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Hello and welcome to Cyclingnews' live coverage from E3 Harelbeke.
And we're off for another running of E3. Bright, sunny skies in Belgium this morning and very little wind so we can expect a fast and furious race back into Harelbeke.
The riders have just gone through the neutralized zone.
As for the route, they'll face 13 climbs in total.
De Muur 99km
La Houppe 122km
Berg Stene 129km
It's a slightly different route to last year with the Muur added. It was taken out of the Tour of Flanders but it's an important climb with historical significance, so it's pleasing to see that it's still in a major race.
A couple of non-starters this morning with Klemme and Bak both missing the race. Lotto really haven't had much fortune in the last couple of races.
While we learnt a few things from Dwars door Vlaanderen we'll gain a much better picture on riders' form from today's race. Tom Boonen, Fabian Cancellara are both here. Matti Breschel, Sep Vanmarcke, Sylvain Chavanel, Lars Boom, Philippe Gilbert, Ballan, Pozzato, and Boasson Hagen also make up a long list of favourites.
And Cancellara is clearly in good form. Here's a picture to prove it. He's won the race for the last two years, and arguably last year's performance was one of the strongest performances of his career. Can he make it three in a row?
Of course Boonen knows how to do that. He's won this race four times in a row.
You can read about Gilbert's thoughts on today's race, right here.
We've got our first attack of the day and it comes from Andy Cappelle of the Accent Jobs - Willems Veranda's team. He's quickly built up a lead of 10 seconds.
Another group breaks clear but the bunch are travelling along at 50kph so we're all back together again.
Sylvain Chavanel has a problem and is off the back of the peloton. Second in Dwars Door Vlaanderen, he's another one of QuickSteps in-form riders. Second in Flanders last year, will this be his year?
Last year's E3 was the race that inspired Garmin's "screw over Fabian" strategy.
@nyvelocity Fri, 23rd Mar 2012 11:24:29
Today's the first time we'll see an in-form Cancellara go up against Van Marcke. At the start this morning the Belgian's DS, Alan Peiper, told CN that Sep wasn't supposed to be in top form early this year, but his win in Omloop marked him out as a dangerous man for the rest of the spring. It will be interesting to see if he tries to follow Cancellara or makes his own race by pre-empting an attack. Garm are one of the strongest teams in the race, with Millar, Vansummeren, Maaskant and Haussler all here.
And on Haussler, his contract is up at the end of he season. He seems happy at the American team but I'm sure a number of teams will be keen on him too. A crucial spring for both parties.
Steve Houanard is the latest rider to try and get away from the bunch. Sadly he's not getting any help at the moment and he's on his own.
We've had a crash. Both Cancellara and Bennati have hit the deck.
Off topic but certainly of interest. Here's a video of Graeme Obree, who is attempting another world record. Tremendously entertaining, polite, humble and interesting chap, who I had the pleasure of meeting at the end of last year.
Gallopin brings Cancellara back to the bunch.
Robert from Lotto was involved in the Cancellara/Bennati crash and has pulled out of the race. That's the second man Lotto have lost. Meanwhile de Koert is on the front, driving the pace as we approach a cobbled section.
We've raced the first hour at 50kph but we have a break: 8 riders have escaped from the bunch.
Omega-Pharma QuickStep have moved to the front in a bid to shut down the 8-man move.
We're 5km from the Paddestraat section of cobbles.
The riders in the break: Dockx, Gazvoda, Mørkøv, Sijmens, Ascani, Gatto, Hulsmans, Delfosse en Gaudin. And they have 30 seconds on the field.
So that's 9 leaders up the road. Not 8 as specified before.
Cancellara is struggling by the sounds of it and Omega-Pharma are putting down the hammer, perhaps because the RadioShack man is still affected, perhaps because of the composition of the break. Cancellara has a flat.
Word of caution for anyone wanting to write Cancellara off. Go and read last year's race report. He had mechanical problems galore but made it back to the peloton before leaving everyone behind with a series of devastating attacks. He caught the day's break that included Haussler and Vanmarcke and simply rode right through them.
The Belgian press were making motor bike sounds when he first attacked. By the time he carved through the main break they'd fallen strangely silent.
QuickStep drive the front of the bunch on and the gap drops to 13 seconds before another effort from the men in front bring it back up to 30 seconds. They want their TV time.
The lead rises to a minute.
Three Farnese riders in the moves shows their intent to make a serious impression on the race. With Pozzato in the bunch they're in a great position. The Italian had a good San Remo, was strong in Dwars Vlaanderen and could be in peak conditions for Flanders and Roubaix. He's my dark horse for Flanders actually.
This is the first time in a couple of years he'd put back-to-back performances together. Was that collarbone break earlier this year a blessing in disguise?
Here's our startline gallery from this morning.
The leaders have 5:20 on the bunch.
By the way, Daniel Friebe's excellent book on Eddy Merckx is now out. Click here to grab a copy. We'll be running an extract in the near future.
We're closing in on the Muur, with the lead now 6:45.
Keisse is doing most of the pace work on the front of the bunch for QuickStep.
The gap is down to 5:50, with the Muur coming up all the leaders in the peloton are moving to the front and it's causing the pace to shoot up. You wont win the race on the Muur, but it's certainly possible to lose it there.
