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Hello and welcome to Cyclingnews’ live coverage from E3 Prijs Vlaanderen - Harelbeke. We have an action-packed weekend ahead of us. Today we’re in Haralbeke but tomorrow we’ll take a short journey across Belgium for Gent-Wevelgem.
But today were in Harelbeke for 203 kilometers of Belgian racing. The race, which starts and ends in Harelbeke, features 12 ‘hellingen’, the short but steep climbs so typical of this region. The Kapelberg, with 45 kilometres to go, has a gradient of 14 per cent. The climbs are gathered in the last 84 kilometres of the race, with the last one, the Tiegemberg, coming only 17 kilometres before the finish line.
Bit of news from this morning is that Thor Hushovd pulled out after just a few kilometers with a bug. Lotto starated with only 6 riders, Scherilincks and Crektins both sick. Hoste is also sick, but being hard as nails he decided to start.
Right now we have a lead group ahead of the peloton. They have a lead of around two minutes. We'll bring you the names as soon as we know more.
Apologies that was incorrect. We have 124 kilometers left to race.
The lead group contains 24 riders. Among them are Kevin Hulsmans (Quickstep), Goetarovitsj, Glenn D'Hollander (Omega Pharma-Lotto, Maarten Tjallingii (Rabobank), Sebastien Rosseler (Radioshack), Gorik Gardeyn (Vacansoleil), Koen Barbe (Landbouwkrediet), Kristof Vandewalle (Topsport Vlaanderen-Mercator)
A few more names to add to that list are Chris Sutton and Jeremy Hunt but the gap is coming down.
And we have a crash. Nuyens is down and a Cervelo rider is in a ditch. He doesn't look too good.
They seems to clash wheels in the middle of the bunch. Nuyens (Rabobank) is back on his feet now.
Meanwhile Romain Sicard and his Euskaltel-Euskadi are on the front leading the chase.
The riders are the first climb of the day now, La Houppe. It's a set of climbs now until the finish and the big guns will be positioning themselves at the front of the bunch soon. We can see Ivanov, the Russian is around three riders back now. He won a Tour stage last year as well as Amstel.
Boonen is near the front too, with a handful of Quickstep riders with him. On the other side of the road we have O'Grady from Saxobank. Sicard is still on the front and leads the bunch over the climb.
Andreas Klier was the Cervelo rider who crashed. We've not seen him yet but Nuyens is back and chasing through the cars. Can he get back on though? Saxobank have poured forward in great numbers and are now on the front hammering out a fast pace.
Frank Hoj, one of the most experienced riders in the bunch, leads bunch onto the a short cobbled section. It's going to be a tough, tough day from here on in. They're about to start the next climb, Berg Stene. It has an average gradient of 7.3 per cent.
Dominik Klemme (Saxo) takes over. At the start this is what he had to say: "We had a big success in the last race and we’re looking forward to today. Matti isn’t here but we’ have options an Fabian is strong. Today I’ll be marking moves and helping as much as possible in the beginning. I need to get the team into a good position. I suffered a lot in Tirreno but I feel a lot better now."
The front of the bunch is now a whose who of Classics cycling now. O'Grady, Flecha, Pozatto, Cancellara, Boonen, Ballan and Ivanov are all there.
Andreas Klier is out of the race and on his way to hospital for a check-up. We hope he's okay.
The front looks pretty calm right now but at the back of the bunch riders are being dropped. It looks like chaos as each one gets distanced.
The leaders are on the Boigneberg now with the peloton starting to catch them. The gap is down to 1.09. Saxobank are still doing most of the work at the front. Boonen is about two wheels back, looking around to see if the others are suffering.
There were forecasts of rain in Belgium today, but it has remained precipitation free for the peloton so far today.
At the start this morning BMC's Karsten Kroon told Cyclingnews he was looking forward to clear conditions after a wet week in Italy at Tirreno-Adriatico and Milan-San Remo.
"I'm feeling fine," Kroon said. "Finally it's dry weather, for a change. I think today is a really important day for all the guys that want to do well at Flanders and that includes me."
The peloton is maybe 60-70 riders now. Iglesias from Xacobeo is the last rider.
Nuyens must have made it back to the bunch as we now have Rabobank riders on the front. Klemme is still there though. He's a promising young German rider. Looks a bit like another German cyclist who has now retired. Guess who?
Hunt leads the lead group onto the Eikenberg. He's all over the road due to the severity of the cobbles but he looks strong. He's an experienced guy is Hunt.
