When the chasers caught solo leader Bob Jungels with 6km to go, it seemed like Deceuninck-Quick-Step’s chances to win the E3 BinckBank Classic were in question. That was until Zdenek Stybar came storming past Olympic champ Greg Van Avermaet (CCC) to win Friday in Harelbeke, Belgium.
Van Avermaet was third in the sprint behind WorldTour rookie Wout van Aert (Jumbo-Visma), who was second after 204 kilometers.
“Winning Harelbeke after Omloop is amazing, but I couldn’t have done it without this extraordinary team,” said Stybar. “Bob [Jungels] was instrumental in my victory, I couldn’t have done it without him, so I want to thank him for his enormous help.”
Known to sneak off the front on solo attacks, Jungels made his move early in the race, before the route’s decisive cobbled hills.
With 60km to go, the Luxembourg champion rode away from the peloton on the Stationberg, and he quickly bridged up to the early breakaway of six riders. At that point, the leaders were tantalizingly close to the peloton, only about 20 seconds up the road.
With the addition of Jungels, along with Jasha Sutterlin (Movistar) and Nils Politt (Katusha-Alpecin) who bridged up soon after, the breakaway stretched its advantage to over one minute with 45km to go.
The Paterberg climb proved to be the first decisive moment in the race, coming about 43 kilometers from the finish.
In the breakaway, Jungels punched the accelerator on the cobbled climb, shedding all but Marc Hirschi (Sunweb). In the peloton behind, Van Avermaet attacked up the smooth gutter on the left side of the Paterberg to draw out a select group of eight other riders.
Things settled down on the smooth pavement that followed and Sutterlin and Politt rejoined Jungels.
However, Jungels wasn’t content with the uncooperative companions and attacked on the Karnemelkbeekstraat climb with about 30 kilometers to go. Around that point, he held a gap of about 40 seconds on the group of chasers, which featured Van Avermaet, Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe), van Aert, and Stybar.
The chase group was also restless. Behind the eight favorites, a third group on the road was drawing closer and closer, led by last year’s E3 winner Niki Terpstra (Direct Energie).
Van Avermaet wasn’t about to take his chances with an even larger group of favorites. So, he set off on the attack with 20 kilometers to go.
Right away, Sagan was dropped. After the race, he said that a mechanical had held him back in the crucial moment.
“I could feel that my form still hadn’t reached its full potential and that I hadn’t fully recovered,” the three-time world champion said. “Then, after the final feed zone, I felt that something had hit my rear derailleur. I’m not sure what it was but it wasn’t working correctly. I rode for about 10km with that issue and by the time the mechanic fixed it, it was too late to close the gap to the front group.”
Only Van Aert, Alberto Bettiol (EF Education First), and Stybar could follow Van Avermaet’s attack.
Now that Van Avermaet’s chase was pared down, they began to make short work of Jungels’s lead, which had been holding steady at 40 seconds and had seemed like enough to last until the finish.
Inside the final 10 kilometers, the four chasers drew a bead on his tri-color Luxembourg champion’s jersey.
At six kilometers to go, Jungels was caught and the group of five was racing for the win.
Stybar was the first rider to test the breakaway, attacking with 3.5km to go. Van Aert followed his fellow former ‘cross racer, and Bettiol closed the gap to reset the race.
Jungels launched a counter, despite having ridden off the front for the last 25 kilometers. Then it was Van Avermaet’s turn to cover the move.
With 2.1km to go, Sybar again probed the break, but it was destined to come down to a sprint.
Jungels led things out. Van Avermaet launched his acceleration, but it appeared to be a bit too early. Stybar was right on the Belgian’s wheel and came past to win by a comfortable margin with van Aert lunging to second place at the line.
“It’s a big pleasure for me to be there with such a shape and now I’m really looking forward to Tour of Flanders,” said Stybar, a former world cyclocross champion, like van Aert.