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The Moment The Race Was Won: E3 Harelbeke

Geraint Thomas E3 Harelbeke

Geraint Thomas goes solo with 4km to go. A year ago he reached Harelbeke with Peter Sagan and paid the price in the sprint. Now he went clear of Sagan and Zdeněk Štybar to win alone.

It marked a tense conclusion to a dramatic race, although the number of crashes will cast a shadow over the rest of the cobbled classics.

It was a relief to get the racing underway after the débâcle over the race poster. Although don’t expect anything different for 2016 as the race organiser was spotted brandishing some blue panties in the start area.

Fabian Cancellara Harelbeke

E3 Hecatomb: a huge crash on the Haaghoek took out many riders including Fabian Cancellara, now diagnosed with two cracked vertebra and out for the spring classics. Cancellara wasn’t alone, Sebastian Langeveld was loaded into an ambulance and others quit the race too. But Cancellara’s injury means so much more than a DNF, without him and Tom Boonen any upcoming races risked being diminished by their absence and if there’s meant to be a new generation coming through it’s not supposed to happen so brutally. Boonen and Cancellara will be missed, the Swiss rider is an honorary Flandrien with a lot of support in Belgium and the racing will be different too, especially Cancellara’s willingness to pounce late in a race.

Ornithologists will be delighted by the rare appearance of a condor in Belgium. The Condor of Tunja was out of his natural habitat but Nairo Quintana seemed fine for most of the time before abandoning. He passed the test but wasn’t fighting for position with the same ferocity he’ll need in July.

The were obvious moments of demolition but look closer and the race was a study in rising tension. If there was a way of measuring rider density the Rider/m² ratio was getting high very early. Riders were trying to crowd at the front of the bunch with 90km to go while others were being tailed off one by one; this provoked more crashes but the speed and stress meant more got dropped than fell. For the next 40km we got a series of moves from secondary and tertiary team riders. BMC particularly active, a red jersey was been fired off the front of the peloton every few minutes.

With 50km to go up the Kapelberg the early break was being thinned but still away. It’s on the Paterberg and Oude Kwaremont combo that everything changed. Sep Vanmarcke tried a move but slipped in the gutter. He had to put a foot down and went from the front of the peloton to out the back, a fine example of how evanescent these races can be. A group of 20 riders emerged from which Greg Van Avermaet and Stijn Vandenbergh went clear but only by a few seconds and they were quickly reeled in.

E3 Harelbeke

Up the Kwaremont and Geraint Thomas accelerated. The Welshman was second in Paris-Nice’s mountain stage and used the longest climb in the race to launch his move. He was soon joined by Zdeněk Štybar, the ex-cyclocross rider gliding across in smooth style. They were accompanied by Peter Sagan, his bulky style resembling a builder pushing a wheelbarrow.

So there it was, a three man move with 40km to go, the holy trinity of Harelbeke, the E3 escapees. Too few riders with too far to go? Perhaps but being up the road granted the trio an option on the victory. Crucially as much as this was an offensive move by the trio there were defensive tactics being used behind. Every time BMC or Katusha took a pull they’d flick off to find a Sky or Etixx rider dawdling on their wheel. Yet BMC and Katusha had reasons to keep trying because Etixx and Sky didn’t have an obvious sprinter. Occasional work from Giant-Alpecin’s Zico Waeytens helped and the gap was falling but all was not well. FDJ’s Yoann Offredo floated off the front; he wasn’t going to get away but the fact that he could drift clear showed the chase wasn’t furious. Meanwhile Sep Vanmarcke needed to change a shoe, as if having to put a foot down earlier had damaged something.

Sep Vanmarcke

Still with 25km to go the gap was reduced to 34 seconds and falling, it showed 25 seconds. The suddenly Greg Van Avermaet fell on a corner, somersaulting over the bars. He got up and rode to the finish but it meant the chase group was stunned and BMC stopped working. In less than a minute the gap to the trio doubled to 50 seconds and with 10km to go it was hovering around a minute. Again Offredo floated off the front, pointless but it showed the chase was cooked. Ties Benoot had a dig on the Tiegemberg, a remarkable debut for the Lotto-Soudal neo-pro and Ghent Uni student.

