E3 Harelbeke has proved a most reliable indicator of form lines ahead of the Tour of Flanders in recent seasons, and all of the principal contenders for De Ronde were on the start line on Friday as the race makes its debut in the WorldTour.
Winner for the past two years, Fabian Cancellara (RadioShack-Nissan) is the favourite to triumph once again this time around, particularly given his recent exploits in Italy. However, in spite of his undoubted power, the Swiss rider found himself pipped at the line at Milan-San Remo, and there is no shortage of willing challengers in a high-class field in Harelbeke.
Leading the line is the Omega Pharma-QuickStep team of Tom Boonen. The Belgian has been a remarkably consistent performer on the cobbles for the past two seasons, and flanked by Dwars Door Vlaanderen winner Niki Terpstra and Sylvain Chavanel, Boonen seems well-placed to renew his enduring rivalry with Cancellara.
Philippe Gilbert and his BMC squad are still chasing their first victory of the season, but with Thor Hushovd, Alessandro Ballan and Greg Van Avermaet in their ranks, they should have a significant say in the finale here. Peter Sagan (Liquigas-Cannondale) and Filippo Pozzato (Farnese Vini-Selle Italia) are some of the other danger men.
There were raucous cheers too for the young Belgian talent Sep Vanmarcke (Garmin-Barracuda) as he went to sign on. Cancellara may be the man to beat, but home hopes are certainly not lacking at Harelbeke.
Breschel opted to skip Dwars Door Vlaanderen, a race he won in 2010, in order to focus his energies on the two WorldTour races this weekend, E3 Harelbeke and Gent-Wevelgem.
“There are going to be two really hard races now and it would be difficult to do Dwars Door Vlaanderen full gas and still be 100% for this and Wevelgem,” he said.
With 13 hellingen on the menu on Friday, positioning will be of the essence, particularly on the first climb, the Muur Van Geraardsbergen shortly before the midway point.
“You’re going to have to be on the front on Geraardsbergen. Maybe you’re not going to win the race but you can lose the race there,” he warned. “It’s always important to stay in the front on these Belgian races.”
Karsten Kroon returns to Saxo Bank after two crash-afflicted seasons with BMC, and the Dutchman is pleased to back under the management of Bjarne Riis, with home he enjoyed the best years of his career between 2006 and 2009.
“From the 30 original riders on Saxo Bank when I left three years ago, only seven are left so it’s a totally different group but the mentality and the staff are still the same,” Kroon said.
He leads the Saxo Bank team in the absence of Tour of Flanders champion Nick Nuyens, who misses the classics after fracturing a hip at Paris-Nice. “It’s a shame not only for Nick and the team but also for me,” he said. “In the classics it’s a big advantage if you have a few strong guys.”
The man charged with guiding the two British stars at professional and international level, David Brailsford, has stated that spreading yourself too thinly is a "recipe for failure" and that his riders must identify their main targets for the crucial month of July, which takes in both the Tour and the men's Olympic road race.
The Team Sky and Team GB supremo is arguably the most influential figure in British cycling, having masterminded Team GB's record medal haul at the 2008 Beijing Olympics and founding and developing Team Sky into a Pro Tour team feared by the rest of the peloton. The signing of Cavendish in the winter to line-up alongside Wiggins in Team Sky colours was a major coup and the team's start to the season has been a good one.
Wiggins underlined his credentials for a sustained challenge for yellow at this year's Tour by winning Paris-Nice earlier in this month, with bookmakers now making him second favourite behind 2011 winner Cadel Evans to make history and become Britain's first winner of cycling's flagship event.
World champion Cavendish has already secured several wins for his new team and has designs on retaining the green jersey he won at last year's Tour and also winning the Olympic road race. Brailsford, however, has dropped the strongest hint yet that going for the double could be counter-productive.
"We've got four big goals in close proximity and they all revolve around Mark and Bradley," Brailsford told BBC Sport. "So at this stage of the game you look at what their form is like and, like everything in life, you prioritise. I think just to say that you're going to give each one equal significance and try to win everything is probably the recipe for failure.
"What we really need to do is to look at them and say: 'If you could just have one, which one would you take?' You then build your chances around that. We're clear in our minds about our approach for this year and it will pan out as we get there.
"We have known for some time that Bradley is an exceptional rider He is building experience and belief and the performances are coming with that. We've come into the season with a clear game plan for Bradley and he's delivered every time. If you look at his record over the last year, it's pretty spectacular. So he's on track and there's more to come. We can look forward to July with real excitement."
Brailsford also had words of praise for Cavendish, despite his sub-standard performance at Milan-San Remo last weekend - a race that he admitted he really wanted to win in the rainbow jersey.
