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Live coverage of the E3 Prijs Vlaanderen.
Hello and welcome to Cyclingnews' coverage of the E3 Prijs Vlaanderen-Harelbeke.
As ever there were huge crowds in Harelbeke this morning to greet the riders ahead of their 202km trek into the hellingen of west Flanders. Just a week ahead of the Tour of Flanders, anticipation is reaching fever pitch in the area, and you can get a taste of the start line ambience here.
The bookmakers' favourite on Harelbeke's Marktstraat this morning was Fabian Cancellara (Leopard Trek). The Swiss rider was a spectacular winner in the race last year, and the brief dig he put in midweek at the Dwars Door Vlaanderen sent ripples through the peloton. After that race, he spoke to Cyclingnews about his preparation over the coming two weeks.
Incidentally, Cancellara was presented with part of his prize for winning last year's race on the startline today - his own weight in wine. One assumes that Leopard will save that until after Paris-Roubaix at least...
The earlier kilometres were quiet today, with Niko Eeckhout (An Post-Sean Kelly) the main aggressor and breakaway groups struggling to maintain any kind of advantage.
The bunch covered 46.1km in the first two hours, and was still all together 100km into the race.
But as we pick up the action, a break has gone up the road.
An 8-man move featuring Aliaksandr Kuschynski (Katusha), William Bonnet (FDJ), Stuart O’Grady (Leopard Trek), Jurgen Wandewalle (Omega Pharma-Lotto), Sebastien Hinault (Ag2r-La Mondiale), Sep Vanmarcke (Garmin-Cervélo), Michael Morkov (Saxo Bank-SunGard) and Ben King (Team Type 1) has 2:17 over the peloton.
Quick Step are pushing the pace at the front of the peloton in a bid to reel in the breakaway. They have no representative in the move and are growing increasingly desperate for results. More importantly, Quick Step are the only team still to score a WorldTour point in 2011, and to that end they've rested Tom Boonen and Sylvain Chavanel for tomorrow's WorldTour race, Gent-Wevelgem.
Garmin-Cervelo are also controlling affairs at the head of the peloton alongside Quick Step. Even though they have Vanmarcke in the break, they have two potential winners in Thor Hushovd and Heinrich Haussler and both of those men are still smarting from their disappointment at Milan-San Remo seven days ago.
Tyler Farrar has been rested for today's race, a clear sign that he will be Garmin-Cervelo's lynchpin at Gent-Wevelgem.
Our man Daniel Benson is out on the course today in the Skil-Shimano team car. You can follow his updates on twitter, @dnlbenson.
Last update from Dan: "No Skil riders in the break. They'll have to hope it comes back and their leaders still have something in the tank."
We sat in on Skil-Shimano's team meeting last night on the eve of the race, and you can see some interesting excerpts here.
Fabian Cancellara punctured and was off the back of the bunch, but with Leopard Trek keeping things casual on the front, he got back on pretty swiftly and without expending too much energy.
The break are over the third climb of the day, the Boigneberg, and the pace is quite relaxed. The break's lead is up to 2:58, and there's still a small chase group containing Niko Eeckhout somewhere in the no man's land between the peloton and the break.
Onto the Eikenberg for the escapees now. Bonnet goes to the front and the cobbles and ups the pace, he senses that the break has a chance to defy the odds and stay clear. Stuart O'Grady is looking very comfortable in second place, while King and Kuschynski are struggling slightly to stay in touch, although neither man will be dropped here.
Niko Eeckhout's group is 1:20 behind the leading eight. Hugo Houle (Spidertech), Maxim Gourov (Astana), Timon Seubert (NetApp) and Pieter Serry (Topsport Vlaanderen) are also in there with him.
The peloton hits the Eikenberg and the pace rises. Thor Hushovd is prominent up there in his rainbow jersey.
As he did on Wednesday, Kevin Van Impe (Quick Step) has a go off the front of the peloton on the climb, and as was the case then, the bunch swallows him back up almost immediately. Quick Step could do with a rider like Chavanel in today's race to make an attack that might stick.
Onto the Stationsberg for the eight men up front. This time it's Jurgen Vandewalle who sets the pace, but once more O'Grady is snuggling sat in second place, looking very smooth.
Meanwhile, Kevin Van Impe has had another go off the front of the bunch after the descent of the Eikenberg.