Which of the trio was going to win? Peter Sagan was the obvious choice, the previous year’s winner and he packs a famous punch. Only Thomas experienced this first hand when he got smoked by the Slovak in the same race last year. Štybar by now was beginning to look ragged, his normal flying carpet style was giving way to rocking shoulders and a furrowed brow. Thomas looked inscrutable then with 4km to go he attacked. He timed his move just when Štybar was sat on Sagan’s wheel. There was a brief Czecho-Slovakian stand-off as Štybar checked while Sagan slowed and within five seconds Thomas was riding away. Štybar rode on for second place while Sagan imploded and was caught and passed by the chase group, groping for nothing more than energy gel.

The Verdict: a thrilling race although too much of drama came from crashes. The way the cobbles are positioned mid-race encouraged the action to start early and the race was on with 90km to go. The Thomas-Štybar-Sagan move was a serious escape but equally defined by the composition of the chase group behind and the crafty blocking tactics. Things could have been different if Greg Van Avermaet didn’t plant his wheel in the ditch, if Sep Vanmarcke hadn’t slid on the side of the road. But that’s the conditional while Thomas rode away to the win. Fortunately the only wandering hands on the podium will have been Thomas pinching himself at the thought of landing such a big win.

Team Sky’s classics hunt is finally successful, after years of trying they land a World Tour race to top wins in Het Nieuwsblad. As ever the sport struggles to dwell on the moment, Thomas hadn’t even wiped the dirt off his race before Belgian TV were asking him about the Ronde van Vlaanderen. He’ll be hard to beat as long as he can keep up the energy and, based on this performance, deserves to be team leader given Ian Stannard was being dropped on the Tiegemberg. It’s back to the drawing board for Etixx-Quickstep, they can place plenty of riders up the road but need to exploit their numerical superiority better; perhaps Štybar should have sat on more? BMC looked very strong and will be back; Lotto-Jumbo aren’t so good collectively but Sep Vanmarcke is worth five men but is always only an accident away for trouble. Meanwhile Sagan cracked in the finish, was the effort all too much or was he just an energy gel short of the win? Oleg Tinkov will expect revenge in Sunday’s Gent-Wevelgem.


Comments on this entry are closed.

  • cruchuir Friday, 27 March 2015, 7:32 pm

    Thrilled 4 Thomas a superb rider ominiously a big day for Sky all round with swift winning the Coppi Bartelli in Italy richie porte taking the lead in Catalunya and there TDF domestiques roche, pouels and Kirinka showing there qualities as well

  • Tovarishch Friday, 27 March 2015, 7:36 pm

    Very odd with Stannard. Dropped on Tiegemburg and seemed to be struggling and the he’s suddenly shadowing BMC. Sky really are getting the hang of the Classics. Very worrying for the competition.

    • BC Friday, 27 March 2015, 9:28 pm

      I think Stannard has a throat infection, so not firing on all cylinders.

  • Tovarishch Friday, 27 March 2015, 7:40 pm

    Of cause I should add Cymru am byth. Did they play Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau on the podium?

    • The Inner Ring Friday, 27 March 2015, 7:41 pm

      The Welsh anthem? It was the British “God Save the Queen” tune.

      • simon Saturday, 28 March 2015, 11:20 pm

        Given the choice, G is a proud Welshman so would prefer to hear the strains of Hen Wlad

  • maximflyer Friday, 27 March 2015, 7:51 pm

    I hope Thomas can carry on his form. It’s time for him to be Sky’s protected rider on the cobbles.

    • Andrew E Friday, 27 March 2015, 8:05 pm


      Sky are the team of the moment right now and winning for fun.

  • Andrew E Friday, 27 March 2015, 8:07 pm

    I’m confused about Sagan. I had understood he went to Tinkoff so he would be a protected rider with a superior team who could chauffeur him to the end of races where his explosiveness could do the damage. But what is this we see? He’s still all on his own by the time there is 50Kms to go and its the same old scenario.

    Where’s his back up?

