Quick-Step Floors dominated the 61st edition of the one-day classic E3 Harelbeke in Belgium on Friday. At a massive 120 kilometres from the finish line, the Belgian team charged forward and never disappeared from the picture. They finished it off with a impressive solo victory for Niki Terpstra and a second place for Philippe Gilbert.
There was a lot of debate about a massive crash in the peloton on a narrowing farm road on the plateau after the La Houppe climb. There was limited space, and numerous riders crashed behind the top 30. The Quick-Step team was already near the front at that moment of the crash, and they upped the tempo from there.
"We were in front with the team," said Quick-Step director sportif Wilfried Peeters. "There were narrow roads. We knew that from the recon. There was a deviation. We didn't know there would be a crash. We knew when it is narrow that there is a lot of risk. They end up in front with 50 riders.
"We're pulling until there was a good breakaway," Peeters said at the team bus in Harelbeke.
Yves Lampaert was in the Sporza TV studio reviewing the race, and he was surprised when seeing the TV images of the crash. Asked whether the team should've waited for the riders to recover, Lampaert said he was not aware there was such a big crash.
"I don't think it's fair that we are blamed for this," he said. "It was our plan to be in front over there. We wanted to make the race. It would be weak to brake and allow the others to come back. It wasn't our goal to cause a crash and we didn't cause a crash too.
"In the past we've been in a crash and others didn't wait," Lampaert told Sporza. "If someone else other than Froome crashes in the Tour then Sky will not wait either. That's racing. It's nervous. It's Flanders. You know there's going to be crashes. We heard that there was only a small peloton in front. That's why Iljo Keisse and Tim Declercq started pulling. They did a huge job."
Forty kilometres later, the second peloton was still kept at distance when the race hit the Taaienberg. Quick-Step rode in front when they hit the climb that was made famous by the accelerations of their former team leader, Tom Boonen. Five riders reached the top in front, with only a handful of riders still on their wheels. Philippe Gilbert then made the move that would eventually result in the win for Niki Terpstra.
"As a team we rode perfectly," Gilbert said in a flash interview. "We were all in front ahead of the Taaienberg. Tom [Steels, DS] said, 'Now that we made the difference something should happen since we were only with about 30 riders'. I rode in third position and allowed the first two riders to ride away.
"There was a bit of hesitation in the group," Gilbert said, "so Lampaert and Terpstra were able to ride away. From there we were controlling the race. Not only me but also the others reacted on every attack. That kills the morale of the other riders."
Last year’s winner of the Tour of Flanders was going well, but he realized that there were other strong forces too.
"He accelerated a few times and suddenly we were gone," Gilbert said. "Greg [Van Avermaet] took a lot of risks in the corners on the cobbles of the Stationsberg, so he rode away. I reacted on the main road, again with Benoot. From there I no longer had to pull and just control those two. Terpstra must've been very strong, because I constantly heard that he had to wait for Yves. Suddenly, he was alone. That was no longer the best situation for us. The pre-race favourites were closing in."
On the penultimate climb of the race, the Karnemelkbeekstraat, the gap between the leaders and the first peloton was only 40 seconds. Lampaert got dropped by Terpstra. Gilbert attacked Van Avermaet and Benoot, while the strong chase group was on their heels. Peeters also realized the situation was changing.
Cyclingnews asked Peeters if he had asked Gilbert to attack his group and chase his teammates.
"I don't dare to deny it," Peeters said. "I wanted to tell Gilbert in the radio to go, but I was hesitating. He feels his legs. He was clever enough. He did it. There, he was able to drop those guys from his wheel. It was a little bit too far to close the gap. He easily dropped them but it was a bit too difficult to close the gap.
"I told Niki to wait for Lampaert, but the gap was too big to wait any longer [for Gilbert]," Peeters said. "It was 20 seconds and I had to get out of there with the car. It was too dangerous. I couldn't park on the side, too, with the crowds."
Gilbert didn't talk about his attack. He fast-forwarded to the moment when he was dropping back into the main group with 25 kilometres remaining. Gilbert clearly didn't like to jump on all the moves.
"It all came together behind the leaders, but luckily Stybar was there too.," Gilbert said. "With him, we killed all the moves. We did our work. I know, it's no fun for the others. I don't like it either when someone does it, but it was our job. We had to do it. That's cycling. I really don't like that, but we had to do it. I think it helped Niki to win."
Gilbert is chasing victories in the Monuments this year, but his first attempt of the season in Milan-San Remo fell short. At Le Samyn he finished as runner-up, but he struggled with the cold. That might have taken its toll in the weeks after Le Samyn, but the E3 Harelbeke showed that he's on his way back to top form.
"The last few months I worked a lot for this," Gilbert said. "In San Remo I wasn't good, partly due to the weather. On a certain moment I got really cold and didn't manage to get better again. My race was over. I was behind Cavendish his crash, too. That's the way it is. I'm not looking for excuses.
"Today I was good," he said. "I'm pleased with the way we rode. Once again, we showed that we're a really strong team. Of course, right now we're talking about the three of us, and Yves, but all the others rode really strong, too. Thanks to all the staff, too."
Once Lampaert was dropped for good on the cobbles of the Varent, at 23 kilometres from the finish, the situation changed again. Terpstra was 35 seconds ahead of the first chase group.
"We told Niki to go flat out," Peeters said. "We knew it was a risk, but there would be a tactical game in the final five kilometres. We were lucky enough to have two perfect team players to block the chase with Stybar and Gilbert. It was a true team victory."
The team has won every Belgian race since Le Samyn at the end of February, and Peeters knows the team will reach next week's Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix with a confident team.
"We won the last five races in Belgium," Peeters said. "This is not on the same level as the others. This is a WorldTour race. This was important for us for next week. We showed that we are ready for next week.
"I'm very satisfied by the way we did it," Peeters said. "We took the race in our hands. If you don't have a real sprinter à la Boonen and Gaviria, who crashed out - we've been very unlucky before this race - then this a victory that boosts the morale."