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Marco Haller (Katusha) is leading the mountains classification after the first day at De Panne
Sagan riding in his own league, says sprint coach Zabel
With Luca Paolini using the Three Days of De Panne as preparation for Sunday's Tour of Flanders, Katusha management urged their young riders to take their chances, coming up trumps with Marco Haller toping the mountains classification and Alexander Kristoff third behind stage winner, Peter Sagan (Cannondale) in the final sprint.
Haller was particularly aggressive on the hellingen, taking maximum points on all bar the last of three laps over the Leberg, Berendries, Valkenberg, Ten Bosse and Eikenmolen earning the red jersey.
Katusha's sprint coach Erik Zabel admitted that given the strength and form of Sagan, it will take considerable effort and a bit of luck to beat the Slovakian powerhouse, but the man who earned over two hundred career victories, was pleased to see Olympic bronze medallist Kristoff take the initiative.
"I spoke just now in the bus after the race with Alex Kristoff and he tried today with the long sprint because it was fast and slightly uphill and then his
acceleration was really good," Zabel told Cyclingnews. "After 150m, so 200m to go he died a little bit in front and Sagan just jumped from his wheel.
"But in my eyes it's better to try something than just to follow the wheel and then to be beaten. Kristoff tried and he got a well deserved third place and we are happy with that."
Sagan told media following his win that his only real effort of the day came in the sprint finish, despite a number of attacks on the peloton from the 30km to go mark. Asked for his perceptions on the balancing act that Sagan was demonstrating in the lead up to Flanders, Zabel was cautious.
"I have to say it depends on your personal level," he admitted. "If you are some kind of superstar like Peter Sagan, then it looks like that he is riding in his own league, so it seems to me that it's not really a problem to win Gent-Wevelgem, to win today and then take this as a preparation for The Ronde.
"So we will see if it will be successful but a rider like Paolini has to be more careful," Zabel said of the recent Omloop Het Nieuwsblad winner. "But he is experienced enough.
"Of course if I was in the position of Peter Sagan and the legs were good, I would take what's possible."
Zabel is genuinely excited at the looming showdown on Sunday, but said that it was hard to go past Sagan as outright favourite.
"Sunday in Gent-Wevelgem and as well today he looks really, really strong," he said. "He played up the climbs and he took over in the group and then he won the sprint so it looks like that he is the favourite. Of course, Harelbeke was won by Cancellara so he's the next favourite. Tom looks okay and I think De Panne will help him to be ready for Sunday.
"For the spectators, for the fans, for the specialists, for the insiders, it will be a great thrill."