Geraint Thomas (Team Sky) soloed to one of the biggest victories of his career, breaking Team Sky’s cobbled WorldTour Classics duck with a stunning win at E3 Harelbeke.
For the second year running Thomas’ ignited the race with a perfectly-timed attack on the Oude Kwaremont, joined up the road by Zdenek Stybar (Etixx-QuickStep) and Peter Sagan (Tinkoff-Saxo).
But the Welshman burst clear with another perfectly-timed attack, dropping the hammer to accelerate away from his breakaway companions and open up a lead which Stybar could not pull back.
It meant on a day when Classics legend Fabian Cancellara’s spring campaign was ended by a big crash on the cobbles, Britain’s new star of the Classics celebrated a thoroughly deserved first victory.
How the race unfolded
Dries Devenyns (IAM Cycling), Kristian Sbaragli (MTN-Qhubeka), Sebastien Turgot (Ag2r-La Mondiale), Sean De Bie (Lotto-Soudal), Andrea dal Col (Southeast) and Sjoerd van Ginneken (Team Roompot Oranje Peloton) had formed the day’s break.
The race was already packed with incident before the peloton had reached the climbs, however, a huge crash on the Haaghoek cobbles taking out a number of big-name riders.
Believed to have been caused by an errant water bottle, Cancellara was the highest profile victim of the crash – suffering two fractured vertebrae as he hit the ground hard.
Dutch champion Sebastien Langeveld (Cannondale-Garmin) also left the race in an ambulance, though John Degenkoln (Giant-Alpecin) recovered to finish the race.
Up the road Turgot also crashed, falling into a ditch as the numbers in the break fell to four – prompting Devenyns to go solo as splits also happened further back.
Thomas hit the front on the Kwaremont for the second year running to ignite the race, meanwhile, as he and Stybar accelerated off the front.
Once again, Sagan was narrowly behind the move but had enough to burst clear with them as they quickly caught and passed Devenyns.
There was plenty of strength in the chasing group, with Sep Vanmarcke (LottoNL-Jumbo) one of the first to take it up, but cohesion between the chasing teams was lacking.
A mechanical for the Belgian took some of the sting out of the move, but BMC Racing took over and set a fierce pace – again without support – as the last of the major climbs was safely negotiated.
Greg van Avermaet took a spectacular tumble after a touch of wheels with Alexander Kolobnev (Katusha), however, which took him out of contention and stopped the American team’s chase.
Van Avermaet’s misfortune proved to be good news for the three up the road as they continued to come through and off to stretch their lead to more than a minute.
Luca Paolini (Katusha) took over chasing duties, flicking his elbow angrily as he called for support only to find a stubborn Ian Stannard (Team Sky) sat on his wheel with no desire to chase down his British team-mate.
Thomas accelerated with 4.3km to go, with only Stybar strong enough to go with him – Sagan left trailing in their wake as Stybar desperately chased the Welshman down.
And the move proved to be a race-winning one, as he crossed the finish line solo – punching the air and roaring in delight as he crossed the finish line.
E3 Harelbeke: result
1) Geraint Thomas (GBR) – Team Sky – 5.14.57hrs
2) Zdenek Stybar (CZE) – Etixx-QuickStep –
3) Matteo Trentin (ITA) – Etixx-QuickStep
4) Alexander Kristoff (NOR) – Katusha –
5) Sep Vanmarcke (NED) – LottoNL-Jumbo
6) Matti Breschel (DEN) – Tinkoff-Saxo
7) Jurgen Roelandts (BEL) – Lotto-Soudal
8) Jack Bauer (NZL) – Cannondale-Garmin
9) Jens Keukeleire (GER) – Orica-GreenEDGE
10) Daniel Oss (ITA) – BMC Racing