"That performance was a bit of a surprise and we don't often have surprises, particularly from Mark," Brailsford said. "He's a great champion and has got so much class but it didn't work out for him at the weekend and that's uncharacteristic. We're looking at all the numbers to see if we can put our finger on it. It could be illness, it could be latent fatigue. There are a whole host of things it could be. But you have to take your hat off to Mark Cavendish for all that he's achieved. If anyone has earned the right to a bad day it's him."
The World Anti-Doping Agency president John Fahey has praised cycling for taking the initiative to incorporate more blood testing in its anti-doping regime, and has called on the other Olympic sports to follow cycling's example.
In an interview with Bloomberg News, Fahey decried the low number of blood tests in sport worldwide, noting that in 2010, out of some quarter of a million controls taken, only about 5,000 were blood samples. The rest were urine, which is less intrusive to collect and cheaper to transport and process.
However, blood testing is the only way to detect some performance enhancing drugs such as human growth hormone (HGH).
"What we're seeing happening is another disappointment to us," Fahey said. "Sports generally are not spending enough on anti-doping agencies and not putting enough blood testing forward. That being the case, I suspect HGH cheats are getting away with it. What is an effective and robust program? It's a hell of a lot more than 2 percent of the samples being blood samples. It's probably got to be 15 percent, or maybe 20 percent blood samples to be effective."
WADA's goal is to make sure blood samples make up at least 10 per cent of all controls, but so far only cycling has come close.
"Cycling had a very bad record going back ten years or so ago," Fahey said. "They have at least stopped denying the problem, and worked with a program to deal with the problem."
In 2011, the UCI collected nearly a third of its 13,057 doping controls as blood samples, but the article did not note the percentage of blood samples taken strictly for the biological passport or how many were actually tested for HGH.
To date, there has only been one HGH positive in cycling, that of Patrick Sinkewitz, although other athletes have either been punished for trafficking in the drug or admitted to using it.
David Millar's Classics campaign is over after the Garmin-Barracuda rider crashed and broke his right collarbone in E3 Harelbeke. It's the second time the Brit has sustained a clavicle break, having crashed out of the 2009 edition of Paris-Nice with the same injury on the same side.
"I got out of the car at the crash and I saw David. It looked like his shoulders were at different angles," Garmin-Barracuda's team director Allan Peiper told Cyclingnews at the finish of the race.
"I asked him what he thought, and he said he thought it was broken.
"I don't know how bad the break is. It may mend by itself it may need an operation. All those things come into the equation. The Classics could be over in that sense so it means moving onto the next objective for David and shuffling the team a little bit."
A fortnight ago, it looked as if Bernhard Eisel's Classics season was already over. A knee injury picked up in Tirreno-Adriatico threatened to put an end to Eisel's spring but after constant therapy from the Sky's physiotherapist, he was able to start E3. And he paid the team back with third place in the final sprint in Harelbeke.
Like fellow podium placers Tom Boonen and Oscar Freire, Eisel was a constant presence near the head of the race. His primary job was to ensure that teammate Edvald Boasson Hagen was well placed going into the Taaienberg. With that task fulfilled and with a bunch sprint becoming a strong possibility towards the end of the race, Eisel was able to concentrate on his own chances.
"I was cramping in the last 600 meters but with 20 kilometres to go, I put Ian Stannard on the front and I said to the boys 'come on let's not let this one go, let's keep working'," Eisel told Cyclingnews at the finish.
At the time, Sylvain Chavanel (Omega-Pharma QuickStep) and Dmitriy Muravyev (Astana) were clear and racing towards the win. However with Sky and Liquigas chasing, the complexion of the race changed.
"We just had to bring back Chavanel, and then we'd have QuickStep riding with us," Eisel said.
"If I didn't have cramps, then maybe I could have held Boonen's wheel in the sprint but I couldn't get the full power on the pedals but I'm absolutely happy because until Wednesday I didn't know if I'd race today. At one point it looked like my entire Classics season was over."
"I had knee problems but our physio did a fantastic job so I have to thank him and the team. When you have a small engine and you ride like you have a big engine, all the weak points in your body cause too much trouble. Tirreno was too much trouble for me and there was too much climbing and my muscles were getting more and more tired each day. That was pulling on one of my knees."
Eisel moved to Sky in the off-season and along with his expertise in helping Mark Cavendish to success - both in terms of sprints and surviving mountain stages - he has a strong pedigree in the Classics. He first came to the world's attention when riding for FDJ in the 2006 edition of Paris-Roubaix, where he finished 6th, but his biggest moment came in Gent-Wevelgem in 2010, when he won the race from a small group that contained Philippe Gilbert and Sep Vanmarcke.
