny late-race attack in the closing kilometers of E3 Harelbeke.
Pre-race favorites Zdenek Stybar (Etixx-Quick-Step) and Peter Sagan (Tinkoff-Saxo), who had broken away with him with 41km to go, on the Oude Kwaremont, had no response when the Welsh rider went.
“I thought if I could hit them a bit earlier, I could take them by surprise,” Thomas said. “They would look at each other. It worked out perfectly, really I can’t believe it.”
After Sagan was dropped in the finale, Stybar, the former cyclocross world champion, was no match for his quarry, the two-time Olympic gold medalist in the team pursuit. Thomas crossed the line with a comfortable gap at the end of 218 kilometers of racing.
“I just imagined I was trying to hold [Ed] Clancy’s wheel in team pursuit,” Thomas said.
The race was shaken up by a major crash early on, which claimed perennial classics favorite, Fabian Cancellara (Trek Factory Racing). He will miss the rest of the spring season with two fractured vertebrae.
Ahead, the breakaway included Sean De Bie (Lotto-Soudal), Kristian Sbaragli (MTN-Qhubeka), Dries Devenyns (IAM Cycling), Adrea Dal Col (Southeast), Sjoerd van Ginneken (Roompot), and Sebastien Turgot (Ag2r La Mondiale). With 100 kilometers left, their lead was just under six minutes.
Soon, Dal Col was dropped from the lead group.
In the peloton, Daniel Oss (BMC) whipped up the pace on the Taainberg, breaking a small group off the front of the peloton.
They were soon brought back by the peloton after a few kilometers of flat road.
Tinkoff-Saxo began to chase hard, bringing the break’s gap down to under 2:30 with 67 kilometers left. Sky also pitched in at the front.
As the gap fell to 1:16 by 47km to go, with help from BMC, van Ginneken was dropped.
When the lead trio reached the Paterberg, their lead was merely 43 seconds, and Devenyns set off alone.
When the peloton reached the short, steep berg, LottoNL-Jumbo’s Sep Vanmarcke went on the attack, but a slipped chain derailed his move and nearly caused another crash. Greg Van Avermaet (BMC) took over toward the top of the climb, stretching the field and breaking free with a small group
But the peloton consolidated again.
Next up was the Oude Kwaremont. There, Sagan, Stybar, and Thomas jumped free and soon passed Devenyns.
“I was in my backyard, and I received a lot of encouragement,” Devenyns said in a team statement. “I was not riding my best at the start of the season due to a virus I was suffering from, but then I found my groove. I am happy with my day, and it has done me a lot of good mentally.”
With the gap out to 13 seconds, BMC chased hard with help from LottoNL-Jumbo.
The three-man break worked well together, and with 20km left, their lead was 36 seconds.
With 17 kilometers remaining, BMC’s leader, Van Avermaet, crashed out of the chase group on a narrow righthand bend. Katusha then took up the reigns in the chase group as the lead extended to one minute approaching the final 10 kilometers.
Despite the frantic pursuit behind, the breakaway had a 40-second gap with five kilometers left. But that was not good enough for Thomas, who attacked and set off alone with four kilometers left.
Stybar opened up the throttle to chase and Sagan was dropped. Thomas’ advantage over the Czech was 14 seconds with two kilometers left.
“It’s no secret how I felt in the last kilometers, I think you could see it on television as well,” said Sagan in a press statement. “I feel confident that Sunday will be better.”
Thomas rode alone to glory, winning with a comfortable gap. Stybar was second, and his Etixx teammate Matteo Trentin sprinted to third from the peloton.
“[Thomas] went really fast and Sagan didn’t really react,” Stybar said in a team statement. “I hesitated for maybe two seconds too long, and the race was over. I was very disappointed in that moment because I felt I could win today.”
“I felt pretty good from the second half of the race, really just committed,” the winner said. “It was hard out there. The three of us had to work well together. Fortunately it was great for me.
“These six weeks from Paris-Nice to Paris-Roubaix was the big hit for me early season. Paris-Nice was really disappointing. To get the win now … anything else is really a bonus.”
Agence France-Presse contributed to this report.