The Moment The Race Was Won: E3 Harelbeke

Michał Kwiatkowski jumps with 250m to go. Peter Sagan tries to sprint but is quickly distanced by the Pole, his long term rival, who condemns him to yet another second place. This was the moment the race was won.

There was a minute’s silence for the bomb victims in Brussels and the country has yet to regain its festive mood for obvious reasons. Out on the course this Good Friday fathers and sons visible but the holy gueuze was not flowing so freely. After the race nobody was shaking the Kwaremont beer bottles on the podium afterwards either.

Pre-race pick Greg Van Avermaet was a non starter, “digestive problems” said the team, a precautionary withdrawal, he’s still planning to ride Sunday’s Gent-Wevelgem. The early break went but these days it never stands a chance. Once upon a time the early move could succeed, a slim to anorexic chance but possible. Nowadays the breakaway is kept to within five minutes and there’s not even the pretence of a chance. With 85km to go the race was rushing towards the hellingen hotspots and Team Sky, BMC Racing, Lotto-Soudal and Etix-Quickstep were massing at the front like there was a bunch sprint coming up in two kilometres.

They hit the Taaienberg and Tom Boonen was there. But he couldn’t lead, instead Jürgen Roelandts was first and Boonen settled in behind and was soon wrestling with his bike and began to lose ground. This wasn’t vintage Boonen but his form is maturing nicely in time for Paris-Roubaix and he still made the cut of a very selective move.

E3 Harelbeke

Wat een kopgroep” said Belgian TV, what a lead group of riders with Boonen, Zdeněk Štybar, Niki Terpstra and Matteo Trentin of Etixx-Quickstep, Roelands and Tiesj Benoot for Lotto-Soudal plus Sep Vanmarcke (Lotto-Jumbo), Lars Boom (Astana), Daniel Oss (BMC Racing) and Fabian Cancellara (Trek-Segafredo). All of Team Sky missed the move and set about chasing with Peter Sagan on their wheels.

Cancellara E3 Harelbeke

Cancellara made the move but suffered a mechanical. If he was up the road his team car was well behind the shattered bunch and the wait for a spare bike took ages. First he tossed his bike, then picked it up and waited by the road with his arms crossed like an Uber client impatiently waiting for the ride to show. He was on the wrong side of the road though and had to walk out in front of the vehicles to flag down the Trek-Segafredo car.

Cancellara’s chase back was part of the action especially of memories of 2011 when he’d punctured and then rode through the groups to eventually win solo. Was Cancellara just giving them a headstart once again? He was back on a mission again and chasing with intermittent help from his team mates and others. At this point Etixx-Quickstep held all the cards, they had numerical superiority in the lead group and duly put Tony Martin to work to try and keep it this way. Only moments later Štybar punctured, the first hiccup and for all the chasing, riders were getting back to the group including Team Sky with Peter Sagan hitching a ride.

Cancellara Oude Kwaremont

Cancellara was still chasing but he and the others couldn’t close the gap before the Paterberg-Oude Kwaremont combo so he had to go off in pursuit himself as team work is little use on these climbs and he took Štybar with him. Up ahead Niki Terpstra lead on the Oude Kwaremont and slowly began to pull a group of riders away but it was Sagan who put the big move in and suddenly another select group formed with him, Matteo Trentin, Terpstra, Boonen, Benoot, Vanmarcke, Boom, Kwiatkowski, Stannard, Oss, Drucker and soon Cancellara got across with Štybar too.

Onto the climb of the Karnemelkbeekstraat – literally “Butter milk stream street” – and the enlarged group looked too big, especially with Sagan lurking as the sprint danger. So of course Sagan attacked. It made sense though, there was no point waiting for Etixx-Quickstep to gang up on him and if a few riders came across to him then his chances of winning increased. Kwiatkowski followed and Trentin tried but couldn’t close the gap.

Sagan Kwiatkowski

Slowly the Central European tandem was riding away; a tentative ten second gap become a stable 30 second advantage. The two have been rivals since the junior days when they won everything north and south of the Tatra mountains, even clashing in Italy and beyond and it’s continued since, you might remember Kwiatkowski beating Sagan in the 2014 Strade Bianche race. In a straight sprint between the two you’d back Sagan but this wasn’t an ordinary finish. Sagan knew he didn’t have any team mates behind so he had to keep the break away. Kwiatkowski had Ian Stannard behind, sat tight on the Etixx-Quickstep riders once again.


