Fabian Cancellara makes resounding return to the cobbles with a classic victory in Flanders preview
Fabian Cancellara (RadioShack-Leopard) won the E3 Harelbeke semi-classic in Harelbeke, Belgium, on Friday. The Swiss attacked alone on the Kwaremont climb, 35 kilometers from the finish, and held off a chase group that included Peter Sagan (Cannondale) and WorldTour leader Sylvain Chavanel (Omega Pharma-Quick Step).
Sagan was second, winning the group sprint, ahead of Daniel Oss (BMC Racing).
“I didn’t really expect this kind of victory,” said Cancellara. “I just kept going, all day, I’ve always said, ‘you don’t know what is tomorrow, and it is always a risk when you give everything, and you win like this,’ but when I went, it was on purpose, it was an acceleration, to see who could follow, and also because I saw too many Omega riders. I tried to make a first selection, then Dirk [Demol, director] told me on the radio, ‘just go and go, and then we’ll see later,’ and later was the finish line.”
Omega Pharma directs the early affairs from behind
The 211-kilometer race, which took in many of the hellingen (climbs) that riders will face in nine days at the Ronde van Vlaanderen (Tour of Flanders), kicked on inside 75km to go when Omega Pharma-Quick Step sent Stijn Vandenbergh to the front of the peloton to string the bunch out heading into a series of narrow farm roads and tight corners. The Belgian tethered the gap to the six-man breakaway at 59 seconds and the building pressure began to tear at the escapees.
Ruslan Tleubayev (Astana) was the first of the day’s breakaway riders to fall off the pace, coming unhinged on the 2.1km, 5.8-percent Boigneberg climb.
Eloy Teruel (Movistar), Anders Lund (Saxo-Tinkoff), Wouter Mol (Vacansoleil-DCM), Stefan Van Dijk (Accent Jobs-Wanty), and Koen Barbé (Crelan-Euphony) continued on, but the group would soon fall apart.
With the gap dropping below 30 seconds, Teruel and Lund attacked the breakaway on the 1.2km, 5.5-percent Eikenberg, 73km from the finish. Mol and Van Dijk quickly found themselves overwhelmed by the peloton, led by Omloop Het Nieuwsblad winner Luca Paolini (Katusha), Geraint Thomas (Sky), and John Degenkolb (Argos-Shimano), but Barbé survived and eventually rejoined the two leaders.
As the bunch pressed on toward the Stationsberg, Matthieu Ladagnous attacked and bridged across to the leaders. It was all for not, however, and the bunch roared past the four escapees with 65km to go.
One pre-race favorite, Thor Hushovd (BMC Racing), ran into trouble ahead of the final climbs and was out the back of the peloton with a handful of riders.
The cobbled classics’ first major selection
Tom Boonen (Omega Pharma) took his usual initiative on 1.2km, 9.5-percent Taaienberg, attacking sharply up the concrete gutter on the right side of the cobbled climb. Jurgen Roelandts (Lotto-Belisol) matched the Belgian champion and behind them, Cancellara led Zdenek Stybar (Omega Pharma) and Mathew Hayman (Sky) across the gap.
When the Swiss-led trio joined the two leaders, Cancellara went to the front and drove the pace. Behind them, Daniel Oss (BMC Racing), Edvald Boasson Hagen (Sky), and Sep Vanmarcke (Blanco) bridged across quickly.
“I waited until the moment in the race for the big men to make their move,” said Oss. “Yesterday, I looked at the parcours so knew where I could go in front. I gave my best.”
With eight riders at the front, the first major selection of the cobbled classics season was made.
Sebastien Langeveld (Orica-GreenEdge) led an effort to bridge across from the peloton, followed by Stijn Vandenbergh (Omega Pharma), Lars Boom (Blanco), and Vincent Jerome (Europcar). The Omega Pharma and Blanco men were satisfied to sit in and take a tow up to their team leaders. With 55km to go, the gap was 16 seconds.
World champion Philippe Gilbert (BMC Racing) attempted to bridge, but couldn’t shake the peloton. Another favorite, Sagan dropped back for a bike change at the team car with 56km remaining, working his way gradually back up to the bunch on a long, wide section of road.
“I had a problem with the bike,” he said. “I broke a front wheel, and had to change a bike with another teammate.”
The peloton trailed the leaders by 37 seconds when the Slovak champion rejoined with 54km remaining.
Boom dropped off the bridging group on the 1.1km, 7.7-percent Kanarieberg, just before the chasers joined the leaders, 28 seconds in front of a peloton that was bursting at its head. Stijn Devolder (RadioShack), Greg Van Avermaet (BMC Racing), Geraint Thomas (Sky), and Degenkolb each attacked on the climb. Heinrich Haussler (IAM Cycling) chipped in an effort as well, but with 50km remaining, it was Cannondale on the front of the peloton, with three riders trying to pull Sagan across a 23-second gap on the winding, paved roads between Ronse and Zulzeke.
“It was not easy,” Sagan said. “We suffered a lot. My teammates helped me to get me to the group, but it was an effort.”