Last season he finished seventh in both Paris-Roubaix and Gent-Wevelgem and his third place in E3 will give him a definitive boost in confidence. Not that today's result will change Sky's overall dynamic. On Sunday, and despite being a Gent-Wevelgem champion, Eisel will be called upon to work for Cavendish, should the race finish in a sprint. Eisel, modest, is happy to play the team helper, but should Sky need a plan, B he's more than capable of providing one.
"I'm just happy," he told Cyclingnews.
"Today I would have been working for Edvald, and I got him into the Taaienberg in second place, but I knew that if it came back together I would maybe have a chance. I said to Eddy, you focus on Cancellara, and I'll do my own thing. Now I just want to say I'm happy because I worked for him and then I was able to do the finish for myself."
"This weekend couldn't have got offer to a better start so lets go to Gent-Wevelgem and rock things with Cav."
"This is my exam," Boonen said, and the 31-year-old Belgian clearly passed it. Shortly after capturing a hard-fought victory, a seemingly fresh Boonen talked with the press and explained that the win offers him some peace of mind going into the next important races. "I'm building up toward this time of the year. If you have won a race, it takes away the pressure a bit. I like a big win before Flanders. I am very happy," Boonen said.
Surpassing an illustrious name like Rik Van Looy with his fifth Harelbeke victory clearly made Boonen a proud man on Friday afternoon in sunny Harelbeke. "This has always been a special race for me. I've been on the podium here in the last seven years. After winning four times in a row, everybody waited for number five to come. I'm a happy man. It's my first little record," Boonen said at the post-race press conference.
"I don't know what it is with me and Harelbeke. It's just an important race on the calendar."
That calendar caused a lot of problems for the Belgian race, which was always organized on the Saturday one week before the Tour of Flanders. Last year, the UCI moved Gent-Wevelgem to the Sunday of the same weekend of Harelbeke which resulted in a weaker starting field for the E3-Prijs Harelbeke. Boonen was one of the riders who skipped Harelbeke in order to score in Gent-Wevelgem, also because his Quickstep team was in a huge need of WorldTour points.
This season, the E3-Prijs Harelbeke bumped up to WorldTour status while also moving from Saturday to Friday. "Last year, I was disappointed that I couldn't take the start. I'm glad this race finally got the spot it deserved on the calendar. The course suits me a lot. The hills are close to the finish. At the Tour of Flanders, the climbs used to be far away but here you can make the difference on the climbs and make it to the finish. Back in the old days, I would've finished solo but it's useless to live in the past. I've got some good years left ahead of me so that's what matters," Boonen said.
A solo effort to the finish line wasn't exactly what happened on Friday afternoon. Although the big guns were often firing on the several hellingen in Flanders, no definitive selection was made. Boonen himself tested his legs on the Taaienberg and on the Paterberg. "I was trying to make it a nice race. It's not only important for the result but also for the head and for how I feel on the climbs in this race. That's why I was doing a few big attacks. I wasn't really saving myself for a sprint."
Despite the series of accelerations, the group of favorites always ended caught by a large group of outsiders.
"The race was locked up. The favorites wanted to ride and actually often did so right after a climb, but somehow it never kept going. Pozzato was always with us but he didn't have to ride, which was normal since Oscar Gatto was still in the lead. Eventually it was a good thing for me to have Sylvain Chavanel in front," Boonen said.
Boonen's French teammate set up an attack together with Dmitryi Muravyev (Astana) and stayed away until seven kilometers from the finish line. "It's important that Chava and I really connect. He's an aggressive rider. Today he wasn't there all the time, but he came back on the right moment. With a bit of luck, he could've won today. The strength of this team is that everybody is on a good level. We already won with nine different riders - that says it all."
Eventually a big group of nearly 50 riders headed for a bunch sprint. "Once Chavanel was caught, we went full gas for the sprint. In the end, it all came together, but you could tell everybody suffered on a course like this. I wasn't very confident for the sprint, but I was sure I was going to do a good sprint and I was trying to win. Everybody misjudged their sprint I think. I simply followed my instinct.
"It's always possible that you will finish second or third, but in the end I won so I'm happy." Although Boonen is known to be a fast man in the sprint, he surprisingly enough didn't receive much opposition from the young sprinters in the group like Peter Sagan (Liquigas-Cannondale), John Degenkolb (Project 1T4I) and Jens Keukeleire (GreenEdge).
"This is a time of the season in which everybody is good, thus the results are slightly different," Boonen said, pointing out that the Classics specialists can be fast, too, in their races.