    • The Inner Ring Friday, 27 March 2015, 8:12 pm

      The team are stronger with Bresche, sixth today but not packed with riders to win plenty. If this was fantasy cycling, Oleg Tinkov’s Velogames team has a few 20 pointers padded by several 4-6 pointers.

      • Andrew E Friday, 27 March 2015, 8:18 pm

        Granted. But as Etixx are showing, it pays to have multiple options because at the business end of races you find yourself with a friend or two when it matters. Sagan isn’t Cancellara. He can’t do it alone. The same seems to apply to Vanmarcke as well. He is a beast but he needs to be because Lotto-Jumbo are less than effective as a team. All this is worth noting when it comes to picking future winners.

        • Anonymous Saturday, 28 March 2015, 3:40 pm

          Breschel appears to be a plan B – he was sprinting for himself instead of leading out Sagan at Sanremo, and today, sitting in the wheels waiting for the bunch sprint.

          I suppose Sagan felt good with 40km to go and had the idea to mark Stybar & Thomas – rightly so, that was a dangerous move… however, again his tactics were exposed to be weaker than one would expect… there were Tinkoff Saxo riders in the chase group.. so why not use the strength of the team to pull back Thomas/Stybar – even ally with Katusha to do so.

          Anyway, I guess the presence of Kristoff meant that Peto didn’t fancy a sprint contest.. so put his eggs in joining the break and trying to win from a small group.

          Thomas’ attack was a perfect timed move. Stybar had just done a massive pull into the wind and was cooked… while Sagan (who had been huffing and puffing since about 10km to go) soft pedalling his turn, got caught on the front and unable to match the acceleration. A great way to win.

  • Qwerty Friday, 27 March 2015, 8:29 pm

    Great race, real pity about Cancellara. Don’t think I’ve ever warmed to him however he’s been such a big part of the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix for ten years now.

  • Calypso_King Friday, 27 March 2015, 8:46 pm

    Brilliant Geraint Thomas! Hugely deserved and hopefully eases the pain of having to drag Wiggins all the way to Roubaix!

    • Tovarishch Friday, 27 March 2015, 9:16 pm

      I’m Welsh. This result, together with our defence against Ireland is the highlight of my year so far but that comment is totally uncalled for.

    • Nick R Friday, 27 March 2015, 9:53 pm

      Wiggins should be dragging Thomas to this years Roubaix. 🙂

    • Jonhard Friday, 27 March 2015, 10:10 pm

      I don’t think they’re all that sentimental at Sky to be fair.

      It’s a mistake to underestimate Wiggins, but if Thomas is in this form he will be a leader. Eggs in one basket is not the strategy for RVV or P-R anyway.

      Luke Rowe went well again too.

      • Andrew E Friday, 27 March 2015, 10:28 pm

        In Wiggo’s last race for Sky, the one he’s been telling everyone he’s always wanted to win? Don’t be too sure. Although I agree that it should be Wiggins riding for G not vice versa.

      • Anonymous Friday, 27 March 2015, 11:00 pm

        You’re right, of course. It’s just that I would like to see Geraint Thomas afforded more leadership. Besides all his talent he looks really tough mentally, and when not falling off, he seems incredibly consistent. Love to see him win a monument.

        I wonder is it not sentimentality that Wiggins is even in the basket? Still, no Cancellara now…

        Good call on Luke Rowe.

        • Simon Saturday, 28 March 2015, 5:34 am

          Even better for Sky is that – if Stannard recovers from his throat infection and starts whacking it like he can – they’ve got 3 options for the win. Better by far to keep the cards close to the chest in a lottery like P-R. I don’t warm to Sky much in the grand tours department, but I’m really pleased for their classics crew that they’re going so well – they’ve got a really tight, home-grown crew of tough riders that – if you’re British – it’s easy to be proud of. And kudos to Geraint Thomas for citing Nicole Cooke as one of his inspirations too.

  • Anonymous Friday, 27 March 2015, 8:59 pm

    “BMC particularly active, a red jersey was been fired off the front of the peloton every few minutes.”

    That was exactly the same in Milan-San Remo and again they go home with nothing. It’s great to animate a race, but they need to deliver results. Granted, GVA fell, but as INRNG points out – the chase to the lead trio before his fall wasn’t exactly furious.