So the odds were tilting to the Polish rider. Was he going to try a late attack? The run in to Harelbeke offered few ambush moments and besides Peter Sagan is hard to outwit when it comes to exploiting corners and traffic islands. With the gap falling to 10 seconds with a kilometre to go Sagan was obliged to lead and keep working and at 250m to go Kwiatkowski jumped, an attack instead of sprint and Sagan was beaten in two seconds.


The Verdict: an entertaining race that was both defensive and aggressive. Sagan’s probing attacks on the Oude Kwaremont and Karnemelkbeekstraat set up the winning move but Kwiatkowski could count on a team mate so he was able to make Sagan work while behind Etixx-Quickstep played it cagey, unable to chase for fear of being exploited by the others yet unwilling to give up. Fabian Cancellara’s mechanical changed the race, for TV viewers it provided added drama but meant he wasn’t force he could have been in the finale. Team Sky will be pleased with the win but, just like Sagan, really want to a win a Monument instead.

Peter Sagan does look like someone who’d finish second on a solo training ride right now but he was the one who attacked on the Karnemelkbeekstraat when he could have played it safe. He was the one who had to drive he breakaway because he didn’t have a team mate behind and in the final couple of kilometres as the gap began to fall he had to keep riding. So he provoked the winning move and kept it going, something few others are capable of.

The big losers of the day are Etixx-Quickstep. They had numerical superiority in the break with four out of 15 riders but Matteo Trentin couldn’t follow Sagan and Kwiatkowksi when it mattered. The cream rose to the top on the Karnemelkbeekstraat and the Italian just didn’t have it; it was a big ask to expect him to match the current and previous world champions. But if Trentin missed the move, the whole team faced a dilemma, expend energy in a chase while the likes of Tiesj Benoot, Sep Vanmarcke and the fast-finishing Jempy Drucker of BMC Racing were sat tight on their wheels? The only hope was a slow chase where they’d haul back the lead duo who’d be cooked and then use Trentin and Boonen in the sprint. Only that didn’t happen, it turned out they didn’t place one in the top-10. A small loser was Alexander Kristoff, distanced today and in the morning he said his numbers in training have been as good as last year but the Norwegian media say he could be ill.

It all bodes well for the Tour of Flanders but there’s plenty to come in between with Gent-Wevelgem and the Three Days of De Panne. Cancellara, fourth today, looks irresistible now.

76 thoughts on “The Moment The Race Was Won: E3 Harelbeke”

  1. Not to jump on the Second Place Sagan wagon, but did he forget where the line was? or that Kwia was right behind him? His reaction to that sprint was mega-slow-mo.

  2. reposting from the preview discussion

    John Irvine March 25, 2016 at 6:03 pm
    What a great race. From Cancellara fighting back, to a replay of the Strade Bianche ’14 finish in when those guys were both still future world champions.


    Foley March 25, 2016 at 7:01 pm
    Agree. I am one who is generally much more impressed than bothered by Sagan’s frequent second place finishes, but in this case from the time the two got away it was hard to see how their break favored Sagan any more than it did Kwiat. Knowing what it would take to hold off the remainder of the group (remarkable that they did so) you had to figure any finishing speed advantage for Sagan could be seriously compromised, and Kwiat looked much less uncomfortable than Sagan as it played out. I’d think a lot of the “second is first loser” types would question the tactics. Brian Smith accused Sagan of getting caught napping in the finale but I’d say he was simply and totally cooked. So chapeau to both of them, and very nice interview from Kwiat.

    Chris Slovakia March 25, 2016 at 7:09 pm
    Agree – he was cooked… but where was the bluff or some other tactic except in last KM take a turn, let Kwiat come to the front with 500 to go, and then watch him sprint to the line.

    It seems odd to say it, but Sagan really needs a win in Flanders or Roubaix.


