They say that there is strength in numbers but Etixx-QuickStep walked away with nothing despite having four riders into the leading group at E3 Harelbeke. The team were forced to chase after missing Michal Kwiatkowski’s attack at the top of the Karnemelkbeekstraat and, in the end, Matteo Trentin was the team’s best finisher in 12th place.
Team manager Patrick Lefevere praised his riders for their efforts but was not so complimentary about the other riders in their group. “We were the strongest teams but there were other teams that weren’t riding to work, they were riding maybe for the UCI points,” Lefevere said.
“I don’t want to name names, but if you’re a rider with a number one on your back then you’re supposed to be a leader, but I didn’t see leaders today, I saw only cowards.”
On paper, Lefevere is correct in his statement with Etixx-QuickStep holding more cards to play than anyone else but they still had no immediate answer to Kwiatkowski and Peter Sagan’s move. Try as they might, they could do nothing to make and serious inroads into the advantage held by leading duo as it hovered consistently between 25 and 30 seconds.
Tom Boonen was one of the four who made the cut, along with Trentin, Niki Terpstra and Zdenek Stybar. Boonen was much more measured than his team manager in his analysis of the situation, although he also apportioned much of the blame on the others within the group of favourites.
“Everybody seemed to be waiting for the final 17 kilometres. Everybody seemed afraid to take a pull which wasn’t necessary. On the Karnemelkbeekstraat those men were too fast for me,” said Boonen. “I was expecting that there would be a cooperation, but then you see that other teams are riding really flabbily for third place. It’s stupid because they’re in the same situation as us. It’s not that you have to hang off the back for third place. Matteo said he was really good so we rode for him. In the end, we didn’t catch them, so it didn’t matter.”
Boonen put on a solid performance, helping to close the gap when Jurgen Roelandt’s attack on the Taaienberg broke the race apart. In the end, Boonen came home with Terpstra at 15 seconds down on Kwiatkowski. It’s not quite the Boonen that we’ve come to know in years’ gone by but it’s a performance that he can take some confidence from, after a subdued season so far.
“I was able to ride myself totally empty. All in all, I’m satisfied. It was my best race of the year so far. It’s only my second or third final,” said Boonen. “That’s pleasing but it still needs to get better. I think I’m on the right track and I’m feeling improvement all the time. On those short accelerations I’m falling a little short but it’s massively better than a few weeks ago.”
With Gent-Wevelgem still to come this Sunday and the principal target of the Tour of Flanders the following Sunday, there will be a lot of reflection in the team hotel. They certainly won’t want it to end as it did at E3 Harelbeke, or the 2014 Tour of Flanders where they had a similar numerical advantage and ended up with just fourth place.
“We can’t complain of course since we had four men up front but we have to check how we will handle it. Especially as the position that we were being forced into wasn’t good,” Boonen explained. “The other teams start watching us, and that’s their right to do so, but we have to make sure that we don’t get in such a position. We’ve got some analysis to do. We’ve got to hope that the races are doing their work so we can improve. Then everything will be alright.”