  • Andy Walton Friday, 27 March 2015, 9:31 pm

    “a brief Czecho-Slovakian stand-off as Štybar checked while Sagan slowed”

    Chapeau Sir!

    • Chris G Saturday, 28 March 2015, 12:57 am


    • Ferdi Saturday, 28 March 2015, 1:49 am


    • Dave Saturday, 28 March 2015, 7:31 am


    • Anonymous Saturday, 28 March 2015, 9:39 am


      • Wheelsucker Monday, 30 March 2015, 2:02 pm


        Loved it!

  • dG Friday, 27 March 2015, 9:33 pm

    Crafty victory by G Thomas, a worthy winner. Sagan might have to explain himself later, although the team’s inner drama might be proving a lethal distraction. Regarding Ettix, Levefere might need to have a good night’s sleep as his choices are plenty. Is it Vanderberg’s time to shine? he has proven his quality multiple times over, would love to see him getting a well deserved win.

  • Garuda Friday, 27 March 2015, 10:21 pm

    Czecho-Slovakian standoff… Brilliant. Thomas and Sky has been overachieving so much lately that he is in danger of becoming the most marked in the peloton

    • Blinkyblueeyed Friday, 27 March 2015, 11:22 pm

      That very thought crossed my mind whilst watching the race too, as in I think G will be quite marked from now on, so I agree.

      That said, he could still prove an enigma for other teams – as in, is he the protected rider in Sky or not? You can’t really afford to let him go up the road in a strong break but if Sky have a second and equally strong option lurking on your wheel, what do you do?

      Whichever, I think the efforts from Sky (amongst others) have helped animate some of the early season races. It’s been a great start to the season so far I’d say.

  • Shawn Friday, 27 March 2015, 10:42 pm

    Is it just me or does Sagan seem more bulky (not fat) than previous years? It could just be that his Tinkoff-Slovac kit makes him look bigger but he might be carrying too much muscle mass.

  • Blinkyblueeyed Friday, 27 March 2015, 10:48 pm

    “Fortunately the only wandering hands on the podium will have been Thomas pinching himself at the thought of landing such a big win.”

    Lovely comment 🙂 If only the blue panties/knickers would follow a similar path to wandering hands :-/

    • Ferdi Saturday, 28 March 2015, 1:49 am

      I think those panties will become iconic in the years to come. They are cute.

  • frann Friday, 27 March 2015, 10:58 pm

    4 cobbled classics and its UK 3 Belgium 1
    . what’s happening? Still de ronde and Roubaix are the next level up. Pity about Spartacus but we still have Niki, styby, van avernat, vanmarke,Thomas, should. Be fun.
    Cav for sunday

  • Bilmo Friday, 27 March 2015, 11:47 pm

    Great win for Thomas. Just what he deserved.

    My other thought was why was Cancellera squeezed into the front of a car after his crash. Looking at photos he appears in real pain. Can’t have been good for the vertebra. Never mind walking across a car park in his socks to the hospital. Should he not have gone in a ambulance?

    • Chris Saturday, 28 March 2015, 12:23 am

      A former teammate of mine once raced three more stages with broken vertebrae. He was visiting the masseuse each evening to massage out the “knots” in his back. Broken vertebrae surprisingly aren’t always immediately apparent.

  • Anonymous Saturday, 28 March 2015, 12:02 am

    Well done Geraint you deserve it, together with a bigger salary next year.

  • Tom Saturday, 28 March 2015, 2:46 am

    G should get a pay rise for sure. Hopefully he can afford to buy some new Oakleys.

    • Nation Saturday, 28 March 2015, 11:05 am


  • Larrick Saturday, 28 March 2015, 3:41 am

    Well done G!

    There’s been talk over the last year or two about Thomas stepping into a GT role. I know you’ve commented before about him finding his niche (GT’s, week stage races or the one dayers). His performance today shows his ability in the classics.

    My question is, what with his Paris – Nice efforts and MSR as well as today, isn’t the Ardennes also we within his capabilities or even, maybe, a better fit?

    Obviously he can’t peak forever so this year maybe too much and Sky have their hilly guys anyway with Poels, Roche and Konig added to the list for this season but surely it’s worth a try?

