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Sagan wins E3 Harelbeke after tactical battle

Slovak champion takes cagey victory from late escape at E3 Harelbeke after Belgian team's tandem fails to drop him

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Peter Sagan won E3 Harelbeke in Belgium Friday to open the first big weekend of the northern classics. Sagan (Cannondale) outfoxed a pair of Omega Pharma-Quick Step riders to take a cagey victory in the 212-kilometer race known popularly as “Mini-Flanders.”

Niki Terpstra (Omega Pharma) was second and Geraint Thomas (Sky) was third in the important build-up to the Ronde van Vlaanderen (Tour of Flanders), which takes place April 6.

Defending champion Fabian Cancellara (Trek Factory Racing) finished ninth after being caught behind a poorly timed crash late in the race.

“I am happy to win because I came here to test my form for the upcoming classics,” said Sagan. “It is good for the future, but I cannot say what will happen in the future. Maybe I will crash in the first 20km at Flanders, and the race is over. I am happy with the victory because it confirms I am in good shape.”

Early breakaways and mishaps

The race route took in 17 hellingen, or hills, including the Taaienberg (1.2km, 9.5%), Paterberg (300m, 12%), Oude Kwaremont (2.2km, 4.2%)

When the peloton rolled across the Haaghoek cobbles, just over 30km into the day, five riders made a break for it: Maxime Daniel (Ag2r La Mondiale), Jerome Cousin (Europcar), Florian Sénéchal (Cofidis), Jay Thomson (MTN-Qhubeka), and Laurens De Vreese (Wanty Groupe Gobert).

The escape took a maximum advantage of roughly seven minutes before the peloton kicked on for the chase. A series of crashes saw Ian Stannard (Sky) and Maarten Wynants (Belkin) among the riders to hit the ground.

A series of attacks saw some reshaping at the front of the peloton with 70km to go, but the real interest was at the back of the race, where pre-race favorites Sagan and Sep Vanmarcke (Belkin) suffered near-simultaneous mechanicals. With the help of two teammates each, both riders were back in the bunch within a couple kilometers.

“I just had a lot of bad luck today,” Vanmarcke said in a press release. “The team, however, supported me perfectly every time I had to chase.”

Cousin ran into trouble just after the Knokteberg, with 65km to go, but was able to regain contact with the breakaway after a hard chase. Behind, former world champion Thor Hushovd (BMC Racing) dropped out of the race, rolling off the course in his Norwegian champion’s jersey.

Hushovd’s teammate, Greg Van Avermaet, suffered a mechanical moments later, forcing a rear wheel change just 2km before the 1.1km, three-percent Rotelenberg. Steele Von Hoffe (Garmin-Sharp) appeared to puncture at nearly the same point.

They both made it back to the bunch quickly and Sky, Omega Pharma, and Trek led the peloton onto the climb 1:40 behind the breakaway.

Cancellara caught out

With 43km to go and the four-climb onslaught of the Kapelberg (900m, 4%), Paterberg, Oude Kwaremont, Karnemelkbeekstraat (1.5km, 4.9%) just up the road, BMC Racing massed at the front of the bunch. Shortly after, a large crash on a single-lane section of road tore the peloton in half. A group of perhaps 30 riders made it through the stoppage, including Sagan, Van Avermaet, and Vanmarcke.

“I was in good position in the front and was not involved in the crash,” said Sagan. “We heard the bunch had split up, but in any race, you go hard as you can, it doesn’t matter who is dropped or who is chasing or anything else. The race finishes at the finish line.”

Three-time Harelbeke winner Cancellara was among the riders caught out and the Swiss chased from behind, leaving riders to fight for his wheel as he drilled it across a long, paved section of winding road.

Up ahead, the leaders rode onto the Paterberg with a 1:05 advantage. De Vreese led the group and his pace popped Thomson and Daniel.

Vanmarcke took the bit in the peloton and pushed hard up the left gutter. Still, Cancellara gained ground.

Dwars door Vlaanderen winner Terpstra was first over the climb from the bunch and an eight-rider chase group formed on his wheel. The group swelled heading into the Oude Kwaremont, with Boonen and Sagan in the mix.

Soon, those men would see the one rider they’d hoped to have done away with: Cancellara. The four-time world time trial champion pulled a handful of riders up to the group and planted himself about six riders from the front.

Terpstra pulled up the Oude Kwaremont and by the top, a group of five men had sprung free, including his teammate Stijn Vandenbergh, Sagan, Thomas, and John Degenkolb (Giant-Shimano). The three survivors of the breakaway held just seven seconds, a gap Thomas and Co. quickly surmounted. With 28km and two climbs to go, Sénéchal, De Vreese, and Cousin tried to glue themselves to the back of the eight-man lead group.

Behind them, Boonen, Cancellara, Vanmarcke, Van Avermaet, Jürgen Roelandts (Lotto-Belisol), Edvald Boasson Hagen (Sky), Tyler Farrar (Garmin), and Luca Paolini (Katusha) were among the riders to form the first chase group. Two-time Ronde van Vlaanderen champion Stijn Devolder buried himself for teammate Cancellara and got no help from the Omega Pharma and Sky riders in the group. The defensive posturing by the Belgian and British teams would pay moments later when Terpstra, Vandenberg, Sagan, and Thomas rode away from their companions on the Karnemelkbeekstraat.

Devolder continued to pull the chasers, but the gap was 45 seconds with 18km remaining. Giant started contributing once Degenkolb dropped back to the chase, but the leaders had 49 seconds when they reached the Tiegemberg (1km, 6.5%) with 16km to go.

“In the final, on the Oude Kwaremont, I was suffering a lot and when Fabian Cancellara and Stijn Devolder tried to bridge to the leaders, I was only able to follow,” said Vanmarcke. “I couldn’t really do my turns, which was of course unfortunate.”

Cancellara attacked hard on the paved climb, with Paolini, Vanmarcke, and Stybar following him. The group caught the foursome, but the surge cut the gap to the leaders down to 35 seconds.

A tactical endgame for Sagan, Thomas, and Omega Pharma

With 10km to go, the leaders fanned out across the road, having a chat. Sagan appeared upset that Terpstra was sitting at the back of the group, despite Omega Pharma’s numbers advantage in the move. The Dutchman had Stybar and Boonen behind, but the potential victory ahead.

From there, the finale would play out as a tough tactical battle accented by Omega Pharma’s nearly non-stop attacks and Sagan’s and Thomas’ resolve.

Terpstra put in the first dig 5.5km from the line, but Sagan shut him down. Moments later, Vandenbergh attacked from the back. Sagan forced Thomas to chase, with Terpstra following the two of them. Vandenbergh went again, coming off Sagan’s wheel with 4km to go. The Slovak chased him down, and the group rode together for a kilometer before Terpstra attacked from the front as Sagan and Thomas looked at each other.

Again, the surge went nowhere.

The gap to the chase extended above one minute.

Vandenbergh tried to attack on the inside of a left-hand corner 1km from the line, but Sagan easily rode onto the wheel. Vandenbergh went again, but Thomas hunted him down onto the finish straight.

With the momentum, the Welshman led out the sprint and Sagan came around on the right for the win. Terpstra came through for second, leaving a bitter taste for the Belgian squad after it loaded the group, but couldn’t solve the Sagan problem.

“It was tricky in the end because they were all looking to me for the sprint,” said Sagan. “The two riders from Omega Pharma were trying to attack me, but all I had to do was follow the wheels. Geraint was strong on the Kwaremont and he was also dangerous in the final.”