In Flanders, the day’s early break is expected to recede quietly from view once the favourites take the field and unleash their attacks, but Marc Hirschi (Sunweb) refused to yield in the finale of the E3 BinckBank Classic, helping himself to a fine 10th place finish in Harelbeke.
Hirschi is part of a notable generation of emerging Swiss talent, and he capped a sparkling amateur career by becoming under-23 world champion on a demanding parcours in Innsbruck last September. This season, he has made the step up from Sunweb’s development squad to the WorldTour outfit.
After making his debut at the Volta ao Algarve last month, Hirschi has been given a taste of the Classics in March, lining out at Strade Bianche and Milan-San Remo, before making his bow on the cobbles at Harelbeke, where his brief was to infiltrate the day’s early break in support of leader Søren Kragh Andersen.
“Actually, I think it’s been going better in the last few races,” Hirschi said afterwards. “Already in San Remo I felt I had quite good shape and today I was just here, I wanted to go in the break, it was the goal for the team to have someone in the break.”
Hirschi was among a group of seven that forged clear after 30km, and he was the last of their number to survive on the front when strongmen Bob Jungels (Deceuninck-QuickStep), Nils Politt (Katusha-Alpecin) and Jasha Sütterlin (Movistar) bridged across in the final 50km.
Jungels set a searing pace on the both the Paterberg and Oude Kwaremont, but on each occasion, Hirschi had the resilience to catch back up to him. Come the wickedly steep Karnemelkbeekstraat, he was the last man to hold the irrepressible Jungels’ wheel.
The music looked to have died when Jungels finally shook off Hirschi for good on the ascent, but the Swiss rider carried a tune all the way to the finish, coming home in the second group on the road, just over a minute down on eventual winner Zdenek Stybar (Deceuninck-QuickStep).
“The last time Bob was too crazy, I saw that I couldn’t follow, but it was good,” said Hirschi. “I was also happy that the last 30k was mainly flat. But unfortunately, I was behind the split in the first group on the last helling [the Tiegemberg - ed]. I gave all I could but we never came back. In the sprint, I was blocked a little in the right side but I’m super happy with the race.”
A top 10 finish at a race like the E3 BinckBank Classic is a remarkable result for a 20-year-old neophyte, but Hirschi’s achievement is all the more noteworthy given the energy he expended by spending the bulk of the day off the front.
“We had quite good speed in the break, in that it wasn’t too hard, so then it was perfect that Bob was coming across because I could recover between the hellingen,” said Hirschi.
“I did the under-23 Flanders so I knew about half the climbs. The final here doesn’t look super hard, but after so many kilos it’s really hard. I feel really tired now. In the end, I was really empty, because it was hard to eat and drink anymore. My back is hurting now after so long in the position.”
A native of Bern, Hirschi grew up idolising Fabian Cancellara and excelled on a variety of terrains as a teenager. On the track, he was junior Madison world champion with Reto Müller in 2016, while his road resumé includes the 2018 European and world under-23 titles and strong performances in the under-23 versions of the Tour of Lombardy, Liège-Bastogne-Liège and the Tour of Flanders.
With that broad range of talents in mind, Sunweb have given Hirschi a mixed schedule this spring. He will rack up more experience on the cobbles at Dwars door Vlaanderen before turning his attention to races that might yet prove a better fit for his qualities as a puncheur. “I will stay here to do Dwars door Vlaanderen,” Hirschi said. “Then I’ll do Pays Basque and the Ardennes Classics.”