Up in the break, the entire group was committed, with Boonen, Stybar, Cancellara, and Oss taking big pulls as the group rotated its way toward the next tests, the 1.2km, 7.1-percent Kapelberg and the 362-meter, 12-percent Paterberg.
With 43km remaining, the race nearly came together, but the leaders pushed on and when Sagan and Chavanel made the jump to the break, Cannondale took its collective foot off the accelerator. Juan Antonio Flecha (Vacansoleil-DCM) and Andrey Amador (Movistar) sensed their opportunity was nearly gone and made a break for it, riding across the gap just as the breakaway hit the lower, cobbled reaches of the Paterberg.
A sharp attack from Boonen springs Cancellara
Boonen led onto the Paterberg and immediately stood on the pedals and pushed the pace up the left-hand gutter. The Belgian champ settled in 150 meters in and Cancellara moved onto his wheel, ahead of Hayman. When Boonen again stood, the first gap behind the Swiss began to show. Sagan and Hayman fought hard to maintain contact, however, and coming off the climb, there were six riders at the head of affairs: Boonen, Stybar, Cancellara, Sagan, Hayman, and Oss.
The group came together again in the lead-in to the Kwaremont. It would not last long, however.
It was on the Kwaremont, 35km from the line, that Cancellara finally put in his trademark acceleration, riding away from the leaders without standing from the saddle. He quickly took four seconds partway up the climb and carried almost 10 seconds across the grinding false flat atop the ramp.
“It was intuition to go on the Oude Kwaremont and just see if I could break down the group a little more,” he said.
Sagan was first to react and Roelandts was the first to pop — with a flat tire. “There were no cars behind me and I lost a lot of time before I could change wheel,” said the Belgian.
By the time he reached the narrowing, winding roads around Russingnies, barely a kilometer later, Cancellara was nearly out of sight.
“It was not the right moment for me. I didn’t have the time to take a little rest,” said Sagan. “To stay with Cancellara today was hard.”
Boonen lost contact with the first chase and the pursuers were down to five riders: Chavanel, Sagan, Oss, Thomas, and Langeveld. Boonen said after the race that he bonked.
“We really had to push to get a gap and I didn’t have the luxury of feeling comfortable enough to eat. Then on the Kwaremont, the light went out for a few minutes. I had a very tough moment on the Kwaremont. I thought it was the end of the race for me,” said Boonen. “But after that I took some gels and a bottle, and recovered well after that. But of course, the other guys in the chase, they were gone.”
By the time Cancellara reached the 1.5km, 5.3-percent Knokteberg, 25km from the line, he had 1:02 on the Sagan group. The chasers appeared somewhat disinterested in committing to a full-on pursuit. The five riders continued working, but the gap stayed above 55 seconds.
“When Cancellara attacked, we tried to follow him. But the situation was not easy,” said Sagan. “I don’t have a problem to lead the group and try to catch Cancellera, but the other riders, maybe tried to save energy because they know I can be faster. … We tried to follow him hard, but Cancellera was too strong today.”
Cancellara carried 1:01 over the top of the Tiegemberg, the race’s final climb, with 14km remaining, but finally, on the paved run-in to Harelbeke, the Swiss’ advantage began to plummet. With 12km to go, Cancellara lost 12 seconds in a kilometer and held just 44 seconds over the chasers. Sagan worked hard from behind, taking long pulls in the chase group, but the effort was short-lived.
“Today Cancellara was very strong,” said Chavanel. “Behind him we tried to chase. There was collaboration between us after the Kwaremont, but it wasn’t possible to catch him. The final was really fast due to the tailwind and it was a bit too late.”
With 7km to go, the wedge to Cancellara was again approaching one minute. He held tight to the advantage and the Swiss had enough time to enjoy the finish straight, celebrating his victory in the center of Harelbeke. While the win will put all eyes on Cancellara for Flanders, he said his success on Friday would give him relaxed confidence in Oudenaarde next weekend.
“We watched the 2011 E3 race on the computer two days ago; Kwaremont is of course an important key in this race, and De Ronde,” said Cancellara. “Next week [Ronde van Vlaanderen] is the big goal coming, but first we celebrate this today, it’s a really big victory. Next week the pressure will be on my shoulders, but everyone wants to win. I’ve won it once, and been on the podium. I’ve been building to this, and I can be relaxed next week, because of what I have done today.
Behind him, Oss attacked inside the final kilometer. Sagan and Thomas reacted and went head-to-head for the line. The Slovak drew even with his former teammate, nipping Oss for second. The Italian was third, with Thomas fourth. Langeveld was fifth and Chavanel had to settle for sixth.
Boonen took the field sprint ahead of Boasson Hagen, more than two minutes after Cancellara.
Despite missing the key move, Boonen, who has battled back from surgery in January to stem an infection in his elbow, said he was satisfied with his result.
“In normal conditions I would never drop from that situation,” he said. “But today, I was already happy to be there. It was the first final I did for this season. It was a nice race for a start. I think at the end I am very happy with the results and also the feelings in the race. I think it shows I don’t have to worry that much.”