  3. Nice wrap-up Inrng. I was wondering whether Sagan would have been better off if Trentin or other rider(s) had succeeded in joining them, but then the deck shuffles a bit. Given who was actually present in the lead group, was there anyone else who would have worked hard enough with him as Kwiat did? Kwiat himself would have done less with Stannard back there…

  4. Agreed. Sky made winning look comparatively easy. Right place, right time. Sagan made it clear how much more he’d win with a bit more support from Tinkoff. Conversely, Etixx looked blunt and headless: no big hitter to tap in a win, just a bunch of henchmen.

  5. Seriously where are the Tinkoff boys? This is getting ridiculous, from what look like all the televised race Sagan had no teammates, no Tinkoff whatsoever in the front! Kudos for him finishing 2nd because as a one man team it is great results.

  6. Fascinating and entertaining race in somewhat muted circumstances. Some riders still coming to form for the “big” races ahead. Boonen looks thinner in the cheeks this year and superb effort by Spartacus, where others would have thrown all the toys!! Noticed Stannard finished strongly and would be happy to place a few Euro’s on him for GW, assuming his presence. Very enjoyable viewing for a Friday afternoon, if you missed it you missed out.

  7. Easy to keep blaming Sagan but this is a man who has to keep doing everything himself. By half distance in all these one day races his team mates, whether Tinkoff or Cannondale-Liquigas before them, are all distanced and he is alone. Its too much to ask. Even the greats such as Cancellara and Boonen have team mates to shelter them before they ride off with 50 kms to go. Considering these factors its amazing that Sagan is getting so many near misses. But you saw what it takes out of him. At the end it was only instinct that made him react when Kwiatkowski jumped. He just has to do too much alone to create his chance.

    But he should cheer up. He still managed to beat every Etixx rider all by himself! #PrayforLefevere

    • Sagan is a Monster of an athlete. And, he’s garnering as much or more attention with all his 2nds; it can’t be bad for his team.

      It’s only a matter of time before he’s working for either Riis or LeFevere.

      • But he’s tactically inept.
        To be fair to him, I’m not sure he could do much today – maybe not go and try his luck in a bunch sprint: that’s what I was saying at the time, but it nearly worked for him today (as ever) – and a bunch sprint is far from nailed on.

          • He does desperately need a better team – wonder if he’d be willing to take a pay cut to get it. Particularly, someone with tactical knowledge as well as legs.

          • He’s worth every penny.

            If you think about it, the races are for wins. But, his job is for media exposure and fan population. If he continues to arrive second as often as he does and never win, that would be far more valuable than winning a few every now and then. What other second place finisher garners as much attention? That’s worth a lot of money. And, he deserves it.

  8. Interesting news from Spain that Geraint Thomas intends to have a go at RVV, should be a great race with all those riders in form

  9. Surprised that Cancellara didn’t take a team mate’s bike – there was a Trek rider (van Poppel, I think) with Stuyven in that second group.
    Any bike’s better than no bike for a short time, surely. Awesome ride, though.
    Kwiat can maybe do all the Monuments – time someone tried, at least.
    Is Sagan riding for 2nd these days? Seemed to have no sprint, but didn’t look like he had any hope – and ostensibly unprepared for Kwi’s (inevitable) attack.
    Another brilliant one day race. The stage races have been ponderous this season: I’ve never been a huge fan of these – too many riders just using them to gain fitness – but P-N had one good last day, T-A was ruined admittedly, TDU was nothing much and the Tour of Catalunya’s Dual Carriageways has been a snooze fest.

    • The recent stage 4 to Port Ainé in the Volta a Catalunya was good viewing. Great to see Nairo flexing his muscles.

      That said, the two highlights of the year so far for me have probably been Strade Bianchi and E3

    • “Michał Kwiatkowski jumps with 250m to go. Peter Sagan tries to sprint but is quickly distanced by the Pole, his long term rival, who condemns him to yet another second place. This was the moment the race was won”

    • Sorry my mistake, I went through the article too quickly so I missed that line.

      The race was won the moment Sagan and Kwiat attacked and got separation. Sagan had to overcook himself to make this break work. He often outworks his break companions – Kwiat knows how to save himself a bit better than Sagan can plus had the excuse that he had Stannard behind so could pedal softer through his turns.

  10. Happy to see Tiesj Benoot and Jasper Stuyven do so well. Also happy to see Lars Boom in the top-10. The poor guy was all alone. Boom is SO overdue for a classics win.

