Michal Kwiatkowski (Team Sky) was quicker than Peter Sagan (Tinkoff) in the two-up sprint at the end of E3 Harelbeke, but in truth, it was the nimbleness of his thinking more than the speed of his legs that proved the difference in the final reckoning.
Having carefully marshalled Sagan onto the front in the final kilometre as an elite chasing group bore down upon them, Kwiatkowski proceeded to outmanoeuvre the Slovak in the finishing straight by opening his sprint from distance.
“I surprised him: he didn't expect such a long attack and that I could hold it,” Kwiatkowski said. “When I launched at 300 metres to go, I think that he had expected I'd wait for his move, but I did it on purpose.”
Sagan perhaps ought to have seen it coming. On the penultimate stage of Tirreno-Adriatico in Cepagatti two weeks ago, after all, Kwiatkowski had tried a similar move as part of a four-man leading group.
On that occasion, Sagan closed him down but in doing so had all but presented the win to Greg Van Avermaet (BMC). This time, he simply could not match Kwiatkowski’s acceleration and rolled home in second place, four seconds behind.
It marked the second time that Kwiatkowski has overpowered Sagan, a rival since their junior days, in the finale of a major one-day race, after Strade Bianche in 2014. But while the kick up to the line in Siena two years ago undoubtedly suited Kwiatkowski, the balance seemed tipped in Sagan’s favour on the flat finale here.
“It's similar, yes, but with a different final. I'm always happy to race with Peter, and I was glad it was Peter and not someone else with me, because we worked very well together after we went on the climb,” Kwiatkowski said.
Kwiatkowski and Sagan had forged clear on the day’s penultimate climb, the Karnemelkbeekstraat, a crumbling, tree-lined road that rears upwards for 1500 metres near Ronse. At the summit, with 30 kilometres still to race, the duo put their shoulders to the wheel and pressed on.
“With the headwind, it was not that easy to keep that gap on the guys from Etixx,” Kwiatkowski said. “I think that Trek were also chasing us, so I'm happy that it was Peter and not someone else with me.”
Kwiatkowski proceeded Sagan as world champion and though he marked his time in the rainbow jersey by winning Amstel Gold Race last April, he is keenly aware of the garment’s many associated pressures.
“I know the feeling of Peter, I know how it is to wear the world champion jersey as well. It’s very difficult,” he said generously. “I think both of us did a really good race.”
The victory was Kwiatkowski’s first since joining Team Sky from Etixx-QuickStep during the off-season. Ostensibly signed to lead the British squad in the Ardennes Classics, he has now surely written himself into the equation for next weekend’s Tour of Flanders, where he will line out alongside Ian Stannard, who placed third here in Harelbeke, and Geraint Thomas, winner of Paris-Nice.
The deep reservoir of cobbled classics talent at QuickStep meant that Kwiatkowski was asked to forgo the Ronde in recent seasons in order to focus on Amstel and Liège-Bastogne-Liège. Despite the alteration to his programme this season, he insisted that his true targets will come later in April.
“For sure no, I think the Ardennes suit me better. But of course, I love to race in the classics, and I believe that you can ride both kinds,” he said. “Ok, maybe not all the cobbled campaign together with Roubaix, but I believe that E3 and Flanders can be easily connected with the Ardennes classics.
“I’ve done the Tour of Flanders a few times but I’ve never done it very well. I don't know what to expect from myself in Flanders this year, but I have to say that I'm really happy to be the leader, with Ian Stannard, in such a classic like today. To have all your teammates riding for you is just what I need.”
After missing the Volta ao Algarve through illness in February, Kwiatkowski served notice of his growing condition with a series of strong showings at Tirreno-Adriatico and his attack over the Poggio at Milan-San Remo last weekend.
With Thomas such an impressive winner of Paris-Nice and with Stannard showing up strongly in Harelbeke, one wonders if Sky may finally have happened upon a formula for success in the Spring.
Kwiatkowski, however, insisted the favourites for the next two Sundays were to be found elsewhere. “[Fabian] Cancellara had bad luck in such a bad moment by having a flat, but right now, he seems to be the strongest guy in the bunch,” he said, adding that his former leader Tom Boonen would also be ready for the big day.
“I didn't see his preparation, but he seems ready to rock. A lot of guys from Etixx were there when it mattered. They have so many numbers, and when you have the numbers, you will for sure be there in Flanders.”
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