Tom Boonen (Omega Pharma-Quick Step) won his fifth E3 Harelbeke Friday, taking a bunch sprint ahead of Oscar Freire (Katusha) and Bernhard Eisel (Sky). Boonen’s win makes him the winningest rider in the history of the cobbled semi-classic.
“This is exceptional,” said Boonen. “The race was very difficult. I placed a few attacks in the mountains without being able to make a difference. Fortunately, I preserved enough strength for the sprint.”
In what was billed as a preview of the favorites for next week’s Tour of Flanders, Fabian Cancellara (RadioShack-Nissan) suffered a mechanical and a hard crash, but finished in the peloton. Philippe Gilbert (BMC Racing) fared worse, abandoning with 50km remaining.
The first strike from the favorites came 56km from the finish on the Taaienberg. Boonen stood and accelerated hard up the right gutter midway up the climb. The move dispatched Gilbert, who was at the back of the peloton at the base of the climb. Sep Vanmarcke (Garmin-Barracuda) gave chase, four bike lengths back, and when they crested the climb, Cancellara dragged the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad winner and three other riders across to Boonen.
Twenty more riders came across on the paved descent to the foot of the Kruisberg. The group back off the pace and reset temporarily, Boonen looking over his shoulder to Cancellara at the front. Just moments later, though, Tony Gallopin attacked, bringing on a frenzied chase from riders hesitant to allow Cancellara a teammate up the road.
The breakaway took 36 seconds onto the cobbles of the Kruisberg.
Behind them, Freire sprung free after Gallopin, followed by French champion Sylvain Chavanel (Omega Pharma) and Sebastien Langeveld (GreenEdge). The chase quickly reeled in the dangerous group, however, leaving just the day’s Farnese Vini-heavy breakaway at the front of the race.
The break carried 18 seconds to the base of the Paterberg, but the advantage would not last long. Oscar Gatto set out from the break as his companions were caught back when Boonen again attacked. The pace from the Omega Pharma man again split the peloton, but Gatto rode over the top of the climb alone with Damien Gaudin (Europcar) in pursuit.
Greg Van Avermaet (BMC Racing) led the peloton onto the Oude Kwaremont, Gatto 47 seconds up the road. The Belgian’s shoulders rocked over his bars, Vanmarcke planted on his wheel. The pace was moderate when Cancellara came out of nowhere on the left side of the road and attacked from in the saddle. Vanmarcke jumped over to the Swiss rider’s wheel, joined by Boonen, Filipo Pozzato (Farnese Vini) and Peter Sagan (Liquigas-Cannondale).
The group almost immediately had 10 seconds and ground out a relentless pace to the top of the climb. Cancellara dropped out of the group with a front flat on the descent from the top of the Kwaremont and that is when disaster struck.
Riding slowly up the right side of the feed and service zone with 34km to go, Cancellara crashed hard with Carlos Barredo (Rabobank) and lay on his back on the road for half-a-minute. Staff shepherded the defending champ to a new bike and he remounted.
The crash came at a most inopportune time, as Chavanel, Dimitry Muravyev (Astana) and Simon Spilak (Katusha) attacked the favorites.
Cancellara gave a hard chase, assisted by nearly every trick in the book — sticky water bottle, on-the-fly bike adjustment and even a barehand sling — to regain the peloton 27km from the finish.
“Three times problems with the bike, two times I crashed… so much bad luck… more is not possible,” said Cancellara. “What can you do? I tried on the Kwaremont but then had a flat tire, and I pulled over in the curve to change it and then Barredo crashed into me.”
Moments later, Björn Leukemans (Vacansoeil-DCM) attacked on a paved false flat and put the group into difficulty, springing 10 riders free. Up ahead, Gatto suffered a mechanical and slipped back through the chase group and Chavanel and Muravyev were alone on the front. Spilak trailed five seconds behind and looking over his shoulder.
Just as he did for a week at Tirreno-Adriatico earlier this month, Sagan led much of the chase at the front, with Cancellara on the point of the chasing peloton, 17 seconds behind. With Chavanel flogging himself 25 seconds up the road, the Swiss pulled the peloton up the chase all on his own.
As the new peloton rode single-file up a gravel track to the right side of the road, Vanmarcke attacked again, giving a brief effort, but backed off soon. The chase reset ahead of the climb of the Teigenberg, with Farnese Vini, Liquigas and Omega Pharma each putting a single rider at the front.
Stijn Devolder (Vacansoleil) attacked as soon as the peloton arrived to the climb, and Pozzato countered, stringing the peloton out again. And again, the move was neutralized, before Wednesday’s Dwars door Vlaanderen winner Niki Terpstra (Omega Pharma) attacked. Sagan, Leukemans, Vanmarcke and Langeveld bridged across, but again the peloton, this time led by Sky’s Ian Stannard, drilled them back for his teammate Bernhard Eisel.
With 11km to go, Chavanel and Muravyev still clung to 11 seconds. The race appeared to be headed for a bunch sprint, but Devolder again attacked. That move was the breaker for the leaders and with 6km remaining, the race was together at the front with roughly 50 riders.
Terpstra, Van Avermaet and a Europcar rider tried their hand at countering the catch, but Stannard again ripped at his gears, pulling them back under the 5km kite. Hiding in the peloton were most of the big players: Boonen, Cancellara, Ballan, Vanmarcke, Sagan, Boasson Hagen.
Quiet since his early attack, Hoste jumped up the left side of the ride with 3km to go. The peloton remained calm, tucked in behind two Omega Pharma riders. The patience paid, as Hoste slipped back to the group and out the back at the yellow, 2km kite.
Saxo Bank took up the charge for J.J. Haedo, but Boonen opened the sprint 300 meters from the line and barely held on over a late-charging Freire. The Spaniard pounded his handlebars in frustration as the now-five-time Harelbeke winner celebrated.
“I was doing a few big attacks, I wasn’t saving myself for a sprint, but when it came back together it looked like it would be a sprint,” said Boonen. “I was tired but I knew everyone was tired. Everyone suffers on a parcours like this, whether you’re at the front or the back. I was not very comfortable for a sprint, but I was sure I would do a good sprint and I was definitely trying to win.”
Freire, who has been on top form this spring, said he had left the sprint too late, with the finish line hidden behind a gentle, right-hand bend.
“I made a very big mistake by waiting too late,” he said. “I don’t really know the parcours, and because of this slight bend in the road, I couldn’t see the finish line. When I saw the finish it was too late. I started my sprint with 100 meters to go, but it was too late. Without the mistake, I think I could have won, considering I only sprinted for the final 100 meters.”
Eisel said afterward that he had started the day in the service of Boasson Hagen, but the Norwegian set him free after the early attacks left his legs empty.
“I was riding for Eddy, but he didn’t have the legs today,” said Eisel. “I brought him up to a few climbs, and he did a big move with Tom and Fabian and Sep Vanmarcke, and I thought, ‘He’s perfect, he’s doing well.’ But when it came back together he told me he wasn’t good. It’s possible he just lost some energy; during the last 20km it was clear that everyone was tired.”
Brief Unofficial Results
1. Tom Boonen, Omega Pharma-Quick Step
2. Oscar Freire, Katusha
3. Bernhard Eisel, Sky
4. Sep Vanmarcke, Garmin-Barracuda
5. John Degenkolb, Project 1T4I