Kwiatkowski beats Sagan in E3 Harelbeke

Michal Kwiatkowski (Team Sky) denied Peter Sagan (Tinkoff) his first win in the rainbow jersey at the E3 Harelbeke on Friday by out-sprinting the world champion after the duo escaped a select lead group of favourites with 30km remaining.

Kwiatkowski showed his class by initiating the decisive move from a select group of favourites on the penultimate climb of Karnemelkbeekstraat with 30km to go. He got company from Peter Sagan and the pair worked well together to keep a strong 13-rider group with four Etixx-QuickStep riders at bay. Despite being the underdog in the sprint, he surprised the world champion by going from afar and rode to a surprise victory in his first cobbled race for more than a year.

As usual, the race really came to life on the Taaienberg with 73km to go where Marcel Sieberg led the Lotto Soudal team onto the cobbles 1.30 behind the early break. He put Jurgen Roelandts in a position to attack and at the top, the Belgian had created a quintet that also included his teammate Tiesj Benoot, Daniel Oss (BMC) and the Etixx-QuickStep pair of Tom Boonen and Matteo Trentin.

Fabian Cancellara (Trek) had missed the boat but started to chase, creating a 5-rider group that also included Zdenek Stybar, Niki Terpstra (Etixx-QuickStep), Sep Vanmarcke (LottoNL-Jumbo) and Lars Boom (Astana). They quickly made it across to the Boonen group while Sagan and Kwiatkowski found themselves in a 15-rider chase group.

The 10-rider group of favourites worked well together and were just 45 seconds behind the breakaway with 70km to go. In the Sagan group, Sky had four riders and were chasing hard to bring Kwiatkowski and Stannard back into contention.

That’s when disaster struck for Cancellara as he suffered a very untimely chain problem. The cars were far behind and it took around three minutes for him to get back on his bike. At this point, he was far behind almost everyone, riding among riders who were among the first to have been dropped.

While Cancellara started a furious solo chase, constantly passing riders who had no chance to hang on, the breakaway, the Boonen group and the Sagan group merged on the Boigneberg with 66km to go. Laurens De Vreese, Dries Devenyns, Jempy Drucker, Marco Marcato, Salvatore Puccio, Boy Van Poppe, Kwiatkowski, Ian Stannard, Sagan, Tony Martin, Bryan Coquard, Jasper Stuyven were among the many riders to have made it back to the front. Frederik Backaert and Stijn Vandenbergh were chasing desperately and both made it back before they hit the Eikenberg.

Etixx-QuickStep had six riders in the group and Martin immediately started to work hard. As soon as he had recovered, Vandenbergh gave him a hand and those two riders worked together to maintain a high speed. However, they lost a key rider when Stybar suffered a mechanical that forced him to drop back to the peloton which was 1.30 behind and led by Alexander Kristoff’s Katusha team. Most of the early break was also dropped from the front group.

Terpstra set a fast pace on the Kwaremont and he got a gap. Boom joined him before Sagan sprinted past the pair. Terpstra managed to hang on and those two riders had a small gap at the top before Boom regained contact. Meanwhile, Cancellara and Stybar caught Devenyns and Stuyven who sacrificed himself for his captain.

Oss, Stannard, Kwiatkowski, Vanmarcke, Boonen, Benoot and Trentin joined the front trio but the 10-rider group wasn’t working well together. Hence, Cancellara, Stybar, Stuyven, Devenyns and Drucker caught them just before the Karnemelkbeekstraat with 32km to go.

The pace was slow until they hit the climb where Kwiatkowski launched a big attack. Sagan quickly joined him while Trentin and Stybar were desperately leading the chase. However, they both exploded and the front duo had a solid gap as they crested the summit. Stuyven and Drucker had both been dropped but managed to regain contact.

Etixx-QuickStep started to chase hard with Trentin and Terpstra but the gap still went out from 5 to 15 seconds. With 25km to go, it was even 25 seconds and when they exited the Varent cobbles with 23km to go, another 5 seconds had been added. Finally, Terpstra and Trentin got some help from Stuyven, Vanmarcke, Stybar and Cancellara but as they hit the Tiegemberg with 20km to go, the gap had gone out to 40 seconds and all the work was now left to Stybar and Terpstra.

Sagan led the pair under the flamme rouge and it was now evident that Kwiatkowski would not come through again. The world champion stayed on the front until 300m remained where he launched a long sprint. He caught Sagan by surprise and the Slovakian reacted way too late when the Pole already had a big gap. He quickly sat down to watch Kwiatkowski claim his first win of the cobbles. Further back, Stannard made a late attack to make it two Sky riders on the podium, narrowly holding off Cancellara who won the sprint for fourth.

With E3 Harelbeke done and dusted, the focus moves to Sunday’s Gent-Wevelgem which is the next cobbles classic and the next race on the WorldTour calendar.

E3 Harelbeke 2016 results:

1 Michal Kwiatkowski (Sky)  4:49:34
2 Peter Sagan (Tinkoff)  +04”
3 Ian Stannard (Sky)  +11”
4 Fabian Cancellara (Trek-Segafredo) ,,
5 Jasper Stuyven (Trek-Segafredo)  ,,
6 Lars Boom (Astana) ,,
7 Tiesj Benoot (Lotto Soudal)  ,,
8 Sep Vanmarcke (LottoNl-Jumbo)  ,,
9 Jean-Pierre Drucker (BMC)  ,,
10 Daniel Oss (BMC)  ,,