The bunch hits the Stationsberg 3:00 down on the lead group, and this time it's Saxo Bank leading.;
Meanwhile Cancellara seems to be struggling with further mechanical trouble at the back of the field. Looks like he's having a problem with his gears, and he does not look at all happy. Leopard Trek's car is near the back of the line too, and without eaerpieces it might be hard to sort things out quickly.
Cancellara has a quick bike change over the top of the Stationsberg and is now chasing back by himself, safely tugged in behind an Ag2r car. He didn't show a great deal of care in dropping his troublesome bike on the side of the road, but time was of the essence.
Fortunately for the Swiss, nobody looked to take advantage of his misfortune up ahead.
Sep Vanmarcke (Garmin-Cervelo) attacks on the Taaienberg, and manages to get a small gap, but not surprisingly it's O'Grady who tows the remainder of the break right back up to him. The Australian looks in great form.
A problem for Vanmarcke now, he has a front wheel puncture, but so far has not swung over to have it changed.
Meanwhile his own Garmin-Cervelo teammates are upping the pace at the head of the bunch as they hit the Taaienberg.
Andreas Klier leads Hushovd and Haussler.
Hushovd comes to the front now and rides hard up the right hand gutter. Klier's pace strung out the bunch and now Hushovd has pulled a small group clear with him. Haussler is up there, along with Niki Terpstra (Quick Step), Bram Tankink (Rabobank) and Jurgen Roedlandts (Omega Pharma-Lotto), although they haven't much of a gap.
Ben King was dropped from the lead group, and has just been passed by the Haussler group.
Hushovd sat up after his effort and Haussler has pulled a group clear including Terpstra, Roelandts, Gustav Larsson (Saxo Bank-SunGard), Vincent Jerome (Europcar) and Steve Chainel (FDJ).
They have about 100 metres over the main peloton, which had split somewhat.
Cancellara was caught behind but managed to pull a group back up. In spite of his earlier mechanical problems, the Siwss rider is looking strong.
The end result of this movement is that the gap to the earlier break has been slashed to 1:19.
On the Kruisberg, O'Grady and Bonnet set the pace in the break.
Back in the main bunch, Thor Hushovd and Cancellara are setting a fierce pace now. Nick Nuyens and Stijn Devolder are up there too, as is Thomas Voeckler.
After Devolder launches an attack, the pace relents slightly as soon as he is brought to heel. Hushovd and Cancellara playing psychological games here on the Kruisberg.
With 41km to go, the O'Grady break is still clear, but they are being chased by a strong group led by Heinrich Haussler, with Terpstra also contributing richly. They are 44 seconds behind.
Meanwhile, the main peloton is 1:20 back and dwindling rapidly, with Hushovd and Cancellara hugely prominent at the front of it.
Vacansoleil and Leopard Trek are coming to the front of the remnants of the main peloton now in a bid to bring the race back together. They'll want to bring Devolder and Cancellara respectively back into contention.
Garmin-Cervelo can leave them to it, with Vanmarcke in the lead group and Hasusler looking comfortable among the chasers.
Both leading groups are on the Paterberg. Vanmarcke attacks from the lead break, while Roelandts attempts to stretch the Haussler group on the cobbled climb.
Thor Hushovd hits the front of the peloton as it hits the Paterberg, and the Norwegian looks mightily impressive. He seemed in ominous form at Tirreno-Adriatico, and he'll be disappointed to have missed out on the chance to shine at Milan-San Remo.
Hushovd's effort over the Paterberg has split the peloton, and he is part of quite an elite looking group, along with Cancellara and around 10 others,. They are still 1:25 behind the leader, and 44 seconds behind the Haussler group.
On the Oude Kwaremont, Vanmarcke is alone at the head of the race, and showing no signs of cracking. He looks to have definitively jettisoned his erstwhile breakaway companions as he pedals up the climb.
Huge attack from Cancellara out of the bunch on the Kwaremont!
A group containing Tankink, Sergei Ivanov and Leif Hoste was dangling clear of the bunch and he just blasted straight up to them, and has is now dragging them across with him to the Haussler group up ahead.
Vanmarcke is still clear by himself up front, 25 seconds ahead of a group containing Haussler and O'Grady, with Cancellara's 8-man group 49 seconds behind.
Cancellara's performance has been phenomenal here. He has been doing almost all of the work at the head of the third group, and without looking for any help, he is almost single-handedly dragging them back into the race.