    • Andrew E Saturday, 28 March 2015, 8:26 am

      Guys who do Flanders don’t tend to do Ardennes races as well. Its one or the other (although I note that Valverde, a traditional Ardennes guy, is aiming to do the Tour of Flanders this year). For me Geraint is very well suited to cobbled classics and the one week stage races. Indeed, he’s now won examples of both. I’ve never understood why he was talked up for grand tours. He doesn’t seem to be a good enough climber to contend over 3 weeks although, of course, he always puts in a shift.

  • Hansel Saturday, 28 March 2015, 5:05 am

    If you watched youd see that Sep unclipped from his pedal as he tried to attack. He didnt put his foot down. He swapped shoes because something was up with his cleat.

    Was a shame because it was an ideal time to plan an attack.

    • The Inner Ring Saturday, 28 March 2015, 11:29 am

      I watched and there was a moment when the foot comes out and he touches the ground with it, whether it was enough to break anything, well it didn’t seem like it.

    • Jan Saturday, 28 March 2015, 11:30 am

      In an interview afterwards Vanmarcke said he broke his cleat on the paterberg. “As riding on a citybike” he said. So he couldn’t properly ride, or even help in the chase.

  • Andy a Mac Saturday, 28 March 2015, 8:41 am

    De Brit is super steak! Or is it another case of overwinning? A great ride and once Thomas had that 10 m gap there was no bringing him back. Not quite Cancellara or Boonen but the Welshman can put some big watts down for a long enough time to stay away.

    Really pleased for him as he really deserves a big win. Roll on De Ronde!

  • Andy a Mac Saturday, 28 March 2015, 8:42 am

    That should be supersterk damned auto correct. But maybe he is super steak as well!

    • Wandsworth Rouleur Friday, 3 April 2015, 11:42 am

      Isn’t ‘super steak’ reserved for Contador?

  • johnnygruppocompacto Saturday, 28 March 2015, 8:49 am

    ‘Fortunately the only wandering hands on the podium will have been Thomas pinching himself at the thought of landing such a big win.’


    Happy to admit that this race report was so good I can almost smell the frites and mayo and I’m in danger of slipping on the spilt beer. Great stuff!

    Good for Thomas, after last year’s ‘so-close’ moment. Here’s hoping he’s got the legs for some of the other races coming up. Hup-hup.

  • Larry T. Saturday, 28 March 2015, 9:51 am

    Good recap! Someone asked me after I described the first stage of Catalunya as ZZZZzzzz, why I watched cycling? Races like this are the reason! While I’m firmly in the camp who dislikes SKY… CHAPEAU to them on this win! Sagan…who knows? I wonder how much he is missing Paolo Slongo who trained him at Liquigas. Too bad about Spartacus. Wasn’t he taken out a few seasons ago by an errant water bottle as well? I can remember entering the first section of pave at the punter’s Flanders ride a few years ago…bouncing bottles everywhere it seemed. Amazing (and sad) that this happens to the pros as well.

    • gabriele Saturday, 28 March 2015, 1:52 pm

      Well, Larry, yesterday’s stage in Catalunya was great cycling, too.
      From one or two points of view (even if, of course, nor generally, nor in every sense), maybe better than E3.
      And it happened precisely thanks to that unfortunate stage one.
      Sometimes the dynamics of a race must be examined with a broader perspective. Obviously stage racing presents “weaker” stages.
      That said, when I understood how it was going, I just quitted watching the first stage of Catalunya and went out with my bike 😉

  • BigSigh Saturday, 28 March 2015, 10:34 am

    I think there should be more more builders pushing wheelbarrows in the peloton!

  • Anonymous Saturday, 28 March 2015, 10:41 am

    Excellently written!

  • Ian Saturday, 28 March 2015, 11:07 am

    Wow just wow ! This race and result has made my season already, I commented after MSR that as a Welshman I’d love to see Geraint’s combative style rewarded with a big win and low and behold he goes and does it the very next race. I loved the way he learnt from last year and effectively said to Sagan right let’s see how you can handle a 4km pursuit. Brilliantly thrilling stuff.