    It seemed like when it got down to the last 10 seconds, LeFevre’s stars are unwilling to sacrifice. Boonen apparently did, but it didn’t seem like anyone followed up.

  11. I still think Sagan lost against all odds! Perhaps tactically it would be better for him to ease off 4-5 km to the line wait for tired group and still be fastest sprinter from the group. He couldn’t sprint in the end! Bravo both. ‪#‎Kwiatostan‬

      • If he was told to pull then it ends all the the brainstorming. Easing up would mean Kwiato needs to do all the work and obviously group still needs to chase. If Kwiato delivers him to the line then Sagan is clear to win, if group catches up then only EQ has the numbers to do any tricks and possibly it ends with mass finish.
        but he was told to pull so…rest is just fans speculation

  12. Sagan seems to completely lack killer instinct. You can’t say you had no legs after 200km. If that’s so he might as well not enter Flanders. It must also hurt Quick Step that a rider they let go won.

    • He finished second after animating the race and pulling himself and kwiatkowski, who didn’t seem to be doing as much work as Sagan, to the line. I don’t see how that’s lacking killer instinct. If anything he is more willing to initiate moves than most.

      • The fact is he was out thought and out sprinted by Kwiatkowski from 250 metres out. Sagan should win that fight. He was caught completely napping. He looks like he freezes at the finish of races as opposed to the best classics riders of the last decade – Cancellara, Boonen, Gilbert – who more often than not seized the moment.

        • Sagan has no killer instinct?!?!? what??? haha, no chance..

          Your second comment might have hit the nail on the head – “the fact is he was OUT THOUGHT”.

          Sagan currently thinks he is stronger than he is, so he always does way more than his fair share of the work in an attack, thinking that he’ll be able to destroy the guy in a sprint. He doesn’t analyse his own power (by his own admission) and says that he races on feel and instinct. The result is that he doesn’t assess how much reserves he has left and then burns all his matches before the final sprint.

          I totally buy Sagan’s comments that after 200k he didn’t have the legs. You could see him looking down at his legs early in the break, which is his sign that he’s running out of steam.

    • Of course, no killer instinct. One question: how did Sagan manage to get away from the group, rest was stopped by unicorn on the road or did someone with a killer instinct attack?

      • Haha, Vitus – exactly. You’re bang on correct. If people doubt Sagan’s killer instinct go watch Richmond World’s again… that was insane. To be able to descend like that is unreal – it demonstrates an enormous capacity to stay cool under pressure and no fear at all. That’s killer instinct for you.

        • I’m sorry if I’ve offended the Peter Sagan International Fan Club but I stand by my statement. Getting in the winning move doesn’t prove you have killer instinct it proves you are strong. Nobody is doubting that Sagan is strong. Perpetually losing 2 and 3 up sprints and habitually coming 2nd would indicate a lack of finishing skills.

          • Peter Sagan has 71 wins in his career. He won 10 races last year, including a killer win at Worlds. How does that mean he has no killer instinct.

            He has crazy amounts of killer instinct.

          • The difference is that in 2011-13, he averaged twice as many wins as seconds; in 2014-15, he totalled 16 wins and 27 seconds over the two seasons. This isn’t a phenomenon of this season.
            And still no Monument.

    • You clearly have never ridden in a race. Regardless of distance, if you have just worked and someone jumps you then it takes incredible strength to come around them. Not going to happen at WT level.

    • I was thinking that! He’d just powered up a brutal climb – after 130km of racing, no less – and was just standing there looking like he was waiting for a bus.

      • I never saw him take a drink or a gel, not least while he was waiting for the “bus”. Admittadly the cameras were not on him constantly but once he remounted I was purposely waiting to see him take a drink at least! I wish I were half as fit.

