Peter Sagan (Cannondale) won E3-Harelbeke from a four-man attack including Geraint Thomas (Team Sky) to kick-start his cobbled Classics campaign with a huge victory.
Sagan, Thomas and Omega Pharma-Quickstep duo Stijn Vandenbergh and Niki Terpstra formed the race-winning attack on the Oude Kwaremont, with defending champion Fabian Cancellara (Trek Factory Racing) having been earlier held up in a crash.
Sagan and Thomas had to fend off several late counter-attacks from the OPQS team-mates, but with the race staying together under the flamme rouge, the Slovakian was never going to be denied.
Leading out a long sprint, Sagan comfortably outsprinted Terpstra and Thomas to gear up for next week’s Tour of Flanders in perfect fashion.
The day’s attack was formed by Maxime Daniel (Ag2r-La Mondiale), Jerome Cousin (Team Europcar), Florian Senechal (Cofidis), Jay Robert Thomson (MTN-Qhubeka) and Laurens de Vreese (Wanty-Groupe Gobert).
Their lead stretched to more than seven minutes, but the pace of the bunch on every climb ensured it soon tumbled.
Further back, the perils of the cobbles were proved when Maarten Wynants (Belkin), upon hitting a section on the Taaienberg, hit the deck spectacularly.
Topsport-Vlaanderen also lost three riders to a big crash, while Sagan and Sep Vanmarcke (Belkin) were both forced to put in big chases after poorly-timed punctures.
It was another crash which was to prove decisive however, as with 41 kilometres to go – as the five leaders were slowly being reeled in – a big crash caused a huge split in the peloton.
Very few riders avoided it, with Cancellara and Boonen among the riders held up behind.
Realising what was happening, Lotto-Belisol pulled a big shift on the front as gaps formed right down the road.
Thomas and Sagan both looked immensely strong behind them, and it was little surprise to see the two launching attacks.
Behind them, Cancellara put in a massive acceleration to bridge, picking off riders on his way, but just as they looked to have brought it together on the Oude Kwaremont, Thomas attacked. Sagan initially lost the Welshman’s wheel, but latched back on to become the fourth member of an elite leading quartet.
Just behind, Cancellara and Boonen picked up Luca Paolini (Katusha) and Vanmarcke to form an elite chasing group, with Stijn Devolder providing Cancellara with an ally.
The Trek Factory Racing duo pushed to the limit to try and bridge, but they found little support in the leading group until Cancellara launched a massive counter-attack on the final climb.
It cut the gap momentarily but despite a superb ride he was unable to catch the four leaders, where Sagan and Thomas worked well together to keep their two companions in check.
The OPQS pairing repeatedly attacked with Vandenbergh looking strongest, but when Thomas neutralised the Belgian’s final attack, the stage was set for Sagan to lead out a sprint.
The Welshman’s efforts were rewarded with a podium spot – Sky’s second consecutive third-place finish in the Classics after Ben Swift’s Milan-San Remo result.
E3 Harelbeke 2014 – result
1) Peter Sagan (SVK) – Cannondale – 4.56.30hrs
2) Niki Terpstra (NED) – Omega Pharma-Quickstep
3) Geraint Thomas (GBR) – Team Sky
4) Stijn Vandenbergh (BEL) – Omega Pharma-Quickstep
5) Sep Vanmarcke (BEL) – Belkin Pro Cycling
6) Tony Gallopin (FRA) – Lotto-Belisol
7) Borut Bozic (SVN) – Astana
8) Tyler Farrar (USA) – Garmin-Sharp
9) Fabian Cancellara (SUI) – Trek Factory Racing
10) Greg van Avermaet (BEL) – BMC Racing