With only one week left ahead of the Tour of Flanders, the E3-Prijs Harelbeke showed that most riders who're expected to be good next Sunday are at their level. "Today some were good but everybody was afraid to race. That was due to the good weather and fast speed. The roads didn't roll well. Everybody who is expected for next Sunday was there.
"Pozzato is always a factor. Cancellara was good. Everybody was on their level," Boonen said. "It can go every way. It's hard to say why everybody came back together all the time. If the weather like's that in Flanders, it can be the same. With a strong team, we should be able to control it again."
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Filippo Pozzato may have offered further signs of his remarkable recovery from injury and the team may have been the principal animators of the race, but there was a palpable air of regret in the Farnese Vini-Selle Italia camp after the finish of E3 Harelbeke.
Oscar Gatto had been one of three riders from the squad (alongside Luca Ascani and Kevin Hulsmans) to infiltrate the day's early break, before soloing clear confidently on the Paterberg. Later joined by the in-form Sylvain Chavanel (Omega Pharma-QuickStep) and Dmitriy Muravyev (Astana) at the front, the trio had a thirty-second lead entering the final 30km to go when a puncture removed Gatto from contention.
The spoils eventually fell to Tom Boonen (Omega Pharma-Quickstep) in a sizeable group sprint, but there was definite air of what might have been outside the team bus, as directeur sportif Luca Scinto inspected the rim Gatto had broken in his frustration as he waited for a wheel change on the side of the road.
"If Gatto hadn't punctured, the race would have been completely different. He would have fought out the finish with Chavanel and the lad from Astana. I think they definitely would have got to the finish," Scinto told Cyclingnews. "Gatto had slowed up to wait for them, and then when he punctured, those two pulled away."
His team leader Pozzato was in agreement, although he acknowledged that Fabian Cancellara's (RadioShack-Nissan) puncture on the Kwaremont had also altered the complexion of the race amongst the chasers, and contributed to a more sizeable group than normal disputing the flat run-in to Harelbeke.
"I think that if Cancellara and Gatto hadn't punctured, the race would have changed completely," Pozzato said. "It's a pity as we rode well, we all showed up well, and the race itself was unfolding nicely for us. But at least we showed that we can ride as a great team."
Invited to the northern Classics thanks in no small part to Pozzato's past achievements in Belgium, Scinto was determined that his team would justify its selection on the road to Harelbeke. "Being a WorldTour team is a question of having the status of being a WorldTour team and it's a question of budget," Scinto said. "But in terms of the level of rider, we're showing that if you work hard, if you stimulate your riders mentally then you can do great things. You don't need big names."
That said, Scinto was fulsome in his praise of the biggest name on his team. Pozzato sustained a fractured collarbone at the Tour of Qatar in February, but was back racing less than a week after undergoing surgery, and underlined his burgeoning form this week with 6th place finishes at Milan-San Remo and Dwars Door Vlaanderen.
"He's been very courageous. A bit mad also, but then his directeur sportif is mad too," Scinto joked. "To make him race straight away was madness in a way, but it was the only way to proceed if we wanted to have Pippo Pozzato at the Classics."
"It's not that I'm mad, but it was the only way that I could get to these races in a good condition," Pozzato said. "Now I hope to be 100 percent for Flanders and Roubaix."
Pozzato's rapport with Scinto comes in welcome relief to his fractured relationship with his former Katusha manager Andrei Tchmil, which began to unravel publicly during the Classics twelve months ago.
"Even when I got injured, that was a bad moment, but the team continued to put their confidence in me," Pozzato said. "It's certainly something that helps me ride with a different mindset and with more motivation."
Routinely criticised to almost pantomime effect by his Belgian hosts for sitting on the wheels, Pozzato went on the offensive on the final climb of the Tiegemberg on Friday at the behest of Scinto. Although his forcing ultimately came to nothing, it was an encouraging sign of his condition ahead of the Tour of Flanders.
"The condition is good, the legs are there, so let's hope that the result arrives soon," said Pozzato, who sat up in the sprint and finished 27th rather than risk falling. He returns to action at Gent-Wevelgem on Sunday, his final race before the Tour of Flanders.
"I think Cancellara and Boonen will still be the ones to beat, Boonen especially because he has a really great team whereas Cancellara just has himself and Bennati and the rest aren't at the same level."
After a period in which his team was unwittingly thrown into the spotlight by Mario Cipollini's unsolicited offer to ride the Giro d'Italia in their colours, Scinto will have been pleased that his team was able to showcase its potential at Harelbeke, even if the result didn't follow.
"I don't even want to talk about Cipollini anymore. This is the team here, you saw them today," Scinto said, pointing at the bus.