The gap continues to drop, it's 5:15.
Here's a video with Matti Breschel at the start:
And a startline video with Karsten Kroon.
And here's a video with Thor Hushovd.
Devolder was the first rider from the peloton to move to the front on the Muur, testing his legs and showing that he's confident.
The gap is down to 4:20
The lead is under 4 minutes, with the next climb closing.
The peloton ride through the feedzone in Zarlardinge. The gap to the break is 3:32.
The gap continues to come down, which isn't a healthy sign for the break. The three Farnese riders continue to work hard in the move but QuickStep are chasing and they're getting help from a number of other team.
Vacansoleil and Sky both lending a hand in order to bring the move back. Breschel close to the front as well.
Sorry folks - had some technical problems. Mark taking over from Daniel now
There's been a crash and several riders including David Millar (Garmin-Barracuda) have been left floudering at the side of the road.
we're hearing that David Millar has broken his collar done.
There's a problem with Cancellara too. Caught behind a crash and it looks like he needs a new bike too.
Mouris, Hinault, Ghyselinck, De Kort and Millar have all pulled out after the crash.
Approaching the Stationsberg climb, the gap is 90 seconds.
Boonen attacking on the climb. Cancellara and Vanmarcke going with him.
Boasson Hagen and Ballan have bridged the gap and joined the group featuring Boonen and Cancellara. Gap is now down to just over 30 seconds.
Pozzato and Sagan also now part of this chasing group. Things hotting up with the big names closing in.
Full chasing group: Vanmarcke, Cancellara, Hoste, Leukemans, Paolini, Degenkolb, Boasson Hagen, Oss, Tossato, Pozzato, Sagan, Stannard and Ballan. Gap remains around the 30-second mark.
And Boonen, of course.
Three crucial climbs coming up that could change the complexion of the race: Oude Kruiskens, Kapelberg and Paterberg (which is a cobbled climb).
Main chasing pack have now joined Cancellara and Boonen's group. Teammates aplenty for the riders now, so tactics set to come into play.
Langeveld tries to bridge the gap to the leaders, who are only 18 seconds clear. original escape group whose lead is a mere 18 seconds. Farnese Vini's Kevin Hulsmans, Luca Ascani and Oscar Gatto all still up there.
Another crash. Rabobank's Maarten Wijnants takes a tumble and it looks like he's got some damage to his bike.
Now approaching Oude Kwaremont and the Knokteberg. Should sort the men from the boys over the next few minutes...
And Cancellara takes another tumble. Trying to find out more details but he's obviously lost ground after looking dangerous in the chasing group. It's been one of those days for the Swiss star. Can he ride himself back into contention again?
Oscar Gatto is alone in front. The rest of the original breakaway has fallen away. He is 40 seconds clear.
Chavanel, Spilak and Muravyev have formed their own group in between Gatto and the main chasing pack. Gatto still 42 seconds ahead.
Sorry, Gatto 42 seconds ahead of main chasers. Just 19 seconds clear of Chavanel, Spilak and Muravyev.
Gatto caught by Chavanel and Muravyev.
Cancellara has fought his way back into the second chasing pack.
Gatto suffers a puncture. His race is over.
Chavanel at the front. Looking strong. Frenchman looking to supplement his second place at Dwars door Vlaanderen earlier in the week with another podium finish here.
Cancellara now, amazingly, back in the first chasing pack. Superhuman effort from 'Superman' to be in the mix after two crashes. But how much energy has he spent? Gap between the leading duo and his group is around 20 seconds.
Big group formed behind the leaders. Dozens of riders there. Can they close the gap with 17km left? It's extended slightly, up to 27 seconds. Final climb of the day is coming up.
Pozzato, Terpstra and Devolder attack from the main chasers. Close the gap to 10 seconds.
Peter Sagan breaks clear to join the main chasers
Main peloton has caught up. 12 seconds behind Chavanel and Muravyev
Devolder attacks (again) from the main pack. Stannard trying to go with him.
Could turn into a sprint finish here. Will it play into Boonen's hands?
Chasing pack have now swallowed up the leaders. The race is on for what should be a frantic final 6km.
Still no cards played. Definitely looking like a sprint finish. Boonen? Freire? Boasson Hagen?
Sky looking well placed with Stannard, Eisel and Boasson Hagen all in the front rank. BMC right there en masse too. Can they break their 2012 duck this afternoon?
Wow. Very tight finish there. Boonen claiming victory over Freire but it was close...
Boonen indeed hung on for the win. Stole first march on the sprint finish and Freire just couldn't catch him. Eisel in third. Home crowd delighted by Boonen's win.
Boonen's fifth win in the race, having won it for four consecutive years between 2004-2007. Continues his great start to the season.
1 Tom Boonen (Bel) Omega Pharma-Quickstep
2 Oscar Freire (Spa) Katusha
3 Bernhard Eisel (Aut) Sky
4 Leonardo Duque (Col) Cofidis
5 Sep Vanmarcke (Bel) Garmin-Barracuda
6 John Degenkolb (Ger) Project 1t4i
7 Alexandre Pichot (Fra) Europcar
8 Alessandro Ballan (Ita) BMC
9 Sébastien Turgot (Fra) Europcar
10 Matti Breschel (Den) Rabobank