  13. Kudos to Kwiatkowski and Sagan but what a phenomenal ride from Spartakus, Inrng’s five-star pre-race favorite, to come back to the front group despite Etixx’ big efforts to prevent that. But everybody already knew he’s on top form so it would not have made any sense to make a charade. Instead he put in some great final training effort for himself and for his team without overstressing anyone including himself by going to try and win it after he came back.
    If he stays healthy, upright during the race, and doesn’t have a mechanical like today the winner of the RVV will have to beat him on the finishing straight in Oudenaarde. So another lone five-star favorite status I assume. The odds are clearly against him but you know what: I think that’s exactly how he wants it to be for his final show in Flanders. Of all the spring classics the RVV is the most “honest” race where the strongest rider has the biggest chance to win if he avoids any mishaps before the final ascent of the Paterberg.
    Other than in some years during Spartakus’ reign I don’t expect a defensive race from the other teams though. Thanks to guys like Kwiat, Sagan, Stybar and GVA – hope he comes back from his illness in time – who have a lot of confidence in their abilities and not too much respect for the “old men” we will most probably see an animated race like the one we witnessed today. Unfortunately Tornado Tom doesn’t seem to be on top of his game. But who knows, maybe he’s flying a bit under the radar.

  14. I feel that Sagan’s huge potential through the entire year commands such a massive salary that no team owner will ever be able to provide him with a strong group of lieutenants in the classics unless he ends up at Quick-Step.

    Regarding Quickstep they seem to be a victim of their own strength as well, by being able to place 4 guys in a group of 12 so early on in races condemns them to to working for 50+km and as such lets everyone else sit on. The key to winning a classic now days appears to be:
    A) get your self in a group controlled by quickstep so you don’t have to pull
    B) let quickstep do all the work
    C) roll them when they get tired
    D) let the chase group leave the efforts to the empty quicksteppers

    • Not sure about Sagan’s salary being the reason. I mean they all made the best out of Oleg’s megalomania when he took over and reached salaries that were higher than anywhere else. There’s obviously something else going wrong within the team when only Contador is reaching top form. The lack of support matching his abilities during P-R was another obvious example. Or is it just the lack of motivation due to the announced end of the team? It should be quite the contrary.

      The problem you’re describing is nothing new to Lefevère’s team. Having strength in numbers is a good thing but only if your best rider(s) are able to go with the captains of the other teams or attack on their own without getting caught immediately. In years when Boonen (or Musseuw before) were outstanding their team’s strength in numbers made them very hard to beat.
      And Etixx is still the team capturing the most wins, aren’t they? But in order to win a demanding classic – no MSR is not one of those IMHO – you definitely need at least one exceptionally good rider not only a staple of very good ones. Terpstra’s P-R win 2014 being one exception of that rule because the better riders neutralized each other in the finale so he could win although he already had been dropped before.

  15. What a race,Sagan needs a real team, he’s been on his own since the beginning of his career and has done so much ,imagine if was on a team like BMC, Quickstep or any team with guy’s able to work efficiently for him.Ettix needs a leader, ever since Boonen has been fading they don’t seem to be able to work together well.They need a leader and sadly I don’t think Stybar he’s the one.

  16. Sagan Mucho Los Huevos. Much more class to make brave moves and fight with courage than to fecklessly score wins. The less shallow probably see this clearly.

  17. I think Sagan’s sprint speed is overrated and probably deep down he knows it. Hence he often hits out early. I thought both he and kwio were awesome and sags did show enough nous to go on the attack before cancellara could recover so he’s not entirely bereft of tactics.

    Truth is a lot of the classic leaders pack pretty decent finishes!

  18. Starting to wonder if the mythical “curse of the rainbow jersey” is to be 2nd over and over again? Sagan looked resigned to 2nd in the last kilometer. He got some help to create the gap but seemed to be thinking “Geez, I’m cooked, what am I going to do with this guy?” as they approached the finish line and didn’t really look to be watching closely when the former World Champion jumped. Would having teammates up there improve things? That’s not working all that well (so far) for Etixx these days…but the big goals are still a few weeks away. I’m happy to see Boonen showing some signs of form, could he come good at just the right time?

      • You could be right, but he wasn’t wearing the rainbow stripes. As to your other comment about Sagan doing more work, I thought the same thing but Sagan says otherwise. Wonder what might have happened had Sagan NOT gotten the instructions from the DS to keep pulling? Would his own instincts have had him sit up and take his chance in a large sprint?

    • Sagan is second so often, nothing has changed this year! He suffers from being one of the world’s best in so many different scenarios, but not always the absolute best… plus people always rely on him to do so much work before the finale, so he cooks himself by the final sprint.