The peloton are starting to catch some of the tired riders from the lead group. That's Guesdon caught and passed. Cancellara is looking strong today and Boonen knows it. The Belgian is glued to his wheel. Over the climb and the lead is down to one minute.
The riders are hugging the far side of the road. It's a bit smoother there and there are less cobbles. Saxo still lead the peloton. Ahead there are less than seven riders in the lead group but another group just behind now. I can't see them lasting more than a few kilometers.
Skil-Shimano had planned to get a representative in the break today. Unfortunately for the Dutch squad, they've missed out this time. Australian Mitchell Docker had hoped to make the selection, but with Gent-Wevelgem, Flanders and Roubaix all on his programme, a day in the peloton might not be such a disadvantage.
"The team plan is to get in the break," Docker told Cyclingnews at the start. "At these sorts of races we're not looking to necessarily be in front just for the cameras. Just to be there so that when the big guys come we've got one guy up there.
"I'm feeling much better this year. Last year all the races were new, but now I know how to better prepare for the season. Hopefully over the next two weeks I'll be getting just a little bit stronger again."
Sebastien Rosseler (Radioshack) is leading what's left of the lead group but behind him it's chaos. The peloton are still around a minute behind. Patrick Lefevere is on the side of the road handing out bottles. He looks happy but then with Boonen in such good form he's got reason to smile. Last week it was confirmed that Boonen will race at the Amgen Tour of California in May.
Saxo have given Team Sky the chance to do some work - how sporting of them. And Boonen accelerates.
He didn't get a gap but he got the peloton's attention. Straight on his wheel were Flecha and Boasson Hagen. The Taaienberg is next on the menu. Average gradient 9.5 per cent.
Crash. Tight left-hander and they're on the deck. And it's Nuyens again. He really isn't have a good day today. Lars Bak and Cancellara are down too. Cancellara is back on his bike and with the leaders.
Four leaders now have a gap of 59 seconds on the bunch. Tjallingii is leading and he looks good, making the others in his group suffer.
Boonen attacks! Flecha goes after him.
Smart move to go just as the remnants of the lead group are about to be caught but Boonen can't quite shake Flecha and twenty others are quick to respond too. Greg Van Avermaet also did a good job in catching Boonen.
BBox take their chance and William Bonnet makes a move. He looks back but no one want to join him and he's going to get caught. Better luck next time.
Sky are at the front now. They've got a few riders in the lead group. Meanwhile Pozatto just sits on Ivanov's wheel.
There are maybe twenty-five riders in the Boonen, Flecha, Pozatto group but more look to be coming back into the fold. Luca Paolini is there, Chavanel, Thomas. I can't see Devolder. Maybe he's feeling guilty for running over my foot this morning at the start and has gone to buy me some Belgium chocolates to say sorry.
Johnny Hoogerland (Vacansoleil Pro Cycling Team) is the next rider to jump off the front. He's got a small gap already. The next climb coming up is the Oude Kruiskens. It's 900 meters long, with a maximum gradient of 13 per cent.
Leading into the climb and Barredo is on the front with Sutton but there's isn't much urgency right now.
Luca Paolini needed a wheel change and he's trying to catch the Boonen group now. Sky on the front with Sutton tapping out a nice pace for Flecha, who sits just behind him.
Devolder's is in the Boonen group too. it's more than a group to be honest so from now on we'll just call it the peloton. Lots of riders made it back on after the pace slowed. Johnny Hoogerland makes it one more and is back in the bunch.
In two kilometers the riders will reach the Kapelberg. It has an average of 14.5 per cent. A lot of riders will be dropped there if Saxo, Sky or Quickstep put the hammer down. Pozatto though has been quiet so far. The defending champion is riding a smart race so far, letting other teams do all the work, while waits patiently for his chance. Meanwhile Luca Paolini is still chasing but he's on is own now, having used all his teammates.
Quickstep are on the front now. Devolder grimacing as he set the pace. The gap to the leaders is 50 seconds. Riders are sprinting at the back of the bunch to stay on right now.
Devolder is pumping out a hard pace and now they're on the climb. Devolder swings off and I think that's Barredo taking over.
Onto the Paterberg and Boonen attacks again. he's got a gap. Flecha and Cancellara are crawling up to him slowly.
This is a huge effort from Boonen.
Cut the rest of the field and it's like the're riding in slow motion compared to Boonen.
Boonen crests the top of the climb and he'll be joined by two riders. Flecha and Cancellara. What a trio. Cancellara gives the Belgian a little tap as he comes through to take his turn. it doesn't last long though. Boonen takes one look at him and goes straight back to the front. Our trio are about to catch our quartet.