No reports of the gap back to Hushovd, Devolder et al, but they'll be hard pressed to catch Cancellara again before Harelbeke.
The question now is whether Cancellara can make it back up to Haussler's group, and whether he will have the strength to make another attack when he gets back on.
Regardless, he is the runaway favourite for Tour of Flanders glory next weekend on this evidence.
On the slopes of the Knockteberg, Cancellara is inexorably dragging his companions back up to Haussler et al.
O'Grady sits up in the Haussler group and drops back to help toe his leader. It's not clear whether the Swiss needs any help...
Vanmarcke is caught at the front, and Terpstra attempts to attack over the top of the climb. Roelandts, Jerome and Haussler follow, but it is inevitable that the Cancellara express will soon be joining them.
O'Grady is giving Cancellara a breather now by taking on the pace-setting at the front of the group. They are just 21 seconds behind the leaders now, and seem on course to bridge the gap before the Tiegemberg.
Leif Hoste and Svein Tuft are also in the Cancellara group, although they haven't contributed much in the last 10km simply because they haven't been given the chance. O'Grady is putting in a huge turn for Cancellara now, and they're within touching distance of the Haussler group.
O'Grady swings over from the Cancellara group, his work done for the day, and Tankink and Cancellara finish the job and bridge the gap.
As the expanded lead group tackles a section of cobbles, you get the impression that the riders in the break are simply trying to figure out when Cancellara is going to make his move.
Cancellara certainly won't get too much help from this group. And sure enough, when Tankink attacks, it's Cancellara who brings him back in person. In fact, Cancellara has jumped across to him, and looks to be thinking of making a dig himself!
Incredible scenes. Cancellara came through to do a turn and pulled so hard that Tankink simply had to sit up. It seems as though he suffered a cramp.
Cancellara is free and clear now with 16km to go and a sizeable gap.
Haussler is trying to bridge with Tankink for company, but it's a big, big ask now.
Cancellara is just cruising to the win here. He already has 30 seconds on the chasers, and barring a miracle, they won't see him before he crosses the line in Harelbeke.
Cancellara is time trialling to victory here, a major morale blow to all of the other Flanders contenders, whether they are here or watching on television.
Cancellara is time trialing to victory. He's pushing a huge gear and gaining time with every pedal stroke.
Cancellara is almost smiling as he tucks over his bars in an aero position.
Behind Henrich Haussler (Garmon-Cervelo) attacks but the gap is now up to 50 seconds and the other riders are glued to Haussler's wheel.
Niki Tersptra (QuickStep) is helping Haussler but this group is now racing for second place.
Cancellara has already said he will not race again before the Tour of Flanders. He doesn't need to. His form is already amazing.
Now Sergeui Ivanov (Katusha) has a go off the front of the chase group.
Tersptra chases down Ivanov, with Haussler, O'Grady and Trakink. The other riders are closing the gap on them.
Behind Steve Chainel (FDJ) sits up from the chase group with cramp. That shows how hard a race it has been.
Cancellara passes under the four kilometre to go banner as his gaps edges closer and closer to a minute.
Cancellara is wearing number one as last year's winner. He'll also be wearing number one at the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix.
Cancellara looks back as he enters the final kilometre but he's got a minute on his rivals and will be able to enjoy his victory.
Here he comes in triumph.
He crosses the line with his arms up and despite a sigh of relief, he hardly looks out of breath.
Behind Jurgen Roelandts (Omega Pharma-Lotto) takes the sprint for second place.
Vladimir Gusev (Katusha) was third in the sprint, with Sep Vanmarkcke (Garmin-Cervelo) taking fourth place and Bram Tankink (Rabobank) fifth. Haussler was just behind.
Cancellara reveals he did actually suffer in the finale as he gets changed for the podium ceremony. He winces as he pulls on clean clothes
Speaking on Flemish television, Cancellara said: "Today was a perfect Leopard day." He claimed his victory is not a message to his rivals for next week's Tour of Flanders but it must be a huge pyschological blow to their hopes of stopping him winning again.
That ends our live coverage from E3 Prijs Vlaanderen Harelbeke. We'll have a a full race report, a gallery of photographs and special news stories very soon. Daniel Benson followed the race in the Skil-Shimano team car and so will have exclusive insight on the race.
We'll be back tomorrow for Gent-Wevelgem.