In the rarefied atmosphere of the cobbled classics, the merest of missteps can be amplified beyond all recognition, with no chance to remedy the damage. A moment’s hesitation duly proved costly for Zdenek Stybar (Etixx-QuickStep) in the final four kilometres of E3 Harelbeke on Friday, and he was forced to settle for second place behind Geraint Thomas (Sky) at the end of an afternoon that had promised more.
Stybar had impressed in tracking Thomas’ fierce acceleration on the Oude Kwaremont and when they were joined near the summit by Peter Sagan (Tinkoff-Saxo), it was quickly apparent that the day’s decisive break had taken shape with almost forty kilometres still to race.
When Thomas launched a fierce attack on the right-hand side of the road with four kilometres to go, Stybar expected Sagan – as the quickest sprinter in the group – to close it. Instead, however, the Slovak was simply unable to muster the strength to give chase and by the time Stybar realised his error, Thomas had taken flight, not to be seen again.
"My legs were good today. I was thinking about victory, not about second place. When Thomas went, I thought Sagan would react but he didn’t get out of the saddle so I totally miscalculated," Stybar said. "I accelerated myself after that but Thomas had made too big of a gap for me to close. I didn’t think that Sagan was still fresh, but I didn’t expect the first attack to be the winning one either. I expected more from Sagan but I heard he was caught by the chasing group afterwards.
"I hesitated for maybe two seconds too long and the race was over. I was very disappointed in that moment because I felt I could win today. But it is what it is. That's cycling."
The absence of Tom Boonen from this year’s classics campaign after he broke his collarbone at Paris-Nice means that there are a number of riders at Etixx-QuickStep vying for leadership roles at the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix. Stybar downplayed the idea that his display at E3 Harelbeke – the most serious dress rehearsal for the Ronde – means that he will be the team’s number one on Sunday week.
"First I just want to think about this second place, the Tour of Flanders is next week," he said. "Our team has great strength in depth. Don’t forget Niki Terpstra and Stijn Vandenbergh. But of course it’s going to be very strange to race without Tom Boonen. But we’re riding very well as a team and we should take advantage of it during the Ronde."
Indeed, Sagan’s late collapse saw him swept up by the peloton in the final kilometre and opened an unexpected berth on the podium, which was gratefully snapped up by Stybar’s teammate Matteo Trentin. The Italian managed to surprise Alexander Kristoff (Katusha) in the sprint for third thanks to a solid lead-out and the savvy of Terpstra.
"Normally I should have taken it but Terpstra came on my side and I had to wait until he passed me and then it was too late. They were smart and they blocked me a little bit in the sprint," Kristoff told Cyclingnews as he rolled towards his team bus afterwards.
"We only started the lead-out in the last kilometre because we had Stybar in front," Trentin said. "We stayed in a good position in front. Then the last kilometre Stijn Vandenbergh started going full gas, then Yves Lampaert made the leadout for me and it was perfect. To beat guys like Alexander Kristoff in the field sprint is something good and says something great about my condition."