  • Anonymous Saturday, 28 March 2015, 11:49 am

    Geraint is absolutely on fire at the moment, he didn’t even look tired at the end of that. As for Peter, well he looked shattered, a shadow of his former self so something has to change again and I feel it will be the team colours before he achieves what he is capable of. Unfortunately going nowhere at Sinkoff and its not how a rider of his talent should be.

  • Maximus Saturday, 28 March 2015, 1:17 pm

    Is Sagan just not right mentally right now or what? I mean, he looks super fit and could really dominate all spring. Maybe all the factors with the team and salary/ pressure is really weighing on him.

    Super Win “G”!

  • Richard Saturday, 28 March 2015, 2:33 pm

    What I really liked about this was the manner of the win. Not only was it emphatic and thrilling but he’s obviously looked at what went wrong last year and said ‘right, this is what I need to do differently this time’.

  • Joe K. Saturday, 28 March 2015, 3:38 pm

    A real gutsy move by Thomas to attack with 4kms to go. Love to see that kind of aggressive strong style of riding taking the win in these Belgian classics. Looking forward to the Ronde and Paris Roubaix now that Thomas looks so strong and both GVA and Sagan will be out there with something to prove. Good times are ahead…!

  • L'Islandais Saturday, 28 March 2015, 5:28 pm

    How I wish that the sun wrote about cycling : E3 4 G would be a great headline.

    Agree on missing Cancellara and Tommeke over the next three weeks. Let’s hope that the era doesn’t end this way.

  • Cd Saturday, 28 March 2015, 5:42 pm

    Interesting race but end was anticlimactic. Looked like it was going to be cat and mouse with the three but then Thomas made the obvious attack and Sagan should have made the obvious follow, but didn’t which ruined it for Stybar. Kudos to GT but he got lucky that Sagan’s wheels fell off.

  • Paul Jakma Saturday, 28 March 2015, 5:45 pm

    On a completely different subject. The all-too-easy retouching and modifying of photos that digital photography allows seems to be have too strong a siren call over photographers. News photographers particularly. Does this annoy anyone else?

    E.g. look at the Cancellera photo. It’s been fairly heavily tweaked, and not particularly skillfully. Look at the halo around the objects in the foreground where they stick into the sky? From someone having tried to debrighten the sky relative to the foreground. Badly. I wouldn’t mind if they adjust the overall levels a bit, to fix the general contrast/saturation/whatever issues. However, to change one part of the picture relative to another?

    This kind of news photography is akin to journalists embellishing one part of a story to another. It looks awful, and it doesn’t seem fully honest, does it? 🙂

    • Paul Jakma Saturday, 28 March 2015, 5:53 pm

      Oh, and they’re great photos, don’t get me wrong. Just, the heavy and obvious retouching of that one is a shame – the photo above would have been better without it IMO!

      • The Inner Ring Saturday, 28 March 2015, 6:23 pm

        These are supplied by an agency and they work fast, presumably having to jump off the motorbike to get the image of Cancellara and then cover the rest of the race plus the podium ceremony before even putting the memory card into a laptop. Any editing and retouching is bound to be quick and simple as there’s a ready audience for the images as soon as they’re available.

        • Paul Jakma Sunday, 29 March 2015, 3:28 pm

          So then they should just not do this kind of hasty and poor retouching. Even more time saved! 🙂

          • tedba Monday, 30 March 2015, 12:32 pm


            This is one of those things that you’re happily oblivious about for years, and then can’t stop noticing once someone has pointed it out. I’m already seeing it in dozens of other sports images.


  • ChrisP Saturday, 28 March 2015, 7:27 pm

    Bravo G, fantastic ride. Im warming to Sky, and pretty remarkable performances all across their roster. Their efficiency has been damn near surgical. And two of their big engines, froome and wiggo not even near top form. Looking fwd to Sky-Etixx war in Rhonde, and PR. Hope interlopers Vanmarke and GVA can throw a wrench, but wonder if they might be bit shaken by their mishaps.

    I will miss Spartacus, and wish him well on recovery. Will organizers ever wake up to idea of reducing field size!?
    Keep up good work, Mr Innring…

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