Cancellara is in a good position now. Unilke Flecha and Boonen he has a teammate with him. Behind the now seven lead group is a handful of chasers Lars Boom is there. Burghardt his there. Pozzato is there too. More names to come but up front Kasper Klostergaard (Saxo Bank) is burying himself for Cancellara.
Leaders are on the Kwaremont and Cancellara is leading. The early breakaway riders are quickly distanced and we're down to three riders now. Flecha, Boonen and Cancellara. Pozzato also on the climb but is chasing on his own. It's going to be hard for him to get back on.
Boonen takes over now and Cancellara slips to the back of the trio.
Two national champions and the winner of Omloop Het Nieuwsblad in the lead group. Pick your winner. Meanwhile Pozzato has caught Sebastien Rosseler (Radioshack). Cancellara flips into time trial mode on the flat now. Arms over the bars as he raises the pace. The trio have twelve seconds on Pozzato so it's not over for the Italian yet!
The two chasers are working well together but they've got a real battle on their hands if they're going to catch the leaders. The gap is building slowly, and is at 15 seconds now. Pozzato has to keep that gap down and then make a huge effort on one of the final two climbs if he's going to defend his title here.
Pozzato is asking Rosseler to come through but the Radioshack rider is refusing. Either he's got nothing left in the tank or he's planning on the Italian doing all the work. It's Pozzato's race to lose, not Rosseler's.
Not seen Flecha do too much work here. Every time we see him he's in the middle of a Boonen, Cancellara sandwich. Cancellara is looking back now. And I tell you what, Pozzato is reducing the gap here. It's down to ten seconds. Boonen doesn't like that and as soon as he sees the Italian behind him he raises the pace, gets out of the saddle and Cancellara and Flecha are holding on.
Two different styles here. Boonen out of the saddle pounding on the pedals and Pozzato sat down with a much easier style of riding on the eye. Boonen's efforts have worked though and the gap is 16 seconds. Rosseler has been dropped.
Pozzato throws a bottle to the ground, puts his hands on the drops and carries on alone. The gap is getting bigger though, up to 30 seconds, with only one climb to come. Boonen must be favourite for the sprint so Flecha and Cancellara have to try something.
Rosseler has been caught by the next group of chasers. Good race from him though, he's been in the action for a long time.
Final 20 kilometers now and our trio have a lead of 32 seconds on Pozzato. They're working well together, knowing that a podium place awaits them all but we might see fireworks on the final climb. It's in three kilometers time but it does come 17 kilometers from the finish.
Flecha leads but only does a quick turn before Cancellara moves to the front. No fireworks on the final climb.
Pozzato has been swallowed up by the chasers, with Rabobank doing their best on the front with three riders.
Our three leaders have been in this position together so many times over the years and each know the others strengths and weaknesses. Could this be the three riders that also decide the podium at Flanders and Roubaix? Certainly not an impossible scenario.
With around ten kilometers to go we have a change in the commentary box. Susan, it's all yours.
This is so exciting -- when have we ever seen a more powerful leading group?
The three are working together smoothly, almost as if they do this every day. All three are taking turns in the lead, now Cancellara is on.
Now Flecha takes his turn. The Rabobank chase group is still 44 seconds back.
I am ready to pick my podium in this race -- the only question is, which order these three will finish in?
We see a very large, very black cloud in the sky. There is a sharp turn shortly before the finish line, so we hope it stays dry.
The chasing group is slowly making up time on the three leaders. The gap is now 38 seconds.
Will the three stay together to the end? Or will one try to break away? We are still so impressed with this trio, you couldn't pick a better set of riders.
Hm, maybe we spoke too soon! The gap continues to fall, and is only 29 seconds now.
In fact, our three leaders are starting to look back over their shoulders.
Now 3 km to go and thirty seconds. They are still hanging together and routinely trading off the lead work.
Two km to go. They will make it. But who will attack? And when?
Cancellara has a few metres lead under the 1km marker.
Cancellara is putting on a show! He just keeps on powering away.
And Fabian Cancellara takes the win!
THe other two cross the finish line 8 seconds later.
Cancellara had enough of a gap that he could pull his jersey in place and raise his right fist in triumph as he approached the line.
Boonen took second place, ahead of Flecha. Pozzato led the chase group across the line to take fourth place.
WE now have a large group approaching the finish line. Even this group sprints for the honours!
Cancellara is still slumped over his bike, in exhaustion.
That is only the second win this season for the great Swiss rider. He won the overall title in the Tour of Oman, without winning a single stage.
Congratulations once again to our podium. What a race! Please be sure to join us again tomorrow for Gent-Wevelgem.