Luke Durbridge knew two things as he freewheeled along Stasegemsesteenweg at the end of E3 Harelbeke. He knew that he had finished in fourth place, and he knew that he needed to find an Orica-Scott soigneur bearing a drink. The rest could be filled in as he went along.
Peering through the mass of bodies on the finish line, Durbridge eventually found his man and slowed to a halt. As Durbridge slumped over his handlebars, his teammate Jens Keukeleire extended an arm in congratulations, and the Australian managed to summon a wan smile in acknowledgement.
After Durbridge had downed a recovery drink and his soigneur had wiped the grime from his face, he was ready to start putting his sensations into words for the reporters gathered around him, even if, initially at least, some of the details were understandably hazy.
"You can't go much deeper than that, eh. You don't go much deeper than that," Durbridge said. "I went absolutely to my unbelievable limit. It was a hard day. I don't even know who won to be honest. Who won?"
Greg Van Avermaet, came the answer.
"Oh, cool. That's a great ride by Van Avermaet," Durbridge said, and then explained: "I haven't been able to see straight since I finished."
It was quite a ride, too, by Durbridge. Already fourth at Dwars door Vlaanderen on Wednesday, his E3 Harelbeke display offered further confirmation that his skills as a rouleur are transferring neatly into the crucible of the cobbled Classics. He bridged across to the decisive move on the Boigneberg, some 66 kilometres from home, and he was an assured member of that elite group until the lower slopes of the Oude Kwaremont, with 38 kilometres remaining, when Philippe Gilbert (Quick-Step Floors) began to force the pace.
"I knew if I could just hold on up the little steep bit, I'd be fine over the top. The problem was I just got tailed off there. I tried really hard to get back up and I was just off the back," Durbridge said.
While Van Avermaet, Gilbert and Oliver Naesen (AG2R La Mondiale) forged clear on the Kwaremont's unruly slew of cobbles, Durbridge found an ally of circumstance in Lukas Pöstlberger (Bora-Hansgrohe), winner of the Rás in 2015.
Long before the flat run-in to Harelbeke, they were riding to hold off the chasers rather than to peg back the leaders. They eventually came home 40 seconds down on Van Avermaet et al, and just a handful of seconds up on the 17-man chasing group that had formed behind them.
"I literally couldn't close the gap. I tried for 30 kilometres but I couldn't close it. Still, I'm really happy with the shape," Durbridge said. "The team really helped me out today. It's such a sketchy race. I had a good result Wednesday, it was probably my first good result on Wednesday, so to back it up with another fourth place, I'm really happy with my condition but it would have been nice if I could just have held on up the Kwaremont."
The consensus at the finish line in Harelbeke was that this had been one of the most intense editions of the race in recent memory. The Taaienberg is normally the site of the first major selection of E3 Harelbeke, but once the race ignited under Tom Boonen and Gilbert's forcing there, it never again relented.
"Today was unbelievable. The break didn't go before the feed zone and even when the break went, it was sort of nervous. Nobody stopped for a piss all day, because there was no moment when they could," Durbridge said. "It was unbelievably fast. It just was relentless.
"I was a bit out of position on the Taaienberg, I had to go across with Sep Vanmarcke on the next climb, ahead of the Eikenberg. But then on the Kwaremont I was just a little bit legless from the effort before. I thought if I just eased, I could get in on the back of the group. But it wasn't to be. Still, I'm happy to end up with fourth. It was a great ride."
Durbridge will be spared duty at Gent-Wevelgem on Sunday with an eye to performing strongly in the Three Days of De Panne next week. He has lined out in the race in each of his five years a professional to date, placing second behind Guillaume Van Keirsbulck in 2014, and never finishing lower than seventh overall.
"I'll have a well-earned rest on Sunday, maybe a cold beer while I watch Gent-Wevelgem," Durbridge said. "I reckon I've been trying for five years to try to win De Panne. I don't think I've been outside the top 10, so I'm going to go there and give it a right old crack for the overall and then have a few days of recovery for Flanders."
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