      The only area that he does dominate is when the road goes downhill. His win in Richmond was unreal, Sagan raced the best he’s ever raced before by staying patient and then attacking, then descending so nobody else could stay with him. And then his almost win in the Tour stage last year where he nearly pulled back the leader on that descent.

      In my mind though, cycling needs this guy to always be up there. He’s interesting, cares about social issues and is in the hunt for almost every race he’s in.

    • The “teammate in the bunch” is really only as good as the 2 guys involved. I am not sure how much Kwiat was holding back on Sagan, but Sagan knew that Stannard was getting dragged to the finish and was an excellent card for Sky. So Sagan will take note of Kwiat’s effort level, but if it’s a bit less than his own what can he do about it? Kwiat has to do enough that Sagan believes they’ll get to the finish, which in this case was a lot I think. But Kwiat needs to take advantage for this to work, just as Stannard will need to handle the finale for real if the break is caught.

      • The above was in response to Larry T asking “Would having teammates up there improve things?” The idea is Sagan would win a few more if he had something like this working for him rather than against him.

          • Etixx is smart to keep plugging away. Sagan is smart if he spends some time thinking about ways to have things on his own terms, and a fan can’t help but notice that he could save his legs better if there were people around him to help more.

  19. As INRNG says – Sagan, SKY, Cancellera etc are really focussing on a Monument win. So from that point of view you could look at Sagan’s move, Cancellera’s chase, or GVA’s attack in DDV, as training efforts. Not so fussed about the win, but looking dig as deep as possible late in the race. Sets up a very exciting Flanders!

    • He did work a bit more. Plus, Kwiat had Stannard before the move was established in the group so he had to work significantly less before the winning move was established.

      • I do wonder if the whole “Stannard in the break behind” thing is really that valuable? For mine he was like 4th/5th fav at best from that group. Certainly not a top fancy, noting what he did last year to Etixx at Omloop. My point is that isn’t a big reason for Kwia to be able to work less than Sagan, although it seems he did get away with that. Either way, great race.

    • I did not see (in the video) Sagan doing more work, but I did see Kwiat looking distinctly “less uncomfortable.” From looking at them in the finale it seemed like Sagan definitely had the tougher workout. As hoh points out, that workout included the whole race, not just the part they did as a duo.

  20. Well you have to like Sagan. Always exciting and aggressive, putting top riders into difficulty. Shame he leaves too much on the road and doesn’t finish of the job more often. Better support maybe ? I’m not so sure, he likes to take the race by the scruff of the neck and race hard. More than could be said for many of the chasers who were content to sit in and see the win ride up the road simply following Etixx. Are the DSs really that clueless. All that said, good win for Kwiat, who read the move and worked well with Sagan into the headwind.

    An exciting race, enlivened even more by the superb chase of Cancellara.

  21. More great blogging from Inner Ring and the Peloton Beneath the Line. Thank you everyone for informing, stimulating and entertaining me. This is the best bike read online imo.

    There was so much of drama in that race; the ambush attack winner, the Sagan 2nd place phenomenon, the Cancellara chase back sub-plot, the dynamic duo of world Champions holding off a charging group of some of the best riders in the world, Flandriens, Hellingen, pave – what a race!

    Despite all the if’s about Sagan’s finshing skills and Etixx’s tactics, I think Kwiatowski really did ride a perfect race. Hats off to him.

  22. Some fantastic sub plots in a very entertaining race… I do hope all these 2nd places dont put a downer on Sagan, last thing i think we all want to see is the man give up…he really is a great old school entertainer.

  23. The final was like RvV last year, except the two who got away were more evenly matched than Kristoff and Terpstra, making it more exciting who would win if they managed to stay away. I feel pity for Sagan, putting so many races on fire but so often burning up himself in the process. On the other hand, one cannot help remembering Strade Bianche 2014 where Kwiatek for the first time demonstrated his ability to beat Sagan in the finish. The difference from that race is that by the time they rolled in to Harelbeke, they had become reigning and previous world champion.
    A lot has been written about the Boonen vs Cancellara duels, and they may be mostly in the past now – but I am looking forward to more Kwiatek vs Sagan – because it is great!

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